Donors losing interest in demining Lebanon

NABATIEH: The workers look fed up. Hundreds of them huddle on the low wall in the garden of their headquarters, bedecked in matching khaki uniforms.


They have been hard at work today, toiling in the fields surrounding Nabatieh, the close air weighing on them as heavily as their cumbersome safety gear.

The men are employees of the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), an international NGO that has been working to clear Lebanon from unexploded munitions since the Israeli Air Force dropped more than a million cluster bombs at the end of the 2006 war. Even though they have risked their lives for the organization, the men could be out of work on Monday.

Their situation is similar to mine clearance groups across county. These people save lives every day and have already made more than 11 million square meters of the country safe to inhabit, yet Lebanon's clearance initiative is threatened by a "dire" funding crisis. "We have a big lack of funding and we need money to continue working. I don't know why the donors have stopped," says Brigadier General Mohammad Fahmi, director of the Lebanese Mine Action Center (LMAC).

Funding, says Fehmi, is "the essential key to continuing" making Lebanese soil safe.
Fehmi stands in the middle of sector 681A, an area of hilly scrubland to the east of Nabatieh. MAG has already cleared 235,000 square meters of the surrounding fields, yet its team works methodically on as he talks.
With him is Marta Ruedas, the UN's Deputy Special Coordinator for Lebanon head of the county's United Nations Development Program team in the country.

"We have been supporting LMAC for a number of years but this is the first time I have gone to the fields," she says. "I think it is a particularly good time now because we are coming to a funding crunch."
Ruedas attributes the lack of donations to two factors: the state of the world economy and what she terms "donor fatigue."
"The international community has been providing the bulk of the funding that goes on the ground. We need to get the donors interested again. It's a little bit difficult now with the global economic crisis," she says.

"To a certain degree, naturally enough, there is a bit of donor fatigue. There are many critical areas left and we are looking to see how we can regenerate that interest on a sustainable basis."
In the immediate aftermath of the 2006 war, Lebanon had eight landmine organizations. There are now just three. Back then, there were 64 operative mine clearance teams including MAG and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL.) There are currently only 16, ' 10 of which are coordinated by MAG's country program manager, Dr. Christina Bennike. She explains that mine clearance funding has been in decline for a number of years.

"All of the humanitarian agencies are taking a hit on this, especially mine clearance groups; it's a very costly endeavor," she says.
In the past two months alone, two clearance groups from Sweden and Switzerland have ceased their operations in Lebanon due to a lack of funding.
Although the Lebanese government provides money for the military's LMAC teams, the vast majority of clearance money comes from abroad. Countries such as the US, Britain, Germany and Sweden are all big patrons, but the fractured nature of contract renewal means the funding comes in spurts.

MAG is about to lose two of its teams in October because one such international contract is due to expire.
Bennike estimates a further six teams could be at risk if sustainable funding isn't confirmed in the near future.

Even though there is plenty of capital being pledged to MAG, like any operation, the problem often comes down to cash flow. If the money isn't in the bank, the teams can't work for insurance reasons.
"There is a natural disaster or a war on the front page of the papers every month. If you look at a country like Lebanon that is a middle economic country, the natural inclination is to fund somewhere with a lower economic standard," says Bennike.
"I would like to see to Lebanese government step up and take some responsibility for funding all of the organizations here. If the Lebanese are in a position to fund some of the clearance then this will send a strong message to the international community that Lebanon is serious [in its mine-clearing mission]."

Bennike is realistic when it comes to national and international procurement.
"It's also our responsibility to provide accurate information to our donors so that they can plan appropriately," she says.
Countries such as the US do their NGO budgeting two years in advance. The intricate nature of cluster bomb clearing makes coming up with an official timescale virtually impossible, as MAG's technical gield manager Jeffrey Caldwell explains.
"You don't know what sort of metal contamination is in the ground and every signal that is found is excavated like it's a dangerous item," he says.
Once a munition has been located, the surrounding 50 meters also needs to be made safe, meaning that initial clearance zones can easily double in size from the time a plot is marked.
Caldwell says that clearance teams in Lebanon expected to have most of the country cleared by 2007.
Geographical and geological difficulties have extended the time span indefinitely.
Even the soil composition can prove problematic, with some areas of earth containing so much innate metal that MAG's detection machines cannot be properly calibrated. This leads to a painstakingly slow operation.

"Technology needs to catch up, but we are not even half way there yet," says Caldwell.
Bennike says that while a clearance end date is always subject to change, "we have to be very honest and accurate with our donors on what is remaining and what is realistic."
Fehmi believes there is still a political will to rid Lebanon of its deadly scourge but financial factors are curbing support.
"The people are still interested but after the economic crisis everything has slowed down. We will continue until we reach our aim: to clear every centimeter of Lebanon," he says.
Ruedas is confident that funding will be secured but stresses that Lebanon's clearance team diminishing any further would undermine the entire operation.
"With enough teams on the ground, in five years this whole country can be cleared so we just need to maintain that interest," she says.

Back at headquarters, information comes in from an international donor. MAG has received funding which will abate its cash flow crisis for a month. A cheer goes up as the workers hear the news.
They filter excitedly through the wrought iron gates, each one content in the knowledge they will get up for the next four Mondays and go to work. What happens after that, no one dares to guess.

Von:, 07.09.2009

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