Different Shades of ‘Neutrality’: Arab Gulf NGOs in Lebanon

‘Humanitarian neutrality’ is a phrase synonymous with large ‘western’ NGOs and one that is understood by many to have a clear and static conceptualisation and application. However, in this extract from her chapter in the new free to download Open Access volume edited by Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Refuge in a Moving World: Tracing Migrant and Refugee Journeys Across Disciplines, Dr Estella Carpi argues that humanitarian discourse relating to neutrality fails “to capture the complex forms and roles that neutrality acquires in humanitarian operations.” Dr Carpi traces how the geographical location, political origin, channeling and allocation of funding, and the political orientation of humanitarian staff, influence the perceived humanitarian neutrality of NGOs. Drawing on her research for the Southern Responses to Displacement project, Dr Carpi explores how Arab Gulf-funded NGOs assisting Syrian refugees in northern Lebanon have dropped global Northern conceptualisations of neutrality in favour of “politically moral” assistance. In so doing, Arab Gulf-funded NGOs demonstrate multiple forms of neutrality that question the dominance of global ‘North’ organisations’ binary definitions of neutrality in the humanitarian field.

If you find this piece of interest, you can access the full chapter in the newly published and open access Refuge in a Moving World book and access a recommended reading list at the end of this piece.

Different Shades of ‘Neutrality’: Arab Gulf NGOs in Lebanon

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

If I say ‘humanitarian neutrality’, the first organisation that comes to mind for most people engaged in humanitarian debates is the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and other western NGOs. Scholars, practitioners, and even aid recipients themselves often speak of humanitarian neutrality as though it were an option to be ticked: an organisation complies with it or it does not. Instead, my study on Arab Gulf-funded NGOs in northern Lebanon (2011-2013) suggests that the aid scene is extremely diversified in as much as the NGOs’ understandings of humanitarianism and neutrality.

Many scholars have discussed humanitarian neutrality as an unrealistic strategy in the time of crisis. My aim here is not to delegitimise all kinds of humanitarian action by dropping neutrality a priori as a valuable and achievable behavioural standard, or by ascribing to humanitarianism mere political motivations. Instead, these diverse humanitarian discourses of neutrality have not yet led local and international, secular and religious NGOs to achieve a common ground of communication and a deeper form of mutual knowledge. Moreover, operational neutrality still plays a fundamental role that it is worth reflecting on. Its role is not only about being politically neutral when beneficiaries are selected and aid is provided, but also, importantly, about enhancing people’s perception of dealing with a neutral actor. Neutrality is in fact assumed to secure safer and unbiased access to local beneficiaries, gain the trust of local authorities, and build up international accountability as a humanitarian actor.

The shared stance that prominent scholars have taken, arguing for humanitarianism being per se a form of politics, has left understandings of humanitarian action and its related standards to some extent unnuanced. The global North-global South binary, as the Southern Responses to Displacement project shows, is inadequate to capture the complex forms and roles that neutrality acquires in humanitarian operations. The case of Arab Gulf-funded NGOs assisting Syrian refugees in northern Lebanon shows the different shades that neutrality can acquire, and questions the cultural hegemony of Northern organisations in defining neutrality in the humanitarian field. Indeed, humanitarian actors other than western providers are often seen as embracing humanitarianism to cloak political competition with a moral aura. As scholars have largely discussed over the last two decades, especially NGOs somehow inspired by Islamic – and more generally religious – values are believed to have an inherently problematic relationship with neutrality.

In my chapter for the volume Refuge in a Moving World: Tracing Refugee and Migrant Journeys Across Disciplines I discuss the key factors that bias the conditionality of aid provision and the implementation of neutrality and impartiality agendas, in an attempt to advance debates revolving around the genuineness of humanitarian intentions. The key factors that suggest the (a)political positionality of an NGO are the provider’s geographical location, the political origin of funding sources, the way in which funding is channeled and allocated, and the political orientation of humanitarian staff. The Arab Gulf-funded NGOs which I researched in the Akkar region and the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli implemented forms of humanitarianism that western organisations in the region considered to be openly partisan, and, therefore, questionable as legitimate humanitarian actors. In fact, these organisations were explicit in their intention of providing relief to Syrians in order to support the anti-regime cause, therefore backing the Syrian opposition and bearing witness to the refugees’ suffering. In this vein, Arab Gulf assistance provision dropped the orthodox understanding of humanitarian neutrality as a moral standard while making the political moral.

However, a closer look at these Arab Gulf NGOs’ ways of thinking and operationalising humanitarianism suggests that their way of building their own legitimacy still passes through the humanisation of politics. While the politically neutral beneficiary becomes an a priori deserving victim in western apolitical humanitarianism, they are recognised as “human” only when adhering to a specific political partisanship in Arab Gulf NGOs’ political realism. On the one hand, apolitical humanitarianism deprives the conceived victim subject of any political dimension and expects them to be politically neutral in a situation of conflict, deprivation, and political violence. On the other, the concept of political realism that I propose in my chapter expects the beneficiary to be filled with social and political motivations that best correspond to the primary purpose of the aid provider. Both tendencies, while showing an apparent polarisation of humanitarian action, try to preserve the socio-political order that suits particular humanitarian actors and makes them successful.

The Lebanese scenario of aid provision appears far more hybrid and muddled than binary models of political/apolitical humanitarian action. As I illustrate in my chapter, Arab Gulf-funded NGOs do not drop neutrality as a professional standard tout court. Rethinking the standards of humanitarian neutrality, they simultaneously embrace political realism. While the idea of “being human”, as much as neutrality, is used as a token of accountability by all humanitarian actors, mostly secular – and western – actors remain the ones that define what the very paradigms of humanitarian neutrality are. Such a symbiosis of ethics and politics makes it challenging to identify the fluctuating dynamics of rapprochement between the different political actors in Lebanon.


If you find this piece of interest, you can access the full chapter, Different shades of ‘neutrality’: Arab Gulf NGO responses to Syrian refugees in northern Lebanon, in the Open Access book Refuge in a Moving World (free to download) edited by Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh.  The following recommended readings may also be of interest: 

Carpi, E. (2018) Empires of Inclusion?

Carpi, E. (2018) In conversation with the Kahkaha project in Lebanon: an effective example of a Southern-led initiative

Carpi, E. (2019) Thinking Power Relations across Humanitarian Geographies: Southism as a Mode of Analysis

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2019) Exploring Refugees’ Conceptualisations of Southern-Led Humanitarianism

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Thinking through ‘the global South’ and ‘Southern-responses to displacement’: An introduction

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

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

Featured image: Backpacks donated to Syrian refugees by Saudi Arabia’s government during the Syria campaign. Bireh, Akkar (Lebanon), March 2019. (c) E. Carpi

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