Economic Research Forum (ERF)

The historical roots of state weakness and social inequities in Lebanon

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After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and through the interwar period, Lebanon and much of modern Syria were administered under what was known as the French Mandate. This column explores the legacy of the arrangement, concluding that it had a highly negative impact on the post-independence economic, political, and social development of Lebanon.

In a nutshell

Compared with the North African colonies of the French Empire, the French Mandate’s economy was over-taxed.

Much of the tax revenues were used to finance the French military, and only a smaller part was spent on infrastructure and social services; education and health were made the prerogatives of private and missionary endeavours.

A consequence of this laissez-faire approach was the development of a private education system tilted towards the education of Christians with a startlingly underserved Muslim population.

While we might blame the Ottomans for their lack of investment in the social sectors of the inhabitants of today’s Lebanon and Syria, it is our contention that the French Mandate period played a critical role by failing to ‘guide, assist, and support’ – the roles ascribed to France by the League of Nations – the nascent states in building state institutions and moving away from the Ottoman millet system.

Moreover, the way in which education was privatised led to sharp inequalities in levels of education among different communities, with a massive impact on the post-independence political development of Lebanon.

We base our arguments on the examination of fiscal developments in the state of Lebanon and the four Syrian states that were created during the French Mandate drawing on annual reports by the French authorities to the League of Nations (Ministère des Affaires Étrangères, 1924-38). Our empirical work reveals several insights (Abi-Rached and Diwan, 2022).

First, in contrast to other colonies, where military budgets were financed by the metropole, in the mandated territories, an expansive security apparatus was financed by local taxes. The Armée du Levant was kept large to put down recurrent insurrections. It included expensive French officers and African troops. As a result, to be able to meet military costs, the economy was over-taxed.

The Mandate’s estimated tax revenues per capita in 1925 were around four times those in the African and Asian French colonies. This is more likely to reflect over-taxation, rather than levels of incomes much higher than in French colonies, as Lebanon and Syria’s economies were decimated during the First World War, by destruction, famine, over-taxation and forced conscription into the Ottoman army.

Second, as a share of expenditures, spending on social services was very low in the five states. The share of fiscal expenditures that went to education and health were respectively 3.8% and 1.5%, compared with 9.1% and 6.7% in North Africa. Instead, the budget contributed massively – an astounding level of 74% – to the expenses of the mandatory power, especially its large army and security apparatus. Support for economic development was also much lower than in other colonies.

Share of spending in main sectors (% total expenditures, 1925)

 Infrastructure and productionEducationHealthSecurity sectors
Mandate15.63.81.574.0
North Africa49.89.16.724.7
Indochina37.66.74.341.6
West Central Africa46.43.65.830.7
Madagascar32.56.411.527.8
France41.820.35.931.9

Sources: For the Mandate, data are computed by the authors based on information taken from Rapport à la Société des Nations sur la situation de la Syrie et du Liban (Ministère des Affaires Étrangères, 1928). Data for France and its colonies are taken from Cogneau et al. (2021). Security sectors include judiciary, administration, and security. Production refers to support for the productive sectors.

Third, while social expenditures were low and stagnant across the period, in marked contrast, primary school enrolment expanded rapidly during the Mandate. By 1927, the enrolment rate was already much higher in Lebanon than in any other colony. By 1938, the primary enrolment rate is estimated to have risen to at least 55%. Even though a real effort was made in the last phase of colonisation, after 1955, to improve education in the colonies, only Madagascar reached an enrolment rate by then close to what Lebanon had reached decades earlier.

How did this happen? When looking at the enrolment rates of different communities in different types of schools, we find some striking characteristics. Most students in Lebanon were enrolled in private or foreign schools, each educating about 40% of the student body. Public schools expanded very slowly and never attracted more than 20% of total students.

The second other noteworthy characteristic of the student body is that it was largely made up of Christian students: 75% of students were Christians between 1927 and 1938. This is much more than the estimated proportion of Christians in the population, which in 1932 was estimated at a bit more than 50%.

Third, this imbalance was largely due to the distinct policies of the different educational institutions. The private and especially foreign sectors chose to enrol massively Christian pupils, who oscillated over the period between 70% and 90% of their students. In contrast, the poorer and much smaller public school sector was the main refuge of Muslim students, which constituted 70% of its enrolment.

After the Mandate, Lebanon emerged with an underdeveloped state. It also emerged paradoxically with a much-improved level of education, but this was largely confined to the Christian community. Public education was so rudimentary compared with the private sector that it was unable to catch up even under the presidency of Fouad Chehab (1946-58), who was keen on reinforcing public institutions.

The very biased nature of the performance of the education sector came to influence deeply the social and political evolution of the country. The Mandate was therefore highly influential in its failure to build state institutions and to move the country away from the Ottoman millet system.

Further reading

Abi-Rached, Joelle M., and Ishac Diwan (2022) ‘The Economic Legacy of the French Mandate in Lebanon’, ERF Working Papers No. 1614.

Cogneau, Denis, Yannick Dupraz and Sandrine Mesplé-Somps (2021) ‘Fiscal Capacity and Dualism in Colonial States: The French Empire 1830-1962’, Journal of Economic History 81(2): 441-80.

Ministère des Affaires Étrangères (1924-38) Rapport à la Société des Nations sur la situation de la Syrie et du Liban (Paris: Imprimerie nationale), Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Traboulsi, Fawwaz (2007) A History of Modern Lebanon, Pluto Press.

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