New Internationalist

The fast track

March 2004

Reem Haddad witnesses a computer-assisted end to bureaucracy.

Sarah John
Sarah John

The elderly man couldn’t believe it at first. ‘You mean,’ he said, incredulously, ‘I just ask for what I want and you give it to me now?’

The woman behind the desk nodded, looking a little bored. I was curious myself and waited to see if the man received the affidavit for his property. In a few minutes, a computer printout of his affidavit was handed to him.

I couldn’t believe it myself. It usually takes days, a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, much pleading, and sometimes bribery to get paperwork sorted out in a government office. Computers are still few and far between and most work is done by hand. Often people hire intermediaries and pay them a hefty sum to deal with the hassle.

But here I was standing in the middle of the land registration department of the Finance Ministry looking at automation at work. The Ministry – which contains Lebanon’s customs and land registration departments – has finally entered the 21st century.

Only eight years ago it was as if time stood still at the Ministry – in most other ministries, unfortunately, it still does. All information was handwritten on paper, some already yellowing with age. Budgets for the entire government were calculated and entered into an oversized ledger book. Statistics were unheard of and computers non-existent. It is said that the incoming minister couldn’t find a calculator. Corruption was rampant. And obtaining any information from the Ministry was a lengthy bureaucratic nightmare.

As far as the Finance Ministry was concerned, the year was still 1975 (the beginning of the Lebanese civil war). But eight years ago, 12 UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) employees, aided by a loan from the World Bank and other lending institutions, took on the task of bringing the Ministry into the new millennium. The 16-year civil war had taken its toll. Various departments were scattered around the country, many of the buildings damaged by shellfire, files burned and information lost. With an ailing economy and spiralling debt, the country was in desperate need of a functioning Finance Ministry.

And so the work began. The customs department was a mess. It took 11 tedious steps and bribes before goods could be cleared from the port. The tariff system was antiquated and took ‘mental gymnastics to figure it out’ according to Salim Balaa, the UNDP project manager whose job was to ensure that Lebanese laws and regulations were applied uniformly all over the country, that costs and time of procedures were reduced, and that accurate international trade statistics were provided. Not an easy task – but one he managed to pull off.

Today, there are three simple steps to clear the goods. Most of the work is done on computers. Following certain criteria, the computer decides whether a merchant’s goods warrant the green or red lane. If green, then goods can be claimed directly; if red, an inspector is summoned.

Meanwhile, another UNDP team was assigned to the land registration department. Files were scattered everywhere: on floors, chairs or tucked away in closets. Employees had to search seemingly endless files to locate the required information.

It took 150 people and four years to enter two million files containing eight million pages on to a database.

Then employees had to be trained to use the new system – not an easy task considering many had never even touched a computer. With all the information now automated, corruption was reduced drastically. Employees could no longer claim that information was ‘lost’, to be ‘found’ only when paid.

With the Ministry’s automation well under way, by 2001 the Government was ready to begin implementing its tax reform plans.

A 10-per-cent value added tax was introduced in an effort to decrease the national debt, which has now reached over $30 billion. Other taxes will soon follow suit. The Finance Ministry also went online, allowing citizens to access registration forms.

When I related all this information to my father, he refused to believe me.

You can’t convince me,’ he said. ‘Automation and efficiency in a government office? I will never believe it.’

Other friends look at me doubtfully. ‘There must be a catch somewhere,’ one friend said. ‘You probably didn’t understand.’

Unfortunately, neither my father nor my friends need any work done at the land registration office or by the customs. And so they remain unconvinced. But I continue to assure them that change for the better is coming, slowly but surely, to Lebanon.

Reem Haddad works for the Daily Star in Beirut.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 365 This column was published in the March 2004 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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