Syrian Refugee Relief in the Hands of the World Bank

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A Syrian refugee baby sleeps in a hammock at the Bab al-Salam refugee camp in Syria's northern city of Azaz on 15 July 2013. (Photo: AFP -JM Lopez)

By: Bassam Alkantar

Published Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Lebanese government could not convince even one donor to pay a single cent toward the estimated half a billion US dollars needed to provide humanitarian relief to Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The alternative: a credit fund management by the World Bank. This entails several risks and could end up as a loan adding to the public debt – or worse.

Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati is fully aware that donor reluctance to fund the government's plan to aid Syrian refugees is not only determined by the current political crisis over a new government and Hezbollah's participation. It is also related to the institutional dimension of the Lebanese government's handling of the refugee situation since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in March 2011.

"Negotiations are underway, in collaboration with the World Bank, to create a credit fund to manage aid from donor countries and entities to the Lebanese government and international organizations," Mikati announced on Monday. The fund will be established "to manage the Syrian refugees dossier in Lebanon."

Mikati added that "this dossier is undergoing serious and rapid negotiations to draw up a mechanism to facilitate the arrival of the needed aid."

Last month, the UN sent out its fifth call from Geneva to the international community, aiming to collect around $5.2 billion by the end of 2013 to assist Syrians affected by the conflict, including $1.22 billion for aid agencies and NGOs in Lebanon. This was in addition to around $450 million requested by the Lebanese government at the donor meeting in Kuwait.

If the credit fund is established, it would manage funds of up to $1.67 billion of which the UN had already received $395 million by 5 July 2013. For its part, the Lebanese government has not received a single dime, as Social Affairs Minister of the caretaker government Wael Abu-Faour keeps mentioning.

Mikati began to accept the idea of the credit fund when he realized that none of the donors would grant funding to the Lebanese government directly. This is due to their experience following the July 2006 Israeli war against Lebanon and the destruction of the Nahr el-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in 2007. [Both operations] were marred with problems concerning the disbursement of aid, in addition to the notorious corruption of the High Relief Committee's (HRC).

According to information obtained by Al-Akhbar, Mikati opposed the idea of a new fund to manage the aid. He was concerned that this would be seen as weakening the HRC, which is considered to be controlled by Sunnis – a number of reconstruction funds were created after the civil war and major Lebanese political forces were granted unofficial control over these funds. However, four months into the caretaker government and the worsening refugee crisis, day after day, have forced him to acquiesce.

However, the Lebanese government's enthusiasm for partnership is not shared by the World Bank's management in Washington, where the idea has not yet been approved. This explains the statements by minister Abu Faour that "the World Bank's management will exert pressure on donor countries to collect money for the Lebanese state." It means that the fund could transform from being a "donor" fund into a "loan" fund.

It is well known that the World Bank's strategy for attracting aid from donor countries is not concerned with the humanitarian aspect of the Syrian crisis and its repercussions. This is something that could be handled through the UN relief agency UNHCR or UNICEF.

However, it could be based on incentives granted to donor countries to provide aid in the shape of soft or long-term loans. If this is true, then it will cause great disagreement among the political actors in the country, who are already deeply divided over the handling of the Syrian refugee issue.

Partnership with the World Bank in attracting aid could increase the already high sensitivities and tensions in its relationship with the concerned UN bodies, which will not accept to be run by the Bank, especially not with money received directly from governments.

The World Bank's management of the credit fund is likely to be by way of a secretariat overseen by an executive board containing all relevant stakeholders in the Syrian refugee issue in Lebanon. Lack of a prior agreement on mechanisms to manage the funds will create major obstacles in the future, including contracting, bidding, and purchase orders, which are not subject to Lebanese regulations or supervision from the Audit Bureau. The World Bank uses completely different international standards.

Ramzi Naaman, the director of the Central Management Unit at the National Poverty Targeting Program for Social Safety Nets (NPTP), was appointed by Mikati to oversee the Syrian refugee issue. He describes the efforts made by the Lebanese government to convince UN agencies to include the government's efforts in a central plan implemented by UN agencies and NGOs under the direction of UNHCR.

The UN work plan for 2013 is divided into eight sectors: protection, food security and agriculture, non-food items, shelter, water and sanitation, public health, education, social cohesion, and livelihood. In terms of food security and agriculture, which seems to be the main target of the relief plan, the UN asked for around $279 million, while the Lebanese government requested $9.6 million.

In the UN, different tasks are maintained by various agencies according to specialization. However, the Lebanese government entrusted food security to the HRC. The government's relief agency will support 10,000 Lebanese citizens who fled Syria with in-kind food contributions over a period of 6 months.

This covers around 20 percent of the estimated number of Lebanese who were displaced from Syria, which is expected to exceed 50,000 displaced by the end of this year.

The Lebanese government plan mentions several steps in preparation for emergency incidents that could lead to sudden mass displacement. This entails the construction of six temporary reception centers, which could be turned into refugee camps, with a capacity for 18,000 families or around 90,000 persons at an estimated cost of around $58 million.

According to Naaman, the Lebanese government did not consent to the establishment of refugee camps for political reasons. However, the situation has become critical, with 10 informal Syrian refugee settlements set up in the Bekaa and Akkar. They are not very different from camps. There is one of two choices, a planned camp under Lebanese conditions or the spread of more informal camps.

The UN estimates the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon in 2013 to be three times the number registered in 2012. They are distributed across 1,450 locations around the country. If the influx of refugees continues at this pace, they could make up about 25 percent of the resident population of Lebanon by the end of this year.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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