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Red tape tripping up Iraq
Many developing countries are mired in dated bureaucratic practice and tangled in red tape, but of all of them, Iraq can perhaps least afford to see its crucial post-war development suffocated under mounds of paperwork.
What hangs in the balance is nothing less than whether oil-rich Iraq can emerge from years of war as a prosperous, democratic and secure state — or whether it sinks back into the bloodshed that almost tore it apart.
A love of official stamps, seals and documents in triplicate is by no means only an Iraqi phenomenon. Receiving shipments at Cairo airport, for example, involves one queue to buy a ticket, another to receive it and a third to get it laminated.
But if Iraq is to rebuild its crumbling infrastructure, develop its oil fields and find jobs for legions of restless unemployed — who have easy access to guns — it must make doing business and governing as smooth as possible.
Would-be foreign investors are likely to steer clear if Iraqis themselves find the country’s bureaucracy a nightmare.
Born in Iraq, I was technically eligible to vote in recent provincial elections, but a trip to a government office to apply for a required residency card was a shocking reminder of the mountain of bureaucracy Iraqis must climb.
Hundreds of people shuffled from room to room down long, dim corridors with unmarked doors, clutching sheaves of faded paperwork. A crowd would clamour at a door whenever an official turned up, but otherwise many sat on the floor despondent.
Some looked like they had been there for days.
In one office, two officials let people in one at a time. Noise and paper-waving from the crowd outside erupted each time the door opened.
“Fake. Fake. This one’s okay, take that to the district office and apply there,” said one official, lazily flicking forged identification cards back at a woman before advising her to go and queue at yet another government building.
Far from instilling order, the bureaucracy has fostered an industry in forged documents and fixers versed in byzantine official process, who can apply on your behalf for a hefty fee. Some of that money probably goes to officials. Iraq came second to last out of 180 countries in corruption watchdog Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Meanwhile, roads remain unpaved, sewage disposal is abysmal and millions have no access to decent housing and healthcare, partly because bureaucracy has made it hard to execute Iraq’s budget.
For journalists, the insistence on long-winded procedure is maddening.
Recent Reuters requests to meet senior Iraqi officials were rejected because the envelope had not been stamped correctly, or because it did not have a randomly generated reference number.
Many officials insist on lengthy honorifics and encourage obsequious preambles to questions, which eats away at press conference time and takes up newspaper space.
The leads of many Gulf newspaper articles, for example, consist of little but long-winded honorifics.
“Noble Leader, Master of the Seven Sand Dunes, who Blesses us with his Beneficience, Sheikh xxxx of xxxx bin xxxx abdul xxx met …” That’s only a mild exaggeration.
Democracy has been touted as a way for Iraqis to reconcile after years of war, and last month they voted in local polls. Incumbents fared badly, and the result was seen as a vote against years of perceived corruption and incompetence.
The pressure is now on Iraq’s new crop of officials to cut the red tape and show democracy works.