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NGOs, international aid support Lebanon, press for reform

Bujar Hoxha (L), country director of CARE International in Lebanon, said he was inspired by how people came together to help each other in the wake of the Beirut port blast. Photo courtesy of Care International
Bujar Hoxha (L), country director of CARE International in Lebanon, said he was inspired by how people came together to help each other in the wake of the Beirut port blast. Photo courtesy of Care International

BEIRUT, Lebanon, Dec. 15 (UPI) -- More than four months after the blast at the port in Beirut, Lebanon, inhabitants of the devastated areas are still recovering, finding comfort in relentless support by local groups and renewed international aid.

While active non-governmental groups have taken the lead in helping those affected, the country's politicians are still fighting over the formation of a new government, ignoring international calls to implement reforms that would speed up economic recovery and avoid total collapse.

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But the international community seems not yet ready to abandon Lebanon or ease the pressure on its politicians. A new aid package was approved during a virtual conference hosted Dec. 2 by French President Emmanuel Macron and attended by representatives of 32 nations and 12 international organizations.

The 18-month Reform, Recovery and Reconstruction Framework (3RF) was prepared and supported by the World Bank, the United Nations and the European Union to provide the Lebanese people with food, healthcare and education, as well as the reconstruction of the port. The 3RF not only includes essential reforms to facilitate recovery and reconstruction but is also meant to address the root causes of the crisis, according to U.N. statements.

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Under the new fund, aid will be distributed directly to the Lebanese people and businesses that have been impacted by the port explosion, bypassing the government. The costs for reconstruction and recovery needs for one year were estimated at $2 billion.

But support for the reconstruction will not materialize unless "a mission-driven, credible and accountable government, able to implement the necessary reforms," is formed in Lebanon, according to a report by the Council of the European Union on Dec. 7. The requested reforms include the forensic audit of the central bank, banking sector reform, capital control, exchange rate unification and creation of a credible and sustainable path to fiscal sustainability.

A long list of urgent measures, including a "transparent investigation" into the port blast and a new port sector law, was also requested by the World Bank, the U.N. and the EU.

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In a dramatic move last Thursday, Lebanon's caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab and three former ministers were charged with negligence over the port explosion. Diab's government resigned days after the Aug. 4 blast, caused by the ignition of a large depository of ammonium nitrate, which had been unsafely stored in a port warehouse since 2014.

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More than 200 people were killed, 6,500 wounded and some 200,000 homes were affected.

"We are in a catch-22 situation. The international community supporting the French initiative is asking the political leaders to form a government of mission made of experts and specialized ministers to adopt the reforms while they are the last ones to want that," Antoine Haddad, an academic and political activist, told UPI. "Those leaders are the cause of the problem and reforms are not in their interests."

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The ruling elite has turned a deaf ear to popular and international urgent requests to quickly adopt reforms to allow Lebanon to receive needed financial assistance. Despite the Beirut port tragedy, mounting international pressures and U.S. sanctions targeting senior officials, the political leaders remained disengaged.

"What needs to change is the attitude and behavior of the ruling parties in Lebanon, and every delay in changing that attitude is purely criminal," Ayman Mhanna, the executive director of the Beirut-based Samir Kassir Foundation's SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom, told UPI.

Mhanna, who participated in the Paris conference as civil society representative, referred to the "huge and painful disconnect" between the Lebanese authorities on one hand and the NGOs and the international community on the other.

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"While NGOs' representatives were talking about the plight and pain of the Lebanese people, the increasing hunger and poverty and the international community urging the Lebanese authorities to take the right steps, Lebanese representatives were either completely absent or silent -- and worse -- totally disconnected," he said.

The distrust and dismay of the international community with the Lebanese leaders were clearly reflected at the Paris conference, when Lebanese civil society representatives were given the floor to express themselves before Lebanese President Michel Aoun delivered his speech.

In fact, it was those NGOs, assisted by thousands of volunteers, who helped most the blast-stricken neighborhoods and the 300,000 people left homeless by the explosion. They started with evacuating the wounded, removing the rubble, distributing food, providing necessities and ended up repairing damaged properties and securing moral and emotional support to the traumatized inhabitants.

"What we have seen was quite an inspiration in the Beirut streets...a lot of youngsters, women and even elderly cleaning the streets, helping each other...These were people who genuinely wanted to help their communities," said Bujar Hoxha, country director of CARE International in Lebanon, who survived the blast. "We were encouraged as international NGOs and we built our responses via local and national NGOs."

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Besides his first concern to help evacuate the wounded, Hoxha rallied immediate support from all of CARE International's 14 global members and received "quite a lot generous donations" from different private citizens and institutions.

"I have never seen such a devastation, which came at a time the Lebanese people were already having difficulties in accessing basic needs, like food and heath," he told UPI.

Nusaned, one of the active and trusted NGOs operating with transparency since the port explosion, has so far received $1.4 million out of $3.4 million pledged that it used to support more than 12,000 families and rehabilitate 1,000 out of 2,089 residential and commercial units it assessed.

"If it wasn't for the NGOs, the situation could have been worse," Nusaned President Ghida Itani Nawam told UPI. "It is already winter and those people need to return to their homes."

The most shocking for Nawam was that none of the political leaders came to check on the devastated areas and the traumatized homeless inhabitants. "They didn't make the effort to help them and instead they keep on hurting them...That's so surreal."

Without Nusaned's help, Janine Njeim could have never been able to fix her badly-hit family apartment.

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"They quickly assessed the damage and started reconstruction. Our house came up more beautiful than before," Njeim, who has been working as a saleswoman at a computer company for 20 years, told UPI.

However, she still lives with the tragic memories of that day. How she carried her injured mother on her back and rushed her to hospital on a motorbike. The screams of injured people in the next building. Searching for her father, who was badly hurt as the blast destroyed his hairdresser shop.

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