Written by Audrey Azzo, Communications Intern at IFI
On Thursday February 4, 2021, the AUB Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs (IFI) held an online panel discussion (webinar) titled “Models for Tackling Lebanon’s Electricity Crisis” to present the findings of a new study “From dysfunctional to function corruption: the politics of reform in Lebanon’s electricity sector”. This event is part of the Anti-Corruption Evidence Consortium led by SOAS University of London (SOAS ACE) and funded by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office of the UK Government.
Different perspectives emerged from the discussion, in addition to the technical feasibilities and options presented, some panelists adopted a socio-political view on the matter discussed, all of that under the overarching spectrum of policy analysis.
The webinar was moderated by Neil McCulloch, director of the Policy Practice in the UK, and hosted: Ali Ahmad, senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and at IFI-AUB, Muzna Al Masri, researcher and consultant, Alix Chaplin, PhD student at CERI- Science Po, and Hassan Hrajli, program advisor and project manager at UNDP as panelists, as well as Eric Verdeil, urban geographer, professor at Sciences Po and researcher at the Centre for
International Relations, Jamil Mouawad, senior fellow at the Arab Reform Initiative (ARI) and a Lecturer in Politics at AUB, and Pallavi Roy, Senior Lecturer in International Economics at SOAS as discussants.
Ali Ahmad, discussed the binary between the centralization and decentralization of electricity, focusing on the case study of Electricité de Zahle (EDZ) and listing the main lessons learned from it. Ali, who specialized in the intersection between energy, security, and development in conflict and post-conflict contexts sees EDL as a a loss-making utility that acts as a vehicle for unlawful actions such as rent seeking, exchanging favors, providing employment opportunities, and exploitation. He compared EDL with EDZ, shedding light on the latter’s success, and insisting on the willingness of the Lebanese population to pay for the services that are well provided. That does not imply a full endorsement of EDZ, yet it opens up the discussion for a decentralization process. The panelist pushed his argument further by advocating for the integration of a political perspective.
From her part, Muzna El Masri presented the socio-political analysis that permitted EDZ to achieve its goal, focusing on energy services within the framework of clientelism by tackling the study from a community mobilization perspective. She explained that the success of EDZ was built on a heavy clientelist system that cannot be disregarded. The two factors that matter the most in this project were in fact community endorsement at the local level and the negotiation of political settlements with governmental entities. Through the example of their advertisement strategy, she dug into the different narratives and (unintended) impacts of the EDZ project. First, pride has been fostered within the local community and second the success mentioned has unintentionally fed two essential narratives. The first concerns privatization: “Only the private sector model can resolve some of the public sector problems” and the second is in regard to the lack of a state.
On another note, Hassan Hrajli argued for a sort of decentralization that involves “assessing how to give more opportunities for municipalities and private actors without deepening the existing territorial divisions”. He mentioned that drafted and implemented laws (law 462/2002) that encourage the transition to a system of renewable energies, but unfortunately, efforts of change have been halted due to the current context (pandemic, economic crisis, and Beirut Blast). Once again, the focus on political feasibility is an essential emerging topic to the webinar’s discussion as the electricity sector is a highly politicized sector.
As for Alix Chaplain, he focused on emerging hybrid mini grids that concern the configuration of electricity in Lebanon. She discussed a number of different models such as the participatory model adopted in Balboul, the personalized and individualistic model adopted in Menjez, and the market-driven strategy with private regulation (a capitalist approach). As we have already mentioned, the dilemma rests in the adoption of such models bearing in mind the reduction of territorial inequality.
Commenting on the panelists presentations, Eric Verdeil described EDZ as a phenomenon that has maintained Zahle’s privilege, avoided the change of an entire system of governance and proved that privatization cannot be implemented without the presence of a strong central government, or community. Additionally, the external nature of the funding needed is an added barrier in a project that involves the reliance on municipalities.
From his part, Jamil Mouawad highlighted the lack of trust in the state and its institutions. For him, the electricity sector should be at the center stage for re-establishing the state as a central institution. Comparing this case with military sovereignty within established borders, he claimed that strengthening and reforming the electricity sector is a way for the government as an institution to reclaim its sovereignty over its territory. Furthermore, it would also restore a sense of equality between all the Lebanese. In a sense, Mouawad is reframing the state revival from a developmental approach.
Pallavi Roy integrated a multi-disciplinary approach to her analysis. She stressed on the fact that anti-corruption strategies must be feasible (from a policy perspective) and impactful. She added to the political the economic and said “we need both the political and economic risk mitigation”. She stressed on the incentives and intentions of the productive players and actors who must be included when one formulates a policy alternative. Unless their will is included in the package, the policy will not be successful.
At the end of the webinar, the moderated opened the floor for questions from the audience. Hussein Salloum, Board member of EDL who was attending the session, presented an insider perspective on the issue. With unsparing honesty, he announced that Lebanon will suffer from a lack of fuel by the end of March and that contracts embodying power barges will be terminated by the end of September. Unlike other panelists and discussants, he advocated for reforms despite the lack of political will, even if, as he admitted, it will be very challenging. Again, law 462/2002 was mentioned as an example of the political reality.
(Re)wacth the Video.