Lebanese Uprising: Infrastructure and the Trap of Neoliberal Development

2019-11-07    |   

Lebanese Uprising: Infrastructure and the Trap of Neoliberal Development

What started on October 17 as a protest against new taxation laws and austerity measures following climate-induced wildfires and shortages in gasoline and bread, has now turned into the largest mobilization since the end of the civil war against a form of enrichment for the few through dispossession for the majority.

As the revolution continues, organizing has shifted focus toward resisting hegemonic structures of governance: the demand to eliminate CEDRE taxes has given way to invigorating campaigns for the return of stolen funds and public lands, the autonomy of judicial power, opposing the primacy of the Central Bank, and, indeed, blowing the sectarian-clientelist regime’s cover to expose processes of accumulation lurking beneath.

A future economic vision that forecloses the return of the postwar economic paradigm of accumulation is fundamental. The Conférence Economique pour le Développement par les Réformes et avec les Entreprises (CEDRE) lays bare the developmental and infrastructural politics we need to categorically reject. The way out of economic and, indeed, environmental precarity begins with the fall of CEDRE—and potential proposals that could follow its lead—by that, I don’t mean scrapping the new taxes, but dissolving pernicious infrastructural debt programs altogether.

Immediately felt, the taxes that sparked the uprising are ‘fast’ forms of accumulation for the rich that target the poor. Referred to euphemistically as “fiscal adjustments” that supposedly help offset the debt, they are only part of the problem. Indeed, CEDRE is foremost an infrastructural program that reproduces the neoliberal paradigm, guaranteeing further accumulation for the rich through land expropriation, construction contracts awarded to engineering firms like Dar al-Handasah, the privatization of resources and services, norms of public theft in the form of hidden commissions, and interest payments to various lenders including the World Bank. The proposed dam in Bisri is part of this configuration.



Geologist Tony Nemer describes the proposed Bisri dam, to be built over a highly active seismic fault, as an “atomic ticking bomb” in reference to the threat of nuclear annihilation after Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the Marshall Islands, and south-central New Mexico.[1] Using such hyperbole evokes the potential catastrophe of a flood wiping away villages and ecologies in the likely event of an earthquake. Nemer is mobilizing his scientific knowledge to support The National Campaign to Protect the Bisri Valley. My aim here is to discuss the dam as an infrastructural project tied to CEDRE’s vision and financed by the World Bank.[2]


Politics of Infrastructure

The Bisri dam is a textbook example of infrastructure defined by anthropologist Brian Larkin as “the built networks that facilitate the flow of goods, people, or ideas and allow for their exchange over space.”[3] These include roads and transportation systems, water pipes and oil pipelines, sewers and waste management, sea and air ports, electricity lines, and so on. The mid-twentieth century was the heyday of large-scale infrastructural projects, especially in the West. So central were they to imaginaries of late modernity that during the inauguration of the Bhakra Nangal Dam in 1954, the first prime minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru presented it as one of “the temples of modern India,” yoking modernity with nationalism.[4] This demonstrates how politics and infrastructure are deeply connected.

Indeed, anthropologists remind us that “infrastructure is a terrain of power and contestation,” urging us to critically question “to whom will resources be distributed and from whom will they be withdrawn.”[5] We need not look far: the unevenly distributed electricity in Lebanon is a prime example, and further to the south, and far more insidiously, the Israeli state’s weaponization of road infrastructure dispossesses the Palestinians and produces settler-colonial space. But this is by no means a regional predicament; it is a global condition of precarity. In post-Apartheid South Africa, for instance, people have resorted to literal “poo wars” to protest the missing sanitation system and toilets in many townships, and in a classic US-based form of racism, toxic waters were rerouted to homes in the predominantly black town of Flint,Michigan, causing an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease.


Infrastructure and the World Bank

In spite of these infrastructural politics that materialize unjustly — and at times as weapons to dispossess and harm —  governments, corporations, and the World Bank have sold infrastructure as an economic opportunity, even though World Bank funded infrastructural programs in the Global South have often meant disastrous consequences for working classes and indigenous peoples. Between 1975-83, for instance, the infamous Chixoy Dam in Guatemala was built with World Bank funding, causing the displacement and massacre of indigenous Mayans in Rio Negro by the government.[6] So it should be no surprise that the World Bank is ignoring Lebanese scientists to forge ahead with the dam in Bisri.

As early as 1994, the World Bank released “The World Development Report: Infrastructure for Development” to make the case for large-scale investment in infrastructural projects as “essential to more effective poverty reduction.”[7] To get those “wheels of economic activity” going, the Bank prescribed “innovative technology,” which has often meant supplying engineering contracts from the Global North, and the “privatization of services,” which has materialized en masse with neoliberalism’s aggressive take-over in the 90s.[8] 

In 2019, the World Bank is still presenting infrastructure as an economic opportunity, only now, it is capitalizing on the ubiquitous discourse of climate change and environmentalism. In “Lifelines: The Resilient Infrastructure Opportunity,” World Bank economists make the case for investing in “resilient infrastructure,” that is, infrastructure that is supposedly “better able to deliver the services people and firms need during and after natural shocks.”[9] “There is no time to waste,” pleads World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva in a tone that is meant to evoke Greta Thunberg’s, “with a rapidly changing climate… invest[ing] in resilience should be an urgent priority… we can provide critical infrastructure services — lifelines that will spur sustained and resilient economic development.”[10] This comes, as argued below with respect to CEDRE, at a great cost to the poor.

What is especially troubling in this report is how the tragedies of global warming — ends of entire ecosystems and lifestyles, disappearing islands, forced migrations, mass extinctions of fauna and flora — are abstracted and quantified as costs, first for local states then for the global supply chain.[11] Correspondingly, infrastructure is drawn into climate change financing schemes in the form of debt from the North to the South to mitigate catastrophes. Just like it quantifies tragedies, the Bank quantifies infrastructure, framing it as a financial solution in which an “investment of [US]$1 yields [US]$4 in benefits.”[12] But we know that infrastructures fail, and if they don’t, a variety of natural and structural conditions converge so that they don’t perform as well — or in this logic, as “profitably” — as they are intended; look no further than the decaying, failed dam in Brisa, north Lebanon. The World Bank also claims that “resilient infrastructure assets pay for themselves.” But they don’t — working classes pay for them through their dispossession and with government-imposed austerity, sometimes to no avail — left to ruination, the helicopters lay useless as discarded scraps of metals in Beirut airport, while the raging, uncontainable fires engulfed homes and forests in Chouf, the day before the uprising.

Before I elaborate on the infrastructural program of CEDRE, let me just remind the reader that global warming is first and foremost a crisis of capitalism, a global system that sustains the World Bank and various lenders. So not only has capitalism caused global warming and its devastating manifestations, like the recent wildfires, but agents of capitalism, like the World Bank, continue to present the economic system as a ‘cure’ — and here lies the grave hypocrisy. In other words, not only is it dispossessing people of their land and environment, primary sources of sustenance, most critically in the Global South, but agents of capitalism are also selling expensive, and sometimes false, techno-scientific coping mechanisms in the form of debt for further wealth accumulation by the rich in the North and their collaborators in the South, including the Lebanese state. This is the critical framework to understanding CEDRE.


Infrastructure in CEDRE

Blaming economic precarity on displaced Syrians, Lebanon’s High Council for Privatization devised CEDRE as a “vision for stabilization and development… to mitigating the impact of the Syrian crisis,” with the occasional mention of the environment.[13] CEDRE consists of “fiscal adjustments” exacerbating the widespread precarity to partially offset the rising debt balance for private-public partnership, infrastructural investments totaling near US$17 billion by 2025.[14] These include the largely unpopular waste incinerators and dams in Bared, Ain Dara-Azounnieh, and Bisri — all of which are intended to commoditize water and sell it to the north, Beirut and Mount Lebanon.[15] But water’s total investments come third (approx. US$3 billion), after electricity (approx. US$3.5 billion) and transport (approx. US$5.7 billion), a sector that largely fulfills the Council’s obsession with “attracting local and foreign investors” who will accumulate wealth with the dispossession of the working class.[16]

Although the government promises employment opportunities, the transport projects could not be more distant from the socio-economic realities of the majority. Indeed, upon closer inspection of the planned new touristic ports in Jounieh, Saida, and the airport expansion in Qleiat, one realizes that the Council lives in a fantastical world where “cruise ships” and “two marinas,” likely to be built on sea landfills, take precedence over a sustainable transportation system.[17] Moreover, environmental impacts seem so negligible to the Council that no assessments seem necessary. In Saida, for instance, “cruise and commercial ships” will likely impact the local marine life and, by extension, the livelihoods of local fishermen.[18] The Khaldeh-Nahr Ibrahim expressway is said to “reduce pollution,”[19] while the airport in Qleiat will be rehabilitated to transport cargo and offer internal flights from the north to Beirut as a solution to traffic. [20] These infrastructures serve wealthy patrons, investors, and key players in the local and global supply chains, while aggravating the precariousness of the majority, especially around the “multi-use special economic zone” imagined in Tripoli across from the port. There, “factory buildings” replete with state-of-the-art infrastructure will be built and “leased at market rates” to “raise the standard of local enterprises,” and displace street vendors and small businesses.[21]



What is certain is that both the World Bank and the government will continue to present these infrastructural projects as a path to economic growth measured in increases of GDP. However, historical precedents teach us that macro-economic indicators are often removed from living conditions. Between 1970-1990, for instance, infrastructural investments in Thailand, far exceeding any in the Global South, were met with a rise in GNP and per-capita income. But, they also produced “a steady increase in relative poverty” and a widening income gap between “the growth-recipient urban elites and the masses.”[22] CEDRE will likely mean a similar fate in Lebanon, further exacerbating the existing gap. We need to oppose this kind of growth-centric, hasty, macro-economic infrastructural prescriptions of the Bank and the Council at all costs.

Taxation reform has been a key demand of this uprising, but neoliberal and infrastructural visions are even more important targets for channeling the growing dissent in the street. While the fate of this historical moment is still unclear, a vehement opposition to CEDRE, or any proposed development project benefiting the wealthy, must be part of future economic planning.

Regarding Bisri, the emergence of a shifting consciousness beyond sectarian-clientelist geographies presents a watershed moment for local environmentalism, notably against the dam, but also against planned incinerators and touristic ports elsewhere. In this auspicious moment, it becomes possible to overcome the false distance of a catastrophic planning happening ‘there,’ and aspire to a commitment against environmental dispossession that casts aside myopic “not-in-my-backyard” politics, and embraces a radical resistance everywhere. [23]


* Sintia Issa is a researcher at the University of California Santa Cruz.


Keywords: Lebanon, Uprising, World Bank, Infrastructure, Environment


[1] Hadi Afif, “The Bisri Dam Project in Lebanon is a ‘Ticking Atomic Bomb.’” Beirut Today, July 16 2019..

[2] This is an exemplary but not unique collaboration between activists, scientists, and academics in Lebanon. For instance, academics and urbanists were at the forefront of the Civil Campaign to Protect the Dalieh of Raouché. These are useful collaborations to politicize science and academic knowledge, especially for the environmental justice struggles we will be witnessing increasingly around the globe.

[3] Brian Larkin, “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure,” Annual Review of Anthropology 42: 328 (2013).

[4] Sarvepalli Gopal, Jawaharlal Nehru: An Anthology, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 214 (1980).

[5] Nikhil Anand, Akhil Gupta and Hannah Appel, The Promise of Infrastructure, Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2 (2018).

[6] Barbara Rose Johnston, “The Chixoy Dam is Development at Its Worst” Counterpunch, March 22 2011.

[7] World Bank, “World Development Report 1994: Infrastructure for Development,” London and New York: Oxford University Press, iii (1994).

[8] Economist Tooraj Jamasb reveals that in the 90s different forms of electricity privatization amounted to US$160.7 billion in 70 countries of the Global South. Tooraj Jamasb, “Between the State and Market: Electricity Sector Reform in Developing Countries.” Utilities Policy 14: 14-30 (2006).

[9] Stephane Hallegatte, Jun Rentschler, and Julie Rozenberg, “Lifelines: The Resilient Infrastructure Opportunity.” Sustainable Infrastructure, Washington, DC: World Bank, xiv (2019).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, 88.

[12] Ibid, xiii.

[13] CEDRE,  “Government of Lebanon: Vision for Stabilization, Growth and Employment,” April 6, 2018, 1..

[14] Ibid, 6.

[15] CEDRE,  “Government of Lebanon: Capital Investment Program, Potential PPP Infrastructure Projects,” April 6, 2018. The proposed Bisri dam precedes CEDRE, but CEDRE accounts for the cost of its land expropriation.

[16] Visions for Stabilization, 6.

[17] Capital Investment Program, 4-5.

[18] Ibid, 5.

[19] Ibid, 3.

[20] The exact quote: “Reduce road travelling and thus congestion between Tripoli and Beirut through domestic flights for cargo and low cost carriers.” Capital Investment Program, 2.

[21] Capital Investment Program, 18.

[22] Robert Daley, “Infrastructural Adjustment: The Political Economy of Infrastructure Development and Marginalization in Thailand.” Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 10 (1): 77-112 (1996).

[23] Not In My Backyard, or NIMBY, refers to a form of environmental politics that opposes the development of infrastructure, notably waste incinerators, because of its close proximity to a given community, while potentially supporting it elsewhere for self-preservation.



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