BEIRUT — Despite comprising only a small strip of land on the Mediterranean sea, Lebanon’s population is diverse. Featuring a stark urban-rural divide, as well as massive urban ghettos of Syrian refugees in major cities, Lebanon’s poor is a diverse collection of communities — hence why the causes of poverty in Lebanon can differ substantially.
Lebanon’s population is 87 percent urban, concentrated mainly in coastal cities; in particular, within the capital of Beirut. While the national GDP per capita of $18,500 makes it a middle-income nation, Lebanon’s poverty rate is high at 28.6 percent. Unemployment is also a major problem, standing at 20 percent.
These statistics explain the root causes of poverty in Lebanon. They are strongly related to the political unrest that has rocked the tiny nation since the 80s — a major civil war throughout the decade and the 2006 war with Israel left Lebanon with a million internally displaced people and more than 100,000 destroyed homes. Its previously buoyant economy (Lebanon was once referred to as the Switzerland of the Middle-East) was left in tatters and has never fully recovered.
Refugees & Lebanese Economy
However a more contemporary development has also rocked Lebanon’s economy: the massive influx of Syrian refugees from across the border. These refugees are, unsurprisingly, mired in poverty themselves. Their precarious status makes them vulnerable to exploitative employers and landlords and many refugees work well below minimum wage.
These same refugees have also frequently worsened the economic situation for the Lebanese poor. Limited housing stock in densely populated cities is now even more competitive than before. The price of shelter and food has skyrocketed: Oxfam estimates that an extra 170,000 Lebanese fell under the poverty line between 2011 and 2014.
Various Contributors to Poverty
Beyond the coastal cities, the 13 percent of Lebanese in rural areas deal with a different set of causes of poverty. Social protection and government support are far more limited in these remote and often mountainous regions – meaning that natural shocks (such as floods) or manmade ones (such as war) can have an even more devastating impact.
Seasons also have a major effect on incomes — work is far less available in the winter months, due to an almost total reliance on the agricultural sector. This conspires to make poverty in rural Lebanon often more extreme and wide-ranging than in, say, Beirut.
Solutions to the causes of poverty in Lebanon are manyfold and differ depending on the specific needs of each community. In Beirut, Habit for Humanity is piloting a ‘microloan’ program, which could help poverty-stricken households rebuild their destroyed homes sometimes years after the conflict.
Offering even more potential is Lebanon’s own informal social networks, which can often be very generous. Often led by Sheikhs during Ramadan, local communities engage in a form of redistribution to help lift up those neighbors who are suffering. The distribution of food vouchers during winter months, for example, can help prevent the worst cases of poverty and malnutrition, particularly in hard-hit rural areas.
If these kinds of programs are implemented and expanded, Lebanon’s wide-ranging poverty problem can begin to be tackled more effectively.
– Jonathan Riddick