Beirut’s challenge: A wealth of volunteers and a deficit of trust

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A basic demand of government is that it provide relief in times of calamity. But as Lebanon gets about cleaning up and rebuilding Beirut, who can be counted on to coordinate efforts and efficiently distribute aid?

Aziz Taher/Reuters
Volunteers clean debris on Aug. 7, 2020, following the massive explosion in the port area of Beirut, Lebanon.

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In the aftermath of the giant blast last week in Beirut, street protests have reignited against Lebanon’s sectarian ruling class, denounced as both incompetent and corrupt. Monday night the government resigned en masse, just a day after international donors pledged $300 million to Lebanon while stipulating it should be “directly delivered to the Lebanese population.”

While protesters and analysts alike say the explosion has brought the crisis-ridden nation to a turning point, they are wondering how that aid can be safely funneled to those who need it most.

Rami Khouri, director of global engagement at the American University of Beirut, has proposed a consortium that includes “clean” officials, relief agencies, and professionals to ensure the integrity of the cash flow between donors and those doing the relief work. “Donors have to be used as leverage to force the government to get out of the way,” he says.

In a Beirut neighborhood, an elderly woman watching volunteers inspect buildings, without government assistance, holds back tears. “I cry when I think of all the work the Lebanese people are doing to help one another. Even strangers feel like family,” she says. “But then I think of how the government let this happen. ... They’re not welcome here.”

In the early morning hours in the eastern Beirut neighborhood of Gemmayze, hit hard by the mammoth explosion that rocked the Lebanese capital a week ago, hundreds of volunteers are already on the streets with food parcels and brooms flung over their shoulders.

They are offering help where a widely despised government fears to tread.

Perched near a large pile of rubble, an elderly woman watches the volunteers move in and out of buildings to inspect or clean them up; others open boxes and distribute donated food and water.

“I can’t explain why I am still alive, here, talking to you,” Roula, her face etched with both grief and disbelief, says about the blast that shattered the windows and tore through the walls of her first-floor apartment.

Another source of wonder? The absence of any official support from a ruling class that many Lebanese blame for corruption and negligence, leaving 2,750 tons of volatile ammonium nitrate at the Beirut port in the heart of the city. That stock triggered one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, wrecking large swaths of the capital, killing at least 171 people, and injuring 6,000.

“I cry when I think of all the work the Lebanese people are doing to help one another. Even strangers feel like family,” says Roula, who gave only her first name, holding back tears. “But then I think of how the government let this happen. This was a massacre, and the blood is on their hands.”

Even if government support was forthcoming, she says, “they’re not welcome here.”

Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
Demonstrators wave Lebanese flags during protests near the site of a blast at Beirut's port area on Aug. 11, 2020.

While Lebanese protesters and analysts alike say the explosion has brought the crisis-ridden nation to a turning point, they are wondering how the hundreds of millions of dollars in aid that international donors have pledged can be safely funneled to those who need it most, keeping it out of what they consider the predatory claws of a largely corrupt ruling elite.

“The question is: How do you distribute the money? How do you prioritize it?” asks Rami Khouri, a professor of journalism and the director of global engagement at the American University of Beirut.

“Those decisions cannot be done by the government. You can’t ignore the government either, you can’t de-sovereignize the government,” he says. “But neither can you allow it to keep doing corrupt work, and not doing its work.”

For maximum efficiency, he proposes a consortium that includes “clean” officials, relief agencies, and professionals to ensure the integrity of the cash flow between donors and the NGOs and the United Nations, which will implement the relief work.

“A new mechanism has to be set up,” says Professor Khouri. “Donors have to be used as leverage to force the government to get out of the way.”

International donors pledged $300 million at a conference Sunday convened by President Emmanuel Macron of France, Lebanon’s former colonial power. They stipulated that the assistance should be “directly delivered to the Lebanese population, with utmost efficiency and transparency.”

How that will be achieved is not yet clear, as street protests against a corrupt, incompetent, and sectarian ruling class – which first erupted nationwide last October – have reignited in recent days with renewed venom.

Hannah McKay/Reuters
A man stands next to graffiti on Aug. 11, 2020, outside Beirut's damaged port, in the aftermath of the massive explosion that damaged much of Lebanon's capital.

Demonstrators have rigged up gallows, calling for vengeance in slogans such as, “Hang the authorities first.”

Monday night, the government resigned en masse – the second cabinet to be toppled by popular anger in nine months – further complicating any chain of command for relief distribution.

“I discovered that the system of corruption was bigger than the state and that the state is bound by this system, and that it is not possible to confront it or get rid of it,” said Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who blamed entrenched interests when announcing his resignation. Analysts and protesters point to the sectarian distribution of power – and the same top players for decades – as the source of much of Lebanon’s corruption.

Even as protesters have implored donors not to channel funds through the hands of state institutions that they deem untrustworthy, the scale of the damage – estimated at as much as $15 billion – will require a coordinated repair effort.

For a relatively small grassroots relief organization like Shaabemasouleyati (My people, my responsibility), which got its start last December assisting families in need during an economic crisis, the pivot to post-explosion support has been natural but daunting.

The group is one of the many civil society organizations that have mobilized thousands of Lebanese citizens to clear debris and restore a minimal degree of normalcy. It has done everything from sending nurses and paramedics to check up on elderly residents or tend to the injured in the Mar Mikhael neighborhood, to deploying its engineers to conduct preliminary assessments of damaged buildings.

Their reports are being logged in a database of damaged houses and streets so as to speed the process of repairs.

“The government has not taken responsibility for the explosion, nor for what happened after the explosion,” says founder and director Afif Ayad. Help came “purely because the people were there from every corner of the country,” he says.

Donor funds, he insists, should be sent with “utmost transparency and with trusted NGOs actually giving the money to the people in need, [which] would be one big step in the right direction.”

That view is echoed by Bujar Hoxha, the CARE country director for Lebanon, who notes that a “triple crisis” was already afflicting the Lebanese – economic collapse, political instability, and the coronavirus – even before the explosion.

“It’s critical that we agree on an approach and mechanism with other NGOs, in order to have massive funds flow without any doubts and concerns,” says Mr. Hoxha.

Since the explosion a number of NGOs have sprung up, including several diaspora groups that have “created a coalition amongst themselves,” raised millions of dollars, and made their own judgments about needs, says Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

“That’s good, at that scale, but when we are talking about huge money like $300 million, you do need a coherent and cohesive needs assessment, that everyone uses ... and this is something the government needs to be involved with,” she says.

Hussein Malla/AP
People watch the moment of the massive explosion on a giant screen as they gather Aug. 11, 2020, in honor of the victims at the scene of last week's explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, that killed more than 170 people.

International and local authorities have the experience of the aftermath of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, Ms. Yahya points out. That 34-day conflict destroyed much of southern Lebanon and Beirut’s southern suburbs.

Back then, a multi-donor emergency fund was created, funneling funds through the United Nations, but “there was an excess of funds in de-mining, and far too little funding in [other] vital sectors,” Ms. Yahya recalls.

But the key instruments today are NGOs on the ground, “providing the oversight, [which] will then make sure that the money is not falling into the wrong hands,” she says.

Meanwhile, Lebanese will continue piecemeal efforts to help in any way they can, such as a new hotline to reach engineers and architects set up by the American University of Beirut, which dispatches teams to inspect damaged houses and apartments and rule whether they are safe enough to return to.

The initiative is still small-scale, and has resulted in the inspection of some 100 houses so far, says George Saad, an associate professor in AUB’s environmental engineering department, who set up the hotline and is creating a database.

He says he is glad that international donors seem intent on disbursing their money through NGOs, rather than the government, but only as long as they work together.

A coordinating committee will be critical to “ensure that NGOs are not crossing each other while helping people,” he says. His database of damage could “create and build transparency,” a precursor, he hopes, “that leads to the structure that can support millions in aid.”

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