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UN fundraising for Beirut gathers pace, but reconstruction will get political

‘The hesitation is, of course, how do you deal with such a corrupt government?’

People view the damage at the blast site in Beirut's port area
After the first wave of local and volunteer response, international aid groups and donors are making plans for the next phase. (Hannah McKay/REUTERS)

The UN is asking the international community for tens of millions of dollars to help Beirut weather the immediate aftermath of last week’s devastating explosion, but funding for longer-term reconstruction is expected to be complicated by concerns over corruption. 

Relief activities costing about $116 million were presented to donors last weekend by the UN, but that figure is expected to rise in a new appeal due be announced before the weekend, according to UN officials, who requested anonymity as details are still being decided.

The preliminary “Emergency Response Framework” already presented to donors, and obtained by The New Humanitarian, is a “guesstimate” that is being reviewed, according to a senior UN official familiar with the process.

Details are still emerging about the full impact of the 4 August blast at Beirut’s port and the subsequent emergency needs, but there have been more than 220 reported deaths (including 34 refugees), and thousands of injuries.

Local officials say as many as 250,000 people may be displaced or homeless, and some 120 schools were damaged, as well as six hospitals and dozens of clinics, to varying degrees. There are also concerns about food supply, with Beirut’s grain silos destroyed and its port infrastructure in disrepair. 

Various countries have pledged to help, and the Beirut airport has seen a steady flow of cargo flights – often with accompanying media promotion for the donor nation – bringing medical supplies, food, and other relief from states in the region and further afield.

UN-managed teams are helping to coordinate these inbound donations and personnel, and liaising with the government. Some 20 international search and rescue and medical teams have arrived in Lebanon too, but the foreign rescuers are yet to recover any survivors, and hopes, more than a week after the explosion, are fading.

The new appeal, which will be announced in the coming days by Najat Rochdi, the UN’s top humanitarian official in Lebanon, is intended to consolidate the funding requirements for the immediate needs of the UN’s own agencies – like the World Food Programme and the World Health Organization – and an unknown number of local and international NGOs.

The request will be what the UN calls a “flash” appeal, meant to deal only with immediate emergency needs. Typically, such an appeal includes an overview of priorities and the response strategy, along with project summaries in specific areas – health, water, shelter, psychological support, for example – and those projects’ costs. 

Several well-placed observers told TNH it is likely to cover a three-month timeframe, and will probably not include reconstruction and other longer-term concerns. That implies it will not include all of the $350 million that four UN agencies and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies have already requested to respond to the explosion. The lion’s share of that amount is from the WFP, which is asking donors for $235 million for a six-month food import and port logistics operation to sustain bread supplies. 

The ‘trust deficit’

Lebanon’s overall needs are likely to be more than donors feel they are able to afford at the moment.

Lebanon’s representative to the UN, Amal Mudallali, said on 10 August that her country had gone through “15 years of war in 15 seconds”, calling the toll “staggering” and predicting that the costs of rebuilding would amount to “billions of dollars”. Speaking at a UN briefing on 10 August, Mudallali called for the international community to stay “for the whole journey”, not just the emergency, but also the “second and most important stage” of rebuilding. 

But reconstruction in Beirut will be a tough sell to donor countries: Pressure on aid budgets is extreme, COVID-19 has created unprecedented demands at home and abroad, and a profound mistrust in Lebanon’s political set-up has soured the prospect of cooperation.

Reviewing the aid pledges and arrivals so far, the UN’s Rochdi said she was “encouraged by this early show of commitment and solidarity,” adding: “It is desperately needed.” But in a 10 August media briefing, she admitted that there was a “trust deficit” for donors that are considering channelling their funds through the Lebanese government.

The country’s entire cabinet and its incumbent prime minister, Hassan Diab, stepped aside on 10 August, with Diab citing systemic corruption as the underlying cause of the explosion of thousands of tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored at the port. But Diab and his ministers will stay on in a caretaker capacity, and many Lebanese have continued to protest the authorities’ failure to heed reported warnings about the risk the chemicals posed.

This is among the reasons that several UN and NGO officials – who asked to remain anonymous because the appeal was still under negotiation – said the flash request was likely to stay tightly focused on the most life-saving activities, at least for the moment. They believe this limited scope will help encourage buy-in and allay donor worries about the Lebanese government’s involvement. As one told TNH: “The hesitation is, of course: How do you deal with such a corrupt government?” 

From emergency aid to reconstruction

Another official pointed out that the total figure of the UN appeal will be limited by the short timespan of the life-saving emergency phase, much of which is being attended to by local aid groups. “This is going to transition very quickly to recovery and rehabilitation,” they said.

Many NGOs have mounted funding campaigns online: Fundraising platform GoFundMe has raised over $588,000 for a set of frontline Lebanese groups, and the Amel Association, a local NGO, has raised about $70,000 so far – a sum it said was several times more than its COVID-19 appeal raised.

Local NGOs are also part of the teams assessing damage and response priorities, and channeling international aid efforts. The Catholic charity Caritas, for example, is handing out food for the WFP. 

International plans for the reconstruction Mudallali mentioned will be sketched in a process led by the World Bank, which aims to have set out its initial scope by 20 August

Reconstruction aid will almost definitely have strings attached: Much of around $300 million in tentative pledges from a 9 August French-led donor conference was subject to conditions and not related to immediate relief. The conference’s closing statement also said that Lebanon would have to institute reforms to win support for economic stabilisation.

“Beirut, according to legend, was destroyed seven times and it was rebuilt and rose from the ashes. We will rebuild, but we cannot do it alone.”

Virginie Lefèvre of the Amel Association told TNH that the current crisis had “structural causes”, so more than a “sticking plaster” is needed. As an example, she said there simply aren’t enough public hospitals in Lebanon, and that once the country is out of “intensive care” there are “definitely needs for reforms” to address social justice.

Following that, there is the issue of structural aid: grants and loans to stabilise the economy, government accounts, and the financial sector. Lebanon has been facing a profound political and economic crisis for months, which has worsened with the impact of COVID-19 on the local economy and a fall in remittances – a key lifeline for many from abroad.

The country is in a dire financial state, heavily in debt, with a collapsing banking sector, devaluation, and rising consumer prices. The International Monetary Fund is likely to be the key player in this dimension. It has held a series of talks with Lebanon, with a figure of $10 billion under discussion, but without agreement. On 9 August, the IMF issued a statement listing four points essential to pulling the country out of its economic crisis.

“Beirut, according to legend, was destroyed seven times and it was rebuilt and rose from the ashes,” said Mudallali, the Lebanese diplomat. “We will rebuild, but we cannot do it alone.”

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