By Sami Halabi
Up close Lebanon’s energy overhaul looks like a boon for the sector; but in the distance an uglier reality awaits
Promoting one’s own vested interests has always been the mantra of Lebanese policy makers, and we’ve become accustomed to seeing them endlessly tie up progress until they come to an agreement on how to divvy up the spoils. So alarm bells ring when our so-called leaders finally agree on something.
On the surface the announcement that our cabinet agreed to Energy Minister Gebran Bassil’s 5-year electricity plan looks like a step toward reform. Ostensibly, the plan aims to end the country’s chronic blackouts and relieve the sector’s deficit burden from the government, which amounted to $1.5 billion last year.
But it is likely intended to preserve the minsters’ own interests — such as reinforcing the pillars of the sectarian system through which they secure their influence — before it serves the needs of the people.
What needs to be done is obvious. In production, transmission and generation the sector needs a complete overhaul, and there needs to be a purging of the political patronage systems endemic at Électricité du Liban, Lebanon’s state-owned electricity provider. To his credit, Bassil’s plan addresses these elements in detail and proposes fixes that, according to most experts, could alleviate our short-circuited sector. But before we start to borrow and spend $4.8 billion, we should ask ourselves if this time we do it by the book, or ‘a la Libanaise’.
The convoluted and dysfunctional process by which decisions in the electricity sector are currently made — or more accurately, not made — between the cabinet, the ministry and parliament, is not going to produce decisions that are free from political and sectarian influence.
For all the positive elements of Bassil’s plan, he is advocating against setting up a regulatory body to oversee the overhaul of the system until many of the changes have been implemented. Without the proper checks and balances we risk repeating the same type of ‘sector suicide’ we experienced with telecommunications, which now plagues our economic competitiveness and makes us the laughing stock of the regional telecom industry.
Allowing government to regulate the sector cannot continue, and yet the cabinet has approved the plan in question, provided that it also has the authority to oversee it.
Aside from the opaque manner in which public borrowing and spending of $2.5 billion to reform electricity is being carried out, if the cabinet is allowed to chaperone implementation, the other $2.3 billion being requested from the private sector will also likely be farmed out to sectarian interests, effectively slicing up our electrical pie. Without conflict of interest legislation and a truly independent regulatory body (not one that is also appointed through sectarian patronage,) the provisioning of electrical production and distribution will be subject to the same nepotistic tendering and distribution of power that typifies our existing institutions.
What’s more, if the practice of local distribution is adopted without ensuring that regional leaders do not monopolize the provisioning of electricity to local populations, there will be nothing to stop them from subjugating the people through greater dependency on them for basic services.
Some have suggested that sectarian loyalties are the only way to guarantee customers actually pay their power bill, but if the cost of tariff collection is strengthening an institution that tore this country to shreds and continues to stunt its potential, then I would personally prefer to live in the dark.
With new legislation covering public-private partnerships (PPP) now making the rounds to include the private sector in electrical reform, we have the opportunity to start protecting our economy from conflicts of interest, not just the “principles of transparency and equality among participants,” as the new PPP draft is proposing.
If we are to take the long strides we need to in order to solve our structural problems, such as electricity, once and for all, we cannot do so while ignoring what produced our predicament in the first place — unless of course we want to protect the candle-makers.
A similar version of this article was published in Executive Magazine’s August 2010 issue