Beirut fights corruption 'poisoning' the city

Activists in the Lebanese capital are collecting reports of bribery in an effort to curb the practice.

    Beirut fights corruption 'poisoning' the city
    Dekkenet al-Balad was created in Beirut as part of a local effort to combat corruption [Emma Gatten/Al Jazeera]

    Beirut, Lebanon - "Two airport jobs and a baccalaureate, please," a customer requested in a promotional video for one of the newest shops on Beirut's busy streets, where customers could find anything they needed - for a price.

    Dekkenet al-Balad - "the country's shop" - sprung up on a main street in the Lebanese capital this year to take a humorous swipe at the country's endemic corruption problem.

    The fake shop, set up to look like any other corner store at first glance, had its shelves lined with boxes filled with mock driver's licenses, ID cards and university diplomas, rather than groceries. Posters on its storefront advertised the wares: "The best gift for a person's 18th birthday: Driving permits without an exam."

    "Bribery and corruption are everywhere and in every ministry," explained Abdo Medlej, an economics and finance lecturer at Antonine University and the president of Sakker el-Dekkene, the NGO behind the stunt, which has been collecting reports of bribes via a mobile phone app, a website and a hotline.

    "People are fed up with the corruption. It's poisoning their lives."

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    You cannot ask somebody whose salary is below the line of poverty not to ask for bribes. They need extra money and unfortunately corruption is the only way open to them.

    - Yahya Hakim, the Lebanese Transparency Association

    Around five percent of Lebanon's gross domestic product (GDP) is lost to illicit outflows every year. Everything from avoiding traffic laws to getting government jobs and even securing political office can be bought and sold, according to a report by U4, an anti-corruption resource group based in Norway.

    Lebanon ranks 127 out of 177 countries on Transparency International's 2013 Corruptions Perceptions Index, with seven other Middle East and North Africa countries faring worse. 

    The country's sectarian political system, an outcome of its 15-year civil war, extends to deeply entrenched networks of patronage, governing everything from education to the judiciary, healthcare and jobs. A systematically weak state means little accountability, while low public sector wages make bribes a highly attractive option to government employees, said Yahya Hakim, the managing director of the Lebanese Transparency Association, the country's chapter of Transparency International.

    "You cannot ask somebody whose salary is below the line of poverty not to ask for bribes. They need extra money and unfortunately corruption is the only way open to them," Hakim said. 

    recent report revealed that even the country's more than one million Syrian refugees are vulnerable to corruption, with thousands forced to pay bribes to municipal officials and middlemen in order to receive aid. Medlej said he saw the impact of corruption on his students, many of whom are put off from entering the business world because they believe they will need to join a corrupt system to get ahead.

    According to a 2009 study conducted by the World Bank and International Finance Corporation, 97.7 percent of businesses in Lebanon expect to pay bribes for government contracts.

    One bar owner in Beirut said, when it comes to setting up a business, bribes are a given. "The only people that open places are people who know somebody who knows somebody," he told Al Jazeera. Setting up his bar involved "one call" to avoid having to pay for construction permits.

    "By law, you should have an emergency exit and bathrooms. But nowhere has that. All you have to do is pay one guy who is in charge of everything," said the bar owner, who didn't give Al Jazeera his name.

    Going through the official channels, he claimed, would take months and cost more in bribes paid to government employees. "The permit will take six, seven, eight months," he said. "They always want something more. If the system worked well it would not be very expensive. But the guy who's doing it wants money [at every stage]."

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    Sakker el-Dekkene hopes to follow in the footsteps of other countries using technology against bribery. In 2012, a Russian entrepreneur launched a mobile app, Bribr, to report incidents, which was inspired by India's "I Paid a Bribe" website.

    The Lebanese group has already received hundreds of anonymous reports of bribes paid since its campaign began on May 15, with more than $460,000 reportedly changing hands. "Not very proud of this. But my driver's license was delivered to my house for an extra $100 and I never had to sit for the test or learn the rules," reads one testimonial posted on the group's website by Lamia, a Lebanese student.

    Once the location of a corrupt transaction has been identified, the Sakker el-Dekkene car, emblazoned with anti-corruption slogans, will park outside the site to draw attention to what is going on. Medlej said the campaign has so far entirely escaped the ire of government officials and politicians.

    But the group's long-term strategy remains somewhat vague.

    "The second level will be to publish the results and use pressure to make change," Medlej said. He envisions a corruption-free "pilot programme" within a government ministry, and talks have already taken place with the Ministry of Economy. Streamlining administrative procedures and increasing the amount of paperwork processed online are two key ways of reducing opportunities for bribes to be demanded, Medlej said.

    "The reaction from the government has been very positive. Our attitude is that together we can do something," Medlej said. "The administration would love to see reform. Not everybody is corrupt."

    It is a worldwide problem, not only in Lebanon.

    - An official of Lebanon's Ministry of Administrative Reform

    An official in the Ministry of Administrative Reform, which was set up in part to tackle corruption in the civil service, said a slew of legislation was in the draft stages to bring Lebanon in line with the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, which it ratified in 2008. This includes draft laws on whistleblower protection and the establishment of an anti-corruption body. The laws have remained in the draft stages for years, which the official blamed on the country's recurrent political inertia.

    The official, who did not wish to be named because of the sensitivity of the topic, said that while the country obviously faced problems with bribery and corruption, "it is a worldwide problem, not only in Lebanon".

    Hakim, for one, is sceptical that the campaign will make much of a dent on corruption in the country. "This is a joke," he said. "Nobody can [combat corruption] unless you change the entire environment of corruption."

    But one senior government official, who did not wish to be named because of the sensitivity of the topic, said raising awareness was an important first step.

    "When [corruption] is in the press, we receive a lot of official complaints about it," the official said. "You have to reach a lot of people in order to push them to talk about corruption. They think that if they submit a complaint nobody will care. We have to change this mentality."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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