What Would Dad Think of Lebanon Today?

Wednesday, October 10, 2018
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

When I think about Lebanon today, I always end up remembering my father. He was born on 10/10/1910 and died 104 years later. As many of his generation, he attended primary school in the north of Lebanon, worked with his family in their fields, went to Brazil to work with his father and brother selling household goods from a dugout canoe on the Amazon, lost it all in the Depression, returned to Lebanon via a stay in France, and then rebuilt his family farm so that they could have a continuing source of food. For cash he made charcoal to sell in the surrounding villages and then went to work in a bicycle shop in Beirut. Not very glamorous to be sure…but along the way he learned Arabic, French, Spanish, and Portuguese, at least enough to survive and succeed.

Then along came my mother Elizabeth, who had emigrated to the US years before and returned to Lebanon to marry the man she had decided was for her…and my dad’s life changed forever. Not that he had much choice. She was strong-willed, a relative, and knew what was best for him. So they traveled to the US and followed so many before them in selling goods to local communities first as peddlers, then from trucks and small stores. Not much news here but it is useful to learn from the past when we are trying to figure out why so many of us still love Lebanon despite its various attempts at self-disfiguration as in the abuse of the environment, and its efforts at self-destruction as reflected in the political culture of the country.

Fortunately, my parents lived close by in their last years so I had some time to reflect with them on their journeys. When I asked my dad how he was able to take on so many new responsibilities during his lifetime, his response was simple, “To survive, I was always ready for the next adventure.” When I see the frustrations in Lebanon today, as he must have when he first returned 30 years after he left, I wonder what happened to those Lebanese qualities of risk-taking, entrepreneurism, sense of community, and initiative that are absent in its political culture today.

You can argue that there are many business start-ups, that the Lebanese continue to showcase their talents globally, and that it can master its future if only left alone without external interference, but that’s not what is evident in Lebanon today. The private sector is grossly under-resourced and constrained except for its wealthiest members. Lebanese abroad are reluctant to invest significantly due to the lack of transparency and corruption in dealings; and Lebanese politicians seem content to mortgage Lebanon’s future to authoritarian allies in the region and beyond. Confessionalism eats away at the body politic so that even the best and brightest feel obliged to find champions outside of the country. Syria and Iran and likely Saudi Arabia act as if they have rights in Lebanon to dictate its future and too many Lebanese are ready to comply, if only to settle long-standing grievances with other clans and parties. And who can tell how Russia’s interests will further skew Lebanon’s independence.

There are many issues emblematic of these dysfunctional tendencies that are on the agenda once government formation occurs, or new elections are held: a realistic and rapid timetable for the professional and transparent implementation of political and economic decentralization; the role of Hezbollah in the future of Lebanon; the need to invest heavily in the education and health sectors despite the current overloads caused by the refugees; rapid and transparent implementation of the reforms needed to respond to the international donor community as well as private sector investors; placing quality of the environment among the top action items for the government, particularly in enabling communities to take local initiatives; acting to reduce the challenges limiting opportunities for youth, women, and the marginalized; and integrating strategies for infrastructure initiatives in power, communications, transportation, and services sectors, among others.

These and other concerns have been identified in multiple studies, the proposals to the CEDRE conference, and in negotiations with multilateral organizations including the World Bank Group and UN agencies. Lebanon would be well-served by recalling and re-acting on the intentions in the Taif Agreement to implement functional decentralization to provide training and resources for local populations to manage their affairs within a national strategy for services such as waste management, power generation and distribution, access to potable water, and a nation-wide youth services program that rebuilds the environment, promotes hygiene and health services in underserved areas, and connects young people across sectarian and geographic boundaries.

One thing the Abrahamic faiths share is the belief that “God helps those who help themselves.” This was very true of my parents who never lost their faith in God or in Lebanon. Unfortunately, unless a consensus for moving forward comes together in the near future, it may more likely be that others, including Israel, Iran, and Syria will be helping themselves to a fractured Lebanon, and only the Lebanese can keep that from happening.