I used to joke that the Phoenicians, who invented mercantilism in the West, would be amazed that their Lebanese descendants perfected corruption as a business practice and governing tool. Who knew that their descendants would so dramatically enshrine that principle in all aspects of everyday life in Lebanon! Despite the many temporary solutions that have been proposed in the past, today’s abuses clearly transcend a single solution, despite many admirable starting points.
Long considered the catch-all for special projects and constituent services, the national budget has two main components for abuse: procurement and contracts as well as hiring and firing. In a recent report, L’Orient Today noted the flaws in the newly passed public procurement law, the key one being oversight of the process. The role of Parliament as the overseer of the public trust is especially questionable. By law, most government bodies, including the Central Bank, should report on a regular basis to the relevant committees in Parliament.
In an annual survey conducted by the Gherbal Initiative, less than 10% of government departments were willing to provide data on how they awarded their contracts. The Central Bank completely refused to even comply with the new law citing transparency as a breach of client confidentiality. Parliament went along with the charade and, as reported, “Among the main highlights, Gherbal Initiative notes that for the fourth consecutive year, ‘the Lebanese Parliament, the primary body responsible for the legislation and implementation of the laws and which itself adopted the law on the right of access to information and other laws concerning the fight against corruption, has not responded to our request’.”
As Mark Daou pointed out in his interview with former Amb. David Hale of the Wilson Center, there is a special committee in Parliament through which all laws get passed and unimplemented laws get sent to their burial – with the same being true of oversight reports. Parliament seldom makes demands, reviews even less frequently, and generally does not interfere in others’ piece of the national pie.
Project Watan, in fact, has made public service and contracting one of its top 8 priorities in fixing Lebanon’s government. The Project has developed public policy recommendations in more than 40 areas with the aim of making the state responsive to the people.
Every World Bank and IMF report for the past three years, some of which going back to the Taif Accord, lament the state of Lebanon’s institutions due to the manipulations of the political class. Governance and accountability are one of the pillars of the Bank’s reform agenda for Lebanon, and although the public procurement law is the only reform that has been passed and is being implemented, it will be more impactful as a case study for how the government avoids rather than implements reforms.
Hiring practices are well-known to furnish “ghost” workers who receive pay, but don’t work or who have been awarded several positions because of their loyalty as a constituent. It is estimated that more than 15,000 public sector employees have been hired under illegal classifications. With the devaluation of their salaries and benefits, these workers have little recourse to finding employment in other sectors of the economy as jobs in general have evaporated.
Rule of Law
While the lack of an independent judiciary and enforcement mechanisms are often cited as the underlying factor in reining in corrupt practices at all levels, it is even more perverse that over time many Lebanese have come to count on corruption as the way to get things done. For example, in a pre-pandemic survey, 65% of ordinary Lebanese believe that people use corruption for various reasons. Most often cited (93%) was to speed up public processes like licensing, property settlements, legal documents, etc. This was followed by securing additional income (92%), avoiding higher payments (92%), receiving proper treatment (91%), receiving preferential treatment (91%), avoiding punishment (86%), and it is the only way to get things done (77%). One can only imagine how these numbers have become worse after the economic implosions, devaluations of the lira, and drying up of health and education services.
Without an accountable and transparent judiciary, free from political pressures, and under the jurisdiction of a single, civil authority, citizens have no recourse to ensure protection for their civil and human rights. In tandem with this are police and magistrates who protect these rights as a core duty. Just as important are prison systems and public defenders who have clearly defined roles and guidelines that enhance, not undermine, justice.
The Agenda Ahead
The new parliament and the incoming government have many challenges in forming a government to respond to the IMF reform package, electing a president, carrying out municipal elections, and setting priorities and investments that respond to the needs of the people. From electricity to salaries for teachers and health workers, to transportation, garbage, and sanitary water services, the list continues. After more than 30 years of neglect and mismanagement, the future requires a whole-of-government response. The energy and inventiveness of the Lebanese people in response to the initial Beirut Port explosions show that the creativity and energy are there. It is time to invest in the people.
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.