In the city of tripoli in lebanons north, two yellow billboards carry a slogan that jars with the cheery background: were broke.

It is unclear who paid for the posters but their message is broadly true, according to riad yumq, tripolis mayor. the municipality the economically stricken countrys poorest area is so cash-strapped, he said, that it cannot do its duties as it should.

Lebanon is suffering the worst economic crisis in its modern history. the government defaulted on its foreign debt in march, a third of the workforce is jobless and the lira has lost 80 per cent of its value since mass anti-government protests erupted last year. a currency collapse has caused spiralling inflation, while a banking meltdown has blocked people from accessing savings.

Lebanons wealth disparities are stark. the forbes 2020 rich list features six billionaires in a country with an estimated population of fewer than 5m. lebanon has one of the highest concentrations of wealth and one of the highest concentrations of billionaires in the world, said vladimir hlasny, an economist for the un regional economic agency escwa.

Some 71 per cent of the countrys wealth is owned by 10 per cent of the adult population, according to escwa, which last month estimated its poverty rate had rocketed from 28 per cent in 2019 to 55 per cent in 2020. lebanon has the regions second-highest gini coefficient score a measure of inequality after saudi arabia.

Few places symbolise the countrys wealth gap better than tripoli, where smart apartment buildings fade into swaths of rundown neighbourhoods. the dilapidated city the countrys second-largest, with 600,000 inhabitants is the hometown of the countrys two richest billionaires: former premier and current tripoli mp najib mikati and his brother taha, who made their fortune abroad in telecommunications.

Another son of tripoli, mustapha adib, briefly took the premiership after the catastrophic explosion in beirut in july brought the countrys mismanagement and misery to a head, although he resigned last week after failing to corral squabbling politicians into agreeing on a new cabinet.

Today business has slowed so much that toufic dabboussi, president of tripolis chamber of commerce, said 89 per cent of its members had failed to pay renewal fees this year as companies closed or froze activities.

Once powerful, the ancient city sat on an important trade route stretching to iraq. its former status is written in its architecture, its streets lined by fading gems, including an international exhibition complex designed by the modernist brazilian architect oscar niemeyer, crumbling ottoman buildings and a crusader-era castle.

Politicians from tripoli should have been more aware to maintain tripolis importance, said mr yumq. unfortunately, that didn't happen.

Data suggest the socio-economic situation in tripoli was poor long before the national crisis came to a head. a undp study of the city five years ago found that 57 per cent of tripolis residents were deprived.

Tripolis strategic position on the mediterranean and close to syrias biggest cities has long made it an arena for competing interests, from palestinian and pan-arab activists and militants in past decades to islamist extremists more recently. sporadic instability has deterred investment and made capital a coward, said mr yumq.

Several of the citys super-wealthy, including the mikatis and tripoli politician and businessman mohammad safadi, have established philanthropic foundations to support social projects there, especially in education.

But an adviser to najib mikati, who asked not to be named, said the charities could not lift tripoli by themselves: no matter how much the mikatis have spent or the safadis...its not enough. what is needed is a proper plan to be put in place by the government.

Poverty and disillusion fuelled tripolitans energetic participation in last years protests, which felled the government of saad hariri, causing the lebanese to dub the city the bride of the revolution.

But in a sign of growing despair, emigration is rising, with human rights groups saying lebanese nationals have even crammed into small boats alongside refugees from syria and elsewhere, smuggling themselves out of tripolis port in a desperate attempt to reach europe.

My friends who couldnt find [work] already emigrated, said miriam mourad, a 25-year-old neuroscience graduate. after eight months of unemployment she secured a job with tripoli entrepreneurs club, a social enterprise-supporting start-up, but she and her colleagues are the lucky ones, she said.

People in tripoli say that since lebanons 15-year civil conflict ended in 1990, the focus of postwar prime minister rafiq hariri on developing the capital left their city neglected.

We feel lebanon stops after the chekka tunnel, said anas shaar, chief executive of tripoli-based national flour mills, referring to a point about 30km south of the city. so under-developed is local infrastructure that his company had to build its own road to connect the factory to the transport network.

In the citys old souk, furniture seller ali zraik blamed globalisation: his family business switched to buying cheaper goods from malaysia 20 years ago.

But lebanons currency collapse makes imports all but unaffordable. by august 2020, the cost of furnishings and household equipment had risen 664 per cent compared with august 2019, according to lebanons statistics office. mr zraik said he had seen a 95 per cent slump in business.

But he also pointed a finger at the politicians displayed on posters along the street.

Those pictures you are seeing are all lies, he said. you saw what happened, they [the politicians] destroyed lebanon.