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Wasta: How personal connections are denying citizens opportunities and basic services

In many Arab countries the use of personal connections, or “wasta” in Arabic, is a common practice and a social norm. People use their family or social contacts to skip the line and gain quicker and better access to schools, universities, hospitals or jobs, and to “speed up” government paperwork such as ID renewals or birth certificates. How much you can increase the speed and quality of your service often depends on who you know – the higher the better, of course.

Wasta is a way of life. You need wasta to get to work, wasta to get promoted at work, wasta in order to enter certain places, wasta to get you a place at university or even a hospital bed. I expect that even on Judgment Day we will need wasta too.

In our 2019 Global Corruption Barometer (GCB) for the Middle East and North Africa, we asked citizens about their views and direct experiences of corruption and bribery. This year, for the first time, we also asked people in Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine about their experiences with wasta.

The results show that around a third of the population used their personal connections to receive basic services in these countries. Lebanon has the highest wasta rate at 54 per cent, followed by Palestine at 39 per cent and Jordan at 25 per cent.

While bribery rates in the three countries are lower, bribes and wasta often go hand-in-hand – almost half of the people who used wasta also paid a bribe.

Courts and public utilities, such as electricity and water, are the two sectors where citizens are most likely to take advantage of personal relations. In Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine, nearly one in three people who accessed public utilities and court services used wasta to get the services they needed.

This is most flagrant in Lebanon where 65 per cent of citizens used wasta when dealing with the courts.

The harm caused by Wasta

Favouritism in the form of wasta poses a serious threat to social and economic equality, basic human rights and the rule of law. It is a structural problem: while many perceive wasta to be the only way to obtain the services they need, it often has a devastating impact on other people’s lives, putting their health or economic security at risk and undermining trust in government.

Wasta may also perpetuate economic uncertainty. According to a World Bank report, 54 per cent of the region’s working age population is unemployed or inactive, and the majority expressed their frustration that wasta is the main hurdle to getting a job. Education, skills and experience are insignificant next to informal social connections. This affects young people particularly: when asked whether knowing someone in a high position is critical to getting a job, over 60 per cent of youth in the region agreed that it was.

Why do people do it?

While many people in the region recognise the negative consequences of wasta and see it as a form of corruption, they continue to use it in practice. Why? According to the results of the GCB, the majority say they would not have received the services they need without the use of their connections, while less than half say that they did so to get better services.

A separate national survey on the prevalence of wasta in Jordan reinforces these views. Almost half of citizens said they used wasta to complete government paperwork, and 65 per cent find it necessary to get a job.

What needs to be done?

The first step towards eliminating wasta and nepotism, and to ensuring equal access to basic services and rights for all citizens regardless of their personal connections, is to criminalise wasta as a form of corruption.

E-government services and programmes can help in eliminating the use personal connections, particularly when obtaining passports, IDs, certificates and other governmental paperwork.

Most importantly, governments should work with civil society and media to take preventive measures, raise awareness about wasta and challenge societal norms. Wasta is not a way of giving help or assistance – it is corruption that denies citizens opportunities and undermines trust in government.

Wasta is a structural problem that must be addressed with strong integrity measures – but they can only work if wasta as a societal norm is dismantled.

Lemia, a 24 year old woman from Palestine, describes the injustice wasta inflicts on people: "The worst experience was a few years ago, I passed my high school general examination and got a grade in the 90s [out of 100]. I was sure I would get a scholarship to study engineering at a university in Palestine. I met all the requirements for that scholarship. I applied and waited a long time. My family was not able to pay university tuition, so I had to work and postpone studies. A few months later, one of my high school classmates came to the clothing store where I was working. She had a grade in the 60s. She told me nonchalantly that she got the very scholarship through her sister-in-law and that she was studying engineering, even though she doesn’t like the field and does not plan to work in it after graduation. It was a very difficult situation, and all I could do was cry, I cried for a very long time.”

Mohammad, 29, says: “I applied for a government job after 10 years of experience working for different companies and jobs. They asked to do an exam to check my skills, sitting at the other end of the room was a girl who is about 22 years old. I finished the test and answered all the questions. After more than two weeks, I visited the department to see why they have not answered and if I got the job or not. I saw the girl there sitting behind the desk, someone told me that she was selected. It turns out that one of her relatives has a position in a different governmental department and managed to appoint her. So these exams were nothing but a show.”

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