What happens when a state fails? Lebanon’s study in survival.

Issam Abdallah/Reuters
Taxi cars block a road during a protest against spiraling gasoline prices in Beirut, Oct. 21, 2021. A government cut to fuel subsidies also affects diesel for generators and gas for cooking and heating.

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Lebanon is in the midst of what the World Bank is calling the worst economic collapse the world has seen since 1850. Government services are failing. Electricity is scarce, the water supply is insecure, fuel prices are skyrocketing. Survival is now an issue, and hope is in short supply.

Yet, some are finding solace in leaning on one another, and, thanks to civil society groups that are refusing to give up, strength to make it through another day.

Why We Wrote This

Because of government dysfunction, Lebanon has become unrecognizable to its own people. Now, to provide for their most basic needs, they must rely on themselves and each other.

“It is like we are all waiting for someone to make a move, but ... no one is coming to save us,” says Beirut resident Rayan Khatoun, who two years ago helped found a grassroots network that identifies the needs of vulnerable families and launches fundraising appeals on social media.

With support from the Lebanese diaspora abroad, the network, called All of Us, has provided rent money to keep some families off the streets, and supplied others with dry food staples whose shelf life is unaffected by electricity cuts.

“We can’t make up for the lack of a functioning state; the hardest lesson to learn is that you can’t help everyone in need,” says Ms. Khatoun. “But it is also impossible to turn a blind eye to people.”

Each day for Safa is the same: a race for a solution.

Her husband, a construction worker, has been without work for six months. The two now worry about how to make their nearly bare cupboard – and the $30 in their bank account – stretch to make their next month’s rent.

Her children skip one to two meals per day.

Why We Wrote This

Because of government dysfunction, Lebanon has become unrecognizable to its own people. Now, to provide for their most basic needs, they must rely on themselves and each other.

“We have no government, no services, no electricity, no currency, no hope,” says Safa, who did not wish to use her full name. “Who can we even turn to?”

It is a question being faced by many Lebanese: What happens when a state fails, and no one is there to help?

In Lebanon – in the midst of what the World Bank is calling the worst economic collapse the world has seen since 1850, and in the aftermath of the third-largest nonnuclear explosion in human history – people are finding hope as scarce as the medicines and baby formula disappearing from store shelves.

Yet some are finding solace in leaning on one another, and, thanks to civil society groups that are refusing to give up, strength to make it through another day.

“It is like we are all waiting for someone to make a move, but no one is making one. No one is coming to save us,” says Beirut resident Rayan Khatoun.

Her response, starting two years ago, was to help found a grassroots network that identifies the needs of vulnerable Lebanese families and launches fundraising appeals on social media.

With support from the Lebanese diaspora abroad, the network, called All of Us, has helped hundreds of families, providing rent money to keep some off the streets, and providing others with dry food staples whose shelf life is unaffected by electricity cuts.

“We can’t make up for the lack of a functioning state; the hardest lesson to learn is that you can’t help everyone in need,” says Ms. Khatoun. “But it is also impossible to turn a blind eye to people.”

The spiral down

The collapse of Lebanon’s economy and the decline of government services have been a work in progress for years, the product of worsening political gridlock and corruption among competing sectarian elites.

What began as a very visible failure to deliver basic services, such as trash collection, worsened as the country defaulted on its international debt and the economy crumbled. A grassroots protest movement two years ago sprang up to demand systemic political change, even before the pandemic and the devastating blast at the Port of Beirut destroyed for many Lebanese the last shreds of government function or accountability.

Hussein Malla/AP
Lebanese depositors protest outside a bank in Beirut, Sept. 24, 2021. They were demanding access to their deposits, which have been blocked under informal capital controls since the country's financial and economic crisis began in late 2019.

Once a country of glitz and glamour, a financial and shopping hub for the Levant where even a brutal civil war in the 1970s and ’80s failed to slow daily life or mute rocking nightclubs, Lebanon has now become unrecognizable to its people. 

Beirut and most of Lebanon are in darkness. Out of cash, the national electricity provider turned off its generators completely this month. In the best of times, it provides one to two hours of electricity per day.

Supermarkets, confronted with wildly fluctuating black-market exchange rates, no longer place prices on items.

Meat, chicken, and cheese are luxuries. Manaqeesh, a thick bready pastry that is a staple working-class breakfast, is out of reach for many. So too, even, are eggs.

As the Lebanese say, “The surprises just keep coming.”

Last Wednesday, the government announced it was lifting fuel subsidies, leading to an immediate jump in the prices of gasoline, diesel needed for generators, and gas cylinders used for cooking and heating.

It now costs more than 300,000 Lebanese pounds – nearly half the monthly minimum wage – for 20 liters (5.3 gallons) of gasoline.

Wary Lebanese responded with a collective shrug, memes, and jokes on social media.

“Our coping mechanism is to make fun of the situation, slave the next day just to survive, come back home and rest a little,” says Ms. Khatoun. “People just don’t have the energy to be angry.”

Economic costs

The economic crisis is felt by all classes, but is crushing the working class.

  • Since 2019, the collapse of Lebanon’s currency has meant Lebanese have lost 80% of the value of their savings. Institutions, businesses, and citizens are desperate for fresh dollars from outside to keep the import-reliant country going.
  • With the electric grid down, it costs a family around 1.5 million pounds per month to run a diesel generator for 12 hours a day.
  • Fares for buses, taxis, and shared taxis have shot up to the point where for many, the commute to work costs more than a day’s salary.
  • The shuttering of the national water company has left 2.7 million Lebanese without running water, forcing many to fetch water from unsanitary wells.

The fact that Lebanese’s misery is caused by financial and government mismanagement, rather than by earthquakes or war, makes it a tough sell to donor countries, many of whom insist that Lebanon stand on its own feet.

“For the U.N., no matter the source of the overall crisis, the outcome is a humanitarian crisis affecting every aspect of life,” says UNICEF Lebanon Representative Yukie Mokuo.

“Let’s face it: There are severe humanitarian consequences to these economic and governance crises and unless we act now, things can go even worse.”

Marwan Naamani/picture alliance/Getty Images
People walk out of a bakery after grabbing packs of bread in the midst of severe fuel shortages and power cuts that are afflicting Lebanon, in Beirut, Aug. 14, 2021.

To help compensate for a failing government social safety net, the World Food Program is providing food parcels to 100,000 of the most vulnerable families across Lebanon, and modest cash assistance to 1.6 million people.

UNICEF is providing $40 monthly emergency cash assistance to 80,000 families to provide for children’s food, clothing, and transport to schools.

One in 6 people in Lebanon now rely on the United Nations for their daily needs.

UNICEF is campaigning to raise $40 million to secure the supplies and maintenance needed to prevent a water crisis from escalating to a health crisis.

Stepping up

But, unlike in previous crises, wealthy Gulf Arab states, the international community, and even Iran are not coming to Lebanon’s rescue with big-ticket bailouts. Instead, Lebanese are stepping up themselves, trying to do good where they can with rapidly dwindling resources.

The crisis has been transformative for Hani Nassar, founder and director of the Barbara Nassar Association, a small association he founded with his late wife during her battle with cancer to provide moral support and guidance for adult cancer patients.  

The association, now the voice of Lebanon’s 30,000 cancer patients, most of whom have been cut off from treatment and medications for months, is helping patients purchase generic cancer medications and immunotherapy drugs from India. The medications are shipped to Lebanese expatriates residing in the United Arab Emirates and are then transported in suitcases with the next person flying to Beirut.

Each day, Mr. Nassar shuttles to an office with no running water and an hour of electricity per day to distribute donated medications to patients. It can take him days to respond to an email.

He is meeting with ambassadors, U.N. officials, and business leaders, seeking to enable the charitable association to act as an intermediary for donor governments and individuals unwilling to channel donations through the corruption-tainted Lebanese government.

The government is failing, he says, in one of its basic functions: to help save lives. “It is tiring, but we have to find our own solutions,” he says.

The struggle for hope

Volunteers soldier on also at Embrace, a mental health care group whose emotional support and suicide prevention hotline, Lifeline, has become a critical service in the wake of last year’s port blast. 

This year Lifeline has seen a jump in calls from 500 calls per month to 1,200 – a rise that Embrace attributes to greater awareness of mental health.

In August, fuel shortages forced Embrace to shut down Lifeline for an entire month. It now has a private generator and Lifeline is back, but electricity cuts across the country wreak havoc on the phone lines. Transportation costs prevent many from attending its free, psychiatrist-staffed clinic for at-risk persons in Beirut.

Dozens of Embrace’s volunteers have left Lebanon because they too, exhausted, can no longer afford life in the country. Embrace is already training the next batch of staff.

“The main struggle is helping people have hope when there is none,” says Rêve Romanos, a clinical supervisor and psychotherapist at Embrace. “Hopelessness is a recurrent theme for all of us.”

But small things can help people cope, Dr. Romanos says. “Sometimes, just being able to vent, talk it out, and have someone listen can make a difference.”

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