2017-10-26

Refugees and bread subsidy

By: Daoud Kuttab

The economic difficulties Jordan is facing forced officials to consider removing financial subsidies that made the regular white pita (flat round unleavened bread) available at a very low cost.
 
A government study proposed raising the current price of bread by 100 per cent, making one kilo of bread cost JD.32 ($.45) instead of the current JD.16
 
The move to remove the subsidy is being proposed without any serious discussion in parliament, within civil society, political parties, unions or in the state-owned media.
 
Some discussion is seeping through, but for the most part, it is focused on the issue of trust.
 
Jordanians are worried that the government will not provide the promised cash infusion to the needy and that it will not sustain this support, and that it will gradually opt out of any cash aid once the wave of protests end.
 
Some recall bread riots in the south as an example of how the public looks at this critical commodity in a special way.
 
This discussion in the shadow is reminiscent of the debates that occurred when the government of Abdullah Ensour removed energy subsidies.
 
At the time, an eloquent prime minister drove home effectively the concept that users of subsidised electricity are wealthy Jordanians and foreigners who kept the lights and air conditioners on in their villas around the clock because electricity was so inexpensive.
 
No such argument can be made now; wealthy Jordanians and foreigners are not major consumers of bread. Instead, Prime Minister Hani Mulki correctly revealed that those affected by the cancellation of the bread subsidy will be non-Jordanian citizens and refugees.
 
Non-Jordanians in this context refers mostly to Palestinians and others who have been living in the Kingdom for years and who are not citizens.
 
The largest group in this category are Gazans who came to Jordan after the 1948 and 1967 wars, but have never been naturalised. It is estimated that they number nearly a quarter of a million.
 
At the time of the removal of the energy subsidy, the Ensour government included Gazans among Jordanian citizens, thus qualifying for alternative cash subsidy.
 
Will the Mulki government treat the same this group that has often suffered discrimination when it came to jobs and other benefits that are given to Jordanians, even though most were born in Jordan and know no other country?
 
Others affected are migrant labourers, children of Jordanian mothers married to foreigners and, of course, the nearly 3 million Syrian and Iraqi refugees that had no choice but to escape the civil wars in their countries.
 
Jordan has been extremely generous to refugees, providing UNHCR with land for housing, facilitating humanitarian support and giving them access to free education.
 
Their presence has greatly affected infrastructure, services and wealth, especially the meagre Jordanian water supply.
 
Naturally, international governments and foundations chipped in with support through various international agencies and through the Jordanian government.
 
Jordan’s generosity to the refugees has been appreciated by them and for the most part, they have not caused any major social problem nor have they stirred strife.
 
Crime stemming from refugee communities is almost negligible and despite worries about major social upheavals, their relation with Jordanians has been positive.
 
Why would Jordan now ruin all this in order to save a small amount of money to the national Treasury to cover the budget imbalance?

A more logical approach would be to seek international support to cover the cost of this subsidy that is consumed by refugees, rather than remove it and cause social differences between poor Syrians and poor Jordanians.
 
The issue of bread subsidy has often been called a red line. And while Jordan’s financial situation is challenging, resorting to bread subsidy will produce negative response from Jordanians who do not trust that those in need will be compensated, and will leave refugees having to dole out more money for a basic commodity such as bread.
 
Jordanian officials repeatedly insist that the move is not dictated by the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank, which make recommendations but do not impose them on countries.
 
If the bread subsidy is one of those recommendations, then serious discussion must take place with the international community on how to ensure that the vulnerable people living in Jordan, whether citizens or refugees, will not be hurt by this action.

* A Palestinian columnist based in Amman, Jordan. - dkuttab@ammannet.net