Social IssuesOct 03, 2022
The State of Deprivation
- Fadi Nicholas Nassar
Lebanon is unrecognizable. Three years of unabated crisis have categorically altered the country’s social and economic fabric. The joie de vivre that once defined Lebanon, is now replaced by such misery, pessimism, and despair. Deprivation is the unbearable new normal and it affects every aspect of our lives.
Depositors are deprived of their life savings, retirees from livable pensions, youth from decent jobs, and children from their basic rights. Access to basic services and goods, including food, healthcare, education, and clean water have become a luxury as prices have skyrocketed and purchasing power plummeted. Meanwhile, regular provision of essential utilities like electricity and clean water is unheard of—the exception that proves the rule of deprivation.
Since the start of the crisis, several reports have tried to measure the impact of the accumulation of these multiple deprivations on the state of poverty and standards of living in the country. While Lebanon has always had historic problems with data collection, not least the absence of a census, the rapid scale of Lebanon’s crisis has presented an important challenge to such studies. The rapidly changing and uncertain context not only accentuates the difficulties of collecting and monitoring sensitive data, but also affects the timeliness of data collected, which can decrease in the extent to which it reflects reality in a matter of months, if not weeks. Abrupt shocks like fuel crises or sudden fluctuations of the currency, in addition to the rapidly deteriorating situation on multiple fronts, undermine the representative value and accuracy of the data.
This should not take away from the alarming trends identified in reports issued by organizations like ESCWA, the World Bank, UNICEF, and the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights that should not be read in isolation.
On their own, these studies differ in their methodologies, scope, and so offer different results and numbers to measure poverty in the country. That variance, and the inadvertent confusion of poverty it causes, makes clear the need to better coordinate research efforts, pool resources, and establish a common index to track, monitor, and assess poverty and deprivation in Lebanon. Essential to working towards such a goal, is moving away from exclusively focusing on communicating that data to state authorities and branching out to partnering with civil society organizations, with the aim of empowering their advocacy efforts, rather than unfairly expecting them to fill the gaps in leadership left by the state.
Read together, however, these reports reveal clear patterns in the scale and character of poverty in Lebanon that can serve as the basis for such a common poverty index.
To start off, poverty is multidimensional and not limited to the deprivation of income. While income remains to be an important means by which individuals seek to preserve their human security, income alone does not accurately capture the access to basic rights, like adequate housing, essential utilities, healthcare, or education. In fact, taking a multidimensional approach that focuses on these basic rights can be complemented by measuring the degree to which they are deprived and the resulting level of poverty in the country.
ESCWA, UNICEF, and the World Bank’s studies on multidimensional poverty paint a similar picture: gaps in public infrastructure and services—like access to electricity and clean water—are leading to collective deprivation of these basic rights. In other words, while the scale of deprivation may not be equally shared, people in Lebanon are deprived of these basic services on a daily basis. And while the significant decrease in purchasing power has amplified the pressures in seeking out vital services, like education and healthcare, these very institutions are crumbling due to the mounting pressures brought on by the protracted crisis and increasingly becoming limited in their ability to provide the quality and access needed. Hospitals are not immune from frequent power-cuts and are suffering from the burdening pressure brought on by the substantial loss of nurses, doctors, and essential staff and shortages in essential medical supplies. Teachers, especially public-school teachers, are significantly underpaid and overworked, and transportation to schools at times cost more than teachers' salaries.
What has traditionally been labeled as resilience, has become simply the degree to which individuals and households can fill these gaps by depending on external support lines, like private generators and water reservoirs, or remittances.
The dysfunctional adjustment to such an unbearable context is not only unsustainable, especially given the eroding infrastructure in place, it is also exacerbating inequality. Those hardest hit by the crisis are generally unable to procure such external support lifelines, further amplifying the degree of their deprivation and leaving them with no choice but to sell household furniture and items or desperately seek asylum elsewhere. Lebanon’s crisis is also highly gendered. An earlier World Bank and UN Women gender assessment for the country revealed that the majority of women in Lebanon are jobless, with 75% of women economically inactive. Women are increasingly pushed into the informal economy, in a context where violence and abuse are rising and women left structurally unprotected.
Those with lifecycle vulnerabilities, such as persons with disabilities (PwDs), are also disproportionately affected due to the absence of inclusive social protection mechanisms needed to empower them in such a volatile and adverse context. Even prior to the crisis, more than two-thirds of PwDs were in the bottom income quintile of the population.
To that point, poverty in Lebanon is not invisible, it is neglected. Inclusive social protection mechanisms are lifelines for protecting the rights of groups who face disproportionate structural challenges and are especially vulnerable in periods of crisis. Yet, three years into the crisis, PwDs and other vulnerable groups, including older people, women, primary caregivers for children or dependent family members, children, and youth are all being left behind. Households and individuals cannot adjust to fill the state’s responsibilities—the state must prioritize the urgent building-up of essential public service infrastructure to ensure the integrity and access to education, healthcare, utilities, and other rights. A failed state earns its name.
The UN’s Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights helped frame poverty within this larger lens of human rights. In other words, poverty in Lebanon is the result of the deprivation of core human rights, like the right to education, the right to adequate housing, the right to clean water, the right to healthcare—the right to live with dignity. And in turn the state is ultimately responsible for preserving these rights.
Poverty is a human rights issue and, as much as it is about the deprivation of these rights, it is also a marker of how the standards of living in the country meet these rights. Lebanon is unrecognizable. The state of deprivation, inequality, and despair have categorically altered the standards of living with irreversible consequences. Poverty is all around us and inequality the only refuge from it.
All of this, however, doesn’t answer the real question—where do we go from here? Deprived of a functioning state, how long can we survive this state of deprivation?Fadi Nicholas Nassar is a research fellow at the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS). His research focuses on international humanitarian and relief interventions in fragile and conflict settings, popular uprisings and social movements, and Lebanese and Middle Eastern politics. He is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs and Director of the Institute for Social Justice and Conflict Resolution at the Lebanese American University (LAU). Fadi holds a PhD from the War Studies Department at King’s College London. A graduate of Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, he also received a Master of Public Administration from Columbia University.