BEIRUT: Head of the Delegation of the European Commission Patrick Laurent visited northern Lebanon Thursday on a tour of community building programs the European Union funds in the area. He announced an additional 18 million euros of funding from the European Commission for the northern region at the end of the tour.
Local mayors and dignitaries along with dozens of people gathered in cities like al-Mina near Tripoli and Majdala and Denbo in Akkar for a brief glimpse and short speech by the French diplomat. Laurent and his delegation from the European Commission visited a cultural center, water filtration plants and vocational schools in the terraced foothills of the Akkar.
Besides being a publicity stunt to build support, Laurent's visit to Akkar, one of the poorest areas in the nation, brought up issues of class disparity and the question of what role international aid plays in place of the Lebanese government. These issues have recently been the center of debate after a report of high levels of poverty in Akkar.
The programs Laurent visited are all funded by the Economic and Social Fund for Development (ESFD), a mostly EU backed project aimed at poverty reduction. Laurent said the additional funding of 18 million euros provided by the EU would be used for the development of agriculture programs with local authorities in the north, but provided no further details.
Over a hundred people came out to see the delegation in Denbo the last stop on the delegations trip and location of Laurent's longest speech. Denbo was by far the largest gathering of all of the delegation's stops and one of the poorest towns in Akkar. Town members played traditional music and showered the delegation with sweets and cheers when Laurent approached the town's community center.
"The European Commission will continue to support this movement and will make sure the voice of local communities is well heard," said Laurent to the audience packed in a small gymnasium. "Reinforcing the state while strengthening local actors is the best way not only to build up a democratic state in Lebanon but to ensure a development process involving and benefiting to all citizens," he said.
These contributions from international organizations like the European Commission are crucial for the well being of cities and towns in the northern region. The contributions have also largely filled the void of the government in the poorer areas of Lebanon where the state building has not done much to provide for the people of northern Lebanon.
Places in the interior of Akkar like Denbo don't have the mountaintop or seaside resorts that draw industry to many other parts of the country. In 2008 a report by the International Poverty Center Akkar was listed as having the highest level of poverty and unsatisfied basic needs in the country. Towns largely live off what agriculture can provide and remittances from Lebanese working abroad. The rest comes from aid programs.
The role of that aid to these deprived regions is a controversial one. People in Akkar are forced to rely on individual donors, non-governmental organizations and the aid the European Commission provides in place of the traditional assistance from the state government.
Some 25 million euros or 80 percent of ESFD's funding comes from the European Commission compared to the Lebanese government's contribution of 6 million euros. The portion of international aid in the region will become even larger with the additional 18 million euros Laurent announced Thursday.
The government has been criticized for not providing enough aid for areas like Akkar. Places that could be centers of instability without sufficient aid. In other areas of the country political parities like Hizbullah have stepped up to fill the role of the government. But that is typically not the case in the north.
Haitham Omar, the managing director of ESFD, said the Lebanese government isn't doing enough to treat the disparity of wealth in Akkar compared to the rest of Lebanon.
"Although the resources put there from NGOs and international donors can fill part of the gap, it is the government's duty to do this."
Omar said there was only so much that programs like ESFD could do, but rather it was the government 's approach that was inadequate.
"Because you know NGOs come and go while the government is always there and it can ensure sustainability of these projects through its institutions," he added.
Lebanon's $47 billion in debt has made the country overall more reliant on international funding. On top of that the Lebanese government is still weakened by the 1975-90 Civil War.
Because of this, poorer families in regions like Akkar can't make ends meet with just government aid.
"We don't want to be seen as a substitute of what the state should do," said Cecile Abadie, head of the European Commission's Infrastructure and Local Development section.
But with international programs like ESFD and individual donors like Future Movement leader Saad Hariri, who gave $56 million in 2008, providing substitutes for the states role is largely what happens.