Stiff challenges stand in the way of successful decentralization

By Georges Pierre Sassine on May 19, 2014.

A version of this article appeared on May 19, 2014 in the online edition and in the June 2014 print edition of Executive Magazine.

In eLebanon decentralization_Georges Sassine Executive Magazine article June 2014arly April, President Michel Sleiman put forward a draft law calling for administrative decentralization in Lebanon. The lengthy proposal, prepared by an expert committee led by former Minister of Interior Ziyad Baroud, calls for shifting some administrative responsibilities and fiscal resources from the central government to regional councils and municipalities.

The move towards decentralization aims to give different sectarian and regional groups some autonomy and the ability to determine their local affairs, and can certainly be seen to have some merit given the current context of a central state inclined to political paralysis.

However, this latest call for decentralization comes at a time when risks of disintegration along ethnic lines are increasing across the Middle East, including Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. Several analysts expect the Middle East regional map to be redrawn or radical changes in governance systems including federalism or some version of decentralization.

Lessons from other countries suggest that decentralization cannot be used as a cookie cutter solution across countries and instead much depends on how it is designed and the context it is implemented in.

Three core challenges

In the case of Lebanon, there are three core challenges to its decentralization plans: a fragmented national identity, a weak central authority and inadequate local capabilities to execute. These challenges will have to be addressed by a series of other reforms in order for decentralization to be successful.

The Lebanese decentralization draft law should be part of a more comprehensive strategy that addresses main risks and takes into account the proper timing, pace and sequencing of reforms. Georges Sassine

The first challenge is Lebanon’s weak and fragmented national identity. The hypothesis is that a strong national identity is the glue that keeps decentralized and federalist systems together. In that case, identity clashes along tribal, cultural, geographic and religious lines make a major barrier to the effective implementation of Lebanon’s decentralization reforms and are likely to increase risks of partition.

A strategy to strengthen Lebanese national identity is essential before any plans to decentralize the governance system. This is a long-term process that includes national reconciliation, education and a secular framework that enables interfaith marriages. It is then that a more cohesive Lebanese identity embracing diversity can emerge.

One critical priority is to empower younger Lebanese generations to overcome historical divisions. Unfortunately, Lebanese history textbooks stop in 1943 in order to avoid inflaming old hostilities. Instead of arguing over ‘the one true’ history of modern Lebanon, decision makers can develop a common history book that teaches students the different perspectives in order to enable their critical thinking and avoid repeating the same mistakes.

The second challenge is Lebanon’s weak central state. The hypothesis is that a strong central authority is needed to coordinate and unite local governments otherwise it will be unable to prevent tensions and conflict from arising.

Lebanon today has its executive decision making diluted across the presidency and council of ministers. There is no clear and empowered executive authority, which makes it hard to govern and know who to hold responsible. This is why the most important reform needed in Lebanon is to concentrate executive power in one body that can effectively govern and be held accountable for its successes and failures. It is then, with a stronger central state, that administrative decentralization can bear its promised benefits in Lebanon.

The third challenge is the lack of experienced personnel and inadequate training of local bureaucrats, which would be detrimental to implementing decentralization reform.

Correctly assessing the capabilities of Lebanese municipalities and having a plan to strengthen their competencies is critical. Lebanon’s decentralization reform has to be accompanied by a detailed strategy to attract a skilled and experienced workforce, and train existing public servants to take on their new responsibilities.

In summary, the Lebanese decentralization draft law should not be passed in the current context unless it is part of a more comprehensive strategy that addresses main risks and takes into account the proper timing, pace and sequencing of reforms.


Georges Pierre Sassine is a Lebanese public policy expert. He writes about Lebanon’s public affairs at  

Sectarian violence worsens in Lebanon’s resilient capital.

By Sophie Cousins

This article originally appeared on February 19, 2014 on Al Jazeera English.

Beirut, Lebanon – The Lebanese have long been known for their resilience – their ability to pick up the pieces and carry on with their lives after yet another traumatic event.

This sentiment rings true for Marwan Akil, a coffee shop owner in Lebanon’s capital. Akil was making coffee for a group of customers on February 4 when a suicide bomber blew himself up in a passenger van in Beirut’s southern suburbs.

The blast, which took place during the evening rush hour in the Choueifat district, happened just 20 metres from his coffee shop. “I heard a big noise and suddenly it became so misty,” Akil told Al Jazeera. “I didn’t know what it was. I just heard women screaming and saw so much smoke. There was no body of the suicide bomber – his parts were spread out everywhere across the road and his head actually became detached and hit the fifth floor of an apartment close by.”

Although the blast happened in a Druze neighbourhood, it was adjacent to a heavily Shia Muslim area, from which Hezbollah, Lebanon’s most powerful armed group, draws its base of support. It appeared to be the latest in a string of attacks in the nation’s capital, which has, along with the rest of the country, become drawn into the Syrian civil war next door and polarised along sectarian lines.

Nevertheless, Akil has continued to make coffee at his shop every day since the blast. But customers are far and few between. “No one comes here anymore for coffee because they are afraid. This is not ethical, it is not right. We just want this all to stop. No matter what religion you are, it is not ethical. I wish the Syrian war wouldn’t spill over into Lebanon.”

Increasing sectarianism 

Syrian rebel groups have claimed responsbility for many of the recent bombings in Beirut’s southern suburbs, retaliating against Hezbollah’s armed support for Syria’s government.

But as the tiny Mediterranean country anticipates its next bombing, the larger question at hand is whether each blast is just another point gained in a football match or the beginning of a new civil war.

Benedetta Berti, co-author of Hezbollah and Hamas: A Comparative Study, says Lebanon has been on the brink of large-scale violent conflict for the past few years, but that it has so far been contained.

“I think so far all the main political leaders, including Hezbollah, have showed a clear interest in preventing an escalation, and I am inclined to believe that as long as that remains the case, Lebanon will be able to prevent a new civil war,” she said. “Yet the current situation is very dangerous for the country and it has created a prolonged internal paralysis. I do see things getting worse in terms of polarisation, changing modus operandi and sophistication of the last terrorist attacks, and the economic and social impact of the civil war and the refugee crisis.”

Other experts agree. “The situation will probably get worse until the Syrian crisis ends or a resolution is put into effect,” Sami Atallah, director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, told Al Jazeera. “This may take a few months or years, depending also on how the Iranian-US rapprochement evolves and how the different actors like Saudi Arabia and Israel decide to accept this.”

Berti added that while Hezbollah was heavily invested in Syria, the group was still very much devoted to having a strong presence in Lebanon. “The recent attacks have been somewhat of a blow to the group’s reputation of invincibility, and have also increased insecurity within the Shiite community,” she said. “Hezbollah needs to address both issues by securing its communities and being present and visible.”

Syrian refugee impact 

To date, more than 900,000 Syrian refugees are registered or waiting to be registered in Lebanon, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Every day Lebanon registers 3,000 refugees, spokeswoman Dana Sleiman said, adding that UNHCR predicts there will be 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon by the end of 2014.

The constant flow of refugees into Lebanon has had major economic and social effects on the country. The health and education sectors are struggling, jobs are scarce and housing prices have skyrocketed. According to the World Bank, by the end of 2014, the Syrian war and the influx of refugees will have cost Lebanon $7.5bn in total economic losses.

“This is why the civil war in Syria should be treated as the most urgent regional challenge. In addition to the horrific humanitarian impact, it does have the potential of destabilising the entire Middle East,” Berti said.

Georges Sassine, a US-based Lebanese policy expert, said more action had to be taken to address the issue. “The Syrian refugee crisis has created a sense of fear across Lebanese society, which is partly rooted in the country’s failure to manage the Palestinian refugee crisis,” he said. “The problem is the inability of the Lebanese government to manage the crisis… Lebanese policymakers have so far shown a complete lack of leadership, vision and political will to better manage the flow of Syrian refugees.”

Some Lebanese, though, don’t think any solution exists to the ongoing conflict. “Problems lead to problems. Action leads to reaction. I guess that interference in the Syrian crisis reflects many problems in Lebanon,” said Shawki, a former Lebanese army officer who now works as a taxi driver. “There is a fire outside – let’s go away from that fire and keep it alone. The Syrian war is exaggerating Lebanon’s problems. In my opinion, there is no solution. We are, in a way, too connected to groups of other people such as the Israelis, Palestinians and Syrians.”

But like so many Lebanese who have lived through decades of instability, Shawki is willing to pick up the pieces for a country he loves so much. “Lebanon is very beautiful. In spite of the bad things, you always find the life in Lebanon. It’s an amazing country.”

Source: Al Jazeera

By Georges Pierre Sassine, Olga Antoine Jbeili

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 22, 2013, on page 7.

Political instability has become the norm in Lebanon. The country’s economic and political outlook seems to be tightly dependent on regional developments, especially in Syria. In 2012, Lebanon’s economic growth stood at 2 percent, falling significantly from an average 8 percent between 2007 and 2010. Analysts expect future growth of Lebanon’s tourism and financial services sectors to be negligible until a resolution is reached in Syria.

However, there is tangible hope in sight and Lebanon’s economic outlook can be improved regardless of the current uncertainty plaguing the country.

Risk and complexity are here to stay. Therefore, Lebanese businesses and government must learn to adapt. One approach is to identify global trends and find ways for Lebanese to leverage them.

For example, the U.S. National Intelligence Council, representing the 17 intelligence agencies of the United States government, recently published a report fleshing out global trends during the next 15-20 years. The NIC report highlights different scenarios of how the world could unfold, but also identifies megatrends that will likely occur under any scenario. Lebanese decision-makers should think and plan for the long term and find opportunities in these trends that are most likely to occur.

Lebanon’s economic outlook can be improved regardless of the current uncertainty … One approach is to identify global trends and find ways for Lebanese to leverage them.Georges Pierre Sassine, Olga Antoine Jbeili

One of the megatrends identified by the NIC is an increase of the global population by more than 1 billion people by 2030. This will put strains on food and water resources where demand for food will increase by 35 percent, and the global food production outlook will worsen due to climate change patterns.

Higher and volatile international food prices are already negatively affecting Lebanon – which imports more than 80 percent of the food it consumes – and will continue on driving up local food prices in the future. This will provide a unique opportunity for Lebanese farmers and entrepreneurs to expand domestic agriculture production and improve Lebanon’s food security. Specific measures include incentivizing investments in Lebanon’s agricultural sector, a strategic shift to high-yielding grains, crop diversification and developing irrigation infrastructure.

In addition, the growing demand for agricultural resources has also been driving countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and China to acquire farming lands in foreign countries, mainly in Africa, in order to ensure their food supplies. However, land acquisitions have been leading to disastrous consequences for poor communities – as families are kicked out of the acquired lands – and attracting sharp international and local criticism.

The well-established Lebanese diaspora can then play the role of middleman and help make these land acquisitions more sustainable. They can facilitate cooperation and communication among foreign investors, international organizations, African governments and local communities ensuring more equal benefits to all parties involved. Lebanese can also play several roles across the agriculture value chain: Opportunities are not limited to the farming of acquired lands but also include food processing, agro-industrial and agribusiness services, traders and other businesses at multiple levels from the farm to consumers.

The Lebanese government can play a big role in enabling such opportunities to national businesses. Laying the groundwork for partnership with countries such as China and Gulf countries in Africa and stressing the involvement of African partners will be critical. Such cooperation will be an evolving process with few precedents but an opportunity that should not be missed.

The NIC report also suggests rapid urbanization in the developing world to be another megatrend certain to be witnessed. The volume of urban construction for housing, office space and transport services over the next 40 years could roughly equal the entire volume of such construction to date in world history.

This could have serious consequences for Lebanese construction companies, engineers and architects. While the construction industry, one of the most vibrant sectors of Lebanon’s economy, has traditionally focused on domestic and regional markets significant new opportunities could be reaped elsewhere.

According to the United Nations, 11 countries will contribute to 62 percent of the world’s urban growth by 2030 including China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Nigeria and the United States. Lebanese can and should play a role in helping serve the construction needs of urban formation and expansions in such countries. Demand in the Levant and Gulf countries will continue to come primarily from foreign markets for Lebanese developers, but diversifying to new growth destinations could set them up to unprecedented growth. The competitiveness of Lebanese businesses in these future markets can be improved if they start tapping today into Lebanese emigrant networks, chambers of commerce, Lebanese embassies and Lebanese banks which could facilitate access to credit for their expansion plans.

Fundamental changes to the mindset, capabilities and organization of Lebanese institutions are required.Georges Pierre Sassine, Olga Antoine Jbeili

These are a few illustrations of the myriad opportunities that Lebanese businessmen and policymakers can identify if they incorporate long-term planning in their decision process. Political instability is likely to persist and the only way to secure Lebanon’s future is to adopt a flexible, innovative and adaptive approach to policymaking. It requires fundamental changes to the mindset, capabilities and organization of institutions. Tools like scenario planning, policy gaming and horizon scanning should all be added to the decision toolbox in order to secure sustainable development for future generations.

In summary, growth and opportunity are possible for Lebanon if private and public institutions are redesigned for new times.

Georges Pierre Sassine
is a public policy expert and a Harvard University alumnus. Olga Antoine Jbeili is a development economist and a University of Sussex alumnus. They wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 22, 2013, on page 7.

(The Daily Star: Lebanon News: