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Upward mobility interrupted

Aug 05,2018 - Last updated at Aug 05,2018

A few years ago, I was contracted to conduct a survey of a number of government organisations that did similar work in different economic sectors. The survey asked middle-management officials for their opinions and assessment of their organisations.

Remarkably, respondents expressed surprise at being asked for their opinion because, they assured me, this was the first time anyone ever did. But three other findings were very interesting:

First, middle management in Jordan is very competent technically; second, people in middle management have a high level of institutional loyalty; third, most respondents felt that they were excluded from any decision-making capacity and that they had no hope of promotion to a decision-making function. The upper ranks, many felt, were reserved for people who are parachuted there on the basis of their wealth, pedigree or social connections.

And yet, we persist in seeing wasta as benign, or even as a positive social tradition. Discussions of corruption socially or on social media tend to focus almost exclusively on diverting funds. The problem is that this is only one facet of corruption. Others include wasta, bad governance, misuse of authority and monopolising opportunities. 

Corruption is like the Hydra, the serpent in Greek mythology with many heads. The present day monster eats away citizen's faith in the future, kills their creativity, destroys their ambitions, scares away investments and jobs, and wipes out upward mobility.

What is most dangerous about corruption is that it depraves not only the powerful, but all society. As the philosopher Eric Hoffer pointed out, it is often said that power corrupts, but it is equally important to realise that weakness, too, corrupts. Power corrupts the few, while weakness corrupts the many, with hatred, malice, rudeness, intolerance and suspicion. The resentment felt by the weak does not necessarily spring from any injustice done to them but from their sense of inadequacy and impotence.

This resentment can be seen clearly in the messages that circulate on social media with every outbreak of a new corruption scandal, and equally in the frustration expressed by the respondents in the above survey who felt excluded from upward mobility. It is a natural consequence of corruption, which widens and perpetuates the imbalance between rich and poor. 

If Jordan is serious about fighting corruption, it needs to fight it in all its aspects, not only some of them. That would be like declaring victory after cutting off one of the Hydra’s heads, even though knowing that it would re-grow two heads in its place. Corruption can be defeated and some countries have gone a long way towards doing so; but this fight can only be done through transparency, good governance and the rule of law, which is completely different from ruling through laws. 

The prospect of upward mobility is vital because it embodies hope for a better future. Hope is the one thing that can make the present less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow may be better, today’s hardship becomes just another step up the ladder.


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