In the wake of the 17 October anti-government protests, citizens across Lebanon have developed spaces for and a practice of direct political dialogue on many squares, streets or previously public spaces to discuss solutions for the country’s economic and governance crisis. On 30 November DRI gathered more than 150 participants in a conference in Beirut to discuss how citizens can participate in politics and how they can shape reforms at local and national levels. Participants included civil society actors, municipalities, judicial and political officials, in addition to activists and politically engaged citizens.
Since October, protestors from all regions, backgrounds and religions have taken to the streets blaming the country’s political elite for the economic crisis, corruption and failure to deliver basic public services. Building on the decentralised character of the movement, attendees discussed how decentralisation can answer protesters’ calls for public accountability, greater efficiency in public services and increased citizen participation.
André Sleiman, DRI Country Representative in Lebanon, opening the conference with remarks on the path forward to solve the current governance crisis
Providing Legal Tools for Accountability
The first panellists assessed the role that institutional checks and balances can play in building the foundations of transparency and accountability. Ghassan Moukheiber, a lawyer, former Member of Parliament and DRI supervisory board member, stressed the need for Lebanon to reform public procurement regulations and the administrative judiciary, calling for strengthening the capacities of oversight agencies to ensure accountability and transparency in public institutions in the local and national governance. Moukheiber argued that the judicial reform process needs to be underpinned by three core concepts: independence, integrity and efficiency, removing the interference of the executive power.
Ghassan Moukheiber, former Member of Parliament and DRI Board Member, and moderator Fadi Halabi
Together with Bilal Badr, a judge and member of the Lebanese Judges Association, panellists highlighted the limitations of anti-corruption laws and the need for public accountability to foster a behavioural change of public institutions. To enhance institutional transparency, they called for an “integrity pact” and the reassessment of the code of conduct across Lebanese institutions in the public sphere.
“Politics is too important to be left to politicians alone”
Reflecting on the lack of trust between citizens and government, the second session involved a group discussion for attendees to share their ideas for improving citizen’s role in the reform process. For the first time concepts such as ”All of them means all of them” are not slogans anymore, underlined Gilbert Doumit, political activist and managing partner of Beyond Reform and Development. He emphasised how the active participation of citizens, particularly youth and women, is essential for the reform process.
Gilbert Doumit presenting Jabal El-Sheikh Federation Youth Council which was elected mid-2019. DRI supported the holding of the elections
Dana Saadedine, president of the Youth Council of the Jabal El-Sheikh Union of Municipalities (Rachaya district), which is supported by DRI Lebanon, together with the other members of the recently elected council, presented their achievements over the last months. The council shared how they have been tackling pressing issues at the local level such as raising awareness about sorting waste at source, leading an online anti-bullying campaign and promoting the local economy through tourism.
A Bottom-Up Approach to The Governance Crisis
Reflecting on how local approaches can resolve the governance crisis in Lebanon in the final session, Mona Bacha discussed how decentralisation should be considered within a broader reform package that includes reorganising the fiscal system, strengthening anti-corruption laws, as well as institutionalising the participation of citizens, businesses and non-governmental organisations in the policy cycle.
Moderator Tania Ghorra interviewing Ziyad Baroud, former Minister of Interior and Municipalities
In an interactive session, municipalities and civil society stressed how reform needs to come from the grassroots, through participatory methods, rather than in closed legislative processes. Former Lebanese Minister of Interior and Municipalities, Ziyad Baroud, explained how decentralisation can have a major impact on citizens-municipalities interactions: “Decentralisation is one of the many starting points, because it is directly linked to the citizens”. He shared how the creation of elected regional councils at the district level can work hand in hand with municipalities through a decentralised fund that is managed by elected officials rather than the central government. Baroud called on municipalities to view these changes positively in the country’s reform.
Participants listen to judge Bilal Badr’s proposal to ensure an independent and transparent judiciary
Mona Bacha, professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the Lebanese University, contributing to the discussion
As Lebanon is entering a moment of significant change, rethinking the fiscal, political and administrative importance of decentralisation and its impact on the everyday life of the Lebanese is essential to improve service delivery and stimulate economic growth at the local level, argued Nour Ghoussaini, a journalist from the Chouf area. A participant from the Lebanese National News Agency shared how, in hand with legislative reform, reforms need to be led from the bottom-up, with the contribution of youths, who are often excluded by their municipality.
 Democracy Reporting International, “Promoting the participation of young people in politics”, Beirut, 29 August 2019. https://democracy-reporting.org/promoting-the-participation-of-young-people-in-politics-lebanon/.