Lebanon’s economic crisis hasn’t just impoverished the country’s people—it has also brought the Lebanese state to the brink of collapse. Now, international donors have stepped in to sponsor the country’s public institutions and services, and to underwrite some of the Lebanese state’s most basic functions.

Foreign aid to Lebanon is nothing new. Since the end of its civil war in 1990, the country has received billions in development assistance. This aid is different, however. Donor countries and institutions are now helping pay for Lebanon’s public education, health care, social assistance, security, and more—even sponsoring partial salaries for teachers and soldiers. It’s the type of aid, donors told me, that ordinarily goes to countries devastated by war.

It’s not clear that all of this foreign assistance is wise, or that it can last. Much of it appears ad hoc and uncoordinated. Nobody really seems to be in charge, even as this assistance—to the Lebanese health system, for example—is helping reorient essential service sectors. And without a shared sense of where this aid is going, or where it ought to go, it risks further distorting Lebanon’s politics and national development. There needs to be a more open, comprehensive inventory of donors’ various interventions in Lebanon and, with that accounting in hand, a frank discussion about which of these programs are genuinely worthwhile and good for the country.

Aid to Lebanon Evolves

Since the start of Lebanon’s crisis in 2019, foreign donors have mostly refused to provide development assistance to Lebanon unless its ruling elites implement basic reforms necessary to stabilize the country’s economy. They have not, and the crisis has become only more prolonged and extreme.

Foreign donors will only keep the Lebanese state on life support for so long.

At the same time, though, these donors have continued to sponsor a parallel humanitarian response meant to respond to the effects of neighboring Syria’s conflict on Lebanon—a response primarily targeted at Syrian refugees, but that is increasingly helping tend to Lebanese suffering through their own crisis. Much of this assistance is delivered to or through Lebanon’s public institutions, including the public education system.

Now, foreign donor countries have increased their support for Lebanon’s public institutions precisely when the Lebanese government’s own spending has cratered. In 2022, foreign donors provided hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance to or through Lebanese institutions; according to a senior UN official, more than $300 million was delivered through UN agencies. Meanwhile, Lebanon’s state expenditures in 2022 fell to an all-time (nominal) low of $1.2 billion—down from $17.6 billion in 2018. Against that rock-bottom spending figure, donors’ assistance seems enough to reshape the Lebanese state.

For my latest Century International report, “Adopt a Ministry: How Foreign Aid Threatens Lebanon’s Institutions,” I spoke with donor country officials, representatives of international organizations and NGOs, Lebanese officials and politicians, Lebanese experts and more about how this external support for Lebanon’s public institutions and services might, simultaneously, be a lifeline for the country’s residents and also have all kinds of perverse effects on the country’s long-term development.

Bad Feelings

Nobody seems particularly happy about how aid to Lebanon is working now; already the relationship between donor representatives and Lebanon’s officials and elites has become toxic. Most of this aid is technically part of the Syria refugee response, which complicates negotiations between donor representatives and Lebanese officials over any sort of reform conditionality. But with no progress on basic reforms that might stabilize Lebanon’s economy, donor fatigue—or “Lebanon fatigue,” as one diplomat put it—may be taking hold.

It’s easy to see how this assistance could help people in the country, including both vulnerable Lebanese and refugees. But it could also weaken Lebanon’s state and institutions, perpetuate exploitative elite rule, solidify new relationships of dependency, and further diminish the country’s already impaired sovereignty.

International donors, by choosing where to direct their aid, may be effectively deciding which of the country’s public institutions will survive. But those donors’ interests are not Lebanon’s interests.

For their part, the donors ought to reassess what aid is really humanitarian—so vital for helping the vulnerable that they’ll continue delivering it no matter what the Lebanese government does—and what aid can be made conditional and withheld if the government refuses to reform. But Lebanese, too, deserve to have a debate about this assistance, and what it is doing to their country. If the country’s ruling elites won’t do it, there are others—capable Lebanese bureaucrats, researchers and journalists—who can.

There are good reasons for this assistance, and ways it can benefit Lebanon in the long term. But if that is to happen, Lebanon and its international partners need to ask some hard questions about whether this assistance makes sense; whether and how it is contributing to the development of Lebanon and its institutions; and how to square the interests of foreign donors, the Lebanese government, and Lebanon’s people. After all, foreign donors will only keep the Lebanese state on life support for so long.

Header image: The headquarters building of Électricité du Liban on April 28, 2022. The beleaguered utility’s building was damaged by the Beirut Port blast almost two years earlier. Source: Marwan Tahtah/Getty images