Food in Lebanon

A recent scandal has been added to several previous scandals about food quality in Lebanon. But as in the previous cases, the focus was on meat products that are imported and stored in the worst conditions. Few people seem to understand the true extent of the catastrophe that runs deep into a general economic and cultural rationale as old as the state’s short existence.

During the twentieth century, these territories that became lumped into something called Lebanon moved from surviving on their own local economies to becoming net importers of almost all basic food products. For example, this frenetic consumption of meat was a rare privilege as cows did not really exist (there is no place for cows to graze in hilly, mountainous landscapes). Most people rarely ate meat and when they did, it most invariably involved lamb. Today, most of the meat consumed originates from Australia and South America and after a journey of who knows what kind, are parked in the most horrible conditions once they reach Lebanese ports. The periodic smell coming from Dora in Beirut is a constant reminder of their arrival.

But this obsession with meat has left the question of other food products unanswered. The manoucheh Lebanese pride themselves on is made of nothing homegrown. The flour used comes from Canada or Turkey, the sesame seeds are sold on international markets but probably originate from the US, the thyme from Jordan and Syria, the oil has for a long time been sunflower oil (not olive oil like some romantics may think) and is sold on international markets from multiple origins (Latin America, India, etc). It is very clear that none of these products originate from that little chunk of land known as Lebanon.

But that’s just one example. Take another: Hommos! The chickpeas come from Mexico for the most part, the smaller sized ones from Turkey. The Tahini is manufactured in Lebanon (sometimes in low quality ways) yet as mentioned earlier, the seeds come from outside. Only the lemon comes from Lebanon (and judging from the level of pesticide used on any agricultural product in Lebanon, you’d rather have lemons imported as well!) Now what about the lentils for the Mujadara? They are imported from the US.

Two points here: Some people might object that importing products is not something inherently bad for an economy, a society, or a culture. After all, a large proportion of what is consumed in the UK for example originates from imported merchandise. This is true from a purely economic perspective but not so if we look at certain social, cultural, or simply ethical implications.

First, the Lebanese economy is made up of a few cartels controlling most of what comes in and out and very little of that is produced locally. Some economists think that this is a good thing given the small size of the market and the capacity of few players on the arena to produce “economies of scale”, an economic concept to legitimize huge profits in order to produce, in principle, cheaper products. But that’s possible when you are actually producing something, not when you are just acting as a medium in a transaction. Also, this is possible when you have a particular institutional structure that protects consumer interests (usually involving a state, something Lebanon does not really have).

As shown in the recent scandals around meat, there is no quality oversight over what gets to be imported. And this is without mentioning the disgusting way in which animals are treated, how they are shipped to Lebanon and then preserved here. Now when you import something you really need to make sure when it was produced, if it has traveled well preserved, when does it expire, etc. Have you ever noticed that eating bread in Lebanon always tastes a bit dry? That’s not just because the flour that we import is of the worst quality traded on global markets (I heard once that we get the powder that remains in flour factories), but also because we have no idea when it was produced and how it was stored.

All the commodities I just mentioned are staple foods that are the most basic ingredients for surviving: Grains and pulses. But I mentioned these also because they are most of the products that regions such as Lebanon produced locally until recently and have mostly stopped producing. Economically what happened was that food production passed from the hands of a few feudal lords controlling peasant families planting for them to a handful of oligarchs controlling the trade of primary commodities. Such oligarchs import the lowest quality of produce because there just is no incentive or pressure for them to do otherwise. There are no state controls over quality, and no economic competition for them to bring different qualities of products.

In comparison, although the UK is a country that imports a large chunk of its food produce, its agricultural sector does supply for the main part staple foods that it traditionally produced for centuries: oats, wheat, barley, and so on. That means that the flour that is used in many types of food is homegrown, and even the cheapest one is still fresher, and a better quality than any type of bread related product you will ever eat in Lebanon! And everyone knows how much bread (or simply dough) is important for the Lebanese belly. This is beside the fact that Britain still produces the majority of its milk, cheese and meat products for consumption.

There is also an important cultural dimension to this catastrophe. The Lebanese have experienced a drastic shift in their relation to nature and land, and meanwhile to the most basic resource for their existence, food, while being completely oblivious of this process. Lebanese pride themselves on eating in Italian restaurants that serve refrigerated food all imported from the lowest quality produce of Italy, unconscious of the fact that they are living in an undignified way. What is more important than food for the quality of life in creating an ethical community? But Lebanese have been sitting on this disaster for decades still thinking that they have become more affluent because they can buy all these things that come from a different corner of the earth.

Aspects of Capitalism’s waste

Saifi2The disparity between the general care given to Beirut’s “Saifi village” in comparison to certain areas of Lebanon is outrageous. This picture show a man dusting the sidewalk pole of one of the main street of Saifi, downtown Beirut, otherwise known as Solidere land.

Annahar on electricity in Dahyeh

Check this article in Annahar that starts up with a horribly suspicious title: “electricity in the southern suburbs: a cause with valid demands, or a facade for undisclosed political goals?”, and then ends up re-iterating the obvious that in effect these guys do get way less electricity from other regions, some of individuals do steal by hanging cables (just like everywhere else in Lebanon).
So the author doing ‘a policing round’ of a neighborhood in the suburbs (Hay Selloum)and ask if people are paying electricity. He ends up getting some yeses and some noes. Great what a discovery. Nothing is said of hidden political agendas. And then he concludes that in any case, one should not have shot at these protesters, cause basically it is not cool to shoot at human beings protesting about standards of living.
So let’s summarize, this guy, arouse suspicion with a stupid title, then ends up playing cops and bandits in an area of the city trying to get some ‘juicy’ statements, then goes back to a general ethical claim, realizing that at the end of the day hanging a wire here or there, people do pay bills, don’t get much electricity, and are smashed by the increases in prices so they protest. In the process, he crystallizes the idea that the southern suburbs has “something fishy going on” by the mere fact of posing the problem of non-payment of bills as worthy of being investigated there. Long live investigative journalism. (Thanks Moussa)

Myths and realities of the electricity sector in Lebanon

(there are two updates at the end of this post)

Al Akhbar ran a front page article responding to Sanyura’s claim (yesterday) that the responsible for the electricity crisis in Lebanon are “those who hang wires on the public network, put pressure on the power reserves that eventually explodes, which cuts the current, and then they take it to the streets, and they say that electricity has been cut, and thus they accuses the government of something they caused”.

As the article note, Sanyura is obviously referring to the inhabitants of Dahyeh, thereby crystallizing a long-time myth shared by most of the Lebanese that do not belong to that category, that ‘the Shi’a a.k.a Hizbullah are not paying electricity’.

How many times have I heard this by people of all creed! Now thanks to Al Akhbar who I am sure is the only newspaper who reacted to these immature and dangerous statements, some basic facts were thrown in the face of the “Lebanese citizen”:

1- Electricity theft is equally happening in all Lebanese regions such as “Akkar, Iklim al Kharoub, the south, West Bekaa, Zghorta, and Bsharreh”. As you can see some of these regions have produced the politicians in power aligned with Sanyura. Dahyeh makes up 31 percent of this theft, due to its population size relative to other region which is proportional to the population in all of these regions. In brief, electricity theft are ad-hoc individual initiatives regardless of creed, confession, political affiliation or what have you of Lebanese differences.

2- The causes of the electricity debacle is not really related to theft of people but to irresponsible policy spanning on years and years of ministerial abuses of prerogatives, irresponsible policies, keeping the infrastructure primitive and obsolete. Since 1991, 11 Billion dollars have been spent on unaccomplished projects. But more to the point to today’s argument, is that it is the very public sector that is stealing from EDL! Ministries, municipalities, and other public institutions have billions of LPs owed to EDL (the state-owned electricity company). How come all these electricity consumers are not paying?

There is much more to be said about this sector but let me tell you an anecdote told to me by a friend who lived in Dahyeh and who just moved recently out of it after his house was erased from the map by Israeli bombers. See this guy (who has been paying electricity ever since he was able to do the math) received an electricity bill one year after the war (or something like that) asking him to pay for months of electricity consumption when his house literally did not exist anymore. The guy paid, thinking that it is better to be on the side of the state/law, whatever that means. Many people in Dahyeh who happen to have lost their homes got these bills. At the end understandably enough, political protest mounted and Sanyura had to back off and ask for the cancellation of these payments.

So my friend goes to the Ministry of Finance to get reimbursed. After waiting for hours going round and round between all the different confessionally allocated functionaries, he ended having a signature to get his money back. Once he got to the cashier, the guy hands him the money minus 10 or 5 % of the original sum he paid on a non-existent house. My friend asks why is this so, and the cashier answers that they take a VAT back on any sum that is paid by the ministry. My friend ended up having to pay a VAT tax on something he should not have paid in the first place. That’s how fucked up this country is.

: Dear reader, so sorry but my friend’s anecdote is actually about phone bills not electricity bills… But you get the idea!

Update 2: Al Manar TV had an article on Michel Moawad’s (son of Minister of “Social Affairs” Nayla Moawad) unpaid electricity bills! The article stated that instead of falsely accusing people, prime minister Fouad Siniora should “look at his left among his ministers”. The article also quotes Michel Moawad having the guts to say that “I know that the cost of electricity is high but I also know that the majority of the people that takes it to the streets to close it down, don’t pay their bills”. According to this article Michel Moawad and his sister did not pay any bills from 1995 till 2001 which amounts to 92 million Lebanese Pounds.

Happy new year!

Lebanese spent 50,000,000$ during New Year’s eve. In certain places, tickets sold shot up to 800$, which is practically 4 times the minimum wage for the average worker who in any case can’t find a job. In Phoenicia hotel for example, one glass of wine was for a mere 100$ and, accordingly, 250,000$ were spent between 11h and 3h… Check the article for details on price differences between these class-based events. What interest me the most here is not just the huge wealth difference between Lebanese by how these sums amount relatively to the size of the public debt.

Some cultural considerations behind the exploitation of the Lebanese

Just a quick recap for those who still can’t add things up or are too overwhelmed by the prevailing symbolic and power struggle between two newly-formed factions of the numerous Lebanese turfs. Today, and for a decade or so, we, as in the “Lebanese people”, have been paying for the extravaganza of business-minded policymakers. Today without a president, and with the country in shambles, the Minister of Finance made sure that debt obligations to the local Lebanese banks were paid on time. It does not matter if the State does not pay for the supply of electricity, social security, etc, the most important thing being comforting the banks that they will get their ‘investments’ placed in the Lebanese state back intact and with interest.

Here I want to point out certain cultural implications of this economic and political status-quo. Lebanese are really One People when they are exploited, when they pay taxes that goes to serve the interest of a few bunch who sit calmly and cash in interest hiding behind the idea that the economy will collapse if we don’t do so. In addition to that, Lebanese banks have really very small investments and loans in the Lebanese real economy. But people do put all their money in deposit and savings account. The Lebanese are doubly exploited: Through the money they put in Banks, and through the money they pay to the State none of which goes to pay for the provision of public goods or fueling the economy.

But how come this is so? How does this double-theft process happen? Because the Lebanese do not have a working self-empowering concept of what the Public is. The State can mistreat this notion at will through its daily practices but nobody will lift a finger because in practice there is not really a State, and no public policy per se. In practice, there are factions confessional-tribal-cartelized groups of interests themselves locked in their projected differences.

But the concept of “Lebanese” is only invoked when it is time to pay. In effect, the confessional system is the primary mover of this schizophrenic attitude, it calls upon you to pay your obligations to your State (taxes etc.), while at the same time escapes from providing you with not even a modicum of social security, stability. In this case, you’re used to go to your lord (some confessional/tribal/feudal instance). And if you don’t have one, then you feel inexplicably miserable. You don’t know why it is the case, how come you are so oppressed and you don’t know where oppression comes. Because we took away from you the concept needed to join the right pieces of the puzzle, or simply, it was never developed, nurtured in practice. This concept revolves around some sort of social justice coupled with non-sectarian mobilization. Even if you understand certain things such as how the politicians are corrupt and are exploiting you etc, it does not mean you can act upon it and change the status quo. Does this make you feel any closer to the ‘other Lebanese’. Of course not something lacks here. Something you never lived. Some thing called Public culture. In the meantime you rejoice yourself with fake revolutions (like the one dubbed the cedar appropriately enough, another empty concept) that are actually hate tracts instigated by your ever-shifting elite.

When it comes to make the State function for the provision of the public good, the “Lebanese” frame unfortunately breaks down, in your social encounters you are a Christian, a Muslim. Or a rich Christian, or a rich Muslim or a poor Christian begging rich Christians etc, this is how you get your social security. In this case, you never ask yourself why am I not “Lebanese”.

The confessional system exacerbates economic exploitation because it breaks down any possibility to conceptualize a genuine collective expression, except in the negative sense. So you are left off with paying, hating (the other, the Syrian for example, or simply the other “Lebanese”) and blaming those who do not respect your projected ideal of “nationhood” when you can’t even apply it to yourself.

Lebanese diary (2)

I don’t want to post often but this is necessary because it touches on our “sovereignty” and our “liberty”:

We need to do something about the horrendous rates we pay for virtually everything! We need to break all of the monopolistic practices that plague our economy! We need to destroy all the structures that makes a government a virtual mafia, and an opposition being an accomplice of the government for the most part.

Yesterday night, I was watching the only interesting Lebanese TV channel New TV. They have a program called “Corruption”. They had Zuheir Berro the head of the association for the protection of the consumer. A guy you may never have heard of, but who has actually worked for your interest for the past decade or so, a guy who worked diligently to denounce any type of excess the government and its affiliated monopolies engage in. Basically a guy who is worth all of your politicians.

The moderator(ess) is everything but a moderator. She is wild and fiery and rarely lets Berro and co. talk of anything. But still she’s actually making a show that has no precedent in the history of Lebanon so is forgiven. I can understand her excitement. So a lot of bashing against the government but also nicely enough against the opposition who are sitting playing cards and tawleh in their tents while Solidere is building right next to them. Actually I saw the new building project: It is between Virgin and Annahar building.

By the way, I think the Annahar building is the main cause behind the downfall of the newspaper. They had to live to the expectation of its price! I loved the moderator who at some point decided to answer some criticism to the show voiced by a journalist in Annahar. After answering she said: “We as journalists are sad to see such a great newspaper (historically) go down to such low levels so as to cover for corruption and being apologist of the ruling monopolists”. So I thought “way to go woman!”

Another nice thing was to hear people actually calling from all over Lebanon. Now where do you get that on Lebanese TV? A guy from Bint Jbeil with a problem with fixed telephone lines. Another from Jounieh, etc. So many people calling to tell the “politicians” that they don’t have patience for political affiliation, they just want to see exploitation stop.

At some point the commentator called the Minister of Finance Azour but the latter could not take the call because his wife was giving birth! She congratulated him and asked him to get back to them when he can. Idem for the Minister of Telecommunication Hamade who’s phone was closed.

Now citizens of Lebanon, stay tuned for more anti-exploitation demonstrations. Turn off your phones when you should. Soon we’ll do stuff against the DSL robbery, and against the cartel for fuel. Oh and against the bank!! I’ll post more about all this.

Lebanese diary

Today we had 4 hours of electricity all in all. We are in 2007. I use a candle to write a post although there is no war (well actually there is one in the north), no major Israeli attack destroying the infrastructure that is. And we are supposed to be the Switzerland of the Middle East. We also pay the most horrendous rates for well everything usable (from telecoms, to fuel, to etc.). This is a blasphemy to “Sovereignty”. This is the attack (par excellence) against our most cherished “Liberty”.

Today some Lebanese (I wonder how many) closed their cellular phones as a form of protest to the horribly high rates we pay. This was the first national endeavor noticed in the history of Lebanon. So I would like to record it. Inscribe it, give it ‘substance’. Oh, Naharnet does not even mention it.

If they insist on doing national propaganda, maybe Leo Burnett and Saatchi should do an ad of people throwing phones by the window or anything like that (I’m not the advertising creative type so find the suitable scenario), instead of doing an ad of people holding the military salute and walking like zombies in the street (fascists?) at the sight of a Lebanese army soldier.

Debating Hariri’s economic policy

And the question of Lebanese corruptive and monopoly practices

We’ve started a debate around political economy issues in a previous post. So please stop commenting in the previous post and start commenting here. I just copy-pasted the last entries in the comment section. I will be soon answering and I encourage everyone to contribute by commenting here.

As a summary:

We are assessing of the economic ‘policies’ or broad rationale followed by the various Hariri cabinets since the inception of his first term. through an assessment of:

1- Interest rate politics followed
2- Reconstruction of downtown and some infrastructure
3- General economic (or business) visions
4- Other economic and social practices

Hussein proposes what I would call the “security threat” argument, where Hariri had to hike interest rates because investment climate was bad supposedly due to the war in the south.
I will soon show that this argument is untenable.
Another argument dear to the Harirists are the “service economy” argument. Although Hussein says he is against I want to show how this argument is at the core of Hariri’s policies and political interests and ultimately (and among other things) serves to keep the confessional system well entrenched, and the constituencies pretty much dormant (in terms of social assertiveness) and divided.

Always a winner

No matter what happens, there is always one clear winner in Lebanon:

In its study titled “International Expansions Not Priced In,” Cairo-based EFG-Hermes stressed the buoyancy of Lebanese banks. The report, which was published in Banque Audi Saradar’s weekly bulletin on Monday, noted that customer deposits witnessed year-on-year growth of 4 percent in 2005 and 6 percent in 2006, while deposit outflows were short-lived and limited.

Funny, this was already the conclusion of economist Georges Corm in a latest interview. The Central Bank is still sinking in its FOREIGN exchange liquidity, and so there is no loss of confidence. But you know what is the price to pay for this liquidity? More debt: the accumulation of this foreign liquidity was done by substituting local currency debt to foreign. In sum, this raises the value of the debt. Who wins? The banks.

Oh and by the way, there is also the idea that ‘consumers’ put their money in banks because they are not spending. You mostly save because you are reluctant to spend. Not spending partly reduces economic activity. Then, Banks take this money and do not create economic activity with it either because they either buy debt from the State or put the money outside of the country. Nevermind.

Meanwhile, the banks create their own confidence. The nexus, banks-Central Bank-Ministry of Finance (Bks-CB-MoF) make sure ‘everybody’ is happy. See, the whole concept of “confidence” is a tricky issue in economics. But I don’t want to open the discussion here. Suffice it to say that it is a very dark world filled with IMF and other international institutions bureaucrats and political assurances here and there that “it’ll be fine, put your money folks and we’ll make sure it will multiply”.

I like how this flies against any hard-economic rationale. Normally the rule is simple. If there is political instability then you get your money out quick. but if ‘everybody’ (mm say, Hariri and co for example, seconded by Saudi investor’s assurance).

I say simply that those who ‘put money’ in the Lebanese economy, of course I mean those who really do make a change, have political guarantees and are part of the same network. It seems that with regards to the banking sector (and I stress only the banking sector), there is a solid system in place. A system that involves few actors but a lot of money, unconcerned by the rest of the Lebanese economy. Because at the end of the day, it is not the Lebanese economy per se that is at the heart of concerns, but some kind of fictive ‘confidence-based’ economy created by a bleeding public financial system being eaten away by lazy local banks who if they don’t put their money in fatly remunerated TBills go invest outside of Lebanon. Why would a war then destabilize this system?

Hussain’s answer

Hussain answered me by email to what was written in a previous post. I will answer soon to his comment that I quoted below:

bech, apokraphyte, boumb and all,

In my article on Hariri, I gave numbers and evidence. Bech you should know better, you used to work with such numbers. So if you have evidence against his theft and monopoly, please point it out. Solidere is a private company with public shareholding. Other economic monopoly, please cite verifiable examples. Don’t tell me the Dalloul/cellphone deal. Dalloul has connections in Syria before Hariri was born.
Anyway, I cannot discuss the whole Hariri policy in this small post. My piece was a personal experience.
As for leftism ya Bech, you should know better. Any social welfare program can never pick up without prior accumulation of wealth, walaw… this is 101 leftism.
Hariri’s plan was not my favorite for Lebanon. I disagree with his no diversification of economy. But that’s too luxury of a debate in a country that has Assem Kanso and Nasser Qandil. Hariri had a plan, but he was never given a chance to implement it.
And ya boumb, for your own credibility and good image, drop the Najah Wakim style of how much Hariri paid me or others. Let’s be more civilized in our debate.

Corm teaches the Lebanese opposition a few lessons

On al Manar TV...

This was picked up by Al Akhbar today. Former Finance Minister (but most importantly, economist, political scholar, and a few other things) Georges Corm says that Opposition groups have several topics they can talk about. To name but a few:

1- The “Daman” issue (social security) and how it depletes the State’s budget uselessly. Corm says that the Opposition groups should look at the root of the crisis in the 2000 government decision to cut back significantly subscriptions to the social scheme.

2- The alleged costs inflicted on the Lebanese economy because of the presence of demonstrators in downtown. By asking where does Finance Minister Azour gets his numbers from (and showing that 75 million dollars of losses is just logically impossible because all the business that goes on in DT does not amount to anything close to that number…), Corm incites the Opposition groups to try to track down these figures.

3- And that’s the best one: How come people buy stories of ‘economic disaster’ and ‘million digits worth of losses’ when our balance of payment is positive, exports have risen, our real estate sector is strong (land price going up too), etc. In short nobody questions the numbers that the parties in power give.

4- Corm demystifies the whole ‘International aid will help us get rid of our debt’ paradigm. First of all, even if international aid can help, it will be giving at the top most 2 billion dollars. The Debt is of 45… Corm also mentioned that Jordan and Egypt, with all their ass-licking-the-West strategies got peanuts in terms of debt relief.

PS: Of course (especially for 4) this was not the exact ‘Cormian’ phrasing (with all my respect for him I present my apologies). But yet I would tend to think that he may have phrased it this way in a more informal setting…