Macron Lectures Lebanon: The Condescending Politics Of Aid

The explosion
in a Beirut portside warehouse
containing over 2,750
tonnes of ammonium nitrate on August 4 has done its bit to
light more fires under Lebanon’s ruling powers. With the
blast still bloodily fresh and traumatic – the destruction
of the city’s port with over two hundred deaths and
thousands injured – promises of assistance and messages of
solidarity were conveyed. A donor summit of fifteen
government leaders was cobbled together in haste with French
President leading the show. “Assistance
should be timely, sufficient and consistent with the needs
of the Lebanese people,” went he words of the communique.
But it was to be “directly delivered to the Lebanese
population, with utmost efficiency and
transparency.”

Aid is very much a tool of politics.
Used to affect change, it often ends up having its own
distressing consequences, entrenching a set of other power
interests more amenable to the donor and enervating to the
recipient. Governing classes in the recipient state are not
so much replaced as redeployed; the canny and guileful
adapt, donning new clothes for the institution approved by
those providing aid.

When models of aid are
celebrated, the common example is that of the Marshall Plan,
advertised by its proponents, US Secretary of State George
Marshall, and Secretary of Commerce Averell Harriman, as
both noble yet self-interested. By providing aid to a
devastated Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War,
the US tax payer would be inoculating the patient against
the Communist virus while making the world safe for
capitalism. Marshall put forth the case in
an address
to Harvard University during the course of
receiving an honorary degree, a speech that has come to be
associated with the aid and reconstruction plan that bears
his name. “Aside from the demoralizing effect on the world
at large and the possibilities of disturbances arising as a
result of the desperation of the people concerned, the
consequences to the economy of the United States should be
apparent to all.”

In its post-colonial context, the
donor-aid paradigm has its specific, troubling features.
Former colonies, for instance, tend to receive more from the
former colonial power than those lacking those ties.
Sentiment is less important than attractive conveniences.
Favours can be attained; deals made. Studies such as those
done by Daina Chiba and Tobias Heinrich come to the
unremarkable conclusion
that “the colony effect on foreign aid stems from the
greater saliency that donors give to policy concessions from
former colonies.”

In the case of Lebanon, aid from a
power like France comes with historical strings, marked by
coatings of nostalgia and condescension. Memories of the
French mandate from the 1920s are so strong in some circles
that a petition
is throbbing with signatures for a return to some form of
control from Paris. It stresses, first and foremost, the
incompetence of local leadership. “Lebanon’s officials
have clearly shown a total inability to secure and manage
the country. With a failing system, corruption, terrorism
and militia the country just reached it’s [sic] last
breath.” Then comes the vision: “We believe Lebanon
should go back under the French mandate in order to
establish clean and durable governance.” To date, the
measure has received 61,433 signatures.

The
petitioner’s creator Cyrille claimed
to be “under no illusion” of achieving success in
pursuing the matter. He admitted that France had its own lot
of problems; he merely wished to “show the extent of the
[Lebanese people’s] despair.” Not even a revolution
would dislodge the “hegemony of the political class that
has been there for 40 years.”

The donors have
accompanied willingness to supply assistance with conditions
to implement. The International Monetary Fund, true to form,
promises
outlays
, provided that institutional reforms are made.
These included the traditional demands: solvency in public
finances; proved soundness of the financial system;
restrictions on capital outflows. The IMF, in a sense, has
been handed a boon by the blast: prior to the calamity, debt
default talks with Beirut had stalled.

Macron, as the
leader of the donor pack, was even more forthright. “The
Lebanese authorities,” he
told
summit attendees on August 9, “must now implement
the political and economic reforms demanded by the Lebanese
people.” His laundry list of intrusive measures was
extensive: reforms of the energy sector, public procurement
and those designed to battle corruption. “An audit of the
central bank and the financial sector should be
conducted.”

When a foreign head of state proclaims
the sovereign merits of another people, care should be
taken. A catch is around the corner. “The Lebanese are a
free, proud and sovereign people,” Macron went on to
explain. “It is up to the country’s authorities to act
so that the country does not go under and to meet the
aspirations legitimately expressed by the Lebanese people in
the streets of Beirut at this very moment.”

On the
French president’s visit to Beirut on August 6, the spirit
of the colonial administrator was on full, puffy display. To
those protesting
for the release of Lebanese militant George Ibrahim
Abdallah, in French prison since 1984, he offered a vague
“political pact”. Macron promised
support
to local NGOs and 15 million Euros for
French-language schools. But in doing so, he was very clear
to stress the loss of confidence between the governed and
the governing power. Lebanon needed “fundamental
change”, to be achieved within an international
framework.

As if realising his lecturing mode, he
issued a qualification. “It is not up to me or to France
to tell Lebanese leaders what they have to do and how they
should do it.” But in matters of aid, it most certainly
seems to be. He awaits “clear answers” before returning
on September 1. One of those answers has certainly been
offered: the wholesale resignation of the Diab
government.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth
Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT
University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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