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Putting the Future in Their Hands

A microcredit program improves lives in Lebanon

text by Diane Handal with photographs by Dalia Khamissy

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As the airplane makes its descent into Hariri International Airport in Beirut, the city’s sprawling metropolitan area comes into view. Its historic center nestles on a stout peninsula jutting westward into the Mediterranean Sea. High–rise office buildings, luxury hotels and doorman apartments, however, extend north and south for miles along the sea’s distinctly turquoise coastline.

For a city largely destroyed by the bloody civil war that raged from 1975 to 1990 and subsequently damaged in other conflicts, the numerous structures and cranes stand as a testament to Beirut’s restored stature as a modern, international hub. They also signify a long–anticipated peace and prosperity. Since 2008 — in spite of the global recession — the country’s economy has consistently grown by 7 percent or more each year.

While Lebanon’s economy fares well overall, it seems only a handful of its nearly 4.5 million people reaps the benefits. Lebanon’s unemployment rate hovers at 9.2 percent, with significant numbers of underemployed. Youth in particular find it as difficult as ever to secure gainful employment. Each year, an estimated 40,000 Lebanese emigrate; most are students or young professionals seeking better career prospects than their native country can offer.

Recent economic growth has also done little to improve the lot of Lebanon’s poor. The rate of poverty has remained static since the 1990’s. According to the United Nations Development Program, approximately 28.5 percent of the population lives at or below the poverty line, or on $4 or less a day. And 8 percent, or roughly 300,000 individuals, live in extreme poverty and are unable to meet their basic needs.

Though the Lebanese government has taken measures to reduce poverty, local and international charities largely provide direct and ongoing assistance to Lebanon’s most needy. Among the first of these charities is CNEWA–Pontifical Mission, which for decades has served as a lifeline to countless Lebanese. With its Beirut–based staff, CNEWA–Pontifical Mission has provided humanitarian relief in times of war, along with financial and material assistance in times of economic hardship. Its many projects include developing local infrastructure, such as irrigation systems in rural areas, and supporting a wide range of social service institutions, health care facilities and schools.

In an effort to help people help themselves and jump–start local economies, CNEWA– Pontifical Mission launched a microcredit program in 2003. The program offers loans to individuals who wish to establish new or expand existing small businesses but who have little or no collateral and do not qualify for traditional bank loans.

“The program is not designed for the poorest of the poor, but rather for those who have the capability to run a small–scale business,” says Issam Bishara, regional director for Lebanon, Syria and Egypt.

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Tags: Lebanon CNEWA Economic hardships Employment Micro Credit Program