The last two days have been packed with meetings and short trips out into different districts of Beirut. I haven’t taken many photos, as we have primarily been doing Q&As with local leaders, but I’m sure some will surface from the group in the next couple days.
On Monday, we began our week meeting with leaders from local media outlets and discussed issues from the upcoming 2013 elections (which seem to be on everyone’s minds, though very few seem very hopeful of much change) to the problem of history textbooks of the Lebanese Civil War. At the heart of many of our questions, causing us to get sidetracked repeatedly, was the ever-looming presence of the conflict in Syria. This meeting was the start of many that felt… I don’t want to say hopeless, but maybe laced with trepidation of any positive future. It seems like many are just surviving day-to-day, and there is a great lack of long-term vision or planning based regrettably on the uncertainty of the early lives of many of today’s leaders.
We also met with the president of the of the RDCL (Rassemblement des Cadres Libanaise), the Lebanese Business Association. One of the biggest problems he saw going forward for Lebanon was the issue of brain drain. Only 4 million Lebanese live in Lebanon, with 14 million living in diaspora. Very few return, and many of the youth growing up in Lebanon now leave for college or graduate school and never return. Another important problem in Lebanon at the moment is the Social Security system, with about 10% of the population actually paying into it, and only half of their employers actually matching benefits. The cost of medical care has skyrocketed because of this, and many people are frustrated that the government is not doing more.
This was another major theme – the role of government in society. On the one hand, the people of Lebanon do not wish to have too strong of a central government, with the examples of Syria and Egypt’s autocratic regimes so close by. Yet, taxes do very little for social programs or infrastructural improvements. Less than 5% of the government’s budget is spent on things like unemployment benefits (virtually nonexistent), road repairs, power grids, etc. About a third goes towards paying for the government, with another third going towards public sector employes. The final third goes towards paying off the national debt, which is nearly 200% of GDP.
Monday night, we were taken to a pub for dinner for Lebanese “American” food. I honestly thought I’d never have guacamole in the Middle East! The fare was a mix of Lebanese and American foods: chips, salsa, and guacamole followed by fried halloumi, a non-aged cheese that does not melt when heated–very salty and delicious! We stayed for a few hours before going to a couple of clubs and bars to experience Beirut’s night life. American music is pervasive, with French and Arabic music mixed in as well. I’m pretty sure I heard some Shakira, too, so there was some Spanish as well.
Having stayed up far too late Monday night (1:30 a.m.-ish),, we finally went to bed.