ECONOMY-LEBANON: Skewed Policies Widen Urban-Rural Divide

  • by Mona Alami (beirut)
  • Inter Press Service

Reality is different. Away from downtown’s glittery sidewalks, people live in abject poverty, begging on the streets throughout the country’s main cities.

In stark contrast to the opulent cobblestone streets of the Beirut Central District, home to the likes of Fendi, Gucci and Cartier, in one of the back alleyways off the main Arab University road, a man in his sixties, lives out of his rundown, old car.

'Since my son died and I lost my job at a local plastic plant, I have been living off the streets,' says Hassan, who begs on the streets to survive.

According to a study published in 2008 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), extreme poverty rates are at about eight percent in Lebanon.

'People living under the line of extreme poverty spend less than 2.4 US dollars per day, which means that they can’t afford even the most basic of food needs,' underlines Raghed Assi, poverty programme manager at the UNDP.

Another 20 percent of the Lebanese population lives under the upper poverty line, meaning that they have less than four dollars to spend per day.

As one drives out of Beirut and into the beleaguered suburbs of Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, the sight of decrepit buildings inhabited by populous families is common.

Ali, a member of the Alawite community (a Muslim minority) residing in Jabal Mohsen, explains: 'I have been out of a regular job for over three years. I work part time as a mechanic in one of the city’s garages and barely earn enough to feed my family.'

The UNDP study has put forth significant disparities between the poverty levels in various Lebanese regions. 'For example, less than one percent, or more specifically 0.67 percent of Beirut residents, live under extreme poverty levels, while this figure reaches 17 percent in the north, 11.64 percent in the south, and 10.81 percent in the Bekaa area. Another 5.85 percent of the capital’s population lives under upper poverty levels, while this figure climbs up to 52.57 percent in the north and 42.21 percent in the south,' points out Assi.

Yearly per capita expenditure reaches 2,650 dollars in Beirut, plummeting to 1,688 dollars in the north and 2,000 dollars in the south. 'Pockets of poverty also exist in areas like Denniyeh, Akkar and Minieh in the north as well as around the suburbs of Beirut,' says Assi.

The UNDP programme manager explains that the disparity in poverty levels can be partially linked to government policies which benefit the Lebanese capital in comparison to other regions, providing investors in Beirut with more incentives and facilities.

'The infrastructure is actually stronger and more reliable in Beirut in terms of water and electricity supplies. Tax cut incentives are also given to investors in the capital instead of other regions,' Assi adds.

Economist Ghazi Wazni attributes several other reasons to the significant regional disparities. 'Lebanon’s political instability and permanent bickering slow down growth and discourage investors from coming to Lebanon. It has prohibited the implementation of the 2007 reforms envisioned by the Paris III conference, which targeted poverty pockets through the enactment of new social, economic and educational policies.''

The growing deficit plaguing Lebanon, reaching nearly 50 billion dollars in debt, further exacerbates the problem. 'Many of the reforms have been postponed because of the lack of funds, as about 45 percent of the government’s yearly budget is earmarked for servicing the debt. However, only 46 million dollars are needed to alleviate the state of extreme poverty in Lebanon,' Wazni says.

Another reason accounting for Lebanon’s current poverty problem is low income levels. The average salary in the country has not been adjusted in accordance with galloping inflation (projected at eight percent for 2010) and the erosion in consumer spending. 'This is more significant in less stable sectors, such as the agriculture and manufacturing industries,' says Assi.

In the years before the 1975-1990 Civil War, Lebanon was one of the rare countries in the Middle East with a thriving middle class, but the UNDP study shows that today that is no longer the case.

'The growing disparity between the rich and poor can be attributed to the civil war as well as the economic policies adopted after the 1990 Taef Accord, which concentrated essentially on the real estate and service sectors while marginalising a big portion of the population not working in these two specific economic segments,' pinpoints Wazni.

He goes on to add that about 10 percent of the population controls 70 percent of the country’s wealth. According to Assi, 20 percent of the population accounts for 43 percent of national consumption.

The reality of the Lebanese political system, built on allegiance to war lords and tribal figures who perceive revenue generating ministries as their personal piggybanks, only aggravates the problem of poverty. 'In some Lebanese regions, any individual or government investment effort is systematically hindered by the local zaim (lord) in order to keep a tight rein on the local population,' says one researcher on condition of anonymity.

With the government turning a blind eye to poverty in Lebanon, a large percentage of the population is left to live without sufficient basic needs, such as food, water and electricity.

Meanwhile, Beirut continues to bustle with activity and prosperity, crowded with big spenders and tourists who seem not to know or care how people live beyond the capital’s fancy streets.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service