Lebanon’s garbage crisis: A historical moment in state-building?

Lebanon’s garbage crisis has sparked a reawakening of Lebanese citizens to the realities of living with a barely-there state.

Their tolerance to live without 24-hour electricity, constant clean water, universal healthcare, good quality and free education, and public transportation has been made possible by tapping into parallel private economic activities that fill the gaps of the state. These alternatives include electricity from generator owners, water from mobile water tanks, private insurance, private education and private cars for those who can afford it. The ability of the middle and upper classes to find these kinds of alternative solutions is not always easy though and may have been more costly for some than others. But generally it has allowed them to ride the wave of inadequate public services for a long time. The garbage crisis, however, poses a problem for which there is no parallel option, and it extends to all segments of society and all regions in the country, and is too visible, too annoying and too smelly to be ignored.

The solutions offered by the state to dump garbage from one area onto the other – in the Beirut port, in open spaces, in green spaces, in the sea, in landfills that were already filled to the brim and so on – have only served to galvanise the populace towards protests and sit-ins across the country. This has highlighted a total failure by the political class to govern, as the garbage crisis did not need to be a crisis at all given its clear predictability.

The crisis has also led people to recognise that inefficient and ineffective basic service provision are national problems that need national solutions. Given the absence of any democratic means to hold officials accountable, collective action against the state was needed; the kind of collective action that is proactive in demanding sustainable solutions, taps into its repertoire of expertise within civil society, links itself to all regions across the country that suffer from underdevelopment and marginalisation, and that unifies the message that corruption is no longer tolerated and those guilty of it must be held accountable. This may well signify the emergence of a more transformative resilience of the Lebanese population (as opposed to just coping with crisis after crisis) – one that refuses to further adapt to worsening circumstances and simply accept the imposed realities by the ruling elite.

The garbage crisis has pierced into the illusory cloak of privatisation as a ‘good solution’ to the ‘weak’ state’s capacity for providing basic public services. The gamut of irresponsible and expensive treatment of garbage by a private company tasked to collect it in Beirut and Mount Lebanon has opened the door for rethinking the local government’s role in providing basic services. Curiously, the crisis did not fully extend itself to other regions in Lebanon, such as Byblos, where the municipality has been the primary garbage collector and recycling agent at an extremely low cost compared to the very high costs of private companies. This highlights the imperative for decentralisation and providing municipalities with their own funds to carry out their responsibilities in accordance with the law.

The state’s weak capacity in service provision has emanated from a pre-determined collusion of the political class, on both sides of the spectrum, to create bureaucratic deadlocks, allowing themselves to champion private companies (most of which are owned by the same political class) as a solution to a weak state that they forged in the first place. This has become blatantly obvious to many.

However, the corruption of the political class – with its purposeful hollowing of the state through privatisation; the impoverishment of citizens with rising inequality; the use of security measures to address violence that springs from underdevelopment, marginalisation and unemployment; and the dysfunctionality of systems that provide basic services (e.g. water, electricity, public transportation and garbage collection) which are taken for granted in many countries around the world – has made the system completely untenable.

This is a critical moment; one where an issue has ripened in the minds of the populace and a collective understanding of its situation has occurred, creating an opportunity to rethink the urgent need for long-term transformation and for building a healthy citizen–state relationship through improved governance. This is the time to rethink the privatisation of public services, to call for decentralisation, and to re-engage and consult citizens in policy-making. Representative democracy in Lebanon has shown its limits; it is now time for more innovative, participatory policy-making processes. This will not only empower citizens, but can also redirect the general ambiance of politics in Lebanon from one of finger pointing between the ruling elite to one that actually grapples with what the economy should look like, and how best to provide services and security to the country’s citizens.

This rethinking should also extend itself to the international community, which plays a very big role in the Lebanese economic and political milieus through the aid that it provides. It must realise that Lebanon, a country long celebrated for its ability to weather crises through phenomenal adaptation mechanisms, has now given way to the waves of change that have bestowed themselves on the country. The protests across Lebanon are a testament to the fact that the people no longer wish to adapt; they wish to improve, and that requires a solidarity among the populace in facing the ruling elite, with the support of all those that have leverage with the ruling elite. It must rethink its goal of ‘stability’, as that means maintaining the status quo and continuation of a corrupt political system. Instead, the people are aching and hoping for change.

This crisis highlights the structural violence that the Lebanese population has been labouring under for years. If the state takes back its role as a protector, redistributor of wealth, provider of public services, corrector of externalities, and provider of justice and social security, it will start to pave the road towards forging a deeper sense of citizenship and an allegiance to the state rather than partisan political parties, which have prevailed and engendered violence throughout Lebanon’s history. This would be a crucial step towards building a sustainable peace in Lebanon.