MON 2 - 10 - 2023
Date: Feb 19, 2021
Source: The Daily Star
Long-term recovery for Beirut hampered by lack of govt involvement
Rosabel Crean
BEIRUT: Following the devastating explosion at Beirut Port last summer, NGOs with the help of foreign aid, were quick to mobilize and begin the recovery process, but now six months on experts and NGOs alike are voicing concern that the absence of state involvement is impeding the long-term recovery of the city and hindering aid support. 

“[It is] no way to reconstruct a city with no vision, at some point you intervene the emergency situation and you migrate into a longer term vision, you cannot pretend as an NGO [that] we can rebuild a city,” Rana Samara, vice president of local NGO Nusaned told The Daily Star.

As time moved on, the demands of the post-disaster city changed; no longer requiring an "emergency" response, but a long term plan for an urban recovery, according to experts and humanitarians involved with the reconstruction process.

Yet no official response from a governing body has aired, and compounded by the acute economic crisis plaguing Lebanon and the coronavirus pandemic, rehabilitation efforts have been left in ‘emergency’ mode, causing the reconstruction process to hit a bottleneck.

The devastating impact of the blast, when 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse in the port caught fire and detonated, was felt across Lebanon's capital city. It ravaged an estimated 77,000 housing units, mainly concentrated in the east, in areas such as Rmeil, Achrafieh and Karantina, and displaced 300,000 residents. Over 6,500 were injured and nearly 200 people died as the blast smashed through windows and doors, caused buildings to crumble and threw the city into chaos.

The scale of the emergency meant that immediate efforts to respond were fast and relatively efficient in the first two months after the blast, said Samara, whose NGO has been working to repair damaged buildings since day one.

In an attempt to form a coordinated plan, the Lebanese Army was handed full responsibility of the disaster toward the end of August, dividing the damaged zones into areas and passing them onto any NGOs who presented themselves.

Despite the Army’s best efforts, some have expressed concern that they lack the expertise and resources which is limiting a long-term vision for regenerating the damaged communities.

“Given the challenges it is amazing how much has been achieved,” Samara said, while noting the main obstacle for NGOs was the lack of government response.

The closest intervention from an authoritative body has come from a joint report published in December by the World Bank, UN and EU. The "18-month Lebanon Reform, Recovery and Reconstruction Framework" paper sets out a formal reconstruction and recovery plan for the city:

“The 3RF covers an 18-month period and is part of a comprehensive response by the international community, bridging from emergency relief and humanitarian action toward medium-term reconstruction.”

This paper in effect should guide the process of recovery, but it all resides around whether the government can impose state reforms demanded by the French, the US and other international players, Mona Harb, professor of urban studies at the American University of Beirut told The Daily Star.

Moreover, the channeling of foreign aid into a country is determined by what stage the disaster is in, Harb explained. The disaster response must be moved into the "development and recovery" stage to unlock further aid packages, which are currently being hindered by the state’s deadlock.

“The first part of aid came under the title of ‘relief’ and humanitarian assistance, but these international organizations -- the way they work they don’t want to stay in the ‘relief’ stage for long,” Harb said.

Lebanon has been without a functioning government since the explosion, when then-Prime Minister Hasan Diab and his Cabinet resigned in the aftermath. Former premier Saad Hariri was designated in his place, but has so far failed to form a Cabinet, only adding to the country's woes as it now sits in a state of political paralysis.

The World Bank, UN and EU paper reports the cost of the damage from the explosion to be “estimated at $3.8-4.6 billion, with housing and culture sectors most severely affected.” While losses are “estimated at $2.9-3.5 billion, with housing being worst hit, followed by transport and port, and culture.”

But such immense sums are not going to be recreated until the state demonstrates accountability and transparency. This is in addition to the problem of the government and Beirut Municipality’s historic ease at NGOs making up for their shortfalls.

Harb explained that her colleagues have met with the Army and NGOs to devise a urban recovery plan, but the process is complicated and cannot fall to their expertise alone.

“The municipality needs to devise a planning unit ... we are happy to support this but cannot hijack the process ... we offer advice and hold discussions.”

“But as long as the public sector does not take up responsibility to lead the process things are going to be very complicated,” she added.

Another team of experts included in the city’s reconstruction plan is the Order of Engineers and Architects.

Jad Tabet, the group’s president, told The Daily Star of his mutual concern with Harb and Samara over the lack of state response impacting the city’s long term recovery.

“You cannot reconstruct a huge party of the city without public authorities.”

Tabet explained that there is a real risk of Beirut turning into a "republic of NGOs" -- the nickname given to Haiti after the devastating earthquake in 2010, when international aid flowed into the island nation and the country took the title of having the highest number of NGOs per capita in the world.

“Haiti was a republic of NGOs because of the lack of public involvement and coordination between NGOs ... 10 years after the earthquake [there are] still problems.”

The Order is working to align recovery efforts with a long term urban recovery plan which can only be achieved if a government is formed, Tabet warned.

“I am really pessimistic if the deadlock continues; coupled with the financial situation, the coronavirus situation, and the loss of confidence in the capacity for reform. This time is it much more dangerous than what has happened before, it is really complicated,” he concluded.

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