A frank, but hopeful, view

As recent events push Germany to the center stage, Executive talks with German Ambassador Martin Huth

Greg Demarque

Executive spoke with German Ambassador Martin Huth to follow up on Germany’s aid commitment to Lebanon, the development of bilateral economic relations in 2016 and to chart expectations for 2017.

E   How much of the money pledged in conferences in the beginning of the year did Germany contribute to humanitarian and development needs of refugees and resident populations in Lebanon in 2016?

The figures that we can disclose relate to refugee aid and development aid for Lebanese communities. In terms of the amount pledged at the London Conference [in February 2016], Germany has made more than 300 million euros in assistance available to refugees, as well as to vulnerable populations and host communities in Lebanon. This amount is double the amount that we made available in 2015. If we take only the amounts made available in the past two years, we are nearing a total of half a billion euros.

E   Can you give us details as far as projects that were financed in 2016 and their efficacy?

We are funding numerous programs with this money. I have to highlight the education sector, where you are aware of the program, launched by the [Lebanese] Ministry of Higher Education, called Reaching all Children with Education. We are also assisting with the Lebanon Host Communities Support Program, which is conducted by UNDP (United Nations Development Programme). It mainly consists of small projects in host communities, such as cash for work programs, small building projects of community centers, etc. Next, we took part in the reconstruction of the Nahr al-Bared camp north of Tripoli, making an additional 15 million euros available for this.

We also support the electronic food assistance that is provided by the World Food Programme, which is also covering Lebanese under the National Poverty Targeting Program. The food assistance is quite remarkable, I think, because it started with in-kind distribution and has been transformed into a smart system that uses the Lebanese banking sector and a network of local shops. In this way, refugees are provided with an electronic card that can be used to buy food in these shops. This reduces transaction costs and provides direct stimulus to the local market.

Regarding the Reaching all Children with Education program by the Ministry of Higher Education, Germany and other donors are now covering the school fees of 200,000 Lebanese children and 170,000 Syrian children. The efforts also include school rehabilitation, improving learning environments and possibly further developments of the curriculum. This initiative has led to higher enrollment of Lebanese children, which shows how the national education system is benefiting from this support. I can also mention a number of water projects that we are conducting, notably in the Bekaa.

Lebanon has increasingly become its own category of a non-performing or non-existing state, contrary to the aspirations of its citizens

E   The celebration of the German National Day in Lebanon this October was marked by greater and more elaborate participation by the corporate sector. Beyond that, what were highlights of German-Lebanese economic relations in 2016?

Three EU countries are among the five biggest trading partners for Lebanon. Apart from Germany, these are Italy and France. Talking about figures for Germany, we have projected exports to Lebanon of about 850 million euros in 2016, which represents a slight increase from the average figure of the past four years. What is remarkable is that there has been a steady increase in Lebanese exports to Germany. We have a projected figure of 54 million euros for this year. This is relatively meager when compared with imports to Lebanon from Germany, but it compares very favorably to what Lebanon has exported to Germany in previous years. In 2012, the value of exports was 47 million, then 49, 44, 45 and now 54 million, which is a nice increase [of 20 percent] from last year. I don’t have the details yet, but I surmise that the increase is related to the improvement of quality in agro-industry products.   

E   What are your best-case expectations for 2017, if we assume that the new presidency will bring a boost to the Lebanese economy?

First, we hope that a government will be formed quickly. My hope at this time is that there will not only be a government, but a functioning one, with people at the head of ministries who know their files and dossiers and who are able to fulfill the vision of Lebanon not only having institutions, but functioning institutions in service of Lebanese citizens. If we talk about our own areas of interest with the goal of easing the plight of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, it is important that conditions in Lebanon remain conducive to maintaining or even expanding this assistance. Of course, we have to wait and see how the new Lebanese government positions itself in this field, not forgetting that the government which is being formed now will likely be in office [only] until next year’s parliamentary elections.

E   In being an international partner, there is always a delicate balance between giving aid and asking for compliance with your prerogatives in return, such as values and policy objectives. What can you tell us about any expectations for Lebanon to comply with European views regarding human rights or the right to work for Syrian refugees in Lebanon?

This is a wide range of issues. First, let me say that we have not provided budgetary assistance to Lebanon. Instead, and primarily due to the larger absorption capacities involved, we channel our assistance mostly through international organizations. Regarding greater transparency and implementation of good governance in Lebanon, I think the key is to have good governance and to have institutions that work in the interest of the citizens.

Participation is the one thing that groups everything together in a functioning state, including services that are being provided to citizens and to the fulfillment of citizens’ aspirations and human rights. For participation, you need dialogue, freedom of expression, free media and open discourse that is led with a focus on the common good, rather than a particular interest of a confession or other group. The problem in Lebanon has always been how to define this common good and adopting the notion of a common good that is Lebanon, its state and its citizens. A free press is important in this, and there are an enormous number of media institutions in Lebanon, but it seems to me that these media – TV stations, radio and press – are very often mouthpieces of certain political groups. You have a diversity of views if you look at all of them, but you don’t have dialogue and critical exchange. Some improvement in this field would be a good thing. Civil society also has to be included in the dialogue, not just traditional forces or groups. The potential in Lebanon is there.

E   Do you see a risk of Lebanon ending up as a failed state in the long run?

I think the curve of success of the Lebanese state has been going up and down since the 1960s. Over the last two and a half years, with the presidential vacuum and ensuing political blockade, Lebanon has increasingly become its own category of a non-performing or non-existing state, contrary to the aspirations of its citizens. Now, we again have a chance to improve the situation after the presidential elections and the formation of a government.

What is important in the near future is that Lebanon remains protected from the Syrian crisis so that the war does not spillover into Lebanon. Lebanon will continue to require enormous assistance from the international community in order to cope with the plight of refugees on its territory. It will also need internal reforms, starting with essentials like introducing fast internet and making the banking sector more available to Lebanese citizens. Oil and gas is another important field for development. There is plenty of work to do, but in Lebanon you can always say that the potential is there, and the other side of the weak state has always been the remarkable resilience of the people and the presence of a lot of talent and economic savviness. These are all things that can play out in Lebanon’s favor.

E   Does the German government place any expectations on Lebanon as far as integrating refugees into the country or giving them guarantees of work?

Settling refugees in Lebanon is not an option. This is not what Lebanon wants, nor what we want or what the refugees themselves want. At some point, there has to be a return to Syria. Of course, this has to be in line with international standards and human rights, and the return to Syria has to be safe for those refugees. In my view, this will unfortunately not be possible in the near future, and therefore we are all faced with the challenge of easing their situation for the time being. Some improvements could be made in line with Lebanon’s commitments at the London Conference. These relate to access to the legal system and the labor market, as well as the easing of registration and movement. At the same time, Lebanon’s security needs have to be borne in mind. But, refugees in Lebanon, just as the Lebanese themselves, have the right to live free of fear and want.

Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years.

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