How do you respond to a humanitarian crisis and rebuild a devastated capital when no one trusts the corruption-plagued state apparatus — and while a collapsed banking system and a pandemic loom in the backdrop?

That is the billion-dollar question Lebanon is facing.

Last week about 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate ignited in Beirut’s port, killing more than 170 people, wounding thousands and leaving about 300,000 residents of the Lebanese capital homeless. The governor estimated the damage at $10 billion to $15 billion. The revelation that successive governments knew that dangerous chemicals were improperly stockpiled at the port and did nothing only deepened the public’s pain and anger.

Lebanon’s government resigned Monday — but the state had already been basically absent in the response to the blast. Instead, civil society and people from across the country swiftly mobilized to clean streets, search for survivors and feed and house one another.

In the immediate aftermath, many Lebanese are demanding that money and aid in the form of food, medical care and housing be channeled only through trusted local organizations. They do not trust government or state institutions — dominated since the end of Lebanon’s civil war by networks of militia leaders turned politicians — to refrain from taking a cut.

When it comes to millions and perhaps billions of dollars in aid, that is easier said than done, analysts told The Washington Post.

Washington Post correspondent Sarah Dadouch visited the port in Beirut one week after a massive explosion killed more than 170 people. (The Washington Post)

A failing state

In the days since the explosion, local initiatives have been remarkably effective in mobilizing immediate relief, said Nadim Houry, executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative.

“Lebanon, because of its many past wars, crises and conflict, has a very developed and vibrant civil society,” he said. “We’ve seen them very quickly speed into action. A lot of the aid is trying to bypass state bureaucracies and feed” needy people.

World leaders have echoed calls to prioritize nongovernmental organizations. On Saturday, France co-hosted a virtual summit in which international donors pledged $298 million in aid. “Assistance should be timely, sufficient and consistent with the needs of the Lebanese people,” 15 world leaders said in a statement, and “directly delivered to the Lebanese population, with utmost efficiency and transparency.”

After the emergency relief, however, a government is needed to coordinate rebuilding Beirut’s shattered port, businesses and roads, said Sibylle Rizk, director of public policy for Kulluna Irada, a Beirut-based civic organization for political reform.

“The temptation is to bypass state authorities and go directly to the people,” she said. “This is possible only for limited areas, for pure humanitarian aid. … The minute you start looking at reconstruction efforts, you need some kind of state institution.”

For the past year, demonstrators have taken to the streets of Lebanon demanding political change. But they have struggled to shake up the political status quo: a clique of politicians who have relied on sectarian patronage networks and geopolitics to profit and remain in power.

Alex Simon, co-founder of Synaps, a Beirut-based research and training organization, told The Post that is why donors should “resist the urge to channel aid through government bodies” for now. “The country’s bankruptcy means that Lebanon’s factions will be all the more aggressive and creative in capturing this flood of aid funding,” he said.

As Stanford University academic Christiana Parreira wrote in a 2019 report for Synaps: “Foreign donors often fund programs promising to build the capacity of state institutions, while generally ignoring the existential reasons behind their malfunctions. Lebanon’s Western backers thus end up subsidizing the broken system they hope to fix.”

The massive explosion at Beirut’s port on Aug. 4 devastated a county already in the grip of a political and economic crisis. (David Enders/The Washington Post)

Emergency and economic crises

The country is still badly in need of aid. Lebanon was already facing a trifecta of problems: a collapsed economy, a political uprising and a coronavirus outbreak. Now there’s a humanitarian crisis to contend with.

To be effective, donors need to approach the situation as they would a simultaneous earthquake and an economic crisis, Houry said. “Like managing a fire on many fronts.”

“We’ve seen how money gets siphoned off,” he continued. “[So] what transparency efforts are going to be put in place? How can these measures be strengthened and ensure accountability?”

At protests and on social media, Lebanese activists have urged international donors to support local initiatives and organizations, from the Lebanese Red Cross to the beloved owner of a destroyed corner store or restaurant.

Accessing cash, though, can pose another set of problems, Rizk said. Lebanon’s crisis-ridden banking sector has limits on withdrawing dollars and the Lebanese pound. The collapse of Lebanon’s currency has led to inflation, so money sent in dollars loses much of its worth once converted.

One workaround has been the Lebanese diaspora mobilizing to raise funds and send assistance, Rizk said. But until Lebanon’s indebted government — now dissolved — agrees to a long-sought loan from the International Monetary Fund, the banking crisis is unlikely to be resolved.

The United Nations is another actor quickly mobilizing on the ground. On Tuesday, it announced that it would send tens of thousands of tons of wheat flour to Lebanon to prevent a food shortage after the country’s ’s main grain silo at the port was destroyed. Still, Rizk warned, the international body faced the same long-standing issue of the political impact of how it distributes aid.

“The issue is who is their interlocutor in Lebanon and how to channel and organize the funding in the absence of the state, in the absence of a budget, in the absence of a financial system,” she said.

Several countries have pledged millions in aid. French President Emmanuel Macron was the first world leader to visit Beirut; he walked its shattered streets Friday. It was, Lebanese noted, a show of solidarity from the country’s former colonial power that none of Lebanon’s embattled leadership dared to carry out.

Two days after the blast, the United States sent its first round of emergency aid from the U.S. Central Command hub in Qatar, the Associated Press reported. The State Department said Friday that it has pledged more than $17 million overall.

The United States has focused aid in part on the Lebanese military because it is seen as a counterweight to the militant group Hezbollah, which was a key broker in Lebanon’s government. Washington has placed sanctions on Hezbollah and designated it a terrorist group. In Lebanon, it is a recognized political party with a wide social service network.

“We’re well aware of some of the concerns with whom the aid would go to and ensuring that the aid gets to the people of Lebanon that need it most,” Jonathan Hoffman, chief spokesman for the Pentagon, said Thursday, the AP reported.