Is the international community failing Lebanon?

Foreign actors talk of support, but often not delivering

US President Barack Obama has pledged to help Lebanon, but have his words been empty?
US President Barack Obama has pledged to help Lebanon, but have his words been empty?

If acknowledging a problem is the first step to solving it, then the very existence of the International Support Group (ISG) for Lebanon is to be welcomed. Formed on the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York in September 2013, the intergovernmental group met for the third time in Paris in early March to discuss the range of ongoing crises afflicting the country.

And as in its previous get-togethers, in theory the conclusions of the ISG ticked all the right boxes. Lebanon is suffering from profound economic, security and humanitarian challenges, the actors declared. More support is necessary for refugee agencies and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), while the formation of a new government is “warmly welcomed” and the priority is to pave the way towards successful presidential elections in May.

But despite the extremely high level nature of the meeting, few concrete outcomes emerged that would treat the wounds currently ailing the country. Several states — Finland, France and Norway — pledged to contribute extra cash, but figures have not yet been released, according to the World Bank. And as the drama in Crimea escalated, scant media attention was accorded the Paris talks. European Union Ambassador to Lebanon Angelina Eichhorst captured the low-key nature with a tweet on her return to Beirut: “sad conclusion from FR BE NL mtgs [sic] that too few realise magnitude challenges Lebanon is facing since war.”  It was a sentiment she reaffirmed when meeting with Executive (see full interview here). “Back home, we don’t really know what [the crisis in Lebanon] means.”

International powers have always had a hand (whether helping or hidden) in Lebanon’s affairs. Are they now struggling in their efforts to prop it up?

A web of responses

If so, it is not out of paralysis. Despite a slow initial response to the Syrian refugee crisis in 2011, which mirrored the lethargic reaction of the Lebanese government itself, the worsening landscape has spawned several bilateral and multilateral actions.

The UN and its agencies, long permanent residents in Lebanon, have been at the forefront of humanitarian efforts. As Lebanon has received more Syrian refugees than any other country, UNHCR has seen its workload and its budget skyrocket. According to Joelle Eid, a spokeswoman for the agency, the body is planning for 1.6 million registered Syrians by the end of 2014 — up from less than a million now. Its budget has jumped from $13.5 million in 2010 to a projected $370.9 million for 2014 as it struggles to cope.

The EU has also stepped up its efforts. Having pledged over $338 million to date in supporting humanitarian and other efforts in Lebanon, it has attempted to bolster the effort of UN agencies as well as provide direct material aid to refugees. The June 2013 “Comprehensive EU Approach to the Syrian Crisis” built on this by outlining a European vision for a holistic rather than piecemeal strategy for tackling the problems throughout the region. A military expert was deployed to the EU delegation in Beirut, adding to the humanitarian aid and traditional development funding. “Everything is connected”, explains Eichhorst. “The magnitude of the challenges we have implies that Europe looks at the crisis from all angles.”

Bilaterally, the United States has contributed over $340 million in humanitarian assistance to Lebanon since the start of the crisis, including $76.4 million at the February 2014 donor conference for Syria in Kuwait. Individual European states channel aid through the EU or directly via development or UN agencies. To help the security situation, various countries have also offered rhetorical, material and financial support to bolster the LAF, most recently the much-discussed Saudi donation of $3 billion. In this vein, an upcoming Italian-sponsored conference in Rome will address the future of the LAF and drum up further support for its efforts at combatting the teetering security equilibrium.

It is in this particular context of a mishmash of international responses that the ISG emerged. Prompted by a July 2013 Security Council statement urging more international support for Lebanon, the group should act both as a coordinator of these existing efforts and as an advocate for more support. Pledging to tackle the three overlapping problems of security, the humanitarian crisis and economic stagnation, it is meant to give an overarching structure for the efforts of the international community in the country.

Toward greater security

But in both coordinating and providing impetus for more action, it does not have an easy task. In bringing together most of the global community’s big hitters — the five permanent UN Security Council members, the EU, the Arab League and the World Bank — it has at least managed to unite actors with diametrically opposed policies in Syria for the purpose of Lebanese stability. That Russia sits across the table from Saudi Arabia is promising. Yet agreeing that stability is a shared priority is one thing; agreeing on the road leading there is another.

The security dossier is, as usual, sensitive. If a consensus exists within the international community to strengthen the LAF, few details are forthcoming about how this will be achieved. Much aid to date has come in the form of grants and increased firepower. Yet some diplomats and security experts say that a shift towards a more ‘“soft power” approach is necessary. Florence Gaub, a Middle East analyst at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris, reckons that what is needed are “large-scale training courses in country, especially at officer and non-commissioned officer level.” “That’s where the military is really suffering,” she says.

A diplomatic source, who did not want to be named, noted that the upcoming conference in Rome dedicated to supporting the LAF, could be the starting point for shifting the discussion in this direction. Preliminary talks started this, but the full conference is currently scheduled for the summer.

One explanation for the lack of coordination is the inherently sovereign nature of security, especially for larger states. International powers have in the past taken a rather unilateral approach in this strategic field, often being reluctant to share information about their priorities and funding. Much action is also grounded in self-interest rather than altruistic notions. According to Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, a recent Saudi grant of $3 billion was motivated by regional considerations rather than Lebanese interests: “The grant was more about challenging Hezbollah and Iran.”

The interests and clout of Iran in Lebanon ­­— particularly through the influence of Hezbollah — complicates the efforts of the ISG to present a full global consensus. Although international institutions, Western powers and the Arab League are present at the party, Iran is not. According to Gaub, a Persian shadow hangs over ISG discussions on security. “Iran would certainly not appreciate training and equipping the Lebanese military to the extent necessary [for it to be strong] since it could then become a major antagonist of Hezbollah.”

Yet Eichhorst stressed that with improving global relations with Iran, a delegation from the country would hopefully be part of future negotiations. “I think Iran should always be around the table.”

Streams of aid

Similarly, although politically less sensitive, the coordination of the diverse strands of humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees and economic support for Lebanese state structures are also a challenge. The EU plays an important role in fostering communication between its member states present in Lebanon, while informal donor coordination meetings among networks in Beirut help to keep players somewhat on the same page. But with many donors opting to bypass the Lebanese government completely, it is difficult to keep track of who’s doing what. According to Khatib, NGOs are often “effectively doing the job of the state.” Indeed a new report from Chatham House says many donors perceive government bodies as “too corrupt to manage funds effectively.”

In recent months, however, there has been something of a shift towards reconnecting with government bodies — though often not central state institutions. The United Kingdom recently announced that it would provide additional support to Lebanese municipalities hosting sizeable Syrian refugee populations. In a press release, UK Ambassador in Lebanon Tom Fletcher said, “an increasing proportion of our £600 million [$990 million] contribution to the humanitarian response will go to these communities.” Amanda McLoughlin, Lebanese representative of the British Department for International Development, would not reveal the exact amount that would be pledged to municipalities but said there was an increased focus on supporting host communities. “We are entering the fourth year of the crisis. Year one and year two it was a straightforward humanitarian response — not in terms of complexity, but it was obvious what was needed. We just want to embed ourselves a little bit more in local systems as I think over the longer term — three, four, five years, perhaps even longer — you can’t just do this expensive on-the-spot response.“

Trust in the fund

The major ISG initiative for enhanced coordination of such aid has been to establish a multi-donor trust fund, headed by the World Bank, that will act as a clearing-house for donations to the Lebanese authorities. Elaborated over the course of several months, it was finally announced as “open for business” at the Paris conference. The trust fund will complement humanitarian efforts by supporting the capacity of Lebanese society and infrastructure to receive refugees. Inger Andersen, the World Bank’s representative at the meeting, said, “In managing donor resources, we will underwrite forthcoming development and resilience projects targeting the communities that are bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis.”

Not only will this channel more of the streams through a central reservoir, but the World Bank’s nameplate and expertise should provide the credibility and accountability that the Lebanese government lacks. Having stated that the cumulative total of economic losses in Lebanon as a result of the crisis will be $7.5 billion by the end of the year, the World Bank is also more aware than most as to the acute economic malaise in this country. “Stepping up support to help Lebanon cope with the impact of the Syrian crisis is our collective responsibility,” said Andersen.

Matters of perception

But if the World Bank’s role as coordinator has achieved at least limited progress through joint conclusions and initiatives such as the trust fund, pushing to “step up” support is a challenge.

The trust fund has also had a slow start. Joelle Eid, UNHCR spokesperson, says that only minimal assistance has been pledged to the Lebanese government to date to help it tackle the humanitarian crisis. This is despite the fact that Lebanon has been exemplary in keeping borders open while seeing its population increase by a quarter due to the influx of Syrian refugees.

It is not just a perception of corruption that restricts funding. Syria’s (and by extension Lebanon’s) crisis has fallen down the international order of priorities. Tellingly, the post-conference statement of US Secretary of State John Kerry after the ISG meeting in Paris mentioned the word Lebanon nine times. The combined total of Russia, Ukraine, Crimea and their related adjectives was forty-one.

On a broader level, the wave of suicide attacks which have hit Beirut in recent months have attracted widespread media attention, yet there is minimal public recognition of the day-to-day socio-economic problems currently affecting the country. Ambassador Eichhorst says that a common reaction in some European states when they learn of the refugee figures is one of disbelief.

More action, less talk
In Lebanon, as the refugee issue casts a growing shadow and the LAF are increasingly called upon to combat radical terrorism, a strong and coordinated support from the ISG is paramount. Robust international consensus and more concrete backing for the LAF would be a welcome result of the Rome conference. At the same time, a more enthusiastic buy-in to the multi-donor trust fund would provide Lebanese authorities — watched over by the World Bank — with much-needed funds to deal with the strain on infrastructure. This would help to complement existing international efforts to provide short-term refugee aid with longer-term initiatives to help Lebanese society cope with the influx.

The ISG was established to encourage all of these things. The ideas are there. Yet ultimately, above convening conferences and support groups, the biggest current challenge for the international community is finding the motivation to put its money where its mouth is. Acknowledging a problem is indeed the first step; but action must follow.