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IRI Expert in the Jordan Times: The Link Between Economic Stability and Decentralization

July 17, 2017

Jordan’s decentralisation and economic stability are linked

The Jordan Times 

By Ramsey Day 

A new public opinion survey released last week by the International Republican Institute (IRI) in Jordan has highlighted what most Jordanians already know all-too-well: the economy is struggling and pressures on household budgets are mounting.

The nationwide poll — the 15th conducted by IRI — surveyed citizens from all 12 governorates on a range of questions, including the country’s trajectory, the economy, political reforms and security issues.

The results of this latest survey reflect a continuing economic decline and a worrying lack of awareness of key political reforms at the governorate and municipal levels.

Just 22 per cent of citizens view Jordan’s overall economic condition as “good” or “very good” compared to 49 per cent two years ago.

When asked to describe their own personal household economic situation, 46 per cent described it as “bad” or “very bad” — a 20-point increase since the 2015 poll.

Perhaps more worrying is the decline in optimism among the historically sanguine Jordanian citizenry.

Only 35 per cent believe that economic conditions will improve in the next year compared to 49 per cent last year; 42 per cent believe their household economic situation will get even “somewhat better” in the coming 12 months — a 22-point decrease from 2015.

As I travel the country discussing issues with local citizens, a common theme arises in nearly every conversation: low wages.

The average salary is less than JD500 ($700), while the cost of living continues to increase — Amman is ranked as the 29th most expensive city in The world and has the highest cost of living of any Arab city, according to the Economist’s Worldwide Cost of Living Report.

Unemployment is also creating a tremendous drain on the economy and ranks as the single biggest problem facing Jordan today.

These economic pressures are squeezing Jordanians at an unsustainable rate.

As Jordan’s bloated public sector continues to expand, and with the advent of new governorate and local elected bodies, serious questions remain as to how government payroll, pensions, infrastructure and other demands on the national budget will be sustainably funded without significant economic growth, which will require unpopular fiscal reforms.

Against this backdrop of economic frustration, Jordan is embarking on a decentralisation process at the local level in an attempt to bring decision-making closer to the citizen.

Raising popular awareness of content and importance of these reforms will be crucial to successful implementation.

Although the Independent Election Commission (IEC) and the Ministry of Parliamentary and Political Affairs have undertaken publicity campaigns ahead of the upcoming local elections on August 15, our poll indicates that popular understanding remains disappointingly low.

Nearly 75 per cent of the population is unaware new governorate councils will soon be elected for the first time; more than 70 per cent do not know the purpose of the government’s decentralisation effort; and 67 per cent are unaware that local elections will be conducted next month.

Decentralisation is an important step towards improving governance at the local level, and is a key element to securing long-term stability within the Kingdom.

However, if citizens remain ill informed as to the purpose of decentralisation and are thus unable to see the value of this endeavour, it could exacerbate frustrations within a population already under intense pressure.

Given the high levels of dissatisfaction with the government reflected in IRI polls, the stakes for the government are high.

Fortunately, there are encouraging signs that the political will needed to carry these reforms forward is present: the IEC and the Ministry of Parliamentary and Political Affairs have both demonstrated competence in previous election cycles, and Jordan has attracted committed domestic and international partners, including local civil society organisations, as well as USAID and other donors.

Jordan has an opportunity to take a significant step towards shoring up the economy by creating a more efficient local governance system — an outcome that will result from the successful implementation of decentralisation.

Of course, progress will need to be made in many other areas, including increasing women’s labour force participation, implementing robust fiscal reforms, trimming and modernising the wasta-based public sector, increasing public procurement transparency, broadening political participation, and decreasing youth unemployment.

None of these reforms, including demonstrating the practical value of the decentralisation process, will be popular or easy; but they are essential to building a secure, stable, and prosperous Jordan.

The writer is the resident programme director for the International Republican Institute based in Amman, Jordan. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.