The Brookings Doha Center (BDC) and the Jordan Strategy Forum jointly organized an online book discussion on the “Public Sector Reform in the Middle East and North Africa” edited volume by Robert P. Beschel Jr. and Tarik M. Yousef. The discussion highlighted Jordan’s policy reform efforts, looking at lessons on how public sector reforms can be adopted in in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The talk was led by Robert P. Beschel Jr., nonresident senior fellow at BDC, and Tarik M. Yousef, director of BDC and senior fellow at the Global Economy and Development program at Brookings. Ibrahim Saif, chief executive officer (CEO) of the Jordan Strategy Forum, moderated the session.
Robert P. Beschel Jr. began the discussion by introducing some of the public sector reform efforts in the MENA region. He noted the ‘governance gap’ in terms of performance and productivity compared to other regions of the world, as showcased by various indicators on the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators (WGI) database. Overall, governments in MENA tend to be large, expensive, and unsustainable financially. The region also struggles with high levels of corruption, deep-rooted cronyism, unsustainable public wage bill, and a crippling bureaucratic culture that is hard to overcome. In terms of public finances, revenues are often unstable; budgets are fragmented and uncomprehensive; while there is a disconnection between government planning and financing. Beschel added that during recessions, MENA governments tend to focus on cost containment rather than financial efficiency. He then explained that over the past decades, there had been significant efforts to reform the public sector with varying results across countries of the region, yet very few studies had documented these experiences. Beschel’s edited volume with Tarik M. Yousef examines governance reforms in several MENA countries including Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, and the UAE. These reforms involved the center of government, public financial management, civil service, along with substance/agency-specific reforms. Jordan’s experience, particularly, was successful as it was mostly a homegrown effort with no external liaisons and touched on multiple complex issues such as business process reengineering, separation of service delivery dimensions, and organizational restructuring. Beschel concluded by sharing few lessons for a successful public sector reform, which includes adopting a ‘strategic opportunism’ approach that uses available tools and dynamic thinking, giving reformers time and space to experiment and adjust, and identifying and cultivating managerial talents.
Tarik M. Yousef then followed up by highlighting the wealth of experiences and lessons of public sector reforms within the region, which can be adapted and serve as examples for today’s governments. He also explained that the uprisings which had taken place in Lebanon, Sudan, Iraq, and Algeria since 2018 stress how imperative it is to reform the public sector. In addition, the persisting COVID-19 pandemic, its economic repercussions, and the slow recovery path have pushed the need for urgent governance reforms that are more effective, more responsive, and more dynamic. Yousef added that a stable political setting and a national support are key factors for successful reforms. Paying attention to the political context and organizing reform efforts that gather political support while respecting national objectives are crucial. Jordan, in particular, is blessed by such setting, which provides it with an opportunity for a successful change. Furthermore, the long recovery process amid the pandemic provides countries with ample room to experiment, learn from their experiences, and make any needed adjustments. Yousef concluded by stressing the importance of reformers’ leadership qualities and communication, which, based on the case studies they have examined, proved to play critical roles in determining the success of a reform. Clear internal and external communication prevents misinformation circulation and facilitates the delivery of credibility since the early stages of reform.
In the subsequent question and answer session, the speakers continued to discuss public sector reforms in the region and the lessons learned from Jordan and other countries. Beschel highlighted the importance of building the capacity and proper policy support to respond to governance issues across different organizations, which involves putting together teams with cross-cutting expertise. He also argued that the motivations behind a reform are important, with a need to seek specific predefined objectives. Yousef added that business process reengineering, for example, shows that reforms are a means to an end rather than an end by themselves. He then reflected on how the COVID-19 pandemic had changed people’s perception regarding the role of the state. As countries emerge from the pandemic, they need stronger states that are capable and efficient to overcome the accumulated damage. Answering a question on the Chinese model, Yousef warned that while it offers a lot of lessons to learn from, such a model is not easily imported because it is based on a very specific context that differs significantly from the region’s.
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