Facing poverty head on

Lebanon’s government must use crisis as opportunity for the country’s poor

Poverty impacts across all social divides

Nearly a third of Lebanese are estimated to live below the poverty line. This phenomenon cuts across sectarian divisions: destitution knows no religion or nationality (see photo essay).

Many of these are not poor due to war, sectarianism or displacement: they are poor as they have been neglected by their society. Successive governments have failed to adequately identify and help those in need, while simultaneously forgoing adequate investment in health and education infrastructure. The past four decades have also seen a rapid increase in inequality (see article). Many poor have simply been left behind.

For the past two years, the country has been faced with an additional crisis in the form of an influx of Syrians fleeing the carnage next door. Competition for jobs has increased, while rents have risen in poor communities. The World Bank has estimated that in total 170,000 Lebanese people will be pushed into poverty by the influx, and there are few signs of a reprieve.

At the same time, expenditures have risen. The Bank estimates spending will have grown by $1.1 billion from 2012–2014, largely due to refugees using government services. At a macro level the effect was evidenced last year when Lebanon slipped into negative territory in its primary balance (that is, revenues minus expenditures other than debt repayment and servicing — the country has long had a deficit when you count debt handling).

But, as John F Kennedy once said, every crisis is also an opportunity, and Lebanon could use this chance to fix its domestic system. The newly minted government should formulate a strategy to bring social, health and education services up to par, leveraging the potential to tap international donors — an impossibility during the interminable months of a caretaker cabinet.

Ideally, the government could use the short-term relief money to invest in creaking infrastructure systems in a sustainable manner, while providing the breathing space to make necessary reforms. Services provided to refugees today should be sustainable for Lebanese tomorrow.

Without international donors, Lebanon has little chance of making the changes and investments desperately needed to fix its social safety net. But the refugee crisis has provided the best opportunity to remedy this — for Syrians, Palestinians and for the roughly one million Lebanese living in poverty. This government must not let this crisis go to waste.