Lebanon, refugees, and the dirty politics of crisis-making

Lebanon, refugees, and the dirty politics of crisis-making
5 min read
18 October, 2023
Book Club: Estella Carpi's latest book looks at how humanitarian aid in Lebanon is entangled with diverse forms of development, and how the murky and often opportunistic politics of defining crises affect the displaced.
The Politics of Crisis-Making shows that it is not crisis per se, but rather the crisis as official discourse and management that are able to reshuffle societies, while engendering unequal economies [Indiana University Press]

Lebanon is home to millions of refugees and displaced peoples, the state’s dysfunctional nature and the political and sectarian divides complicate dealing with the issue of displaced people.

Yet years of internal strife and wars have meant the Mediterranean country has one of the best-developed aid and NGO sectors, as well as, a long cultural memory on dealing with refugees.

Trying to unpack what this looks like and means, Estella Carpi argues, “While politics in Lebanon has proven all its brutality, humanitarian action is also likely to inscribe itself on the pre-existing grounds of privileges, self-indulgence, and corruption of Lebanese and global politics.”

"While there is a tendency to focus on the universality of displacement, Carpi shows how the localities of displacement impact the experience of both hosts and refugees"

In other words, the humanitarian actions are not apart from - rather existing within - the political landscape of the country.

Carpi aims to move the discussion away from the notion the crisis follows the war and authorities are merely responding to it, “social, political, and moral distances within society are not determined by the occurrence of war and subsequent forced displacement, but rather produced by the way in which crisis is declared, talked about, and practically managed.” Carpi offers this intervention in their new book The Politics of Crisis Making: Forced Displacement and Cultures of Assistance in Lebanon.

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The book covers more than a decade of field research in Lebanon and looks at everything from the internal displacement of Lebanese during the 2006 war with Israel and the subsequent years of refugees seeking shelter in Lebanon from Syria. Different parts of Lebanon from Beirut suburbs to communities in other parts of Lebanon.

While there is a tendency to focus on the universality of displacement, Carpi shows how the localities of displacement impact the experience of both hosts and refugees.

The Politics of Crisis Making also divides up the different waves of displacement and responses to it into periods, as the last wave plays a role in informing responses to the next wave.

However, this is not easily done as locals who experienced a previous crisis are sometimes unwilling to talk about it and are instead more interested in discussing the present one.

When Carpi interviewed people in Dahiye - a Shia-majority suburb in Beirut - about local humanitarian responses to the 2006 war, some were unwilling to discuss it. Despite this Carpi still managed to engage with a wide range of people and this leads to a nuanced perspective on NGOs and relief efforts in Lebanon.

Of particular interest to me was Carpi’s chapter on politicising aid and moralising politics, the Lebanese state relies heavily on NGOs to manage domestic affairs and each political faction runs its own aid organization.

Thus humanitarian aid giving in Lebanon is political no matter what. Carpi offers two arguments here, firstly, “humanitarian policies and practices are instrumentalized and reattuned in local, regional, and global politics.” And secondly, “the moralization, humanization, and neutralization that both humanitarian and political actors purport to put in practice through public campaigns are used to uphold international accountability, receive international funding, and subsist as aid interlocutors and mediators.”

All of this means aid in Lebanon has multiple layers of politics to it and sometimes the global and local don’t always align. On top of this, there is what Carpi calls ‘pan-politicization’ where aid is viewed through the lens of certain political aims. For example, during the 2006 war aid giving was framed as either pro or anti-Israel by Hezbollah and where you fell according to this binary impacted the way aid was received.

After 2011, NGOs from the Gulf working with Syrian refugees in Akkar, actively advocated for the removal of Bashar Al-Assad. The environment shapes the way NGOs operate and so while they are meant to be neutral- there are different shades to their neutrality.

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The Politics of Crisis Making offers a detailed and nuanced look at the state of humanitarian, NGO and aid services available in Lebanon.

Whether local, regional, international or a hybrid of all three, the political landscape of Lebanon, the Middle East and the world shapes and impacts the provisions of humanitarian relief.

The way crises are thought about and discussed at different levels plays a critical role not only in the way aid is distributed but also in the experience of it.

Aid providers are creating facts almost as much as they are responding to them on the ground. Lebanon is a good case study for this due to its long history of both needing and giving aid, as well as the highly fractured nature of the country’s politics.

However this study will serve as a springboard for considering other countries' responses to humanitarian crises and get us to think about the layers of politics behind it. The Politics of Crisis Making is a much-needed, detailed, nuanced and critical insight into the politics of aid in Lebanon.

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