Normally, breaking the fast is a joyful celebration during the holy month of Ramadan. But the women of the “Matbakh el Kell” community kitchen in Beirut, Lebanon, cook with local products just to avoid starvation. Hundreds of food parcels are ready to be delivered, intended for people who could not break the fast without this help.
During her trip to the Lebanese capital, German Development Minister Svenja Schulze visited the kitchen, praising the project as a prime example of sustainable aid done well. By using regional foods, local women get jobs and can feed their families. At the same time, the production of the kitchen helps people in need.
“Matbakh el Kell” is located in a neighborhood that was badly damaged by the Beirut port explosion in August 2020. What were once houses are now concrete ruins. Windows are missing, entire walls and facades have collapsed. The roof of an old gas station sits on the ground as if folded down and the gas pumps are rusty.
“We see that normal people can no longer afford their daily food,” the minister said, pledging an additional 10 million euros ($10.6 million) in aid to the World Food Program (WFP) in Lebanon.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also exacerbated the food crisis in Lebanon. “Putin is also waging a hunger war,” Schulze said. “Food prices are rising because Ukraine is no longer able to make deliveries.”
Lebanon is in a dangerous state of dependency – almost all of its grain is imported. According to UNICEF, 80% of wheat in Lebanon comes from Russia and Ukraine. This problem is compounded by soaring food prices around the world and the lack of storage space for grain due to destroyed silos at the port.
Schulze looks at the destroyed grain silos at the Port of Beirut
Four crises in two years
The ruins of the grain silos still remain on the port, a symbol of the desperate situation throughout the country.
“In less than two years, there have been four successive major crises,” explains Sami Nader, director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs (LISA). “And they combined to create an aggravated crisis that Lebanon is currently experiencing: the economic and financial crisis of 2019, the COVID pandemic, the explosion in the port of Beirut, and finally the war in Ukraine.”
According to Schulze, Lebanon needs long-term solutions as well as short-term aid to avoid further humanitarian crises.
“The Lebanese government must help ensure that more food is grown here, so that…the Lebanese people can sustain themselves,” she said.
The Minister hopes that the new government will look into the matter. Lebanese elections are three weeks away, but the outlook is bleak amid chronic political instability.
“It’s not a stable situation,” Schulze said. “It’s not easy to push political reforms here either, but that has to change. We can’t help here all the time, there has to be a commitment from the government as well.”
Dependent on outside help
Lebanon was once called the “Switzerland of the Middle East” because of its wealth. Today, 80% of the population lives below the poverty line.
“The purchasing power of the Lebanese is decreasing day by day. Moreover, the Lebanese pound has lost 90% of its value against the US dollar,” said economist Sami Nader. “But what makes it worse is that there is no sun on the horizon. There is no clear solution.”
The country is now hoping for a rescue loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Lebanon is to receive $3 billion – provided the Lebanese government implements far-reaching reforms. Nader, however, remains pessimistic: “This is just ink on paper. The government has submitted a draft financial reconstruction plan to the IMF to start financing. But is the government able to implement this plan? The answer is no.”
Humanitarian organizations have also called on the government to intervene.
“For us, as the World Food Programme, it is extremely important that solutions are negotiated, supported and guided by political will,” says Ute Klamert, Deputy Executive Director of WFP. “Otherwise, we will continue to go from emergency to emergency.”
Ensuring aid is free from corruption
But the Lebanese, who have suffered from widespread corruption for years, do not trust the government. Too often in the past, they have seen aid money end up in the wrong hands.
To ensure that the aid money does not disappear, the WFP has set up a new program in Lebanon. It distributes cards that work like electronic meal vouchers. With these, those affected can purchase food from more than 400 grocery stores. It’s a model that can serve as an example to others: 100% of money and food is meant to go where it’s needed most.
Meanwhile, Lynn, 23, continued to pack food at Matbakh el Kell in Beirut: coleslaw, a rice dish and fruit. What she earns here also helps her parents and brother, she says. She has just finished her studies and dreams of going to university one day. But a lot has to change for that to happen, in Lebanon and other parts of the world.
This article was originally written in German.
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