Interview with Patricia Nabti: Volunteering and Wasta in Lebanon (by Estella Carpi – March 2012)

Estella Carpi: Controversial Humanitarian Assistance and Multifaceted Wasta in the Lebanese Context


While researching humanitarian assistance and service provision in the southern suburbs of Beirut, I started wondering what role volunteering plays in the shattered Lebanese frame where the former can partially be seen as a privileged agent position of the better-off in a country like Lebanon. A high or middle economic status, thus, would enable just limited social strata to make the choice of volunteering. In a multi-confessional and sectarian context as Lebanon is, I was also wondering whether volunteering risks carving and sustaining further confessional hierarchies on an ethical level.

I shared my research doubts with Patricia Nabti: in a bid to promote and incorporate volunteering, her organization – International Association for Volunteer Services – functions as a bridge for humanitarian associations that would like to recruit volunteers.

Patricia is a cultural anthropologist with a focus on the Arab world. After teaching at Stanford University in the US, she founded the first International Association for Volunteer Services in Lebanon, which aims at “promoting, facilitating, and improving volunteering and community service throughout Lebanon and beyond” ( She is also author of Learning to Care about volunteering and community service in Lebanon, published in 2006 (the Arabic edition was published in January 2009). She has provided training on school service programs in Lebanon, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates and has served as a consultant and trainer on broader issues of volunteerism in Lebanon, Egypt, and Kuwait.

It is quite difficult to trace back the beginning of aid provision in Lebanon, because of the civil war and the scattered events that constitute Lebanon’s history.  Each community tended to create its own community services for local charity, thanks to funding coming from remittances of Lebanese migrants that settled outside Lebanon. However, despite the lack of quantitative data in the development field, after the civil war there has been an enormous outpouring of money for providing services: undoubtedly the farthest you get since the end of a war, the least you can find. As Patricia Nabti argues, in 2006 the Lebanese were relatively united and this made a huge difference in terms of intervention:  “you didn’t have to worry about what neighbour could have turned around and shot at you. In other words, in 2006 your fear was from the sky, not from other people. Everyone in Lebanon was helping people that were coming up from the south. People were not worrying anymore about the religious cross-over. This consistently changed the things emotionally and psychologically on a macrocosmic level… You were angry at America, you were angry at Israel. If you were angry at Hezbollah too, you were however more dismayed at that time about how miserable Israel had rendered the life of all of us in the twinkling of an eye”. The July war, in this respect, seems to represent a watershed in the historical Lebanese humanitarian picture. “Nevertheless, after a few years since the war broke out” – she adds – “we have seen everyone going back to their own community once again. Thus, unfortunately, the tendency to create one’s own family tree of organizations is still ongoing”.

Bertrand Badie in 2002 has described the irresistible rise of humanitarianism as a new international marketplace, called “pietas market”: what happened in the immediate aftermath of the July 2006 war is a perfect case in point. Humanitarianism is justified by discourses that decontextualize and naturalize both the causes and the effects of wars and armed conflicts, and, in turn, the need for human action and responsibility to protect. As a consequence, humanitarianism implies dependence on donor countries and a legitimacy that is viewed as universal or as a conveyer of apolitical ideologies. In light of these considerations increasingly advanced by scholars in the field, to question if humanitarianism is doomed to increase corruption and dependence within the country and how it can live up to its potentials, despite its well known contradictory strategies, is one of the thornier issues. For instance, humanitarian agencies would tend to maintain a certain level of instability as well as to achieve security ambitions from outside and within Lebanon. In a nutshell, the conviction that development policies are carried out with the increasing purpose of meeting international or local security “needs” – as they are portrayed from within – is steadily increasing, as well as the literature about that.

It is out of the question that nowadays aid agencies are still concerned about helping people to survive more than empowering them, considering the number of wars and conflicts in Lebanon. According to Patricia, from this perspective, rendering people dependent becomes unavoidable to some extent: “the perpetration of the action of these agencies is quite inevitable to keep surviving. And the survival instinct involves everyone somehow, not just the beneficiaries. The important thing is creating sustainability, and this is feasible by not funding targeted groups, rather by merely funding our training of them. And, in this aspect, volunteering is the core tool for sustainability”.

There is still wonder, therefore, for how it would be possible to avoid vulnerabilizing further beneficiaries through aid, and, at the same time, reinforcing the role of agency covered by economically already empowered volunteers. Aid, indeed, seems to play a passivising role by its own nature with respect to the targeted people. Patricia looks at the issue from another viewpoint: “volunteering from the poor is as much as from the rich. It is not something done instead of work or school. It is rather something complementary, such as development of skills and, as a result, getting more easily employable. In other words, in a farsighted view we can state that in Lebanon there are two types of wastaowning wasta or earning wasta. The second one, which is often overlooked unlike the first, implies intermediation and responsibility. The term acquired negative connotations throughout the years but it can actually constitute something valuable in the labour market. You are paying with your own social capital to get your relatives a job by using wasta: the employable is using your social capital to get a job, and this, in this sense, is like a price that someone is paying for you. By putting the issue of wasta under this new light, there is nothing to lose. If you are doing your job – however earned – for the good of society, doing it in a strategic way even provides you with further assets”.

In so doing, Patricia reformulates the concept of wasta by tracing back its etymological root that embraces both agency and mediation. In such circumstances, volunteering becomes enfranchising for its agents that become more employable in a near future, and, on the other hand, necessary for the beneficiaries, who would not benefit in fact from any other source. Hence, in a community-based environment strewn with aid providers competing in the service industry, there is still wonder for how volunteering can eschew petrifying its promoters in the status of agents, who rely on a rhetoric of generosity, while essentializing beneficiaries in the status of pardoned passivities. Although volunteer agents do not aim at getting income from their work, they still act freely as a sort of mobile sovereignty, independent from governmental and national institutions, as the whole humanitarian industry does. In other words, volunteering would still make up a political agency that is able to make its own promoters feel as full civic participants, yet not within the frame of the Lebanese state. Consequently, as long as extra-governmental civil society does not incorporate and empower all the echoes that inhabit the garden, what “civil society” are we talking about? The positive nuances that Patricia Nabti tried to attribute to the soiled concept of wasta in a pragmatic vein, sound far more realistic and genuinely promising than the big hoax of apolitical generosity. Yet, as Italian philosopher Danilo Zolo has stated in 2003, “whoever claims to be humane is trying to fool you”.

Estella Carpi is PhD Candidate at The University of Sydney and currently PhD Fellow at the American University of Beirut.

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