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Stand and deliver: The state should answer to the people

The public has a right to hold its government to a standard of accountability

by Rany Kassab

After more than five months of a political stalemate and relentless bickering between opposing politicians, the first government headed by Prime Minister Saad Hariri was sworn in last December, receiving a record-breaking vote of confidence from parliamentarians and signaling, one would hope, the beginning of a new phase for Lebanon.

But the Lebanese have become increasingly cynical vis-à-vis any notion that a change in names will actually lead to a change in governance. They have grown skeptical that a new government would actually present a policy statement reflecting political, social, economic and cultural dimensions.

Even when governments did go as far as to establish a “viable” and “realistic” policy statement, they seldom went the extra mile in actually implementing its clauses, creating somewhat of a schizophrenia between rhetoric and reality on the ground.

Discussing the cabinet’s policy statement in our “consensual democracy” has become a formality and an end in itself. The cabinet’s policy statement, the core of a democratic government’s agenda and its raison d’être, has been all but drained of its substance and essence, becoming simply a hollow package and a distant fleeting memory of a pledge for a better future.

Accountability, thus, is what has been missing in our part of the world. It is the root of democracy, and only by raising the level of our political maturity in demanding accountability from our elected officials can we move to a state of near perfect balance, in which citizens have both rights and responsibilities.

According to the American author Michael Armstrong, “The ancient Romans had a tradition: whenever one of their engineers constructed an arch, as the capstone was hoisted into place, the engineer assumed accountability for his work in the most profound way possible: he stood under the arch.”

Granted, this might be taking things to the extreme, but extreme measures might be the only cure left to our ailing democracy if we are to move from a tradition of electing officials based on family ties, personal interests or sectarian allegiances, to one of electing officials based on their competence, track record and capacity to “walk the talk.”

Accountability is certainly not a new concept. It has been around ever since the days of Socrates and Plato in ancient Greece. It was also one of the key offshoots of the French Revolution which, in 1794, established accountability of the government through the establishment of the national archives and the citizen’s right of access to government documents. Accountability is also a key pillar of the corporate world, whereby executives and company board members are primarily liable and accountable to their shareholders, but also to their stakeholders, and where companies are answerable to their customers and are penalized in case their products and services are perceived as not offering their “promised” value.

Therefore, what we need to do in our part of the world is to try to change mentalities and entrench the concept of accountability. Communication plays a central role in that.

Achieving the desired level of political and social “awakening” requires constant efforts to educate the general public on the intricacies of true citizenship, with what it requires in terms of rights and responsibilities, being accountable and holding elected officials accountable. Academics have a role to play on that level by pushing for the infusion of curricula in schools and universities centered on civic responsibility.

Members of the civil society, meanwhile, can positively influence public opinion (through media campaigns, publications, rallies, press conferences, meetings, viral online communication, etc.) while serving as watchdogs, sanctioning the government in case it goes off-track and fails to abide by its promises.

The media, as the fourth estate, has a paramount role and duty to exercise as well, in both educating the general public and disseminating the right messages on the need for a new social contract, but first and foremost in acting as guardian of the public interest and as “auditor” of the activities of the government. In a country that still prides itself as being a beacon of free press in the region, Lebanese media has an even greater responsibility to “keep the government in check”, ensuring that it implements the policies based on which it had gained the confidence of the people’s representatives.

While it has yet to live up to people’s expectations, the new Hariri government set a precedent in Lebanese history, in establishing a “National Priorities” agenda encompassing a series of concrete time-bound steps to be taken as part of the government’s short, medium, and long-term plans to tackle issues affecting Lebanese the most in their everyday life.

These priorities, owned by the people, should delineate the government’s course of action and its focus going forward. Our role, now, is to hold the government accountable on its ability to implement the “National Priorities” agenda. Only when we have exercized our legitimate rights a citizens can we as Lebanese truly start to claim that our democracy is safe and sound.

Rany Kassab, Zeina Loutfi & Ramsay G. Najjar S2C

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Rany Kassab


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Zeina Loutfi

Zeina Loutfi works for Lebanese communication experts S2C
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Ramsay G. Najjar

Ramsay G. Najjar is founder of Lebanese communication experts S2C
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