“Very poor” reform efforts and an economy on the verge of collapse, says the leader of the National Bloc, should be enough to encourage decision-makers to get serious about reforming the country’s political and economic crisis.
“We’re going through the most serious crisis that Lebanon has experienced, except for some acute periods during the war,” Carlos Edde told The Daily Star in an interview. “The reason is that through a mismanagement of public affairs, the economy is on the verge of collapse. The size of economic activity can’t support the public debt, while increased regional instability isn’t conducive for the necessary investments that could bail out the economy.”
One way to ensure an attractive climate for investment is calm on the country’s southern border, which Edde said needed a change in official policy.
The Shebaa Farms should be dealt with “positively,” Edde said, by Syria and Lebanon drawing up a treaty regarding their borders, confirming it with the United Nations, and ending with an international diplomatic effort by Beirut to make its case about sovereignty. As it is now, the Shebaa Farms issue “is not being used in the best interest of Lebanon,” Edde said.
According to Edde, last week’s budget debate in Parliament, with government and MPs locking horns over illegal tapping and diversion of international phone call revenues from the Treasury, was “less than encouraging.” The recent Syrian troop re-deployment in Beirut and Mount Lebanon, he said, could lead to sound bilateral relations, if “it is a progressive and planned move, coupled with Syrian non-interference in Lebanese internal affairs.”
But the government’s move to end contracts will the two cellular companies, he added, “did not give an air of stability” to the economic situation. “When you add the mistrust the people have about the same political leaders that are in control of the country and its economy, you reach a point of despair.”
He has seen similar conditions of economic deterioration, namely in the Brazil that he called home for a quarter-century, after being elected last year to succeed his uncle Raymond Edde as the National Bloc’s leader.
The bloc has urged a restructuring of Lebanese-Syrian relations, among other political and economic reforms.
Edde has Master’s degrees in political science and finance from the US and Brazil, respectively. He spent the last year, following his uncle Raymond’s death in May 2000, completing his family’s move from Brazil to Lebanon, ending a 25-year stay in the South American country.
In Edde’s view, the government lacks both a credible plan and a competent team.
“This gives you funds to buy time, to put these measures into effect, but the funds in themselves do not bail a country out; it’s the economic and administrative reforms that do.”
Edde said the international community sees a leadership that is divided, “and they know that a lot of initiatives that are being put forth by the government might not be upheld by the Syrians; there is also this bravado about the Shebaa Farms, which would make them wonder about Lebanon’s seriousness about dealing with problems. If I were the credit officer for Lebanon, I’d be very worried about assuming the responsibility of giving loans to Lebanon when the situation is so unstable.
“The fear of adjustment,” he continued, “can’t be an excuse to take the country into bankruptcy … I would grade the government very poorly on this score.”
Edde stressed that Latin American countries, by contrast, launched successful recoveries by presenting comprehensive reform plans, galvanizing public support for painful measures.
“The crises I lived through in Brazil, and the painful adjustment plans that Latin America went through, were preceded by a media effort to explain what the problems were, the measures to be taken, and what to expect. But here, it’s as if decisions are taken by individuals and put forward without any consideration of the largest concerned party, namely the population.”
Also by way of contrast, Lebanon’s government has failed to oversee healthy trade relations with Syria and “lacks the instruments” to deal with issues like smuggling.
“When the (Lebanese) government reduced customs duties, I didn’t see it as a part of a plan; it was a unilateral decision, whether is was right or wrong,” Edde said, referring to the Hariri government’s main economic moves after taking office last year.
Reform priorities should be reducing the public payroll and cutting security and military spending, Edde argued. With the country’s comparative edge in its well-educated workforce, the right legislation could create a conducive environment to attracting investments and spurring business activity.
“What is happening is the contrary,” Edde said. “The people who are educated are the first to leave. We’re producing good elements for export, not local use.”
Edde advocated a process of “evolutionary,” not revolutionary change. Part of this involves making information available to the public so that citizens play the role of “auditor” of public spending. “Technology is on our side because all accounts can be made accessible through the internet. Many Latin American countries are already moving toward this.”
The next step involves comparing spending ratios with other countries so that public debate can focus on priorities and economic return. Afterward, the public should pressure MPs to do their two main jobs legislating and monitoring spending.
“Then, Lebanese will start voting in a more critical, constructive way, not using personal relations as the most important criteria. They will vote for people who push forward with reforms and stop unnecessary spending. It’s not revolutionary, but evolutionary … first through the access to technology and second by all the Lebanese who have experienced it abroad, because it works abroad.”
As for practical steps to get the bloc’s message to the public and decision-makers, the party is forming five ad hoc committees made up of party members and allies.
They will tackle the election law, human rights, administrative decentralization and administrative planning, the economy, and social issues.
The findings will form a “revitalized message” that focuses on universities and schools to regain some of the bloc’s pre-war following.