The role of the diaspora in healing Lebanon

Hope in the face of relentless calamity

Photo by Greg Demarque.
Reading Time: 5 minutes

The sudden economic and financial collapse, the scarcity of resources, the social unrest exacerbated by a political crisis, all these have left Lebanon facing the abyss of a failed state and the impending disintegration of the country’s social fabric. The currency is in free fall, prices of basic goods are skyrocketing, there are liquidity shortages, in efficient governance, scarcity of jobs, collapsing educational and healthcare systems, failing institutions… and the list goes on. Living conditions have become untenable. More than 50 percent of Lebanese are currently living below the poverty line.

The August 4 explosion of the Beirut Port exacerbated the situation to an even more dire level. For many Lebanese this was the last straw, and many families have thrown in the towel as a new wave of emigration has started with hundreds of thousands leaving over the past two months alone. A heartbreaking conclusion for many, and a deep loss for the nation.

Lebanon has had a long history of emigration. So much so that the population of 4 million in Lebanon is known to be far trumped by its diaspora, which is thought to top 16 million (including multiple generations). Hence, its magnitude and impact on the country and its economy is substantial.

The Lebanese diaspora has proven to be versatile, adaptable, capable, hardworking and driven. In many industries, such as finance, consulting, medicine, education, industry, design – to name a few – they have risen to the top of their fields. As an example, members of the Lebanese International Finance Executives (LIFE) organisation alone amass over 850 such leaders, globally.

The diaspora stands as a source of pride to the Lebanese, and their impact is felt in the country with an average of $7 billion to $8 billion of remittances per annum sent to Lebanon. This has spurred the massive growth of the banking sector over the years and supported the economy for decades. By October 2019, the total deposits in the banking sector reached north of $175 billion against a GDP of less than $50 billion, representing the highest deposits/GDP ratio amongst all emerging markets and amongst the highest in the world, peaking at over 400 percent.

Today, Lebanon is a broken country. What can the diaspora do? And what is its role in supporting the rebuilding of the country and the redesign of what a new sustainable Lebanon could look like? As we look at numerous efforts supporting the provision of aid to Lebanon, there is no doubt that Lebanon’s strength and resilience lies in its people, not its failing governmental institutions and its corrupt political “leaders”. In the aftermath of the Beirut blast, the Lebanese people, from all regions, backgrounds and walks of life, mobilised to support their fellow citizens, to rescue, to clean and to aid, tirelessly and selflessly.

The diaspora mobilises

The diaspora has also mobilised globally. Even before August 4, relief efforts were being organized to respond to the humanitarian crisis that Lebanon was facing, and to address the increasingly acute levels of poverty resulting from years of economic deterioration. Funds were raised and disbursed for food, medicine and overall support.

In the aftermath of the blast, millions of dollars were collected to support the people of Lebanon. Many Lebanese rushed to support NGOs that took over the responsibility of relief efforts to compensate for the gap created by an ineffective government without a crisis management plan.

LIFE, a non for profit organisation established 10years ago to bring Lebanese professionals in the diaspora together to support each other, the next generation, and Lebanon, actively worked on several relief initiatives over the past year.

Last November, LIFE hosted a “Solidarity Dinner” in London, raising more than $1.7 million in donations to expand its scholarship programs, focusing on supporting university education for the Lebanese youth with most promise and in most need.

Subsequently, with the growing economic and financial crisis, LIFE launched two emergency social and humanitarian funds to support the provision of food, medication, and other necessities to the most vulnerable communities across Lebanon, working with well vetted NGOs in Lebanon.

Following the explosion on August 4, in a desire to leverage the collective strength of the Lebanese diaspora, LIFE partnered with other like-minded organizations such as Social and Economic Action for Lebanon (SEAL), LebNet, Jam hour Alumni(US/Europe) and Kuwait-America Foundation, to form the Beirut Emergency Fund 2020 (BEF). Inits fundraising appeal, BEF focused on supporting hospitals and NGOs working on shelter and medical needs; physical and mental health; and the rehabilitation of households and SMEs. By the end of September, over $8 million had been collected, and disbursements are still underway to meet the ever-growing needs.

Moreover, many Lebanese professionals reached out to their global firms and employers, urging them, either through their corporate social responsibility budgets or through matching programs, to donate money to Lebanon relief efforts.Various LIFE members organised through their respective organizations and contacts donations of medical supplies and equipment that were delivered to their intended recipients, such as hospitals in Lebanon. This collective effort has lead to tens of millions of dollars of donations being sent to Lebanon in both cash and in kind.

While humanitarian and relief efforts are of extreme importance in today’s deteriorating situation, the diaspora also has an important role to play in the longer term development of the country, one that will ensure that Lebanon has stronger foundations on which to build its future. This includes advising on a roadmap for the revamping of the economy, restructuring the banking sector, supporting the reconstruction of the infrastructure through their respective expertise, supporting reforms and the development of vital sectors such as electricity, water, energy and telecommunications.

As important as these initiatives are, they cannot bear fruit without the necessary legal, administrative, governmental, institutional, judiciary and security frameworks, which are currently missing. A new civil state needs to be built bottom-up, and the diaspora has an important role to play in supporting the Lebanese on the ground map out the path to a well-governed, well-structured, new Lebanon.

Next steps to avoid stagnation

The diaspora can further help through continued pressure points on the international community and local power brokers to accept structural and fundamental reforms, leading to much needed external funding under an IMF plan. This is the only path to a real turn around in the economy, to stop the hemorrhaging, and to save the Lebanese people from certain disaster.

In the interim, we must continue supporting those in most need. In particular, the young, the backbone of our country and its future. Our youth need to believe in a brighter future and the diaspora has an equally important role to play in supporting education, mentorship, job creation, and job placements.

Moreover, attention should be paid to job creation in Lebanon. For example, promoting Lebanon as a hub for outsourcing services, working with tech companies and VCs to boost entrepreneurship, supporting nascent local businesses, such as art, handicraft or fashion, as well as social enterprises. This, of course, on top of ongoing support to boost the industrial and agricultural sectors through provisions of export currency, necessary materials and markets.

To this end, LIFE has further launched a support program for technical trainings, coding skills, and employ ability, targeting hundreds of young Lebanese working with local organisations. Another example, Jobs for Lebanon, a global reaching hiring platform, has called up on the diaspora to employ local talents. These kinds of initiatives aim to help create long-term stability in an otherwise deteriorating economy.

We are undoubtedly facing an untenable situation in Lebanon, and many are starting to lose hope fearing the worst. But I believe that if the Lebanese in the diaspora continue to volunteer their time, capabilities, means and resources, we can be a catalyst for much needed change. Change that can turn the dial on creating a better future for our compatriots and ultimately, our country.

May Nasrallah is Chairman of LIFE, and founder and CEO of deNovo Corporate Advisors.

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