How Lebanon is fighting corruption

Ferid Belhaj
Director, World Bank Middle East
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Once an unmentionable endemic, corruption seems to have gained the honor of the limelight. It is now at the forefront of the public debate in Lebanon. Today, Lebanon’s political scene is watching in amazement as government ministers compete in a race to show how seriously each of them is taking the fight against corrupt practices. They are pushing ahead with an often controversial crackdown, publicly naming suspected felons.

Food importers and eateries, medicines, hospitals, schools, customs and many other public and private entities have all been targeted. It is an unprecedented campaign against corruption that has revealed the enormity of the perils to the health and pockets of citizens. At its launch last year, the population, stung by years of illicit practices, was dismissive of the clampdown. The fear was that it was yet another public relations stunt by the government to win support in an unfavorable and extreme political climate. Lawbreakers figured if they lay low, they would ride the wave. Wrong, it seems…But for how long?

Hardly a day passes without a public announcement of new lists of offenders. Some of the country’s most popular service providers, and, more importantly, influential personalities, once deemed politically connected untouchables have all come under the spotlight.

“Lebanon is grappling with the ugliest facet of corruption and that is political corruption,” announced Minister of Finance Ali Hassan Khalil at a recent conference.  Both his strong statement and the actual forum, where corruption was addressed in public from all its aspects, broke an erstwhile taboo even in a country that boasts freedom, equality and development parity.

The forum on March 18 was entitled ‘Fighting Corruption in Practice, not Words.’ But little did the public or the participants for that matter imagine they would hear both public and harsh self-criticism from officials across the political spectrum.

“We live in a regime that allows any individual to engage in corrupt practices at all levels and enjoy political protection from within and from outside the (government) institutions,” the Minister of Finance told the forum.  There is no turning back in the campaign to flush out havens of corruption, he stressed, but this is only a small step that remains incomplete without comprehensive political reform.

Cynicism is a national sport in Lebanon. Still, leading panelists emerged from the day-long forum with a feeling that the train of reform may finally be on track following the persistent ringing of alarm bells. Remember, Lebanon’s downward slope was once again evident in Transparency International’s Annual Corruption Perceptions Index, where it ranked 136thout of 175 in 2014.

Corruption in Lebanon has indeed been spreading in both the public and private sectors in many blatant forms. Still, for many years it remained a taboo. “Whispered in private circles, but never discussed in public,” as the minister noted. Now it is out in the open.

Lebanon is not unique in its struggle to combat corruption, whether at the level of misuse of public and private funds, the absence of transparency and accountability and the spread of bribery and monopoly. But it stands out because it has managed over the years of political vacuum to embed all these traits across the public and private sector.

Evidently, the country is struggling with immense political, economic and social complexities. Some are due to its unique political and sectarian configuration, and others to spillovers of regional turmoil. But it is time to make a few personal, political and confessional sacrifices to bring it back from the brink of the failed state abyss.

Lebanon is blessed with huge potential: its human capital, its vibrant private sector, superior education and health services and rich culture. These assets need not be eclipsed by serious malpractices that scare away investors, undermine the economy and encourage the youth to migrate in droves in search of quality jobs that are offered on merit and not on influence and connections.

Realistically, there is no magic solution to all of Lebanon’s woes. For all of its political underpinnings and calculated motivations, the Government needed to start somewhere, and thus the campaign to curb illicit conduct, and show that it is pulling its weight and means business.

The World Bank Group, through technical and financial assistance, has for long stood by Lebanon’s side, and will continue to do so. The transparency, bidding ethics and safeguards applied in the implementation of Bank projects may well serve as a microcosm of how the government of Lebanon could navigate its institutions to uplift Lebanon to the social and economic standards it deserves.

This article was first published by the World Bank’s Voices and Views blog. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Ferid Belhaj was appointed World Bank Director for the Middle East on September 17, 2012 covering Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Iran.

Image: A young girl holds out her money as she queues for the early morning bread. REUTERS/Kieran Doherty.

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