On the eve of the 1975 Civil War, Lebanon's general standard of living was comfortable and higher than that in any other Arab country. Regional variations existed in housing standards and sanitation and in quality of diet, but according to government surveys most Lebanese were adequately sheltered and fed. Known for their ingenuity and resourcefulness in trading and in entrepreneurship, the Lebanese have shown a marked ability to create prosperity in a country which is not richly endowed with natural resources. Economic gain was a strong motivating force in all social groups.
Many problems affecting the general welfare before the war stemmed from high prices and the massive rural exodus to the cities. This exodus has been linked to rapid soil erosion, fragmented landholdings, and a distinct preference of most Lebanese for urban living and for urban occupations. The population increase in the cities, especially in Beirut, created severe housing shortages for those unable to pay the high rents for modern apartments. It also aggravated the problems of urban transportation and planning. The high cost of living, which had been steadily rising since the 1950s, further diminished the purchasing power of small rural incomes and threatened the consumption patterns of lowand middle-income groups in the cities. Of special concern were high rents, school fees, and the price of food and clothing. Many urban households lived on credit, and indebtedness was widespread in some parts of the countryside.
In urban centers, where the Western influence was most apparent in the 1980s, there had been a tremendous increase in modern apartment buildings that had almost erased the scenes of traditional-style houses with red-tiled roofs. The government did not take action during the construction boom of the early 1970s to protect these remnants of Lebanon's culture. In rural Lebanon, houses with flat earthen roofs were the most common. The size and shape of the house indicated one's economic status.
The disruption of Lebanon's modernization by the war has not been adequately measured. A social data sheet on Lebanon prepared by the World Bank in 1983, however, illustrated some trends. Women's share of the labor force progressed very slowly from 3.4 percent in 1960 to 19.9 percent in 1981, probably because of strong traditionalist resistance within the family. The same data indicated a sharp decline in the percentage of the labor force employed in agriculture, from 38 percent in 1960 to only 11 percent in 1980. There was no corresponding rise in industrial activity, however; the industrial labor force only increased from 23 percent to 27 percent. Most of the labor force was still employed in the service sector. Other indices such as energy consumption, passenger cars per thousand population, radios and television sets per thousand population, and newspaper circulation also documented Lebanon's pace of modernization. What these figures did not indicate was the disproportionate levels of modernization among various communities and regions.
As for the impact of the war in general on public life, radical adjustments had to be made by inhabitants of neighborhoods that were subjected to intense fighting. The people of Beirut, in particular, adjusted to shortages of all kinds: water, electricity, food, and fuel. The wartime living situation started to deteriorate in the spring of 1975. During lulls in the fighting, remnants of the central government attempted to resume services to the population, but the task was impossible because of the harassment by militia members. The government then resorted to rationing water and electricity. It was particularly hampered by the sharp decline in the payment of bills by consumers. According to one employee in the Beirut electric company, only 10 percent of all customers paid their bills. The rest either declined to pay or simply hooked up to utility supply cables.
One of the most difficult periods in the struggle for survival among Lebanese and Palestinians occurred during the siege of Beirut by Israel in 1982. To pressure the PLO to surrender the Israeli army, along with the Christian Lebanese Forces, ensured that no food or fuel entered the city.
The war scarcely left a house or building in Beirut intact or free from shrapnel damage. The Lebanese, however, soon adjusted to the new situation either by living in bombed-out apartments or by fixing damaged parts of their residence. Some displaced people from southern Lebanon who could not afford to rent in Beirut or even in its suburbs, chose to live in deserted apartments and hotels in areas close to the Green Line, which separated West from East Beirut. The situation in many Palestinian refugee camps was particularly oppressive. Some along the coastal road had come under Israeli fire during the invasion of 1982, and others in the Beirut area had been destroyed by Christian militias during the war or had come under Shia attack in the mid-1980s.
Source: Federal Research Division - Library of Congress
(Edited by Thomas Collelo, December 1987)
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