A New Social Contract for the Middle East: The Case of Jordan
by Samar Muhareb
As a result of the multiple bloody wars shaking the Middle East, specifically in Syria and Iraq, their neighboring country, Jordan, has been catapulted to a presence on the world scene formerly unknown to this relatively small country. Despite its key geo-strategic position, not much is known about Jordan apart from the country’s remarkable stability and the presence of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees.
The refugee crisis in Jordan is inherently complex and extends beyond the high influx of Syrian refugees. Jordan’s refugee communities also include Iraqis, Palestinians, Yemenis, Somalis, Sudanese, and many more smaller groups. Jordan is not a signatory of the 1951 Convention of Refugees and has no coherent, legally binding policies and regulations on dealing with refugees. At the same time, a de-regularized private sector is continuously eroding the middle class while the inflated state apparatus, chronically dependent on foreign aid, fails to provide for its citizens. Disillusioned by the state, fear and tensions between refugee and host communities are on the rise, and Jordanians are drawing back towards their tribal identities. Religious cleavages are becoming stronger, not only between Muslims of different sects and non-Muslims, but more importantly, between religious conservatives and progressives. In the absence of functioning state services, social welfare provision has become a tool for religious movements to discredit “corrupt institutions” such as the secular state and western-funded civil society organizations. As a result, Jordanian society is becoming increasingly fragmented and the social fabric of the state is disintegrating.
To prevent the outbreak of crises similar to those of other Middle Eastern States, it is paramount to re-instill solidarity and create a new social contract that meets the needs of vulnerable Jordanian and non-Jordanian populations alike. The task of filling the gaps in service provision in the different sectors of education, health, job provision, and legal protection cannot be mustered by Jordanian civil society alone. This task requires extended cooperation with the government and the private sector.
When the Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development (ARDD) started its operations in 2008 as a reaction to the Iraqi refugee crisis, we chose a traditional approach to protection, offering free legal aid services and programs aimed at strengthening the rule of law. We hoped that stabilizing the legal system would help create the basis for a social contract between refugee and host communities, as well as between the state and all vulnerable populations in Jordan. Yet we soon discovered that legal aid provision alone would not solve the many underlying challenges Jordan is facing. There is widespread lack of awareness of laws and regulations, and a lack of agency and civic engagement, which has led to a deeply rooted mistrust of the system. Moreover, the country suffers from low levels of accountability from service providers and public and private entities, and entrenched gender inequality compounded by insufficient laws to ensure women’s full participation in the socio-political and economic life. As result, ARDD expanded its operations towards a holistic approach of empowering our beneficiaries to access justice – legally, socially and economically – under the overarching concept of global justice.
As an organization, ARDD is driven by a vision of transformative social change that begins with our name: the “Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development.” It captures the need for a new beginning and our aspiration to contribute to the creation of a new social contract for Jordan and the MENA region that includes all its people, regardless of status or nationality. Our work builds on a participatory bottom-up approach that promotes and mobilizes for change on the individual, community, and policy level. Working at the grassroots level, we provide refugees, migrants, women, and youth with the tools to take on active roles in their communities and to hold their leaders accountable. At the institutional level, we engage with key public and private sector stakeholders to advocate for the rights of those who are most vulnerable in Jordan. True to our name, we constantly look to create the safe space that is required for critical thought and positive social transformation.
Despite the achievements and successes of the recent years, many challenges remain for ARDD and Jordanian civil society in creating a new social contract in Jordan and instilling a sense of ownership for that change among its people. These challenges range from the lack of clear business models and resources to distrust of foreign funding and limited space for open dialogue between different groups and parties on the issues at hand.
Moving ahead, we must keep in mind that the form of change we are seeking to achieve can only ever come from within Jordan and the Middle East. A new social contract must first and foremost enjoy the true ownership of the people or else it will not take root and will remain a superficial artifact, destined to be swept away by the first waves of instability. Paving the way for ownership of a new social contract means creating a shared vision and understanding of the roles and responsibilities of different stakeholders and civil society organizations within Jordan. It means building the capacity of civil society actors and ensuring their active role in the public reform process. It means developing spaces for local partnerships and mobilizing the public in support of social and legislative change that encompasses all groups of society including refugees and migrants. Eventually, this will enable NGOs to focus their efforts on prevention rather than response.
Being Jordanian myself, and knowing the incredible resilience and potential of our people that even the multiple wars and conflicts of our region have not been able to crush, I deeply believe that change is possible and that a better future lies ahead for all of us.
About the Author
Samar Muhareb is the co-founder and Director of the Jordanian NGO Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development. Samar is also a board member of Greenpeace Mediterranean, the START Network and the Southern Refugee Legal Aid Network. She is a lawyer and human rights specialist, and holds a Masters in Human Rights and Human Development.