Events surrounding the massive blast that decimated the cosmopolitan city of Beirut have sparked outrage regarding poverty and corruption in Lebanon. The conclusion that many journalists and analysts have come to is that the bomb that went off on the Port of Beirut was an accident due to negligence by a corrupt, inefficient and sectarian government. As a result of the blast, 200 people died, many more were injured and 300,000 became homeless. Not to mention the economic devastation to Lebanon, with an estimated cost of $15 billion in losses to the entire country. The bombing has damaged an already strained healthcare system that is dealing with a global pandemic, causing a humanitarian crisis. This has sparked massive outrage in the form of protests taking over government ministries, calling for a revolution and a complete overhaul of the political system. However, this catastrophe only represents the tip of the iceberg, as we will see how the problem of corruption (and its link to poverty) has been mounting in Lebanon.
The Troubles Underneath
Lebanon scores 28 out of 100 (0 being highly corrupt and 100 being least corrupt) in the Corruption Perception Index. This is in many ways due to the system of patronage. The country is ruled by a patronage system in which the political elite exchange political support for jobs, contracts and other benefits and resources distributed by sectarian division. Political rule is inherited through sectarian lines as the government and legislative seats are filled through the use of sectarian networks and contacts. The result is a political system made up of three parties that cannot be challenged by independent actors. Not to mention, a system with no accountability and massive inefficiencies.
Maya Terro, co-founder and executive director at FoodBlessed, spoke with The Borgen Project, stating “in Lebanon, the effects of corruption permeate every corner of public life.” She went on to explain that corruption is widespread at all levels of Lebanese society. The Lebanese public tends to view both the political institutions, such as political parties and parliament, and government institutions, such as public administration and the police, as “the most corrupt institutions of the country.” Terro then expanded on the economic life in Lebanon, pointing out that corruption, as well as a lack of proper infrastructure and bureaucracy, leads to disincentivizing of conducting economic activity in the country. Businesses are usually faced with a weak judiciary system that is subject to petty bribes as well as political interference.
Private industry is also hampered by an unreliable and unaccountable police force, public services covered in bribes and sectarian patronage. This scenario shows further problems with a public procurement system filled with favoritism. Protecting whistleblowers is one of the ways to combat this corruption. Unfortunately, a report from Transparency International in 2015 did indicate a lack of major laws protecting whistleblowers and access to information from the government, which are important when investigating corruption.
The Correlation with Corruption and Poverty
Poverty and corruption in Lebanon are highly linked. As the country is embroiled in corruption, half of its population lives under the poverty line. The top economic 1% in Lebanon owns a quarter of the wealth, with 0.1% making the same amount of income as the bottom 50%. The unemployment rate is a staggering 30%. In her interview with The Borgen Project, Terro pointed out that income inequality is a major drive for corruption. Those who are very well off are incentivized to engage in corruption to further their wealth while impoverished communities are motivated by poverty to make a living. She further explains, “I can say from my own observations and based on scientific research is that the wealthy have both greater motivation and more opportunity to engage in corruption, whereas the poor are more vulnerable to extortion and less able to monitor and hold the rich and powerful accountable as inequality increases.”
Additionally, “at the institutional level, economic loss and inefficiency are further exacerbated by corruption. Corruption also exacerbates poverty by creating a state of unequal opportunities in which advantages arise only for those within a corrupt clientelistic network,” says Terro. The power-sharing patronage system has caused further poverty and corruption in Lebanon to the point where a bomb blast occurred in the middle of an economic crisis that the country was experiencing.
Drivers of Change
When asked about her view on the roles of NGOs and aid organizations such as USAID have in helping with the issue of poverty and corruption in Lebanon, Terro said “it doesn’t fight it much because institutions like these only deal with the effects, they don’t and can’t do much when it comes to the root causes of corruption in Lebanon, which are many-fold indeed and vary sometimes from one institution to another and from one person to another.”
However, it is worth highlighting certain actions that NGOs have taken in tackling poverty and corruption in Lebanon. For one, Transparency International engaged in an investigative and documentary campaign that highlighted pollution of the riverside in the Bar Elias town and the sickness it was causing the locals after the government ignored the problem. Advocacy by NGOs has partly helped create the National Anti-Corruption Commission, which is composed of experienced professionals independent and inexperienced in politics. When asked about her view on what’s the best way to tackle poverty and corruption in Lebanon, Terro said “you need to start with the root causes and beyond filing reports and media — shaming the corrupt, not much has been done beyond that. What is needed is action, not more reports.” This action was manifested in the October Revolution and recent protests from cross-sectarian divisions demanding radical change to the political system. Finally, there is the mounting pressure that is coming from the international community (especially from Emmanuel Macron) in forcing the government of Lebanon to implement necessary reformations to receive necessary foreign aid.
Today, the country is currently going into uncertainty after the resignation of the designated MP Mustafa Adib after it became clear that Iran-backed militias are hijacking the French initiative to reform the country. Following Adib’s resignation, former Prime Minister and billionaire Saad Al Hariri took the position after being ousted from that position a year ago. The political class seems incapable of implementing a reformation that would topple the system it has put into power. It appears that the three factors showing hope to tackle poverty and corruption in Lebanon are the anger and revolt of the Lebanese people, external pressures by actors like Macron and civil society groups that have previously filled the vacuum left by the government. For example, the environmental NGO Al-Shouf Cedar Society, and the majors of different districts are in cooperation in the management of Al-Shouf Ceder Nature Reserve. When it comes to aiding refugees from Syria, Lebanese NGOs, which are mostly funded by the U.N., tend to be the primary provider of aid. After the blast in Beirut, three women affected by the explosion started the grassroots community organization Khaddit Beirut and identified 100 local businesses that it aims to help, thereby creating 1,600 jobs. The group aims to harness the local energy of volunteers to aid the recovery of the city after the tragedy happened.
Following the Beirut explosion, NGOs and the Lebanese government are highlighting poverty and corruption in Lebanon and are actively working to address the root causes. However, there is still much to be done to alleviate the political corruption in Lebanon. Civil society groups and Lebanese NGOs are critical actors in reforming political action.
– Mustafa Ali