Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 31 May 2020

'We cannot eat every day': Demand for food aid shows extent of poverty in Lebanon

Volunteers trying to ease burden of coronavirus restrictions are overwhelmed by requests for help

Hussein Al Achi, a volunteer with the Lebanese activist group Minteshreen, delivers a food box in the Beirut suburb of Furn Al Shebbak. Sunniva Rose / The National 
Hussein Al Achi, a volunteer with the Lebanese activist group Minteshreen, delivers a food box in the Beirut suburb of Furn Al Shebbak. Sunniva Rose / The National 

The words are always the same. “Thank you, thank you. May God bless you.”

Since Lebanon announced confinement measures on March 15 to contain the spread of the coronavirus, activists have been distributing free food boxes packed with lentils, sardines, oil and other non-perishable items in Beirut and its suburbs.

They are received with deep gratitude, but also shame. Most of these men and women need help to feed themselves for the first time. “We cannot eat every day,” said Rosie Safadi, one of the recipients in the suburb of Furn Al Shebbak, her eyes brimming with tears.

The Lebanese state is chronically weak and underfunded, so political parties normally step in to help the poor in their constituencies. But they are struggling to respond to the soaring rates of poverty, which could reach up to 80 per cent of the population this year, economists say.

To ease the pressure on the poorest households, grassroots political groups born out of Lebanon’s protest movement that started late last year have begun to focus on social work. The nationwide protests forced the government to resign in October but slowly petered out after a new Cabinet was announced in January.

Two weeks ago, one youth-led political movement, Minteshreen, launched an online campaign seeking donations to buy food for the poor to encourage them to stay confined. Each box costs 50,000 Lebanese pounds (Dh122). News of the initiative spread quickly after activists' phone numbers were shared on social media and the group was able to deliver 300 boxes of food in the past two weeks.

“We were shocked to find out how many households with highly educated providers, now unemployed, have fallen into poverty in the last six months,” said Hussein El Achi, a 32-year old corporate lawyer who is active with Minteshreen.

The group does not ask recipients to prove their income and tries to respond to all of the requests for help, which have soared as a result. Driving from door to door, volunteers like Mr El Achi ask people to send their location on WhatsApp. Failing that, they have to stop for directions from locals, which slows them down. “It’s like a full-time job! But we don’t have much work anyway because of the coronavirus,” said Mr Al Achi’s fiancee, Nour Bassam, a social worker.

Demand is particularly high in Beirut’s southern suburbs, one of the country’s many poverty pockets. But the area is controlled by Hezbollah, Lebanon’s influential party-cum-militia which is highly critical of protesters.

“It doesn’t matter. We are all with the revolution. I went twice to protest but when the problems started, I stopped. I have two daughters. I could not go anymore,” said one man in Hay El Sollom, in south Beirut, as he received a food box on Wednesday.

Chebl Yassine, the Minteshreen volunteer who had just handed him the package, nodded but seemed unconvinced as he drove off. “There was pressure on him to stop protesting for sure. But we cannot know the truth,” he said. “He listened to his party, but they are not helping him today.”

With an army checkpoint at its entrance, narrow overcrowded streets and low-hanging electric cables, Hay El Sollom resembles Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps.

Recipients of Minteshreen’s food aid in the neighbourhood said they had not received help from either the local municipality or Hezbollah, despite the party showing journalists its large storage and packaging facilities during a media tour a few days earlier. An employee told The National the party distributed up to 100 boxes of food daily, each worth $50 (Dh184), but they do not seem to have reached all of Hay El Sollom yet.

“It’s all talk. Nobody helps us. They just say it for the television,” said a man who gave his name as Abu Hadi as he watched his neighbour Abbas accept a food box delivered by Mr Yassine.

Abbas, a seasonal agricultural worker in his 50s, was one of the few people in the street wearing a mask to protect himself against Covid-19. “They say to use it just once, but we can’t. We need money for that. I spray it with alcohol and re-use it.”

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Like his neighbours, Abbas rants against the government and political leaders, saying he supported “the revolution”, before whispering, “I can’t protest, or I’d be beaten up.” Several people The National spoke to in the southern suburbs said there was significant social and political pressure to stop them from protesting.

But political affiliations are irrelevant to Minteshreen's volunteers. “We are doing this initiative because people should take care of each other,” said Mr Yassine. “I also enjoy the ride. I get out of the house and I can see how people behave in this time [of confinement].”

As he finished his round, his phone started buzzing with calls from other people in Hay El Sollom who had heard of the free food distribution. “It really shows how poor people are,” he said.

But the initiative’s popularity is also testing its limits.

“Requests are skyrocketing. We stand at around two requests per box,” said Mr Al Achi. On top of that, their supplier is running out of certain products.

“We will launch another round of fundraising to help at least 500 more people but I’m afraid that when we run out of boxes, it will take a week on average to begin to deliver again.”

Lebanon has been struggling for months with its worst financial crisis; the coronavirus crisis has only made the situation worse. Like nearly one billion people around the world, the Lebanese are confined to their homes. Many have lost their jobs and are going hungry. Videos shared on social media this week showed people in the northern city Tripoli breaking the night curfew to protest because of the bad economy.

The World Bank warned in November that poverty rates could rise from 30 per cent to 50 per cent this year. But Lebanese economist Roy Badaro believes that as much as 80 per cent of the population will sink into poverty by the summer.

Mr Badaro said he expects that the Lebanese pound, which has plummeted by about 70 per cent since late last year in unofficial trade, will soon see its official peg to the dollar adjusted from 1,500 to 3,000. “People will lose 50 per cent of their purchasing power automatically,” he said. “The middle class will become much poorer.”

On March 25, the ministry of social affairs said it would distribute 100,000 food and hygiene packages worth 18 billion Lebanese pounds in the next few weeks to households identified by its national poverty targeting programme.

Lea Bou Khater, a lecturer in development studies at the Lebanese American University, said this will be financed by a $500 million loan from the World Bank approved by the government in February.

“The October revolution has really shaken the political system. The sectarian equation has failed and people do not trust their leaders anymore,” she said, referring to the division of power among the country’s 18 recognised sects. “Plus we have an economic crash, so sectarian communities do not have the resources anymore to maintain traditional patron-client relations.”

The effectiveness of the state’s assistance plan remains to be seen, but one thing is sure, Mrs Bou Khater said: “Poverty and inequality will increase.”

Updated: April 3, 2020 07:46 PM

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