The European Union was pleased to hear the news that came out of Beirut on Nov. 10, 2009. Saad Hariri, the designated Lebanese prime minister, announced the formation of a unity government, ending an impasse that had lasted since the parliamentary election in June.
"This should form the basis for progress on the implementation of Lebanon's reform agenda, which I am confident the authorities will take forward energetically also in the interest of the wellbeing of the Lebanese people," the outgoing European commissioner for external relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said at the time.
A month prior to Hariri's declaration, Jussi Narvi spoke with Devex about what such a political achievement could do for Europe's work in Lebanon. Narvi heads the European Commission's Cooperation Section in Lebanon. He discussed efforts to help the country recover from the 2006 war with Israel and the impact of aid policy changes on the delegation's operation.
Would you say there has been significant reconstruction progress throughout the past three years?
There was the donor conference in Paris in January 2007, which introduced the Paris III government reform program. It was a fairly promising program, but its main shortcoming was that it didn't cover justice. Unfortunately, its implementation as well as the implementation of the EU-Lebanon neighborhood policy action plan that came about more or less at the same time with a fairly similar scope have suffered from the ongoing political crisis, and there has been fairly little progress.
What's the plan to give things a push?
The first thing would be for Lebanon to form a new government so we'd at least have a counterpart with whom to discuss it. The current caretaker government can't take policy decisions, so we're a bit sitting on nothing. But, of course, the work continues. The things that had been decided before, we continue doing them, and they bring the results that they bring. I think that our assistance, for example, to the Telecommunications [Regulatory] Authority has been quite successful. Lebanon would now be in shape to open the telecommunications market and improve the relatively poor situation in that field in Lebanon. Lebanon has perhaps amongst the highest cost for mobile telephones in the world and one of the weakest accesses to broadband. That's one area where we have been trying to create conditions for improvement.
Challenges of working in Lebanon and Middle East
What is the nature of the relationship between the European Commission and the Lebanese government?
I think that we have a good understanding of where each one wants to go. Our main problem working here is the lack of well-defined policies on the Lebanese side. One could say that in Lebanon, politics is more about who than about what. But more seriously, we tried to do a budget support program recently but the main ingredient or condition for a budget support program is that there's a clear policy that's supposed to be supported, and we couldn't find one in the area that we were looking for. That makes the whole donor work very difficult. Donor coordination can be discussed between ourselves. We can discuss it with the government and say, "OK, you are doing this and we are doing that." But as long as there is no coherent and comprehensive government plan as to what should be done in the sector in general, [you can say, "I take this part and you take that," or we simply give all the money to the government and let them do it,] it doesn't function.
How do you overcome these challenges?
We try to pick limited areas where we see that there are needs, preferably strategic needs - some kind of bottleneck situation and then we try to blow the bottleneck. It's perhaps the next best solution, but it's not the ideal solution. The ideal solution would be that the government has, for each sector, a coherent policy, and we would support them in implementing it. We are working towards it. We are working with the government to help them develop those policies, but that's of course a long-term process.
What challenges do you face that are specific to the Middle East and how do you adapt accordingly?
Well, the Middle East conflict leaves its traces everywhere, but otherwise I'd be reluctant to put the Middle East in one bag and say they're all the same. There are certain similarities, one of them being a very hierarchical management system and that you always have to go very near the top to get the decision. There was a politician who once said that in his government, 96 percent of the decisions made by the government were decisions of applying rules and 4 percent were policy decisions. So, it gives you an idea of how rigid the decision making can be, and it's sometimes a problem that you simply don't get the decision when talking to a counterpart at the technical level. Otherwise, language is, of course, a challenge. It would be much easier to work always in English. A great regret after seven years in the Middle East is that I don't speak Arabic. It would be easier to speak with my local counterparts and understand the documents going around if I did. When we go to a conference where we're listening to the local population, if we're lucky, there's interpretation; if we are not, we go home.
Aid policy trends
How has the responsibility of the Lebanese delegation changed since the decentralization of external aid management from the headquarters in Brussels?
Since the decentralization, we sign the contracts. Before, it was all sent to Brussels. So, it has very substantially speeded up the process of making contracts, respecting our engagements, making the payments and also taking corrective action when it's needed. So, I think there is unanimity that it was a good decision. We don't usually manage the projects from here, as they are de-concentrated or devolved to the delegation. It's also decentralized to management by the government itself. It's still a limited decentralization because we approve, for example, tender files before they are launched and we make major payments, but they [the government] prepare the terms of reference. The technical specifications, they are made in Lebanon with technical assistance that we provide if needed, but that again is Lebanese decision if they want it. We are here to support the Lebanese reform program.
Let's talk about future trends within the European Commission.
Our clear aim is to go towards budget support. Budget support means that instead of defining at the beginning that we are going to provide you with this technical assistance to work on these issues, we'll provide you with this type of equipment and so on. We say, "OK, you have this policy set and you have these measurable objectives, you go ahead and do it, and when you reach that objective, we give you so much to support your further work." We give the money to the government and they procure according to their own procurement rules. For the time being, everything's being done under European Commission rules. So, that makes it much easier for the government to manage our donations. It should make aid much more efficient, and it will be even better aligned with governments' own objectives than it is today. We are doing our best to align with our objectives already today. But sometimes, the government objectives, as I said, there are no coherent sectors of policies, and it is difficult to see where they are going.
Is this the first time budget support is being introduced, or has it been implemented in the past?
We tried once to do a budget support program. We converted it to a pre-budget support program, and we tried to ensure that during the program, the conditions for budget support in the future would be met so the next generation of projects in that field would be budget support. So, we are, of course, doing some other things that we had in mind. But we will also reinforce the capacity of the ministry to develop its plans to convert them into budget, as there's a weak link between the action plan and the budget for the time being, and we need to reinforce that link. Then, of course, there's the question of microeconomic stability and management of public finances that need to be improved, and we are going to help in that improvement also under the first program. With the next generation, we want to simply agree on what the government will do and participate in funding that and make the payments according to an agreed plan, providing that the government had achieved what it had planned to achieve.
Is this plan intended for Lebanon specifically, the Middle East, or on a broader scale?
It's even more general than that. It comes from the Accra agreement and before that the Paris Declaration of the donor community in general on aid efficiency. We should go more and more towards ownership of the beneficiary of the whole process - that the beneficiary manages the process, the aid according to its own procedures, towards its own objectives. We are trying to help Lebanon get to that point, and the first point is to define the objectives.
Read the second part of our interview with Jussi Narvi, where he specifies activities of the European Commission delegation in Lebanon and how individuals and organizations can get involved in these efforts.