BEIRUT: Ross Mountain has only been on the job for three weeks, but the newly appointed resident and humanitarian coordinator for the U.N.’s global development network in Lebanon is already settling in.
In his senior role at the United Nations Development Program, Mountain is getting a good look at the situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and says he is struck by the generosity of their hosts.
In the hope that the rest of the world will recognize these efforts and use their resources to offer more help, he says he sees the crisis as a chance to develop some of Lebanon’s poorest areas, which are also hosting the majority of the refugees.
“If we can capitalize on this increased international attention, this can be an opportunity to improve the long-term development of Lebanon,” Mountain says at his office in Beirut.
He’s not new to Lebanon, having last worked here in the 1990s – in the wake of the 15-year Civil War – to help coordinate the U.N. response to Israel’s “Grapes of Wrath” military operation.
Now, however, the U.N. coordinator is taking on a whole new set of challenges as the Syrian war approaches its fourth year and Lebanon continues to bear the brunt of the regional refugee burden.
Amid the struggles facing both the refugees and the host communities – overwhelmed infrastructure, overcrowded neighborhoods, fierce competition for low-paying jobs, to name a few – Mountain believes Lebanon’s response has been commendable. But he also thinks the country shouldn’t have to continue to go it alone.
He hopes that the upcoming Paris conference of the International Support Group for Lebanon to begin on March 5 will encourage the world to play its part in supporting the nearly 1 million Syrian refugees who now represent around a quarter of the country’s population.
“It’s important for the international community to be supporting Lebanon. At the moment, it has in terms of population the greatest burden of any country,” he says. He points out that 220 villages that represent 68 percent of Lebanon’s poor are also hosting 86 percent of the country’s Syrian refugees.
“It shows where it’s hitting.”
In Mountain’s work to generate more international support for Lebanon, he is quick to emphasize all that the country and numerous nongovernmental organizations have done to help Syrian refugees – something he believes is too often overshadowed by sporadic incidents of xenophobia that receive more media attention.
In some of Lebanon’s most neglected areas, NGOs have been working with local communities to find sustainable solutions to both the refugee crisis and local poverty.
For example, instead of giving out food aid that would compete with local products, the World Food Program is distributing cash vouchers similar to ATM cards – $18 a month each for 650,000 refugees – so that money can be injected into the Lebanese economy. So far, WFP has contributed $180 million in cash for these vouchers.
In addition, Lebanese families have been getting assistance in order to renovate their homes to host Syrian refugees, while municipalities are receiving aid to develop their infrastructure, including much-needed waste management systems in areas with informal tented settlements.
“There is a special effort going on in the humanitarian community to make sure Lebanon benefits,” Mountain says, noting that even before the Syrian refugee influx, the rate of poverty in Lebanon was high at around 30 percent.
The U.N. coordinator is mindful of the subject of refugee camps’ sensitivity in Lebanon, given the country’s long and turbulent history with Palestinian camps.
But he is quick to emphasize that helping Syrians establish clean and safe living conditions is far better than allowing the refugees to live in ad hoc settlements without access to basic infrastructure.
He also points out that unlike the Palestinians, Syrians will have a country to return to once the war is over. Even those refugees who do end up staying longer tend to make significant contributions to their host countries, he says.