|Date: Mar 5, 2019|
|Source: The Daily Star|
|Disability NGOs cashless for a year|
|Abby Sewell| The Daily Star|
BEIRUT: Dozens of nonprofits providing services to people with special needs in Lebanon went more than a year without receiving contracted payments from the Lebanese government for their services, representatives of the NGOs told The Daily Star.
As a result of the lengthy delay, organizations took out bank loans and stopped paying employees in order to keep their doors open, and at least one center closed.
Lebanon has no state-run centers for people with physical or intellectual disabilities, so the Social Affairs Ministry contracts NGOs to provide services to people with disabilities who are registered with the ministry.
Moussa Charafeddine, president of the National Union on Intellectual Disabilities and of the nonprofit Friends of the Disabled Association, and himself the father of two children with special needs, said that from January 2018 until last week, the organizations contracted to provide services for people with disabilities “didn’t receive one Lebanese penny” from the ministry.
The ministry finally sent out payments in the past week, he said - but only for the first trimester of 2018. Under the ministry’s contracts with the NGOs, payments are supposed to be issued every three months.
Fadia Safi, a representative of the National Union of Associations Working with People with Disabilities and CEO of Sesobel, an NGO that runs therapeutic and educational programs for children with motor and intellectual disabilities, corroborated Charafeddine’s account and said the NGOs had not been able to get a clear answer about the reasons for the delay in payments.
“We need to understand why they are acting like this now. Is it a problem of lack of funds? Is it a problem of policy? We don’t really understand what is the problem,” she said. “We are the state’s partner to give these kind of services. We are not the enemy.”
The head of the section at the Social Affairs Ministry dealing with disability services declined to comment, saying she was not authorized to speak with the media. Newly instated Minister Richard Kouyoumjian and Director-General Abdallah Ahmad did not respond to requests for comment.
Former Social Affairs Minister and current MP Pierre Bou Assi told The Daily Star that the delay had occurred because the Finance Ministry would not release the money for the payments.
“The problem is, even if you have a budget for this payment, it does not mean that the Finance Ministry will find the right amount of money to pay these NGOs at the right time,” he said.
Bou Assi called the nonpayment “a very serious problem.”
“First, how can a minister work without having the capacity to spend the budget, and second, what are the criteria of selecting what is the priority to pay for the Finance Ministry? And, at the end, the structures that are supposed to take care of vulnerable people are not getting their money,” he said.
Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil could not be reached for comment.
As a result of the delayed payments, at least one center providing rehabilitation services for people with severe disabilities - the Myriam Center in Hadath, run by the Al-Kafaat Foundation - closed its doors at the beginning of the year, leaving about 100 former clients without services.
Al-Akhbar newspaper reported Tuesday that families of the clients had held a sit-in in front of the Social Affairs Ministry and that the ministry was trying to place their children with other NGOs.
Rabih Salameh, executive director of Al-Kafaat’s rehabilitation centers, said the association had taken out bank loans, on which it is now required to pay interest, to cover its expenses through part of 2018, but that after October, the banks would no longer issue loans.
The NGO has not been able to pay its staff since then, he said, and had undertaken a reorganization that included closing the Myriam Center in order to keep its other centers operating.
The organization provides rehabilitation services to about 1,000 people, he said.
“We won’t close any more [centers] - we have reorganized our centers now, but if the matter will continue, I don’t know where will we arrive,” Salameh said. “We can’t say to people with special needs, ‘Go away.’ No one will receive them if we do that.”
Apart from the issue of the payment delays, NGO representatives noted that the payments the organizations were contracted to receive were still based on a 2011 cost study, although the cost of living has increased substantially since then. The payment amount varied based on the client’s condition, Charafeddine said, but averaged LL18,000 ($12) per day per client, while the actual cost of service was on average LL41,000 per day.
Some organizations said that to avoid shutting down, they may have to cut loose some of their existing clients.
Those include the Step Together Association, which runs a Waldorf school and a vocational training program for children and adults with special needs on a campus in the hills of Dayshounieh, overlooking a verdant valley cut by the Beirut River.
On a recent day at the campus, a group of children with learning disorders were working through math problems on the addition of fractions on the board in one classroom. In the next room, students with more severe intellectual disabilities practiced identifying the flags of different Arab countries.
In the vocational training program’s workshop complex, 21-year-old Alex Ohanessian was fashioning glass from recycled bottles into beads, using a blowtorch with meticulous care. Ohanessian said he was hoping to use the skills he had learned to find work outside the center, where he has been attending programs since 2015.
“Back then, I was a sad case,” he said. “I would get angry very quickly. But now, thanks to the school, I feel 100 percent.”
The school has some private students whose families pay tuition, but about two-thirds of them are on the ministry’s rolls, Executive Director Reem Mouawad said, meaning that the families do not pay.
Wali Merhej, the association’s founder, said that if the financial situation does not improve, the school might have to turn away some of its current students in order to keep from going under.
“If I had to make a choice, I would keep them all,” she said.
“This is their home, and I wish it will be always their home.”