Eric Verdeil, “Infrastructure Crises in Beirut and the Struggle to (Not) Reform the Lebanese State,” Arab Studies Journal XVI, no. 1 (Spring 2018).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this article?
Eric Verdeil (EV): Until recently, the prolific urban research on Beirut and Lebanese cities ignored, almost entirely, issues related to networked infrastructure, a very strange fact given the magnitude of infrastructure deficiencies in the country. Only recently have scholars (like Ziad Abu-Rish or Joanne R. Nucho, for example) begun to address infrastructure related issues, particularly as they relate to electricity. Water management also remains mostly out of the scope of urban scholarship in Lebanon, which has instead concentrated on reconstruction, housing, and urban conflict. Additionally, questions regarding waste management and sanitation have also remained largely absent from the research. This article addresses these three ongoing infrastructure crises in the Greater Beirut.
The article was initially a response to the call for papers launched by Hannes Baumann and Jamil Mouawad, under the title “Wayn al-Dawla? In search of the Lebanese state.” Baumann and Mouawad’s idea was to challenge the common (and somewhat lazy) notion of a weak state in Lebanon. They highlighted the inputs of mid-range theories that show how state institutions are part of a wider landscape of powers that interact with the state, often displaying “hybrid sovereignties.” Baumann and Mouawad personally chose to analyze the Central Bank and the Lebanese Army in the light of Marxist and Foucaldian approaches, thus showing how the state is at times able to reconfigure local capitalism, or to produce a “state effect,” for instance, in Akkar. They suggested that I write about electricity and the state in Lebanon, specifically about the fact that electricity has become the paradoxical symbol of the existence/absence of the state: “ejit al dawleh,” say the people when the electricity comes back after a power cut. Due to lengthy revisions on both sides, the article eventually appeared one year after the theme issue was released.
For me, it was also an opportunity to translate and adapt the results of a research project I had undertaken about the governance of urban infrastructure in Beirut in the framework of a project led by sociologist Dominique Lorrain on Mediterranean Metropolises. The general objective of this research was to take seriously the materiality of the city, including infrastructure, and to test the hypothesis that even when political institutions fail to govern the city, as seen when violent conflicts erupt, infrastructure provides some minimal level of consensus and agreement that allows for urban life to go on. At first glance, this hypothesis was far from obvious in the case of Beirut, but it provided an interesting chance to understand where the Lebanese state is when infrastructure fails.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the article address?
EV: Broadly speaking, there are two main strands of literature in urban studies about Beirut. On the one side, research inspired by a critical approach of neoliberalism highlights the downsizing or the retreat of the state and the ascent of private actors and market-led approaches, with the expected result of increasing inequalities. On the other side, researchers study the effects of sectarianism, that is the agency of non-state, sect-based powers, in restructuring urban space, for instance through religious cleansing (during the civil war) or at least through political control. Both approaches have in common the undermining of the state as a sovereign entity. However, in the case of infrastructure management, both of them do not explain very convincingly the current crises.
Starting with the seminal book Splintering Urbanism, by Graham and Marvin, scholars have assessed the effects of neoliberal policies on infrastructure management. In the case of Lebanon, privatization alone is not a sufficient explanation for the dismal state of public services. True, waste collection and treatment have been privatized, and after years of mismanagement, have produced catastrophic results. However, other failing public services like water management have remained public (the only deal involving a private water company, in Tripoli, was terminated more than ten years ago, not for bad results, but because local elites rejected it, as Christèle Allès has demonstrated). Regarding electricity, governments have advocated privatization since 2002, but this has only translated into contracts with three private companies (BUS, NEUC and KVA) in charge of the distribution, with the contracts beginning in 2012. This reform has been strongly opposed by the daily workers reclaiming their integration as civil servants in the public utility, EDL. However, the main factor of the electric crisis, the insufficient output, is still unaddressed, not because of privatization, but more because the political bickering has frozen, or at least delayed, any reforms towards improved public or private management.
If sectarianism explains part of this mismanagement, in my view its explanatory power is also limited. Sectarianism is the language of the political elites and of many commentaries and gossip; therefore, it is hard to escape it. One way to define sectarianism pertains to its capacity to build separate sectarian territories, a feature that, as a geographer, I was interested to analyze. However, I found the boundaries of operation of the three services do not fit with existing sectarian territories or sectarian divides. It is true, nonetheless, that there are examples where informal service provision is directly used for sustaining sectarian belonging, such as in Borj Hammoud, as Pauline Gabillet and Joanne Nucho have demonstrated. But other cases of alternative provision, for instance, the notorious case of Zahleh, with its 24/7 electricity delivery since 2015, do not reflect a sectarian oriented management.
This is why I turned to another strand of literature. Policy instruments, as conceptualized by Pierre Lascoumes and Patrick Le Galès, are devices that “organize specific social relations between the state and those it is addressed to, according to the representations and meanings it carries.” This perspective allows me unpack the concrete, technical tools that organize the work of utilities, such as perimeters (services boundaries), tariffs, or external funding. I highlight the gradual gaps that appear between the original principles that justified the creation of certain tools, such as social justice inspired block-tariffs for electricity billing, and the effects said instruments produce when the context has changed. For example, the current electricity tariff is not reflecting the changes in the oil market and instead results in massive subsidies to the wealthier citizens of the country, a disproportional number of whom live in Beirut. I recently calculated that the people of Beirut receive about twenty one percent of the electric subsidy, while they account for only thirteen percent of the customers. This disproportional allotment shows that Lebanese state is certainly not providing public services in a fashion that one would expect from an efficient state. Nevertheless, there exists a state and state institutions, and their instruments are responsible for the continuous increase of inequalities in the country.
J: How does this article connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
EV: I started researching urban infrastructure in Lebanon more than ten years ago, expanding my work to other cities in the region, in Jordan and Tunisia as well as Egypt and Turkey, through collaborations. After a first work on the territorial dimension of the electricity crisis in Lebanon, I embarked into a critical assessment of the combined privatization and decentralization predicaments, in the framework of the Tanmia research led by Myriam Catusse and Géraldine Chatelard at IFPO. This led to a theme issue in the French journal Géocarrefour.
Then I questioned the analytical framework of urban energy transition, in which cities are supposed to lead the implementation of innovative and sustainable policies. In a collective and comparative research project with my colleague Sylvy Jaglin, we highlighted the limits of this Masdar-style wishful thinking. The political constraints cities in this region are facing do not allow their political elites the margins of maneuver (when they even want that) to promote sustainable transitionstowards so-called Wise Cities. My personal take was mostly on Jordan and Tunisia’s policies of solar energy.
Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy book provided me with an inspiring analytical lens through which I was able to analyze how the materiality of the energy system endow various actors with power from within the infrastructure. I tried to adapt in order to approach the circuits of energy in the city, or of waste, by connecting it to the urban political ecology. I attempted to use it to understand popular mobilizations in Jordan and Tunisia after the Arab revolts, as well as in Lebanon, from instances of illegal access to the grid, workers mobilizations, or generators’ owners grip on local territories.
All in all, I have understood infrastructure, and primarily electricity, as a conduct for power rather than a technical device, which needs to be understood through its various facets.
J: Who do you hope will read this article, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
EV: As a French geographer mostly involved in comparative urban research, I hope this article helps circulate the results of my research among scholars in the field of Middle Eastern studies, beyond my colleagues working on Beirut.
There is a long history of research on infrastructure issues in France, mostly among the geographers and those in urban studies, and I am an heir of it. I hope that this research can offer an English readership highlights about the conceptualization and the results borne by this research tradition.
I think there is also a challenge in reaching out to the Lebanese general audience, for instance, journalists, analysts, professionals and, hopefully, policy makers. To this end, I think venues such as Jadaliyya or the general press would be more adequate. My recent communication at the Order of Engineers of Beirut was a first step in this direction (in French).
My hope is that contributions such as this one, instead of repeating endlessly general and unsubstantiated claims, can redirect the discussions towards more pragmatic issues such as who is reaping the benefits of the huge subsidies or what prices and tariffs would be acceptable to steer the management of urban infrastructure towards ecologically more sustainable and socially just compromises.
J. How does this article contribute to urban studies, both in the Middle East and in general?
EV: First of all, I believe this article highlights how fruitful research on infrastructure in the Middle East can be, something that until recently was widely overlooked (both in Lebanon, and elsewhere). A specific contribution of this article is that research on urban infrastructure should not neglect state institutions. Urban research in the Middle East, as well as in other countries from the Global South, tends to focus on informal and makeshift infrastructure. However, the state institutions and tools, too, need to be studied for they strongly shape social life.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
EV: I am involved in two new projects related to urban infrastructure. The first, in collaboration with Jihad Farah from the Planning Department at the Lebanese University in Beirut, aims to analyze the policies implemented by municipalities to deal with the waste after the 2015 crisis. The attention of media and activists has mostly focused on Beirut and its agglomeration, where the crisis was felt the most heavily. However, all over the country, municipalities have, sometimes for years, developed their own policies to deal with trash collection, storage and treatment. The goal of our research, undertaken with the help of the students from the Lebanese University, is to analyze the details of those policies, their inspirations, their funding, the instruments to regulate their relations with private stakeholders, and their operational and environmental results.
Another collaborative research project that I am just now just starting is called Hybridelec. It has a comparative scope, including Lebanon, several African countries, as well as several cities in India. The starting point is that the rhythm of public electrification in many cases cannot catch up with the growth of energy demand. This leads to the rise of alternative practices of generation, distribution and consumption, and our hypothesis is that those practices, both socially, materially, and not least politically, not only will last for years, but will, and already, shape the local energy systems. The Lebanese generators illustrates this idea very well, but other, new technical devices associating solar panels, diesel generators and the public also emerge and are called, precisely, hybrids. A young researcher, Alix Chaplain, will soon start a PhD to document and test this hypothesis. I will be involved in the comparative analysis.
I also have to write a book summarizing the results of my comparative research on urban energy in Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia, and beyond, some of which I have underlined in this interview.
Excerpt (from the conclusion):
This article has explored urban service network management in order to question the dominant conceptualizations of the state in Lebanon. By analyzing the policy instruments used by political figures and administrative officials to transform these sectors, this article has unraveled political debates triggered by the reforms and the tactics various stakeholders employed to implement, stall, or stop these projects. My most striking finding is that the three sectors differ substantially in management, making the state’s logic difficult to summarize in a unified paradigm. I now conclude by summarizing my findings in the three main dimensions (or families of instruments) of urban service reform.
The first dimension is the redefinition of operational districts. Reforms in this vein sought to achieve economies of scale, pool methods of action, and establish spatial units in which operators could earn greater revenues. A noteworthy product of these reforms is large-scale transformation without territorial convergence. The waste and water sectors adjusted to a metropolitan perimeter corresponding to Mount Lebanon’s administrative boundaries, a very broad but relevant approximation of Greater Beirut.60 By contrast, reformers sought to restructure electricity distribution according to quite different territorial principles. Proponents and critics mobilize a variety of technical and economic arguments to explain this difference, but, whatever the explanations given, it does not reflect a convergence of the new territorial organization with political or sectarian territories.
The second dimension is the introduction of public-private partnerships. To this question, the Lebanese experience offers contradictory answers. Although many view urban development, particularly Solidere, as a manifestation of unbridled neoliberalism, urban services do not really fit into their analysis. It is true that waste management is a striking example of poor regulation and expensive outsourcing of public service contracts, whose renewal under less than transparent conditions reflects the dominance of partisan interests. In the water sector, however, the failure of Ondeo-Suez’s drinking water management contract in Tripoli seems to have blocked similar privatization attempts in Beirut, despite persistent lobbying. As for the electricity sector, Parliament’s recent opening of the power generation sector to independent producers has not resulted in a single major deal. Parts of the necessary legislative framework, such as an independent regulator, are still missing. The possible discovery of offshore gas could alter these reforms’ conditions markedly. Electricity distribution reforms have also privatized public services, although in a more limited fashion, through service contracts. Reforms in this sector have above all revealed the scandalous condition of workers, a product of institutionalized political clientelism. Yet it is too soon to measure these minor reforms’ results. Through inertia, Lebanon seems to be less exposed to the consequences of urban service liberalization, whose benefits and limitations are evident in Jordan and Morocco.
The last family of instruments is funding. While reforms in each sector operate with different funding sources, all converge to receive money from the national budget. Until recently, waste and sewage services received no direct contribution from users. Rather, the Municipal Fund finances the former and water authorities’ budgets finance the latter. As for drinking water, users pay on a lump-sum basis. In Beirut and Mount Lebanon, these payments cover operating and maintenance costs. Lump-sum payments, however, do not account for individual consumption and provide no incentive for more rational resource management. Finally, the electricity sector’s deficit is so large that the national budget ultimately provides most of the sector’s funding. In all, urban services—reformed or otherwise—remain primarily financed through taxation and debt, either due to public budget or international loan financing for projects or to operational deficits. Service costs are totally disconnected from place of residence and mode of consumption, which ultimately runs counter to commercial service principles. The originality of these findings is methodological. They highlight the utility of examining policy instruments and adopting a geographical approach to public policies in order to understand the territorialization of the state and the continuous shaping of space by state policy, even when those processes are dysfunctional.
Infrastructure remains the object of popular expectations of the state. It is also a site of political struggle, because politicians see it as central to their strategies for expanding their power. Politicians have proposed numerous reforms of the instruments that regulate infrastructure and service delivery. Certain sections of the population express deep mistrust of these mostly liberal reforms, fearing their social consequences. But paradoxically, and in contrast to the idea that managing infrastructure is an indirect but effective way to govern the city, in Beirut political fragmentation prevents even agreements on modest improvements to key sectors to ease the burdens of daily life or to encourage economic growth. Hence, these reforms’ failure results above all from resistance by the political system—whether its partisan and sectarian or its regionalist and clientelist elements. Opposing factions paralyze state institutions. So loud are the controversies among the political class and wider population, who invariably interpret service provision deficiencies in political- sectarian terms, that they mask the socioeconomic effects of the flawed public policy instruments that regulate infrastructure. Political-sectarian polarization has pushed socioeconomic issues to the margins of the services debate. For example, the taxation that funds urban services is levied very unequally on Lebanese citizens of different classes. The same is true of the electricity supply inequality between Beirut and its suburbs. The number of hours of electricity Beirut residents receive resembles a massive subsidy to the most affluent, who are also the biggest consumers. The state maintains a kilowatt-hour price that bears no relation to production costs in order to prevent popular protests. This low price provides a considerable advantage to the wealthiest classes. Outside Beirut proper, the wealthiest classes are so well equipped with alternative systems that they find the grid’s interruptions tolerable, if costly. While these geographical inequalities in electricity supply are not identical to those in water or waste management, the social effects of deficient and unequal service are similar across all three sectors. The catastrophic mismanagement of urban services thus contributes, above all, to widening the country’s already frightening social inequalities. But the fact that reforms are stalled does not mean that the policy instruments in place have stopped producing their effects. My analysis of the electricity tariff instrument precisely evinces that second-level institutions keep on shaping society, in that case for the worse. Beyond discussion of weak and strong states, social scientists must pay attention to the invisible mechanisms that structure public action.