Last week, a woman, frustrated with the ability to access her bank funds, walked into a bank in Beirut with a gun and robbed the bank– of her money.
The story played out as a somewhat amusing anecdote in the United States – but missed the bigger point regarding the problems inside Lebanon: Two years after a horrible explosion at the port in Beirut, little of the horrific damage has been repaired. Government offices and businesses near the port remain closed.
Fifty years after a civil war began, various groups inside and outside of the country fought and settled some of their differences with one another. The city once referred to as “The Paris of the Middle East,” is devastated.
Garbage, abandoned buildings and decay are endemic. Beggars swarm cars in certain parts of the city, desperate for any hand out. More than 40% of the country lives beneath the poverty level. There is no running water and no electricity. Public education is nearly non-existent. There are no city lights at night, and few services available by the day. Healthcare is “Pay only” and hospitals are woefully understaffed. If you have money in the banks, chances are you can’t get it out – unless you show up armed and determined.
And few of us in the United States know of any of this.
Lebanon is said to be in the worst economic crisis since the 19th century. So 120 years after my great-grandfather left Lebanon for the United States, Lebanon is now roughly equivalent to what it was then.
Lebanon, the ancestral home of the Phoenicians, which gave the world the first alphabet, is today a developing nation that barely functions. In many places throughout the country, it has been nearly two years since there have been reliable public services.
Electricity– if it comes on at all– is on for an hour a day at most– and not all at once. Forget any running water. You want electricity? You have to buy your own solar panels or generators. You want water? You have to buy it and store it in large cisterns on site. And you can’t pay with Lebanese currency because it’s too unstable. American dollars are the currency of choice.
There are many reasons for this, but it boils down to a national government that mostly exists on paper.
Meanwhile, a hurricane in Puerto Rico has leveled the territory once again and it is without electricity and running water.
In Ukraine, during a war, most people in Kyiv and Lyviv still have some semblance of social services, including electricity and running water. But Ukraine dominates international headlines. In the U.S., it is Donald Trump that still dominates the news.
Lebanon rarely makes the news. The U.S. is Lebanon’s largest international donor of foreign assistance, providing $5.3 billion since 2006 and $778 million last year, according to the Biden administration.
But still the country suffers. There is a reason for that.
Forbes Magazine lists four of the richest 10 middle eastern men as Lebanese politicians. That is a huge part of the problem: corruption. According to the Biden press office, “The Lebanese economy is in crisis because of decades of corruption and mismanagement. Lebanese leaders need to implement key reforms necessary to rescue the country’s economy and restore international confidence which is critical to unlocking longer-term international support.”
It’s difficult to give more money to a country whose politicians pocket it all. So there you have the problem in Lebanon.
Nonetheless, I recently traveled there with my oldest son who had a film entered in the Lebanese Independent Film Festival. We traveled despite a U.S. State Department warning to refrain from travel there: “The State Department recommends U.S. citizens reconsider travel to Lebanon due to crime, terrorism, armed conflict, civil unrest, kidnapping, and Embassy Beirut’s limited capacity to provide support to U.S. citizens.”
Palestinian and Syrian refugees live in squalor inside the city. Half-finished buildings, complete with cranes and building materials, dot the landscape inside Beirut and into the countryside.
Pockets of upper-class living are interspersed with pockets of horrible squalor.
“The United States wants to see a government in Lebanon that is capable of restoring the trust of its own people and committed to implementing the political and economic reforms needed to affect meaningful change, promote good governance and rescue Lebanon’s economy. We advance these efforts through robust diplomatic engagement directly with the Lebanese government in close coordination with international partners,” I was told by a member of the State Department.
I’d love to know what “robust diplomatic engagement” includes. It sounds like yelling to me. And the “close coordination with international partners,” sounds as if we have several governments yelling at Lebanese politicians at the same time to get their business in order. Whatever it is, diplomacy with Lebanon is frustrating.
It’s worse if you live there. For the week we were there, we paid daily for a driver rather than rent a car. Our driver was a former engineer who makes more money freelancing as a limousine service provider than he can make as an engineer – if there were jobs available in the country.
“We have too much corruption,” he told me one day as we drove through the countryside headed for the small mountainous village of Bsharri. “What can you do? We try to put our head down and get through the day. Some of the politicians just pay people off directly so they can stay in power. There’s too much money in the hands of too few people.”
By early morning that day our driver had reached the village my great grandfather left as a young adult with a wife and three children in tow, including my six year old grandfather. I was lucky enough to see the home– and because of the generous nature of a distant cousin– I was able to tour it.
The people– despite their hardship– are among the friendliest I had ever met. I was invited to dinner, to have coffee and spend time with people I did not know. In the end, the State Department can say that there is a threat in Lebanon, but it’s no more threatening than any large American city on any weekend. There are just fewer guns in Lebanon.
However, there is no doubt that ignorance and corruption has taken a huge toll on Lebanon. And staring at the growing problems of infrastructure, corruption, health care and education in the U.S., it made me concerned not only for Lebanon, but whether the United States is headed in the same direction.