BEIRUT—The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Ministry of Finance held an event Thursday to mark the conclusion of a two-month project tasking youth volunteers to work through the ministry’s lengthy backlog of paperwork.
The 60 volunteers, recruited through the UNDP’s existing Youth Leadership Programme, were placed in the revenue, treasury and public accounting directorates, among others, to perform data entry, filing, archiving, sorting, control of balances, and other tasks, according to the UNDP. Caretaker Finance Minister Youssef Khalil called it an “out-of-the-box idea.”
Volunteers did not receive wages but were given a $15 daily transportation allowance, according to youth volunteer Ahmad Fakhran.
The capacities of Lebanon’s ministries have been severely degraded by the economic crisis, runaway inflation, and catastrophic currency depreciation. All of these factors have eroded the value of real wages in the public sector, contributing to a wave of resignations, strikes, and absenteeism that have left the state hard-pressed to perform core functions.
Those who remain in the ministries face electricity and internet shortages, limited access to office supplies, and other impediments.
Successive adjustments to public sector salaries have failed to compensate for the massive decline in real wages and public servants continue to complain that their salaries are insufficient to even cover the cost of their commute.
Revenue collection has not been spared by the collapse of the public sector, making it difficult to envision how the state will fund meaningful salary corrections and other priorities. The World Bank projects Lebanon’s revenue collection to be 6.3 percent of GDP in 2023, far below the 15 percent threshold the Bank says is necessary for a “viable” state.
Attempting to fill part of that gap, the UNDP project enabled the ministry to collect some revenues, like built property taxes, that have been languishing since 2018.
UNDP Resident Representative Melanie Hauenstein told L’Orient Today that projects that fill gaps in the performance of core state functions do not reduce pressure for civil service reform. “On the contrary, it increases incentives for reforms,” she said, highlighting the current loss of capacity in the civil service. “The fear is that in engaging in reforms you will not have the human resources, when reforms are agreed upon, to implement those reforms.”
Fakhran, who will be beginning university in the fall, spent the last two months processing documents from notaries public and handling other paperwork to clear out the ministry’s backlog. He gave the project high marks, saying he would do it again.
Another volunteer, recent college graduate Wafaa Masri, also expressed satisfaction with her two-month stint in the ministry. She checked and sorted paper records received by the ministry and said the task was far from over — she estimated it would take two years to clear out accumulated documents she was working on. Masri also said she would join the project again, but said she isn’t considering a career in the civil service.
Hauenstein said this project is distinguished from former UNDP long-running capacity-building projects by the youth involvement and the short-term nature of the project.
“We have learned from what we have done in the past, that all that we do needs to be short-term injections and cannot compensate for longer-term reform and longer-term restructuring of both the economy and the civil service.”
In a press release, Khalil said the project could help shape “future donors’ support beyond mere paths of technical assistance and exploring innovative, efficient and targeted initiatives to address the repercussions of an unprecedented crisis.”