UNESCO in massive fundraising drive for blast-hit Beirut

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UNESCO in massive fundraising drive for blast-hit Beirut
UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay visits the Gemmayzeh neighbourhood which has suffered extensive damage due to a massive explosion, in Lebanon's capital Beirut on August 27, 2020. ANWAR AMRO / AFP.

by Jean Marc Mojon

BEIRUT (AFP).- The UN's culture and education body will organise two conferences to seek "considerable" funding for blast-hit Beirut, its director said Thursday in the Lebanese capital.

Audrey Azoulay told AFP during a visit to a school damaged in the colossal August 4 explosion at Beirut's port that two events were in the works, including a fundraising event for Beirut's heritage, during which UNESCO would seek hundreds of millions of dollars.

"The first one will be a meeting of the Global Education Coalition dedicated to Lebanon," she said, referring to a body set up to support remote learning since the Covid-19 pandemic began.

"The country absolutely needs to be better prepared on this issue of remote learning," she said.

Azoulay said that meeting would be held on September 1.

According to UNESCO, around 160 schools were destroyed or damaged by the blast, which left more than 180 people dead and devastated entire neighbourhoods of Beirut.

Azoulay said at least 85,000 children were directly affected by the destruction the explosion wreaked.

With the start of the new school year theoretically only days away, the blast compounded a serious crisis the education system already faced due to Covid-19 and an unprecedented economic crunch.

Azoulay said a preliminary assessment showed $22 million would be needed just to rebuild damaged schools.

'Soul of Beirut'
She said a second conference would be organised, probably in late September, to raise funds for Beirut's heritage and the cultural sector.

Azoulay said the aim was to "secure international funding for culture, of the kind that usually comes after reconstruction efforts".

"It needs to come now," she said. "The soul of Beirut is at stake."

Speaking at a press conference later in the day, Azoulay said several hundred million dollars would be needed just for the restoration of Beirut's heritage.

By comparison, around $100 million was raised for Mosul, Iraq's second city, whose historic centre was levelled during military operations against the Islamic State jihadist group in 2017.

"We need several hundred million dollars for the heritage" of Beirut, she said, adding that UNESCO might not be able to raise all of it during the donor conference.

"What UNESCO can bring is expertise, guarantees on transparency and guarantees on the integrity of the restoration standards," she said.

Victims of the blast, the general public and Lebanese aid groups have all voiced concern that foreign aid, if not sent directly to those who need it the most, could be embezzled by the same ruling class they blame for the explosion.

Azoulay said she had raised the issue of real estate speculation in affected areas with President Michel Aoun when she met him earlier in the day.

She called for strong measures to protect affected historical neighbourhoods from marauding property sharks offering to buy up homes from vulnerable landlords and tenants.

"Maybe a special status should be given to the affected zone. Maybe all transactions should be temporarily frozen. In any case, acts are needed," she said.

© Agence France-Presse

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