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Municipal leaders call for decentralization in Lebanon

From left, Interior Minister Marwan Charbel, Istanbul municipality mayor Kadir Topbas and Beirut mayor Bilal Hamad, attend a conference at the Metropolitan Hotel in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, Nov. 24, 2011. (Mohammad Azakir/The Daily Star)

BEIRUT: A three-day international forum on the benefits of cooperation between local governments was launched Thursday in Beirut, with Lebanese municipal leaders expressing hope that it will lead to concrete action on decentralization.

The International Forum for Decentralized Cooperation in Lebanon was organized in the framework of the Support Program for Lebanese Municipalities, and will present an overview of the current situation of decentralized cooperation in the country, as well as a means to reinforce it.

Speaking during the conference’s opening ceremony, Beirut’s mayor, Bilal Hamad, who is also the president of the Committee of Lebanese Mayors, emphasized the need for real cooperation among municipalities to improve work and provide better services to the public.

He praised the work of municipalities toward improving cooperation in the past three years, but lamented that many past conferences and agreements haven’t led to the realization of goals, a failure he blamed on a lack of implementation mechanisms.

“I call for the creation of a permanent commission for decentralization in Lebanon to follow the implementation of recommendations,” he said, adding that “it is time to show solidarity in Lebanon to push decentralization projects forward.”

For his part, Interior Minister Marwan Charbel called for municipalities with greater financial resources to help support poorer ones, and encouraged cooperation between municipalities of the south and north of Lebanon.

“The strongest need is to support the weakest,” he said, calling for big municipalities, such as Beirut, to submit projects in partnership with smaller municipalities to the Interior Ministry.

He said municipalities have a fundamental role to play in developing the principles of decentralization and noted they had to provide services “to all citizens, and not only those who elected the mayor.”

Mayor of Zahle and president of the Federation of Municipalities of Baalbeck Joseph Maalouf, who was participating in one of the forum’s round tables Thursday, explained to the The Daily Star how a lack of decentralization in Lebanon considerably slows the municipal councils’ work.

“To spend LL1 or LL1 million, we need at least 25 signatures. This is really absurd,” he said, explaining that any project must be approved by several decision-making bodies, such as the governorate and different ministries.

He gave the example of a request to clean the part of Berdawni River that passes through Zahle, which he submitted some five months ago.

“Today, I don’t have the right to clean this river ... I need the approbation and decision of Energy and Water Minister [Gibran Bassil] and of the Interior Minister just to clean a river.

“It can’t go on like this,” he continued. “Decentralization is the only cure for Lebanon to be always united.

“Many politicians fear that administrative decentralization would be a first step toward political decentralization toward an undeclared partition,” Maalouf added.

But he emphasized how administrative decentralization was included in the 1989 Taif Acoord, stressing that decentralization shouldn’t be a political process.

For her part, Nouha Ghoussaini, mayor of Baakline and president of the Federation of Municipalities of the Chouf, who also participated in a round table Thursday, said cooperation between municipalities considerably improved efficiency.

She mentioned ongoing projects in her federation, such as one aimed at developing tourism in the region, and argued that working in cooperation allows poorer municipalities to participate and benefit from larger projects. She also explained that some projects, such as one to tackle water decontamination, cannot be implemented at the municipal level alone.

“Unfortunately ... the Lebanese state doesn’t realize the importance of federations,” Ghoussaini said. “There is a big gap between words and the reality on the ground.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 25, 2011, on page 2.

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