Where Are Lebanon’s Diaspora Today, One Year After The Beirut Blast?
Soon after the explosion that ripped Beirut apart on 4 August 2020 pledges of aid came thick and fast from both diaspora and donors. But one year after the blast, things in Beirut are worse than before. So what happened to all those promises?
Just five days after the detonation of amyl nitrate in Beirut’s port, France hastily arranged an online summit at which international donors pledged $297 million in aid for the battered Lebanese capital.
Celebrities played their part: In September, American-Lebanese singer Mika hosted an online concert which raised €1 million ($1.1 million) for the Lebanese Red Cross and Save the Children. The following month, Franco-Lebanese musician and composer Ibrahim Maalouf performed at the Olympia in Paris, raising €2 million ($2.3 million).
A charity auction ‘To Beirut With Love’ hosted by Sotheby’s and featuring items donated by Sherihan and Dior made over $300,000 from wealthy bidders.
Lebanon’s vast diaspora, numbering around 15 million worldwide, kicked into action straight after the blast. Impact Lebanon, a diaspora-run non-profit registered in the U.K., raised $9.2 million in the aftermath of the blast, according to a report last month.
The wealthiest of this vast diaspora, Carlos Slim, once the richest person in the world, pledged an undeclared amount.
Not all donors were even Lebanese, says James Gomez Thompson, a chef who started a charity building massive community ovens in Lebanon. Among his first-time donors was David Pierce, a Los-Angeles-based interior designer, and graffiti artist Swoon who donated through her Heliotrope Foundation. They helped the charity survive the past 12 months, during which they have built and distributed eight vast community ovens and enough food to feed the thousands who have come to rely on them for daily meals.
However, one year after the blast and Thompson is still struggling to build enough ovens. The number of hungry families relying on donated food seems to be growing by the day.
Save the Children has warned that “hundreds of thousands” of children are going hungry. The U.N. says 80% of households in Lebanon do not have food or money to buy food. Even the Lebanese army is asking for $100 million to help soldiers pay for basic needs.
“There’s just an incredible donor fatigue,” says Thompson. “I’ve just started to notice the first bits of fatigue from the diaspora saying, ‘You know what, we are just throwing money into a failed state.'”
In the year since the blast, the Lebanese pound has collapsed, causing hyperinflation to reach 84%. A drop in oil imports has caused power stations to shut down and petrol stations to run out of fuel. According to a World Bank report in June, Lebanon’s financial and economic crisis is “likely to rank among the top 10, possibly top 3, most severe crises episodes globally since the mid-19th century.”
Lebanon’s wealthy diaspora, who have traditionally funded the Lebanese economy through remittances to family members and savings deposited with Lebanese banks, have started pulling out their money.
The most recent data from the World Bank shows a sharp drop in remittances from 7.4 billion in 2019 to 6.3 billion in 2020. Conversations with other diaspora suggest that 2021 will see a similar decline.
“What’s the point of sending money back when the state takes a 40% haircut,” says George Elias, a banker in Toronto who is originally from Beirut.
By June this year, Impact Lebanon said there were “no more incoming funds.” There remains an estimated $2.9 billion funding gap between what is needed to clear up from the blast and what has been publicly pledged.
The wave of generosity that followed the 4 August explosion seems to have evaporated just like the 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate that caused it.
Wealthy diaspora, like Elias, used to regularly return to Lebanon for vacations, injecting their newly earned dollars directly into the country’s economy. In the late 2000s and early 2010s, they could be regularly seen driving sports cars in downtown Beirut, and at beach clubs along the Corniche.
“The economic state of Lebanon has got so bad now that that diaspora can’t come and have the lovely bouji holidays that they always used to in five star resorts,” says Thompson. Plus the fuel crisis means that you would be queuing for five hours to fill up your sports car.
Now there are so few young Lebanese who want to remain in the country that the diaspora is growing again. The Asda’a BCW Arab Youth Survey, conducted in October 2020, found that over three-quarters (77%) of young Lebanese people said they were actively trying to leave the country.
“I know lots of people who wouldn’t leave Beirut even as the economy tanked during the past few years. Now they want out,” says Elias.
Without diaspora and donors, organizations that are still clearing up from the blast, feeding the hungry and housing the homeless, face immeasurable difficulties in raising enough funds. Not only is there a growing donor fatigue but those donations that are still forthcoming quickly evaporate with hyperinflation, or sit in banks that limit cash withdrawals.
However, in true Lebanese spirit, organizations are finding innovative ways around these economic and bureaucratic hurdles. Many charities ask for cash donations in U.S. dollars, sometimes delivered in person. Others open bank accounts abroad. Some resort to the barter economy.
This innovation has brought people together to work on solutions to overcome the state’s mounting obstacles to progress. “Though this past year we have uncovered so many diamonds in the rough who, I would say, are some of the most talented people I’ve ever come across,” says Thompson. “The people who have overcome incredible things like this to be alive these are the people you want.”