What ails humanitarian aid in Lebanon
The high social price of media and humanitarian dissimulation in North Lebanon.
by Estella Carpi
In the aid provision sphere of North Lebanon, international media in close connection with humanitarian agencies often hasten to show how North Lebanon’s hospitality of Syrian refugees coming in large numbers to flee destruction, scarcity, repression, chronic fear and instability is huge. Such hospitality is actually a product of a quite complex picture with an up-close look, unlike the idyllic scenario humanitarian practitioners and local people usually provide. In addition, social dynamics are normally depicted in the media in ethnicized terms: that is to say Lebanese versus Syrians.
A few months ago, while conducting my fieldwork in Lebanon, I was told that some Lebanese threw stones to humanitarian workers during the food kits’ distribution for Syrian refugees in a town in Akkar, the northern region. The episode had been interpreted by local people themselves as an outburst of tension because of the sudden massive presence of humanitarian organizations in the area, which has always been neglected by state and non-state actors due to lack of political interests. The latter, in fact, were slightly more localized in Beirut and in the south of the country, vexed by Israeli occupation and by a consequent local impoverishment (1978-2000).
The humanitarian agencies operating in that town decided not to let journalists publish about the episode. Others published about it by contending that local people in North Lebanon would definitely stop “hostilities” and warm up if aid were provided to them too. The main reason behind the omission and amendment of this kind of information is apparently the intention not to generate further frictions between the local community and the Syrians.
The humanitarian phenomenon of generalized hospitality serves the interests of aid providers in showing that they are acting in a responsive and compliant environment. Local hospitality in North Lebanon, on the other hand, is also used to express the “truly humanitarian essence” of Northern Lebanese identity – as stated by aid providers politically affiliated to the March 14 coalition, allied with the Syrian opposition.
The politicization of aid is proved by the fact that the humanitarian assistance provided by this coalition is subtly opposed to the “less humanitarian nature” of 8th March political coalition (that counts among its most important members Hezbollah and Michel Aoun’s alliance). This is providing much less to the Syrian refugees – who they often call “displaced” – due to lingering regional political issues. Except for mixed families that host their relatives who escaped from war, such hospitality, most of the time, has its financial returns through the house rent paid in cash by humanitarian organizations to Lebanese landlords (as in the case of Taiba, a Saudi NGO in Halba). Other refugees, when not able to access the housing refurbished and provided by agencies, end up paying to Lebanese landlords a monthly amount of 100 US dollars as a minimum, to rent a piece of land or get an unfurnished tent.
Journalistic reports covering the area intentionally disguise local money circles that create a classic patron-client relationship in Akkar, reflecting the social roots. This is often done in an illusory bid to protect the moral reputation of North Lebanon’s people. Thereby, local morality is strictly connected to their material (in)capacity to host and welcome refugees.
Indeed, the role of the media should be that of pointing out the desperate need for economic survival in Akkar. This was chronically neglected during the French mandate ( since 1920), the post-National Pact State (1943) and the post-Taef Agreement Lebanese State (1990). Nowadays, local residents of the northern areas of the region still deal with a nearly twenty hours power cut per day, lack of drinking water, scarcity of public schools and local hospitals.
As in the described episode, media entrepreneurs seem to care more about protecting the orthodox morality of humanitarianism, with the excuse of preserving social order – as conceived by them – rather than complying with their function of “educating” the public on what is really going on and providing them with key concepts to interpret facts. In other words, media analysts, working closely with the humanitarian organizations, resort to dichotomic descriptions. They care about advertising North Lebanese hospitality to maintain the international image of welcoming Akkaris, and, at the same time, they portray them as greedy beings getting profit from the Syrian humanitarian crisis.
Humanitarian organizations should realize how unfeasible it is by now to intervene in an empirically empty space, ideally void of social frictions, expectations, paybacks, resentment and mutual mistrust. The implementation of humanitarian projects, hence, should take these conditions into consideration.
On the contrary, external criticisms often lead social workers to think that the whole humanitarian mausoleum – implicitly imbued with neo-capitalism – is a victim of discouragement and ungratefulness from outside, targeted with cynical attacks and verbally “oppressed” by hands-off chatterers.
From the practitioners’ perspective, critical news and policy analysts over-abuse a skeptical counter-humanitarianism, considered sterile and destructive. It is the overarching morality of humanitarianism itself that renders criticism nihilistic by itself. That is why further research on how failure and success of a given project can grow within an organization and gradually affect social history, regardless of the good intentions of the working staff, would be needed.
Confessional, national and inter-community relations seem to be the only ones, according to media analyses, to explain social frictions in Akkar. For example, it is unluckily a common trend of international journalists to go and grasp the violence mood in some religiously mixed Akkari villages; or, yet, to conceive of people as “Syrians-benefiting versus Lebanese-being neglected, or, again, Lebanese-benefiting on behalf of the Syrians”. Rather, the stress should fall on being a beneficiary or never having held such a “privileged” position in the past within a generally neglectful environment, regardless of the individual’s confessional beliefs and the nationality of Akkar’s inhabitants, in the capacity of local residents or refugees.
In a nutshell, the media directly connected to humanitarian organizations prefer omitting the kind of information that we international philanthropists and middle class locals altogether would feel uncomfortable with, when such unpleasant facts might undermine the nature itself of our “for-the-sake-of-mankind work”. Thus, the intellectual effort of delving into the historical reasons of such social frictions and avoiding the simplified ethnicization between “Syrian-takers” and “Lebanese-givers” is dangerously left to the public.
By adopting arbitrary descriptive terms in the media, such as “civil war”, “sectarianism”, “terrorism”, “Islamization”, “tribalism” and so forth, and by ethnicizing the explanation of social facts, we have created human imaginaries made of Lebanese against Syrians and vice versa, between whom new conflicts are on the brink of destabilizing the whole region. By a similar token, if bountiful Lebanese host Syrians, they do it in the name of their past common nationhood. If Lebanese deny their help, they want to distance themselves from the Syrian cause. The fragmentariness of individual reasons and disputes go totally unseen.
In light of the parallelism between media and humanitarian actors that I have put forward, humanitarianism yet feels entitled to diffuse and promote the part of its work that subjectively is evaluated as humanitarian. All the “side effects” it engenders – as may occur in any enterprise – need to be disguised in the name of its own survival. In doing so, humanitarianism in Lebanon seems to proliferate by arbitrarily eradicating its disturbing germs, before the plague that would unload its pockets breaks out.