Many consider corruption to be an unavoidable cost of doing business around the Middle East and North Africa. The costs of corruption are obvious, and widely acknowledged. It is commonly accepted that corruption limits development, siphons off critical development resources, causes citizens to lose confidence in their governments, and undermines the region’s progress toward democratic reform. In spite of this, many just assume that corruption is here to stay, and that there’s little ordinary citizens can do to push back.
In recent years, USAID has played a key role in supporting regional anti-corruption efforts. In partnership with Transparency International, we launched the ACTION program – Addressing Corruption Through Information and Organized Networking – in order to study corruption in the region and develop a roadmap for addressing it. The project examined corruption in Yemen, Morocco, Egypt and West Bank/Gaza. Last fall, activists from around the region gathered to present a series of case studies detailing examples of corruption, the costs corruption imposes, and potential solutions.
A critical first step in addressing corruption is ensuring that regional legislation protects citizen access to information. As Palestinian journalist Ahed Abu Teima observed, “access to information, and the provision of information to journalists, reporters and the media, is one of the most important factors in the success of anti-corruption efforts.”
The project documented how existing legislation in all four countries limits access to information critical to identifying corruption, for example through secrecy laws in Egypt and Morocco. As a result, citizens and citizen groups are unequal partners in their relationship with government institutions, undermining a country’s democratic development. Adequate legislation is a necessary first step in the battle against corruption. “The only way, the best way, to end corruption is to establish transparency on a broad scale. That isn’t going to happen without the passing of a law,” said Egyptian professor Khaled Fahmy.
ACTION launched an anti-corruption portal that for the first time provides Middle East and North Africa-region activists, academics and media professionals with research and action-oriented tools and resources. The project also developed a series of video case studies profiling anti-corruption activists in each of the four countries.
Initiatives such as ACTION are making a difference. In 2011 Morocco included language ensuring access to information in its constitution, and in 2013 drafted a corresponding law. In 2012 Yemen enacted an access to information law and may include it as a constitutional right. Prior to the change in Egypt’s government in July 2013, the government had drafted an access to information law and included the right in the 2012 constitution. Egyptians are now waiting to see how these commitments are carried forward by the transitional administration.
Disclosure of governmental activities and access to information are core principles of open government and democratic reform. They are essential tools in battling corruption, and promoting accountability, transparency and integrity. Through efforts such as our partnership with Transparency International, we are helping to lay the long-term foundations for a successful transition to democracy around the Middle East.