History, culture, or just a way of doing business? Why bureaucracy is the Middle East's enduring vice

Published April 6th, 2014 - 04:20 GMT

During the first decade of this century, both governments and organizations were occupied by several analytical processes to reevaluate their achievements and shortcomings, cope with the mainstream trends of people, and of course, make plans for the future.

Developed countries and advanced organizations have skillfully utilized most of the novel technological advancements to promote their organizational structures, administrative regulations and bureaucracies to keep up with the modern impulse of their citizens. Towards that, besides upgrading and simplifying their standard procedures, governments equipped their bureaus and administration offices with the latest high-tech mobile capabilities, efficient networking devices and computerized equipment to free their bureaucratic systems from sluggishness, procrastination and corruption. This all was done with the intent of seeking more efficiency and better functionality of their public services.

In the Middle East region, as in most developing countries, people by and large, consider bureaucracy as a mode of tiring procedures and defective conduct. For them, it points to an underhanded, corrupted performance which is based on lazy and inflexible applications of outdated administrative procedures.

In the Arab world in particular, the core structures and procedures of administrative and bureaucratic systems were originally designed and implemented by the prolonged Ottoman rule, and were reshaped after the two world wars by the victorious French or British colonial powers. In most cases, they were rigid structures that contain lots of ambiguity and impracticality, and opened the way for bias, favoritism, nepotism and corruption. Though several serious attempts have been made to reform Arab bureaucracies, none has been successful to deliver the required change and development.

This, however, implied on Arabs to wonder why most governments­­-not to say all-were unable to reform and modernize their bureaucratic system! Most people blame their political and governance system for such a frustrating setback. Other critics accuse their public servants of being incompetent and corrupt. So, why no one succeeded to really modernize Arab bureaucracies?

Actually, there are several diverse causes and reasons for this failure. While there are many reasons related to each single Arab country, they still share some common ground for the shortcomings. The first and foremost shared reason is that only few analysts and public administrators reviewed the case from a societal and organizational culture perspective. Most strategists and experts underrated the effects of behavioral and social culture on the performance of public service employees. The second reason is related to the adoption of foreign theories and application of clichéd management systems disregarding the local wants and traditional track of each Arab society.

In the 16th century, Michel de Montaigne, a French humanist and philosopher wrote: “Vérité en deçà des Pyrénées, erreur au delà,” which means, “there are truths on this side of the Pyrenees, which are falsehood on the other.” In other words, what is good and right to some, could be corrupt and wrong to the other.

It is a proven fact that packaged management theories are not the correct solutions to reform government systems, bureaucracies or organizations. Hypothetically, applying the British bureaucratic system in France or USA , for example, would lead to catastrophic results though all are highly developed countries. Imposing electronic procedures and online applications on a country that has high levels of computer illiteracy would counteract the intended reform and create chaos instead, and so on.

This actuality, however, is not to imply that old-fashioned ideas and concepts should be upheld unrevised. That is to say that an adaptation and adjustment process of a specific structure with national culture is the only way to achieve good results, since absolute reality sometimes varies according to the nature of social culture, and levels of general knowledge and education of the public.

After World War II and the end of the decolonization process, the United Nations (UN) along with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (WB) jointly designed several development programs to combat poverty and initiate development, after seeing that four-fifths of the world’s population at that time was living in poor countries. In essence, most of these development programs were constructed on Western theories and organizational culture leaving little or no room at all for those impoverished countries to inject their national culture into these international development programs. Unfortunately, tens of billions of dollars were spent to develop those poor countries, yet only minimal results have been accomplished so far.

It is known that national culture directs individuals and communities to embrace certain cultural principles, like honesty, concordance and conformity, for the benefit of the wider society. Societal culture influences work practices and has a profound impact on the performance and productivity of public and private organizations. Based on that, development strategists and experts have to take into consideration the values, performances and outcomes of any reform or development process of a particular bureaucracy which would vary across cultures.

To all intents and purposes, the fact remains that any government that seeks to ease up and fine-tune everyday life of its citizens has to develop a competent bureaucracy that can collectively deliver effortless and efficient public services. To do that, it needs a good functional body of personnel who perform properly and positively, and have harmonious social dynamics with their surrounding national environment in the first place.


Mohammad S. Moussalli is a well-known Lebanese writer. He has a reputable journalistic experience, as commentary writer, with a renowned regional English daily newspaper and web-based gazette. He holds a long list of esteemed published articles, mostly centered on human rights, civil liberties, socioeconomic development and sociopolitical issues.

Mr. Moussalli is an independent management consultant with top executive management experience in general trading and contracting in the Middle East and Gulf region. He devises reorganization plans and provides advice on business planning, administration, operations, pay and benefit scales, and many other issues.

Mr. Moussalli blogs at http://middleeasttribune.wordpress.com

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