Former US ambassador tells The Media Line: No one trusts ruling class members to keep their word on reform
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, a long-standing economic crisis, government dysfunction and the port explosion that rocked Beirut this summer, Lebanon is being shaken.
The United Nations and aid organizations are trying to bring together a tired international community to escape. However, donor countries are unwilling to keep the pipeline running without major government reforms, although this risks exacerbating the country’s humanitarian crisis.
We do not want the most vulnerable to be held hostage to the political will of the government [and] “We make it clear to the international community that humanitarian aid is never conditional,” Najat Rochdi, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Lebanon, told The Media Line.
“I applaud the growing donors,” Rochdi continued.
We are talking about big money. It is not as if they are washing their hands. But we can not keep the country forever in the hands of humanitarian aid and there are very worrying figures as we head into 2021, so when you factor in the pandemic, the latest food safety reports, the hospitals that were damaged in the port explosion that created a problem with access to health when you add it all, obviously, the humanitarian situation will get worse, she said.
We need to start investing in some of the root causes and engage in a people-centered recovery focused on the most vulnerable. So this is what we are trying to defend in our approach to donors and tell them that we all agree and everyone should push for reforms to happen because that is the only way for the country not to collapse again in another crisis again and again, she declared.
These are not new reforms. The international community has been pushing for these for years, so everyone wants these, but they cannot come at the expense of the most vulnerable, Rochdi stressed.
However, donor states are talking as if they have ended up throwing bad money.
French President Emmanuel Macron was greeted with a heroic welcome when he rushed to Beirut after the port bombing on August 4, but he is adamant about his demands for immediate government reform.
Middle East adviser Macrons said this month there would be no more French financial aid unchanged and a donors’ conference the French were looking to do together by the end of this month is in doubt, as the powers that be, those and the powers that be may be in Lebanon or refuse or remain incapable of forming a functioning, technocratic government less focused on political power and more focused on recovery.
We do not want the most vulnerable to be held hostage to the political will of the government [and] we make it clear to the international community that humanitarian aid is never conditional
The UN is trying to graze member states to enforce their collective will on key Lebanese figures.
We really want to see states wanting to help their different political influence so that they can both convey the same message, and that is to put people at the center, because it seems that national institutions do not are always thinking about people and people suffering, Rochdi told Media Line.
The second thing is to support a government platform that will give a place to all actors, she continued.
From day one in our consultations with the government, we told them that we would like civil society to have an equal place alongside the donor community. This type of platform has never been implemented before, she stated. So if we succeed in all of them, things can improve, but if there is no political will for these reforms and the formation of a government, there is very little we can do.
Dorothy Shea, the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, said at a conference sponsored last month by a research institute in Washington that the U.S. thinks Lebanon matters and that avoiding state failure should be the first and most importantly, he cannot desire it more than they do [the Lebanese] do
Shea believes there should be a step-by-step approach to reform and no free lunch from America.
Some analysts say efforts to form a government have been hampered by recent U.S. sanctions against former Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, President Michel Aoun’s son-in-law and the man who runs Lebanon’s largest Christian party. Bassil was sanctioned for corruption and links to the Iranian representative Hezbollah.
But if Hezbollah and its political partners are waiting for the Trump administrations in recent days in office and hoping for a better relationship with Joe Bidens White House, they can wait for some time.
Lebanon will not be at the top of Biden’s foreign policy agenda in his own right, Jeffrey Feltman, former United Nations Secretary-General for Political Affairs and former US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, told Middle East and a former US ambassador to Lebanon. Media Line.
The Biden administration will diplomatically focus on the Iranian nuclear issue along with its policies on Israel and Syria, and, of course, Lebanon is linked to those issues, Feltman said.
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I find it interesting that the Trump Administration can build the framework for the current maritime border negotiations between Lebanon and Israel, and I would hope that the Biden administration would continue with that work. “Beyond that, I do not see Lebanon being too focused,” he said.
He agrees that in any case, substantial financial assistance depends on the Lebanese government implementing policy reforms.
No one trusts them to keep their word, and I can not see it changing with a new U.S. administration without clear evidence that things are moving in a different direction, said Feltman, currently John C. Whitehead Visitor of Member of International Diplomacy at the Brookings Institution.
Necessary reforms, according to an almost consensus of experts, include a withdrawal from the sectarian, confessional patronage-looting system that has allowed the ruling class to withdraw the economy since the end of the country’s civil war in 1990.
Maritime border negotiations with Israel, which the Lebanese government decided to sever from land border negotiations, have been seen by some as a way for Beirut to raise massive revenues from offshore hydrocarbon deposits and revive the economy without making long-term reforms. necessary to build a stable Lebanon, while at the same time making it a US issue that sanctions against Lebanese officials and restrictions on trade with Syria should be lifted.
The Lebanese starting point for negotiations would extend its maritime border beyond the line proposed to the UN just a decade ago, supporting the idea that it is desperate for a short-term economic lifeline rather than bringing stability to the region and its government through talks. of peace with its old enemy in the south.
Rochdi says a guide presented by France is still valid.
In 2018, a French-led conference pledged about $ 11 billion in aid to Lebanon. But it came conditional on reforms, including audits and accountability.
Since then we have added demands to those reforms, such as social protection. The Beirut port bombing revealed that people had no safety net
The leadership in Beirut was unable to pass the reforms and the money was never given. Since then, the Lebanese pound has fallen, sending more than half of the 6.8 million people into poverty.
Since then we have added demands to those reforms, such as social protection. The Beirut port bombing revealed that people did not have a safety net, she said.
The second thing is that with the reconstruction of the port and other infrastructure, there should be transparent public procurement. This is part of the fight against corruption. And finally, [there should be] better and more inclusive governance and a more accountable government, she declared.
We are putting people at the center, so the reforms are not just about helping the financial sector recover for the sake of this sector, but rather to impact people’s lives every day, she said.
The biggest question now is how long the Lebanese people are willing, or able, to wait to see these changes.
The Lebanese people are broken. The trauma of the explosion had a lot of impact, Rochdi noted.
Last year, there were protests and people started believing that change was possible, and they succeeded because the first government resigned and then the second government resigned. But, it is difficult to ask people to be on the streets every day, she stated.
But based on the interactions I have had with civil society, they are not giving up. They are just trying to catch their breath because they are broken and there is not a single person who has not been affected. The middle class is close to complete collapse, she said.
Rochdi shows a trend of leaving the country.
Lebanon is losing a lot of its talent, she said. Last week, we heard 400 doctors leaving the country, so this could be a kind of indicator of hopelessness. But there are still many people here in civil society who are willing to become part of the transformation.
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