Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Much more than a jailbreak......

A jailbreak story is normally newsworthy but not totally unusual. It can happen anywhere, and it does. But what made the Roumieh story particularly dramatic was the appalling condition of the prison and its administration (or rather the lack of it), which became glaringly clear as the story unfolded. People could not believe that government authorities had failed to reinstall the prison doors that had been destroyed during last year's riot, or that inmates had been allowed to do the roll calls themselves instead of prison officers. That was the bigger story behind the jailbreak story.

But in reality there is yet another story behind the story behind the story that should alarm us all.

This time the spotlight was aimed at a particular corner of the Lebanese state. And it was an ugly sight. Other lids covering other corners of the state had been pried open in the past and people also had a chance to take a peek. They were equally and rightly disgusted. (Remember the revelation about tons of rotten meats?). If you remove the lid on most of the elements and functions that constitute the Lebanese state state today, the picture that you will see is unlikely to be much prettier.

Of course, some aspects of state failure are not hidden at all. There is no lid to cover them up.They fly in our face every day. Quarries, garbage dumps, and haphazard construction that keep destroying what is left of Lebanon’s precious space and natural environment; traffic systems (or non-systems) that deserve a place in the chaos book of world records; and state electrify that doesn’t even meet third world standards, are obvious examples. But what about other state and government functions? The Social Security Administration? The judicial system? Law enforcement? Do you think they are much better? Don't bet on it.

But how should one diagnose all these failures? Should they be viewed as separate problems, or more as symptoms of a deeper malady?

If you believe it is the latter then one needs to identify the common underlying reasons behind this creeping, pervasive and seemingly unstoppable decay - the systemic entropy that is slowly devouring the body of the Lebanese state.

This takes more than a few paragraphs on this blog. But I am convinced of at least the following three basic reasons:

First, vague interpretation and incoherent application of the Lebanese political syste that eliminates  accountability to voters almost completely. The inabilty to assign credit or blame to governments and political parties renders political competition in Lebanon meaningless. But genuine political competition is what allows people to make informed judgments and steer or redirect the state and the country to the right path. Without accountability and genuine political competition there is little link between the steering wheel and the axel of the democracy machine, to use an anology. Imagine trying to drive a car that way. Lebanon’s democracy has become like that. The parts of the vehicle may seem functional individually. The paraphinilia is all there. Elections, vote of confidence, ministers, goverment bureacracy, free press, but the stuff that makes them function together as a coherent system is simply lacking. The ability to attribute success or failure, and to assign credit or blame is not there. Can the electorate really tell who is responsible for power failures? For a snail-speed court system? Should ministers and political be absolved as they continue to blame "the state"? Can voters steer the country in the direction they consider best by choosing drivers with clear platforms and track records? A market economy without a coherent system and rules that permit genuine market competition is doomed to fail. The same can be said about the state and poltical competition.

Second, a public administration that has become completely void of incentives and disincentives. A well functioning public sector is one in which each small part of the public sector machine is appropriately placed and has a self interest in doing what is also good for all. Putting the right part in the right place is one important aspect of reform. Having a sensible mechanism of of rewards and punishments is another. If the current Lebanese public sector had been a private corporation it would have gone bankrupt a long time ago. The criteria and mechanisms for public sector salaries, benefits, and promotions are at the heart of any serious public sector reform plan. The last time there was an attempt to revise the structure of public sector salaries and promotions was in 1996. The current government has recently approved a rather superficial and unaffordable revision of the salaries and promotions system. The proposed law perpetuates the moral hazard problem in the public administration. It just makes it a lot more costly for the Lebanese people. The truth is no one should have expected otherwise, given the unaccountability of the government to begin with.

Third, the degradation of the state's moral authority and the people's respect for it. Everyday life teaches that respect and moral authority are crucial in any human organizational set up that requires enforcement. True in companies, in political parties and in society in general. Even in households. A parent who acquiesces to being sidelined, belittled, and insulted openly by a domineering spouse is likely to loose his or her moral authority toward their children. Will he or she be able to tell the teenage son or daughter not to smoke or not to stay out late on Saturday night? Is the son or daughter likely to comply? More likely is that a constantly belittled Lebanese mother will lash out against the helpless maid. Sounds familiar? The Lebanese state has steadily lost its moral authority to other more powerful and domineering authorities. For a few decades now, the power of militias, first Palestinian, then Lebanese of various colors, then a long stretch of total Syrian hegemony, followed by Hizbollah have all rendered the state a beleagued parent with little moral authority.

If that is indeed the underlying malady, is there a treatment? And what is it?

I will leave that for another day.....

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