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Preying on Poverty: Municipalities and poverty targeting applications

Sami Zoughaib,
Wassim Maktabi,
Sami Atallah

Successive Lebanese governments have failed throughout the years to adopt a national social protection policy that guarantees basic services, which translated to a fragmented social protection system that suffers from numerous structural flaws, and is leaving an unprecedented gap between the increasing needs and the available resources. This reality created an opportunity for political elites, who have deliberately sabotaged any recovery effort to put the economy on a sustainable track,1 to prey on people's vulnerabilities. Lebanon’s aggregate financial and economic crises have severely impacted livelihoods, with more than half of the population currently trapped in poverty while one third is in extreme poverty.2

To no surprise, Lebanon’s political establishment is addressing the crisis in another unsustainable and ad-hoc manner with the World Bank-funded Emergency Social Safety Net, which uses foreign capital for a social safety net program. Not only is this approach insufficient given the scale of the increasing vulnerabilities, but it is also self-serving, as it provides an opportunity for the elite to enhance the patron-client relationship with their constituencies, by giving people services in exchange for political loyalty. This inflow of aid would give the political elite a chance to restore some of their lost clientelist channels and reassert themselves as sectarian guardians.

A further proof of this phenomenon is the case with aid applications for the Ministry of Social Affair’s (MoSA) National Social Solidarity Program —a six-month cash-transfer program introduced by the government during the pandemic. Data on the submissions of aid applications through the IMPACT platform provides empirical evidence of how political parties attempt to exploit this situation.3

Data from IMPACT show that the number of MoSA aid applications exponentially increased in the past year compared to previous years. Since the launch of the aid form on IMPACT in April 2020, municipalities submitted 468,662 aid applications4—which represents more than a threefold increase compared to the total between 2012 and 2015.5 However, looking more closely at how municipalities use the platform reveals that most of the forms submitted on IMPACT were concentrated in the aid form: 16% (158) of municipalities had at least 90% of their activity on the platform strictly limited to submitting MoSA aid applications.

Traditional political parties controlling municipalities submit, on average, significantly more aid forms relative to their populations than family-run or independent municipalities

Municipalities controlled by traditional parties submit more aid applications

Traditional political parties controlling municipalities submit, on average, significantly more aid forms relative to their populations than family-run or independent municipalities. Indeed, out of the 1,002 studied municipalities, 414 (41%) are controlled by traditional political parties, yet they still submitted most MoSA aid applications on the platform (59% of total submissions). The remaining 588 municipalities, which are controlled by independents or families, submitted 174,212 applications (41%). The concentration of activity in MoSA aid applications is therefore higher for municipalities controlled by traditional political parties.

This result held true even when taking into account the level of development of municipalities6 and their geographical characteristics.7 This indicates that traditional political parties used these applications as clientelist tools to appease their constituents.

Of the main traditional political parties, Hezbollah and Amal submitted significantly more applications than municipalities run by families or independents.8 While it is often assumed that Hezbollah’s informal distribution channels might be the largest in the country, the data suggests that it is one of the parties that took advantage of the MoSA aid forms the most. This implies that clientelist distribution through governmental channels remains a primary objective of political parties even when informal channels have been created as public resources were depleted.

Not only is the political establishment blocking any effort for reform, but it is also taking advantage of people’s vulnerabilities for its own political motives

The deep flaws within Lebanon’s frailing political economy system are no secret. Not only is the political establishment blocking any effort for reform, but it is also taking advantage of people’s vulnerabilities for its own political motives. Sectarian leaders' attempts to restore their political legitimacy becomes particularly more important as this reality coincides with nearing parliamentary elections that many opposition groups in the country see a real opportunity in.

A fair, efficient, and universal framework for social protection in Lebanon is the primary conduit to sustainable change. It would allow citizens to unsubscribe from their sectarian cooperatives and subscribe back into the state. Thus, it is imperative for local policy makers, civil society groups, as well as the donor community, to prioritize the creation of a comprehensive national social protection strategy that guarantees the right of access to basic goods and services to all the segments of society.


1- Maktabi, W. and S. Zoughaib. 2022. "The Art of Inaction: How the political establishment maintained its political economy model during the financial crisis." The Policy Initiative.

2- UNESCWA. 2021. "ESCWA warns: Three-quarters of Lebanon’s residents plunge into poverty." Press Release.

3- Maktabi, W., S. Zoughaib, M. Mahmalat, and S. Atallah. 2021. "Reenergizing Clientelist Channels: Which Municipalities Abused Aid Forms?" The Policy Initiative.

4- This number includes applications submitted by unidentified municipalities (4,043).

5- Presidency of the Council of Ministers. December 2016. "Emergency Technical Poverty Targeting Program – Technical Audit."

6- Controlled for using Night-Time Light Intensity (2020) and Municipal Direct Revenues (2008).

7- Controlled for using a dummy variable for each district. Results statistically significant at the 90% confidence level.

8- Results statistically significant at the 95% confidence level.


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