Lebanon needs concrete steps to tackle corruption to restore confidence

Without trust

Photo by Greg Demarque | Executive
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Trust in politicians and governments is usually a result of a successful performance, but it is also—perhaps more significantly—an ingredient for success. Without it, citizens and businesses are less likely to respond to public policies, especially those that are seeking to promote economic recovery and stability. Trust is necessary to increase the confidence of investors and consumers alike, while also being essential for key economic activities—most notably finance and banking—and for upholding the rule of law.

Trust in politicians and governments has become a rare but vital commodity. Data shows that trust is deteriorating across the globe, including in OECD countries. In Lebanon, trust levels are among the worst in the world. In 2017, the World Economic Forum ranked Lebanon 128th out of 137 countries in terms of public trust in politicians, a score of just 1.7 out of a possible seven. In February 2019, a poll by Beirut-based consultancy firm Information International found that 85 percent of Lebanese lacked trust in their government. While it may be possible to argue with the methodologies of such studies, there is no denying the unprecedented social upheaval that has been sweeping across the country since October 17. And with the economy on the brink of collapse, action must be taken—now—to narrow that trust gap.

Integrity is considered a crucial element of trust, yet Lebanon does not fare well on indicators measuring integrity or the lack thereof; it consistently performs poorly in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. In 2018, Lebanon ranked 138th out of 180 countries, with a score of 28 out of 100, compared to a regional average of 34 and a global average of 43. The score for 2019 is due in January and expected to be even worse.
Lebanese politicians of every creed are finally acknowledging that decisive action is needed to curb corruption. Nonetheless, concrete and meaningful steps forward remain absent. Decades-long inaction has been replaced by a bias to adversarial and erratic case-based action, without proper prosecutions and major convictions. If such actions were meant to restore trust, then they have done exactly the opposite.

Much needed structural reforms remain unheeded. The adoption of Lebanon’s first-ever national anti-corruption strategy has been repeatedly delayed, as has passage of, or updates to, critical legislation, such as amendments to the grossly flawed illicit enrichment law and the introduction of conflict of interest regulation. Even when relevant legislative breakthroughs are made, countless obstacles emerge barring effective implementation—the access to information law is case in point.
The widening trust gap and poor performance on anti-corruption have created a vicious circle, but one that Lebanon can escape with real political will.

Adopting the national anti-corruption strategy and establishing an independent national anti-corruption agency is just the beginning. Ensuring that both have the appropriate financial and human resources to start working immediately is the real test of trust. The independence of the judiciary is also imperative. This will require legislative amendments that allow the Higher Judicial Council to carry out judicial appointments and rotations, but beyond that, also safeguard every judge against undue influence and ensure that the council itself is formed and functions according to principles of good governance. Only with all these steps in place can real progress take place.

Beyond those initial steps, parallel paths of legislative and executive action to enhance integrity are needed in two other spheres of public policy—people in decision-making positions and public money. This includes deep and meaningful reforms related to public procurement, election financing, and modernizing the country’s audit and control system.

Such reforms will inevitably take time, but trust cannot wait. Lebanon needs swift and immediate action to ensure that specific integrity measures can be seen through in the span of a few months. This includes executive action to seize critical opportunities to demonstrate integrity in practice, namely in relation to large infrastructure projects and areas where there will be major investments, such as in electricity, or potential major revenues, such as oil and gas. It also includes ensuring full compliance with Law 28 (2017) on access to information. This can be achieved by implementing the national action plan that was drafted for this purpose, but not yet adopted. It also includes overhauling the country’s archaic systems of asset declaration by public officials and introducing effective measures to regulate the working relationship between the public and private sectors and manage conflict of interests.

As the saying goes, “a fool throws a stone into a well and it requires a hundred wise men to get it out again.” For this Christmas, I am wishing for wise men and women.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the editorial views of Executive Magazine, nor the views of the UN or the UNDP.

Arkan el-Seblani is the regional manager for anti-corruption in Arab countries at the United Nations Development Programme.

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