Posts Tagged With: humanitarianassistance

‘Southern’ and ‘Northern’ assistance provision beyond the grand narratives: Views from Lebanese and Syrian providers in Lebanon

Over the past few decades, scholars have increasingly employed the categories of ‘Global North’ and ‘Global South’ to explore different political geographies and economies in development cooperation and humanitarian aid provision. Without doubt, whether and how these denominations make sense are not merely dilemmas of terminology. The Global South has been historically referred to in a number of ways: as the ‘Third World’, coming after the First World, including the US and its allies, and the Second World, including the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc partners; as ‘non-DIAC countries, i.e. not belonging to the Development Assistance Committee of Western donors; or as ‘postcolonial donors’, which, however, does not manage to capture the different positioning of Southern countries vis-à-vis donorship and aid reception.

Against this backdrop, the categorisation of the Global South has existed since the mid-1970s, effectively indicating the changing power relations of this groups of countries with the Global North. With respect to the ‘East’ – a notion tentatively incorporating diverse realities but nowadays embedding them in the Orientalistic discourse first advanced by Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said (1978) – the Global South better allows for multi-directional flows of economic, cultural, and political capital between different countries, and therefore anthropology is surely well placed to explore such multi-directional flows. However, the definition of the Global South has too often been misleadingly reduced to a marginal or anti-imperial positionality, independent from context. In particular, in a bid to learn about and consider different Souths (from an intentionally plural perspective), Global South should not be our episteme – the point of departure for enlarging our knowledge about such a concept. It is in this regard that some scholars have opted for a conception of the Global South as ‘not an exact geographical designation, but as an idea and a set of practices, attitudes, and relations’ (Grovogu, 2011) or ‘a linguistic family, a belief system and an epistemology’ (Mignolo, 2015).

It may be helpful to examine a world map and reflect on the very geographic characteristics of the countries that are included in the Global South category. For instance, given that Australia is a political pole of the Global North, just as China is for the Global South, physical geography cannot fully explain what North and South are, since these categories refer not only to places but also, more importantly, to different political projects related to development and humanitarian action.

As Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and Daley highlight in their introduction to the Routledge Handbook of South-South Relations, the present South-South cooperation and its underlying principles are historically associated with anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles around the world: ‘The emergence of a South-South cooperation was originally conceptualized as a way to overcome the exploitative character of North-South relations through diverse models of transnational cooperation and solidarity developed since the 1950s and 1960s, including internationalist, socialist, and regional approaches and initiatives such as Pan-Arabism and Pan-Africanism’. Dahi and Velasco have recently pointed out that, in the decades following World War II, between the 1950s and the late-1980s, South-South trade represented roughly 5–10% of all global trade, but, by 2013, that share had risen to 54%. Over the same period, the direction of these exports shifted to other Southern countries, while global South-South financial flows also increased substantially. This shared interest in mutual collaboration in the Global South, presently championed by Northern actors (that purport to act as facilitators) is also reflected in the so-called ‘localisation agenda’ promoted by the international humanitarian apparatus, as endorsed during the 2016 Istanbul World Humanitarian Summit. At the ‘Africa Stories: Changing Perceptions’ workshop held at University College London in June 2018, Michael Amoah, from the London School of Economics, confirmed Dahi and Velasco’s findings by contending that, in its current form, regional solidarity ideologies like pan-Africanism imply a new material inter-relationality, namely a new shared political economy between African countries, rather than an exclusive political ideology.

Thinking of South-South Cooperation (SSC), which is today incorporated in the framework of the United Nations (UNOSSC), the member states own different levels of economic development (the so-called ‘Human Development Index’) and are viewed as being located at different stages of democratic transition. Many countries partaking in the SSC are, at the same time, both aid donors and aid recipients. Some of those that are also donors do not wish to be defined as such, since such terminology is loaded with negative connotations associated with the Northern aid industry. In this sense, grouping the different realities that form an imaginary South under the banner of ‘emerging’ or ‘non-traditional donors’ is anti-historical as it represents the Northern neglect of a Southern history of assistance, which has similarly been developing for a long time.

In the light of this, should we endeavour to modify the categories ‘South’ and ‘North’ and work towards new definitions that can still grasp power relations without dooming countries to essentialised geopolitical positions? Or, rather, should we liberate the ‘South’ from negative connotations and the ‘North’ from positive biases? North and South are very telling with regard to our mental and cultural maps, not always encompassing the different technical, economic, political, and cultural assets and deficiencies that these political geographies present.

The emergence of UNOSSC is only one symptom of the increasing claim to postcolonial solidarity within the South and between the North and the South. Similarly, it can partially indicate the difference of the South from the North in the way that development and humanitarian assistance are thought about and implemented. These debates go beyond the realms of global economy, international relations, and politics; instead, they relate to the way in which ordinary people conceive of, explain, and concretely manage ideas and issues related to development and crisis management. In March 2018, I had the opportunity to speak with Syrian and Lebanese aid and service providers in Lebanon, among whom were three religious authorities engaging in assistance to Syrian refugees, and meaningful ways of understanding the services funded or managed by countries in the Global North or Global South emerged.

For instance, for a Syrian Sunni sheikh from Homs (western Syria), now managing a school in Tripoli, governance and markets represent the substantial differences between aid actors. He asserted that, in the Global South, governments are more present, while, in the Global North, there are private assistance initiatives that have their own rules and independence. Assistance in the Global North therefore ends up being random (ashwa’iy), reflecting an unleashed labour market behind assistance provision: ‘paying rents, employees, careers, and so on’.

A Lebanese Greek-Orthodox priest who provides aid to refugees and vulnerable citizens on a discontinuous basis in the city of Halba (northern Lebanon) expressed his way of thinking about the South in relation to the aid he provides in terms of what is outside of the Global North. However, he pointed out that, to him, in the mind of the beneficiaries, there is no difference with regard to the source of help and they do not distinguish between actors: ‘If you do lots of sponsoring, eventually your name is going to stick in their minds, but people do not really separate out providers in terms of principles and motivations, only whether the political campaign is massive, e.g. services coming from Saudi Arabia […] in this case, the image easily sticks in their minds, but they don’t know the name of the organisations involved most of the time. I personally think that what differs for Southern and Northern providers is the funding: it is sustainable for UNHCR but certainly not for us. They have governments supporting them, [whereas] we just have the Lebanese government, which neglects us. In that sense, I would identify as a Southern provider’.

Another Lebanese Greek-Orthodox priest working for a branch of the Ministry of Social Affairs in Halba raised the issue of global power holders imagining one homogenous South while departing from the idea of several Northern perspectives: ‘The Global North is the macro-picture for the politics we mostly hear about. As Lebanese providers with few means and little funding, we’re just numbers to be taken care of: I’m a Muslim in the eyes of the West, even though I’m Greek-Orthodox, because we, Middle-Eastern people, are all Muslims in the eyes of outsiders. Instead, I don’t feel there’s a shared understanding or feeling of the East, of the South, as you prefer to put it: there’s no homogeneity outside of the North. I don’t feel any proximity to Asian or African countries, especially to the Arab Gulf, which has its own interests here. Moreover, as a Greek-Orthodox, I have little to do with Arabness’.

The Syrian director of a school in a Tripoli neighbourhood (northern Lebanon) similarly stated: ‘I don’t feel closer to the Arab states with respect to Canada just because we’re all Arabs. Arab states haven’t been supportive at all toward Syrian refugees. I think the real difference between assistance provided by Northern and Southern countries is our hijra [migration with spiritual connotations, related to the migration of the Prophet Mohammad from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD]. The South migrates, and the North doesn’t accept us, even if we are qualified and have culture’.

A Syrian service provider in Tripoli proposed that ‘Northern’ or ‘Southern’ mean something in relation to the social, political, and emotional positionality of the provider: ‘The real difference is not the country we talk about; it’s rather our human condition. It’s about sharing nationality and issues with the displaced you assist [and is] nothing to do with East and West, South and North […]. Beneficiaries identify with countries of reception primarily on the basis of their political position; for example, if I get stuff from Turkey, as a Syrian opponent, I feel closer to Turkey. If you get aid from Saudi Arabia or Qatar, you will prefer one of them if you are a salafi (a follower of Salafism) or ikhwenji (from the Muslim Brotherhood) respectively. So, there’s politics behind our proximity to a country. In this sense, I don’t think I have anything to share with the ‘other South’. As a Syrian, Syria is my Global South’.

Reflecting on the various understandings of ‘Southern-led provision’ is relevant insofar as it allows us to grasp the complex social and political positionalities of assistance providers in the global framework of development and humanitarian action. In this sense, some contemporary academic debates merely re-consign agency to the vulnerable and the disenfranchised, e.g. by seeing Southern actors and refugees as inherently ‘different aid providers’ or by aprioristically defining them as resilient. These debates are tiring at a time when ‘Southern agency’ is heralded as a human and an intellectual conquest of the Global North. Instead, a valuable point of departure may instead be acknowledging the existence of multiplicity and respecting what each side suggests – at times participating and at other times acting by oneself in the realm of development and humanitarian action.

Categories: Africa, Lebanon, Middle East, North Africa, Syria, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review – Humanitarian Rackets and their Moral Hazards: The Case of the Palestinian Refugee Camps in Lebanon (December 20, 2017)

Humanitarian Rackets and their Moral Hazards: The Case of the Palestinian Refugee Camps in Lebanon by Rayyar Marron. Abingdon and New York: Routledge 2016. 188 pp., £110 hardcover 9781472457998, £36.99 paperback 9780815352570, £36.99 e-book 9781315587615

Rayyar Marron’s book provides a critique of how academic and activist accounts of Palestinian refugee camps end up reinforcing the humanitarian narrative of refugee victimhood. By underlining refugee economic and political agency, especially in the camp of Shatila in Lebanon, Marron recounts economic fraud and tactics that not only guarantee refugees’ survival and empowerment, but also seek to suggest a de-romanticised configuration of ‘refugee’ within the Middle Eastern moral economy. The author questions human suffering underlying the formulation of social and humanitarian policy. In this vein, in the scholarly literature, camps are defined not only as “sites of exilic nationalism” (p. 5), but also of resistance (p. 4). In this context, Marron contests how “Palestinianness” is addressed as a mere humanitarian cause, where refugees are passive aid recipients in need of international compassion.

The book is composed of an introduction, seven chapters, and a brief conclusion. The lengthy introduction aims to collocate the book within the framework of the de-romanticisation of vulnerability and of refugee agency: but it struggles to anticipate the core arguments. Chapter 1 intends to show how Palestinian refugees themselves seek to repackage their originally military cause as humanitarian due to the decline in funding, therefore often portraying themselves as “dispossessed peasants” (p. 44). Marron emphasises the identity crisis through which Palestinian refugees in Lebanon passed through when the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) was removed from Lebanon in 1982. Nevertheless, the chapter loses the opportunity to accurately describe what the author sees as a crucial historical moment, when Palestinians dropped the militant guerrilla culture as a public discourse to embody the exceptional case for assistance. More attention to this historical moment would have unraveled how the Palestinians’ unethical tactics to guarantee everyday life – such as smuggling and political protection rackets – are actually connected to daily grievance. The author, making the important attempt to de-romanticise the refugee category and refugee agency, however ends up focusing only on one side of the coin, providing a predominantly negative representation of camp society. A nuanced approach to examining everyday life would instead have informed the longstanding dialectics between need and greed in refugee economies.

Chapter 2 suggests the emergence of a Palestinian nationhood in connection with the pan-Islamic and pan-Arab cause (p. 50), in a complex framework of foreign state patronages. Marron specifically argues that a Palestinian sense of national belonging precedes the PLO battles, while providing shy hints of this pre-exilic society. This chapter does not provide the specificities of whom, where, and what led humanitarian definitions and practices to a negatively nuanced – but under-explained – everyday racketeering and appropriation.

In Chapter 3, the author argues that the PLO and the Palestinian political movement of Fatah radicalised the political landscape in Lebanon, seeking direct influence from within the formal institution of the parliament (p. 76), or through studentships, as cadres of Fatah enrolled as students in Lebanese universities (p. 78). By conducting robberies and soliciting funding, the PLO and Fatah militarised the civilian refugee community, raising violence in the camps. The author describes the “neopatrimonial” tendencies of Fatah and the PLO in terms of “self-enrichment” rather than the official rhetoric of the “revolution” (p. 87). Marron thus opposes the narratives that depict the so-called Palestinian revolution as an effort against Lebanese sectarian politics.

Chapter 4 highlights the challenges of organising camp society outside of patronage legacies. The pervasive influence of factional politics on refugee lives is in fact mentioned as the most deleterious issue for the Palestinians, rather than poverty or lack of infrastructure per se. On the one hand, the chapter is not too convincing in the attempt to incorporate humanitarianism into the discussion of patronage, where political groups compete for assistance, recruiting their families and allies in the capacity of beneficiaries or employees within humanitarian projects, including the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) (pp. 93-95). On the other, the author clearly shows how camp dwellers challenge the legitimacy of the popular committees, as they represent the interests of proxy states to the camp society (pp. 103-104). Marron here opposes the tendency of the scholarly literature to separate out the Palestinian oppressive sovereigns from the refugees.

Chapter 5 provides accounts of rent-seeking and illegal housing (p. 111) to shed light on camps as sources of livelihoods and proliferation, by specifying, for instance, that the percentage of Palestinian camp dwellers who own their homes (82%) is higher than Lebanese nationals (68%). Besides, Chapter 5 seeks to approach the humanitarian framework, by mentioning how NGOs are captured by competing factions in the camps (p. 116). Marron, however, is not detailed in showing how ordinary people participate in these dynamics, risking, on the one hand, a new homogenisation of refugees – shaped by negative agency – and, on the other, a new homogenisation of humanitarians, who emerge as victims that are over-burdened with responsibilities, and finding “their path disrupted by amorphous forces” (p. 124).

The role of humanitarian agencies which stems from this chapter is slightly opaque: the attentive reader is left with several questions regarding what humanitarian projects the author precisely refers to until Chapter 6, when Marron finally outlines the political economy of refugee camps and NGOs. Drawing on Horkheimer’s theory of rackets, the author largely draws on her own ethnographic experience as a teacher in a vocational school in Shatila to inform her argument that the protectors in refugee camps are also the sources of violence (p. 126). The experiential anecdote serves to illustrate how factions, influential retired community members from different political constituencies, camp residents, and humanitarians participate in the “racket society”. Likewise, Marron mentions that public services are privatised by camp factional officials to appropriate aid from outside (i.e. waste removal service, electricity grid, etc.). Nonetheless, the author often mentions dynamics of welfare power-sharing, which can surely overlap with humanitarian interventions, without telling us how she frames such overlaps and, furthermore, is too quick to label all of the service providers in the camp as “humanitarian”.

While in the first instance the author depicts the humanitarian system as caught up in the racketeering dynamics as a mere victim, in Chapter 7, she nuances their action as a “moral hazard” (p. 149) in the crystallising refugee vulnerability and as facilitating the amplification of statelessness (p. 146). Racketeering against UNRWA projects is therefore seen as the only means by which camp dwellers can access resources (p. 163). In the effort to normalise refugee camps and dissuade public narratives from ossified victimhood, Marron concludes by asserting the humanitarian exacerbation of camp racketeering dynamics but, at the same time, denouncing how humanitarian failures have been “deflected away from camp society and back onto the Lebanese state and the international community” (p. 171). The author here argues that “humanitarian assistance is not a measure that ensures collective welfare”, but rather an individual entitlement for which racketeering is necessary in order to obtain “fair shares”. I find this the most significant and intriguing argument advanced, which, probably, should have been introduced and developed earlier in the book.

Throughout the chapters, the reader struggles to identify the voices of Marron’s interviewees and her own empirical evidence. Among her second source-based historical accounts around the formation of a camp habitus oppression, the refugee individual, however, is not well visibilised: refugees seem to be given agency through the negative morality of the humanitarian rackets and political neopatrimonialism, while being unable to turn camps into civil societies.
Moreover, to me, the choice of the title remains unclear, as the humanitarian discourse and practices are not given the largest room for analysis. By the same token, the geography of the camps in Lebanon is not clearly outlined, emerging as an abstract and therefore easily homogenisable space, while most of the accounts and the camp history provided actually regard Shatila exclusively. The book’s overall imprecise structure hinders a still needed in-depth discussion of humanitarianism in camp societies.

While revealing a specific disciplinary approach is not essential in my view, the author could have been more explicit in several sections in defining her positionality while in the field and the local politics of knowledge. The book presents a very large number of key themes which therefore remain hinted at rather than properly explored, scattering the reader’s attention. On the whole, this book is primarily a historical account for social sciences scholars and researchers interested in refugee-related issues, and humanitarian practitioners. I particularly suggest this book to those who engage with the history of Palestinians in the region, and the way camp politics intertwines with the domestic politics of “host societies”. In this regard, the author provides insights from relevant first hand experience and important secondary sources, which inform the current debates on politics, refugeeness, and humanitarian governance.

Estella Carpi is a Research Associate in the Migration Research Unit, Department of Geography, University College London, working on Southern-led responses to displacement from Syria in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan. She received her PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Sydney (Australia) with a research project on social responses to conflict-induced displacement and humanitarian assistance provision in contemporary Lebanon. In the past, she also worked as a researcher in Egypt, Australia, and the United Arab Emirates, mostly focusing on humanitarian and welfare systems, forced migration, and identity politics.

Categories: Lebanon, Palestine, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Supporting refugee livelihoods or host stability? The two sides of the coin

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.


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 [1], 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.

[1] “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.

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

Media and Humanitarianism in North Lebanon (April 2013)


(Picture taken by Estella Carpi in Wadi Khaled, Lebanese-Syrian border, 13th December 2012)

The alliance of media and humanitarianism in Lebanon

ESTELLA CARPI 2 April 2013

With the growing Syrian refugee crisis, 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 educating the public.

International media, closely connected to humanitarian agencies, often hasten to show North Lebanon’s ‘outstanding’ hospitality of Syrian refugees, arriving in large numbers to flee destruction, scarcity, repression and chronic fear. However, unlike the idyllic scenario humanitarian practitioners usually provide, such hospitality is actually part of a larger picture. At the same time, the media, while providing positive accounts in an alleged bid to pacify further social frictions, paradoxically rely on ethnicised desciptions – in this specific case, Lebanese versus Syrians.

A few months ago, some Lebanese threw stones at humanitarian workers during the distribution of food kits for Syrian refugees in Akkar, the northern most region of Lebanon and host to the majority of Syrian refugees. The episode was considered an outburst of tension by local people themselves with the sudden massive presence of humanitarian organizations in an area of little political interest, often neglected by state and non-state actors. Non-state actors have always been more localized in Beirut and the south of the country, concentrated on the humanitarian consequences of the Israeli occupation and the subsequent aggravated local impoverishment.

The humanitarian agencies operating in that town decided not to let journalists report on the episode at the time. Some published about it instead by contending that local people in North Lebanon would stop ‘hostilities’ and warm up if aid was provided to them too. The main reason behind the omission of the episode would seem to be the preventing further inflammation of tensions between the local community and Syrian refugees.

The humanitarian phenomenon of hospitality however serves the interests of aid providers in showing that they are acting in a responsive and compliant environment. Local hospitality in north Lebanon is often used in the media to express the ‘truly humanitarian essence’ of Northern Lebanese identity – as stated by aid providers politically affiliated to the March 14 coalition, presently allied with the Syrian opposition. Such a politicization of aid was similarly used by March 8 political coalition (that counts among its most important members the Hezbollah and Michel Aoun alliance), during the 2006 war with Israel.

Except for mixed families that host Syrian relatives who have escaped the war, such hospitality very often relies on financial returns through house rents paid in cash by humanitarian organizations to Lebanese landlords, as in the case of Taiba, a Saudi NGO in Halba. Other refugees, unable to access the housing refurbished and provided by agencies, end up paying, at a minimum, 100 USD to Lebanese landlords just to rent a piece of land or receive a tent.

News reports covering the area intentionally disguise these local money circles that renew classic patron-client relationships in Akkar, reflecting its social roots. This is often done in an illusory attempt to protect the moral reputation of north Lebanon’s people. Media coverage thus ties morality to the local material (in)capacity to host and welcome refugees.

Indeed, the role of the media should be to highlight the desperate fight for economic survival in Akkar, whose people have been chronically neglected in the years since the French mandate (1920), the post-National Pact State (1943) and the post-Taef Agreement State (1990). Nowadays, local residents of the northern region must still deal with a twenty-hour power cut every day, lack of drinking water and scarcity of public schools and local hospitals.

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 educating the public. On the one hand, it advertises north Lebanese hospitality to maintain the international image of the welcoming Akkaris, as prompted by humanitarian workers; on the other, whenever it decides to distance itself from the humanitarian mainstream, it portrays Akkar’s people as greedy beings getting profit from the Syrian humanitarian crisis.

Humanitarian organizations should realize by now the infeasibility of intervening 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. Further research is needed on how failure and success of humanitarian projects can grow within an organization and gradually affect social history, regardless of the good intentions of the working staff.

National and inter-community relations seem to be the only media narratives to explain the social frictions in Akkar. This obsession for categories is unluckily a common trend of international journalists attempting to grasp violence outbursts in the religiously mixed Akkari villages. As a result, individual reasons and disputes, therefore, go totally unseen.

The media directly connected to humanitarian organizations omits the kind of information that we, international philanthropists and middle class locals working in the humanitarian sector, would feel uncomfortable with. Such unpleasant truths might undermine the nature itself of our ‘for-the-sake-of-mankind’ work. All the ‘side effects’ humanitarian work engenders – as it normally occurs in any enterprise – need to be disguised in the name of its survival.

The intellectual effort to explore the historical reasons for the present social frictions to avoid the oversimplified ethnic lens 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, Islamisation and so forth, and by ‘ethnicising’ the explanation of social facts, we have already created human imaginaries of Lebanese against Syrians and Syrians against Lebanese.

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

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.

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

Ethnographic commentary on Syrian Refugees in Lebanon (by Estella Carpi – September 2012)

Image from Museum of Resistance in Lebanon; photograph by Estella Carpi

Syrian refugees in Lebanon: when the Apollonian cannot expect anything from the Dionysian

by Estella Carpi

While based in Lebanon, I personally find no way of getting out of the emotional whirlwind of suffering that the Syrian revolution, the merciless state repression and the subsequent armament of the revolutionaries have been giving rise to for 18 months. Without aiming at prematurely assessing the size of the emergency response to the “Syrian humanitarian crisis”, I would like to discuss here the Lebanese phenomenological approach to the current events by using the Syrian refugees’ lens.

Although used to regarding Syria as a model of stability and harmony, and as a place where people allegedly identify through the imposed order, the Lebanese suddenly find themselves taking care of the Syrian Leviathan. If Lebanon has always embodied the Dionysian, with its several war scars, social open wounds and its incontrollable emotionalities, Syria has always represented the rational, organized and balance-keeper Apollonian to the outsider’s eye.

The long date silenced political dissent has often been expressed through the art works of the exiled. A. (a Syrian whose name I withhold) tells me about the Syrian joke of calling “jahesh” a side of the coin representing Hafez al Assad’s face, which in Syrian dialect means “donkey”. The topos of the regime’s stupidity has been frequent in Syrian narratives for many years. The counter-rhetoric opposing such an Apollonian image of order has recently emerged due to the current “humanitarian crisis in Syria”. I recently met A. and R., who used to take part in demonstrations in Damascus and Homs: both experienced the bitterness of detention and torture, and were later conscripted by the Syrian Arab Army to fight for the regime’s survival. In other words, illogical strategies seem to be a further powerful means of state repression.

Even though the potential future Syrian perspective is not portrayed as “terroristic” in the anti-loyalist international propaganda, yet it is often depicted as “Muslim Brotherhood-friendly”, exclusively Sunni and unavoidably radicalist.
M., 23 years old, tells me he has been asked by Lebanese activists the reason why he decided to fast during Ramadan in Beirut, while affirming to be a progressive supporter of the revolution. This account shows us how living up to religious tenets is constantly and arbitrarily correlated to political conservativism. A., who arrived in Lebanon few months ago, was asked instead “why Syrians complain about their state, if education is for free, at least”. What is undercut here is, of course, the impossibility to get any kind of education but that allowed by Assad’s regime. R. even mentions suspiciousness of one Lebanese NGO when he entered Lebanon and asked for aid. After telling them his story, he was asked “what kind of sources he was using in Syria to be able to get this kind of information”. When your “information sources” are bombs, you do shiver at such a question and you would reply that, luckily, you were still in your hometown during the regime’s shelling “to be able to witness to what is really going on beyond the borders”.

The movie “The Suffering Grasses” by Iara Lee has recently closed the Lebanese Film Festival in Beirut. I was among a few people attending this documentary on the Syrian revolution, and most of them were actually foreigners like me. The movie was aimed at denouncing that when the “elephants” – so to speak, the Masters of War – go to war, it is the “grasses” that suffer. The post-movie Q&A session was canceled “due to security reasons” and “to maintain stability”. “Weird… in this country it’s normal to kidnap 40 people to exchange hostages, but it’s not conceivable to discuss about violence, regime change, (il)legitimacy of the armed resistance and ongoing genocide”, commented my friend S.

The large Lebanese dissent on the Syrian regime has not as one might expect become a real object of debate, despite the several anti-Assad demonstrations throughout Lebanon I personally witnessed. These are frequently interpreted from foreigners and some locals as a mere political instrument of the March 14 coalition, rather than genuine support for the victims of the Syrian state repression. Once again, the above mentioned communication-phobia is able to abort conceptual and material evolutions in Lebanon, a perpetual transit country for regional refugees.

Through the construction of the Syrian humanitarian subject, that somehow becomes a brand-new suffering body in what Bertrand Badie in 2002 named “pietas market”, the ever-present Western “Streben” of lyrical missionarism in the region, although to a far smaller extent, is back on the road after the Lebanese July war and Gaza’s humanitarian crises. As for other refugees in Lebanon, such as Iraqis, Sudanese and Palestinians – if I just cite the big numbers – Syrians, epitomizing the status of neo-refugees, get publicly invisible and neglected by the average Lebanese citizen. As it happened in the case of Palestinians seeking refuge after the 1948 Nakba, the normal Lebanese everydayness and the lives of Syrians lately flowing into Lebanon run parallel. The Syrian Revolution supporters, that are therefore used to being on the state margin, are not allowed to reshape the Lebanese local consciousness and contribute to healing its pathological public amnesia, of which the responsibility has often been disguised by “state-promoted” policies.

F. vents out his resentment to have welcomed during the 2006 war a Lebanese family in his house near Zabadani – a Syrian town close to the Lebanese border – and not to receive support from them now that their “agency roles” have been switched, according to what he says. “Assad’s loyalists who fear violence and want to come to Lebanon can easily seek refuge in the shelters provided by Hezbollah: “I’m sure they are far better than us, who got little instead”, says M. There are now official sources to ascertain this, but there is still wonder for whether and how the Assad opponents too find shelter under the protection of their oppressor’s allied. Also, what should not be overlooked in the latter account is that, once again, humanitarianism seems to further feed historically changing community hierarchies and trigger vicious circles of agency and passivity, mutual expectations, gratefulness to human mercy or dissatisfaction about compensation strategies.

The willingness to get greater awareness on the Syrian issue and build direct contacts with the “new non-citizens” of Lebanese society is rarely present except among local humanitarian actors, already plugged into international networks, predominantly representing a segment of Lebanese middle class, and then “affording” to be engaged in social issues. In a nutshell, the refugee’s body in Lebanon is exclusively enfranchised through its ability to produce labor in the humanitarian market; it loses any cultural value, meant as vital contribution to social memory and local activism within what is still wrongly termed “host” society.

I recently spoke to two different organizations engaged in emergency relief: both highlighted the increasing urgency of breaking rules to assist shelter and aid seekers not registered with UNHCR. Both providers boasted their primary goal on the assistance currently provided to Syrian refugees in Lebanon. While they compete for the Nobel Prize for humanitarian efforts in the days of the Syrian “crisis” – and while I cynically disparage the eschatological instincts giving birth to a new Lebanese-International humanitarian market – the umpteenth individual “rah aala beyt khalto” to be tortured (way of saying in the Levantine dialects “getting to jail”, “detained by the regime”), if not already died or massacred.

Note: All identities quoted in this article have been protected by using the initial letter of their name; the home town in Syria as well as the different confessional “belongings” of my interlocutors have been deliberately omitted.

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


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

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)