Skip to main content

Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

COVID-19 Threatens Lifelines, Aid to Already Vulnerable Communities

Government restrictions on movement and economic activities in response to COVID-19 have disrupted many small businesses, especially those of already vulnerable populations like the displaced Syrian and Iraqi refugee communities in Lebanon and neighboring countries. How does the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbate existing challenges for refugees and create new ones? What are the prospects for a return to financial self-sufficiency for individuals in war-torn countries and already vulnerable communities? Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law professor Juliet Sorensen and Near East Foundation President Dr. Charles Benjamin joined a Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs webinar this week for a discussion on these questions and more. Here are three key takeaways:

COVID-19 threatens “livelihood hubs” that serve as critical support systems for already vulnerable populations. The Near East Foundation and other nongovernmental organizations that provide humanitarian aid to vulnerable populations face a host of new operational challenges as they attempt to work through and around government restrictions limiting mobility as well as a complex labyrinth of laws and regulations.

The Near East Foundation’s Siraj Centers, for example, “serve as safe spaces where Syrian refugees and vulnerable Lebanese and Jordanian people can access financial education services or start income-generating activities” through training and financial resources. The centers provide a lifeline for “talented people who just need to get their feet on the ground and achieve a basic level of economic independence,” Dr. Benjamin said—and they now need lifelines of their own. “We’ve been forced to find new ways to do our work and, in countries imposing extremely strict lockdowns like Lebanon, we’ve had to petition to allow some activities such as home delivery of cash grants to business owners to continue,” he said.  This is especially challenging in places like Northeast Syria, which lack functioning banking systems: “We’ve had to find groups that can cross the Iraqi-Syrian border with bags of money—that will pass vetting from governments and navigate international compliance laws. The pandemic is posing as many operational challenges as health issues.”

This is where international organizations like the World Health Organization and other UN bodies have to step up, Sorensen said.  “It’s time for the term ‘international community’ to be more than just a term,” she argued. “We need contemporary interlocking regulations that recognize extenuating circumstances” like those COVID-19 creates. “To state the obvious, the pandemic knows no boundaries,” and national law associations need to look beyond their own, she said, pointing to groups like the American Bar Association’s COVID-19 task force, of which she is a part. The task force has an opportunity to play a critical coordination role and “operate as one professional organization within a unified constellation,” Sorensen said.  

Where coordinated aid fails, disparities deepen and desperation thrives: “Economic self-interest is strong and growing to the point of desperation,” Benjamin said. “There are people who have zero income in these communities and rely on neighbors for everything, but people are turning inward and there’s no microfinance institution that a refugee can go to for a loan.” Local municipalities can help fill the gap with access to resources and mechanisms for restarting businesses, he said, “but capital and markets are disappearing. I think local economies in Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria will need to be rebuilt from scratch.”

Benjamin believes moving past hurdles to the provision of capital will depend, in part, on combining permanent local staff—who possess the context-specific knowledge to maximize last-mile delivery of aid—with expertise in international compliance laws. Still, COVID-19 presents a host of new challenges that are “beyond the scope of the daily experience and knowledge of folks in the field,” he said.

Despite challenges, many business owners in vulnerable communities are pivoting and adapting: A recent Near East Foundation survey of business owners in Lebanon found that while the vast majority (97 percent) report COVID-19 is negatively impacting their business, more than one in three say they’re trying to adapt—pivoting to offer home-delivery services or producing new types of products and services such as face masks and sanitation supplies. And while nearly three quarters of business owners surveyed in Lebanon report they don’t see any opportunity stemming from COVID-19, nearly one in five signaled a more optimistic outlook, reporting they see potential for innovation and future expansion amid the disruption to their business models. Others report they’re biding time, waiting for government restrictions to lift to resume business operations. The Near East Foundation expects to put out a report of findings in the coming weeks to cast additional light on the pandemic’s impact on business owners and entrepreneurs operating in already fledgling economies.

“We hope to take the things we’ve learned from this crisis and come out stronger,” Benjamin said. “There are cycles of creative destruction, where something comes along and makes you rethink everything and build back better.”