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The war in Ukraine is driving hunger in Lebanon

April 26, 2022

After years of political and financial crises, Lebanese people are now also in danger of going hungry. Germany has promised more food aid as imports from Ukraine and Russia dwindle.

German Development Minister Svenja Schulze visits a community kitchen in Beirut
German Development Minister Svenja Schulze visits a community kitchen in BeirutImage: Thomas Koehler/photothek/picture alliance

Normally, breaking fast is a joyful celebration during the holy month of Ramadan. But the women of the "Matbakh el Kell" community kitchen in Beirut, Lebanon, are cooking with local supplies just to prevent starvation. Hundreds of food packages stand ready for delivery, destined for people who would not be able to break fast without this help.

On 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 right. Using regional foods, local women are being given jobs and are able to feed their families. At the same time, the kitchen's output is helping people in dire need.

"Matbakh el Kell" is located in a neighborhood that was severely damaged by the Beirut port blast in August 2020. What were once homes are now concrete ruins. Window panes are missing, entire walls and facades have crumbled. The roof of a former gas station lies on the ground as if folded up, and the gas pumps are rusted over.

"We see that normal people can no longer afford their daily food," the minister said, promising another €10 million ($10.6 million) in aid to the World Food Programme (WFP) in Lebanon.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has also exacerbated the food crisis in Lebanon. "Putin is also waging a war of hunger," Schulze said. "Food prices are rising because Ukraine is now unable to make deliveries."

Lebanon is in a dangerous state of dependency — nearly all of its grain is imported. According to UNICEF, 80% of the wheat in Lebanon comes from Russia and Ukraine. Compounding this issue are skyrocketing food prices around the world and a lack of storage space for grain due to the destroyed silos at the port.

Svenja Schulze views the destroyed grain silos at the Beirut port
Schulze views the destroyed grain silos at the Beirut portImage: Thomas Koehler/photothek/IMAGO

Four crises in two years

The ruins of the grain silos still stand at the port, a symbol of the desperate situation across the entire country.

"In less than two years, there have been four successive major crises," says Sami Nader, director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs (LISA). "And they have combined to create an aggravated crisis that Lebanon is now suffering: The economic and financial crisis in 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 to ensure that more food is cultivated right here, so that…the Lebanese population is able to provide for itself," she said.

The minister hopes the new government will address the issue. Lebanon's election is three weeks away, but the outlook is bleak amidst chronic political instability.

"This is not a stable situation," Schulze said. "It's not easy to advance political reforms here either, but that has to change. We can't help here permanently, there must also be a commitment from the government."

Lebanon fears food crisis

Reliant on outside help

Lebanon was once called the "Switzerland of the Middle East" because of its wealth. Now, 80% of the population live below the poverty line.

"The purchasing power of the Lebanese is dwindling by the day. On top of that, the Lebanese pound has lost 90% of its value against the US dollar," economist Sami Nader said. "But what makes the situation worse is that there is no sunlight 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 — on the condition that the Lebanese government implements far-reaching reforms. Nader, however, remains pessimistic: "This is just ink on paper. The government has submitted a draft plan for financial reconstruction to the IMF to start financing. But is the government capable of implementing this plan? The answer is no."

Aid organizations have also called for the government to step up.

"For us as the World Food Programme, it is extremely important that solutions are negotiated that are supported and driven by a political will," says Ute Klamert, assistant executive director of the WFP. "Otherwise, we will keep moving from emergency to emergency."

Ensuring aid evades 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 function like electronic food vouchers. With these, those affected can buy food in more than 400 grocery stores. It's a model that can serve as an example to others: 100% of the money and food is meant to get to where it's needed most.

Meanwhile, 23-year-old Lynn continued to pack food in Matbakh el Kell in Beirut: Coleslaw, a rice dish, and some fruit. What she earns here also helps her parents and brother, she said. She has just finished school and dreams of one day studying at a university. But a lot has to change for that to happen, in Lebanon and in other parts of the world.

This article was originally written in German.

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