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Daoud Kuttab Headshot

Will Jordanians seriously consider decentralisation?

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The never-ending search for an appropriate democratic model in Jordan continues without any result.

Popular protests sped up the debate while the current retraction of protests appears to have delayed this process.

Nothing appears to have stunted participatory democracy more than the current status of Jordanian municipalities.

The topic of decentralisation has been talked about for some time, but has been almost forgotten.

A conference on participatory democracy organised by the French Cultural Centre in cooperation with Al Rai Studies Centre opened in Amman on Wednesday.

The audience consisted of mayors of major Jordanian cities; strangely, governmental officials were absent despite the fact that they were invited, as the badges were showing.

Had officials from the interior or municipal affairs ministries come, they would have received an earful of harsh complaints about the unhealthy status of Jordan's municipalities.

One after the other, mayors complained that they are unable to carry out their jobs independently and serve the population that elected them because of the ever-present "big brother", in the form of the Ministry of Municipal Affairs.

Madaba Mayor Mustafa Alazaida led the charge during the discussion period, saying that despite the fact that he and his colleagues were elected by the citizens of their cities, mayors are nothing more than government employees who cannot even take a vacation without permission from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs.

Mayor Adel Al Rafia'a complained that he is officially unable to give a bonus to an employee without the approval of the ministry in Amman.

He said he does it anyway, and refuses to be controlled by the ministry.

Others expressed similar sentiments about the huge gap that seems to have widened since the recent municipal elections.

Financially, the biggest problem expressed by mayors is the lack of seriousness towards empowering the local governments.

The 5.5 per cent fuel tax that is supposed to be made available to local municipalities never made it.

The government announced that it planned to raise the tax to 8 per cent, but mayors complained that even the 5.5 per cent is not being delivered, with one saying that they are not getting more than 2.5 per cent income from the fuel tax.

Decentralisation, like any other change, is difficult and requires commitment from both senior and lower levels of government.

The French model is interesting for Jordan because it has a mix of a strong centralised government with some autonomy in the districts.

Some countries in Europe have a much more centralised federal system where almost all decisions are taken at local or regional level, with the central government largely responsible for national finances and foreign affairs.

Decentralisation is not an issue of services and fuel taxes. Applied properly, it can have great cultural, social and economic benefits.

The biggest problem facing Jordanians, and it is a problem throughout the world, is the continuous migration to urban areas.

Jordan's capital and other major cities have been bloated by a population that should be encouraged to stay in rural areas.

Agriculture has not been a factor in Jordan, and few industries or factories have been built outside major cities.

Local tourism, which can bring much income and encourage Jordanians to stay in their localities, has so far failed to become a significant factor in local economies.

The idea of a decentralised system could help alleviate a major problem in Jordan, namely the issue of identity.

Mohamamd Husseini, director of an NGO, called "Identity centre", noted that a successful implementation of decentralisation will go a long way to help Jordan overcome problems that have been holding back progress.

A decentralisation plan also requires change in the media landscape; in Jordan, most of the media are concentrated in the capital.

A plan for decentralising the media should provide waivers and incentives to print, radio and TV media to be based in various localities. Community radio, which has not yet been fully incorporated in Jordan's audio-visual plans, should benefit from an enabling environment where fees and other costs are nominal.

The move away from analogue to digital TV can be a great opportunity to produce local digital television stations.

The election of a new breed of Jordanian mayors and council members has resulted in an explosion of ideas and challenges.

Decentralisation might be attractive to mayors and governors. If implemented properly, however, it engenders losses for many who are benefiting from the current centralised system, hence the constant resistance to change.

The success of a reform process built on decentralisation requires a much more serious effort. The faster that hard decision is made and implemented the faster Jordan can truly register success in the reform process.