Monthly Archives: November 2012

Failing the Disabled: Looking for Answers

This article was published in the November 2012 issue of JO Magazine.

For a moment, the issue of the treatment and status of people with disabilities came to the fore of Jordan’s collective consciousness. In May, the BBC aired an explosive story based on the work of an undercover reporter who used a hidden camera to document the abuse of children in eight of Jordan’s privately operated special care homes for children with disabilities. The video captured by Hanan Khandagji is horrific, showing children physically and mentally abused, neglected, and inhumanely restrained. The public outcry was apoplectic. Facebook and Twitter were inundated. HM King Abdullah II visited several of Jordan’s special care centers, issuing directives to government offices to hold negligent centers accountable and prosecute individual wrongdoers. Despite this, few concrete reforms on an institutional level have been made.

In 2007, Jordan signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The convention was coupled with passage of Law Number 31, developed in close cooperation with advocacy groups made up of people with disabilities and aimed at modernizing the legal approach to disability. Jordan would end its practice of providing handouts and short-term solutions, which were often more patronizing than helpful, and begin implementing inclusive practices to provide the tools for those with disabilities to be functional, productive members of mainstream society, with measures including wheelchair access to buildings and proper education. Law 31 also called for the creation of the Higher Council for the Affairs of Persons with Disabilities, which opened in 2008.

Four years later, Muhannad Al Azzeh is deeply concerned about the lack of progress. “We did not fulfill even half of our obligations according to the convention,” he says.

At the sleek, modern offices of the Jordan Civil Society Program, Al Azzeh makes his way around the facility by feel, slowly but deliberately. Though well funded through a USAID grant, there is no all-purpose worker to tend to guests. Al Azzeh doesn’t seem to mind, offering to prepare tea or coffee for visitors himself. Marked by the physiology of middle age—thinning hair and heavyset build—Al Azzeh is unassuming at first glance. When he speaks in slightly accented English, his words carefully chosen, it becomes clear he is not ordinary. And he cannot seem to open his eyes.

Dr. Muhannad Al Azzeh

If Al Azzeh had been young enough to ever be helped by the Higher Council, he would have been their poster boy. Al Azzeh was born with sight, but at a very young age it began to deteriorate. Doctors informed his father that he would be blind by the time he reached elementary school. Fearing his son would be marginalized in society, Al Azzeh’s father began pushing him at a young age to excel in academics. “I was told that if you want to be recognized, and if you want to have opportunities, you shouldn’t accept less than your PhD degree,” he says.

Al Azzeh earned a law degree from the University of Alexandria and a doctorate in the Netherlands with a focus on public policy, democratization, and good governance. Despite his exceptional education, Al Azzeh was unable to find university employment in Jordan. “My applications to work as a lecturer were always rejected because I was blind,” he says.

That spurred Al Azzeh to become involved in Jordan’s budding disability rights movement. Having already played a key role in developing Law Number 31 in 2007, Al Azzeh joined the Jordan Civil Society Program in 2010, providing his legislative and legal expertise to a special unit dedicated to disability rights. “I decided that my legal and public policy background could be utilized to promote the rights of persons with disabilities, including my own rights.”

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In a report issued last February, Al Azzeh and his organization documented in detail how the Jordanian government had failed to live up to its commitments, from basic protections from abuse and discrimination for the disabled to the failure to enforce building codes that require wheelchair accessibility. Patronizing the disabled is still the norm and even practices long abandoned in other countries, like forced hysterectomies for intellectually disabled women, are still conducted in Jordan.

The 200-page report, submitted to the government and the general public, faced immediate criticism from government officials. “Our report was aggressively rejected by the relevant ministries, including the Higher Council,” he says. “What we said exactly is that there is a clear, clear lack of coordination amongst the different governmental and national departments in the disability field. Behind the lack of coordination is an ambiguity in the identity and mandate for each ministry.”

Two months later, the BBC exposé aired. Al Azzeh wasn’t surprised by what it showed. “In the report we documented violations and the lack of monitoring of the special care centers. Some of these findings had been published in newspapers in 2009, 2010, and 2011, but nobody listened.”

Rakan Saida is the politics editor at Al Rai newspaper and one of nine members of a royal commission set up to examine the situation of the special care homes in Jordan. Saida is quick to contest the assertion, often circulated by government officials, that the abuse cases in Jordan’s special care homes are isolated and limited to a few abusers. “There are many reasons why the abuse documented by the BBC documentary was able to occur,” Saida says. “The most important is the lack of official guidance in monitoring the special care sector and the lack of coordination between the relevant government bodies. All of the government organizations are working independently and without standards, going in their own directions.”

At the center of the abuse scandal is the poor quality of staff. BBC footage reveals their basic apathy toward the welfare of children under their care. The sole focus of staff members appears to be the maintenance of order, achieved through severe, often physical punishment of children perceived to be disruptive.

Ghadir Al Haris, director of educational programs at the Higher Council for the Affairs of Persons with Disabilities, says the council is well aware of staff issues at centers but has little power to correct the situation—that is supposed to be done by the Ministry of Social Development. According to Al Haris, a major obstacle to hiring and retaining quality staff members is the inability or unwillingness of centers to pay competitive salaries. Particularly in rural areas, centers pay as little as JD 75 a month despite a minimum wage of JD 190 per month. “Unfortunately, many centers are facing big financial problems. Some have the money but are unwilling to pay [higher salaries],” says Al Haris.

Saida agrees low salaries are a problem. He would also like to see employees with appropriate qualifications, including a bachelor’s degree in psychology and adequate supplementary training. “Without qualified staff, effective monitoring, and coordination between relevant government entities, the children at these centers are not getting a real education.” The special care homes become, in effect, glorified daycare centers where, according to Saida, “They provide food, water, and a place to sleep, and that’s it.”

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By any objective standards, Hanan Khandagji has shaken the special care sector in Jordan. Her BBC report set in motion a reform process involving officials at the highest levels of government. The ramifications go far beyond the reassessment of the treatment of children with disabilities, but also involve intensive scrutiny of the homes for orphans, juveniles, and the homeless. With an immaculately wrapped headscarf, Khandagji is beautiful when she smiles, laughs easily, and shows her youthful idealism. What she has done is remarkable, especially considering that she is just twenty-three and still a university student.

The story begins when Khandagji was tipped off to potential abuse when Al Balad Radio, her employer, launched an investigative reporting unit and began receiving anonymous complaints about Amman’s special care homes. To see if there was any validity in the accusations of abuse, Khandagji posed as a volunteer and began working at several facilities. Initially she recorded audio, as the report was developed for a radio audience. When the BBC heard about her work at a journalism conference, they asked her to try to replicate it for an international television audience, this time with hidden cameras.

Hanan Khandadji

Once she had the footage of abuse, Khandagji contacted the Higher Council and the Ministry of Social Development for comment on the situation. Amal Nahhas, the secretary general of the Higher Council, vehemently denied the accusations. “Amal Nahhas said that ‘Everything is under control,’” Khandagji says. “She said that ‘There is no abuse and we are performing our role as required.’” The response was the same from Ministry of Social Development spokesman Fawaz Ratroot. “Some from the Higher Council said I was lying, that I was fabricating things, that there was no real evidence, that I was ruining the reputation of Jordan and the special care sector. Instead of dealing with me as a serious person with a serious investigation, I was brushed off,” Khandagji says.

When Nahhas’ office was contacted for this story, a request for an interview was declined.

When the BBC report aired, viewers around the world were aghast at the treatment, while Jordanians were furious that such abuse and neglect could be occurring here. The two main entities involved in disability issues in Jordan, the Higher Council and the Ministry of Social Development, could no longer maintain their denials.

While the Higher Council had successfully produced legislation and recommendations in a number of key areas, including special care homes, the council has no means to enforce its own policies, either with the special care homes or with government ministries. Lara Yassin, another official at the Higher Council, says, “We do not have any legal enforcement mechanism that says violators must deal with lawyer X or judge Y. When we get a complaint, we go through the channels that exist for us to address that complaint.” Those channels are limited to issuing reports on centers and sending the information on to the Ministry of Social Development.

Samir Ramadan, the Higher Council official who works directly with rural special care centers, described the difficulties getting the centers to abide by all of the regulations meticulously developed by the council. Without the means to enforce, Ramadan admitted, the council had to lower its standards. “While we understand our roles and responsibilities,” Ramadan says. “That is not always the case with the service providers operating the community rehabilitation centers. Sometimes we have had to loosen the requirements and make exceptions to the rules.”

The care centers have been just the most egregious of the problems. The lack of legal enforcement has meant that even though Jordan has clear regulations regarding disability access in newly constructed buildings, the rules aren’t applied. Money is not the obstacle; many, if not most, sidewalks in affluent neighborhoods are impassable for those in wheelchairs, while even high-budget building projects currently underway, some even part of government-funded programs, lack wheelchair access.

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While the investigative committee set up immediately after the BBC documentary scandal focused solely on care homes, a parallel and longer term committee was also formed to look at the more general issue of special care homes in Jordan, including those that serve other vulnerable groups.

Al Haris serves on this committee alongside Saida, and in her view the committee’s approach of stepping back to look at the wider picture has been critical. “Sometimes you have to think outside of the box,” Al Haris says. “Sometimes when you go out of the box and look at things comprehensively, you see things differently.” She says the committee is working to get the wide-ranging organizations, both in and out of the government, to work together better.

Saida makes the point more bluntly. “I don’t want coordination like ‘we sit and drink coffee together,’” he says. “If you want to change, change! This talk needs to be translated into real action.” For observers like Saida who are deeply invested in the reform process, what remains particularly frustrating is the lack of accountability at the highest levels of government.

Khandagji, who faced personal attacks from officials at the Higher Council and fierce denials from the Ministry of Social Development, agrees with Saida’s assessment. “There are no repercussions at the higher levels of these government bodies,” she says. “One day after the investigative committee assigned responsibility to the Higher Council and the Ministry of Social Development for the failures at the special care homes, Amal Nahhas, the secretary general of the Higher Council, had her contract renewed. How do you renew Amal Nahhas’ contract the day after the Higher Council was judged to be partially responsible for the abuse cases?”

Having stood resolutely at the center of the controversy since her investigation was first aired, Khandagji has no illusions that the solutions are easy or that rhetoric alone will solve the problem. “It is clear from the statements and actions of the royals that they wish to see serious reform of the special care sector,” says Khandagji. “The problem is that the people responsible for implementing change are not doing their jobs.”

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The U.S. Presidential Election: What it May, or May Not, Mean for the Middle East

Since I am using this blog as a portfolio of sorts for my writing, I am going to start posting the articles that I have had published for print magazines that do not feature their content online. As things stand, this consists of a whopping . . . two articles. This right here is my FIRST article EVER published, for Jordan’s very own Living Well magazine in the June 2012 issue (PDF version here). I was immensely proud of this petty achievement, though a bit miffed at the fact that my boss at the PR agency I was working for at the time insisted that I publish under a pseudonym (the agency has offices in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, both mentioned in the article in a negative fashion). So here it is, my analysis of the 2012 presidential contest and how it relates to the Middle East. Enjoy!

President Barack Obama

Governor Mitt Romney

As the United States struggles to find its way in the turbulent affairs of the Middle East, the prospect of either Democratic candidate Barack Obama or Republican challenger Mitt Romney altering America’s position in the region is remote. Despite some minor differences in diplomatic style, humanitarian rhetoric (or lack thereof), and tone towards Israel, neither candidate has much room to maneuver within the rigidly-maintained status quo of U.S. policy in the region.

The Israel Lobby

If one is to honestly discuss U.S. presidential politics, America’s “special” relationship with Israel must be given top priority. Despite the common perception in the Arab/Muslim world that Israel controls the U.S. political system as part of a global Jewish conspiracy, the less dramatic truth is that America’s political system has weaknesses that special interest groups are adept at exploiting. Specifically, groups that funnel cash to electoral contestants have outsized influence in the world of U.S. politics, and one such highly-effective group happens to be the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

A must-read for anyone interested in the role of the Israel’s powerful American backers in U.S. Middle East policy

Jewish groups like AIPAC are not the only ones advocating on Israel’s behalf; for reasons of their own, America’s politically active and vocal evangelical Christian population also supports Israeli lobbying efforts. This sect of Christianity believes that the growth of Israel as a Jewish state is a necessary pre-requisite for the onset of the Apocalypse, also known as the “End of Days.” Not only does this demographic believe in the biblical apocalyptic prophesy, they also believe that they can actively contribute to its fulfillment. As a result of these lobbying efforts by both Christians and Jews, American politicians have little flexibility when it comes to dealing with the Jewish state.

Furthermore, the Israel lobby has undue influence in the U.S. media, which continues to propagate the Israeli narrative that the country is constantly threatened by the Arab hordes at its borders. Although this narrative may have been relevant in the era of the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars, it is a bit harder to swallow now that Israel has two peace agreements – one with Jordan and the other with Egypt – as well as de facto peace agreements with the rest of the Arab world. However, rocket attacks from non-state actors in the Gaza Strip and South Lebanon allow Israel to continue playing the victim in the U.S. media, despite its status as the sole nuclear-armed, regional military hegemon.

While there are growing movements among both Jews and Christians in the U.S. to push Israel towards a fair two-state solution with the Palestinians, these movements have a long way to go before they match the political muscle of AIPAC and its ilk. It remains to be seen if they ever will. In the meantime, the U.S. government continues to use all carrot and no stick when dealing with the Israelis. With over three billion dollars a year in financial and military aid to Israel, there is simply not much more carrot the U.S. can offer. Without the threat of the stick (cutting military aid for example), Israel has no motivation to stop its settlement expansion in the West Bank or its siege of the Gaza Strip.

In addition to the enmity that America’s “special” friendship with Israel earns it in the Arab/Muslim world, the relationship has the potential to drag the U.S. into yet another military conflict in the region (read: with Iran). This possibility is especially likely in an election year, when President Obama will face strong political pressure from Republican candidate Mitt Romney to provide unconditional support in the event of an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Whether the Israelis will take such a military gamble, and whether Obama can politically afford to stay on the sidelines, is anybody’s guess.

Conceivably, a second-term American president could attempt to use more stick and less carrot when attempting to coax Israel to the table with the Palestinians. Freed from concern about another re-election campaign, President Obama could drag the Israelis to the table to negotiate a two-state solution in good faith. In this regard, an Obama presidential victory holds the ever-so faint possibility of Israeli-Palestinian peace that a Republican victory does not.

The Arab Spring

With regional protest and revolutionary movements reshaping the Middle East, an analysis of Obama and Romney’s positions on the Arab Spring is crucial. Like any other country, America’s first priority is its strategic interests. When its pursuit of strategic interests overlaps with its liberal values, the American government pats itself on the back as the global defender of freedom and justice. More often than not, such an overlap does not exist when it comes to U.S. policies in the Middle East. For instance, the U.S. supports the Saudi regime, which happens to be intolerant to minority religious groups, oppressive to women, and remains entirely undemocratic. Despite the fact that Saudi Arabia’s conservative, theocratic values are antithetical to American liberalism, the U.S. not only continues to buy Saudi oil, but also sells the autocratic state billions of dollars in military hardware. Unwilling to jeopardize its oil supply, the U.S. government turned a blind eye to the hard-line regime’s brutal crushing of Shi’a protests in Eastern Saudi Arabia in the spring of 2011.

Saudi troops roll into Bahrain to help crush its protest movement

Similarly in Bahrain, peaceful protests that began in February 2011 were harshly dealt with by the country’s monarchy, an ugly reality that was also ignored by President Obama. While the U.S. has strongly condemned the actions of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad at the UN Security Council, discussion of Bahrain has been largely absent. The presence of the U.S. Navy’s 5th fleet in Bahrain is undoubtedly a factor in this deafening silence.

Depending on the outcome of the presidential election, America’s relationships with the countries involved in the Arab Spring may change in some cases while remaining the same in others. Despite Obama’s lofty liberal rhetoric directed towards the peoples of the Middle East, he has proven himself to be a classic foreign-policy realist when it comes to action. In countries where the U.S. has strategic interests (Bahrain and Saudi Arabia for example), condemnation of regime brutality from Obama have been muted. In the case of Syria, where fighting in urban areas makes direct military intervention a non-option, Obama has chosen to pass the buck to other Arab countries interested in seeing the departure of Bashar al-Assad. When it comes to the supporting the Gulf state monarchies and chipping away at the Assad regime, it is unlikely that a President Romney would deviate from Obama’s realist agenda.

In other Arab countries, a Romney victory could affect the nature of several bi-lateral relationships. In contrast to Obama’s deep interest in engaging the region and all of the players involved, Romney will not have room to politically maneuver when it comes to the rising power of Islamists in several post-revolutionary governments. In Egypt and Tunisia, citizens have elected Islamist governments (with Libya potentially joining the Islamist ensemble). This trend is worrying for the Republican electorate, who tend to be weary of political Islam and the notion of Islamic Sharia law, whether it is in the U.S. or abroad.

Conservative Christians in the U.S. – an important part of the Republican party’s base  – see themselves as having shared religious ties with Christian minority populations in Arab countries and therefore perceive Islamist governments (fairly elected or not) as a threat to their co-religionists. In the case of a Romney victory, expect to see icy relations with the Islamist governments in general and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular.

Jordan-U.S. Relations

In the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, few believe that there will be much change following the U.S. presidential contest. With the election coming up in November, Jordanians interviewed for this article remarked that there was little coverage of the Republican nomination process in the local media. A rare exception was local and regional media coverage of former Republican candidate Newt Gingrich’s public denial of the existence of the Palestinians as a “people.” The remarks – incendiary in Jordan considering the country’s sizeable Palestinian population – momentarily spurred a surge in the already high negatives of the Republican Party.

Jordanians keen on following the race mainly turn to English-language news sources like the BBC and CNN to stay informed. For these election watchers, there was the perception of a clear distinction between the Democratic and Republican parties; one Jordanian positively described the Democrats as “more open-minded when it comes to international affairs, religion, acceptance of different cultures, and gays and lesbians.” Republicans were termed “arrogant” by another respondent when discussing their approach to international affairs.

Despite the stark contrast in Jordanians’ general views of Democrats and Republicans, respondents did not feel that an Obama victory would bring any more benefits to the region than a Romney victory. While some predicted that Obama would be more conciliatory towards the Palestinians in terms of public statements and tone, it is widely recognized that both parties face the same political realities. As one Jordanian professional put it, “It doesn’t matter who wins; the policy direction will stay the same.”

The Status Quo

While the U.S. government may be deeply involved in developments in the Middle East, the fact is that the American people themselves are not. The uprisings in Syria and Bahrain have captured the attention of the international media, but most Americans would not be able to explain who is pitted against whom in these conflicts, or even be able to locate these countries on a map. Political and military experts in the U.S. State Department and Pentagon are developing regional policies based on strategic interests, not on America’s liberal values. Occasionally domestic political forces – the Israel lobby being a prime example – disrupt careful planning by these experts.

Regardless of who wins the 2012 U.S. presidential election in November, America’s foreign policy in the region will carry on as before. The U.S. will pursue its interests, with reformers and revolutionaries only gaining America’s blessing if it suits these interests. American politicians will continue to tell voters that their country is a beacon of freedom and justice in the world, while those in the Middle East looking to the U.S. for leadership will shake their heads in puzzlement over America’s contrasting words and actions. As the prominent American journalist Henry Adams once said, “What you do speaks so loudly, I can’t hear what you’re saying.”

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