Lebanon – A Food Desert

Monday, November 28, 2022
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

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.