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corruption

Local channel LBC ran this brilliant five minute interview with an unidentified man on the street in Tripoli. His language and delivery is powerful in Arabic, but I thought I would do a rush translation into English, particularly for a lot of the foreign press who continue to focus on “Islamic extremism” instead of gripping poverty as a major cause of violence in the city.  In fact the media, both local and international, frequently frame recent clashes in Tripoli as part of “spillover” from the Syrian war and potential ties to armed Islamist groups operating across the border. Yet what many seem to forget is that intense clashes have been ongoing in Tripoli well before the Syrian war, as early as 1990s.

The man in the video– a resident of Bab Al Tabbaneh (one of Tripoli’s poorest and most violent neighborhoods)– helps us understand why.

He begins by questioning Saad Hariri, former prime minister and one of the richest and most powerful politicians in Tripoli. He then takes aim at the members of parliament, whom he accuses of having a major role in stoking the violence in order to pass the recent “emergency” legislation that cancelled parliamentary elections and extended their terms in office. Their excuse was the ongoing instability related to the war in Syria. Needless to say, our man in Tabbaneh doesn’t buy it. Pay close attention to how he characterizes the vulnerabilities of both the impoverished youth and the ill-equipped military, especially in the closing lines.

 

Rush translation. Bold added for emphasis.

 

Man: The whole country is zifit (tar) (i.e. disgusting/worthless) the politicians, the government, the parliament, all tar, even the presidency, because we have no president.

Where is the public works, where is the security? Where is Saad Hariri?

He is sitting in Saudi Arabia. He sends billions to the army. Instead, why doesn’t he employ the young men sitting without work?

Today, if the young boys are working, no one will think about carrying weapons. But if they are unemployed, anyone can come and manipulate them to get armed and start a terrorist organization.

I have six children, I can’t even afford diapers.

Man 2: People are scared to come into our neighborhood

Man 1: There is work to be done in this country, but the members of parliament are sitting in their houses, they don’t care, they are well fed, they’re children are well feed, they are comfortable, they sleep comfortably. And then they get up and give a speech to ignite the whole neighborhood fighting and no one does anything about it.

One (militant group) goes down, another will come in its place.

There is no security in this country, nothing. People need to work, to get back to work.

There is poverty here, there is poverty in the country. It’s a shame. How many MPs do we have? If everyone gave a quarter of his earnings we could fix up the whole city.

The MPs are making 11 million lira ($7,300) per month, they are people, families more important than them, they can’t even make 1,000 lira (60 cents) and you want to extend your term too? Go home and take care of yourself, curse every MP in this country. The biggest MP in this country is (bleeped expletive)!

Man 2: We don’t vote for any of them and they are the ones that got us fighting with the army

Man 1: Who do you think the army is? Everyone knows that this solider standing behind us is either my brother or my cousin or my neighbor’s son. You think I want to go kill him?

It’s the politicians, look what they pass under the table. First they extend their mandate, then they don’t elect a president and then what? We are paying the prices and they are padding their pockets. Leave us alone already, do they have no mercy?

They tore up all of Tripoli just to pass the laws to extend parliament. Go extend yourself, just leave us alone to work.

Reporter: So what your saying is deprivation is the cause of what’s happening in Tripoli?

The people of Tabbaneh are good people, they are poor people. They have the wrong impression about us. The people of Tabbaneh are a poor people.

When we knock on the politicians, they never answer, people come begging them for help like dogs but they can’t provide anything. They are all crooks, each one of them!

$3 billion was sent to the army, for what? To kill people? Use the money to employ people. Make a tissue factory, you’ll employ 1,000 people. Where are they? Just terrorism?

Where is the terrorism? Go to any street in Tripoli, where is the terrorism? No one will bother you. If you wear a Bikini no one will attack you. Where is the terrorism?

Reporter: But what about the issue of backwardness. They say there is extremism in Tripoli?

It’s the politicians! They made a world war in Tripoli just to extend their terms. These bastards call themselves representatives of the people, they are only representatives of themselves, just to collect their salaries at the end of every month. They are the ones that created this.

I mean it takes just 10 armed men to destroy the country. They attack the army and they shoot at the army. 

 

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This piece was originally published in the December issue of Bold Magazine.

Aid: Lebanon’s Mission Impossible

IT HAS BEEN DESCRIBED AS THE WORST REFUGEE CRISIS TO BEFALL ANY NATION IN HISTORY, BUT SO FAR LEBANON HAS RECEIVED A MINISCULE AMOUNT OF AID TO COPE WITH THE SYRIAN REFUGEE INFLUX. HOWEVER THERE IS SOMETHING THE LOCAL PRIVATE SECTOR CAN DO 

By Habib BattahA

s world powers spend hundreds of millions of dollars on weapons shipments to Syria, a negligible amount of cash has gone toward the unprecedented humanitarian crisis the war has created, particularly in Lebanon, Syria’s poorest and smallest neighbor. 

With Syrian citizens pouring over Lebanon’s borders at a rate of 3,000 per day, the number of refugees is projected to grow to two million in 2014, nearing a 50% increase in an existing population of around 4.5 million. The result has been a massive burden on the country’s already dysfunctional social services, and by next year, the Syrian war will have cost the debt-ridden Lebanese economy some $7.5 billion, according to a World Bank assessment. 

Yet thus far, BOLD has learned that the Lebanese state has received just $2.8 million in direct aid from the international community, or less than 0.1% of its total appeal, government estimates show. 

To entice donors, the World Bank is now setting up a multi-donor trust fund to raise up to $400 million to support the short-term spike in spending by Lebanese public institutions such as healthcare, education and sanitation services, which have grown exponentially. But so far only Norway has announced that it will donate around $2 million to the fund, according to Haneen Sayed, human development coordinator at the World Bank’s Lebanon office. 

She said Holland and Great Britain have also shown interest, but there have been no other commitments thus far. 

“It may not be very big,” Sayed said, later adding: “I think it will start small and grow.” 

But Lebanon’s finance minister, Mohamad Safadi, was not optimistic about donations after a recent meeting with officials from the World Bank and International Monetary fund. “I am afraid that Lebanon will not receive the required assistance,” the minister told reporters during a trip to Washington in October. 

A major sticking point may be Lebanon’s opaque track record on transparency, efficiency and corruption when it comes to executing national and humanitarian projects. Just this November, the head of Lebanon’s Higher Relief Council was arrested on embezzlement charges after media reports emerged alleging he had transferred more than $13 million of public funds to private accounts outside Lebanon. 

The official, Ibrahim Bashir, denied the charges, making the counterclaim that he had “transformed” the relief council from “a Beiruti-Sunni monopoly that offered help to a limited class of people,” Lebanon’s Daily Star reported. 

The corruption trial of Ibrahim Bashir and the counterclaims he launched against the Higher Relief Council raise questions about Lebanon’s ability to distribute aid transparently. Photo/Daily Star

 

According to the World Bank’s Sayed, the new trust fund will be managed by the bank and subject to its strict monitoring and fiduciary controls, helping allay transparency reservations. 

“One of the concerns donors have is where will the money go, how the money will be spent,” she says. 

But Samir Daher, an advisor to Lebanon’s prime minister, rejects the idea that the absence of a transparent fund has discouraged donations. 

’Not good donors’ 

“Donors who are waiting for a trust fund are not the good donors. They are not waiting for the fund, they are waiting for their good conscience to start working,” he says. “If they are so concerned, they can channel money directly or take refugees to their own countries.” 

Indeed, while Lebanon is currently hosting over a million refugees, arriving at a rate of thousands per day, European and North American countries have only pledged to grant asylum to some 10,000 individuals according to the UNHCR. And of that number, just 658 have actually departed for Europe this year, which is less than 0.06% of all Syrian refugees residing in Lebanon. 

Moreover the main funders of the war, such as Qatar and Russia, have provided just 3% of their fair share of the UN’s humanitarian aid appeal, according to a report issued by Oxfam in September. The report added that France and the United States have delivered only around half of their respective shares. 

In Lebanon, the shortfall in humanitarian funding has meant that the UNHCR has received only half of its total aid request, or some $600 million. As a result, the UN refugee agency says it has been forced to discontinue assistance such as food vouchers to 35% of recipients. This includes families living outside in tents. The crisis is likely to worsen as winter settles in, with tens of thousands of the refugees having set up camp in flood zones with no floors or walls for protection and a lack of winter clothing. 

Meanwhile Lebanese institutions are struggling to cope with the one million plus population influx. Hospitals beds are becoming scarce and public schools are overwhelmed with some 100,000 new students or around one third of the entire public school population, says Daher. At the same time, subsidized state services such as power production and sanitation have increased exponentially. For example, Daher says Lebanon’s garbage collection is up from 4 million to 6 million tons, and the country must now produce an additional 320 megawatts of electricity, a significant shortfall that may increase the routine power cuts, which are already as high as 12 hours per day. 

Worse still, the Syrian refugee crisis is expected to lead to a spike in unemployment, with the World Bank projecting 170,000 Lebanese will enter poverty, having lost jobs to Syrian laborers who will accept lower wages. The cost of maintaining current services alone — not including opportunity costs and related expenses — will be $2.5 billion, money that cash-strapped Lebanon, which has one of the highest debt-to-GDP ratios in the world, simply does not have. 

“There is no example in the world, in history, of a country taking so much, and not getting heavy lifting from the international community when it comes to aid assistance and support,” the Bank’s Middle East director Ferid Belhaj, told Reuters in November. 

No direct funding 

Yet Daher, the prime minister’s advisor, complains the vast majority of donor money goes toward the UN’s operation and virtually none of the $600 million it has received is funneled directly toward Lebanese institutions. Major contributors to UN and non-government organization funding in Lebanon include Kuwait, at $300 million, and the United States at $250 million. But embassy sources from both countries declined to comment on the possibility of donating to the World Bank’s Lebanon trust fund or why they had largely chosen to support UN and NGO efforts over direct funding of Lebanese institutions. Both the French and UAE embassies also did not respond to requests for comment on the trust fund, despite repeated requests. 

There is little room left in Lebanese schools and little aid goes toward local institutions.


Angelina Eichhorst, the European Union representative in Lebanon, said the EU had “no intention” of contributing to the fund, though it “could be potentially interesting for donors.” 

“We prefer to go through UN agencies and NGOs, ie, to those who have a clear added value, relatively lowest transaction costs, etc,” she said via email. 

Eichhorst added that EU funding to Lebanon related to the Syrian crisis, which amounts to some $300 million, would support efforts at various ministries, such as education, agriculture and energy. 

Meanwhile the United Kingdom also reported its humanitarian contribution to Lebanon of around $111 million had gone toward the UN and NGOs. Michelle Macaron, embassy communications manager, added by email: “The Trust Fund is an admirable initiative and we are following its progress closely.” 

Some critics have suggested that due to the resignation of the Lebanese government in March, the current caretaker government is considered unreliable. But Daher denies that the caretaker government lacks capacity to deal with the worsening crisis, adding: “There is no question that this government is doing all that it can.” 

Yet some question the response time. The refugee crisis is now almost three years old and the trust fund is only now being set up, and will not be finalized until mid-December, the World Bank says. 

Ramzi Naaman, a former advisor to the prime minister on humanitarian issues, said organizing the trust fund presented a daunting challenge for intergovernmental cooperation, known to be problematic in Lebanon. 

“This is an issue that must bring a lot of parties together,” he said. “When you start looking at plans, that means you as a government have decided to reorganize yourself. 

Lebanon needs support 

“If we are really aiming to have a trust fund, it’s not merely to support Lebanon in dealing with the Syrian crisis, it also needs to support Lebanon in making sure that it can implement its national plans.” 

Sayed from the World Bank says the fund, if successful, will begin with small scale existing projects and short-term solutions. This may include refurbishing of schools and assistance to municipalities in garbage collection. Other programs may tackle job training and subsidizing of companies to hire new employees. The fund will not be able to tackle the strain on major infrastructure such as power production or widespread poverty that affects a quarter of Lebanese citizens. 

One quarter of Lebanon’s population is already impoverished and many will lose jobs to the refugees



“The situation of extremely poor Lebanese is not much better and in some cases is worse than that of the Syrians,” says Naaman, who formerly headed the government’s anti-poverty program. 

He worries that swift delivery of aid to some of the refugees may cause resentment among locals and potential social tensions in Lebanon’s poorest regions, such as remote Akkar. 

“The people of Akkar may have thought living in extreme poverty was a way of life, but then the Syrians came in and were being assisted immediately with cash, food, shelter and healthcare. And then a person in Akkar may be thinking ’my government was not giving me the right things.’ And when the crisis is over and Syrians are out, he may say, ’I want water, I want health care, I want services, I want infrastructure. I want to change the way I live.’ 

“So this crisis has not only impacted us in terms of pressures, it has also somehow helped emerge a lot of our problems that have historically existed,” Naaman says. 

Instead of just waiting for money from foreign donors, there may also an opportunity for the private sector to get involved. Lebanese companies could chip in to make job-creating projects happen, particularly the country’s banks, awash with over $120 billion in deposits, or nearly three times Lebanon’s GDP. With the right political leadership, such projects could be tax deductible and provide work for both Syrians and Lebanese, which could help defuse tensions, Naaman said. 

Awash in billions of dollars, Lebanese banks could do a lot more to deal with the crisis. Photo/Daily Star



CSR Bragging rights 

“Everyone keeps bragging about their corporate social responsibility,” he says. “So let’s say to every bank, okay we need to put $100,000 in that pot or maybe $200,000 to create a fund to help the Lebanese host communities, to develop a project in those communities.” 

The projects could be used to help promote banks, and, with enough media exposure, initial donations could encourage other banks and corporations to match their competitors, he said. 

“You want to contribute to the development and stability of your country, this is it,” Naaman says. “Take the initiative and use the media.” 

The effect could turn a crisis into an opportunity for long-term development and national reconciliation, Naaman explains. 

“You give an example of solidarity among the Lebanese,” he says. “The only way to overcome confessionalism is to to open up, so how about setting up this humanitarian issue, that would set an example. Social solidarity is the foundation of a nationalistic attitude, belonging to a country, not a sect.”

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That’s Riad Kobessi, an investigative journalist and one of three Al Jadeed TV crew members who were savagely beaten by Lebanese Customs security today.
A large crowd had gathered outside the Justice Palace this afternoon where all four were held and interrogated until being released around 9PM tonight. As you can see in the photo above, Kobessi has a large scare on his face following the beating he endured hours earlier. I took this shot moments after his release when he was quickly ushered into one of the Al Jadeed vehicles standing by.
I’ll have more on this tomorrow, but for now you can check my twitter feed for videos and pictures of the beating and the rally that pressured their release. Kobessi and his crew paid a price, but it was a victory for all journalists in Lebanon tonight, even those who might not have appreciated it.
UPDATE: Nov. 28
Lebanon’s internet is so slow that I couldn’t upload these videos last night. So here’s a taste of what it was like in the crowd. Moments before the journalists are released, supporters chant, “Freedom! Freedom”

Here is a shot from inside the crowd, showing both young men and women shouting in support:

Finally the moment of truth, as the gates are opened and the journalists released:

Did you know Lebanon has over 100 years of locomotive history? Neither did I and that’s why I’m so glad I attended today’s lecture at the “Train, Train” exhibit currently being held at the Souks of Beirut.
Though the tracks were halted in the early 1970s, Lebanon still retains a unique collection of old trains–some that can’t be found anywhere else–and yet our wonderful ministers attempted to sell them for scrap a few years ago. Thankfully groups like the NGO that put on this event are lobbying to create a train museum, preserve old stations and cars and even restore some of the tracks.
They are holding a series of lectures all week so check it out!
Today’s lecture covered Lebanon’s illustrious railway history and was given by one of the curators, Elias Maalouf.
In an effort to lobby for public transport alternatives to Lebanon’s exhaust choked highways, the Train Train group is trying to build 15 kilometers of track linking Jbeil and Batroun to prove to the state that reviving the rails is indeed possible and to ask “what are you waiting for?”
In fact, more than a few engineering feats were mastered over a century of track laying. Maalouf said the planners had built some of the steepest rails ever, while completing national links in record time, well before today’s technological advances.
Back in the day, Lebanon had some 115 stations including its own locomotive repair and production–yes production– facility at Riyaq station in the Bekaa. According to Maalouf, the factory was even used to produce five aircraft for the French during World War II and the first plane was named “Riyaq 43” in honor of the town where it was built.
By contrast, recent governments have been fumbling over plans to relaunch the railways for the last 20 years, carrying out costly study after study with no tangible results, Maalouf noted.
The exhibit has dozens of great pictures, like this 1973 Bhamdoun crossing:
The proud men who worked the lines:

And some cool old film reels, showing how tunnels were dug and when those engravings you see on the old sea road were actually chiseled:

It’s nice to know there was a time when Lebanese entrepreneurs not only bought and sold things but actually made things and contributed toward building industries that create skilled jobs people could be proud of.
I’m so thankful that folks like Elias and his organization exist. They serve as an essential watchdog on an infinitely corrupt state while informing the public about a rich heritage that would have otherwise been forgotten.
More importantly groups like “Train Train” remind us that there are indeed people in this country who think beyond their own wallet and help us imagine a future where more Lebanese would do that too.

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Telecom minister Nicolas Sehnaoui is in the news every day it seems, either launching new initiatives or defending past ones.
Today he was responding to allegations by MP Ghazi Youssef–of the rival Future Movement–who had accused him of “stealing” millions during the deployment of 3G and other projects.
The accusations were rubbish lies, he said, and Youssef and his FM cohort “didn’t want the country to advance.”
“The Lebanese people are happy to have 3G,” Sehnaoui told reporters. “The Lebanese people are living on 3G.” 
That may be a bit of stretch since 3G is exorbitantly priced at up to $100 per additional gig (nearly a quarter of monthly minimum wages) and that’s if you can get a signal.     
Still who could oppose technology? 
I met Youssef a couple of years ago when writing a piece on why Lebanon’s internet has been the world’s slowest for years. Why didn’t the government simply purchase more bandwidth during the 2000s, when he was in power?
I’ll never forget what he said. He took a puff of a cuban cigar and exhaled slowly:
“It was never clear to me why they did not buy more bandwidth.”
I wonder why Youssef was not as vigilant about reporting abuses back then as he is now.
In fact I’m not even sure why this story is news today. Sehnaoui and Youssef have called press conferences to make similar accusations and counter accusations in January, February and April. And that is just this year.  
Sehnaoui ended his remarks today by accusing his rivals of obstructing the ministry’s work to score political points ahead of elections. But if the minister was so busy “putting Lebanon back on the telecommunications map” as he put it, then how does he have time for so many appearances?
If the minister wanted to clear all accusations, why not put all ministry projects and cost figures online?
I put this question to his advisor last month, exhausted by how hard it was to find figures on the fiber optic rollout. His answer?
“I don’t know if there is a need for that. No one is asking for it.”