Sustainable Institutions Critical for Lebanon’s Sustainable Development

Lebanese students dance in Beirut's Parliament Square as part of the "Beats for Peace" event. May 9, 2015. (Hussein Malla/Associated Press)

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are not just a continuation of the Millennium Development Goals, which ended in 2015. First and foremost the SDGs are universal and no longer limited to poverty reduction, education, health, and an added dose of environmental awareness. For one thing, addressing inequality has become a central aim under the new framework, and this issue is more directly linked to international and national decision-making on political and economic processes. The result is that the SDGs make it more difficult to consider economic growth without taking into account the equitable distribution of this growth. This is at the heart of the larger 2030 Agenda’s aim of “leaving no one behind.”

The International Peace Institute’s SDGs4Peace project focuses on the way peace is defined in the 2030 Agenda and how the goal for peace and stronger institutions (Goal 16) interact with the other, development-based outcomes. On a recent field visit to Lebanon we interviewed government officials, UN staff, members of the business community, and civil society—including regional actors—to learn how the implementation of the agenda might support the country’s long drive toward peace and stability at the same time as achieving sustainable development.

Lebanon’s engagement with the SDGs had a complicated start due to several governance challenges during the past five-six years. Yet, in the preceding months before our field trip, the country saw some important political change; the presidency was finally filled after two-and-a-half years, which paved the way for replacing the caretaker administration with a new prime minister and cabinet that could restart processes for national decision-making. In the words of a government official we spoke with: “Now we have new dynamics in the country, with the election of a new president, [and] the appointment of Hariri as prime minister; you see that the council of ministers is convening on a weekly basis.”

These changes also opened new opportunities for sustainable development, particularly because the new prime minister reconfirmed Lebanon’s commitment to the SDGs. This took place in a meeting between with local UN agencies shortly after Hariri took power, during which the parties agreed to develop a roadmap for Lebanese advancement on the goals. As a starting point, they have decided to work with the UN Development Programme to conduct an assessment of where Lebanon stands vis-à-vis the goals, and address eventual gaps. The thinking is that, with such an ambitious and comprehensive agenda, advancing all the goals at the same time and in the same way is not possible. The aim is to see how national policies and initiatives already in place can help advance the goals, and what additional policies are needed to improve outcomes. The assessment can be seen as a cautious start in balancing between the desire to advance the SDG agenda and the need to gain approval from the different groups in the complex political reality of Lebanon.

Despite these positive attitudes toward sustainable development, the road ahead is full of challenges. Both government officials and UN staff we spoke to agreed that Lebanon “didn’t have much opportunity to talk about development as we have been pretty much in a crisis, and not only because of the crisis in Syria and the impact in Lebanon, it is because of the situation in the government. We had a succession of caretaker governments and then a vacuum in the presidency for two-and-a-half years, so it was very difficult to start discussions about medium-to-long-term [development].” A government representative said that the effect of the Syria war on Lebanon “was very difficult on the political level, on the security level, and on the economic and social level [because it] created domestic divisions among the Lebanese, which has kind of paralyzed the functioning of the institutions.”

Government and political leaders have not been able to develop a policy for how to handle the influx of more than a million Syrian refugees (according to UN High Commissioner for Refugees), including the hazardous consequences for their economy and natural resources. A government official, however, claimed that the Syria crisis brought both a risk and an opportunity to Lebanon: “For example, the density [or scale] of the refugee crisis can, you know, maybe reshape us in different ways.” By this the official meant that some sectors have been able to move forward on the SDG agenda as a result of responding to the needs of the refugees. This is particularly the case in the field of education.

Early on, it became clear that the traditional humanitarian response was not sufficient to protect the future for a generation of refugee children. The only way to achieve this was for Lebanon to also include education in the overall response to assist the refugees. To successfully achieve this the country required international financial support and to find a way of integrating Syrian refugee children into the public school system.

The particularities of the Lebanese school system, with about 70% of children being educated in private schools, exacerbated the challenges, given that Syrian children would need to be integrated within the remaining 30% of school capacity. The Lebanese Ministry of Education, in cooperation with UN agencies and international donors, has developed strategies to meet this challenge, which includes focusing on lifting the quality of education delivered to both Syrian and Lebanese children attending public schools. The result was an alignment with the outcomes of SDG 4 (on education), even before the UN General Assembly had adopted the SDGs.

Yet, the continued adoption of the SDGs in Lebanon is not without challenges. Almost every person we met mentioned the sectarian political power-sharing system as one of the main obstacles to sustainable development. The current model, created in the Taif Accords of 1989, was essential to end 15 years of civil war and start peacebuilding in Lebanon. But 27 years later many find this model not only to be outdated, but also a barrier, to decision-making in general, and development in particular. The reason is that the model requires consensus on even the smallest of decisions. In interviews we conducted, the model was described as an artefact from the wartime economy, permitting sophisticated corruption at the highest level of society. As one person told us, “it is kind of embedded, let’s say, as a non-written pact after the civil war…the economy of war essentially stayed and became institutionalized in a sense…people replace the public services with private services during the war, and it stayed like that.”

This pointed to the fact that Lebanon’s public services continues to be fragile and their delivery unstable. The public electricity grid, for example, is not offering stable supply to its customers, with intermittent disruptions and perhaps eight hours of daily electricity generated on average. Most people told us that this failure to deliver a basic service was not due to a lack of expertise, technology, or money; it instead results from a parallel system of private generators that fills in the void of the public system. This alternative supply is a big business run by influential individuals with no interest or incentive to change a profitable income stream. Similar parallel systems can be found for other public services, including water. Despite Lebanon possessing abundant water resources, at least for the time being the network does not have capacity for constant delivery, particularly not during summer. Here the parallel system features water trucks delivering a high price product to customers lacking adequate supply from the grid.

These remnants of the “war economy” can only be eradicated by strengthening national institutions and service delivery; in other words, by delivering on SDG 16. This will make ordinary people less dependent on parallel structures often linked to the county’s power structures and the sectarian power-sharing. Given that these arrangements are seen as preventing development, it is encouraging to hear that the current government is focusing on strengthening state institutions to make them more sustainable. Such policies can help advance the cautious progress Lebanon has made toward inclusive and sustainable development. The critical factor will be political will from all political factions to compromise in a manner that has not been seen since the adoption of the Taif Accords 27 years ago.

Mona Christophersen is a researcher at Fafo and a Senior Adviser at IPI.