Poverty in Lebanon, a National Disgrace

Thursday, January 2, 2020
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

It’s hard to fathom the levels of poverty that now exist in Lebanon, particularly in the less fortunate areas in towns and villages surrounding larger municipalities. After years of government mismanagement of the country’s finances, there are no short-term solutions to relieve the pressure on the lower and middle classes as the Lebanese currency has lost over one-third of its value in recent weeks. Dollar accounts are frozen, businesses are closed, and store shelves are showing fewer goods. There are stories of rising suicide rates, doctors personally purchasing medicines unavailable in government dispensaries, and deteriorating health, education, and social services across the country. And this does not include the impact on the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees miserable in makeshift tent camps.

The government shows no signs of coming together around a team of competent technocrats who can implement the rigorous program needed to convince donors that Lebanon can recover transparently and effectively, eschewing the usual genuflections towards the sectarian spoils system. Immediate and medium term steps to unify, rebuild, and invigorate the country and the economy are immense challenges. According to the Corruption Perceptions Index, Lebanon’s corruption reached a record high ranking of 143 out of 175 in 2017, a stark drop from its 2006 score of 63. So the erosion of its economic health is not a recent phenomenon. It is a burden that is driving the country from being a fragile state to one that is failed and broken.

As a recent Carnegie Middle East article noted, “An increasing number of businesses are closing their doors. In 2019,265 restaurants have shut down; over 10 % of Lebanese companies are believed to have gone out of business and over 22% have reduced staff levels by 60%. In addition, business owners are reportedly cutting salaries by half,” and this was in early December. Social media from Lebanon frequently carry stories that detail the suffering and privations of the people and the outreach by the demonstrators to assist those in need.

A story in the Jordan Times related that “Across the country, protest encampments are bustling with volunteers trying to fill in for an absent state and cash-strapped charities that have closed their doors or reduced their activities in recent months due to deteriorating economic conditions.” It noted that “With volunteer kitchens, makeshift clinics, and donation centers, Lebanon’s protesters are helping their compatriots survive the worst economic crisis since the civil war by offering services many can no longer afford.”

The article mentioned efforts in Sidon and well as Beirut’s main protest camp, where “volunteers dressed in neon-yellow vests pack the back of a truck with piles of donated food.Near the main central bank building in the capital, cardboard boxes and rubbish bags filled with donations line the sidewalk…“It is our national duty to mobilize and help each other,” said a volunteer.“’We have no other solution.’”

Another article provided statistics on the dire situation. According to Mohammad Chamseddine, a researcher at the consultancy firm International Information, 55%of the Lebanese people are poor.One quarter of the Lebanese population cannot secure their food needs while 30% can secure their food needs only without any other additional expense such as hospitalization, adding that more than 25% of the Lebanese are unemployed.

Former education minister Hassan Diab, who has been tasked by some of the political elites with forming the technocratic government demanded by the protestors and international donors, continues his efforts this week but has yet to show that those in power will step aside to empower a new government. With winter already causing flooding and snow, Lebanese of limited means are desperate as many can no longer afford to purchase power from private suppliers that the government is unable to provide. Winter was once a joyous time for holidays and skiing in Lebanon. This year the bottom line is misery for many and escape for the well off. The famous Lebanese resilience seems a distant dream for the starving, cold, and poor.