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  • Lynn Saghir

Beirut's little merchants

"Flower power, take a shower, every hour, sweet and sour”, “Shake it like a polaroid!". These expressions are famous in a small but resilient country that is Lebanon. Where are these expressions coming from?

Ask a Lebanese and he or she will tell you. These are the catch phrases children in Lebanon use when they’re selling flowers, gums, polaroid photos and all sorts of gadgets outside popular nightclubs, bars, late-night restaurants, and all over the streets of Hamra. Some child beggars are polite and shy but most can be seen on the streets, including crippled children roaming the intersections and walking between cars asking for money. Most are relentless, pounding on your car window while waiting on a red light, cleaning your windshield without asking, or are seen throwing themselves in front of you or grab on your clothes to get your attention and sell you a pack of gum, cigarettes, or a flower. They are desperate and poor but they have one thing in common: they never give up. They are tenacious, hungry and determined to find a way to make ends meat for their families. Most do good business but one cannot help but wonder if giving money directly to child beggars hurting more than it is helping? Are gangs profiting from maimed child beggars? Has beggary become the new organized crime and child trafficking in Lebanon? These are all questions that come to many people’s minds.

No matter what the answer is, children beggars including Syrian refugees as part of the equation, roaming the streets of Beirut city, have become a growing epidemic in Lebanon and very little is being done to protect them from human trafficking, drugs, prostitution, and organized crimes. Assuming they make it off the streets, their overall development skills including cognitive, linguistic, and socio-emotional would have been undermined. Furthermore, in addition to the “hammering Syrian refugees crisis” that is “putting tremendous pressure on the country’s infrastructure—electricity, water, sanitation, public services, health and education” as stated by the Director of the Middle East Department at the World Bank, Ferid Belhaj, the aging street children population will burden the local economy, health care systems, and will create all types of social and economic problems as a result.

The World Bank Group's “Support to Reaching All Children with Education in Lebanon 2" investments supports these children through financing to the Ministry of Education to promote equitable access to quality education services for both refugees and host children. The support includes US$100 million of concessional financing from The International Development Association (IDA) to address the education sector’s immediate needs and create the foundations for longer-term recovery. It also includes a US$4 million grant from the Results in Education for all Children Trust Fund, financed by Norway, Germany, and the United States. “This program will support the Government of Lebanon’s key objectives of increasing enrollment and improving the quality of education for all children. In addition, it provides a results-based instrument to channel increased international support,” said Noah Yarrow, World Bank Senior Education Specialist.

With the highest number of refugees-per-capita in the world, Lebanon’s public education system has welcomed more than 150,000 Syrian children since the start of the Syrian war. Many schools now hold double-shifts of classes in the morning and afternoon to meet the demand. Still, an estimated 300,000 Syrian children living in Lebanon are not enrolled in formal schooling. According to Ferid Belhaj, Director of the Middle East Department at the World Bank, “Our objective is to make sure that these (out-of-school) kids, who have done nothing to find themselves in this abysmal situation, will not turn into a lost generation”

These Lebanese kids are not the only ones poor or struggling. In fact, a quarter of all children worldwide under age five or 162 million children are physically stunted. What can institutions and governments do to pull these kids out of poverty and help them enroll to schools on time? How much money should countries invest in Early Childhood Development (ECD)? According to a report that is published by the Worldbank group Education Global Practice "Smarter education systems for brighter futures" it takes one percent of a country's GNP as minimum public investment to ensure provision of quality ECD services, yet many low and middle income countries fall behind this minimum and are far below the 1% benchmark. We all need to be just as tenacious as the child beggars in advocating for early childhood development.

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