September 24, 2006

How to get things done in Iraq

By Agri Ismail

One of the most definite signs of a civilized society is, paradoxically, the overabundance of bureaucratic rules. As hinted by the etymology of the word, the concept is originally French (the word appeared some years before the French revolution) and to this day there are few countries that have a greater knack at making things excessively complicated.

Just one example: often one needs to be able to produce payment slips from the last three months’ electricity and gas bills in order to get a job. The electricity/gas bill-absurdity reaches new heights when one wants to rent or buy a place to live: a Catch-22 of rarely equaled proportions emerges when you can’t live anywhere if you can’t show the bills and you can’t have any bills if you don’t live anywhere.

An even more extreme variant seems to stem from communist countries, in spite of Marx’s theory of workers’ self-management that should make all things bureaucratic redundant: instead, in order to allow for full employment for its population the governments tend to over-complicate the most basic processes. It is not uncommon to have to stand in line four times in order to get a single stamp in such countries: once to get the form from one person, the second time to get a stamp, the third time to get a second stamp verifying that the first stamp is not a forgery and a last time to get the form signed.

Skip over to today’s Iraq, struggling to find its feet, portrayed by the international news as the world’s suicidal neighbor, where there is one thing to be truly pleased about: we seem to have gotten the whole bureaucracy-thing down to a T. With the recent unification of the two Kurdish governments, there has been an exodus of governmental offices to our regional capital, which in itself is not a bad thing, but the fact that there is nobody who can take one’s document in large cities and send it off to Erbil for signatures etc. leads to an absurd situation where one has to travel for several hours, wait in line for a couple of more hours just to be able to get a signature on a marriage licence for instance.

Of course the grim realities of bureaucracy in all its shapes and guises don’t apply to everyone. The strict application of the law only applies to the poor and the powerless, after all. Anyone in a position to ask for a favour, that elusive thing called a wasta, will get things done faster and more effectively. It is thus no surprise that those waiting in line will do their utmost to get hold of a family member who was in the same biology class 34 years ago as someone who has some connection to someone in the office in question.

And the Kurdish community being rather small, the whole structure then threatens to collapse when getting things done becomes like a game of Trumps where the connections person A has have to stand back for the connection that person B which may in turn be a less important connection than that of person C & c. & c. And the poor guy standing in line will remain standing there, with no wasta in his back pocket.

The risk, which Weber, the prime author on bureaucracy, defined a long time ago, is that corruption and nepotism take over the process. There is for instance hardly a chance of a true meritocracy – that the person in a particular position is the most qualified and thus most deserving – in an Iraq where merits have to stand back for ethnicity, religious affiliation, political membership, tribal connections and who one’s family members are. Only after being siphoned through such categories does the value of the individual come into play.

And it’s the individual that remains largely forgotten in today’s large bureaucratic spider web, the individual that is only defined by a series of groups he may or may not belong to. It’s a repetition of the schoolyard on a national scale.

Printed with permission. From Soma