Where does reform stand in Palestinian Authority ministries?

Americans, Israelis and Palestinians before them have talked, and are still talking, about the necessity to take procedural steps that would implement reforms in the fields of administration, performance and transparency in Palestinian National Authority institutions. Such steps would constitute a prelude to building healthy, sound and reliable State institutions.

Nevertheless, the American and Israeli definition of reform is totally different from what the Palestinians meant when they called for institutional reform. What the Israelis and Americans sought, and are still seeking, is to guarantee Israel?s security by pounding hard on armed resistance organizations. They want to control the money so that no one, starting with Chairman Yasser Arafat, would use it to purchase arms. Of course, that is what they claim. This means depriving Chairman Arafat, our legitimate leader elected by the people, from his security and financial decision-making prerogatives.

As for Palestinians, they have claimed, and are still claiming, reforms for reasons related to defining each ministry and its objectives. Why should ministries exist if not to serve the people in all fields? Palestinians are wary and frustrated of the bureaucracy, stalling and arrogance of their ministries and civil servants. Civil servants are wary and frustrated of the continued absence of their minister, whom they rarely see, if not on TV, discussing all matters except those related to the ministry of which he?s in charge.

Yesterday, I asked more than one Director General working in one ministry or the other: "What are your duties at the Ministry?"

Their unanimous answer was? "Nothing. We come to the Ministry, which has no program. We drink coffee, discuss political matters, and then leave. When we see the Minister, who comes visiting once every few months, we talk ?again about the political situation? and we never discuss the Ministry?s programs or duties".

One of them even said: "What do I do at the Ministry? I’m the Director General".

Of course, we don?t mean to hint that this is the case in all ministries. Some of them are pursuing their programs and duties in the bureaucratic routine way, either because they are compelled to do so or because the Minister is keen on attendance and on maintaining work progress in his ministry.

In order to avoid sterile generalization, we shall discuss a number of concrete examples of what people are complaining about and of the public duties that some of the ministries have been unable to accomplish.

Some of us were optimistic about the new government team, especially when it concerned ministries which services are considered vital to the people, such as the Ministries of Finance, Health, Labor, etc.

In fact, the newly appointed ministers were responding to demands, taking phone calls, and replying to letters and complaints. But, it wasn’t long before things changed.

Some of them turned into new Caesars.

They stopped taking phone calls and replying to courier. Every time the people became optimistic about a minister’s performance, they ended up disappointed because "their minister" got stuck in negotiations, or grew more and more absent after he became a member of the negotiations committee and its numerous delegations.

Furthermore, local and satellite TV stations soon went back to conducting political interviews and calling ministers in regard to their ministries’ actions, successes, failures or advancements in the reform process. Not only that, even civil servants at those ministries became overnight Caesars, treating their citizens as if they needed to beg for the Ministry’s services and not as things should have been, meaning that the Ministry’s sole concern was to provide its services to the people.

What about unemployment ?

What has the Government done in that field until now?

What about reducing red tape in vital ministries such as the Ministries of Finance, Health, Trade or Communication.

When I asked one police and civil defense officer why they hadn’t supplied water to regions that were suffering from heat and draught and where residents lacked water, he replied: "We are not the problem here. It?s the fault of the Ministry of Communication".

"How is that?", I asked.

He replied: "The United Nations paid for thirteen water tankers for use in such circumstances, but the Ministry of Communication omitted to issue the authorization, although three months have already gone by."

How can that happen? And where is His Excellency, the Minister. How do they dare deprive citizens from water?

Accountability is a must? Is this reform?

About financial transactions, we could go on for days.

Our ministries have set a world record in complicating our citizens’ formalities and lives, rendering them constantly frustrated.

Before the new government, civil servants used to care and work swiftly whenever Chairman Arafat’s office would intervene. Now, it’s no use trying. Everyone waits for the Minister’s visit, after having rendered the formalities atrociously complicated.
What do our citizens say about it: "Have pity on us, may God have pity on you". How do our civil servants expect our people to stand tough in the face of occupation, besiegement, humiliation, destruction, tree extraction and expropriation, if their ministries do nothing to ease their plight.

The least that can be said here is that civil servants must work conscientiously, in order to increase productivity and competence, while, at the same time, reducing red tape.

Many wonder about the good sense behind ending ministry office hours at 2.00 pm. If civil servants got disciplined, came to work at 9 or 9.30 am and left at 2.00 pm, i.e. if they spent each minute of the day working productively, they would only be working five-hour days, or even less. So, how can the Ministry serve its citizens with so little working time.

All civilized societies and productive institutions insist on eight hours of productive work so, why don’t we insist on the same thing. Is it possible to achieve any type of reform if we do not begin by reforming working hours, productivity, competence, red-tape reduction and civil service?

Moreover, there are ministries that shut their gates in the face of citizens (under the pretext of internal work) one day a week, in addition to Fridays.

We do not contest the importance of internal work and organization, but we would like to know how many productive work-hours is our people getting from its Ministries.

Citizens may wonder: "Where is the health system that guarantees each citizen the right to treatment in the Authority’s health institutions?"

Why do some of our citizens need to send imploration letters in order to obtain treatment and medication. During the Intifadeh, Palestine has received and is still receiving equipment, machines, and thousands of tons of medication. Hospitals have been built and hundreds of doctors have volunteered. So, why not use these aids as basis for a health system that protects our citizens from the humiliation of having to beg for treatment or medication??

Where are our village clinics?

Has any of you visited the hospitals to get a first-hand look of how they manage, on all levels, from operation theaters to cleanliness? Go, take a look!

Our citizens wonder why our stores are filled with Israeli merchandises or with goods that Israelis import and sell in our regions?

Why doesn’t the Ministry of Trade work on opening the channels that would allow Palestinian businessmen and traders to import such goods directly from their countries of origin?

Furthermore, why do our Ministries purchase their supplies from Israeli merchants, while our markets are filled with the same supplies imported by Palestinians?

This usually applies to heavy machinery, bulldozers, vehicles and trucks.

Who is in charge of monitoring purchases made by these ministries and forbidding their purchase from Israelis because they are available through Palestinian traders?

A question for the Government?

Is it possible that the Palestinian people does not have an advanced publishing firm, equipped with printing presses, to publish the works of our new generations of writers, poets, authors and painters who resort to begging in order to get some of their works published?

Where are the bookshops which import books and sell them to the public, for a reasonable price?

All these questions are part of the real reform, sought by our people, and not the reform required by Sharon and Bush, which is synonym to an internal political coup d’état.