A sense of public service

World Bank report titled ‘Trust, Voice and Incentives’, released in April, found the delivery of essential public services in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) “is failing to meet the needs of citizens and continues to be a source of widespread dissatisfaction.” But not so in the GCC.

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Public services
Photography: Mohamad Shams

The Arab people expect significantly more government action on behalf of citizens’ welfare than do citizens of other regions, a World Bank (WB) report has found. Nearly half the respondents believe their governments should take more responsibility to ensure that everyone is provided for, whereas less than 10 percent believe that people should instead provide for themselves.

Arab citizens were promised as much in the post-independence social contract so characteristic for this part of the globe, but are increasingly finding that promise not delivered on.

Widespread dissatisfaction

“A majority of MENA citizens routinely experience a cycle of poor performance in their daily lives: political, administrative, and social institutions fail to instil adequate accountability and motivation in policy makers, public servants, and service providers to meet citizens’ needs,” states the report.

It gives examples like students attending local schools not being sufficiently prepared for the 21st century economy, and those needing healthcare too often finding that public clinics have no doctors or medicines, with seldom anybody held accountable for such shortcomings. Such disappointing experiences have important consequences for citizens’ trust in their leaders.

“As citizens experience poor service quality, they increasingly regard the government as corrupt and ineffective. Thus their trust in public institutions suffers, leaving them with few options other than turning to informal social networks and paying informal fees to tackle their individual needs.

Political institutions in most MENA countries lack accountability mechanisms, with citizens unable to obtain adequate information, voice demands, or incentivise policy makers and public servants through formal channels,” warns the World Bank report.

In contrast, the satisfaction of citizens of the GCC countries with their governments is very high in all the surveyed categories.

Satisfaction with education

Poor quality of education and healthcare  

The WB report notes the region’s impressive advances in education and health outcomes and in promoting access to essential services over the last five decades. Governments across the region have invested in building a wide network of schools, hospitals, and clinics and in training teachers and health professionals, thus citizens have rapidly gained access to these essential services. But quantity is not enough, says the report, which highlights service quality as the key challenge facing MENA countries.

“The region’s economies and labour markets are increasingly dependent on the creation of private sector jobs amid rapid population growth. This situation has altered the skills needed and the demands on the region’s education and training systems. As for health, the MENA region’s middle- and high-income countries are experiencing rapid changes in lifestyles, bringing about major shifts in the disease burden.”

Corruption

The report notes that education and training systems emerged as part of the post-independence social contract, which included an emphasis on public sector employment and on the role of education and training systems in preparing youth for public sector jobs.

“In recent decades, however, public sector jobs have become costly to generate for an expanding pool of applicants, while the formal private sector has been curtailed in some MENA countries by crony capitalism and a poor business climate.

The result is that there are few “desirable” jobs, too few, in fact, to motivate the education and training systems to adopt reforms that would produce skills applicable to the private sector,” says the report.

Even with one-third of unemployed youth being university graduates, employers report being unable to fill vacancies and about 40 percent of employers in the MENA region named skill mismatches as a major constraint to doing business and growth.

Helathcare

Not being able to find a job despite having graduated from a university, understandably leads to deep frustration and dissatisfaction with the system. According to data from the 2013 Gallup World Poll, the dissatisfaction with education services and healthcare is almost a norm in MENA, as nearly half the respondents in the region expressed their dissatisfaction with the two sectors in their country, compared to about 30 percent in Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean.

On average nearly 40 percent of the respondents were dissatisfied with the education services in their country and 45 percent were dissatisfied with the availability of quality healthcare. Only respondents in Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates reported relatively high levels of satisfaction with both education and health services.

Voicing opinion

Expressed satisfaction doesn’t necessarily mean better education though, stresses the WB report and points to the impact of natural resource rents on the quality of education and health services. “Although the demand for high-quality health services is high across both rentier and nonrentier countries, citizens in rentier economies are less likely to demand high-quality education, leading to a lower supply of high-quality education even if institutional quality is taken into account.

The explanation for this is simple: citizens in rentier economies are less concerned about attaining a high-quality education because students and their parents do not see education as critical to a career.

In the rentier system, they are able to obtain good jobs and a high standard of living regardless of the quality of education they attain. For example, when college graduates are guaranteed public sector employment – as in Qatar – their incentives to attain a high-quality education decline,” says the report.

Rampant corruption

Satisfaction

Corruption is another concern of citizens in some MENA countries when it comes to education and healthcare. According to the Global Corruption Barometer, the majority of citizens in Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, and the Republic of Yemen perceive the education and health systems in their countries to be corrupt or extremely corrupt.

In some countries, respondents complained about being “constantly exposed to corruption, favouritism, poor customer service, and deficient information” when dealing with public services and the bureaucracy, says the World Bank.

The perceived prevalence of corruption is very low in the GCC countries when compared with Iraq, Libya, the Republic of Yemen, and Syria (see chart). In addition, GCC respondents were on average more satisfied with their government’s effort to fight corruption than those in other regions and non-GCC MENA countries.

As a comparison – respondents in Lebanon (80 percent), Iraq (74 percent), Syria (62 percent), Egypt (55 percent), and the West Bank and Gaza (52 percent), believed that government was not doing enough to fight corruption.

Respondents also expressed little trust in their government’s involvement in the social sectors, especially in the developing MENA countries, where respondents emphasised the need for pro-poor policies and expressed dissatisfaction with their government’s effort to address poverty. Citizens in the GCC countries, especially in Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, were again largely satisfied with their governments’ efforts to help the poor.

Government selection

Citizens’ trust is shaped by service delivery

“Citizens’ experiences when they visit a health facility or observe their child’s learning, when they seek a job or deal with administrative procedures, affect not only their view of performance but also their attitude toward the state.

Low satisfaction with public services, perceived corruption and nepotism, and, indirectly, unresponsive institutions appears to erode citizens’ trust in public institutions in many MENA countries”, notes the report.

Findings reveal a high correlation between citizens’ satisfaction with service provision and indicators such as government effectiveness, rule of law, and control of corruption. Trust in national government is also highly associated with citizens’ satisfaction with education and health services and with their perceptions of the pervasiveness of corruption.

The WB found that the probability of trusting the national government increases by 13 percent when respondents are satisfied with education and by 11 percent when they are satisfied with healthcare.

On the other hand, citizens’ trust in public institutions declines by 35 percent when respondents believe that corruption is widespread within their governments, said the report.

Aspetar
Qatar’s Aspetar is the first specialised Orthopaedic and Sports Medicine Hospital in the Gulf region

Countries in the GCC have very high levels of trust in government when compared with MENA non-GCC countries. More than 80 percent of respondents in Jordan, Kuwait, and Qatar expressed trust in their national government, whereas less than half of respondents in Iraq, Lebanon, and the West Bank and Gaza expressed trust in their governments, according to Gallup World Poll, 2013.

The GCC countries score “very satisfactory” on the Corruption Perceptions Index, have stronger institutions, and in general enjoy very favourable citizen evaluations of their governments’ performance, notes the report.

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