Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Is wasta corruption?

The parliament is going through a heated debate over how to include wasta into the definition of corruption. This is part of the debate over the “anti-corruption commission” that the parliament is considering.

Wasta is an important component of Jordanian life, and most deputies in the parliament view it as part of their job description. Simply defined, wasta is favoritism, which is an attempt to use the influence of relatives or acquaintances to achieve certain objectives. This can include anything from hooking up your house to the water system to getting appointed in a high level government job. Most people feel that getting anything done smoothly and quickly requires some sort of wasta with the people in charge of the particular issue.

In reality, people use their connections at all levels of society and of decision making. It does not need to be with the minister or a high level official. Sometimes the wasta is with a mid or low level bureaucrat, a secretary or even the guy who delivers coffee and tea in the department.

The debate is not to delegitimize wasta absolutely, but what type of wasta to ban. The most recent phraseology delegitimizes “what achieves illegitimate results and takes away a right”. This is an attempt to keep a semblance of fairness to decision making processes. For example, if two people want the same job, then wasta would be illegal if it achieves the appointment of the less qualified person. There are two problems with this. The first is that which candidate is the most qualified is often a subjective decision, based on multiple criteria. Should more weight be given to academic degrees, experience, fluency in English, personal charisma or whether his father was a minister? Should all jobs have uniform weights for the different attributes, or should different weights for different jobs be a factor? In reality, I suspect that even demonstrably lower caliber candidates can be defended as being superior by the decision maker if he or she so chooses.

The second problem is that the wasta is only illegal if it achieves a bad result. Thus, if influence peddling is attempted, but fails then it is not illegal. In fact, wasta is a process, and not the achievement.

A whole set of wasta related to getting “legitimate” results achieved is ignored. This seems to be an admission that the bureaucracy simply can’t function smoothly if you show up with your papers and stand in line like everybody else. Isn’t jumping the line by going behind the counter and talking to your cousin achieving illegitimate results? You got your work done before the guy standing in line, who will probably be sent away to search for ten piasters worth of revenue stamps. Is that legitimate?

It is too bad that people are giving up on fixing the bureaucracy in a way that people can get their work done quickly and fairly without wasta. By ignoring this aspect, the culture of wasta will continue, along with all the sense of entitlement that goes with it. Attempting to fragment this will only dilute it to uselessness.

More on the debate at the Black Iris.

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20 Comments:

At 5:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not to mention Jordan's all-time popular Wasta by family name!

 
At 5:58 PM, Anonymous Nas said...

do you know what I think happens with regards to turning a wasta-plauged society into strictly a meritocracy? the reformers tend to want an overthrow of the system by converting it through legislation, i.e. put an end to it once and for all. the lawmakers who tend to not be reformers have their conservative reservations that are based on several angels: one being the fact that it's difficult to get elected if you have nothing by way of wasta to offer the family members who vote for you.

but primarily i think on a social level even the people, such as myself, will say out loud "i am against wasta" but silently will acknowledge not only that it is useful but that it is necessary given the current system. emphasis on 'given the current system'. so it becomes that people, typically the more educated ammanis, tend to be anti-wasta in princple but use it when it suits them and they feel they must use it. because it becomes difficult not to use wasta when everyone else is cutting the line in front of you. my father is very much anti-wasta but found it hard to resist getting a relative of ours to connect our phone line over a decade ago when it used to take 4 or 5 months just to get one, if not longer and the reason for that was mainly because everyone else was using wasta which inevitably lengthened the waiting list priority. Jo Telecom put a stop to the wasta for the most part and now the playing field is even.

it's one of those scenarios where an entire overhaul of the system is necessary to inspire social reform, and it has to be done by ways of legislation. this is one of the few times when evolution mandates absolute revolution. otherwise we'll spend a lifetime sorting the "good" from the "bad", relying on judicial descrition or worse, social instincts.

 
At 6:31 PM, Anonymous OmAr said...

I think the whole idea of fragmentizing the definition of wasta is to legitimize it in general! Sadly, the exception becomes the rule in Jordan, and by fragmenting the wasta the PM's are probably trying to legitimize things that they have definitely done (and will continue to do)in their way to the Parliament.

The key sentence is "Attempting to fragment this will only dilute it to uselessness."

 
At 7:19 PM, Anonymous Batir said...

I have written in today's addustour praising the parliament for the debate that happened on sunday in which the majority of deputees considered wasta as a source of corruption. I was shocked to learn today that they have changed their mind about wasta. What a shame, so I adeclare an unconditional apology to the Jordanian people for my hasty assessment of those useless deputees.

 
At 7:44 PM, Blogger Khalaf said...

Anon: Of course.

Nas: It is interesting to note that wasta for a telephone ended by privatizing the industry. Of course, everybody uses wasta when they can. Why wouldn't they (given the current system, as you point out). The answer is to make the civil service efficient, fast and fair. When this is achieved, nobody will need to use wasta, and would prefer not to beholden to anybody.

Omar: I think that is the effect. It would be a shame if that is the intent.

Batir: I think, as I and Nas have said, most deputies view wasta as part of their job description, and a major way of inticing people to elect them. I think that it would be unreasonable to ask them to delegitimize what they practice on a daily basis, and for them to acknowledge that what they are doing is bad. Even criminals find a way to rationalize what they do, so that they are able to live with themselves. It is human nature.

 
At 8:24 PM, Anonymous Iman said...

Should more weight be given to academic degrees, experience, fluency in English, personal charisma or whether his father was a minister? Should all jobs have uniform weights for the different attributes, or should different weights for different jobs be a factor?

You’d think academic degrees, experience, achievements and overall qualifications would be the determining factors for one landing a good position, however in the Arab world, it does not seem that this really has much weight when appointing candidates.

In reality, I suspect that even demonstrably lower caliber candidates can be defended as being superior by the decision maker if he or she so chooses.

But then again, it always goes back to what the position requires – certain candidates could be viewed as over qualified for some positions! Knowing that ‘Wasta’ is illegal and there will be a penalty for practicing it, a decision maker will be more likely to stay away from such practice!

The only thing remotely close to ‘wasta’ I would advocate would be networking... good Networking gives you the opportunity and opens new doors for you that only you with your qualifications have to work to get through these doors. It doesn’t guarantee you anything, but opens your way!

Really, there should be no pride what so ever in landing posts because of who my family is rather than what I have to offer with my skills and qualifications...I know I wouldn’t be proud!


Here is something rather interesting that happened in the 'land of opportunity' ... a friend of mine who recently graduated with her doctorate in Pharmacy has a sister who is a professor at the same college of Pharmacy (in Chicago) – and is the only professor teaching one of the required classes. Per college rules, she was not able to neither grade her sister’s exams and work nor keep a record of her grades. Out of all the students, her sister’s exams and work were graded by the Dean of the college of Pharmacy! given the current system some of you pointed out above, I highly doubt this happens in the Arab!

Unbearable,it seems so, to live amongst such a society!

=====

 
At 2:04 AM, Blogger Khalaf said...

Iman: I wouldn't be as impressed as you seem to be about the system in the US. There is plenty of favorism and nepotism, but it is not exposed to the public very much. There are many underqualified people in the current administration. I am sure you don't need me to point them out to you.

They do put on a good show, though.

 
At 3:55 AM, Anonymous Iman said...

Khalaf, no doubt ... but I remain to be a lot more impressed with the overall system in the US than that of any Arab country... overall...and for the most part, 'wasta' does not play a major role in the day to day life here!

 
At 8:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting….
Do we consider the PMs who work to bring jobs, infrastructure and government services to his/her constituents corrupt?
Do we have legislations that are at least clear enough to ban “wasta”?
Do we have an effective/independent judicial system that people can go to when they feel that their rights are being neglected?

In my experience, there is high degree corruption in the US at different levels, but it is less likely to have a major role in day-to-day life because much of it is legalized (contribution and donations to officials), and there are more resources than poor nations (big budgets and low unemployment rates……..). Therefore, the small incidents of corruption tend to be overlooked and we don’t hear much about them. However, I have to point that the freedom of the media and the independent legal system gives the people a sense of social equality that doesn’t exist in other places.

 
At 7:28 PM, Blogger Khalaf said...

Iman: If you say so. I am more sceptical than you are.

Anon: It is a deputy's job to help his (or her) constituents. However, people are more concerned in Jordan about fair play and equitable access to opportunities. You are right in that a smaller pie means that there is more competition for smaller pieces.

 
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At 11:08 AM, Blogger Ali Baba said...

Interesting indeed!
I am currently doing research on business and management in Jordan, organizational hierarchies, etc. After my own experience in a company, I was genuinely questioning the qualifications of my manager, who really did not seem qualified at all. It made me wonder, "how the hell were you hired for this job?" Then I heard from a reliable source that there are only, ONLY 40 officially certified managers in all of Amman. This is a very scarce number for all the MANAGERS and businesses out there. How did they get hired? Are they even qualified? Does wasta have something to do with this?

If anyone has any ideas, I'd like to hear them. It will enlighten my research a bit. Also, if you have any specific stories, I'd like to hear them as well!

 
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