Posted on August 18 2020
Image by Hani Abbas Cartoons
When in 1997 I wrote my graduation thesis on the reconstruction of Beirut Central District after the civil war, i spent a few months in Beirut's Ein El Mreisse, studying the history of Lebanon, interviewing and meeting many of the reconstruction players, including the mastermind of the reconstruction, Rafiq Hariri.
There was hope and excitement, the Beirut center was going to look amazing and so would the Port and the Marina.
A real-estate billionaire turned politician, the then Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri had a vision: yes, of course his development companies were going to get richer via the reconstruction, but Lebanon was going to get back on the map.
The conclusion of my thesis was that the positives sides of this bizarre private-public relationship were more than offsetting the negatives. In particular, nobody else was going to take full responsibility to rebuild Beirut after 18 years of civil war, plus the country needed to turn a page and its citizens would end up benefitting from the project, I thought.
In 1997, Merrills published a research study on Solidere and the reconstruction, foreign investments were coming in and the country seemed set to implement long-lasting and healthy reforms. I still have that piece of research in my files (with thanks to my then Professor at Bocconi University, Paolo Rondo Brovetto):
Hariri's vision was abruptly brought to a halt by his assassination in 2005. The reforms never came, the politicians who followed him seemed to have only inherited the greed, but not the vision. And Lebanon has paid the price.
The history of Lebanon can be seen as a succession of foreign powers coming in as saviours, greeted with showers of rice and rose petals, as Robert Fisk tells in his book "Pity the Nation". It would be amazing if the Lebanese could this time take their country destiny in their own hands.
What next, once the humanitarian emergency is over?
I do not think sectarian power allocation is the problem; I think the problem is the lack of accountability. Every Lebanese I have known in the last 20+ years has a brilliant mind and a great vision: I wish they could all work together to put in place a system with the right priorities, where a politicians will get rich only if the country gets wealthier. And I hope that the international agencies, which will no doubt get involved, will also put in place the right incentives, results-driven incentives, for a change.
What about Solidere? The company created by Hariri senior to manage the reconstruction is still alive although of course it was just managing its real estate portfolio: imagine a world where a group of the smartest and wealthiest Lebanese from all over the world take control of Solidere and use it as the driving force of the reconstruction, this time so that the country will benefit. Again, just in 1997, I believe it is OK if shareholders make money in the process, as long as Beirut center and Lebanon infrastructure are rebuilt and as long as this comes hand in hand with the same reforms which were already needed - and had been promised - 20 years ago.
I am not Lebanese, but I love Lebanon and its resilience and how warmly it welcomed me in 1997, hence I allowed myself to share my views, in this sad moment as I see all the work of 20 years ago shattered to pieces by the greed and incompetence of those who should have protected their country. Lebanon '97 is also when I visited Ein El Helwe camp, which planted the seed of SEP Jordan.
The Emergency: many of our partners and friends have launched fundraisers. Here is the list of the ones we know well and trust (surely there are a lot more), should you wish to contribute in the aftermath.
All of the above list the names of the humanitarian organisations on the ground they will support, I urge you to go through them all if interested in helping out.