Ilan Noy, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington and Nguyen Doan, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of WellingtonWhat have we lost because of the pandemic? According to our calculations, a lot — and many of the worst hit countries and regions are far from world media attention.
Typically, damage from any disaster is measured in separate categories: the number of fatalities and injuries it caused, and the financial damage it led to (directly or indirectly).
Only by aggregating these various measures into a comprehensive total can we begin to formulate a fuller picture of the burden of disasters, including pandemics.
They do this based on surveys asking people how much they are willing to pay to reduce some risk (for example, improve a road they often use), or by calculating the additional compensation people demand when they take on high-risk occupations (for example, as a diver on an oil rig).
By observing the amount of money people associate with small changes in mortality risk, one can then calculate the overall price of a “statistical life” as valued by the average person.
By adding the dollar value of asset damage to the “priced” value of life lost (or injured), the overall cost of an adverse event (such as an earthquake or an epidemic) can be calculated.
Calculating ‘lost life years’
But “value of life” prices can vary a lot between and even within countries. There is also an understandable public distaste for putting a price tag on human life. Governments typically don’t openly discuss these calculations, making it difficult to assess their legitimacy.
An alternative is a “life years lost index”. It is based on the World Health Organization (WHO) measure of “disability-adjusted life years” (DALY), calculated for a long list of diseases and published in a yearly account of the associated human costs.
In conventional measurements of the impact of disaster risk, the unit used is dollars. For this alternative index, the unit of measurement is “lost life years” — the loss of the equivalent of one year of full health.
This is a sum of three key measures of the pandemic’s impact: lost life years because of death and sickness from the disease, and the equivalent lost years due to decline in economic activity. The map below presents these figures per person, in order to enable the relevant comparison across countries.
For example, in the map above we see Australia has a life-years-lost figure of 0.02. This means, on average, every person in Australia lost just over seven life days from the pandemic. In New Zealand, where fewer people died and there have been only a few thousand cases, the figure is 0.01, meaning each person lost fewer than four life days.
In India, by contrast, the average person lost nearly 15 days and in Peru the equivalent figure is 25 days. That loss is based on a combination of the precipitous recession and the death and sickness caused by the virus directly.
So, how do we put this in context? Is losing 25 days a catastrophic loss that justifies the kinds of public actions we have observed around the world? We can answer that question by comparing the impact of COVID-19 to other disasters.
The price of a pandemic
When we compare the total aggregate costs of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 with the average annual costs associated with all other disasters in the previous 20 years, we find the pandemic has indeed been extremely costly (in terms of lost life years).
This is despite those past two decades having seen many catastrophic events: horrific tsunamis in Indonesia (2004) and Japan (2011), very damaging hurricanes in the US (2005 and 2017), a high-mortality cyclone in Myanmar (2008), deadly earthquakes in India (2001), Pakistan (2005), China (2008), Haiti (2010) and Nepal (2015), and others.
The graph below shows the life years lost in 2020 by continent, per person, from COVID-19 compared to the average annual cost of all other disasters 2000-2019. As we can see, the costs of the pandemic are much higher — more than three times higher in Asia and more than 30 times higher in Europe.
The most vulnerable countries have been small, open economies such as Fiji, Maldives and Belize, which rely heavily on the export of services, especially tourism.
These are not necessarily countries that have experienced a high number of deaths from the pandemic, but their overall loss is staggering.
More generally, the per-capita loss associated with COVID-19 is particularly high in most of Latin America, southern Africa, southern Europe, India and some of the Pacific Islands. This is in stark contrast to where the global media’s attention has been directed (the US, UK and EU).
Costs will continue to rise
These measures are for 2020 only. Obviously, the pandemic is continuing to rage, and will most likely continue to have an impact on the global economy well into 2022. Many of the adverse economic impacts will still be felt years from now.
Worryingly, some of the countries that have already suffered the greatest economic impact have also been slow to secure enough vaccine doses for their populations. They may well see their economic slumps carry on into next year, especially with larger, richer countries having the resources to buy vaccines first.
Much public and media attention has focused on the death toll and immediate economic impact from COVID-19. But the human and social costs associated with that economic loss are potentially much greater, particularly in poorer countries.
The heavy burden many small countries have borne has, to some extent, been overlooked. Countries such as Lebanon and the Maldives are experiencing dramatic and painful crises, largely under the radar of world attention.
However, our conclusion that the human cost of the economic loss is possibly much higher than the cost associated with health loss does not imply public policies such as lockdowns, border restrictions and quarantines have been unwarranted.
If anything, countries that experienced a deeper health crisis also experienced a deeper economic crisis. There has been no effective trade-off between saving lives and saving livelihoods.
This story is part of a series The Conversation is running on the nexus between disaster, disadvantage and resilience. You can read the rest of the stories here.
Ilan Noy, Chair in the Economics of Disasters and Climate Change, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington and Nguyen Doan, Doctoral student in economics, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington
Mark Quigley, The University of Melbourne; Andrew King, The University of Melbourne; Brendan Duffy, The University of Melbourne; Claire Vincent, The University of Melbourne; Ian Rutherfurd, The University of Melbourne; Januka Attanayake, The University of Melbourne, and Lisa Palmer, The University of MelbourneTimor-Leste is reeling after heavy rain caused severe floods and landslides over the Easter weekend, killing at least 42 people. Rates of COVID-19 in Timor-Leste are also on the rise. Together, these hazards threaten to interact with deadly consequences.
Our research has assessed the likelihood of natural hazards coinciding with, and influencing, the COVID-19 pandemic. Unsurprisingly, we found temporary relaxations of COVID-19 restrictions during natural disasters are likely to cause large spikes in infection rates.
In Timor-Leste’s capital Dili, the floods and the pandemic have combined to form a dangerous dynamic. Flood damage prompted authorities to temporarily lift COVID-19 restrictions. Evacuees are gathered in group shelters where social distancing may be challenging. Flooding cut power to some COVID treatment centres and put extra pressure on Timor-Leste’s health system.
The situation offers lessons for other populated, flood-prone cites battling the COVID-19 pandemic. Natural hazards will, of course, persist throughout the pandemic. Better understanding the complex interactions between double disasters will help societies and systems become more resilient.
Dili: a recipe for disaster
On April 3 and 4, more than 400mm of rain was recorded in Dili. Floodwater and debris washed into populated areas. Recent reports indicate at least 42 people died and 13,554 were displaced. Nearby Indonesian islands were also hit and at least 130 deaths were reported.
Several natural and human factors combine to make Timor Leste vulnerable to flooding.
The country’s mountainous topography (see image below) encourages rainfall and creates steep stream systems that rapidly transfer floodwater into adjacent populated areas. Weak rocks and steep catchments are highly susceptible to landslides.
Flowing water interacts with the mountains, causing sediment to accumulate in the shape of a fan or cone. This directs flood waters and sediment into central Dili. Also, rampant deforestation and development has increased soil erosion and stream discharge during heavy rain.
Rapid and largely uncoordinated population growth, particularly in Dili, has concentrated vulnerable populations into flood plains and low-elevation coastal areas highly exposed to flooding.
Other factors increasing the flood risk in Dili include:
- concrete structures that don’t allow water to sink into the ground
- multi-pylon concrete bridges that trap flood debris
- urban drainage channels choked with sediment and urban waste.
More broadly in the region, three climate features combined to create ideal conditions for the recent high rainfall and tropical storms: the West Pacific Monsoon, the Madden Julian Oscillation and a La Niña
The COVID combination
In late March this year, the number of new daily cases in Timor-Leste was rising quickly. On April 10, there were 70 new daily cases, bringing the total confirmed cases to more than 1,000.
Even without these twin disasters, many in Timor-Leste already lacked access to medical services and lived below the poverty line. COVID-19 restrictions exacerbated food shortages and poverty.
Then the floods hit. They left thousands homeless with severely restricted access to food and clean water. Roads and bridges collapsed. Crops were destroyed and firewood collection – essential for cooking – has been difficult in some areas.
The floods disrupted a COVID-19 lockdown in Dili, and forced people into crammed refuge centres. Flooding of a national medical storage facility damaged supplies. The national laboratory also flooded and a COVID-19 isolation facility was temporarily evacuated.
During floods, the risks of waterborne and vector-borne disease outbreaks increases. Should this occur, Timor-Leste’s fragile health system would be under even greater pressure.
The first batch of COVID-19 vaccines arrived in Timor Leste on April 5 and the vaccination program has managed to operate despite the flood-related challenges.
A global problem
Many global cities are vulnerable to multiple interacting hazards like those now faced by Timor-Leste. Our analysis suggests 16 of the world’s 20 most populous cities, comprising 5% of the world’s population, have similar geology, population density and/or land use to Dili and could face similar multiple disasters. These cities include Jakarta, Tokyo and Manila.
In emergency situations, the need for disaster response and recovery may justify temporarily lifting COVID-19 restrictions. But pandemic measures must be reinstated as soon as possible. Our modelling, pictured below, suggests when COVID restrictions are lifted in response to a disaster, infection rates ascend rapidly.
What can be done?
Potential solutions are more likely to be effective when they involve multiple groups working together. This includes international and local experts, diverse support agencies and affected communities.
Our research identifies ways to improve disaster preparedness and response in a COVID-19 world. They include:
- developing scenarios and forecasts to deal with the interaction of multiple hazards, including COVID-19
- using centrally operating disaster coordination platforms to assist and empower local disaster responders
- evacuation centres that allow for social distancing
- storing supplies of personal protective gear and medical equipment in areas less exposed to natural hazards
- mobile teams of humanitarian workers, volunteers and medical staff that can respond to natural disasters in COVID-affected regions.
Finally, measures must be taken to reduce the risks posed by future disasters. This must be done in culturally informed ways and includes:
- improving land and water management
- land-use planning that considers disaster risk
- urban clean-up after events such as floods.
Such actions are crucial in developing nations such as Timor-Leste, where urban development can amplify natural hazards with tragic results.
Oktoviano Tilman de Jesus, Demetrio Amaral Carvalho and Josh Trindade contributed invaluable expertise to this work.
This article is part of Conversation series on the nexus between disaster, disadvantage and resilience. Read the rest of the stories here.
Mark Quigley, Associate Professor of Earthquake Science, The University of Melbourne; Andrew King, ARC DECRA fellow, The University of Melbourne; Brendan Duffy, Fellow in Structural Geology and Tectonics, The University of Melbourne; Claire Vincent, Lecturer in Atmospheric Science, The University of Melbourne; Ian Rutherfurd, Professor in Geography, The University of Melbourne; Januka Attanayake, Research Fellow, The University of Melbourne, and Lisa Palmer, Associate Professor, School of Geography, The University of Melbourne
Sabrina Pit, Western Sydney UniversityYet again, large swathes of New South Wales are underwater. A week of solid rain has led to floods in the Mid-North Coast, Sydney and the Central Coast, with several areas being evacuated as I write.
As a resident of the NSW Far North Coast, which has had its share of devastating floods, many of the tense scenes on the news are sadly familiar.
Unless you have lived through it, it is hard to understand just how stressful a catastrophic flood can be in the moment of crisis. As research evidence shows, the long term impact on mental health can also be profound. And often it is the most disadvantaged populations that are hardest hit.
Disaster risk and disadvantage
In many places, socio-economic disadvantage and flood risk go hand in hand.
In a study published last year, led by the University Centre for Rural Health in Lismore in close collaboration with the local community, colleagues and I looked at population data following Cyclone Debbie in 2017. We found people living in the Lismore town centre flood footprint experienced significantly higher levels of social vulnerability (when compared to the already highly vulnerable regional population). This study would not have been possible without the support of the Northern Rivers community who responded to the Community Recovery
after Flood survey, nor without the active support, enthusiasm and commitment of the Community Advisory Groups in Lismore and Murwillumbah and community organisations.
Notably, over 80% of people in the 2017 Lismore town centre flood-affected area were living in the lowest socio-economic neighbourhoods. The flood-affected areas of Murwillumbah and Lismore regions included 47% and 60% of residents in the most disadvantaged quintile neighbourhoods.
By examining data from the 45 and Up study, we also showed that participants living in the Lismore town centre flood footprint had significantly higher rates of smoking and alcohol consumption. They were also more likely to have pre-existing mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, as well as poorer general health.
So even before disaster strikes, residents in flood-prone areas may be more likely to battle with financial and health issues. Our study showed disaster affected people also had the fewest resources to recover effectively. When floods arrive, the impact on mental health, in particular, can be acute.
Floods and mental health
A flood can be extremely stressful in the moment, as one rushes to protect people, property, pets and animals and worries about the damage that may follow. Can you imagine clinging to a rooftop in the rain in the middle of the night and waiting to be rescued?
The damage caused by floods causes enormous financial pain, and can lead to housing vulnerabilities and homelessness, especially for those without insurance — and research reveals a pattern of underinsurance in disadvantaged populations across Australia.
Even if you are lucky enough to have insurance, waiting to have your claim assessed and approved, then dealing with a shortage of tradies can take a real toll on your mental health. The waiting and the uncertainty can be especially hard.
Other flood research by colleagues and I, led by the University Centre for Rural Health, showed business owners whose homes and businesses had flooded were almost 6.5 times more likely to report depressive symptoms. Business owners with insurance disputes were four times more likely to report probable depression.
Flood affected business owners whose income didn’t return to normal within six months were also almost three times more likely to report symptoms of depression.
Lack of income can clearly cause stress for the individual, their family and their larger network. Small businesses play an important role in rural communities and employ a large number of people so the sustainability of local businesses is crucial.
We also found the higher the floodwater was in a person’s business, the more likely the person was to experience depressive symptoms.
People whose business had water above head height in their entire business were four times more likely to report depressive symptoms. Those who had water between knee and head height in their business were almost three times more likely to report probable depression. All this adds up to an increase in mental health issues that often follows a flood.
Six months after the flooding, business owners felt most supported by their local community such as volunteers and neighbours. However, those that felt their needs were not met by the state government and insurance companies were almost three times more likely to report symptoms of depression.
Preparedness and awareness
So, what can be done?
Firstly, we can boost preparedness. Risk and preparedness education may be especially needed for people who have recently moved to flood-prone regions. Many who have moved to regional areas recently may not be aware they live in a flood zone, or understand how fast waters can move and how high they can reach. Education is needed to raise awareness about the dangers. People may need help to prepare a flood plan and know when to leave.
Secondly, supporting people and local businesses after a disaster and assisting the local economy in its recovery could help reduce the mental health burden on people and the business community.
Thirdly, mental health services must be provided. A chaplaincy program was implemented in Lismore by the local government to assist business owners with emotional and psychological support after Cyclone Debbie and ensuing floods. This program was largely well received by business owners for having provided psychological support and raising mental health awareness.
However, the ongoing lack of mental health support remains an issue, especially in rural areas, and is exacerbated by disasters.
Fourthly, insurance disputes and rejection of insurance claims were among the strongest associations with likely depression in our research. We must find ways to improve the insurance process including making it more affordable, improving communication, by making claims easier and faster and boosting people’s understanding of what’s included and excluded from their policy.
No single organisation, government or department can solve these complex problems on their own. Strong partnerships between organisations are crucial and have been shown to work, as is direct and real-time support for flood-affected people.
This story was updated to add more detail about the author’s research funding, collaborative partners and affiliation. It is part of a series The Conversation is running on the nexus between disaster, disadvantage and resilience. You can read the rest of the stories here.
By early afternoon, the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) lifted the evacuation order but stressed that people should stay off beaches and the shore.
All three earthquakes happened along the Tonga Kermadec subduction zone, where the Pacific tectonic plate dives under and then sinks beneath the Australian plate.
This subduction zone is the longest and deepest such system on Earth. It spans from just north of the East Cape, some 2600km to the north-east in an almost straight line to south of Samoa.
One of the questions seismologists around the world are now trying to answer is whether the three quakes were linked and the earlier ruptures triggered the magnitude 8.1 quake.
Potential links between ruptures
The Tonga Kermadec subduction zone terminates north-east of the East Cape, where it then becomes the Hikurangi subduction zone. The first 7.3 magnitude rupture struck at 2.27am, 174km off the east coast, where the Hikurangi and Tonga Kermadec systems merge.
The US Geological Survey recorded this event at a depth of 21km, not 95km deep as the first reports in New Zealand suggested. This quake had an unusual mechanism — an element of sideways movement known as strike-slip.
The other two quakes were about 900km north, but just west of the Tonga-Kermadec trench and at depths of about 56km (for the 6.40am magnitude 7.4 event) and 20km (for the magnitude 8.1 quake at 8.28am). These later events had thrust, or compressive, mechanisms, in which one body of rock compresses against another, sliding up and over it during the earthquake.
This is what we might expect in a subduction zone where one tectonic plate is sliding under another and creating a collision, which in turn gives rise to compression.
As the Pacific plate starts to slide under the Australian plate, it starts off at a shallow angle and then turns along a curved trajectory to finally fall away at a very steep (60 degrees) angle. But when it’s at a shallow level, it is only dipping at say 10-20 degrees and creates a lot of friction with the overlying (Australian) plate. This is typically where these large earthquakes occur.
Magnitude 8 quakes in these subduction zone settings are not unusual. Indeed, quakes up to magnitude 9 can occur, such as Japan’s 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, the undersea earthquake off Sumatra that set off the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and quakes in Alaska in 1964 and in Chile in 1960.
What is curious about this sequence offshore from New Zealand is whether or how the ruptures relate to each other. Certainly, the first of the two later quakes, located within tens of kilometres of each other, can be regarded as a foreshock, followed by the main magnitude 8.1 shock. But was the earliest 2.27am earthquake north of East Cape related?
Generally, seismologists regard a 1000km distance as too far for even a magnitude 7.4 rupture to disturb the ground enough to trigger another. But increasingly there are arguments that the Earth is critically stressed in plate boundary settings to such a level that just a small nudge can set off another event.
After the 2004 Sumatran quake, scientists made a good argument that it triggered further quakes an hour later, some 11,000km away in Alaska. But in this case, they were smaller events following a large triggering quake.
It’s also interesting that large earthquakes have happened off the Kermadec Islands in the past. In 1976, a magnitude 7.7 event was followed 51 minutes later by a magnitude 8 event. This mirrors what we saw today.
Both events in 1976 were thought to be thrust earthquakes like today’s shocks. Then in 1986, at a depth of 45km, a magnitude 7.7 event displayed both thrust and sideways strike-slip motion. The interpretation of this event was that it was not a plate interface event, but had happened within the subducted and bending Pacific plate.
This could explain the second earthquake this morning, as its depth of 56km seems to place it within the Pacific plate. We will need to wait until the final depths and mechanisms are resolved.
Timothy Stern, Professor of Geophysics, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington
The Commonwealth and state governments are responsible for keeping people safe, and the role of the ADF is to protect the nation. But how these two roles fit together is not always so clear.
After a tumultuous year of bushfires and the ongoing pandemic, we need a more fundamental conversation about the role of the ADF in responding to domestic emergencies.
The Morrison government has introduced a new bill that would give the ADF more power to respond to emergencies. And a Senate committee has recommended it be “passed without delay”, despite dissent from the Greens.
But questions remain around whether the legislation is even necessary or meets all the recommendations set out in the Bushfire Royal Commission report.
When the Commonwealth can use the ADF domestically
The scope of the Commonwealth’s “nationhood power” is not settled in constitutional law and so, despite the number of times the ADF has been called out in peacetime, the legal basis of these interventions has always been contested. Section 119 of the Constitution says:
The Commonwealth shall protect every state against invasion and, on the application of the executive government of the state, against domestic violence.
It is generally agreed this does not authorise unilateral military action by the Commonwealth government. The need for this section is due to the fact the states are unable to raise a military force themselves.
But the Commonwealth has radically expanded how the call-out power is used — first in preparation for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and then in response to the Sydney Lindt Cafe siege in 2018.
A bill was passed in 2018, for example, that authorised the use of ADF soldiers to protect Commonwealth interests in Australia and offshore from “domestic violence” if a state requested it.
This bill raised significant concerns over human rights, related to the definition of “domestic violence” and whether ADF or foreign troops would be held accountable for the use of deadly force against civilians.
What does the new bill do?
The new bill would streamline the use of military personnel in a severe natural disaster or emergencies, such as a pandemic. But questions about the parameters of ADF involvement remain unanswered.
For example, the states and territories currently need to ask the Commonwealth for ADF personnel or assets to be deployed and must consent to ADF support during emergencies.
The Bushfire Royal Commission recommends allowing the Commonwealth the power to declare a national natural disaster and get ADF personnel ready to respond. If there are significant risks to lives or property — or it is deemed in the national interest — the government may then deploy the ADF to those areas without state or territory consent.
Under the legislation, ADF personnel and soldiers from foreign countries would also have immunity from civil and criminal liability when responding to disasters, similar to state and territory emergency services workers.
What else does the Bushfire Royal Commission report say?
The royal commission focused mainly on ways to improve coordination between federal, state and local fire and emergency service agencies in future bushfires.
The commission’s report identified the need for more clarity from state, territory and local governments about how their fire and emergency responders should interact with ADF personnel on the ground, and what they can expect from the ADF in terms of performing certain tasks.
There are many ways the ADF can help states during an emergency, such as logistics support (including both fixed and rotary wing aircraft), sealift (such as the Mallacoota beach evacuation), land transport, engineering and medical support, the building of temporary accommodation and helping to restore communications.
During this year’s bushfires, for instance, the ADF deployed some 8,000 personnel, including 2,500 reservists, to assist with rescue operations and medical and disaster relief. About 500 defence personnel from New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Japan and Fiji also provided assistance.
However, the ADF insists it will not directly fight bushfires. There has also been some reluctance to commit more resources to domestic emergencies, arguing this reduces its focus on preparing for conflict and could reveal its capabilities to potential enemies. Using the ADF is extremely expensive, as well.
Calling in reserves instead of permanent ADF staff would mitigate some of these issues. Reservists have training and can provide personnel support with some specialist skills.
Also, it is easier to compensate and insure reservists, rather than the complicated (and sometimes contested) arrangements around compensation for volunteers and their employers.
The royal commission found more employment protection and accessible compensation would be required to ensure volunteer firefighters are not “worse off” than ADF personnel or reservists.
There was also some uncertainty in the report about the “thresholds” that must be met before seeking the assistance of the ADF — as in, when a locality has exhausted all government, community and commercial options and needs ADF support.
The Commonwealth government says it is working to clarify this.
The future of the ADF as a ‘dual use’ force
Changes are clearly needed to the ways in which we respond to disasters because, as the report makes clear, they are only going to get worse.
As I’ve argued with colleagues elsewhere, the ADF should become a “dual use” force that should respond to natural disasters both here and in the region.
In order to justify our current level of military spending at 2% of GDP, the ADF should be trained and ready to deal with the increasing risks associated with climate change, such as handling mass displacement and responding to natural disasters.
Defence should earn their keep. But these interventions should come with strict civilian controls, human rights standards and clarity about roles. The current legislation creates more uncertainty about the ADF’s role in disasters and emergencies, when what the community needs now is clarity.
The finger of blame for the Beirut explosion is pointing at Lebanon’s corrupt and criminally negligent political leadership. Amid continuing protests, the government of prime minister Hassan Diab resigned on August 10, though ministers will stay on in a caretaker role until a new cabinet is formed.
The international community has pledged aid to Lebanon’s government in exchange for political reform. But this stance requires a reversal of the international community’s existing role in Lebanon – and its complicity in the survival of the regime.
Lebanon’s power-sharing system, which sustains sectarianism and thrives on corruption, is propped up by international powers. Rather than promote meaningful reform, countries such as France, the US and the UK have historically viewed power-sharing as a stabilising force.
Based on a 1943 National Pact, Lebanon’s power-sharing formula allocates political offices along sectarian lines, including between Christian, Druze, Sunni and Shia factions. This undermines meritocracy and encourages polarisation.
Still, power-sharing in Lebanon is not a reflection of ancient sectarian hatreds. It is largely the product of the French Mandate between 1923 and 1943, which cemented sectarianism in public life. So it was ironic that when the French president, Emmanuel Macron, arrived in Beirut in the aftermath of the explosions, he called for a new pact for Lebanon in the guise of a National Unity Government.
When Lebanese power-sharing was revised to end the civil war in 1989, international actors were again involved. As a reward for joining an anti-Iraqi coalition led by the US, the international community gave Syria the green light to act as Lebanon’s guardian.
Myths of stabilisation and resilience
Lebanon is inappropriately imagined as the Switzerland of the Middle East, a place where multiple religious groups coexist and a veneer of cosmopolitanism reigns. Any attempt to transform power-sharing is resisted by warlord elites. Reforms such as phasing out sectarian appointments have been frowned upon by political leaders on the basis that they would lead to the terrifying violence seen in neighbouring countries.
The international community often frames Lebanon’s political system as the lesser evil in the context of autocratic fortresses in the neighbourhood. Rather than helping the country move to end political sectarianism, as Lebanon’s post-war peace accord stipulates, power-sharing has become an invasive species, colonising the state.
In an attempt to shield itself from the blowback effects of the Arab Spring, the international community has shifted away from policies aimed at deepening democracy in the Middle East to those of pragmatic realism. Stabilisation rather than change is the goal.
Meanwhile, Lebanon has received more than a million displaced Syrians since the civil war began in 2011. While Lebanon initially adopted an open-border policy towards Syrians fleeing violence, it closed its borders in 2014, cracking down on the livelihoods and rights of displaced people. Yet the international community has lauded Lebanon’s so-called hospitality, portraying it as a pivotal actor in the international refugee regime.
Lebanese politicians leverage the state’s value as a refugee host, warning that any destabilisation of Lebanon would trigger waves of refugees to Europe. The EU has closely cooperated with Lebanon’s governing elite since 2012 to build resilience, in programmes aimed at empowering refugee and host communities.
But the EU’s resilience-building rhetoric conceals accumulated vulnerabilities, injustices and political abnormalities. In response, civil society activists and analysts have cautioned against the EU’s cooperation with Lebanon’s corrupt elite. The false allure of regional stabilisation only consolidates elite power, rather than addressing the needs of citizens and refugees.
Lebanon’s crises have multiplied in recent years. In 2015, a massive garbage crisis epitomised the decline of public services and rising corruption. Yet, in April 2018, the international community used the Cedre Conference to pledge more than US$11 billion to strengthen and develop the Lebanese state.
Back then, the Lebanese government presented “a vision for stabilisation, growth and employment”. In return, the international community called for a follow-up mechanism to track reforms as a condition to unlock pledged grants and loans. Yet, the international community’s call for reforms remained ineffectual and couched in vague terms – and the follow-up mechanism never materialised.
In October 2019, Lebanon’s political leaders faced unprecedented protests demanding the dismantling of sectarian institutions. International powers vowed not to funnel aid to the Lebanese government unless it embarked on radical reforms.
The August 4 blast, however, imposed new realities in the architecture of international aid to Lebanon. Transformed into a site for post-disaster restructuring, Lebanon needs urgent aid. On August 9, France co-hosted an international conference that pledged US$300 million for humanitarian relief and reconstruction.
A new chance
The international community must ensure that this aid does not prop up defunct institutions and inept sectarian leaders.
Myths of stabilisation and resilience-building during overlapping crises have double-edged consequences for Lebanon. By not engaging with the roots of dispossession and conflicts, international powers promote short-term versions of resilience, stability and humanitarian protection. This papers over dysfunctional institutions and deteriorating livelihoods.
Such recipes are counterproductive. Rather than encouraging citizen resilience, they consolidate the robustness of political leaders who feel empowered enough to tread on their citizens’ suffering and hopes.
Only the Lebanese can cast off their own warlords and kleptocrats through new elections and a homegrown political system that strengthens the rule of law and weakens the grip of patronage and sectarian identities on state institutions. Yet the international community can help – by refraining from bolstering and legitimising their rule.