Lebanon in the heart of the storm

Ziad Abdel Samad and Joel Ghazi

One cannot discuss policy priorities and challenges in Lebanon without first addressing the dangerous developments the region is currently experiencing. Oppression, backwardness and the shortcomings of democracy in the region as a whole are serious hindrances that could turn the tide and reverse the more positive trends. Despite the challenges they raise, the current developments clearly demonstrate the potential for change in the region: people are no longer willing to stand idle in the face of tyranny, poverty, unemployment and marginalization.

Lebanon is still facing the systemic challenges of the political confessional system. The state must be an institutional and constitutional expression of democracy and people’s rights. Genuine citizenship cannot be achieved without the rule of law, without a system that gives citizens their rights and duties towards both society and the state, which are also preconditions for an effective civil society. Thus the main obstacle to true citizenship in the country is still the partition of state offices and institutions among the different religious confessions.

The main challenge that Lebanon is currently facing is the immense flood of Syrian refugees, who are escaping the escalating violence and dramatic deterioration of the situation in their country. Official figures provided by the Lebanese authorities estimate the number of Syrians to be about 1 million while UNHCR estimates the number to be about 750 thousand. Most of them are living in very difficult conditions. Lebanese authorities have been from the beginning reluctant to provide them with any support, limiting their role to organizing the registration process. In so doing, the authorities were trying to hold the international community responsible for the refugees’ dire situation. However, as the number of the refugees drastically increased and their living conditions deteriorated seriously, the lack of support led to turmoil.

Last September, the UN Secretary General called for a meeting of “the International Support Group for Lebanon” at UN headquarters to discuss the assessment conducted by the UN and the World Bank and to adopt an emergency plan in response to the situation. It is obvious that the spillovers of the Syrian conflict in general and of the refugees issue in particular are causing tremendous pressures on the Lebanese economy.

The financial and banking systems are traditionally the backbone of the Lebanese economy, along with the tourism and services sectors. During the last decade, the Lebanese economy became vulnerable due to the constant internal political crisis since the assassination of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005, followed by the Israeli attacks in 2006. Popular uprisings in the region, particularly in Syria, deepened the political divides between the different Lebanese groups and prevented the country from conducting the 2012 parliamentary elections—to select the government as well as the chief commanders of the army and the internal security forces-- on time. The mounting political tension led to enormous economic and social challenges, including economic stagnation and increasing prices for food as well as essential commodities.

The Lebanese political crisis had a direct impact on the implementation of development policies in general and more specifically on efforts to meet the country’s development goals. Furthermore, the success of any social, economic or cultural endeavor is highly dependent on the political climate. Clearly, sectarian divisions must be separated from state institutions, which have to be unsoiled by political disputes; political figures have to stop grabbing and treating public institutions as their own private backyard. In structural terms, the main reforms needed in Lebanon are the following:

Reforming the Lebanese economy by adopting a new paradigm to enhance productive capacity and shifting from “a rentier state economy” towards a real economic system.  This must also be coupled with a reform of the laws governing both parliamentary and municipal elections, and with administrative decentralization.

Planning and implementing programs to improve the living conditions of Palestinian refugees: the main concern is about their lack of economic and social rights and the absence of any law governing their situation. The same goes for non-Palestinian refugees, with the exception of their right to register and get official papers through the UNHCR process.

Ensuring respect for human rights by lifting reservations to CEDAW Articles 9 and 61 governing the personal status of women and children as well as the CEDAW optional protocol and by adopting adequate measures to respect the rights of people with disabilities. Journalists too face many obstacles, even more than last year, according to Reporters without Borders. Needed are adequate judicial protection and an end to prior censorship, along with eliminated the hold of economic and political elites on media outlets.  The right to access to information is also a must for transparency and for monitoring state expenditures.

Social and economic difficulties

Economic and social rights in Lebanon are all subject to policy-related violations. The consequences of economic and social policies originating from the national reform agenda known as “the Paris III” are made worse by the absence of a budget as well as of a comprehensive development agenda. Adding to that, security and political turmoil has led to backsliding, particularly regarding unemployment, poverty and social and geographic disparities. The main issues focused on here are: labor, social security, decent living standards, health, education, social protection and the impact of trade on social and economic rights.

Common to the frequent violation of all these rights are the following structural needs:

  1. The administrative and structural reforms of all ministries in order to improve their effectiveness and efficiency, especially in implementing laws and issuing decrees;
  2. The de centralization of services and the elimination of geographic disparities and inequalities that span all of the social and economic problems in the country.

Right to an adequate standard of living

The lack of reliable statistics regarding economic conditions is a serious problem. Inadequate measurements lead to inappropriate policies. However, it is well established that women are hardest hit by poverty and that in terms of income and growth, Lebanon fairs poorly in comparison with neighboring countries. Health issues, tax policies, environmental degradation can all be added to the list of problems impeding adequate living standards in Lebanon. In order to address this reality, the following priorities must be met:

  1.  Enhancing the public administration for more accurate  statistics
  2. Reforming the taxation system to achieve a fairer distribution of wealth
  3. Adopting decent work generating strategies with particular regards to women
  4. Adopting a law for administrative decentralization that enlarges the mandate of the local elected authorities
  5. Reorganizing the energy and water sectors to provide services to all regions in the short, medium and long terms.
  6. Establishing laws protecting the environment in all regions of the country
  7. Applying UN conventions relative to fighting corruption and its consequences.

Right to work

The Lebanese labour market is characterized by the absence of any form of justice, equal opportunities or meritocratic hiring. While statistics are barely reliable, they indicate that youth unemployment constitutes some 48.4% of total unemployment, and that women and people with disabilities are the least represented in the labour force, as only 28% of the workforce are women while 83% of people with disabilities are unemployed. Reforms should include:

  1. Revision of the current labour legislation in order to: develop the country’s productive sectors, improve laws protecting workers from work-related accidents, establish an unemployment fund and improve social security in general.
  2. Abolishment of the sponsorship system for domestic foreign workers and ensure the protection of their rights.
  3. The signature and ratification of ILO Convention # 87 on the right to organize and amendment of current laws in line with this, including raising the legal working age to 14; and the implementation of a quota of 3% employment for people with disabilities in accordance with Lebanese law 2000/200.

Right to education

The right to education is ostensibly guaranteed by the Lebanese Constitution. However, the qualitative chasm between private and public institutions continues to be a major challenge, leading to the segregation and marginalization of students unable to pay the exorbitant fees of private institutions and universities. Another glaringly obvious fact is the absence of mechanisms for implementing universal free education. In spite of the fact that this was adopted as a law by parliament, no executive steps have been taken so far. It is worth mentioning that this does not include any provisions for people with disabilities. With regards to education, the following benchmarks should be prioritized:

  1. Improve the quality of public education and adopt a unified program
  2. Insert values of citizenship and environmental awareness in curriculums and transform religious education into “religious culture”
  3. Ensure the development of research and planning in universities and improve links with state consultancy needs
  4. Adopt programs to improve the performance of teachers in elementary and secondary education as well as in higher education.

Right to health

Owing to structural distortions in the country’s sanitary system, about half of the population lacks access to adequate public health care. Although public hospitals have been improved in some regions, they remain inadequate, while most people cannot take advantage of private health services owing their steep price. The following reforms are therefore critical:

  1. Reform the public health system in order to ensure universal coverage to all citizens
  2. Guarantee appropriate access to information on health issues
  3. Improve cooperation between the private and public sectors in the field of health
  4. Reactivate the National Bureau of Medications.

Right to social security

Notwithstanding a recent increase, social spending in Lebanon is not based on a comprehensive national policy, and does not provide the basis for the gradual realization of universal social security for all citizens. Indeed, the biggest portion of social spending is devoted to social safety net programs targeting the poorest. The following reforms are needed:

  1. Enshrine a comprehensive policy for social development 
  2. Provide a comprehensive plan for the elderly
  3. Amend the Social Security Act to eliminate discrimination against women
  4. Allow foreign workers to benefit from social security coverage.

Trade liberalization

Each time the Government negotiates trade liberalization agreements, it totally neglects its national and international commitments. These negotiations are undertaken without any impact assessment on economic and social rights or social and sustainability consequences. The most dramatic illustration of this was the great damage done to the industrial sector after the unilateral removal of tariffs in 2000. Furthermore, the process of trade liberalization in the agricultural sector is seriously threatening food sovereignty, food security and the right to work.  Further liberalization of services will most likely weaken the sector’s competitive capability and limit its local and national organizational ability. Such considerations are all the more vital when it comes to liberalizing the provision of essential services such as education and health. As bilateral, regional and multilateral trade agreements continue to be negotiated, full impact assessments become critical, as they seriously limit state policy space for improving the productive sectors. On top of all that, they render the state unable to respect and protect human rights and social security. Therefore, the following measures are vital:

  1. Examine Lebanese trade policy to align it with a comprehensive development strategy that is not confined to economic aspects
  2. Ensure that trade liberalization agreements do not lead to greater social and economic discrimination. Particularly, ensure that trade liberalization in agriculture does not hamper food security and food sovereignty
  3. Exercise the right to use safeguards in the case of rising waves of unexpected imports
  4. Ensure respect for the right to work when negotiating trade liberalization agreements
  5. Provide basic services to all citizens with respect to a decent living
  6. Conduct social and economic impact studies of free trade agreements before their signature
  7. Commit to a participatory approach encompassing all concerned sectors when negotiating free trade agreements
  8. Reactivate the Lebanese National Commission concerned with the country’s membership in the World Trade Organization.


Lebanon is facing alarming challenges stemming from regional situation, especially the escalation of the armed conflict in Syria. At the same time, Lebanese society is highly polarized, which has direct implications on public decision-making. Clearly therefore, the new challenges caused by the deteriorating situation in neighboring countries, plus the old challenges arising from the structural and sectarian nature of the regime, necessitate serious and immediate measures and interventions.

It is worth mentioning that successive Lebanese governments have taken many decisions to implement the MDGs. In 2004 Prime Minister Hariri nominated a multi-ministerial committee for poverty eradication, although he was assassinated in 2005 before taking any tangible steps in this regard. Another multi-ministerial committee was nominated in 2006 to suggest a national strategy for social development, which was never implemented owing to the Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006. In 2010, the Minster of Social Affairs proposed a national strategy for social development which was not presented to the council due to the resignation of Prime Minister Mikati’s government and the formation of a caretaker government in April 2013.

Lebanese citizens, refugees (including the Palestinians and Syrians), as well as migrant workers are all living under enormous and increasing economic and social pressures. These challenges require immediate measures at the policy level as well as adequate resource allocations. However, the country is not able to address these challenges properly due to the deep political divide which render Lebanon a frail state under tremendous threat.


Ziad Abdel Samad is Executive Director of the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND) and Joel Ghazi is research officer.

 See: http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/country.php?id=122  ( accessed  30 September 2013).

Reporters without Borders ranked Lebanon 93rd in its 2012 report, a fall of 32 ranks compared to 2009; see: http://en.rsf.org/press-freedom-index-2013,1054.html

The Paris III agenda was signed in January 2007 to provide support for Lebanon’s post-war reconstruction. It aims at stimulating growth, creating employment, reducing poverty and maintaining social and economic stability as well as increasing “Lebanon’s role in the free trade system,” and speeding up the negotiations regarding Lebanon’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). See: http://www.socialwatch.org/node/11084   (accessed 28 September 2013).  

http://www.undp.org.lb/WhatWeDo/MDGs.cfm ( accessed 29 September 2013).

See: http://www.annd.org/arabic/data/publications/pdf/46.pdf (accessed  29 September 2013).