Assessing humanitarianism in Lebanon with a practitioner (by Estella Carpi, June 2013)

Thu 27 Jun 2013

clothes distribution in Tripoli, showing the Syrian opposition flag; photograph by Estella Carpi

A practitioner and a researcher assess humanitarianism in today’s Lebanon

By Fiorenzo Conte and Estella Carpi

In our combined effort of providing the perspectives of the practitioner and the researcher, we would like to take as a point of departure Italian scholar Roberto Belloni’s theses according to which humanitarianism, on the one hand, ends up being the short-term substitute for development, and, on the other, tends to reproduce the same cleavages it tries to overcome.

Humanitarianism as a short-term substitute for development

While conducting research and grounded humanitarian work in Lebanon, we have noticed how humanitarianism, while providing increasing quantity of aid, avoids addressing the root causes of Lebanese chronic poverty, administrative anarchy and recurring war-like events. Predominantly Western and Gulf countries have focused their attention on managing the symptoms of the malaise without effectively addressing its causes and hence engaging in the long term.

The humanitarian needs in Lebanon are surely huge for both Syrian refugees and long neglected Lebanese host communities. With the massive influx of Syrian refugees since August 2011, the Lebanese community, living in the poorest regions, has felt the pinch. Indeed, many residents are currently trying to tackle increased expenditures and a drop in income caused by a variety of factors: the closure of the border and the consequent inaccessibility to Syrian cheaper goods through the usual border-cross smuggling; fierce competition in the labor market that has been increased by the presence of Syrian workers; a deteriorating security situation; and reduced access to the agricultural lands strewn with landmines (1).

The situation for Syrians is similarly grim: according to a recent report, more than 50% of Syrian refugees and Lebanese returnees live in substandard conditions, as Lebanese host communities are no longer able to absorb new flows of refugees in their houses. The vast majority cannot afford their medication for chronic-diseases, while others are foregoing hospital-level care because of the prohibitive cost and insecurity conditions. Many of them do not even have enough food to meet their families’ nutritional needs.

bread provided by NGOs to Syrian refugees in the aid kit in Wadi Khaled (Akkar); photograph by Estella Carpi

While some of these needs were not preventable, as they are inherently related to the Syrian conflict (i.e. interruption of trade and smuggling with and through Syria), widespread insecurity and an abysmal lawlessness stem from the structural weakness of the Lebanese state in asserting its control (meant as monopoly of violence) over the entirety of its territory. The state, however, neither asserts its authority, nor does it offer sufficient basic services. Feelings of abandonment, lack of authority and economic precariousness in Lebanese realities – like Tripoli and Arsal – end up feeding the militia culture, triggering, therefore, a recurrent spiral of violence.

The paradoxical result of this flimsy post-war order led in fact the Lebanese of the peripheral regions to access basic services, such as healthcare, in Syria before the recent violence broke out. The international community has always been happy with simply patching up, while the deep root causes of the generalized malaise could wait longer. In this sense, humanitarianism is the short-term substitute for development in Lebanon: foreign powers still hold political sway in the domestic scenario while apparently preserving the neutrality of the humanitarian aid. This disguising mechanism gives birth to a fake apoliticization of the foreign humanitarian market, while the latter is not marginal at all to local political realities. Many humanitarian organizations have therefore abandoned previous local development projects in Lebanese areas that have been less targeted by the Syrian migration flow, and have consequently joined the humanitarian efforts meant to deal with the Syrian crisis. Such a dynamic is often dictated by the direction into which donors’ funds are channeled, since emergency relief is constantly prioritized with respect to challenging development plans.

In a nutshell, humanitarianism is actually the answer to failure in development policies, and, as such, it has been proving that emergency plans just serve its purpose of refreshing funds and commitment for the humanitarian structures.

Humanitarianism reproduces the same cleavages it tries to overcome

Humanitarian providers in Lebanon, with their way of operating, tend to reproduce the same cleavages that pre-existed the crisis humanitarian actors aim at alleviating. There are two cleavages that humanitarianism is reproducing, and they are stigmatized in a “national” – sometimes depicted as “ethnic” – opposition: one is that between Syrians and Lebanese; another cleavage between the central state and pseudo-feudal decentralization of administrative power and resource management is also identifiable among the “side effects” of how humanitarianism is locally implemented.

In Lebanon, Syrian refugees and Lebanese returnees are considered by humanitarian organizations as the primary victims of the Syrian conflict. The funds allocated for the Syrian emergency in Lebanon are therefore earmarked for intervention that primarily or exclusively targets Syrian refugees. Syrian refugees, however, do not officially live in refugee camps – where implementation is so far refused by the Lebanese government – and are therefore scattered across different regions in Lebanon. Either hosted or as rent payers. They are mainly concentrated in the poorest Lebanese regions due to greater life affordability.

Syrian refugees and Lebanese host communities, thus, actually share a similar condition of poverty, exclusion and marginality. Nonetheless, they differ in one dimension: the first are formal recipients of aid, the second are occasional recipients of aid. This divide has inevitably created tensions. Moreover, the way humanitarian programs have been implemented has ethnicized the human needs of such areas: the fact that every kind of assistance is provided according to the “ethnic category” – or, in any case, the specific social group – one qualifies for, has rendered eligibility a watershed between who is entitled to be helped and who is not. This is definitely not a humanitarian side effect. By so doing, the humanitarian programs address beneficiaries by labeling them in a unilateral way and ignoring the variegated spectrum of their experiences of deprivation and neglect. In other words, these programs totally ignore the process behind the attribution of social labels to potential beneficiaries, and condemn the latter to survive within – and weirdly in the name of – the spot they occupy in the taxonomical pyramid of aid for Syrians, Lebanese affected by war, Palestinians, Iraqis, Sudanese and so forth. Hence, the humanitarian programs feed into such cleavages with their modus operandi – that is to say, working on the basis of categories – by establishing who is entitled to what and consequently engendering further tensions.

The Syrian influx also feeds into underlying inter-confessional tensions: some segments of the Christian community do not hide their fear of the Sunni influx (the majority of the Syrian refugees is in fact Sunni). Likewise, some residents in Alawite villages in Akkar perceive more tension now among their neighbors, who are allied with or against the Asad regime. With the economic situation deteriorating and Syrian migrant workers being an easy scapegoat for the generalized malaise, Lebanese from other sects are taking the matter into their hands, while cases of military raids and mob violence against Syrians are multiplying. The humanitarian response has failed to alleviate such tensions and, on the contrary, it has inflamed them by allocating the most visible part of aid (household items, food vouchers, blankets) almost exclusively to Syrian refugees. If, on one side, it is not the duty of humanitarianism to end local violence, on the other, it should not even fuel such tensions by identifying the local capacities for peace.

To its credit, humanitarian organizations have tried to channel as many resources as possible through the Lebanese public service: in the case of healthcare, for example, primary health care centers have improved both for Syrians and Lebanese. The support for Syrians is also based on the principle of equal treatment: Syrians pay as much as Lebanese to access any basic service. The fundamental caveat however remains, as aid was mobilized and allocated only when Syrians arrived, and Lebanese perceive that they were not, once again, the priority. The resentment and the sense of abandonment that the several areas of Lebanon receiving Syrians today have developed throughout the past century cannot be eradicated now, but should carefully guide humanitarian actors in the planning of their programs.

From the point of view of the humanitarian practitioner, the challenge lies in the search for eligibility criteria unlikely to create tensions. The latter are a material imperative, as the amount of resources that the humanitarian structure can benefit from is limited, and is, thus, bounded to differentiate between who is entitled and who is not to access services. Apparently, newly designed programs, as affirmed by UNHCR in Qobayat (Akkar) last February, are increasingly reflecting the moral logic of humanitarianism, according to which the needy beneficiaries should be addressed through assigning to them a unique moralized and victimized identity. Nonetheless, even the humanitarian modus nominandi dealing with homogenized categories of beneficiaries would still generate frictions, in that the beneficiaries unavoidably carry a diversified experience of historical neglect, war trauma, eviction and deprivation. Besides the fact that the access to some Lebanese areas is still filtered by local leaders that distribute resources through a confessional – and sometimes ethnic – network, the humanitarian structure, while concealing this material compromise behind the human label of universal assistance, keeps implementing projects as though it acted in a social void, deprived of past tensions and present social frictions, de facto fueled by the way aid itself is distributed and people get selected (2).

This apparent apoliticization of the humanitarian actors towards the conflict in which they are working serves to implicitly blame internal actors for not being able by themselves to dismantle the pseudo-tribal social structures of several Lebanese rural towns, which still impinging on humanitarian dynamics proposed by the internationals that, after a local social renewal, from their perspective, would run smoothly.

The second reason for contending that the humanitarian assistance tends to recreate and reassert the cleavages that it is supposed to dismantle – in the name of neutrality – is the local decentralization in administrative terms, certainly not leading to major coordination and better resources management in Lebanon. In order to operate, humanitarian agencies, most of the time, have to comply with the regulations imposed by the local leader and a sort of commissioner – in Arabic respectively mukhtar and mas’ul – who usually are the people in charge of managing all local affairs. This tendency often ends up legitimizing the corrupted dusty structure of pseudo-tribalism and nepotism, all along present in Lebanese society. This feeds an anti-state vicious circle.

In light of this, Lebanese areas that have always been neglected have suddenly hosted a massive presence of non-state actors, often international, importing standardized models of emergency planning from outside, and, at the same time, not aiming at supporting reformist internal tendencies and winking at pseudo-tribal local leaders that have interests in monitoring the aid distribution process. Thereby, small Lebanese villages are thrown into the bipolar schizophrenia that leads them, on the one hand, to desire an administrative modernization in marginalized contexts that have not been addressed by the Lebanese state yet; on the other, external actors basically feed the feudal structures that, in some cases, local people would like to liberate themselves from . The humanitarian actors instead seem to show “cultural respect” – and therefore detachment – whenever it turns useful to them in political terms, as they can access some areas just through local mediators, not always appreciated by the local community.

Thus, humanitarianism as implemented by international structures, both eastern and western, seems to lead to the reproduction, nay reinforcement, of the social, confessional and, in some cases, ethnic cleavages present in Lebanese society. Aid, therefore, unfortunately turns into a paradoxical factor of international supremacy and interference, feeding into internal cleavages while advocating for their elimination. Yet, such a compromising supremacy is pragmatically paraded as humanitarianism.

(1) Rapid Assessment of the Impact of Syrian Crisis on Socio-Economic Situation in North and Beqa’, 2012, UNDP Lebanon.
(2) Interviews conducted throughout 2012 and 2013 in the Akkar towns of Halba, el Bahsa and al ‘Abdeh (North Lebanon).

Categories: Lebanon, Syria | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Post navigation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

Exiled Razaniyyat

Personal observations of myself, others, states and exile.

Diario di Siria

Blog di Asmae Dachan "Scrivere per riscoprire il valore della vita umana"


Update on Syria revolution -The other side of the coin ignored by the main stream news


Sguardi Globali da una Finestra di Cucina al Ticinese

Salim Salamah's Blog

Stories & Tales about Syria and Tomorrow


Views on anthropological, social and political affairs in the Middle East

Views on anthropological, social and political affairs in the Middle East


"... chi parte per Beirut e ha in tasca un miliardo..."

Tutto in 30 secondi

[was] appunti e note sul mondo islamico contemporaneo

Anna Vanzan

Views on anthropological, social and political affairs in the Middle East

letturearabe di Jolanda Guardi

Ho sempre immaginato che il Paradiso fosse una sorta di biblioteca (J. L. Borges)

%d bloggers like this: