Lebanon's invisibility trap

7 March 2022

Beyond shocking numbers and solemn statements, the reality of Lebanon’s poverty is difficult to grasp. Last September, the United Nations estimated that 82% of the population lived with some form of deprivation. However, poor Lebanese have long been, and remain today, far from the public eye, and emerging forms of vulnerability are mostly hidden. Worse, poverty—both old and new—creates costs further down the line, such as bigger health bills that go unaccounted for. Poverty and invisibility thus feed each other: The former pushes people out of view, even encouraging them to hide, while the latter makes it difficult to support them, only deepening their hardship in the long run.

The ever-invisible poor

Lebanon has always hosted a large population that lives from hand to mouth, contrary to the country’s projected image of relative wealth and joie de vivre. The World Bank ranked it as a middle-income country, with a GDP per capita equivalent to more than $30,000 per year in the past decade. However, this abundance was unevenly distributed: In 2014, the World Inequality Lab estimated that the top 10% of the population took home more than half of the national income. Meanwhile, the exact share of households struggling to make ends meet remained unknown.

Low-income households would indeed be found less in city centers than on the fringes of society: in derelict suburbs, remote villages, and isolated refugee camps. “It’s a problem to only focus on cities when the destitute areas of Lebanon’s rural regions are already so invisible,” said a Lebanese economist, criticizing a UN project that focuses on documenting poverty in urban settings. To this day, foreign visitors can easily stay oblivious to the depth and breadth of Lebanese poverty. The country has few beggars, unlike Egypt, and little conspicuous homelessness compared to Europe or the US.

A contributing factor to this invisibility is the fact that destitution in Lebanon is not treated as a public concern per se. The country’s long history of poverty is not discussed openly, nor has it spurred government policies. Rather, the phenomenon tends to be perceived as imported: Most often, the poor are cast either as migrants or refugees. Tellingly, beggars in urban settings are usually assumed to be Syrian, even when they are actually Lebanese—who sometimes pose as Syrian to fit the stereotype… While refugee needs are framed as a political issue and the international community’s responsibility, poverty as such is left alone, considered to be a private matter.

This logic informs the organic, everyday ways in which Lebanese tend to their own poor. The middle class actively supports the underprivileged in its midst, but through very discreet horizontal charity networks. Some are informal: The owner of a corner shop gives credit to a struggling local family; residents of a building make sure that their neighbor who just lost their job has enough to eat; wealthier families fund extracurricular activities for impoverished students who take part at no cost, and so on. Other forms of support are coordinated by faith-based charities or local, neighborhood, and village-level associations. These networks are widespread and crucial to the survival of many Lebanese, but the national scale of poverty nonetheless remains hidden.

The current crisis has not put poor people under the spotlight. Most are in fact left further out of sight, if only because the hikes in fuel prices make transportation prohibitive. For the same reason, they can’t access work opportunities or support structures, which are concentrated in urban centers. At the same time, the high cost and growing unreliability of telecommunications impede remote interactions. Lebanese charities and civil society groups likewise struggle to fulfill their mission, as exorbitant fuel and low-quality internet make it hard to reach and serve remote areas.

Worse, as a growing number of Lebanese need help, the long-standing poor face increased competition for attention and resources. New, middle-class problems have taken the lion’s share of media coverage. On-and-off fuel shortages, for example, dramatically affected the commute to work—leaving white-collar workers waiting hours to fill their car tanks, or paying surge prices for scarce taxis. Scenes of cars in interminable queues made for dramatic media coverage at home and abroad. Less discussed was the dearth of public transport, although the most vulnerable have no other way of going to work, reaching public schools, or making it to dispensaries in urban centers.

With the middle class falling into crisis, poorer Lebanese have become even more exposed. The former now employ fewer of the latter in menial, informal jobs. They also tip far less than before. Solidarity networks are stretched to the limit. On the one side, a rising number of people seek ever more help. On the other, a shrinking pool of individuals can spare fewer resources and less time. A founding member of a Lebanese charity revealed her surprise: “I received a call from a friend who used to volunteer with us. This time, he asked me if he could get a food box for his own family.”


The hidden struggles of the middle class

As much as middle-class Lebanese suffer from the country’s collapse, they also conceal their difficulties so well that their predicament is difficult to see. First, people subtly change their consumption habits, saving resources by switching to more affordable goods. They buy cheaper Turkish pasta sauce, rather than the Italian kind. They procure lower quality home appliances. They repair more than they replace, and buy second-hand. Lebanese also give up on selective expenses; private schools, individual insurance plans, or even meat may fall off the household budget to preserve essentials. In one stark example, a general practitioner sighed with sadness over the choices some of his patients make: “To save on the cost of medication, they take their pills one day out of three.”

On the supply side, retailers have adapted to meet the restrictions of middle-class consumers. In some cases, products remain identical, with only superficial differences: Lebanese still find Lay’s crisps on the shelves, only with packaging in Turkish rather than English. Other shifts involve giving less of the same: Whereas private neighborhood generators used to provide electricity whenever the national grid cut, they now operate only at certain hours; by sparing fuel, they marginally decrease their bills to subscribers. This new economy of constraint eventually transforms markets: Struggling Lebanese seeking some extra cash sell their possessions to those who would rather buy second-hand. A popular website selling used goods, OLX Lebanon, is now receiving many more visits than usual.

However, there is a limit to how much Lebanese consumers can adapt. A speech therapist explained how she manages: “I can’t live with what my Lebanese patients pay, so I am searching for two or three patients in the Gulf who can settle their fees in dollars. That is enough to sustain my work here.” To stay afloat, middle-class Lebanese seek revenues in dollars. Foreign currency comes from multiple sources: relatives working abroad who send remittances; renting property, or subletting a room, to foreigners; working for international employers or clients; and support from the aid sector. Jobs with NGOs and international organizations that pay salaries in dollars have become a holy grail. Yet dollar earnings evaporate faster than before: While prices in Lebanese pounds keep rising, people with income must also look after ever more relatives and friends in need.

Despite its myriad adjustments, the Lebanese middle class is nonetheless remarkably successful in keeping up appearances. This demographic has always stretched its income and rationalized its expenses to maintain a façade. Long before the crisis broke out, Lebanese worked several jobs, took on debt, or benefited from cost-cutting schemes, such as the government’s freeze on rents for contracts signed before 1992. Time-tested strategies are taken further today: Most people settle for a bit less of everything, from fancy food and entertainment to electricity, heating, and mobility.

If these small shifts enable people to carry on despite the depth of the economic crisis, they also maintain an illusion of normalcy. Roads are almost as busy as before, and Lebanese still crowd bars and restaurants, mountain resorts, and private beaches. A confectioner in Beirut explained her surprise: “Everyone struggles, but then my friend wanted to book a table at a restaurant for Christmas lunch. She called several weeks ahead and couldn’t find even one table available. Everything was already fully booked!” A Western diplomat touring the country on an official visit was similarly astonished: “I was expecting a different vibe in Beirut, but everywhere what you see is people eating out and getting a drink!”

Self-destruct strategies

Vibrant individual strategies for muddling through in the short-term are often costly in the long run, both individually and for society at large. First, quick fixes can have long-term financial repercussions: Failing to renew a private insurance policy today might mean that a patient will face an unaffordable private hospital bill down the line. In the absence of a functioning public health system, patients are likely to delay care until their condition becomes critical, further increasing the cost of treatment.

Similarly, buying cheap can end up meaning paying more. Lower-quality appliances are likely to fail quickly, putting hard-earned dollars to waste. A typical example is the unbranded “Uninterrupted Power Supply” (UPS), which households buy to keep the internet running during power cuts, and which can wear out within weeks. Likewise, some families invest considerable money in an Alternative Power Supply (APS), which stores electricity from the grid in large, low-tech batteries. These can have a remarkably short life cycle of a few months, forcing customers to replace them much sooner than they had imagined.

Such hidden, delayed costs contribute to the invisible impoverishment of Lebanon’s residents over time. Cheaper food, to cite a trend more worrying still, may fill children’s stomachs, but it fails to provide the right nutrients and usually contains excessive amounts of sugar and salt. Both, in turn, increase the risks of these children developing chronic diseases as they grow up: high blood pressure, heart conditions, diabetes, low immunity, and so on.

Second, individual strategies to deal with the crisis can end up imperceptibly spreading the costs more generally across society. The APS craze is a case in point: When more fortunate households equip themselves to suck as much power as they can out of the grid, the amount of electricity available to others decreases. Worse, such practices (for which the grid wasn’t originally designed) contribute to making electricity unstable for all. This is particularly dangerous for home appliances that run with motors, such as fridges and washing machines, which break down more frequently as a result—or worse, catch on fire.

Through decentralized solutions, society also misses out on economies of scale: Individual provision of power is much more expensive, overall, than collective electricity generation. Moreover, when everyone makes their own private arrangements, the market is no longer open nor transparent, but made up of innumerable, invisible relationships between one provider and one consumer. A customer purchasing a solar system, for instance, has virtually no understanding of the technologies, standards, or safety measures implied. In such markets, the seller decides the price almost at will, as buyers have no reference points except word of mouth, and therefore little bargaining power. Most residents have few resources and energy to scope out multiple providers and find reasonable deals.

This problem may also apply to ordinary goods that become harder to find, such as medication or even diesel. At the highest point of the fuel shortage crisis over the summer of 2021, black-market prices for a gallon of gas were in many cases outrageous even in US dollars, but consumers who were desperate to get their car going couldn’t spend the extra time and energy seeking out a fairer alternative.

While short-term strategies may help individual households get by, the long-term costs are shared by all. Haphazard decentralized solutions, such as power supplies involving outdated battery technologies, ultimately cause enormous environmental damage. Meanwhile, do-it-yourself fixes also encourage the state to further divest itself from sorting out essential services, as the burden of doing so shifts onto society. In this dynamic, the creeping costs of Lebanon’s crisis hit the most vulnerable—and the least visible—the hardest.

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Eventually, vulnerable Lebanese will plunge further into obscurity, following a mechanism that works similarly to what is known as “the poverty trap.” In the latter, structural barriers to escaping poverty become insurmountable for moneyless people, because the way out requires health, education, mobility, and therefore a certain threshold of resources. Poverty thus becomes a self-reinforcing downward spiral, resulting from structural dysfunctions of the economy rather than individual choices or motivation.

The invisibility trap describes the same logic. As Lebanese society hides its struggles and puts up a brave front, the suffering of its people is becoming ever less obvious, and thus ever harder to diagnose and remedy. Resorting to individual fixes, on a massive scale, reinforces the idea that poverty is in fact an individual problem that is best solved one person or household at a time, rather than a systemic problem requiring more fundamental changes. This is a trap for Lebanon more broadly: By making the extent of its economic collapse mostly invisible to the eye, it will deepen its downward plunge. At this point, saving appearances is the best way to spare nothing else.


Rosalie Berthier


Illustration credits: Quicaillerie ambulante dans la Bekka by Emma Aubin Boltanski; Lay's nature by org-pepsico-france, Napoletana - Product by kiliweb, Nutella Ferrero 975 g by thaialagata per Open Food Fact / licensed by CC.


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