In Search of a State
Will Robin Hood be able to save Lebanon from its kleptocratic leaders?
Languages: the official language is Arabic. Other spoken languages include North Levantine dialect, English, French, and Armenian.
Population: 6.825 million (2020)
Area: 10,452 km² (4,036 sq miles)
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Leaving everyone behind
Lebanon who has gained in the early 1950’s the nickname of “Switzerland of the East,” is no longer able to provide people’s basic rights since October 2019 where they are roughly struggling every day for bare necessities. The sharp and unprecedented shocks that hit the country since then, have not been seen even in the 1975 civil war, where according to the World Bank, the country, which has been wracked by political distress since 2019, has also been hammered by the worst global financial and economic crisis in 150 years (since the mid 19th Century).1
The economic and consequent social crises in Lebanon is termed as “The Deliberate Depression” by the World Bank’s Lebanon Economic Monitor in spring 2021. For more than a year, Lebanon’s ruling class has purposefully under-reacted to a cascade of compounded shocks, including the country’s largest economic and financial crisis, daily escalating COVID-19 situation, the catastrophic Port of Beirut explosion, and recently the devastating gas container explosion in Akkar, North Lebanon.
As the current kleptocratic political class almost lost its legitimacy on the streets in 2019, it was left with nothing except to adopt the only approach to keep the people under their lead and control, impoverishing them. A man-made environment of distress and collapse has brought Lebanon to its knees, leaving all the people to almost survive day by day and to expect the unexpected. In the absence of needed reforms and support of the international community, it cleared the path in front of the corrupted and inadequate leaders to easily impoverish the citizens on a daily basis. Namely, crashing central infrastructure, losing almost 90 percent of the value of the local currency since October 2019, deteriorating every household’s purchasing power, living on a few hours of electricity, safe and clean water provision, fuel and gas nationwide crisis, hospitals and medical services are on the cliff of collapsing, the upcoming school year is already at risk and in chaos threatening every student’s future, and an unparalleled brain drain has been amplified.
The depressing reality of 2020
The World Food Program (WFP) conducted in late 2020 Phone surveys and found that 41 percent of households reported challenges in accessing food and other basic needs, where 22 percent Lebanese people (and 50 percent of Syrian refugees) are food insecure. Unemployment rate hit 40 percent in late 2020 up from 28 percent pre-COVID-19 (February 2020). On the other hand, GDP per capita growth is projected to contract by 31 percent in 2020, on the back of a 6.5 percent contraction in 2019.
As estimated by UN-ESCWA, new data revealed that almost half of the private sector sales stopped between 2019 and 2020, where 23 percent of full-time employees in major sectors have been laid off, exacerbating the social impact of the overall economic crisis.2 However, it is expected that a major downturn in the private sector activities in 2021 due to the inefficiency of COVID-19 vaccine roll out in the country besides the non-implemented economic and political reforms.
Furthermore, household food expenditure share is expected to reach over 85 percent for the most marginalized and vulnerable.3 This is coupled with an unprecedented increase in the country’s poverty rate. ESCWA has estimated in 2020 that more than 55 percent of the population is now trapped in poverty (almost double 2019’s rate which was 28 percent), and extreme poverty marked a threefold increase from 8 percent in 2019 to 23 percent in 2020.4 However, these figures are pretty much expected to dramatically scale up due to the continuous economic depression that the country is enduring, where it might be hitting a figure between 70 to 75 percent of the population considered income poor based on the national’s upper poverty line. In a forthcoming assessment, ESCWA estimated a multidimensional poverty index for the first time in Lebanon, which showed that MPI increased from 2019 to almost double the figure in 2020.
Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime.
Children's future on the brink
Burying youth's dreams and futures
As the crisis deepened, many universities began charging tuition fees at a compounding lira to the dollar rate, putting additional pressure on struggling students who were unable to access fresh funding (funding in USD currency). In the meantime, almost all private universities that host the majority of the students, namely, Lebanese American University, American University of Beirut, Beirut Arab University, Notre Dame University, Lebanese International University, and Saint Joseph University are charging at an interval rate of 2,500 – 3,900 Lebanese Lira per dollar. Students who their parents are still being paid in Lebanese pounds without no expectation of a salary increase, and are not able to access fresh dollars or any other external funding to cushion the freefall might have to delay their studies or graduation, or dropout, or moving to cheaper (and terrible education quality) universities due to the steep increase in their tuitions.
The deep economic crisis is throwing a huge weight on the educational system in Lebanon, directly affecting the ability of households to invest in the education of their children, as was the case pre-2019. The majority of Lebanese households (70 percent) depended on private schools, especially at the primary and intermediate levels. The share of the private education sector in Lebanon before the crisis was estimated at about $1.3 billion6, most of which was what families were paying to cover the cost of school “installments” through their incomes and savings, which evaporated due to the crisis (in banks) or lost most of their value. More than a million children in Lebanon have dropped out since the COVID-19 outbreak in February 2020 which is considered an education catastrophe. Power outages, internet interruptions, and economic crisis have made online teaching/learning a luxury, because households are barely paying for food, how are they supposed to afford new or advanced equipment such as laptops and mobile phone devices. Due to rampant inflation and high operating costs, schools threatened to close.
Period Poverty in Lebanon: Impact on the adolescent girls and women
A new United Nations Population Fund study found that women and girls were forced to change the way they handle their menstrual periods when Lebanon’s economy collapsed and inflation soared. 77 women and girls from most marginalized Lebanese and Syrian communities across the country were interviewed to find out how they manage menstruation, their views on menstrual hygiene, and their attitudes towards sustainable sanitary products. It showed that in the last year, many women and girls have alternated to cheaper and lower-quality pads or baby diapers, towels or cloths, where such alternatives are not hygienic and can pose severe mental and physical health risks, and raise women and girls’ rights concerns.
Another report published by Plan International in April 20207 found that among more than 1,100 people living in fragile communities, 66 percent of Syrian refugee adolescents and Lebanese girls said they couldn’t afford to buy sanitary pads. Of course, as more and more people slide into extreme poverty or unemployment, and products’ prices skyrocket, this number is very likely to keep on rising. Sanitary pad prices hiked by 320 percent in Lebanon according to the latest research conducted by Fe-Male and Plan International.8 42 percent of the 1,800 women and girls interviewed reduced the number of sanitary pads used during menstruation or used them longer, which might lead to increasing the risk of infection. 36 percent said that they experienced physical symptoms such as allergies or infections after changing the products they used, and another 43 percent said they experienced more anxiety and stress.
Today, due to the country’s economic and financial crises, and sharp increase in prices, nearly 90 percent have changed their purchasing behavior towards menstrual products, and three quarters (76 percent) of women and girls residing in Lebanon are struggling to afford such products.
Coping mechanisms: What the Lebanese people are going through?
From a different perspective, Gallup has been conducting analysis on critical issues that the Lebanese are facing nowadays. In their latest World Poll, they asked the Lebanese about how they are coping with these difficult situations and stressful crises in 2020, and about their satisfaction of standard of living.
In one question asking people about the closest feeling about their household income during the period of the poll (figure 1), living comfortably was significantly dropped from 65 percent in 2018 to 24 percent in 2020, whereas finding it difficult to cope with the current increase in inflation and drop in the purchasing power hit a rate of 76 percent in 2020 up from 36 percent in 2018.
Another critical question was asked to reflect the difficult and cruel reality the Lebanese people are witnessing, whether they did not have enough money to buy food or to provide adequate shelter or housing for a single person and his family. The numbers are pretty much expected taking into consideration the dire situation and worsening living conditions, a spike from 15 percent in 2019 to 45 percent in 2020 Lebanese people lacked money for food, and from 7 percent to 18 percent in 2020 people are struggling to afford shelter or housing (this probably represents the poorest 20 percent of the population). This indicates the terrible conditions the people are living through due to the economic and political distress, the 90 percent depreciation of the national currency since October 2019, and the impact of COVID-19 and its consequent country’s containment measures. However, staggering figures indicate the satisfaction of the Lebanese people’s standard of living is becoming worse, where pre-COVID-19 almost 57 percent were satisfied with their standard of living, dropping in 2020 to less than the half of the latter to 25 percent.
Current crises and much of the chaos happening that the Lebanese are facing every single day, is centered around four basic public services and considered key indicators for monitoring development and ensure better well-being.
Lebanon is a country that is significantly reliant on imported food. The tremendous currency depreciation and capital control measures in Lebanon have put food availability in jeopardy, as shops and stores struggle to pay suppliers and importers in order to replenish their stock. The World Food Program (WFP) in Lebanon recorded a hike of 340 percent in the price of the basket of basic food commodities between October 2019 and May 20219, and lately 550 percent increase in overall food prices over the last year. That is to say, people now need more than four times the amount they would have needed prior the economic distress in order to be able to afford the bare minimum needed to survive.
Since the beginning of the summer, Lebanon has been hit by the fuel crisis, and importers attribute the shortage to the government’s delay in opening credit lines to finance imports. Authorities accused dealers of hoarding stock in order to sell them at higher prices on the black market or across the Syrian border, which may end up in a greedy and dirty political game. In addition to the fuel crisis, a new emerging water crisis started to raise the biggest concerns the Lebanese people might face in the coming days. UNICEF warned last week that due to the severe fuel crisis, more than 4 million people in Lebanon10 may face serious water shortages or complete interruptions in the coming days. Major facilities such as hospitals and health centers cannot access clean water, which puts lives at risk. UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said “if four million people are forced to resort to unsafe and costly sources of water, public health and hygiene will be compromised, and Lebanon could see an increase in waterborne diseases, in addition to the surge in COVID-19 cases.” She added “the needs are massive, and the urgent formation of a new government with clear commitments to reforms, is critical to tackle the current crisis through determined and systematic action to protect children’s lives and ensure access to water and all basic services.”
Bakeries aren’t excluded from the downfall as well, where the majority of them already surrendered to the harsh reality since they no longer have the ability to afford the skyrocketing prices of the fuel required to run their private generators during the 20-hour-per-day power outages. Those who kept their production ongoing have rationed production to make the subsidized flour they receive from the state last longer, eventually leading to shortages in stores and supermarkets, which means more queues on the bakeries and more humiliation to the people. In a certain district, dozens of people were waiting outside a bakery to get their daily need of bread, where the owner of the bakery looked confused as he was trying to organize the queue as early as 3:00 A.M. in the morning.
Moreover, Lebanese health workers have been warning for months that stocks of important medical supplies are dwindling. As a result of a subsidy program to fund fuel, wheat and medicines, the country spends about 6 billion U.S. dollars each year. Therefore, the country’s foreign exchange reserves are depleted and many pharmacies have empty shelves. Cancer patients reacts to this medical crisis in a sit-in demonstration as their primary and critical medications are vanishing from the market, where for the majority of the patients are facing severe situations with hospitals as they have run out of vital drugs and no guarantees were given to these patients that they would complete their treatments.
Lebanon is not okay
The financial and economic crisis in Lebanon is possibly one of the most serious crises on modern earth, causing the local currency to depreciate by 90 percent on the parallel market since October 2019, and the deterioration of the people’s purchasing power. It has led to a shortage of almost every necessity in life to survive, from fuel to electricity and even bread. Power cuts last as long as 20 to 22 hours a day, and fuel for private generators has become increasingly scarce.
No one knows where we are going, or where all this is leading, but one thing is sure that rock bottom is very close. All the demonstrated numbers above reflect the sad and devastating reality Lebanese are passing through. World Bank in its latest assessment suggests that it may take 11 to 19 years for the country to recover from the current crisis. I believe that Robin Hood wouldn’t hold on all this time.
Today, international diplomatic and humanitarian concerns may focus on tragic events such as the collapse of Afghanistan and the earthquake in Haiti. This is understandable, but the situation in Lebanon is scorching and requires urgent action. Increasing humanitarian aid efforts, extending all possible diplomatic endeavors and pushing for an immediate government formation, and establishing solid foundation of reforms in the public sector, banking sector and judiciary system while holding on the scheduled parliamentary elections in the spring of 2022 are the foremost initial responses to such a gigantic freefall of the state.
Mohammed Al Bizri
- World Bank Group (2021): Lebanon Economic Monitor: Lebanon Sinking (to the Top 3). URL: https://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/394741622469174252/pdf/Lebanon-Economic-Monitor-Lebanon-Sinking-to-the-Top-3.pdf. Last accessed 01.09.2021
- United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) (2020): Lebanon’s Formal Private Sector: the Bitter Reality of 2020. URL: https://www.unescwa.org/publications/lebanon’s-formal-private-sector-bitter-reality-2020. Last accessed 01.09.2021.
- United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) (2020): Is Food Security in Lebanon under threat? URL: https://www.unescwa.org/publications/food-security-lebanon-under-threat. Last accessed 01.09.2021.
- United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) (2020): Poverty in Lebanon: Solidarity is vital to address the impact of multiple overlapping shocks. URL: https://www.unescwa.org/publications/poverty-lebanon-solidarity-vital-address-impact-multiple-overlapping-shocks. Last accessed 01.09.2021.
- UNICEF (2021): Lebanon: Children’s future on the line. URL: https://www.unicef.org/lebanon/media/6541/file. Last accessed 01.09.2021.
- Lebanon Crisis Observatory – American University of Beirut (AUB)
- Plan International (2020): COVID-19 Needs Assessment. URL: https://plan-international.org/sites/default/files/field/field_document/plan_international_lebanon_needs_assessment_-_preliminary_findings_april_2020_v2.0.pdf. Last accessed 01.09.2021.
- Plan International UK (2021): Economic Crisis In Lebanon Making Period Products Unaffordable For Majority Of Women And Girls. URL: https://plan-uk.org/media-centre/economic-crisis-in-lebanon-making-period-products-unaffordable-for-majority-of-women. Last accessed 01.09.2021.
- WFP Lebanon (2021): Economic Crisis Response for Vulnerable Lebanese. URL: https://docs.wfp.org/api/documents/WFP-0000130791/download/?_ga=2.11858036.1994751261.1630136153-1334575463.1630136153. Last accessed 01.09.2021.
- Fore, H. (UNICEF Executive Director) (2021): Lebanon in danger of losing critical access to water. URL: https://www.unicef.org/lebanon/press-releases/lebanon-danger-losing-critical-access-water. Last accessed 01.09.2021.
- personal website: https://sites.google.com/view/mohammedalbizri
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