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Development & Aid

Lebanon: How to Build Back Better after Political and Economic Crisis

A man and a woman in front of the Beirut Port, Lebanon, following the blast. Courtesy: UN Women Arab States/Dar Al Mussawir

A man and a woman in front of the Beirut Port, Lebanon, following the blast. Courtesy: UN Women Arab States/Dar Al Mussawir

UNITED NATIONS, Jan 29 2021 (IPS) - Lebanon must “shield and preserve” the skills, knowledge, and experience of its people in order to move forward with its development, according to Christophe Abi-Nassif, the Lebanon programme director for the Middle East Institute (MEI).

“Shielding and preserving whatever is left of Lebanon’s human capital should be the main policy-making concern at the moment,” Abi-Nassif told IPS. “We are in fire-fighting mode right now and when you’re a fire-fighter, you prioritise saving human lives.”

He spoke with IPS following a panel on COVID-19-integrated recovery policies for the country, organised by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA).

At the panel, experts spoke on a range of issues from the country’s private and public sector partnerships, the health sector and its COVID-19 response, the impact on children, and the challenges faced by Syrian refugees.

The panel took place on Wednesday, Jan. 27, just as the country was embroiled in massive protests in response to COVID-19 restrictions and the worst economic crisis in Lebanon’s history.

“What is the point of any other policy priorities anyway when your people are impoverished, dying at hospital doors, or emigrating?” Abi-Nassif added. “Any serious effort would entail providing immediate financial, logistical and mental health support to families living below the poverty line since extreme poverty breeds unrest and chaos.”

Lebanon is at the intersection of one crisis after the other: the COVID-19 pandemic, the August 2020 explosion — which left an estimated 200,000 people homeless or living in homes without windows or doors — and an extremely high poverty rate. The World Bank estimates the poverty rate in the country could go up to 45 percent, with the rate of extreme poverty nearing 22 percent, and a projected 19.2 percent decline in GDP.

This dire situation is affecting marginalised groups differently: from children to refugees. 

Yukie Mokuo, a representative with the UN International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), pointed to an enormous lack of social protection in the country.

“This is a really unprecedented crisis for children,” she said, citing the country’s poverty rate. “About 1.2 million children are impacted in their access to education, and child labour has increased, including early marriage.”

Dr. Rita Rehayem, a representative for the National Committee for Sustainable Development, shared the different challenges that civil society organisations are experiencing under the current crises. While the number of vulnerable populations increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, so did the costs for CSOs in implementing their work, she said. With added costs, it has affected the work of CSOs.  

“Additional budget was needed to purchase PPEs, to protect staff and volunteers but as well as the beneficiaries. Many additional budgets were allocated for this, and development projects were unfortunately put on hold,” she said. “Although we in Lebanon are in desperate need of development projects, the budget or the funds were really allocated for humanitarian assistance.”

While the Lebanese population is being impacted by these different crises, the Syrian refugee population in the country is also suffering immensely, according to Karolina Lindholm, Deputy Representative of UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Lebanon, who was speaking at the panel.

Lebanon’s Syrian refugee community — more than half of whom are under 18 — is facing a number of challenges under the current circumstances: difficulty buying food due to lack of money, inability to pay rent, loss of livelihoods and employments, reduced access to healthcare due to lack of money, and increased morbidity rate among the refugees.

A mental health crisis in the community has also led to a spike in suicide cases, Lindholm added, citing cases of self-immolation among the refugees.

“The erosion of resilience is very, very striking,” Lindholm said.

Abi-Nassif expressed concern that on top of these challenges, the refugee community might be subject to more discrimination.

“As more and more people compete for fewer resources such as food supplies or vaccines, one thing I worry about is an increase in extreme right-wing rhetoric and violence against refugees,” he told IPS.

With demonstrators out on the streets protesting the current economic and political crises, Abi-Nassif warned of against conspiracy theories.

“In Lebanon, even misery and tragedy are politicised. The notion that people are taking to the streets for the pure sake of voicing grievances is foreign to the political class,” he said. “In the latter’s eyes, it is always about conspiracy and foreign interference. Although this possibility may hold sometimes in some places, it cannot hold everywhere all the time.”

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