BEIRUT: President Michel Sleiman said Tuesday that the increasing number of people living in extreme poverty should be confronted swiftly through economic policies that would expand the country’s middle class.
“What Lebanon needs are economic policies far from sectarianism or party lines to rebuild the country’s economy and revive the middle class,” Sleiman said.
The president was speaking during a ceremony to announce the results of the first phase of the National Poverty Targeting Program – a campaign introduced by the Social Affairs Ministry, endorsed by the government and funded by the World Bank and the Italian and Canadian governments.
Sleiman assured the Lebanese that despite the harsh living conditions imposed by successive crises, “social justice will remain a priority on the national agenda, away from Lebanon’s sectarian divisions.”
The president added that “the state bears a heavy burden in protecting society from collapse, as it pays more than LL733 billion yearly in health services to its employees and those on retirement programs.”
While he lauded the efforts of the Social Affairs Ministry in the NPTP campaign, he pointed out that “the problem lies with [the government’s] random spending.”
The campaign was launched in November of last year and seeks to address the long-neglected policy area of poverty in Lebanon. The NPTP aims to primarily help those individuals living on less than $2.40 a day.
Citing U.N. figures from 2004, Sleiman said that 30 percent of Lebanese live under the poverty line and around 8.5 percent, or 350,000 people, live in extreme poverty.
Sleiman also said that to successfully build the Lebanese state, cities cannot be the sole focus of development projects and that rural areas must be invested in too.
He said that around 300,000 people in the country are unable to meet their basic food needs.
For his part, Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour said that the first stage of the program targeted 33,000 Lebanese families.
“This is the first phase. It will be succeeded by the second and third phases and we will hold evaluations of each phase ... We also hope to turn this campaign into a permanent institution that would take care of Lebanon’s poor people,” he said.
He also stressed that “this program disregarded the sectarian and political affiliations of these people.
“We don’t know anything about such affiliations and we don’t care,” he said.
Abu Faour also described the reactions of those households visited by his ministry’s teams.
“Some of them did not believe that the government has really paid them a visit because they have been looking for government [help] for ages,” he said.
Others started crying when they saw the ministry team visit their homes to examine their livelihoods, he said.
The ministry has 96 Social Development Centers in Lebanon that have specialized units for targeting poverty.
According to Abu Faour, the ministry teams have so far visited 33,000 homes across the country.
Some $7.6 billion was pledged to Lebanon during the Paris III Conference in 2007 and the NPTP was among the social programs that the government vowed to implement with the funds.
Abu Faour also criticized the neglect of consecutive Lebanese governments in the past decades.
“When the state turned its eyes away from poverty, they let the impoverished become followers of individual sects that in turn worsened their situation,” he said.
He added that those living below the poverty line have been exploited by Lebanese sects in their violent confrontations with each other during times of unrest.