|Date: Sep 24, 2018|
|Source: The Daily Star|
|Websites aim to promote transparency in local govt|
|Abby Sewell| The Daily Star|
BEIRUT: Amid a push for greater public access to information in Lebanon, an initiative that seeks to promote transparency between municipalities and residents by creating web platforms that serve as two-way communication channels has reported modest success.
The initiative, called the Baldati Madinati project, was launched nine months ago with funding from USAID, and implemented by Lebanese NGOs Sakker El Dekkene and ArabiaGIS. It created websites for municipalities that have a dual goal, organizers said – allowing the local governments to share information about their operations and financial performance, and giving residents a platform to provide input.
In its initial phase, the project took on five municipalities in south Lebanon: Jezzine, Bkassine, Roum, Qaitouleh and Haitoura.
At a news conference last Wednesday outlining the results of the project, the organizers acknowledged the challenges they had faced in implementing it, including insufficient human resources at the municipalities to help maintain the platforms and disagreements with the municipal administrations about what information should be published.
It has also been an uphill battle to catch the attention of residents, many of whom don’t view questions of good governance and transparency as high priorities, they said.
Abdo Medlej, co-founder of Sakker El Dekkene, said that in many cases, residents were not even aware of their rights or their municipality’s responsibilities.
This project aimed to give them the tools to hold public officials accountable, he explained. “We believe that the fight against corruption doesn’t come from above – it’s not something that organizations do, it’s not something that members of Parliament or ministers do. The citizens need to be an active part in the fight against corruption,” he said. “To do that, they need information.”
Engagement with the platform has grown only slowly, but organizers said they have seen some promising signs. For instance, a petition published on Jezzine’s website opposing a rock-quarrying project in the Kfar Falous area reached 139 signatures.
Khalil Harfouche, mayor of Jezzine and president of the Union of Jezzine Municipalities, said the municipality had joined the initiative as part of a push toward greater openness and in hopes it could serve as a model for state agencies and other municipalities.
“We do believe that we have some duties toward the citizens to show them everything we’re doing, because in the end, everything we’re doing comes from their money,” he said.
Jezzine has already digitized many of its operations, he said, allowing administrators and residents to better track municipal work such as permit applications.
Christy Abi Harb, project manager for Sakker El Dekkene, said the initiative’s organizers had chosen to set up a new website for each municipality rather than working on the existing one because they hoped that a fresh platform would attract more interest from residents, many of whom are distrustful of government. “Everything that’s new is exciting and motivating for the people,” she said.
In its next phase, the project will expand to municipalities in the north, and the five initial web platforms will be turned over to their respective municipalities to maintain going forward. “They’re the face now of the platform, and it’s their responsibility,” Abi Harb said.
The initiative came as Lebanon is – in theory – implementing a newly adopted law aimed at increasing transparency among public agencies, which requires them to publish certain information, including budgets, annual reports and financial transactions of more than LL5 million ($3,300), on their websites. To date, very few agencies have complied.