Every Lebanese knows, whether through his professional or personal life, the importance of his ties to fellow expatriates. Everyone knows intuitively that the Diaspora is an asset for Lebanon. It is already presented as such in public discourse. That said, however, the observation is not followed by action.
While they remain on a personal level, relations between Lebanese emigrants and those who have stayed in the country can only have an individual impact, even if the sum of these individual impacts has a more diffuse global impact. At the macroeconomic level in particular, the transfer of capital from expatriates is fundamental in understanding the relatively atypical Lebanese business model. These transfers boost the disposable income of residents and, in turn, their purchasing power. This fuels consumption, which keeps the economy ‘ticking over’ but it also leads to price distortion and a funneling of resources to sectors such as trade and real estate, away from sectors such as industry, that could make the economy competitive and ensure sustainable growth. Being aware of this fact would allow us to better think national economic policy. There is a minimum we can do to organise the relationship between Lebanon and its Diaspora in a way that would permit the whole country to benefit. The way Israel works to mobilize the Jews of the world in its favour remains the indisputable point of reference: strong associative religious and economic links, which ensure continuous political and media mobilization in the service of the Zionist cause. It is not possible - or even desirable – for us to achieve this level of sophistication. But doing nothing is a waste, pure and simple. The Lebanese Diaspora is not only enormous - although no reliable statistics are available - it also extremely diverse. It is spread across the five continents with communities of real significance located all over the place. In addition to millions of anonymous individuals, it also includes a significant number of individuals with international reputations in areas as varied as business, politics, science and the arts.
Old, because it dates back to the late Nineteenth Century, the Lebanese Diaspora is also very young, because it recently received a flow of new immigrants. This is, of course, a symptom of Lebanon’s troubles. Having caused so many of its children to flee during the war, the Land of the Cedar is now unable to keep those still here due to the lack of employment opportunities. But this migration also has a positive side. The Children of the War generation, that is to say those born in the 1970s, are now entering the prime of life. Educated in Europe or the United States but maintaining an instinctual link to their homeland, they represent a marvelous resource for Lebanon. This moment in history is unique because the new waves of immigrants are of a different nature, if only because of the destinations they are choosing. We must seize upon this by envisaging ways to make the most of the emotional bond that still links these Lebanese of the Diaspora to Beirut or to their village of origin.
There are many possible mechanisms. I suggest, for example, that we create a Foundation for Lebanon, which like the many advisory committees set up by governments around the world, would have as its aim advising the President of the Republic, and through him the government, on key economic and social issues in Lebanon. The board of trustees would be composed of a dozen members of the Diaspora, who would be selected for their skills and geographic influence. The steering committee would be aided by a general secretariat, which would keep it constantly updated on Lebanese affairs. The legal status of the foundation would be that of a non-profit association, while leaving the door open for the subsequent creation of an independent investment fund.
The Head of State has already expressed an interest and desire in developing links with the Diaspora. In this context, the foundation’s mission would be to advise the President and the government on matters of economic and social policy and on policies that would improve the image of Lebanon on the international stage. Its role could also be to coordinate and bring to fruition the many initiatives that already exist to harness the Diaspora to Lebanon’s service and to work with associations and institutions, both private and public, that pursue the same goal - such as the World Lebanese Cultural Union, the Ministry of Emigrants - but which have often fallen foul of the country’s divisions.
In these troubled times, the best way to reassure our treasured emigrant compatriots, who worry so much about the country’s future, is to mobilize their help in making it better!