The Vital City: Time and space in the unpacking of displacements, crisis and city futures in Lebanon
By Annelise Andersen, Communications and Impact Officer (RELIEF Centre), UCL Institute for Global Prosperity
In January 2018, UCL's Institute for Global Prosperity (IGP) in collaboration with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut (AUB) hosted a two-day workshop in Beirut. The workshop was organised by investigators from RELIEF Research Strand 1: The Vital City and the Public Services and Vulnerability in the Lebanese Context of Large-Scale Displacement project. It brought together participants including researchers, NGO representatives, United Nations agencies, urban planners, members of local municipalities in Lebanon and members of the local community. Together, these experts provided extensive consultation on the current needs, opportunities and challenges for improving public service provision in the Lebanese context.
The workshop discussed the common methodologies, approaches and storytelling techniques used in research of mass displacement in urban areas of Lebanon. Two case studies were used to explore how the presence of displaced groups impacts upon urban areas with different political, economic and social profiles: Bar Elias, in the Beqaa Valley and Saida, in the south of Lebanon.
The format of the workshops included presentations and discussions, some of which drew on personal experiences of living and working in Lebanon. Conversations continued after each session, providing an opportunity to delve deeper into the themes within, and links between, talks. This provided valuable insight to be used as a basis for future investigations in RELIEF.
How theory informs research
The first session of the workshop was opened by Professor Camillo Boano (UCL). Prof. Boano invited participants working on mass displacement in Lebanon and its surrounding countries to tell us how they think and talk about their research. Politicians, the media and the public have come to use a select number of terms to talk about mass displacement and those affected by it. These can be useful in creating common understanding and in mobilising conversations. However, these terms can also de-humanise, over-simplify and conflate.
The challenge with the terminology used for mass displacement is that it's often unspecific. Paradoxically, this can be divisive and restrictive when applied to different groups. One of the most common examples of this is speaking of those affected by mass displacement in opposition to host communities - they become the "others", the "vulnerable". To avoid this polarisation, participants agreed, we could consider using broader terms that nod towards what communities share, as well as what separates them.
Different approaches to different areas
The management of displaced populations in Lebanon has been inconsistent. This has led to distinct and dispersed settlements across Lebanon, most of whom live in poverty. Workshop participants agreed that the methodological approaches used in research at these different sites need to be tailored to account for their specific political, socio-cultural and economic characteristics.
The importance of recognising these attributes was illustrated in discussions of mass displacement in Bar Elias. For example, it has played, and continues to play host to a large number of Syrian refugees because of its geographic location halfway between Beirut and Damascus. There have been both positive and negative developments that have come about in Bar Elias as a result of this. Its economy may have been revived, but pollution has increased as a result of this.
In response to this, Professor Henrietta Moore who leads the RELIEF Centre, closed the first day by acknowledging the need to approach collectively the challenges posed by mass displacement in Lebanon. The RELIEF Centre, a transdisciplinary project, aims to do this by working with a range of different stakeholders on the ground.
Introduced by Professor Mohamed Fouad Mohamed Fouad (AUB), the second day of the workshop continued discussions of the impact of mass displacement in the context of Saida. Both Bar Elias and Saida have hosted displaced communities repeatedly. However, as a coastal city, and the third largest in Lebanon, Saida presents a different profile to that of Bar Elias.
Saida is made up of small, tight-knit neighbourhoods which contribute to its local economy. Because of its distance to the Syrian border, Saida has been able to plan a more "personalised approach" to those who arrive there. There are a high number of NGOs operating in Saida - around 45 in total. 27 of these founded Saida's local coalition of NGOs in 2015, coordinated by the local municipality. The idea behind this union was to create a joined-up approach to challenges posed by mass displacement. The position and economy of Saida have played a large part in enabling this to happen, whereas elsewhere in Lebanon it may not have been possible.
The study of identity and individuals is equally important to the understanding of mass displacement in urban areas as space and access to resources. In the final session of the workshop, participants concluded that perceptions of displaced populations are significantly influenced by their interactions with, and impact on the urban environment. In the middle of an ongoing crisis, we might ask how Lebanon will continue to absorb or accommodate the displaced. In addition, it is worth considering the impact on Lebanon if displaced populations left.
It was clear throughout this workshop that cities and areas in Lebanon are continuously adapting to shifting environmental factors. The RELIEF Centre advocates that the approaches we take towards understanding these changes and the impact they are having on the lives of communities must be sensitive and sustainable. For interventions to lead to more prosperous societies in the context of mass displacement, this is essential.
Read the full report here