For many refugees, the humanitarian programmes focusing on “livelihoods” end up having merely an “accessory” role rather than generating sustainable labour.
Civil defence members and civilians put out fire at a camp for Syrian refugees near the town of Qab Elias, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, July 2, 2017. Picture by HASSAN ABDALLAH/Reuters/PA Images. All rights reserved.
The livelihood component of humanitarian programmes has taken on ever greater importance over the past few decades. It touches on and integrates various NGO sectors, including protection , food security and water sanitation and hygiene (WASH). In particular, the strategy of humanitarian livelihoods programming targeting refugees around the world has changed from the care and maintenance of refugees to the self-reliance formula during the 1960s and ’70s.
The challenge of translating the concept of “livelihoods” from English into other languages is noteworthy, particularly with respect to the term’s technocratic implications, and Latin languages have by and large adopted it as a loan wordtout court. In recent interviews conducted with local aid workers in the city of Halba in the Akkar province (northern Lebanon), “livelihoods” was translated into Arabic by using a broader expression, namely “ways to improve life” (subul tahsin al-‘aiysh). Tentative and stunted verbal and conceptual translations of “livelihoods” play a major role in unpacking the standardised and de-historicised way in which livelihood strategies have been exported through humanitarian programming, which has the (paradoxical) purpose of guaranteeing survival on the basis of local specificities.
Regarding the case of Akkar in northern Lebanon, most of the livelihoods programmes currently being implemented among refugees and local hosts are meant to produce temporary, small-scale and – for women – mostly home-based forms of income. According to the Syrian refugees I interviewed in Akkar in February and March 2017, humanitarian programmes end up having merely an “accessory” role: They do not generate any form of sustainable labour and practically turn vocational training into leisure activities. For these refugees, this comes as no surprise. They are aware of the scarcity of job opportunities that Akkar’s economy can provide, of the fickle character of Lebanon’s (mainly de facto) policies regulating their everyday lives and of the legal constraints they face as unrecognised refugees. Lebanon is not a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees and the 1967 Protocol. At present it allows Syrians to work exclusively in the agriculture, gardening, cleaning and construction sectors. These are the sectors in which Syrian migrant workers have historically worked throughout the country.
To analytically understand what refugee interviewees have called the “cosmetic” role that humanitarian programming plays while displacement becomes long-term, the humanitarian discourse around refugee livelihoods in Lebanon – as argued by a UN official I interviewed – has now replaced the “cash for work” formula with the “community support” motto. This is done in an effort to disguise and sugarcoat what the refugee beneficiary may be able to earn and learn in host societies.
The humanitarian intent is primarily aimed at creating and enhancing sources of livelihoods, rather than getting beneficiaries to participate in leisure activities. Nonetheless, the social-affective value of offering physical spaces for collective forms of exchange and temporary learning should not be undercut.
To date, 253,332 Syrian refugees have been registered with the UNHCR in this region in Lebanon. Despite this rather large number, during my latest visit to Akkar I noticed that these individuals were becoming decreasingly visible in the public space. Having moved here since 2011, they are often undocumented, feel unaccepted at the local level and therefore prefer to lead their lives behind closed doors.
Hence, on the one hand, livelihoods programmes have the unintentional positive outcome of providing new experiences of collectivity, where mingling is necessary and legal papers are not requested. On the other hand, vocational training based on small-scale activities and home-based forms of labour aimed at self-sufficiency too often end up confirming unequal economies. Moreover, aiming most of the livelihoods programmes’ to produce self-employment and informal activities, they are mainly promoted to guarantee survival rather than entrepreneurship: Small-scale self-empowerment challenges host governments less and is unlikely to spark local dissent. Furthermore, home-based activities do not call pre-established cultural understandings of gender roles and work tasks into question.
Conversations with refugees and local residents show that the beneficiaries’ expectations of livelihoods programmes are quite diverse and range from having the desire or the desperate need to find a job to approaching training as little more than a leisure activity. The majority of local residents joining the livelihoods programmes affirmed approaching them as potential job opportunities and humanitarian agencies as temp agencies. Although initiated with the ethical goal of rescuing lives and alleviating suffering, humanitarian agencies are increasingly acting as conflict resolution forces; by definition, however, they cannot recognise themselves as job providers, even though they have become an integral part of the local labour markets.
So what is the current role of humanitarian practices in catalysing a symbolic encounter between Lebanese and Syrian nationals if labour can seldom be the ultimate goal and actual achievement? Humanitarian efforts in Lebanon have historically contributed to defining new and old human needs along ethnic and sometimes religious lines. Aid provision to Syrian refugees in the poor Akkar region is no exception as it initially polarised locals and migrants by distinguishing between the needs of the Lebanese and those of the Syrians. Today humanitarian agencies seem to act through compensatory stability mechanisms to deal with social tensions by promoting economic survival for refugees and employment and empowerment among local residents.
Although they provided aid unconditionally and indiscriminately to all Syrian nationals at the beginning of the crisis, humanitarian agencies have gradually targeted refugees and vulnerable hosts in a bid to compensate for the frictions caused by an earlier refugee-centred provision of services in chronically poor areas.
These days, local economic development agendas and humanitarian livelihoods programmes are explicitly intertwined with social stability and cohesion agendas. Rather than having self-reliance as an explicit final objective, the current humanitarian politics of livelihoods in northern Lebanon sets social cohesion and stability as the primary purpose of such programmes by addressing both Syrian nationals and vulnerable Lebanese residents.
Therefore, while tensions and stability are still identified and addressed in ethnically hybrid contexts, humanitarian targeting strategies are decreasingly deployed along ethnic or religious lines and are better inscribed within the area-focused intervention framework. In other words, a geography of vulnerability is replacing an (ethnic and religious) identity politics of need and aid provision. Yet humanitarian cohesion and stability agendas continue to stymie this process by addressing ethnically mixed areas and therefore fantasising ethnocentric regimes of stability.
The protracted nature of the crisis inevitably produces a need to attribute agency to the refugees. Likewise, humanitarians use the language of “resilient livelihoods” by tacitly putting the moral and material responsibility to survive and thrive on the beneficiaries. If humanitarian programmes in Akkar are increasingly self-legitimised by upholding long-term cohesion and the stability of the host society, refugee beneficiaries are also called upon to help maintain such local stability.
Unfriendly legal frameworks and humanitarian agencies sometimes burdened with responsibilities that should be attributed to host governments have been sufficiently discussed. I would encourage practitioners and opinion-makers to look beyond such constraints and to ask how individuals feel when they are provided with new skills, particularly when they are aware they are unlikely to be employed anytime soon. Personal frustration and resignation may offer simplistic and unsatisfactory answers. The fact that some segments of the refugee population reconfigure livelihoods programmes as leisure activities opens up new ways of thinking and idealising the humanitarian system in ageing crises.
 “Protection” here refers to the UNHCR definition, that is legal assistance that ensures the basic human rights of uprooted or stateless people in their countries of asylum or habitual residence and that refugees will not be returned involuntarily to a country where they could face persecution.