Yassine Jaber, 58, has been a member of Parliament since 1996 and has held several posts in the Lebanese government. He has served as a former Minister of Economy and Trade as well as Minister of Public Works and Transport. Mr. Jaber is part of the Amal Movement and is running for the Shiite seat in the Nabatieh electoral district.
E The United Nations estimates that 28.5 percent of Lebanon’s population lives below the poverty line and 300,000 people live in extreme poverty. What will you do to alleviate the poverty situation?
In terms of poverty, two issues are involved. First, we have to provide a safety net for the poor, so that is why we talk about health, we talk about education and we talk about social help by having the social affairs Ministry become more ethical.
The other face [of the coin] of course is that you cannot give money to people to make them less poor. We have to work on economic development. To have economic development there are requirements that involve many issues. How can you eliminate poverty if you don’t encourage agriculture? Most of the poor people live in the rural areas and other parts of Lebanon that have been completely neglected. We have to work on agriculture; we have to encourage more production in industry. But, for instance, how can you have agriculture without having water and irrigation systems and all that?
E Do you think infrastructure development is the main issue that needs to be addressed?
No, not only. It’s policies that will help provide infrastructure. If you have the right policies and the supporting infrastructure, then you can have more economic activity. Of course you need there to be stability.
E Électricité du Liban (EDL) has been a drain on the budget for over a decade; what will you do to decrease expenditure and improve efficiency?
The first step is to start implementing Law 462 issued in 2002. We have to diversify, we have to find new sources of energy, we have to encourage new policies. But, we have a very rigid system at the moment where we are unable to employ new talents and develop a new management.
EDL… [falls] under a decree called 4517 which puts a lot of restrictions on the way you employ people and on the salaries you pay to engineers and technicians. Which engineer do you know who will work for $600 or $700 per month?
The law 462, which is a law that restructures the electricity system in Lebanon, first of all stipulates that EDL has to be corporatized. Once you corporatize, it’s easier to maneuver. It’s easier to bring in talent and to make decisions. At the moment it’s impossible. The cadre of EDL [should be] 5,800 people and they only have 2,000 whose average age is 58 years old. It is impossible to work under such circumstances. I think we need to restructure it, corporatize it and allow it to work as a private company…
Once it is corporatized, we should allow the private sector to come into production because I don’t think Lebanon is going to be able to finance factories that we need. Open the window for the private sector to take part. For those who panic at the word ‘privatization’, this is not 100 percent. In the law [Law 462] we made sure — and I was one of the MPs who took part in every detail of the law — not to allow immediate sale in the sector. It’s corporatized, [meaning] it could, at a time to be decided, whenever [the government] feels comfortable, sell a share not more than 40 percent, a minority share, to the private sector; if they decide not to, [the government] could not sell and as we go on. If it’s flourishing and making a lot of money for the government, then we can sell tranches of the shares.
This sector is very important but for those who panic at private sector involvement, well, at the moment the private sector is producing most of the electricity through small generators in every street in Lebanon. At least we will have a uniform system that functions.
E What do you think about the distribution and collection side of things? Do you think these should also be considered for privatization?
It could be discussed. Lebanon could be cut into sectors and get the private sector involved, but first you have to start being able to have the authority to look at the idea. Unless the law is implemented, you cannot start… Once you implement the law, all these options become available. Then you can introduce policies.
It’s not only, for example, a matter of producing new capacities of electricity. Also we have to look at the possibility of every home in Lebanon having its hot water system work on solar energy. We have to encourage people to go into solar energy because we have 300 days of sunshine in Lebanon.
So we have to change the way we are running the electricity sector at the moment by implementing the law and bring[ing] more freedom to management to bring in new talent, new producers from the private sector as well as look[ing] at all the options of how you collect. Let’s hope that the new government can embark on this new approach.
E The servicing of Lebanon’s debt is weighing heavily on Lebanon. How will you reallocate inflows and payments to service this debt while still maintaining public services and decreasing the budget deficit?
First we have to stop the drain. You have to look at all the black holes to stop the deficit from growing, then work towards reducing the budget deficit. Dealing with the electricity issue is one aspect of it because it is a component, as well as looking at the banking sector as part of the solution and not part of the problem. Unfortunately, these days some politicians make general statements accusing the banking system of overcharging on the interest. But, I think we liked what happened in Paris II when the banks provided fresh loans for 0 percent. These are ideas that can be looked at.
As an MP at the moment, and to be realistic, we are not going to be able to do anything about the debt unless we start dealing with important issues like the new gas and oil findings in Lebanon. I am very surprised at how slow this present government and the government before have been in dealing with this issue. Unfortunately, PGS (Petroleum Geo Services), which is the company that made the surveys, did them for Lebanon and for Cyprus. If you look at Cyprus today, they have passed a new law; they have started excavation and digging. They are moving forward while we haven’t moved from ‘point A’ yet. We are still at the very beginning.
E Why do you think there is such reluctance to move forward?
I don’t know! This is a question that really bewilders me. The political system in Lebanon has been paralyzing the country. A lot of institutions are paralyzed. For example, sport [facilities] in Lebanon, we don’t use them. Why don’t we give the private sector the opportunity to manage these sports [facilities] for example? Bring events into Lebanon. Unfortunately, you feel like there is no initiative from the government. I feel sometimes that nobody is really sitting down and really thinking about things. Nobody is really sitting down and looking at the big wealth of real estate that the government owns and how to utilize it to make money out of it. These are all issues that I would look at in order to try and bring in new income to reduce the budget deficit. We need to sit down and make a list of priorities and have groups working on every issue that is important.
E Recently the International Labor Organization (ILO) reported that 22,000 students dropped out of schools in Lebanon; what will you do to curb this phenomena and to facilitate human development in Lebanon?
Most of these dropouts are coming out of public schools. As far as human resources, Lebanon has done well in general because of all the private schooling and the good universities. But, we have to pay more attention to the public schools. We have to develop a policy to make sure that students don’t leave.
Not all of the people who drop out are staying in Lebanon and just becoming bums. A lot of young people from the ages of 16 to 18 are leaving to go to Africa or Latin America. In other cases you have families getting poorer and they have to have the boys work; this is why we are seeing an advancement in girl’s education.
I think we have to pay attention to public schools and we have to really work on vocational schools.