Good morning everybody. It is great to see such a full house and it is really great to see so many friends who I know from before. It is really a pleasure to be with you to mark this very important milestone. And I am recalling, as I saw so many familiar faces this morning, that two years ago, many of you were with us when we launched the BALADI CAP project, this initiative that is intended to build the capacity of municipalities to deliver critical services to your communities and constituents. Today, we are here to celebrate the many successes that your municipalities have achieved during this period and I have heard many of the success stories and I am looking forward to hearing many more. Our meeting today, however, is not just about looking back; it’s also about looking forward. That is why I encourage everyone here to share your success stories today in the sessions later on and to find innovative ways for municipalities and the private sector to work together to meet the needs of Lebanon’s citizens.
As you may know, our USAID programs work primarily at the municipal level. There is a reason for that. We know this is where the citizens have their most frequent and direct interactions with their elected leaders and this is where they obtain many of their core public services.
We also know that Lebanon’s municipalities face enormous financial and human resource challenges. Your resources have been stretched to the limits in the face of the ongoing crisis in Syria. We have committed to helping you cope with the challenges of helping those who have fled violence and war. Just last year, the US alone — and there are other donors helping as well — donated over $360 million for this purpose just in Lebanon. Over the last five years, that number from the US government alone is nearly $2 billion.
I know there is a view among some that this assistance is a generous allowance that is keeping these refugees in Lebanon. I also know that there is a view that the international community intends to resettle these people here in Lebanon.
I believe you all at the municipal level know that neither one of these things is true.
Most refugees live in deplorable conditions, and this assistance helps them with the absolute basics of life – some kind of shelter, very basic healthcare, and education for the children. You also know that significant sums of money go to the hosting communities for infrastructure improvements – water, electricity, schools, waste management – that would in many cases not otherwise have been made. You know that most of these people pay some kind of rent to their Lebanese landlords. They buy goods in local stores.
Let me be clear. The solution is for these people to return to their homes in Syria, and that is what all of us in the international community are working for.
But in the meantime, please be assured that we will continue to be a steadfast partner to you, especially in the municipalities who are bearing this burden most directly. We will a steadfast partner with you until that goal can be achieved.
In addition to the aid to the refugee response, the US Government has invested more than $200 million to help municipalities. The BALADI CAP program that we are celebrating today has been an essential part of that investment, helping local governments to strengthen their organizational development, financial management practices, disaster preparedness, delivery of basic services, and communicating with constituents.
Of the almost 160 municipalities that received support through BALADI CAP, nearly three quarters received intensive technical assistance or training that strengthened their financial and administrative capacities. As a result, about one-third of municipalities are now using electronic governance systems to process service requests, to gather financial data, and to issue fees and payment receipts, which have helped make the delivery of service more effective. I would like to say that this is a very good example of where the municipalities are leading the way and the municipalities can be a model for the Central government to work on these same issues.
More than one-quarter of the BALADI CAP municipalities have engaged with Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) on advocacy on important issues like waste management. These have resulted in new projects recycling and composting.
Our commitment to support local communities will continue even though this specific project is ending. Our $40 million BALADI program – the sister project to BALADI CAP – continues to support brick-and-mortar projects in almost 90 communities. They are installing back-up solar energy and farming irrigation systems. We have our $70 million Lebanon Water Project is helping communities gain access to clean water. Last, I like to note that this last fall we launched our newest program to help communities. This is $80 million in the Community Support Program to assist vulnerable communities in the North, the South, and Bekaa. Part of the intent of this project is to reach some of those communities that we have not been able to reach so far.
During my time in Lebanon, I have visited dozens of municipalities and I have spoken with mayors and municipal councils throughout the country, many of you are here today. Your work is extremely important and it is extremely vital because what you do every single day has a direct bearing on the lives and the livelihoods, and frankly the futures of Lebanon’s citizens.
So, we want to hear from you today. What is working? What challenges remain? We are here as a partner to you and a supporter and a helper to you. Foreign assistance can help fill gaps. It can buy space and time for governments that are struggling with particularly challenging circumstances. But it is not the full solution. So, what more can you do to help your national leadership to better meet the needs of the citizens?
I want to take a minute really here as I close to thank you all, especially those municipal leaders who are here, the mayors, the council members, etc. Your service and your dedication to helping your communities is really something special. It is not easy and I know that. As we see in the budget discussions even today in the parliament, you are not getting the resources you need to meet the needs of your people. Yet, you show up every single day in the absolute best that you can. It is something I would really like to honor today. It is an inspiration to all of us. It has been our pleasure and our honor to work with you and support you. I am really looking forward to continue to do that in the future.
Thanks very much for being with us today. So happy to see everyone.