Manufacturing Poverty in Lebanon

2020-05-27    |   

Manufacturing Poverty in Lebanon

In Lebanon, the COVID-19 pandemic came amidst an economic collapse. The health and social crises merged into one. Faced with this grim reality, the political system unveiled its silver bullet: The government, in the person of Prime Minister Hassan Diab, called on the well-off to donate, while the minister of interior asked people to “split the olive”. Political parties launched campaigns to outdo the “weak” state, rushing to take its place by preparing to open hospitals and quarantine facilities and distributing aid in front of the cameras.

As in other countries, this crisis has shown the flaws in our current system, particularly the way in which successive governments have handled the issue of poverty. Their approach revolves around three themes:

  1. Undermining the state’s role in reducing poverty and delegating its powers to political parties and sects.

  2. Treating poverty as a matter of fate or, at most, a gap to be plugged with aid, and divorcing it from the socioeconomic reality of the distribution of wealth.

  3. Promoting the logic of donations and aid as a charity to buy support instead of a culture of rights.

These policies followed over the years have increased citizens’ vulnerability and turned destitution and poverty into a permanent situation that the political system strives to exploit to reinforce ties of clientelism and dependency. Fawwaz Traboulsi has argued that poverty policies in Lebanon are based on the approach of denying and externalizing poverty. This approach has existed since the establishment of Greater Lebanon, when the poor were portrayed as coming from “the annexes and regions added to Mount Lebanon and the coast to form Greater Lebanon” and thereby exclusively as “outsiders” who had entered Lebanon.[1] This policy of denial continued well after the end of the civil war.[2] Hence, poverty came to be handled as though it were a transient issue outside of society’s core concerns. Today, statistics from the Ministry of Social Affairs indicate that 45% of Lebanese are now poor and 22% are in extreme poverty, and these numbers are liable to increase due to the unprecedented economic and financial crisis that Lebanon is witnessing. Hence, poverty is now no longer a secondary matter affecting some “other”, but an undeniable reality within Lebanese society. This poses the key question: how will the authorities deal with poverty? Will its spread force them to adopt social policies that will render attempts to externalize and deny poverty ineffective? Or will the system come up with new frameworks that reproduce the same othering discourse and allow previous policies to continue?

In this article, I will attempt to understand the foundations of the existing approach to poverty. What social policies were adopted? What is the connection between the clientelist system and the successive governments in the manufacture of poverty?

Undermining the State to Confiscate its Functions and Wealth in Favor of Political Parties and Charity Organizations

It is no secret that the Lebanese system – or at least the post-war system – is based on undermining state institutions and promoting clientelism. Manifestations of this phenomenon have become clear in all sectors, from the promotion of private education at the expense of state schools and Lebanese University to the strengthening of private hospitals at the expense of public hospitals and clinics. Needless to say, the social welfare sector was no exception: the government’s approach to poverty was along the lines of undermining the welfare state in the interest of strengthening the non-governmental sector embodied in political parties and sects. As a result, the state’s role was hijacked in service of elite leaders and clientelism.

Historically, the concept of welfare in Lebanon was tied to almsgiving by the notables and affluent families in the community. The foreign missionaries and sectarian leaders played a pivotal role in this by establishing orphanages and asylums.[3] The first legal foundations of the welfare state in Lebanon appeared in 1959 with the establishment of the Department of Social Welfare,[4] which was vested with improving social affairs. The department was established after the 1958 civil war as part of the “state’s determination to intervene in social policy and end its traditional neutrality”.[5] Hence, its establishment was the first step for state involvement in the administration of social work, which was no longer left to just benefactors and civil organizations. In addition, a state-commissioned study by French-based IRFED[6] sought to assess and measure poverty in Lebanon. The study formed the basis of reform schemes unrolled by then President Fuad Chehab. However, the department’s establishment faced obstacles, particularly from (mainly sectarian) civil institutions that feared public sector intervention, and the oversight it entailed, in matters they considered their purview. As a result, the state turned toward the policy of partnering with the civil sector instead of playing a direct role, relying on contracting civil sector social institutions.[7]

The Lebanese Civil War weakened the role of the state and its public services amidst the growth and strengthening of the civil sectors, especially those linked to the militias at the time, which were receiving much funding. The civil sectors’ desire to pull away from the state and escape governmental restraints, especially amidst the state’s disintegration, returned.[8] Although the state continued to work via the Department of Social Welfare, such work was frustrated by the state’s utter weakness and the dominance of the civil/militia sector.[9]

While the war era witnessed the fracturing of the state and the boom of the civil sector, the peace era entrenched and normalized this situation. The state’s effort to rebuild its institutional framework by establishing the Ministry of Social Affairs[10] and expanding its powers[11] (relative to the functions of the Department of Social Welfare) to include producing development strategies for the country did not actually change the relationship between the state and the civil institutions, especially welfare institutions. The civil institutions thereby emerged as service providers, and the state’s role was limited to contracting and funding them, which meant weak monitoring of the proper implementation of policies and follow-ups.

Hence, the state has delegated the poverty issue to the civil institutions. Anyone familiar with the Lebanese situation knows that most of these bodies are subordinate either to political parties and actors or to religious institutions. Most are connected to religious endowment authorities, which in turn benefit from unjustified privileges, particularly tax exemptions. Furthermore, these policies have come to serve this sector’s interests at the expense of citizens’ rights. The best example may be the Ministry of Social Affairs’ policy of placing poor children (termed by the MoSA as ‘social case’) in care institutions instead of leaving them with their families and supporting the families directly, as required by the principles of the child’s best interest.[12] Statistics indicate that 90% of the children placed in care institutions are poor, and researchers in this area believe that this high percentage stems from the trend toward a policy of “institutionalizing poverty”: as most care homes are subordinate to party and sectarian institutions,[13] placing poor children in them brings these institutions funding from the Ministry of Social Affairs. These institutions lobbied against a proposal presented by the Ministry of Social Affairs in 2004 to replace the financial support the state provides to the private care institutions with direct monetary aid for the families of the children concerned in order to keep them in their own social environments. Hence, one can argue that the state tends to support the care institutions at the expense of children’s rights. Additionally, state oversight over these institutions is minimal, and in recent years there have been numerous cries condemning the unsafe living conditions inside them.

These practices have consolidated the state’s absence from the public sphere while portraying the civil sectors (particularly the political parties and sects) as the alternative to a bloated state. These institutions thereby became a gateway for sectarian leaders [zu’ama’] and the influential to provide services and buy support. The state funds, and they reap the votes. The system has come to be based upon casting blame on the “weak” or “absent” state and then rushing in to play its role. The parties – and previously the militias – have constantly embedded the idea of the state’s incapacity in people’s minds in an attempt to monopolize its role and thereby entrench the need for the sectarian leader. The logic of rights that the state has a duty to provide to all citizens is thereby replaced with the logic of charity that the sects and sectarian leaders give to their obedient subjects. Furthermore, the state’s absence allows people with influence to whitewash their images by providing aid. The leader renowned for corruption and the contractor who plundered public property get thanked for their charity work. Thus we return to the “He stole, but he helped!” refrain, which had begun to subside with the October uprising.

What we are witnessing today amidst the COVID-19 pandemic – political parties contending to provide aid, hospitals, and quarantine facilities and most adopting a discourse that criticizes the state’s weakness and presents themselves as an unavoidable alternative (“It’s either our aid or hunger and sickness”) – is nothing new.


Donation and Services Funds: The “Give a Man a Fish Instead of Teaching Him to Fish” Policy

The policy of establishing funds is among the foundations of the post-war state. The government adopted the practice of establishing exceptional funds to address the effects of a given social crisis. For example, the Displaced Persons’ Fund was established to fund the return of displaced persons to their villages, and the South Fund was established to address the effects of the Israeli offensive on southern villages. Usually, the budget of these funds comes from outside public expenditure and parliamentary oversight, so they are more prone to squander public money. These funds also become a gateway for strengthening the sectarian leaders’ hegemony and their ability to perform services via patronage.

The state’s policy for handling poverty falls within the same context. The COVID-19 pandemic constituted an opportunity for discussion about the Emergency National Poverty Targeting Program (ENPTP) in the Ministry of Social Affairs, which is one of the few programs wherein the state plays a direct role with individuals, namely by providing aid to the households registered with the ministry. The Lebanese government also adopted a social scheme to combat the crisis’ repercussions, a scheme that would distribute LL400,000 [approximately US$140 at present] to households. These households are comprised of the families registered in the Ministry of Social Affairs’ ENPTP and additional families that can register with the municipalities and mayors.[14] However, and while the ENPTP still exists in the Ministry of Social Affairs, the government decided to grant the power to distribute the aid to the Higher Relief Committee (HRC), as explained below.


The Emergency National Poverty Targeting Program

In exchange for its commitment at the 2007 Paris III international donors’ conference to reduce extreme poverty, the Lebanese government received a donation to fund the implementation of an emergency social protection net, which includes the ENPTP.[15] The project of implementation was actually launched in October 2011. At that time, the door was opened for financial assistance applications, and the government officially adopted the program by allocating a financial advance of US$28.2 million for its initial balance and to prepare the aid package for the 2012-2014 period. The project was re-launched in 2014 with additional funding.

The program aims to provide the poorest Lebanese households with social assistance, particularly full health coverage, student fee exemptions, and food aid for those in the most extreme poverty.[16]

However, this program is marred by many issues.[17] Firstly, it adopts a relatively old system and set of standards to define poverty.[18] Hence, it relies on the lowest poverty line (extreme poverty) to determine its beneficiaries, excluding a large segment of Lebanese who are poor by other standards.[19] Moreover, despite the adoption of these “scientific” standards, the current crisis has witnessed accusations of patronage in the registration of families fly back and forth between the political poles.[20] The program’s promotional campaigns have also been weak since its outset. Consequently, it is at best within reach of a small number of people. A field study conducted in 2016 showed that knowledge of the program and the means of benefiting from it is poor. For example, only two of the 128 poor families encompassed by the study knew of the program, while the civil organizations knew little of it. [21]

The most significant reservation about this program is that it gives the poor a fish without enabling them to learn how to fish. The program lacks any strategy for improving the circumstances of the beneficiary households. Such a strategy could include, for example, the provision of certain training or education or even networking with the unemployment reduction program. Hence, the program falls under the “funds policy” that the successive governments have adopted on social crises: the program entrenches dependence on it without providing the households with any ability to escape it, thereby keeping the poor poor while entrenching the logic of the need for assistance and creating an endless spiral of dependence. This spiral also affects the program’s chances of continuing, especially as the number of families meeting its criteria will increase and there is no indicator that the circumstances of the families currently in it are improving. Additionally, the program’s funding depends primarily on foreign donations and loans. There is no mechanism for funding it via the ministry’s budget, which raises serious questions about its sustainability.


The Higher Relief Committee

Despite the ENPTP’s existence and the talk about it at the beginning of the crisis, the Lebanese government decided to vest the task of distributing monetary aid to the HRC. The government made its decision to grant the HRC a treasury advance of LL75 billion [approximately US$28 million at present] to the HRC to implement the social scheme[22] on the condition that the aid would be distributed directly to the beneficiaries via the Lebanese Army. However, when errors became evident in the lists submitted, the distribution was postponed until the army performs a field check of the beneficiary households’ circumstances.[23]

This mechanism raises numerous questions, especially about vesting the HRC and Lebanese Army with distributing the aid when a clear mechanism already exists with the Ministry of Social Affairs and the ENPTP. Via this choice, the government has continued with the principle of relying on exceptional bodies instead of activating the public administration’s institutions. Note that when the HRC was established in 1975, it was subordinate to the Department of Social Welfare, and in 1993 it came under the oversight of the Prime Minister’s Office when the prime minister became its president.[24] This transition, too, indicates an intent to empty the public administration of its powers and place them exclusively in the hands of the political authorities, which it is feared will become a gateway for exploiting the services and donations politically. Furthermore, vesting the task of administering the aid and checking the beneficiary households’ circumstances in the Lebanese Army due to the public’s trust in the military institution undermines the powers of the public administration and could lead to a dangerous expansion of the military’s powers.


Poverty is Fate: Divorcing Poverty from Inequality

Over the years, the government has adopted the principle of providing aid and establishing funds in the absence of policies that curb the causes of poverty or address its socioeconomic context. The system deals with poverty as a gap that must be plugged with aid and food baskets and as a matter of fate that strikes the less fortunate.

This approach is the product of socioeconomic decisions that the government made over the years. Although in 2008 the Lebanese state set a goal of halving extreme poverty by 2015,[25] it was not accompanied by any social or economic policy to achieve it. Instead, it came within an approach undermining the reforms that could reduce the causes of poverty and shrink the gap between classes. For example, all sides of government rejected former minister Charbel Nahas’ 2011 bill[26] to provide comprehensive health coverage to all residents (50-60% of wage earners today do not receive social security benefits[27]), as well as his proposed tax policy incentivizing first employment among young men and women. That government also aborted the “social wage” principle that he proposed. Furthermore, the authorities have dealt with poverty via the same quota-sharing logic: a study by Jad Chaaban and Nisreen Salti shows that the budget of the Ministry of Social Affairs is divided evenly among the regions and sects rather than on the basis of poverty and the need for social assistance.[28] Spending is therefore subject to the sectarian distribution criteria.



The current government has done nothing new in its approach to poverty. Its response to the crisis came from the perspective of immediate aid, not solutions that could restore balance to the fractured socioeconomic relations. The government is treating poverty like it is a novel crisis that has arisen with COVID-19, so it is proposing its magic social solution of an aid package without rethinking the structure of inequity. Hence, there is no solution for the rise in the prices of basic goods (estimated at 58% since October 2019)[29], there is no vision for the unemployment issue, there is no policy for addressing the arbitrary dismissal crisis, there is no thought about providing adequate housing, and of course, there is unparalleled submission to the unofficial and illegal regulations imposed by banks. Poverty thereby continues to be handled as a temporary problem divorced from public policies.

Some people may consider talk today about “restoring balance to relations” or comprehensive schemes to address poverty to be hypothetical. The state is (literally) bankrupt and barely able to distribute a food basket or financial grant here and there, let alone pursue comprehensive schemes to reduce poverty. However, even a bankrupt state – and perhaps more so than others – can propose socioeconomic policies. Moreover, reaching the brink is the most important indicator of a need for thought about an alternative socioeconomic system. Collecting donations is not the only solution available to a bankrupt state. The state still has broad powers, especially given the health emergency and general mobilization decision, and it can make bold decisions that do not require budgets and enormous funding.

While there is no space here to dive into these solutions, the state today must be reminded of the stolen seafront property, which could be seized and converted into quarantine sites or used to provide adequate housing for those who do not have any.[30] Likewise, it must be reminded of the existence of an enormous number of empty buildings in Beirut,[31] buildings that could be used to achieve social distancing. Instead of clearing the way for fake heroism, it is possible to draw upon international experiences in adopting exceptional measures to ensure the continuation of social, economic, and health services and social stability, such as Spain’s seizure of private hospitals to guarantee the right to treatment. The state now also has the possibilities of releasing the bank deposits belonging to small depositors and recovering stolen funds by imposing tax policies on the sectors that have reaped fantastic profits via the monopolies (e.g. the oil and gas sector and the cellphone sector). For today, it is no longer possible to talk about poverty without thinking about its antithesis: obscene riches and the wealth amassed via the system of quota-sharing and corruption.

Hence, the successive governments have relied on externalizing and denying poverty in order to deal with it using partial and temporal solutions and exploit it for clientelist ends. Today, poverty has become the dominant reality in Lebanese society. Consequently, we face two possibilities: either this clientelist approach endures and works to reproduce itself via donations and aid, or it gives way to comprehensive social policies that ensure a fair distribution of wealth and allows the establishment of a new social system that guarantees rights and protects the most vulnerable.


This article is an edited translation from Arabic.

Keywords: Lebanon, COVID-19, Poverty, Welfare, Clientelism, Civil institution


[1] Fawwaz Traboulsi, Salat bi-La Wasl: Michel Chiha wa-l-Idiyulujiya al-Lubnaniyya, Beirut, Riad El-Rayyes Books, 1999, p. 139.

[2] Fawwaz Traboulsi, “al-Tabaqat al-Ijtima’iyya fi Lubnan Ithbat Wujud”, Beirut, Heinrich Böll Foundation, 2014, p. 60.

[3] Nimat Kanaan, al-‘Amal al-Ijtima’iyy fi Lubnan: Intilaqatuhu wa-Tatawwuruhu wa-Afaquhu al-Mustaqbaliyya, Beirut, p. 32.

[4] Decree no. 155 of 12 June 1959.

[5] Kanaan, p. 19.

[6] Institut international de recherche et de formation éducation et développement (IRFED).

[7] Kanaan, p. 58.

[8] Kanaan, p. 81-82.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Law no. 212 of 2 April 1993 (Establishing the Ministry of Social Affairs).

[11] Decree no. 5734 of 29 September 1994 (Regulating the Ministry of Social Affairs).

[12] See also Save the Children Lebanon, “Child Rights Situation Analysis – Lebanon”, 2016, p. 94. The report criticizes the placement of children from poor families into care homes. It deems that the issue is complicated because the social welfare institutions have become rooted in the sociopolitical system and enjoy broad influence, making it difficult to dismantle them.

[13] Regarding orphanages, 120 of the 197 institutions contracted by the Ministry of Social Affairs in 2013 belong to religious parties. See Nermine Sibai, “Fuqara’ Lubnan: Aytam bi-‘Uhdat al-Qayyimin ‘ala Mu’assasat Ta’ifiyya”, The Legal Agenda, is. 14.

[14] Day workers and taxi, shared taxi, and van drivers, families with special needs, fishermen, families of prisoners, and the families of some sick and disabled people, though the selection criteria for the last group is unclear.

[15] See the program’s page on the website of the Ministry of Social Affairs.

[16] Approximately 5,076 families in 2014.

[17] See also Lea Bou Khater, Istihdaf al-Faqr Laysa al-Hall li-Siyasa Ijtima’iyya Tashtaddu al-Haja Ilayha, Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, March 2020.

[18] According to the ministry’s website, the program relies on indicators that express the households’ characteristics. After the family submits a registration application with a development services center, a social investigator visits the household and investigates its social situation and needs. The information is entered into a special computer program, and the household is given a mark or classification determining its poverty level. The website also mentions that the final, official results are issued by the Prime Minister’s Unit (CMU). If a household meets the criteria, the household or applicant is given a “Hala” card, which can be used to collect social, health, and educational benefits. Today, amidst the current crisis, there is talk about involving the Lebanese Army in this investigation and in supervising it.

[19] Nupur Kukrety & Sarah Al Jamal, “Poverty, Inequality, and Social Protection in Lebanon”, in Social Justice and Development Policy in the Arab World, 2016.

[20] Rajeh Khori, “al-Amwat Yasriquna Hissat al-Fuqara’”, ‎‎Annahar, 15 April 2020.

[21] Nupur Kukrety & Sarah Al Jamal, op. cit, p. 22. The study also indicated that of the two families,

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