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Mona Khechen, independent urban development planner and reseacher and LCPS senior fellow

June 2020
Why Lebanon Needs Integrated Territorial Approaches to Development?

Lebanon is confronted by numerous challenges that mandate transformative ways of thinking about economic growth and development. The country’s deepening financial and economic crisis, high unemployment rates, neglected infrastructure, collapsing social services, threatened natural and cultural heritage, tragic environmental conditions, and rampant institutional corruption explain the surge of public anger and escalating demands for serious economic and governance reforms. In such a critical context, worsened by the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic, questions related to the kind of development that Lebanon needs certainly warrant a particular attention. How can people’s right to sustainable livelihoods, decent work, clean and safe living environment, nutritious food, and basic infrastructure and public services (e.g. health services, sanitation, electricity, water, education, affordable housing and public transportation) be met? How to finance vital public interventions? What are the priorities? At what level and scale should actions be planned and implemented?
To be sure, Lebanon needs foreign capital to withstand its current economic and financial crisis. It also requires profound reforms of its fiscal and economic policies, institutions, and governance structures. The role of local governments in attaining more balanced national growth and development is central to this discussion. The 1989 Ta’if Agreement, which paved the way to end the country’s 15-year war, saw “expanded administrative decentralization”, at the level of the district and smaller administrative units, as one of the crucial reforms that Lebanon needed. It stipulated that “[a] comprehensive and unified development plan capable of developing the provinces economically and socially shall be adopted and the resources of the municipalities, unified municipalities, and municipal unions shall be reinforced with the necessary financial resources.” Since then, decentralization has been a much debated topic in Lebanon as its link with local development has been very problematic.
The development-decentralization nexus
The development-decentralization nexus is surely challenging. In countries where decentralization has indeed contributed to local development, the co-existence of a number of factors was essential to the success of this linkage: (1) The level of commitment of the decentralizing state to development; (2) the autonomy and accountability of local authorities and their ability to mobilize additional local resources to promote the development of their areas; and (3) the extent to which the intended reforms were supported by a national strategy for territorial development that empowers local governments.[1]
In Lebanon, as many national and international actors agree, decentralization is faced with several obstacles.[2],[3] Municipalities are unable to perform their mandatory functions (such as delivering basic public services, ensuring public safety, and guiding urban expansion and municipal area development). Their weak administrative capacity, limited human and financial resources, fiscal dependence on the central government, and lack of political autonomy have left them in an arduous situation—exacerbated in more recent years by the arrival of Syrian refugees—and reduced their ability to fulfill their duties and to budget and plan for sustainable local development.[4]
Lebanon, however, does have a national strategy for territorial development. The National Physical Master Plan of the Lebanese Territory (NPMPLT), endorsed by a decree issued by the Council of Ministers in July 2009, is a key document concerning regional and local development and planning in the country. It sets a comprehensive framework for regional sustainable development policies that aim at guiding major public investments while ensuring unity of the country, balanced development, and rationalization of uses of resources.[5] But the NPMPLT does not replace local level plans. According to the urban planning code of 1983 (Decree-Law 69/83), local master plans should be elaborated or reviewed, when they exist, “in the framework of the national land use master plan.”
In fact, there is a need to rethink local planning frameworks beyond their current narrow focus and the administrative boundaries of one municipality. Territorial development plans and strategies that build on the overall objectives and guidelines of the NPMPLT are essential to elaborate at intermediate geographic scales (e.g. region, district, sub-district, cluster of municipalities). In line with the recommendations of the NPMPLT, these expounded strategies need to build on the historical, geographic, socio-economic, and cultural specificities as well as on the natural heritage and landscape features of the areas they are targeting in ways that can unlock their economic potential and improve the quality of life of their inhabitants.
The territorial turn in local development
Although not new, territorial approaches to development are being increasingly embraced by international development agencies, policymakers, practitioners, and researchers. This growing popularity largely stems from the recognition that spatial disparities, contrary to what the World Bank argued in its controversial World Development Report of 2009, Reshaping Economic Geography, do matter. National—and sub-national—policies that address rising socio-economic inequalities through a simultaneous focus on territorial development and the empowerment of local authorities and citizens, therefore, have received particular international support in recent years.
For instance, the European Commission (EC) is promoting, since 2013, a Territorial Approach to Local Development (TALD)—broadly defined as “development that is endogenous and spatially integrated, leverages the contribution of actors operating at multiple scales and brings incremental value to national development efforts.”[6] Envisioned to be driven by autonomous and accountable local authorities and active citizenship, this approach is presented by the EC as one that can potentially provide the missing link between decentralization and development. With a view to promoting economic development, social cohesion and environmental sustainability, this approach is also presented as a possible means to localize the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and to “liberate the potential of territories for national economic growth” through “a shared spatial vision [at the scale of the territory] and joint action between public and private actors.” [7]
Territorial development in the context of Lebanon
The notion of the “territorial” in the above-mentioned sense is utterly different from the notion of territoriality predominant in Lebanon since the civil war, and which has eventually divided the country into isolated political and confessional cantons. Integrated territorial approaches to local development in the context of Lebanon would help break silos and build synergies between insulate adjacent administrative areas. They would also help defy current clientelistic relationships in public services delivery and challenge current political turfs and artificial territorial boundaries between Muslim, Christian and Druze areas; but also, arbitrary spatial distinctions between urban and rural areas, center and periphery, and north and south. Given the notable inter- and intra-regional gaps and disparities in infrastructure, public services, and utilities (such as access to drinking water supply, electricity supply and distribution capacity, number of public schools per capita, and number of beds in public hospitals per resident),[8] such approaches will also be essential to put the constitutional commitment to the “even development among regions on the educational, social, and economic levels” into action.
An integrated territorial approach to local development in Lebanon would, therefore, involve a shift from local sovereignty to thinking of cross-sectoral territorial interventions that extend beyond the administrative limits and controls of a single local authority. It would also involve instilling a new conception of local development, where the local is seen as a “social construct” defined by the shared histories, values, resources, needs, and/or experiences of the inhabitants of a certain geographic zone regardless of its official borderlines.
The NPMPLT provides a solid framework to re-unify the national territory while respecting the specific characteristics of the different geographic areas and capitalizing on their available resources and opportunities. In an increasingly globalized world, the national is yet not detached from international and regional dynamics and predicaments; think for instance of forced migration, climate change, food security, and value chains. This does not mean that local and national territories need to be “passive receptacles of policies defined elsewhere.”[9] Instead, key global and regional development frameworks (e.g. the SDGs and the New Urban Agenda) need to be translated into context-specific multi-scalar policy responses and concrete actions that involve multiple levels of interaction and coordination (sub-national, national, regional and international).
Approaching territorial development in Lebanon along these lines is apt to redefine the notions of decentralization and local autonomy. Ultimately, it can give rise to new unified governance structures that can ensure the urban-rural balance, good linkages between economically leading and lagging areas, as well as the continuity of natural sites and landscapes (e.g. forests, valleys and the Lebanese coast) beyond narrow definitions of territoriality.[10]

[1] Romeo, L. 2015. ‘What is Territorial Development?’ In ECDPM’s GREAT Insights (territorial development), volume 4, issue 4. pp. 15-17.
[2] Democracy Reporting International. 2017. ‘Reforming Decentralisation in Lebanon: The State of Play.’
[3] Harb, M. and S. Atallah (eds.). 2015. ‘Local Governments and Public Goods: Assessing Decentralization in the Arab World.’ Beirut: The Lebanese Center for Policy Studies.
[4] Democracy Reporting International. ‘Reforming Decentralisation in Lebanon: The State of Play.’ Op. cit.
[5] CDR. 2005. ‘National Physical Master Plan of the Lebanese Territory Final Report.’
[6] EU Commission. 2016. ‘Supporting Decentralisation, Local Governance and Local Development Through a Territorial Approach.’ Tools and Methods Series Reference Document No 23.
[7] EU Commission. 2013. ‘Communication from The Commission to the European Parliament. Empowering Local Authorities in Partner Countries for Enhanced Governance and More Effective Development Outcomes.’
[8] Garrote Sanchez, D. 2018. ‘Perpetuating Regional Inequalities in Lebanon’s Infrastructure: The Role of Public Investment.’ Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, Policy Brief No. 36.
[9] EU Commission. 2016. Op. cit.

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