It has war on its doorstep, economic woes, and no President to represent it. But here’s why I’m hopeful about Lebanon.
June 5, 2016
Building up economic resilience and developing infrastructure in poverty-stricken countries is the only sustainable justification for expenditure on overseas aid. It is also key to stabilising the migration crisis, whose tensions continue to threaten political upheaval throughout Europe.
Central to the UK’s own substantial international development contribution must be an appreciation that migrants, whether fleeing for economic or political reasons, risk everything because they lack the opportunity to make a decent life for themselves and families in their own countries or those hosting them temporarily. With no end in sight to the Syrian conflict after five long years of fighting, many refugees who had intended their flight to bordering nations to last only until hostilities died down are having to make the difficult choice of holding out for a resolution or getting on with life beyond the region. For how long can they sustain uncertain employment, poor accommodation and piecemeal education for their children?
It would also, as an aside, be naïve not to recognise that the misery of today’s migration crisis has been heightened by a set of international refugee conventions that are simply no longer fit for purpose. One of the reasons that people trafficking is so lucrative is that privileged access to asylum is an automatic entitlement for anyone claiming refugee status who is able to land on a European beach or be rescued inside national waters. It may be time, in an age of mass global movement, to engage in a far wider debate about the implications of migration on both the societies being joined and those being left – one that David Miller begins to explore in his new book, Strangers in our Midst.
Despite widespread criticism that we are not taking in sufficient numbers of refugees, the Government has been absolutely right to focus our development efforts virtually exclusively on building safer, better futures for those displaced from Syria within the region. It surely cannot be right to allow those able and willing to pay people traffickers to jump the queue to entry to Europe, thereby receiving preferential treatment compared with other hapless migrants.
In mid-May, I spent three days in Lebanon – my visit coinciding with the hundredth anniversary of the signing of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which carved up the Arab provinces of the former Ottoman Empire into French and British spheres of influence. At that time, the majority of modern-day Lebanon came under French administration, bringing together the mainly Maronite Christian communities of Mount Lebanon with Druzes, Sunni Muslims and poorer Shia communities south of Beirut and in the Bekaa valley.
That nation’s constitution tried to make sense of these diverse, delicately balanced communities by guaranteeing political representation for each of the nation’s ethno-religious groups. Maintaining such a fragile equilibrium has been made ever-harder over the decades by the meddling of Lebanon’s regional neighbours and by the presence of large refugee communities – first the Palestinians and now countless Syrians, who currently represent one quarter of Lebanon’s overall population.
It is sobering to reflect as one stands in Beirut that Damascus is just over one hour’s drive away and that, as our Ambassador reminded us, ISIS are in operation within 60 kilometres. Precious wonder that so many Syrians have sought refuge in their nearest neighbouring country. However, 86 per cent of those living in urban areas are living below the poverty line, and the Lebanese are caught in a tricky dilemma as to whether to integrate Syrians into Lebanon both socially and economically, or to maintain their transitory conditions on the assumption that they will return to their homeland. Somehow the country is getting by, however, and the country is putting together a schooling programme which sees Lebanese and Syrian children educated in shifts to make maximum use of school buildings.
Donors are keen to find ways of increasing job opportunities for Syrians, but the Lebanese themselves need jobs as well. The latter’s chief concern is that any lifting of restrictions on Syrians to the local jobs market will only act to ratchet tensions with the host community. In February, our own Government hosted an international conference that placed free market solutions alongside our commitment to development aid at the heart of a long-term solution to the plight of the 1.3 million Syrians currently in Jordan. This welcome compact recognises that the host country to such a vast displaced Syrian population needs to be incentivised by the waiving of trade tariffs to Jordanian exports to the EU.
Lebanon would like to emulate such an arrangement, but they admit that their PR on the global stage cannot match that of the Jordanians. For two years now, Lebanon has been without a President after reaching an impasse over an appointment between its mainstream politicians and Hezbollah, which is using the issue as a pawn in a wider regional power struggle. This means that Lebanon lacks a figurehead who can articulate its needs and gain the confidence of international donors and governments – while each cabinet minister is left to act as a mini-leader, resulting in chaotic governance and economic instability.
Lebanon is also buffeted by the economic woes of key regional neighbours. It has acted for many years as a playground for rich and middle class Arabs from the Gulf, who have come to Lebanon to holiday, receive high quality health care and buy property. Similarly, remittances from Lebanese workers employed in the Emirates and Saudi Arabia have been a crucial source of income. With the fall in oil price, these economic life lines are withering, and a crackdown on Lebanese banking operations as the United States tries to squeeze the funding streams of Hezbollah is causing additional pain. All this is putting huge pressure on the Lebanese state in the delivery of services, which it heroically continues to provide in conjunction with bodies such as the Lebanese Red Cross, which has worked to build trust with each of Lebanon’s sectarian communities so that it can access all parts of the country.
I must admit that I have always been critical of the naïve optimism that underpinned the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, fearing that the instability and insecurity that has replaced all too many of the Arab dictatorships is too high a price to pay for greater political freedom. Nonetheless, I was struck by the positivity of many political figures I met in Lebanon. Time and again, I was reminded that Europe’s path to democracy came only after decades of conflict. Christian politicians also sought to reassure me that the Syrian conflict is symptomatic not of a wider battle between Islam and the West, but between moderate Muslims and their radical counterparts. While we in the West are perhaps wearily cynical of rolling out democratic freedoms in the region, the Arab Spring clearly let the genie of self-determination out of the bottle. It will not now be returned. This alone will come to be seen, ultimately, as a positive foundation for democracy – provided a way can be found to safeguard minority interests in a system which inevitably favours numerical superiority.
Naturally, many of the conversations I had with Lebanese politicians focused on the likely resolution to the Syrian conflict but we also discussed at length the European response to the migration crisis. To a man, they supported a regional solution to helping refugees. Not only are these Lebanese hosts more culturally attuned to the needs of Syrian refugees, but they felt strongly that those with economic clout and skills will need to be on hand when the time comes to rebuild Syria.
I left Lebanon feeling strangely optimistic. The challenges facing that region are undeniably massive. But here is a people whose nation has been dealt a difficult hand before and have maintained a firm desire to persist with its finely balanced political system and build the government’s capability. It must be the role of Britain now to provide as much support as we can to host countries such as Lebanon, whether that be political capacity building, education or job creation through industrial zones.
Domestic critics of the UK’s aid and development commitment argue, with some justification, that too much of our money is frittered away. Too often, UK taxpayers’ money that should have been earmarked for infrastructure has ended up being spent on a self-perpetuating industry of NGO consultants or in enriching corrupt politicians. Public support for overseas aid, which is already wavering, will only be strengthened if we utilise monies on building better futures within the Middle East and Africa, rather than channelling such critical funds to support refugees arriving here.