Lebanon needs an aid paradigm shift

To avert a catastrophe in Lebanon, foreign donors need to change how they deliver aid to the country.

Anti-government protesters hold up a sign which reads 'Down with the rule of debt' during a protest against the rising prices and worsening economic conditions in Beirut, Lebanon on March 12, 2021 [AP/Hassan Ammar]

In the past two years, three successive crises converged to push Lebanon to the brink. First, there was the economic collapse in late 2019 which worsened over time. In early March, the Lebanese pound plummeted to a historic low. Salaries are now worth one-10th of what they used to be two years ago.

Second, a deadly port explosion ripped through the capital, Beirut, on August 4, 2020, killing more than 200 people and causing massive destruction. Reconstruction is only in its early stages and it would cost more than $4bn. Third, the country has also been badly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. It has further put pressure on Lebanon’s struggling economy and severely strained its health sector.

These crises have fuelled public anger and desperation. People continue to take to the streets in protest, blocking roads and burning tyres. Meanwhile, crime is on the rise, with burglaries becoming much more frequent. Fights break out often in public, sometimes over food. Many fear a social implosion.

All three crises have had tremendous humanitarian consequences and they have all been driven or massively exacerbated by a failure of governance rooted in political corruption and mismanagement. These factors continue to undercut efforts to alleviate the suffering of the Lebanese people.

International donors are trying to help Lebanon recover, just as they previously tried to assist the country’s one million Syrian and 200,000 Palestinian refugees. But they are going about it in their old ways – through close engagement with state institutions. This approach kept the country afloat in the short term, but it ignored the predatory governance, which created much of the problem in the first place.

The international aid community now has limited time to avert a disaster. In order to be successful, it will need a new approach that avoids the mistakes of the past – one that finally confronts the country’s pervasive structural corruption and that finds ways to work around it.

For decades, Lebanon’s political parties have siphoned off a significant amount of resources from the public sector and have bolstered their respective sectarian-based patronage networks. These practices prevail across a bloated public sector. There are many state employees who have been appointed based on partisan allegiance alone and there are also many ghost employees who are on the payroll but do not actually work for the state. Public tenders have also been given out along partisan lines.

Leaders of sectarian parties have closed ranks to protect these clientelistic networks. They enjoy the support of certain sectors of society that still believe they need the protection of sectarian patronage.

This also explains why despite the country’s alarming state of devastation, no significant reforms have been commenced and no measures to alleviate the plight of the Lebanese people have been taken. Political leaders continue to give precedence to their vested interests over the country’s very survival. Their disagreements and bickering have once again left the country in a deadlock.

Meanwhile, Lebanese NGOs, grassroots groups, charities, and volunteers have stepped up to fill the vacuum left by the state, distributing food, clothing, medicine and in some cases cash handouts, as the needs of the general population have increased dramatically.

Many NGOs have come up with innovative solutions to tackle rising vulnerability. They have opened kitchens and supermarkets that serve the most vulnerable. They have planted lands donated by wealthy Lebanese and distributed the produce in the neediest communities. They have also provided microcredits and other livelihood opportunities.

Their efforts, however, are not enough to overcome the enormous demand they face for assistance. The international community has to step up to help Lebanon, but when it does, it needs to do it differently. There needs to be a paradigm shift in how aid is distributed.

Any meaningful change will need to hold governmental bodies accountable. This means enforcing strict anti-corruption standards, ensuring that no funding goes to state institutions involved in corruption, and shifting the humanitarian approach towards more sustainable solutions for refugees and vulnerable Lebanese that focus on self-reliance and livelihood programmes.

It also means endorsing civil society organisations as allies against corruption and forming an accountability watchdog led by them that can closely monitor projects implemented by the Lebanese government and international actors. These organisations should also be partners in devising short-term and long-term humanitarian and developmental plans as they have previously played a key role in crisis response. Moreover, donors and UN agencies should assume a greater role in humanitarian diplomacy by putting more pressure on Lebanese officials to ensure that Lebanon respects refugee rights and dignity.

The good news is that Lebanon’s international partners now recognise the need for change. The United States, France, and others have linked aid packages to reform. A recent international initiative for Lebanon, called the 3R Framework (reform, recovery, and reconstruction) and led by the European Union, United Nations, and the World Bank Group, also envisions financial support tied to major governance changes.

The bad news is that despite the acknowledgement that corruption needs to be tackled, some big donors have yet to change course. For example, in January, the World Bank announced a $246m loan to support poor and vulnerable Lebanese families.

Instead of seeking a way to disburse the money in the most efficient way to secure maximum benefit for the disadvantaged families, it instead decided to disburse the funds through the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Banque du Liban. It proceeded with its plans despite reports of corruption schemes at both of these institutions and an ongoing Swiss investigation against the bank.

Many Lebanese have totally lost trust in their government and its ability to deliver on genuine reforms that put the country on the right track. As the Lebanese system under the current political leadership proves resistant to reform, change should start where it is possible – led by the Lebanese civil society and international actors.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.