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crisis

In contrast to the street violence earlier this week and harsh crackdown on young protestors, it was all kisses and praises for police– at least for a few brief moments during last night’s rally at Riad Solh square.

“I hope everyone will film this,” one activist shouts out. “Because people think we are against each other. They don’t see we are all in this together!” Another praises God and pulls the supervising officer’s head in for a kiss.

Riot police had previously opened fire on the crowd with rubber bullets, water cannons, tear gas and live rounds in air. At least one young activist has been critically wounded and dozens others arrested amid street violence, shattered storefronts and vandalism of state property.

But the scene last night was far tamer with the water cannons silent and officers observing quietly on the sidelines as a group of rowdy boys encircled and began cheering them. Earlier in the day some of the same boys proudly admitted to me that they had been at the heart of the civil disobedience in previous days, having been chased and shot at by security forces. With little facial hair, most were barely adolescent and said they lived in the nearby slums of Khandak Ghamiq and the southern suburbs, having faced severe shortages of water and electricity, income and medical care ( i.e not just the problems of garbage collection that have brought out middle class activists.)

Toward the end of the video, one boy shouts out: “See we’ve made a truce!”

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More videos to come… (as the infamously slow Lebanese internet allows.)

UPDATE: Here’s a second video, moments later, as protestors chant “God bless you, oh policeman”

At the very end one protestor shouts out: “Don’t shoot us, oh policeman”

 

 

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    The following piece was published in the May issue of Bold Magazine, but both the subject and self-loathing are as relevant today as ever before.  

    The Paralysis Of Self-Loathing


    By Habib Battah           



    T

    his is a horrible place,” a prominent Lebanese activist recently wrote on Facebook. “There are exceptions. But the general rule is this is a horrible place.” 


    The comment came as an introduction to a link the activist shared to a New York Times article that claimed that plastic roof shelters had been banned in Lebanon due to a fear among “The Lebanese” that the refugees would be staying indefinitely. 

    The Times reporter surmised: “The Lebanese view even the most modest shelters with suspicion” and “In the eyes of the Lebanese, the box shelters… could encourage the Syrians to stay.” 

    Indeed, many readers would agree with the activist, asking ’what type of hell is this Lebanon and how wicked are its people if they would like to see homeless refugees suffer?’ Surely the reporter had done some extensive research to come up with such sweeping conclusions. Yet there are only four Lebanese interviewed in the article: two are sheltering Syrian families on their property for free, a third was attempting to install the questionable shelters for a Norwegian aid agency and only one – a government bureaucrat – voiced intense skepticism about the shelters. 

    Even if one is to accept the utter nonsense of stereotyping an entire country based on a handful of interviews, the result of this completely unscientific survey seems to contradict the reporter’s conclusions. Far from rejecting the homeless, three out of four Lebanese respondents were actively building shelters or hosting refugees. In fact according to the UNHCR some 36,000 Syrians are living with Lebanese families (a figure absent from most Western reports) and thousands more are living in unfinished Lebanese homes and buildings with the help of aid agencies. 

    But the Times’ careless journalism does not stop there. The reporter further assumes that the government’s ban on setting up refugee camps for Syrians is simply an obvious reflection of popular will. He writes: “The Lebanese have so far rejected the establishment of any refugee camp…” 

    Yet a nation-wide study released earlier this year by the Norwegian research institute Fafo found that 70% of Lebanese wanted the establishment of refugee camps. This sentiment clearly contradicts the assumption by The Times and several other publications that Lebanese government decisions are based on popular will. The question then becomes: how does the government make such determinations and who exactly in the government is responsible for making them? But few, even in the Lebanese media, have bothered to ask such questions. 

    To be sure, the Fafo survey also found that half of respondents felt threatened by the refugee crisis, particularly the poor, who fear they will lose jobs to the Syrians. But these are not empty suspicions. The World Bank projects that up to 300,000 Lebanese will lose jobs as a result of the influx of cheap Syrian labor by next year, boosting unemployment to 20% and sending over 100,000 Lebanese into poverty. And with up to 3,000 Syrians pouring into Lebanon per day, the refugee numbers are expected to grow to 2 million by 2014, an unprecedented 50% increase in Lebanon’s total population over just three years. The influx has put a huge strain on public institutions: schools and hospitals are over capacity, sanitation and power services are faltering. 

    The World Bank predicts that the crisis will cost Lebanon $7 billion by the end of this year, but the debt-ridden government has received less than 0.01% of its appeal to the international community. Meanwhile North America and Europe have only approved asylum for some 700 Syrians, which is less than 0.06% of the number residing in Lebanon. The Bank has concluded that “no country in history” has had to deal with a crisis on this scale with so little foreign aid. 

    All this is not to say that discrimination toward the refugees does not exist, and there have been a number of violent incidents over recent months, including the torching of a camp site. But Lebanon, which is still reeling from its own civil war, is also divided on the issue of refugees. There is no monolithic “Lebanese view.” For every act of violence, there have also been massive grassroots relief efforts to help the refugees. One Beirut initiative last month saw some 25 trucks of clothing donated in one day. Meanwhile it is Lebanese nationals who form the backbone of relief efforts. Most of the field workers employed by the UN and other non-profit organizations are Lebanese, including those trying to build the semi-permanent structures blocked by their own state. 

    This type of nuanced analysis is of little concern to a foreign correspondent, whose job it is to paint a hurried snapshot of that foreign place he is reporting from to satisfy the passing interest of viewers back home. To portray the Lebanese as a racist people living in a racist place is a visceral, easily digestible narrative and one that editors back home seem to appreciate. 

    At worst, the correspondent’s narrow view of Lebanon evolves into a glib self-righteousness, a sort of scolding of the Lebanese in the form of sarcasm. For example, Time Magazine recently tweeted: “Ikea wants to give Syrian refugees pre-fab housing that Lebanon fears will be too nice.” Similarly, an article appearing in UAE-daily The National, sneered, “Shelters too big a luxury in Lebanon while Syrian refugees freeze.” 

    Of course neither piece reminds its local readers that their own countries (the US and the UAE) have accepted virtually zero Syrian refugees. But more disturbing, neither publication relays a quote to back up its snide headline, which in both cases appears to have simply been invented for sensational purposes. It’s hard to imagine where substituting sarcasm for reporting would be acceptable journalism but the practice has become hugely popular when dealing with Lebanon, a place that is made increasingly too easy to hate, even for locals. 

    Indeed, more worrying than the foreign perceptions from abroad is the pervasive adoption of such stereotypical narratives by Lebanese themselves. How often is it that we hear the phrase “Welcome to Lebanon” used derisively in public discourse? The apathy bred by such statements is deeply damaging. By blaming Lebanese society as a whole for everyday problems, any effort to drive change through accountability is marginalized. Rather than attack specific issues that plague all countries such as racism, xenophobia and corruption, phrases like “this country will never change” and “I can’t wait to get my visa” have become accepted catch-all explanations. They equate to little more than a form of surrender. 

    When the government bans shelters, it is the role of the media to pinpoint accountability by understanding how such an inhumane decision was taken and which officials took it. When we avoid such questions and are satisfied with vague, self-loathing answers like “this country is horrible,” the process of accountability is lost, and those culpable officials remain unnamed and are free to continue ruling with impunity. 

    It is true that Lebanon faces a laundry list of daunting social and political problems. Many of them are rooted in the constant state of conflict and the complete lack of a reconciliation process. The post-war amnesty afforded to criminal militia leaders has perpetuated their corrupt patronage and fear mongering. Still citizens are not helpless. For all those that have surrendered their rights by accepting injustice or leaving the country altogether, there are daily confrontations with authority, from bloggers taking on corporate power to local TV crews naming and shaming officials that have threatened and assaulted them. These efforts are successful when they are focused and targeted. Writing off problems with bitterness and self-deprecating stereotypes only breeds the type of hopelessness that keeps the political class in business. It also denies any serious discussion about the roots of deep-seated and troubling social grievances.

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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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      Photo: Daily Star

      “The bed capacity of all government hospitals in Lebanon is exhausted,” UNHCR Communications Officer Roberta Russo told me today.

      “There’s no where to put people any more.”

      Russo said the UNHCR was trying to bring in temporary mattresses, but funding for aid efforts has fallen very short.

      Health care is one of the many ways in which the Syrian refugee crisis is pushing the limits of an already dysfunctional Lebanese state and its dilapidated public services. Some 3,000 Syrians are pouring into Lebanon every day.

      The Beirut UNHCR office is preparing to process an additional 100,000 refugees in case of a mass exodus following the threat of US military action. But so far “there’s been no significant impact” at the borders, she said.

      More staggering statistics at the UN agency’s live information page on its efforts in Lebanon. 

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        The prime minister may have resigned, but you still have Dr. JUJUBA!
        He’s got you covered no matter what:

        Even JUJBA with Caviar:

         Everything you’ll need for the next political crisis.