Beirut blast aid faces an obstacle course in Lebanon

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

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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Twitter: @rebeccaaproctor


Lebanon approves law to import vaccines as coronavirus hits new record

Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri heads a legislative session, as Lebanon's parliament approved a law that paves the way for the government to ink deals for coronavirus vaccinations, at UNESCO Palace in Beirut, Lebanon January 15, 2021. (Reuters)
Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri heads a legislative session, as Lebanon's parliament approved a law that paves the way for the government to ink deals for coronavirus vaccinations, at UNESCO Palace in Beirut, Lebanon January 15, 2021. (Reuters)
Updated 11 min 7 sec ago

Lebanon approves law to import vaccines as coronavirus hits new record

Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri heads a legislative session, as Lebanon's parliament approved a law that paves the way for the government to ink deals for coronavirus vaccinations, at UNESCO Palace in Beirut, Lebanon January 15, 2021. (Reuters)

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s parliament approved a draft law allowing imports of coronavirus vaccines as the tiny nation hit a new record in case numbers Friday and more hospitals reported they were at full capacity.
The new daily toll of 6,154 cases and 44 deaths came on the second day of a nationwide 11-day curfew that the government and doctors hope will reign in the dramatic surge of the virus.
Lebanon, a country of about 6 million people, has witnessed a sharp increase of cases in recent weeks, after some 80,000 expatriates flew in to celebrate Christmas and New Year.
During the holiday season, restrictions were eased to encourage spending by expatriates amid a suffocating economic and financial crisis, the worst in Lebanon’s modern history.
On Friday, the American University Medical Center, one of Lebanon’s largest and most prestigious hospitals, said in a statement that its health care workers were overwhelmed. The hospital’s ICUs and regular coronavirus units have reached full capacity and so did the emergency room, it said.
“We are unable to find beds for even the most critical patients,” the hospital said, urging people in Lebanon to help by taking extreme precautionary measures to “overcome the catastrophe we are facing.”
Mazen El-Sayed, an associated professor in the department of emergency medicine, described the situation as “tragic,” anticipating that the next two weeks would be even more dire.
In southern Lebanon, the Ragheb Harb Hospital also said that its COVID-19 units were now. “We are working beyond our capacity. The situation is very dangerous,” the hospital said in a statement.
The curfew, which began Thursday, is the strictest measure Lebanon has taken since the start of the pandemic. But many have expressed concern the measures have come too late — many hospitals have already reached maximum capacity for coronavirus patients, some have run out of beds, oxygen tanks and ventilators while others have halted elective surgeries.
Lebanon was able to contain the virus in its early stages but the numbers started climbing after measures were eased in early July and following the massive deadly blast at Beirut’s port in August.
Following bureaucratic delays, the country now is putting hopes on vaccines that are expected to start arriving next month.
Parliament’s approval opens the way for imports of vaccines from around the world, including the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
Health Minister Hamad Hassan, who is hospitalized with the coronavirus, had said that once the draft law is approved, the first deliveries of vaccines should start arriving in February.
Lebanon has reserved 2.7 million doses of vaccines from multiple international companies and 2.1 million to be provided by Pfizer, Diab’s office says.
Lebanon has registered nearly 243,000 coronavirus cases and some 1,825 confirmed deaths.