Interview with BBC World Service

BBC World Service interview and analysis on Lebanon PM resignation (Segment starts at 4:16).

 

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Take The Sect Out Of The Game

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There were some rather surreal weeks in Tripoli from 2002 to 2004. For one, the salad bowl-like municipal stadium at the entrance of the city was lit up, something which is as rare then as it is today. To boot, there were unusual numbers of large beefed up men seen walking around the popular spots in El Mina, many of whom looked foreign but still somehow Lebanese.

It was back then that the largely Australian-born Lebanese National Rugby League Team first set foot on its own soil to contest the Mediterranean Cup, unbeknownst to most of the country.

For three consecutive years, Lebanon won the cup by beating France, their former colonizer (never mind that the electricity went out in the middle of some of the tournament’s games). Recently, it happened again, Lebanon beat France 29-18 in what became the first World Cup win for our country.

It’s no doubt that many reading the news the next day did a double take, which is understandable. The French, after all, have a long history of Rugby while the Lebanese don’t—that was until the late 1990s when the 200,000 or so strong Lebanese diaspora of Sydney decided to start a history. By 2000, Lebanon’s national team, aptly named the Cedars, had qualified for its first World Cup. Shortly afterward the Rugby League European Federation dispatched a representative to lead the charge to develop the sport in the country. The spark was lit.

For over a decade and a half now, hundreds of players and coaches have been developing Rugby League (and its cousin Rugby Union) all over Lebanon. Now there’s a host of national teams, including a women’s team, The Junipers. The Army even had a team for a while.

Rugby League is probably one of the fastest growing sports in the country and, as we can all see now, the sport where Lebanon has been the most successful globally. Yet, the main reason the sport has not reached the levels of national acclaim it deserves is the same reason that everything else in the country fails to reach its full potential: Sectarianism.

When the sport was developing in the early 2000s, it faced an immediate problem: the lack of access to a field to practice and play Rugby. Right from the start, the task of finding a home for the Rugby League where people could watch, play, and learn the game was a challenge, to say the least. Everywhere players and teams went, sports clubs would refuse access to their fields even if they were offered their standard rates. The clubs wanted something more than money, they wanted Rugby League to be part of their game: one where every team has a color and a sect.

When I worked as a development officer for a short stint at the Lebanese Rugby League Federation, one of the largest football clubs in Beirut told me that if we agreed to start a team for their club, we could use the pitch as much as we liked at no cost. Naturally, the Federation and I refused.

From the start, Rugby League in Lebanon has been devoid of sectarianism. Instead, the sport developed out of universities and used their facilities to play (when they allowed it). For years the first home-grown Rugby League players in Lebanon played on rock-hard pebbly fields because suitable places were not to be found. Teams practiced on basketball courts and Beirut-based teams all spent countless hours travelling around the country to play each other when they all lived a stone’s throw away from each other.

Playing at the many ‘public’ municipal stadiums that litter the urban landscape was almost always out of the question (with the exception of Tripoli and Bhamdoun). Municipal stadiums across Lebanon remain shuttered to the public whose tax money built and maintains them. Most mayors who hold the keys seem more interested in their personal interest than the public’s, and this applies specifically to the Mayor and Municipality of Beirut.

If it ever suits their purpose, one day Lebanon’s politicians may allow its most successful team to play at the Camille Chamoun Sports City Stadium in southern Beirut, which cost the public some $100 million to build. Instead, politicians prefer to use the stadium when it suits them, similar to that telling and surreal moment in 2010 when they played football against each other and forbade the public from attending.

Many argue that Rugby cannot reach the masses precisely because it trickles down the class ladder from mostly private upper-class colleges and schools. But if things had gone the usual way sport does in Lebanon, Lebanese Rugby League would just be a different-shaped ball to kick around the political arena.

Little wonder then that the Ministry of Youth and Sports still provides no support to Rugby League and the Cedars. Instead, the government chooses to focus resources on sectarianized sports like football and basketball where Lebanon can only dream of qualifying, much less winning, at global tournaments.

The sight of our largely foreign-born national team defeating one of the most powerful squads in Rugby is probably the best illustration of the sectarian farce that sports has become in Lebanon. Perhaps that’s because the diaspora is really never a true reflection of the country; or better yet, because it’s the reflection of what the country could be.

Either way, the Cedars showed us what is possible when the Lebanese come together and take the sectarianism out of the game.

Sami Halabi is a former member of Lebanon’s National Rugby League team, The Cedars, and co-founder of Triangle, an organization which works to integrate policy, research and media.

N.B. There are two types of Rugby: Rugby League, which is played with 13 players and Rugby Union, which is played with 15 players.

First published in Beirut Today on November 8, 2017

 

Blaming Syrians for Lebanon’s Problems is Cowardly and Destructive

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Syrian workers in Beirut (Photo: Tariq Keblaoui)

Our foreign minister, our official representative to the world, demonstrated that racism has now become part of our national identity—Can anyone really blame him?

Populist policies have been continuously aiming at making Syrian refugees illegal residents, imposing illegal curfews on them, closing down their businesses, and releasing fake news reports which note 300,000 Syrian births per year.

Evidently, racism against Syrians is not a first of its own. Lebanon has endured decades of widespread individual and institutional discrimination against migrant domestic workers, which in itself is grounds for labelling our society as racist and xenophobic at its core.

Now that the conflict next door is beginning to wane, we see an opportunity to rid ourselves of our most recent ‘interlopers’. But the fact that Lebanese citizens feel entitled to blame their socioeconomic troubles on refugees is tongue-in-check cowardice—a matter that has evidently lead societies to self-sabotage.

First thing’s first, it is not the presence of Syrian refugees that is the root cause of Lebanon’s economic malaise. In efforts to ration their scapegoating attempts, many Lebanese point to a period of economic growth prior to the Syrian refugee crisis. Yet we all know full well that economic growth at that time did little for our personal welfare.

Growth in the Lebanese economy has long been funneled to sectors that do not produce job opportunities. In fact, before 2011, the economy produced six times fewer jobs than were needed every year, at just around 3,400 jobs each year. The jobs created were far from being high-paying and highly-productive even though the Lebanese need exactly that to cope with the rampant prices rises.

It is certainly undeniable that our country’s bizarre rules of economic gravity mean that prices go up, but never come down, even when the costs of production plummet. Beyond brandishing leaders as ‘thieves’ (and willingly voting for them), we fail to fully comprehend how our economy is structured in such a way that ordinary people never reap the benefits of any economic growth. The only real study into who and how sectors are owned in Lebanon was one completed in 2003. At the time, Lebanon was still seriously contemplating entering the World Trade Organization and needed to pass competition legislation to do so—something which never transpired.

This study– which the Ministry of Economy and Trade felt appropriate to publish with a caveat that it did not ‘endorse or validate’ its findings — shows that half the products sold in the Lebanese market comes from sectors where there is an oligopoly in place, or where only a few companies dominate the sector. For instance, the study found that 72 percent of farms in the country were controlled by 6 percent of farmers. The same applies for other products related to food production, like mineral water, pesticides, fuel and so on.

It’s no wonder that the ministry tried to wash its hands of the study’s findings.

Of course, a lot has changed since 2003, and a lot still hasn’t. Lebanon still imports around 80 percent of its goods, and only one lucky company has the right to import any one product—the exclusive agent. This system is as much a result of opportunistic importers as it is public policy (or lack thereof).

In effect, it means that there can be no competition between a product’s suppliers: The price of any one consumable good is set by one company with no incentive to provide the product at an affordable price.

Anti-trust or pro-competition legislation which prevents firms from colluding to fix prices inside sectors at relatively high levels to maximize their profits, otherwise known as a cartel, are still absent today. An economic system of cartels supported by policies and kickbacks that allow them to expand their power over the market is known as a kleptocracy, clearly defined as the “rule by thieves.” Naturally, any economic growth deepens and accelerates this process in such a system: Prices rise, wages don’t, normal people suffer, and the elite prosper. None of this had or has anything to do with Syrian refugees so far.

The Lebanese may even want to thank the Syrians for coming to their country. Lower consumer and investor confidence in the wake of the refugee influx slowed economic growth, which slowed the perpetuation of the vicious cycle of rising prices and falling wages. Billions of dollars in aid has come to Lebanon. And in fact, for every dollar of aid that has arrived, the Lebanese economy actually grew by 1.6 dollars, largely in cash and to sectors that were withering such as education, transport, and manufacturing.

The proliferation of the aid industry comes with its own problems, particularly the aid dependency which will become glaring once the humanitarians pack up and leave, probably to Syria. But to get an accurate reading of the real effect of the refugee influx on the economy, one would need to assess how refugees have affected the supply and demand of labor and capital. Those studies have been conducted and have not been published, something which is an open secret in the development industry. The reason behind such confidentiality is that these studies findings show that the net effect on jobs Lebanese worked in was next to zero. In other words, the Lebanese have not lost their jobs or livelihoods because Syrian refugees exploited them. What’s not surprising is that these studies have been buried by those same kleptocrats.

Consequently, instead of enacting legislation to correct the structural imbalances in the economy, our ruling class have been busy figuring out how to raise indirect taxes on ordinary people to fund their patronage system, otherwise known as public sector employment. Indirect taxes, such as Value Added Tax, are simple to collect but they impose a heavy burden on poorer people in the country, because everyone pays the same amount of tax no matter how much they make. Thus, the share of a rich person’s tax burden is much lower than that of a poor person. Instead of indirect taxes, the government could impose higher direct taxes on higher-income earners, thus redistributing income and wealth in the economy. Instead, firms are raising prices in anticipation of new taxes. Again: Prices rise, wages don’t, normal people suffer and the elite prosper.

The real reason mainstream Lebanese citizens are suffering is not because of a poor refugee living in a tent, it’s actually a concept called elite capture, or when ‘resources transferred for the benefit of the masses are usurped by a few, usually politically and/or economically powerful groups, at the expense of the less economically and/or politically influential groups.’ By controlling economic and political power, the elites conserve their status and deflect all blame onto the weakest segments of society who have little ability to defend themselves. Sounds familiar? It should: Donald Trump does so with immigrants in the United States, the Burmese Junta does it to the Rohingyar in Myanmar and we (and most notably our foreign minister) do it to Syrian refugees in Lebanon.  The real problem with scapegoating is that it allows the status quo to persist.

The result of avoiding the root cause of a problem is inevitably that it festers. If that continues to happen, Lebanon will succumb to more income and wealth inequality that eventually manifests into the kind of social upheaval our region has been going through since the Arab uprisings.

In all honesty, what we Lebanese really fear is really just another explosive class war. Our last civil war was as much about class as it was about anything else. If we are to have another, it will have very little to do with refugees.

First published by Beirut Today on October 27, 2017

Social entrepreneurship needs a culture change

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It should come as little surprise that social entrepreneurs across the Middle East and North Africa have become rather lackadaisical over the state their sector — and with good reason.

Much like a teenager who has come of age, the mindset change required for the sector to enter the next stage of its life has presented itself: if social enterprises are to alter the socio-economic status quo, they will need to get beyond the hype, enter the halls of government, the meeting rooms of investors, and prove that they are mature enough to produce social change.

For starters, there is a need to take stock of what has taken place.

Blurred lines: NGO or business?

Ten years ago, no one in the region spoke of social enterprises, at least not in the way they do now. Today support ecosystems in place; home-grown businesses focused on social change and income generation are budding across the region.

Throughout this process, development has also come with an identity crisis: it is telling that the enterprises which have garnered the most success are also those who are least enthusiastic about the concept of ‘social enterprises’.

Indeed, the lines between social enterprises, traditional enterprises and NGOs have become so blurry that 30 percent of enterprises and support organizations we spoke to during our last piece of research on social enterprise development don’t believe the term ‘social enterprise’ describes their business — some even refuse to accept the concept exists. Its likely not incidental that those same enterprises are those which have proven the most successful and, by and large, contain a tech component as part of their core business model.

Often keen to play father figure, governments in the region have not stepped in to provide guidance. Indeed, without a clear regulatory framework to govern social enterprises separately from traditional business or NGOs, the distinction between them remains abstract.

For entrepreneurs who have to contend with the region’s decrepit regulatory regimes, their balance sheet shows no material difference between an enterprise and a ‘social’ enterprise.

The same is true for entrepreneurs who choose the NGO-model: if enterprises are not profit oriented, they can hardly be classified as enterprises to begin with. Creating a legal space for social enterprises won’t necessarily resolve the issue either.

Big brother’s tool

When the hype around the social benefits of cooperative business models began to take hold decades ago, governments in the region created a separate regulatory regime for cooperatives.

Almost immediately, political parties saw an opening, began to abuse cooperatives to dodge taxes and funnelled money towards their constituents.

Today, with some exceptions, cooperatives in the region are largely ineffective at best, and tools for patronage at worst.

So while introducing a legal regime for social enterprises would provide clarity, confidence and incentivise the social enterprise sector, doing so will need to avoid a repeat of the cooperative experience.

Change the basics first

Regulatory tools such as asset locks, conflict of interest legislation and sector-specific reporting requirements have proven effective in other places, and would help the region’s social entrepreneurs focus their aims and measure their impact. But before embarking on a years-long new regulatory endeavour, simple long-awaited reforms can to be introduced today.

Other than stifling competition and impeding access to enterprise development to protect market share for existing businesses (and their interests), there is little justification for governments to uphold draconian bankruptcy laws which expose entrepreneurs to a jail cell if they bounce a check.

In an age where entrepreneurs in Kenya (not to mention more developed economies) register their businesses online, requiring new businesses to hire lawyers, auditors and put up large amounts of initial capital before they can even contemplate revenue amounts to exclusionary protectionism and oligarchy.

Informing investors

Investors in the region must also think outside of the box if the social enterprise sector is going to mature.

The common adage among investors has been that social enterprises don’t have the capacity to scale because their business models are more about social change than the bottom line. In part, they are right.

Many of the region’s social entrepreneurs still don’t have a solid understanding of how their businesses can create value in the long term. But investors are also wrong to think social enterprises cannot scale: there is no greater ‘market opportunity’ in the region than the value added by turning social ills into positive cash flow.

Instead of investing in 10 tech companies with a five-year 70 percent return on investment (ROI), hoping that one of them hits jackpot, investors can also consider funding a social enterprise with a long term ROI of 20 percent. There is enough money, resources and rationale for both approaches.

What’s more, without institutional investor interest social enterprises have to look to donor funding to stay afloat. Instead of focusing on longer-term financial sustainability, social enterprises need to spend donor money quickly to produce short-term outputs which fit the often fickle agendas of various donors.

None of that is going to produce the kind of social change or enterprises the region needs.

We need a change of attitude

Without substantive change, the wave of social entrepreneurship which began in earnest after the Arab uprisings now risks washing up on the rocks.

It’s hard to imagine region’s governments and institutional investors somehow changing their attitudes toward social enterprises because they suddenly feel a streak of altruism.

Instead, social entrepreneurs and support organizations need to interpret ‘developing the ecosystem’ as something which goes beyond boot camps, incubators and workshops which only the well-educated minority of the region can access.

That will entail admitting that there is an ‘access-to-entrepreneurship’ problem for lower-income and rural populations as well as opening up the space for those populations to enter.

With more people on board with the idea of social entrepreneurship, creating pressure groups to lobby government for structural reforms will be more effective, as will the effect of those reforms on the mindset of investors.

Much has been achieved and the social enterprise sector has grown up, but now it’s time to be an adult.

Originally published by Wamda on March 30, 2017.

 

The fear of an empty plate

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The proportion of Syrian refugees who are food secure has fallen from 32 percent in 2013 to 11 percent in 2015. In this photo, taken in 2014, Ahmed, 15, from Raqqa starts a generator to provide electricity for his family’s tent in an encampment for refugees in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Lack of power makes it impossible to keep food in such circumstances. European Commission | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

By Sami Halabi

There is an old Lebanese saying for reassurance in troubled times. For years, comparatively well-off people have told others, especially children, that ‘ma fi hadan bimout min el jou’’ (no one dies of hunger) when they complain excessively. While that may be true for some, five years of a refugee crisis coupled with long-standing structural issues are threatening that age-old adage and the confidence that buoys it.

Unsettling statistics

Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. People may not know it, but Lebanon has entered a new phase of food insecurity and, while malnutrition is not yet a problem, food security has been falling across the country. According to the latest figures from the United Nations, the proportion of Syrian refugees who are food secure has fallen from 32 percent in 2013 to 11 percent in 2015. Out of an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the country, only 165,000 have stable access to nutritious food.

With poverty rates increasing from around 28 percent in 2004-2005 to around 32 percent by 2013, according to several estimates cited last month by the World Bank Group, there are indications that the Lebanese are also becoming more food insecure. The latest figures from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization show that around 11 percent now cannot access their basic food consumption needs, 31 percent do not have access to healthy food and 49 percent are worried they will not have enough food to feed themselves over the course of the year.

Of course, one only needs to walk into the supermarket to understand why this is happening. In 2008, food inflation rose 18.1 percent. From 2008 to 2013 food prices rose some 45 percent. Obviously this looks bad for a government who is supposed to protect the food security of the country. But instead of using their authority to regulate food prices or creating more job opportunities, the government re-indexed inflation in December 2013 and voila, they now claim that inflation (and food inflation) is in negative territory and prices are falling.

Government inaction

To be fair, global food prices fell by 0.95 percent in 2014 and 0.64 percent in 2015, but that is also related to today’s low oil prices, the relatively strong dollar and stunted economic growth, all of which bode well for inflation. Prices are sticky for the same reason they have always been; we live in a country where price fixing and oligopolies are rife and there is no national economic vision.

Government subsidies on bread production have already proven ineffective and disproportionately beneficial to those with more income, not the poor who need the most support. Lebanon also never really benefited from the fruits of free trade because the World Trade Organization accession was halted once oligopolists realized obligatory competition regulation would run contrary to the moneyed interests that keep prices up and wages stagnant. At the same time, Lebanon threw open its doors to foreign food imports through both bilateral and multilateral trade agreements. Now we are up to 80 percent import dependent for our food, while our agricultural sector is in retreat.

Being physically able to bring in more food over the past years allowed our country to adapt to more than 1.5 million new mouths to feed. Yet, as those mouths become more food insecure and food aid dependent, the government also restricts them from working or possessing assets that can help them feed themselves. Restricting refugee labor is considered a sound policy to the extent that it can protect employment opportunities for unemployed Lebanese citizens. However, requiring refugees to abandon their refugee status and become sponsored migrant workers to perform menial jobs is a narrow-minded and zero-sum proposition when those restrictions increase food insecurity.

Instead of forcing Syrian refugees into informal labor and exposing them to abuse, a more intelligent and humane policy would be to allow them to work alongside Lebanese in agriculture. Permitting refugees to own assets that are used in agricultural production would strengthen food security in the country and produce more jobs for everyone. At the same time, Lebanon needs to stop being complacent about food security. The government must devise an integrated Food and Nutrition Security Strategy which rationalizes trade, market and production against resources and actually implement it.

Lebanon cannot wait for another food price shock to compel the government to act. People have already started to go hungry, and soon they may turn angry.

First published in Executive Magazine’s May 2016 Issue

Strategic Review of Food and Nutrition Security in Lebanon

food-security-nutrition-lebanonThe Government of Lebanon and its concerned Ministries together with national and international partners are collaborating to address the country’s food security and nutrition challenges and to progress towards the implementation of Agenda 2030’s sustainable development goals. In their support, and to study the current situation with a view towards enabling the prioritization of policy reforms, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) and the World Food Programme (WFP) joined forces to commission an in-depth analysis of the country’s food security and nutrition context.

The report analyses the availability, accessibility, utilization and stability of food consumption and production in Lebanon and provides comprehensive recommendations to support Lebanon achieve SDG 2. Among the report’s key findings is the need to reform food trade, market regulation and production responses to food and nutrition security in order to increase economic access to food.

The report found that Lebanese and refugee populations alike face food insecurity challenges. An alarming 49 percent of Lebanese are reportedly worried about their ability to access enough food, and 31 percent of them stating that they were unable to eat healthy and nutritious food over the course of a year. In addition, overall increasing food prices and changes in dietary preferences lead to new challenges, including micronutrient deficiencies and increasing levels of obesity.

The discussion makes a case for economic, social and environmental policies that require greater integration and cooperation among many public, private and civil society institutions in Lebanon in order to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.”

Download the Full Report Co-authored by Sami Halabi

Rapid Market Opportunity and Value Chain Analysis for Microenterprise Development in the Fisheries Sector of Tyre, Lebanon

sus_history_iucn_logoThe research project was launched in response to the severe depletion of fish stocks and livelihoods among artisanal fishers in the district of Tyre, Lebanon. In order to create the circumstances to transition fishing practices and regulation from their current state to one where a sustainable and integrated strategy could be implemented, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the Association of for the Development of Rural Capacities commissioned a market opportunity and value chain analysis to understand what type of microfinance-related interventions–including skills training programmes, loan terms, and livelihood assistance–would produce sustained additional income streams and open avenues for implementation and enforcement of sustainable fishing. As such, the research aimed to answer four principal questions:

  1. Analyse domestic market opportunities open to fishing communities through assessment of local capacities, potential competitive and comparative advantages as well as seasonality of supply-demand of fishery goods and services, market access, and productive potentials of different domestic market locations.
  2. Identify potential sectors where mircoenterprises would focus on activities complementary to the fisheries sector;
  3. Identify profitable markets with growth potential for these mircoenterprises’ products and services which are not directly related to the fisheries sector;
  4. Identify opportunities for fishing community household members including entrepreneurial women and young labour market entrants.
  5. Identify what form and level of engagement skills capacity development should take in suggested economic sectors.

To learn more about the project contact the author.

Policy Brief: Towards a New Integrated Labour Policy in the Middle East

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Towards a New Integrated Labour Policy in the Arab World – نحو سياسة عمل متكاملة في العالم العربي

The status and nature of labor and employment across the region was one of the underlying causes of the Arab uprisings and remains a major problem today. Long overlooked or discarded as unrealistic before the current transition, the integration of labor markets in a manner that addresses the core issues at hand could form the basis of a region-wide response to region-wide problems. At the centre of this integration policy will need to be an “Arab Jobs Pact” (AJP), an agreement between Arab states that integrates regional labor policies through supranational management. This proposed AJP is based on five pillars: transitioning labor policy from national to supranational management, administering flows of labor between and within states, matching education with the skills needed for productive jobs, focusing investment on job-intensive sectors and enterprise development, and developing active labor market programmes.

See more at: Khamsoon.com

External Review: Children Living and Working on the Streets in Lebanon

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This study provides the Government of Lebanon and non-governmental organisations with evidence-based research on the magnitude and profile of children living or working in the streets of Lebanon, and on their socioeconomic situation. The study also assesses the cases of more than 700 Lebanese and non-Lebanese children and is the first of its kind to cover the different locations and regions in Lebanon where a relatively high incidence of children living or working on the streets persists.

Children Living and Working on the Streets in Lebanon: Profile and Magnitude