Najib Saab
Secretary-General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and editor-in-chief of Environment and Development magazine

Laws that Regulate not Obstruct

Protecting the environment begins with the rational management of natural resources. Outside this framework, treatments are circumstantial and target symptoms only, without addressing the root of the problem. Water management begins with enhancing efficiency, putting an end to waste and preventing pollution at the source. Protecting marine resources begins with proper zoning and regulating construction and activities along coastal lines, defining the quality of activities on beaches, and preventing industrial and household waste from reaching the seas. Preserving the soil begins with the adoption of sound agricultural practices, which ensure greater production without pollution and depletion. Clean air begins by proper planning of transportation networks, the distribution of housing, business and industrial sites, and the adoption of clean energy sources, before placing restrictions on emissions or dealing with the ensuing damage.

These and other requirements for preserving the environmental balance necessitate the existence of clear laws that regulate all human activities, and precise mechanisms to monitor implementation, with deterrent penalties for violators. However, diagnosing the path to a solution is only the beginning, as enacting inappropriate laws, coupled with weak or corrupt monitoring agencies, in addition to selective enforcement, are all factors that create new problems, which may be greater than those they were designed to solve.

The first condition for the success of environmental laws is defining their objectives, while examining available alternatives to choose the most appropriate one, as this is not a mathematical process that has only one right answer. Each measure has its social and economic repercussions, and it may be necessary to accept minor environmental damage in the short term, if this proves to be inevitable for maintaining social and economic stability, leading to, after a transitional period, a comprehensive solution that compensates for the temporary damage. For example, if people have no alternative, they cannot be prevented from cutting down trees to use as firewood, leaving them to die of the cold; rather what is required is to preserve special forest trees at a set minimum limit, while encouraging the planting of fast-growing trees suitable to harness for the timber industry, in the framework of continuous reforestation programs. The insistence of some officials to limit the target to forbidding cutting any trees conceals their failure to launch serious afforestation programs, including those dedicated to harnessing wood.

The success of environmental laws in achieving the desired goals requires, first, that they be clear and uncomplicated without being open to conflicting interpretations. Second, implementation needs specialized monitoring bodies that operate transparently and according to strict standards.

Ambiguity in laws gives way to obstruction, delay, and selectivity, especially if those in charge of granting licenses, approvals and monitoring are incompetent. The most dangerous thing is when this is accompanied by widespread corruption and bribery, so licenses and operating permits are granted according to a set price-bribe, based on benefits and different interpretations of the laws.

It is true that some environment ministries and agencies are highly competent and committed to the public interest, and have a passion for the environment. In fact, the budgets allocated to most Arab ministries of environment are meager, which leads them to rely on grants, aid, and conditional donations from external parties. However, this type of funding allows for the selective benefiting from jobs and the implementation of programs outside the actual control of the ministry, and the distribution of benefits according to personal interests and political loyalties.

On the other hand, it is not true that the meager local budgets of the ministries do not leave room for the extortion of illegal funds. Vague and stretchy laws, and the absence of monitoring, tempt some, at all levels, to collect bribes from stakeholders who need permissions and licenses, with a price tag attached to each signature. This applies to a small workshop, as well as to large construction projects, rock quarries and sand extraction, alongside industrial factories for cement, paper, iron and other activities. These are all sources of wealth for the corrupt in poor ministries, because money can turn toxic emissions into fragrant nectar in the reports of licensors and supervisors, in partnership with their bosses. Is it surprising then that an employee, director, or minister emerges rich while leaving behind a poor ministry, having the right to sign licenses for projects and factories and monitor their work?

The beginning of the solution lies in setting clear and explicit regulating laws, in addition to imposing strict monitoring. However, the correct application also requires that these laws be fair and ensure proper functioning instead of obstructing production.

In the reports of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED), we always called for setting clear action plans for environment ministries, and directing their programs and projects to achieve the set goals. We also stressed the need for all international and bilateral programs to be compatible with national plans, and not the other way around, where the ministry becomes at the service of international programs. However, this does not mean at all that international and bilateral programs should be unreasonably obstructed or banned, whether they are financing projects or capacity building.

A proposed planning law in Jordan attempts to address this dilemma, as it prohibits any official or private body or non-profit association from accepting any international financial, technical or in-kind assistance, and prohibits the implementation of any development project with international funding, except after the approval of the Council of Ministers. These principles seem to respond to legitimate demands to organize international programs in line with the plans of the relevant ministries, rather than creating parallel alternative programs. However, what is required first is that these ministries have clear policies, plans and objectives, with appropriate mechanisms run by competent people to organize cooperation. It is necessary to point out that the partnership between the government and civil society requires speedy action, leading to approval or rejection, according to explicit, transparent and non-discretionary criteria, in order to prevent disruption and obstruction.

It is also necessary, with regard to financing projects, that the law distinguishes between public projects, such as waste treatment, water, sewage and electricity networks, and reconstruction, and on the other hand, projects implemented by civil associations, such as awareness programs and training, including small pilot projects. While it is normal for NGOs to be required to declare their sources of income, whether external or internal, the fear is that the requirement to approve funding and projects, even those not related to the government, will turn into a tool to obstruct civil work and monitor it in a discretionary manner, and prevent NGOs from performing one of their main duties, which is to monitor public sector performance.

Laws which govern processes related to environment and development are indispensable. However, they must be clear and not open to interpretation, and be accompanied by an explicit implementation mechanism- for a bad implementation mechanism can damage any law, no matter how good it is.

Najib Saab is Secretary General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development- AFED and Editor-in-Chief of Environment & Development magazine.