Reform slow in Palestinian Authority

New minister of social affairs targets corruption, inefficiency


RAMALLAH, West Bank -- On his first day as the Palestinian Authority's new minister of social affairs, Hassan Abu Libdeh arrived at the office early, eager to reform a ministry widely viewed as ineffective and corrupt.

Just how much work Abu Libdeh had in front of him became frustratingly clear when he discovered the ministry headquarters was locked. He waited more than two hours, until well after 9 a.m., before the first employee arrived to let him in. To enter his office, he had to break open the door.

His first act as minister that February day was to fax a handwritten note to all department heads, requiring ministry employees - many of whom had been wandering into work late in the morning or not at all - to be at their desks by 8 a.m.

In the eight months since, Abu Libdeh, a Cornell University-educated statistician, has continued coming to work early, pursuing an ambitious, if often lonely, quest to change the way the Palestinian Authority does business.

Nearly a year after the death of Yasser Arafat, there remains a wide gap between talk of reform within the Palestinian Authority and the authority's actions.

Palestinian Authority officials say there are many within the government who still are unwilling or afraid to repair a dysfunctional system that continues to reward relatives and friends of those at the top. And increasingly, guns are the currency of power and influence, not ideas for improving government.

For his part, Abu Libdeh, as head of both the social affairs and labor ministries, has fired phantom employees (who received a paycheck but had no job at the ministries), paid long-overdue benefits to needy Palestinian families and instilled in many of his staff the need to earn the respect of the people the Palestinian Authority has let down over the years.

"Now, I find people who are at work before me," he says.

Such transformations were the promise of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who pledged to usher in a new era of professionalism and competency in the Palestinian Authority. Under Arafat, many Palestinians grew to mistrust the organization because of its reputation for corruption and failure to provide basic services.

Some people who recognize the improvements made by reformers such as Abu Libdeh dismiss the changes as largely insignificant, a few scattered droplets in an ocean of chaos where ordinary Palestinians struggle to stay afloat.

Abu Libdeh disagrees.

While security and enforcing law and order are at the core of needed Palestinian reforms, the seemingly small changes in his own ministries, he says, are the keys to the authority's survival as it faces a serious political challenge by the Islamic militant group Hamas.

In legislative elections scheduled for January, Fatah, the party that dominates the Palestinian Authority, will square off against Hamas, which after years of waiting on the sidelines is demanding a share of political control.

Hamas, unlike Fatah, does not recognize Israel's right to exist. It promotes Islam rather than secularism as the basis for governing. It has so far fared well in local elections, often winning seats in communities where people have come to depend on Hamas-run kindergartens, schools, health clinics, libraries and youth clubs, services the Palestinian Authority has struggled to provide.

Abu Libdeh is scrambling to compete with Hamas in its own backyard, by delivering new welfare and work programs for Palestinians, the most convincing way to demonstrate the Palestinian Authority's new commitment.

"We don't want to live under the regime of Hamas," he said. "I'm working hard so there is enough credit for this Palestinian Authority to cash in with voters in the ballot boxes in January."

One of his flagship programs is a new welfare system called the Social Safety Network, designed to aid the most vulnerable Palestinians. The goal is to assist about 55,000 families in the West Bank and Gaza, providing benefits of about $50 to $250 a month based on family size and need, more than double the amount offered in the past.

In Hebron, where Fatah is expecting a tough political fight in the elections, the Ministry of Social Affairs is running a campaign to encourage Palestinians to apply for the new benefits.

On a recent morning at the social affairs office in Hebron, dozens of Palestinian men and women hiked up four flights of stairs to fill out applications.

One of the applicants was Haijar Joulani, a mother of six whose husband has been out of work for the past two years and whose young daughter is ill.

Sitting at a desk filling out paperwork, Joulani wept as she recounted years of financial hardship. She and her family have been surviving month to month, she said, begging for loans from family and friends, asking assistance from local charities and running up a tab at her local grocer.

Not once during her years of struggle did she consider seeking help from the Ministry of Social Affairs.

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