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Sami Atallah and Michèle Boujikian, LCPS

March 2015
Sectarian Homogeneity Does not Guarantee a Wider Array of Services

Following the release of Lebanon’s decentralization draft law in April 2014, we at LCPS had the opportunity to discuss specific aspects of the proposed legislation—which LCPS had contributed to drafting—with members of civil society from across the country. During one such discussion, a participant approached one of us to express her disappointment with the draft since it stipulated that Beirut remain united, whereas she had preferred that Ashrafieh—the eastern and predominantly Christian part of the city—have its own council. She argued that residents in a given municipality would have better access to services if they are represented by local councils comprising individuals from the municipality’s largest sectarian group. The logic of her argument rested on the assumption that local elites will either care more about constituents of the same sect or that they know their preferences better and hence would be able to improve service delivery. During the exchange we reminded the participant that like her and many citizens from Ashrafieh who argue that sectarian diversity in specific municipalities has failed to lead to better service delivery, the governor of Beirut—whose authority overrides that of the elected Sunni mayor—is Greek Orthodox.

Not long after the exchange LCPS decided to empirically assess whether municipalities that govern homogenously sectarian areas provide more services than their counterparts in areas with mixed populations. In other words, do politicians better serve people who belong to the same sect as them?  

Building on the work that we have been conducting at LCPS, we collected data from 255 municipalities, including the number and type of infrastructure services they provide, such as building and maintaining retaining walls, roads, road lighting networks, potable water networks, and sidewalks, as well as other development services. After analyzing the data, it is evident that overall, municipalities which govern areas with a population predominantly belonging to one sectarian group do not perform better than those with mixed sectarian demographics. This finding applies to a composite index that includes infrastructure, development, and urban services after controlling for other potential factors that might affect service delivery such as the size of a town, municipal revenues, and levels of development. More specifically, when looking at infrastructural services, we find that in eight out of eleven services—the construction or installation of roads, road lighting, and sidewalks; regular maintenance of roads, road lighting, and sidewalks; construction of potable water networks; and retaining wall maintenance—sectarian composition does not affect municipal performance. In other words, there is no difference in the delivery of these services between municipalities whose constituents are primarily from one sect and those which are more diverse. It is only when it comes to constructing new retaining walls, major road repairs, and maintaining potable water networks that we observed poorer performance in heterogeneous municipalities.

According to the data, what seems to matter most in terms of service delivery is not sectarian composition but rather the size of the municipal area population and municipal revenues. This brings us to the argument that the central government’s approval of the creation of small municipalities with small tax bases has hindered service delivery and decentralization more generally. Currently, Lebanon has 1,108 municipalities, of which 70% are too small to be able to provide any services. We also know that at least four hundred municipalities do not even have one employee. Out of the eleven infrastructural services included in our survey, only 36% of municipalities provide more than eight of these services, meaning the remaining 64% municipalities deliver eight or less such services.    

It appears that many Lebanese citizens think they will receive better services if they are governed by leaders from their own sect but our data on municipal performance does not confirm that. Those supporting the Orthodox Gathering Law should consider that electing people from their own sect will likely not lead to better development outcomes. Instead of exerting energy toward being represented by one’s own sect, we must strive to hold our politicians accountable, irrespective of the sect they belong to. It is only then that they will have the incentive to serve us. Failing to do so, we will go in circles and many of us will be mistakenly searching for better sectarian representation, all at the expense of development. 

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