|Date: May 25, 2019|
|Source: The Daily Star|
|Disability NGOs threaten to strike, close if govt doesn’t pay up|
|Abby Sewell| The Daily Star|
JOUNIEH, Lebanon: Amid contentious budget discussions, more than 100 NGOs contracted with the Lebanese government to care for people with disabilities are threatening to go on strike or permanently close their doors if they do not get the funding owed to them. The NGOs and their supporters staged a “warning strike” Thursday, demonstrating in locations around the country, after which representatives of some of the institutions met with Social Affairs Minister Richard Kouyoumjian.
“These [NGOs] are giving a lot to our children, at a time when the ministry is not giving them their rights,” said Fadia Bekai, who was demonstrating with her 13-year-old son, Maher, in front of the Jounieh Municipality. Her son, who is developmentally disabled, has been attending the Step Together Association school in Dayshounieh since he was 4 years old. “The rights of our children - this is their birthright. It’s shameful that we’re here talking about this matter. It’s shameful that children like ours are here demonstrating.”
The Social Affairs Ministry does not run its own institutions to provide education, therapy or other services to people with special needs; instead, it contracts with NGOs to provide the services. But the government has run far behind on its payments. From the beginning of 2018 until February of this year, the organizations said they had not received any funds from the ministry.
Moussa Charafeddine, the president of the National Union on Intellectual Disabilities, told The Daily Star that the NGOs have been paid for the first half of 2018, but have not yet received payment for the second six months. Apart from that, the NGOs said the contract for 2019 has not yet been signed to ensure future payments, and that they were still being paid based on the 2011 cost of living index.
The situation could be exacerbated by the austerity budget currently under consideration. The Social Affairs Ministry, which currently receives less than 1 percent of the national budget, has been threatened with further cuts.
Last week, Cabinet approved cuts to payments to many NGOs and social service organizations; however, it is unclear whether these cuts of up to 15 percent will affect the NGOs working with those with disabilities. It is also unknown whether these cuts will be included in the final state budget.
In a telephone interview, Kouyoumjian told The Daily Star that he supported the NGOs’ demands and has been trying to get the money owed to them released.
“I’m with them, and I always supported their demands, and I brought their demands to the table of the Council of Ministers [Cabinet],” he said. “I’ve been asking the finance minister, the prime minister, the whole government, to pay them.”
The minister said he hoped the money owed will be released once the budget talks are completed, and added that the 2019 contracts were currently being drafted.
However, for many of the NGOs, the situation is becoming urgent. Step Together Executive Director Reem Mouawad said all of the organizations have been paying their staff half salaries for the past two months. Her own center, she said, had the funds to continue operating for only two more months.
At least one facility - the Myriam Center in Hadath, which served about 100 clients with severe disabilities - has already closed. Others took out high-interest loans to meet their expenses.
“We hope we won’t arrive at a place where the pupils are sitting in their houses, and we as an educational and administrative [staff] are also are sitting in our houses,” said Hoda Malaab, of the Father Roberts Institute for Young Deaf People in Kesrouan. “We want a good outcome to this effort, so we can be able to help these people and integrate them in the community.”
Some government officials arguing for cuts to the ministry have alleged that there were many “fictitious” nonprofits that exist on paper and collect money without providing services, but the NGO staff and parents argued that legitimate organizations should not be penalized.
“Our children are not fictitious people - our children are people who are present here on the ground,” Bekai said.