Beirut explosion bares pitfalls of sending aid to Lebanon

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Words are written by Lebanese citizens in front of the scene of Tuesday's explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020. Public fury over the massive explosion in Beirut took a new turn Saturday night as protesters stormed government institutions and clashed for hours with security forces, who responded with heavy volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

BEIRUT – Hospitals and schools, then shattered and bent water pipes, then the crater that once was Lebanon’s port.

The rebuilding needs of Lebanon are immense, but so is the question of how to ensure the millions of dollars promised in international aid is not diverted in a country notorious for missing money, invisible infrastructure projects and its refusal to open the books.

And the port — the epicenter of the explosion that shattered Beirut, the center of Lebanon’s import-based economy, and a source of graft so lucrative that Lebanon’s political factions were willing to divide its control so everyone could get a piece — sits at the heart of the fears.

Sunday’s international donor teleconference raised a total of 252.7 million euro ($298 million) in emergency aid, organizers said.

The conference was hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron, who was mobbed last week by tearful victims of the Beirut ammonium nitrate explosion begging him to ensure the corruption they blame for the blast that devastated the capital does not profit from its destruction. The French presidency said France contributed 30 million euros ($35 million).

The head of the International Monetary Fund, which wants an audit of the national bank before handing over any money, was clear: No money without changes to ensure ordinary Lebanese aren’t crushed by debt whose benefits they never see.

“Current and future generations of Lebanese must not be saddled with more debts than they can ever repay,” IMF head Kristalina Georgieva said during the conference. “Commitment to these reforms will unlock billions of dollars for the benefit of the Lebanese people.”

International leaders, government officials and international organization participated Sunday in the teleconference co-organized by France and the United Nations to bring emergency aid to Lebanon, including President Donald Trump.