A need for debate

Part of November's front cover

During an informal chat with one of Lebanon’s most senior politicians last month, I was told to stop being so pessimistic. The deal between the Russians and the Americans over Syria and the region would allow more breathing space for Lebanon, the politician assured me, and so the economy would start to boom again in just a few months.

While I wanted to believe him, it felt like yet more evidence that the world our political class lives in is totally divorced from our own. While those of us in the private sector face squeezed budgets and declining revenues, it feels that they — with their fixed salaries and clientelistic networks — are oblivious to our suffering.

Later in the month I got a clue as to how this sad state of affairs developed when I attended a debate where a government minister and private sector leaders discussed growth in challenging times. I was excited: here was a rare chance to quiz a cabinet minister on his plans to support the private sector, to grill a representative of the government on why it has done so little to support businesses both big and small.
But there was nothing. The few journalists in the room asked a couple of tough questions, but the businessmen’s anger was noticeable by its absence. Some of Lebanon’s most fierce negotiators turned into fawning, submissive sycophants, praising the minister’s hard work and commitment to his cause. The minister likely went away thinking he was popular with the private sector, but behind closed doors most were bemoaning him.

Why? The easy answer, and one which is at least partially true, is that they are afraid. The government controls the contracts that the private sector relies on; an angry minister can easily make sure a project never sees the light of day. Why stick your neck out when no one else is willing to do so?

It’s time to change the culture of undue deference toward public sector leadership. The private sector is the engine of Lebanon’s economy, the creator of meaningful jobs and wealth. We need not feel subservient to those in public office — most of whom have brought us little but corruption and destitution. Excessive deference reduces our public debate. If government officials are never truly told what we think of them in a constructive manner, how can we expect any better?

We should also be more proud of our achievements. For this reason this month Executive again celebrates Lebanon’s entrepreneurs, those who have chosen to be brave and go it alone. With precious little government support, Lebanon’s businesses are its future.