When Lebanon signed the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) in 2008, our political elite unwittingly embarked on a path toward better governance and more transparency. For many reading this article, this statement will come as a surprise—particularly given the high levels of corruption in Lebanon today and the general perception that no one is tackling this problem.
But perceptions of rampant corruption in Lebanon notwithstanding, it cannot be denied that important work has been taking place behind the scenes over the past few years—work that most Lebanese are unaware of. In 2012, for example, a steering committee at the cabinet level was created, in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme, to begin the work of adapting the Lebanese legal and regulatory framework to comply with the requirements of UNCAC. In 2017, the Access to Information Law was finally approved, having originally being presented as a draft law to Parliament in 2009 by a coalition of 17 NGOs, which included the Lebanese Transparency Organization (LTA), and members of Parliament. This year has also seen numerous positive steps: In April 2018, the government announced Lebanon’s first ever National Anti-Corruption Strategy, and in September 2018, Parliament approved three laws that will further reinforce the legal and regulatory framework in the fight against corruption. These laws focus on whistleblower protection, transparency in oil and gas exploration, and e-government transactions. There are further draft laws, such as a new law on illicit wealth and one on the creation of a National Anti-Corruption Agency, that are still lingering in Parliament, awaiting approval.
And lingering is the right word to use, because while our political elite have set off on a path to reform, there is a clear perception among members of Lebanon’s civil society that this same elite is using every possible delaying tactic. Many would argue that the only reason Parliament suddenly approved three anti-corruption laws in September is because Lebanon desperately needs international support to prop up the national economy, which is at its weakest since the end of the civil war. This support will hopefully be delivered through international commitments made during CEDRE, but only if the new government enacts and implements key reforms, including reforms in the different public procurement processes under its control.
Within this context, what role should the LTA and other like-minded NGOs play? On the one hand, we need to continue advocating for further anti-corruption legislation and learn how to advocate more effectively, through improved use of collective action and other advocacy tactics. On the other hand, we also need to play an active role in enabling the actual implementation of the anti-corruption laws that have already been approved. This will mean working with citizens, the media, the private sector, and our allies in the public sector—acting as a watchdog on the implementation of these laws.
One example of the role anti-corruption activists can play is the current initiative to establish an independent audit committee, chaired by civil society, to monitor the transparency and fairness of the bidding processes managed by the High Council for Privatization and Public-Private Partnership (HCP). The HCP, created back in 2000 as the High Council of Privatization, was mandated as Lebanon’s public-private partnership (PPP) body last year, with the passage of the PPP law. This is significant, as 20 projects under CEDRE are categorized as PPPs, so their bidding processes will be managed by the HCP. These projects include improvements to the electricity sector, waste management, public transportation (such as the expansion of Beirut’s airport), and water management. Each of these projects can have a significant positive impact on the daily life—and health—of Lebanese citizens, and it is our right to be informed about how funds are allocated to and spent within these projects. In this context, the HCP should be commended for enabling this independent monitoring process—a first in Lebanese history, and hopefully an inspiration for other like-minded public entities.
So, who should we be aiming our advocacy at? Who is accountable to us as Lebanese citizens? MPs? Ministers? I would argue none of the above. Indeed, they are all chosen and nominated by just six people—the heads of the political parties that dominate politics in the country. All of our advocacy efforts should be aimed instead toward these six individuals.