Lebanon’s three-year financial collapse has come to impact almost every aspect of life; even the act of picking up the phone to call for help.
Since the start of July, when Lebanon’s government made a change that resulted in a drastic rise in the cost of phone and internet use, many aid groups say they’ve seen a significant decline in calls to their helplines.
NGOs worry this is impacting their ability to reach those looking for help – particularly concerning since numbers in need have grown fast since Lebanon’s economy began its dramatic collapse in late 2019. Over the past three years, its currency has lost 90% of its value, and the majority of the population has been driven below the poverty line.
Rose Habchi Daher, resilience programme manager at Himaya, a Lebanese NGO that focuses on child protection, including preventing and dealing with child abuse, told The New Humanitarian the number of calls the group has received has dropped by more than 50% through September as opposed to the same time period last year, while the organisation's own telecom bills have increased 20-fold since July 2022.
Some NGOs are seeking to acquire toll-free lines to mitigate the rising costs, in addition to making other shifts in the way they work. For example, Daher said Himaya has “provided phones and lines for our psychologists, but due to the increase in the price of telecom tariffs, we had to return to operate in-person [as they had before COVID-19] to decrease the costs.”
The issue was highlighted in August when Mercy Corps, which works in Lebanon helping Syrian refugees and vulnerable Lebanese populations, published a report on how the tariff hike had led to a significant drop in calls on its own hotline: down to 190 in July, from 663 in June.
Exchange rate quandaries
There are major gaps between Lebanon’s widely used black market exchange rate, the central bank rate, and the government’s official exchange rate. Understanding the difference, and where these rates apply, is crucial to unpacking how and why helplines have been hit so hard.
As part of a plan to pull the country out of its economic problems, the government decided in May to change the exchange rate used to pay for services like mobile phones, landlines, and the internet. It was switched from the official government rate – pegged at around 1,500 Lebanese lira to the US dollar – to a fluctuating number (known as the Sayrafa rate) set by the central bank. As of this week, that rate is 30,100 Lebanese lira to the dollar.
This shift, which came into effect at the beginning of July, meant a massive increase in prices at Lebanon’s two state-owned telecoms companies, Alfa and Touch. For example, Alfa and Touch's 500MB mobile internet bundle cost $10 before the switch, meaning users paid around 15,000 Lebanese lira at the official rate.
The two companies actually reduced the price of a 500 MB data bundle to $3.50, but paying for that in Lebanese currency at the central bank’s rate now costs 105,350 lira for the same bundle. In other words, telecom tariffs have increased by over 600% since July, making calls and internet access a luxury for many.
Mohamad Najem, executive director of Beirut-based digital rights organisation SMEX, told The New Humanitarian the hike in prices is hitting the most vulnerable groups the hardest because most are paid in devalued lira rather than dollars.
"The users of NGOs will be the most affected because these people belong to poor communities and won't be able to communicate as they used to,” he said. “Furthermore, limited access to the internet affects people's freedom of expression."
Fewer people using phones
At least one aid organisation has tried to shoulder the burden of the higher costs for clients: Embrace Lebanon, which operates the National Lifeline, a number providing mental health support and suicide prevention.
"When people call us and mention their financial situation, we call them back, taking on… the costs of the phone call," Reve Romanos, Embrace Lebanon’s lifeline supervisor, told The New Humanitarian.
The National Lifeline phone number, 1564, receives an average of 1,000 calls per month. It is not toll-free for callers, as the NGO says it’s awaiting government approval to make that switch.
"Last month, the [NGO’s own phone] bill increased by 200%,” Romanos said, adding that the group is now paying around $100 per month.
ABAAD, a Lebanon-based NGO that works on gender equality, also reported a decrease in the number of calls it received between July and September compared to the same period in both 2020 and 2021.
One reason for the drop in calls may be that Lebanon’s deepening and interlocked economic and social crises have prompted families to find ways to cut their monthly expenses. This has sometimes meant reducing the number of mobile phones used within a family, said Khodor Saad, ABAAD's media and communications officer.
“As many families own only one phone, which is owned by the husband, it makes it harder for women and girls to communicate with [ABAAD’s] safeline,” Saad said in an email. That could mean a mother or daughter would not have ready access to a phone to report issues like domestic violence.
Saad said they had noticed more people showing up to seek support at their safe spaces without calling first, which they are now prepared for given the telecoms changes.
Alexander Harper, the crisis analytics team leader that produced the Mercy Corps report, noted a similar concern about how many phones a family has.
"We talked to many other NGOs, looking at this issue carefully,” Harper said. “Many people continue to contact us, but they dramatically reduce the number of SIM cards [used] within the family,” he said. “Now, there might just be one phone for the family.”
Najem at SMEX said the government's plan to shut down its 2G network, also announced in May, may leave even more people without access to phones or internet: He said around 300,000 people, mainly belonging to the most vulnerable groups, rely on old phones that use 2G networks.
A few NGOs contacted, however, had different experiences. For instance, KAFA, a Lebanese NGO focused on gender-based violence and exploitation, said it couldn’t be sure if it had seen a drop in calls as it has several ways to be reached, including WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. Although those services rely on the internet, the cost of a message is much lower than a phone call.
Hotlines face other issues related to Lebanon’s ongoing crisis, too. In September, the Lebanese Red Cross’ ambulance service hotline went down because of shortages of fuel at the state-run power company. It posted new numbers – including one that uses WhatsApp – to Facebook and Twitter and other media so people could still get through.
Shifting to emergency needs
As telecom costs continue to soar, many groups worry that Lebanese in need will find it increasingly difficult to reach NGOs, making their work ineffective.
To counteract that, the Mercy Corps report recommends that NGOs budget for higher telecom costs, offer toll free hotlines, scale up face-to-face support through places like community centres, and provide free WiFi or other services at such locations. Mercy Corps told The New Humanitarian it is hoping to provide a toll-free number soon but like other NGOs is waiting for approval to make the switch.
“The inability of large parts of the resident population to afford basic communication and internet access will continue to pose challenges to humanitarian community outreach activities,” the Mercy Corps report warns.
“As the humanitarian response broadens to meet the needs of Lebanese citizens, who are increasingly dependent on humanitarian assistance, effective communication is essential.”
But telecom and internet price increases aren’t just impacting the ability of people in Lebanon to call for help; they’re likely also worsening Lebanon’s growing poverty problem.
Embrace Lebanon and Himaya both said many people have been calling their helplines to ask for assistance with economic issues, even though that’s not really their focus.
"Around 70% of the callers request financial support, which is not our main mission,” said Daher, at Himaya. “But when you need basic support and don't have it, caregivers feel they are not meeting their basic parental roles, and consequently their well-being and mental health is at greater risk."
This trend was also confirmed by Harper, who said Mercy Corps has shifted towards providing some emergency humanitarian assistance even though its usual work focuses more on development.
Edited by Pradnya Joshi.