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Looking for Democracy in Wake of Arab Spring

WASHINGTON, Sep 23 2011 (IPS) - Civil society and government leaders gathered at World Bank headquarters in Washington on Thursday to debate the future direction of social and government accountability in the Middle East and North Africa.

The discussion, “Towards a new social contract in the Arab World: global lessons in citizen voice and accountability”, featured representatives from the ministries of finance of Egypt and Tunisia, as well as civil society leaders from the region who have worked to increase the role of civic participation in the development process.

The social contract stressed the importance of both civil society and government institutions to the daily function and future development of countries in the region – a relatively new concept, some leaders said, but one which is tied inextricably to the social and political transition following the Arab Spring earlier this year.

Driss Ksikes, a journalist and managing director at the Centre for Research HEM in Morocco, expressed concern about where policies to increase transparency and government accountability would actually go.

“This idea of access to information brings me back to the top-down approach,” he said. “(It limits the discussion if) I as government put up what I want to put up, and people can only access that.”

Ksikes said that civic inclusion in governance involved two-way communication, a new idea to the region that historically belonged to a tight circle of elites who only communicated with each other.


“We are going through a new era where we’re talking about spreadable and shared information,” Ksikes said. “(We need information that) doesn’t come only from above, but also from the bottom.”

Ksikes’s insights were representative of the overall problem in the MENA region, panelists said – lacking dimensions of open governance – but an overwhelming consensus was that public confidence was crucial to facilitating change in the future.

“There is a great need to restore public trust in the government,” said Marcus Noland, deputy director and senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, who moderated the event. “There are legal and institutional gaps that are most prominent in the areas of transparency, accountability and participation.”

The World Bank’s annual fall meetings on economic and development scenarios have all shared this argument, with great pushes for gender equality and inclusion of the public sphere being central to the mission. The Bank has given indicators that the focus of international financial institutions would shift to include greater involvement of the private sector, though some have argued that the Bank’s policies are hindering development on the ground.

Tunisia’s finance minister, Jelloul Ayad, said he was encouraged by the push for civil society involvement in his country, and said that efforts to facilitate communication between officials and citizens would increase as more innovations were developed, such as Tunisia’s e-government initiative.

“While civil society is a nascent phenomenon in the country, we believe that that’s only going to continue and be reinforced in the months and years ahead,” said Ayad.

Thursday’s discussion came on the heels of an announcement by the World Bank that bank president Robert Zoellick and Amr Lashin, director of governance and civic engagement at CARE, Egypt, a branch of the international poverty and development assistance NGO, signed a deal awarding initial seed funding to CARE’s efforts to foster accountability in governance in the Middle East and North Africa.

The 500,000-dollar investment is the first round of funding for what could potentially be three years of project support for the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability (ANSA) in the region, in the hopes that establishing accountability following the social movement-driven uprisings earlier this year will be facilitated by MENA practitioners in participatory governance, such as civil society organisations, the private sector, the media, and even governments themselves.

Despite this news, the world’s international financial institutions have faced criticism upon their involvement in the MENA region. A three-billion-dollar loan package from the IMF was rejected by the Egyptian finance ministry earlier this year following a public debate over the implications of such a deal.

Seventy-six civil society groups in Egypt released a statement claiming that IMF and World Bank policies had helped to facilitate the oppressive regimes in the region they were at that very moment trying to overcome.

They argued instead that financial policies needed a democratic approach with a “people-led process of development and not be part of increasing…debts or restricting their policy spheres,” according to the Bretton Woods Project.

However, when questioned about Egypt’s decision to reject IMF loans in June, Egypt’s Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs and Finance Minister Hazem el-Beblawi skirted direct criticism.

“The decision is left to the politicians to decide what they think is in the interest of the country,” said el-Beblawi, who was not in office at the time the deal was rejected. “If it is appropriate and useful, we will accept it – it’s a matter of usefulness.”

 
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