Persistent disparities

Adib Nehme; Sawsan Masri
Secours Populaire Libanais

ESCWA (Economic and Social Committee for Western Asia) organised a regional meeting December 8th to 11th 1998 on follow-up to the World Summit for Social Development (WSSD) commitments and plan of action. Although social conditions have not improved and poverty, unemployment and social disintegration are spreading throughout the Arab countries, most of the official government representatives from ESCWA member countries prepared eloquent speeches on their achievements in social development. The Lebanese paper admitted that no committee has been created to follow-up on the WSSD plan of action. Some progress has been made related to the ten commitments as part of sectoral policies or programmes, but they were not consciously undertaken as parts an integrated plan for social development as proposed by Summit.

WSSD commitments: progress and neglect

The most important steps taken in Lebanon are studies carried out on poverty and household living conditions, since there had been a lack of social related data and information after the war period (1975-1991). The country registered improvements in some sectors, mainly: education, child labour, gender discrimination and governance.

WSSD is distinguished from other summits by the fact that the goals and resolutions of other summits are clear, specific and numerically measurable. WSSD resolutions are more comprehensive and complicated. Structural changes that involve institutions and policies are needed to achieve the goals of the summit. Governmental action has not been based on comprehensive social development planning. Some isolated measures have been taken in the framework of other policies or international commitments:

  • Municipal elections took place in 1998 in all areas of Lebanon for the first time in 35 years (previous elections were in 1963). The elections have rendered social work the significance it deserves as a means for public participation and local governance. It created a democratic and participatory framework for achieving social integration and participation of citizens in managing their own matters. Through municipal elections an economic, political, social, cultural and legal environment may be enhanced to enable people achieve social development (Commitment 1). Although the laws under which the elections took place and which specify the role of local councils do not provide the ideal framework for achieving decentralisation, the elections by themselves were a major turning point in building democracy and promoting local development in the country. The municipal elections contributed to increasing and better utilising resources allocated to social development in order to achieve the goals of the Summit through national action and regional and international cooperation.
  • In addition to municipal elections, the newly formed government cancelled the law that had banned demonstrations for the last six years. This has removed one restriction to democratic practice, thus allowing different groups (political, economic or social) a margin of freedom for organisation and participation.
  • In 1997, Lebanon ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). CEDAW should act as a measure to combat and eliminate all forms of discrimination, exploitation, abuse and violence against women and girl children, and to promote full respect for human dignity as well as achieve equality and equity between women and men (Commitment 5).
  • In 1998, the government issued a law for compulsory education through age 12 (end of primary school). There are efforts to raise the age from 12 to 15 to include the whole stage of basic education. The government has worked to improve public schools and developed a modern curriculum to meet the demands of the new era. National strategies have been formulated for the eradication of illiteracy and universalization of basic education, and the government is committed to attaining the goals of universal and equitable access to quality education (Commitment 6). This commitment is only the first step toward development, however, and follow-up and promotion are needed to achieve a modern and comprehensive educational plan.
  • Since 1946, labour law had specified eight years as the minimum age below which a child is not allowed to work. In July 1996, representatives of the ministries of labour and justice, the parliamentary committee for children's rights, UNICEF and some NGOs proposed modification of the law to conform with the Convention on Children's Rights, which Lebanon ratified. The government responded by raising the minimum age of child labour from eight to thirteen.
  • The establishment of a national committee for the handicapped in 1996 was a turning point in the handicap issue. The committee was formed on the basis of cooperation and participation between the government, represented by the ministry of social affairs and the civil society (Commitment 4).
  • An inter-ministerial committee headed by the minister of exterior was formed to follow-up on international conferences. As soon as the committee starts working officially, it should provide an institutional framework for coordinating these activities. There is no specific committee for follow-up of the WSSD, however, as is the case for gender, population and children issues.
  • The government in collaboration with the United Nations and civil society has conducted a number of studies and surveys on subjects related to the Social Summit such as poverty, unemployment and social integration: The Population and Housing Survey (in collaboration with UNFPA) - 1996; The PAP Child (Ministry of Health) - 1996; Two studies on employment and the labour market (National Office for Employment, ILO and UNDP) - 1997; The Living Conditions Household Survey for 1997 (Central Administration of Statistics - CAS) - 1998; Mapping of Living Conditions (in collaboration with UNDP) - 1998 (see below); National Human Development Report on Youth (UNDP) - 1999 (to be published).

The United Nations Resident Coordinator Office has coordinated international and local efforts related to the resolutions and commitments of WSSD. It has worked on gathering a unified set of data and indicators to measure progress toward fulfilling the Social Summit commitments.

Among UN agencies, UNDP is most concerned with promoting the goals of the Social Summit. UNDP has promoted the concept of sustainable human development through such activities as publishing the National Profile on Sustainable Human Development. UNDP signed, together with the ministry of social affairs, the Preparatory Assistance for the National Programme for Improving the Living Conditions of the Poor. UNDP has also helped to elaborate rural development programmes (especially in Ba'albeck-Hermel, South Lebanon) and supported a programme for the displaced in Mount Lebanon.

NGOs have expressed interest and shown commitment to work within the framework of the WSSD by modifying their programmes and plans of action accordingly. The two major umbrellas, Lebanese NGO Forum and Collectifs des ONGs Libanais, have integrated the concepts of the Summit into their programmes. The Collectifs was the focal point among NGOs for Arab Networking for Development.

Civil society played a major role in exerting pressure on the government to proceed with the municipal elections. The efforts involved lobbying, collaborating with the media and stimulating popular movement.

Poverty and income distribution

In February 1998, the Central Administration of Statistics published the results of its survey on household living conditions for 1997. The survey showed great social and regional disparities. It permitted estimation of the incidence of income poverty, but avoided calculation of a poverty line.

Answers by those interviewed, however, permit the drawing of two «subjective» poverty lines. The «lower (subjective) poverty line» can be deduced from the answers of 37.1% of households who said that their income is insufficient. These were mainly households earning less than L£ 800 thousand (USD 520) per month (75% of the households within this income category). The «upper (subjective) poverty line» can be deduced from interviewees' estimates of the minimum monthly income necessary to cover their needs. It varied from L£ 1.23 million (USD 800) for a two person household to L£ 1.73 million (USD 1,124) as a general average for all households. According to these three figures, poverty incidence by income as perceived by the population is as following:

Subjective national poverty Lines
Value in USD/month/hhlds. % of hhlds. below poverty line
Lower Poverty Line 520 39.8
Upper Poverty Line - a 800 60.9
Upper Poverty Line - b 1,124 74.3

Based on CAS - Household Living Conditions in 1997

Mapping poverty

An important and coherent initiative is the poverty mapping undertaken as a joint project by the ministry of social affairs and UNDP. It started with a UNDP international mission to Lebanon to establish a conceptual framework to study poverty. Based on the mission's recommendations, a team of researchers conducted an analytical study of the Population and Housing Survey (sample up to 10% of the resident population).

The study applied the Unsatisfied Basic Needs (UBN) methodology. The questionnaire was reviewed to determine the variables which are relevant to the measurement of living conditions. In the absence of data on income and expenditure and on health indicators, a set of 11 indicators was selected and grouped into four fields as follows:

1. Housing and related indicators: number of rooms and built area per person, and principal means of heating.

2. Water and sewerage indicators: connection to the water supply network, principal source of potable water, and sewerage facilities.

3. Education and related indicators: pursuit of studies and level of education.

4. Income-related indicators: number of cars owned by the household, economic dependency rate, and main occupation.

The scores given to each household (or individual) for each of these indicators were integrated into a field index, and then a general Living Conditions Index (LCI). The latter was used to identify five categories of living conditions in the country: very low, low (both constituting the deprived households), intermediate, high, and very high.

This methodology revealed interesting facts about the scope of deprivation at national and regional levels, and also about the characteristics of the deprived population.

According to the Living Conditions Index, 32.1% of the total resident households (35.2% of the population) live below the satisfaction threshold. This is divided into households having a very low degree of satisfaction (7.1% of households, 6.8% of individuals), and those having a low degree of satisfaction (25% of households, 28.4% of individuals).


Deprivation expressed by low income levels in Lebanon (42.8%) appears to be more widespread than other forms of deprivation related to the availability of basic social services (housing 25.9%, and water and sewerage 15.5%). Deprivation in terms of insufficient educational attainment is important too (32.8%). Worth noting is the existence of a positive connection between government intervention (legal intervention in the case of rent low, or the direct production and provision of services as of water and sewerage) and the reduction of disparities in the degree of satisfaction of basic needs. In contrast, it is possible to link the acute disparity in the field of education to the diminishing role of public education and the growing role of the private sector with associated rising costs in education.

Regional disparities: central and peripheral Lebanon

The mapping results permit the drawing of a social morphology of Lebanese society in the different geographic regions. The percentage of deprivation was calculated for each of the six governorates and 26 districts. It revealed a persistent dichotomy between the central zone (Beirut and Mount Lebanon) and the peripheral zone (North, South, Nabatieh and Bekaa). In central Lebanon, the percentage of deprived households is smaller than percentages of high and very high categories. In the periphery the situation is reversed.

Graph. 2.

At district level, Bent-Jbeil (in the occupied zone) is considered to have the lowest level of needs satisfaction, with 67.1% of households living below the index of basic needs satisfaction. Bent-Jbeil is followed by the districts of Hermel (65.9%), Marjaayoun (60%), El-Minieh (54.2%), Baalbeck (49.2%), and Tyre (44.9%). The district with the highest degree of satisfaction is Keserouan, where the proportion of households that live below the threshold does not exceed 13.5%, followed by Beirut and the district of El-Metn with 18.4% and 19.7% respectively.

The districts differ, however, in the size of their resident population. This means that the ranking will change significantly when calculated in terms of share of the total number of the deprived population. The rural district of Akkar in the north represents the most important share with 12.5% of the total deprived population. Then come the urban areas, mainly the suburbs of Beirut and the other towns. The seven most important urban districts represent 57.4% of the deprived population. This reflects the concentration of the population in cities and suburbs. Deprivation is more severe in rural areas (category very low), but most of the deprived population lives in the cities and suburbs.

What next?

Real improvement was made in assessing poverty, mapping deprivation, and identifying the poor and their needs. The government is endorsing the findings of this study, despite its estimates that the global incidence of deprivation is 32% of households and 35% of the population, a figure clearly higher than the previous estimate of 28% in 1995 that caused a violent governmental reaction. A joint ministry of social affairs/UNDP project to elaborate a national plan of action for poverty alleviation is underway and expected to be completed by fall 1999.

It is difficult to be sure about the final output of this process. Any real and sustainable impact in poverty reduction should be based on a continuous governmental commitment. The recent political changes in Lebanon are encouraging, but the challenge of implementing an alternative development plan will be difficult and equally open to success or failure.

Graph 1

Source: MoSA/UNDP, Mapping of Living Conditions-1998

Graph 2

Source: MoSA/UNDP, Mapping of Living Conditions-1998