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To help Lebanon through its collapse, listen to its most vulnerable

‘I watched, and reported, as banks turned from boring places where you wait in line to hotbeds of anxiety, anger, and humiliation.’

(Kylee Pedersen/TNH)

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I’ve lived in Lebanon for much of my life, and over the past five years as a journalist I’ve reported on everything from political stalemates and the plight of refugees, to human rights and economics. My home country has never been the picture of stability, but it has still been shocking to watch so many people fall into poverty so quickly, as the economy utterly collapses and savings evaporate. 

Since late 2019, when the currency began to shake and banks turned out to be short on reserves, food prices have rocketed up. Factor in fuel and medicine shortages, add a pound that has lost over 90 percent of its value, and it sure sounds like we are in the midst of a humanitarian catastrophe akin to a natural disaster. 

But Lebanon’s woes are man-made. Since the end of the civil war in 1990, as aid and loans poured in from around the world, our militia-leaders turned politicians and businessmen have been driving Lebanon into the ground. The past few decades have been marked by wasteful spending, rampant corruption, no viable social services, and a complete lack of transparency. 

Humanitarian aid has long been a necessity for the 1.5 million Syrian refugees and hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who live here. But with more than half of the Lebanese population now in poverty – a staggering number economists expect to rise – it feels like almost everyone needs relief of some sort: A social worker told me that many of the families who ask for assistance include at least one fully-employed person, some with university degrees and “white collar” jobs. I recently spoke to a brilliant young woman in her mid-twenties, juggling three jobs and struggling to pay the bills. 

“Without wholesale changes to Lebanon, I fear that what’s to come after this gruelling summer is an even crueller winter.”

These people need help, but they need more than cash handouts or food parcels; because if we continue to treat the country’s economic crisis as one that merits only a humanitarian response, we’re ignoring the key structural issues that got us here in the first place. 

As Lebanon falls even further into the abyss, my social media feeds are full to the brim with heartwarming humanitarian initiatives for Lebanon. “How can I help?” is a question I’ve been asked all summer, from friends and strangers around the world, and members of the Lebanese diaspora. They’ve stepped up in a variety of ways. 

To them I say, keep stuffing your suitcases with cash, medicine, power banks, and everything in between, but know that it alone won’t bring back economic independence and agency for hundreds of thousands of families. Without wholesale changes to Lebanon, I fear that what’s to come after this gruelling summer is an even crueller winter.

‘Why should I stay?’

Earlier this month, I was reporting in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city and arguably the hub of its long-standing awful economic inequality. Despite its history of poverty and outbreaks of violence, residents of the city told me they are in greater pain than ever before. 

A member of Tripoli’s municipal council told me that about 85 percent of the city currently lives below the poverty line – a sharp increase of nearly 30 percent from five years ago.

On a scorching hot summer day, Alia and her son Alaa sat down to speak with me in their modest, worn-down home in the neighbourhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh.

Ever since Lebanon’s economy began to crash in September 2019, fuel shortages have meant most households have to cope with regular power outages. Luckily, on the day I visited, Alia and Alaa had enough electricity to power a fan. Next to them was Walid, Alia’s husband and Alaa’s father, lying on an uncomfortable-looking couch, hooked to an oxygen tank, and barely conscious.

Walid survived cancer about a decade ago, but the family doesn’t have enough money for tests to diagnose and treat what’s ailing him now. He’s in so much pain that he can barely eat, and what little sleep he does get is only thanks to painkillers. 

Alaa is 20 and hasn’t been in school since his mid-teens, when he left to work and look after his father. He carries a greater burden than most others his age could ever imagine, and he knows it. These days, he’s so fed up with Lebanon that he’s thinking about boarding a raft in the middle of the night to take a death-defying journey across the Mediterranean, taking his chances to get to somewhere like Cyprus. It’s a risk more and more desperate Lebanese have been taking over the past year or so.

“Why not?” he said of the journey. “If it meant I could support my family [from outside the country], then of course I would leave.” Even if he risks drowning, like many of the Lebanese and Syrians who have tried the same route out? Yes, he told me, the danger is worth it. He’s that discouraged with the state of the country, and his inability to change his family’s circumstances. “If I can’t get medicine for my dad in my own country,” he said, “then why should I stay?”

Frustration, heartbreak, fury

While Tripoli has been particularly hard hit, the rest of the country has been economically pulverised too. That includes the capital city of Beirut, where I live. 

It’s no longer just a case of already vulnerable families like Alia's spiralling into even worse living conditions. What was left of the middle class now find themselves unable to retire as planned, or forced to take up second jobs.

I watched, and reported, as banks turned from boring places where you wait in line to hotbeds of anxiety, anger, and humiliation. Like many others, I tried my luck each week to see how many dollars my bank would let me take out to stop my savings from disappearing with inflation. Each week, I was stymied by the limits the bank imposed to make sure they stayed in business. 

While it was frustrating for me, it was heartbreaking to watch older people bewildered at why they weren’t allowed enough of their own money to cover their expenses. I saw a bank manager try to calm down a woman who looked to be in her seventies, telling her the regulations wouldn’t let her withdraw what she needed. 

He probably didn’t tell her that the bank was trying to save itself at her expense.  

Sometimes, explanations weren’t enough. Scuffles broke out at some banks, and in a few cases people brought weapons to force staff into allowing them to make withdrawals. I saw a picture of a bank in Akkar, a town in northern Lebanon, where a man was waiting in line with a pick-axe on his shoulder.

Structural change

All of this could have been stopped. Governments and humanitarian agencies send hundreds of millions of dollars of aid to Lebanon – for food, medical equipment to underfunded public hospitals, and for the rising needs that cropped up after the deadly explosion at Beirut’s port last August. 

Numerous charities and aid groups have told me they are trying to scale up their capacity to help Lebanese citizens, after years of mostly focusing on the needs of Syrians and Palestinians. The country’s large diaspora also provides a lifeline for their families by sending money and supplies home.

And while this aid is extremely important, even a matter of life and death for many families, it can’t keep up with the skyrocketing needs. Not to mention the fact that while people like Alia, Alaa, and Walid might be able to get some assistance from NGOs, they don’t want to rely on handouts forever. They want a functioning country with job opportunities and social services. So do I.

In addition to emergency aid, Lebanon needs developmental and economic assistance, both of which were actually promised before the blast at a 2018 conference in Paris, when the international community pledged $11.1 billion in loans and credit for development projects.

The condition then – and the condition for later promises from foreign countries and the World Bank – was that Lebanon would enact key structural reforms to vitalise its sluggish economy.

But the government has been unable to make good on promises to make its economy viable, not to mention to actually agree on a cabinet: Late last week, yet another potential prime minister resigned as political leaders bickered over their spoils rather than pave the way for a wave of new visionaries.

Whether it’s forming a government, electricity or waste management, or infrastructure and water systems, leadership just can’t seem to deliver. They use suffering families like Alia’s in Tripoli as mere bargaining chips. 

As a result, much of the country doesn’t trust public institutions, and understandably so. When protests rocked the country around the same time the economy began to falter, the international community kept its word, and did not step in to help. Even after the devastating port explosion, it only sent humanitarian aid, rather than help to really reconstruct our infrastructure and economy. 

“When I’m reporting, families I speak to will often ask me if I can pay them for an interview, or connect them with a charity to help them get back on their feet. But more often than not, they ask me if I can help them find a job.”

But since the Beirut blast, more and more Lebanese have been suggesting that money should go through UN agencies, NGOs, and local groups. That’s not to say those organisations don’t come with their own problems and inefficiencies, but they’re guaranteed to be more effective in the short term than waiting on a government that can’t get its act together. 

This paints a grim picture of the state of our hopes in Lebanon. In late October 2019, this population dared to dream of a new chapter in its history, taking to the streets to demand change. Less than two years later, it is looking for the least worst option. 

But what choice do we have? Some families who lost their homes and businesses in the blast have yet to receive any help from the government, pulling them even deeper into debt. Others have turned to groups affiliated with political parties and their notorious patronage networks. 

When I’m reporting, families I speak to will often ask me if I can pay them for an interview, or connect them with a charity to help them get back on their feet. But more often than not, they ask me if I can help them find a job. I think this speaks volumes of how people feel about this crisis.

They point the finger at “them” – the political leadership and the bankers that have deprived them of their life’s savings, and used tax money for personal gain rather than to improve a sinking country. Most people, including Alia and Alaa, tend to have the same list of expectations for the government: job opportunities, access to healthcare and education, and transparency. 

These are basic expectations, setting a very low bar. But the international community needs to step up. It is going to have to get creative if it is to find a way to help this country rebuild on a deeper level than what it’s currently doing. 

That’s not to say that humanitarian aid needs to stop. For many in Lebanon, it is a lifeline – increasingly literally. But it’s also just a bandage on a wound that needs surgery.

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