The Policy Initiative

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Bringing Public Policies Closer to People: Launching The Policy Initiative

Sami Atallah

While candidates are busy preparing for the 2022 Lebanese parliamentary elections, a false sense of the functionality of our electoral institutions prevails. Though constitutionally Lebanon must hold elections every four years, they will rather play an essential role for the ruling elite to regain their legitimacy and keep the political system intact—particularly after the 2019 uprisings, the financial collapse, and the Beirut Port Blast. The ruling elite’s political parties, most of which are zaim-led, are campaigning either on reforms that they will not pursue once elected, as history can attest, or on issues that hardly address voters’ basic needs and priorities. Their campaigns mobilize people to vote based on confessional identity divisions and on clientelism, in an electoral system where districts are gerrymandered, and proportional representation (PR) carries strong majoritarian trends, and where electoral behavior is contaminated with voter bribery, intimidation, sectarian discourse, and media bias. Soon after the elections are over, the ruling elite will eventually agree, behind closed doors, on the prime minister and on the cabinet’s composition, and will forward the decision to the MPs so they can kickstart the constitutional process. 

This political charade has run its course. Indeed, this staged performance neither represents the confessional communities, as it is supposed to do according to the 1989 Taef agreement, nor does it lead to development and stability. In fact, the system has impoverished its citizens across all confessional communities and deprived them of their rights and of social justice. More so, this system is killing people every day, with its inability to provide electricity to homes and businesses, and to secure medicine to hospitals. Less than two weeks ago, out of utter despair, people and children attempted to escape the harsh reality of acute impoverishment, boarding a boat from the shores of Tripoli, only to be chased down by the army who sunk their boat, leading to six deaths and thirty reportedly missing at the time of writing. 

While the political system has oscillated between collusion and paralysis over the years—both modalities hurting peoples’ wellbeing, four characteristics of the system stand out. First, the ruling elite adopted fiscal and sectoral policies benefitting the few, particularly those with political influence, at the expense of the productive sectors. With the onslaught of the financial implosion—a direct consequence of their own policies –-this ruling elite refused to implement, no less consider, the necessary measures, choosing instead to socialize the cost of the collapse to save their own skin. Second, the ruling elite has failed to undertake any reforms, lest their interests are threatened, although they have been receiving international support since at least the 2001 Paris I meeting. Third, despite their differences, the ruling elite skillfully coordinated among themselves to undermine existing and emerging political and economic organizations, including labor unions and syndicates seeking citizen’s rights who would potentially challenge their system of clientelism and patronage. Finally, the ruling elite still refuses that any of its members, including their opponents, be held accountable for any of their acts. Namely, they have prevented the investigation of the Port of Beirut Blast` and continue to protect all those who contributed to the financial implosion that cast more than 80% of people into poverty. 

In brief, the political and economic system making up Lebanon is unable to fix itself. The ruling parties are unable to imagine a new alternative, let alone undertake reforms. They will seek to delay or dilute any meaningful change. Despite this impasse, we do not think that answers should come from abroad. Actors and drivers for change in Lebanon must be homegrown and grounded in people who must be placed at the heart of this effort. 

Keen on pursuing and upholding our mission to protect public interest and peoples’ rights, five of us–-Hala Bejjani, Karim Daher, Mona Fawaz, Nizar Saghieh, and I—established The Policy Initiative (TPI), a Beirut-based think tank aiming to bring public policies closer to people. With an accomplished team, we seek to elaborate alternative policies that engage with people and safeguard their interests. Our role is twofold: one, to challenge and scrutinize the policies of the ruling establishment and hold them, at least intellectually, accountable; and, two, to provide policy alternatives and imagine new and better political and economic realities. Evidence-based and rigorously analyzed, our work employs multiple tools to understand the changes transforming society. Most importantly, our work is governed by values of justice and equity.

Officially set up in February 2021, TPI has developed eight initiatives that we consider priorities for the next phase in the country: shifting to a new economic paradigm; advancing social-economic rights; building a state with a mission; advocating for fair representation and accountability; leveraging aid for the public good; activating effective local development; investing in environmental sustainability; and fostering political and social stability. TPI is already leading many projects that bring these initiatives together, which are briefly presented below.  

- While the change in the electoral law from majoritarian system to PR was considered a milestone back in 2017, the electoral process remains mired with undemocratic and unfair practices. To this end, and in light of the upcoming parliamentary elections, TPI is documenting and analyzing these violations in order to advocate for the introduction of a set of reforms, beyond the law, for the next elections, including districting and representation, electoral alliances, the role of the media, as well as electoral strategies and financing, among others.  

- Since the October 2019 uprising, Lebanon witnessed an increase in the number of political groups that seek to challenge the establishment. Yet, little is known about the diversity and heterogeneity of these groups. Based on original survey data, TPI unpacked differences in these groups’ organizational structures, policy stances, strategies for political change, and alliances. In addition to the report that aims to inform the public, TPI has launched an interactive dashboard that makes the data available to all and is relevant especially to voters who are interested in learning more about the groups. 

- Two years into the financial crisis, one of the worst in recent history, the government has yet to undertake the most rudimentary policies to stop, or even slow down the collapse, and protect its citizens. In addition to releasing a series of articles on the State’s poor response to the crisis, the team at TPI is documenting and exposing the inaction of the parliament and government in response to the crisis and how the ruling elite delegated the response to the Central Bank, with devastating impact on people’s welfare. We will be shortly launching an interactive dashboard that makes the data available to the public with a timeline starting from August 2019.

- The unprecedented increase in poverty calls for an urgent need to reform the country’s social protection policies. In coordination with the International Labour Organization (ILO), TPI is advocating for a rights-based social protection system that preserves and develops the country’s human capital, in order to set the foundations for a potential new social contract where rights are granted rather than earned through political subordination. To this end, TPI is examining the shortcomings in the existing social protection system, monitoring the developments on the social policy landscape, and advocating for sustainable and inclusive schemes that can build the essential foundations for sustainable societal and political change.

- Given the country’s economic deterioration and the central government’s failure to respond to the crisis, it is necessary for local governments to play an active role in economic development. Although municipalities and unions of municipalities have been legally entrusted with a wide set of responsibilities, they have yet to exploit their socio-economic role and became effective agents of development. With the UNDP, the TPI team, in collaboration with United Cities Lebanon (UCL) and a group of experts, used multiple methods (including resident and firm level surveys, focus groups, and interviews) to assess the specific needs and priorities of three regions governed by the unions of Al-Fayha, Metn, and Tyre, and identified key interventions for regional and local development. 

- While there has been significant focus on the financial crisis, there has been little discussion on what sort of economy we want to build, considering the country’s endowment as well as geopolitical and regional changes, and how to prioritize sector transformation and institutional reforms. TPI is leading an initiative with a group of economists, political scientists, lawyers, urban planners, and businesspeople to think how to develop a productive economy that creates good jobs, reduces inequality, and generates sustainable growth. A series of discussions will be released in the coming weeks outlining a vision for the economy beyond the crisis. 

While our policy agenda is extensive, largely reflecting the many problems facing us, we strongly believe in collaborative work with like-minded entities and institutions that can amplify voices for social justice and complement our policy work across disciplines. TPI is currently working with the Beirut Urban Lab (BUL) at the American University of Beirut on the role and the nature of the support provided by various actors in the aftermath of the Port of Beirut explosion. With the Arab Reform Initiative (ARI), we are assessing the impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable populations in Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, and Tunisia. In addition, TPI is working with Legal Agenda on sharing resources, data, and information on goals pertinent to both institutions. Moreover, TPI and the Center for Lebanese Studies (CLS) partnered with IMPACT, Lebanon’s e-governance platform housed in the Central Inspection Agency, to examine how municipalities engaged with the platform to provide data necessary for providing aid to those in need.

Although think tanks generally produce and advocate for policies for the benefit of governments or political parties, this is not our sole aim. Aware of our context, we seek to produce policy knowledge in order for the larger public—various professional organizations, syndicates, labor unions, mayors, local officials, and emerging political groups—to become informed agents of change. Given the increasing role of aid in the country, TPI also seeks to engage donors, so they are also more cognizant of the multiple dynamics at play when setting their priorities for Lebanon. 

To this end, we seek to engage with key stakeholders in our webinars, workshops, and conferences. A few months ago, in coordination with United Cities Lebanon, TPI organized a series of workshops with mayors and stakeholders in several regions in Lebanon for the purpose of co-producing local economic development strategies. TPI also hosted the Lebanon Land Policy Dialogue series, organized by BUL and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, which convened senior government officials, land experts, developers, and activists to chart alternative policies for land management and valuation in Lebanon.  

In addition to publishing reports on emerging political groups and the electoral behavior of the diaspora along with weekly articles on pertinent and timely topics, TPI aims to expand its audience and reach a wider public by producing infographics and videos. To this end, our team has already produced a series of infographics on electoral alliances of the ruling and emerging political parties, and on the profiles of the voters across the country. TPI is indeed keen on developing alternative media tools where policy issues are shared with the larger population, thus bringing public policies closer to people.

We are looking forward to undertaking this journey together and providing rigorous and credible policy knowledge, one policy at a time. We hope that our work can inspire people to become agents of change so we can collaboratively imagine an alternative political and economic vision for Lebanon. 


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