Bringing Social Class into Humanitarian Debates: The Case of Northern Lebanon – Part One

‘Little attention has been paid to the class-based inequality that the very presence of humanitarian agencies produces in crisis-affected settings’ argues Dr Estella Carpi, Southern Responses to Displacement’s Research Associate, in this two-part blog series.  Drawing on observations made during research carried out in Northern Lebanon for the Southern Responses to Displacement project, Dr Carpi examines the class economy of the area and the social and economic impact of the arrival of refugees from Syria and humanitarian aid programmes and workers.  In Part One, Dr Carpi argues that mainstream humanitarian debates have omitted a focus on social class and its significant influence on relationships between aid providers and recipients. These newly formed relationships often reinforce existing class-based inequality. Dr Carpi traces these impacts and influences in the town of Halba, in Akkar (North Lebanon) following the arrival of refugees from Syria and the impact of sudden demographic growth and humanitarian presence, detailing how existing class-based structures benefited some local citizens, such as property- and larger-scale business owners and those with higher levels of education. However, in Part Two of this series, Dr Carpi argues that economic changes brought by the introduction of a humanitarian economy of consumerism and labor did not bring sustainable benefits to Akkar. Existing demographic and social class divides, coupled with dominant humanitarian narratives and practices, still influence conceptualisations of migrants, migration, refugees and their social and economic standing in displacement. Without focused reflection on existing and developing class-based inequalities and the impact of humanitarian programmes, the divides between rich and poor, particularly for refugees experiencing protracted displacement and the departure of many humanitarian programmes, will be exacerbated.

If you find this piece of interest, please visit our recommended reading list at the end of this piece or access our Thinking through the Global South series

You can read Bringing Social Class into Humanitarian Debates: The Case of Northern Lebanon – Part Two – The Hidden Role of Social Class here.

Bringing Social Class into Humanitarian Debates: The Case of Northern Lebanon – Part One

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

In recent years, the burden that refugees are believed to place on host societies has drawn a great deal of international attention.[1] However, the social class systems that underlie crisis-affected settings and crisis management itself remain a taboo in international debates and humanitarian programming.

Nowadays there are many criticisms of humanitarianism being politically neutral, arbitrarily universal, or often lacking in context relevance. Indeed, global humanitarian action largely originated from a condition of inequality and traditionally has been articulated accordingly — juxtaposing those who suffer and who need protection, and those who act with compassion and protect those in need. As Miriam Ticktin has pointed out, “humanitarianism began as a moral, racialized, and religious ordering; it was not an egalitarian project, despite the belief in shared suffering.”[2]

Due to the protracted duration of most emergencies, international humanitarian agencies mobilizing to offer shelter and assistance to the displaced populations gradually acknowledged the need to extend their programs to also reach “host” populations, and to therefore develop a better understanding of specific contexts. This led NGO practitioners, scholars, and researchers to assess the social, political, and economic impact of humanitarian programs in targeted areas. According to these impact assessments, humanitarian programs have, at times, appeared to exacerbate local inequalities. Scholars have similarly critiqued humanitarianism for having overlooked preexisting (i.e., pre-crisis) inequalities.[3]

Yet, little attention has been paid to the class-based inequality that the very presence of humanitarian agencies produces in crisis-affected settings. In such settings, there exists a class economy composed of foreign aid practitioners, the receiving country’s citizens and long-term residents, and migrants — representing different economic backgrounds when accessing services and goods and using local infrastructures. Refugee groups themselves are normally variegated along social class lines, although such differences are often made invisible given the tendency to homogenize refugee profiles and backgrounds. Whereas the numbers of refugees and the money allocated to respond to humanitarian crises are generally well known and publicly discussed, information on the number of humanitarian workers employed, recruitment policies, and private belongings at stake is more difficult to access. In a nutshell, we can easily find out what humanitarian practices are about, but not who performs them.

In other words, although aid workers are consumers and users of local economies to the same extent as local residents and migrants in crisis-affected settings, their social and economic presence has received little scrutiny. Commentators have discussed the gentrification of the areas targeted by humanitarians, the way in which humanitarianism tends to neglect chronic vulnerabilities, or exacerbate the center-periphery dynamics of host cities.[4] However, they have made little reference to social class. This omission is a symptom of how discussions around humanitarianism have (not too innocently) neglected the social class dimension. The importance of class struggle in humanitarian spaces has therefore been overshadowed in the mainstream humanitarian narrative, in which human life is reduced to a (class-less) biological continuation of societies.[5]

Among today’s several humanitarian debates revolving around self-reliance, sustainability, and accountability, international attention on humanitarian interventions in urban settings stands out. Cities are commonly regarded as the primary places where class economies become layered and articulated; however, debates on “urban humanitarianism” have likewise neglected social class as a key factor that significantly marks the relationship between aid providers and recipients in settings of aid provision. The small city of Halba, in northern Lebanon, vividly illustrates how the class economy has tacitly been shaping humanitarian programming and how the very presence of humanitarian actors on the ground reinforced pre-existing class-based inequalities.

Halba is located in Akkar, one of Lebanon’s most deprived regions. According to the local municipality’s estimates collected in March 2017, Halba’s population at the time consisted of 27,000 local inhabitants and 17,000 refugees. In this peri-urban landscape, where physical boundaries are difficult to identify as they merge with rural surroundings, Syrian refugees mostly reside in informal gatherings on pieces of land at the side of public roads or, in other cases, rent private apartments. The small city forms a commercial and administrative hub for the surrounding hamlets. However, as local residents emphasized to me during several conversations between March 2017 and January 2019, the local market and the public square have disappeared because of the lack of urban planning.

Northern Lebanon after the Syrian crisis: Beyond Benefits and Burdens

In northern Lebanon, several INGOs now develop their programs by building on the urban-humanitarian nexus. However, the international tendency to ignore the local class system and humanitarianism as a specifically classed project persists. Yet, if Akkar is a historically forgotten area (often self-baptized as manta’a yatime, a “regional orphan” of its own central state), the impact of sudden demographic growth and humanitarian presence vary considerably according to social class.

With the arrival of foreign humanitarian agencies responding to the Syrian refugee crisis from 2012 onward, locals who were better-off have become wealthier as they have relied on the increasingly lower costs of the available Syrian workforce. (Historically, the latter constitute the working class made up of constructors, painters, and peasants, along with the local poor). On the one hand, international and local aid workers who reside in the area have potentially created demand for a new market, while not forming themselves a homogeneous social class (i.e., local staff normally enjoy lower pay scales than international employees). Owners of properties and rental agents have witnessed greater international investment since humanitarian agencies typically rent cars, staff, and apartments when deployed in the field. On the other hand, poorer classes have felt most of the economic pressure following the arrival of Syrian refugees and the consequent influx of cheap menial labor. Major pressure was perceived in the agricultural sector. The socio-economic impacts of Syrian refugees and of the humanitarian presence in Akkar, hence, emerge as context-sensitive and layered.

With no intent to undercut Lebanon’s infrastructural predicament during the Syrian crisis, local institutions and infrastructure, to a certain extent, gained greater income with the presence of new Syrian components in the region.[9] In-hospital births are a clear example: Syrian refugees benefit from United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) financial support in order to deliver babies in public hospitals (UNHCR does not cover private services). The UN agency, however, pays up to 80% of the health service provided and only in cases of non-chronic illness. On a quantitative level, this means that Syrian nationals who deliver their babies in one of the hospitals included on the UNHCR list, still need to pay 200,000 to 250,000 Lebanese Lira (150 USD) to access assistance during birth.[10]

Similarly, the opening of job positions for aid workers allowed educated local youths to access employment. Indeed, during my visits, many local aid workers in Halba confirmed they had been unemployed before taking up NGO positions, which flourished with the arrival of external funding, especially until 2016. This, however, generated the temporary empowerment of local middle classes, which remain at the mercy of crisis-driven labor and, more broadly, of geopolitical interests. On the same note, the World Food Program (WFP) and UNHCR, by providing food vouchers and later e-cards to Syrian refugees in the region, mostly enriched large shops and wealthy shop owners. This eventually affected the smaller shops, as anguished local residents often voiced to me. [i]

However, some of these new profitable factors, which could have made this region more resourceful, turned out to be unsteady throughout the protracted Syrian displacement. For instance, aid work positions within the local economy of labor were short-lived. The period of high demand for skilled and professional labor — unprecedented in Akkar before 2012 — recently ended as a result of the enforcement of tougher labor measures. Demand for international skilled workers has likewise plummeted due to the decreasing funding allocated to the Syrian humanitarian crisis. Overall, the daily narrative of generalized deprivation in Lebanon had the problematic effect of ironing out diverse economic vulnerabilities as well as wealth and exploitation in the local class economy.

In Part Two of this piece, I will explore further the hidden role that social class plays in settings and discourses of forced migration and the impact of ignoring the relational history between the presence of aid workers and local class structures. 

You can read Bringing Social Class into Humanitarian Debates: The Case of Northern Lebanon – Part Two – The Hidden Role of Social Class here.

**

If you found this piece of interest you can access the recommended reading list below or access our Thinking through the Global South series:

Carpi, E. (2020) No one wants to be the “Global North”?  On being a researcher across the North and the South.

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

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.

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2020) Introduction: Recentering the South in Studies of Migration

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. & Fiori, J. (2020) Migration, Humanitarianism, and the Politics of Knowledge – An Interview with Juliano Fiori

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

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

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. and Daley, P. (2018) Conceptualising the global South and South–South encounters

Nimer, M. (2019) Reflections on the Political Economy in Forced Migration Research from a ‘Global South’ Perspective

Zapater, J, 2021 Humanitarian leadership: developing social capital with affected populations

**

Note: This research has been conducted in the framework of the project “Analysing South-South Humanitarian Responses to Displacement from Syria: Views from Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey,” funded by the European Research Council under the Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation agreement no. 715582.

**

References:

[1] Theresia Sarkis, “Lebanon is struggling to cope with Syrian refugees, but young people are pushing the country to be positive,” The Independent, April 15, 2019, https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/syria-refugees-lebanon-youth-brussels-middle-east-a8870416.html

[2] Miriam Ticktin, “Humanity as Concept and Method: Reconciling Critical Scholarship and Empathetic Methods,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 37, 3 (2017): 608-613.

[3] Didier Fassin, Life: A Critical User’s Manual (New York: Polity, 2018).

[4] See Joely Thomas and Birte Vogel, “Intervention Gentrification and Everyday Socio-economic Transactions in Intervention Societies,” Civil Wars 20, 2 (2018): 217-237. 

[5] Claude Dubar and Salim Nasr, Les classes sociales au Liban (Paris: Les Presses de Sciences Po, 1976). 

[6] Faraj T. Zakhour, Halba fy nisf qarn 1900-1950 (Halba: Dar Zakhour li’l tab‘a, an-nashr, wa at-tawzi‘, 2005) 24.

[7] Remark by local intellectual, February 2017.

[8] Estella Carpi and Camillo Boano, “Humanitarianism in an Urban Lebanese Setting: Missed Opportunities,” The Legal Agenda, February 5, 2018, https://www.legal-agenda.com/en/article.php?id=4211.

[9] Hisham Ashkar, “Benefiting from a Crisis: Lebanese Upscale Real-Estate Industry and the War in Syria,” Confluences Méditerranée 1, 92 (2015): 89-100, https://www.cairn.info/revue-confluences-mediterranee-2015-1-page-89.htm#

[10] Interview with Syrian refugee women in Bebnin, spring 2017.


[i] This process has also been documented by Fiddian-Qasmiyeh in the case of Baddawi refugee camp in North Lebanon – see Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E., Grewal, Z., Karunakara, U., Greatrick, A., Ager, A., Lombard, L., Panter-Brick, C., Stonebridge, L. and Rowlands, A. (2020) Religion and Social Justice for Refugees: Insights from Cameroon, Greece, Malaysia, Mexico, Jordan and Lebanon. Bridging Voices report to the British Council. bc-hl-religion-and-social-justice-for-refugees-report-rev.pdf (wordpress.com), p. 29

Featured image: Turkish funded public hospital, Halba, North Lebaonon. (c) E. Carpi, 2019

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