Local Faith Actors in Disaster Response and Risk Reduction – ALNAP Webinar

What happens when international agencies intervene without knowledge of the historical, geographical, or relational contexts of the area? Should engagement with and use of local faith leaders as intermediaries become standardised within international aid provision? In March 2019 our Research Associate Dr Estella Carpi participated in a seminar organised by ALNAP-Overseas Development Institute and the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities (JLI). During the webinar, Estella discussed her findings from many years’ fieldwork in northern Lebanon where, within the broader framework of the Southern Responses project, she examined the opportunities and challenges of the increasing participation of local faith leaders in international humanitarian programming.

If you find this piece of interest please visit the recommended reading list at the end of this post.

This blog was posted on 24th May 2019 

Local Faith Actors in Disaster Response and Risk Reduction – ALNAP Webinar

By Estella Carpi, Southern Responses to Displacement Research Associate

In March 2019 I participated in a webinar organised by the ALNAP-Overseas Development Institute and the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities (JLI). The focus of the webinar was the involvement of local faith actors in disaster response and risk reduction. Dr Olivia Wilkinson (JLI) introduced the seminar and provided an overview of faith-oriented and localisation approaches in urban humanitarian action and stressed the challenges and opportunities that are involved with working alongside local faith leaders and organisations. Mr Nobuyuki Asai from Soka Gakkai International, Japan and Ms Silvia Corrao from World Vision, Mexico also joined the webinar and provided valuable examples of how the involvement of local faith actors allows for an actual contextualisation of humanitarian action. Blog pieces relating to their webinar contributions will be posted on the Southern Responses to Displacement website soon.

This blog presents an overview of my contribution to the webinar, which draws on extended periods of fieldwork in northern Lebanon from 2011 to the present through which I have been examining the positive and negative aspects of increasing the participation of local faith leaders in international humanitarian programming.

As the involvement of faith leaders in international humanitarian programming mostly happens in urban spaces, I initially want to clarify the complex character of what ‘urban’ and ‘faith-based’ action mean in the context of Lebanon.

Most cities in Lebanon are characterised by uncontrolled demographic growth and a lack of urban planning, especially after the years of the civil war (1975-1990). While refugee camps can hardly be distinguished from urban slums in the Great Beirut area, in smaller cities or peri-urban areas some refugees live in informal tented settlements (known as ITS) or in shared apartments. The notion of ‘urban’ therefore needs to be contextualised and viewed as a developing space, cyclically put under strain due to demographic growth, rather than fully equipped cities: indeed, several urban areas in Lebanon lack proper urban infrastructure and peri-urban areas still largely rely on rural resources to generate everyday livelihoods.

Moreover, international humanitarian agencies initially opted to operate independently, bypassing local approval, and they only reached out to local urban ‘authorities’ (eg. local state officials and mayors) at a later stage. In this regard, talking of ‘urban intervention’ is unusual for Lebanese faith leaders and organisations, which have historically been weaving strong charity networks and systems of care, mostly assisting local orphans and the chronic poor, without explicitly developing ways of intervention which necessarily take into account the ‘urban’ nature of the addressed environment.

Against this backdrop, international humanitarian agencies are nowadays largely focused on the urban system. In the current whirlwind of urban-focused programmes, in my presentation I invited the ALNAP audience to consider whether actors such as local authorities are willing to participate in city-making (eg. building infrastructure, enlarging the urban economy, etc.). Indeed, through several of the interviews I have conducted since 2011, I have noted that there isn’t always a willingness to be included in pre-established plans in some Lebanese municipalities. At this point, I stressed the importance of having in-depth knowledge of how the pre-existing urban and political infrastructure coped with the Syrian refugee crisis before the arrival of humanitarian agencies (mostly in 2012/13).

A good example of how international humanitarian plans at times develop in a detached manner can be demonstrated in the UKAID and UNDP financed construction of an ‘urban market’ in Halba, the main city in the Akkar region, in 2016. While local residents recognised the market as an attempt at urbanising the area, the market was short-lived, as it was built in an area remote from the center which is not served by any public means of transportation.

Other attempts at improving the urban landscape through humanitarian action have been more successful. For example, the coast-cleaning in the North of Lebanon, with the collection of rubbish and wreckage, which had long been under-maintained, and the asphalting of roads of many towns in Lebanon to temporarily employ refugees and the local poor. In spite of these successes, international humanitarian donors have nonetheless only relatively recently invested in supporting the development of a well-functioning public infrastructure (eg. the waste management system and access to clean water), only when the Syrian refugee presence in Lebanon was acknowledged as a ‘protracted crisis.’

In this framework, both Christian churches and Sunni Muslim mosques mostly engage in informal ad hoc interventions providing sporadic provision of food and clothes, or serve as intermediaries for international agencies. For example, in February 2019, some local people in Mahsha (in the Halba area) mentioned that local faith leaders took on the role of food providers when some refugee and local workers were cleaning the roads in this northern town. Thereby, local faith leaders, whose presence is either treasured or contested at a local level, are increasingly involved in international livelihood programmes.

During my fieldwork as part of the Southern Responses project in winter and spring 2019, both Lebanese and Syrian communities in Akkar had developed a clear map of where exactly faith leaders operate. Ordinary Lebanese and Syrian people were fully aware of the ways in which such faith leaders obtain funding and resources, and of how they keep in touch with influential outsiders who, in turn, can provide support on request. Thus, although they are often unseen by outsiders, and have the least visible presence in the public space (unlike the omnipresence of UN, INGO, and the Lebanese government logos), faith leaders are, conversely, the most widely-known aid providers and the first points of call for both refugees and local citizens.

I concluded my presentation by emphasising that INGOs’ increasing cooperation with faith leaders should, however, not be a standardised way of intervening in crisis-affected settings, as it may soon become. Based on my recent 3-month fieldwork in northern Lebanon, I propose that local faith leaders should only be involved in responding to crisis if local people or refugees themselves propose their involvement: only locals know the areas where the involvement of such actors is needed and even desired. Approaching faith leaders as standardised partners in humanitarian action risks imposing social figures and socio-political dynamics which are either unfamiliar or unsuitable to specific settings.

You can listen to the webinar here.

Further reading on faith and displacement and the localisation of aid agenda:

Al Fakih, F. (2019) Dr. Estella Carpi lecture at the Lebanese American University: The Effect of Displacement on Religious Authorities from Syria

Carpi, E. (2018) Assessing urban-humanitarian encounters in Northern Lebanon

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

Carpi, E. (2018) Empires of ‘inclusion’?

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

Carpi, E (2017) Does faith-based aid provision always localise aid?

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Faith-based humanitarianism

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) The Localisation of Aid and Southern-led Responses to Displacement: Beyond instrumentalising local actors

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

Featured image: Aid distribution to Syrian refugees in Donniye, North Lebanon. (c)  Mohammad Fatfat 2018



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