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An Innovative Model for Foreign Aid in Lebanon

Is Public-Centered Aid Disbursement Possible?

Aid from the European Union is being unloaded from a cargo plane at Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport on September 12, 2020. © 2020 Marwan Naamani/picture alliance via Getty Images

People living in countries with extensive government corruption are often most in need of financial assistance. But their governments generally leave donor countries and international financial institutions with three bad options: rely on leaky government channels for disbursement, risking that funds don’t reach the people in need; maintain exclusive control over funding decisions, inviting criticism of foreign influence; or refuse assistance altogether, abandoning people in need. In each case, the public loses.

This month, the World Bank, United Nations, and European Union announced an innovative model for disbursing aid to Lebanon that seeks to solve that conundrum. 

When a blast shook Beirut on August 4, killing more than 200 people and destroying thousands of homes, Lebanon’s economy had already collapsed under staggering government corruption and financial policies that benefitted the elite. But the cause of the blast—2,750 tons of highly combustible ammonium nitrate left to sit in a warehouse near the port since 2013—made clear the depths of the government’s callous disregard for the public.

As Lebanese community groups began to sweep the streets of shattered glass and find shelter for the newly homeless, again filling the vacuum left by their government, it became clear a new option for disbursing aid was needed.

The result is the Reform, Recovery, and Reconstruction Framework, which will pool funds into a mechanism with a unique structure that empowers civil society and disburses funds directly to nongovernmental groups and businesses. Lebanese civil society organizations, as well as the private sector, hold seats in the group that oversees strategic decisions and the steering committee that governs the fund’s expenditures. And civil society will play an instrumental role in monitoring implementation.

While the Lebanese government also holds seats on these governing bodies, its access to additional funding for long-term recovery is contingent on enacting governance and economic reforms.

The success of the framework will depend on whether the Lebanese government adopts much-needed reforms, as well as on its implementation, including how the management of thorny problems not addressed in the framework like  the independence of civil society groups that hold seats on the fund’s bodies, mitigating conflicts of interest in private sector involvement, and respect for social and other human rights and environmental standards. But these challenges shouldn’t obscure the framework’s potential for reimagining international support that empowers people in recipient countries.

After demonstrating enormous resilience in the face of unimaginable loss, perhaps this time, Lebanese civil society can notch a win.

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