Farid el-Khazen, 49, has been a Member of Parliament since 2005 and is the author of The Breakdown of the State in Lebanon. He is also a professor of political science and former chairperson of the department of political studies and public administration at the American University of Beirut. Mr. Khazen is running with the Change and Reform bloc for the Maronite seat in the Kesrouan 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 elevate the poverty situation?
Poverty in Lebanon is the result of a lack of policies to deal with this problem, and as you know the priorities of the government have been elsewhere since the end of the war in 1990. This is not an issue that was given sufficient attention. There has been attention or concern or interest by international organizations that dealt with this issue in Lebanon, but not much has been done when it comes to government and I think this has to go by sectors.
For instance, on the issue of hunger and households — I am not an expert on this issue but I assume that it has to go by age group, by gender and by region. The policy of simply giving aid, which is the classical approach, may be needed for the very poor, but beyond that I think that one should create security and jobs and provide an opportunity for these people to work. This is one effective way to elevate poverty.
Some regions are definitely poorer than others but there are also needy sectors or sectors that need development all over Lebanon, not only one region or another. This does not apply only to poverty; it applies to other areas.
In the region that I represent, Kesrouan, public schools are in very bad shape, while in other regions public schools are much better. I would not [just] go by region, I would go by where there is poverty and where there is need for infrastructure and the need for human development. Definitely there are more poor people in some regions than in others.
E EDL has been a drain on the budget for more than a decade now; what would you do to decrease expenditure and improve efficiency?
The debt that Lebanon has is partly due to this problem, the funding of EDL. This is a monumental factor; it is the worst and the most costly problem in the country and it’s been going on since the end of the war — almost 20 years now and nothing has been done.
This is not a problem that surfaced last year or a few months ago. This is due to mismanagement, corruption and a variety of factors that all converge on one thing, the policy of the so called muhasasa [a situation by which parts of a whole are split up amongst stakeholders].
Over the years, the money that has been spent to subsidize the EDL could have been used in a different way and then used to build new plants. So what is the best approach today? We are still waiting to produce electricity by gas that we don’t have and we don’t have the proper infrastructure for it. It’s a vicious circle and in my view that should be given top priority. First we need to deal with the immediate problem and find ways to produce electricity at a lower price and again I am not an expert. I am not familiar with the proposals to comment whether it is a proposal by Mr.A or Mr.B.
E In order to service Lebanon’s mountain of debt, policy has always been enacted to tax the private sector. Will this continue to be the basis of the government under your party and what will you do to spur on private sector growth?
The private sector at some point in the ‘90s had been given incentives, but with the overall policy, the political process was not at all favorable for the public sector to flourish.
You say you lower taxes or eliminate taxation or whatever, but it is still uneven and there is no long term vision. You may support the private sector through certain policies, but there is an overall political situation that is really counter to that support, and there is also this problem of corruption which does not at all go well with the private sector and how it should operate.
The private sector — especially when you are dealing with exports — it’s not simply the issue of taxation. I don’t know what the tax rate is here in comparison with other neighboring countries, say Jordan or the Gulf, but definitely it’s a package of taxes and proper administrative procedures and the overall political situation. The package in Lebanon is not competitive. You have to make it competitive so that Lebanon can really become, once again, the business center of the region that it was before the war.
E Recently the 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?
We have other problems in the region, mainly infrastructure and the absence of any sewage system, water pollution and waste water treatment plants. This is a major problem in the region.
When it comes to schools, I mean public schools. Public schools cost [money]. The average student in a public school would cost more than in a private school and therefore there is a huge problem; it should cost less. Plus the level of education is not as good or comparable to that of private schools. Had it been better, more parents would have been likely to send their kids to public schools.
It’s not simply schools, it’s also universities and in recent years. In the last 10 years or so, the government or the Ministry of Education have given licenses to several institutions which are not qualified to become universities and today are called universities. Students will graduate from a so-called university; they have a diploma and they think they can work with this diploma when in fact they cannot. They cannot compete with the students graduating from the established universities in the country. We have so many engineering schools, so many businesses [schools], so many medical [schools] — its total chaos.
We are a small country and already we have more than 40 so- called universities and more to come. They keep on presenting proposals for licenses and there is no policy on this. There is a lack of enforcement and this started in the ‘90s and then became chaotic, and you have political interest at stake sometimes, sometimes clientelism, sometimes nepotism, all the ills of society are there so this is an issue that needs to be addressed first.
E Telecommunications privatization has been stifled by politics and market conditions. How will you encourage competition and root out bad governance in the sector?
There is bad governance in all sectors, in all of the above. The current minister has done something that is a great achievement by lowering prices. This is a major achievement and I don’t know why this was not done before Minister Bassil came to office. The minute this service started in the mid-90s, corruption started there.
When it comes to privatization, in this sector or in any other sector, it cannot be simply privatization by the norms that apply in a number of developing countries where privatization meant private property not [real] privatization. We have seen this in a number of countries in the Middle East and elsewhere. If it is privatization by the norms that apply in Europe or developed markets where there is transparency, then yes [we agree]. Otherwise privatization becomes synonymous with private business. Under the label of privatization we can get into a very bad situation in all sectors. So we are for privatization and we support privatization, but again it should not be politicized; it should be totally transparent and it should go by the rules and the norms that are in application in other countries. We opt for privatization when we know that we can assure that we can abide by these laws. Otherwise it’s not simply the rush for privatization. Privatization, if not applied properly, is not a recipe for reform. It becomes a recipe for corruption. [I support] no politicization, transparency and the norms that are in application — the best practices.