Remembering the Forgotten
How Lebanon’s refugee and other vulnerable communities
are coping after the Beirut blast and in increasingly dire circumstances
Note: Anera hosted this webinar on October 7, 2020. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Joe Saba: [0:45]
Hello, everyone, and welcome to the webinar. I appreciate it that we’re joined today by viewers and panelists literally from all over the world. My name is Joe Saba. I’m the Chairman of the Board of Anera. I’m a consultant to the World Bank, and formerly the World Bank’s Regional Director for the Middle East.
We’re here today to consider what has been really a cascade of calamitous events that have befallen Lebanon, particularly in 2020. We’ve had economic collapse, political crisis and dysfunction. We’ve had political unrest. Lebanon has suffered almost a decade of refugees and forcibly displaced in connection with the disturbances, wars and turmoil in Syria.
The last eight months this has been capped also by COVID pandemic. And of course, the crescendo in this cascade of calamitous events was the Beirut blast, which took place in August.
All of these events, of course, have been well documented in the press, by the media. But the media and the press have largely focused on the political circumstances, both those internal to Lebanon, and those with respect to Lebanon’s external partners, adversaries and intervenors. What we’d like to do today is focus a little bit more on the vulnerable in Lebanon. That is the refugees, the forcibly displaced, internally displaced, the poor, their host communities.
And just a reminder, for those who are watching today — many of those in America, Australia, Canada, Mexico, Latin America, wherever they may be, of Lebanese ancestry, all have within their own families, stories. As a reminder, if you dig back into those stories of your parents, grandparents, perhaps great grandparents, there are reminders that the cause of their forcible displacement often was not immediate warfare, but it was frequently starvation, hunger, religious discrimination. Certainly that was the case of many of those are certainly those many of those in America, who came in, left their villages and took the packs and took what they could with them.
I’m particularly proud to work with Anera, which for over 50 years, has been providing assistance to the forcibly displaced in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, and Lebanon. And not only the forcibly displaced, but also their host communities because the host communities also bear a great burden. And this is nowhere more clear today than in Lebanon.
We’re fortunate today to have a distinguished panel of people who are immediately familiar with the circumstances in Lebanon, and I hope can give you some insights. We will also take questions and have a discussion on these presentations.
I’d like to introduce you to the panelists today.
Our first will be Adib Nehme. A consultant and expert on development and socio economic policies and poverty is currently a senior policy advisor for the Arab NGO Network for Development and an independent consultant for development issues. From 2009 to 2018, Adib worked as a regional advisor on Agenda 2030 and the development goals for the United Nations at the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, based in Beirut. He’s published two books: The Neo-Patrimonial State and the Arab Spring, and Arab Popular Solidarity: from the Nahda to the Arab Spring.
Our second panelist is Abby Sewell, who is a freelance journalist based in Beirut, where much of her reporting focuses on refugee and migration issues. Her bylines have appeared in outlets including The New Humanitarian, Public Radio International, US News and World Report, Foreign Policy, Wired and other international and regional publications. Previously, she was a staff writer with the Los Angeles Times and The Daily Star in Beirut.
Elie Youssef is an engineer and marketing specialist that manages several brands in the MENA network. His volunteering has earned him the opportunity to work with the Lebanese Food Bank since 2011. He set up and established scores of local projects to enhance the lives of hundreds of families, distributed thousands of food and non food packages, helped set up several community kitchens, supported local farmers and more. He has also worked on spreading awareness on the importance of urban farming, and empowering home-based food businesses.
Samar El-Yassir is Anera’s director in Lebanon. She is responsible for all of Anera’s Lebanon operations, including, education and sports programs for vulnerable adolescents, health and relief access for impoverished families and sustainable community development at refugee camps. Ms. Yassir is a development professional with more than 20 years of experience, working with civil society organizations to promote human rights, democracy, greater equality, peace, and conflict resolutions.
I want to thank in advance all of the panelists for being with us. What I would like to do now is immediately turned to Adib, who will give us an overview of the situation in Lebanon.
Adib Nehme: [7:21]:
Thank you very much. Thanks to Anera for this opportunity. I will try as requested to be brief 10 to 12 minutes and I rely on your job to remind me not to exceed because when you start talking about the Lebanese crisis it will never end. However, I will just raise some points and I hope that will trigger some questions for the participants while listening to us.
First of all, we are now the seventh of October, it means that in a few days, in 10 days, actually, it will be one year exactly since the continuous uprising and protests of the Lebanese population that started in 17 October in 2019.
And this protest actually started as a reaction to the deteriorating situation in Lebanon both economic, social, and political. That entered a new phase because we have something that we can consider as being a chronic and permanent crisis or situation in Lebanon. But actually starting mid 2019 it entered a new and different and very acute phase of this crisis.
How can I describe it? Actually, as Joe mentioned, it is a political and institutional crisis. It is an economic crisis, it is a social crisis. And at the same time, now, you have to add to it the coronavirus crisis and its impact and of course, the latest blast. In the Lebanese context, it is very difficult to isolate either these political from the economic or social aspects. Now also to isolate the impact. So, we have actually a combined impact that the result is very severe deterioration of the livelihoods of the Lebanese of the resident population. That covers the Lebanese of course, but at the same time, it is more felt by the refugees: Palestinian, and Syrian even more than the Palestinian, and by migrant worker.
Now, my other panelists will cover mainly the issue of the refugees in more in detail. So I will stick to the overall situation of the crisis, mainly the combined economic, social and institutional crisis. Now for the economic layer of this crisis actually we are now at the heart of what we can call a complete collapse of the Lebanese economy coupled also with almost complete dysfunctional, institutional setup. No government is working and restitution or not government.
What is new is this current crisis. Of course, we have now the devaluation of the Lebanese lira in one year. Now, the devaluation and the exchange rate of the US dollar vis a vis the Lebanese lira was multiplied by five. And we used to have $1 equal to 1,500 lira. Now, we are at 8,000 even more, maybe reaching 9,000. So it is 5,000 more. So this is one aspect, and of course you can imagine what it means for all the people who have their income in Lebanese lira.
And the second aspect of this crisis now is it is a banking system crisis, because there is no liquidity in the bank meaning dollars of course. And we are a dollarized economy at a level of 70%. So it means nothing just to have lira in Lebanon, you should have dollars always, be it for companies or even for individuals.
So now the banks don’t have any liquidity in foreign devices and especially dollars which is the main currency that is used. Is what is happening now unique? Actually, yes and no.
No because in the 80s, after the Israeli invasion in 1982, we witnessed for almost like between 1984 and 1992, also very sharp deterioration of the exchange rate, and actually it was much more severe than now. So because we had, like $1 equals to 2.5. lira only, we ended in 1992 with $1 to 2,800 Euros, which means like actually, it is like 1,000 times in this eight year span. And in the first and second years, we reached like 100 times and 200 times which is much more severe than now, which is only a five times devaluation. However, then we didn’t have to since the banking system was working. And we had liquidity in dollars.
And the second that actually we didn’t practically have foreign debt. So our public debt we had almost zero public debt, which is not the situation now. For the moment now, we have this collapse, this devaluation and this crisis of liquidity and the banking system. It happens a couple of ways.
Almost permanent budget deficit, almost also a deficit in the balance of trade and the balance of payment. I will open a bracket just to give you a glance at what for example, the deficit of balance of payments means. In 2018, we exported $3 billion only, we exported $20 billion – it means a $17 billion deficit for one year. It’s just to know what we are dealing with.
We have also an exchange rate collapse, lack of liquidity 170% of GDP as that public debt and institutional collapse because the government is not functioning actually we can even consider that we have no government and no rule of law. So the situation is extremely dangerous and everything is interconnected. When we go to the social aspect actually also some description or some characteristic. Now, we have between 50% and 60% of people in poverty in Lebanon, almost all agencies including the World Bank, UN, and before that, the national experts, estimate that it is 50 to 60% of poverty.
We have extremely large regional discrepancies between the center of Lebanon and the periphery, we have a huge concentration of income wealth. According to Piketty, the region and including Lebanon, we are one of the worst in the world. And lately it was published the level of concentration of deposit in the bank. So we have 1% of the accounts of the bank accounts, in commercial banks that represent like 50% of the overall deposit, for example.
We have no social protection, almost 50% of the population. We have informality in the labor force, reaching 55%. We have almost the very advanced level of dysfunctional and the reaching the level of collapse in the educational system. And the health sector now. Structural housing and real estate crisis, no public transport, no public utility, mainly electricity and water. And at the same time, we have an acute depletion and pollution of the natural resources.
So you can imagine all this together. And on top of this, we have a very regressive taxing system, no redistribution mechanism, and, of course, a dysfunctional day of patrimonial state, that has very large, with very large corruption and clientelism as a main characteristic.
So this is the situation. What is the solution? Actually, we don’t have any solution, and I will come back to this. But the only thing that is pulled off the table is some negotiation that doesn’t didn’t go very well. Until now, actually, they are suspended with the IMF. And you know, the IMF will only propose some drastic and austerity measures which does not resolve the problem, of course, then if, if we think from a scientific perspective.
So this is the aspect now we had lately, this blast at the port of Beirut, it is also a very important event actually, and it was also a disaster. Until now, we don’t know and most probably will not know who is responsible for it, because the people who are in the position of being responsible — the people who had to manage not to resolve the situation, are the same people who are investigating now. So until now, no sign, at least of truce, no sign of justice and no sign of any compensation for the population. And I also want to say that the very important thing in what happens for the blast of Beirut is not only the immediate, the immediate damage and loss of lives. We had like almost 200 people killed, and like 7,000 people injured and thousands of houses destroyed or almost destroyed, etc.
But the most important thing is that this is happening at a very crucial moment. Is it a coincidence? Maybe. I’m not in favor of any kind of conspiracy theory, but this happens at the same time — and I’m addressing just the results, not if it is a conspiracy or not — but it is happening at the time where there are new peace agreement between Israel and between the Arab Gulf countries, which means that we’ll be now direct direct trade and direct roads and direct channels to go directly from the Gulf to the port of Haifa, which means that Beirut port will be completely physically and politically marginalized. Which means one of the main economic, regional functions of the Lebanese economy, or what remains of it, will be completely marginalized. So the impact we have to look at it as being something structural in terms of the economy and the future of Lebanon.
And the second point is that this blast is proof of a failed state that doesn’t manage to do anything even for some Yeah, I mean, this, this this immense explosion that happened and that could be very simply avoided. So it is really a proof of a failed state and the dysfunctional state even more, it is maybe approved for what we can call using also the political science technology, a predator state or a predator ruling class that is actually devouring the state and killing and devouring, it’s own people.
And this is what takes me to the last idea is the last point, which is are we going to get out of it in Lebanon? If we look at this current sign, if we don’t see any positive sign that we are being able to get it? Yes, we had an uprising since 19. Since 17, October 2019. We managed to shake the system, but we didn’t manage to overcome or to overthrow the ruling class as of now.
And the international community actually is not helping the international community is mainly uncertain concerned with the their own interest of the big powers who are intervening baitfish in the international or when they talk about some kind of solution, they are thinking about a new arrangement for power sharing among the same elite, which is a non elite actually.
So it is not responding to the real prices of this will, which means that we will have a very little window for hope for a better future. And a better future for Lebanon is now just being capable to live a normal life. And it may lead to an intense emigration wave, which means that, in addition to what we lost in terms of capital and physical capital and environmental capital, we may also lose our human capital. I am sorry, I am a little bit pessimistic. But this is the reality. And I will end by saying that I believe that the rebellious people will manage to get out of it by overthrowing this ruling mafia.
Thank you very much.
Joe Saba: [22:25]
Thank you very much. It’s quite a daunting set of challenges. But Lebanon has faced challenges before. There’s a lot of resilience and resourcefulness there.
I want to remind the audience please to use the chat function to ask questions, or to provide comments, which we will come to shortly. In the meantime, Abby, why don’t you begin your presentation?
Abby Sewell [22:56]
Thanks for having me. And thanks for the deep, comprehensive introduction to the economic situation. So as Adib mentioned, the economic crisis is affecting everyone in Lebanon now. But the Syrian and Palestinian refugees were particularly vulnerable since before the economic crisis before the explosion before the covid 19 pandemic. And there are various reasons for that. One of them is the fact that legally they don’t have the rights, the same rights to work as the Lebanese.
So for instance, for Syrians, they’re allowed to work only in construction, agriculture and cleaning. For Palestinians, they have a slightly broader set of jobs that they can work, but they’re still banned from most white collar professions. So as a result, a large majority of the refugees are working in the informal sector. And the sectors that they are working in have been impacted also by the economic crisis. Obviously, construction has pretty much slowed to a halt, although I guess we’ll see after the explosion, if there is reconstruction, maybe it will come back. The agriculture sector is also struggling.
So already before the explosion, and before the covid. There, there were problems for the refugees in Lebanon. Now, of course, they’re facing the same issues as everybody else in terms of inflation in terms of the rising prices. If they’re working, their wages are quite low, and they’re not being increased because of the crisis.
And for those of them who were receiving aid from the UN, which is actually not the majority, the majority of them are not receiving any cash assistance. The actual value of the aid has decreased because of the currency situation.
So for instance, some Syrians who are receiving cash for food assistance before the currency crisis, we’re getting $27 per person per month. No, they’re getting I think 70,000 Lebanese pounds a month, which is actually less than $10 at the official exchange rate. So to put that in perspective, one Syrian family that I talked to mentioned that 70,000 would buy a kilo of meat. So obviously, they’re not eating meat anymore. So that’s, um, that’s one set of issues.
Then also keep in mind that in Lebanon, there are no official refugee camps. So actually, all of the refugees are paying rent. The Palestinian camps are not really what we think of as camps. They’re basically neighborhoods, in and around the cities. And yes, the rent is cheaper than maybe in the surrounding areas. But if you’re paying 600,000, Lebanese (lira), if you’re earning dollars, that’s less than $100 a month, so that’s great. But if you’re, if you’re earning in Lebanese at the old rate, or you’re out of work, then that’s still quite expensive.
For Syrians who are living in the camps in the rural areas, which are more like what you would think of as a refugee camp with tents and so forth. They’re also paying rent, usually to a farmer that would have unused agricultural land. So basically, they paid to be able to set up their tents there. Before the currency crisis, I think it was usually around $50 a month or so. These days, of course, nobody’s paying in dollars, and they’re probably not paying at the official exchange rate. But nevertheless, when they’re out of work because of the decline in construction in the agriculture industry. If they are working, they’re making maybe 10,000 Lebanese to 20,000 Lebanese a day, or at one potato farm I visited where most of the workers were teenage girls, they were making 6,000 Lebanese a day, which is less than $1. So under the circumstances, even the slightest amount of rent is going to be quite difficult. And then you have the prices for everything else also going up.
On top of that, of course, the refugees were also impacted by the bay report explosion. You don’t have a lot of Palestinians living in the areas around the port. But there were quite a lot of Syrians living in neighborhoods like Karentina jatalia, Bosch hammoud, which all have varying degrees of damage. And I think the official count now is that were 12 Syrians and one Palestinian killed, I think there were earlier estimates that were higher. Obviously, there were hundreds more who were injured or lost their houses, lost their jobs, because there were restaurants or stores that were destroyed.
So this has also been added on to what was already a bad situation. And on top of that, you also have a COVID-19 crisis, which is affecting refugees like everyone else. To date, I think 31 Palestinians and 21 Syrians have died of COVID out of 400, and some total deaths in the country. I can’t tell you what that is per capita because there are no accurate census statistics for anyone in Lebanon. But you can see it’s a significant portion of the deaths that have taken place in the refugee communities. And they’re also at a higher risk because they’re usually living in very crowded situations.
So how are the refugees coping with all of this? Well, obviously, as I think the next speakers are going to discuss there, there are quite a number of NGOs who are trying to help by providing food or basic assistance. There are also some mutual aid efforts that have taken place within the refugee communities. For instance, in the Bar Elias Camp in Beirut — the Palestinian camp — I saw a food distribution where Palestinians living abroad had raised money and sent it and the camp central committee got together and got the supplies and distributed food boxes.
But obviously the aid can’t reach everyone. And it’s really kind of a drop in the bucket at this point. So how are people living? A lot of people are relying on debt. They’re getting store credit, if they can, they’re, they’re getting behind on the rent. And in some cases, they’re facing eviction. They’re cutting back on what they’re purchasing, like, as I mentioned, most people aren’t buying meat anymore. Or maybe they’re eating one meal a day instead of two or three meals.
You’re seeing a lot more beggars on the streets, especially children. You’re also seeing a lot more children going to work, selling water bottles, tissues, roses, whatever they can. And when I have spoken to the parents of some of these children, of course, it’s part of this part of it is because of the economic pressure, but in also in some cases, it’s because they ran into bureaucratic issues getting their kids registered in schools, even though technically, the Syrians have the right to attend the schools. I’m talking About especially, even though they technically have the right to attend Lebanese public schools, sometimes they run into obstacles and they figure, okay, my kid’s not going to school anyway, so we might as well work and help support the family.
And of course, there are also a lot of children working in agriculture. As I’ve mentioned, there’s also been a disturbing trend. I can’t give statistics, but anecdotally, I’ve heard that there’s been an increase in the number of child marriages, especially in the Syrian population. That’s also mainly for economic reasons. It’s not that people necessarily want to marry off their 14 year old daughter, but they consider “I can’t feed my children and her husband will support her. So I’m actually doing something good for her as well as for me.”
I found it kind of interesting and disturbing. When I talked to a group of Syrian activists who are campaigning against child marriage in the Bekaa Valley, they told me one of the most convincing strategies they found for talking people out of it was telling them, “Look, in many cases, when a girl gets married, that young, the marriage doesn’t work out, she gets divorced, and then she’s coming back to you a year later with a kid. So you’ve actually increased your problems instead of solving them.” And the reason that works is because people had actually seen this happen many times, so they realized that it was true.
In terms of other kinds of negative coping strategies, a number of refugees have said to me: “I’m willing to do anything to feed my children. So if I have to steal — if I have to commit crimes — I will do it.” I would say, to be fair, that I think it’s a very small minority of the population that actually has turned to stealing or to petty crimes, which is perhaps surprising, under the circumstances.
I think everyone is afraid that there will be an increase in crime, the more that this goes on. And also the people who are desperate are easy, recruiting targets for militant groups, or gangs or extremist groups.
Before the COVID-19 lockdown and closure of the borders, we were seeing a significant increase in the number of Syrians who are going back to Syria, not necessarily because they want it to. But just because the situation in Lebanon had become too desperate. And in a lot of cases, it wouldn’t be the whole family going back. So for instance, husband, he’s of military age, and he’s afraid that if he goes back, you’ll be conscripted and sent to the frontlines. So he might send his wife and children back and he stays in Lebanon. That’s become obviously more difficult since the borders have been closed.
But we’ve seen an uptick in the last couple of months of people actually trying to leave Lebanon on smuggler boats trying to go to Cyprus trying to get to Europe. There have been some tragic cases where people died during the crossing. And a lot of cases also, they were turned back by the authorities in Cyprus, and basically ended up worse off than they were before, because they probably have spent all their savings at this point and borrowed money to be able to pay the smugglers.
So in a nutshell, the situation right now is pretty grim. It’s hard to sugarcoat it. But there are people who are working to try to mitigate this and try to ensure that people aren’t turning to some of these more desperate coping strategies. And I think that’s what Elie is going to speak about next.
Joe Saba: [33:50]
Abby, thank you very much. Again, the picture is, is indeed, quite quite bleak. We have a description of a failing or failed state, which is increasingly unable to provide even the most basic services to its own citizens in a context where the forcibly displaced amount to at least one fourth or more of the population. For those in America watching or listening, it would mean the equivalent of about 80 – 85 million forcibly displaced coming into our country in circumstances where the government couldn’t take care of its own, whether health education.
One other issue in terms of the forcibly displaced that’s becoming increasingly difficult is the inability of people to get basic documentation. They have been coming in since 2011 – marriage certificates, birth certificates – simply having a piece of paper that establishes who you are, where you belong, has become increasingly difficult. Without such documentation, no authority feels responsible for you or to you, and you are left totally vulnerable.
I’d like to go straight to Eli, please, who will speak to us on food security in the.
Elie Youssef: [35:10]
Hello, everyone. Thanks for having me here. And thanks for Abby and Adib, for everything you said.
Let me start first with the Beirut to blast, which is the recent historical event that happened worldwide. And which is the main reason why we postponed our webinar from August till today, actually.
So it is actually the biggest explosion in history. And you all know the consequences, and we all witnessed on television what happened. Actually, at the Lebanese Food Bank, by the second day, we were on the streets, we installed Seven Spots at 7am. In the morning, we try to support the affected people as much as we could, in addition to showing certain support to all workers and volunteers on the ground, who left everything and ran to help in any way possible. They came literally from all around the country.
Most of the NGOs were present. People were cleaning the streets, setting up first aid stations, visiting the houses for assessment, etc. For us, we were taking care of the food, supplying breakfast, snacks, beverages, cooked meals to everyone. And this is actually what a lot of other NGOs did. And here we really witnessed Lebanese all working together.
At the same time, we didn’t know — are we doing the right thing? Or are we doing the job of the government? Is the government going to do the same explosion again and again, and the citizens are going to repair and clean and reconstruct again and again? But we had to help each other during this during these first 30 days, let’s say.
So we just asked for all other initiatives on the ground not to worry about food so they can focus on their main expertise. And here, let me tell you a story about when we started, when we first started to distribute food and, and cooked meals to the houses.
During the first two days we were knocking on doors and listening to people just shouting from inside. One of them was a lady who was still stuck in her collapsed bedroom. So imagine, we had to deliver food we had to rescue people, we had to help injured people. Because you know, the area has a lot of historical buildings and a lot of buildings where we’re threatened to collapse. And a lot of people walking on the streets and just trying to help were injured at the same time.
It was really catastrophic. Some people describe it as like it’s a Marvel movie, or is it a Terminator movie that we’re living in? As if it’s Apocalypse Now. Actually a lot of people commented on social media, “Is it a movie that we missed in the theater?” Actually, no, it’s Beirut, unfortunately.
Same as a lot of other NGOs, we divided our emergency plan into three phases starting by distributing ready to eat food and during the first 20 days to affect families because a lot of them lost their kitchens. People were cleaning the streets and firefighters were all over the area volunteering. Hospitals were destroyed and a lot of workers and patients inside lacked food and lacked assistance… the Red Cross and and just you name it.
Then we started distributing food parcels to affected families in Beirut. So it was like 2025 days passed and we were expected to reach 10,000 families which is an ongoing process right now. In addition to distributing milk, diapers, pharmaceutical stuff for toddlers renovation of the houses and home appliances.
And the third phase that I would like to tell you about is distributing up to 40,000 food boxes made of 100% Lebanese homemade preserves, prepared by people in the villages and distributed to needy families all over Lebanon.
So let me tell you that everything we’re doing now, the distribution of 100% Lebanese food boxes, because like everyone literally in the country is in need right now. Whatever is the background, or the nationality. Now we see that it’s a catastrophic event and that we are all in this together actually.
The idea of the Lebanese food box started when we were supporting farmers. As Abby was saying, agriculture in Lebanon now is affected big time. So we started before the explosion during recovery. To support farmers and just just tell them to invest in your land. So we found that actually they suffer from selling their produce, and they might have overstock at the end. Plus, a lot of studies showed that our food basket consists of 85% imported products. So we took the initiative to transform the foot parcels that we distribute to Lebanese families to be 100% Lebanese food boxes, made by Lebanese and non-Lebanese women and farmers in the villages.
Imagine that with $25, you can have two families — the family preparing the food box, and the family receiving the food parcel. We had started visiting ladies at their kitchens, and we had started placing orders and we had started working on this when the explosion happened. So it was the right project to to continue and to supply the vulnerable families in Beirut with those kinds of boxes.
And we had a really emotional experience visiting a village called __ in Bekaa, there is a community kitchen over there. And a lot of ladies working inside it. And actually, half of the ladies were Syrian or Palestinians. They were working hand in hand with the local woman saying that “We’re here to support Beirut. We’re here to prepare food for the needy families. We’re here to say thank you Lebanon for everything you did for refugees, let’s say, because, actually, we now live together like sisters and brothers.”
So it was a great opportunity to see all these ladies from different backgrounds working together to help Beirut first, then to provide those food boxes at the end. This is in terms of the Beirut blast and what we’re trying to do right now in the absence of the government.
Nevertheless, for the time being we are facing very low food security, influenced by a number of main factors. As Joe said, this has not been an issue in recent decades, even during war, like our parents say we didn’t face this currency devaluation within face this kind of food insecurity to this level. The main factor in this low food security actually, first of all, is the corrupt government.
As Adib also said, for example, the unemployment rate reached more than 50%, the poverty rate reached more than 55%, the cost of agriculture increased by more than 50%. So imagine the farmers are not ready to invest in their lands anymore. And therefore imagine that the decline in local agriculture and the local produce in 2021 in the next few years, and the increase in the price of the basic foot products by 141%.
The second factor is the revolution that started exactly one year ago. The exchange rate and the devaluation of the currency by around 80%, the ongoing coronavirus and the recent blast.
So imagine all this, they are basically like crucial factors to have a very low food security. So we can say that food intake is affecting everyone, Lebanese and non-Lebanese. Now we don’t distinguish, even NGOs. I’m not saying Lebanese and non-Lebanese — we’re all in this together. The eating patterns have changed and the quality of food is totally different than what we used to know before.
Also let’s not forget that children which is our main concern since the start of the revolution since the start of the devaluation of the currency, living with unemployed parents or parents with very limited income have higher rates of food insecurity. Hopefully this crisis actually is not considered to be a term long term insecurity or, or a permanent problem.
So we’re hoping just to find the solution for this one. As Adib said, we don’t have solutions right now. We’re just living day by day, helping each other.
And let me tell you, another factor influencing the food insecurity is a number of grocery stores and supermarkets closing, or supermarket shelves being left empty. As panic buyers rush to purchase goods every day. Everyone is afraid that basic necessities won’t be available and afraid that the government won’t support the prices of the basic stuff. Same for the gas stations, same for all of the basic necessities in the country.
So when we talk about food insecurity, we’re talking at the same time about health and nutrition. You can imagine, we don’t have a proper diet. If you’re not eating properly, you’re not eating the right food, imagine the increased risk for a variety of negative health outcomes, especially for chronic diseases and children’s mental health.
And to stress again that in parallel with food insecurity, and on top of having hospitals destroyed by the blast and being occupied by COVID patients who are facing a dangerous shortage of pharmaceuticals, medicines, and medical supplies. So it’s like a 360 degree catastrophe in Lebanon right now for everyone.
Joe Saba: [45:20]
Thank you very much. I think your presentation evidences this cascade of crises and catastrophes that have befallen Lebanon, and all the people there.
I’d like to turn now to Samar El-Yassir, who will tell us a little bit about some of the things that are being done to address this cascade of crises. And Elie, thank you.
Samar El-Yassir: [45:53]
Thank you, Elie. Thank you, Joe. And for all the panelists that presented the situation. Like everybody said, this is a compounding crisis. And it’s very difficult to distinguish between these crises because the impact is impacting everybody in Lebanon, whether they’re refugees, Lebanese… it’s everybody affected.
I will give you a short presentation of some of the realities and approach that Anera decided to do in response to that crisis. In my presentation, I will focus on just three priority areas. We’re working on more than this, but in my presentation, I will focus on livelihood, which is a priority response, on shelter reconstruction, especially after the Beirut blast, and health.
Livelihood, as you heard from all the panelists, is a real issue. People are unable to buy food because they lost their incomes, and their money is in the bank and they cannot access it. So when we decided, in October 2019, to move to an emergency response, we decided to use the approach of mobilizing hundreds of our youth of Lebanon, as I like to call them, because they include all nationalities — youth of Lebanon to be at the forefront of our emergency response. This we would be utilizing this important resource and at the same time, providing the youth with needed income and needed jobs.
To give you some examples of what our youth through this livelihood and cash-for-work initiatives were able to do in response, for example, mobilizing hundreds of youth who were trained in sewing have been able to produce 1.5 million masks — masks that are needed as a basic prevention measured for COVID-19. Just now our youth are producing thousands of masks in preparation for distribution to public schools, because now it’s mandatory for students and teachers to wear these masks.
Another example that we were able to do is for our hundreds of youth to be mobilized all over Lebanon to cook meals — cooking meals and distribution of dry food in response to food insecurity, but also to construct isolation centers for COVID-19 patients. More than 200,000 meals have been produced and distributed and much more will be done. For us this is very significant. Through these programs, youth are being provided with income that can sustain them and sustain their families.
Using the same approach when the Beirut blast happened, and as my colleagues have mentioned, thousands of houses have been damaged. Anera was one of the few organizations that quickly prioritized home rehabilitation and house rehabilitation, as well as small and medium enterprises rehabilitation and revival as a core response.
Again, we mobilized all our construction youth who have skills in construction. Under supervision of engineers, they were able to quickly assess the damage and needs of thousands of houses in different areas of Beirut, and to-date have been able to complete the rehabilitation of more than 300 houses and small shops.
Anera through these initiatives will continue to rehabilitate the houses before the winter. Because winter is coming, and we’re very concerned that people need to restore, we need to restore their houses to maintain their dignity. And our priority is to rehabilitate houses of low income people.
So our target is the poor neighborhoods of Beirut. Because you know, in Beirut many neighborhoods, rich and poor, have been affected. And our reality is low and middle income neighborhoods all around Beirut, and this is what we are doing.
The third priority, and I’m quick to, to save some time, is health. Health as Elie and others said is a big concern for everybody. Shortages of medicines and medical supplies are real. They are depleted because of the inability of hospitals and medical clinics to import these things because of the shortage in foreign currency because all of this is important.
And just a few days ago, because the Central Bank of Lebanon decided to stop their subsidies, subsidizing medical supplies, immediately, importers said we will no longer be able to supply hospitals and clinics with the supplies they need. So Anera has stepped up its interventions in the medical donation field. And since COVID-19, in February till now, we have been in partnership with many of our partners and donors and the States and Europe able to provide Lebanon with the many shipments, but specifically after the Beirut blast to date Anera has been able to bring in 20 shipments — just below 500 pallets of essential chronic medications, protective devices, and much more… cancer medication and specialized medications.
This is a glimpse of what we are doing. In giving you this very short presentation is to focus on the approach that we are using rather than on not what we have done because I think this approach of using livelihood plus emergency has been very effective and enabled Anera to respond in a timely manner.
Please visit our website and for more information on what we are doing. Of course, we have delivered more than [what I’ve mentioned] and we will continue to deliver it. Our medical donations alone will be worth more than $100 million. In this Beirut blast we will rely on all our supporters to continue to support Anera so we can do much more — because much, much more is needed for Lebanon and the people of Lebanon. Thank you.
Joe Saba: [54:30]
Alright, thank you very much. The deliveries that Anera has been able to make and the efforts you and the staff in mobilizing Lebanese and other forcibly displaced is really admirable. Likewise, to the groups that Elie works with.
Those who have questions, please put them in the chat. We do have a number of questions which have been asked. And I would like to take the first two questions back to Adib: one was whether there’s a chance of meaningful non-violent change in the system. What is the latest also on President Macron’s initiative, which is largely an economic political initiative. Adib, over to you please.
And how international organizations are preventing any assistance from being misappropriated by the government? So, I think those are three related questions.
Adib Nehme: [56:00]
Yes. Thank you, again, to all the panelists. Concerning these two questions, I will go very quickly actually, with considering the risk of being a little bit simplistic, but there is no other alternative.
I believe that there is no other alternative at all for real progressive change toward a better situation but non-violent change. Any option to go into violence will lead to complete collapse and to total chaos, and the population, the Lebanese people, will lose and Lebanon will lose.
This may be actually something that some of the ruling parties of the powerful controlling the country are betting on. They are always threatening the Lebanese people with violence and so on. We have to continue and the 17 October uprising, we continue to try to have the change, using as much as possible a combination of constitutional tools and channels, and also popular democratic pressure in the street.
Is there a chance? There always is a chance, actually, because the ruling class now is very weak, and the political system is very weak. However, we have some armed political parties, some militias that are controlling as they are ready to use force. So the risk comes from there. But I believe that this will continue to be, and we have to continue to be a peaceful movement until we succeed in making this change.
Now going to the president Macrone initiative. Does it go in this direction? I don’t believe so. It is a complex thing, of course, but to be simple, there are two elements in what President Macron is trying to do.
The first thing that politically he is proposing is “Okay, you have tried with the latest government after the resignation of Mr. Hariri.” Because there is now only one component of the political coalition that is ruling alone, which is the coalition between Hezbollah, Amal Movement and President Aoun. They are ruling along. Previously, it was these three people, these three political parties, with the Future Movement — Mr. Hariri, with Jumblat, with ____ and others. So we have three out of six who are still ruling. What Mr. Macron is trying to do is to put them together and telling them “Why not go again to ruling as six, not as three?”
So actually, he was trying to compose, again, the same coalition that was done in 2016. Which leads to the election of President Aoun, with the Future Movement and Hezbollah and Amal and the others. And that was actually directly supported by the French with the settlement conference, because the settlement conference, it was actually to support this presidential compromise.
So this is first, so it is not a response to the Lebanese demands, to the popular demands, nor to the uprising of 17th October. It is a completely different agenda.
Secondly, the economic component of it was if you want to get some — because now Lebanon is bankrupt — if you want to get any additional funds, go and use the blueprint of the IMF. And actually, they were not suggesting to negotiate with the IMF on the terms of reference, but actually to adopt completely what the IMF will ask Lebanon to do. And they are considering this as being the reform.
Of course, there are some basic things that we need — electricity, and you shouldn’t be considered as being reformed or a big victory if we get electricity. These are basic things. So this was the Macron initiative. It didn’t work, because it was not based on any change or any acknowledgement of the new actor, which is the Lebanese population. And between the two factions of previous 14 March and previous 8th March, the balance is in favor of the previous 8th March. And actually Hezbollah and the people who are supporting them prefer to do the compromise with the Americans, not with the French. So actually, this is what’s happening. They are having now with this issue of negotiation with Israel, they are making a compromise and responding to Trump’s demands from the American and not for the French. So this is the situation that we are now.
Joe Saba: [1:01:41]
Thanks. So that sounds like more dysfunction.
We have a few other questions which I think I can lump together. Given the corruption of the Lebanese government, how do international organization sending aid to Lebanon prevent that assistance from being misappropriated? And as part of that same question, how do grassroots efforts outside of Lebanon, raising money to help Lebanon, connect with the groups providing direct assistance?
And perhaps I can turn this briefly to Samar and to Elie for a quick answer, please.
Samar El-Yassir: [1:02:15]
Hi, okay, in answer to that question, I think Lebanon is known for its vibrant, NGO sector. So there’s many groups in and outside Lebanon that are mobilizing in support. And because all efforts including Anera’s, the Lebanese Food Bank, and many, many other NGOs are doing great work and to coordinate the work many clustered meetings and working groups have been established to coordinate work with, with these groups in different sectors. So even international assistance has recognized this — that with dysfunctional government, emergency work or development work and money is being channeled either through the United Nations or directly to NGOs.
Joe Saba: [1:03:30]
Elie, would you like to add to that, particularly looking at the work you have done?
Elie Youssef: [1:03:40]
Exactly the same as Samar was saying, we received a lot of shipments and donations directly from organizations and from governments. For example, what happened with France, the shipment was shipped directly by a number of NGOs in Lebanon. So like everyone international actors are aware of the corruption, and they are dealing directly with us. So unfortunately, we’re playing the role of the government.
Joe Saba: [1:04:05]
Thank you. I have one other question: taking into consideration the lack of local functional governance, what are the policy recommendations for supporting the refugee communities and to whom with those recommendations be directed? If I can, I’d like to take a moment also to consider trying to make some answer to that. There are, as the last two panelists mentioned, a very strong network of NGOs but also private sector in Lebanon, which have been working to provide services to the people within the communities and at the village level.
Given the dysfunction of the state, these organizations have been able to establish personal contacts and have been able to direct the aid to the communities involved without necessarily having to go in all cases through governmental organizations.
This is not always an easy matter, and taking into consideration that lack of functionality, but policy recommendations frankly, might begin to consider not reconstruction — which is a word often used, but because we don’t want to go backward and reconstruct what was there, because what was there has brought us to where we are — but rather to take a look at a possible new construct in Lebanon, which would move on from the systems that were set up at the end of the First World War.
This will not be easy, because Lebanon is a small country, and has some very significant neighbors and external actors who have their own interests at heart, in terms of what goes on in Lebanon.
But I think the last question was that groups outside of Lebanon seeking to help the forcibly displaced and their communities can find within Lebanon’s NGO community and within the private sector, a large number of groups, which have a proven track record over decades, going back to the 1970s, and the civil war, of providing very effective help to the people there.
Abby would like to add anything to that, because you’re upfront, you see what goes on and how things get delivered or don’t?
Abby Sewell: [1:06:45]
Yeah, I think definitely the local organizations are the most effective ones and in giving or like, distributing aid, where it needs to go. I think maybe sometimes there are some legal barriers that the smaller organizations run into, especially the ones that are Syrian run, for instance, they actually can’t legally register. So that could be maybe a bureaucratic problem.
I think in terms of the larger scope of things, probably to improve the situation of refugees overall, would require some legal actions to make it easier to get residency for instance, for the Syrians and to expand the working rights for both groups.
Joe Saba: [1:07:40]
Now, in that respect, there are organizations UN, World Bank, and others, IOM, which have been working to do exactly what what you have stated, which has tried to give some legal status to these forcibly displaced to at least provide some very basic human rights and working on that to build upwards and hopefully to construct a system of security, not just physical security, but economic and social security. And in doing that, to demonstrate again, Lebanon’s resilience and resourcefulness.
I don’t believe we have any other questions we have completed our time. In fact, we’ve gone over time and we appreciate those who have stayed with us. I want to thank the panel very much for your work. I think the audience could hear from Abby, Elie, Adib, and Samar in the tone of their presentation, not just the substance, their dedication, and their first line experience in Lebanon.
So we hope that the viewers have been able to learn something about Lebanon, and particularly focus on those who are most vulnerable, in a situation of a cascade of catastrophes in 2020.
And finally to end up and we don’t want to end up on a totally negative note. There are many, many organizations — there are thousands and thousands of people trying to work as local communities, international communities together to try to address the needs in Lebanon for these forcibly displaced. And I hope those who are viewers will find their own ways to contribute to this endeavor.
So thank you all very much for coming. Thank you for participating. I look forward to doing other webinars in the future. And we welcome suggestions from our viewers, audience on topics, areas where they would like to learn more. Again, thank you all very much. All of you. Have a good evening or good afternoon, wherever you may be.
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