BEIRUT (AP) — Hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance money for cash-strapped Lebanon is being held up because of the country's nearly two-year-old political stalemate, the president of the World Bank group warned Friday, imploring the country's politicians to vote for a president who can enact laws.
In an interview with The Associated Press in the Lebanese capital Beirut, Jim Yong Kim also said the World Bank, which pulled out of Syria in 2011, is getting ready to move as quickly as possible to contribute to the rebuilding of the war-ravaged country if and when the fighting stops. But he said battling extremism is going to be complicated.
Kim is on a two-day joint visit to Lebanon with the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Islamic Development Bank Group President Ahmad Mohamed Ali Al-Madani to get a first-hand look at the impact of the Syrian crisis and to assess how the combined strengths of the three organizations can best support the country.
On Friday, he traveled to northern Lebanon to visit a social development center that provides health, nutrition and social services to extremely poor households, and an informal tented settlement for Syrian refugees.
"It's always jarring to see how difficult the situation is for these families," he said.
Lebanon is home to more than 1 million registered Syrian refugees, or nearly a quarter of the country's 4.5 million people. Lebanon says that another half a million Syrians live in the country as well and officials say their presence has generated a severe burden that Lebanon is no longer able to face alone.
The World Bank has signed agreements worth $900 million with Lebanon and on Thursday announced a new $100 million initiative aimed at supporting the government to improve the quality of its education and achieve universal school enrolment for Lebanese and Syrian refugee children by the end of the 2016-17 school year.
Most of that money, however, has been held up because Lebanon has been without a president since May 2014, as lawmakers repeatedly failed to agree on a consensus president, and parliament rarely meets.
In the interview, Kim said the World Bank has extensive plans to support Lebanon in developing projects, including helping build a special economic zone in Tripoli, near the Syrian border, which can be a major supplier to Syria once the fighting ends. But everything is being held up.
"This is really a very strong message that I want to give to the Lebanese people, that there are real costs to the dysfunction of these governmental institutions in Lebanon and the cost is in money not moving directly to communities," Kim warned. "And we're not talking about a few tens of millions of dollars, we're talking about billions of dollars."
"We really urge everyone in Lebanon to push and push and push so that the government begins to function again," he added.
Kim also said that much of the instability and radical extremism the world is seeing now goes back to the lack of education and job opportunities, and that the key was in development projects and economic growth to reduce the likelihood of young people being radicalized.
"Fighting extremism is not simplistic, it's going to be complicated," he said, adding that the World Bank and its partners were going to do everything possible to work on economic growth and development projects.
"That's why we're here, that's why we've put a billion on the table right now with the possibility for billions more over time," he said. "We just need to have a partner, we need to have a partner here in the government."