Lebanon’s banks, awash with billions in deposits, may be able to help employ the refugees. Photo: The Daily Star


Today I spoke to the BBC World Service about the worsening refugee crisis in Lebanon and the government’s controversial decision to begin strictly limiting the thousands of souls pouring over the country’s borders everyday. (You can listen here) Many have found the move to be inhumane, but at the same time, no country has received anywhere near as many Syrian refugees as Lebanon– which at 1.6 million Syrians in a country of 4 million– is nearing a 50 percent population influx and the highest refugee per capita ratio in the world. The country’s broken institutions, still reeling from its own civil war, simply lack the capacity to handle the crisis and I’m surprised they have not collapsed already. Can you imagine if the US received over 100 million refugees?

Last year I wrote a piece documenting the minuscule amount of aid Lebanon’s institutions have received from the international community to cope what the World Bank has called the greatest refugee crisis in humanity. More recently it was reported that the government received $10 million, which is not even 1 percent of its $1.6 billion aid appeal. Compared to Lebanon, Europe and the US have accepted less than 1 percent of the refugees Lebanon has housed, and this has put a massive strain on hospitals, schools and public utilities.

But despite all this, the BBC anchor asked me if there was anything more Lebanon could do, other than wait for aid money. I remembered that I had put the same question to Ramzi Naaman, the head of Lebanon’s anti-poverty unit, in writing my investigative piece last year. He had an interesting suggestion. He began by saying the aid money going toward refugees has caused some tension with poor Lebanese communities who realized they were getting less help from their government than the UN is providing to refugees. His solution: Get big Lebanese banks, with over $100 billion in deposits, to begin building much-needed national infrastructure projects that could employ both poor Syrians and Lebanese, and perhaps help build some sense of national unity despite the crisis. I wonder what some of you think? I will republish the excerpt from the piece here:


“The people of Akkar may have thought living in extreme poverty was a way of life, but then the Syrians came in and were being assisted immediately with cash, food, shelter and healthcare. And then a person in Akkar may be thinking ’my government was not giving me the right things.’ And when the crisis is over and Syrians are out, he may say, ’I want water, I want health care, I want services, I want infrastructure. I want to change the way I live.’ 
“So this crisis has not only impacted us in terms of pressures, it has also somehow helped emerge a lot of our problems that have historically existed,” Naaman says. 

Instead of just waiting for money from foreign donors, there may also an opportunity for the private sector to get involved. Lebanese companies could chip in to make job-creating projects happen, particularly the country’s banks, awash with over $120 billion in deposits, or nearly three times Lebanon’s GDP. With the right political leadership, such projects could be tax deductible and provide work for both Syrians and Lebanese, which could help defuse tensions, Naaman said. 

“Everyone keeps bragging about their corporate social responsibility,” he says. “So let’s say to every bank, okay we need to put $100,000 in that pot or maybe $200,000 to create a fund to help the Lebanese host communities, to develop a project in those communities.” 

The projects could be used to help promote banks, and, with enough media exposure, initial donations could encourage other banks and corporations to match their competitors, he said. 

“You want to contribute to the development and stability of your country, this is it,” Naaman says. “Take the initiative and use the media.” 

The effect could turn a crisis into an opportunity for long-term development and national reconciliation, Naaman explains. 

“You give an example of solidarity among the Lebanese,” he says. “The only way to overcome confessionalism is to to open up, so how about setting up this humanitarian issue, that would set an example. Social solidarity is the foundation of a nationalistic attitude, belonging to a country, not a sect.”

  1. The idea is obviously interesting, but isn’t it a bit too idealistic?

    For profit corporations aren’t interested in charity. What would trigger their action? Public pressure? Social responsibility? Government regulation?

    Moreover, what will we give them as incentive to build infrastructure in Akkar? A lot of banks are led by politicians with feudal warlord mentality. Should we offer them “control” over this region (or others in need) as a reward for their “altruism”? I’m a little afraid that the private sector could seize this as an opportunity to grab more control, which I’d see as another form of corruption.

    Finally, keep in mind that banks have a social responsibility not to fail. Sure, we can look at their pile of money and think that this could solve our immediate problem. But if these loss somehow snowball (a sad reality in today’s market) and lead to banks bankrupting, dire consequence could follow. The major recession in Europe/USA of the past 8 years was caused by banks losing too much money. Banks cannot fail. In Lebanon, they’ve been somewhat successful by being aggressively conservative. Maybe they shouldn’t throw money just to apply a temporary patch on a wound.

    All in all, I think you have a point, and we should explore the option of the private sector chiming in. But we have to carefully select which incentive to give them, and properly assess the risk of having them step over the government role.

  2. Agreed, Joe. Exactly my thoughts. For sure it is a great idea, but big banks actually don’t care about humanitarian goals and have a “fiduciary duty” to their shareholders and investors, and their main concern is the bottom line. They wouldn’t spend a penny that wont benefit them and only them (even when it comes to CSR, it is mostly just a PR stunt and a marketing brag and the portion it actually constitutes of their funds/time/energy is minimal). And sadly, that strong political driving force that would be required to make this happen is non-existent…
    However, I do hope this though at least gains attention and popularity, who knows who might bounce ideas off it and find a similar approach to alleviating the refugee crisis.

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