For the past 32 years, UNIFIL — the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon — has been a thread in the fabric of life in Lebanon. While most mentions of UNIFIL relate to Lebanon’s numerous conflicts with its southern neighbor and violations of the UN-mandated Blue Line that ostensibly marks the border with Israel, there is another face to the peacekeeping mission: its economic impact.
Over the past year alone, UNIFIL spent $32 million on contracts with local Lebanese firms, according to UNIFIL spokesperson Andrea Tenenti. UNIFIL’s nearly 13,000-strong military force and civilian staff also pump millions of dollars into the local economy through privately purchased goods and services – and the mission says that it is the largest single employer of Lebanese citizens in the south. In addition, in an effort to improve its public image, the mission invests millions of dollars every year in building infrastructure for local communities and offering direct aid to the population of South Lebanon, which is among the poorest areas of the country, having endured the 22-year-long Israeli occupation.
While UNIFIL is by no means an economic savior for the south, it is certainly a crutch. Its continued presence has provided a steady stream of income for the local economy for more than three decades, with the amount of money being spent soaring in recent years as troop numbers have grown. After Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon UNIFIL rapidly began increasing its personnel numbers, from less than 2,000 before the hostilities to around 11,500 military personnel by the end of 2006.
These new troops were not cheap: UNIFIL’s 2006 to 2007 total budget topped $495 million, a 543 percent rise from the $91 million spent a year earlier. For 2009 to 2010, the appropriated budget reached nearly $590 million.
The procurement spending spree
Most of UNIFIL’s budget is given to countries that contribute troops to the mission, money sent to cover the salaries of soldiers. While the Lebanese economy sees some of this money later through troops’ private spending, it is UNIFIL’s procurement budget for goods and services which offers the largest cash injection into the Lebanese economy.
Items on UNIFIL’s yearly procurement budget include everything from condoms to laptop computers — estimated to cost UNIFIL $136,763 and $138,500 respectively, in 2009. The most costly this year — and nearly every year — is food rations to feed UNIFIL staff and soldiers, with an estimated tab of $18.2 million.
In filling its procurement needs UNIFIL turns to companies around the world, but has, over time, shown a preference for awarding contracts to Lebanese businesses.
“As a rule, [UNIFIL] generally tries to buy most things from Lebanon — if you can find it here of course,” said Timur Goksel, a longtime UNIFIL spokesman who now teaches at the American University of Beirut.
This year, 160 Lebanese vendors and firms were awarded roughly $33 million (40 percent) of the total anticipated procurement budget of $82 million, according to Executive’s calculations.
While UNIFIL was unable to produce similar statistics for most other years, in 2007 UNIFIL spokeswoman Yasmina Bouziane told the international media that the mission was set to spend $36 million of its $90 million spending budget in Lebanon — again about 40 percent. In October 2006, shortly after the Israel-Hezbollah ceasefire, UNIFIL’s acting Chief Administrative Officer Jean-Pierre Ducharme said UNIFIL had spent $40 million on Lebanese contracts that year and that 60 percent of its total procurement budget over the last three years had been spent locally.
The largest contract with a Lebanese company has been an exclusive deal with Medco to supply fuel for UNIFIL jeeps, armored personnel carriers, helicopters and other vehicles, as well as generators. Since 2006, these contracts have totaled $50.7 million, with contracts signed in 2007 alone running at $22 million.
With UNIFIL’s increased demand for new bases and extra space on existing bases to accommodate its mushrooming numbers, Lebanese construction firms have also benefited.
The largest construction contracts UNIFIL has disclosed have been with Hanna Khoury and Brothers Company ($9.3 million), Dalal Steel Industries (at least $3.2 million), Maroun Assaf ($1.5 million) and Daher Contracting ($1.1 million).
UNIFIL’s Miguel de Cervantes base near Marjayoun — considered “the best UN base in the world” by many UNIFIL personnel — was little more than a campground in 2006. Marwan Dalal from Dalal Steel Industries said that his company provided 90 percent of the steel and prefabricated buildings used on the $16 million base, which was primarily built using prefabricated structures.
Major goods procured by UNIFIL in 2008
Major services procured by UNIFIL in 2008
Dalal added that the company had been responsible for similar amounts of work at other UNIFIL bases and positions.
Besides working with UNIFIL, Dalal Steel has also maintained contracts with American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Lebanese Armed Forces, as well as with other UN missions across the world. While not disclosing exactly how much the company makes per year, Dalal said that contracts with UNIFIL could account for up to 20 percent of the company’s yearly business.
While arranging construction and procuring petroleum require fairly large contracts, UNIFIL also maintains smaller contracts — covering everything from gardening to mobile phones — with more than 150 other Lebanese firms.
Local jobs for local people
UNIFIL claims that its 800 or so full-time local staff make it the largest single employer of Lebanese in the area. Many more Lebanese also work with the peacekeepers on a temporary basis.
UNIFIL’s permanent local staff members are attracted by comparatively high salaries, jobs that have room for professional development and the opportunity to eventually take their career outside of Lebanon.
“Most of the Lebanese who started off with UNIFIL in the early years have now become permanent UN staff members all over the world,” said Goksel.
About 140 of UNIFIL’s permanent local staff are translators. Amal Kahawaji, a translator with UNIFIL’s Indonesian battalion, said that translators are paid about $2,000 per month – an attractive sum for young Lebanese university graduates whose average starting salary on entering the workforce is usually much lower.
For contractual workers, the jobs are also welcome but they do not reap the benefits of full-time UNIFIL staff.
Several cleaners from One World (a company working exclusively with UNIFIL providing cleaning, maintenance and landscaping services) on the Miguel de Cervantes Base said that they didn’t feel that their $500 per month salary was fair compensation for the work they were doing. However, the women, all from the surrounding villages, said that they were still lucky to have the jobs as work was scarce in the area.
All in all, former UNIFIL spokesman Goksel estimated that around 2,000 families in South Lebanon rely on UNIFIL for their livelihood.
Yoga and reconstruction
While contracts between UNIFIL and Lebanese firms clearly represent the most significant economic contribution of the peacekeeping mission, direct commitment of UNIFIL money and resources to local communities in the South also has a major impact on the area.
Civil Military Cooperation (CIMIC) projects are aimed at capturing the ‘hearts and minds’ of local residents and improving the public’s perception of UNIFIL.
“Quick Impact Projects” are the most common CIMIC operation. These small-scale projects cost up to $25,000 a piece and are primarily aimed at reconstruction and infrastructure building. Examples of such projects include building sports facilities in villages and renovating schools.
The UN funds $500,000 worth of these projects a year — enough money for 30 projects in 2009. Individual troop contributing countries, however, fund the majority of the projects. In 2009, Italy led the field, completing 112 projects worth $2.1 million. The Korean contingent completed 25 projects, totaling $1.3 million.
UNIFIL also provides a host of other activities within the local communities, from clearing unexploded ordnance to hosting free health clinics and even Yoga and Taekwondo classes, organized by the Indian and Korean contingents respectively.
Last year, UNIFIL’s clinics and medical teams treated more than 40,000 local patients, and since the beginning of 2005, a total of 150,000 people have received such treatment.
While Yoga might not have the same tangible benefits as other contributions such as free healthcare, UNIFIL stands by these endeavors, saying that they improve the quality of life for residents. Educational courses, such as language and computer classes, also help build skills to boost residents future job prospects.
A home away from home
On the tree-lined roads leading up to UNIFIL’s Miguel de Cervantes base near Marjayoun, Spanish flags fly outside of shops and locals greet foreigners with a friendly “hola, como estas?” At the Mirage Bar, camouflage-clad men drink $2 Almaza beers while their comrades scope out the prices of Hezbollah souvenir items and electronics next door.
This scene — repeated in permutations across South Lebanon — is a direct result of combining foreign troops with comparatively high disposable incomes and entrepreneurially minded members of the local population.
“If every soldier spends just $1, it will be very good for the economy,” said Jallal Ramal, who runs the PX (military jargon for an on-base store) at UNIFIL position 8-33 on the Lebanese-Israeli frontier.
While it is difficult to calculate exactly how much money UNIFIL soldiers and civilian staff regularly spend in the local economies of southern Lebanon, it is certainly far higher than Ramal’s $1.
Countries that contribute troops are given $1,028 per month per soldier by the UN. Additionally, the UN directly pays soldiers $1.28 per day for serving in Lebanon. As this wage is well below the standard salaries offered in some — especially Western — troop contributing countries, some contingents’ home countries subsidize this pay quite heavily.
Other, poorer countries pay their soldiers directly out of the UN-provided stipend, though not necessarily always the full $1,028 per month.
Neither the diplomatic missions of most troop contributing countries nor UNIFIL headquarters in Naqoura were willing to comment on troop salaries for the various contingents, making it difficult to ascertain exact troop spending across the board.
However, Lieutenant Colonel Mar Guslin of the Indonesian battalion estimated that each soldier in his unit spent a minimum of $100 per month in the local economy.
With around 1,000 troops stationed on the battalion’s Adchit Al Qusayr base, this would equate to at least $1.2 million spent on consumer goods and services in the surrounding villages each year.
Salaries for Spanish soldiers are much higher. Including the UNIFIL stipends and subsidized pay from the Spanish government, soldiers’ salaries start at 3,500 euros ($3,954) per month, according to Colonel Rafael Ropero Bolivar, a liaison officer at the Spanish embassy in Beirut.
Pay grades go all the way up to 8,000 euros ($9,866) per month for Spanish generals serving in Lebanon.
With much more disposable income than other contingents, it is reasonable to assume that troops from European countries spend money more freely in the local economy.
While admitting it is difficult to calculate exactly how much cash a soldier might splash, Lieutenant Colonel Ismael Muro, a public information officer for the Spanish contingent, said that the average soldier might spend between $200 and $330 per month, with some spending up to $670 monthly.
By the lower-end estimates Muro supplied Executive with, annual local spending by the 1,076-strong Spanish contingent would be more than $3 million.
The presence of peacekeepers with money to burn has spurred a growth in shops, restaurants and services that cater exclusively to UNIFIL.
“I don’t have any local customers,” said Khaled Nahra, the owner of Casa Elias, a large gift shop near Marjayoun that sells everything from blue beret-wearing stuffed animals to hard liquor and ninja throwing-stars to its peacekeeping clients.
In some of the predominantly Shiite Muslim southern towns, such as Naqoura, market demand has outweighed Islamic conservatism, with shops and restaurants selling alcohol for soldiers.
As stores catering to UNIFIL across the south expand their warehouses and the mission’s gargantuan headquarters in Naqoura sprawls even further in a flurry of construction, it is apparent that the word “interim” has lost its meaning.
With troops entrenched in the south for the foreseeable future, companies, communities and families in the area can look forward to continued economic benefit from the restive reputation of the land south of the Litani.