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Beirut is still recovering from an explosion that killed nearly 200 people and wounded thousands more on August 4. The blast decimated vast swaths of the capital, leaving 300,000 residents homeless. Major elements of Beirut’s infrastructure, such as its port, will need repairs that the state cannot afford.
Lebanon was in crisis even before the explosion. COVID-19 infection rates were rising—since the blast, they have doubled. Lockdowns have devastated the Lebanese economy, including the country’s once vibrant banking sector, which is now insolvent. Moreover, Lebanon has the highest number of refugees per capita in the world, mainly Syrians and Palestinians. The influx, which constitutes roughly 20 percent of Lebanon’s population, was difficult for a small nation to absorb even in the best of times. The country known as “the Pearl of the Mediterranean” is now buried in the mud of poverty, disease, disillusion, and despair.
To rebuild under these circumstances, Lebanon will need external support. But the country’s political system apportions power by religious sect and encourages leaders to establish patronage systems that divert public resources into private bank accounts. International donors have good reason to fear running a gauntlet of official corruption or seeing their contributions used to serve sectarian interests rather than the interests of the country as a whole. Traditional forms of assistance routed through the central government are particularly vulnerable to misuse. In the past, government officials have gotten rich precisely by tapping international funds intended for Syrian refugees and postwar reconstruction.
Such outcomes are not inevitable, however. The current crisis offers donor countries an opportunity to approach Lebanon creatively and to make an equitable recovery for all Lebanese a central priority of international assistance. Rather than channeling aid through the usual ineffective routes, those who seek to help Lebanon should design a system that distributes assistance effectively and attaches strict conditions to its use, including measures designed to minimize corruption and maximize integrity. Such a system can hold those responsible for the disaster to account even while it prevents the country from spiraling further into crisis.
Lebanon needs not just immediate relief but long-term reconstruction. The August 4 blast, one of the largest recorded non-nuclear explosions in history, caused damage within a six-mile radius of the port. No confirmed figures yet exist, but early estimates put the cost of reconstruction as high as $15 billion.
But cash alone will not meet Lebanon’s needs. Rather, to respond effectively to Lebanon’s crisis, outside actors need to acknowledge and help repair the country’s political dysfunction. Many Lebanese blame government negligence for the port explosion: officials had allowed an enormous stockpile of ammonium nitrate to sit in storage without safety measures since 2013. The explosion reawakened a popular protest movement that had gone dormant during the COVID-19 pandemic but now demands that the country’s politicians be held accountable and that the reconstruction process remain corruption free.
An effective response to Lebanon’s crisis requires acknowledging the country’s political dysfunction.
To this end, Lebanese activists and civil society leaders have asked the international community to avoid channeling assistance through their government, which they fear will divert it to corrupt ends. Their concerns are based on hard-won experience: in the aftermath of Lebanon’s devastating civil war, politicians siphoned off billions of dollars through corrupt rebuilding schemes. They reaped billions more by monopolizing real estate in the city’s once vibrant downtown. The same scheme played out with international assistance after a 2006 war with Israel, when officials diverted unconditional international reconstruction aid from Gulf countries to their constituencies via lucrative contracts.
Early international efforts to respond to this August’s crisis have not adequately addressed such concerns. An August 9 donor conference called for an “impartial, credible, and independent” investigation into the source of the blast—but the inquiry was contingent upon the support of the Lebanese government, something President Michel Aoun has little incentive to provide. Moreover, the conference generated 250 million euros in humanitarian relief—but then called on the United Nations to disburse the funds, despite skepticism on the part of many Lebanese about its practices. The UN normally channels assistance through governments, even those that have records of corruption or criminality. People fear that even aid money earmarked for the recently homeless will simply disappear into private hands.
Donor countries can begin to build trust by facilitating a genuinely independent investigation into the explosion. They should condition reconstruction assistance to Lebanon on cooperation with such an inquiry and acceptance of its results.
Lebanese institutions have manifestly failed to seek answers on their own. The government charged military police with leading a swift inquiry and promised findings within five days of the explosion. Weeks later, the results are still a mystery. Senior officials, including the president and recently resigned prime minister, have engaged in a tit-for-tat blame game, initially denying any prior knowledge of the ammonium nitrate stockpile—even though leaked documents offer evidence to the contrary.
Even if the government’s investigation produces results, large numbers of Lebanese will not trust them. The United States and the European Union should step in to establish a fact-finding commission comprising Lebanese and international specialists and led by a senior international figure. Countries whose citizens were killed—including Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Australia, Germany, France, and others—could be invited to send experts. The commission would seek to explain the origins of the explosion and to determine who was responsible for it. With aid hanging in the balance, and with authorities who stand apart from Lebanese political machinations in the driver’s seat, the probe is likely to produce a result that is truthful rather than politically convenient. Unlike the investigation proposed at the donor conference, an inquiry organized by an independent fact-finding commission would not depend on the goodwill of the Lebanese government or function through its auspices.
The international community will need to come up with an improved model of distributing aid if it is to bypass Lebanese corruption. Normally, outside countries would set up a multidonor trust fund administered by the World Bank or other major contributors, in cooperation with the host nation. But given the justified lack of confidence in Lebanon’s government, donors such as the United States, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and the European Union should aim to establish an international reconstruction authority that is more removed from Lebanese jurisdiction. The donors should frame the authority as a compact—an agreement that offers Lebanon billions of dollars in assistance in exchange for measurable, demonstrable performance in rebuilding the city and its port.
The Lebanese people have fought too hard for their country to again descend into chaos.
This body—call it the International Beirut Reconstruction Authority—would not only oversee international contributions but also take responsibility for their use, seeking input from qualified Lebanese civil society groups. Such an authority would plan, contract, finance, and supervise the reconstruction process, setting the city’s rebuilding priorities and choosing its partners. Its staff should consist primarily of politically independent Lebanese specialists known for their integrity and professionalism, while its board should include an international majority approved by the donor states. All reconstruction donors would need to operate through the authority rather than through local government agencies, as donors have done in the past.
Compacts that condition aid on performance are not new. The UN backed similar reconstruction compacts in Iraq and Afghanistan after the U.S. invasions of 2001 and 2003, but with limited success. Donors were not always well coordinated, and some hesitated to cut off aid even when the host governments failed to meet their commitments. By contrast, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, an independent U.S. foreign aid agency, provides American assistance to dozens of countries that meet its eligibility requirements. Those standards have effectively spurred domestic reform in recipient countries, which the agency scores on their performance, transparency, and efforts to promote local ownership. Lebanon needs donor countries to establish a similarly credible contractual mechanism, in which the host government pledges reforms in exchange for reconstruction aid. Donors must be prepared to withdraw if Lebanon fails to hold up its end of the bargain.
Foreign donors will not be able to avoid Lebanon’s complicated politics entirely, no matter how they approach reconstruction. Instead, the United States, the EU, and the GCC countries need to ensure that the Lebanese state meets its people’s demands for fresh leadership. A new government must be empowered to enact reforms designed to manage the country’s severe economic crisis. Together, donors can push this difficult request forward. But if they fail to speak with one voice, current Lebanese leaders will continue with business as usual and ignore their demands.
Hezbollah, the Shiite militia and political party, poses a distinct problem. It has the economic clout and popular support to play an important role in rebuilding Beirut. Its social service agencies even have a history of delivering aid and managing reconstruction projects in Beirut after the 2006 war with Israel. But Hezbollah is part of the governance structure that produced the city’s recent disaster. Moreover, Washington sees the party as a terrorist organization and adversary because of its links to Iran and hostility to Israel. The United States will want the group excluded from the reconstruction effort and may even introduce new sanctions against it. But excluding or punishing Hezbollah will prove divisive, alienating some parts of the Lebanese population while gratifying others. Donors will have to find a modus vivendi with an organization that commands the loyalty of many Lebanese.
The United States, the European Union, and the GCC countries have their work cut out for them in Lebanon. Beirut has suffered damage, both political and physical, that will be difficult and costly to repair. Lebanon needs decent governance and equitable prosperity not only as goods in themselves but because without them, it risks becoming one more failed state in a region that already suffers from uncontrolled migration, political radicalization, and violent strife. Better to help fix Beirut than to leave it abandoned. The Lebanese people have fought too hard for their country to again descend into chaos.
A Decaying Sectarian System Kindled Beirut’s Port Blast