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Making Do and Mustering Support

by Thomas Schellen

Social emergencies, safety nets, and refugee issues have taken center stage in Lebanese public debates since the country’s rapid descent into economic misery more than four years ago. Along with towering social needs, the country’s centrally concerned public institution – the Ministry of Social Affairs, or MOSA – logically has increasingly been thrust into the local and international limelight. Notably however, while the Lebanese Republic maintains a large number of ministries by international comparison, MOSA’s importance has historically often been overshadowed by ministries that were widely seen as politically more strategic or important in terms of their fiscal and economic contributions. Thus, MOSA’s role, heightened further in recent months due to the country’s first external conflict-forced internal displacements with resulting new social emergencies in decades, not only deserves support and understanding because of today’s overwhelming humanitarian needs but demands even more attention as a strategic building block of a more social Lebanon. Executive’s questions were answered by the Minister of Social Affairs, Hector Hajjar. 

Over 90,000 people have been forced by armed conflict from Lebanon’s southern border area as of the beginning of spring. There are widespread fears, caused by the Gaza crisis and Israeli threats, of escalation and new attacks which would result in be more internal refugee movements. How has the Ministry of Social Affairs (MOSA) been able to support these internally displaced persons, or IDPs, and what will it be able do if numbers of internal refugees were driven upwards by increased violence? 

HH: I am not the only one in charge of dealing with the situation. I am responsible at the level of the Ministry of Social Affairs. The Lebanese government has set up a ministerial committee, of which I am part, that deals with the southern file. It represents all relevant ministries, such as education and health, working under a coordinator, who is the Minister of Environment, with the highest official being the Prime Minister. 

As for us at the ministry, we visited the affected sites from the first day and participated in the crisis response plan. We followed the displaced and those residing in the border areas who did not want to leave. At the same time, we modified the plan so that we had a response to the people who wanted to remain in their homes, as well as to the people who took refuge in the shelter centers and the people who went and rented accommodations or moved in with other families.

The Ministry of Social Affairs, within the capabilities it has, has to date launched several initiatives. Firstly, we initiated a project called “Khotwa” in partnership with Expertise France and Shield Foundation to support the psychologically displaced men and women. Secondly, we placed a mobile unit for reproductive health in Tyre to follow up on displaced women. Providing health support, the mobile unit travels to shelter centers and to families staying with their relatives. Thirdly, we have provided the entire south with aid materials to equip the centers, such as equipment for people with special needs to facilitate their lives and mobility. And fourthly, we have provided food supplies, especially flour, to support the people displaced within the south and those residing in the border strip.

Jointly with other ministries, we provided medical equipment to Jezzine and Marjayoun hospitals and supported Bint Jbeil and Tyre hospitals with diesel fuel. [In addition to food and material supplies provided in several governorates], we also transferred additional cash support to people with special needs between the ages of 15 and 30 in the southern region, reaching the families benefiting from the poorest families program and the “Aman” program of $2.5 million. We have a received a new Chinese donation of $1 million that we are preparing to use, either by transferring it in cash or through food supplies.

We are also meeting with most international institutions and with all embassies to encourage additional funding. During my recent visits to the south, I proposed and will continue to propose two ways of assisting the displaced: either through direct support, which is through motivating follow-up institutions to provide medicine, aids, etc., or through indirect support where we allocate entitlements to the southern regions for paying such as phone bills, Internet bills (DSL), electricity and water bills, and municipal bills. It is my message that we must take a decision to support the citizens determined to remain in the south, relieve them of the burden, and stop this pressure on them. We must help them indirectly and remove taxes and dues from them.


Can you quantify for us both the needs and the value of the assistance that MOSA has been able to provide to the IDP in the past 6 months?

HH: The subject of statistics is supposed to be in the hands of OCHA [the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] and the coordinator of the response process to the displaced. He is the one who can tell us how to proportionate the response to all needs. I cannot tell you a number so as not to be mistaken.

One cannot predict when the conflict in Gaza will end. But by historic experience we know that no war lasts forever so on some point fighting in Gaza will stop and there will be people whose lives have been devastated and who will seek to leave. Do you expect that there will be any influx of new Palestinian refugees from Gaza on Lebanon?

HH: Everything is possible and everything is not possible. Lebanon’s position on this issue is clear. We do not want to receive anyone in Lebanon from the Palestinian issue in Gaza. I think this is also Egypt’s and Jordan’s position. A presence of displaced Palestinians or of people who could flee from Gaza to Lebanon would be very difficult to accommodate now and is rejected.

What portion of the 2024 Lebanese budget is allocated to MOSA and how large is the ministry’s human capacity when you compare the capacity of 2024 with 10 years ago?

HH: Over the past ten years, we have lost more than 80 percent of our financial capacity, that is to say, our budget today has been cut by 80 percent. Regarding the human capacity we have two problems. Firstly, a shortage in our qualified staff; we do not have the ability to replace whoever has left MOSA. Next, we have a problem with wages, which have not yet recovered from the crisis since 2019. This means that we have a problem with the number of employees, a problem with their motivation because of low wages, and a problem with budget. The way we compensate for the budget problem is through borrowing and aid.

Developed countries with welfare states have high levels of social transfer payments. Compared to social expenses that average at 21.5 percent of GDP in OECD countries, how large is the role of the Ministry of Social Affairs in Lebanon and of social assistance in the overall Lebanese system and how well do people regard the ministry and its services?

HH: From approximately two and a half years ago, the number of beneficiaries of social assistance has reached 15 to 20 percent of the Lebanese population. During these two and a half years, we have provided and are providing complementary health, psychological, social, and employment services to the extent of 15 to 20 percent in order to reduce the burden and create a multi-dimensional approach for people who are going through crises. Whether there is appreciation by the Lebanese or not is because these programs do not have regularity. There are those who are satisfied when we pay for them, and there are those who are dissatisfied when we stop paying due to lack of order and administrative capacity. An example of what is happening with us is that we had to pay up to 100,000 families this month, but we were not able to do so due to administrative matters. This has to be considered a debt because the government system does not provide funding for cash assistance.

Based on the question that was asked before, how do you see the Lebanese comparing themselves to the Syrians who receive aid?

HH: There is a great comparison because over the past 11-12 years there have been a health program, an educational program and food supplies in addition to cash and some secondary school aid such as transportation and the internet that were provided to Syrians [who sheltered in Lebanon]. For the poorest Lebanese families there was some cash support, but support of school needs has been irregular, health support does not exist, and the rest of these services are also non-existent. Here I name as example two women, one Lebanese and the other Syrian, who want to go [to the hospital] to give birth. Because of the [payment requirements] in the healthcare system, the Lebanese woman faces a problem with how she will go to give birth. As for the Syrian woman, she can access a system covering her needs. Satisfaction for the Syrian woman will be high, while for the Lebanese woman there is no satisfaction at all.

Do you agree with the general numbers that are being circulated that there are about 1.5 million Syrian displaced people in Lebanon today? What number does the ministry work with?

HH: Firstly, in Lebanon there are no accurate statistics. Secondly, do you want me to give you a number that would have been correct before you asked the question, or a number that reflects how it has changed since you asked? [There are many fluctuations], because there are Syrians crossing the border as we speak. Also some are fleeing because of what just happened in Jbeil [the murder of politician Pascale Sleiman], and there are babies who have just been born. We rely on numbers according to General Security [data], because we do not have statistics and there is no government decision to collect them. According to the General Security file, there are 2.1 or 2.2 million Syrians in Lebanon. It is possible that there are 1.9 million, but the number is certainly higher than 800,000, and not all of these Syrians are displaced.  

In this matter, the role of the UNCHR has become greater than its size. Displacement is the result of war and persecution; there was a military war that took place in Syria in the year 2011 and ended in 2015 in general. From today’s perspective, there was no war in Syria in 2023 and the Syrian who came to Lebanon in 2023 came because of economic reasons. He left due to the economic blockade and the international sanctions, or due to the earthquake [of February 2023], or to flee to Europe. Therefore, calling all Syrians in Lebanon “displaced” is a crime.

Clearly, I say that any country in the world, whether European or Arab, or any international or human rights organization that calls all the Syrians in Lebanon displaced or refugees, [commits] a crime in the field of Lebanon and must be punished at the Hague Court. Why? Because if someone comes to steal a car in Lebanon, or to rob a house in Lebanon, or to work as a mafia or a group of smugglers to Europe, I will be a criminal if I give him the status of a displaced person. How many [people working in] international institutions and international organizations are criminals because they make these wrong judgements?

For many decades, Lebanon has had 200,000 to 250,000 Syrians working in agriculture, industry and commerce. These people are now called displaced people. Any person calling them displaced people is firstly a criminal against the Syrian because he made the Syrian think of [betraying] his country, and a criminal against the Lebanese because he allows Lebanese to live with instability at time they cannot tolerate that.

We used to say that there are 30 to 40 percent of those in Lebanese prisons who are Syrians. Some did not believe us, but this is the reality today. Whoever [stays as Syrian in Lebanon but] is not in school, does not live a normal life, is not monitored by their municipality, and who is not in a home but lives on village sidewalks, does so as a result of prostitution addiction, theft, smuggling, forgery, and money laundering. Once we gave this individual the status of a displaced person, we protected him from persecution. So, if a Lebanese wanted to steal, he would bring a group of Syrians to steal for him, because the displaced person does not stand trial and the UN appoint a lawyer to defend him. It is an internationally prescribed crime to call all the Syrians in Lebanon displaced.

If we look at the situation of the Lebanese people in light of the waning social and economic crisis of the past few years, how is the government and especially MOSA able to maintain the overall social contract in Lebanon and give the people security?

HH: Four or five months ago, we finished, signed, and launched the National Strategy for Social Protection, which is the first such strategy to operate in Lebanon in 75 years. At MOSA, we did not wait for the launch of the strategy in order to begin work. We, in line with the strategy, had begun to launch the programs of the [Emergency Social Safety Network] program and the [National Poverty Targeting Program], and today we are integrating between them. [This integration process] will end at the end of June.

Secondly, we launched the unified social registry, which is the basis of the national social protection strategy. If we have a unified record, we can know how to work. If we do not have data for all of Lebanon, we cannot work. We also established, and will launch in May, the GRM—a complaints call center with 30 employees. We further launched the Cash Assistance Program for Disability, which is accessible to people aged 15 to 30 years, and we will work to expand it.

Overall, 600 billion Lebanese lira from the Lebanese government have been released in support of people who have disabilities. They are adults, children and the poorest. Also, today there is an Inter-Ministerial Committee headed by the Prime Minister, and I practically lead it in the absence of the relevant ministers. The committee was formed and we met last week and now we are forming the National Technical Committee. 

For the first time in Lebanon’s history, with the support of UNICEF and ILO and a clear Lebanese ministerial will, especially from the Ministry of Social Affairs, we want to reach the topic which is related to ensuring the rights of the Lebanese citizen to live a decent life so that he/she does not become a refugee or displaced person in other countries.

The 2023 Lebanon Crisis Response Plan of the UN and stakeholders indeed said that MOSA has taken the lead in developing a national social protection strategy. How far advanced is the development of this strategy, perhaps expressed as percentage terms of reaching full implementation? 

HH: No percentages. A part [of the strategy] is what we are implementing together with other ministries, another part is in the design phase to be implemented in the future, and we are working with the Ministry of Finance to secure its funds. 

Elements of the strategy presently under design are, for example, care of the elderly and their protection, including coverage of medicine, and the subject of the social security system and its improvement. But things are moving. We are also working on an automation process for development of services at the level of the Ministry of Social Affairs and at the level of the 150 MOSA branches, so that they can provide the services of a referral system and a linking system with the rest of the ministries.

Once all elements are in place, will it be a Lebanese strategy or an imported strategy?

HH: The National Strategy for Social Protection has passed through many stages. The basic stage that it passed through is a strategy for everyone residing in Lebanon. It was stopped and modified to become Lebanese only because we do not have the capacity to bear refugees or displaced persons. It is a Lebanese production with international standards, and there is an attempt to be 100 percent Lebanese, but it is not 100 percent Lebanese.

Did the recent economic crisis, with all its disadvantages, contribute to accelerating the process of building social systems in Lebanon?

HH: It is possible, but the main point is that in Lebanon not all are convinced of a social system based on a protection strategy. From the Ministry of Social Affairs, we have complete conviction of this, but this approach needs wider support, ideally through an international resolution. Public trust and a culture shift are necessary for the citizen seek protection from the state. 

How can one change the prevailing distrust in the population where it is often alleged that everything done by this or that ministry or by any minister, are acts of corruption?

HH: Through developing a culture of non-corruption at the level of ministers and government and at the level of the people. Throughout history, the lack of real examples of projects that are far from corruption makes people disbelieve that there is anything that is not corrupt. But I say that the work to build the government really begins with the minister actually acting in the interest of building a nation, with transparency and with projects that are linked effectively and in keeping with a media plan. The people on their part must take steps to understand reality and progress. It is a matter of the culture of building a nation. We Easterners are more emotional than we think. Was the incident [the abduction and murder of Pascal Sleiman] that happened on Sunday taken from an emotional perspective or from an actual perspective? From this incident we can see how things are being viewed.

Is solving the problem of trust and also the problems of Syrian refugees and displaced people in Lebanon, primarily a political challenge, a technical challenge, or what?

HH: There is a political governmental decision, there is an executive technical decision because there is a technical problem with the government agencies and their movement, and there is an external media, legal, diplomatic decision to convince the capitals of the decision that this is Lebanon’s highest interest and this is the highest interest of the displaced. What we lack today is not knowing how to explain to the Western and Arab countries that we are not against the displaced. We are with the real displaced people, but against exploiting the displacement issue for goals greater than displacement, which are political goals.

By my understanding you have a personal background as humanitarian actor. Is being the Minster of Social Affairs a dream job for you?

HH: I had and still have a dream to build Lebanon, a homeland for humanity, and this dream is realistic. By what means I will build it, that is not what is important to me. Whether I am a minister, a deputy, or a social activist, the form is not important. What I seek is beyond the form. I seek the content.

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The interview was conducted in person with the minister. Arabic interview responses have been translated and edited. 

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Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years. Send mail
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Rouba Bou Khzam

Rouba is a journalist at Executive magazine
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