This week, protestors took to the streets across Lebanon, blocking roads and burning tires as the acute depreciation of the Lebanese pound continued, reaching another historic low. Ever since the end of the civil war (1995-1990), Lebanon has known little stability, let alone prosperity. But since late 2019, crisis upon crisis have wreaked havoc and the humanitarian situation has deteriorated exponentially. First, the most acute economic crisis in its recent history struck—even worse than any Lebanon endured during its 15-year civil war. Shortly after, the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic shockwaves reverberated intensely throughout the country, aggravating an already dire situation. To add insult to injury, on August 4, one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history ravaged the capital, Beirut, killing more than 200 people, wounding more than 6,500, and leaving tens of thousands homeless. These converging crises have pushed hundreds of thousands into misery. They come on top of the protracted displacement of nearly 1 million Syrian refugees and an estimated 200,000 Palestinians in the country, and have exacerbated these refugees’ existing vulnerabilities.
In addition, these crises exposed failures of governance and pose significant challenges for Lebanon’s traditional aid paradigm—one that depends on deep engagement with state institutions. Decades of international assistance managed to keep the country afloat, but largely ignored predatory governance and systematic corruption perpetrated by Lebanon’s political parties. Now, international donors and aid agencies will need a new and innovative approach. This approach must allow for the provision of humanitarian aid to alleviate the suffering of millions of people—Lebanese and refugees alike—while circumventing the state’s systemic corruption. Only then will long-term and genuine reform be possible.
The good news is that Lebanon’s international partners now recognize that it can no longer be business as usual. The United States, France, and others have linked any assistance package to comprehensive reform. Reform, recovery, and reconstruction— these three Rs—constitute the pillars of an initiative, the 3R Framework, or the Lebanon Reform, Recovery & Reconstruction Framework (3RF), led by the European Union (EU), United Nations (UN), and World Bank Group (WBG). Its sponsors intend to support a longterm and sustainable strategy for extracting Lebanon from its quagmire. Many of the necessary recovery measures seem self-evident. However, if past is prologue, reform will be tremendously challenging to achieve.
The situation in Lebanon is ripe with uncertainty. But the international community should build on emerging trends, including within Lebanese civil society, to overcome some of the challenges. Donors and the aid community should adopt a new approach that helps avoid past mistakes. This means holding governmental bodies accountable, enforcing strict standards against corruption, and endorsing civil society organizations (CSO) as allies against corruption and partners in devising short-term and long-term plans. Moreover, donors and UN agencies should assume a greater role in humanitarian diplomacy to ensure that Lebanon respects refugee rights and dignity.