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Despite a wave of optimism in the middle of 2008 — which saw the election of a new president and the formation of a national unity government — significant factors threatened Lebanon’s fragile existence: increased regional tensions, especially between Iran and Israel; remote, but potential conflicts between Hezbollah and Israel; increased pressure within the Palestinian refugee camps; and the targeting of international peacekeeping forces and militia attacks. The election of Saad Hariri (the second child of Rafiq Hariri) as prime minister in November 2009 concluded a drawn out but quiet political process.

Economic situation. A sense of optimism has prevailed among the country’s economic and political elites, despite the worldwide economic meltdown. For the last few years, real economic growth has topped 7 percent: 8.5 percent in 2008, 7 percent in 2009 and, according to the World Bank, about 7 percent through 2011.

Lebanon’s remarkable ability to prosper amid the global recession has boosted investor confidence, both at home and abroad. Yet the country’s debt burden continues to cloud the outlook: It is now estimated at U.S. $51 billion, or 155 percent of the country’s GDP, and is expected to rise by a further $5 billion this year. To address this issue, as well as concerns for education, health care and unemployment, economic and political reforms must move forward, as inefficiency and corruption are endemic in state institutions.

Though Lebanon may boast of a GDP per head three times that of Syria and Egypt, there is a wide income gap between Lebanon’s small, urban elite and its poor, who live in rural areas and the outlying suburbs of major cities. Rising prices for consumer goods, fuel and food have burdened the most vulnerable groups of Lebanese society, such as small-scale businesses, households headed by women and the elderly and poor. The situation of the poor is particularly acute, as the government provides little social assistance.

Health indicators remain relatively high for the region, with the average life expectancy at 75 years. However, health care services are primarily private and, while of a high standard, are very expensive and thus not available to a large segment of the population. To compensate, nongovernmental organizations or social arms of political parties often provide subsidized health care for rural populations.

Due to a significant shift from rural to urban environments (about 87 percent of the population now lives in Lebanon’s cities), a well educated and sophisticated workforce, and an unemployment rate around 9.2 percent with significant numbers of underemployed as well, the younger generations are finding it increasingly difficult to find meaningful work.

Up to 40,000 Lebanese leave the country every year. Most are students or young professionals seeking what Lebanon fails to offer: economic opportunities in a stable environment. Yet, despite its high numbers of emigration, Lebanon’s population is considered young.

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Tags: Lebanon Middle East Christians Emigration Maronite Church Socioreligious programs