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

May 30, 2013

By Fiorenzo Conte and Estella Carpi

This is the second of a two-posts series which looks at the practices of humanitarianism today in Lebanon through the lenses of a practitioner and a researcher. In the first post we argued that humanitarianism ends up being the short-term substitute for development: in this sense humanitarianism is actually the answer to failure in development policies. In this second post we will look at another thesis advanced by the Italian scholar Roberto Belloni: humanitarianism reproduces the same cleavages it tries to overcome. By so doing, we will assess whether this thesis applies to humanitarianism today.

Humanitarianism reproduces the same cleavages it tries to overcome:

Humanitarian providers in Lebanon, with their way of operating, tend to reproduce the same cleavages that pre-existed the crisis humanitarian actors aim at alleviating. There are two cleavages that humanitarianism is reproducing, and they are stigmatized in a “national” – sometimes depicted as “ethnic” – opposition, as that between Syrians and Lebanese; another cleavage between the central state and pseudo-feudal decentralization of administrative power and resource management is also identifiable among the “side effects” of how humanitarianism is locally implemented.

National/ethnic cleavages. In Lebanon, Syrian refugees and Lebanese returnees are considered by humanitarian organizations as the primary victims of the Syrian conflict. The funds allocated for the Syrian emergency in Lebanon are therefore earmarked for intervention that primarily or exclusively targets Syrian refugees. Syrian refugees, however, do not officially live in refugee camps – whose the implementation is so far refused by the Lebanese government – and are therefore scattered across different regions in Lebanon: hosted or rent payers. They are mainly concentrated in the poorest Lebanese regions due to greater life affordability.

Syrian refugees and Lebanese host communities, thus, actually share a similar condition of poverty, exclusion and marginality. Nonetheless, they differ in one dimension: the first are formal recipients of aid, the second are occasional recipients of aid. This divide has inevitably created tensions. Moreover, the way humanitarian programs have been implemented has ethnicized the human needs of such areas: the fact that every kind of assistance is provided according to the “ethnic category” – or, in any case, the specific social group – one qualifies for, has rendered eligibility a watershed between who is entitled to be helped and who is not. Not definitely a humanitarian side effect. By so doing, the humanitarian programs address beneficiaries by labeling them in a unilateral way and ignoring the variegated spectrum of their experiences of deprivation and neglect. In other words, these programs totally ignore the process behind the attribution of social labels to potential beneficiaries, and condemn the latter to survive within – and weirdly in the name of – the spot they occupy in the taxonomical pyramid of aid for Syrians, Lebanese affected by war, Palestinians, Iraqis, Sudanese and so forth. Hence, the humanitarian programs feed into such cleavages with their modus operandi – that is to say, working on the basis of categories – by establishing who is entitled to what and consequently engendering further tensions.

The Syrian influx also feeds into underlying inter-confessional tensions: some segments of the Christian community do not hide their fear of the Sunni influx (the majority of the Syrian refugees is in fact Sunni). Likewise, some residents in have Alawite villages in Akkar have recognized to perceive more tension now among their neighbors, who allied with or against the Asad regime. With the economic situation deteriorating and Syrian migrant workers being an easy scapegoat for the generalized malaise, Lebanese from other sects are taking the matter into their hands, while cases of military raids and mob violence against Syrians are multiplying. The humanitarian response has failed to alleviate such tensions and, on the contrary, it has inflamed them by allocating the most visible part of aid (household items, food vouchers, blankets) almost exclusively to Syrian refugees. If, on one side, it is not the duty of humanitarianism to end local violence, on the other, it should not even fuel such tensions by identifying the local capacities for peace.

To its credit, humanitarian organizations have tried to channel as many resources as possible through the Lebanese public service: in the case of healthcare, for example, primary health care centers have improved both for Syrians and Lebanese. The support for Syrians is also based on the principle of equal treatment: Syrians pay as much as Lebanese to access any basic service. The fundamental caveat however remains, as aid was mobilized and allocated only when Syrians arrived, and Lebanese perceive that they were not, once again, the priority. The resentment and the sense of abandonment that the several areas of Lebanon receiving Syrians today have developed throughout the past century, cannot be eradicated by now, and should carefully guide humanitarian actors in the planning of their programs.

From the point of view of the humanitarian practitioner, the challenge lies in the search for eligibility criteria unlikely to create tensions. The latter are a material imperative, as the amount of resources that the humanitarian structure can benefit from is limited, and is, thus, bounded to differentiate between who is entitled and who is not to access services. Apparently, newly designed programs, as affirmed by UNHCR in Qobayat (Akkar) last February, are increasingly reflecting the moral logic of humanitarianism, according to which the needy beneficiaries should be addressed through assigning to them a unique moralized and victimized identity. Nonetheless, even the humanitarian modus nominandi dealing with homogenized categories of beneficiaries would still generate frictions, in that the beneficiaries unavoidably carry a diversified experience of historical neglect, war trauma, eviction and deprivation. Besides the fact that the access to some Lebanese areas is still filtered by local leaders that distribute resources through a confessional – and sometimes ethnic – network, the humanitarian structure, while concealing this material compromise behind the human label of universal assistance, keeps implementing projects as though it acted in a social void, deprived of past tensions and present social frictions, de facto fueled by the way aid itself is distributed and people get selected.

This apparent apoliticization of the humanitarian actors towards the conflict in which they are working, brings to implicitly blame internal actors for not being able by themselves to dismantle the pseudo-tribal social structures of several Lebanese rural towns, which still impinge on humanitarian dynamics proposed by the internationals that, after a local social renewal, from their perspective,  would run smoothly.

Central vs. decentralized power cleavage. The second reason for contending that the humanitarian assistance tends to recreate and reassert the cleavages that is supposed to dismantle – in the name of neutrality – is the local decentralization in administrative terms, not certainly leading to major coordination and better resources management in Lebanon. In order to operate, humanitarian agencies, most of the time, have to comply with the regulations imposed by the local leader and a sort of commissioner – in Arabic respectively mukhtar and mas’ul – who usually are the people in charge of managing all local affairs. This tendency often ends up legitimizing the corrupted dusty structure of pseudo-tribalism and nepotism, all along present in Lebanese society. This feeds an anti-state vicious circle.

In light of this, Lebanese areas that have always been neglected have suddenly hosted a massive presence of non-state actors, often international, importing standardized models of emergency planning from outside, and, at the same time, not aiming at supporting reformist internal tendencies and winking at pseudo-tribal local leaders that have interests in monitoring the aid distribution process. Thereby, Lebanese little villages are thrown into the bipolar schizophrenia that leads them, on the one hand, to desire an administrative modernization in marginalized contexts that have not been addressed by the Lebanese state yet; and, on the other, external actors basically feed the feudal structures that, in some cases, local people would like to liberate themselves from[1]. The humanitarian actors instead seem to show “cultural respect” – and therefore detachment – whenever it turns useful to them in political terms, as they can access some areas just through local mediators, not always appreciated by the local community.

Thus, humanitarianism as implemented by international structures, both eastern and western, seems to lead to the reproduction, nay reinforcement, of the social, confessional and, in some cases, ethnic cleavages present in Lebanese society. Aid, therefore, unfortunately turns into a paradoxical factor of international supremacy and interference, feeding into internal cleavages while advocating for their elimination. Yet, such a compromising supremacy is pragmatically paraded as humanitarianism.


[1]  Interviews conducted throughout 2012 and 2013 in the Akkar towns of Halba, el Bahsa and al ‘Abdeh (North Lebanon).

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One Comment leave one →
  1. May 30, 2013 11:25 am

    Reblogged this on mabisir ما بيصير.

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