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Making the worst of a bad situation

Lebanese government cuts itself out of Syria aid

by Joe Dyke

In mid-December, the United Nations made another international appeal for Syria, the sixth since the country’s three-year civil war began.

The numbers were staggering – a total of $6.5 billion was requested for the whole of 2014 to aid Syrians both inside the country and in refugee communities in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt, a figure roughly equal to the public spending of Iceland last year. This would provide support to 16 million people, including over 800,000 in Lebanon — the smallest of Syria’s neighbors but the one with the highest proportion of refugees (around 35 percent).

One noteworthy thing about the appeal was the declining role for the Lebanese government. In total the appeal requested $1.89 billion to support both the government and the work of international bodies, primarily UNHCR. But the breakdown was not even — $1.7 billion for the UN and just $165 million for the government, less than 10 percent of the total. The previous year, the ratio was roughly three to one — $1.2 billion for the United Nations and $450 million for the government. This shift in policy appears to reflect a collective vote of no confidence in the Lebanese political class. While 44 percent of the UN’s $1.2 billion from 2013’s appeal received funding, the state fund received 0 percent; not one donor was willing to back the government’s work.

Lebanon’s politicians have accused the international community of failing the country, with caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati saying last month: “Lebanon has never hesitated to carry out its humanitarian duties toward the Syrian refugees but [we are] disappointed with the international community for neglecting humanitarian considerations.”

If Mikati is looking to place blame, however, he may do better by looking closer to home, as Lebanon’s politicians have completely failed to make the most of a bad situation.

It may seem paradoxical, but while the war next door has had many hugely damaging effects on Lebanon, it has also presented opportunities. Hundreds of millions of dollars have poured into the economy, brought both by fleeing Syrians and from the international community as it supports both refugees and host communities.

In the short term, the sheer number of refugees was always going to strain the country’s education, health and other networks. But proper planning from the government could have helped turn some of this investment into long-term gains, improving those same networks for the post-war future. The country has also failed to attract investment from the Syrian business classes, who have instead preferred Turkey.

The main reason the opportunity has been squandered is the collective inertia of Lebanon’s political class. Since the collapse of the Mikati-led government in March, there have been few meaningful attempts to form another one — making international donors increasingly jittery.
The ministers have remained in their roles in a caretaker capacity but have preferred mud-slinging to unity. From Hezbollah to the Free Patriotic Movement, all parties have proved better at blaming refugees for their woes than seeking to solve them.

Indeed last month caretaker Finance Minister Mohammad Safadi and caretaker Public Works Minister Ghazi Aridi were questioned over their responsibility following December’s floods. The two men accused each other of corruption and ultimately, in some bizarre paradox, Aridi announced his resignation from the already resigned government. Both came away convinced that they had won the argument, but the cumulative effect was to compound the belief that the entire political class is rotten to the core.

On top of this, the lingering stench of corruption increases the hesitancy of would-be backers. In mid-November Ibrahim Bashir, head of the state-funded Higher Relief Commission through which millions of dollars of aid are funneled, was arrested along with his wife on suspicion of transferring $10 million to private accounts abroad.

In such a context, it is little surprise that international donors are going around the government, not through it. French Ambassador Patrice Paoli perhaps best summed up the sense of despair when he described Lebanon as a rudderless ship. “This boat is heading right to the rocks and nobody seems to be able to do anything.” Who would want to put their goods on that ship?

Joe Dyke is Executive's Economics and Online Editor

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Joe Dyke

Joe Dyke worked at Executive from 2012 until 2014, mostly as economics and politics editor. He later worked for The New Humanitarian, Agence France Presse (AFP) and is now head of investigations at the civilian harm monitoring organisation Airwars.

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