Empty schools in Lebanon portend long-term damage to the future of children in the country

An empty classroom at a closed public school is seen in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, March 2, 2023 (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

On a recent school day, the Rene Mouawad High School in Beirut was empty, its classrooms dark, as have all public schools in Lebanon for the better part of the last three months. Its striking teachers were protesting in front of the Ministry of Education, not far away.

About 100 teachers joined the demonstration in front of the ministry, blocking traffic and holding banners demanding salary increases. “We have finished with charity”, said Nisreen Chahine, leader of the contract teachers’ union. “We are no longer negotiating. They should legitimately pay us or go home.”

Teachers gave speeches demanding that officials come out and talk to them. But as usual in these periodic protests, no one left the ministry. After several hours, the teachers packed up and went home.

Lebanon’s schools are crumbling under the weight of the country’s economic collapse, as the political leadership, which caused the crisis through decades of corruption and mismanagement, is reluctant to take any steps 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 dwindles and inflation is rising at one of the highest rates in the world.

Empty schools in Lebanon portend long-term damage from the crisis
Lebanese teachers hold banners in Arabic reading “Right is not a good deed” and “Dignity Strike” on the left, during a protest outside the Ministry of Education in Beirut (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Most of the country’s children have not been to school for months, many even before 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 education, causing long-term damage to the prospects for the economy and the future of the country.

The teachers called the 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 today. Most teachers are now paid the equivalent of around 1 dollar per hour, even after several increases since 2019. Grocery stores and other businesses now typically price their products in dollars.

Teachers demand adjusted wages, a transportation stipend and health benefits. The government only offered to partially cover transportation, saying it had no 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 just 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 lira to education, the equivalent of about 90 million dollars At the time the budget was approved in October, less than half of the $182 million education budget from a donor-funded humanitarian program.

Empty schools in Lebanon portend long-term damage from the crisis
Lebanese teachers protest in front of the Ministry of Education in Beirut (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Instead, the government has for years relied on private and charity schools to educate children. Humanitarian agencies paid to cover salaries and keep a decrepit infrastructure running. Two-thirds of Lebanese children once attended private schools, but hundreds of thousands have dropped out in recent years because private schools had to increase tuition to cover high costs. Public and private schools are struggling to keep the lights on as the cost of fuel rises.

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

“It means we now see 10, 12 and 14 year olds who can’t even write their own names or write basic sentences”Ettie Higgins, UNICEF Deputy Representative for Lebanon, told The Associated Press. UNICEF said it donated nearly $14 million last week to help more than 1,000 public schools pay staff.

Rana Ghalib, a mother of four, said she is anxious to see her children at home when they should be at school. Her 14-year-old son had to repeat sixth grade because he had fallen behind during previous interruptions.

Empty schools in Lebanon portend long-term damage from the crisis
The paralyzed education system “will further deteriorate the social fabric” of Lebanon and deepen poverty (AP)

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

The international community has been pressuring Lebanon’s leaders to carry out far-reaching reforms in the economy, financial system and governance in order to receive a $3 billion rescue package from the International Monetary Fund and unlock aid for the development. The political elite, which has run the country since the 1990s, has stalled because, according to critics, the reforms would undermine their grip on power and wealth. In the midst of a political stalemate, there has been no president for months, and the government only functions in a limited interim capacity.

Meanwhile, education joins banks, medicine and electricity in the ranks of Lebanon’s bankrupt institutions. That could cause long-term damage: Lebanon has traditionally relied on its foreign-educated and trained diaspora population 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 livelihood.

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

Empty schools in Lebanon portend long-term damage from the crisis
A teacher holds up a banner in Arabic that reads “We are not suffering from a shortage of money, but an increase in thieves” during a protest outside the Ministry of Education in Beirut (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

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

Ghalib, meanwhile, checks in on his children, who are watching TV and playing on their cell phones at a time when they would normally be studying. Even her 9-year-old daughter is aware that her future is in jeopardy, she said.

“My youngest daughter tells me, ‘I want to be a doctor, but how can I do it if I’m sitting at home?’” Ghalib said. “I do not know what to tell you”.

(with information from AP)

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