By Timour Azhari

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanese government officials have no sense of urgency and are not taking responsibility for an economic crisis that has “brutally impoverished” the population, an independent United Nations envoy told Reuters in an interview.

“I’m very struck by the fact that this is a state that, if it is not failed yet, is failing and that the needs of the population are still not addressed,” Olivier De Schutter, U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, said at the end of a two-week mission studying poverty in Lebanon.

“They are in a fantasy land,” De Schutter said. “It doesn’t bode well for the future of the country.”

De Schutter met with top officials including nine ministers, the prime minister and parliament speaker during his visit.

An official source at Prime Minister’s Najib Mikati’s office did not comment on his view but pointed to the fact that Mikati had a productive meeting this week with another U.N. official, World Food Programme Executive Director David Beasley.

The United Nations says nearly three-quarters of the formerly middle-income nation’s population now suffer from poverty, which has increased during an economic crisis rooted in decades of corruption and mismanagement.

Banks imposed informal controls on withdrawals and the currency lost more than 90% of its value since 2019 in what the World Bank has labelled a “deliberate depression” and one of one of the worst financial crashes in the world since 1850.

“This is a huge country-wide loss of wealth that is almost unprecedented,” De Schutter said, noting losses in Lebanon’s banking sector, estimated in a 2020 government plan at around $83 billion, should be borne by bank shareholders and large depositors, not average people.

Western nations have offered aid in return for reforms, but Lebanon was without a permanent government for 13 months in the wake of the deadly August 2020 Beirut blast, and a new cabinet formed in September has not met in a month amid a political row.

De Schutter said he would recommend the immediate implementation of social protection programmes held up for months, an increase to the minimum wage and a wealth tax to combat world-leading inequality rates.

His final report will be published in early 2022.

De Schutter said that, while Pope John Paul II once referred to Lebanon as a “message” of sectarian coexistence, it had since become “a warning for the world” on the outcomes of “a very unhealthy alliance between very wealthy businessmen and political elites”.

(Reporting by Timour Azhari; Editing by Peter Graff)