A severe economic and financial crisis is causing tremendous hardship for the people of Lebanon, a quarter of whom are refugees, forcing an unprecedented number of people to rely on humanitarian assistance. The World Bank (WB) has described the crisis as one of the most severe globally since the mid-nineteenth century. With the collapse of virtually all sectors of the economy, large segments of the population have lost their means of subsistence and access to essential services including food.
The situation requires a critical humanitarian intervention, with an understanding that a purely humanitarian intervention is unlikely to improve the long-term outcome. The crisis will almost certainly become protracted and will require complex interventions that respond to urgent needs while simultaneously building resilience and reducing vulnerabilities. Moreover, addressing the needs of refugees should not fall through the cracks of the worsening situation. If the overall situation is to be improved, a holistic approach that involves the needs and rights of both Lebanese and refugees is necessary.
Across the globe, humanitarian agencies have often found themselves trapped in short-term cycles of immediate assistance, which have done little to advance durable solutions. These cycles entrench dependence on foreign aid and international relief groups. It is possible to avoid such an outcome in Lebanon. A careful humanitarian response must respond to immediate needs but should also aim to preserve what remains of the Lebanese state's capability to provide essential services and invest in local capacities.
Striking the right balance will be challenging. The country's economic collapse has been years in the making, but the last 24 months have witnessed massive capital flight, foreign currency shortage, and the insolvency of the banking sector. The ripple effects have been devastating: a 90 percent devaluation of the Lebanese pound; more than 280 percent inflation since late 2019; a loss of savings as hundreds of thousands were cut off from their deposits; jobs and salary cuts; and depreciated incomes. These factors have deprived large segments of the population of their livelihoods.
The crisis dealt a heavy blow to most sectors. In the summer of 2021, there was a shortage of most basic goods and services including fuel, power, water, medication, and many essential food items. When they are available, few could afford them. Due to power outages, the country plunged into long hours of darkness daily. Residents waited in line for up to five hours to fill a rationed amount of fuel. Misgovernance, corruption, instability, and political divisions have all exacerbated the crisis.
In September 2021, a new government was formed, putting an end to a 13-month political impasse. However, the new team is poorly positioned to take the hard steps required to address the crisis. First, the new cabinet led by Prime Minister Najib Mikati will be short-lived as parliamentary elections are scheduled in March 2022. More importantly, Lebanon's entrenched political system has proved very resistant to change.
At present, international and national aid organizations are striving to address the urgent needs of those disproportionally hit by the crisis. But humanitarian actors have neither the mandate nor the capacity to address root causes of the situation. Still, donors and international aid agencies should focus on durable solutions and make sure that their efforts address state capacities, are transparent, and empower local actors. Implementing these priorities will not be easy, but sticking with short-term goals is unlikely to address the economic crisis or to improve the worsening humanitarian situation.