The fight against corruption has dominated the public scene in the Lebanon, especially after the country celebrated ending many months of a political logjam and the formation of a new government last January.
Driven by the dire economic need to access some $11 billion in soft loans and grants, pledged last year at the CEDRE conference in Paris, the Lebanon is on a mission to introduce table-turning reforms which are conditional for unlocking a valuable aid package.
Naturally, nepotism and political patronage, which have long-plagued the country’s bureaucracies, figured high on the state’s anti-corruption agenda, next to shadiness associated with the judiciary, electricity file and institutional squandering.
According to the Parliament’s Budget and Finance Committee, unmerited employment, a tool often used by politicians to seduce voters, resulted in the hiring of thousands across state departments on the eve of the 2018 general elections.
MP Jihad al-Samad, who is partaking in ongoing investigations into illegal hiring in the public sector, says the topic has drawn the attention of all political parties who had vouched to reform.
Samad, in an interview with 7D News, says that “political parties in power say that they are serious in the fight against corruption, and these public hires were inspired by Lebanon’s confessional system,” a matter which makes everyone a knowing culprit.
“If these parties are serious in their anti-corruption endeavours, they should act swiftly,” he adds.
Samad also explains that the suspicious hires cited by the Budget and Finance Committee were made in violation of Article 21 of the salary scale law for civil servants and public employees.
The law, which was ratified in 2017, called for the suspension of all forms of public sector hiring and ordered conducting a comprehensive survey of state institutions in order to spot discrepancies and asses needs.
“Ministries have recruited beyond what is permitted -- even if the hire was ordered by a ministerial decree, it remains illegal, because even the Council of Ministers is limited by the above-mentioned law,” Samad says.
While Samad hopes that “the follow-up committee finds actual results, especially with data showing at least 12,000 military and civil servant appointees having been employed illegally and draining state resources”, he left room for doubt saying, “We are working seriously and if we do not reach an outcome, the obstruction would then be political --each party will need to shoulder its responsibilities".
“Article 13 is also clear and stipulates that any employment that does not comply with legal requirements is unlawful, and therefore void," Samad stresses.
Un-planned, Discretionary Hires Cost Lebanese State Millions
Some figures predict there are as many as 300,000 employees enrolled in the public sector. Such a figure is shocking as it is one of the highest worldwide and represents nearly 25% of the small Levantine country’s entire workforce.
Information International, a leading Beirut-based research consultancy, says that 65% of government spending goes to paying the public sector’s workforce; out of an estimated $12.5 billion in annual state revenues, $8 billion are spent on the salaries of public servants.
Expert economist Elie Yashuei says that excessive and random hiring has cost the state’s treasury a minimum of $500 million annually, a figure accounting for 10% of the national budget deficit and which excludes end-of-service and pension costs.
This amount could have been used to repair a power plant that is responsible for nearly 32% of the public deficit alone, Yashuei tells 7D News.
Even if the situation is corrected, the state will not be able to take back what has been misspent, but it will be able to reduce future expenses, he adds.
Whilst underscoring the need for a comprehensive and official survey that produces accurate information on all those on the public sector payroll, such as terms of employment, post held and whether or not they are necessary, Yashuei says that deeply-rooted political patronage and sectarian interests make it very difficult to regulate public sector employment, unless a serious decision is made to end the years-long era of discretionary hiring.
Unsystematic hiring is one of the many faults, such as tax and customs evasion and much more, depleting Lebanon’s national resources, he adds. Though he says it is good to start “somewhere”.
“We hope to see results, despite our experience in how corruption-linked files are handled,” Yashuei said in an oblique hint at Lebanon’s malfeasance-rich history.
A study by the World Bank revealed that the cost of corruption in Lebanon amounts to 10 billion dollars annually, half of which is in direct and internal losses within public administrations.