Beirut Explosion Bares Pitfalls of Sending Aid to Lebanon

BEIRUT (AP) -- Hospitals and schools, then shattered and bent water pipes, then the crater that once was Lebanon's port.

The rebuilding needs of Lebanon are immense, but so is the question of how to ensure the millions of dollars promised in international aid is not diverted in a country notorious for missing money, invisible infrastructure projects and its refusal to open the books.

And the port — the epicenter of the explosion that shattered Beirut, the center of Lebanon's import-based economy, and a source of graft so lucrative that Lebanon's political factions were willing to divide its control so everyone could get a piece — sits at the heart of the fears.

Sunday's donor teleconference is hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron, who was mobbed last week by tearful victims of the Beirut ammonium nitrate explosion begging him to ensure the corruption they blame for the blast that devastated the capital does not profit from its destruction.

International diplomacy usually calls for careful language. Rigged votes are “irregular." The response to furious protests should be “measured.” Disappearing funds require “transparency.”

But Macron's response to the crowd, and later in a speech in Beirut, was unusually blunt: The aid “will not fall into corrupt hands” and Lebanon's discredited government must change. Germany, Lebanon's second-biggest bilateral donor, made similar demands.

“That's precisely what the Lebanese people have rightly demanded: individual interests and old lines of conflict must be overcome and the welfare of the entire population must be put first,” German Foreign Ministry.

In the short-term, the aid streaming into Lebanon is purely for humanitarian emergencies and relatively easy to monitor. The U.S., France, Britain, Canada and Australia, among others, have been clear that it is going directly to trusted local aid groups like the Lebanese Red Cross or U.N. agencies.

“Our aid is absolutely not going to the government. Our aid is going to the people of Lebanon,” said John Barsa of USAID.

But actual rebuilding requires massive imports of supplies and equipment. The contracts and subcontracts have given Lebanon's ruling elite its wealth and power, while leaving the country with crumbling roads, regular electricity cuts, trash that piles on the streets and intermittent water supplies.

“The level of infrastructure in Lebanon is directly linked today to the level of corruption,” said Neemat Frem, a prominent Lebanese businessman and independent member of parliament. “We badly need more dollars but I understand that the Lebanese state and its agencies are not competent.”

Lebanon has an accumulated debt of about $100 billion, for a population of just under 7 million people — 5 million Lebanese and 2 million Syrians and Palestinians, most of them refugees. Its electricity company, controlled like the port by multiple factions, posts losses of $1.5 billion a year, although Frem said most factories pay for their own generators because power is off more than it's on.

“There's grand theft Lebanon and there's petty theft Lebanon. Petty theft Lebanon exists but that's not what got the country in the hole we're in,” said Nadim Houry, executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative.

Prior aid, Houry said, ended up as a tool in the hands of the political leaders, who kept their slice and doled out jobs and money to supporters.

“The pie is getting smaller and smaller and they just keep taking," he said.

Protesters, tired of the small indignities they endure to get through a day — 37% of people report needing to pay bribes, compared with 4% in neighboring Jordan, according to Transparency International — and the larger issue of a collapsing state, are going after both.

On Saturday, they seized offices of the Economy Ministry, hauling away files they said would show corruption around the sale and distribution of wheat. Lebanon's wheat stockpile, stored next to the warehouse filled with ammonium nitrate, was destroyed in the explosion.

"We restored the economy ministry to the Lebanese people,” one man called out as they rifled through the desks.

Julien Courson, head of the Lebanon Transparency Association, said the country's non-profits are forming a coalition to monitor how relief and aid money is spent. He estimated Lebanon loses $2 billion to corruption each year.

“The decision-makers and the public servants who are in charge of these files are still in their positions. Until now, we didn't see any solution to the problem,” he said. “I think the Lebanese government has an interest in finding a suitable solution.”

A first step would be an online clearinghouse for every contract linked to reconstruction, Courson said. And the first project has to be highly visible and spread the benefits widely, said Christiaan Poortman, board chairman of Infrastructure Transparency Initiative.

“That will help keeping some of the political stuff at a distance,” Poortman said. “Donors will have to be on top of this. The issue of procurement is always where lots of corruption takes place ... it needs to be done quickly, and there is always the temptation to not follow the rules and go ahead and do something where a lot of people are going to make a lot of money.”

Macron's office said international donors can do nothing until Lebanon's leaders agree to an audit of the national bank, a key demand of the International Monetary Fund for months and one that the political factions have resisted.

Speaking at a news conference in which he conspicuously did not appear alongside Lebanese President Michel Aoun, Macron said he was approaching Lebanon with “the requirements of a friend who rushes to help, when times are hard, but not to give a blank check to systems that no longer have the trust of their people."