BEIRUT: Lebanese government hopes of accessing an emergency $246 million World Bank loan to help the country’s poor have been thrown into chaos as parliamentarians bicker over details of the relief package.
The World Bank cash assistance is aimed at setting up a stronger social safety net for 800,000 of Lebanon’s most vulnerable citizens amid an economic and health crisis that has left up to half the country’s population facing growing deprivation.
The spiralling collapse has led to three-digit inflation and fears that up to 20 percent of Lebanese could be plunged into extreme poverty.
With little hope of an end to the political stalemate and economic experts predicting the central bank will cut subsidies of essential goods in coming weeks, the caretaker government has been desperate to access the $246 million World Bank loan to stave off widening social chaos in the country.
The deteriorating economic situation was highlighted on Wednesday when the dollar reached 9,000 Lebanese pounds on the black market.
However, hopes the World Bank emergency cash could be used quickly were dented on Tuesday when a draft law to sign the loan treaty became the subject of a heated parliamentary debate.
While some MPs said the loan details are “ambiguous and the mechanism of distribution unclear,” others claimed that the package should be linked with a halt to smuggling across the border with Syria.
Hezbollah MP Hassan Fadlallah said that the government was seeking to approve projects without scrutiny due to the economic crisis and people’s pressing needs.
“This also affects Lebanon’s sovereignty,” he said.
MPs also disagreed over whether the loan should be donated to needy families at an exchange rate of 6,240 Lebanese pounds to the dollar or in US dollars.
Other MPs expressed fears the loan funds could be exploited for political purposes.
The World Bank has estimated that 1.7 million Lebanese are likely to fall into poverty, with up to 841,000 people facing food shortages.
Michel Abboud, president of Caritas-Lebanon, said that the charity has tens of thousands of struggling families on its lists.
“We have been in the social field for 50 years, and we are seeing more poor people joining the lists as a result of the loss of family income due to the exceptional situation in the country,” he said.
Following talks between the Lebanese government and the World Bank about the loan, an expert told Arab News: “Initially, the loan was worth $600 million, but during negotiations between 2011 and 2020, the amount decreased to $246 million. The World Bank had comments related to monitoring due to mismanagement, noting that Lebanon does not have clear surveys that show the poverty rate.”
Ziad Abdel Samad, executive director of the Arab NGO Network for Development, said: “The World Bank refused to hand over any money to the Lebanese authorities due to lack of trust and reforms.”
However, he said that amid the “Lebanon’s harsh reality,” the bank offered the loan to help people “survive in the face of suffocating crises.”
Samad added that “politicians defending sovereignty is an attempt for parties to further control the management of the program funds.”
International groups should be overseeing the loan distribution, he claimed.
“This aid will vanish in the crisis,” Samad said.