Intermediaries in Humanitarian Action: The Case of Lebanon

What are humanitarian actors trying to bypass, remove, enhance or achieve by emphasising the importance of intermediaries in their sector? In this blog post our Research Associate Dr Estella Carpi discusses the role of intermediaries in the field of humanitarian aid provision in the Lebanese context, especially in the framework of the Syrian refugee crisis. Ranging from local state officials to religious authorities or NGO counterparts in Lebanon, intermediaries are considered a vital force of the Global South, and emerge in the humanitarian field as likely ‘solutions’ to standardised programme implementation processes and outreach avenues. This blog post aims to unfold the sociological contradictions of this new trend, interrogating the adoption of intermediaries as a shortcut to the effective localisation of aid.

This post was published on 20th March 2019

If you find this piece of interest please see the suggested readings at the end of this post.

Intermediaries in Humanitarian Action:  The Case of Lebanon

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

Over the last decade, international humanitarian agencies have endeavoured to develop effective ways to localise their practices of intervention in areas receiving forced migrants or stricken by conflict or disasters. ‘Localisation’ is an umbrella term referring to all approaches to working with local actors, and includes ‘locally-led’ projects which refers specifically to “work that originates with local actors or is designed to support locally emerging initiatives”.

Local-international partnerships have received much attention as the more acceptable face of humanitarian programming designed in the global North, although there is evidence that northern funding and organisational structures still give preference to implementers from the global North rather than the global South. Within this context, the middle space of intermediation, which includes international donors and local implementers, has an impact on decision-making processes related to humanitarian funding, practices and policies.

However, the attention afforded to local-international partnerships is often rhetorical.  For example, in late 2018 I participated in a roundtable organised by the Overseas Development Institute. The event aimed to evaluate the role of intermediaries in humanitarianism and several London-based humanitarian professionals expressed the need to define the role of the intermediary figure in humanitarian action, and to rely on the latter’s support to access local and refugee communities in the targeted areas. However, by contrast, academic literature which seeks to map such a ‘middle space’ is scant. Based on these observations, what are humanitarian actors trying to bypass, remove, enhance or achieve by emphasising the importance of intermediaries in their sector? And how can they effectively engage with local actors if there is not enough contextual knowledge? With this in mind, I examine how intermediaries may be problematically employed as a shortcut to localisation and as a logistic facilitation strategy which does not contextualise policies and practices often designed in the so-called global North.

The first observation I would like to make is related to the layered social identity of intermediaries. Indeed, it is a common belief that intermediaries are mostly local or regional residents with strong connections and networks in the areas targeted by humanitarian programmes. If the line of separation between the ‘international’ and the ‘local’ is unavoidably blurred, it is important to note that some segments of local middle classes – generally those employed in the humanitarian system to manage crisis – are as unfamiliar with other social strata of their own country as many international workers with whom they share common lifestyle standards. As a result, from a relational and emotional perspective, some local professionals may not necessarily be any closer to the people they address than internationals. At the same time, however, intermediaries are believed to be well placed to manage local politics, such as corruption, inefficiency or reluctance to comply with external norms and requests. Can such a social figure ever exist?

In this respect, the research I conducted from 2011 to late 2013 in Lebanon demonstrates an ambiguous intentionality of the international humanitarian apparatus: on the one hand, the desire to avoid local politics and its discontents, but, on the other, the need to rely on intermediary figures who engage in local politics who are able to prepare beneficiary lists and can provide contextual knowledge to enable humanitarian actors to rapidly and safely access local and refugee groups. However, as my research has shown, by doing so, international humanitarian agencies often end up recognising local authorities as key actors of the humanitarian machine. In my field experience, the moral impact of what I call an ‘unintended alliance’ between humanitarian internationals and local gatekeepers was particularly relevant when local residents and refugees expressed their desire to get rid of intermediary figures operating between them, the humanitarian system and the central government. Intermediary roles were predominantly covered by local state officials and delegates (makhatir and mandubin respectively) and other local informal leaders (zu‘ama’). In sum, the necessary entrance of formal and informal local authorities into the international humanitarian labour chain produced a substantial impact on humanitarian workers who must deal with local politics and its context.

The second issue is the excess of intermediaries in the contemporary humanitarian sphere. Looking at the intermediary role as a relational and performative process rather than a clear-cut social task, it is possible to identify unorthodox configurations of “intermediariness”. Even though it is mainly conceived as local actors, –networks, individuals, diaspora groups or formal organisations that occupy the middle space between initial donors and final implementers, intermediaries can sometimes be represented by INGOs and UN agencies. For instance, the humanitarian corridors that currently take Syrian refugees from Lebanon across the Mediterranean to Italy and France are a suitable case in point. As a local aid worker recounted in an interview in Beirut in March 2017, in order to retrieve personal data and carry out an initial selection of the refugee groups who better suit the Italian and the French labour markets, the INGOs in charge of organising the humanitarian corridors rely, in turn, on other INGOs and UN agencies that can provide them with a contact database. This modality of selection is believed to avoid a costly and time-consuming door-to-door strategy to assess refugee needs.   In this case, needs assessments are viewed as a bureaucratic hurdle rather than an effective way of identifying needs and protection and their changing nature. Likewise, another aid practitioner working for an INGO in a village of northern Lebanon affirmed that individual and family eligibility to cash transfers was determined through the UNHCR central database, rather than independent field visits and assessments (interview in Halba, February 2017). These two anecdotes show how intermediaries operating in the humanitarian middle space are at times in excess and this can leave displaced people’s needs unaddressed

My third observation concerns bureaucracy. Enhancing and institutionalising the role of intermediaries may sort out the difficulty of pinning down social roles in changing contexts and of managing institutional trust versus informal society. By this token, we may think that the role of intermediaries should therefore be professionalised. However, the institutionalisation of the intermediary role might instead add complexity and slow down the already hyper-bureaucratised system of international humanitarianism and development. The same system has long been accused of being poorly responsive to context-sensitive needs and de-humanising war and disaster victims.

In this regard, Lebanon offers the meaningful example of the Municipal Support Assistant (MSA). This professional figure, appointed by local municipalities, has been created to work with local authorities and international humanitarian actors and acts as a local government administrative assistant. In the case of Lebanon, the MSA needs to be fluent in Arabic and English to be able to develop double communication strategies. As a municipality representative of Sahel az-Zahrani reported in a 2016 study conducted by UN-Habitat and the American University of Beirut, the MSA has presumably been created to enhance coordination between the local and the humanitarian systems of governance. However, considering the formal ways of working that the MSA needs to comply with, bureaucratic impediments are practically enhanced. In other words, if bureaucracy is enhanced to achieve greater coordination, I would be wary to believe that actual coordination can soon see the light.

The very aims of the ongoing efforts towards an “intermediary-isation” of humanitarian action need to be clearly motivated and contextualised. From a personal perspective, considering the provisional presence of many international humanitarians and researchers in the areas where crisis management is needed, we keep missing historical continuity. Short field visits are in fact unlikely to trace the local history of human relations, contextual power dynamics and assistance mechanisms. Should the international humanitarian system not find the radical determination to develop physical and moral proximity towards the populations it endeavors to serve, I hence envision intermediaries only as everyday researchers who conduct “reality checks” whenever accurate humanitarian assessments of outreach, programming, policies and local specificities are needed. To carry out these assessments, more research on the role and nature of intermediaries in the field of aid provision is surely needed.


Suggested reading:

If you have found this piece of interest, we recommend reading the following blogs:

Carpi, E. (2018) ‘Southern’ and ‘Northern’ assistance provision beyond the grand narratives: Views from Lebanese and Syrian providers in Lebanon.

Carpi, E. (2017) ‘Localising Response to Humanitarian Need’.

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Histories and spaces of Southern-led responses to displacement.

Ozturk, M. (2019) Municipal-level responses to Syrian Refugees in Turkey: The case of Bursa.

Refugee Hosts (2018) Local Faith Community Responses to Displacement in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey: Emerging Evidence and New Approaches. Refugee Hosts report authored by Greatrick, A., Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E., Ager, A., Rowlands, A. and Stonebridge, L.


This blog post was first published on:

Featured image:  Children at play.  Space funded by Islamic Relief.  (c) E. Carpi (2019)

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