It is increasingly difficult to ignore the factors forcing the Lebanese deeper into poverty. For example, one unintended impact of US policy towards Iran is that while it effectively squeezes the economic performance of the regime, it also reduces resources for the Lebanese Shia community. At a recent session sponsored by Al-Monitor, Brian Hook, the US special representative for Iran and senior policy adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, noted that the maximum pressure campaign being coordinated by the US has had a significant impact on Iran and its ability to support its proxy militias, including Hezbollah.
While on the macro level, this may be true, it is also clear that Iran, despite the expansion of US sanctions on individuals as well as entities, continues to provide its constituents in Lebanon with cash to purchase needed goods, although at reduced levels. It is trucking in Iraqi products, flooding local markets and adding to Hezbollah’s leverage. Whether or not its allies in the broader Shia and Christian communities are also benefiting is not clear. The bottom line is that on a whole, the failure of the government to effectively manage the financial crisis and the increasing resilience of Hezbollah’s supporters are exacerbating the country’s economic and social services decline.
This week, Prime Minister Diab acknowledged that “The state is no longer capable of protecting the Lebanese people…this government has lost the trust of the people...and the Cabinet is shackled with sectarian restrictions and chains of corruption.” This is hardly a vote of confidence in the government’s capacity to adopt serious reforms and re-energize the economy, let alone reduce the influence of the ruling elites to allow for more political and economic transparency.
A major stumbling block to reform is Hezbollah’s adamant opposition to an IMF-structured and led rescue plan that would impose restrictions and transparency on how the sectarian leadership controls the financial system and government spending policies. This stance is echoed by the Speaker of the Parliament and Shia leader Nabih Berri who welcomes the IMF advice as a necessary ingredient to reviving investor confidence in Lebanon, but not its conditions for implementation. Others wonder if austerity programs such as those called for under previous IMF consultations would have disproportionate consequences on those least able to sustain the cuts.
The situation is getting even more dire as bank liquidity dries up, there are investigations into capital flight even as controls were supposedly put in place, and there are no prognosticators who believe that Lebanon can weather these multiples crises without significant reforms lasting several years.
On the humanitarian relief file, ATFL recently published a listing of organizations and agencies that are providing support to the marginalized, disadvantaged, and poor Lebanese. While support for the Syrian refugees is well documented, there has been little acknowledgement of what is being done for the Lebanese people. The summary is worth reviewing as it details how the international community is responding to the crisis despite the gridlock in the Lebanese government’s plans.
Leading the list is the US government, which, since 2005, has pledged more than $3.5 billion, none of which flows directly through the Lebanese government. Current funding is used to support the activities of Lebanese NGOs engaged in rural and municipal development programs nationwide, to improve the capacity of the public sector in providing transparent, quality services, to strengthen the Lebanese security services, and to reduce deep pockets of poverty. The US also supports humanitarian demining programs.
In addition to its work with the refugee populations, the World Food Program supports more than 13,000 Lebanese families, reaching some 115,000 beneficiaries with cash based assistance. Details are available at the WFP Lebanon Country Brief. Its digital literacy program strives to improve the lives of its beneficiaries by teaching them skills needed to utilize technology for development projects.
Helping Lebanese families and refugees cope with winter conditions, UNICEF and UNHCR partnered on Together We Give Warmth, supporting some 20,000 vulnerable Lebanese families with cash or fuel cards. UNHCR also helps host communities with projects like water reservoirs and repair of schools, and provides general support to improve response services such as for child protection, gender-based violence response, and mental health, among other services. More information is at https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/lebanon.html.
Among other groups in the study are: Save the Children, UNICEF, Mercy Corps, Doctors without Borders, Solidarity Box, and the Rene Moawad Foundation, whose founder, H.E. Nayla Moawad, will be honored at this year’s ATFL Annual Dinner.
In all of Lebanon’s troubles with the Syrian refugee crisis, little attention has been paid to the status of the much longer Palestinian refugee crisis. Arab News reports that “According to a population census conducted in 2017 by the Central Administration of Statistics in Lebanon, in coordination with the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), there are 174,422 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon spread across 12 camps and nearby compounds.” However, the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) estimates that there are 459,292 refugees in the country.
Caught between US defunding of UNRWA and the proposed Deal of the Century, Palestinians have seen dramatic erosion in their options. This concerns Lebanon since the deal includes the elimination of the refugee issue by settling them in the host communities, something far beyond the capacity of the Lebanese state despite promises of billions of dollars. According to Fathi Abu Al-Ardat, secretary of PLO factions in Lebanon, “urgent measures are being put into place to try and stop the crisis situation getting out of control. Conditions in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon are very difficult due to the economic crisis facing the country, and we are trying to delay a social explosion in the camps and working on stopgap solutions.”