Lebanon has the highest concentration of refugees in the world. It hosts over 400 000 Palestinian refugees, tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees and since 2011, over 1.2 million Syrians. For most of them refugeehood in Lebanon is an on-going nightmare. The Lebanese government, struggling with its own problems, has no intention to make these refugees feel welcome, leaving them dependent on non-governmental aid to survive.
The refugee crisis in Lebanon is a consequence of larger imbalances on the economic, social and political level. The Middle East is a volatile region – as is so often repeated in the media – but its instability only reflects the fundamental structure of our global economic system. The intensifying competition for resources, an ever-growing global arms industry and the tragic degradation of our ecosystem are among the causes of increasingly frequent crises and conflicts, which in turn displace more and more people every year.
The more such crises occur, the more people are pushed to seek alternative models for society. Grassroots initiatives are springing up around the globe to reject social and economic inequality and ecological destruction, and propose new forms of interaction and social development. Self-sufficient villages, ‘zero-waste’ communities and alternative forms of exchange are multiplying. For organisations working in refugee camps particularly, such grassroots initiatives could inspire much-needed reform in the humanitarian aid industry.
Currently, material aid is brought into refugee camps to be quickly consumed, creating dependency on an external source. Refugees are also vulnerable to attacks, curfews, siege-like conditions and extreme climates. This helplessness in the face of need and danger creates a sense of uncertainty and turns a person into a mere receiver, owing their dinner and their safety to the goodwill of an external actor over which they have no influence. What is needed is an increasing use of materials from the ground coupled with a zero-waste strategy. Housing can be built with simple means from the area: for instance with sand (stacked in sandbags) creating a cheap, robust and well insulated home. Permaculture techniques and ‘vertical farming’ can produce food with limited means and space: such as growing vegetables on a wall or roof, using rain or waste water, while also insulating the home. Rainwater can be collected, reducing the amounts that flood the camp’s streets. Greywater (the water
from showers, cleaning food, and laundry – which is generally odourless and free of germs) can be re-used to wash floors, flush toilets or make clay and bricks. Of course, all trash can be recycled as household products, furniture, building materials or even art. Cooking oil can have a second life as fuel, and food waste as fertilizer. Energy can be produced from the sun, wind, water or even human waste and manure: biogas latrines, for example, extract methane from accumulated human/animal waste and use it to produce electricity.
Real progress is being made to adapt sustainable methods to the restraints of refugee camps – namely the lack of tools, funds and space. Solar cookers, for example, are a simple device that uses the sun’s heat to cook food, and have become very popular in refugee camps in Chad, Gaza and India. Such developments are small steps on the path to an inclusive, eco-friendly and less wasteful aid industry. But they are merely practical solutions to the fundamental flaws of the global humanitarian system. Progress must also take place on the structural level.
Many times NGO personnel are made to believe that the length of their CV gives them the right to take decisions without consulting the very people whom those decisions will affect. Here’s a simple example that occurred just recently in Shatila Camp, Lebanon. An organisation offers to renovate a refugee family’s kitchen and bathroom that are in insalubrious conditions. The head of family would like the living room to be renovated instead, as it is where she welcomes guests and upkeeps the family’s social status. For the NGO, this is not a priority (try explaining to donors that their money went to painting someone’s living room and buying them a new sofa?). Of course, funds are too limited to renovate the whole house, and there is also no time to argue as the NGO assessors have been up since 6am and must assess seventeen more homes before sunset. They make a take-it-or-leave-it proposal to the family head: the bathroom and kitchen, or nothing. The head of household feels insulted and refuses the offer.
Such scenarios happen daily in the aid industry. It does not result from evil intentions: the assessors in this example want the best for the family, but do not understand that imposing their choice is more harmful than no intervention at all. For all the good it does, the aid industry is far from democratic and rarely allows beneficiaries to be anything more than low-rank staff. Currently, decision-making in most international NGOs is restricted to people from outside the camp (albeit with professional experience and qualifications) who have neither experienced the need that is being addressed, nor the solution that is offered. Worse, these decision-makers are often strongly influenced by donor conditions, so money becomes the ultimate broker.
Humanitarian actors need to realise the harm of dependency-creating and agency-denying aid. For successful and sustainable relief work, refugee choices and rights must be respected, decision-making should be open and transparent, and refugees should enjoy common ownership of the aid projects in as many ways as possible. The value of aid is multiplied when beneficiaries feel they have participated in the project from the start and have contributed to its implementation. This also ensures the sustainability of the project: aid projects often collapse after the departure of NGO personnel due to a lack of ownership of the project by the recipients. Why are wells, vegetable patches, solar panels, social centres or playgrounds built by NGOs, so often abandoned and left in disrepair once the NGO departs? Because camp dwellers do not feel that they own such spaces.
Principles such as equal and direct participation, cooperation, mutual aid, common ownership and sustainability are essential to any kind of long-term reform of humanitarian aid. How can NGOs claiming to help those affected by the unfairness of our global system, be themselves structured along unfair principles? Top-down decision-making, strict division of roles and tasks, competition over resources and undemocratic policies are part of the problem, not the solution. Instead, refugees should be encouraged to participate in the aid process as designers, assessors and managers. Living in the camp, they know best what residents need, what kinds of conflicts arise, and how appropriate the aid initiatives are for their community.
Humanitarian aid should never merely focus on immediate relief – the long-term consequences of their interventions must be taken into account. By definition relief work responds to political decisions or lack of them and offers an alternative vision for society. This should be reflected not just in the principles behind an aid project, but in the way it is implemented as well. The case of aid to refugees is particularly relevant due to the growing numbers of displaced people and the geographical isolation of refugee camps, providing the opportunity for the refugee community to develop its own social and organisational structure within the camp. Intervention by humanitarian actors must have the aim of increasing the camp’s self-sufficiency and empowering the residents’ power to manage their own space and community. This is when humanitarian assistance and sustainable development will come together to redefine the experience of refugeehood.
Latest posts by Laurene Veale (see all)
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