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Middle East and North Africa countries through the lens of the 2016 Transparency International Report

Wael Elshabrawy's picture
Also available in: العربية
Photo: Staras | Shutterstock.com
It’s been six years since the citizens of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) came into the streets to demonstrate against, among other pressing issues, economic injustice and lack of government transparency. A wave of hope and optimism swept across the region and new governments were ushered in around the region, with leaders, standing on the shoulders of the “Arab Spring” promising a new era of accountability, openness, political freedom and economic opportunity.

On January 24, 2017, Transparency International (TI) brought out its usual annual report on perceptions of corruption around the world. According to the index for the year 2016, five of the bottom 10 countries are from the MENA region– Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Sudan and Syria. Unfortunately, other MENA countries, with a single exception (Tunisia), did not achieve much better results.

In general, the key anti-corruption indexes show, and have consistently shown that corruption levels are very high in many countries across the region compared to global averages. This might come as a disappointment to citizens, however, it doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone concerned with the governance and anticorruption agenda in the MENA region.
 
The war against terrorism, as a top priority of most of the region’s countries, contributed, greatly, to shifting the focus away from anti-corruption measures. Moreover, it was compounded by the ongoing regional conflicts. Inevitably, this meant that any efforts to strengthen institutions and the state have taken a back seat.

It is obvious that, despite the political changes that shook the Arab region six years ago, the hope for Arab countries to fight corruption and end impunity has not seen any progress yet.
 
Gulf States have dropped on the corruption index, and this is due to 2 key reasons:  the absence of an active, independent civil society and the ambiguity of public expenditure and state budgets.

Jordan also dropped in the corruption index compared with its previous rank in the year of 2015, despite the adoption of a new electoral law and integrity law. Investigations about corruption do not materialize into prosecutions and investments are still hindered by petty forms of corruption such as bribery and nepotism.

Corruption levels in Egypt are still high as well and may be worse than before.  

These results lead to a logical question: why is this the case in MENA?  And another important concern; how much trust should we put into these indicators?

According to Transparency International the root causes of corruption can be summarized in the following areas:
  1. Security concerns: Unstable security situations, violence and armed conflicts have facilitated the spread of illicit flows of money and corrupt practices. Many countries in the region have politically and financially invested in dealing with the imminent security threats rather than pour more resources in to fighting corruption effectively.
     
  2. Political corruption: Political corruption is the main challenge in the region. Ruling elites have concentrated power within small groups, blurring the distinction of the separation of powers, which spills over into the decision-making processes that affect millions of citizens.
Political elites in the region have systematically abused their authority and operate with often startling levels of impunity.

The institutional reforms that were supposed to take place after 2011 have not happened. Ensuring the separation of powers between the executive and legislative should be a top priority for those elected into power.

Having said this, one should approach the results of the TI report with caution. Over time, the report has become more of a “Name and Shame” tool when it could be more useful to demonstrate the methodology used that leads to countries falling or rising on the indicator. The perception indicator falls short when it comes to telling us what factored into deciding the countries score and rank. For governments to aim towards the compound big picture of good governance and transparency, they have to work on the smaller pieces first. This includes building stronger, independent institutions, formulating more efficient laws …etc. In other words, while the annual reports acts like an embarrassing annual event for some countries and an opportunity to brag for other countries, it is ineffective as a roadmap for reforms. Ironically, a report focused on transparency falls short due to its non-transparent, non-specific and non-actionable nature.