Beirut blast: donors urged to give locally and think long-term

Philanthropy set to play long-term role in Beirut recovery, as emergency aid funding tapers off.

Relief money has been pouring into Lebanon after the Beirut port explosion killed more than 200 people, injured some 6,000, and left hundreds of thousands homeless, as well as large swathes of the historic city in ruins. 

Days after the blast, governments around the world pledged more than $250m of bilateral aid at an international donors’ conference, while separately, Lebanese diaspora groups moved by the scale of the tragedy mobilised millions of dollars through crowdfunding, corporate donations and community initiatives.

In the Gulf, the governments of the UAE and Saudi Arabia have sent several planeloads of medical and food aid to Lebanon, Kuwait has pledged to rebuild Lebanon’s main wheat silo, which was destroyed in the explosion, and the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre in Saudi Arabia collected donations of nearly $500,000 from local businesses and residents.

However, there are growing calls for funding to be directed beyond emergency relief and towards more strategic campaigns to support the longer-term rebuilding of a country that was already reeling from a prolonged economic and political crisis and the impact of Covid-19.

“The need is so big that I truly believe partnership is the only way to go."

Maysa Jalbout, senior fellow, Issam Fares Institute, American University of Beirut.

NGOs on the ground also say it is critical that aid money is funnelled directly to local groups who are on the frontline of the response, and that cash is shared evenly, and not along sectarian lines.

“Aid agencies and philanthropic entities should consider the critical importance of Lebanon’s nonprofit sector and the country’s social enterprises,” said Beirut-born Maysa Jalbout, a board member of the Middle East-focused venture philanthropy organisation Alfanar.

Donors need to think not just about the immediate emergency “but rather for the long-term rebuilding of Beirut, and development needs of the most vulnerable people in the country,” she said.

UAE-based Jalbout, a senior fellow at Issam Fares Institute (IFI) for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, pointed to a significant opportunity for philanthropic organisations to collaborate and leverage their resources in order to better respond to the crisis.

“The need is so big that I truly believe partnership is the only way to go,” she said, adding to calls for a holistic social response to the disaster, rather than a focus just on infrastructure.

“Getting people back to work again, supporting families who have lost breadwinners, helping the elderly who have lost homes: these are difficult things to address. My hope is that they will be prioritised over short-term relief efforts, they require longer-term coordinated efforts.”

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Grassroots groups, nonprofits and social enterprises have led relief and recovery efforts across Beirut. Photo: Houssam Shbaro/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

One organisation that is looking beyond the immediate emergency is the Near East Foundation (NEF), a US-based international NGO working across the Middle East including Lebanon, with a focus on livelihoods support. Its Beirut team has begun a needs assessment for a dedicated programme to help individuals and businesses that have lost income due to the blast.

“In a few months’ time, the emergency aid money will start to drop off, and given that this has come on the heels of a long-running economic crisis, people are going to be in a much more compromised position if they don't have the ability to restart some sort of business activity,” said Andrea Crowley, NEF’s director of partnerships and philanthropy.

NEF is looking to target vulnerable communities, such as supporting skilled home-based workers whose material and tools have been comprised by the blast, as well as help small businesses reopen.

Crowley gave the example of a butcher whose shop was damaged. “He can do business without a door, but not without a refrigerator,” she explained. “So, we’re looking to help people get into a position where they can restart activities.

“They also need to have the clientele to make an income. So, we're also working with organisations that are giving emergency grants to encourage local buying within neighbourhoods and we as an organisation are trying to procure locally where we work as much as possible,” she added.

NEF is also mapping building repair needs in low-income communities, where there is less aid money available and fewer incentives to rebuild.

“People are, because of the crisis, going to where the money is, and the money is not in repairing the premises of these small business owners and the homes of these vulnerable people in these communities,” she said. “But it’s preventing businesses from restarting and it's causing further displacement and need.”

The NGO typically receives the bulk of its funding from governments but in this instance, when governments are already making pledges to support emergency aid in Beirut, it is pivoting its fundraising to tap family foundations and high net worth individuals (HNWIs).

Crowley said: “Some of these are existing donors, but we're also approaching new people to bring them in, and our hope is that if we can get that critical mass of funding from non-government, non-institutional donors, it will help to make the case for early recovery and then that then can be taken to governments.”

“This kind of funding can be incredibly valuable to humanitarian appeals as it can be more flexible with fewer conditions.”

Danielle Moylan, spokesperson, OCHA.

The UN, which has launched a $565m flash appeal in response to the explosion, is also looking to diversify its donors and is directly targeting the private sector.

Danielle Moylan, a spokesperson for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the body that oversees UN emergency relief, said: “This kind of funding can be incredibly valuable to humanitarian appeals, as it can be more flexible with fewer conditions, as opposed to what a donor like a government would typically do. A philanthropic organisation or a business could really look at underfunded areas.”

One of the many diaspora organisations helping to generate non-governmental funds for Beirut is Impact Lebanon, which is London based but with global membership. The nonprofit, which fundraises and organises community initiatives to support people in Lebanon, smashed its initial target of $1m in just one day and as of 31st August had collected $8.3m.

The money raised by Impact Lebanon will be distributed, it says, among local NGOs and not to international or UN-related aid agencies. There is also a vetting process in place to ensure selected partners are registered and recognised, well-run, apolitical and non-sectarian.

Among the partners earmarked to receive a portion of the funds are Al Ghina, an organisation providing financial, medical and food aid for orphans, widows and families, and Nusaned, a humanitarian, community-based and volunteer organisation focusing on building rehabilitation.

Rouba Mhaissen, founder of Sawa for Development and Aid (SAWA), a Lebanese-based NGO working with Syrian refugees, stressed the importance of ensuring aid was evenly distributed.

“A large number of those affected by the blast are Syrian refugees, migrant workers, and underprivileged minority groups,” she told Philanthropy Age. “Failure to have an inclusive approach to the distribution of all this aid money could have serious long-term implications, including xenophobia and a rise in black market jobs.”

The UN’s Moylan said the blast represented “a tipping point” for Lebanon.

“Either the international community sets itself up to assist Lebanon, or it becomes yet another country tragically dependent, in the long-term, on aid. This is absolutely what we don't want to occur,” she said. – PA