There’s nothing like entrepreneurial energy — if it’s there, you feel it as soon as you walk in the room. That’s what I felt when I recently addressed the Start Up Lebanon conference in New York. The room was buzzing with creative talent — our talent — ready to storm the American startup scene.
Why were our kids doing this in New York instead of Beirut? The most glaring reason: US officials and executives really believe in young entrepreneurs. They listened intently to these fresh voices — which made the presenters even more serious and more determined to realize their ideas. Who does that here in Lebanon? I can think of just one person, our central banker. Every other official is too worried about shoring up their own personal fiefdom to see the extraordinary potential in our youth. So our youth leave — for Dubai, Paris, San Francisco and New York — and build the future there, for the Emirates, France and America.
This egregious negligence is not a partisan or sectarian issue. It doesn’t matter if they’re named Aoun or Berri or Geagea or Hariri or Jumblatt — they’re all guilty of letting our nation waste away as they plot to gain more power for themselves and their families. And this tug of war has had far reaching economic consequences. In addition to sacrificing our best and brightest to other countries, our so-called leaders — a misnomer if ever there was one — have saddled our country with a hybrid economic system that simply cannot work.
With the collapse of governance and devaluation of the lira in the 1980s, our historical French model became untenable. Postwar, most leaders recognized this, and Rafik Hariri set our country on the path towards the American model of an economy driven by a vibrant private sector. But reform stalled. State owned enterprises were not privatized. Government ministers began to view their portfolios as belonging to them — not the people. The result? A strange, hybrid economic model whereby we expect private enterprise to drive the economy, but keep it so heavily burdened with bureaucracy that this becomes impossible.
We must choose one model or the other: either complete the reforms begun in the 1990s, or revert back to a French style system, complete with independent, activist unions. Our current economic dysfunction is not just untenable, it’s morbid. The longer we continue ignoring this problem, the more young talent will leave our shores for brighter futures abroad.
That means a darker future for Lebanon. And that’s precisely where our ‘leaders’ are taking us.