Hala Lattouf: Jordan’s minister of social development

18 November 2010

Responsible for helping the country’s poor, Hala Lattouf has a high profile in Jordan’s government as it strives to modernise the country on limited resources

In the years since she was appointed Jordan’s minister of social development in November 2007, Hala Lattouf has become known for the passion and enthusiasm that she brings to her work, for her engaging and unassuming personality and for her determination and drive to do everything within her power to help the country’s poor and disadvantaged.

Career history

  • Minister of social development
  • Director of the Office of Her Majesty Queen Rania al-Abdullah
  • Executive director for World Links Arab Region
  • Advisor to the deputy prime minister for Government Performance
  • Secretary general to the ministry of administrative development
  • Secretary general to the ministry of planning and international cooperation
  • Deputy governor of Jordan to the World Bank.

Educated at the University of Jordan and the London School of Economics in the UK, Lattouf has gone on to hold a variety of government roles. Immediately prior to her appointment as minister, she was director of the Office of Her Majesty Queen Rania al-Abdullah and before that adviser to the deputy prime minister on government performance, secretary general to the minister of administrative development and secretary general to the minister of planning and international cooperation. But her experience is not limited to public office. She has also worked for the UN Development Programme and was executive director for the Arab region of World Links, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) founded by former World Bank president James Wolfensohn.

Strain on finances

Social development is a critical part of the government’s work. Compared with Jordan’s oil-rich neighbours, the kingdom’s paucity of natural resources and reliance on costly energy imports puts a strain on public finances. Struggling to make ends meet, the government has become dependent on overseas aid, remittances and foreign direct investment.

“We like to call ourselves the human ministry. People welcome us into their homes”

Hala Lattouf

The stalling of economic growth across much of the globe in 2008-09 has made things all the more difficult. Despite being relatively insulated from the direct effects of the financial crisis, owing to the conservatism of its banking sector, Jordan’s gross domestic product growth has faltered. International sources of income have become harder to come by, making the government’s efforts to subsidise the living costs of its less prosperous citizens a challenge.

This has piled more pressure on the social development ministry to help ensure that the poor are not left behind. Between 1992 and 2008, the proportion of those living on less than a dollar a day fell from 6.6 per cent of the population to less than 1 per cent. But the proportion of those living in poverty, defined by the World Bank as less than $448 per person a year, has been harder to bring reduce. In 2008, it was still 13.3 per cent, down only slightly from 14.2 per cent in 2002 and up from 13 per cent in 2007.

The social development ministry has a high-profile role in helping to tackle such problems.

“The role of the ministry has strengthened and has grown in the past few years, which is due to the support of His Majesty King Abdullah for social issues, building on what his father started,” explains the minister. “His Majesty’s directives to the government have set the vision and the policy for the ministry, whether it be the prevention of poverty, provision of housing, protection of women and children or the development of civil society.”

Budget raised

King Abdullah’s political support has been matched by an increase in resources. In 2009, the ministry’s budget more than doubled to JD31m ($43.7m), up from JD15m the previous year and, although it fell to JD26m in 2010,
Lattouf still feels that the ministry’s work is regarded as a priority.

“This year has been a tough year, so the drop in funding was expected. Our decrease was less than other ministries, which shows that there is support for the ministry,” she says.

The central remit of Lattouf’s department is to tackle poverty and support the disadvantaged members of society. Several new programmes have been introduced, including those to help support the poor, the elderly and the mentally disabled, to provide shelters for victims of domestic violence and to help rehabilitate young offenders.

“We like to call ourselves the human ministry. We are very decentralised and people welcome us into their homes,” she says.

The ministry also has a programme to provide housing for the poor and another scheme involving using young volunteers to renovate houses for those who cannot afford to do it themselves. “I’m a big fan of volunteerism,” says Lattouf. “It helps young people and local communities to feel they are capable. We help them to help themselves.”

As head of the inter-departmental services committee, Lattouf is involved in a low-cost housing programme run by the public works ministry. Almost 6,000 houses have been built under the scheme, which offers properties to those most in need at half the market price, supported by deposit-free mortgages, interest rates discounted by 5 per cent and a repayment period extended from 20 to 30 years.

National assistance

The ministry’s second major remit is its support for the National Assistance Fund (NAF). The mainstay of the government’s welfare policy, the NAF does not fall officially within the ministry, but their roles overlap. The fund is chaired by Lattouf and it uses staff from the ministry. “The NAF is the basic social safety net for vulnerable groups,” says Lattouf. “With support from His Majesty, we have not only increased the NAF budget by about JD20m, but we’ve front-loaded the payments and we’ve increased the minimum payment, making it more responsive to people’s needs.”

The fund is expected to account for almost 15 per cent of the government’s total spending on subsidies and social services this year.

“It is our strategy to look at civil society as a fundamental partner […] they help us do our job”

Hala Lattouf

The combination of the ministry’s direct support for Jordan’s disadvantaged and that provided through the NAF has prevented the current economic downturn plunging an even greater proportion of the country’s population into poverty. According to figures from the ministry, without the assistance of the NAF, the current 13.3 per cent poverty rate would be 13.9 per cent. If all government assistance programmes were excluded, the rate would be 16.4 per cent, and, if energy subsidies were also taken out, it would rise to 21 per cent.

The third key role of Lattouf’s ministry is the development of civil society. Conscious that Jordan’s budget restraints mean that the government cannot meet all the social and welfare needs of its citizens alone, since the early days of her ministry Lattouf has been keen to engage the private and non-governmental sectors in helping to mould public policy.

“It is our strategy as a government to look at civil society as a fundamental partner in all the issues we are dealing with,” says the minister. “I consider them to be extensions of the ministries. They help us do our job. It’s that close partnership that helps us be much stronger.”

According to Lattouf, the ministry has approved 300 new NGOs in the past year, taking those approved by the ministry alone to more than 1,500 and the total to between 2,500 and 3,000. “The NGO sector employs well over 10,000 people and benefits an estimated 1.5m people,” says Lattouf. “Civil society in Jordan hires more people than the banking sector.”

The ministry has also established its own NGO fund, which Lattouf expects to start contributing significantly to the sector in 2011.

But the extent to which civil society is developing in Jordan is not without its critics. Human Rights Watch, an international NGO, remains sceptical of the government’s attitude towards civil groups in Jordan, claiming that its influence is too controlling. And NGO representatives within the country maintain that civil society is poorly developed and that, while the government might be moving in the right direction, it is doing so too slowly.

Lattouf argues otherwise. “Our constitution is very clear on the right of all Jordanians to form associations,” she says. “Freedom of association is one of the four basic liberties guaranteed in the Jordanian constitution and we treat it with full respect. Of the Arab countries we are one of the strongest in the number of NGOs and the amount of work that we do.”

Amendments to the associations law, which came into effect in September 2009, have proved particularly contentious. Human Rights Watch regards them as a smokescreen for the continued suppression of civil freedoms in Jordan, while the minister says they have gone a considerable way to lightening the bureaucratic load for NGOs operating in the kingdom. “It’s a progressive law that gives more freedom to the NGOs,” she says.

Numerous changes were made under the amendment. Several new forms of NGO have been created, including those run by a single person, or comprising between three and 20 members. The necessity for NGO board meetings to be approved by the government has been dropped, except in the case of constitutional changes. Even here, if the government does not respond within 60 days, the changes are automatically approved. The dissolution of NGOs can no longer be carried out by a single minister, but must submit to a cabinet decision and be preceded by two formal warnings. Approval for NGO funding proposals has been taken out of the hands of a single minister and placed in those of the cabinet. Again, if a decision is not made within 30 days, the proposal is automatically approved. “Setting standards for time makes us very efficient,” says Lattouf.

Legitimate funding

But restrictions on the source of NGO funding and the stipulation that they must not serve political or religious objectives remain. Overseas funding and political support are sensitive, not least because Jordan is concerned that, if it relaxed regulations, the country would be flooded with money in support of the Islamic Action Front, Jordan’s largest opposition party and part of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“We think foreign funding is very positive, but we don’t have the advanced financial systems to track funding like the US does,” says Lattouf. “We just want to make sure that it is used legitimately and that it is used for social issues, not personal, political or religious gain. We cannot have funding supporting any kind of political group or opinion. If you want to work in politics, you can form a party.”

This is not to say that NGOs in Jordan cannot promote general social and political aims. With her personal experience in working for similar organisations, Lattouf is keen to engage with NGOs and use her position to increase their influence in the country.

“If you want to work on political development issues such as human rights, or if you want to increase the participation of women in elections, you are more than welcome,” says Lattouf. “If NGOs want to lobby for changes in government policy that’s not a problem. On the contrary, I bring them in and I listen to their opinions whenever I do any law or regulation. We have to hear from them and that’s a very effective way to do it.”

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