There are so many things we need here,” says Seera Hablas, surveying the small, run-down village of Zouq Al Habalssa from the vantage point of the overgrown hillside, on which she keeps the hives of her beekeeping business. “We need the government to acknowledge that this part of Lebanon exists and needs attention — it’s as if the state only sees it as a place for martyrs and terrorists.”
Akkar, Lebanon’s northernmost province, with a population close to 300,000 people, has the air of a land forgotten. Covering nearly 800 square kilometers, it provides a large portion of the Lebanese Armed Forces’ recruits and militant Salafist networks are known to be active in the area, but for the most part this primarily agricultural governorate simply doesn’t feature on the mental maps of most Lebanese. Tourists don’t visit, investors don’t invest, and the government is conspicuously absent. As former Member of Parliament for Akkar Karim Rassi tells Executive: “Akkar is only around 100 kilometers from Beirut, but it’s like going back a few centuries.”
Zouq Al Habalssa is typical: infrastructure is crumbling, jobs are in short supply and education and healthcare provision is weak. Women are expected to stay at home, and the men — when they can find work — are mostly employed in the army; if not, says Hablas, they usually have to leave for Tripoli, Beirut, or further afield. Akkar, with its dated and uncompetitive agricultural economy, has little to offer them.
Out of sight, out of mind
“It’s difficult to work out exactly what Akkar’s problems are, because there is a real lack of accurate, up-to-date data on the region,” says Fawaz Hamidi, director of the Business Incubation Association in Tripoli (BIAT), a local non-profit business support organization, particularly because the province only became a governorate in 2004 after previously being subsumed under the North Lebanon governorate.
However, some things are broadly known: According to data from the United Nations and local non-governmental organization Mada, Akkar has the largest share of individuals living below the poverty line in Lebanon at 64 percent, with 23 percent living in extreme poverty.
It also has the lowest average individual income, with 16.6 percent of households earning less than $40 a month, compared to a national average of 4.5 percent. With approximately 80 percent of residents living in rural areas, Akkar has the lowest rate of urbanization in Lebanon, and it also has the largest average family size, with families averaging 6.1 members compared to a national average of 4.8.
Human capital is weak due to one of the country’s worst school systems, resulting in a poorly trained workforce and Lebanon’s highest levels of illiteracy.
In addition, despite being rich in water resources, a 2008 report by Mada noted that mismanagement in Akkar has led to a situation in which only 53.8 percent of houses in the governorate are connected to the public water supply — compared to a national average of 85.5 percent — and 20.9 percent have no running water whatsoever.
Currently, 98 percent of the economy is comprised of microenterprises, primarily family-run agricultural businesses. All of this — coupled with Akkar’s limited infrastructure — has put off the private sector from investing in the region, exacerbating the already-major problem of access to capital, says Hamidi.
“There is no culture of equity funding, and micro loans are still expensive in Lebanon,” he says. “The banks don’t like to give small loans.”
According to a report conducted in 2008 by the International Finance Corporation, the advisory arm of the World Bank, only 11.5 percent of potential micro loan demand in Lebanon is being met.
The roots of Akkar’s troubles lie in its geography and history. With its relatively homogenous sectarian makeup (primarily Sunni, with a small Christian minority) and location well out of Israel’s line of fire, Akkar was not directly affected by the civil war, but the district’s remoteness, proximity to Syria and the long-term presence of the Syrian army led to it being economically and socially cut off from the rest of Lebanon.
While it escaped the war, it also missed out on the benefits of reconstruction, and concerted economic development has been virtually nonexistent in Akkar until recently. Residents have traditionally relied on Syrian markets for cheaper goods and services and, until its destruction in 2007, the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp also served as an economic hub for the region, acting as a tax-free zone where local people could procure smuggled goods at knockdown prices.
“North Lebanon has always been poor, but the South was also poor and it suffered so much from security threats, so it got the most attention,” says Sateh Arnaout, an advisor to the Council of Ministers on regional development, on leave from the World Bank. “That was reasonable, because if you’re in a country with limited resources you have to make difficult decisions about where to channel those resources, and clearly the South needed it most.”
Wake up call
However, several factors have coincided in recent years to bring Akkar to the attention of policymakers, non-governmental organizations and international donors. The Syrian army’s 2005 withdrawal from Lebanon drew the region back into the government’s sphere of influence to some extent, and after the 2006 war, says Arnaout, “attention started shifting to the other neglected regions, which is really all the ones that border Syria.”
A 2008 report by the United Nation’s International Poverty Center highlighted that Akkar is now the poorest region in the country, quashing the previous assumption that the South was the sick man of Lebanon and redirecting the government’s attention northwards.
“Economic development in North Lebanon is now one of the government’s main priorities, as it realizes that prosperity in this area will contribute towards peace and stability in all of Lebanon,” Arnaout adds. Peace and stability in Akkar became a prime concern for both Lebanon and the Islamist-fearing West after the 2007 Nahr al-Bared conflict; an international Salafist group battled the Lebanese army for three months at the camp, located 16 kilometers to the north of Tripoli on the Akkar coastline, leaving some 450 soldiers, civilians and militants dead and hundreds more wounded.
The crisis resulted in the complete destruction of the camp, forcing some 30,000 refugees to flee their homes and damaging the economy and infrastructure of the surrounding area. The general consensus is that, to some extent, the poverty and isolation of the region contributed to the outbreak of the conflict, driving home the problems that can arise from leaving a large, remote region to fester.
As a result, the last few years have seen tens of millions of donor dollars and the usual footmen of economic development — engineers, development experts, sociologists and the like — file in to Akkar. The United Nations has a number of programs in the region, as does Relief International and several other major non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as Oxfam, as well as well-established local organizations such as the Safadi Foundation.
Akkar’s economy is mostly agricultural, so this sector has been the focus of much of the development work. The existing system of small, family-run farms doesn’t work, says BIAT’s Hamidi, because “by the third generation the farmers have lost the know-how, they’re out of touch with international developments.”
Elias Wehbe, an agricultural engineer working with the Safadi Foundation, agrees: “Akkar has more potential than any other region, especially in agriculture, but [the farmers] don’t have any scientific knowledge,” he says, adding that until now the Bekaa has been seen as Lebanon’s breadbasket. European countries won’t take much of Lebanon’s produce because it doesn’t meet international standards, and the local press is full of scares about the toxicity levels of locally-produced goods, from strawberries to parsley.
“Farmers don’t understand about the fertilizers they’re using, and nothing is industrialized. There’s still so much still to be done in agriculture,” concludes Vanessa Campos Yakan, a spokesperson for the Safadi Foundation.
The work on improving the agricultural sector covers all areas, from identifying potential new products — with mushrooms and kiwis among the appetizing foodstuffs of the future — to conducting soil testing and vaccinating livestock. Unlike other aspects of development work in Akkar, this is one area where organizations tend to coordinate their projects.
Safadi, for example, has partnered with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) on agricultural projects in Akkar: the UNDP provides the equipment and the Safadi Foundation contributes two engineers.
According to Abdallah Muhieddine, the UNDP’s area manager for North Lebanon, one of the most successful programs has been to offer farmers weather station data every two weeks to help them optimize their production methods. “One farmer reduced the cost of his fertilizers from $1,500 to $250 because of this weather prediction project,” he reveals.
The UNDP also works with Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute (LARI), a government body, to test soil and water in Akkar in order to improve the quality of the produce and bring it up to international standards.
After years of absence, “the Ministry of Agriculture is much more active now through LARI,” says Wehbe. In addition to these broad-based programs, a number of NGOs fund individual agricultural ventures with small grants. Relief International, which is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), provided part of the finances for Seera Hablas to revive her father’s beekeeping businesses in Zouq Al Habalssa, which had languished after all her brothers left to join the army. The venture has provided a vital source of income in a village where unemployment, especially among women, is very high, says Hablas.
Time for variety
Although agriculture is at the heart of Akkar’s spluttering economy, BIAT’S Hamidi believes that it can be only part of the solution to the region’s problems. “The key issue for Akkar is to diversify its economy… we can’t rely on agriculture alone, there needs to be two or three sectors to spread the risk,” he says.
With tourists pouring into Lebanon at rates not seen since before the Civil War, Hamidi suggests that Akkar should be looking to take advantage of the annual international influx, setting up eco-tourism lodges and nature trails to show off the region’s unspoiled natural beauty.
Some local residents are already getting in on the act. Tony Antoun used to own a dairy production business in Akkar, and expanded his successful enterprise to Baghdad. But in 2004, after the US-led invasion, Antoun was kidnapped on suspicion of being an American spy. He had to pay $500,000, everything he had, to secure his release.
“When I came back to Lebanon, I had nothing,” he says. “I was really in debt and had to sell my business. I thought the best thing to do would be to open a small business with low costs.”
He came up with the idea of opening a tannour, a traditional Lebanese bakery, calling it Hadbe w Nar (grain and fire) — “because when you have nothing, that’s all you need to get something started again.”
Inside the bakery, women knead the dough and press it against the baking hot walls of the oven pit with a practiced flourish, creating warm, deliciously crispy bread in a matter of moments. Over endless glasses of hot sage tea, Antoun talks about his plans to open a restaurant in the style of a traditional Lebanese house, as well as a number of reasonably priced holiday chalets in his picturesque location in the hills of Qobayat.
“Relief International gave me a $6,000 grant, and arranged for access to a $65,000 loan from Kafalat [a Lebanese organization providing loan guarantees to small and medium-size enterprises], which will pay for the restaurant,” he says. “The money for the chalets will have to come from elsewhere, but there’s amazing potential for tourism here: the hospitality of people [here] is the closest to the traditional Lebanese hospitality. But there’s no interest from the government or others; no one thinks to go to Akkar when they come to Lebanon. We need to promote our region.”
With outsiders staying away, the low-income levels in Akkar mean that the local market is limited: “The only problem here is customers,” explains Antoun. “There’s no lifeblood in the region. I only make around $1,000 a month here; in Beirut I would make that in a day.”
Creating a viable, diverse local market needs more than soil testing and bakery funding; serious work is needed to upgrade infrastructure and stem the tide of the fleeing workforce.
“We need major investments in railways, roads, telecommunications, electricity; none of this is happening,” says Hamidi. Some moves are being made to improve infrastructure — the UNDP, for example, has installed solar panels on the roofs of schools and hospitals in Akkar — but so far the work has been largely tokenistic. And, Hamidi argues, the famous “Lebanese entrepreneurship” that people speak of just isn’t a reality on the ground, especially in places like Akkar. The poor quality of education in the area, particularly in the government-run schools, means that many people are not qualified for jobs even when they are available.
“I go to the villages in Akkar, and all I see is guys smoking arguileh [water pipe] by the side of the road all day,” sighs former MP Rassi.
“One guy in my village is 37, jobless, retired from the army. Because he gets his retainer from the army he doesn’t feel the need to do anything. He just keeps his minimal salary, doesn’t work and waits to die.”
Some NGO workers also complain of a growing culture of entitlement in Akkar. Both the UNDP and Relief International have programs that try to strengthen municipal councils, with the aim of creating bodies that can actually spur economic development in their areas and respond to the needs of the local population. Unlike the organizations associated with local heavyweights — such as the Safadi, Mouwad, Fares and Hariri foundations, who are around for the long term and whose operations are both philanthropically and politically motivated — groups such as Relief International have a greater interest in building up sustainable local institutions that can take over their development work.
Akkar exists under the yoke of the client-patron political system, which is found across Lebanon but is particularly prevalent in rural, disenfranchised areas. A few major families dominate politics in the area, including the Fares and Frangieh clans.
“The linkage between the local and national level is individual,” says the UNDP’s Muhieddine. “It comes from the local leaders in society who have a personal relationship with the MP,” he explains. “The local leaders’ power is boosted by the services provided by their patron in the national government, while the national MP benefits because of all of the local guy’s village votes for him. This is not a situation conducive to economic development — it leads to stagnation and maintaining the status quo.”
As such, both the UNDP and Relief International are working to strengthen the municipalities, which are currently, for the most part, not fit for purpose.
“We aim to strengthen the social networking between local people and the municipal authorities by building knowledge and skills regarding local economic development, better engagement and participatory approaches,” explains Vrinda Dar, chief of party for Relief International. “Economic development can neither happen nor be sustained just by injecting money.”
However, an injection of money seems to be exactly what people are looking for. Dar says she found “most municipalities” initially negative to the scheme, which only offers limited USAID funding and focuses on capacity building and facilitating public-private partnerships.
“Some people, when they don’t see the money, they don’t want any part of it. So I don’t bother with them,” says the UNDP’s Muhieddine. “I’m not here to solve all the villages’ problems. I provide ideas, experience, tools, access and a road map to development. What’s the point of coming in, building something, cutting the ribbon in a nice ceremony and then what? They just wait for the next donor.”
Eventually, Akkar will need to be weaned off its donor dependency if it is to develop fully, and the state and private sector will have to take over. After its long absence, the renewed interest of the central government (see box on p.67) in the governorate is promising, but with its huge debt burden it does not have the funds to act on its own.
And after years of neglect, the problems facing Akkar are great; both human capital and basic infrastructure, the building blocks of economic development, are lacking. It will take a prolonged, concerted effort and investment from the government, donors and the people themselves to pull Akkar out of the past and into a prosperous future.