BEIRUT — Gabriel Fernaine remembers the exact moment he came up with the idea to install traffic lights in Beirut.
“I was driving towards the Burj al-Ghazal intersection and everything was pitch black. I couldn’t make out anything: streets, shops, people. Nothing. Not even the red traffic light was working. I looked over at my wife and said: ‘This is unacceptable. There’s a difference between laissez-faire and life-threatening negligence. I’ll install them myself if I have to.’”
Which is exactly what he did.
Fernaine’s association, Rebirth Beirut, which, in the wake of the Beirut port explosion, focused on providing different kinds of aid, brought back some light to an increasingly dark capital by installing solar-powered lamps to resurrect traffic lights at the intersections of Burj al-Ghazal, Sofil and Tabaris.
In the spring of 2020, as Lebanon’s economic meltdown gained pace, traffic lights started to go out one by one. Not only did perpetual power cuts get in the way of them functioning properly, their upkeep ground to a halt after a maintenance contract ended in April.
Maintenance, outsourced by the Traffic and Vehicles Management Authority (TVMA) to a private company, was funded by proceeds from parking meters that were installed across the capital in the late 2000s, as part of a World Bank-funded project tendered to a private company via the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR). After the contract ended, a lack of funding prevented the next contracted company from continuing the work.
Fernaine's initiative, with its accompanying slogan, “a glimmer of hope,” turned heads, with many taking to social media to remark upon it.
While the intentions behind the project seem benign, the latest in a long line of private initiatives usurping the role of an absent government begs the question whether this does more harm than good in the long-run, or is it the only way to get anything done in a country which is almost at a complete standstill?
In his Gemmayzeh office, which was destroyed in the Aug. 4, 2020 Beirut blast and rebuilt by Rebirth Beirut, the NGO’s founder Fernaine told L’Orient Today that, while he understands why Beirutis may be cynical of any effort, whether public or private, that dedicates itself to fixing their crumbling city, he insists that his association’s intentions are pure.
“Like many initiatives that were spontaneously created in the wake of the port blast, our only aim was to turn helplessness into action, and pick up the pieces of our broken city in lieu of the government,” he explains.
Fernaine, a Gemmayzeh local, is no stranger to the incompetence of the Lebanese state. Until recently, he was a Beirut city council member. At the time, he was known for publicly protesting the council’s decision to install an incinerator in Beirut.
“Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of well-intentioned members on the council, including the governor,” Fernaine says, “but there’s only so much you can do with those good intentions when no funds are made available to you to turn them into a reality.”
Asked why Rebirth Beirut’s current initiative as well as its upcoming ones — the NGO has plans to repair potholes and power street lamps — are focused on the Achrafieh area, Fernaine points to the fact that Rebirth Beirut came into existence for the very purpose of helping out after the port blast, which mostly affected neighborhoods that fall under the Achrafieh umbrella.
“We absolutely plan to expand our initiatives to other areas in Beirut as soon as we have the means to do so,” he says.
Rebirth Beirut’s traffic light initiative, which was approved by the municipality, is one in a long line of such collaborations in the city. Many Lebanese tend to express cynicism towards such initiatives. In a state that is known for rampant corruption, such private initiatives often exist in the context of clientelism. The number of such initiatives often conspicuously increases during election season: Lebanon’s parliamentary elections, scheduled for May 15, are only six weeks away.
In recent months, a number of infrastructure initiatives have sprung up around Beirut carried out by groups connected to political figures. For instance, the Makhzoumi Foundation of MP Fouad Makhzoumi recently carried out a solar lighting project in Corniche al-Mazraa, in the Beirut II district where his National Dialogue party is backing a list of candidates. Separately, the Public Works Ministry last week authorized the Marada Movement’s Joseph Michel Najem, a candidate in the upcoming elections, to repave a road in Batroun at his own expense.
Fernaine, however, insists that his association is privately funded and has no ties to political parties and that the street lighting initiative is separate from his role as a regional manager at Byblos Bank, which is his day job.
“What I said about well-intentioned individuals among the city council goes for the banks as well, at least the bank I work for. Many employees were negatively impacted [by the financial crisis] too, as were the banks,” he said.
He noted that Rebirth Beirut has acquired the services of an independent auditor to go through its finances.
“As a Lebanese citizen who knows how this country operates, I was the first to prioritize transparency,” he said, adding that the association’s website will soon include detailed financial information and data to ensure that it is transparent to the public.
While private infrastructure initiatives are in some cases politically connected, there are also good-faith initiatives that fill the many state-created gaps which have led to what is widely known as the NGO-ification of Lebanon.
“In many ways it’s interesting to observe NGOs that are thinking of ways to contribute to and improve the built environment and infrastructure. Especially as part of a larger reflection on how to improve services in the city,” says Mona Harb, assistant professor of Urban Studies at the American University of Beirut.
In the aftermath of the Beirut port blast, Harb voiced her concerns about Lebanon becoming another “republic of the NGOs” in a policy paper published on the website of Beirut Urban Lab, a collaborative and interdisciplinary research space dedicated to urbanization that she co-founded.
In the paper, Harb argues that in Lebanon “the rampant corruption and accumulated failures of state agencies have encouraged an adversarial position among activist groups who demand the exclusion of the state from the reconstruction.” However, she writes, “while state agencies cannot reach communities with the same effectiveness, their typically assigned roles as custodians of the common good and as coordinators remain critical.”
Harb says that while this public private partnership in which an NGO, Rebirth Beirut, is supporting a public actor, the municipality, in the provision of public services is a model that’s rather common in different cities, it’s crucial to ensure that such provisions occur in a context of accountability.
There should be “a fair system which includes a transparent bidding process the private partner must go through before it’s selected,” Harb says, adding that the provision should be “operated and supervised by the municipality.”
In this particular case, the process was hybrid, according to George Nour, spokesperson for Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud.
“The [financial] collapse, which meant that there were no funds available to us, and the impossibility to find contractors willing to work with us under the current financial constraints, obliged us to accept any kind of solution,” he said.
However, Nour insists that abiding by safety and transparency procedures is a process that the municipality will never abandon.
“We thoroughly investigate the private partner to ensure that it is not tied to a political party and is transparent about its approach and safety measures,” he said. “I can safely say that Rebirth Beirut ticked all the boxes for us to approve their project in good conscience.”
As for the sponsors of the recently installed traffic lights, they are all insurance companies, at a time when insurance policies are almost impossible for the majority of citizens in the country to afford, as many now insist on policies paid in “fresh dollars.”
Elie Nasnas, general manager of insurance company AXA Middle East member of the National Board of Compulsory Insurance, which co-sponsored the solar powered traffic light on the Burj al-Ghazal intersection, told L’Orient Today, “It’s for that exact reason that we wanted to contribute in a different way. Many Lebanese can’t afford insurance and so we gladly sponsored an initiative that will help keep them safe.”
Meanwhile, Fernaine, a serious-looking man with an almost childlike enthusiasm, is too busy gushing over the next projects his association has in the pipeline to fix the neighborhood, and, hopefully soon, the rest of the country, to think about the cynical nay-sayers.
“We will soon install more traffic lights, and then we will slowly but steadily conquer the darkness by installing city lights in the various neighborhoods.”
“No ulterior motives,” he insists, “just a Lebanese trying to help the ailing heart of my country beat again.”