Box 1. The Chehabists’ attempts at administrative reform
Fuad Chehab assumed the presidency in September 1958, at a critical juncture in Lebanon’s modern history. In the context of the Cold War and regional geopolitical tensions, Lebanon had just experienced a short civil war between armed groups supporting former president Camille Chamoun and left-leaning insurrectionists, sympathetic to Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and the newly established United Arab Republic, who demanded an end to socio-economic inequalities and efforts to resolve their sectarian grievances. Lebanon’s public sector had broken down entirely, and little sense of national unity existed among the country’s citizens. During his six years in office, Chehab exerted significant efforts to improve the structure and function of the public sector, especially in rural areas. His administration passed 162 legislative decrees in its first year in office to speed up administrative reform – an unprecedented move in Lebanon’s history. Key reforms included the establishment of the Civil Service Board to ensure merit-based recruitment of public servants, and the establishment of the Central Inspection Board (in Arabic, al tifteesh al markazi), for monitoring public servants’ performance and service delivery.
Since Chehab, ‘there has not been any serious attempt’ at modernizing the Lebanese public sector. These administrative reforms, alongside the Chehabists’ efforts at implementing developmental projects across the entirety of Lebanon, sought to provide a modicum of social justice and equality among the Lebanese population.
Despite their well-meaning intentions, Chehab and his allies were unsuccessful in transforming the Lebanese public sector. On the one hand, they faced stiff resistance from the country’s sectarian political elites and their oligarchic allies in the private sector. On the other, Chehab’s reliance on the army’s military intelligence branch, the notorious Deuxième Bureau (Second Bureau), which clamped down on freedom of speech and silenced journalists, garnered much criticism among wide swathes of the population and the intelligentsia.
In April 1973, shortly before his death, Chehab confided in one of his close associates: ‘The sectarian politicians are continuing to consider the state as a milk cow and only care about their personal, sectarian and regional interests, and do not realize that the ground is shaking underneath them; they will wake up one day to see the revolution everywhere and the oppressed will kick them out of their own homes and beat them in the streets…’
Box 2. OMSAR and the tortuous path towards administrative reform in post-war Lebanon
Established in 1993 with the goal of reforming the Lebanese public administration and planning long-term institutional development, OMSAR has been an integral component of the post-war Lebanese government machinery. Between 1993 and 1997, OMSAR formed several partnerships with international organizations and foreign donors: it established a Technical Cooperation Unit (TCU) and an Institutional Development Unit, and launched a National Administrative Rehabilitation Program (NARP) aimed at rehabilitating the Lebanese public sector’s essential functions.
Unlike regular ministries, OMSAR is an office headed by a minister of state, which means that it plays a purely consultative role, with no entitlement to make executive decisions or impose change on other public sector bodies. When attempting to implement the NARP – which included the introduction of ICT practices in government – OMSAR faced stiff resistance, and sometimes outright hostility. The Lebanese public sector tended to see OMSAR ‘as a tiresome upstart, an alien body, implanted within the Lebanese public sector’. In his memoirs, former OMSAR minister Bechara Merhej recalls presenting to a high-ranking official a comprehensive strategy for reforming and modernizing the Lebanese public sector by the year 2010. The unnamed high-ranking official told him dismissively that the strategy would be discussed in 2010.
While OMSAR produced valuable research, its modus operandi failed to win political and bureaucratic support from the Lebanese political establishment, and it was soon turned ‘into a donor-funded think tank’ rather than a ministry implementing genuine reforms and electronic government (e-government) procedures.
The Lebanese public sector remains poorly run and equipped to this day. The OMSAR-led e-government initiatives never materialized fully, due to a lack of support from senior political elites. In 2005, the then director of the TCU, Raymond Khoury, stated that ‘the concept of e-government will remain inapplicable as long as there is no political will/political decision’. Ten years later, the adoption of e-government was observed to be progressing with difficulties due to the absence of a strong ICT infrastructure, an adequate and enabling legal framework and a concrete action plan. Today, Lebanon ranks at a lowly 127th place out of 193 countries in the most recent (2020) edition of the UN’s E-Government Survey.
Box 3. The Port of Beirut
On 4 August 2020, a powerful explosion detonated in the Port of Beirut killing more than 200 people and leaving hundreds of thousands injured or rendered homeless, in addition to the untold infrastructural damage. The explosion was caused by the ignition of around 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had apparently been stored unsafely in one of the port’s hangars over a period of six years. Despite a promise from President Michel Aoun for a transparent inquiry over the explosion, and despite an accompanying pledge by the interior minister, in the immediate aftermath of the blast, that the investigation would take only five days and that all the culprits would be held accountable, the ongoing investigation has garnered significant criticism, amid concerns that it has been carried out in a non-transparent manner, focusing on the relatively low-ranking culprits, rather than any high-level officials who might have been aware of the stockpiling of the dangerous chemicals and did not act to have them removed.
The blast has revealed a deeper story about widespread corruption in the Port of Beirut, one of the key arteries of the Lebanese economy. On 31 December 1990, after the civil war had ground to a halt, a 30-year concession to a private joint-stock company (under which the latter had managed the port since 1960) expired. The country’s warlords-turned-politicians and the new entrants into the country’s political scene bickered among themselves as they sought to determine new arrangements for the management of this highly lucrative public asset. Eventually, the port was subjected to a division of spoils (muhasassa, in Arabic): its assets were apportioned, or divided up among the political elites. A ‘temporary’ management committee was established in 1993 and, except for changes in the committee’s membership, the port administration remained unchanged until the explosion in August 2020.
Lacking any appropriate legal framework for its functioning and for dealing with other state agencies, the Port of Beirut’s entire management was ‘left to the discretion and inclinations of politicians and officials involved’, with some having labelled it as the ‘illegitimate son of the state’ or as ‘Ali Baba’s Cave’, in allusion to the popular folk tale featuring a den filled with stolen treasures.
As the port’s legal status remained ambiguous, the temporary management committee was not subjected to any scrutiny or oversight from other state bodies, whether the Ministry of Finance or monitoring agencies such as the Court of Accounts (in Arabic, diwan al muhasaba) and the Central Inspection Board. A study by parliament’s General Directorate of Studies and Information revealed in December 2019 that the port’s temporary committee had not provided the Ministry of Finance with any annual reports for several years.
The devastating blast at the Port of Beirut is a cautionary tale that highlights the very real consequences that can arise from the presence of what is perceived to be deeply entrenched corruption. When the country’s main port functions in such a non-transparent and dysfunctional manner, with little to no oversight over the port’s authorities or its activities, it seems almost inevitable that an industrial accident would occur, resulting in a humanitarian catastrophe.
Box 4. Public bodies used for private gains
While state institutions have frequently been used by Lebanon’s political elites to distribute patronage and curry favour among their constituents, this practice dramatically increased in the era since the end of the civil war. The following provides an overview of two of the most notorious cases of the transformation by political elites of state institutions into vehicles for self-enrichment.
The Council for Development and Reconstruction
The Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR) was originally founded in 1977 to direct Lebanon’s reconstruction, as the incumbent president and prime minister (respectively, Elias Sarkis and Salim Al Hoss) had envisaged a strong role for the state in the rehabilitation of the country’s infrastructure. The CDR was given wide-ranging powers, which included drawing up studies and proposing laws, issuing ‘administrative licenses and authorisation’ and hence bypassing other state entities, supervising ‘all reconstruction projects under its care’, and procuring ‘financing for all its projects, either from Lebanon or abroad, while being exempted from advance oversight by the court of accounts’. Sarkis and Hoss came from the Chehabist tradition (see Box 1) and deliberately gave the CDR such powers in order to insulate it from ‘interference by the old bourgeoisie or the militia leaders’.
As the civil war ended, the country’s infrastructure was in dire need of rehabilitation, and the task fell to the CDR, which was by now firmly under the control of another prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, and his network of technocrats who had the legal, managerial, urban planning and engineering expertise to run it. In the 1990s, the CDR was accused of various corrupt practices, such as ‘violating tendering requirements, overspending projected costs, allowing illegal subcontracting, financing infrastructure facilities for private use, and contracting with companies under conditions of unbridled conflict of interest’. For instance, the CDR’s performance in road-building and road-maintenance was perceived to be characterized by countless irregularities, heavily inflated costs, offering tenders to construction firms directly and indirectly affiliated with the political class, poor enforcement of contracts and an inability to penalize poor performance on the part of the contractors. Despite not being generally authorized to scrutinize the CDR’s road rehabilitation projects, the Court of Accounts did undertake some examinations and ‘registered serious irregularities in tendering and unwarranted increases in costs’. A study published by the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies in July 2020 showed that between 2008 and 2018, of the 492 infrastructural projects for which the CDR managed funding, ‘60% of total CDR spending […] was granted to only 10 companies’; out of total funding of $3.17 billion, these 10 companies received $1.9 billion, which suggests that the tendering process was not carried out on a competitive basis. Given such evidence of inadequate governance and lack of transparency in the CDR, it is unsurprising that the state of Lebanon’s infrastructure remains abysmally poor almost three decades after the civil war ended.
Ministry of the Displaced
As hundreds of thousands of Lebanese civilians were displaced during the civil war, it was only natural that the post-war government would seek to facilitate their return to their original homes and compensate them for whatever damages they incurred due to the fighting. A Ministry of the Displaced and a Central Fund for the Displaced were established in 1992, and some $1.2 billion was spent between 1994 and 2005 to assist the displaced. However, despite the enormous sums spent by the mid-2000s, many of the displaced had not been able to return to their original homes, many of which continued to be occupied by squatters, while numerous villages that had witnessed severe fighting remained shattered.
Several reports carried out by both the ministry and international organizations ‘all concluded that corruption in the form of political patronage, favoritism, and bribery had helped to undermine the return program drastically’. For instance, it has been claimed that some politicians used the central fund to provide large sums of money to their constituents based on bogus claims of displacement, and hence garner their electoral support. In addition, when it came to the restoration and rehabilitation of damaged buildings, ‘[m]any examples suggest that claimants were compensated for damages to properties that never existed and that contractors were heavily overpaid for work under conditions of dubious contracting practices’.
The situation of the Ministry of the Displaced and its associated fund encapsulates how some state funds, ostensibly designated for the welfare of the public, could end up being embezzled and misused for the personal interests of the country’s political establishment.
Box 5. Electricity in Lebanon: Decades of mismanagement and dysfunction
Lebanon’s electricity sector is often presented as a prime example of chronic and widespread mismanagement, inefficiency, and concerns about allegations of corruption. Despite the transfer each year of billions of dollars to Electricité du Liban (EDL – the public utility tasked with generating electricity), power cuts in Lebanon are the norm. This has caused virtually all households in the country to resort to private electricity suppliers, disparagingly called the ‘generator mafia’, in order to access electricity on a 24-hour basis. A number of the private generator operators have been reported to have had close ties with the political class, with both groups having an interest in maintaining the status quo in the country’s power sector. This status quo – and the dysfunction and mismanagement inherent within it – have also caused countless losses and missed investment opportunities for Lebanon, due to the negative impact of electricity cuts and inadequate transmission infrastructure on the agricultural, industrial, and service sectors of its economy.
Over many years, EDL has become overstaffed with low-skilled workers while lacking technical and managerial expertise. The company has long been impacted by political interference and vested interests and remains a weak public body, widely considered incapable of functioning properly and carrying out its mandate. Even the long-awaited appointment by the Council of Ministers in July 2020 of a new EDL board of directors has drawn significant criticism, as its members were perceived as having been appointed primarily for their sectarian and political affiliations.
Despite the billions of dollars that have been spent on the electricity sector since the early 1990s, Lebanon’s population and businesses still do not have access to electricity on a daily, uninterrupted basis. With such chronic mismanagement, dysfunction and concerns over allegations of corruption, it is unsurprising that reform of the electricity sector is one of the major conditions imposed by the international community on the provision of development funding to Lebanon.