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Q&A with Philippe Lazzarini

The Palestinian experience of the Lebanese crises

by Thomas Schellen

Human catastrophes are inextricably interconnected to each other through the basic sharing of suffering and human compassion. The Palestinian
catastrophe in this sense can neither be ignored nor excised from the intensity of the Lebanese experience. To gain a perspective on the Palestinian dimension of the crisis in Lebanon, and on the magnitude of the suffering of the Palestinian population in the Near East this year, Executive sat down with Philippe Lazzarini, the commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

You have just completed your first official visit to Lebanon since you were appointed to the post of UNRWA commissioner-general. I understand that your schedule in Beirut was overwhelming.

It indeed was overwhelming because I did not come only as the new [commissioner general] but also as a former [national resident], knowing a lot of people in Beirut. With all what has happened, there was obviously a need to meet as many people as possible.

As perhaps the highest-profile practitioner of development aid with experience in Lebanon in the past six years, my first question is in this context of poverty and the need for development. Given your recent visit in this September of 2020, are we in hell, are we heading to hell, or will we be able to redeem something?

I feel that [you in Lebanon] will be the only ones able to answer this larger question. But it is true that I left Lebanon six months ago and I was shocked to see how people have changed, how their optimism has disappeared [and] how people were more in disbelief and in despair. I have not met anyone who expressed a glimpse of optimism for the near future. This is not the Lebanon that I have experienced over the last five years. Indeed, if you look at all the events that have taken place in the last year, from the financial collapse to the economic crisis and the political stalling, and after that the blast, which seems to be the outcome of a criminal negligence and criminal corruption at every level, this has been the [straw breaking] the camel’s back.

Most of the people who I met during my stay, were talking about leaving the country if they can or could, and also talking with some colleagues from embassies, it seems that today you have an important brain drain which has been accelerated. It was already the case when I was in the country because of the difficulties of graduates to find jobs in the country, but it seems that even those who were in the country and had a job, are now looking to leave Beirut, so it was not the same soul or spirit anymore. Something was broken. I was very shocked to find that I did not have any professional or private meeting that ended with the belief that things in the near future will or can improve. Despite this, I have witnessed extraordinary individual initiative of solidarity among the people. This is among the people, but what I could feel is the total absence of any expectation on what the state could deliver to the people. This has certainly contributed to the moroseness of the mood in Beirut.

Indeed, it seems that nobody is expecting anything positive in terms of either the leadership or in terms of revising the system. But still, could one say that the people here have a human capacity that might translate into something positive and surprising?

A general observation: the notion of “social contract” in Lebanon has been extremely loose over several decades, I would say, definitely since the beginning of the civil war. This has gone as far as that everything has been privatized in the country and nothing has been expected from the state in terms of services. Education has been privatized, health has been privatized, water and electricity, everything has at a given point been privatized in the country. Thus, there were very low expectations from the state in the country. If you look also at Lebanese everywhere in the world, they brilliantly succeed elsewhere. But in the context of Lebanon, they are not the same anymore. I would agree with you that the entrepreneurial spirit of the Lebanese is very well alive but the problem is that the context of Lebanon is not conducive for this to fully succeed. This is the reason why successful Lebanese are tempted to make their careers outside of the country.

Some years ago you authored a piece where you said that if this country collapses, the only model of tolerant coexistence in the Middle East would be lost. What do you see today as the outcome if Lebanon, as a state, were no longer viable?

This is a difficult geopolitical question, but as the country is now celebrating its 100th anniversary, and more than ever, 100 years [after its founding], you have a very deep communal divide which is completely paralyzing the country. This is the reason why there is a political stalemate, why it is all so difficult to form a government today. Because of the sectarian way of doing business in the country. What will the country look like if the Lebanese fail today? I think it will go through even more difficulties and more despair.

Time today is of the essence, the country is on its knees, there are almost no economic opportunities anymore, and it requires a government focusing on and prioritizing socioeconomic issues, but for that, you need to reform the system. For the time that I have been in Lebanon, in almost all my meetings, I was asking the decision makers: where is the sense of urgency? While we see month after month and year after year, the debt increasing and the country nearing the financial and economic collapse, why is there not more of a sense of urgency to reform? To reform the public sector and improve the perception of corruption as the country ranks very badly on the Corruption Perception Index, if I remember well in 137th place, at the time.

There were a number of low-hanging fruits, such as electricity reform where everybody knew exactly what needs to be undertaken and which would have saved the state billions of dollar and despite that, nothing has been undertaken. Also one would have believed that after the blast – the worst-ever blast besides an atomic blast in an urban setting – this would finally [result in change] but now we are one-and-a-half months later, and we are back to the same way of doing business which prevailed in the country [previously]. [If] with all these external shocks, reform does not happen, I do not see how the country can bounce [back] for the time being. It might have to dive deeper before it will really bounce [back].

Turning to the situation of the Palestinian population in Lebanon and the Palestinians in general, the economic shortfall in the UNRWA budget was mentioned by you in one interview during your visit. A message that has been iterated several times since earlier in 2020 by the organization’s representatives on various levels. It seems that
institutionally, you are almost in the position of a precariat
in an informal economic setting that lives from one month to the next, but despite that, you are functioning as an institution that gives aid and keeps people in their livelihoods. What is your expectation for UNRWA funding and for the impact of Covid-19 on the Palestinian economy?

Let me make a few comments before I comment on the financial situation of UNRWA. What I met in the camps [during the visit to Beirut in September 2020] was a very high level of despair, a high level of hopelessness. Basically, when we talk about the increase of poverty in Lebanon, this is amplified in the Palestinian camps. So when we hear that by World Bank estimation 50 percent of the Lebanese population is living below the poverty line, this percentage goes up to 90 percent in the Palestinian camp, and as you know, the Palestinians in Lebanon also do not have equal access to the job market, to land and property and hence have socioeconomically been discriminated. Clearly, what happened over the last year in the economic and financial collapse is complicated by the impact of Covid-19 – which by the way goes beyond the health hazard into triggering an additional level of misery. I keep saying that what we should fear the most in our days with the Covid-19 is a pandemic of abject poverty. Abject poverty has now become a reality in the camps to the extent that if you talk to people in the camp, most of the time they will tell you, “I prefer to take the risk of getting Covid-19 over taking the daily risk of not having food for my children.” This has become the reality in the camp.

As UNRWA we are providing quasi-state services to the Palestinians. Our mandate is to provide education to the Palestinian refugees, to provide access to health services, and also provide relief to the poorest among the poor as minimum social safety net. With all that happened in the country, expectations are rising that UNRWA delivers even more, especially more when it comes to social safety net. Those people just do not have income anymore – the majority of people in the camp are daily workers and they do not have the minimum income they used to have. So they turn to UNRWA, like the Lebanese challenge their governments. This is taking place at a time when UNRWA experienced a financial crisis which is not new, it started five years ago and takes place at a time when people expect UNRWA to deliver more. And, the countries supporting UNRWA are also experiencing their own financial crises. Most of the countries supporting us are entering into economic recessions, which makes the environment much more difficult to deal with.

Having said that, as you were referencing the month-to-month financial situation, this is because UNRWA has two problems. The first is a constant cash flow crisis – we are constantly on the edge of a cash crash – because of the lack of liquidities. We are an organization of about 30,000 staff between Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, West-Bank and Gaza; we are an organization that has a budget of more than 1 billion dollars because of all the services that we are providing. But in terms of cash flow, we never have more than a few weeks. This is highly unnerving and this is the reason why you might have heard many times already in the past that we are always on the edge of ceasing payment of salaries or ceasing services. This needs to be addressed and is an issue that I brought to the table with [UN] member states, telling them, “You gave us a multi-year mandate and we are highly predictable in the services we are delivering – we know already today what our budget will be next year and the year after, so you should be also more predictable in your contributions so that we can manage the cash flow better”. That is number one.

On September 14 2020, Mr. Philippe Lazzarini, accompanied by the Director of UNRWA Affairs in Lebanon, Mr. Claudio Cordone, visited the isolation center and the UNRWA clinic in El Buss camp, where he was briefed on the health services that Palestine refugees continued to receive under new measures and procedures because of the COVID-19 pandemic. © 2020 UNRWA Photo by Abeer Nouf

Number two is that we have a discrepancy between yearly contributions for our mandated activities and the resources that are made available. We have also a mismatch between the political mandate and the expectation of what we have to deliver with the resources that are made available. This is an issue that I am also trying to address with the member states, to make sure that they walk the talk if they ask us to deliver education to half a million Palestinian refugee girls and boys, and that we need the necessary resources for this. That is where we are today. I am very worried about the level of despair in the Palestinian camps and this is also why I have asked donors and member states to make sure that we continue to remain a source of predictability and stability in a highly unstable and unpredictable region.

In a discussion held a few years ago at the American University of Beirut (AUB), a comment of yours on longer term humanitarian emergencies was that ,“the more protracted the situation is, and the less jobs are… available from the market, the more human assistance becomes a social safety net of people”. Then, you remarked that to make humanitarian assistance sustainable in the longterm from short-term money, was a challenge that you did not see the answer to yet. Now, you are dealing with the same sort of challenge on a much bigger level than at the time. Were you able to make progress towards finding a formula of solving this quagmire?

My comment at the time was on the Syrian refugees in the country, where we are basically now dealing with a more protracted situation, and the assistance to the population was being provided through a limited resource, and the more protracted [the situation was], the less was made available as there were competing emergencies elsewhere in the world. The question was, if these people are not economically integrated and go back to their country of origin, who will be in charge in the longer term to provide the assistance, which is comparable to a social safety net for a vulnerable population? I don’t think we have found the answer yet today. It is always a struggle within this humanitarian-government nexus.

But if I look today at how to ensure sustainable livelihood for the refugees, that can be done by helping them access the job market. If they cannot [access a labor market], then one of the important tools at their disposal today is micro-credit. Within UNRWA we do have a micro-credit fund which I have asked to be reinforced in order to better deal with the economic impact of Covid-19… Having said that, there is still no mechanism substituting for the short-term humanitarian funding to ensure welfare and assistance in the long-term for this kind of population, especially refugee population.

Would this micro-credit fund be instituted here and be accessible from Lebanon, given the central bank’s prerogatives in managing and licensing micro-credit and micro-finance institutions (MFIs)?

We are looking at bringing back micro-credit in Lebanon, so we have indeed discussions with the central bank regulatory authority. We have already micro-credit activity in Palestine, the West-Bank, East Jerusalem, Jordan, and we had it also in Syria. It is true that Lebanon was lagging behind but we are looking today at how we can resume or initiate micro-credit also in Lebanon to make sure that Palestinian refugees also have access to this additional tool.

As some see it, poverty can be defined as a choice that society makes; but it seems not to be the right choice. In the Palestinian scenario, could the wrong choices that have entrenched poverty among Palestinian groups be turned into productive power via humanitarianism? Research into international responses to war, disaster and other humanitarian emergencies, has shown tremendous growth of the humanitarian market, highlighted a few years ago as
“humanitarian economics” by Swiss economist Gilles Carbonnier.
Do you think that this rise of humanitarian economics could offer a way forward for better management of the Palestinian issue and poverty in this group?

I was a student together with Gilles Carbonnier in university and I heard him talk about [his] book [at AUB’s Issam Fares Institute], but I have not read the book, so I know of the book but not in all detail. Is poverty the outcome of the choice of society? You do not decide to have poverty, but
depending on the nature of the society that you decide to have, the social contract you decide to have, you will have a level of poverty, this is the way he wanted to frame it. Today, the new framework that is being put in
place to address poverty is the agenda 2030 and the [social development goals], which is today the most ambitious anti-poverty agenda ever adopted by member states. The question is what kind of additional avenue these SDGs are providing and the real questions is not what are the additional avenues, but what will in the future be the funding model to ensure that we are reaching these goals – because we are talking about trillions of dollars to be invested on quasi a yearly basis. This can only be addressed if you have a combination of macroeconomic policies and financial instruments that are accessible to the most vulnerable. This must be complemented also by access to socioeconomic rights starting with education. I don’t know what Gilles had in mind at the time, [seeing that] the protracted poverty situation cannot be addressed just through the humanitarian lens, so shall we talk about humanitarian economy? There is a humanitarian industry, but is there an economy? I don’t know. This is something which could be debated. These are my thoughts in rough terms but I have not read the book precisely.

If I may cite one chapter title in Carbonnier’s book, this chapter deals with “the transformative power of humanitarian crises”. Its underlying question seems especially timely for Lebanon, given that we recently had a humanitarian crisis that can be defined as nothing other than an entirely man-made disaster, and the result of an unnatural hazard that was amplified by human stupidity and irresponsibility. In which way could, as Carbonnier is saying, humanitarian crises be “junctures that radically alter long-term economic trajectories”? Could, in other words, 2020 in context of the overall crisis in Lebanon or the global crisis impact on UNRWA, still be a pivotal point for creating a better economy?

For the time being, I do not yet see anything positive arising on the horizon. Right now we are dealing with a very difficult situation with despair and hopelessness, where the country does not seem to be in a position to offer any alternative right now because the trend is more for people towards looking to leave rather than at creating opportunities in the country. There is still no signal about a proper consensual political desire to reform the country. We are stuck for the time being. I think that the model for us, and I come back to that, is one to bridge our cash flow crisis between now and the end of the year and offer after that, a social contract to the member states and donors to have an agreed, forward-looking UNRWA, where we know in advance what services will be delivered to the Palestinian refugees
so that the Palestinian refugees can expect these services to be delivered without having to dive into the anxiety over a “yes” or “no” if these services will still be made available tomorrow or not. I think what we are trying to do here is to match the very strong political support provided to UNRWA with resources.

This region does not have efficient social safety nets. Are you the most capacious institution for health and education to be found in the Mashreq and Maghreb regions, in comparison to country-level institution of the same type? And by virtue of having functioned for 70 years in the region against all obstacles, are you a role model that other national institutions in the region could emulate?

I talk about Lebanon now because there have been many discussions about the NPTP (National Poverty Targeting Program) of the Ministry of Social Affairs in this country, and what the criterion should be to be eligible for this additional layer of a social safety net policy. Very difficult discussions have been going on, on who should be eligible, not eligible, and how should such a fund be funded. I think, indeed, that when it comes to assessing the level of vulnerabilities for people to decide on different levels to be accessible, UNRWA certainly has a lot to offer. I agree also that when it comes to social safety nets in general, this is a concept that has not been strongly developed in the region. Most of the time government responses or policies are [to provide social support] through subsidies for critical products in the daily basket.

While it most certainly can be doubted that online knowledge resources such as Wikipedia are free from agendas, distortions, and biases, I was still surprised to recently see that the online encyclopedia’s entry on UNRWA was over 20 times more verbose in the category of “criticism and controversies” than in the category of “assessment and praise”. How do you comment on this extreme discrepancy in the online perception of the work that the agency has been engaged in for seven decades?

I give you another example. If lawmakers anywhere ask a question to their government about contributions to UN agencies, there is a high likelihood that the question is on UNRWA and not any other UN agency. So the majority of questions on UN agencies will be on UNRWA and all the other agencies together will have fewer questions [asked about them] than UNRWA.

This shows that UNRWA is an organization which I would say is under political scrutiny. We are easily judged through the lens of relevancy, but not relevancy of the services that we are providing to the people, more about the fact that we are providing services to Palestinian refugees in the region. We are certainly the humanitarian agency which is most perceived through a political lens.

You thus have a lot of criticism of this nature, and after that, we should not completely underestimate the level of frustration that our beneficiaries might also have. We are providing the basics, but you know, when you live in Lebanon [as a Palestinian], and do not have access to the job market, you are discriminated [against] – where do you want to express your level of frustration?

You express it toward the organization which as a mandate to promote your rights and the rights of the Palestinian refugees. This dissatisfaction and frustration easily turns also against the organization because of the high expectation that we do deliver more. So I would say you have two types of criticisms, those coming from the detractors and also those coming from those who benefit from our assistance and would expect much more.

UNRWA’s mandate at the end of last year has been confirmed with a strong majority in the UN General Assembly until 2023. However, given that much criticism comes with an ideological angle, and that realities in the Middle East have recently been subjected to impulses of change, such as initiatives for rapprochement between Israel and some Arab countries, and new political alignments in the region and beyond, do you believe that UNRWA will still see a 75th or 80th anniversary of the organization?

Two or three comments. First, it is not a goal in itself of UNRWA to celebrate the 80th or 100th anniversary. The ultimate goal is to have a fair and lasting peace whereby Palestinian refugees can have a state that they can live in and do not rely on UNRWA anymore. That is the ultimate goal. Meanwhile, I do believe that with all the ongoing developments in the region, we more than ever need an organization like UNRWA, which continues to focus on investing into the human development of the Palestinian refugees and on promoting their socioeconomic rights in the region. I do believe that this is one of the best investments we can have when it comes to investing into future stability in the region. Will UNRWA go to the 80th anniversary?

I don’t know how things will develop in the region, but I do believe that UNRWA’s role will be critical until such a day that there is a fair and durable peace agreement, which would also benefit the Palestinian refugees.

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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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