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Driving us mad

The link between the lost budget and you stuck in traffic

by Sami Halabi

Inching along amid a cacophony of horns in one of Lebanon’s estimated 1.6 million vehicles leaves a driver with ample time for reflection. As the clock on the dash ticks past another hour and the feet maneuver endlessly from gas to brake, how the country reached this point inevitably comes to mind. 

For the sixth year running the country is set to operate without a budget. The president has again broken his oath to uphold the constitution, which states a budget must be passed by the end of January. 

This is beyond unfortunate. With a budget comes some sort of policy framework that, in theory, commits the government to put its money where its mouth is. What we have currently is the politically calculated calamity of treasury advances, a crude process where cabinet has to agree on every spending measure outside of the 2005 budget. In any case, hardly any money that came from the people that year, or any subsequent year, comes back to them through the budget. That’s because after the debt servicing is paid to the banks, the deficit of Électricité du Liban is covered and the salaries of the patronage apparatus (also known as the public sector) are paid, the state is already in a deficit. 

Any further spending, with borrowed funds, lies solely in the hands of cabinet. In other words, the money borrowed on behalf of the public, that should be spent on the public good, becomes fodder for the overlords pulling the strings at the cabinet table in their petty battles and under-the-table deals. The fact that the funds of $1.2 billion agreed to by cabinet for new power plant construction is to be allocated from the next budget — regardless of how unlikely it is to manifest — and not done through a treasury advance, highlights how little intent exists in cabinet to actually implement reforms.

Thus no one should be surprised when they look out from the windows of their cars to find themselves locked tight in an inescapable labyrinth of metal, given the absence of government policy to reform public transportation. To say that we are approaching tipping point in terms of what our roads can handle would be tardy commentary — we are well past that point. Since our policy makers ceased producing budgetary policy, more than 500,000 cars have entered the country, with the current trend at around 100,000 cars every year. The traffic and the pollution can only get worse. 

But traffic aside all these cars are, quite literally, starting to drive the economy and an increasing proportion of the job market. Already the value of the car imports totals some 4 percent of gross domestic product, which doesn’t help much given that this is money leaving the country, not staying in it to create employment. Then consider all the customs and fees, which account for another 4 percent of GDP, which people must pay to a government that does little for them in return.  And since the years of economic growth were “jobless,” in the words of the last finance minister, many local private sector jobs are now being steered by those very same cars. 

Figures relating to how many people are directly and indirectly employed in the automotive sector are sketchy, not least because a national labor survey has never been conducted. But the sprawl of the ‘car economy’ can easily be seen with just a glance at the countless mechanics in Goberi, Sarafand or on the road to Halba, or the armies of valet parking attendants and cabs in the capital.  

With labor-intensive sectors such as agriculture in decline and the trade or services having a small labor component, the options left for gainful employment are hardly the professions that will produce a society that progresses beyond being passive consumers of imports, or one that has the political and economic infrastructure to build anything else. The longer we go without a shift in the financial dictates that rule the country, the more our job market and our economy will be skewed toward import-based sectors, rather than creating one that can compete productively on an international level. 

Unless our financial policy makes an abrupt U-turn, we will continue to be driven mad by our politicians and, perhaps deservedly, ourselves.

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Sami Halabi

Sami Halabi is the director of knowledge and co-founder of Triangle, a development, policy, and media consulting firm. He is also the former managing editor of Executive Magazine.

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