FRI 29 - 5 - 2020
Date: Apr 24, 2019
Source: The Daily Star
Examining the downside of Lebanese resilience
Carmen Geha
Since the onset of the war in Syria, international and regional actors have kept a close eye on Lebanon expecting to see some sort of spillover effect. Today, nine years into the war in Syria, Lebanon did experience a spillover effect in terms of political paralysis and periods of deadlock, not unlike such episodes in the past. But Lebanon is host to the highest number of refugees per capita in the world. Seeing as Lebanon seems to have survived amidst the Syrian refugee crisis, the international community now dubs us a resilient nation. There is hardly a report, conference, program or initiative that does not mention resilience as the core component and desired end result of any funding coming to Lebanon. But should resilience be hailed so often and so widely?

At the opening of the AUB-USJ NGO Forum on Monday April 15, U.N. Resident Coordinator Philippe Lazzarini said something quite striking, coming from the U.N. itself. He said that despite rising populist rhetoric, Lebanon has upheld humanitarian principles and is an inspiration of hospitality to the international community. He also said that while resilience is good, Lebanese show too much resilience and forget to expect the state to play its role in crisis and in development generally. I could not agree more.

Resilience has become a buzzword wrapped around myriad programs to support Lebanon’s social and economic well-being during the Syrian refugee crisis. But it might be time to change the paradigm as the war enters its ninth year for two main reasons.

The celebration of Lebanon’s resilience triggers the question of what makes resilience possible. Most literature on resilience and the refugee crisis, as well as most donor-funded programs, places the blame for non-resilience on people themselves. Host communities are blamed for their discriminatory behavior or for turning to violence. Host communities are also celebrated for managing the burden of refugees and being hospitable. But poverty and socio-economic indicators are hardly addressed as structural challenges. Just as regular people are celebrated for their resilience, programs and initiatives target people and blame people, refugees or others, for threatening stability and resilience. A case in point is the project by the Social Affairs Ministry which focuses on introducing mechanisms of social stability to allow refugees and host communities to learn to live together and come up with innovative common projects. They are to blame if these projects fail and they are responsible for their success. There is no mention of governmental strategy or role in the crisis. Nowhere in literature or in donor programs are politicians or state institutions responsible for resilience.

In hailing Lebanon’s resilience, the international community is essentially celebrating that Lebanese host communities and Syrian refugees have not killed each other. Both sides have accepted to participate in donor-funded programs which lay that participation in either service delivery or capacity building programs conditional upon the participation of both Lebanese and Syrians. It does not make Lebanon more resilient but more dependent on scraps of funding and support that allows people to maintain a minimum standard of living.

Much like Lazzarini pointed out, the result of resilience is that the state and political actors are let off the hook. Politicians are no longer expected to carry out governmental reforms, such as those stipulated by CEDRE. Our government has still not enacted a budget for 2019, as an example. We did not see any serious attempts at pressuring the Lebanese government to adopt structural reforms against poverty. When the discourse against voluntary return began to emerge, no foreign government denounced it. Placing blame and responsibility on communities themselves is risky business. If communities fail, violence and chaos will rule. If they succeed too much in being resilient, state institutions will never be expected to play a role in the crisis. Celebrating resilience may have been needed in the early stages of the refugee crisis, but now it has replaced long-term planning with short-term support through donors and NGOs. Funds trickling in for small projects make for nice photo ops but do not help build the socio-economic infrastructure needed to address the challenges of the next phase.

Lebanon’s economic system is crippled not because of the presence of refugees but because of rampant corruption and decades of misuse of public resources. The latest campaign by warlords-turned-politicians to combat corruption will be another round of useless blame with no real accountability for parties perpetuating clientelism as a way of governing. Continuing to say that Lebanon is resilient is not only short-sighted but it also not true. We have one of the highest cancer rates in the world and around 40 percent of families live in severe poverty. The last few years there has been increased human trafficking, child marriages and domestic violence. Subsequent Lebanese governments have failed to develop a national waste management system and garbage continues to pile up. Our seashores are irredeemably polluted and our children inhale fumes from illegal burning of waste across the country. If this is the resilience we are so hailed for, perhaps we should want to stop being resilient.

Managing the process of a safe and voluntary return of Syrian refugees may be the single most difficult issue that Lebanon will have to deal with. The political complexities surrounding the issue, including relations with the Syrian regime and the competing interests of various parties in this matter, make it a most delicate situation. A rising discourse blaming refugees for all the grievances of Lebanese people is triggering tensions across vulnerable communities. Every day through the media politicians are fueling anti-refugee sentiments. We cannot survive on resilience alone, Lebanon must undergo structural reforms otherwise both refugees and host communities will suffer. Framing the crisis as needing resilience will hurt both refugees and Lebanese in their struggle for social justice. The narrative must prioritize reform in education, health, telecommunications and urban planning. The state must be brought back into the equation. And in this fight we as Lebanese people have failed despite rounds of protests and decades of advocating. The international community has the duty to echo calls for reform and the imperative to stop the resilience fiasco.

Carmen Geha is an assistant professor of public administration at the American University of Beirut.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 23, 2019, on page 6.

The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the Arab Network for the Study of Democracy
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