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French Version

Schools row may be jeopardizing projects - cabinet split could drive away international donors (Daily Star)

Finance Minister Fouad Siniora warned Wednesday that further delays in the expropriation of land may prompt financial institutions to stop all funding for projects across the country.

Speaking at a luncheon hosted by Data and Investment Consult at the Commodore hotel, Siniora said land expropriation is crucial to starting projects.

The minister was alluding to the ongoing debate between Cabinet members about the expropriation of land in Beirut, which some critics claim is overly expensive.

Ministers loyal to President Emile Lahoud questioned the wisdom of buying land in Beirut to build public schools, saying that the price of land in these areas is too expensive. Many of the new schools will be financed by international firms.

Siniora admitted that one financial firm withdrew its plan to finance a project here because the debate on these projects is an overly drawn-out process. “We hope that this problem will be over soon. I am sure that the money earmarked for development projects will soon come to Lebanon,” Siniora said.

Bankers and economists complain that any delay in the channeling of soft loans for development projects will be a blow to the economy. They added that development projects are essential to achieving progressive and positive growth.

Siniora also commented on the government’s efforts to reduce the deficit this year. He said the privatization program is central to reducing public debt, but stressed that the government will not sell the state-owned assets at any price. “Privatization is not only useful to lower the public debt, but it is also a good step to making some of the sectors more efficient,” Siniora said.

The government told the donor states that it can generate $5 billion from privatization and securitization at the end of this year.

However, last month Prime Minister Rafik Hariri said that the government may not meet the projected 25 percent budget deficit if the privatization program did not occur soon.

Siniora said that the government will continue its reforms irrespective of the outcome of the privatization debate. He added that the government plans to reduce the size of public institutions, but refrained from saying if the downsizing of government agencies will entail laying off staff.

Responding to a question, Siniora said that the US decision to ban him from traveling to America will not have any negative effect on the privatization efforts.

The minister was banned last week because of a financial donation he made in November to an Islamic charity that allegedly has connections with “a terrorist organization.” Siniora added that the “Paris II” donors conference last year had given Lebanon “a breathing space.” “The money that came from the donor states has caused a sharp drop in interest rates on deposits. But we are still waiting for the interest rates on loans to fall to the same levels.”

Lebanon has currently received $2.5 billion out of the $3.1 billion in soft loans that were pledged by 18 states in Paris last year.

Beirut 23-06-2003
Osama Habib
The Daily Star

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