Half Baked: Reform & Resentment in the Kingdom of Jordan

[22-02-2014 10:55 AM]

Ammon News - By Jose Ciro Martinez

In Part I of this series, Jose Ciro Martinez examined the history of the Jordan’s bread subsidy and its political import. Martinez looks at how reforming the bread subsidy program may affect the country’s future stability.

The Specter of Reform is Haunting Jordan
Numerous signs point to the Jordanian government’s intention to alter the flour subsidy. How and when it will do so remain a carefully guarded mystery. Opposition figures have reported that the Ministry of Industry and Trade has already tendered contracts for the creation, distribution, and allocation of electronic “smarts cards” to be used by Jordanian consumers to purchase bread. Government spokesmen seem to surface weekly to ensure citizens that, in case reform is enacted, direct cash subsidies will be given to avoid potential difficulties.

Despite government guarantees, an array of bakers across the country have been incredulous, perplexed at how the government intends to organize the implementation of electronic technologies in all of Jordan’s bakeries or distribute smart cards linked to scarce bank machines in impoverished rural areas. Consumer protection organizations are also skeptical of the proposed reform, and have called for the formation of special committees to study the subject more scrupulously.

The administrative body of the Bakery Owners Association (BOA) has threatened to resign if authorities impose a smart card system rather than provide direct cash subsidies to offset the difference between the bread’s subsidized price of 16 qirsh per kilogram and the expected free-market price of 38 qirsh per kilogram.

Under the current reform proposal for the flour subsidy, state authorities would reimburse all citizens through an electronic smart card mechanism that would permit recipients to withdraw cash from ATMs across the country. Ministerial spokespersons have, however, repeatedly emphasized that all options are still on the table. Potential popular unrest has made the government unwilling to its hand. In the past, the elimination of key subsidies has aggravated the conditions of already vulnerable sectors in the country. The tenuous nature of employment and low levels of household savings mean that a sizeable amount of Jordanians live close to the poverty line; sudden shocks in the price of basic goods can result in a disproportionate increase in the number of working and rural poor.

In relaying their skepticism, many middle and working-class consumers appear quite conscious of the patently unequal outcomes of previous efficiency-seeking programs promoted by international donors and organizations.

Although government-led reforms may seek economic efficiency, they could harm sectors of society most dependent on state assistance. In addition, they may offend those who see the bread subsidy as a defensive bulwark against starvation, as well as a challenged to the greed and callousness often unleashed by the free market.

The Bakery as Public Space
On a recent Friday morning, Engineer Khaled al-Hamawi, the Vice General Manager and Director of Sales of Al-Rāya Bakery in one of Amman’s predominantly working-class neighborhoods, Sweileh, expressed his frustrations with the government’s proposed smart card plan:

I myself, a part-owner of three bakeries, qualified for government support following the fuel subsidy cut. I did not accept the cash assistance but this offers further evidence of the government’s inability to properly gauge those most in need of the smart card. The government statistics which will be used for the implementation of the smart card are problematic if not blatantly incorrect. The government did not consult the Bakers’ Union or any bakery owners when putting together the numbers.

Al-Hamawi criticizes both the technocratic and autocratic elements of potential reform efforts, but he is neither angry nor livid, merely frustrated that what he considers essential subsidy reform efforts have been bungled by uninformed technocrats and their private sector cheerleaders:
Of course there are those who collude with government employees to sell discounted flour on the black market but most of us, especially the neighborhood bakery owners with smaller operations than my own, seek neither exorbitant profits nor undue rewards.

Consistency from the government is crucial for al-Hamawi, especially following the Syrian refugee influx, which has almost doubled his production:
We want to awake with the certainty that this week’s government subsidized flour will be delivered and that we may dispense the most crucial staple in the Jordanian diet to those who grace us with their custom.

Undoubtedly, the bakery remains a place of business. Yet in many cases it functions as an alternative, semi-public space in which the rules of the dominant capitalist economy are briefly suspended. The aspiration of numerous bakers I have interviewed and the reality for lower and working classes is that the bakery can and often does act as a space free from the dictatorship of the market, the tyranny of the commodity, and the inequalities of capitalist wealth distribution.
Al-Hamawi remarks:

Residents of Amman may be able to deal with the reform. We have access to various retail and wholesale food outlets. What I worry about most are rural areas and the smaller towns: poor families often will have bread in all three of their daily meals and will have little variety to choose from in terms of retailers, giving ample room for unwarranted price gauging.

The proposed program sounds to many like the fantasy of a group of tech gurus ignorant of Jordanian realities. “Most bakeries are low-tech operations,” al-Hamawi observes. “The business involves heavy cash flows on a daily basis in addition to split-second decisions regarding wheat and flour purchases.”

If and when implemented, the smart card program would be problematic on many fronts. BOA’s administrative body worries not only about its members’ bottom line but also the many difficulties facing consumers. “What about bakers without bank accounts or rural families with no access or time to visit their closest bank?” inquires BOA’s Director of Sales, Abdul Ilah Hamawi. I asked al-Hamawi whether he thinks the government will go through with the proposed subsidy reforms. He replied:

I do not think so. Those at the top know well that bread is a red line. Lower-level officials enamored with high-tech ideas like the smart card may get the chance to carry out studies. But at the end of the day, the government will prove its sensitivity to the basic needs of the citizenry, a just government would not deprive its people of al-‘aīsh.

Jordan’s Moral Economy
Bread’s centrality to Jordanian life makes its political salience not only potent but also inescapable. The ongoing debate over flour subsidies in Jordan demonstrates that bread and its ready availability are a central part of Jordan’s “moral economy.” The assumed relationship between economic hardship and social protest is more tenuous and contingent than previously thought. The crucial link between the two may be found in the far less quantifiable concept of the moral economy.

Shaped by the interplay of predominant cultural mores and economic activity, and structured by previous social pacts between the government and its citizens, the moral economy is what James Scott describes as the subaltern classes’ “notion of economic justice and their working definition of exploitation.” [i] Protests may occur if severe economic hardships are believed to be the result of public policies that betray moral economies. Bread’s ubiquity, as well as its connections to governmental legitimacy and individual subsistence, may fuel anger, resentment, and a sense of injustice grounded in the collective consciousness of Jordanians in ways that other policies may not.

In the contentious case of flour subsidy reform, Jordanian analysts have described governmental efforts aimed at altering the bread subsidy as a waste of time, or worse, a colossal mistake. They claim the political and socio-economic importance of bread goes far beyond the approximately 265 million dinars currently spent by the government, or the paltry 78 million dinars that may be saved from re-allocating public funds. The government is stuck between a rock and a hard place, cognizant of the importance of IMF sanction but reticent to enact an austerity program that will have clear distributional implications.

The Editor-in-Chief of the Jordanian daily Al-Ghad, Jumanah Ghneimat, makes the stakes clear: “The government of Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour will enter history through its widest doors,” if it pursues the hike in flour prices. “If bread is no longer considered a red line,” she claims, “no lines will remain, neither red nor green nor any other.”

If the recent events deemed as the ‘Arab Spring’ have proven anything, it is that bare sustenance does not ensure acquiescence. The desire for freedoms, rights and dignity are by no means a Western monopoly. Clearly, human beings do not live on bread alone but the ubiquity of what some term al-‘aīsh, means that reforms that affect its preparation, provision, and purchase could disrupt fundamental pillars of the social contract between state and society in Jordan.

When coupled with widespread anger at ongoing corruption, government inefficiency, and repression, amidst the vagaries of a broader autocratic system, flour subsidy reform represents a possible recipe for combustion.

For the moment, the Kingdom’s inhabitants are kindly requesting their daily bread. Nevertheless, we must wonder, if the government dares cross the last “red line” in its social contract, will the popular classes be ready and willing to forgive those who so readily trespass against them.


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