Lebanon became synonymous with a political and economic mess. The land of the Cedar exports little and imports heavily, while its economy is choked by one of the world’s largest debt burdens due to inefficiency, waste and corruption. It is not only the political elite that behaves questionably; international NGOs also abuse the country’s misery and local companies for their agenda.
By Arthur Blok
The other day I accidentally visited the village of Bchaale in Northern Lebanon. I saw several terraces with structural steel support for Solar panels. Residents explained with a glimpse of pride that it was an initiative by United Cities (UC) and ME Green, a local entity known for its mission to help the Lebanese become energy independent from a government that does not provide 24/7 electricity.
At first sight, a wonderful initiative indeed.
The scale scope of the project in Bchaale gives a concerned Lebanese author hope. It was part of the much larger anticipated project. It functioned as a pilot where the initiators of UC offered clean energy power in this traditional village to over 2000 people.
The larger project, an anticipated collaboration between local and international parties, had its eye set on 2030. In that year, 100 villages in Lebanon should become energy independent and provide solar panels (creating net zero emission clean energy) to every home in the town.
This idea was initiated by UC, which assured ME Green that it had a so-called “big line of credit” to finance 10.000 cities worldwide. So far, so good. But what is and who is UC exactly?
Let’s take a quick look.
On its website, the NGO, headquartered in Austria, presents itself as an NGO that wants to give cities and communities everywhere the building blocks they need to pursue sustainability and Net Zero Prosperity. Our bold target is to reach 10.000 cities globally by 2030. Guided by data and using catalytic technology and finance. It raises funds from both the private and public sectors.
ME Green was approached in September 2021 by UC. Both parties had an immediate click. Two months later, in November 2021, MOU was signed between UC and six municipalities to be transformed into an energy independent, 2 of them (Bcheeleh and Bejjeh) by 2022 and 4 by 2023.
The project was named Net Zero.
Senior ME Green consultant Nabil Aouad: “We asked them for the green light to purchase materials such as solar panels, batteries, and cables. We were assured it was a done deal and advised to proceed with the purchase.”
After several internal meetings, ME Green felt assured it was dealing with a trustworthy NGO. Despite the economic challenges in Lebanon, it decided to go ahead and make some initial investments after the MOU mentioned above was signed. A Letter of Intent (LOI) followed, in which ME Green was designated as UC's sole partner in the ambitious green project.
Aouad: “Let me emphasise that as far as we see, UC has a good reputation with some of the industry’s most respectable people working for them who were active in various international events organised by the United Nations. In our meetings with them, they assured us they had the funds, and it is in their mission to provide power to needing countries, and Lebanon qualifies highly. We felt confident.”
Kristian Mjøen, Co-founder and board member of UC, is a bit unclear about why the promised funds are not yet in place after almost two years, but he remained optimistic. He emphasised that his organisation expects to finalise a funding plan in six months.
Mjøen: “We are working to deliver the project and, by extension, funding to make it happen. Our investment is approximately 200K USD, and we are confident that a solution will be found for us to continue working for at least six more months. By which time we reassess.”
The co-founder of UC assured The Liberum that this means he stands by the signed MOU and LOI. Mjøen: “As agreed, we will give ME Green first refusal to deliver as soon as all the pieces are in place. They are building on work already done by all parties involved.”
The LOI (signed August ’22 ) clearly states that UCLG intended to refund ME Greens hardware costs as funding becomes available entirely. Mjøen: “We have spent a lot already to make this happen and will spend more to see it through. I will “lose” this only if the project is not completed. If it is funded, all is good, of course.”
With that statement, Mjøen hits the nail on the head. From the 200k USD allocated to the project, only 5k was transferred to Lebanon, Philippe El Khoury, Founder & Managing Director of ME Green, admitted.
When asked how the other 195 USD was spent, Mjøen is again unclear: “We have had and still have people working on this since 2021. There were no third-party contributions. We have sought legal assistance in Lebanon and had teams there more than ten times. The 5K USD that was transferred came from me as a personal show of faith.”
Severe overhead costs of 195K USD in less than 18 months without a clear destination seen the project’s current status. Money that could have perhaps been spent better?
The threat of not fully refunding ME Green for the work already done and investments made in good trust is hanging over ME Green like the sword of Damocles. The green Lebanese enterprise was told that most of the funds for the project would come from taxpayers in the USA -under the so-called Care Act - and the Norwegian government.
Ironically, after the signing of the MOU, United Cities started to seek media attention about its ambitious Lebanon project in various mediums and events, most significantly at the Sharm el-Sheikh Climate Change Conference (COP 27).
The Lebanon project played a pivotal role in UCs presentation.
Philippe El Khoury of ME Green: “Even though we did not receive any severe funds, we always felt assured that it would only be a matter of time. That is the main reason we did our best to at least transform one village in space, setup, exposure to the sun, and public hearing made. “
Despite this, Mjøen from UC sees things differently. He elaborated that his NGO is under no legal obligation to cover costs made by ME Green despite the MOU and LOI, but at the human level, he sees it differently.
Mjøen: “I am fond of these guys and want to work hard to secure the funds. I think we will, but only if we stop spending time discussing how to spend funding that does not exist yet.”
Interesting statement, indeed, from someone heading an NGO that signed an MOU and LOI and gave various verbal assurances that funds would be available.
In all fairness, ME Green invested heavily in equipment to guarantee to execution of their part of the commitment. Over 500.000 U$ was spent - a massive investment for a relatively small company active in a country full of economic challenges. In addition, local administrators are under fire from residents because the finalisation of the promised project has been delayed for so long.
Director El Khoury: “This is a project to help needy people. As for the financing, we also expressed our concerns, but the following was stated to us several times: ‘please, do not worry and go ahead’. In November last year, they guaranteed that we would be reimbursed for the cost we made.”
Significant concerns are also present on the side of UC. Concerns about corruption, mismanagement in the villages and local administrators with multiple hats on Mjøen explained: “This project is an opportunity despite the country’s bad reputation outside.”
Finally, Mjøen did admit that it is ridiculous that it is taking so long to pay 1,5 M USD for one of the most powerful pilot projects in the NGOs young history. “I meet so many investors and know what they pay for that I am convinced we will get there. Many want to be associated with a good cause and solid impact projects. I might have some good news in the coming weeks.”
The Liberum will be on top of it.
To be continued…