The Civil Society Knowledge Center (CSKC) of Lebanon Support featured last month a paper by Marwa Boustani discussing the potential role of Lebanese municipalities and unions of municipalities in addressing needs generated by the Syrian refugee crisis. The author advocates the strengthening of their capacities through establishing Regional Technical Offices (RTOs)—an institution previously established by UN-Habitat in 2006 in the aftermath of the Israeli war on Lebanon.
The role of municipal unions and municipalities in Lebanon in local development and planning is an ongoing policy debate in Lebanon, which was previously discussed on Jadaliyya in this article by Mona Harb and Sami Atallah, and this report linking to a study authored by Rabih Shibli for the Issam Faris Institute at the American University of Beirut.
Below is an excerpt from Boustani’s paper:
To build on the strengths of Union of Municipalities (UoMs) and municipalities and enhance their capacities, UN-Habitat established and funded Regional Technical Offices (RTOs) at the level of the Unions. Through these RTOs, UN-Habitat implemented its emergency response to address the July-2006 Israeli war on Lebanon, as well as the Syrian crisis, empowering UoMs to coordinate the response.
The RTO model is based on the “Municipal Act,” specifically Article 122 of Decree-Law no. 118/1977, which specifies that the UoM`s Engineering Body shall be in charge of certain tasks on behalf of the member municipalities. This includes assisting in approving applications for construction permits, preparing required technical studies and consultations, setting specifications for supplies, works, and services, and developing plans. As mentioned above, mainly fiscal challenges resulted in under capacitated and under staffed technical units within UoMs.
Establishing RTOs within municipality unions guarantees their involvement in emergency response and lays the foundation for RTO support in the recovery and planning phases. RTOs promote an integrated approach by collaborating with local, national and international actors in shelter, infrastructure, and community support projects. Thus, they assist municipalities in conducting rapid technical assessments, collecting data, technical support, implementation of development projects and eventual contribution to planning at a local and/or regional level. The RTO team is made up of qualified local engineers, field workers, urban planners, social workers, architects, administrative assistants, and so on.
In response to the July-2006 war, UN-Habitat established three RTOs in the UoMs of Tyr, Bint Jbeil, and Jabal Amel. The RTOs were supported by UN-Habitat from 2007 till 2009. They were later adopted by the UoMs and two—Bint Jbeil and Jabal Amel—are still functional today. In 2013, UN-Habitat replicated the model and initiated two RTOs in the UoMs of Sahel al-Zahrani and Iqlim al-Kharroub to respond to the impact of the Syrian refugee crisis in those areas. Both RTOs are implementing rehabilitation works to support Syrian refugees, in addition to community support projects and coordinating with municipalities, international and national NGOs, and UN agencies for a better response.
Through the UN-Habitat program responding to the Syrian refugee crisis, the Sahel Zahrani RTO has been supporting the UoM in the area since its establishment in October 2013. The office is involved in data collection, mapping, conducting studies, and monitoring. It also responds to the needs the municipalities and provides input regarding proposed projects, as well as being the coordinator of implementation of UN-Habitat projects related to shelter and infrastructure. The RTO currently consists of a head of RTO, Engineer, Engineering assistant, surveyor, and monitor.
According to the mayor, the office has been busy focusing on the rehabilitation of houses for Syrian refugees and implementation of UN-Habitat’s project. Thus, it has not yet used its full capacity in planning and supporting municipal projects. The office has proved to be efficient, namely due to the great support of the mayor, and because the RTO team members are from the community. As one stated: “I am from the area and know it by heart.”
Although the RTO is now playing an important role in emergency response through the rehabilitation of houses and infrastructure, the UoM is laying the foundation for its long term role and functions as a strategic unit for planning, through proposing a strategic vision for the area, in partnership with local universities and UN-Habitat. Furthermore, the RTO contributed to strengthening the role of the union in coordinating international and national organizational response to the Syrian refugee crisis. Bi-weekly coordination meetings ensure that interventions are in line with the UoM vision and that projects do not overlap. The mayor maintained that the RTO will still function as an intrinsic unit within the UoM after the UN-Habitat project ends.
Most international donors considered unions and municipalities to be among the best local partners in their intervention to support the crisis, which shows the potential of these local authorities to address semi-urban and urban issues and plan for the future, despite the lack of a national policy
The RTO model presented in this paper provides an example of the importance of working in a strategic manner to enhance capacities at the municipal level to respond to emergencies, in addition to planning and community development. This model could be more efficient with more detailed follow-up and training of UoMs in terms of planning. Thus, support should be provided to UoMs as well as enhancing their capacities to respond to emergencies and eventually plan for the future, especially in a context where the government remains arguably passive in responding to a crisis, which impacted Lebanon on every level.