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Fixing it or Breaking it? A practitioner and a researcher assess humanitarianism in today’s Lebanon

May 22, 2013

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 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. This first post will look at the first thesis.  

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 date 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 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.

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 assert its authority, nor it offers 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.

How is humanitarianism fixing Lebanon? (source: condenaststore)

The paradoxical result of this flimsy post-war order led in fact the Lebanese of the peripheral regions to go access basic services, such as healthcare, in Syria before violence outraged. The international community has always been happy with the 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.


[1] Rapid Assessment of the Impact of Syrian Crisis on Socio-Economic Situation in North and Beqa’, 2012, UNDP Lebanon.

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