Monday, July 28, 2008

Spotlight on FPM

I apologise for the extended absence from this blog. I took a bit of time off and wondered through the magnificent centre of Australia in a campervan. I have some writings on my trip, which I may share at a later date.

But it appears that so much has passed in the Middle East since I was away. Bashar al-Assad was welcomed in Paris, Israel finally agreed to a prisoner exchange with Hizballah (2 years after the request was made), and Lebanon at last received a national unity government.

Although it may appear that the reconfiguration of ministerial seats will only be accompanied by further political wrangling and shafting, I sincerely hope that isn't the case. There is a key difference with this ministerial make-up. For the first time, Michel Aoun's FPM has received a fair slice of the pie. Commentators have speculated the various reasons why, but that is of little interest to me.

The political wrangling and manouvring between the various parties and their regional patrons is not the subject of this post. Instead, it's what should be the focus of all Lebanese cabinet ministers that has attracted me to write ... the Lebanese people and our ailing economy.

The FPM have been awarded - what I believe to be - three key ministeries where they can make a sharp difference on the daily Lebanese life and make significant improvements to long neglected sectors of Lebanese industry ... electricity, telecommunications and agriculture.

The reasons why I have highlighted the FPM's role in the cabinet are as follows:

1/ The FPM are new additions to the Lebanese government
2/ The FPM is a party that has long demanded key cabinet positions because it believes it can implement significant reforms
3/ The FPM arrived on the Lebanese scene under the banner of reform, offering so-called Western, first-world solutions to Lebanese mediocrity

Well, it now has its chance to fulfil its promise to the Lebanese people. Who it strikes political deals with isn't what will give the FPM its credibility, its biggest challenge is now. They hold a position of power, what are they going to do with it?

Here's what I would like to see happen:

Lebanon in the 21st century still isn't providing electricity for its citizens on a 24 hour basis. Yet, citizens are required to pay 2 electricity bills. The industry is severely underdeveloped, and investment is lacking, which can be attributed to 15 years of Syrian sponsored corruption.

In addition, Lebanon's current power stations are a heavy burden on the environment. The Zouk power plant, for example, chokes the northern Beirut suburbs and is incredibly harmful to the environment, as well as the health of the citizens.

The lack of electricity is also a burden on industry and our economy. We cannot develop industrial sectors if we cannot provide electricity.

What can be done?

First and foremost, the Minister of Electricity needs to privatise the industry to entice investors to build power plants and operate the country's electricity.

Second, the Minister needs to allocate zones in secure regions that co-ordinate with residential towns/suburbs and the environment, so as to avoid any further embarrassment of having a smoking plant (Zouk) in a tourist town.

Third, the Minister needs to acquire the necessary funds that will entice investors in Lebanon so that the country is receiving electricity 24/7 from power plants, alleviating the people's reliance on unsafe, polluting generators.

I'm no expert, and I'm sure all the above involves a lot of work, and work that the FPM can now do. The desired outcome is:

1/ Electricity from power plants 24/7

2/ The reduction of generators

3/ One electricity bill for users

4/ The nationalisation of the electricity grid

5/ A variety of energy outlets as a result of privatisation

6/ An end to the stifling Lebanese corruption that is preventing electricity from improving

Another embarrassment for a country in the 21st century, Lebanon has one of the most expensive telecommunication rates in the world. Again, I attribute this to inadequate bureaucracy and corruption. This is another unnecessary expense that Lebanese are burdened to pay.

What can the Minister do?

1/ Push in telecommunication laws that regulate the industry, removes the current monopoly, ends corruption and restricts companies from overpricing. This will lower prices significantly, entice more competitors into the market, which will improve the infrastructure and technology.

2/ Dramatically invest in telecommunications technology. Lebanon is a tiny country, there is no excuse preventing the entire country from accessing broadband. Dial-up is the thing of the 90s, we're approaching 2010 and we're still far behind.

The desired outcome?

1/ An end to corruption in the industry

2/ An end to the monopoly

3/ Significantly lower prices

4/ Improved infrastructure, providing the entire country with broadband and naked DSL services

5/ More competitors and outlets

Agriculture has always been a traditional industry in Lebanon since the days of the Canaanites. So why isn't it a profitable business today in 2008?

There is great potential to be made from this industry. We have farms and fields already established, but not the business smart and appropriate investment to make it competitive in the global market.

The FPM needs to:

1/ Invest and support farmers, awarding farmers grants to establish their business and acquire state-of-the-art farming technology and equipment

2/ Find suitable markets abroad for our products through the introduction of agencies that liaise between local producers and potential buyers

3/ Appropriately zone farming and agricultural regions

4/ Locate under-developing or potential agricultural regions and develop them eg. Koura is the olive capital of the country, yet there are very few farms that are mass-producing olive-related products from cosmetics to olive oil, why?

What needs to be made public are strategies. I'm aware all the other political parties have had their stint at governance and haven't exactly done the best of jobs. The FPM has promised since its inception that it is the right party to lead the country. Many eyes will be fixed upon the FPM to see whether its promises are genuine or simply empty rhetoric. The Lebanese are too familiar with rhetoric. The FPM's credibility is on the line.

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