The term white elephant is usually given to expensive megaprojects whose usefulness, and worth have not been ascertained. In particular when these projects are complex and the costs of building and running them constitute a heavy burden and an onerous commitment with no end in sight. This occurs when the purpose and/or the use of the projects were anything but the economic and social utilities. Instead of cost/benefit analysis these projects were hawked on some Machiavellian scheme or worse to meet some fuzzy political slogans. If there’s any consolation to this mode of operating, it doesn’t belong only to the illegitimate and/or corrupt political orders but is also found in well-established systems. However, dictators in particular are notoriously prone to this way of doing. From bullying arrogance, to questionable genuine leadership skills to a lack of any moral constraints were usually matched only by their disdain for accountability. Their time horizons is bound by the now and here and their energies directed towards more looking after the ill-begotten power than to develop visions and programs to use that power for. These traits make them live on brandishing their ‘concrete achievements’ on the ground. When adding the fact that dictatorship abounds in states that have little or no research centers, think tanks, or institutional reviews, then no wonder that projects are winged out on the fly, with much political fanfare but with little prior planning.
These states are also characterized by lack of real and functioning economies, and enlightened bureaucracies. In such environments, there are no clear boundaries separating politics from bureaucracy, and these from the administration. They go by political expediency! Initiatives and projects are taken as part of the props a regime needs to prove its worthiness. Projects become show-pieces! What complicates seeing these projects for what they’re and blurs the analysis of the motives behind them, the dire social needs for them. The social need in fact constitutes enough pressure, latent or evident, to justify any undertaking aimed to meet some of the pent-up demand. Thus high demand, meager resources, and short-sighted dictators become the perfect combination for a distorted background to any undertaking. The extemporizing makes bricolage the only way available: to do with whatever at hand! However, conceiving projects on some flimsy wishes won’t make them successful nor would address the perennial problems. All the subsequent propaganda in the world wouldn’t correct the initial mistakes. And the end result will be failure.
For the last four-decades Libya has embarked on many projects. With little or no prior planning. Blocks of ugly concrete boxes were built overnight. Roads, highways and other services followed as well. The end result sprawling cities, messy towns, and spread out villages. Today’s Libyan cities, villages, and rural landscape resemble more some cartoonish Disney-esque sets than well laid-out productive settlements. The plumbed homogenized and flattened box-like concrete atrocities have made of Libya, perhaps one of the ugliest, if not the ugliest in absolute terms, landscape renderings in the modern world. An adulterated rendition of modernity’s ultimate kitsch! The transplantation of some watered-down versions of badly commercialized modern technology and commodified know-how into the edge of the great Sahara. The result: An enchilada of vulgar baubles and bric-bracs! All built by foreign hands: experts, contractors, labor and all. Few Libyans have bothered to dirty their hands in the messy process. From professionals to labor and anything in between, Libyans stood to watch their country being turned upside down and built to meet some specifications of or to no one in particular . No one asked the question: What to do with a ready made country. If nobody has cut any teeth in this building, then, the whole process would remain alien and a mystery. Foreign companies have been extracting oil from the desert, sold it, and gave some money back to the state. The state has hired with that money some foreign hands to build a country and Libyans were expected to use the gift for whatever purposes they see fit.
Even if such an approach could come to anything close to development, however, development must be more than an end to itself. Development has been and still is the best school for people to learn how to put together a country and how to build it. An effective and long lasting development still remains a process geared towards an end: the freeing of the individual. In this sense the experience gained, from the failures and successes, is as valuable as the results achieved, if not more. No country has joined the modern world by hiring others to do the transition for her. Before or concomitant with a country’s take-off, there must have been some cleansing of the society’s ills and illusions, sowing of its ethic to hard work, as well as getting rid of its corrupted manners and behaviors. The Spanish philosopher Jose’ Ortega y Gasset, in an essay dealing with technology, gave an anecdotal example to illustrate the point: it’s not enough to be given a ready and even well-built country. He argued that if, for example, Nepal and Great Britain were to switch countries, the British will certainly find a solution to their problems in the new land, while the Nepalese would probably have a hard time dealing with their new country. Ortega’s anecdotal effect could be seen in many of the Arab petro-statelets in their failures to learn from the work done on their lands by others.
The rush to projects usually increase everytime there’s a spike in oil prices. Back in the 1970's, when oil prices shot off, the relatively young regime was faced with how to trickle down the flood of money. Short on foresight, productive ideas, or fertile imagination, the regime had improvised and turned the country into a virtual building-site overnight. Droves of contractors were hired with little supervision. Turnkey projects had prevailed! The contractors had improvised some on the spot solutions for what they thought the country needed in housing, hospitals, schools, roads, to even whitewashing the walls and cleaning the sidewalks. Contractors came, built, and left. Libyans then were left to fend for themselves and run the country and keep these facilities in shape. But Libyans not having participated in putting these structures together certainly made it difficult for them to know how to go about maintaining these facilities. The end result, these were left to deteriorate. Proving, once again, development could not be imported as a wholesale.
Out of all the crowded projects, undertaken by this regime, one in particular could be said to be ‘indigenous,’ so to speak. This also happened to be the biggest White Elephant, the mother of all undertakings, the leviathan that has been sucking the oxygen since it popped up on the scene, the JAMAHIRIYA PROJECT itself. The most radical of all undertakings in the last forty years. As such it had set the tone for all the subsequent proceedings. Fitting the blase attitudes of petr-dollar Arabstans, this project too was done with little prior thinking or planning. Nary of prior preparations preceded the coming avalanche. The Jamahiriya was born on the rush, out more of frustrations, and perhaps a bit of uncontrolled burst of emotions, than out of long ponderings and deep tinkerings. As such it’s still suffering from the myriad defects of its birth, among these the syndromes of wishful hallucinations, illusive sloganeering, and spurious projects. [Dismantling an existing state overnight has proven a lot harder nut to crack even for a bumptious cabal, as that of the Western alliance, boisterously claiming to possess the magic wands, that of power and know-how, which supposedly were capable of knocking down a state dead and then bringing it back to life again in no time, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, for examples]. As it turn out even in Libya, it was much easier to knock down the old, but was much harder to find something that works to put in its place. Thus the Jamahiriya seems beset by the fate of so many other endeavors, likewise, conceived on the hurry, with very few frills and almost no nuts and bolts or bells and whistles to sound the alarm when something goes wrong. The Jamahiriya, a state in confusion, resists any effort to reform. Little differentiation and separation, between the government proper and the political apparatus driving it, has paralyzed it from the get-go. The idea of turning over bureaucracy to the crowd, without prior preparation, has further blurred the thin line separating the two parallel worlds of political and administrative orders. It further confused where these two orders must intersect and where they must work separately. Not to mention accountability, checks and balances, or transmission of power?
Reactive anger and excessive illusions, in the absence of a coherent narrative and well-thought about principles , wouldn’t be enough to chart a road not traveled before towards nation-building. The state, the most difficult and sophisticated machines ever invented by humans, would have been indeed a joke if only few catchy slogans and vague promises were enough to build it. The fact of the matter, as history has shown over and over again, the state is still the most challenging of all human endeavors. The state, as the context in which individuals and groups establish a covenant for the game they intend to live by, is also a wild- beast, unless was watched and controlled will devour its wanna-be tamers. All the Jamahiriya has so far done was to shuffle the cards of politics, government, and administration into a pile, but still incapable of establishing the rules by which the game must be played out fairly. Hence the quandary remains: how could have the Jamahiriya lasted for so long? Blame it on oil, luck , and/or pure inertia!
Libya suffers from a disease, so frequently found in similar conditions: lack of a single long-term coherent and consisting NARRATIVE. It’s beset by ad hoc meanderings and piecemeal plans -of bits and pieces- that may amount to something in the long-run, but as they say in the long-run we all be dead. Sectorial plans, with no unified vision are tantamount to squandering of resources. Without broad consensus on: What the country wants to be? What it wants to achieve? Where it wants to go? The Jamahiryia is walking in a tunnel with no light at the end. With no worthy ends to achieve or noble goals to work for, all will be wasted to no avail. Again, development ain’t a random or ad hoc process. It demands strict discipline, superior organization, and clear goals. Historically, development had never occurred without an overriding narrative that frames and subjects all the partial plans to a strategic vision; an imaginative thread connecting all the various strands making up development synergistically, so what comes out will be bigger than the sum of the pieces which went into their making.
Two projects in particular came to typify the blase attitude of Libya’s handling of its so-called ‘development’. The two projects that stand out as the mother of all boondoggles are: the Water Pipeline and the laying of the Railroad. Out of the myriad projects big and small undertaken by this regime, these two projects deserved to be singled out in the historical record as the embodiment, in body and spirit, of true proverbial White Elephants. What qualified them to be included on the high-end rankings of useless putterings, was the fact that both these projects, in addition to being very expensive, were embarked on with much political fanfare but with little data and much less regard to their future implications. Proof? For instance, It didn’t take long for the Pipeline to disappoint its promoters. Dreamed of as an ingenious vision to turning the desert to bloom, the result instead has turned out to be no more than a piper’s dream and a flop. Neither the premises nor the promises have stood to the test of time.
Was then the Pipeline a mere pie-in-the-sky, a nice dream to end a nightmare, or simply was a pet-projects to inflate the vanity of a leader keen on megalomaniacal pursuits but short on the wisdom to know how to realize them? Was it really a serious step to solve the water problem in a parched land? From among all the possible other alternatives why and how the Pipeline was deemed a viable solution to the country’s perennial shortage of water -for at least the next fifty years? Who’s responsible for this fiasco? At a distance of less than a decade from its use the country is now negotiating with Turkey to import water from one of its rivers. [How importing water from Turkey by tankers will solve the problem of a country, located in the desert and its population doubles every twenty years or so, is still a mystery?]
The other juggernaut project, and which just has been embarked on, is the laying out of the Railroad. The saga of the railroad has long been around from at least since the 1970's. But this time the regime, again, is sure enough of doing the right thing. It has not even bothered to make a case if the railroad is still economically or otherwise viable for the future growth of the country. When the country has not even made up its mind on how best to distribute the population or to allocate economic activities, on what facts then to base a Railroad system on? Nor for that matter does Libya have a vision for future use of its resources to base a Railroad on. The Railroad, then, becomes an expensive undertaking doomed to join the other expensive flops. As it stands now, the Railroad is nothing more than another of those expensive projects with little economic or strategic justifications. It’s incumbent upon its promoters to state their case. It may as well have some undeclared purposes. As a fancy, maybe the Railroad is seen as a symbol to or of modernization. Another purpose maybe the desire to link all North African states together [The question is for what? What benefits accrue to Libya, or to its neighbors, if the rails crossed its territory? Since only few North Africans move around and still lesser goods and services are exchanged.] Libya alone, with few people to move around and almost no goods to freight, doesn’t have a need for a Railroad at this juncture of its existence .
A cursory look to Libya’s population and its resources will it make clear that a Railroad will not have much impact on the country’s near future. Even in the eventuality the country will have some goods to freight, given its long coastline and population settlements, the sea lanes will be cheaper than the land routes. Since the sea links most of the major population centers. Given the narrowness of the strip on which most of the population resides, and its fragile hydrology, it’ll be long before Libya, with the rest of its vast geography emptiness, could put to good use an intensive mode of transportation as the rail system. Only one reason of political and strategical significance could perhaps justify such undertaking: To effect a new land use and a new population and economic distributions. That’s, to change the present pattern of people and services on the landscape. Otherwise, as it’s now, the population is concentrated in the narrow strip along the littoral hugging the Mediterranean, with an already existing system of highways linking the coast. A new transportation mode along the same coastal strip, in addition to being redundant, will not change any of the facts already on the ground. Adding one more mode of transportation, before there’s need for it, in addition to taking valuable capital and know-how from other sectors, its liabilities and implication would be unpredictable. In an arid landscape, with few natural resources and no productive economy to date, the cost of keeping the railroad even from being buried under the sands, will be enormous. Thus these questions that beg some answers: Why build a Railroad now? What is it for? And what is it supposed to carry?
We’ve to go back again to the sources of the boondoggles. The Jamahiriya’s main birthmarks remain: whimsically improvised set up, badly laid out foundations, and most importantly flimsy apparatus, have yet to usher into a functioning state. These hamstrings are hampering efforts for correcting the Beast-creature, have made the country a fertile ground for easy money and to more boondoggles, local and foreign. Pseudo- Revolutionary fervor still refuses to deal with the state craft. Perhaps these folks have forgotten that, it ain’t a revolution until it succeeds. The state will not be a real and stable state until it’s functioning. All the good intentions in the catchy new names, their populism, and so forth would not wean Libya from being a petro-dollar thingamajig and a one- man- show. The Jamahiriya project was dreamt of with little reason and less rhyme, destined from the start to a Sisyphian fate. It may have demolished the age-old myths of the state as an alien monster, however it’s not yet diminished any of its lethal powers nor humanized its ugly face. If the new creature has any contribution, it must be sought in the syndrome of chaos that flourishes as well as in the expensive and useless projects.
Other than the chaotic state, there’re plenty of other reasons for why things have turned out the way they appear. Cultural backwardness and inferiority complex have engendered a state of mind which have tolerated the lack of clear demarcation of what’s ethical from what’s not, which in their turn have spawned corruption and indifference. These gross deficiencies are still driving a political culture, which, maybe rich in rituals and mumbo-jumbos but certainly barren in imagination and creative solutions. A culture in all but appearances still fundamentally geared towards medievalistic values and where moietic relations are dominant. Values that treat graft with indifference are bound to make both of these an acceptable practice. It’s a catch-22 game, tribal relations rank kinship above merit, while the modern state demands skill and talent. Hence the tackling of problems was left to outsiders. But foreign expertise lacked the deeply felt experiences that come out of living under the conditions being tackled . Thus the experts were bound to follow that old Libyan dictum: whoever gives you a rope and asks to be tied down with it, do it without asking why. Thus the often observed phenomenon of separation between problems felt and solutions found. If recent history is any help it points to the wrongness of the modus operandi followed so far. Importing solutions will only aggravate existing problems and will create new ones, and thus rooting the country further into its dependence.