Lebanon slides into poverty
Tripoli, Lebanon - Khaled Taleb goes to the fruit and vegetable market every day to collect whatever produce is discarded by vendors or thrown into bins for being damaged and considered unworthy of sale.
“I usually wait for the lorries to complete the unloading of the merchandise, some of which is spoiled and thrown away,” said Taleb, a 54-year-old father of four. “I choose the least rotten to take home to my family.”
A resident of the poverty-stricken district of Bab al-Tabbaneh in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli, Taleb has been unemployed for years, surviving on charity and begging. His home in the dense, poor district consists of a single room with a small kitchen and bathroom he shares with his wife and four daughters. One daughter suffers from acute diabetes and lost her eyesight due to lack of treatment.
Rain leaks through cracks in the wall, often inundating the apartment. “I cannot afford to fix the cracks,” Taleb said, “and when there is heavy rain, water trickles down from the ceiling into the kitchen and through the walls. In one instance, the room where we sleep on mattresses right on the floor was inundated and we had to spend the night on the stairs.”
While such living conditions are not supposed to prevail in a middle-income country like Lebanon, the latest official statistics (2011) indicate that about 28.5% of Lebanon’s population of 4.1 million lives under the upper poverty line of $4 per person a day. Another 8% of the population lives in extreme poverty at less than $2 per person a day and are unable to meet their most basic needs.
The influx of refugees fleeing the Syrian war have further strained Lebanon’s resources. Nearly 90% of the refugees are concentrated in poor neighbourhoods.
Some areas of Lebanon have become overpopulated with the population of some towns in the eastern Bekaa valley and in the north doubling. The refugees, mostly unskilled and lacking the means to survive, compete with the Lebanese poor over scarce jobs, creating tensions with host communities.
Tripoli, the country’s second largest city, and adjacent Minieh in addition to Akkar in northern Lebanon are considered the most disadvantaged. According to a recent study prepared by the Ministry of Social Affairs, together with the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP), up to 57% of families in Tripoli are “impoverished”; 26% are “in extreme poverty”. Those people are mainly in Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen.
Abu Ahmad, another resident of Bab al-Tabbaneh, has been without a job for almost two years since fighting between his Sunni neighbourhood and the Alawite Jabal Mohsen stopped. The neighbouring districts, which supported opposite sides of the Syrian conflict, had intermittent clashes from 2006-14, damaging already poor infrastructure and housing.
“I was getting a daily wage of 20,000 Lebanese pounds ($13) for firing seven to eight rocket-propelled grenades at Jabal Moshsen,” said a 36-year-old ex-fighter who asked to be identified as Abu Ahmad.
“After the battles ended, income stopped. Now I can hardly feed my family or buy milk for my son… [It is frustrating] when I think that I used to fire rockets worth $800 every day,” he said.
Home to some 800,000 people, Tripoli is regarded as a reservoir of poor people that political parties, groups and politicians can tap when they need to go to battle.
The two rival neighbourhoods are among the most poverty-stricken in Lebanon. Illiteracy, unemployment and population density are all high. Basic needs such as electricity, running water, healthcare and security are not met as a result of decades of marginalisation and neglect by the government.
This leaves many of the Tripoli’s destitute citizens at the mercy of charities belonging to the political powerbrokers, including former prime ministers Saad Hariri and Najib Mikati, both billionaires, who dispense free services in return for political support.
To improve the alarmingly deteriorating living conditions of the most vulnerable populations, the Lebanese government launched the National Poverty Targeting Programme (NPTP), under which households identified as “the poorest of the poor” received monthly cash assistance of $60-$90, hardly sufficient to meet basic needs.
Activist Layla Ghamrawi, who works with one of the many social welfare associations in Tripoli, said the magnitude of poverty worsened by economic stagnation, volatile security and the influx of refugees.
“The conditions in overpopulated poor districts are miserable. Some households can hardly feed themselves. They live in small rooms lacking the minimum health requirements. The scope of poverty is gigantic, it requires the support of a state, not mere social associations,” Ghamrawi said.