By his own admission, caretaker Minister of Economy and Trade Nicolas Nahas has had a frustrating year — as a member of a resigned government, unable to implement policy, but still blamed for the stagnating economy. Executive sat down with him to discuss the impact of the conflict in Syria and the formation of a new government in Lebanon.
What stage is the Lebanese Syrian Conflict Trust Fund [to help stabilize the economy] at and how much will you be seeking?
It is an idea. It was developed during the visit of President [Michel] Sleiman to New York and has been taken on with the World Bank in Washington. We have organized several meetings where we have set [out] the social and economic impact assessment.
We have given [donor countries] the priority of the government, we have given them the concept note of the trust fund, we have given them the way to go forward. It is up to the countries to figure out how they participate.
There have been different kinds of responses — countries that have already pledged to the fund, others have said they will study it, others prefer bilateral [aid].
Do you believe that without a new government potential funders will not give?
We are not there yet. We are in the process of making the idea workable. We are setting the priorities, we are taking advantage of the time in front of us before the donor meeting where everything should be ready — including a new government.
Could formal refugee camps take some of the strain off the Lebanese government, as the bill would be picked up by the international community?
Being in camps or not being in camps wouldn’t change that. Whenever they are registered as a refugee they are taken care of by international organizations.
But they are using the already crowded public school sectors and public hospitals, rather than specific facilities paid for by the international community…
Whenever we can help them, we help them. It is not a matter of being in camps to cater for health and education and everything. They are registered as refugees and the United Nations organizations have the means to give them the services.
Would you agree 2013 was a lost year in terms of policy making?
2013 was a year where there was no government. So by definition no government — no policy. There is no government.
For yourself in 2013, would you say you had any successes — things you achieved despite the collapse of the government?
Again, it was a resigned government. How could we see any?
The Finance Minister Mohammad Safadi has said that he believes there could be 0 percent growth in 2014. Is that a view you share?
I don’t know from where he has these assumptions… The figure in 2013 and the figure in 2012 don’t show we will have 0. But let us see, it is early to speak about 2014.
What should be the first priorities of the incoming minister of economy, whoever he or she is?
Stability, stability, stability. Whenever there is stability the private sector is capable of generating the kind of activity which is needed to have growth again.
There are a lot of things that are totally possible — all it needs is a political solution on when and how to start this huge set of reforms which should be implemented in every aspect of Lebanon.
There is an incredible amount of negativity about 2014 among the Lebanese business community. What would you say to those who are worried they might lose their businesses?
They are right to be conservative, to be alarmed, but the figures do not show that we are in recession. We are in a slow motion growth; we are not in the peak time, we are in the down time. The economy is about peak and downtime.
The most important [thing] is to consolidate our activity, to reduce our costs and to wait until the external factors are there to allow us to go forward with the economy — as happened in 2006, as has happened every time since 1975.
This year we have seen the highest level of industrial machine [imports], we still have the creation of new companies, the central bank has made available new loans. There are so many initiatives going on, and there is activity. But there is no other way — we consolidate, we reduce our costs and we wait until we go for a new launch.