‘Southern’ and ‘Northern’ assistance provision beyond the grand narratives: Views from Lebanese and Syrian providers in Lebanon

In this contribution to our new Thinking through the Global South blog series, Southern Responses Research Associate Dr Estella Carpi reflects on diverse meanings and understandings of the terms ‘the global South’ and ‘the global North,’ focusing in particular on the ways that these terms and the modes of response that are often associated with the ‘South’ and ‘North’ are conceptualised by Lebanese and Syrian aid providers in Lebanon. Drawing on her interviews with providers, Dr Carpi shares important insights into how services funded and managed both by countries in the Global North and Global South are conceptualised by providers and received by refugees, contributing to the Southern Responses project’s core aim of centralising refugees’ perspectives on Southern-led initiatives.

If you find this piece of interest, please also see the suggested readings at the end of this piece, or visit our Thinking through the Global South series on our blog.

This blog was posted on 2nd December, 2018.

‘Southern’ and ‘Northern’ assistance provision beyond the grand narratives: Views from Lebanese and Syrian providers in Lebanon

By Dr Estella Carpi, Research Associate, Southern Responses to Displacement project. 

Over the past few decades, scholars have increasingly employed the categories of ‘Global North’ and ‘Global South’ to explore different political geographies and economies in development cooperation and humanitarian aid provision. Without doubt, whether and how these denominations make sense are not merely dilemmas of terminology. The Global South has been historically referred to in a number of ways: as the ‘Third World’, coming after the First World, including the US and its allies, and the Second World, including the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc partners; as ‘non-DAC countries, i.e. not belonging to the Development Assistance Committee of Western donors; or as ‘postcolonial donors’, which does not capture the different positioning of Southern countries vis-à-vis donorship and aid reception.

Against this backdrop, the categorisation of the Global South has existed since the mid-1970s, effectively indicating the changing power relations of this group of countries with the Global North. With respect to the ‘East’ – a notion that tentatively incorporates diverse realities but nowadays embeds them in the Orientalist discourse first advanced by Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said (1978) – the term ‘Global South’ arguably better reflects the multi-directional flows of economic, cultural, and political capital between different countries. In turn, anthropology is surely well placed to explore such multi-directional flows.

However, the definition of the Global South has too often been misleadingly reduced to a marginal or anti-imperial positionality, independent from context. In particular, in a bid to learn about and consider different Souths (from an intentionally plural perspective), I would argue that Global South should not be our episteme – the point of departure for enlarging our knowledge about such a concept. It is in this regard that some scholars have opted for a conception of the Global South as ‘not an exact geographical designation, but as an idea and a set of practices, attitudes, and relations’ (Grovogu, 2011, p. 177), a perspective that in turn notes that ‘what constitutes the West more than geography is a linguistic family, a belief system and an epistemology’ (Mignolo, 2015 p. xxv).

In effect, it may be helpful to examine a world map and reflect on the geographic characteristics of the countries that are often included in the Global South category. For instance, given that Australia is a political pole of the Global North, just as China is for the Global South, it is evident that physical geography cannot fully explain what North and South are, since these categories refer not only to places but also, more importantly, to different political projects related to development and humanitarian action.

As Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and Daley highlight in their introduction to the Handbook of South-South Relations, the present framework of South-South cooperation and its underlying principles are historically associated with anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles around the world:

‘The emergence of a South-South cooperation was originally conceptualized as a way to overcome the exploitative character of North-South relations through diverse models of transnational cooperation and solidarity developed since the 1950s and 1960s, including internationalist, socialist, and regional approaches and initiatives such as Pan-Arabism and Pan-Africanism’.

Dahi and Velasco have, in turn, recently pointed out that, in the decades following World War II, between the 1950s and the late-1980s, South-South trade represented roughly 5–10% of all global trade, but, by 2013, that share had risen to 54%. Over the same period, the direction of these exports shifted to other Southern countries, while global South-South financial flows also increased substantially.

This shared interest in mutual collaboration in the Global South, presently championed by Northern actors (that purport to act as facilitators) is also reflected in the so-called ‘localisation agenda’ promoted by the international humanitarian apparatus, as endorsed during the 2016 Istanbul World Humanitarian Summit. At the ‘Africa Stories: Changing Perceptions’ workshop held at University College London in June 2018, Michael Amoah confirmed Dahi and Velasco’s findings by contending that, in its current form, regional solidarity ideologies like pan-Africanism imply a new material inter-relationality, namely a new shared political economy between African countries, rather than an exclusive political ideology.

Thinking of South-South Cooperation (SSC), which is today incorporated under the remit of the United Nations (in particular the UN Office for SSC), the member states have different levels of economic development (and are differently positioned in relation to the so-called ‘Human Development Index’) and are also viewed as being located at different stages of democratic transition. Many countries partaking in SSC are, at the same time, both aid donors and aid recipients. Some of those that are donors do not wish to be defined as such, since such terminology is loaded with negative connotations associated with the Northern aid industry. In this sense, grouping the different realities that form an imaginary South under the banner of ‘emerging’ or ‘non-traditional donors’ is anti-historical as it represents Northern academics’, policy makers’ and practitioners’ neglect of a Southern history of assistance, which has similarly been developing for a long time.

In the light of this, should we endeavour to modify the categories ‘South’ and ‘North’ and work towards new definitions that can still grasp power relations without dooming countries to essentialised geopolitical positions? Or, rather, should we liberate the ‘South’ from negative connotations and the ‘North’ from positive biases? In essence, North and South are very telling with regard to our mental and cultural maps, not always encompassing the different technical, economic, political, and cultural assets and deficiencies that these political geographies present.

The emergence of an institutionalised form of SSC, including within the UN, is only one symptom of the increasing claim to postcolonial solidarity within the South, and between the North and the South. Similarly, it can partially indicate the difference of the South from the North in the way that development and humanitarian assistance are thought about and implemented. These debates go beyond the realms of global economy, international relations, and politics; instead, they relate to the way that ordinary people conceive of, explain, and concretely manage ideas and issues related to development and crisis management.

Engaging with the perspectives of Syrian and Lebanese aid and service providers

In March 2018, I had the opportunity to speak with Syrian and Lebanese aid and service providers in Lebanon, including three religious authorities engaging in assistance to Syrian refugees; throughout our conversations, meaningful ways of understanding the services funded or managed both by countries in the Global North and in the Global South emerged.

For instance, a Syrian Sunni sheikh from Homs (western Syria) who is now managing a school in the Lebanese city of Tripoli, explained that governance and markets represent the most substantial differences between aid actors. He asserted that, in the Global South, governments are more present, while, in the Global North, there are private assistance initiatives that have their own rules and independence. Assistance in the context of the Global North therefore ends up being random (ashwa’iy), reflecting an unleashed labour market behind assistance provision: ‘paying rents, employees, careers, and so on’.

A Lebanese Greek-Orthodox priest who provides aid to refugees and vulnerable citizens on a discontinuous basis in the city of Halba (northern Lebanon) expressed his way of thinking about the South in relation to the aid he provides in terms of what is outside of the Global North. However, he pointed out that, to him, in the mind of the beneficiaries, there is no difference with regard to the source of help and they do not distinguish between actors:

“If you do lots of sponsoring, eventually your name is going to stick in their minds, but people do not really separate out providers in terms of principles and motivations, only whether the political campaign is massive, e.g. services coming from Saudi Arabia […] in this case, the image easily sticks in their minds, but they don’t know the name of the organisations involved most of the time. I personally think that what differs for Southern and Northern providers is the funding: it is sustainable for UNHCR but certainly not for us. They have governments supporting them, [whereas] we just have the Lebanese government, which neglects us. In that sense, I would identify as a Southern provider”.

Another Lebanese Greek-Orthodox priest working for a branch of the Ministry of Social Affairs in Halba raised the issue of global power holders imagining one homogenous South while departing from the idea of several Northern perspectives:

“The Global North is the macro-picture for the politics we mostly hear about. As Lebanese providers with few means and little funding, we’re just numbers to be taken care of: I’m a Muslim in the eyes of the West, even though I’m Greek-Orthodox, because we, Middle-Eastern people, are all Muslims in the eyes of outsiders. Instead, I don’t feel there’s a shared understanding or feeling of the East, of the South, as you prefer to put it: there’s no homogeneity outside of the North. I don’t feel any proximity to Asian or African countries, especially to the Arab Gulf, which has its own interests here. Moreover, as a Greek-Orthodox, I have little to do with Arabness”.

Similarly, the Syrian director of a school in another neighbourhood of Tripoli stated:

“I don’t feel closer to the Arab states with respect to Canada just because we’re all Arabs. Arab states haven’t been supportive at all toward Syrian refugees. I think the real difference between assistance provided by Northern and Southern countries is our hijra [migration with spiritual connotations, related to the migration of the Prophet Mohammad from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD]. The South migrates, and the North doesn’t accept us, even if we are qualified and have culture”.

A Syrian service provider in Tripoli proposed that ‘Northern’ or ‘Southern’ mean something in relation to the social, political, and emotional positionality of the provider:

“The real difference is not the country we talk about; it’s rather our human condition. It’s about sharing nationality and issues with the displaced you assist [and is] nothing to do with East and West, South and North […]. Beneficiaries identify with countries of reception primarily on the basis of their political position; for example, if I get stuff from Turkey, as a Syrian opponent, I feel closer to Turkey. If you get aid from Saudi Arabia or Qatar, you will prefer one of them if you are a salafi (a follower of Salafism) or ikhwenji (from the Muslim Brotherhood) respectively. So, there’s politics behind our proximity to a country. In this sense, I don’t think I have anything to share with the ‘other South’. As a Syrian, Syria is my Global South”.

Reflecting on the various understandings of ‘Southern-led provision’ is relevant insofar as it allows us to grasp the complex social and political positionalities of assistance providers in the global framework of development and humanitarian action.

In this sense, some contemporary academic debates merely re-consign agency to the vulnerable and the disenfranchised, e.g. by seeing Southern actors and refugees as inherently ‘different aid providers’ or by aprioristically defining them as resilient. These debates are tiring at a time when ‘Southern agency’ is heralded as a human and an intellectual conquest of the Global North. Instead, a valuable point of departure may instead be acknowledging the existence of multiplicity and respecting what each side suggests – at times participating in and at other times acting by oneself in the realm of development and humanitarian action.

**

An earlier version of this piece was originally published on Public Anthropologist, here.

‘Thinking through the Global South’ series can be found here.  

For further readings on the themes addressed in this post please read:

Thinking through ‘the global South’ and ‘Southern-responses to displacement’: An introduction – in this introductory piece to our new blog series, Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh sets out a series of questions that our project is exploring with reference to how to think about, and through ‘the South.’

Conceptualising the South and South-South Encounters – in this extract from their introduction to the new book, Handbook of South-South Relations, Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and Prof. Patricia Daley explore different ways of conceptualising and studying ‘the global South’ and diverse encounters that take place across and between diversely positioned people and institutions around the world.

Histories and spaces of Southern-led responses to displacement – In this blog post Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh highlights the need for the analyses of local responses to be more attentive to the longstanding history of diverse “local/Southern” actors and examines the ways in which Southern-led responses can work alongside, or explicitly challenge, Northern-led responses to displacement.

Empires of Inclusion – In this post Dr Estella Carpi explores the implications of the concept and process of ‘inclusion’ in relation to South-South Cooperation.

The Localisation of Aid and Southern-led Responses to Displacement: Beyond instrumentalising local actors – In this blog Dr Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh examines a number of questions relating to recent action by international humanitarian actors responding to displacement and the new impetus to localise aid by engaging with ‘local’ actors in and from the global South.

Does Faith-Based Aid Provision always Localise Aid? – In this blog post Dr Estella Carpi argues that there is a need to reflect on local contexts to ensure engagement with local faith communities do not rely on essentialising practices that assume certain groups speak on behalf of a homogenous ‘locale.’

Featured image: A Syrian coffee vendor walking in the vicinity of Baddawi refugee camp, North Lebanon (c) E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, April 2018.

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