Home Economics & Policy Calling out corruption

Calling out corruption

New initiatives offer a fleeting hope of cleaner government

by Jeremy Arbid

In late July, Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF) quietly issued a statement calling on citizens to report violations of fraud, nepotism and corruption by security force personnel, as part of its attempt to stop illicit activity by officers from within its own ranks.

The complaint system is part of an overall effort to build community trust in the ISF. Corruption is rampant in Lebanon’s public sector, and the new system is but one of several new initiatives in the country aimed at pointing out the misdeeds of civil servants and changing the way Lebanese perceive the notion of corruption. But despite these programs’ laudable stated goals, whether or not they can be effective — or are themselves properly transparent — remains in deep doubt.

No anonymity allowed

[pullquote]None of the options allow reporters to file their complaint confidentially[/pullquote]

For the ISF’s part, a lack of public trust hinders the force’s ability to serve the interests of its constituents. A poll published in August 2014 by the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections found that only 36 percent of the nearly 10,000 poll respondents said they had full trust in security forces. Meanwhile, a national opinion poll conducted by the Norwegian Fafo Institute for Applied International Studies in May 2013 interviewing 900 Lebanese also found that only 36 percent had a ‘great deal of confidence’ in the police. Neither survey differentiated between the ISF and municipal police forces. “The result is a culture very cynical of the state’s capacity — a culture of apathy and lack of trust in state institutions,” says Nadim Houry, deputy director of the MENA region for international NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW), adding that from the state’s perspective, outreach by the institutions can work toward addressing this culture.

Leadership at the ISF seems to agree. The force’s recent initiatives have attempted to change perceived images of the ISF, starting with a rehabilitation earlier this year of its most notorious police station, Makhfar Hbeish, located in the Ras Beirut district.

But in its recent statement, the ISF shifted blame from the institution, saying, “Some have promised to recruit people in exchange for money or benefits,” indicating that the problem of corruption is not only an internal issue but extends into Lebanese society, where desperate families press for their son or daughter to be selected for ISF recruitment.

The ISF statement quickly clarified that its recruitment process was based on merit and follows “certain conditions, standards and most of all, qualifications,” requesting victims to come forward and report scammers.

To report such a violation, the newly implemented complaint system provides victims with three reporting options — an online portal, in-person complaint or via the postal service. But none of the options allow reporters to file their complaint confidentially. In order to access the online portal, for example, individuals must register their profile, providing full identification — including family name, date of birth, telephone number and address — hardly reassuring for a victim fearful of possible reprisal.

[pullquote]The likelihood that victims will be willing to come forward seems low, given that they’ll have to submit all their identifying information[/pullquote]

A 2013 report by HRW recommended to Lebanon’s Ministry of Interior the establishment of “a centralized and accessible system for receiving and processing complaints [against the] Internal Security Forces.” It’s too early to comment on the effectiveness of the ISF’s new complaint system, says Houry, because “it’s not clear how the complaint mechanism will work in practice. We haven’t yet seen the sort of public reporting — statistics coming out to look at trends — which would be an important metric.”

The likelihood that victims will be willing to come forward seems low, given that they’ll have to submit all their identifying information. When asked how the ISF ensures the privacy of a victim, who may fear retribution from the offending police officer, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Moussallem, head of public relations for the ISF insisted, “If he is afraid he can give [the complaint] through private associations like KAFA [the NGO has a social and legal counseling center] or other human rights associations.”

The ISF’s new system is a step in the right direction, says Houry, but transparency in reporting and accountability of offenders cannot be overemphasized. “At least on the leadership level they’re talking a better game. This is a positive step but it falls short from what is truly needed, which is true accountability — that there should be consequences for bad actions and clear communication about it — issuing once a month the number of complaints and how the complaints were handled.”

“There’s also a broader issue of oversight. Internal oversight mechanisms are not enough. You need more effective oversight by the judiciary — an external body ensuring respect for Lebanese laws, including the penal code,” Houry adds.

Challenging public perception

The issue goes even deeper according to some. “Corruption is embedded in the Lebanese culture,” says Amer Khayyat, secretary general of the Arab Anti-Corruption Organization based in Beirut. “The only thing political leaders care about is preserving a weak central government. When the people find their representative in this mood, they couldn’t care less,” he adds. 

[pullquote]”Internal oversight mechanisms are not enough. You need more effective oversight by the judiciary — an external body ensuring respect for Lebanese laws, including the penal code”[/pullquote]

Bribery and nepotism are among Lebanon’s most serious corruption challenges, writes Transparency International in an overview of corruption in Lebanon published in late 2012. The international organization gave Lebanon a score of 28/100 in its 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index, indicating a highly corrupt public sector. Its 2014 report, expected later this year, will rank Lebanon probably in a similar standing, but a slew of newly introduced initiatives aim to change this perception by giving citizens a mechanism for reporting and filing complaints.

One way corruption manifests in Lebanon is through the well trodden system of informal personal connections used both as a job seeking function as well as a method to expedite the processing of documents and administerial procedures. The informal currency of wasta — roughly translated, ‘influence’ — forms a system of connections and affiliations to public officials or to influential politicians. “At least 20 percent of students say that they resort to political connections and 73 percent think that political connections are important to find jobs,” concludes a 2013 report polling 300 students conducted by the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. An Enterprise Survey conducted by the World Bank in 2009 found that of the 382 manufacturing firms polled, 66.5 percent cited corruption as a major constraint to business operations while 20.6 percent reported at least one incidence of bribe payment request to facilitate or accelerate government administrative procedures, such as obtaining construction permits or electricity and water connections.

Changing this culture is the aim of initiatives such as the Lebanese Advocacy and Legal Advice Center (LALAC), launched by the Lebanese Transparency Association (LTA), and Sakker El Dekkene, a newcomer to the campaign against corruption in the country. “There’s a need [for] holding the administration accountable for its lack of transparency, good governance, for all the corruption and bribery,” explains Abdo Medlej, president of Sakker El Dekkene.

Close the shop

[pullquote]“The best way is to engage people in this fight. Until now people have not participated in the fight against corruption”[/pullquote]

Sakker El Dekkene — the name roughly translates as ‘close the shop’ — solicits reports of bribery, compiling each case to paint a larger picture of the negative impact corruption has on Lebanese society. Their aim is to empower individuals in a collective effort targeting the way citizens, government employees, the business community and politicians perceive the notion of corruption.

There’s a lack of public trust in government administrations, Medlej explains, that has disincentivized citizens from pointing out the misdeeds of civil servants. It’s a reason he says why the culture surrounding corruption has reached a point of complacency within Lebanese society. “The best way is to engage people in this fight. Until now people have not participated in the fight against corruption,” Medlej says.

Sakker El Dekkene has achieved eye popping numbers since the campaign’s inception in May 2014. As of mid-August, the initiative had reported over LL 902,600,000 ($598,940) in paid bribes to public administrations; the Ministry of Interior led in the number of reported cases with 307 valued at LL 83,350,500 ($55,310), while the Ministry of Finance led in total value of reported bribes at LL 313,405,650 ($207,970).

Medlej and the NGO’s operations manager, Jihad Nammour, explain that when a victim of a bribe reports a case through the initiative’s multiple reporting mechanisms — the website, smartphone applications, a call center hotline — the individual’s voice is heard. “When you report a bribe it’s like you’re voting. You’re saying this administration is bad,” Medlej says.

The method is simple: collect data while creating awareness through education, use this data to put pressure on administrations, then work with the administration to modify the system and procedures. “We’ve already established contact, of course we cannot give details, but something has already started with municipalities, with the ministries, and with other public administrations. You can always find good people,” Medlej indicates.

This is all part of their plan to change the way Lebanese think about the physical act of bribery — how it has sunk into the common routines of citizens’ daily lives — and to consider the effects of corruption both on a micro- and macroeconomic scale. “What we’re working on is changing the system and the whole culture. [Replacing] the one that thinks that ‘corruption is okay, that it gets things done. That it’s not a problem,’ with ‘no it’s not okay, it get’s things done for me now, but it has very bad effects for others,’” Medlej explains.

[pullquote]“What we’re working on is changing the system and the whole culture”[/pullquote]

In doing so, both Medlej and Nammour believe their initiative gives incentive to all Lebanese — from citizens to civil servants, businessmen to politicians — to tackle the issue of corruption at the societal level. The business community, they argue, has a vested interest in the initiative because corruption distorts the market, inflating prices and raising overheads — “Everyone has incentives in tackling the issue of corruption,” Medlej points out.

While the initiative has received seed funding from various donors, including the British Embassy, Medlej and Nammour insisted that the NGO’s finances were none of the public’s business. “There are a lot of people in Lebanon that believe that if there is a foreign donor behind initiatives it’s not a local one and it’s something that should be rejected,” Nammour explains.

“It’s not relevant now,” Medlej says, adding, “It’s not something that we’re hiding, we’ll have a very clear communication when we have the board [of directors in place].”

While the initiative does have foreign funding, there are also many Lebanese donors, Medlej and Nammour insist, who have been the real driving force behind the founding of the NGO and its progress to date.

“The basic infrastructure that was done was funded, but all the other remaining things are done by volunteers and people who believe in the [initiative],” Medlej says.

The spirit that the NGO has encouraged is underlined, Medlej and Nammour say, by the sheer effort of volunteers in supporting the organization. Much of the office equipment is donated. Web development and IT support is free. Volunteers staff the main office and the hotline center. The initiative, Medlej insists, wouldn’t have launched and wouldn’t be operating today if not for the support “from Lebanese donations, from Lebanese companies or individuals.”

“We want to keep this whole spirit,” Nammour explains while discussing the importance of volunteers and collaboration with the business community. “They’re also responsible, they have a social responsibility and they can [serve] this by working with us, giving us three hours per week. That’s what the companies are doing, so this is the point that is really important for us.”

Working the other way

[pullquote]Similar to Sakker El Dekkene, the LALAC program will release information about its funding only when the organization is fully comfortable to do so[/pullquote]

Where Sakker El Dekkene builds individual reports into a symbiotic collectivity, efforts at the LTA aim to build momentum for broader support on a case-by-case basis, working toward passing laws that will allow access to government information and protection of individuals who expose administration misdeeds.

LALAC is a mechanism for citizens to report corrupt actions, reporting violations committed by government or private company employees with emphasis on empowering victims and witnesses to take action against corruption by providing free legal advice and guidance.

Similar to Sakker El Dekkene, the LALAC program will release information about its funding only when the organization is fully comfortable to do so. It is concerning that an NGO advocating on behalf of transparency, for a law to access information from the public sector, is not willing to release its financial information until they’re ready to do so. When asked to comment on this point, Rachel Walsh, LALAC’s project manager, would only tell Executive that the funding period is for two years, with donations from the European Union, the Lebanon Renaissance Foundation and the Center for International Private Enterprise — itself funding LALAC through a grant from the Middle East Partnership Initiative, a US State Department program. “We will release information about the funding amount as part of our communication approach at a later time in an official statement,” adds Walsh.

But the efficacy of the LALAC program is in question. Data from early July indicates that only 263 calls were received through its hotline since the program’s inception in late 2013, and just 120 cases have lawyers willing to represent the victim or witness. This follows intense SMS campaigns encouraging victims of petty corruption to report violators. “We were hoping to receive more than 263 phone calls at first, but we were really disappointed that people were not encouraged enough to report,” says LALAC’s legal advisor Carole Sabty.

This is generally predicated on a fear that a citizen reporting a case is not protected and that reporting will have a negative impact. Many hotline callers do not wish to pursue violators, even when reassured by staff of confidentiality. “Everyone says, ‘We wish we could do something, but if we act or present a claim, our case will not be solved.’ People are afraid,” Sabty says.

“It’s a mix of apathy and fear. Because [marginalized social groups] want to minimize their interaction with the state, they can easily be hurt and not have recourse,” explains HRW’s Houry, adding that “it’s not just fear but apathy and a sense of ‘this is how the system works.’ Their impression is that the system doesn’t work or it’s corrupt so they might as well circumvent the system [through bribery].”

A cleaner future

The fear of retribution in reporting acts of illicit activity by civil servants is one of the driving issues allowing corruption to run rampant and limiting transparency in Lebanon’s public sector.

[pullquote]“You have to have political will to fight corruption. But there is no political will [in Lebanon]”[/pullquote]

Complementing the LALAC program, the LTA is working to assuage this fear through public awareness campaigns and by advocating for two legal measures to tackle corruption and protect those who report violators. The first is a draft law aimed at accessing government information. Many countries refer to this law as the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allowing access by the public, including civil society and media, to access data held by the government. As the LTA’s executive director Ronald Barakat puts it, “This law is needed to inquire for, and receive access to, specific information” — a necessary tool to promote openness and transparency binding government institutions into publishing data. More than 90 countries around the world have some form of this law.

A second legal measure pursued by the LTA is the protection of whistleblowers, those individuals who expose misconduct, alleged dishonesty or illegal activity occurring in an organization, government or private. In 2011, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that whistleblowing is protected as freedom of expression, but only a handful of countries have adopted some form of protection for whistleblowers with even fewer providing comprehensive measures for protection.

A recent press release announced the launching of a social media campaign by the LTA calling for the passage of a law to protect whistleblowers. The law is currently languishing in the parliament, under review by a subcommittee established under the Administration and Justice Committee in 2013 by MP Ghassan Moukheiber.

But at the end of the day, individuals at critical junctures — parliamentarians, ministers, judges and lawyers — have no incentive to promote anti-corruption measures because many currently consider themselves above the law. “You have to have political will to fight corruption. But there is no political will [in Lebanon],” explains Khayyat.

Until legal frameworks are passed to confront institutional corruption by high-level officials and politicians, Lebanon can only look to the ISF to police itself and initiatives like LALAC and Sakker El Dekkene to collect information and raise awareness. One hopes they will be enough.

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Jeremy Arbid

Jeremy Arbid is an energy and public affairs analyst specializing in Lebanon’s oil and gas industry. He was formerly a journalist covering economics and government policy for Executive Magazine in Beirut. His experience includes roles as a policy specialist in Chicago and with the United Nations in Geneva. Jeremy holds a Master's in Public Administration from the American University of Beirut and a Bachelor's in Political Science from Hamline University.

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