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Pray for Lebanon: An Economic Depression Worse than Any in the Modern Era

More than a year ago, the Washington Post reported the acceleration of Lebanon’s “financial collapse” due to corruption, financial mismanagement, and overspending. Since then global news agencies have identified the crisis as one of the worst economic catastrophes of the modern era. NPR reported soaring prices and referenced the World Bank’s identification of Lebanon as “one of the worst economic crises anywhere in the world...since the 1800s.” 

Ruth Sherlock, a Beirut-based reporter for NPR, described going to an affluent neighborhood where people drive nice cars like Mercedes, SUVs, BMWs, but were gathered together waiting to get “rice and cooking oil” from a church charity distributing food and meals. The failure of the financial system has been a great equalizer for the rich and the poor, all the while having the most devastating effects on Lebanese who were already under-resourced. According to UNICEF, the vast majority of Lebanese (more than 70 percent) are experiencing some type of food insecurity “and don’t have enough food or money to buy food.” The United States Institute of Peace (USIP) has identified realities in Lebanon as a “cascading crisis.” USIP cites the hardships the country has experienced over the past several years as just the beginning including what the World Bank calls the “largest peace-time economic crisis,” COVID19 effects on civil society and the economy, and the August 4, 2020 Port of Beirut explosion. 

Yet, one of the largest concerns is the geopolitical fallout that could occur and destabilize the already fragile geopolitical relationships between Lebanon and her neighbors.

In large part, many Americans have a limited understanding of what is happening in Lebanon. The humanitarian crisis has left the majority of Lebanese in need of food, water, fuel, and limited access to their personal financial resources and wealth. Yet, one of the largest concerns is the geopolitical fallout that could occur and destabilize the already fragile geopolitical relationships between Lebanon and her neighbors. The World Bank has long identified Lebanon as a “Fragility, Conflict, and Violence (FCV) State,” and some are describing the devastating impacts of this economic crisis as worse than during the 15-year Lebanese Civil War (April 1975 to October 1990). Might this economic crisis lead to war? That is the greatest concern. 

What are the fundamental issues creating such hardship and economic fragility? The World Bank reports Lebanon’s GDP as $55 Billion in 2018, which dropped to $33 Billion in 2020.* Often war and conflict cause these types of fluctuations, but violence does not seem to be the immediate cause today. The Middle East Institute identifies four primary causes of the crisis: public sector debt, the banking sector lending deposits (more than three-quarters) to the government, no real economic growth for over a decade, and the lack of political stability and political leadership with the power to implement the necessary reforms.** In addition, the effects of COVID-19, the almost complete elimination of the tourism industry because of global restricted travel, changes in subsidies, and the decrease of critical and essential imports and other financial considerations all contribute to this virtual economic collapse. For example, in 2020, merchandise imports dropped by 45 percent which drove a 54.8 percent decrease in the balance of trade (BOT) deficit.*** 

More than half of the population of Lebanon is now below the national poverty line.

What does this mean for the average person living in Lebanon? One of the greatest concerns is mass poverty. According to the World Bank’s 2021 Lebanon Economic Monitor, more than half of the population of Lebanon is now below the national poverty line. Access to the basic needs of food, water, and electricity are all in question. According to a press release by UNICEF: “More than four million people, including one million refugees, are at immediate risk of losing access to safe water in Lebanon...estimates that most water pumping will gradually cease across the country in the next four to six weeks.”**** UNICEF estimates the cost of water will soon be prohibitive and “too much to bear - as [the cost] represents 263 percent of the monthly average income.” Access to fuel is also a critical issue. According to Arab News, the fuel shortages in Lebanon started at the beginning of Summer 2021. Electricity in Lebanon is intermittent and it is not uncommon to see growing lines of people waiting for food and fuel across the country. 

These shortages have also created a black market for fuel, some of which is being transported via Syria. Previously, the Lebanese government subsidized fuel (gasoline/diesel) but is scheduled to fully lift all subsidies by the end of September. An unfortunate side effect of this is that, “Security raids have unveiled enterprises have been hoarding millions of tons of subsidized fuel across the country, to be later sold at higher prices.” The issue isn’t whether or not there is enough fuel, it is how to get access at affordable prices. US Members of Congress, like Senator Chris Murphy, are concerned Hezbollah, a political and military faction that is recognized by the US government as a terrorist organization, will depend on Iran to address the fuel crisis. 

Not only do these realities contribute to a “humanitarian catastrophe” they also could “provoke a total breakdown of security”

In addition to food insecurity, limited access to water, and fuel shortages, access to medicine and basic health needs is increasingly problematic. One of the effects of the economic situation is a shortage of medicine, which has forced Lebanese to travel to Turkey to “stock up on vital drugs for family and friends.” Pharmacies have been struggling to obtain even basic products and the Lebanese government recently decided to stop subsidizing medicine. Businesswoman Hala Walid: “Every visit I buy loads of medication for friends knowing how scarce it has become. One cannot even find simple medicines such as paracetamol, aspirin, Flagyl, or Nexium at Lebanese pharmacies.” An unnamed Turkish pharmacist: “My coworker who speaks Arabic attends to Lebanese clients. What I’ve seen is horrible. He helps them fill their bags with meds.” He noted that one of his customers recently paid more than 10,000 Turkish lira ($1,200) for medicines.”

USIP highlights that not only do these realities contribute to a “humanitarian catastrophe” they also could “provoke a total breakdown of security” where the Lebanese Armed Forces are no longer able to do their duty, a part of which is to keep more extreme military groups at bay. Mona Yacoubian, senior advisor to the vice president of Middle East and North Africa, testified on July 29, 2021 at a hearing on “Lebanon: Assessing Political Paralysis, Economic Crisis and Challenge for U.S. Policy,” that a country-wide social explosion may occur on the horizon which could include “widespread social unrest, rioting, and armed clashes” not to say what the regional implications could be on the Southern border with increased tensions between Hezbollah and Israel, or what Iranian intervention might look like in the delicate balance of regional geopolitics. The humanitarian catastrophe must be a major concern because of the impacts on the people of Lebanon, beyond that the United States and the world can’t ignore the possible implications of a destabilized political and military regime in Lebanon. 

Churches throughout Lebanon are doing their best to respond to the immediate needs that they see, all the while also being directly affected by the economic instability and lack of access to fuel, food, and other resources. Dr. Michael Abs, secretary-general of the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) said in an interview the MECC and local churches are responding to immediate needs by providing food parcels to respond to the regular occurrence of seeing people “in the garbage containers and in the streets searching for food.” The Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS) remains committed to telling stories and raising awareness about the realities Christians and all Lebanese are facing in these challenging days. ABTS President Elie Haddad said in an August 2021 statement that it seems for most Lebanese “hope is fading rapidly” and that people are left with “ultimate despair.” He lamented “what can the Church say without resorting to empty and meaningless words?” Haddad called the people of Lebanon and the world to the Good News of Jesus Christ, to receive comfort from the message of his salvation. Haddad also implored people to respond by addressing the devastating material realities of poverty resulting from the economic crisis in Lebanon today. 

May we pray together for Lebanon and do all that we can to stand in solidarity with the Lebanese church - all the while responding to the effects of the economic devastation on the Lebanese people experiencing poverty and despair. 

If you are interested in learning more about how to pray, engage in advocacy on behalf of the Lebanese church and people, or give - visit these organizations: Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS), Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP), Middle East Council of Churches (MECC), and so many others. 

*World Bank Group, “Lebanon Economic Monitor: Lebanon Sinking (To the Top 3),” Spring 2021, xi.

** Hussein and Haddad, “Infographic.”

*** World Bank Group, “Lebanon Economic Monitor: Lebanon Sinking (To the Top 3),” Spring 2021, xi.

**** UNICEF, “Water Supply Systems on the Verge of Collapse in Lebanon: Over 71 per Cent of People Risk Losing Access to Water,”

Photo by Piotr Chrobot on Unsplash


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