Lebanon’s empty schools portend long-term damage from the crisis


BEIRUT — On a recent school day, Rene Mouawad High School in Beirut was empty, its classrooms dark, as all public schools in Lebanon have been for most of the past three months. His striking teachers demonstrated in front of the Ministry of Education, not far away.

About a hundred teachers took part in the demonstration outside the ministry, blocking traffic and holding placards demanding salary increases. “We are done with charity,” said Nisreen Chahine, the head of the teachers’ union. “We are no longer negotiating. They should either pay us rightfully or go home.”

The teachers made speeches demanding that the staff come out and talk to them. But as usual in these regular protests, no one from the ministry emerged. After several hours, the teachers packed up and went home.

Lebanon’s schools are collapsing under the weight of the country’s economic collapse, as the political leadership — which created the crisis through decades of corruption and mismanagement — is reluctant to take action to resolve it. Since the collapse began in late 2019, more than three-quarters of Lebanon’s 6 million people have been plunged into poverty, their assets evaporating as the value of the currency shrinks and inflation rises at one of the highest rates in the world .

Most of the country’s children have been out of school for months – many since teachers, who say they can no longer live on their salaries, went on strike in December. Lebanon was once known for producing a highly skilled and educated workforce. But now an entire generation is missing out on school, causing long-term damage to the prospects for the economy and the country’s future.

The teachers went on strike because their salaries, in Lebanese pounds, have become too low to cover rent and other basic expenses. The pound has gone from 1,500 to the dollar before the crisis to 100,000 to the dollar right now. Most teachers are now paid about $1 an hour, even after several raises since 2019. Grocery stores and other businesses now typically price their products in dollars.

Teachers are demanding adjusted wages, commuting allowance and health benefits. The government offered to cover only part of the transport, saying it did not have the budget for more. Although schools partially reopened last week after some teachers returned to work, most chose to continue the strike.

Even before the crisis, Lebanon’s investment in public schools was limited. In 2020, government spending on education was equivalent to only 1.7% of Lebanon’s GDP, one of the lowest rates in the world, according to the World Bank. The 2022 budget allocated 3.6 trillion Lebanese pounds for education — the equivalent of about $90 million at the time the budget was approved in October, less than half of the $182 million budget for education from a humanitarian program funded from donors.

Instead, the government has for years relied on private and charity schools to educate children. Humanitarian agencies are paid to cover salaries and keep infrastructure running that is in disrepair. Two-thirds of Lebanon’s children once attended private schools, but hundreds of thousands have dropped out in recent years as private schools have had to raise fees to cover soaring costs. Public and private schools are struggling to keep the lights on as fuel costs rise.

Even before the strike, more than 700,000 children in Lebanon, many of them Syrian refugees, were out of school due to the economic crisis. With the strike, an additional 500,000 joined their ranks, according to UNICEF.

“It means we’re now seeing kids who are 10, 12, 14 years old and they can’t even write their names or write basic sentences,” Etty Higgins, UNICEF’s deputy representative for Lebanon, told The Associated Press. UNICEF said last week it provided nearly $14 million to help more than 1,000 public schools pay staff.

Rana Ghalib, a mother of four, said it makes her anxious to see her children at home when they should be going to school. Her 14-year-old son had to repeat the 6th grade because he has been left behind in previous riots.

“The classrooms are basically empty because the teachers are demanding their rights and they’re dark because there’s no fuel,” Ghalib told the AP.

The international community is pressing Lebanon’s leaders to make sweeping reforms to the economy, financial system and governance in order to receive a $3 billion bailout package from the International Monetary Fund and unlock development aid. The political elite, which has ruled the country since 1990, has been paralyzed — because, critics say, reforms would undermine its power and wealth. Amid a political deadlock, there has been no president for months and the government is operating only in a limited official capacity.

Education, meanwhile, joins banking, medicine and electricity in the ranks of Lebanon’s institutions. This could cause long-term damage: Lebanon has traditionally relied on its educated and skilled diaspora population abroad to send remittances home to support families, invest and feed dollars into the banking system. The exodus of skilled people skyrocketed during the economic crisis, leaving remittances as Lebanon’s last economic lifeline.

Hussein Cheaito, an economist and non-resident at The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, a Washington-based think tank, says the crippled education system will “further deteriorate the social fabric” of Lebanon and deepen poverty.

“This will have an impact on the long-term growth of the economy,” he told the AP. “This means there will be less access to jobs in the future … (and) it will weaken the labor market in general.”

Ghalib, meanwhile, checks on her children, who are watching TV and playing with mobile phones at a time when they would normally be studying. Even her 9-year-old daughter knows her future is at stake, she said.

“My youngest daughter says to me: ‘I want to be a doctor, but how can I do it if I sit at home?’ Ghalib said. “I don’t know what to tell her.”

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