As austerity hits, disabled children left to fend for themselves

With reductions on already scarce welfare aid year on year, the number of people, including families and their children, have seen their living conditions deteriorate.
by Georgi Azar, Christina Farhat

11 June 2019 | 16:47

Source: by Annahar

Illustration depicting Sesobel and the financial burden it is facing as a result of the government failing to release the funds owed to the NGO (Annahar)

BEIRUT: Thousands of children with disabilities in Lebanon do not have access to proper care or specialized services, relying heavily on a number of different NGOs for support for them and their families. 

With reductions on already scarce welfare aid year on year, the number of people, including families and their children, have seen their living conditions deteriorate. 

Now, as the government scrambles to get its finances in order, Sesobel, one of Lebanon's oldest and most influential NGOs, is setting alarm bells over its ability to continue supporting those living on the breadline. 

Ever since its foundation in 1976 by Yvonne Chami, Sesobel has worked tirelessly to fill the gap left by the state and assist children born with life-altering disabilities, through education, rehabilitation, and recreation. 

But the country's dire economic state has taken its toll on welfare institutions as well, who now face an uncertain future amid dwindling financial support from the Ministry of Social Affairs. 

In a statement issued Friday, Sesobel announced that it would indefinitely suspend welcoming new children into its facility starting next month while decreasing working hours and food benefits, among other cuts. 

With NGOs stepping in to fill the gaping hole left by the state, the suspension of funding to organizations, such as Sesobel, leaves thousands of disabled children and their families stranded with nowhere to turn. 

Around 1500 Sesobel children are set to be affected after the Ministry of Social Affairs failed to settle its disbursement of $1.7 million, dating back to 2018. Staff is also in the firing line, with a number of workers to be potentially relieved of their duties as the NGO battles to stay afloat. 

"We have not received a single payment since June 2018," Sesobel director Fadia Safi told Annahar, adding that her organization employs 215 full-time workers and another 25 on a part-time basis.

Officials have maintained that all settlements will be paid once the new budget is ratified by Parliament, which could take months when looking at the Cabinet's recent track record. 

Yet the new budget could bring about its own set of problems for institutions like Sesobel, as it contains a clause permitting the state to withhold payments for charities deemed "fictitious."

Richard Kyumjian, Minister of Social Affairs, pleaded with his fellow officials to release the funds needed for Sesobel to continue its operations while vowing to bring up the issue at the next Cabinet meeting. 

Last month, the government greenlit an austerity budget "the likes of which has never been witnessed in Lebanon's history," as Prime Ministry Saad Hariri described it. This was done to plug a hole in the state's bleeding coffers and shore up revenues aimed at slashing the mammoth budget deficit, estimated at 11.5 percent of GDP. 

The Minister of Finance Ali Hassan Khalil insisted Monday that the funds "will be released in the coming days." Tweeting following the outcry, Hassan Khalil also stressed that a committee tasked with identifying "fictitious humanitarian organizations" has begun looking into these claims to curb invalid spending. 

The delay in payment, he said, was as a result of the contract with Sesobel being signed "toward the end of 2018," which caused a set back in the disbursement of funds for the third and fourth quarter. 

Another organization staring down the barrel of a gun is Acsauvel, which was founded in 1979 with the aim of helping children victim of war in Lebanon. It has since expanded into a facility for people with down syndrome, autism, and other disabilities, supporting them from infancy onward.

The Chairwoman and President of Acsauvel, Nabila Jabbour Fares, painted to Annahar a bleak picture of its charity and the many challenges it faces. 

“The problem of funding is not limited to one particular NGO. We are all in a very critical situation and we are all suffering together.” Fares told Annahar.

Her organization supports 72 children with the help of a German association, Orient Helfer & Kindermissionswerk.

Acsauvel, like Sesobel, is mainly dependent on payments from the Ministry of Social Affairs, disbursed in four yearly installments of around $78,000. This comes down to nearly $13 per child per day or $4,000 per year. 

As this money doesn’t cover even 40 percent of Acsauvel’s expenses, the organization turns to private donations, holding fundraising events, and the profits of crafts made by some of its members, such as pottery and mosaics, to stay afloat.

However, as the small Mediterranean country's economy has taken a massive hit, so have donations from ordinary people, who have seen their ability to contribute shrink as their discretionary spending decreases.  

“We only have enough money to cover two more months of salaries. If the government doesn’t pay us come August, then we may have to cease operations.” Fares told Annahar.

Collecting money from the government has not always been a linear path for NGOs.

“After organizing several strikes and visiting the President’s office we were able to receive two of the four installments owed to our organization from 2018.” Fares said. 

To further compound the problem, the budget of both Sesobel and Acsauvel agreed upon with the ministry has not been amended since 2011, with expenses not reflecting rising inflation and costs. 

This further highlights the importance of the private sector in safeguarding charitable organizations. One such example is the Lebanese Autism Society, LAS, whose budget is overwhelmingly covered by private donations. 

“Our organization receives less than 30 percent of its funding from ministries. A large majority of our funding comes from fundraising, donations, and a small sum from the parents of the children.” its President and founder Arwa Halawi told Annahar.

The association, which helps more than 500 individuals, has seen its coffers depleted as a result of the harsh realities of a merciless economy.

“Economically speaking, fundraising and donations are declining. People aren’t able to give what they used to.” Halawi said. 

LAS, amongst other NGOs, is also reporting severe delays in funding disbursement owed from previous years.

“Until now our organization has received only the first two-quarters of payments from 2018. Autism is one of the more expensive disabilities to work with, with each child costing anywhere between 9,000 USD to 13,000 USD annually.”

Coupled with increased delays, Halawi also sounded the alarm over any future government aid to her organization and others like it, as the 2019 budget has yet to be ratified. 

“Not only are we concerned about delayed funding from last year, but entering mid-June we haven’t even signed our budget for 2019.” 

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