September 25 2022 11:16 AM E-paper Subscribe Sign in My Account Sign out

Disempowering citizens: The economic inequity of Jordan’s anti-money laundering law

Ruba Saqr (Photo: Jordan News)
Ruba Saqr (Photo: Jordan News)
In 2020, the pandemic had little to do with killing my income as a home-based freelancer. From a macro lens, the loss of my income boils down to the laws and policies that do not translate well for the little man or woman.اضافة اعلان

This story is the story of a Jordanian woman with some entrepreneurial spirit who — because of inequitable laws and policies — can’t make a living any more.

My story showcases the inability of people at the top, in charge of broad economic policies, to imagine the impact of their inequitable laws on regular citizens. It also signifies Parliament’s failure to act as a true filter to government-proposed laws, with no real political will to gauge the day-to-day ramifications of such laws, before green-lighting them.

I would go so far as to say that the tradition of not running “social impact assessments,” risk studies, or even a simple SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) before passing sweeping economic laws in Jordan, is undoubtedly another reason I have not made a single dime since mid-2020.

Two laws have hampered my ability to earn a living as a home-based freelance creative. In this article, I am focusing on the one that had the earliest impact, i.e. the Anti-Money Laundering and Terrorism Financing Law. The other law, to be discussed in a separate article, has to do with ambiguous USAID-backed guidelines introduced in recent years to license “home-based businesses” (HBBs).

Created in 2006, with new amendments ratified by Parliament in 2015, the Anti-Money Laundering and Terrorism Financing Law had little-to-no impact on the finances of regular citizens, as per personal observation. But sometime in 2019 and at the worst possible timing (a mere few months from the pandemic), everything changed. My local bank’s clerk informed me that the Central Bank of Jordan (CBJ) had sent out directives stating customers were no longer allowed to receive money transfers from abroad, with the exception of expat family members (the exact timing of the directives is best documented at the CBJ, however the news trickled down to me in 2019).

This unforgiving amendment to local banking has impacted a large number of middle-class freelancers, especially those with clients in Dubai and Arab Gulf countries, among other places.

Personally, and as a freelance content creator working from home, my artwork had little demand in the local market. This pushed me to come up with a new strategy in 2016; find an alternative market abroad. I taught myself to build a website that showcased my portfolio to foreign businesses wishing to employ my creative and intellectual services. I even had my website on a UK-based server to help it rank higher in search results in Britain. One year later, my website started bringing me clients from Europe, who, up until 2018, were able to send me bank transfers with total ease.

This, more or less, sounds like a success story, celebrated in women-empowerment and creative-industry newsletters as a sign of individual resilience and creative problem solving. Instead, it is a story of crushing disappointment brought about by laws that escalate economic inequity, and a blatant disregard to the entrepreneurial spirit of the middle class.

This also brings us to the inevitable question: What does a law designed to prevent large businesses from evading millions of dinars in taxes through unlawful fraud, as well as the financing of terrorism by nefarious parties, have to do with a peaceful, stay-at-home, freelancing and upstanding citizen?

Exactly! Nefarious and peace-loving should not be beaten down with the same hammer. Anti-money laundering laws need to take into account the naïve and well-meaning financial transactions of ordinary people trying to make a living, at home and across continents. The economic ecosystem needs to honor citizens that have good intentions with laws that match their aspirations, encouraging them to think big beyond their limiting circumstances. Instead, what we have are laws that beat hardworking Jordanians down, impeding their ability to make an honest living while depriving them from their rightful access to opportunity.

As a hardworking middle-class woman, it is quite surreal seeing how I am being subjected to the same laws that scrutinize corrupt businesses with sizeable access to wealth and opportunity, while also being treated on an equal footing with terrorist-sponsoring organizations!

Economic equity means Jordanian citizens like myself — with their own health problems, daily challenges, and reasons to leave work in the formal market to become home-based — need to be treated with the support and dignity that enables them to be productive and functional without the paranoia of terrorism and tax-evasion looming overhead.

Economic equity also means that the fiscal laws, tax structures, punitive measures, and the people in leadership positions creating them, need to be perceptive and balanced enough to allow citizens to participate in the economy without experiencing any financial detriment or hardship.

Leadership, on the other hand, is about adapting laws that stem from international treaties, such as the Anti-Money Laundering and Terrorism Financing Law, to local contexts, with an eye towards offsetting any negative repercussions to the citizens of a small country like Jordan. Such laws, in their international version, are created to suit larger and more complex economies in countries like the United States that boast populations of well over 300 million people!

This said, is it not time we changed our ways to make room for true economic and social “empathy”? How about we start with embedding “socioeconomic impact assessments” into every process that results in legal frameworks, policies and general governing attitudes that impact people’s subsistence and livelihoods?

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