ALEY, Lebanon: The picturesque town of Aley, renown as one of Lebanon’s most attractive summer spots, is also home to one of the most popular faces of American diplomacy in the country.
A buck-toothed squirrel mascot named Sanjoub at the USAID-backed Association for Forests, Development and Conservation is telling the Lebanese to prevent forest fires – and he’s a hit with the kids.
After presentations from environmentalists highlighting the U.S. Agency for International Development’s forest fighting projects, local teenagers crowd around to take pictures with the caricature squirrel with a big brown felt face, a yellow hard hat and firefighter jacket.
USAID looked to raise the profile of some of the U.S. Embassy’s more successful projects Thursday, conducting its first press tour of aid recipients in villages in a nation that has difficulty providing for its neediest areas.
The embassy and the organization showed off projects in small mountain villages at a high school in the Metn village of Bteghrine, a specialized food factory in nearby Ain al-Qabou and the nature and education facility in the village of Ramlieh.
Altogether the projects total more than $100 million over several years and are a fraction of the U.S.-backed projects in Lebanon. USAID’s projects are also just a portion of the total annual foreign aid that floods into Lebanon’s more neglected areas.
Meanwhile, in the small village of Ain al-Qabou in Aley, a small stone building houses one of USAID’s more ambitious projects.
A $7.5 million grant has helped turn the Mymoune women food factory into a specialized goods producer for American markets.
In a white kitchen overlooking the valley, women workers peel, pit, and cook locally grown fruits to make natural jams and flavored waters.
The kitchen produces jams in all flavors from apricot, strawberry and fig to Lebanese specialties like rose mulberry. The jams have no additives and taste like they are made entirely of fruit.
USAID money went into standardizing the food production and helping business owners navigate the complicated food-approval processes for U.S. markets in order to tap into a multi-billion dollar market for premium food products.
“It’s an example that Lebanon products can enter the U.S. specialty food market,” says Georges Frenn, senior economic growth specialist for USAID. “It impacts rural areas and brings up the whole rural economy.”
The USAID project that helped Mymoune also worked with a number of other businesses in the country to tap into foreign markets and connect with other local businesses like tourism.
Frenn says he hopes the company will be an example of how technical knowledge can improve a stunted agriculture industry.
Lebanon is dependent on imports for a large proportion of its food supplies, putting the nation more at risk to price inflation and food insecurity for the poor.
This project does little to help import dependency, but Frenn says the access of small- and medium-sized companies to international markets can be improved by its successes.
Foreign aid in the form of such USAID projects is most often directed toward basic infrastructure needs like water pumps or repairs to roads and dilapidated buildings like schools.
They are projects in remote areas that the underfunded and overstretched government cannot tend to.
In a public school perched on a hillside over Bteghrine, a once-derelict playground is now paved over and clean. The school’s crumbling stairway has been tidied up and remodeled, and its crumbling door frames have been patched up and repainted.
The school was renovated with $56,000 that came from the first installment of USAID’s $75 million program five-year program to help Lebanon’s most neglected public schools with improvements and teacher training.
In an indication of the decrepit state of Lebanese schools, Education Ministry officials have even asked that all of the country’s 3,510 schools be considered in the full implementation of the USAID program,
“It improved the morale of the students and gave them a good environment to get an education,” said Yola Saliba principal of the school in Bteghrine.
Working in the school’s recently upgraded chemistry lab, 16-year-old student Hafiz Saliba points to pictures of the room before renovation.
“The faucet was not reaching the sink,” he said pointing to crooked metal pipes that ran along the desks. “I didn’t like to come to the lab.”
“Now it works.”