Living on the edge in Lebanon: More than half the population is now below the poverty line
To many in Lebanon, the COVID-19 pandemic, the August 2020 Beirut explosions and instability have all combined to create conditions worse even than they were during the 1975-1990 civil war
“We don’t even have enough money to cover the basics, and medicines are now out of our reach”
Several overlapping crises have left many families in Lebanon struggling to survive, with more than half the population now living below the poverty line. Some say the massive economic crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, the August 2020 Beirut explosions and instability have all combined to create conditions worse even than they were during the 1975-1990 civil war.
The informal settlement of Hesbi sits at the foot of an embankment beside a busy four-lane highway in Saida, south Lebanon. For the past three decades, it has been home to two dozen Lebanese families of Palestinian heritage.
Hamad, 30, has lived in Hesbi since he was a boy. “It’s never been an easy life, and every cent we earn is spent on the essentials – food, clothing, rent, and medicines. There are no luxuries, but long ago, we accepted this. Now, we don’t even have enough money to cover the basics.”
Hesbi’s narrow paths are remarkably free of trash. As residents can no longer afford consumables, the settlement generates hardly any waste. Anything of value – glass, aluminium cans, even scraps of paper packaging – is collected by residents and hawked in the street. Plastic bags are saved and reused at the next visit to the vegetable market.
Hamad spends his mornings scouring roadsides and rubbish tips for scrap metal, hoping to sell whatever he finds to provide a meagre income for his family. The cost of living keeps rising – many food staples have increased threefold over the past year – and wages have not kept pace.
Hamad earns up to LBP 150,000 a week (around US$10 at black-market exchange rates in 2021 first quarter), most of which he spends on food. Even then, it is simple fare. “We haven’t seen a piece of meat for five months”, he says, laughing, “and medicines are now out of our reach. When we have an emergency, I try to find more work. I don’t know what will happen to my family if I get sick”.
He nods in the direction of his 11-year-old son Amar. “He’s not yet strong enough to work,” says Hamad. “But it won’t be long before he needs to go out and earn money the same way I do.” School is not part of the family’s plan for their children. Nowadays, education is not a priority for Hesbi residents; survival comes first.
A rapid assessment conducted by UNICEF in April 2021 shows that boys, girls and families face multiple vulnerabilities as a result of the continuing economic crisis. The survey indicated that an estimated 10 per cent of children engaged in some form of paid work – 22 per cent among Syrian refugees, 7 per cent among Palestinians and 4 per cent among Lebanese.
The assessment also showed that three in 10 families had at least one child who either went to bed hungry or skipped a meal, while all families reported dire consequences of rising food prices.
“Today, we’re living a tough life, with barely enough to eat”
“Today, we’re living a tough life, with barely enough to eat,” says Shadi, one of Hamad’s neighbours. He says he lost his job at the vegetable market last year, “when vegetables became too expensive for people to buy – people such as me.” Now, he relies on occasional casual labour, taking any work he can. “I live on whatever is in my pocket,” which is never much these days. On average, Shadi manages to earn some LBP10,000 a day (around $0.66 at black market exchange rates in 2021 first quarter) to feed, clothe and shelter his nine children.
“Most of the time, we’re still able to buy food,” Shadi says, adding, “we mostly eat lentils, rice, a few vegetables. Everyone here used to help one another – now we all have nothing, so there’s nothing anyone can do other than wait”.
His 16-year-old daughter Zainab leans against the door frame, listening in. She used to go to school before the pandemic and hopes to return once life returns to normal. However, her father isn’t so optimistic; “Who’s going to pay for the bus or taxi to get her there? I can’t afford it anymore”.
For the past months, Zainab has been reluctant even to climb the embankment and leave Hesbi. “These days, I never cross the road. Where could I go without money? Why would I even think of leaving?”
UNICEF supports the children and their caregivers through local partners Terre des Hommes and Sama for Development. Services currently provided at the site include case management, psychosocial support, positive parenting, and safe spaces for adolescent girls with a focus on gender-based violence topics. Psychosocial support activities on-site include movement, sports and singing, as well as hygiene and COVID-19 awareness sessions.
UNICEF is enhancing its social protection, education, child survival, child protection and youth development programmes to reach more children and young people facing the impacts of this compounded crisis.