Lebanon + 1 more

CSIS Briefs: Lebanon’s Growing Humanitarian Crisis


By Will Todman and Caleb Harper

The Issue

  • A UN rapporteur recently described Lebanon as a “failing state.” Yet, Lebanon’s government will be unlikely to address the drivers of the crisis, since many politicians view reforms as an existential threat to their wealth and ambitions.

  • Lebanon’s political dysfunction has prompted a humanitarian emergency for Lebanese, which is converging with the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis. Donors have mobilized support for refugees, but they have not adequately addressed the rising crisis among Lebanese. The latter crisis is becoming larger in size and scale and is likely to endure.

  • Increasing humanitarian aid for Lebanese will not solve Lebanon’s fundamental problems, but it could help slow its collapse and give donors more time to push for reform.

  • Donors’ highest priority should be to maximize the effectiveness of the aid they provide. An independent review of existing humanitarian architecture would be the most effective way to ensure aid is appropriately prioritized.

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In November 2021, Syrians working in a small town in eastern Lebanon had their wages cut to just under $2 a day. But it was not their employers that slashed their salary. The municipality of Ras Baalbek said that the United Nations supports Syrians with cash assistance, and it would not be fair for Syrians to be better off economically than their Lebanese hosts. At issue is not merely the international support Syrians enjoy, but also widespread rumors that the Syrians are growing rich on aid delivered in U.S. dollars while Lebanese workers struggle with the depreciating Lebanese lira. With more Lebanese slipping into poverty amid the country’s economic collapse, the aid that international actors have long provided to refugees is contributing to tensions between refugees and their host communities.

The decade-long conflict in Syria has driven a long-standing international aid response to the refugee crisis in Lebanon. Aid organizations provide in-kind and cash assistance, shelter, access to healthcare and education, and livelihoods support to vulnerable Syrian refugees and host communities. In 2020, donors provided more than $1.4 billion for this response. But Lebanon’s political crisis is now creating unprecedented humanitarian needs for Lebanese, the size and scale of which are rapidly increasing. Overall, Lebanon’s poverty rate has doubled in two years, from 42 percent in 2019 to 82 percent in 2021. While much of Lebanon’s poverty had struck non-citizens before the current political crisis, now one-third of all Lebanese are food insecure, and 77 percent of Lebanese households live in multidimensional poverty. Aid organizations now give Lebanese many of the same kinds of support they give to Syrians through a smaller emergency response appeal seeking $378 million. As these crises converge, failing to implement an equitable and efficient humanitarian response to the different vulnerable groups could fuel intercommunal tensions, which could lead to violence and displacement.

Lebanon’s political quagmire will not end any time soon. The elections scheduled for Spring 2022 are unlikely to displace the corrupt political class, which has resisted necessary reforms to end Lebanon’s crises at every turn. Humanitarian aid will not solve Lebanon’s fundamental problems, but it could slow Lebanon’s collapse and open some space for political discussions with Lebanese officials to implement systems that better serve the needs of vulnerable people in Lebanon. Donors’ highest priorities should be to improve the effectiveness of the humanitarian aid they provide to support the creation of systems that will serve Lebanon’s longer-term needs. International actors disagree about the best way to respond to the needs of vulnerable communities in Lebanon, and there is a strong bias for the status quo after many years of humanitarian operations in the country. But needs in Lebanon have changed dramatically over the last couple of years. An independent review of the aid architecture is needed to provide a full understanding of the current challenges in Lebanon and how to optimize the international aid response and ensure it does not exacerbate issues.

The alternative is alarming. If the status quo drags on, conditions will deteriorate to a full-blown humanitarian crisis, which would have devastating effects for Lebanese, the refugees and migrants Lebanon hosts, and U.S. allies and partners around the Eastern Mediterranean. If the Lebanese Armed Forces or basic services collapse, Lebanon risks becoming a failed state or regressing to civil war, causing mass displacement in the Levant and increasing the risk of large-scale irregular migration across the Mediterranean. A recent poll found that a record 63 percent of Lebanese would leave the country permanently if they could, demonstrating how close this scenario could be.

This paper is based on insights from a public discussion with four Lebanese aid officials and experts as well as information gathered from a private roundtable discussion and remote interviews with 24 senior humanitarian officials in November and December 2021.


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