Poverty as Politics: Lebanon Runs on Empty

Tuesday, November 16, 2021
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

On November 9, ATFL hosted a webinar to release the results of the 2021 Zogby Research Services (ZRS) poll, “Lebanese Reflect on Their Crisis, Their Institutions, and Their Future.” It was sponsored by ATFL in collaboration with the Moise A. Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies at NC State University, and directed by Zogby Research Services, which has been polling in Lebanon since 2001. ATFL wanted a better understanding of how the Lebanese people felt in the run-up to the Parliamentary elections on March 27, 2022, and the potential implications of those perceptions on US policy in Lebanon and the region.

Coincidentally, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty, Oliver de Schutter was concluding a 12-day trip to the country to research the extent of poverty in Lebanon and the government’s response. His report to the UN Human Rights Council will be next June, and, at a press conference on the eve of his departure on November 12, he provided his preliminary assessment.

Olivier “condemned the country’s political establishment and said he did not believe the government was dealing with the issue seriously. “The Government’s inaction in the face of this unprecedented crisis has inflicted great misery on the population, especially on children, women, stateless and undocumented individuals, and people with disabilities who were already marginalized. I was shocked by the disconnect between the political establishment and the reality of those in poverty on the ground.”

His statement echoed the results of the ZRS poll which found that 88% felt they were worse off now that five years ago, which is double the rate (44%) of response in 2019. More specifically, the overwhelming majority of the population reported being severely impacted by shortages in fuel (97%), electricity (89%), and drinking water (74%). More than one-third of respondents reported going without food on some occasions.

A third source affirming the dire situation of the Lebanese was in a Featured Analysis by the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS), Raising the Alarm: Pervasive Poverty and Vulnerability in Lebanon,” which was produced to coincide with de Schutter’s visit. It looked at indicators of poverty and the government’s response, and emphasized the linkage between the current crisis and increasing fragility of the Lebanon state, a concern also expressed by de Schutter. It noted, “The very foundations needed to maintain a functioning modern state, all fundamentally dependent on trust and credibility, are deteriorating to near breaking point.”

In making its case, the Analysis pointed out that the ILO has estimated that income vulnerability increased to 75% from 51% since 2019, while extreme income vulnerability more than doubled to 32% during that period. “As a result, the burden of the crisis has been highly imbalanced, falling the hardest on those who were already poor or suffering from previous lifecycle vulnerabilities. With a deeply flawed social protection system, healthcare, education, electricity, clean water, adequate housing, transportation, and decent jobs have become only accessible to the few.”

Similar statistics were noted from a recent assessment by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), in that the poverty rate doubled from 42% in 2019 to 82% of the total population in 2021, including refugees, with nearly 4 million people living in poverty in many categories. This number is the equivalent of some 1 million households, including 77%, or approximately 745,000, of Lebanese households.

Several categories of the population were particularly affected, including 55% working in the informal economy who have little to no rights and benefits, and women, the majority of whom are unemployed with 75% economic inactive. Propping up the economic are inbound remittances estimated at close to $7 billion in 2020, with another $1.7 billion from international donors and organizations.

The authors went on to say that “The continued failure by the Government of Lebanon to take corrective measures to stabilize Lebanon’s rapidly deteriorating depression and restore confidence in the state by implementing reforms that safeguard against the underlying drivers of the country’s crisis, such as corruption, mismanagement, and the insolvency of public institutions are undermining public confidence in the core pillars of the state, its economy, and the country’s social contract.”

It continues with this critique by indicating, as both domestic and international analysts have concluded, that “The only way to resuscitate Lebanon’s economy is through the implementation of immediate and credible institutional reform, and embarking on a path towards people-centered recovery. It is only by upending the very deliberate nature of Lebanon’s depression—the persistent failure of the country’s leadership to take decisive action to avoid the worst of the country’s crisis, protect the most vulnerable, and lead the country towards recovery—that Lebanon can be saved from descending further towards a complex emergency.”

Despite the repeated warnings and admonitions to Lebanese leaders, they seem immovable in terms of moving ahead with painful yet necessary reforms. PM Najib Mikati’s agenda for pushing the political process forward to launch even simple reforms is in peril as the opponents of change are deliberately obstructing the few steps he is proposing. The indication from the World Bank is that Lebanon may need 12 to 19 years to recover to its pre-crisis per-capita GDP, and that is only one indicator of quality of life. It is indeed the darkest of times for Lebanon and its people.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon.