TRIPOLI, Lebanon: The phrase “during the war” means different things to different people.
For most of Lebanon, it refers to the Civil War that devastated the country from 1975 to 1990.
But when Ahmad Khanati, a motorcycle mechanic in Jabal Mohsen, says the economic situation in the Tripoli suburb was “better during the war,” he’s referring to the armed clashes that have erupted sporadically between his neighborhood and adjacent Bab al-Tabbaneh, most recently in 2014.
For the inhabitants of these two neighborhoods, “there’s no work, there’s no money,” says Khanati. Residents feel abandoned by the state and many feel that the significant international aid that was funneled into the area following the clashes is not paying economic dividends.
“The biggest problem here is [the lack of] job prospects,” says Ahmad al-Hammad, a young NGO worker who runs Spirit of Youth, an organization that aims to foster social cohesion in the neighborhoods.
“It’s a problem for all of Lebanese society, not just Tripoli, but Tripoli is affected more because it’s been suffering since 2005 to 2014 with the ongoing conflicts.”
It’s clear that international donors haven’t overlooked the area around Jabal Mohsen. Many of the houses look brand new, and signs proclaiming the origin of donor funds are everywhere.
However, for every modern building, there is one that still bears the scars of conflict. Bullet holes are ubiquitous, interspersed with the occasional star shape showing where a shell failed to penetrate the building’s external walls, or the rubble that shows where one did.
Meanwhile, whole neighborhoods of nearby Qibbeh remain destroyed, without receiving the same attention as its neighbors that were the high-profile epicenters of the armed clashes.
The 2014 conflict drew the attention of the international community. Spirit of Youth, Hammad says, was able to get much of its funding thereafter from the USAID-funded Lebanon Community Resilience Initiative.
A U.S. Embassy spokesperson told The Daily Star in an email that the embassy’s work was “aimed at reducing tensions and building positive linkages between rival groups and neighborhoods affected by the clashes.”
However, the initiative reached its scheduled end in November 2017, and Hammad says it has been harder to operate since then. The issue though isn’t a lack of funders.
He has worked with the European Union, UNICEF and individual embassies, but the greater diversity of donors has complicated matters by creating a chaotic environment for securing funds. “We need a couple of months to secure a project,” he says. “Before, it would only take a meeting or two.”
Particularly lacking is an investment in infrastructure. Malak Hababi, a social activist working in a Jabal Mohsen real estate office, says the situation has gone “from bad to worse.
“The aid didn’t reach us,” she says. “We weren’t able to develop all the areas affected by the war. There’s no electricity or water.”
Much of the pre-existing infrastructure remains unusable, which is borne witness by a disused water tower in Jabal Mohsen that still has not been brought back into service. “Every three or four buildings have a well,” Hababi adds.
“There’s a lot of money that was put into Tripoli over the years and probably not enough impact,” concedes Lea Baroudi, president of NGO March Lebanon, which has carried out projects in both Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh.
She doesn’t believe, however, that local NGOs are at fault, but highlights the lack of attention paid to the local infrastructure as indicative of “the huge government negligence in the area.
“There should be a more institutionalized government attention and proper planning and funding to rejuvenate the area,” Baroudi says.
The local municipality is aware of the issue. “Money from the top doesn’t reach the people at the bottom,” says Najia Ishlan, an employee at Tripoli Municipality who acts as a coordinator between local civil society and international NGO Strong Cities Network.
“There are people who really need money. There’s a lot of poverty. People are living on $5 a day. ... These problems are because of the state.”
Recently the municipality began a project to open a youth office to give young people a resource for acquiring information, making complaints and generally helping them feel more engaged.
However, it needs further funds to complete the project. Asked about the prospect of securing funding from the Lebanese government, she responds simply: “There isn’t one.”
Baroudi points out that underlying social issues, such as the lack of education in the area, belie a quick fix. “The young men [in Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh] have a very low level of education. There’s a lot of dropouts and illiteracy. They can’t be easily integrated into the labor market,” she says.
According to Baroudi, the best role for NGOs is to cooperate with the government and private sector: “We’re working very thoroughly to partner with the private sector as well as the government. There’s something that NGOs can do in terms of the job market and that’s to make the youth ready and actually employable.”
For Khanati in his motorcycle workshop, however, a long-term solution will not alleviate the immediate problems he faces in providing for his children. “We don’t have anything,” he says. “All we have is poverty and hunger.”