Smiling through our pain
What was that? How much?

Honesty and transparency needed at the top to build confidence

An economy that can serve the interests of all our people requires confidence. The necessary conditions for that economic confidence are both security and straight talk from those who are entrusted to protect our nation’s growth. That is why it is so damaging that no one called out the president or the prime minister for inflating Lebanon’s economic progress to the public and international community last month.

According to our Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s office, “estimated results” for last year’s economic growth have come to 5 percent and growth in the first quarter of this year increased by “leaps and bounds”. If that makes you think that one of his speechwriters has a substance abuse problem, you are not alone. No one — from the international financial institutions, to local academics, or even the humble journalists who monitor our economy — thinks growth last year exceeded 1.5 percent, not to mention those who believe the economy has been contracting since the third quarter of 2011.

Not to be outdone, at a United Nations conference last month President Michel Sleiman heralded the achievements of the agricultural sector, claiming it now makes up 6.5 percent of the economy while it had previously made up 5 percent. Of course, he neglected to mention that value added in the sector fell in 2010. There are no national accounts for 2011 and certainly not for 2012.

The relatively productive agriculture minister, Hussein Hajj Hassan, who flanked the president at the conference last month also trumpeted his ministry’s development platform for the sector, issued in 2009. A paper was issued in 2009 that contains a laundry list of issues facing the sector, followed by bullet points and badly drawn Microsoft Word Tables stuffed with the keywords governments love to use: “enhance” this, “develop” that, “reduce costs”, “create jobs”. Naturally, the only real targets in the document are those aimed at increasing staff (read: patronage) within the ministry. Since then none of the laws he proposed have passed parliament and the strategy ends next year anyway.

Instead of trumpeting overly rosy figures and touting their outstanding visions, perhaps some more humility would befit a political class that has not managed to have a census in more than 80 years, or even knows what the country’s gross domestic product, employment or inflation rates really are. The statistical, administrative and monitoring frameworks needed to accurately calculate these things are still some way off. In the meantime, there are real indicators that can be monitored in a much easier fashion to appraise the government.
Take, for instance, another half-nation of around five million hard-nosed people with limited government ability to make decisions: Scotland. In a surprisingly successful effort to reform government, the Scots have come up with a system that, on the surface, reads very much like the agriculture ministry’s ‘strategy’. Their ‘National Performance Framework’ starts with a purpose (basically ‘increasing sustainable economic growth’), drills down into five purposes of equally loose language: ‘safer & stronger’, ‘healthier’, ‘smarter’, ‘greener’, ‘wealthier & fairer’. Each category then has indicators (such as improved levels of educational attainment) and measurement criteria (such as gaps in student performance between Scotland and countries from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), with progress reports posted online and updated regularly. The government doesn’t meet all of its targets, in fact they maintain the status quo much of the time, but people believe them when they succeed and listen to them when they explain why they fail. This approach to governance was a contributing factor to ruling Scottish National Party winning an outright majority in 2011 in an electoral system that was designed not to allow that to happen.

Lebanese politicians should take heed: honesty and transparency in governance builds confidence — from international institutions and partners, from the business community, and from those who are supposed to be paramount in all this, the Lebanese. When our economy is suffering, smiling to us and telling us everything is fine will not make it easier to pay rent or get a decent job. Rather, what is needed is an honest appraisal of where things are failing and what is lacking — at least then we will know where to begin to fix things.

First published in Executive Magazine’s November 2012 print 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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