Lebanon – A Food Desert

A food desert is commonly defined as a geographic area where residents have few to no convenient options for securing affordable and healthy foods. It is one of several terms I have learned in recent years that applies in part to Lebanon, and implies deliberate actions by one group towards another. Just as Patricia Karam notes in her recent article, “the political establishment was able to counteract all challenges to its stranglehold, entrenching itself by providing opportunities to its economic partners for kleptocratic appropriations.” This directly led to the devaluation of the currency, hyperinflation, and the resulting demise of the middle class and the loss of services and dignity for the poor and marginalized.

Recently, there were two related announcements: one from the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Violence Against Children, Dr. Najat Maalla M’jid, who criticized the lack of progress in the country on protecting the young; and the other from UN World Food Program, which announced an increased allocation of $5.4 billion over the next three years to equally provide food aid to Lebanese and Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

At this point, Lebanon has certainly become a beggar state. Remittances from overseas remain the most important lifeline for many, if they can navigate the opaqueness of the banking system and Central Bank rules. Without an executive government and a parliament unable to elect a new president, the country is languishing. While those with means survive, more than 75% of the population remain in poverty, unable to sustain a quality of life with adequate access to food, education, medicines, and social services. State institutions, the banking sector, and public services are all in disarray. Look no further than the electricity sector which is still unable to provide more than 3-4 hours a day despite the existence of several programs that could double the available electricity.

Facing the reality that a new president must be acceptable to the major political forces and their international supporters, it would seem less and less likely that the systemic corruption can be ameliorated through a house cleaning. And what is left to protect those who are defenseless against the political elites? As the Policy Initiative argues in its latest paper, “The ills of Lebanon’s social protection system are not a result of financial or technical constraints. They are rather political. For decades, ruling elites have consciously eroded the social role of the state to prey on the population’s vulnerabilities as they arise.”

The Initiative’s analysis of the Economic Social Security Net (ESSN) program that is funded by the World Bank illustrates this observation very well. It points out that the politicians delayed the program for almost two years as they tried to re-position the program as a tool for maintaining their constituents’ patronage, circumventing the mechanisms for the transparency and clarity that were basic to the original design of this assistance. In addition, they fought the monitoring component of the program in order to avoid the detection of ineligible participants. While the assistance was finally disbursed earlier this year, a general pattern of political interference can be inferred from this case. It would be a safe assumption, then, to assert that this same kind of interference will be rampant in the ongoing negotiations over the IMF relief package and other foreign assistance programs.

As Lebanon continues its perilous journey into further economic turmoil, carrying a dysfunctional banking sector, driving out its precious human resources, and allowing the reform process to stall with a presidential vacancy, its sovereignty is in danger of being undermined by external forces such as Russia, China, and Syria – as well as the internal forces that directed by Iran. Although Lebanon’s old guard is counting on France and the US to ward off such a possibility, there are no reliable and credible Lebanese partners with whom international supporters can maintain viable and trusting relationships.

Given its political structure, the very nature of assistance to Lebanon gets called into question when well-intentioned initiatives and programs – like the ESSN cash-assistance program that is actionable and immediate – prove susceptible to corruption. When Lebanon’s friends outside the country are seemingly more concerned about Lebanon’s future than its current leadership, a deeper dilemma emerges regarding how much change it will take for Lebanon to become a viable, sovereign, and self-sufficient state. We’re still waiting for that answer.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans.

How Does the Captagon Act Help Lebanon?

The House of Representatives recently passed the Captagon Act, legislation “requir[ing] a strategy by the United States Government to disrupt and dismantle the Captagon trade and narcotics networks of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.”

Introduced by Rep. French Hill (R-AR) with 17 bipartisan sponsors, the act calls for an interagency strategy to destroy the regime-backed network. It will need Senate approval to become law.

Background

Captagon is a stimulant popular both in the Levant and in the Gulf. Its effects take about an hour to kick in and it gives one a sense of alertness or euphoria. For this reason, it is routinely used by combatants in the region’s conflicts, partygoers in the wealthy Gulf States, or those struggling to make a living such as one man who remarked:

“I can work for two or three days non-stop, which has doubled my earnings and is helping me pay off my debts.”

The Center for Operational Analysis and Research (COAR) notes that captagon production shifted to Syria around the early 2000’s because Europe began to step up its own drug enforcement efforts.

The network is growing and professionalizing, now expanding its operations to more dangerous drugs such as crystal meth. In 2020, the value of the trade in the region was estimated at $3.46 billion in 2020.

Sources identify Maher Al-Assad, the president’s brother who controls Syria’s 4th Division, as the prime trader of the drug.

How does this connect to Lebanon?

COAR notes that in the mid 2000’s Lebanon’s weak central state and inability to enforce anti-trafficking efforts opened the door for the industry to develop within its borders. Reports suggest that Iran even provided actors within Lebanon with drug equipment following the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war. In 2007, Lebanon was the first country in the region to have a captagon lab identified and reported to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Caroline Rose with the New Lines Institute has done extensive research on this and notes that the Assad regime relies on fellow armed groups such as Hezbollah for technical and logistical support. The labs in Syria are often in Hezbollah-controlled territory in communities along the Lebanese border, outside Damascus, and around the port city of Latakia.

Lebanon’s porous border with Syria is a key transit route for traffickers of the drug.

Furthermore, Lebanese border towns are struggling under the influence of the trade.In addition to corruption within the judiciary, there are credible reports of kidnapping and torture for local residents who stand up against the trade.

The association that the international community is making between Lebanon and captagon trafficking is also hurting Lebanon’s economy. In April, Saudi Arabia placed a ban on all agricultural imports from Lebanon after authorities seized over 7.8 million captagon pills at the port of Jeddah. Preceding the ban, Former Lebanese Agriculture Minister Abbas Mortada remarked that Lebanon’s fruit and vegetable trade with Saudi Arabia was worth around $24 million per year.

Takeaways

Lebanon’s key vulnerability in this situation is its border with Syria. Recent efforts to establish a shared maritime boundary between the two countries are encouraging.  However, more must be done to secure Lebanon’s land border with Syria as well. The LAF has called for an additional border unit and less political interference to be able to secure more of Lebanon’s borders. Increased support to the LAF is a crucial element to combating regional drug trafficking.

Competent customs authorities are also vital as the smugglers know how to exploit weaknesses in Lebanon’s legitimate crossing points. One Lebanese official remarked to AFP that “At (Lebanon’s) Tripoli port, for example, the scanner always needs repairing on the wrong day, or is inadvertently switched off.”

Furthermore, law and order in Lebanon are at stake here. Lebanon should not allow these drug traffickers to exploit Lebanese communities any longer. These individuals are criminals and should be prosecuted and imprisoned.

Hopefully the Captagon Act will become law. When it does, Lebanon will be at the centerpiece of US strategy to counter the trade, and the Lebanese people would greatly stand to benefit.

 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans.

Innocent Victims of Beirut’s Politics

Lebanon’s fragility is underscored by its gravely weakened education and health sectors; the miserable condition and cost of public transportation; its devalued economy; and the ongoing threats to its security and stability. Anyone who says that these are temporary conditions has not been in the streets of Lebanon lately. Consider the cholera-infested areas of the north, Lebanese dumpster diving in Beirut, or the littered streets and beaches. While there is some agreement that a consensus president is needed, the lack of agreement on implementing the IMF reform package is less reassuring.

As I wrote last week, “It’s clear that international assistance from donors such as the EU and the US are the only remedies for keeping health-care facilities operating. The costs of most procedures, scarce and insufficient medicines, and the migration of health professionals spell doom to Lebanon medical infrastructure. Even though 80% of facilities are private, the challenges to both the private and public sectors in health services are enormous. For a patient to complain that being in a hospital is like a death sentence due to inadequate facilities, personnel, and medications exposes the depths of despair of Lebanon’s once stellar health sector.”

Unfortunately, the education sector is similarly troubled. With teachers emigrating and the remaining paid infrequently – many of whom left without the means to meet their transportation costs and switched to contract employees in order to avoid social security, medical insurance, and other benefits – the sector has been severely degraded. This is true across the 325,000 public sector employees (2021), including among the security forces.

The hollowing out of state institutions and protections of civil and human rights will delay the reconstructing of a credible, professional public sector. The first needed remediation is a package of social support services that are inclusive, equitable, and transparent. As of now, the social contract between the state and its employees is frazzled, fraught with omissions, exclusions, and nepotism, and subject to the whims of political leaders ensuring their survival by pandering to their constituents.

According to a recent report from The Policy Initiative, “Elites used state resources and private capital to establish clientelist social protection networks. The country’s sectarian political parties [after Taif] became the main providers of benefits, creating multiple, competing, social contracts and political arrangements.”

So, not only do politicians need political will to rebuild the state,   state institutions require a backbone of qualified, well-compensated public servants that are committed to the country by carrying out their work efficiently and transparently. It is the substitution of these sectarian networks that has undone the country and poses the greatest threat to its recovery.

But the issue is much deeper than the decline of the social cohesion of the country. According to the 2021 World Bank Governance Indicators as reported by Byblos Bank, Lebanon is ranked at 9% in Political Stability, while Qatar is tops at 83%. Lebanon scores ahead of Palestine, Sudan, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria. The reality speaks for itself. Lebanon has diminished its once highly regarded civil society to the status of pariah or broken state.

So build, back, better Lebanon without the carnage of the past 30+ years since Taif. And give your children, women, and youth a reason to invest in their futures inside the country.

 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans.

Be of Good Cheer from Lebanon

While there’s not much to be shouting for joy about, there are some small treasures worth exploring for the upcoming holidays that come straight from the heart. I’m talking about a book collection, cuisine elements, and a food emporium ready to serve you.

Being a new jiddu, I was quickly drawn to a series of children’s books that promises to both honor our traditions and give the author the opportunity to honor her own family. The series begins with Elissa Uncovers…The Origin of the Alphabet (https://www.elissadiscovers.com/), and comes from the genius of Lebanon-born Nancy Zakhour, who now lives in the US. She notes on her website, “Making an impact on readers, especially children, is the best way she can pay tribute to her beloved parents and grandparents.”

Even the name of the protagonist, Elissa, has its roots in ancient tales of many lands, and is fitting for a young girl learning about life from her family. The intent is to give today’s parents, no matter the ethnicity, a fun way to discuss not only the book’s main themes, but the sub-themes of universality, kindness, inclusiveness, and other family values. By having a young girl as the main character who has curiosity and cleverness in her – beyond the typical portrayal of youth – the book intends to emphasize the role of young girls who are underappreciated.

A third book is in the works following the second, Elissa and the World of Olives, which is due to be published before the holidays. They will be published in three languages – English, Arabic, and Spanish – emphasizing that these books are for all children (and all adults), telling stories that go beyond any particular heritage. The next book is about food, and it promises to be both entertaining and educational.

You can find more details, reviews, and insights on the website, and various formats are available online from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

 Beit el Baraka

I again want to bring to your attention to Beit el Baraka (https://www.facebook.com/beitelbaraka.org/), the incredible humanitarian NGO that provides a number of fee-free services to people still suffering from the effects of the Beirut Port explosion, those living on the margins, school children, unemployed women, and others who face the ravages of poverty and helplessness in today’s Lebanon. They have worked with some 226,000 beneficiaries to date.

If you have ever been to the Sursock Museum, you will see their latest project which was to restore the building that was badly damaged by the blast in exchange for creating a food hall on the ground floor that features food products made in Lebanon for that taste of home you’re missing. Their food brand, Beit Kanz, donates its receipts to the Beit el Baraka projects in order to provide support for the needy and for school-aged children. Produced by local kitchens, Beit Kanz also provides incomes for women and men who work under strict health guidelines.

You can find the details of their many projects, heart-warming accounts of their activities, and instructions for donating to their organization on their website, www.beitelbaraka.org.

Fair Trade Lebanon

The unique approach of Fair Trade Lebanon (https://www.fairtradelebanon.org/en/about-us/story) is to build up the commercial exports of Lebanon in order to create income that is not dependent on the vagaries of the Lebanese economy. FTL has created and trained businesses that bring the best of Lebanon’s products to the world – from wine and cheese to a great variety of processed foods – all to exacting export standards.

I have a strong affinity for FTL as they focus on two strong Lebanese traits: commercial acumen and productivity. It works to strengthen small and medium-sized enterprises in the agri-food sector, trains the beneficiaries in marketing for exports, sponsors Lebanese companies in trade shows hosted by various countries, and works on the long-term with their clients, not one-shot efforts.

Rafca Fares

Time to feed the soul and attend one of Rafca Fares’ concerts coming up. You can hear a sample on her YouTube channel: (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCnIjoYJSCMsV2TN5bG5qLvQ) or via her Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/Rafca.Singer/).

Her schedule is October 22 at Saint Sharbel Church in Somerset, New Jersey; October 29 at Our Lady of Lebanon in Washington, DC; and November 4 at the Velvet Rose Hall in Orange, California. Details are available via her Facebook page. Proceeds benefit St. Joseph’s Monastery as it hopes to make the transition from diesel to solar power.

 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans.

Imagining A New Lebanon

Now that the maritime deal is almost done, there seems to be an air of hope – if the three presidents can agree on a deal with Israel, there may be a future for a solid deal with the IMF, too. But if there is to be a “new” Lebanon, will reforms be enough to cultivate Lebanon’s rise from the ashes of the old, or will the seeds of democracy planted by our fore bearers fail to weed out the corruption and mismanagement? Put another way, should we wait until Lebanon self-destructs as a government before there’s a way forward? These are very tough questions, and ones which we struggle with every day at ATFL.

There are so many obstacles to a brighter future for Lebanon. Take the mood of the parliament for example. During the 2022 budget process, the parliament was hardly reform-minded. In a helpful and pointed article from the Policy Initiative titled, “The Rigged Budget,” the authors argue that nothing has changed. In fact, the entire process reflects the chronic inability of political elites to prioritize national issues over sectarian ones and to secure resources for themselves and their affiliated business cronies. They point out, “Ultimately, the budget is not an accounting tool. It is a political document that spells out government priorities and the means to finance them.” Lebanon, as a functioning state, is dying from an ill-conceived banking scheme, lack of productive investments, and humiliating degradation of Lebanon’s currency and hence the life of its people.

There are screams for a national vision that restores social services, puts families first, and prioritizes economic stability and security. The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), the most trusted institution in the country, is hobbled by politicians who benefit from illicit smuggling, economic deterioration, and impaired and lacking social services. But still, hopeful people yearn for a renaissance in Lebanon.

Will there be deliverance in Lebanon? Not according to the analysts. As Fadi Nicholas Nassar claims, “Deprivation is the unbearable new normal and it affects every aspect of our lives. One’s income alone does not accurately capture the access to basic rights, like adequate housing, essential utilities, healthcare, or education.”

People speak of Lebanese resilience, but the reality is trending more towards compliance – reflected in conversations about what to do with the refugees, the price of potatoes, the desire to emigrate, and so on. People are finding that humanitarian relief has become a way of life. Similarly, dependence on remittances is part of the new normal since 75% of women are economically inactive and unable to secure the basics for holding their homes together. “Women are increasingly pushed into the informal economy, in a context where violence and abuse are rising and women left structurally unprotected.”

Nassar, argues that, “Households and individuals cannot adjust to fill the state’s responsibilities—the state must prioritize the urgent building-up of essential public service infrastructure to ensure the integrity and access to education, healthcare, utilities, and other rights. A failed state earns its name.”

And yet the beat continues – not that of a parade or the celebratory calling together of people, but more the beat of the dirge that is increasingly heard in the neighborhoods where the poor go hungry, the sick go without medication, and the youth surrender their chances of acquiring life-building skills to the all-consuming entropy of modern-day Lebanon, while parents wonder what good they are if they can’t provide a better life for their children.

Yet, both local and overseas Lebanese are not prepared to fail. Armed with only a small bit of hope, businesses will restart and regenerate employment, banks will restore access to depositors, fully stocked and staffed hospitals and schools will function better than ever, lighting and heating for the upcoming winter will be resolved without over-reliance on generators, and political coalitions will form to sustain hope for the Lebanese people.

Yes, the people know what needs to be done, and it starts with the parliament making the right decisions and focusing on the right priorities – restoring jobs and government services, eliminating hunger, normalizing relations with the IMF. Yes, parliament, you know the way: arrive at a way forward that does not penalize the majority of the people, but instead offers a recipe for reconstruction and revival; elect someone as president who can work across the hole that is Lebanon’s government; and make the vision of a new Lebanon a reality.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans.

Rounding Up The News From Lebanon – From The Good To The Continued Drama

Lebanon and Israel announced their acceptance of the meticulous drafted maritime boundary negotiations thanks to the Lebanese team headed by Deputy Speaker Elias Bou Saab and the diligent mediation work of US Special Energy Envoy Amos Hochstein. After a final week of headlines like “After collapse of Lebanon maritime deal, Israel fears Hezbollah attack,” followed by another round of the two-way finger-pointing that passes for negotiations in the region, a breakthrough finally emerged over the weekend.

Both Lebanon and Israel took a long look at what’s best for regional prosperity and stability, stopped the saber-rattling and instead settled on a deal that benefits both countries. There are still parties in Israel that oppose the deal based on domestic politics while the parties in Lebanon decided that progress on this front had too many benefits to ignore. So a deal was made.

This agreement can make or enhance prospects to stability and prosperity in the region. Despite what the nay-sayers claim, Lebanon will benefit by settling the maritime boundary, allowing for international investment and steps towards peace. Israel, which is already benefiting from its own gas discoveries, can find another partner in building important gas-exporting facilities that will crisscross the region and breathe new life into its economy.

 

ABL Blames Economic Crisis on the State and Central Bank, Calls for ‘Frank Dialogue’ Between Depositors and Banks in a bold move, according to Naharnet, “The Association of Banks in Lebanon on Tuesday  [October 4], blamed the state and the central bank for the country’s ‘extended systemic crisis,’ while calling on depositors to engage with it in dialogue, after five banks were stormed in less than 48 hours in a new wave of bank heists. Criticizing the state for ‘passing budgets, spending and wasting funds, and declaring a default,’ ABL said that the central bank is also responsible after it implemented the policies of the successive governments.”

Much like their counterparts elsewhere during the ‘07-‘08 international banking crisis, it’s easier to blame the other guy while they make loads of money and protect their major stakeholders. To remind, the ’07-‘08 crisis emerged from a banking scandal in which subpar housing loans were bundled and sold to banks. In both cases, the banks blame the government for making money too accessible and easy to manipulate. The reality is that, according to one school of thought, the banks should have not gone along with the “financial engineering” of the Central Bank and called for a national budget that didn’t rely on moving funds from the private sector to cover government deficits.

It is now a shame that the ABL claims innocence when the banks were just following directions for the Central Bank, which tried to keep the government afloat with its scheme to attract deposits by paying excessive interest that was passed on to the banks’ larger customers. Now the scheme has collapsed and the ABL doesn’t want to face up to its responsibilities for the economic calamity in the country. Oh, and there is still no capital controls law so the depositors are still stuck holding an empty bag, without their money. Resorting to holdups, real or staged, these new protests by depositors are just the beginning.

 

Public schools enter new school year in shambles as reported by the Ministry of Education, which reported that, “there were only 336,301 students in public education out of a total of 1,072,925 students in 2021-2022 (without including the afternoon curriculum reserved for Syrian students).” This means that the number of students declined compared to the 2020-2021 academic year during which there were 384,741 – slightly lower than in 2019-2020 when there were 342,303 students. We have written before about the toll that this is taking on the quality of education.

What was once a crown jewel of the country, the educational system has declined in quantity and quality over the past 10 years. The number of teachers are declining. In 2020-21, there were 39,516 working in K-12 education which included 18,465 civil servants and 21,051 working on contract basis. In the 2021-2022 academic year, there are only 37,139 (17,203 civil servants and 19,936 working on a contract basis). It’s important to understand that this is one of the ‘pork barrels’ for Lebanese politicians who promote the use of contract teachers to avoid the standards and benefits required for regular teachers and it gives them wide latitude to dole out teaching positions to their constituents.

 

And so, Lebanon is still deciding if it has a future. The maritime boundary deal, if it holds through the Israeli elections, is a significant step forward to realizing that the government can take steps that are beneficial to the nation, not just the autocrats. Starting with a credible budget, banking restructuring plan, and educational sector revitalization would be a sold step in the right direction.

 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans.

“Here, You Can Only Expect Help From God”

This was the lament of the head of a farmers’ association in the Bekaa Valley who was responding to an inquiry about what the government was doing to protect his livelihood. His story is decades-old. As Lebanon floated along on an overvalued currency and strong remittances, it became an importing country. Over 80% of its consumables were purchased overseas, thus making the economy closely tied to any disruptions in the value of the lira and dependent on cash infusions from overseas, particularly for Lebanese in the Gulf.

When I first visited Lebanon in the early 70s, I came with my mother’s stories of tasty, larger-than-life produce born from the tradition of small-scale, farming that historically fed the nation. Like others, my family had moved from silk production, to tobacco, to fresh produce that always found its way to a ready market in neighboring Batroun. Based on these vivid memories, I had high expectations and was pleased to be fully rewarded by the vitality and scope of the Lebanese markets.

Then came the civil war. With young people emigrating to the Gulf and West Africa, farming became an illusory pursuit – abandoned to the greenhouses that dotted the fields and hills as one traveled north and east from Beirut. Lebanese could buy whatever they wanted to consume thanks to the inflated currency and the supply chains that seemed to crisscross the region, bringing products to vendors on every corner.

Since then, the decline of the agri-business sector has both changed the country-side as well as options for the future. As in other countries, young people have no interest in finding opportunities in agriculture despite the usual availability of all the productive and marketing inputs. In fact, the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS) addressed the prospects for Lebanon’s agro-economy in several studies done in the last decade that indicated the competitiveness of Lebanese fruits and vegetables. Since then, with the onset of the pandemic and subsequent global supply-chain issues, additional studies point to the multiplicity of benefits from supporting an active agro-economy – not only for farmers, but also for the country.

Today, Lebanon is a water desert. Going from the most water-secure Arab country to one that is in deficit forces people to reevaluate how they can procure locally grown food. As inflation has depleted their pocketbooks, more and more Lebanese are simply growing their own products. Projects like alzourou3 that I have featured before, are combining the UN sustainability and social enterprise goals with a deep commitment to a ‘greener’ direction for Lebanon ‘green,’ especially through environmental initiatives that redefine Lebanon’s small-scale agricultural sector.

This is just one beginning of several local solutions that require national support. As a recent LCPS video shows, only chaos and calamity will ensue if the agricultural sector is allowed to descend further into bankruptcy. This is not to say that the Lebanese state should necessarily provide broad subsidies for the sector. We have seen the consequences of poorly executed, short-term thinking. Rather, nationwide support for the sector should focus on long-term issues and demonstrate that a commercially viable support system is viable.

One start, for example, could be to bolster the USAID support for projects providing solar power to farmers, bypassing the expense of diesel fuel for pumps and equipment. Another could be building transportation alternatives that enable local, regional, and international distribution of local produce. Another could be to take concrete and transparent steps to ensure water availability. There is much that the government can do to make a difference. As a recent LCPS study commented, “There is a pressing need for government to prioritize food security and take immediate actions to prevent hunger and malnutrition.” Small-scale loan programs by the government and international NGOs can help ameliorate the production and distribution obstacles, creating a virtuous circle assisting both producers and consumers of Lebanese agricultural products.

This ‘teach them to fish” maxim – borrowed from multiple sources – applies to those who are committed to engaging in agriculture for domestic and export opportunities. It is an opportunity for short-term investments that will have long-term payoffs for the farmer, the consumer, and the country. A national plan to bolster the sector is available but the will must come from a government, local officials, and NGOs that have the capacity to turn small investments into a big difference.

 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans.

Hope and Strength Alive in Lebanon

I recently had the great and humbling experience of being in the company of three great people who are leading advocates of human rights and accountability in Lebanon. In addition, I also had the privilege of meeting advocates for change in Lebanon from a number of US NGOs and Lebanese Civil Society Organizations. All were women, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who has worked in the community. While men have their contributions and qualities, it is largely women that we rely on to hold together the fabric of our initiatives, keep our perspectives balanced, and create innovative strategies for overcoming obstacles.

The occasion of their visit to the US, organized by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP), was to meet with officials in the US Congress and Administration and reinforce their messages of what must be/can be done in Lebanon to bring about more accountability in government. At one point when I remarked that Lebanon was on the edge of catastrophic failure, I was reminded that we shouldn’t confuse the government with its people.

Lesson learned. Whereas my work at ATFL focuses on US-Lebanon policy and analyzing various macroeconomic features of life in Lebanon that are a disaster, we cannot lose focus on the people and the institutions which should be serving them. The main purpose of their meetings was to discuss how to promote accountability in institutions in Lebanon given how endemic corruption is – upheld by the clientelism that is interwoven into Lebanese society and politics.

I was impressed that many of the professionals in the room were young women with expertise in such areas as corruption, judicial reform, sanctions, international legal issues, women rights, and related topics. They provided me an update as seen through the eyes and experiences of their expertise driven by strong values. TIMEP has become quite a resource in providing research and analysis on key Arab countries and even has an office in Beirut as well as in Tunisia, Sudan, Egypt, and Jordan.

Those who are working on the issue of accountability face many obstacles. Where to begin? Our basic fallback position is, “rule of law.” From that concern flows transparency, an independent judiciary, oversight and monitoring of government entities, and how the judiciary functions. Tania Daou Alam, one of the participants of the meeting, is a Lebanese lawyer who works with families of the survivors of the Beirut Port Explosion – having lost her own husband as well – despite her usual focus on civil and commercial litigation, corporate matters, and copyright law. Her family is generationally integrated into the law profession and she in particular is well qualified to speak on matters related to judicial reform and the impact of politics on the pathway to justice regarding the Port Explosion investigation.

After the Port explosion and banking sector implosion, the two issues frequently discussed in the public were corruption and the lack of respect for the law. What person could better describe these issues in Lebanon than Monika Borgmann, the widow of Lokman Slim. She noted that 17,000 people “disappeared” during the Lebanese Civil War and there have been 200+political assassinations since. She voiced her concern that the current state of the media freedoms was greatly curtailed by threats, physical and verbal abuse, and even assassinations. As a professional journalist and filmmaker, she, “has focused her career on high-level, geopolitically sensitive cases and has sat as a board member of the Interpol Foundation.”

There is no single person or institution that can root out and change the culture of corruption and lack of accountability in Lebanon. At all levels of society and in all areas of the country, accountability is missing or avoided. As Zena Wakim, the president of the Board of the Swiss foundation, Accountability Now, and an international lawyer emphasized, there are no shortcuts.  Investigations, whether tied to financial misdeeds or crimes against humanity, are detailed and require a great deal of energy. She works with civil society to pursue accountability issues and most recently brought forward a suit in a Texas court for harm faced by US citizens as a result of the Beirut Port Explosion. She also trained as a war crime investigator with the Institute for International Criminal Investigations in The Hague.

The work is intense and sometimes dangerous, but without these advocates, Zena, Monnika, and Tania, and their colleagues, hope would be impossible. A big thanks to the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Studies https://timep.org/for bringing their important work to the attention of policy makers in Washington, and for helping rebuild hope that we can cope with and overcome the current distress in Lebanon.

 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans.

For the Sake of the Children

It is saddening to assess the situation related to children in Lebanon. Two recent studies from UNICEF (UN International Children’s Emergency Fund) and the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS) detail how a veritable lost generation has resulted from the pandemic and the Beirut Post blast which exacerbated the dislocation caused by the economic demise of the country.

Twice a year, UNICEF carries out an in-depth analysis of both Lebanese and refugee children. Called the Child-Focused Rapid Assessment (CFRA), its most recent finding from this summer found that 84% of households could not cover the basic necessities and that one in four children had recently gone to bed hungry. With jobs evaporating and the value of the currency barely recognizable, household debt was on the rise.

As the report insisted, “Lebanon is not in temporary recession. We are stuck, deep, in a ‘deliberate depression,’ which comes at enormous cost. The rising vulnerability of children in Lebanon and the multidimensional attacks on their childhoods, their dreams, and on the intimate bonds with their families, will be irreversible.” Of the 300,000 young people included in the study, 100,000 are Lebanese, the rest being Palestinians and Syrians.

“It is hard, three years into Lebanon’s crisis, to think of a more alarming indicator of the country’s proximity to complete failed state status than the inability of parents to provide basic rights to their children. Or perhaps, no consequence of the crisis is more representative of the unravelling of the country’s social contract than the breakdown of relationships between children and their parents.” Children and parents are both suffering, unable to marshal resources ranging from medication and transportation, to foodstuffs, clothing, and education.

Save the Children reports that despite attending classes, more than 700,000 children are at risk of never returning to a classroom due to rising poverty. More than 30% of households have cut their spending on education, reflecting a massive shift in which families upend the norm of enrolling their children in private schools – now unable to do so for financial reasons – sending them instead to gravely underfunded public schools with sporadic teachers’ strikes protesting a lack of salaries, inadequate transportation allowances, and poorly maintained facilities. Increased fuel costs hinder school attendance overall and many students are forced to study without textbooks, learning materials, or computers.

In the refugee camps, this has not only led to high rates of absence but some families’ choice “to marry off their daughters early and send the older brothers to work, and the young boys are given the opportunity to get their education.”

Additional UN data shows that more than 2 million Lebanese people – about 57% of the population – are now living in vulnerable situations with three in every four households – or 77% not having enough money to buy food. This is in addition to the 1.8 million refugees and migrants living in Lebanon, including 700,000 Syrian refugee children already facing dire conditions. About 99% of Syrian households do not have enough money to buy food.

The rising cost of food will likely exacerbate nutrition and health needs across Lebanon. Without urgent action, children will continue to bear the brunt of Lebanon’s worsening poverty crisis with more than 200,000 children already suffering from malnutrition and 7% of all children stunted, an indicator of chronic malnutrition.

Between the dismal performance in the quality of life indicators and the continued social, psychological, and health tolls borne by the children, there is real fear that this generation is indeed already lost.

As the LCPS analysis concludes, “The very foundations of society that make us who we are, that bind us to one another, are falling apart. There are no short-stop measures to managing Lebanon’s blackhole of a depression—only the ever-urgent need for decisive action to stabilize the crisis and set the country towards a sustainable and just recovery. If not for us, at least, for our children’s sake.”

To read the full LCPS report, you can do so through the following hyperlink: The Critical Situation of Youth in Lebanon: After the Point of No Return and Organizing for Change.

For the UNICEF report, you can access their full publication here: Deprived Childhoods: Child Poverty in Crisis-Wracked Lebanon.

Taking Cash In Hand – Are There Any Options?

Lebanese are doing the inevitable: holding up banks to get their funds. In the latest of eight incidents, the person is now on strike within the bank branch having turned in his weapon. The story is a familiar one. With the onset of the current financial crisis in 2019, banks issued informal capital controls to limit the depositors’ access to their dollar accounts. Withdrawals in dollars or Lebanese currency are limited, which effectively means that as the devaluation of the Lebanese currency continues, the depositor gets a free haircut that is not so free considering there are few constraints on how the banks act. A haircut refers to the depreciation in the value of the money being held due to a loss of value in the currency.

Although this is part of the larger issue of the national debt crisis, the lack of a capital controls law has disabled options for those whose savings are in the banks. Legal recourses do not exist. The banking association has not faced up to the reality that its sector is broken. And the depositors are forming organizations to fight for their access.

This has led to another unfair situation where bank employees are put at risk because neither the government authorities nor the banks have alternatives that enable withdrawals to meet people with dire needs somewhere in the middle, although the banks claim that they allow exemptions for medical emergencies. What this portends is additional clashes between the authorities and citizens who are simply acting out their frustrations. By prolonging this stress on the financial system, options such as a currency board, with its own limitations, are no longer effective with the tremendous drop in the value of the Lebanese currency, the pound or lira.

Another dangerous liability is that there is the real danger of robberies occurring under the guise of the depositors’ protests as has already occurred. This puts both customers and bank employees at risk, and makes the work of security forces, whether private or governmental, more dangerous and challenging.

Aside from implementing the already passed yet flawed capital controls law, there are no straightforward solutions absent an overhaul of the current bank/depositor relationship. As the government struggles to meet the IMF requirements for funds needed to begin the economic recovery process, the absence of good faith between the bank’s depositors and its owners only means these security issues will continue.

As the depositors’ rights groups continue to grow and become more aggressive, the banks in turn, never known for their largess, will mobilize even more tools within a system that already favors shareholders and owners over depositors. It is a conflict that neither side had anticipated or wanted and has now become the recurring tableau in Lebanon – leaving resolutions until fair options have expired and tensions are peaking.

The bank employees union has already called for a three-day strike to emphasize the need for increased safety. Banks routinely close their doors to avoid confrontation, but Lebanon is now in another mess entirely – and of its own making – as Parliament continues is dismal record of debates that resolve little and impede much progress on vital reform issues. Without an arbiter that has the power to resolve differences and a government that supports solutions, and an unclear Presidential succession, the confrontations will continue.

With the continued stalemate on forming a government, the continued depreciation of the pound, and the erosion of the subsidies regime to protect the diminishing foreign reserves, the country is in a quandary. Even if the IMF reform package is completed within six months, the election of a consensus presidential candidate moves forward, the electricity sector finally moves ahead with the importation packages from Iraq, Egypt, and Jordan secured, it may still be too late. Lebanon may have already run out of time to avoid the economic and humanitarian catastrophes that continue to unfold. As my colleagues in the Lebanon Working Group have argued, the next six weeks will shape the next six months and beyond in Lebanon. The Lebanese are no longer resilient, they are angry and depressed.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans.