BEIRUT: A staggering 35 percent of Lebanon’s youth are currently unemployed, the Lebanese industry minister told a crowd at a seminar in Beirut Friday.
“[These are great levels of unemployment,” Industry Minister Hussein Hajj Hasan told the audience that was gathered at the Gefinor Hotel in Clemeanceau where the National Council for Scientific Research (CNRS) hosted the “Seminar on Innovation in Lebanon’s Industrial Sector.”
The 35 percent unemployment among Lebanese youths confirms the World Bank’s concern that the recession, political impasse and presence of over 1.3 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon have exacerbated the economic problems in the country.
The seminar featured two panels aimed at finding ways to drive innovation and creativity in which panelists critiqued and offered solutions to help Lebanon spur on its industry. The seminar was based on a 2012-13 survey conducted by CNRS on the industry sector and sampled 478 Lebanese enterprises, most of which were small- or medium-sized firms.
“Innovation can also find solutions to address specific needs for the poor,” said Randa Akeel of the World Bank, addressing a crowd of mostly academics. According to Hajj Hasan, 75 representatives of Lebanon’s industry sector were invited to the seminar but few were in attendance.
The minister launched a scathing attack on the Lebanese state, holding it responsible for many of the woes and obstacles the industrial sector faces today.
“Are the industrialists responsible for providing their own cheap electricity? No, the state should be responsible,” Hajj Hasan said. The minister also criticized the lack of tax breaks for scientific research, saying that they should be exempted.
“The true obstacles are the obstacles to progress that lie in the policies of the Lebanese state,” he added.
Hajj Hasan highlighted the fact that Lebanon imports $19 billion worth of products each year but only exports $4 billion, leaving the country with an annual trade deficit of $15 billion. He added that these policies enacted by the Lebanese government also lead to unemployment and brain drain, or mass emigration of the country’s youth.
Following his comments, Hajj Hasan left the seminar. Two panels made up of industrial sector experts from Lebanon and abroad then gave their feedback on the survey and provided suggestions to the sector.
“Innovation is a two-way street,” said Omar Bizri, an expert in science and technology innovation who suggested there should be greater cooperation between the industrial sector and individuals or groups that encourage creativity and innovation.
Academics in attendance complained that they were not receiving funding for research and development despite around $120 million designated for that purpose.
Hamid al-Zoheiry, the president of the Euro-Mediterranean University in Slovenia, told the crowd that “the least important thing is funds” when it comes to being innovative in industry.
“The ecosystem has to be there. ... Capacity building has to fit,” he said. “Innovation is institution-wide and country-wide, and it is impossible to work as isolated islands as Arab countries we do.”
He added that Lebanon had an advantage over other Arab countries because “by nature, Lebanese are innovative and entrepreneurial.”
Of all the panelists, Berytech’s Executive Director Nicolas Rouhana drew the largest reaction.
“The ministers complain but who is running the country?” he said, responding to Hajj Hasan’s rant against the state.
“Sorry, but who is making the laws?” Rouhana’s rhetorical question was met with applause from the remaining participants at the seminar.