Mahmoud Abbas and Barack Obama

By Steve Peacock

The Obama administration is announcing that the U.S. must help the Palestinian Authority learn to enact laws competently and create good policies governing public services.

Although it has not yet revealed the estimated cost of the new initiative, known as the “Effective Governance Program,” the U.S. Agency for International Development intends to hire a contractor to advise the PA on how to improve its public institutions and to thereby better serve its people.

This initiative is the latest of several distinct, yet intertwined, programs that the USAID Mission to West Bank & Gaza launched in the past year – adding to a $3.5 billion portfolio of initiatives that the agency has financed since 1995.

One of USAID’s primary goals in the new venture is to enable the PA to “develop policies and legislation in a more transparent, participatory, and accountable manner,” according to Request for Proposals #294-12-000009.

The project, likewise, hopes to contribute to the attainment of “a sovereign, independent, viable, democratic and contiguous Palestinian state, living side by side in peace and security with Israel,” the document said.

A simultaneous goal is to improve how Palestinian women are treated, particularly in governmental employment.

Equal rights provisions of the Palestinian National Plan 2011-2013 – measures that arguably appear to stand in contrast to the codified treatment of women under Islamic law and tradition – are included in the RFP package to guide contractor efforts.

The national plan had called for a comprehensive review of existing laws and a subsequent legislative amendment process, ultimately codifying equal treatment of women under PA law.

USAID briefly mentioned in the RFP that within each Palestinian government ministry already exists what it referred to as “Gender Units.”

The purpose of these entities – on whose scope and size USAID did not elaborate – is to “integrate gender into the ministries’ planning and implementation” processes.

The agency acknowledged, however, that, “Hiring and wage practices in the [PA] civil service continue to discriminate against women.” The new project, therefore, will attempt to institute relevant corrective measures within PA policy.

A corresponding need to build up ethics and anti-corruption watchdogs within and outside of the Palestinian Authority was identified in the RFP.

Building the capacity of “independent and semi-independent institutions” responsible for fulfilling those watchdog functions would be among the many responsibilities of the selected contractor.

Such oversight would target the executive branch as well as the Palestinian Legislative Council.

The contractor would assist, for example, the Palestinian State Audit and Administrative Control Bureau in “effectively auditing executive branch institutions and recommending corrective actions to the PLC and the president’s office.”

Contractor interventions also would try to heighten the “performance of watchdog activities by non-governmental organizations,” leading to a corresponding “increase in accountability and transparency on the part of the PA.”

One of the top goals of the USAID program is helping the PA to improve its lawmaking process. Currently the process is dominated by various ministries sending contradictory or confusing bills directly to the Palestinian president to sign.

The PLC previously had reviewed and passed or rejected such proposed laws. However, it is not now functioning due to internal political squabbles, the RFP said.

The absence of checks and balances within the PA has led to an imbalance of power residing in the hands of the executive branch, according to USAID.

The next crop of PLC members almost certainly will be new to the institution and to the legislative process, the RFP pointed out. The contractor, therefore, would be tasked with making recommendations to upgrade the PA lawmaking system as well as to train new lawmakers.

“Most of these members will have little or no previous legislative experience or experience as an elected representative in a public institution,” the RFP said

“As a result, a comprehensive program of orientation and experiential training will be needed to ensure that these new PLC members are exposed to the necessary information, knowledge, and skills to enable them to be effective legislators and representatives.”

Increasing the Palestinian people’s access to government “information, documents and records” is a necessary step toward increasing “public interest and participation in the legislative process,” according to USAID

Additional contractor interventions, therefore, would be needed to encourage wider dissemination of legislative records as well to expand media coverage of PA legislative activities, it said

The agency acknowledged that obstacles stand in the way of instituting “fairness” into the Palestinian political system, but emphasized, “There appears to be a genuine commitment to reform from the PA leadership and cabinet.”

USAID is soliciting proposals from vendors through June 11.

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