How politicians stymie Lebanon

Leaders trade horses, kill reform and cripple the country

By Sami Halabi

Policy is a mask Lebanon's politicans wear well

There’s a popular quip that speakers love to use at press conferences in Lebanon. An orator will typically begin by chastising the government for its lack of efficiency, then point to the several hundred railway workers the government employs despite there being no rail network in the country since the 1970s.

While Lebanon’s pontificators may disagree on the exact number of railway employees (estimates range between 200 and 900), the fact that this situation has been allowed to perpetuate is emblematic of the nonchalance of the country’s politicians when it comes to implementing reform.

Lebanon’s latest political debacle renders the lethargy of the country’s public figures ever more palpable.

The divvying up of cabinet seats in Lebanon has always been a game for the numerous political and commercial interests of international players, who kick Lebanon around the proverbial stadium until they get what they deem is rightfully theirs. Whichever unlucky soul is assigned the task of balancing these interests ends up in the firing line and the debate over who should get what duly turns into a political crisis.

Cabinets come and go, but no one seems to ask the obvious question of why politicians actually deserve to have control over basic public services, besides having curried favor with one of the powerful political parties in the country.

The current political quandary facing Lebanon is no different. But this crisis could be resolved if the politicians were willing to address the issues that will build the foundations of a functioning state instead of a banana republic.

Instead of being interested in Israeli microwave signals providing the Lebanese public with much-needed Internet capacity, the next prime minister could steer the debate over the next telecom minister toward the creation of the non-existent and legally mandated company, Liban Telecom, that will begin to reform the sector. If, as stated, telecommunications privatization is the ultimate goal of the ruling coalition, a plan contrary to the one proposed by the current minister needs to be articulated. That may be a wiser course of action than to nominate a candidate for the post whose party has come out against privatization of the sector.

Given the lack of political interest in reform, it is not surprising that there is also little debate over who will be burdened with becoming the next energy minister — in charge of the state-run electricity company that continues to drain the government’s coffers year after year.

Instead of pawning this ministry off, the next minister could be nominated on the basis of implementing a law that would facilitate offshore oil and gas exploration at a time when energy companies are licking their chops in anticipation of a bidding round. That may be a good option, considering that Israel has already found a large deposit of natural gas off its northern coastline next to the Lebanese border. Implementing the electricity law that would create an independent regulatory authority would also be a good first step.

Perhaps the 28 percent of the country’s population that lives under the poverty line would appreciate it if the next minister of social affairs spearheaded a plan to allow microfinance organizations to practice financial intermediation and increase their outreach. That might be a better alternative to politicians giving the poor handouts come election time, then ignoring them for four years until the next time their votes are needed.

The gridlocked commuters on Beirut’s crowded streets may find it useful if their roads were widened through a policy to create more parking in the city. The post of transport minister could be awarded to a nominee based on a solid plan to decrease congestion, instead of wasting government funds on traffic lights in areas where they are unnecessary and redundant, given that there is often also a police officer directing traffic instead of fining drivers for running red lights.

Another way to start may be by opening up the unused Charles Helou parking lot that has stood eerily vacant for years to alleviate the parking problem around the Gemayze district. Perhaps the next minister could also have a degree in civil engineering or urban planning instead of physics. Getting rid of those railway workers might help as well.

It is natural that after a civil war as devastating as Lebanon’s the country needed time to put the pieces together. But after almost two decades there is no excuse for the current state of affairs, let alone a cabinet that is disinterested in implementing reforms. Unless the next cabinet has a real intention to truly begin working on reforming the public sector, there seems little point in appointing them in the first place since their presence will be just as relevant as their absence.

First published in Executive Magazine’s October 2009 issue


Author: Sami Halabi

Sami Halabi is a policy consultant who covers a range of policy issues and analyses development programmes, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. Sami specialises in analysing policies and programmes in order to provide evidence-based recommendations to policy-makers and international development agencies. Sami holds a Master of Public Policy with Distinction from The University of Edinburgh.

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