This was the major finding in a new report by Gherbal, an NGO working to fight corruption and spread a culture of transparency among citizens. The NGO called on citizens to mobilize and join their demand for accountability in a context of rampant corruption. “The democratization of data can act as an antidote to corruption,” Gherbal said in the report.
At a ceremony last week attended by MPs, diplomats and several representatives of the civil society, Gherbal announced the results of a nearly year-long effort aimed at testing the will of different institution when it comes to implementing the new law on access to information and their willingness to be transparent, as required by the law.
The law aimed to raise awareness about public expenditure issues by granting Lebanese citizens, regardless of their qualifications, the right to access information about how public money is disbursed. The law is the cornerstone of the fight against corruption, which the government committed to put in place as a condition for international donors to fulfill their promises of financial aid to Lebanon. Launched in 2018, Gherbal’s initiative aimed at establishing “a connection between the citizen and public institutions, and to convert partisan and sectarian political debate and discourse into constructive discussions based on data, numbers and facts," says Celine Merhej, project director at the NGO.
The results of Gherbal’s study, which are published on the NGO's website and in written reports, are quite enlightening: of the 140 institutions solicited by the NGO, only 33 agreed––some after pressure on the part of the applicants––to submit the requested information regarding their expenses for 2017, the first year a budget was voted on after a 12 year hiatus.
Among those who refused: the Presidency of the Republic and the Prime minister’s office. Justifying their refusal to relay any information, the two offices "pretended that the law is only applicable once the implementing decrees (provided by law) are adopted," according to Hussein Mehdi, a researcher and project manager with Gherbal.
This argument, commonly used by some public institutions and political circles, is unacceptable. The Legislation and Consultation Service has pointed this out on three occasions in the past, insisting on the preeminence of the principle of transparency and confirming the immediate applicability of the law.
The State Council also rejected another argument invoked by the people trying to avoid complying with the lay, namely, that there is a need to create a national anti-corruption committee to implement the law.
The "bad students"
Parliament has so far refused to apply the law, according to Gherbal, and did not provide a written response to the request submitted by the NGO. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also did not respond. Even after the Legislation and Consultation Service said that it should comply, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs refrained from reacting to the request to make its expenses public.
The "bad students" also include all religious and community-based institutions that receive public money. In unison, they rejected the request of the NGO, refusing to consign their answer in writing. "Our highest dignitary is asking you to forget about the case,” one of the representatives told Gherbal, according to Mehdi.
The NGO also singled out the Ministry of the Interior and the Court of Auditors, which settled with a direct return to the sender after receiving Gherbal’s request.
The “good students”
Beyond its claimed strategy of publicly denouncing and condemning the detractors, the NGO has chosen to reward those who responded positively and respected the terms of the law by returning their response within the legally stipulated 15 day timeframe.
Seventeen institutions––including the Public Service Cooperative, the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation, the General Directorate of the Ministry of Labor, the Disciplinary Council, the General Directorate for Youth and Sports and the National Social Security Fund––were rewarded for sending detailed figures of their expenses for the year 2017. Each one was presented with a trophy.
"This is proof that within the administration there are still competent and committed officials ready to build and reinforce transparency,” says Carine Badr, representative of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), one of the project's main partners. The European Fund for Democracy (Fedem), the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) and the Ministry for Administrative Development (Omsar) also contributed to the project.
Sixteen other public institutions also complied with Gherbal’s requests, but only after a sustained lobbying campaign by the NGO. The expenditure details of these institutions were not delivered within the legal deadline.
One of the main objectives of Gherbal’s initiative was to shed light on how taxpayers’ money has been spent. All of the data it collected is available on its website (http://elgherbal.org), allowing citizens to get involved in the process. The goal is to help build a new civic culture of transparency and to nurture a reflex of accountability by explaining to interested parties the relevant laws and the process of requesting information, according to the general director of the project, Assad Thebian.
Thebian called on Lebanese to consult the report, which provides information about how the budget is adopted, what it consists of, the structure of various ministries and contains a number of infographics and educational videos.
(This article was orignially published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 28th of September)
The Presidency of the Republic, the Prime minister’s office and Parliament have systematically refused to apply the law on the right of access to information, a fundamental tool in the fight against corruption. The people who are supposed to lead by example––starting with the very same people who drafted and passed the law in 2017––have failed to implement it in their most basic duties...