Update on the Current USAID Activities in Lebanon
Thomas A. Staal,
Acting U.S. Agency for International Development Mission Director for Lebanon
Foreign Press Center Roundtable Briefing
August 20, 2008
MODERATOR: So I’d like to introduce Mr. Thomas Staal, who is the acting mission director in Lebanon for the U.S. Agency for International Development. And he’s here to obviously address the – provide you with an update on current USAID – USAID activities in Lebanon. And without further ado, I’ll hand it over to Mr. Staal.
MR. STAAL: Great. Thank you very much. And thank you for you coming. I appreciate your interest. And as Algis just mentioned, I’m the acting director. I’m only there for a few months, unfortunately. Our regular director will be arriving in October, but they asked me to come and spend some time there. I’ve been in Lebanon before over the years, so I have some background. I went to AUB as a student, actually, back in (inaudible) in the old days, before the Civil War, even. And I’ve been back to visit a number of times, so I’ve always loved Lebanon. I love coming to visit and to meet people there. I have some friends there and stuff. So it was good to have a chance and to get to know the USAID program.
And one of the things that, when I was there and I met some of my Lebanese friends and told them about what USAID was doing, then they would – they were saying: Well, how come you aren’t talking about this? You need to tell more about the good things that USAID is doing.” I’m sure you know USAID is part of the U.S. Government. We’re the foreign aid program. We’ve been in Lebanon for many years. In fact, one of the things I was looking at is we have an official agreement with the government, dated 1951, okay. So USAID has been there more than 50 years. And we have a large program, especially when you consider that it’s a small country, okay.
QUESTION: And I thought it was, I think, agriculturally based program.
MR. STAAL: That’s certainly one of the components, but we have – yeah, and for many years, had agriculture, but we have many other things, too. So I wanted to give you a sort of a broad perspective of the program, give you some ideas of things we’re doing. A few examples in more detail and then, you know, be open to your questions. Okay.
I’ve worked in – for USAID for almost 20 years in a number of countries, both in the Middle East and in Africa. So, you know, I’ve seen quite a variety. And Lebanon is one of our nicer programs. It has a good balance of things. We’re focused in several major areas. One is what we call economic growth, economic opportunities, looking at job creation and getting, you know, economic activity going and improving in Lebanon. Number two, water and environment issues. As you know, Lebanon has some water resources, but they’re vulnerable to pollution and so on. So we’re looking at environmental issues and how we can help those. And then the other main one is what we call democratic governance, okay. Looking at the capacity of the government to do the things that the government is supposed to do, especially at the local level, municipalities and so on.
And then sort of a cross-cutting theme is education, in enhancing opportunities from primary school, all the way through university, okay, and in all these areas. So those are sort of our broad areas. The major focus is at the local level. And not – I mean, we’re doing some with national, because you have to look at national policies. But the major focus is really at the municipality level, at the community level, small farmers, you know, in terms of agriculture at the local level, where it really touches the people.
Obviously lots of coordination and collaboration with local government officials, with local NGOs, business leaders, youth groups. Everything is done very collaborative. A lot of the ideas come from the people themselves for our programs. It’s not that we come with our own program. We talk to the people and say, what’s important to you and how can we help? So it’s very much what we call a collaborative approach in working there across the board.
Our budget this year has been about $44.6 million, okay. Over the last – well, five, six years, since 2002, we’ve put more than 500 million into Lebanon just on the USAID programs, okay. There are other non-USAID programs as well that we’re not involved in. But just from the USAID side, it’s over 500 million. Now, a big chunk of that came after the 2006 (inaudible), okay. There was a supplemental from Congress. And so that was almost 300 million, which came in 2007. Some of it is still ongoing now. And a big piece of that was what we call cash transfer. In other words, it was an agreement with the government to pay off certain of their debts to the World Bank.
QUESTION: To the (inaudible.)
MR. STAAL: So not to do projects, Yani (ph), but to actually pay off certain debts based on things. So that was about 250 million. So then that means another 250 million-plus in projects over the last few years, okay.
Now as an example, I mentioned, you know, very much a focus at the municipal level. So as an example, we have worked over the last three years in – in 850 municipalities in real basic capacity development. For instance, we got them all computers and training on how to do their accounting on the computer and link it with the ministry in Beirut, okay. So the idea was to computerize all their accounts to make it much more transparent, as well as solid and get them internet connections, some training on both IT and computer things, as well as sort of basic governance issues. So that’s in 850 municipalities, rural municipalities, or what we call peri-urban. Not so much Beirut City itself, but the surrounding areas, the villages and the rural areas which are the most neglected.
Then building on that in 150 of those municipalities, we’re trying to take them to the next level and link them with the community to promote economic development in their municipality, okay. So for instance, we’ve set up what we call municipal development council, which means the municipality plus local business leaders. It may be teachers, the youth leaders, so on, to form a council and think about their community and how they can do economic development, what resources they have and then what USAID – how we can help with that. So it’s not all our money. A lot of it is their money.
And also it’s –lot of it just to get the municipality thinking differently to say, okay, our job is not only to, you know, bring the water and the electricity, but it’s also to stimulate economic development in our community and how can we do a better job of that. So that’s working in 150 municipalities, especially in the worst areas, in Aley (ph) in the north and then in Jezzine area and we’re hoping to expand into other areas. We’ve done about 30 sewage treatment plants.
QUESTION: How much?
MR. STAAL: 30 (inaudible) throughout Lebanon, again, focusing at the municipal level. So for instance, there are 15 villages in the Shouf mountain, where we worked with the municipal council and developed a series of sewage plants for all 15 villages. So now all of those villages, the sewage is treated, okay, and after that it can be – it’s very clean and can be used for agriculture and local things, so it’s not polluting anything, okay. That’s just in one group of 15 villages. We’re also doing it in a number of other places, especially in the south. The Litani River, we have some sewage treatment plants, because we know how important that is and how polluted, so this is another one. But again, at the municipal level, not so much at the national, but always our focus at the people.
In addition to sewage treatment, we’re also doing solid waste management and treatment in Zahle area, for instance. We have a program with a big, solid waste treatment plant where they collected the waste, the garbage from Zahle and several other communities nearby and they take all the waste to this facility and it’s done – right now, we have a contractor, but it’s within the municipalities there and then training on how to run it when we finish and get the whole thing built. They take all of the garbage, then it’s separated into plastic and paper and metal and so on and that is recycled and they can sell it for cash and get money to help – you know, to pay for the facility. And then the garbage that is left -- we’ve developed a landfill, which is hygienic, okay. So none of the bad things soak into the ground and effects especially the Litani River, which is close by there in Zahle. And we capture all the bad gases and so on, okay. So you have a totally integrated facility there. And in fact, it’s much cheaper per ton of garbage than the system in Beirut or Sidon or anywhere, because we do this recycling and capturing things and when you get some money, put back into it. And then we’re bringing in people from other municipalities and show them what could be done in theirs, okay. And so that’s an example. And we have eight of these solid waste facilities around the country. Again, at the municipal level, away from the bigger cities, but around.
We have a program in education. We’re working in 283 schools. Again, we work this with the ministry of education to identify the most needy areas.
QUESTION: Public school.
MR. STAAL: Public schools, yeah. I know in Lebanon, they have a lot of private schools. I was amazed to see 65 percent of students go to private school in Lebanon. And I never heard of such a thing in most countries. But no, we’re trying to build the capacity of the public sector. I just met with the new minister Mrs. Hariri two weeks ago to talk about this program. She knows about it very well.
In this program, what we’re doing under this, we call it the LEAD, Lebanon Education Assistance Development, and what we do is -- we do some rehabilitation in those schools, if they need some repair, especially like the bathrooms are in bad shape, other, you know, basic facilities. Then we’re also upgrading the computer labs and science labs in those schools, and then a lot of after-school activities, because it isn’t just about what they learn in school, but after-school activities, youth clubs. We have 14 youth clubs going this summer throughout the – throughout the country; again, away from the main cities in the more rural areas and the smaller towns. So that program is going on. But again, all at the community level, worked with the municipality.
I went to one of the youth camps in Jedita just a few weeks -- ago. And the director of the municipality was there because they’re involved as well as the University of Belamond is helping with some technical assistance, as well as some of the church organizations and religious groups. Everybody is working together and they bring in the children for a week. And they’re mostly secondary or middle school and they do service projects in their community and they – you know, get them involved in things -- in the activities. So this is kind of an example of a number of different programs, but all working, really, in a way together at the municipal level in trying to do good things.
Following the war in 2006, we – as I mentioned, we have this supplemental and we did a number of things. But two of the two of the sort of most high profile was – I’m sure you remember about the oil spill. There was a huge oil spill, following the war. So USAID was the organization that came in. We brought in some – few experts to do the cleanup, okay. And that’s just about finished now. We’ll be finishing next month. And we’ve put about $5.8 million into a cleanup. We’re cleaning up 46 locations in 60 kilometers of coastline up and down -- you know, it was near Sidon and most of the spill went north, as you know. And so we did a big cleanup. If you go to those areas now, you’ll find people swimming and the beach is really quite clean. There’s a few – still bad locations that we’re trying to fix up, but it’s improved a lot. And again, always working with the local municipalities to teach them how to do it and how to maintain clean beaches and so on.
Another one that happened during the war -- as you know, the Mdairej bridge, it’s a huge bridge, I think it’s the highest in the Middle East -- I was there.
STAAL: You were there.
QUESTION: I was there.
MR. STAAL: Wow.Okay. So that’s a major project of ours to repair that bridge, okay, totally to make it like new, okay. And we’ve put $30 million into that. I visited it myself a couple of weeks ago, and they’re making good progress, so we had to bring in some expert contractors, both American technical expertise as well as using a lot of their local Lebanese contractors.
The northern part of the road will be ready by next month. By the end of next month, it should be usable for traffic. The southern section, of course, was much more badly damaged, as you know. That will take probably another year, because they had to build everything, including the pipelines – had to be rebuilt from the ground up. They’re what, 300 feet high -- that’s a hundred meters or something -- and then put in a whole new road. So that’s a big project for us that we’re working on.
Another one that’s quite important to us is the Nahr el-Bared. As you know, they had the fighting there and the camp itself was badly damaged, of course. But also, the surrounding communities, the Lebanese communities, were also badly affected. So our program is we give 10 million to UNWRA to work in the camp and the facilities there inside. But then we have our own program outside, okay, of $6 million in the surrounding communities.
And again, we’re working with this program I mentioned of – working with the municipalities and starting municipal development councils and so on. So we’re focusing that in those communities around the camp nearby that were affected by the fighting there.
And again, the Prime Minister’s office, they’ve set up a special coordination unit for this – all the work in the camp and the surrounding communities. So we’re working very closely with them. I met with – what’s his name – ambassador -- a well-known ambassador who -- former ambassador who is the head of that coordinating committee.
QUESTION: (Inaudible?) No?
MR. STAAL:No. No, another one. Anyway, I forgot his name, but anyway, so we’re working closely in coordination with the Prime Minister’s office.
QUESTION: Mohammed Chattah?
MR. STAAL:Chattah was one of those, yeah.
QUESTION: Chattah --
QUESTION: He’s -- now currently, he’s the Minister of Finance.
MR. STAAL: Oh, okay.
QUESTION: If that’s what you’re referring to.
MR. STAAL: No, it’s notChattah.It was another guy. It was another guy. Anyway, I’ll think of it. I probably have --
QUESTION: Never mind.
MR. STAAL: But anyway, the idea is that that it’s all done in coordination. The World Bank is also working there, so we’re trying to do it well-coordinated. Anyway, so there’s – you know, it gives you an example. We’re doing so many different things. One of my favorite projects, I just visited last week, actually, was development cooperative near Jezzine in the village of Aazour, near Jezzine. And –
QUESTION: In what? The --
MR. STAAL: Development cooperatives.
MR. STAAL: Co-ops, you know. And this one is focused specifically on landmine victims. Because, as you know, there were so many landmines in the south. Many people were injured, so we worked with the community. And this cooperative is 200 members, all of them victims of landmines in one way or another. Some of them are directly – you know, they lost a limb or something; others it was a member of their family or something. And they have focused on three agricultural products. One is honey, beekeeping. The other one is chickens and eggs, and then, thirdly, is goat milk. And so this co-op, with our help, they have built a facility to process the honey and to make honey and package it nicely and so on, and also candles from bee’s wax, and then market it to the supermarkets and so on. The same thing with the eggs from the chickens are cleaned and packaged and everything and sent to the market. And then for the milk from the goats, to make yogurt and different kinds of cheeses and so on. And we helped them with the marketing and packaging. They have a brand name. If you go to a supermarket in Lebanon, you’ll find it – B.Balady.
QUESTION: The what?
MR. STAAL: B. Balady, okay. And this is from this cooperative. It’s all landmine victims and with our support. This is actually one that Congress was very interested in. They have something called the Leahy War Victims Fund. You might have heard of it, from Senator Leahy, okay. And he provided some support through that war victims fund, specifically for this cooperative near Jezzine. So it’s – you know, it’s a nice project and you can go there. They’re officially doing the opening next month, and we hope to have lots of people there and make a show and let people know about it.
So anyway, I can go on for a long time to talk about different programs. But just to give you an example, we have quite a broad thing. We’re very much committed to Lebanon. We think it’s a very critical country. We think that there’s so much potential there, okay, in Lebanon, but it needs some help, okay. And that’s why education is so important to us. And we have this program where – that I mentioned, which is more focused at the public schools. We’re also providing scholarship money. This past year we provided scholarships for 1,500 students at --
QUESTION: How many?
MR. STAAL: One thousand, five hundred students at the AUB, Lebanese American University, and Haigazian. So those – and again, this is one that we have a lot of support from Congress to provide scholarship money for students -- for poor students, Lebanese, who can’t afford to go on their own, can help to provide financial aid for them. So anyway, I can talk about other programs, and I’d love to talk about them, but maybe you have specific questions.
MODERATOR: Before asking questions, could you just re-introduce yourselves and identify the publication you represent, for transcription purposes.
MR. STAAL: Ladies, first.
QUESTION: No, no.
QUESTION: Well, my name is Mounzer Sleiman. I’m bureau chief of Al-Mustaqbal Al-Arabi, which is kind of equal to foreign affairs. I don’t know if you heard of (inaudible) Al-Arabi. Probably the only independent viable think tank in the Arab (inaudible).
MR. STAAL: Thank tank, sort of, yeah.
QUESTION: But my – currently, I just – I’ve been in the region, went to Lebanon and to Qatar and Dubai. In Lebanon I picked up another hat (inaudible). It’s Orient News Services. It’s a published daily news service. A very clever one, it seems to me, and comprehensive strategic center for Arabic and international studies. It’s published by another one. But additionally, I appear regularly on most Arab television and radio commenting on affairs. This is not a promotion for them. (Laughter.)
MR. STAAL: You may think it is. Yeah.
QUESTION: Anyway, I just want to – frankly, I really admire the work that’s been done, in many ways. And I sympathize with the people who are conducting these programs, because sometimes some political considerations veer these programs from doing what they need to do. And I’m talking about not only Lebanon, I’m particularly concerned about the Palestinian situation, and I know that you’ve dealt with that in Gaza. And I’ve heard some stories about – you know, some programs related to water and others and things related to the work that you’re doing about sanitation and work. And I was disturbed that some of the funds did not – something – going -- old history, but I’m just telling you how difficult your work is.
MR. STAAL: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: I just want to emphasize on two things. In Lebanon, you’re aware and everybody’s aware of the sensitivity of the composition of Lebanon, geographically and (inaudible). And I think you need to be aware of the message that sometimes is been perceived or that you are concentrating on certain locations versus others. Because it happens that certain locations are concentrated in, you know, the Maronite or Sunni or Shia, et cetera, et cetera. So -- and I’m, particularly, pleased that you are doing this in Jezzine, this issue about the victims of mines. And I hope that you will expand further south to the area that’s really, really affected by it. Because I think the war of 2006, no matter how we look at it, it was war against the Shiite community, because Hezbollah is – that’s its base, so it was targeted.
MR. STAAL: Sure, sure.
QUESTION: And I think – I think it is really a golden opportunity to try to reach out across the board in Lebanon and try to cover or correct some of the misconception and some of the – sometimes bad policies being pursued or whatever the perception is there that you’re not – if you are offending, you are an equal opportunity offender. (Laughter.)
MR. STAAL: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: But, I’m sure you’re not offending -- I mean, especially the work of USAID. So that’s my – my question is to review carefully and to advise your next – I know you’re temporarily – advise your next permanent gentleman or lady –
MR. STAAL: Lady, yeah.
QUESTION: Lady. What’s her name? Do you know?
MR. STAAL: Denise Herbol – H-e-r-b-o-l.
QUESTION: Okay. She worked before (inaudible)?
MR. STAAL: Oh, yeah. She’s been with USAID for 26 years.
QUESTION: In the region?
MR. STAAL: She’s been – yeah, in the Middle East, in Africa, in Latin America. She’s been all over.
QUESTION: She needs to have sensitivity -- maybe lesson about Lebanon and understand that a fresh face sometimes gives a fresh opportunity –
MR. STAAL: Opportunity, yeah.
QUESTION: -- to really reach out and be able to reach all community not only with the north – certain particulars in the north in Jezzine or whatever, and some in the – to reach all area and all sects.
MR. STAAL: Sure.
QUESTION: And also to identify the real need, the real need. Sometimes some communities – they’re really desperate in need. And not realize, because Hezbollah has some money from Iran or somewhere –
MR. STAAL: No, no.
QUESTION: -- that should not be a consideration. It should be that this is – and I think this is, you know, related to the bigger question of how to improve U.S. relations with the Arab world, in general in Lebanon (inaudible). I’m sorry, it took me so long, but that’s --
MR. STAAL: No, and I think that’s part of the message I was trying to give was that we really are working around – all over the country, you know, 850 municipalities. Of the 150, I mentioned – as I mentioned it’s in the north, but also in Jezzine. And when I say Jezzine, I mean Jezzine district so it includes quite far south of Jezzine as well. And the – you know, the Litani River – we’re doing a number of programs in our sewage treatment and stuff. In the Litani River we have – we work closely with the Litani River Water Authority in their whole development. But, no, I mean, we are very conscious of that and try to be very, you know, sure that our program is based not on political or religious or other facts – you know, facts or considerations, but more based on need.
QUESTION: Okay, I hope so.
MR. STAAL: And we continue that way.
QUESTION: Yeah, I’m not the one who could judge.
MR. STAAL: Well, I know.
QUESTION: But I think the people there should. And sometimes certain people, no matter what you do, they’re going to – they are perceived –
MR. STAAL: But that’s why all the more reason we need to talk about our program and be honest and, you know --
QUESTION: If I may just before – the issue of clearing the mines, and I’m sure that this is a very sensitive issue because, unfortunately, the government’s been accused – U.S. Government been accused, and sometimes correctly. And that’s supplying the Israelis with such bomblets. And the Israelis so far – until now – they have not disclosed how they distribute those gifts to the population in Lebanon. And I think this is another issue – I know its sensitive – but it needs to be addressed and I think, courageously it needs to be providing some information about the location of those so we could -- and involve actively in the program, not after the fact with the victims –
MR. STAAL: Sure.
QUESTION: -- but with the program preventing victims from being victims again. Because it’s really millions of bomblets still. I don’t know, maybe hundreds of thousands now, but there was some numbers. I spent 12 days of the war there.
MR. STAAL: Did you?
QUESTION: And that -- (inaudible) hit before I was planning to come from Beirut to (inaudible) and I had to take another route. And so it was hit before. And after I passed, they hit another one. I was lucky anyway. But this is an issue, very hot issue in Lebanon – south -- and the population is very keen to see efforts, serious efforts, because after all, this is part of 1701, I think to do that. Of course, there is some obligation for Hezbollah and an obligation for the Israelis. Let’s deal evenly with both about their obligations we try to do it.
MR. STAAL: Yeah. I mean, this is outside USAID’s scope of (inaudible), but certainly it’s an important issue.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: I’m fine.
MR. STAAL: You’re fine, okay.
I wanted to tell you also another program if you don’t me offering some more. Everyone knows that the elections are coming in May, June, something like that, and that’s going to be very important in Lebanon. I know –
MR. STAAL: 2009 – the new parliamentary elections. So in a way, the government right now is sort of an interim government. And we know the importance of that. And for us, the importance is that it be a free and fair election, okay. And so we are going to be providing election support – generic, not for specific political parties or factions or coalitions or anything. We’ll be working directly with the Ministry of Interior, which has the responsibility for managing the elections, providing them support on how to do elections, you know – training of election staff, okay, developing the, you know, the districts and how do they – not the districts, I’m sorry, but the people working within those districts to do voter registration, for instance. You know, all the basic things that you need to do to do an election, and working with civil societies.
QUESTION: And monitoring, for sure.
MR. STAAL: Both the government and developing non-governmental monitors in civil societies, especially Lebanese organizations.
QUESTION: You work with the Lebanese party?
MR. STAAL: Yes. Both with the government and with civil society groups, okay. So we’ll be having an important program to do. We’ve done this in many countries around the world. We often bring in Jimmy Carter and his people. You know, it’s – we will bring in that type of expertise to make sure that it’s free and fair as much as possible.
QUESTION: Well, the elections should be a fascinating thing for Lebanon. But one positive thing, the current Minister of Interior is a very –
MR. STAAL: He’s a very good guy.
QUESTION: Very good guy.
MR. STAAL: And he’s very committed to reform.
QUESTION: And he’s also sponsored or, at least, aligned with the president, which is supposed to be neutral (inaudible) factional Lebanese to a certain degree.
MR. STAAL: But he was one of the proponents of this Butrose plan, okay, of election reform. And our program is going to help with that.
QUESTION: The one with the Butrose plan?
MR. STAAL: Yes, exactly, which talks about voter registration –
QUESTION: I know.
MR. STAAL: You know, it talks about things like how do Lebanese who don’t live in Lebanon vote.
MR. STAAL: Okay. And this is the kind of thing we can help, you know, by giving them examples of what has been done in other countries and those kinds of things. They’re talking about lowering the age of voting --
MR. STAAL: -- from 21 to 18. Again, we can give them some examples and help them sort of technical --
QUESTION: First they need to implement the reform of the election law adopted by the current parliament.
MR. STAAL: Exactly. If that does not pass --
QUESTION: They’re going to have a problem.
MR. STAAL: Anyway, so we know that’s very important and we want to be supportive of that effort.
QUESTION: Okay, great.
MR. STAAL: Well, thank you very much.