06/03/2022, 14.18
LEBANON
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Social assistance and benefits in Lebanon strangled by banks

by Fady Noun

The Ministry of Social Affairs wants the governor of the central bank to get private institutions to lift limits on withdrawals by social service associations. Many paramedics, healthcare workers and educators are seeking better wages and working conditions abroad. The crisis is compounded by skyrocketing prices and the lack of resources (or inability to access them).

Beirut (AsiaNews) – “We are being strangled!” said Marie F., education manager at a school for children with special needs run by the Acsauvel (Metn) association. “I can’t take it anymore!" she added.

The Ministry of Finance has set a monthly ceiling of eight million (Lebanese) pounds to the money provided by the Ministry of Social Affairs. But that's not all. the funds are handed out over four weeks!

Acsauvel just lost a speech therapist and its chief psychologist, the manager explained; now it faces the imminent departure of one of its educators.

She “perfectly” understands the reasons for such departures. “I see every day on the internet recruitment ads for paramedical staff, speech therapists, psychomotor therapists, specialist educators. Our staff are highly valued and in demand in Arab countries and Canada.”

The Acsauvel manager and hundreds of educators accompanied by children and dependents gathered yesterday morning in front of the headquarters of the Bank of Lebanon (BDL), to protest against the treatment they get from the BDL and private banks, which are paralysing their mission and forcing some of them to lay off staff or even to close their doors.

Mingling with the crowd, the Minister of Social Affairs of the outgoing government, Hector Hajjar, shared protesters’ outrage in an unvarnished tirade against the false promises by BDL Governor Riad Salameh.

Responding to a memo issued the day before by the latter, Mr Hajjar told reporters about what he had already written in the morning: "The undertaking made by the Bank of Lebanon last night to pay 40 per cent of the fees due to charities for the year 2021 is a commitment in principle. We urge the governor to translate it into practice and formally confirm this decision by issuing the necessary memos for its implementation (by private banks).”

 

One hundred dollars and one million Lebanese pounds

Sister Zahiya Frangieh, a member of the Congregation of the Daughters of Charity, was present at the morning protest. As president of the National Social Service Council, she is outraged.

The association she runs in Ajaltoun (Kesrouan) is responsible for 165 children, orphans and others, surviving “on 100 dollars in fees and a million Lebanese pounds per month," she said.

“One hundred million (Lebanese) pounds in arrears that the Ministry of Social Affairs owed us for the year 2020 have surely been transferred into our bank account. But this amount has already lost much of its value, and we’ll have to wait at least a year before we can touch the money!” she added.

According to Sister Zahiya, the number of people receiving various forms of assistance ranges between 46,000 and 50,000, depending on the year, and the number of people who serve them and are covered by various associations is between 23,000 and 25,000.

“One of the largest organisations caring for children with Down syndrome, Sesobel, has just received a blow with the departure of 48 administrative and educational staff,” explained Minister Hector Hajjar.

In his view, the ceiling of 2 million Lebanese pounds imposed by banks on weekly withdrawals is “ridiculous". "Do they know that getting water delivered today costs 1.8 million pounds?" he asked. “The few hundred thousand pounds paid out are not enough to cover the mobile phone bill!” he added.

Mr Hajjar is also up in arms against the bureaucratic harassment to which the organisations in question are subjected, on the pretext that some don’t really exist. "Things have come to the point where it takes three or four employees in each organisation to meet the audit requirements,” he said.

The minister's statement was accompanied by three other demands that reflect the difficulties faced by social assistance organisations, which he claims to have personally discussed during a long session at the governor's home.

Paying the wages

The minister sums up these demands as follows: the Ministry should directly deposit wages in banks, all restrictions on withdrawals of new money transferred to institutions by foreign donors should be lifted, and special terms ought to be granted to these organisations with regard to the ceiling on money withdrawals in “pollars” (dollars converted into pounds at an average rate set by the BDL).

In light of the situation, “we shall continue to support protest movements until these demands are met.”

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