Why is it so hard to eliminate corruption in Lebanon?

Although Lebanon is an upper-middle-income country, the Lebanese state has been unable to deliver satisfactory levels of social welfare and public services. Electricity provision, for example, is the fourth worst in the world. In the same vein, a report from the World Bank concludes that the country’s water supply services are below the levels expected in a middle-income country. The report traces the poor quality of service delivery to elite capture and endemic corruption, which have negatively affected living conditions and quality of life.

Considering these outcomes, it is unsurprising that data from Arab Barometer show that 91 percent of Lebanese say that corruption in national state agencies and institutions exists to a large or medium extent. Additionally, a vast majority in each sect holds this view, demonstrating that this concern is shared across a major political divide.

There are a number of reasons Lebanon has not witnessed accountable government and low levels of corruption. A full account would go beyond the scope of this blog. However, social scientists have shown that high levels of corruption result from low levels of social trust. As such, what, if anything, can levels of social trust tell us about Lebanon’s current predicament?

What role does social trust play?

Social trust refers to the belief in the honesty, integrity, and reliability of other members of society. Evidence shows that social trust facilitates reliable behavior and cooperation among individuals that do not know each other, helping to promote conditions conducive to economic growth, democratic government, low levels of corruption, and the fair provision of public goods.

However, exhibiting trust makes little sense unless it reflects a general condition of trustworthy behavior in society. In a low-trust society, for example, a person is incentivized to pay a bribe to a government official for fear that not doing so might yield a far worse outcome. Although everyone would be better off if they do not pay a bribe, it is difficult to break the cycle of corruption without higher levels of trust. In other words, society is trapped in a “low-trust equilibrium” in which everyone is worse off, but no one can break out. In comparison, a person in a high-trust society is far less likely to engage in such practices and likely to fear that paying a bribe would lead to worse consequences than adhering to legal regulations.

High levels of social distrust in Lebanese society

Data from Arab Barometer reveal that Lebanon is a low-trust society. About 95 percent say one must be very careful in dealing with people, reflecting a general feeling unanimously shared by all Lebanese. Both the results and the concept of social trust suggest Lebanese society may find itself in such a “collective action problem”.

Social distrust is found not only on the individual level, but also at the group level. Lebanon shows high levels of social distrust among sects, reproduced by the country’s sectarian system.

Consistent to the concept of social trust and the experiences of other societies, members of each sect would be better off if they acted collectively to solve this problem. However, even though data from Arab Barometer suggest that a majority of Lebanese think that the government does not do enough to combat corruption, they can never be sure that others will take advantage of them by not securing state resources to themselves. As is common among any competing groups, expectations are that other sects are poised to take advantage of each other, leading to behavior that reinforces these outcomes.

Social distrust is deeply embedded in Lebanese political culture, lowering the chances for social cohesion and collective action. That might be one reason Lebanon has not seen the formation of a broad reformist coalition group, which pushes forward political reforms in the public sector. Further research is required to analyze the factors determining social trust and corruption in Lebanon. In particular, the effect of Lebanon’s institutional arrangement on levels of social trust and the Lebanese’s ability to act collectively should be on the focus of further inquiry.

Nicolas Schwarz graduated from the University of Oslo with a degree in Political Science and currently lives in Oslo, Norway.