Beirut’s nightlife is known for its resilience and immunity from the political developments in the country. No matter the ravaging war next door and the deterioration of the ‘security situation’ repeatedly announced by politicians and press, the city’s numerous bars and nightclubs remain stubbornly busy, defying political fears with loud tunes of Mohammed Munir or Nancy Ajram. But an alternative nightlife option is becoming popular: the increasingly frequent fundraiser nights, organised by civil society groups with the aim of raising awareness and funds for a social, cultural or political cause. Hosted in art galleries, social cafes, lecture theatres, alternative ‘spaces’ and cooperative bars, these evenings attract a socially and politically conscious crowd who come to enjoy drinks, food, films, concerts, theatre plays or poetry recitals in the name of a cause.
Although fundraisers are not a new concept in Lebanon, their recent popularity points to a renewed activism in Lebanese civil society. Reflecting Lebanon’s unique diversity, these civil society groups and initiatives promote a variety of causes, from refugee rights and conditions to democratic freedoms, the plight of Palestinians, women’s rights, detainee conditions, street children… the list goes on. In a country whose past has been marked by weak national sentiment and sectarian strife, and whose sectarian political system continues to impede effective governance and reform, such citizen activism is good news. It means the public sphere is not dominated by a single actor (such as the State) and that a plurality of groups can defend their interests and promote their vision for society.
An active public sphere also helps to develop ties between individuals by emphasising the interests of society as a whole rather than that of a particular sect, class or cultural group. This in turn helps social cohesion and prevents conflict. Sectarian associations and movements still exist, of course, but their membership is dwindling in the face of a growing number of secular organisations, from human rights groups to local theatre clubs, student campaigns, cyclist groups, migrant associations, relief charities, support groups, citizen think tanks, social enterprises…
These organisations also have an important role in maintaining a social balance in society. Many of them are focusing their efforts on tending to the needs of an increasing number of have-nots who suffer from the ineffectiveness of public services and Lebanon’s high inequality. There is scant government help for marginalised groups such as the very poor, people with special needs, the elderly, migrant workers, refugees, victims of abuse or detainees. As a result, civil society groups have felt the need to step in. With the dismantling of the welfare state in many countries due to neoliberal policies, civil society organisations all over the world have sprung up to provide a security net for people in need and to defend their right to live in dignity and security.
This is not to argue that civil society should be taking over the social role that the State has traditionally played. The State as a redistributor of resources and welfare provider is essential in eliminating discrimination and correcting imbalances that inevitably arise in competitive societies. The consecutive waves of privatisation and spending cuts that we have witnessed in the past decades has reduced the State’s ability to promote social justice and prevent the excluding effect of inequality on the poorer segments of the population. Social exclusion (which, unlike poverty, is not purely economic but encompasses social, cultural and psychological factors) breeds desperation and resentment, which can translate itself into rioting, crime and extremism (it’s easy enough to imagine a link between social exclusion and the many western recruits in groups such as ISIS, for instance). The absence of a security net for when times get rough is therefore not only dangerous for individuals but also for society as a whole.
Many civil society groups have understood this and have responded by providing social, economic and psychological services when state services were insufficient. For instance, some charities offer psychological support for victims of abuse, legal advice to asylum-seekers or rehabilitation aid for former prisoners or soldiers, often in a much more efficient and flexible manner than governments. Most social projects begin at the local level and so are in touch with the area they are working in and have deep knowledge of the issue and its context. Civil society organisations have also become a major platform for social innovation and new forms of governance, devoting an increasingly large part of their budget on research and on designing new methods of social organisation, humanitarian relief, and ecological preservation, among many other things. The result of this research has been comprehensive reports and concrete recommendations that have, at times, been adopted by government institutions.
Lebanon is in desperate need of such social activism and innovation, both in its welfare programs and to improve interaction between government and society. The country has witnessed significant rural to urban migration in the past decades, so its citizens are increasingly dependent on social services in urban spaces. On top of this, Lebanon has experienced mass influxes of refugees, from Palestine, Iraq and now Syria. In the past three years the country’s population has increased by 25%. Electricity and water providers have not been able to cope, neither have public hospitals and schools. Overcrowding due to rising housing prices is a widespread problem, as well as traffic congestion and pollution. The need for comprehensive security nets for Lebanese citizens and non-citizen residents is urgent, with reform needed particularly in health, education, and public infrastructure to deal with the sudden increase of population. Civil activism can push the government to address social issues, while the government can benefit from the energy, ideas and knowledge of civil society groups to overcome these challenges.
An active civil society has the potential of being a positive and long-term change-maker. In Lebanon, it is only just nascent and will keep growing. However there is a risk that campaigners and social workers will get discouraged if they feel that the political institutions of the country are too rigid and uncooperative. Political representatives need to acknowledge the energy and ideas of civil society groups, read their reports and policy recommendations, and apply what is feasible.
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