Michael Karam: What new year resolutions would look like – if Lebanon aspired to any

It's a new year and everyone is looking to see what they can improve about themselves. Let's do the same for Lebanon.

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Happy new year everyone.

Before I fill out my annual and unendingly ill-fated gym membership, I thought we would look at another hoary old cliché and suggest a set of new year resolutions for Lebanon. It is a particularly apposite exercise because the country is beating a path to the national treadmill filled with the optimism, joy and knowledge that it has a new president and an even newer government, one that is supposedly committed to putting the economic ennui of the past 30 months behind it. It says it is ready to get to work realising our aching potential to be a small but perfectly formed regional entrepôt, one that can deliver prosperity and home-grown innovation. Well, that is the idea anyway.

Sticking with the “new me” metaphor, I thought I would look to Lebanon’s loyal diaspora to act as our fitness adviser. The diaspora is fit, hale and hearty; in fact, it is in annoyingly good shape and wants us to be equally hale and hearty. In New York last September, at the North America Lebanese Diaspora Energy Conference, it usefully outlined in a draft report the areas on which we need to concentrate.

Entrepreneurship, the front line of the diaspora spirit, is our cardio workout, if you will. The Lebanese-American diaspora is more used to shooting from the hip and we were told that the Lebanese business culture needs to move away from a traditional culture of conservative investment and take more of a punt on high-risk entrepreneurship to build “a more dynamic start-up-driven economy”. No one ever got anywhere by playing it safe.

Our woeful energy sector is our stubborn flab. According to the conference findings, our last power plant was put into service in 1996, when the late, great Rafik Hariri ran the show. Today the country is running at 60 per cent capacity, a situation not helped by the Syrian refugee crisis. More effort and focus – a national ab crunch if you like – is required if we are to emerge, quite literally in some cases, from the darkness. Essentially, our heavy reliance on fossil ­fuels simply cannot carry on; the World Bank estimates a loss of 3 per cent of GDP every year because of environmental pollution. So what are the options? Offshore wind power isn’t a realistic option – and onshore windmills simply won’t work; too many mountains and high-rise buildings – so the government must now consider a funded programme of solar, or photovoltaic, power for homes, which can range from three to 14 hours a day. It would reduce the reliance on often-unregulated generators. It’s rather like going to the gym in February. We just need the will.

Our diaspora personal trainer might also recommend we invest more in research and development. We have no end of universities (even if many are scandalously useless) but they are all basically degree factories. R&D has provided a huge economic platform for the Israeli economy and we have the talent to match it, but we simply have neither the infrastructure nor the funding to create what the conference described as “socio-economic agents of change”.

But without pain there is no gain.

Lebanon has 20 per cent unemployment, a high debt-to-GDP ratio and a quarter of the population apparently living in poverty. It cannot rely on the wisdom and guidance of the Lebanese central bank and remittances to achieve economic growth, especially as there is now more stringent monitoring of monetary transfers by the US government. To stop the rot (and the brain drain), our dias­pora trainer will tell us there must be solid and coherent government-led fiscal policies in an atmosphere of “political stability, basic services and ease of doing business”. There are, after all, no shortcuts to a better body.

That is the body, but what about the mind? What about a bit of national meditation to change our outlook and generate those positive vibes? We need to remind people of our good side, the side of hospitality, tradition and generosity of spirit, and these values need to be communicated when we present our goods and services to the world. The challenge is to build the brand by creating more high-quality Lebanese products that will help shape perceptions and even spur investment. Easy isn’t it?

All this is as unlikely as me getting a six-pack, but it is January, so we can still dream.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton.


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