In 1999, when representatives of the then-budding Lebanese Transparency Association wanted to deposit the founding documents with the Ministry of Interior according to the law, they were rejected. The civil servant explained that that there was no corruption in Lebanon, so no need to set up such an association. This attitude, which is telling, may have changed over the years, but not sufficiently.
The journey from denial to recognition to action has taken more than thirty years, yet there has not been a time in Lebanon when anti-corruption was a nationwide demand and a necessity for the preservation and development of the country as today, especially in the aftermath of the calamitous Beirut blast in August.
Breaking a vicious cycle
Since the conclusion of the Taif Agreement in 1989 which ended the civil war, Lebanese governments have not pursued a comprehensive plan to tackle corruption. Most of them did not even try. Corruption has become so deeply intertwined with the foundations of the political establishment and indispensable for its survival.
It is increasingly evident that the country needs an approach that addresses systemic problems. It will have to be more inclusive and comprehensive; be adapted to the complex national context, including public demands and political sensitivities; and be in line with successful practices from comparative experiences and relevant international standards, such the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) to which Lebanon became party to in 2009.
The good news is that this approach has been in the making for many years.
Good laws and political will
A cornerstone of the new anti-corruption approach is to temper the commonly accepted paradigm, which blames the problem on the lack of law enforcement. In fact, a big part of that problem begins with major gaps in legislation itself. Those gaps create opportunities for corruption and coverups, including in areas such as public procurement, judicial organizations, conflict of interest management, the use of public spaces, and recruitment into the civil service.
Another cornerstone is to go beyond the purely legalistic approach. Even with good laws, which is not yet the case, the effort to ensure proper implementation requires a host of other specific interventions that should be inter-connected, achievable, and measurable.
This is what the country’s first-ever National Anti-Corruption Strategy (2020-2025) offers. The document, which was adopted in May 2020, offers an integrated framework for immediate action. It recognizes the need for processes and initiatives, which also enhance institutional capacities to implement related laws, influence the behaviour of individuals, and expand the anti-corruption agenda beyond generalities to the specifities of each sector, including health, customs, energy, and others. UNDP, as well as other international partners, have committed their support.
Central to the success of this new approach, which has evolved over the years and is embodied in the National Anti-Corruption Strategy, is strong and sustained political will. The latter manifests itself in many ways including the quality of policies and laws, the resources made available for their implementation, and the willingness of those in power to respect the rule of law.
The way forward
It will be important to study factors that have enabled progress so far, despite political instability and relatively limited national and international support, and to distill recommendations that may accelerate the pace of reform and guide future efforts for the remainder of what may be a long journey ahead. Among those, a few stand out:
· Invest time and effort in inclusive and specific reforms that tackle the many existing gaps in policies, procedures, and laws.
· Identify reform drivers in parliament, government, the judiciary, and the public administrations, and establish appropriate formal and informal collaborative arrangements with them—alliances with people on the inside are indispensable.
· Engage with different stakeholder groups and non-governmental organizations and support them to enhance their technical capacity and build trust among them.
· Set up meaningful collaboration with international experts who have practical experience and understand the national context.
· Anchor the anti-corruption reform discourse in UNCAC, relevant international standards as well as concrete practical experiences from comparable contexts—anti-corruption is no longer an internal matter, it is a global agenda.
· Reinforce the broadest possible ownership of every milestone achieved, and anchor it in formal and informal networks at the national and local levels—the more, the stronger.
· Capitalize on the platform created by the National Anti-Corruption Strategy and support its implementation and eventual development as needed—put promises to the test.
It is very difficult, even impossible, to envision financial and economic recovery in Lebanon without the introduction of deep governance reforms, with anti-corruption being front and centre, especially in the aftermath of the Beirut blast. However, the effort against corruption will be ill-advised to fall back into the vicious cycle that has dominated this topic for the last thirty years. The new approach offers a way forward for Lebanon, and provides many lessons to sustain and increase the momentum for anti-corruption reforms that benefit the lives of citizens and the future for new generations.
This article is part of a special report on corruption in Lebanon published by Executive Magazine.