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06.16.22

A Collapsing Society: The Urgency of a Social Protection Floor

Georgia Dagher,
Sami Zoughaib

Lebanon is mired in a cataclysmic and seemingly endless downward spiral which began in 2019, when its national currency began to steadily depreciate. Fleeting optimism during the uprising of late 2019 has become little more than a distant memory, as income and wealth are now decimated by the currency shock and severe economic recession. Gone are the colorful images and footage of crowds chanting and demanding systemic political and socioeconomic change. In their stead, innumerable tales and anecdotes of misery have flooded our screens and airwaves—after all, the multidimensional poverty rate stood at 82% in 2021, and has likely worsened since then.  

Lebanon’s ruling authorities are seemingly oblivious to the social repercussions of the financial meltdown unless hard currencies pouring in from abroad are involved.  Our analysis shows that out of the 73 response measures undertaken by the central bank, the parliament, and the government, only seven addressed our social calamity—mainly through legislating cash transfer programs that have not yet materialized. 

The social crisis eviscerating the population requires the urgent implementation of an ambitious social protection policy that tackles rapidly expanding vulnerabilities. This policy will not only provide necessary relief to preserve the country’s human capital in the short term but will also be an integral part of the economic recovery process.

A Bleak Social Reality

Prior to the crisis, Lebanon was already a country of extreme income and wealth inequality. From 2005 to  2016, the richest individuals in the country—the top 10%—“earned between 49 and 54 percent of national income” while the “poorest 50 percent […] earned between 12 and 14 percent.”  The International Labour Organization (ILO) also projected that the crisis would lead to an increase in both income inequality and income vulnerability for all, especially children, persons with disabilities, and the elderly.  In addition, the National Social Security Fund (NSSF), Lebanon’s main social protection mechanism, covered only 23% of the Lebanese population in 2019. 

Faced with dramatically soaring prices, dwindling financial resources, and the lack of adequate formal social protection schemes, most families are resorting to dangerous coping mechanisms.

With the NSSF on the verge of collapse, tending to one's health has become a luxury few can afford, while an ever-growing number of children are not receiving basic primary healthcare services to which they are entitled.  Children’s basic nutritional needs are increasingly unmet, with one report from mid-2021 highlighting that virtually all households in the country adopted negative coping strategies related to food “as a consequence of their inability to afford nutrient and healthy food.”  Amidst a dilapidated educational sector, more and more children are dropping out of school and finding themselves forced to work.   Leaving the homeland in search of opportunities abroad has become the only feasible option for many, despite the obstacles and dangers involved, as the Tripoli tragedy in April 2022 lays bare.  

This reality reflects even worse on vulnerable groups, including women, refugees, persons with disabilities, the unemployed, the self-employed, and workers in the informal economy, all of whom benefit less than the general population from formal social protection schemes due to major coverage exclusions . 

A Social Protection System in Disarray

On the social assistance front, the Lebanese government’s response to this social reality has been limited to proposals that serve as a scale-up of the existing poverty-targeting program, which provides direct cash transfers to a narrowly defined group of extremely poor households. The most developed proposal is the Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN) program, funded by a US$246 million World Bank loan. Approved by the World Bank’s Board of Executive Directors in January 2021,  it was not until December of that year that registration for the ESSN began.  In mid-March 2022, with parliamentary elections on the horizon, ESSN disbursements started. 

While cash assistance programs are an important tool within any national social protection system, they remain far too inadequate when used within a poverty-targeting framework, as they suffer from major exclusion errors and target narrowly defined groups.

Moreover, on the social security front, the NSSF is on the verge of collapse, as the array of institutional, bureaucratic, and financial challenges from which it has chronically suffered—particularly pertaining to the government’s substantial debt to the NSSF—have only been compounded by the collapse. With rising hospitalization and essential medication costs, the NSSF’s beneficiaries have been left virtually alone to fend for themselves, without healthcare coverage or access to their end-of-service indemnities. 

The Need for a Social Protection Floor

The current social protection system in Lebanon, be it in times of relative normalcy or during the ongoing crisis, is quite exclusionary. Several categories of the population are not entitled to protections—from migrant workers, the unemployed and workers in the informal economy bereft of NSSF protections, to the pension-less elderly and the poor who do not qualify for the ESSN or other cash assistance programs. 

The severity of the crisis stresses the need for a universal, rights-based, social protection strategy that leaves no one behind. This strategy should provide basic social security guarantees, where the State has the responsibility to ensure that all those in need have access to health and income security.  This is precisely what Lebanon needs, a new social protection model built on a “social protection floor” —i.e., basic social guarantees and services that uphold social rights. This model should recognize the different needs and vulnerabilities persons face at different stages in life, and must offer basic income guarantees and universal healthcare coverage across the lifecycle, from childhood to old age. 

In addition to basic universal guarantees, such as access to basic healthcare, the social protection floor model would include core lifecycle benefits, such as child, disability, and unemployment benefits, as well as old-age pensions. This would entail a radical restructuring of the NSSF’s administration and finances, and transforming its end-of-service indemnities into a pension scheme. Cash assistance through poverty-targeted programs, such as the National Poverty Targeting Program, would be one program within a comprehensive social protection strategy, rather than its foundation, and would provide additional support to households that continue to fall below a certain threshold.

As living conditions deteriorate further, a social protection floor could protect all persons experiencing lifecycle vulnerabilities by providing them with income and health security, and could also prevent vulnerable households from slipping under the poverty line.  While this plan is much more ambitious and costly than the currently fragmented system and the regressive and unsustainable subsidies that Lebanon has so far relied on, its enactment is necessary to keep society afloat. In the long term, it will be more effective at combatting poverty, will reach all segments of the population, and will lead to the social and economic inclusion.

Furthermore, pushing for a social protection floor in public discourse amid the spiraling crisis provides an opportunity to shift away from the norm of “sectarian-based welfare” to a system of rights-based entitlements for everyone, especially when the weaknesses and failures of the fragile social protection system have been laid bare.

Rather than relying on foreign loans, this social protection model should be financed by better tax compliance, progressive taxation, and even a wealth tax, all of which have long eluded Lebanon 

Looking Forward to the Future

The social crisis and the negative coping mechanisms individuals have resorted to are ravaging society, particularly the youth. As households are forced to reduce their expenditures and investments in healthcare, education, and nutrition, the Lebanese state must step up and protect its citizens, residents, and by extension, the country’s human capital.

To get back on its feet, the Lebanese economy will not only need a macroeconomic financial recovery plan that distributes financial sector losses in a fair and accountable manner, but a social recovery plan as well. While the country can no longer do without a bailout package from the International Monetary Fund, that package, and any financial measures it pushes forward, will not be enough to build a sustainable, equitable, and inclusive economy.

The authors would like to thank Cynthia Saghir and Karim Merhej for their contributions to this article.                


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 2.The Policy Initiative. 2022. “Financial Crisis: A Timeline of Responses, Statements, and Events.”
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 9.Al Jazeera. 2022. “Six dead, 48 rescued as migrant boat capsizes off Lebanon.”
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 11.World Bank, 2021. “US$246 Million to Support Poor and Vulnerable Lebanese Households and Build-Up the Social Safety Net Delivery System.”
 12.L’Orient Today, 2021. “Over 30,000 register for ration card, ESSN on first day.”
 13.World Bank, 2022. “Lebanon Announces Payment of Cash Transfers to Extreme Pool Lebanese households under AMAN.”
 14.Merhej, K. and K. Chehayeb. 2022. “The Full Story Behind the Looming Collapse of the National Social Security Fund.” The Public Source.15.ILO. 2012. R202 – Social Protection Floor Recommendation 2012 (No.202).
16.ILO, UNICEF. 2021. “Towards a Social Protection Floor for Lebanon.”17.ILO.2021. “Vulnerability and social protection gaps assessment – Lebanon: A microdata analysis based on the Labour Force and Household Living Conditions 2018/2019.”18.Arab Reform Initiative, 2021. “Which Tax Policies for Lebanon? Lessons from the Past for a Challenging Future.”

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