Still a long way to go

Many challenges remain ahead of the 2015 Millenium Development Goals deadline

Lebanon struggles to achieve its seventh MDG: environmental sustainability

The Lebanon Millennium Development Goals Report 2013–2014, launched at the Grand Serail in September 2014, is the country’s national report outlining the progress in, and main challenges to, achieving the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), agreed upon by 189 countries during the UN Millennium Summit in 2000. It follows two similar national reports published in 2003 and 2008, and an updated interim MDG report in 2011.

The 2013–2014 report comes at a critical moment for Lebanon, with an unprecedented number of Syrian refugees spread across the country, a period of political instability, security risks, economic pressures, and social and humanitarian challenges. It also comes a year before the 2015 deadline for attainment of the MDGs and aims to present the country’s track record. All recent available information was gathered to draw a realistic picture of where Lebanon stands now, and give direction on how it could deal with emerging issues and the post 2015 agenda.

Although Lebanon appears to be reasonably on track to achieve several of the MDG targets by 2015, the country still has a long way to go to achieve the fundamentally important goals of poverty eradication, gender equality and environmental sustainability.

Political and economic context

Lebanon is a small to medium income country composed of a mixture of religious groups and sects. The political system is a consensual democracy; however, internal conflicts are often triggered by sectarian tensions.

Lebanon has a free market economy, closely linked to the developed world in most economic activities, and benefits come largely from tourism, remittances and investment from Gulf countries as well as the banking sector.

[pullquote]The Syrian crisis and the large refugee influx has exposed Lebanon’s structural weaknesses[/pullquote]

In the 1990s, the government focused on reconstruction and monetary stabilization programs that lowered inflation and led to sustainable GDP growth rates. However, they also increased fiscal and public deficit. The political challenges in 2005 and the conflict in 2006 weighed again on the economy, driving down growth rates to 1 percent in 2005 and 0.6 percent in 2006, according to the Ministry of Finance. Lebanon has received massive support from the international community, pledging to fund the country’s economic recovery, reconstruction and economic reform agenda. Lebanon’s indicators all improved in 2008 and GDP grew in 2008 and 2009. After that, worsening political divisions and especially the Syrian crisis slowed down this improvement, with GDP declining to 3.0 percent in 2011, and 1.4 percent in 2012.

Emerging challenges

Political instability is a major impediment to economic and social development. By 2013, both legislative and executive authorities in Lebanon had become almost paralyzed, hindering normal operations and obstructing decisionmaking.

The Syrian crisis and the large refugee influx has exposed Lebanon’s structural weaknesses. Economic growth was dampened in 2012 and 2013, largely because of an overall decline in aggregate investment and due to Syrians in Lebanon consuming mainly basic, rather than luxury or high-value-added items. The instability of the situation also weakened investor confidence. The World Bank estimated a loss in economic activity of around US$7.5 billion during the 2012–2014 period.

Tourism has suffered losses equivalent to 0.5 percent of GDP in 2012, and the real estate sector is currently witnessing an unsustainable increase in rent demand. Trade was most badly hit, caused by disrupted exports due to Syrian route closures. 

The crisis is affecting all parts of society, particularly the most vulnerable Syrian and Lebanese communities.


Primary education in Lebanon is compulsory, and is free in public schools, making attendance ratios high, almost universal. The biggest problems in Lebanese schools are repetition and dropout rates in the final year before intermediate and secondary cycles. There are many geographical disparities, which are apparent when comparing public and private schools, with the worst performing regions being the north and the south. On a positive note, though, youth literacy rates are almost 100 percent.

[pullquote]On a positive note, though, youth literacy rates are almost 100 percent[/pullquote]

The maternal mortality ratio has decreased in Lebanon by more than two thirds compared to the 1990s, placing Lebanon above its regional peers. The prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Lebanon is relatively low. However, there are increasing risks in the context of migration and growing permissiveness in sexual relations. New diseases could spread, especially in refugee communities, where diseases including hepatitis, measles, leishmaniasis and tuberculosis have been reported, alongside growing mental health problems.

Lebanon’s National Program for Combating Tuberculosis aims to implement an observed therapy approach to treat and monitor disease across Lebanon. It offers free treatment, for both nationals and non-nationals. Although tuberculosis cases have risen in 2013, the country’s eight anti-tuberculosis centers and the private sector have both been quite successful in detecting, diagnosing and treating the disease. National and international organizations have established outreach campaigns, as well as vaccination stations set up at registration sites.

Lebanon’s geographical location, its history of economic liberalism and its well-developed banking sector have all facilitated its integration within the global economy. The country has a number of free trade agreements with large trading blocs. These have allowed the introduction of business reforms and modernization of the business and legal framework. However, many businesses suffer from outdated infrastructure. Some of the main barriers on Lebanese exports relate to internal and external factors, mainly non-tariff, technical and non-technical barriers.


With respect to poverty, Lebanon does not have a major issue with malnutrition, although there are disparities between urban and rural areas with regards to children. Nevertheless, the level of extreme poverty has dropped slightly in recent years, from 10.1 percent in 1995 to 8 percent in 2005 (when the last comprehensive household survey was conducted). However, this is a slow pace if Lebanon is to meet the 2015 target of reducing the level of extreme poverty by half. Social safety nets are weak, with a majority of Lebanese perceiving the government’s current efforts as ineffective.

The Syrian crisis and the unprecedented number of arriving refugees have increasingly impacted the country as a whole, and have fallen most heavily on those parts of Lebanon least able to cope with additional stress — areas with relatively high poverty, low wages and weak infrastructure; presenting challenges for systems of local governance and social service delivery. There has also been an increase in competition for employment, particularly among unskilled and semi-skilled workers. While the country is increasingly strained as a whole, those communities in particular have suffered from the multiple effects of the crisis. The recent joint World Bank-UN Impact and Needs assessment demonstrated that without equally robust stabilization responses supporting Lebanese host communities at a broader level, some 170,000 Lebanese could be pushed newly into poverty, while unemployment rates could double by the end of 2014.

[pullquote]Women in Lebanon are economically and politically excluded to a significant degree, in comparison to other countries both regionally and globally[/pullquote]

With respect to gender equality, significant challenges still remain to be tackled. Although figures suggest equal opportunities for women and men in terms of access to education, data on economic participation and political representation paints a different picture. A 2010 World Bank Survey revealed that 70 percent of working age men are in the labor force, versus only 24 percent for women. Also, women only held some 3 percent of seats in Parliament and 4.7 percent in municipal councils. Women in Lebanon are economically and politically excluded to a significant degree, in comparison to other countries both regionally and globally.

Despite considerable efforts by the government, civil society organizations and international partners, Lebanon continues to struggle to achieve the seventh MDG: environmental sustainability. Improvements have been observed for some indicators, but overall Lebanon lags in terms of natural resources management. In 2011, the cost of environmental degradation in Lebanon was estimated at $686 million, and a plethora of environmental issues have been identified. Of major concern are water pollution (including coastal and marine degradation), loss of biodiversity, risk of desertification, and high urbanization coupled with land degradation. Host communities have witnessed an increased demand for water supply, as well as significant increases in the level of waste, exacerbating the strain on an already deficient system. These pressures will have high health and environmental impacts, which the municipalities simply do not have the necessary resources to manage.

Finally, it is important to mention another major challenge faced when producing such reports — data collection and availability. For many indicators, availability of updated data is limited. Regularity, periodicity and methodological differences in producing statistics remain major challenges in Lebanon.

Post 2015

Lebanon’s most realistic bet in the short term, given constraining circumstances, is to try and protect the MDG achievements it has made and contain any deterioration in poverty levels and environmental sustainability, while maintaining macroeconomic stability. This is only possible through the collaboration of many different partners: the Lebanese government, the international community, NGOs, elected representatives, the media, and the public at large. All have important roles to play in this regard. 

Global discussions are under way to set a post-2015 developmental agenda with a new set of development goals to implement once the current one expires. This process has highlighted what Lebanon knows only too well, as stated by the UNDP Administrator, Helen Clark, during the launching event of the report: “Economic and social development cannot be separated from broader principles of governance, stability, human rights and the rule of law. Good governance can do much to build the resilience of communities to the external stresses placed by conflict and displacement. By contrast, inequality, exclusion, marginalization and the perception of lack of service delivery can become triggers to violence and conflict.”

Raghed Assi is a social and local development program manager at the UNDP in Lebanon