Reforms Are Now as Vital to Lebanon as Emergency Aid | Opinion

"If reforms are not made, Lebanon will continue to suffer." That was the warning from French President Emmanual Macron, who arrived on a solidarity visit in Beirut on Thurdsay morning. Macron's own geo-political interests in Lebanon and France's colonial history in the country may cast some pall on his credibility. But he is nevertheless correct. Lebanon is currently in the middle of a humanitarian crisis that started long before Tuesday's horrific explosion. Political corruption has led to the suffering of millions of Lebanon's citizens and residents, and it's time for systemic reform.

As a refugee fleeing war myself, and as someone who has worked in poverty alleviation and disaster response these past 12 years, I understand that political and humanitarian crises often go hand in hand. Bad governance and corruption lead to crumbling infrastructures and political strife, which in turn lead to humanitarian catastrophes. This dynamic is particularly relevant in Lebanon, a small country with a population similar to that of Indiana.

The humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence are grounded in International Humanitarian Law. These are important principles—but not taking sides is not the same as not taking a position.

This is particularly important in Lebanon, where not too long ago, a brutal civil war pitted members of Lebanon's 18 religious communities against each other, and sowed the seeds of a political culture of patronage and lack of transparency. The humanitarian community must support the Lebanese people's desire for genuine political reform.

Online are hundreds of videos from Lebanese citizens urging the international community to give aid directly to non-government players, as they fear any aid money given to the government will be consumed by corruption. It is a sad state of affairs when citizens trust private NGOs more than their own government to protect their lives and provide the basic essentials so badly needed, particularly after Tuesday's explosion which rendered one in every seven Beirutis homeless. That's the equivalent of more than a million homeless New Yorkers.

The reality, however, is that these newly homeless are not the only victims in Lebanon. They join a growing number of residents who have been suffering after years of neglect and under-investment. This includes the 1.5 million refugees who are settled in Lebanon.

In cities such as Tripoli, the poorest in the country, 60 percent of the population survive on an income of only $1 per day. Receiving food and medical aid from humanitarian organizations is the only way that many are able to survive. Lebanese people fear that poverty will end more lives than COVID-19, which too has ravaged this besieged country.

It is impossible to treat these humanitarian symptoms without understanding the (often political) diseases. And Lebanon's tragedy isn't just about bad humanitarian outcomes, it is about bad governance and a lack of transparency. Transparency International ranks Lebanon as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, in the bottom quartile of states, neighboured in the rankings by Liberia and Russia.

It is not surprising to see that political reform is almost as high a priority for the Lebanese as requests for medical aid or emergency housing. If we are serious about tackling poverty and inequality, and achieving noble objectives like the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, we need democtratic and transparent governments on our side.

Lebanon plays a very important geo-political role in the region and both Western nations and regional powers are vying for influence in this small but strategically important nation. As well as neutrality in humanitarian aid, there is a need for neutrality in demanding good governance. That good governance must apply across party and sectarian lines, and not simply be a PR exercise as part of shifting global or regional alliances.

The political elite that has ruled the country since the end of the civil war 30 years ago will be resistant to change. They must know that it is only by prioritising the needs of their citizens and residents, and not by cutting deals with President Macron or anyone else, that their nation can survive and thrive.

Conditioning aid on political change is often counterproductive and inhumane since it leads to populations effectively being held hostage by their political masters. But reform - true reform, in the interests of the people of Lebanon - must be part of our response to the humanitarian tragedy unfolding in the country.

The explosion rocked Beirut on Tuesday, but the fuse was lit a long, long time ago.

Oussama Mezoui is President & CEO of Penny Appeal USA.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.