SUN 23 - 2 - 2020
Date: Jan 21, 2020
Source: The Daily Star
Top 10 ways to safeguard youth and our future
Sarah Hague| The Daily Star
Lebanon has entered a year in which it is increasingly likely that the most serious effects of the economic and financial crisis will unfold. Long before this crisis began to advance in mid-2019, the country faced already high levels of poverty and inequality - according to Lebanon’s 2016 household survey over half of the population, if working at all, survive on less than the minimum wage and two out of five Lebanese children already lived in poverty. The wealthiest 1 percent of Lebanese held 25 percent of national wealth. Now, on top of that, UNICEF sees that the crisis is bringing an unprecedented increase in unemployment, inflation and a rising strain on overstretched basic social services.But we also know from past economic crises and recessions around the world that a key to recovery is to protect the poorest and to maintain investments in children and young people. If human capital development is protected - the learning, health and protection of children and young people - then they can grow up to not only achieve their own potential but to support the future development of the country, without which, Lebanon will not have a foundation for recovery. Children and young people cannot wait - reducing investments in their health care, education and social protection now (on top of pre-existing challenges of quality and coverage) would not only threaten child rights but have irreversible impacts on their future wellbeing as well as on Lebanon’s development for decades to come.

To ensure that the wellbeing and future potential of Lebanon’s children and young people are not undermined - to their detriment, but also to that of the country’s - UNICEF Lebanon has assessed the evolving situation and outlined the top ten fundamental public investments to protect based on the 2020 Budget Proposal as well as vital actions to take:

1. Maintain 2019 public spending and capacity in health care, education and social welfare, providing the funds on time and identifying concrete ways to make efficiency gains so as to expand access.

2. Expand the social safety net: First, scale-up the food voucher to all households in the Government’s National Poverty Targeting Program and, second, provide financial support to the poorest for expenditures beyond just food to promote children’s wellbeing. This latter support could cost approximately $30 million.

3. Support primary health centers and dispensaries to provide free acute and/or essential drugs for all children and provide free immunization to all children based on the Ministry of Public Health’s circular 47, 17 May 2014, that stipulates that vaccinations are free at primary health-care facilities when provided by a registered nurse. In addition, accessible and quality health care for newborns, adolescents and pregnant and lactating women must be further prioritized.

4. Increase the number of safe and inclusive schools under the Ministry of Education and Higher Education that now successfully welcome children with special needs and disabilities in a violence-free and child-centered environment. In addition, reduce the number of children repeating the same grades and prioritize retention support programs in 2020.

5. Design and implement a transition plan to support children living in residential care to be reintegrated in their families where possible, including shifting support toward families themselves. This can include enrolling all supported families who are eligible into the National Poverty Targeting Program.

6. Maintain budget allocations to Social Development Centers proposed in the draft 2020 budget at $25 million. SDCs need support to immediately scale up their outreach to provide social welfare services to increasing numbers of families who are becoming vulnerable.

7. Support adolescent and youth skills by expanding vocational and skills programs as well as those designed to create a bridge into the labor market - such as internships - to ensure the skillset necessary for eventual economic recovery.

8. Prioritize the development of the National Social Protection Policy that began in 2019 so as to develop a system of programs that can provide social assistance to those who are negatively affected by the crisis.

9. Support for the equitable reform of the tax system is needed. It is vital to review and reform how Lebanon raises revenue - from income, corporations and wealth - so the burden falls less disproportionately on the poorest and is collected more effectively and efficiently.

10. And finally, while the regular supply of water and electricity is threatened by the abrupt drop in bill payment, it will be necessary to identify longer-term solutions in making tariff structures more equitable and collection more efficient.

While there are also immediate priorities in relation to the political and economic situation, these have been clearly highlighted elsewhere. Instead, these 10 minimums go beyond that, to outline a few of the most basic measures that UNICEF believes need to be urgently in place to promote some level of protection to children and Lebanon’s poorest households in 2020 and beyond. While UNICEF is already actively supporting the government of Lebanon and a wide range of partners to advance many of these priorities building on important work that has already been done, there is immediate potential to protect national spending against these areas in the 2020 budget before it is finalized - most important, but most difficult, is to find efficiencies in current spending. As the negative impact continues to unfold on the wellbeing of families, their children and Lebanon’s future development, immediate attention is needed to ensure that Lebanon’s children and its poorest households get first call on limited national resources.

    Sarah Hague is Social Policy Program chief and Violet Speek-Warnery deputy representative at UNICEF Lebanon.    

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