BEIRUT: Lebanon faces an “enormous emergency” due to the destabilizing presence of Syrian refugees and the burden it places on the Lebanese state, the president of the World Bank said Tuesday.
Jim Yong Kim pledged to redouble efforts to attract financial donations from an international community that so far has been slow to respond to Lebanon’s plight.
“It’s a situation that is almost difficult to get your head around,” said Kim, speaking to reporters invited to attend a round-table discussion at the tail end of his visit to Lebanon. “It’s the equivalent of having the entire population of Mexico entering the United States within a two- or three-year period and then integrating that population into your own school systems and health care systems. It’s a scale of disruption that is hard to get your head around. That’s specifically why I came. I wanted to understand how it was working.”
With more than 1 million Syrians officially registered as refugees with the United Nations and the true number estimated at possibly double that figure, Lebanon’s needs are starkly apparent, especially on schools and the health system. Kim said that the number of Syrian students would soon surpass that of Lebanese students. He warned of a “lost generation” of students who are receiving lower standards of education with teachers pulling double shifts amid classroom overcrowding.
The Syrian overspill has also had a grave effect on Lebanon’s economy with the World Bank predicting that the country will lose $7.5 billion by the end of 2014 with 300,000 at risk of losing their jobs and 170,000 pushed below the poverty line. The World Bank also has assessed that Lebanon’s GDP dropped 2.9 percent per year between 2012 and 2014 and unemployment has doubled to above 20 percent.
Kim also spoke of the rising tensions between Lebanese and Syrians fueled by employment competition and disparities in assistance, with refugees often receiving greater support from international aid agencies than Lebanese receive from their own government.
“It is remarkable that we have not had explosions of conflict between Syrian refugees and the Lebanese people, but I’m telling you there are some very very angry comments from the Lebanese population about why they have been left out,” he said.
While acknowledging that there was not much optimism of a quick resolution to the political woes affecting Lebanon, he said that his trip had shown “some specific ways in which the World Bank and the global community can continue to support both the short- and the medium-, long-term efforts to move down a path where Lebanon will enjoy growth and more inclusion and this extreme situation with the refugees can be dealt with more effectively.”
Still, the key to resolving these issues is, of course, money. And that is where much of the problem lies. While there has been much global hand-wringing about the human toll caused by a war that has left over 160,000 dead in Syria, destroyed the country’s infrastructure and displaced a sizable percentage of the population, the uncertainty over what to do to end the conflict is reflected in the sluggish pace of financial donations from the international community to alleviate the humanitarian impact. In January, a United Nations-sponsored donor conference in Kuwait raised only $2.3 billion in pledges to help Syria’s neighbors cope with the overspill, far short of the target figure of $6.5 billion.
Lebanon’s specific needs are being addressed through the International Support Group for Lebanon which was formed last September on the margins of the U.N. General Assembly. During its third meeting in Paris in March, the Group announced the creation of a multidonor trust fund for Lebanon which is being administered by the World Bank. The World Bank donated $10 million to the trust, drawn from its State and Peace Building Fund. The only countries that have donated funds so far are Norway and Finland. France has pledged $10 million and other countries are “expressing interest,” according to the bank.
The hesitancy toward Lebanon is in part due to the grinding political problems the country has endured in the past year with potential donors previously reluctant to hand over funds to a caretaker government. Then there are concerns over transparency which fueled a debate over whether it was better to distribute the funding through state channels or through aid agencies. The problem with the former is the obvious issue of potential corruption within state institutions with a fraction of the donor funds being spent in the right place. The risk of the latter is it leads to parallel institutions being created which can cause disparities in assistance allocation which in turn breeds the kind of resentment witnessed across Lebanon today between Syrian refugees and their Lebanese host communities.
Ferid Belhaj, the World Bank’s country director for Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iraq, who attended the round-table discussion, said that the money held by the trust fund would go through the “normal channels the bank uses to implement its projects,” adding that meant relevant government ministries. He said one of the pilot projects is to assist municipalities in the north.Kim acknowledged that potential donors had concerns over the mechanism of fund dispersal, saying, “We now have a very good system.
“The multidonor trust fund has been established using the processes we have used over many years to give the donors confidence that the money they put into the trust fund will actually get to the people that need it most,” he said.
Now that the mechanism is up and running, it’s a question of whether the potential donor countries will commit funds and by how much. So far, $28 million has been raised for Lebanon. Asked how much more funding would be necessary to fulfill Lebanon’s needs, Kim replied, “A lot more than that.”