Beirut blast aid faces an obstacle course in Lebanon

Volunteers clean rubble from the streets following the huge explosion in Beirut's port area, in the Lebanese capital, on August 4, 2020. (Reuters/File Photo)
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Updated 14 September 2020

Beirut blast aid faces an obstacle course in Lebanon

  • Many Lebanese have little faith that aid delivered through official channels will reach the right recipients
  • Raising funds is easier than distributing them due to lack of trust in the country’s banking system

DUBAI: No sooner had the explosion of Aug. 4 devastated Beirut than the Lebanese diaspora came to their home country’s rescue.

The extent of the damage to homes and infrastructure was still not clear, but no one was under any illusion about the blast’s severity given that the shockwaves were felt more than 200 km away in Cyprus.

By the morning of Aug. 5, Impact Lebanon, a non-profit based in London, had collected close to £1.5 million ($2 million).

Since then the organization, which was founded by a group of UK-based Lebanese when anti-government protests erupted in Lebanon in October last year, has built up an impressive $8.23 million.

But as fundraising activities by diaspora communities continue worldwide, a concern that looms large over them is how Lebanese civil-society groups will be able to access the money.

One of the biggest challenges the Lebanese people face, as they pick up the pieces after last month’s explosion in Beirut, is the country’s troubled financial system. 

A complex set of regulations that govern transactions involving dollar bank accounts in Lebanese banks meant that Impact Lebanon was able to begin transferring the funds it had raised from Aug. 25 — three weeks after the blast.

The transfers were made in small instalments in order to reduce the risk of loss while navigating a corrupt banking system.

Under a scheme known as “fresh money,” individuals outside the country can transfer dollars into a “fresh money” account in Lebanese banks.

But access to such an account is granted only to those who can prove they are the recipients of dollar transfers from abroad. 

How long the scheme will last is open to question, though, which partly explains why Impact Lebanon volunteers decided against a lump-sum transfer of the funds it had collected.

Fundraising activities by diaspora communities continue worldwide, but concerns looms large over about how Lebanese civil-society groups will be able to access the money. (Supplied: Mariana Wehbe)

“Money will be sent in different instalments to the 15-20 different NGOs the fund is supporting inside the country,” said Maya Hodroj, co-founder and director of Impact Lebanon.

Since it is still to be registered as a charity in the UK, Impact Lebanon used crowdfunding platform JustGiving for fundraising and partnered with Lebanese International Financial Executive, a non-profit organization with branches in Lebanon, the UK, the US and Switzerland, to distribute the money among a mix of Lebanon-focused NGOs.

Currently, despite the web of restrictive banking regulations, aid is getting channeled through civil-society and international aid organizations, including many in-kind donations of food, personal protective equipment, sanitary items and other goods, particularly from Gulf Cooperation Council member states such as the UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Disruptions, however, continue to affect humanitarian work, such as the huge fire that broke out on Sept. 10 at a warehouse in Beirut port where the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) stores food parcels.


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Recently, the Trump administration said it would not be sending aid to the Lebanese government for fear it might end up in the hands of the Shiite Lebanese party Hezbollah, which is a US-designated terror group. Aid from the US will thus have to be sent through alternative channels.

Immediately after the blast of Aug. 4, residents of Beirut had no choice but to take care of themselves. The sense of helplessness prompted the rapid formation of a number of organizations by young Lebanese.

Their goal, in the immediate term, was to help the wounded, homeless and traumatized and, in the long term, to rebuild Beirut. 

“In the absence of government support, the Lebanese people had to fend for themselves, fixing the country and the people mentally and physically,” said Nancy Gabriel, co-founder along with Mariana Wehbe of Beb w Shebbek, an organization dedicated to repairing or replacing blast-damaged doors and windows of 80,000 homes.

Beb w Shebbek is an organization dedicated to repairing or replacing blast-damaged doors and windows of 80,000 homes. (Supplied: Mariana Wehbe)

“Beb w Shebbek is exactly like other Lebanese organizations born after the explosion. We had to create this initiative to help others because the government is totally absent,” Gabriel added.

“Three weeks after the explosion, most people are still living with open windows and doors. Their homes are totally destroyed. They have nowhere else to go.”

After the end of the civil war in 1990, foreign aid emerged as a key pillar of Lebanon’s financial and economic stability.

Since the blast, donor countries have pledged close to $300 million in aid. Additionally, the UN is trying to raise more than $500 million for Lebanon.

But some of the slogans heard on the streets of Beirut since Aug. 4 oppose more international assistance to the country.

Many Lebanese not only have little faith in aid reaching the right recipients, they are convinced that the country’s political elites are the ultimate beneficiary of the economic model.

“Many Lebanese government officials and advisors are paid with the millions allocated by programs such as those managed by the UNDP (UN Development Programme),” said Gino Raidy, a Lebanese activist and blogger.

“There’s a lack of trust right now in some international aid organizations, including the UN. It’s not about just giving money, but finding long-term solutions that will put an end to the corruption, instead of inadvertently encouraging it like we’ve seen for decades.”

Activist Mouin Jaber told Arab News from Beirut: “We’re actually playing the role of the Lebanese government, which stayed silent and remained inactive during the first two weeks of the disaster.”

He drew attention to the eyebrows raised by the sight of Lebanese military officers handing out aid to citizens three weeks after the disaster.

“Right now, the Lebanese Army is distributing food boxes to people, with camera crews documenting the propaganda,” said Jaber.

“They’ve been extremely incompetent and inefficient in providing aid to their citizens. It’s a joke.”

Jaber and his friends got in touch with four youth organizations and NGOs formed during the October protests to deliver relief kits to people affected by the explosion.

These include Minteshreen, a youth-led group that has been distributing food boxes during the coronavirus pandemic; Baytna Baytak, an NGO providing alternative housing to patients suffering from COVID-19 who could not go back to their homes, and is now arranging accommodation for those who lost their homes in the blast; Muwaten Lebnene; and Embrace Lebanon, a mental-health clinic.

“We assembled a team of engineers to assess damage to homes, and provided people with temporary solutions until long-term plans for rebuilding can be finalized,” said Jaber. “This is all voluntary work. No one is being paid.”

Some volunteers have set up an informal base camp for better coordination of aid and relief operations being managed separately by dozens of local NGOs.

“Instead of sending relief to these big organizations, it would be better to send money to reconstruction companies that have bank accounts abroad so that they have full access to the money,” said Jaber.

“This would be better than sending to third-party intermediaries because you never know where the money will go when it arrives in Lebanon.”

Beb w Shebbek is an organization dedicated to repairing or replacing blast-damaged doors and windows of 80,000 homes. (Supplied: Mariana Wehbe)

That said, fears expressed by some Lebanese on social media about NGOs encountering difficulty in getting aid into the country and relief supplies being mishandled by the government may have been overblown.

Nabih Jabr, under-secretary-general at the Lebanese Red Cross, said his teams received relief items and distributed them to those in need. “The problem was that we received too many in-kind donations too soon,” he told Arab News from Beirut.

“Some of them didn’t cater to the immediate needs of the affected population, and we rapidly ran out of space in nearby warehouses, so we took some of these items for processing in our warehouses all over the country,” he said.

“It always happens with in-kind donations that some end up sold in stores. People receive in-kind aid but need the cash, so some sell it to be able to get what they really need, and this is exactly why in-kind aid isn’t always the best aid.”

Jabr said in-kind donations can harm the local economy. “Small local businesses are already in trouble, and soon they’ll be in even more trouble if people don’t start buying again,” he added.

Jabr said the next step for the Lebanese Red Cross is handing out direct cash assistance. “This will start very soon,” he added. “This is the best and most efficient way to help people as long as there’s still a functioning local economy.”


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How Erdogan steered Turkey from ‘zero problems’ to zero friends

Updated 12 min 2 sec ago

How Erdogan steered Turkey from ‘zero problems’ to zero friends

  • Sharp exchanges between Erdogan government officials and their Western counterparts have resulted in a plunge of the lira
  • Current crisis viewed as resulting from rejection of doctrine once credited with making Turkey economically and politically strong

MISSOURI: The Turkish lira plumbed new depths on Monday, breaching the psychological barrier of  8 to the US dollar, after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan challenged the US to slap more sanctions on his country and ratcheted up the rhetoric against European leaders.

Barely 10 years ago, Turkey’s foreign relations and role in the Mediterranean and Middle East looked very different from today’s mess. With the economy growing at an impressive rate, an increasingly confident Turkey with a popular and stable government at home had begun to play a leadership role in the region.

Then, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was touting his “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy, first announced in 2008. The policy saw Turkey improve its relations with every neighboring state, with Ankara becoming a mediator of choice in conflicts from Afghanistan and Pakistan to intra-Palestinian disputes, Israeli talks with Syria and even American-Iran tensions.

European and North American statesmen regularly sang President Erdogan’s praises, and US President Obama even held Turkey forth as a “model” Muslim democracy and ally. At the same time, Turkish businesses pursued ever expanding projects throughout a welcoming Arab world, in Asia and in sub-Saharan Africa.

Visa requirements with Syria were lifted, with talk of similar openings to other Arab states. Even relations between Ankara and the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq flourished during this period, with reciprocal state visits that saw the Kurdistan Region’s flag flying alongside the Turkish one. At home, Ankara likewise pursued peace talks with political representatives of Turkey’s own Kurdish population.

Today, the situation could not look more different. In just 10 short years, Turkey has gone from “zero problems with neighbors” to almost “zero friendly neighbors.” Naval drills in the Mediterranean see French, Greek, Cypriot and even Israeli and Egyptian vessels in tense standoffs with Turkish ones. Peace talks with the Kurds were replaced with a resumption of hostilities and Ankara’s relations with Iraqi Kurds too became more frosty.

Several Arab states have begun boycotting Turkish goods, while France and some other European states push for EU sanctions on Ankara. The US Congress and Senate likewise agitate for sanctions on Turkey while various think tanks in Washington discuss the desirability of Turkey remaining a part of NATO. This year Israeli leaders, for the first time, added Turkey to their annual threat assessments, so bad have their relations become.

Even some voices in Moscow openly speculate about whether or not President Erdogan harbors “Ottoman ambitions.” Not a week seems to go by without some dramatic war of words between Erdogan and leaders in Europe, the US, or the Arab world. Over just the last couple of weeks, Turkey’s disputes with others and destabilizing activities make for an impressive list, in fact.

By many accounts, Turkey recently increased its arms exports to Azerbaijan and then goaded Baku into resuming its war with Armenia — which caused alarm especially in Moscow (a major backer of Armenia). Ankara played a spoiler role in Libya as well, effectively scuttling a ceasefire agreement between rival governments there. In the Mediterranean, Turkey continued ignoring the maritime claims of Greece and Cyprus to explore for gas in a huge swatch of coastal waters it claims for itself.

In Iraq, Turkey continued bombing various rural communities near the border where Kurdish militants are active, simultaneously increasing its number of military bases and soldiers in the country — against Baghdad’s wishes. In Syria, Turkey continues to occupy large swathes of the north — where it displaced hundreds of thousands of Kurdish civilians when it invaded Afrin in 2018 and Jazira in 2019 – and Erdogan during the past week even began threatening a third operation into other areas of the country with a significant Kurdish population.

In these areas and in the mostly Arab Idlib province, Ankara also continues to back and deploy Islamist proxy forces – some of them former Daesh fighters and quite radical. Turkey even sent its Syrian proxy mercenaries to Libya and Azerbaijan as well to help push its interests in those conflicts. Turkish support for Muslim Brotherhood-aligned groups across the Middle East and North Africa thus continues unabated, effectively ruining Ankara’s relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other states in the area who oppose political Islam.

Turkey’s use of religion as a political tool to rally support worldwide has again flared up in its relations with France. After President Emmanuel Macron announced measures in France to prevent the political misuse of Islam there (following the beheading of a French teacher near Paris by a radicalized French-Chechen Muslim), Turkish President Erdogan lashed out at the French measures and accused Macron of needing “mental treatment.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron. (AFP)

In normal times, the French moves to monitor foreign income sources of Muslim groups in France and the training of imams there should have elicited little comment abroad. Erdogan, however, immediately moved to spark another dispute over the issue, in order to cast himself as “defender of Islam” like the Caliphs of the bygone Ottoman Empire.

Qatar and Iran joined Turkey in condemning France. Government-controlled media in Turkey even ran stories about how Palestinian Islamic Jihad (a small and normally insignificant Iranian proxy group on all the Western terrorist group lists) “paid tribute to the Turkish Republic for defending Islam and Muslims.”

Going back further than a couple of weeks, one could cite a long list of Turkish disputes from the last 10 years with just about everyone save Iran, Qatar, Azerbaijan and a few non-state actors. The list could include but not be limited to Erdogan’s threats to deliver an “Ottoman slap” to the Americans, Turkish efforts to help Iran evade sanctions, calling today’s leaders in Europe “Nazis”, claiming that various Islands in the Aegean should be under Turkish rather than Greek sovereignty, threatening to use refugees as a weapon to flood Europe, various anti-Semitic dog whistle statements about “the interest rate lobby” and “a greater mind” seeking to destroy Turkey, and a host of other confrontations.

So how did Turkey go from “zero problems with neighbors” to this? On the one hand, some increased tensions should be expected as a country grows in power and flexes its muscles. China, for instance, has increasingly serious disputes about maritime borders and exclusive coastal water issues. China is not involved in half as many armed conflicts or vociferous diplomatic disputes as Turkey entered in just the last few years, however, and Turkey’s vaunted economic growth stagnated almost around the same time its “zero problems with neighbors” policy did.

Indeed, the economic problems and political and military disputes may go hand in hand. Several factors came together in the last ten years to bring Turkey to where it is now. First, Erdogan’s government pushed the Turkish military back to the barracks, allowing him to change the country’s foreign policy orientation and approach to Islam as he saw fit. When the Arab Spring uprisings broke out in 2011, Erdogan viewed it as an opportunity to support Muslim Brotherhood-aligned groups across the Arab region.

When Turkey’s economy started slowing down and opposition to his government mounted at home, however, Erdogan doubled down on his support for Islamists abroad — casting himself as a “defender of Islam” to distract people from the worsening economy and his own increasing authoritarianism. Every war of words with Europeans, Americans, Armenians, Israelis and other non-Muslims helps Erdogan do this.

The war with the Kurds, which he chose to resume after a particularly weak electoral showing in 2015, similarly helped distract his domestic political opponents. The problem for Turkey is that increasing entanglements abroad and confrontations with others will exacerbate its economic problems. In a short amount of time, Turkey may find itself very much over-extended and isolated. At some point after that happens, the Turkish public will either blame Erdogan for what happened or Turkey will see itself become a much weaker pariah state, or both.

* David Romano is Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University