Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Human rights: theory and practice

Jordanian university curricula are often accused of being too theoretically oriented, with little applied demonstrations. Not true for Yarmouk University.

For example, the university runs a course in human rights. As part of the course, somebody thought (for some inexplicable reason) that it might be a good idea to hear some opposition views on what is going on in Jordan.

So, they invited Fakher Da’as, who is running the Dhabahtoona campaign for student rights. So, five minutes before the guy is supposed to give his presentation, the head of the political science department informs the course instructor that the university administration has banned the lecture. See, this is the practical side of the course.

And things had been going so well. The university had been basking in the glory of the king’s visit last week. In it, he had exhorted the students to get involved in politics and promised that nobody will persecute them for their activism. Radio host Mohammad Wakeel gushed at how the wise and foresighted leadership of the university president was the reason why the king chose Yarmouk University as a venue to put out his message. Wakeel was happy with the university president because the said president made sure that Wakeel’s son would be one of the select students who met the king during the visit.

Part of Wakeel’s radio show involves an exhaustive reading of newspaper headlines in the morning. For some strange reason, he forgot to read the headline on this story this morning, even though it was reported in Al Ghad. It must have been an unintentional oversight.

So there you have it. In a nutshell, we can see the disconnect between theory and practice, professional journalism and hack journalism, sloganeering and reality. A perfect representation of what Jordan is today.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Rumors or trial balloons?

The highly credible government spokesman, Nasser Joudeh, has categorically denied that the government is planning on selling the King Hussein medical center and the surrounding lands, including the new army headquarters. He said that these are simply untrue rumors, and called on people to ignore them. He also said that if the government planned on doing so, they will be transparent about it and let us know before hand. I think this would be a nice gesture, don’t you? I mean, if I had known about the Aqaba deal before hand, I might have sold my donkey and bought a couple of shares. I would appreciate a heads’ up next time, thank you very much.

So, who are the lying rumor mongers who started all of these untrue rumors?

Well, we can ask Rana Sabbagh and Jamil Nimri. Both of them reported on the issue, simultaneously, based on unnamed government sources. Nimri went slightly further and directly quoted the prime minister defending the sale of the KHMC.

So, Sabbagh and Nimri both woke up one morning, and by some cosmic fluke decided to fabricate statements by unnamed government officials that they want to sell the KHMC. So did an unnamed AFP reporter. What a strange coincidence.

But I agree with Joudeh. We shouldn’t believe those lying rumor mongers. We should trust our virtuous government. Joudeh said that too. He said that it was not allowed to question the government’s efforts to help the people. Who would dare do such a thing, any way?

Anyway, why would the government lying rumor mongers start such vicious untrue rumors? As far as I can tell, there may be two reasons. The first is to see how people might react to such a proposal. The second is to get people used to the idea. So they will let the issue simmer for a while, and soon enough people will accept the idea. A tried and true formula.

We will find out soon enough. In the mean time, we might try to figure out where the hell is Madouneh.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The great land rush of '08

By conservative reckoning, I estimate that the government has given away about 200 million dinars worth of free land to the investor who wanted to build the casino on the Dead Sea, just so that he doesn’t build the casino. Everybody has been led to believe that this is some great achievement. I mean, can a price tag be put on virtue?

Other land is busily being disposed of, but at a cash price. Aside for the no-casino give away, there are three massive real estate transactions on the table.

In Aqaba, the main port area has been sold to investors from the UAE. The plan is to move the port to the southern part of the coast, and free up the land in the north for high end tourism projects. There has been a plan to do this for a while, with environmentalists have been worrying about how this will damage the fragile coral reefs in the proposed new port site. Jamil Nimri has been privy to “inside source”, who assured him that it is a fair deal.

Rumors have been going on that there is a plan to sell the area of the King Hussein Medical Center, along with the newly built and still unoccupied army headquarters and possibly the General Intelligence Department building, also to UAE investors. The original rumors said that 4 billion dollars will be paid for the area. More recent reports cut the amount to two million. New army headquarters and a new medical center are planned to be built in Madouna, in the eastern desert. Nimri again reports that the PM has defended the sale. The medical center buildings are old, and why keep land that can be sold to build much needed office space? This argument may make sense, although I was always under the impression that hospitals should be easily accessible. The PM is now saying there is no land sale. We will see.

The third project is the most controversial. The mayor of Amman is planning on building a complex for governmental offices (which is not the responsibility of the Amman municipality). The developer is Najeeb Miqati, the former Lebanese prime minister. The complex is to cost 1.4 billion dinars, and will be rented to the government. The project is a financial loss for the government. Renting the complex will cost about 140 million dinars a year, while currently the government pays only 11 million dinars per year for renting buildings all across the country. It is not unusual for Nahid Hattar to oppose such a project, but you know that there is a problem when Fahed el Fanek opposes it. Reports suggest that the government has not signed on to the scheme, and the PM is sending signals that he was not consulted and has not committed to moving government departments in rented buildings to the new complex. Of course, given the way that decisions are made (in closed rooms, away from public scrutiny), we will only find out when the dictator mayor of Amman makes his decision. Whatever the PM thinks, the municipality is going ahead with the land confiscation for the project. Maybe the PM doesn’t know that the decision has already been made.

The government says it is trimming down, as if the problem is with the real estate that it owns. I would like to see the government spending cut back and rationalized. With all this extra cash floating around, I think that this is a remote possibility, so say the least. We can only hope that a fraction of it will be spent on something useful.


Q: How would a prime minister who is presiding over an economy with over 10% inflation, slow economic growth, failing public education and health services and an inability to execute any important public projects prove his worthiness?

A: Demonstrate his piety.

So, PM Dahabi cancelled a previously agreed upon contract with a British investor who wanted to open a casino in the Dead Sea area. Apparently, the opening of a casino offended his sense of propriety and dignity. He also managed to weasel out of a 1 billion dinar fine which was in the contract in case the government reneged on its end of the deal. The investor forfeited the fine in exchange for 1200 dunums in the Dead Sea and 150 dunums in the Shafa Badran area in northern Amman. A bargain. I mean, even if we paid the billion (and I mean WE in the real sense of the word) it is worth it to save ourselves from the evil of a CASINO.

In our happy kingdom, there is no gambling. Sure, you can put your money in savings account in the bank for less than 1% interest. Why would you do that? For a chance to win the GRAND PRIZE, of course. Why else would you forfeit 80% of your interest?

Or you can buy lottery tickets. The General Union for Voluntary Societies runs a lotto. So does the football federation and the basketball federation. All legal and sanctioned by the government. I mean, randomly choosing a paper with a number on it and hoping that the number matches what a randomized set of numbers is generated by machines is not gambling, is it?

In order to gamble, you need to go very far away. It is a 10 km boat trip from Aqaba to Taba. You can also take a 30 minute flight to Sharm el Sheikh or Cairo. They have casinos there. Of course, I am not saying anything that many of the MP’s feigning indignity over the casino don’t know first hand. But, in our kingdom of virtue, we can’t face up to the truth that people are not angels. Yes, many ministers, parliamentarians, business people and politicians go to Egypt and Beirut to gamble. Of course, none of them have the courage to admit it. Casinos are for countries with governments that have no sense of virtue.

Sure we have sweatshops where tens of thousands of foreign workers are overworked, underpaid and abused. This is ok. In the kingdom of virtue, there are no casinos, because we know what is proper and just. It is the government’s job to decide what is proper and just.

And while we are fretting at whether a project that might create a couple hundred jobs and revitalize a community most famous for having the highest rate to tuberculosis and Leishmaniasis in the country, other things are happening.

The government sold the port of Aqaba for 5 billion dollars. We are assured that this is a good deal. The government is also planning to sell the land on which the King Hussein Medical Center resides for 2 billion dollars. Not to worry. A new medical center will be built in Madouneh, a leisurely two hour drive into the eastern desert. Our people deserve no less.

But what will be done with the billions collected for selling this land? I am willing to bet that it will not reflect on our economy, infrastructure or services. Letting the government control this money is the biggest gamble of all. More on the land business later.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

A new Salt document

In 1981, the Salt development establishment issued what was considered to be a revolutionary document. It outlined a new set of rules for spending habits on social occasions, which were the document considered to have been excessive and wasteful. One must understand the Jordanian mentality to appreciate this issue.

Traditional Jordanian (and Arab) culture places a premium on generosity. Anybody that is branded as being cheap has to face social pressures and all forms of embarrassment. Occasions in which there are large gatherings of people (weddings, funerals, passing the tawjihi, etc.) are considered to be tests where one’s generosity can be on display, requesting the organization of large feasts. Proof of generosity is also shown in the value of dowry and gifts given by the groom to the bride and her family. Gifts need to be given when visiting sick people. The list goes on, and these habits have been ingrained into the society and are part of people’s expectations.

Mixed with this, most people are too embarrassed to face up to the reality that they have limited financial resources. Because of this, even poor people became involved in exaggerated spending and displays of generosity, placing them into debts that are difficult and totally avoidable, if only society changed its expectations.

So, the original Salt document was drafted to spell out what was expected and appropriate for spending at various social occasions. It called for more modest festivities and gave people a social cover to curb their spending. People were not being cheap, but were abiding by the dictates of the Salt Popular Document.

Of course, habits and traditions die hard, and soon the document was forgotten, with minimal impact on how things were done. The ‘80’s were a time of economic prosperity (until the crash of ’89), and so there was little incentive to take the document as seriously as it should have. One notably successful result of the document was the abolition of a habit whereby guests at social occasions were offered cigarettes.

This year, the city of Salt has been proclaimed the Jordanian city of culture. On this occasion, the notables of the city have taken upon themselves the task of revising the document to take into account modern development and deficiencies in the original. Given the current economic realities, this initiative could not have come at a better time. The modified document places limits on various aspects of spending and other social habits related to different occasions, and it is recommending that people sign pledges to oblige by the document. An awareness campaign is also being planned to get as many people on board, in Salt as well as throughout the country.

This is a wonderful initiative, and I hope that it helps people both deal prudently during social occasions but also helps establish a culture that respects rational consumption patterns. This is what is needed now.


Friday, April 04, 2008

Educational reform, Jordanian style

Parliament recently amended the education law. The amendments included a controversial ban on so-called cultural centers from teaching students ministry of education curricula.

Students go to these centers to improve their chances in getting good grades on the dreaded tawjihi (high school exit) examination. The tawjihi is a pivotal point in the lives of Jordanians. Their prospects for education and work are made or broken depending on this test. It is not surprising that students would want to try and get any edge they can, and they are willing to pay for this extra edge.

So, why does this bother the ministry of education? On his justification for amending the law, the minister of education said simply that teaching the education curricula is the job of schools, and not these centers. He added that “some” of these centers distorted the curricula, requiring this ban. Other justifications included the charge that the centers discouraged teachers from giving their best in the class room, as these same teachers often also work at the cultural centers. He said that this is not fair to students who do not go to the centers.

Without going into the response of the cultural centers themselves, I would say that perhaps the ministry of education needs some instruction on simple problem solving techniques. Let’s say that the fact that students for some reason are not learning at ministry of education schools. Now, since the ministry also does the tawjihi, they can control perceptions on how well they are doing their job by simply adjusting the results to improve success rates. No problem. It is no wonder that the ministry is reluctant to abolish this backward examination. They don’t want universities running entrance examinations.

But the students know that they aren’t learning well, and they don’t want to trust the MoE to pass them. So, they either go to the cultural centers, or the more financially able get private tutors. Now, this is embarrassing. The idea that 80,000 students need extra help to learn the ministry curricula is a clear indication that there is something terribly wrong.

Now, what is the problem? The reaction of the ministry suggests that they are embarrassed by their demonstrable failure being exposed (they are not embarrassed by the failure itself). So, to rid themselves of this embarrassment, they deal with the symptoms (the cultural centers) rather than with the problem (their teaching is poor). The assumption that teachers will start teaching better if they are prevented from also teaching at the cultural centers is tenuous at best. I mean, maybe the teachers have a vested interest in their students paying them to do a good job (because their salaries are low). However, it doesn’t follow that if you lower their standard of living they will do a better job. Moreover, the ministry could simply prevent their teachers from teaching at the cultural centers, without shutting the centers down.

Of course, this is assuming that improving teaching is the primary concern in the first place. If that is the case, many other things need to be done. The government knows exactly what these are. They will cost money. Shutting down these centers is a much cheaper option.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Paying our own way

The parliament has passed a bill in which 5% of advertising revenue will be levied for support of culture. We already have a tax levied to support universities (which is not all used for this purpose). We also have a tax on liquor and cigarettes to support youth activities, and a tax on land deeds to support the disabled. MP's are also studying levying a tax on mobile phone bills to subsidize livestock feed.

So, in the end we will end up paying the regular taxes simply for the privilege of having a government. A wise use of resources indeed.