BEIRUT (AP) – France is hosting an international video conference on humanitarian aid for Lebanon Wednesday, amid political deadlock in Beirut that has blocked billions of dollars in assistance for the cash-strapped country hit by multiple crises.
The meeting, organized by France and the United Nations, is the second since the disastrous Aug. 4 explosion that destroyed Beirut’s port and wrecked large parts of the capital. The blast, which also killed over 200 people and wounded thousands, was caused by the detonation of nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrates that had been stored unsafely at a port warehouse for years.
The explosion came amid an unprecedented financial meltdown – worsened by coronavirus closures – that has brought soaring inflation, poverty and unemployment.
An official with the French presidency, who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of the conference, said Wednesday’s meeting would take stock of how urgent aid could best be used going forward, rather than offer up new amounts of cash to a country “known for its dysfunctions, to put it mildly.”
In a dire report published Tuesday, the World Bank said Lebanon’s economy faces an “arduous and prolonged depression,” with real GPD projected to plunge by nearly 20% because its politicians refuse to implement reforms that would speed up the country’s recovery.
President Emmanuel Macron, whose country once governed Lebanon as a protectorate, has vowed to push ahead with aid efforts despite frustration with its ruling class. Lebanon’s leaders continue to resist reforms and have been unable to form a government after the last one resigned in the wake of the explosion.
The French official said representatives from 27 countries would take part, including 12 heads of state, but that local Lebanese aid groups would have a central role as trusted partners.
A new government would be the first step toward implementing a French roadmap for reforms to enable the release of billions of dollars of international aid. Another key international demand is a Central Bank audit. U.S. consultancy firm Alvarez & Marsal withdrew last month from a forensic audit it was tasked with, saying it had not received the information required to carry out its work.
The Aug. 4 explosion, widely blamed on the negligence of Lebanese politicians and security agencies, has brought world attention to the corruption that has plagued the country for decades and left it on the brink of bankruptcy with hollowed out institutions.
World leaders and international organizations pledged nearly $300 million in emergency humanitarian aid after the blast but warned that no money for rebuilding the capital will be made available until Lebanese authorities commit themselves to serious political and economic reforms.
The donors pledged the aid will be coordinated by the U.N. and delivered directly to the Lebanese people, in a clear rebuke of the country’s entrenched and notoriously corrupt leaders.
“We have the same parliament, we have the same political leaders,” the French official said. “Fortunately, we note that civil society has organized, which is taking up position and compensating for the deficiencies of the state and public services.”
The aid money is expected to go directly to NGOs and other organizations to distribute to the public, bypassing the Lebanese government.
Associated Press writer Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed.
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