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Lebanon – A state of patronage

Only path to economic progress is to circumvent the system

by Michael Young

In the first weeks of trying to form a government, the prime minister-designate, Saad Hariri, reportedly held meetings to see how he and his ministers might affect economic reform. It was a brave step, one that was much-needed. However, the complexity of Lebanese patronage networks makes serious reform efforts almost impossible to implement.

When Rafiq Hariri took office in 1992, his method of dealing with patronage was to establish government bodies that he attached to the prime minister’s office, in order to circumvent ministries controlled by his political adversaries. In this way he hoped to fast-track decision making by avoiding the laborious process of negotiating every step with his rivals. He also centralized all reconstruction policy in his own hands. This had two contrary consequences: It doubtless accelerated decisions, which is why Hariri was able to rebuild so much so quickly. Yet by avoiding deep reform of the public bureaucracy, his method only weakened the state further, exacerbating the dysfunctional nature of the ministries and hardening their roles as founts of partisan patronage. 

Patronage is more than just doing favors for one’s political or social clients. It represents a vast array of services and favors that vary depending on who is providing them, where they are provided and for whom. Patronage has created a vicious circle: since the state is unable to provide many services the Lebanese demand, the population becomes reliant on services provided by politicians or political parties, delegitimizing the state for citizens, who then bestow that legitimacy on political representatives. 

The bulk of patronage in Lebanon involves politicians acting as a link between the state and citizens. Political heavyweights usually supplement this with private patronage, affirming how little they differentiate between public and private matters. For some groups, let’s say Hezbollah and to a lesser extent the Hariri family, there is an additional dimension few can match: the direct distribution of foreign funding to meet local needs. Throughout the 1990s, Rafiq Hariri was a conduit for Saudi aid to his electorate, while Hezbollah helps its supporters from what is widely believed to be Iranian money, or money from supporters abroad.   

The obstacle to economic and financial reform is that the state has become an instrument to advance personal political agendas. This is demonstrated at several levels. Employment is one of the simplest forms of patronage — the placement of political clients in the public bureaucracy, to serve the politicians or parties who placed them there, in exchange for enjoying the advantages of a regular salary and job security. This is the principal reason why Lebanon has never been able to bring about bureaucratic reform, and why the state has had to bear the increasingly onerous burden of a bloated, inefficient bureaucracy.

Virtually all political forces in Lebanon are guilty of placing their people in the administration, even if they differ over how it is done. Some will insist that their clients sit for entry examinations; others are less discerning; in the absence of administrative reform, everyone has an interest in taking maximal advantage of the state. 

Another form of patronage is for politicians to mediate on behalf of clients in their administrative and legal dealings with the state. What makes this type of patronage interesting is that it is less “feudal” in nature; it satisfies specific needs, often the needs of businesses or enterprises, so that the measure of the patron is effectiveness, not belonging to an established family.

A third form of patronage is to intervene on behalf of one’s clients to facilitate their access to state services. Many are the health ministers who have treated their region for free on the ministry’s payroll. The same thing can be said of the social affairs, agriculture, public works, and other “service” ministries, which, depending on which government is in place, will favor specific groups, often to shape future electoral outcomes.

The list can go on, and the reality is that with patronage so intimately tied to one’s political power and survival, it is all but impossible to advance a project to substantially reduce it. For example, when Walid Jumblatt declared that he opposed privatization in the new government, he was doing more than stating a position of principle; he was claiming his share of the patronage pie, one he feared might be reduced given that his present parliamentary bloc is smaller than it was in the previous government.

Circumventing bureaucracy, as Rafiq Hariri did, can work. But it is expensive, unsustainable and is one reason among others why Lebanon’s public debt grew so quickly in the 1990s. Economic reform is a nice idea, but it is best applied in the margins where it is more easily achievable. We would be naïve to assume the economic system can be overhauled when politics are played as they are.    

Michael Young  

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