Press Briefing with USAID Acting Administrator John Barsa on Lebanon Humanitarian Assistance

Speeches Shim

Thursday, August 13, 2020
Special Briefing Via Telephone

Moderator: Good afternoon to everyone from the Department of State’s Dubai Regional Media Hub. I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from the Middle East and around the world for this on-the-record press briefing with John Barsa, Acting Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development. Today, Acting Administrator Barsa will discuss humanitarian assistance to Lebanon.

We will begin today’s briefing with opening remarks from Acting Administrator Barsa, then open the floor for questions. Joining Acting Administrator Barsa on the line are Michael Harvey, the USAID Assistant Administrator for the Middle East Bureau, and Max Primorac, the USAID Acting Assistant to the Administrator for the Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance.

We are pleased to offer simultaneous interpretation for this briefing in Arabic. With that in mind, we request that everyone speak slowly.

I’ll now turn it over to Acting Administrator Barsa for his opening remarks. Sir, the floor is yours.

Acting Administrator Barsa: Thank you very much. Good morning, everyone. Thank you for having me here today to talk about my trip to Lebanon over the last few days. I just landed back in D.C. yesterday evening, returning from a short but moving trip to Beirut. I went to Beirut to make clear to the people of Lebanon that the United States stands with them after the tragic explosions of last week. I went on behalf of the United States and USAID to express our condolences, to assess USAID disaster response efforts, to assess USAID programming, and to make – and to most – and most importantly, to listen to the people of Beirut and Lebanon.

It wasn’t until I was on the ground in Beirut helping the Lebanese people remove rubble, talking to those affected on the streets, that I understood the true impact of the explosions. What you see on TV simply cannot convey the magnitude of what I saw there. Throughout my career I have visited many disaster sites. I have never seen this level of destruction.

Unlike natural disasters, this tragedy was entirely preventable. This is what frustrates me the most and why the people of Lebanon are in the streets protesting today. This did not have to happen.

As you may have heard, the United States Government so far has provided more than $18 million in humanitarian assistance from USAID and the U.S. Department of Defense to aid the people of Lebanon. This funding brings the total humanitarian assistance provided by the American people in Lebanon to nearly $594 million over the last year and a half. While in Beirut, I got an initial assessment from our disaster assistance response team, who is leading the U.S. Government’s humanitarian response in this case on the critical needs. Priority needs include food, health, and shelter.

The explosions left approximately 2,500 homes uninhabitable, damaged or destroyed more than a dozen hospitals and health centers, disrupted food imports at the port, and destroyed shops and businesses that families have relied on for generations for their livelihoods. I had the honor of speaking with some of the people affected when I visited the Port of Beirut, the site of destruction. I met first responders who lost colleagues who were on the site when the second explosion occurred.

We at USAID are partnering with the United Nations World Food Program to provide emergency food assistance to support 300,000 people who have been affected by this disaster. Additionally, while there, I received USAID emergency medical supplies delivered by the U.S. military to help local hospitals address critical needs of the victims of the explosion. These kits contain medicines and medical supplies, including bandages, gauze, examination gloves, thermometers, syringes, and can support up to 60,000 people for three months.

I was also pleased to announce some longer-term investments in Lebanon. I announced on Tuesday that hospitals at the American University of Beirut and that the Lebanese American University will receive almost $4 million in new funding through USAID. This funding will be used to purchase much needed diagnostic and surgical equipment and to equip the medical and pharmaceutical laboratories at LAU, much needed after the damage that the hospital sustained from the tragic explosions.

I also announced on Tuesday that USAID will increase its financial support to civil society groups in Lebanon by 30 percent this year to $6.627 million – again, that’s $6.627 million – to expand efforts to improve transparency and accountability and to fight corruption.

I made clear during my visit that we hear the voices coming from the streets of Beirut and beyond, and we are steadfastly committed to aiding the people of Lebanon during this difficult time. This disaster could not have come at a more inopportune time. Lebanon is facing an economic crisis, a global pandemic, and the influx of nearly a million Syrian refugees. But we know the resilience of the Lebanese people is unmatched and the United States will continue our longstanding support for their pursuit of economic prosperity and accountable governance, free of corruption and foreign pressure.

And with that, I can answer a few questions. I also have some experts with me to help answer some more technical details. I have USAID’s Middle East Bureau Assistant Administrator Mike Harvey, and Max Primorac, USAID’s Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance Acting Assistant to the Administrator. Thank you and over to you for any questions you might have.

Operator: Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask —

Moderator: Great.

Operator: Go ahead.

Moderator: Great. Thank you very much for those remarks. Remember to state your name and affiliation prior to asking your question and, please, limit yourself to one question related to the topic of today’s call. Our first question was pre-submitted in Arabic by Maha Hoteit from Alsharq News in Lebanon. And the question is, “Regarding the different sectors affected by the explosion, what will be the focus of USAID’s assistance and how will you ensure the aid reaches those who really need it?” Over.

Acting Administrator Barsa: What USAID disaster assistance response teams do when they arrive into a site is they prioritize the needs. And certainly, the most important needs are, one, keeping people alive, which is why we were proud to provide additional support to those hospitals who could function so they could continue to treat injuries and keep people alive. As an example, because of all of the broken glass and destruction from the explosions, hospitals and clinics in Beirut were running out of sutures, so the United States Government was able to provide sutures because of all the people who needed stitches.

So after ensuring the continuity of life in terms of a medical – from a medical standpoint, then the next element is keep people alive by feeding them. So we have been working with the World Food Program to get food distributed to people on the ground and as they need it. USAID works very closely with WFP and local groups, local grassroots groups to help on distribution of humanitarian assistance. Our humanitarian assistance is not distributed by the government; we work with WFP and other nongovernmental organizations to ensure that our assistance – medical assistance, food, or other humanitarian assistance – gets to the people who need it the most.

Moderator: Great, thank you. Next we will go to Barak Ravid from Axios.

Question: My question is, does the Trump administration have any conditions on giving aid to the Lebanese Government, mainly taking into consideration Hizballah’s influence on the government and on the country? And how did your visit – was coordinated also with David Hale’s visit there?

Acting Administrator Barsa: USAID assistance does not go to the government; USAID assistance goes directly to the people through trusted NGOs, like the WFP, or local organizations. Under Secretary Hale’s visit has a separate goal and my visit was a stand-alone. So no, Under Secretary Hale was going to be visiting later on in the week.

Moderator: Thank you. Our next question comes from Ibrahim Rihan from Al Hadeel in Lebanon. And the question is, “How would USAID classify Lebanon right now in terms of the humanitarian situation?” Over.

Acting Administrator Barsa: Well, we certainly may not have a formal designation or ranking, but we are very aware of the suffering of the Lebanese people, which is why we’re on the ground, which is why I was there trying to assess it. Clearly, Lebanon being a host community for Syrian refugees and suffering through this terrible not just economic downturn, but this explosion, we’re fully cognizant of the needs of the Lebanese people and we’re standing there with them providing assistance.

Moderator: Thank you. Next we will go to the question queue. We will take a question from Joseph Habboush from Sky News Arabia.

Question: Hello?

Moderator: Yes, you’re on the line. Please ask your question.

Question: Yes. Thanks. First, it’s Al Arabiya English, not Sky News. But I’d like to ask: You had mentioned while in Beirut that you wouldn’t be meeting with any Lebanese officials, and earlier you mentioned that USAID and the Department of Defense were providing aid. Is this a new approach to Lebanon specifically on a humanitarian basis and a military basis, not dealing with the government? And were you able to have an initial estimate of the – of the damage while you were down there from the disaster response team? Thank you.

Acting Administrator Barsa: Generally speaking, when USAID delivers humanitarian assistance in response to any disaster, we work through NGOs to ensure the delivery of humanitarian assistance takes place so that those who have the greatest need get it. So it is not – it is not unusual. It is more the normal practice that we do not work with the governments. And certainly DOD, that certainly when they respond to humanitarian actions, they operate in the same – in the manner in which they’re – you see them operating in Lebanon right now.

In terms of assessments of the explosion, yes. I was able to tour the blast sites, tour the surrounding neighborhoods to get a sense of the extent of the damage and some of the challenges going forward.

Question: Was there a –

Moderator: Thank you. Sorry, only one question per journalist. Our next question was submitted by Suzan Haidamous from The Washington Post. And the question is, “We noticed that there were no meetings with Lebanese officials. What kind of cooperation will there be with the authorities on the distribution of aid? And can you explain the mechanism through which it would work?” Over.

Acting Administrator Barsa: The delivery of USAID humanitarian assistance in Lebanon, as in most disaster responses, is not done in partnership with the government. The USAID, our humanitarian assistance is delivered either directly from us or through implementing partners like the World Food Program, or International Red Cross or the Red Crescent, or other NGOs. We do not work with the government. This is a normal way of operating.

Moderator: Thank you. Our next question comes from Monalisa Freiha.

Question: Hello? We read that U.S. – that U.S. knew about the nitrate in the Port of Beirut. Is it true?

Acting Administrator Barsa: I would have to defer that question to my colleagues at the State Department. I have no such knowledge of anything like that.

Question: Didn’t you see the cable or didn’t you read about the cable mentioned in The New York Times?

Acting Administrator Barsa: That’s really not relevant to USAID humanitarian operations, so I have to defer you to my colleagues at the Department of State.

Moderator: Our next question comes from Petunia Younes from in Lebanon. And the question is, “What is the actual value of the aid being sent to Lebanon? And can you provide more details on the specific mechanisms regarding its delivery?” Over.

Acting Administrator Barsa: Certainly. As I mentioned before, current response to this disaster from USAID and Department of Defense is $18 million. Perhaps one of my experts, either Mike Harvey or Max Primorac, would like to go into more details on the aid delivery.

Mr. Harvey: Max, can I give that to you?

Mr. Primorac: Yes, sir. This is Max Primorac. I’m the acting assistant to the administrator over at the Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance. From the $15 million, USAID is funding the World – UN World Food Program in the amount of $10.5 million in food assistance. And that will support about 300,000 people that have been affected by this disaster. We are also supporting the American University of Beirut, AUB, for immediate emergency response activities, and that includes distributing hygiene kits to people that have been affected by the explosions.

We have sent kits, emergency medical kits, that can support up to about 60,000 people for a three-month period. And we distributed – as the Administrator said, we work with local partners, and in this case, the kits were provided to the American University of Beirut as well as to the Lebanese American University. And these are both longstanding USAID partners whose hospitals are treating victims of the explosions as well as that of COVID-19 patients. Over.

Moderator: Thank you. Our next question from the queue goes to Nadine Majzoub.

Question: Yes, hello. I have a question – two, actually, one question into two. Will you be helping in the process of clearing the damage, and families’ damage, in Lebanon in order to secure the aid that you are providing? This is one. And NGOs, how – what is the best way to be in touch with USAID to coordinate with them in order to help as well? Thank you.

Acting Administrator Barsa: When I was touring the – not just the blast site but the affected neighborhoods, I was very proud to see many existing partners that USAID has worked with over the years in Lebanon who have turned and focused their activities in cleaning up, in helping clean up the rubble and the disaster. So USAID, through our partners, is already on the ground helping clean up the rubble and the mess left behind after this explosion.

The best way to contact USAID is through our existing mission at USAID. We have a permanent presence operating out of the embassy. And the best way to get in touch with USAID is through our existing staff. We have had staff in – present on the ground for decades – part of our commitment to the people of Lebanon.

Moderator: Our next question was submitted by Mina Aldroubi from The National, UAE newspaper. And the question is, “How will the U.S. ensure that the aid will reach those in need and won’t fall into the wrong hands?” Over.

Acting Administrator Barsa: We are ensuring that the people who need the assistance get the assistance by working with World Food Program and trusted nongovernmental organizations who assist us, ensuring the equitable delivery of humanitarian assistance.

Moderator: Our next question will come from the queue, from Ruth Sherlock.

Question: Hello. This is Ruth Sherlock from NPR. I was just – I was – I think my question has really been answered in previous questions. But really, the – you mentioned that USAID assistance does not go directly to the government; it goes through UN agencies and others. But I think there has been criticism in the past that those UN agencies, kind of by necessity in some cases, have to work with the government, and that in some ways the government still does see the UN as a sort of cash cow for – the government corruption does sometimes cross over there. So is this a concern for USAID? Are conversations happening with UN officials to kind of monitor the way that the assistance is provided?

Acting Administrator Barsa: The United States Agency for International Development works closely with the World Food Program in many places across the planet. So I was able to tour the site with David Beasley, who heads up the World Food Program, and certainly we discussed, as always, the need for vetting and the conditions that we have always had with the World Food Program. There’s no waiving of these conditions.

So certainly WFP knows that the United States contributions to WFP are conditioned upon certain standards being met in terms of ensuring that the food gets to the people who is needed. There’s no waiving or relaxing of any of these standards. The World Food Program is cognizant of the requirements for receiving our money for these disaster responses. So there’s nothing that is being changed or waived in the case of this explosion in Beirut.

Moderator: Our next question was submitted by Shaher Alnahari from Makkah newspaper in Saudi Arabia. And the question is, “Would the United States consider postponing providing aid to Lebanon until a fair investigation is carried out by a neutral international committee regarding the explosion?” Over.

Acting Administrator Barsa: The aid coming through United States Agency for International Development for the response to the explosion to ease the suffering of the people of Beirut and Lebanon is in a separate category. I would defer to my colleagues at State Department for any questions about any other assistance to the Government of Lebanon. USAID aid is to the people of Lebanon.

Moderator: Our next question comes from Michel Ghandour in the question queue at MBN Networks.

Question: Yeah. Hi. Regarding the damages, do you have any figures of the damages that happened? And what do the people need the most at this time?

Acting Administrator Barsa: I don’t have any figures with me in terms of the aggregate level of damages and the scope. I would certainly leave that to other experts. But certainly as a human who has been to many disasters worldwide from the 9/11 site to hurricanes, I have never personally seen any destruction on the same level. This is the worst I’ve ever seen in terms of extent.

So what USAID teams will be doing in the upcoming days and weeks, we will be working to assess the structural stability of individual buildings to help with that kind of analysis, but we certainly leave it to others to qualify and quantify the level of damage based on this explosion.

In terms of the greatest needs, certainly, as I stated before, the greatest need is ensuring people stay alive, and this takes place first, and ensuring that you’re treating the injuries from the blast, and then keeping people fed and safe. So medical needs, humanitarian assistance, food needs, and then certainly we’ve started working in terms of shelter and what can be done there.

Moderator: Our next question was submitted by Mai Elsoukary from Alqabas newspaper in Kuwait. And the question is, “Is there a plan to coordinate international assistance with other countries?” Over.

Acting Administrator Barsa: Yes, these – there are discussions ongoing with international partners. Certainly, the United States is pleased to see other countries willing to offer assistance in the response to the recovery. So conversations are ongoing not just with other nongovernmental organizations, UN-based or others, but with other international partners to ensure there’s coordination.

Moderator: Great. Our next question comes from Raji Unnikrishnan.

Question: Thank you very much. I’m from the Gulf Daily News in Bahrain. I would like to know, what do you think is the role of GCC and Bahrain in particular? Because we have come up with aid for Lebanon and we understand that the aid requirements are very different. So what do the USAID think could be the contribution from Bahrain and the larger GCC towards this catastrophe? Thank you.

Acting Administrator Barsa: I’m sorry, I had a technical difficulty here. Could you repeat your question, please? I’m sorry, I had a problem with my phone.

Question: Yes, sure, sure. I am from the Gulf Daily News. I was asking about what do you think is the aid or support, what kind of support do you think Bahrain and the larger GCC could contribute towards Lebanon, and how do you think the USAID could coordinate with the larger GCC in this regard?

Acting Administrator Barsa: So I’m afraid, because of my travels, I have not been, perhaps, up to speed on what countries are donating what. But certainly, when it comes to the theme of cooperation, we do that all the time with our international partners. But let me see if maybe, perhaps, Mike Harvey – I don’t know, Mike, do you have something to add?

Mr. Harvey: Yes, thank you, John. I thank you for the question because I think Lebanon’s neighbors in the Arab world are going to play an important role in helping them recover. I think from what we can see thus far, the immediate humanitarian needs have probably been met in terms of supplies that have come from all over the world. I think the real struggle is – going forward is going to be reconstruction, and I – we just saw last – yesterday, a large shipment of glass coming out of the region to Beirut. That kind of support I think would be critical.

Moderator: Thank you. Our next question was submitted by Charbel Barakat from Aljarida newspaper in Kuwait. And the question is, “You previously announced that some of the American aid will be distributed through the American University of Beirut, but AUB is facing significant financial issues. Does this mean that American assistance will be impacted by the financial issues of AUB?” Over.

Acting Administrator Barsa: I’m not cognizant of the issues premised in the question. We certainly value our partnership with AUB, and we found it to be a reliable partner in a variety of ways. So we’re proud of our work with them.

Moderator: Thank you. That concludes the question and answer portion of today’s call. Acting Administrator Barsa, I’ll now turn it back over to you for your closing remarks.

Acting Administrator Barsa: I just want to say that we at USAID are proud of our longstanding work in Lebanon. Our programming on education and helping with transparency at the municipal level and assistance to the people of Lebanon is something that we have been doing for decades and we will continue to be doing for decades going forward. It was wonderful to see how many of our existing partners were able to pivot and change to deal with the crisis faced at hand as it developed.

The United States of America and USAID stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of Lebanon and Beirut, and we will continue to do so. Thank you so very much.

Moderator: Thank you. That concludes today’s call. I would like to thank Acting Administrator Barsa, Mike Harvey, and Max Primorac for joining us today. If you have any questions about today’s call, you may contact the Dubai Regional Media Hub at Information on how to access the English recording of this call will be provided by AT&T shortly. Thank you and have a great day.