Where has the Beirut blast aid gone?

Beirut (AFP) –


Six months after a massive explosion ripped through Beirut, donors say that most of the emergency aid they pledged for Lebanon's needy has been disbursed.

But some non-governmental organisations say they have hardly received anything, or seen funds they have received lose their value as they transit through the Lebanese banking system.

What was pledged?

On August 4, a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate fertiliser exploded on the Beirut dockside, killing 200 people and ravaging a large part of the city.

The disaster piled additional woes onto Lebanese already battling a dire economic crisis and the coronavirus pandemic.

On August 9, the international community led by France pledged around $300 million in emergency aid.

In early December, the European Union, United Nations and World Bank laid out a response plan over 18 months to help the city recover, estimating $426 million will be needed for the first year.

How much has been paid out?

The United Nations has been able to track the disbursement of $285 million dollars of the $300 pledged in August, UN humanitarian coordinator for Lebanon Najat Rochdi said.

That includes $161 million dollars sent to the United Nations, and a further $124 million in kind or directly to NGOs, she said.

On top of that, other countries channelled aid directly to the Lebanese government, but Rochdi said it has been harder to keep track of those amounts.

Some funds still have to be unlocked, including $6 million from $18 promised by the French development agency AFD, its Lebanon director Arthur Germond said.

What of the recovery plan?

But the December plan for long-term recovery is not yet up and running.

Germond said only $60 millions had been raised so far for a $300-million fund to help non-governmental organisations and small businesses.

And political deadlock in the country is blocking progress on other elements of the plan conditional on reforms.

For example, the port cannot be rebuilt without reform to ensure transparency in the tendering process, said Rochdi.

Are NGOS happy?

Despite all the funds already disbursed, some non-governmental organisations say they are receiving just a trickle from international donors.

Nabih Jabr, of the Lebanese Red Cross, says donations far outweighed any international aid they had received.

"More than 80 percent of the Lebanese Red Cross response to the Beirut blast was not funded by international aid but rather by individuals and companies who donated directly to LRC," he said.

It received $27 million in private donations, the large majority from outside Lebanon, compared to just $5 million from donors, he said.

Beit al-Baraka, a charity that has helped rebuilt flats and small businesses, had to raise $3.2 million from Lebanon's large diaspora as international aid was not forthcoming, its director Maya Ibrahimchah said.

On top of that, what aid does reach Lebanese civil society can plummet in value as it transits through Lebanon's ailing banking system.

For more than a year, banks have routinely capped dollar withdrawals, forcing depositors to withdraw trapped dollars in the local currency at a huge loss.

After spiralling devaluation, dollars are being sold for 8,800 Lebanese pounds on the black market. Banks offer 3,850 pounds to the dollar, while the official exchange rate remains pegged at 1,507.

Virginie Lefevre of the Amel charity said this meant they had lost out on a chunk of allocated aid.

"Some of the funds had to be converted into pounds at the bank exchange rate", at a 55 percent loss, she told AFP.

Efforts to obtain a "humanitarian" exchange rate failed, she said.

Will Beirut's heritage be saved?

The World Bank estimated that the blast had caused up to $8.1 billion in damage and economic loss.

The explosion damaged dozens of heritage buildings, some of which have since collapsed.

The head of the UN culture and education body UNESCO visited Beirut after the blast and promised to raise funds to help rebuild the city, but no fundraising conference has yet been held.

The Beirut Heritage Initiative, an alliance of NGOs, says it has received just $250,000 from institutional donors so far -- a fraction of the estimated $300 million needed to restore what was lost.

Without those funds, "Lebanon's heritage can't be rebuilt", said Fadlo Dagher, one of founders of the initiative.