Canada Promises More Aid to Beirut as Lebanon’s PM Resigns Amid Corruption Allegations

Questions persist as to whether the aid will reach victims in a country plagued with corruption
August 11, 2020 Updated: August 11, 2020

The Canadian government is promising an additional $25 million in aid to help the people of Lebanon struggling to recover from last week’s devastating explosion in Beirut.

Canada’s total contribution to the international aid effort now stands at $30 million—up from the $5 million promised last week after the Liberal government was criticized by some for not doing enough.

Trudeau said Aug. 10 that the additional funding is intended to help trusted humanitarian aid groups “support emergency medical services and provide shelter, food, and other essential items for people impacted by the blast.”

However, questions persist as to whether the aid will reach victims in a country plagued with corruption, including concerns such as missing money, funding diverted to non-existent infrastructure projects, and a lack of transparency on the government’s part.

Canada’s additional aid was announced just hours after Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced the resignation of his government following days of angry protests. He blamed the blast on “the result of endemic corruption.”

An international donor teleconference on Aug. 9 raised a total of $298 million in emergency aid, organizers said. International leaders, government officials, and international organizations participated in the teleconference co-organized by France and the United Nations to bring emergency aid to Lebanon.

The conference was hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron, who was mobbed last week by tearful victims of the Beirut explosion begging him to ensure the corruption they blame for the blast that devastated the capital does not profit from its destruction.

Macron’s response to the crowd in Beirut and in a later speech was unusually blunt: The aid “will not fall into corrupt hands” and Lebanon’s discredited government must change.

The head of the International Monetary Fund, which wants an audit of the national bank before handing over any money, was also clear: No money without changes to ensure ordinary Lebanese aren’t crushed by debt whose benefits they never see.

“Current and future generations of Lebanese must not be saddled with more debts than they can ever repay,” IMF head Kristalina Georgieva said during the conference. “Commitment to these reforms will unlock billions of dollars for the benefit of the Lebanese people.”

In the short-term, the aid streaming into Lebanon is purely for humanitarian emergencies and relatively easy to monitor. The United States, 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.

Canada’s International Development Minister Karina Gould also said at a news conference on Aug. 6 that Canadian aid for Beirut will be funnelled to “trusted” humanitarian organizations and not directed to the Lebanese government. 

“We are in contact with the Lebanese government, but at this time, no direct aid is planned from Ottawa to the Lebanese government,” she said.

Gould said financial aid must come with “significant fiscal and political reforms” to ensure that assistance goes to benefiting the lives of the Lebanese people.

But actual rebuilding requires massive imports of supplies and equipment. 

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.

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

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.

Last Tuesday’s blast is believed to have been detonated by thousands of tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored for seven years at a portside warehouse.

“We will continue to monitor this tragic situation, and work closely with the international community and humanitarian partners to identify how we can continue to support the people of Lebanon and respond to their urgent needs,” said an Aug 11 statement from Ottawa.

Gould was more explicit.

“Our government is sending a clear message to the Lebanese people that we will not only be there for them for the immediate response to this tragedy, but also for the rebuilding efforts over the long-term,” she said in the statement.

“We are ready to do more and we will ensure that our investments go directly to communities affected.”

Trudeau said that a matching funding for Canadians has now been expanded to a maximum of $5 million.

He encouraged Canadians to donate to the Lebanon matching fund, saying: “Together, we can support the people of Lebanon as they work to heal and rebuild.”

More than 150 people were killed in the blast, thousands more were injured, and an estimated 300,000 residents were left homeless.

With files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press