Lebanon 2012 | ECONOMY | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Nabil A. El Jisr, President of the Council for Development and Reconstruction, on the role of the Council, its major projects, and sources of funding.

Nabil A. El Jisr
From 1995 to 1998 Nabil A. El Jisr served his first term as President of the Lebanese Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR). He then went on to be the Director of an international contracting company in Saudi Arabia until 2005, when he served as an advisor to the Lebanese Prime Minister for a year before again taking the position of President of the CDR.

How has the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR) developed and transformed over the years to become what it is today?

It all started just before the 1975 civil war. A Ministry of Planning already existed, but was not functioning efficiently. It was a public entity that had been entrusted with the role of planning for the various ministries, and had control over their budgets and a hand in the execution of plans. In a democratic country, no minister would accept another fellow minister to have an upper hand over his role and duties. Therefore, the aim behind establishing the Ministry of Planning failed. Consequently, the government took the decision in 1977 to create an executing agency for the Council of Ministers—the Council for Development and Reconstruction—and gave it unprecedented powers to avoid any administrative routine that could slow down the reconstruction and development process. Entrusted with the most important role in the process of reconstruction and economic recovery, the CDR prepares general plans for the country, it mobilizes external financing for priority projects within investment plans, it negotiates and signs foreign financing agreements on behalf of the Lebanese government—which is of a relief to most funding sources since they are able to negotiate with only one entity—and executes projects by appointment from the Council of Ministers.

What have been some of the main projects that the CDR has implemented?

In the past, we used to focus our concerns on the reconstruction, rehabilitation, and upgrading of existing infrastructure. At a later stage we were requested to execute additional tasks including an accentuated commitment to project implementation. We began working at full speed in order to fulfill the needs of citizens in the various regions and contribute to improving their standards of living. Eventually, we turned out to be the body responsible for the major projects of reconstruction and development in the country, accountable to the Council of Ministers and managing its sector-based actions with full coordination from the concerned ministries. Nowadays, we still face challenges executing vital projects in sectors of prime concern for the Lebanese people. Our main priority projects are those related to electricity, water and waste-water treatment, and transport. Some other priorities we are working on are related to the environment.

How are you working to satisfy future demand in water for sectors like agriculture?

Currently, we are approaching some socioeconomic concerns including the supply of water to the agriculture sector. With sources of funding coming from the EU Commission, we have completed a few irrigation projects and man-made lakes, and soon we will be launching the long awaited Litani Canal 800 conveyor in South Lebanon. This project will increase the supply of drinking water and provide continuous irrigation for 15,000 hectares of crops in the south.

“Entrusted with the most important role in the process of reconstruction and economic recovery, the CDR prepares general plans for the country."

Which sectors in Lebanon are most in need of development and upgrading?

The electricity sector is one of the major problems in Lebanon. The previous Minister of Energy and Water has been reassigned the same post in the new government, hence avoiding changes in strategy, and we are both putting in a lot of effort to achieve the development program, which has the approval of the Council of Ministers. The CDR has secured some funds for the rehabilitation of existing power plants and transformer stations.

Does a majority of the funding come from abroad or through domestic funding?

The Ministry of Energy and Water's priority projects have been divided into three segments. The most urgent ones are to be financed locally by the government. Over the medium to long term, external sources will also provide funding, and independent power producers (IPPs) will also provide funding. It is worth mentioning that borrowing from external sources can take almost two years to materialize, especially if we need time to finish negotiations for a memorandum of understanding, to achieve preliminary studies, impact assessments, and to obtain the endorsement of the Council of Ministers and the ratification of the Lebanese parliament.

Will the Lebanese economy continue to be a service economy or will it try to increase production?

If we compare it to the economies of the other countries in the region, our economy's strength is built on services. Services have always been what we do best. Even the Lebanese people working abroad are mainly engaged in the service sectors. In the industrial sector, I don't really see how Lebanon can highly compete with some other countries, but we still have hopes to improve some of the existing industries in Lebanon. We welcome investors and, at the same time, we keep an eye on the inflation rate, trying to keep it under control so as to avoid becoming a speculative market. Money comes to the country in three forms: direct cash deposit, real estate investments, and the manufacturing sector. In our case, the manufacturing sector needs additional support.

Human resources are one of the Lebanese economy's main assets. How is the CDR looking to maintain or improve the quality of the Lebanese workforce?

Since 1992, we have rehabilitated and constructed about 1,400 schools. We also achieved the construction of a new campus for Lebanese University with a capacity of 25,000 students. In addition, we are currently building another campus in the northern city of Tripoli. Our work in the education sector is based on building and providing equipment, thus increasing the capacity for larger numbers of students. Whether through securing funds or grants, we are joining efforts with the Ministry of Education in order to achieve its programs.

What business development would you like to see in Lebanon?

The Economic & Social Fund for Development (ESFD) has been created in Lebanon. We have already received grants worth €36 million for this fund to help people in establishing their small- or medium-sized enterprises. Community projects have been achieved that are dedicated to job creation. Citizens are being taught how to keep their financial books and follow their bank accounts efficiently. On the other hand, lending banks are satisfied due to the increased amount of customers. Citizens who were never able to start their own business before are now able to because we guarantee the loans they are getting.

What is the future direction of the CDR and the government in terms of development?

The Lebanese economy is noted for its resilience, having withstood wars and invasions as well as internal clashes. People have taken notice of this. We survived the global economic crisis and even excelled in a few sectors while other countries suffered. The Lebanese people always live in a pre-conflict mentality. The post-conflict does not affect them. They don't show concern anymore in post-conflict situations. Our government is a very conservative one and it paid off when the big crisis occurred. We have risen from much worse situations before. For the CDR, besides the funding and the planning job, it all depends on the government as to whether operations must increase or decrease. I hope the government will implement additional administrative reform in the ministries and will hire more qualified people because we have a lot of vacancies. We need to extend the scope of our activities beyond our current operations.