The social protection system in Lebanon has always been weak, fragmented, and suffered from lack of financing. An overarching National Social Policy Framework was nonexistent, making it harder for donors and the international community to support at speed and at scale.
The economic and financial crisis that hit the country in 2019, worsened by the devastating effects of the Beirut port explosions and the spread of COVID-19 in 2020, made it even more difficult for people to make ends meet in the absence of a well-functioning social protection system that can protect the population and help absorb the multiple shocks.
When the whole world was hit by the spread of COVID-19, taking a heavy toll on people’s lives, jobs, incomes, and well-being, in many countries we witnessed social protection schemes playing an instrumental role in ensuring that people have access to their basic needs, particularly food and health. Unfortunately, that was not the case in Lebanon whereby a large portion of the population found itself extremely vulnerable without knowing where to turn for assistance.
The series of crises confronting the country further revealed the flaws of the social protection system and uncovered its shortcomings and coverage gaps. Some of the core functions that were most needed during these trying times were related to providing protection for those who lost their incomes and jobs, the elderly who reached retirement age with no pension at all or were left with only a small amount that was significantly devalued by raging inflation and dramatic currency depreciation. Sadly, for many, the only recourse was resorting to harsh negative coping mechanisms, such as taking their children out of school to join the labor force, missing essential vaccinations, resorting to child marriage, excessive debt, and undereating, which all have adverse effects on children, parents, and society at large.
To this end, the ‘SDG Joint Programme’ worked on developing an inclusive shock-responsive Social Protection Strategy that serves as the Government’s overarching framework and vision for social protection in Lebanon, which considers at its core gender-supportive and disability-focused social protection policies.
The strategy was the result of an inclusive and participatory process that brought together the government and line ministries, civil society actors, the private sector, the academia as well as the broad development and donor community. A permanent coordination structure was formed with a representation of each of these actors to ensure consistent lobbying and advocacy for the implementation of the national social protection strategy: A strategy that is fundamentally for the people and about meeting their critical needs and safeguarding their basic rights.
Another important area that the SDG Joint Programme achieved is bringing together concerned UN agencies and reaching a consensus to scale up the work on social assistance, including establishing social grants that address life-cycle vulnerabilities. To illustrate, the SDG Joint Programme contributed to the expansion of coverage of the existing cash-transfer scheme, known as the National Poverty Targeting Program (NPTP), in a multitude of ways. These range from building the technical capacities of 550 government staff -namely social workers and field coordinators- in household assessments to providing the government with software and hardware equipment that enhances the database server capacity and boosts digital data collection. This also led to improved post-distribution monitoring surveys that are crucial to collect and understand people’s feedback on the quality, sufficiency, utilization, and effectiveness of the assistance provided to them. As a result, the NPTP -mainly funded by the World Bank- is now reaching more than 64,000 households, compared to 10,000 households since the start of the programme in 2020.
To complement this broad-based cash transfer, and in view of the increased vulnerabilities amid the mounting challenges facing the country, new social grant programs were designed under the SDG joint program to target people who are particularly facing lifecycle vulnerabilities, namely the elderly, persons with disabilities, and children who were not covered by any other support scheme.
At the height of Lebanon’s crises, expanding social protection to vulnerable and hard-to-reach populations is clearly essential, now more than ever. However, amid the unfolding crises and extended political vacuum, with no viable solutions and reforms in sight, the implementation of the SDG Joint Programme may face serious challenges if no structural changes are made to Lebanon’s social protection system. It is, however, important to recognize that the Government has placed the social protection agenda at the center of its reform plan, committing to making it more responsive to shocks and emergencies and most importantly, to people’s needs.
As the country strives to recover, we cannot go back to the poor frameworks and systems that created vulnerabilities and inequalities, mostly affecting the poorest and the most vulnerable. Building forward better requires social protection policies and programs that can help combat poverty, promote social justice, and ensure fair and equal distribution of social services.