Economic Research Forum (ERF)

Public sector reform in MENA: the achievable governance revolution

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Across the Middle East and North Africa, there are countries working to modernise state institutions to make them more efficient, effective and responsive. This column argues that while it is common for Arab governments to look elsewhere for reform ideas, there is a wealth of experience within the region that practitioners should consider. Lessons from public sector reform in MENA from the past two decades suggest that transformative change is possible.

In a nutshell

The revolutionary impulse unleashed by the Arab Spring a decade ago may again sweep through the region once lockdowns are lifted, economies attempt to restart and the full scale of damage to jobs and livelihoods caused by Covid-19 becomes clear.

Even if such pressures do not materialise, governments would be wise to not let the opportunity for disruptive change presented by the pandemic to slip by untapped.

Arab reformers are embarking on the critical task of ensuring that their governments and public sectors can respond to the pronounced development challenges, both known and unknown, that they will be asked to address during the coming decade.

As we approach the tenth anniversary of the Arab Spring, much attention is rightly being given to the broader governance trajectory of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region over the last decade.

With the notable exception of Tunisia, the story is hardly encouraging. The aging autocrats are gone, but many of the heady expectations of that time have given way to the consolidation of authoritarian rule by entrenched elites. The luckiest countries have witnessed merely cosmetic changes on key issues of democracy, transparency and rule of law. The less fortunate have witnessed brutal domestic crackdowns and flagrant human rights abuses. And the truly unlucky have descended into chaos and civil war.

Beyond the public debate over democratic change, another long-standing struggle is taking place as many MENA countries work to reform and modernise state institutions to make them more efficient, effective and responsive – an agenda that is less controversial but no less urgent.

The MENA region is home to some of the largest public sectors in the world, yet the quality of service delivery is often poor. The region trails most other parts of the world (with the exception of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa) on global indices for government effectiveness, quality of regulation and control of corruption. Even more troubling, it is one of the few places in the world that has actually lost ground on these indices over the past decade.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, MENA governments have rediscovered the critical importance of government institutions. Initially, through a combination of luck and skill, regional countries were able to keep their mortality and morbidity rates well below those of hard-hit regions in Europe, North America and Latin America.

The region witnessed many instances of effective policy coordination across traditionally conflicting bureaucratic structures; several countries also built on earlier investments and expertise in e-governance and m-governance to address challenges such as contact tracing and distance learning. Despite pressing financial constraints, governments were quick to adopt unprecedented fiscal and monetary measures to mitigate at least some of the pandemic’s economic impact on the vulnerable segments of society.

Yet the need for broader institutional reforms that go well beyond those adopted in response to the Covid-19 pandemic is immediate and palpable. As the large-scale protests of 2019 demonstrated, ‘the Arab Street’ is becoming less willing to accept the uneven quality of service delivery, or the preferential treatment of large and well-connected firms. Corruption and cronyism are increasingly being recognised and called out for what they are.

The Covid-19 pandemic has underscored the need for flexible, responsive institutions that can adapt to changing circumstances and coordinate complex policies. At the same time, the recent volatility in oil markets and external remittances has made clear that the region must urgently diversify revenue sources and make government expenditures more efficient.

The public sector challenges confronting the region over the next decade are both clear and massive. To cope with the demographic pressures that are already underway, governments will need simultaneously to expand the scope and quality of services that they provide to their citizens, paying particular attention to lagging regions and under-served communities.

They will need to educate the next generation to compete in a changing global economy. They will need to serve as an attractive destination for capital, providing the business environment that will facilitate foreign and domestic investment. They will need to extend their under-funded healthcare systems to serve neglected regions and populations better. And they will need to be agile enough to respond to a host of cross-cutting threats – from climate change and water scarcity, to global energy market transitions – that will require an integrated, nuanced and sustained response across the whole of government.

Of all the challenges that MENA governments must confront, perhaps the most politically fraught is the reality that their traditional social contract, which trades political acquiescence for public sector jobs, is ultimately a Faustian bargain. The problem with the existing social contract is not merely its lack of fiscal sustainability – although that threat is real and will only get worse with time.

The problem is that this bargain undermines meritocracy and hinders the creation of the sort of high-performing public sectors that will be necessary to address the region’s most pressing economic and social problems. It also creates perverse incentives that undermine other critical objectives, such as labour force diversification.

In a recent collection of in-depth case studies, Public Sector Reform in the Middle East and North Africa: Lessons of Experience for a Region in Transition, we take a deep look at notable examples of public sector reform in the MENA region from the past two decades.

Our assessment provides hope for the region’s future by illustrating that transformative change is possible. And change will be needed. The revolutionary impulse unleashed by the Arab Spring a decade ago and its more recent echoes in 2019 may again sweep through the region once the lockdowns are lifted, economies attempt to restart and the full scale of damage to jobs and livelihoods caused by Covid-19 becomes clear. And even if such pressures do not materialise, governments would be wise to not let the opportunity for disruptive change presented by the pandemic to slip by untapped.

While it is common for Arab governments to look elsewhere for reform ideas, we believe that there is a wealth of experience within the region that practitioners should consider. It may not align perfectly with global knowledge and practice, but neither is it wholly distinct. To the extent that MENA countries differ, it is only in certain areas, and often more by degree than in kind.

The lessons from this experience, both good and bad, will be of great value to the next generation of Arab reformers as they embark on the critical task of ensuring that their governments and public sectors can respond to the pronounced development challenges, both known and unknown, that they will be asked to address during the coming decade.

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