The Importance of a Strategic Plan and Clear Vision to Local Development
An Interview with Jezzine Municipal Union President Mr. Khalil Harfoush
This interview is part of a series of interviews LCPS is conducting with local leaders to promote a wider discussion on local development.
Q: Can you tell us about your key achievements as president of the Jezzine Municipal Union?
A: Our key achievement is that we managed to develop a strategic plan based on research conducted about needs in the region. Based on that, as well as information gathered using the SWOT analysis method—which focuses on the weaknesses and strengths, as well as threats posed to every sector in the region such as agriculture, tourism, and industry, among others—we were able to implement a number of projects.
Q: How do you get citizens involved in such projects?
A: We do this by convening panel discussions and workshops in partnership with a number of NGOs and other stakeholders or individuals such as school administrators, investors, and agricultural cooperatives so they can become involved in the process. We have managed to gather investors, foster relationships with them, and establish three private companies. One of these companies, “Knee Roots”, invested $1.5 million in the “Forest Home” project, in addition to what the union allocated for the project. Our biggest challenge is convincing investors who are from Jezzine to believe in their town.
Q: A significant part of your plan involves the private sector. What is its role?
A: The importance of the private sector is its ability to provide liquidity. Our plan focused on citizens from Jezzine who do not want to monopolize business in the region but are committed to investing in Jezzine. All they needed was someone to lay out a clear plan for them, in order to convince them that their investments are beneficial for the development of their town and will not result in a loss for themselves.
Q: Do you fear that your cooperation with private investors might promote corruption?
A: One of the important characteristics of private companies that we deal with is investors have different political affiliations, and what brings them together is their love for their land and their region. That is why it is difficult to accuse them of establishing a network of interests or political or financial monopolies with one party or another. We succeeded in preventing these companies from being subject to political influence by involving them in our strategic plan. We put forward the vision and criteria and the private sector implements it.
Q: You stated previously (during a conference on decentralization hosted by LCPS in July 2014) that you do not receive financial or other types of support from state institutions. Can you elaborate on this?
A: There is no professionalism in the work of state institutions. It is dependent entirely on sectarianism and politics. For example, if a political party supports a head of a union or a mayor, they will be free from accountability. Also, sometimes a Qada can play a negative role in a region by supporting a specific political agenda. This prompts the mayor or the head of the union to ask for the support of a political group rather than the state.
In my job I have tried to create an institution independent of political influence. I might succeed and fail at times, since unfortunately we live in an era in which the state is absent and decisions are not based on a clear plan or strategy. People tell me that despite my attempts at reform, corruption will spread again after I leave. I do not agree that this will happen since I built this institution and didn’t inherit it. I developed a modern and advanced technological system to foster a different work ethic than the one we know in the public sector. As for success after I end my term, well, it is related to the continuity of the system that I am trying to build.
Q: Are you worried that dealing with investors could lead to challenges in confronting legal violations?
A: I deal with legal issues every day, some of which concern my political allies. They wonder how I hold people accountable. Every day I strive to prevent favoritism. An example of that is the fact that most of the employees in the municipality are not in the same political camp as me and most of them were already working in the municipality before I took over. Of course I have hired a number of employees from my political camp but I confess that sometimes others are more competent and I reward them. This creates a sense of belonging to the institution. Moreover, to reduce favoritism, all administrative procedures are conducted online and should not take more than three days to complete.
Q: You have stressed the importance of a strategic plan. How do you ensure its sustainability?
A: To ensure the sustainability of any project, we need money. Therefore, the financial factor is most important. Investors are definitely a part of the solution but they are not the solution. At the same time, we are following a financial plan so that we can continue to implement projects despite financial difficulties.
Q: What about funding from sources other than investors? Can you borrow from banks?
A: Currently we are dealing with BEMO Bank, which is funding some of our projects, including the construction of a museum in Jezzine. Laws concerning this matter initially allowed us to borrow but a decision issued by the Council of Ministers now prevents borrowing because some other municipalities had not followed proper procedures when taking out loans. As for us, we have agreed on a legal formula that allows BEMO to fund the project because the contractor took out the loan.
Q: Some of your projects are being funded by international donors, suggesting that you have succeeded in winning international funders’ trust. How were you able to build that trust?
A: We have gained the trust of the European Union in particular since we won a project worth 1 million euros. Then we won a competition for two small projects, one related to tourism and the other sorting waste, which are worth two hundred thousand euros. The EU has also granted 20 million euros to various municipal unions. Among those, Jezzine was selected based on our record but this money was reallocated to Syrian refugees after the crisis in Syria began.
Q: What is the importance of keeping politics distant from municipal work? How is this possible in a country where political cover is essential for carrying out public work?
A: This depends on the people. In my opinion, success lies in serving citizens regardless of their political affiliation. In the municipality of Jezzine, I sent a notice to all those not paying taxes, without exception. Some fought back under the pretext they have the same political affiliation as I do, but I did not care.
Q: Is this independence possible if what you are doing conflicts with the wishes of people who have the same political affiliation as you? Is it possible to separate political affiliation from public work in a country like Lebanon? In the event you had not received support or cover from your political party, do you think you would have succeeded and had the freedom to make decisions as you have now?
A: As of yet I have not been faced with such a conflict regarding my political party. I believe it is possible to separate political affiliation and public work. But as I have previously mentioned, it depends on the people themselves.
Had I not had political cover I do not know whether I would have been able to succeed. But I maintain that it is better to resign from one’s post than to go against one’s own convictions.
Q: What was your primary motive for entering into political work?
A: I have a passion and faith that I can offer something to the region, and I am succeeding. I love public work and I love communicating with people. In the past, I was looking for a political role but with my current experience I find myself more into development work. This experience enriched me on a personal level as it strengthens one’s personality and develops communication skills. In addition, it has taught me how to face challenges in a diplomatic manner.
Q: Does the union allow civil society to participate in monitoring its work?
A: Civil society is a partner in the development plan. My original aim was to establish an association but the people I gathered suggested building a development company under the supervision of a union that is known for its transparency for three or four years in order to attract investors. The aim of attracting investors and of all these projects is to keep people in their region and develop the economy through tourism and agriculture. Since then, we have planned 70 projects, 40 of which have been executed.
We hope that civil society plays the role of monitor, but it has not done that yet. Also, we are preparing what is known as “the municipalities’ code” in collaboration with civil society.
Q: The slogan for your campaign was: “Cooperative work for saving the land”. What does that mean?
A: We are facing a problem in Jezzine in that people are leaving the area. Therefore, we are responsible for dealing with this issue and my goal is to limit this emigration. To do that we need to incentivize them to invest in their land and provide work opportunities. We have used this slogan to get people’s attention, especially investors.
Q: How do you deal with the presence of Syrian refugees in your union?
A: What concerns me most is the humanitarian factor but the wellbeing of the locals sets the limits. This is a sensitive case and requires wisdom to deal with. So far no major negative incidents have occurred. The municipality adopted several procedures such as preventing Syrian refugees from leaving their homes after eight p.m. except those who were in Jezzine before the crisis or those whose work conditions force them to return home at night. Some of the Syrians who were displaced might have bad intentions so we deal with them cautiously and we know where they are. We have surveyed all the families and individuals, recorded their data at the municipality, and we have asked construction companies to give us the names of people they employ. I have also issued a decision that prohibits more than five people from living in the same room for health and other reasons related to infrastructure. The municipal police do sometimes make mistakes but we hold those who go beyond their normal duties accountable.
Q: Are you aware of the new decentralization draft law that calls for electing district councils as decentralized authorities? What is your opinion of that?
A: I support the proposal for administrative decentralization because during my visits to France I was introduced to that idea. France is divided into regions, and the head of the region is more important than a minister or a deputy. Decentralization is not related to federalism; on the contrary, it designates the prerogatives to implement development projects for the entire region, enhances development work, and motivates citizens to abide by the law and pay taxes because they can see the results. The issue [for Lebanon] lies in how to implement this proposal.
This article was prepared by Hayat Hariri and edited by John McCabe.