Lebanon's crisis leaves bureaucracy crippled

Functioning of government departments hampered by strikes, power cuts and fuel shortage

Motorcycle riders wait for fuel at a petrol station in Beirut. AP
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Lebanon's currency crisis and fuel shortage have almost paralysed state institutions, dealing another blow to economic activity that has contracted sharply since the start of a financial meltdown in late 2019.

The collapse of the Lebanese pound, which has lost more than 95 per cent of its value against the dollar, has eroded the purchasing power of civil servants and left vital institutions understaffed and unable to process government services promptly.

For weeks now, most government offices have been working only one day a week, including affiliates of the Finance Ministry and property registries.

The near paralysis is the result of strike action by public sector employees as well as the difficulty workers face in commuting because of the fuel shortages and rising transport costs.

“After 23 years in service, my salary is worth less than $110,” an employee at the Labour Ministry told The National. “I’m lucky that I can walk to work because we can no longer afford gasoline.”

The League of Public Employees said on Wednesday that the strike action would be extended until September 30. They called again for the government to raise salaries and retirement benefits, and to assure access to fuel.

But even when government offices are open, employees struggle to process daily tasks as power blackouts intensify, ageing equipment fails and supplies such as paper and ink run out.

“It’s only few minutes before the UPS (uninterruptible power supply) system goes down whenever the electricity is out because there’s no money to replace old batteries,” an employee of the Finance Ministry said.

Most of the ministry’s affiliated entities now process transactions only on Wednesdays, relying on private generators for electricity. The power supply is strictly for office equipment, the employee said. “Turning on air conditioners is no longer an option because the generator can’t handle the load.”

Most offices have turned to private generators as the state-owned power company has reduced electricity supply to an average of only two hours per day. But operators of private generators are struggling to secure enough diesel and spare parts to maintain uninterrupted power during working hours.

The deterioration of government services is adding to the everyday woes of the Lebanese, individuals and businesses alike.

Even when government offices are open, transactions that used to be immediate can now take up to a week to process.

“It could happen that the institution is simply out of power on this particular day,” Tony Feghali, an architect, told The National. “If that’s the case, one has to wait another week to process something as simple as paying your dues to the state.”

Paperwork that requires visits to several government departments could take much longer. For instance, a construction licence that used to take less than a month to process could now take three to four months, Mr Feghali said. “Sometimes, the only employee with the authority to sign off on a particular paper doesn’t show up to work because he could not secure enough fuel to commute."

In other instances, applicants are asked to scan and print documents elsewhere because the office printer is malfunctioning or has run out of ink, the Finance Ministry employee said.

Mr Feghali said the situation was delaying projects, dealing another blow to an economy already in severe contraction. Lebanon’s GDP dropped from close to $55 billion in 2018 to an estimated $33bn in 2020, said the World Bank, which called Lebanon’s crisis as one of the world's most severe since the 1850s. The crisis was compounded by the Covid-19 outbreak and the massive explosion at Beirut port that killed more than 200 people and destroyed large parts of the capital last August.

Liliane, a lawyer who gave only her first name, said paperwork had been taking longer to process since last year, when the government cut office attendance by 50 per cent during the Covid outbreak.

“We have been suffering from delays in processing transactions at commercial registers long before the fuel shortages intensified and public sector employees went on strike,” she told The National.

The lower turnout and subsequent employee strikes created a backlog of transactions that is taking a long time to clear.

New applicants, on the other hand, have to wait in long queues with no guarantee that they will succeed on the same day, she said. “Most transactions are still processed manually.”

Some departments have adapted their processes to cope with the crisis.

The Labour Ministry, for instance, is now issuing work permits on receipts that applicants can present at the General Security agency to process residency permits. An employee said the ministry took the step after running out of the plastic cards on which work permits are printed.

“We’re doing what’s in our capacity to process work but this is unsustainable,” the employee said.

“Many employees, particularly the young, are actively seeking new jobs both here and overseas because of deteriorating wages.”

Updated: September 02, 2021, 11:22 AM