Approaches to Program Implementation as Seen by People: Emerging Rifts between the Beneficiaries and the Providers
About the People
“Ethnicization” of needs and services is the approach according to which beneficiaries need to fit into specific categories in order to qualify for services and goods. In this sense, 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–an individual is said to belong to, has made eligibility a watershed between those who are entitled to be helped and those who are not.
Khaled from Sudan, located in al-‘Abdeh, clearly expressed the feeling of being part of a moral taxonomy of legitimation of rights:
To satisfy the Lebanese citizens should be the first step taken by the Lebanese state… But there is a cruel hierarchy in Lebanon… the Lebanese come first, then the Palestinians, and finally the Iraqis and the Sudanese. Nothing of all this aid coming in is for us. And we have been here for a longer time, still in the same horrible conditions.
Again, Manal, from Yarmouk camp, said that she was bounced back twice when she asked for assistance from some international NGOs: “I have lived like any other Syrian citizen, working for the government in Baramke. And now I’m treated as though my identity is not worth a single cent. I have also survived bombings like all other Syrian citizens. What are they waiting for before addressing us?”
A secular Lebanese NGO, while stating its desire to become the “house of human rights,” implicitly recognized the ethnicization of human causes that they tend to carry out aprioristically. “We have a different agenda for Iraqi refugees, Syrians, and Palestinians. We treat them as diverse issues,” an official from the NGO explained. With a massive flow of Palestinian refugees coming into Lebanon from Syria becoming long time asylum seekers and "second degree refugees," the approach of dealing with these causes as each based separately on the "ethnicity" of every group has revealed its weakness in this latest humanitarian crisis.
The humanitarian programs address the beneficiaries by labeling them in a unilateral manner, ignoring the variegated spectrum of experiences of deprivation and neglect. In other words, the complex process behind the attribution of social labels to potential beneficiaries goes unheeded. Beneficiaries are therefore condemned to survive within the space occupied in the taxonomical pyramid of aid for Syrians, Lebanese affected by war, Palestinians, Iraqis, Sudanese, and so forth, thus only receiving the services provided within that pre-established space.
In light of this consideration, particular humanitarian programs end up feeding into already existing cleavages, by establishing who is entitled to what and,engendering further tensions along ethnic or confessional lines.
About NGO Practitioners
The generalized approach to aid provision, adopted by some interviewed humanitarian staff, can be called “humanitarian orientalism.” This attitude can be attributed to both international and local actors. So to speak, humanitarians advance the idea of the “necessity” of their intervention in the targeted areas. Their intervention in the field is legitimized by the fact that it is supposedly neutral and impartial, and, therefore, incomparably fair.
As evidence of such a socially risky attitude among humanitarian practitioners, an international practitioner working for an international NGO in Qubayyat expressed her conviction that “we have to be there, since the local people, particularly if affiliated to other confessional groups, won’t do anything for the others. There would simply be a huge void of help in the places where we’re currently intervening.” This statement does not take into account the fact that if that position was not occupied by an allegedly impartial foreigner, it probably could have been taken up by a local who may want to challenge her/his system of values and beliefs to take part in this social endeavor. As evidence of this, Mariam, a Lebanese social worker, complained how little her job pays her:
I studied social work as I thought I would find work easily here. I was quite disappointed to find out that all well-paid positions are already held by temporary staff, international or trained overseas. I think it’s nonsense: what if I have no funds to study overseas? We’re doomed to unskilled labor, and to leave Lebanon in the hands of foreigners.
International NGOs are likewise aware of their material supremacy in terms of resources and funding, even if they are increasingly cooperative with local actors. To work with local partners seems to be, in fact, the latest trend to discard the image of humanitarianism as a disguised form of colonialism. Nonetheless, local partners do not become stronger out of such collaborations, let alone the Lebanese state, which instead faces more competition and has no interest to fight.
To this end, some local NGOs working in the southern suburbs of Beirut said they cooperated with bigger international organizations during the 2006 July War. The only choice they had was to do the same now:
We basically served the international NGOs as a guarantee that they are relying on internal forces, offering a local perspective and a fine-grained knowledge of the territory. In some cases, they also bank on us to implement projects on the ground, since locals, in time of conflict, are said to be at lesser risk in terms of safety,” according to a Lebanese practitioner working for a small refugee center.
International volunteers working in the same entities often complained about the opportunistic partnerships between international and local NGOs, especially within short-term projects. “Even if a local NGO becomes temporarily able to attract more funds by collaborating with a bigger one for a given humanitarian cause, when there’s a new emergency crisis, their support stops. Lots of projects died out because of this,” said another practitioner working in Tripoli.
About the Social Structure of the Addressed Villages
Official permits and informal access to resources are sometimes guaranteed by makhatir (literally elected individuals, responsible for local administrative affairs) and local authorities. This strengthens the old tribal-like system of Akkar and the wasta system–a network of connections to help access services–although several NGOs claim to be aiming at “modernizing” the area administratively.
A cleavage between the central state and pseudo-feudal decentralization of administrative power and resource management is also identifiable among the side effects of how humanitarian assistance is implemented at the local level. Administrative decentralization is certainly not leading to major coordination or better resource management in Lebanon. In order to operate, humanitarian agencies working in the North have to comply with the regulations imposed by local leaders and intermediaries, who are usually in charge of managing all local affairs.
This off-the-cuff cultural respect for the local structure of Akkar’s villages, in some interviewees’ perception, ends up legitimizing dusty patterns of pseudo-tribalism and nepotism. However, criticism of the apparent depoliticization of humanitarian actors towards conflicts is answered by implicitly blaming internal actors for not having been able to dismantle the pseudo-tribal social structures of several Lebanese rural towns. These structures are still impinging on the humanitarian dynamics proposed by the internationals, which, from the perspective of the latter, would surely run smoothly after a renewal in the local community. On this issue, Rania, who works for an international NGO based in Halba, said, “At the end of the day, what can we be criticized for as humanitarian workers? We haven’t made Lebanese history and we can just patch up the fragments of a part of society that has not modernized itself yet.”
Such transnational governance, implemented by the humanitarian apparatus in conflict areas previously neglected by the state, allegedly conveys neutrality and institutional modernization in the form of assets. It behaves as an ethical actor, able to reform the agenda of a misbehaving central state and, paradoxically, becoming the rival of the state as time passes. In this sense, non-state actors with major interventions in voids of public action, purport to be the “modernized alternative” to collapsing and corrupted states.
In light of this, non-state actors are not seen as supporters of reformist internal tendencies. Rather, they are in some cases winking at old local leaders that all have interests in monitoring the aid distribution process,. Thereby, small Lebanese villages are thrown into a sort of bipolar schizophrenia. On the one hand, they think they can get the desired administrative modernization in marginalized contexts not addressed by the Lebanese state by offering their territory to the international humanitarian apparatus. On the other, external actors have sometimes relied on the corrupted traditional structures to guarantee their territorial access–the same structures, which, in some cases, local people would like to liberate themselves from.
Frederik, who works for UNICEF, said, “I was provided with the list of people that were entitled to get financial support for kids’ schooling material by the local authority. After the distribution, several people came to me complaining that they hadn’t even heard about this possibility of help.”
Humanitarian actors explain such a tendency by highlighting that they cannot access particular areas except through local mediators, who the local community does not always appreciate. In this sense, international actors feed into internal cleavages while advocating for their elimination.
The Social Responsiveness to the NGOs’ Modalities of Implementation
- Hostility between Lebanese and Syrians was initially fueled by aid agencies through the already mentioned ethnicisization of needs. The shared de facto nationhood between the Akkar region and the Syrians of the neighboring area was overlooked by aid agencies since the beginning of their intervention. Such agencies are often unaware of local capacities for peace. This cleavage that humanitarianism is reproducing is therefore stigmatized in a “national”–increasingly portrayed as “ethnic”–opposition between Syrians and Lebanese.
- Politicization of aid. The accountability of all NGOs (also supposedly apolitical and secular) is gained or maintained through provision of services to their potential or regular constituencies. A consequent decrease in universal social protection is identifiable, as aid paradoxically joins the other defining categories in reinforcing community identity and social divisions. In this regard, non-beneficiaries of aid in Akkar often complained about wasta and described the whole mismanagement of resources with no distinction of cases as “corruption.” Politics, hence, emerges from such a disenchanted common imaginary as a mere negative factor to be avoided.
As the July War seemed to be the opportunity for the March 8 Coalition, similarly, the March 14 Coalition is believed to be the political entity mostly involved in the aid industry to Syrians because of its political agenda.
In this way, aid becomes merely a strategy to show the impartial humanness of political parties or confessional groups, which try further to hide their well-known political agendas. Political parties therefore use humanitarianism to neutralize their ideological stance in the other`s eyes.
At the outset of the Syrian influx into Lebanon, the political use of the Syrian cause to promote a certain "humanitarian image" and credibility, gave rise to big concentrations in particular areas of the country like the North, where refugees mostly coming from the areas bombed by the regime say they feel more comfortable with the surrounding environment. Nevertheless, according to updated interviews, things seem to have slowly changed with respect to 2012. The Beka’a Valley, ًwhere Hizbollah occupies a large presence, is now hosting the largest number of refugees in Lebanon. Needs pushed people to populate the southern region of Lebanon also, although the number is still incomparable to that of refugees in the North. This phenomenon of refugee movements around areas that do not reflect their confessional and, above all, political identity, may generate new demographic configurations in Lebanon in the coming years.
- Refugees are frustrated about what they consider to be international inaction. Emergency relief is aimed at alleviating people’s suffering, while no de facto political or military intervention in Syria has been pursued. Although this observation does not aim at encouraging particular ideological perspectives, it is noteworthy that Akkar’s inhabitants view the international community as a hypocritical capitalistic entity boasting absolute neutrality.
In the fishermen’s reality of al-‘Abdeh and the rural villages of al-Bahsa and Bellanet al-Hisa, the interviewed refugees said they were fooled and disturbed by such apparent depoliticization of aid, often recalling the disengagement of the international community since the outset of the Syrian protests.
The alleged ethical purity of “humanitarian governance” is therefore a source of harsh commentary and distress. Even if humanitarians want to stay out of politics, they have to be aware that their actions do have political effects on people’s lives.
On this issue, the words of Ahmed, living in Bellanet al-Hisa, are meaningful: “You’re all convinced that you’ll have to just reconcile Syrians among themselves. We’ll need to reconcile ourselves with the international community, instead, which betrayed us. We don’t want food and shelters to survive in Lebanon, we want you to help us to stop all this.”
These thoughts undermine the cornerstones of humanitarian neutrality, the alleviation of suffering, and their implementation as a successful strategy.
Refugees said they felt they were being used to make the humanitarian market viable, while humanitarians care about reaffirming their neutrality in doing their job. The frustration of some refugees in feeling passivized—despite some programs aiming at integration and self-empowerment—and their anger towards a detached international community—often described in terms of betrayal— are key emotional factors that stem from such a brand-new proliferation of humanitarian programs in North Lebanon.
- Refugees’ perception of getting forcibly depoliticized by NGOs is in stark opposition to the politicization of aid. Regardless of how empirically grounded all these expressed feelings actually are, refugees seem to highlight their loss of mobilization and self-reconstruction perspectives. The everydayness of Syrians living in Akkar implies the constant frustration of being considered homogeneous refugee entities, ready to accept any kind of basic help. Thus, they developed a sense of insecurity and disaffection towards local, international, secular, and faith-based providers without distinction.
As evidence of this, Haytham, a forty-seven-year-old engineer from the Hama region, said he usually sells the food vouchers he receives from UNHCR, to make donations in medical and financial support for the Free Syrian Army. Wael, thirty-eight-years-old from Bab ‘Amr, pointed out the need for creating external spaces for them, like discussion areas:
"With three people, we started gathering once a week to exchange the news about our villages of origin and to discuss the political perspectives in our country. Nearly all organizations want to give us food and mattresses. It’s easier. That’s also true that many people wouldn’t survive without that, but they cannot reduce their action to that. We need more help for rent and medicines, for a package of bread I would pay just two thousand Lebanese Lira. It’s not the priority for most of us. They just pretend to listen to our requests. They see that we take whatever they give us and they think they are addressing the biggest needs. Of course we take if they give! Maybe should we start refusing to make our real needs emerge? We do need a safe space to meet each other, not just a shelter."
The municipality of Akkar, in fact, is said to have denied extra house-space requested by refugees. Many Lebanese community members that are responsible for local stability supported of this decision, fearing the political presence of Syrian who might not simply be displaced people who need to survive. This is in contrast to the way humanitarians tend to approach the Syrian refugees.
Diana, working in an international NGO in Qobaiyat, pointed out that donors refuse to fund projects that address people directly connected to armed groups in Syria most of the time: “This is hypocritical, as everything right now is connected to weapons. Some people who are based in these areas risk starvation because of this choice, which is still political. You cannot really distinguish the kind of beneficiaries you’ve got in front of you. So, sometimes, they don’t just finance the whole project.”
Foreign powers still hold political sway in the domestic scenario, while apparently preserving the neutrality of humanitarian aid. Although such politicization is hardly ever reflected by the acts of humanitarian workers, this disguising mechanism wants to give birth to an apolitical image of the foreign humanitarian market, while the latter is not marginal at all to local political realities.
Findings to Be Taken Into Account
Alleviation of Suffering and Attempts of Depoliticization
The old humanitarian principle of alleviation of suffering is therefore questioned in a political environment, which is denied for reasons of security and stability. The NGOs’ ethical attempt to hold up the image of apolitical actors, representing the whole international community to the refugee community, is at odds with the refugees’ desire to stop the war in Syria and to claim their right to being political subjects in the host country. Explicit requests for political space for debate are obviously advanced by a segment of the refugee community in Akkar, who are mostly male and come from opposition areas in Syria.
Chronic Problems Still Engendering Dissatisfaction
Chronic poverty and lack of a de facto citizenship, able to meet the basic needs of local people and protect them on a daily basis, are still partially ignored by donations-driven NGOs, adding to the government’s abandonment. An increased sense of undergoing injustice among the unaddressed population and a renewed sense of victimhood are feeding community oppositions and, therefore, increasing the possibility of outbursts of violence in the area.
As a result, increased disaffection towards governmental, non-governmental, local, international, faith-based, and secular structures of assistance and emergency relief can clearly be identified. People tend to equalize these categories of action with respect to the past. An environment of existing–and sometimes just perceived–insecurity and mutual mistrust between the various sides eventually stemmed from the dissatisfaction.
Recommendations on the Basis of the Fieldwork Findings
- Revise the basic principles of the standardized humanitarian approach, such as the alleviation of suffering and the efficiency of political neutrality. NGOs need to deal with the fact that their political agendas are inevitably known to beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries. This is hard to recognize and implement, as it often jeopardizes the very existence of some NGOs in Lebanon that need to abide by the political interests of their donors.
- Ensure that NGO actions do not further isolate some segments of the residents and the aid beneficiaries, and try to give more room for human understanding and debate–going beyond the simple provision of emergency relief and basic assistance. Staff workers must become individuals to speak to, not merely providers (and here emerges the importance of recruiting people who know the language and are willing to work in the same place for the long run).
- NGOs should demonstrate their policies of inclusiveness on a practical level by ascertaining the prioritization of needs and by working for the reinforcement of the state and encouraging its assertion of power, rather than competing with it or taking its weakness for granted in an opportunistic manner.
To the Lebanese Municipalities
- Protect security in the discussed areas while avoiding the securitization of groups whose selection is carried out according to their ethnic and confessional “belonging” (i.e. establishing curfews for Syrian citizens in some municipalities, as it has already happened).
- Engage with long-term development plans to a greater extent. Indeed, emergency knowingly pays more than development–a matter of fact used opportunistically by state actors to refrain from asserting their factual presence.
In a nutshell, while humanitarian workers who comply with an emergency logic address affected subjects and areas, the very nature of social injustice and old-date chronic poverty are seldom addressed by the state and by non-state structures, which usually replace state inefficiency.
Therefore, donors and practitioners should care less about how humanitarianism can contribute to progress and rather focus on how to make progress in humanitarianism itself by questioning the logic underlying it.
[Click here to read Part One 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]
 Interview conducted by the author on 17 October 2012, Wata al-Mossaitbeh, Beirut.
 Conversation with Mariam on 10 September 2013, ash-Shiyyah, Beirut.
 Three local NGOs have made the same declaration in the interviews conducted by the author in January 2013 in Halba.
 Interview conducted on 10 September 2013, Beirut.
 Interview conducted on 8 September 2013.
 Interview conducted on 26 September 2013.
 Interview conducted in Qubayyat on 7 February 2013.
 Wasta, in the Arab world, literally meaning “mediation,” generally refers to the network of connections that one can benefit from in order to cover a particular professional position or simply get resources and services.
 Consult UNHCR website here: https://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/country.php?id=122.
 This “revolutionary” demographic tendency is often boasted from Lebanese institutions and analysts as empirical sign of outstanding hospitality of refugees not necessarily belonging to the same confessional sect. This interpretation seems to argue that, at the end of the day, a much worse scenario would have been likely in Lebanon nowadays in terms of mutual frictions The author’s interpretation of this phenomenon, instead, suggests that necessary hospitality is opportunistically mistaken for voluntary and unconditioned hospitality.
 Farah, from Homs, interviewed in al-Bahsa on 2 December 2012: “The West and a part of Syrian society have betrayed, that’s the only reason why we are still dying everywhere!”.
 For example, the same NGO can look for state approval to intervene in particular areas of Syria, while, outside the country, mostly cooperating with Syrian opposition’s actors.