The grey areas between emergency and non-emergency policies: Lebanon as a new interdisciplinary perspective

June 29, 2015
The grey areas between emergency and non-emergency policies: Lebanon as a new interdisciplinary perspective
Estella Carpi
Estella Carpi Non-Resident Fellow in Social Anthropology

In the wake of large and small-scale armed conflicts, popular protests and requests for economic reforms and political freedom over the last decade, the Middle Eastern region had to cope with a massive influx of refugees, in particular from Syria.

In Lebanon, the reiterated states of emergency due to its continuous struggles against Israel[1] and the massive presence of Syrian refugees in the wake of the 2011 Asad’s political crisis – and Palestinians from Syria – have led Lebanon’s systems of governance, such as the local municipalities as well as international and local non-governmental organisations, to reshape or integrate their welfare schemes, and, above all, mobilise economic and social resources more rapidly in order to meet the increasing and immediate needs of local communities and refugee newcomers altogether.

At this point, it is helpful to recall the classical definition of “emergency”. By emergency it is meant a temporal state following a harmful event, caused by human action (usually warfare) or natural disaster, disrupting normal life. Urgent interventions, in such circumstances, are seen as desirable and self-legitimising in that properties, lives, environment and health are all heavily damaged by allegedly unpredictable events.  However, the notion of “emergency”, of which the definition given above is taken for granted and homogenised, can rather emerge as problematic, as it implies far more muddled and predictable processes than how it is depicted in the simplifying NGOs’ language (Calhoun, 2008).

Refugees, the product of historical factual changes, have always been the most visible part of such “humanitarian emergencies”. NGOs normally focus on the alleviation of their predicament without addressing the crisis’ causes. Thus, the aid industry merely deals with refugees as a homologated symptom of any crisis, neglecting the diversity of their political experience back in their countries of origin. The homologation of the refugees’ experience certainly has side effects, overlooking the type of needs and rights that every individual or family intends to claim once arrived in the “host” country. This generates social alienation, emotional frustration, and, in the long run, further possibilities of violence outbursts and instability. After all, the very cornerstone of humanitarianism itself is about depoliticising its beneficiaries to maintain stability and social order, and treating them as people with homogenous needs, while alleviating people’s suffering rather than ending the causes of their grievance.

The hybrid humanitarian governance, formed by the domestic and international apparatuses of NGOs, that emerges in times of emergency – also named “non-governmental government” (Fassin, 2007) or “mobile sovereignty” (Pandolfi, 2000) – acts in the name of “moral universals” and paved the way to a “pietas market” (Badie, 2002), that is to say a viable labour market of humanitarian agencies intervening in the conflict-ridden territories out of global compassion. This generally happens in the case of weak and wavering states – from an economic and political perspective – in which the central governmental apparatus is corrupted and does not own the sufficient resources to cope with an emergency crisis, either internal or in the form of a neighbouring country’s spillover, like in the case of Lebanon and Syria. The neoliberal phenomenon of NGOs proliferation, in such contexts, takes ground much more easily, as the intervention of non-state entities to provide aid and roll out programmes becomes massive. Although these non-state organisations still need the approval of any local government in order to intervene, in terms of political and technical decisions they often become the de facto statehood of a territory.

Such non-state entities therefore give birth to the phenomenon of “catastrophisation” or “emergencisation” (Vazquez-Arroyo, 2013), according to which emergency-driven programmes simply end up being a way of governing a chronically unstable country.

The cycle that is identifiable throughout historical peacetime and wartime stages is the transformation of humanitarian programmes into long-term development projects, when emergency becomes a normal instrument of social policy, since the state apparatus alone is not equipped to face the emergency crisis and, consequently, burdens further international and local non-state welfare actors when tackling a refugee crisis or warfare.

In the process of unpacking the emergencisation of society, Calhoun named “emergency imaginary” the rational construction through which we define predictable products of history. Therefore, most of the changes produced in times of emergency are actually identifiable and isolable (Calhoun, 2008: 18), and surely not a matter of fate. The “adhocratic”[2] approach of the humanitarian industry constitutes the antipode of Calhoun’s perspective.  In this framework, what often goes unstudied is that, in the aftermath of a crisis, some of the short-term projects turn into long-term development programmes and tend to remain in the territory of intervention in the capacity of catalysers and integrators of pre-existing local or international welfare regimes. For example, large international organisations like Save the Children, Oxfam, and Caritas started long-term projects in the southern suburbs of Beirut in the aftermath of the July 2006 war against Israel. A large part of their funds has been redirected towards the aid for Syrian refugees in the wake of the 2011 Syrian political crisis. This caused a sudden interruption of some of their projects in the area, in order to meet the requests of the donors, who mostly desired to prioritise emergency needs, and re-address the funds accordingly.

The previously developed welfare system, apparently strengthened by international non-governmental organisations in the wake of a previous emergency, therefore tackles new refugee and displacement crises and, subsequently, needs to tailor its own services to emergency-driven needs. What remains under-investigated are the transformational stages of social policy in Lebanon from and to humanitarianism, in a framework where most local welfare regimes also address short-term needs without eradicating poverty and deprivation and, hence, they still lack long-term planning. Local welfare associations, though much more effective than the central state itself in Lebanon’s history, often end up working in partnership with larger international NGOs in order to attract funds, therefore abandoning their initial purpose of improving the condition of longstanding vulnerable people, not “protagonists” of the new emergencies. The traditional approach of social welfare providers in Lebanon can thus be defined as mainly palliative, while the state abdicates its own responsibility to end poverty and misery within its own boundaries (Jawad, 2009). Furthermore, it is worth recalling that the role of the Lebanese state is merely administrative in social policy, prioritising economic growth and development over resource equality (Jawad, 2007).

The discussed cycle of apparent empowerment and deprivation can be summarised as such: most pre-existing domestic and international welfare actors shift their own action’s focus to emergency in order to attract a larger amount of financial assistance, and to comply with the ethical tyranny of emergencies. Nevertheless, in the immediate aftermath of a crisis, international humanitarian actors increasingly tend to implement long-term programmes in a bid not to abandon the territory of intervention. However, once a new emergency disrupts questionable “normality”, such actors re-prioritise again the new erupted emergency by implementing adhocratic programmes, therefore taking the resources that were initially meant to improve the non-emergency system and causing the cyclic weakening of the latter.

In the described cycle, non-emergency policy and emergency policy evidently acquire a blurred character that still needs to be explored in depth in the Lebanese context as elsewhere. The exploration of this interface is relevant to understand to what extent the non-emergency safety nets influence external emergency programmes, and the other way around. The understanding of such a mutual influence is fundamental to assess to what extent the long-term nature of originally emergency programmes is able to economically and socially strengthen the country regardless of emergencies, and, above all, independently from the expectation of new emergency crises. To cultivate political and historical predictability is a crucial factor to prevent human hardships. In light of this, the humanitarian system needs to revise its cornerstones and standardised methods, altogether with its own belief that adversities are inherently unpredictable and, as such, the only thing that we can do as human beings is rescuing lives and alleviating suffering.

Researching how the local welfare system has been influencing emergency policies and the international humanitarian action would shed light on this under-studied intersection. In particular, it will investigate how both the local welfare system and the international humanitarian actors tend to use palliatives to people’s vulnerability and predicament, and both seek to change the political subjectivity of the beneficiaries rather than aiming to produce real material transformations in the Lebanese context. For example, in a case study analysed in my doctoral thesis, an Iraqi refugee relocated to a southern suburb of Beirut was observing how he was provided with free computer classes, after having been living there for 8 years. However, he was specifying how he was still economically unable to purchase food and other livelihoods, just as when he had just arrived in Lebanon. What was the sense of making him employable in Lebanese society, in the capacity of a refugee produced by an emergency that is ageing, and, as such, is no longer entitled to the same aid as that the Syrian newcomers are being provided with? The purpose of the service providers here is intervening on the beneficiary subjectivity, and making the beneficiary feel as viable part of a “host” society, in which he needs to find a job – in Lebanon or, most of the time, in a third country – in the effort to conceal the still urgent needs of older emergency refugees, and the scarce material changes the aid providers have actually achieved on the ground. Such ageing emergencies, like the Sudanese and the Iraqi in Lebanon, are in fact discussable in terms of unresolved political crises from Calhoun’s perspective.

A closer look at the interface between emergency studies and welfare studies would allow the scholarship to assess a local politics of vulnerability, and to investigate how local welfare regimes have been reconceptualised and have evolved across Lebanon as an outcome of longstanding refugeehood and displacement regimes, while seeking to tackle reiterated crises. To unearth how social policy systems have been changing would also shed light on the emerging systems of hybrid governances in the neoliberal era, the new inequalities the governors need to deal with, and the unexplored connections between humanitarianism and social policy which are erroneously dealt with as two separate fields of studies. Indeed, in spite of historical state incapacity, communal service provision in Lebanon is well developed (Jawad, 2007) and worth researching further in relation to reiterated emergency, or, better said, never politically addressed.

So, what are the main points of interrelation between emergency-driven humanitarianism and non-emergency social policy? In Lebanon, both systems are working for human wellbeing and share the value of empathy in the name of collective identity, by attributing moral value to their work. Likewise, emergency-driven humanitarianism and non-emergency social policy share a paternalistic approach to their beneficiaries, by having mercy upon and assisting a necessarily selected number of recipients. Therein, both emergency-driven humanitarianism and non-emergency social policy pursue in Lebanon the preservation of social order, diversely thought in both systems of care: the former by relying on the imperative ethics of political neutrality, and the latter on political accountability and community engagement as a way to social stability and welfare. Lebanon, in this respect, may become a representative sample for territories in which the abovementioned “catastrophization of political life” takes place.

The qualitative exploration of this interplay would also shed light on how individuals react to changes in non-emergency policy. Chronic neglected people witnessing the implementation of the humanitarian apparatus on their territory once the latter becomes shelter for displaced or refugee people, in fact, do not tend to respond to emergencies per se, but rather to the emergencisation of their territory and to the new humanitarian presence. In these circumstances, local assistance regimes change, by including or excluding particular social groups in accordance with their political agenda and main humanitarian purpose. These new exclusions and inclusions tend to generate local frictions, resilience, crises of identification, or gratitude among the (non)beneficiaries. For instance, North Lebanon exemplifies how an assistance regime can be source of social conflict once the social space turns into a humanitarian space. Local communities in this neglected region have always been poorly addressed by state or non-state service providers prior to the Syrian refugee influx. In the aftermath, Lebanese in Akkar have gradually become beneficiaries of emergency programmes, in order to stifle local dissent towards the aid provided to the newcomers, and to handle or prevent instability. The previously northern Lebanese left-behind, therefore, have now become objects of social protection policies ”thanks to” the presence of Syrian refugees in the region, who were the first here to be addressed by humanitarian actors.

Through longstanding community services that cultivated the citizens’ trust throughout the years to a greater extent than the state in Lebanon, non-emergency policies co-exist with humanitarian emergency programmes that generally gain much less civic trust and lack accountability due to their ad hoc approach, according to an increasingly large number of qualitative studies on humanitarianism (Belloni, 2005; Fassin 2007; Pandolfi, 2000). Both of these systems of human agency and care are raised in the bosom of the Lebanese culture of “familism” (Khalaf, 2002), that is to say the personalistic and vertical nature of the patron-client network embedded in the socio-cultural pattern of the Lebanese family unit. Local welfare associations, in fact, are generally created or expanded through a genealogy of kinship and clientelism. Emergency-driven humanitarianism, although inherited from outside, still needs to comply with this local cultural pattern to be efficacious on the ground and gain access to territories. Familism is therefore a further salient feature emergency and non-emergency policies share in the Lebanese context.

In light of these considerations, social policy and humanitarianism should be researched as cultural practices, in that able to express local solidarity, empathy, moral obligation, disaffection, frictions, or moral adherence to a given socio-ethical system, in relation to official or tacit states of emergency. The abovementioned interdisciplinary need would shed light on these dynamic factors and effects, and would constitute the empirical bedrock for conceiving non-emergency policy and humanitarianism as a sole body of human agency and care in Lebanon, rather than as two separate disciplinary fields, as it has mostly been done thus far.

By way of conclusion, the construction of the so-called “emergency state” complexly affects local governance and normal policy-making. The constructive character of the notion of “emergency” (Calhoun, 2008) in Lebanon should be unearthed, as well as the need for rethinking vulnerability in contexts where non-emergency welfare for citizens used to be even less than the aid provided to refugee newcomers (i.e. Beirut’s Southern Suburbs until the 1990s and the northern region of Akkar until 2012). Lebanese state laxity, in fact, has always led citizens to purchase their social services privately in the welfare market, proving the users’ different “purchasing powers”. Social inequality and uneven access to services typically run parallel to one another: in this framework, the taken-for-granted tyranny of emergency complicates further the interrelation between refugee newcomers and displaced, typically addressed by humanitarianism, and, on the other hand, vulnerable citizens or longstanding migrant have-nots, who traditionally fall outside the short-term humanitarian agenda.

Finally, the central state and several non-state aid providers tend to overlook the heterogeneity of the vulnerable, and rather embrace the normative concept “vulnerability” acquires in compliance with their own political interests. Ultimately, the officially vulnerable in Lebanon, either refugees or migrants or citizens, end up being those whose care feeds the political accountability of different political and humanitarian actors. Anything lying outside of their political agenda is not considered as “humanisable”.

An interdisciplinary exploration of the intersection between non-emergency and emergency policies would highlight the changing politics of vulnerability and its societal effects, which are chronically neglected in Lebanon’s narratives of human agency and care.


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Belloni, R. (April 2005) Is Humanitarianism Part of the Problem? Nine Theses. John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Boston, MA.

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[1] The first Israeli invasion of Lebanon took place in 1978 under the name of “Litani Operation” in the South. In 1982 the Israeli army conducted the so-called “Operation of Peace in Galilee”, and kept occupying the southern Lebanese territory until May 2000. Likewise, the Israeli aviation bombed reiterated times in history the Beirut airport.

[2] “Adhocratic” is a term composed of the Latin expression ad hoc + the Ancient Greek term kratos (“power”), used in the disciplinary field of humanitarianism by Elizabeth Cullen Dunn in 2012 in her study on Georgia. The compounded term therefore wants to indicate the power of an ad hoc approach, an approach addressing only very specific situations, like a particular social group in a territory of intervention, without aiming to eradicate the very cause behind it. For instance, in the case of Syria, an adhocratic approach is adopted by the humanitarian actors, who provided water, mattresses, food and medicines to the refugees without supporting military intervention in Syria or advocating for Asad’s departure, whose military aviation forces bombed refugee people’s neighbourhoods. This, from my side, is not meant to denounce the non-intervention in Syria, but rather to highlight the “appearance of intervention” instrument usually adopted by global humanitarianism.