'The emergency machine': Humanitarianism in Lebanon

Lebanon is filled with humanitarian organizations that bring money, projects and personnel into the country. But are these interventions always useful? An interview with Dr. Estella Carpi.

'The emergency machine': Humanitarianism in Lebanon

Graffiti in Beirut. (Credit: João Sousa/L'Orient Today)

Lebanon is filled to the brim with the logos, brands, and markers of humanitarian organizations, bringing money, projects, and personnel into the country.

Assistant Professor of Humanitarian Studies at University College London Estella Carpi has studied the humanitarian responses to the 2006 July War and the 2011-2013 arrival of Syrian refugees into Akkar in a new book-length ethnography of humanitarianism in Lebanon, released this May.

L'Orient Today spoke on the phone to learn more about her conclusions on one of Lebanon’s most visible sectors.

L’Orient Today: “Development-arianism” is a concept that you raised throughout the book. In simple terms, what is it? And why should we learn this word?

Estella Carpi: It’s a term that I made up to combine development work and humanitarian work, such as urgent relief initiatives. In academic debates, some think that they are nearly the same thing in countries like Lebanon with reiterated crises. Others think that, instead, pointing to the differences in the way of working is still very much important.

You have, on the one hand, associations that originally used to engage with social work, like volunteering, development initiatives, welfare capacities, and so on. They all of a sudden had to improvise themselves as humanitarians because war broke out, like several Italian NGOs in Lebanon.

On the other side, you also have relief actors like the Lebanese Red Cross and so on that also kind of incorporated some longer-term components — adjusting the timeframe of some programs.

But in all honesty, it's not just about the need to turn into a humanitarian because the situation requires you to do so. It's also about where funding goes. And of course, you do need the funding to guarantee some organizational continuity on the ground.

In that sense, too many organizations forget that their very goal should be ending their programs when they don’t turn out to be effective or meaningful in any way.

My sense is that the humanitarian sector may be absorbing a lot of the human resources of the Western world that would otherwise be unemployed. It would be interesting to see the extent to which other professional sectors would be able to absorb skilled labor if the humanitarian sector weren’t there. It’d be great to see a research study on this, at some point.

There is so much money at stake in these short-term programs: most of the time, it's about precarious, well-paid labor that is offered to international bourgeoisie classes. And here comes the politics of crisis-making that chronically wheels out the “need to be there”, which I talk about in the book.

So the “developmentarian” term here refers to these chronic vicious cycles. There are resources that, in theory, are allocated for better welfare in Lebanon. But they are going to be drained by the emergency machine, whenever the so-called crisis breaks out.

But at the same time, has longstanding humanitarian work ever left in place better welfare in Lebanon? Not even that.

So I don't think crisis-making can ever be positive, as some may argue, like saying, “at least we get the money from outside.” Are you sure? Look at Lebanon nowadays. You're just covering up the state’s abdication of responsibility and not really leaving sustainable and well-functioning welfare in place.

The mobility of humanitarian professionals is something that is very notable. And you talk about how this results in a lack of institutional memory. How does the sector perceive the benefits and the disadvantages of rotating people? And in your research, did you agree with their sense of the benefits and disadvantages?

Some humanitarians I met are not comfortable themselves with these humanitarian politics of recruitment. But unfortunately, it is what humanitarian professionalism is about nowadays, you jump from one place to the other, and you are considered professionally more accountable than those who, instead, focused on the same country for years. Mobility is highly rewarded.

So that’s how many organizations move with a prepackaged kit of tools and know-how that doesn't really fit the context. So this turnover of staff members generates that institutional amnesia that I talk about. Amnesia is about not knowing what your organization was doing before you came, or even how that specific organization is politically framed in the Lebanese scenario.

Moreover, staff mobility not only divides internationals vs locals but also different local hires who do or do not have a 2nd passport to be able to leave whenever crisis escalates. In the book, I discuss these moral distances generating complex unequal geographies — and not just between foreigners and Lebanese people. And yet, professional authority is only ascribed to those who can move everywhere, “with no borders” like the doctors…!

So would you suggest that it would improve humanitarian interventions to have less rotation?

Absolutely. They think that you preserve neutrality more if you don't develop long-standing relationships with the place, but this is the biggest hypocrisy in place ever.

I'm not saying that the capacity of knowing the local languages and cultures is never valued. If you know Arabic, you might be likely to remain in the region working on displacement from Syria, rather than being hired elsewhere. But you may want to change organizations as diversifying employers is always valued.

However, the highest profiles remain those who move the most. In some cases, especially under the UN mandate, your contract will not even allow you to remain in a country after a certain number of years. So definitely, these recruitment politics need to be addressed first.

There’s a notion that you hear a lot in Lebanon: “Syrian refugees are eligible for foreign aid, poor Lebanese are not.” Can you tell us why people still say that, despite the fact that since 2016, it’s not really true anymore?

2016 is the year after the introduction of the formal governmental response in Lebanon to the Syrian crisis that, as we know, came quite late.

During 2016, more humanitarian actors in Lebanon started expanding their programs and their outreach beyond Syrian refugees, to reach economically vulnerable Lebanese. That’s when the New Ways of Working strategy was set up, and development and humanitarian actors pledged closer collaboration.

This happened in the framework of the 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals. They are about proposing development and welfare efforts worldwide. Among these goals, you also have the issue of “localization of aid”. This means that, finally, the need to make humanitarian responses more context-specific became institutionalized.

As for Syrian refugees arriving in Lebanon, the newcomer is always a factor of novelty, of instability and, as such, unsettles local society. And in the case of Syrians, many of them were not even newcomers in Lebanon, where they mostly used to work on a seasonal basis. The newcomer also generates fear because it functions as the litmus test of welfare decline. This happens anywhere, and it is fundamental to put Lebanon in a worldwide perspective here and put an end to the tendency of exceptionalizing it.

So especially from 2014, the humanitarians started triggering compensation mechanisms for having fueled tensions between locals and refugees by exclusively assisting Syrians in a vulnerable local context, such as Akkar. And they started expanding their outreach to Lebanese as well. However, in many cases, this compensatory form of humanitarian work didn't give any benefits.

Some work I did myself was about livelihood programs in Halba in Akkar with both Lebanese and Syrian women, and very few Lebanese women were interested in joining the program. And this was not because they didn't want to share space, or the program with the Syrians. They had been sharing resources and spaces since they were born, in a certain sense, but these collective memories were swept away by the crisis discourse instead, happening in the media. The Lebanese women rather did not join, they said, because the program aimed to provide them with skills that were unlikely to be used in the small Akkar economy.

A first step towards accommodating forced migrants might be setting up educational programs for “host citizens” so we can really teach people the real content of the policies in place, and provide a historical understanding of what happened before and after the arrival of refugees. No matter how idealistic, that is what we should do to really address these gaps between reality and people’s perceptions, in Lebanon like anywhere else.

You lay out in detail the way that humanitarian organizations interact with local officials in areas like Akkar, could you maybe talk a little bit about what humanitarian and local government interaction looks like? And also how they either cooperate or maybe try to instrumentalize each other for different purposes?

What interested me in that part of my research was not much giving a value judgment on the relationships between different power holders on the ground, but seeing the ways in which people perceived these new governance assemblages.

Let's start from the international humanitarian side: on that side, instrumentalization was predominantly technical, I would say. Many international humanitarian agencies had never set foot in Akkar before the crisis. So how can you know a place during a crisis if you don't even know the place in the very first instance? They initially needed the zu’ama‘ and makhatir to reach out to the people. They knew they still needed to respect the power hierarchies in place. But this relationship also showed a quite shallow approach to the localization of aid. You are not localizing anything just because you are acting through these local intermediaries.

There was neither active recognition of local knowledge nor the openness to rethinking the system entirely.

Local power holders, of course, also kind of benefited from all of this. First of all, local corruption was surely in place in a patron-client society like Akkar, so some preannounced resources never reached the people. That was one of the first complaints among humanitarians.

As I argue in the book, their collaboration with international humanitarian actors kind of “moralized” their role, because local residents and refugees started seeing them as legitimized by the international community, and this covered up some wrongdoing in the villages.

For instance, some makhatir justified the exclusion of some people from official beneficiary lists by arguing that international humanitarian agencies (which had relied on the gatekeeping of local power holders themselves in the first instance), had not included their names.

So this relationship didn't benefit the local villagers at all.

One of the things that the humanitarians have been really focusing on lately, in my experience, is upgrading the capacities of state institutions in order to provide universal services to everyone, refugees and citizens. Do you have any thoughts on that? Has there been a shift from emergency intervention to more upgrading capacities?

Universal protection is unlikely to be set up with the current state institutions. And this is what many Lebanese research efforts are about, at the moment. From a humanitarian perspective, shifting from first aid provision to more transformational interventions is one of the historical marks of modern humanitarianism. That means you want to transform society in a way that you act on people, like making them resilient to crisis, rather than working hard to change the material circumstances in which people live.

Over the last years of the Syrian crisis, we’ve witnessed more international support to local infrastructure, but it came really late. And, anyway, it cannot even be a “durable solution.” Having basic services at the mercy of geopolitics and external donorship would be problematic, to say the least.

You talk about programs that haven’t been useful. What might you consider to be an example of that type of intervention?

Oh, there are so many blatant cases. As a general example, I can maybe describe the vicious cycle of urgent actions addressing immediate needs while neglecting the variety and complexity of aging needs of people living in protracted displacement.

I will talk of some Iraqis I know in the southern suburbs of Beirut. They had come slightly before the July war. At the beginning, they were provided with a mattress, shelter and water, not only because they were “new refugees”, but also because they were victims themselves of the July war.

When I met them in 2012, they were still struggling to purchase bread, water, and medications. But, as longstanding refugees, all of the programs they were able to access were simply IT and English classes.

So NGOS were focusing on making this group of refugees employable because basic needs had allegedly been addressed during that older emergency response. But they never were. That very first capacity to produce everyday sustainability had never been restored. And this is not only the story of Iraqis, as we know…

You talk about how the state, humanitarians and political parties ignore Hay el Gharbi. How does it come about that there are areas like Hay el Gharbi that are very vulnerable but are not receiving interventions whereas there are other areas that are, by the numbers, slightly less vulnerable that do receive interventions?

[Editor’s note: Hay el Gharbi is a neighborhood near Shatila refugee camp where people from different Lebanese sects, Palestinians, Syrians, Dom, and other nationalities living with low income reside. No group really "owns" the neighborhood politically, so no one "represents it" nationally.]

Hay al-Gharbi is the perfect case in point of how violent identity politics can become. With no peculiar identities in place, there are very few services offered. Not only by the state, which is expected, but also by humanitarian actors (for example, Terres des Hommes and the local NGO Tahaddi). This shows how most international development and humanitarian agencies are unlikely to operate where need is objectively greater. The multiscale neglect of this slum is also evidence that a neighborhood-based approach is not fully prioritized yet over an identity-based approach in international programming. Aid is still predominantly provided where identities speak to geopolitical agendas.

How do we understand why Mar Mikhael, for instance, received a lot of post-blast reconstruction aid after the explosion, whereas, some other neighborhoods that had infrastructure that was just as bad before the explosion, did not receive the same interventions?

You mentioned something that, to me, speaks to a sort of turning point in the humanitarian history of Lebanon, where the port explosion becomes quite meaningful. Humanitarian priorities became even more focused on the rehabilitation of commercial activities, and the funding role of the private sector came to be even more evident in humanitarian and disaster response.

In brief, there was a big interest in reconstructing the part of Lebanon which better accommodates the consumption-based life of many upper and middle-class foreigners — among them, humanitarians — but massive destruction was not taken as an opportunity to revalorize and rehumanize the affected neighborhoods, Mar Mkhayel included. Districts like this have literally been reduced to consumption spaces for high-income users.

To a different extent, this recalls the mistakes after the July war in Dahiyeh: reconstructing the buildings where they were located before the war as well as ensuring thriving commercial activities, rather than rethinking space, such as creating more green areas, something that the AUB Reconstruction Unit often contested.

So, after the Beirut blast, we now see many promises of developing a people-centered approach in disadvantaged districts, such as Karantina. It’s predominantly local experts who seek to juggle political intricacies and take the opportunity to significantly improve local infrastructure wherever needed. 

Lebanon is filled to the brim with the logos, brands, and markers of humanitarian organizations, bringing money, projects, and personnel into the country.Assistant Professor of Humanitarian Studies at University College London Estella Carpi has studied the humanitarian responses to the 2006 July War and the 2011-2013 arrival of Syrian refugees into Akkar in a new book-length ethnography of...