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The Everyday Experience of Humanitarianism in Akkar Villages (Part One)

[In this 30 May 2012 photo, a fifteen-year-old Syrian refugee boy rides a motorbike with his sister and his brother, who fled their home from the Syrian town of Tal-Kalakh. The photo was taken outside a school where they stay with their family and relatives temporarily, in Shadra village at the northern Lebanese-Syrian border town of Wadi Khalid, in Akkar, north Lebanon. Image by Hussein Malla via Associated Press.] [In this 30 May 2012 photo, a fifteen-year-old Syrian refugee boy rides a motorbike with his sister and his brother, who fled their home from the Syrian town of Tal-Kalakh. The photo was taken outside a school where they stay with their family and relatives temporarily, in Shadra village at the northern Lebanese-Syrian border town of Wadi Khalid, in Akkar, north Lebanon. Image by Hussein Malla via Associated Press.]

It is very common nowadays to come across reports discussing the negative impact of the Syrian humanitarian crisis on the Lebanese economy as a whole. On the one hand, there have been several attempts to focus on the victims and their plight, rather than looking at the complex dynamics of humanitarian intervention in the country. On the other, many organizations tend to disguise or justify their own political agenda in their impact assessment reports and fieldwork analyses,[1] which are mostly quantitative and have little focus on the qualitative impact of their projects.

This article attempts to advance a grounded analysis of the social situation developed by the author, based on how people speak of and express their everyday living in times of emergency. For such reasons, the analysis should be read without confusing the professional choices and humane intentions of humanitarian workers on the one hand, and the reasons behind the shortcomings and failures of humanitarianism on the field on the other.

Brief Overview of Akkar’s Socioeconomic Conditions Prior to the Syrian Humanitarian Crisis

The humanitarian needs in Lebanon today are undoubtedly huge, for both Syrian refugees and the Lebanese host communities. Akkar’s community, known to be one of the poorest communities in Lebanon, has largely felt the pinch of the increasing influx of Syrian refugees, particularly since August 2011. Families in Akkar, with an average size of 4.7 individuals (higher than the national average), constitute 20.5 percent of the entire Lebanese population. They maintain a particular sociocultural structure[2] that engendered a Lebanese–and not only foreign–stereotype that the region is “primitive.” Akkar also has the highest poverty rate in the country, amounting to 63.3 percent [3] of its population.

The region has been historically neglected and registers the worst household conditions in Lebanon after Hermel. The majority of Akkar’s villages receive electricity from Electricité du Liban, but not all houses are connected to the electrical grid. In addition, the region ranks last in residential accessibility to the public water supply, despite its natural water resources; running water is taken from artesian wells or private water networks. With no garbage collection system provided by the municipality or private contractors, there are many solid waste burning sites and dumps in public spaces. Public transportation is lacking and car ownership is very low, rendering schools, hospitals, and basic services difficult to access. Local inhabitants, hence, say that political candidates buy votes by promising new roads, which are rarely maintained. Health insurance is predominantly accessed through people who decide to join the army, which is the most stable source of income for a large part of the population. In fact, those employed in the military sector (14.8 percent) constitute a larger number than those employed in the trade sector.[4]

The economic and employment conditions of Akkar further worsened after the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon, and again later due to the destruction of the Nahr al-Bared [Palestinian refugee] camp in 2007. The battle between Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese Army resulted in many casualties and injuries among civilians and army members, causing several disabilities.[5] The effects of both wars had a big impact on revenue in the region. Businesses recorded a 91.5 percent reduction in income due to closures or damages to shops. This has led to decreased productivity and reduced purchasing power of consumers.[6]

In general, Akkar was largely excluded from most national and international emergency funds donated to rebuild and rehabilitate the war-stricken areas. Transportation costs have also been widely underestimated by humanitarian entities working in Akkar to provide aid to the Syrian refugees. In interviews conducted between August 2012 and February 2013, many newcomers were still complaining about their ability to pay for their own transportation and mobility, despite the introduction of home-deliveries of food and other relief items by NGOs–even complaining about their ability to reach such organizations. According to the accounts collected for the present research, this often prevented them from getting oil, food kits, medication, and other help they are entitled to receive. Local families and long-time Syrian migrants with vehicles often provide the service informally.

The downturn in the area is mainly a result of the closure of the Lebanese-Syrian border. This put an end to the option of getting cheaper goods from Syria through the long-lasting tradition of smuggling, which had already been restricted by the previous conflicts of 2006 and 2007. In addition, the presence of Syrian workers in dire need of work was used as a pretext by most local and national employers to push for lowering the wages of the local workforce.[7] According to some Lebanese political leaders,[8] this “worsened the security situation,” without actually specifying how and why.

In addition to these socioeconomic conditions, there is also a political context for the region that comes into light. Hamed, from the village of Bellanet al-Hisa, describes the days of liberation from the “Syrian unjust oppression” (to use his own words) in April 2005. One month after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the so-called “Cedar Revolution” (14 March 2005) broke out, leading to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanese territories. The local population in Halba demolished the statue of Hafiz al-Asad erected in the 1990s in the main square of the town. “I had never seen the people of my town so relieved before”, said Ahmed, from Halba. Likewise, a couple of elderly men indicated the place where the center of the Syrian secret services used to be located (markaz al-mukhabarat al-suriyya). This shows the noticeable political weight and history of the Syrian regime's presence in the area, adding more layers to Akkar’s social context.

The current economic deterioration of Akkar–and all of Lebanon–either ascribed to external powers or to internal factors, has often been used by NGOs to shake off criticism of their operations and as a self-legitimizing tool to intervene.

The Emergence of Humanitarian Structures in Akkar 

The majority of the interviewed faith-based NGOs operating in Akkar were mainly Sunni Muslim. They focused on the provision of charity services to orphans, low-income recipients, the disabled, and other vulnerable categories. Today, twenty-two Islamic NGOs are part of the Islamic Coordination Unit (’I’tilaf). For the most part, they use a faith-based approach to the provision of services, and have been working in the region for a long time (mainly since the 1990s).[9] For them, aid provision to Syrians becomes “just one event in the history of their social services in the country.”[10]

For example, the head of an Islamic NGO[11] complained about the fact that international organizations always had more resources, but did very little in the area, compared to the constant domestic efforts to improve the region in non-emergency times as well.

Apart from the absence of systematic literature around Akkar, municipalities are never mentioned by the local community in relation to provision of basic services. In contrast, the actions of the central state are often invoked in everyday accounts. While some of the present needs are not preventable, dismal lawlessness and widespread insecurity stem from the structural weakness of the Lebanese state in asserting its presence in the region. Such feelings of abandonment, lack of control, and economic precariousness are generally considered to contribute to feeding the militia culture and, thus, engendering recurrent outbursts of violence.[12]

Many humanitarian organizations have therefore abandoned previous local development projects in the Lebanese areas less targeted by the Syrian migration flow,[13] and have switched their operational agenda from development to humanitarian efforts in order to “neutrally” engage with the Syrian crisis.[14]

In order to help the area sustain the influx of refugees, some of the first measures used by NGOs were cash payments to local families, and the refurbishment and improvement of housing to enable them to host newcomers and provide free accommodation to refugees. Similarly, NGOs started providing relief supplies such as mattresses, heaters, and other winterization kits to local households, insofar as they were hosting Syrian refugees. By doing so, they were aiming at empowering the new and old inhabitants of Akkar, in a bid to compensate for past state and non-state neglect suffered during peace time and the absence of political interests in this region in comparison to the south of the country (which has been occupied by Israel between 1978 and 2000).

The sudden proliferation of NGOs in the area, while conceiving of themselves as socially necessary, is a matter of controversy in the local community. “I think they all came here now because they’re going to increase their funding thanks to the war in Syria. They would have not moved a single finger for us otherwise. Have you ever seen them around before?!” said Ghassan, who owns a car repair garage in Halba, with resentment.

The goal is not to generate resentment in the local community, declares Ana in the interview conducted at the UNHCR Protection Section in Qubayyat on 11 December 2012. “To be honest,” she added, “the number of programs addressing both groups are still few, but we are making progress.” By contrast, a representative of War-Child Holland, interviewed in October 2012, mentioned several schools and programs addressing both Lebanese and Syrians, in operation at that time. Despite these controversial opinions, past neglect should carefully guide humanitarians in the planning of the ongoing programs.

To their credit, NGOs have increasingly channeled resources through Lebanese public services. For example, healthcare has seemingly improved for both Lebanese and Syrians. Amal, from al-Raqqa, who was resettled in al-Bahsa, said, “After two years in this tent, there is finally a mobile clinic I can benefit from.” Nonetheless, aid was initially allocated only when the Syrians arrived, especially starting in early March 2012, according to the interviewees. However, the Lebanese residents felt once again that they were not the humanitarian priority. The local community's disaffection and mistrust towards the institutions, which had been developing throughout the past decades cannot be eradicated now. The humanitarian industry certainly cannot sweep away years of state neglect. It could nonetheless at least avoid drawing up its plans as though it was operating in a social void, empty of past and present frictions, which are in turn materially fueled by the way aid itself is distributed and people get selected.[15]

The humanitarian response has apparently failed to alleviate tensions. It instead initially inflamed them, by allocating most of the visible part of aid (household items, food vouchers, survival kits) exclusively to Syrian refugees. In the initial stage, some NGOs even denied aid to Palestinians, who had mainly fled the heavily bombarded Yarmouk camp, under the pretext that they are usually covered by UNRWA services. As a result, a practitioner working for an international NGO in Tripoli maintained having been witness to tensions arising between Syrian Palestinians and Syrian citizens.

While ending the violence is not one of the principles of humanitarian organizations, their intervention should at least not fuel tensions. In this sense, NGOs have been historically unable to identify local capacities for peace[16] and draw on them to trigger betterment. This is partially because of the high turnover of humanitarian workers and the scarce attention in maintaining records in an already unstable and ephemeral social environment—as will be shown later.[17]

In this regard, eligibility criteria have been a moot point. Newly designed programs for Syrians and Lebanese, as indicated by a UNHCR Protection Officer interviewed on 6 February 2013, are increasingly reflecting the moral logic of humanitarianism according to which the beneficiaries would be addressed through assigning a single victimized moral identity. Nonetheless, even homogenized categories of beneficiaries would still give birth to internal frictions, which carry the diversified weight of social abandonment, war trauma, and deprivation. But, according to international and local witnesses to the Syrian humanitarian crisis, practitioners ignore such diversification.

Local Hospitality: A Controversial Issue

Lebanese host communities are said to be no longer able to absorb new flows of refugees in their homes. According to field observations, hospitality is mostly provided when relying on financial assistance in the form of remittances or cash payments by NGOs. “I think it has not been a good move to pay families to host Syrians,” said Sarah, who works for an international secular NGO based in Qubayyat. “We basically made them dependent on people that are not independent themselves and we can only arrange the accommodation for them just for one year. What are they going to do next? What have we changed by doing so?”

Walid, in Halba, during a field visit in November 2013, said that he was fed up with the worsening economic situation, and that the impact of NGOs had not changed the direction of the crisis, as it was not even initially meant to do that. “It is not like before. There used to be empathy (ta‘atuf), now it’s disappeared. Everyone wants just to get rid of all them.” Najwa, a baker in Halba, even thought that Hafiz al-Asad’s times were better on the whole. Past regional misery always tends to be experienced as more tolerable than the ongoing one.

Syrian refugees are not living in official and logistically organized refugee camps–whose implementation has so far been refused by the Lebanese government[18]–and are therefore scattered across different regions in Lebanon as guests of households or as rent payers. It is generally widespread among Lebanese to sometimes use the idea of hospitality as a moral tool to exhibit the dignity of Akkar’s people and their great values. A segment of Syrian refugees see hospitality as an expression of the great empathy of Akkar’s people towards the Syrian cause, which had deep historical roots in the years of Assad's military presence in the region.

According to some people in al-‘Abdeh, Bebnin, Wadi Khalid, Halba, and al-Bahsa, local hospitality can be depicted, instead, in terms of greediness tout court, as it ends up being an economic opportunity for local families. In this way, they tend to represent this Lebanese region as bearing an inherently negative view towards Syrians. They are said to take advantage of the displacement of new refugees to increase the housing market prices and exploit a cheap workforce, expressing their racism and moral superiority towards Syrians and taking revenge of the past years of Syrian oppression.

A further tension emerges between the newly arriving refugees and the Lebanese communities. While the latter consider themselves hosts, the former develop a sense of conditionality of their presence, as long as they are willing to be exploited by local people. The common feeling that can be deduced after field research is that the Syrian newcomers related differently to the determinism of getting humiliated and objectified, in being passive beneficiaries of humanitarian assistance and cheaper workers. Taking livelihoods from outside and resettling outside their country still seem to represent factors of flawed moral dignity, which, to them, is currently difficult to rehabilitate. Among Syrian newcomers, frustration is the tangible consequence.

Either way, through media representations and NGOs’ reports, hospitality has become the demonstrative tool par excellence conveying an ethical judgment: Akkar as greedy or bountiful.

It is hard to draw clear lines around the theme of hospitality and ascertain how many families host for free and how many of them get money to host–these finances are mostly granted by international NGOs (like the Saudi Tayba Association located in Halba). This is the reason why it is much more important to consider what the idea of hosting produces in Lebanon’s everydayness and how it has changed people’s daily interactions. This is an aspect the mass media has focused on the least.

In this respect, it is worth noting that many spoke of “unwilling hospitality,” as put forward by scholar Jacques Derrida,[19] stemming from official discourses that portray the Syrian refugees’ presence as an “existential problem for Lebanon.”[20] The unintentionality of coping with those people who have “overstayed their welcome” is slightly compensated by services provided to the local community, in addition to the increased financial income that a small segment of the Akkar community is able to gain, due to the presence of refugees and aid actors.[21]

Hospitality, for example[22], now increasingly coexists with insecurity. “I don’t let my child play in the street with others. I don’t know who they are, and who can see them. I’m afraid he’s gonna get kidnapped or raped. We don’t feel free and safe. I got a dog to watch out for my tent because I mistrust everyone here,” said a Syrian woman resettled in Bebnin.

[Click here to read Part Two of this article.] 

[This article was originally published by the Civil Society Knowledge Centre, Lebanon Support on 24 March 2014. The full citation should be: Estella Carpi, “The Everyday Experience of Humanitarianism in the Akkar Villages”, Civil Society Knowledge Center, Lebanon Support, 24 March 2014. [online] http://cskc.daleel-madani.org/paper/everyday-experience-humanitarianism-akkar-villages]


Notes

[1] Too often, humanitarian workers tend to respond to critical analyses in a highly defensive manner, and, thus, resorting to mere ethical apology of their projects. This is a reminder of how humanitarianism, as Didier Fassin has noticed, aprioristically legitimizes itself. See Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman, The Empire of Trauma: An Inquiry into the Condition of Victimhood (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 2002). The rare exposure of the humanitarian apparatus to external criticism is due to the infrequent negotiation of its presence in a given territory or the implementation of its programs, in that it takes for granted that intervention possesses a moral rationale per se.

[2] Roula Abi-Habib Khoury, Rapid Assessment on Child Labour in North Lebanon (Tripoli and Akkar) and Bekaa Governorates (Beirut: USJ and ILO, 2012), 25.

[3] It is worth recalling here that twenty-eight percent of the Lebanese population is considered poor and eight percent extremely poor. See Aicha Moushref for Mada Association, UNDP, Handicap International and EU Humanitarian Aid, Forgotten Akkar, Socio-Economic Reality of the Akkar Region (2008), 5.

[4] Khoury, 25.

[5] FAO, Damage and Early Recovery Needs Assessment of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (2006).

[6] Moushref, 19.

[7] Note that all personal names have been changed to comply with privacy protection policies.

[8] With Syrian migrant workers being an easy scapegoat for generalized social distress, many impoverished Lebanese say they are obliged to “secure protection” by themselves, by often making the nature of personal matters confessional. Likewise, raids by security forces, curfews, and micro-level violence against Syrians are on the increase.

[9] This thinking is easily identifiable in former Energy Minister and current Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil’s public speeches. See, for example, https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/commentaryanalysis/racism_and_indifference_bassil_as_an_example_ (accessed: 13 January 2014).

[10] The director of the coordination unit of the Islamic NGOs called I’tilaf was interviewed in Tripoli on 3 February2013. More information can be found at http://www.nna-leb.gov.lb/ar/show-news/17676/تقرير-تلاف-جمعيات-غاثة-النازحين-السوريين-اعدادهم-فاقت-التوقعات-ونعمل-ضمن-الامكانات-المتاحة (accessed: 21 February 2014).

[11] Interview conducted by the author with the Kuwaiti Education Association in Tripoli, 14 January 2013.

[12] Interview conducted by the author at Dar al-Fatwa, Halba, 21 November 2013.

[13] Despite the clearly deteriorating security situation in Lebanon, it is noteworthy that Akkar villages are historically less exposed to violent clashes, if compared to the reality of Irsal or Tripoli, which are highly affected by the Syrian conflict in terms of security.

[14] Among them, Taiba Association, a Saudi NGO in Halba, which reformulated its programs under a new name to meet Syrians’ needs (Interview conducted on 14 December 2012). The majority of the faith-oriented organizations based in Akkar, previously addressing orphans and the vulnerable in the area, stopped most their programs for the Lebanese community, to cope with the expenses needed to finance aid to Syrians, whose cause is the priority on the political agenda of their foreign donors (mainly Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia). Several of them have been created ad hoc, with the only goal of providing support to Syrian refugees, in their wait for the Assad regime’s departure.

[15] This often happens owing to the way donors channel funds, showing the perpetual priority of emergency plans in relation to more challenging development programs.

[16] See http://english.al-akhbar.com/node/17538 (accessed: 13 January 2014).

[17] Such an issue has first been foregrounded by Mary B. Anderson, Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace or War (Boulder, Co.: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1999).

[18] The approach of international NGOs providing services to refugees in North Lebanon to the whole issue seems to be the following: treating the country as a mere satellite of the Syrian events, rather than as a longtime theatre of buried tensions that would just find their way to come to the fore and renew their modalities and fields. This idea is suggested by the description of the Syrian crisis in official discourses as merely “imported” or as an external “spillover” troubling Lebanon.

[19] The Lebanese government refuses the construction of refugee camps, as it does not desire to generate the same dreadful situation of Palestinians, whose right to return is still denied; their naturalization is opportunistically denied as well, in the name of the ideological refusal of conceiving Palestinians in Lebanon as permanent citizens. Needless to say, the naturalization (tawtin) of Palestinians would trigger further demographic issues within the country.

[20] Jacques Derrida and Anne Defourmantelle, Of Hospitality (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2000).

[21] Talk held by Lebanese Ambassador to the United States Antoine Chedid at the Wilston Center in Washington DC, 29 October 2013, http://www.wilsoncenter.org/event/humanitarian-crisis-impact-syrian-refugees-lebanon (accessed: 13 January 2014).

[22] For instance, aid providers usually need local drivers, housing structures for themselves, retailers selling goods to be distributed, and other working staff employable in their field.

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