Estella Carpi on Lebanon's defining politics of crisis-making and refugee management

Estella Carpi on Lebanon's crucial politics of crisis-making
6 min read
06 December, 2023

Lebanon is home to millions of refugees and has a long history of providing sanctuary to those fleeing violence.

Palestinians, Iraqis and Syrians are among those who have sought refuge in the Mediterranean country, but the country has also experienced its own waves of internal displacement, wars, poverty and crises.

There is a long history of local charity and relief efforts which inform the practices, memory and attitude of both local authorities and civil society organisations to aid provision and long-term developmentalism.

"We see what I call an 'ethnicization' of aid and a 'neo-ethnicization' of care - which had the effect of creating tensions between different communities and groups in Lebanon."

Estella Carpi's new book examines how international humanitarian efforts are shaped by local discourses and how these discourses evolve.

The New Arab sat down with Dr Estella Carpi from University College London to discuss her new release The Politics of Crisis Making: Forced Displacement and Cultures of Assistance in Lebanon.

The New Arab: Based on your fieldwork, what are some major things you learned about local practices in Lebanon by international humanitarian organisations and how they impacted the country?

Estella Carpi: One of the key historical issues with international humanitarian organisations operating in Lebanon is that they address people’s needs based on their nationality.

We see what I call an 'ethnicization' of aid and a 'neo-ethnicization' of care - which had the effect of creating tensions between different communities and groups in Lebanon.

Up until 2016, you had to belong to a certain group to be helped by a certain programme, which meant that a lot of people who needed aid or assistance could not access it.

There was a shift in 2016 and now these programs will help Iraqis, Palestinians and Syrians, however, the driver for this change does have a major issue with it as humanitarian actors view these different groups as being in conflict with each other and the diversification of these programmes was about easing these tensions.

It reinforces the Western and neo-colonial view that people from the Middle East are inherently unable to live in diverse societies and this is a false presumption. My critique here is moral, not practical as the change in policy was beneficial to locals.

A good step taken by international humanitarian groups is the introduction of ATM cards for those needing assistance. A few years ago, these groups would make decisions on what people ate for dinner and things like that. The introduction of these cards allowed people to withdraw money, make decisions themselves and return a degree of subjectivity to them.

TNA: You highlight a lot of flaws with the international organisations, could you tell us a little bit more about what you think these are?

EC: A key problem with the international humanitarian sector is there is a multi-geographic schizophrenia to the way they operate. So they will be helping out in one place for some time and then when something else happens elsewhere they will drop or cut back on programmes in that place and head for the new place in need.

One issue that appears is that while Western staff in these organisations usually keep their jobs and can be parachuted elsewhere - local staff who are the backbone of aid and development often find themselves without jobs.

Many are forced to leave the humanitarian sector altogether and embedded within them is knowledge and experience of the local terrain, these institutions lose very valuable people and when new crises emerge, aid organisations are on the back foot again.

"A key problem with the international humanitarian sector is there is a multi-geographic schizophrenia to the way they operate"

Another interesting tension in the Lebanese context is its political factionalism. While you have a Lebanese state, in reality, there are parts of the country governed by or where a political group holds the reins of power.

This imposes a kind of temporality on the situation, as who is in charge changes frequently, but these groups hold more power than the state in certain enclaves. Humanitarian aid and development is caught up in it.

These factions can determine the direction these programmes go in and the issue is many of these so-called enclaves are quite diverse so a lot of people who live there may not agree with the direction, or be suspicious of the faction and so may not come forward to receive the aid they need.

TNA: Memory is a key theme in your book. You observe that each new crisis produces a new dynamic and in the case of Lebanon, the last crisis impacts the way people react and respond to the new one. International humanitarian organisations are often unaware of these memories, could you tell us more about them?

ES: The institutional amnesia of international humanitarian groups does not contribute helpfully in any way, which is a key intervention I make in the book.

You can’t try to address long-term concerns and even short-term relief is impacted. Many of those who come in to deal with emergencies often don’t know or are unaware of what their organisation was doing locally before that particular crisis, let alone other local efforts.

Something as simple as this desperately needs changing and what is needed is not only to build an archive of what a particular organisation has been doing locally as well as what other groups have been doing, but also to change the way recruitment happens and who gets employed.

For the record
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Those who make the key decisions and are highly ranked within an aid organisation are often the globetrotters, who will go from place to place, rather than local staff who know the local terrain intimately.

I show that for different populations within the same geographic area, the idea of crisis looks different from other populations in the same geographical area. Building local relationships allows for better understanding and better localisation of aid giving, which is more effective, but the current system as it is built makes this hard to do. 

Usman Butt is a multimedia television researcher, filmmaker and writer based in London. Usman read International Relations and Arabic Language at the University of Westminster and completed a Master of Arts in Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter.

Follow him on Twitter: @TheUsmanButt