Has The Time Come For Lebanon To Actually Enact Decentralization?

Friday, July 15, 2022
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

Although there is no current decentralization framework in place, it has been a topic of debate among politicians and analysts since it was first raised in the 1990 Taif Agreement that ended the civil war.  Since that time, this topic has become a staple among political voices seeking to protect their geographic hegemony rather than a more effective allocation of powers among various governing bodies.

Other than political rhetoric and political statements that are sometimes misleading, the most promising proposal was introduced in a 2014 plan by Ziyad Baroud. As then Minister of the Interior and Municipalities in a previous Mikati government, he presented it to Parliament in 2018, where it has remained in committee ever since. If implemented, it would provide a comprehensive and actionable strategy for enhancing local capacities for self-governance.

But what does decentralization mean, in the context of Lebanon?  There are three dimensions to consider: political, administrative, and fiscal. Each includes allocating functions in varying degrees depending on the power being transferred from a central government to subnational jurisdictions. In Lebanon, the goal is to incorporate all three types into a legal framework that assigns robust autonomy from the central government to other entities.

But, noted in the above cited report by the Freidrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, there is no judicial independence to implement steps to eliminate opportunities for corruption, set out parameters for relationships among the 1,108 Lebanese municipalities and 8 regions, and set criteria for the role of the central government. Baroud addressed this issue by creating 33 sub-districts to consolidate the functions to be allocated locally.

Rather than dissecting Baroud’s proposed legislation, which itself is subject to debate and amendment, it may be more useful to develop an understanding of why decentralization, rather than cantonization or a federal system, offers the best opportunities for Lebanon’s political integrity and economic development.

As the Foundation report mentioned, “Decentralization is not an end in itself; it is a means of ensuring greater local participation, more accountability, and a more sustainable and enduring democracy. The current Lebanese crisis has created strong momentum for revisiting decentralization, particularly as the notion gains traction in Lebanese civil society.” But note the objectives – increased citizen input, greater accountability, and strengthening democracy. Are these characteristic of the current debates about governance? In spirit, possibly, but a concrete and viable framework is essential.

A key characteristic of decentralization is to establish locally-elected legal entities with specific responsibilities that are autonomous from the national government. If it is to succeed over time, these responsibilities must include fiscal and political autonomy from the national government, not simply allocate some administrative duties to centrally-appointed bureaucrats. This has been the weakness in decentralization as it now exists in Lebanon. Power is passed to administrators who are appointed by the central government. This is not autonomy.

In another paper written by Baroud and published by the Middle East Institute (MEI), he exposes the key weakness, “For all groups, however, decentralization is not neutral: it adversely affects the “sacred” political arena by shifting the balance of power from the central to the local government and hence limits the provision of resources that are vital to politicians’ interests. This goes some way toward explaining the willful failure to implement widespread administrative decentralization as a reform more than three decades after Taif.”

The current political leaders see decentralization as a threat to their political and economic hegemony over their fiefdoms. While it is true that Prime Minister Najib Mikati created the commission that prepared the draft law in 2012, his government, then, was unable to move it through Parliament, as is likely the case now. The MEI article concludes, “This draft law — the most recent of its kind — does not pretend to be perfect and is open to additions and further development, but it undoubtedly offers an integrated platform for decentralization. The draft had to wait until 2016 before reaching the Lebanese parliament. Five [six] years later, it is still “under discussion” in an ad hoc parliamentary committee, which says a lot about the pace of reform in Lebanon.”

What is the threat of greater local participation, accountability, and governance? With a ready-made formula for moving ahead, there should be no further delay to giving the Lebanese the tools and authority they require to reconstruct their societies. As Baroud opines, “The current Lebanese crisis has created strong momentum for revisiting decentralization, particularly as the notion gains traction in Lebanese civil society.”

Building on this momentum, decentralization can be implemented efficiently in the desired form, provided the government is open to change and to a new distribution of power. Given the paucity of resources and collective leadership at the top, perhaps the time has come to enable grassroots entities to seek alternative approaches to building a strong, more resilient governing structure for Lebanon.

Decentralization is a tool to maximize citizenship. In many countries, it is change at the municipal levels that creates the ferment that leads to significant change throughout the system. As the Naumann Foundation paper argues, “Furthermore, through institutionalized participation mechanisms the civic oversight at the local level could be enhanced and lastly promotion of Public – Private Partnership in local governance, the adoption of a gender quota in the electoral law, and a sustainable fiscal and financial system should be realized.”

This structural reform is not magic; nor will it happen quickly and spontaneously. It instead starts with making the central government more transparent and effective, and elevates the judicial system as an independent and co-equal branch of government. “Otherwise,’ as an article in the National notes, “decentralization could have the contrary effect and increase corruption as well as end up being more divisive than inclusive․ If a well – functioning central government is non–existent, the risk of shifting corruption on a local level would increase…”

There are no guaranteed solutions to Lebanon’s multiple crises. What is certain is that it cannot continue to be phlegmatic in its response to the needs of the people, sclerotic in its governing institutions, and lacking in the courage to make change happen, even in the hybrid mess of sectarian politics. Letting the people begin to rule themselves within local entities that maximize their potential will pay benefits throughout the society.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans.