The high social price of humanitarian dissimulation
By Estella Carpi
A few months ago, while conducting my PhD fieldwork in North Lebanon, I shared my ideas on the current humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees with a journalist working in Lebanon. I reported that I was told by some Lebanese from Halba that their neighbors threw stones at humanitarian workers during the food kits’ distribution for Syrian refugees in a little town in ‘Akkar (North Lebanon). Apparently it was just an outburst of tension because of the sudden massive presence of humanitarian organizations in loco. In the past they have always neglected this area in Lebanon due to lack of political interests, since the Israeli occupation and the consequent local impoverishment were primarily vexing the south of the country (1978-2000).
The humanitarian agency that the journalist was working for at that time first decided to omit such information before publishing the article. After that, in order not to be accused of censorship, with a cringe-worthy diplomatic move, they published it by elegantly modifying the content of the stones episode, and contending that local people in North Lebanon would definitely warm up if aid were provided to them too. This is a human dynamic that, unfortunately, I had never got the insight of in the field. The humanitarian agency at issue declared that this “information amendment” was carried out in a bid not to generate further frictions between the Lebanese and the Syrian communities. My “Wikileaks philosophy” pushes me instead to broach out the subject overtly and try to analyze it.
In my viewpoint, to omit the name of this organization is more than legitimate now, as the intention is not ostracizing its members, but rather putting in the foreground thorny social dynamics that need to be unraveled to be dealt with. To name the organization at issue would in fact be like blaming the humanitarian workers themselves, and this, in turn, would be weird, simplistic and even inappropriate.
The reverse of the picture, often shown by international media, though in highly ethnicized terms – that is to say Lebanese against Syrians or the other way around – lies in the fact that North Lebanon’s hospitality of Syrian refugees coming in large numbers to flee destruction, scarcity, repression, chronic fear and instability is not as realistic as boasted by humanitarian practitioners or local people.
This alleged humanitarian phenomenon of generalized hospitality, praised by aid providers to show that they are acting in a responsive and compliant environment with few hurdles, is meant to express the “truly humanitarian essence of Northern Lebanese identity.” Moreover, for the most politicized local aid providers, this attitude is subtly opposed to that of the south of the country, denounced as neglectful towards the Syrians.
Except for mixed families, hosting their relatives escaped from war, such hospitality, most of the time, has its financial returns through payment in cash of the house rent to Lebanese landlords from humanitarian organizations (for example Taiba, Saudi NGO, founded in March 2012 to cope with the crisis in Syria, which has its headquarter in Halba, ‘Akkar).
The tendency of many journalistic reports to overlook or disguise these financial dynamics in ‘Akkar that create a classic landlord-renter relationship seems to express protectiveness for the moral reputation of North Lebanon’s people. In other words, instead of complying with their function of educating the public on what is really going on and providing them with key concepts to interpret facts, some media seem to care more about protecting the critical side of humanitarianism, with the excuse of preserving social “order” (as conceived by them). Uncomfortable information should rather be spread out while pointing out that factual honesty is not aimed to tarnish the international and domestic image of welcoming ‘Akkaris, as it happens in some reports that even portray them as greedy people getting profit from the Syrian humanitarian crisis.
Beyond any emotional comradeship or closeness to one people or the other, the role of the media should be the explanation of the desperate need for economic survival in this Lebanese area, chronically neglected since a long time, given that the French mandate (1920), the post-National Pact State (1943) and the post-Taef Agreement Lebanese State (1990) have always ignored and marginalized this region, as well as South Lebanon. The lingering problems include a nearly 20 hour power cut per day, lack of drinking water, scarcity of public schools and local hospitals.
In a bid not to fuel tension among the parts, hence, the frictions between the local community and Syrian aid beneficiaries are often intentionally overlooked or misrepresented. Rather, the role of the media should be that of highlighting the long State neglect in such northern areas, and that of realizing how late and unfeasible it is by now to intervene in an empirically empty space, ideally void of expectations, paybacks, resentment and mutual mistrust, and, thus, void of social frictions.
In light of these inevitable conditions, the implementation of humanitarian projects should take these aspects into consideration. On the contrary, such criticisms often lead humanitarian workers to think that the whole humanitarian market – although controversially and implicitly imbued with neo-capitalism – is a victim of discouragement and ungratefulness from outside, targeted with cynical attacks and somehow “oppressed” by hands-off talkers.
From their side, therefore, the humanitarian workers tend to reply to critical news and policy analysts, or even mere observing researchers like me, that such counter-humanitarianism is sterilely over-abused since it does not end up being constructive. This is the reason why more public policy anthropologists, policy analysts from outside and cultural psychologists would be urgently required in this field, as they would be the only ones able to explore how the humanitarian conception of failure and success of a given program can grow within an organization and gradually affect social history.
In addition to that, such frictions are not necessarily considerable in confessional or national terms. For instance, it is unluckily a common trend to try to grasp the violence mood between Alawites and Sunnis in the few ‘Akkari villages where the former make up the vast majority; or, yet, to conceive of people as “Syrians-benefiting against Lebanese-being neglected, or Lebanese-benefiting on behalf of the Syrians”. The stress should fall then on being a beneficiary or never having held such a “privileged” position in the past, within a generally neglectful environment, regardless of the confessional beliefs and of the nationality of people inhabiting the area in the capacity of residents or refugees.
Apparently, the media directly connected to humanitarian organizations prefer omitting the kind of information that we, international philanthropists and high/middle class locals altogether, would feel uncomfortable with, given that such unpleasant facts might undermine the nature itself of our “for-the-sake-of-mankind work”.
The intellectual effort of delving into the reasons of historically determined social frictions and of avoiding the simplified ethnicization between Syrian-takers and Lebanese-givers, is dangerously left to the public. Is it that difficult to hypothesize the outcome? By adopting abused descriptive terms, such as “civil war”, “sectarianism”, “terrorism”, “Islamization”, “tribalism” and so forth, we have already created new monsters: human imaginaries of Lebanese against Syrians and Syrians against Lebanese, among whom new conflicts are on the brink of populating and destabilizing the whole region.
In a nutshell, humanitarianism yet feels entitled to diffuse and promote the part of its work that subjectively evaluates as humanitarian. All the rest it engenders – as it occurs in any other enterprise – needs to be disguised in the name of its own survival. In doing so, humanitarianism proliferates by incessantly eradicating the disturbing germs, before the plague that would unload its pockets breaks out.