By Dana Halawi
BEIRUT: A senior UN official urged the Lebanese government Monday to provide
financial assistance and other forms of aid to alleviate the impact of the hike in food prices.
“The government has to rely on policies that aim at expanding social protection programs
already in place and implementing new safety-net programs like food or income transfers and
nutrition programs that are focused on helping the population groups most impacted,” Tarik Alami,
acting director of the economic development and globalization division at ESCWA, said during a
conference held at the UN House in Beirut.
Dubbed “Linking consumer protection to
national economic policy in Lebanon,” the conference aimed at increasing inspectors’ understanding
of consumer-protection structures and laws in Lebanon and new emerging issues related to consumer
Social protection refers to a set of benefits offered by the state, market,
civil society and households, or through a combination of these agencies to the
individual/households to reduce multi-dimensional deprivation.
deprivation could be affecting less active, poor individuals such as the elderly or disabled and
active poor individuals, including the unemployed. On the other hand, social safety nets are
non-contributory transfer programs seeking to prevent the poor, or those vulnerable to shocks and
poverty, from falling below a certain poverty level. They can include food, electricity, cash
transfers and other assistance.
Alami said that the sharp increase of worldwide commodity
prices led governments in less developed and developing nations to employ policies aimed at first
helping poor people cope with higher food and energy bills and second at protecting consumers from
non-competitive or monopolistic behavior that might aggravate the problem. “They have done so
because they found that bringing prices under control may not be easy in the short run,” he said.
In Lebanon’s case, Prime Minister Saad Hariri told ministers two weeks ago to step up
efforts to control rising consumer goods prices in order to prevent merchants from reaping profits
beyond the global rise in costs.
During a session held at the Grand Serail in Beirut, Hariri
asked the economy and trade minister to work on re-activating the role of the National Price Council
and the Consumer Protection Agency.
The economy minister drafted a law that would
restrict trader profit margins to 20 percent. The move was greeted with a potent mixture of
skepticism, outrage and praise.
One of the reactions came from the Beirut Traders’ association,
which issued a statement Monday, deeming the controls imposed by the Economy and Trade Ministry on
merchants’ profits as contrary to the principles of a free economy.
According to figures
released by the Beirut-based Consultation and Research Institute, Lebanon witnessed an increase in
its Consumer Price Index (CPI) of 5.2 percent in the first nine months of this year.
increase in the CPI was attributed to a rise of 10.3 percent of food-and-beverage prices, 9.6
percent in prices of miscellaneous goods and services, 7.4 percent in prices of apparel, 2 percent
in prices of housing, 0.5 percent in prices of durable consumer goods, 0.4 percent in prices of
transportation and telecoms and 0.1 percent in prices of recreation.
Alami said consumer
protection was not confined to goods but also extended to financial products and services.
need to make sure that consumers have regular and reliable information on the products and services
offered by financial institutions in terms of prices and the risk involved so that they can make
well-informed financial decisions,” he said.
For his part, the Economy and Trade
Ministry’s director general, Fouad Fleifel, said securing a fair commercial environment for both
consumers and merchants contributed to stimulating the Lebanese economy by preserving high
consumer-protection standards. He stressed the importance of the role of inspectors in studying the
prices and safety standards of products coming to Lebanon.
Meanwhile, Tarek Younes, head
of the Anti-Fraud department at the Economy and Trade Ministry, gave an overview of the ministry’s
main departments and their duties. But he said that while the ministries of agriculture, health and
economy as well as municipalities were in charge of controlling the quality of products offered to
consumers, an intersection of duties is taking place which necessitates the adoption of a framework
to organize the work of these entities.