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The alliance of media and humanitarianism in Lebanon

With the growing Syrian refugee crisis, media entrepreneurs seem to care more about protecting the orthodox morality of humanitarianism, with the excuse of preserving social order - as conceived by them - rather than educating the public.

International media, closely connected to humanitarian agencies, often hasten to show North Lebanon’s ‘outstanding’ hospitality of Syrian refugees, arriving in large numbers to flee destruction, scarcity, repression and chronic fear. However, unlike the idyllic scenario humanitarian practitioners usually provide, such hospitality is actually part of a larger picture. At the same time, the media, while providing positive accounts in an alleged bid to pacify further social frictions, paradoxically rely on ethnicised desciptions – in this specific case, Lebanese versus Syrians.

A few months ago, some Lebanese threw stones at humanitarian workers during the distribution of food kits for Syrian refugees in Akkar, the northern most region of Lebanon and host to the majority of Syrian refugees. The episode was considered an outburst of tension by local people themselves with the sudden massive presence of humanitarian organizations in an area of little political interest, often neglected by state and non-state actors. Non-state actors have always been more localized in Beirut and the south of the country, concentrated on the humanitarian consequences of the Israeli occupation and the subsequent aggravated local impoverishment.  

The humanitarian agencies operating in that town decided not to let journalists report on the episode at the time. Some published about it instead by contending that local people in North Lebanon would stop ‘hostilities’ and warm up if aid was provided to them too. The main reason behind the omission of the episode would seem to be the preventing further inflammation of tensions between the local community and Syrian refugees.

The humanitarian phenomenon of hospitality however serves the interests of aid providers in showing that they are acting in a responsive and compliant environment. Local hospitality in north Lebanon is often used in the media to express the ‘truly humanitarian essence’ of Northern Lebanese identity – as stated by aid providers politically affiliated to the March 14 coalition, presently allied with the Syrian opposition. Such a politicization of aid was similarly used by March 8 political coalition (that counts among its most important members the Hezbollah and Michel Aoun alliance), during the 2006 war with Israel.

Except for mixed families that host Syrian relatives who have escaped the war, such hospitality very often relies on financial returns through house rents paid in cash by humanitarian organizations to Lebanese landlords, as in the case of Taiba, a Saudi NGO in Halba. Other refugees, unable to access the housing refurbished and provided by agencies, end up paying, at a minimum, 100 USD to Lebanese landlords just to rent a piece of land or receive a tent.

News reports covering the area intentionally disguise these local money circles that renew classic patron-client relationships in Akkar, reflecting its social roots. This is often done in an illusory attempt to protect the moral reputation of north Lebanon’s people. Media coverage thus ties morality to the local material (in)capacity to host and welcome refugees.

Indeed, the role of the media should be to highlight the desperate fight for economic survival in Akkar, whose people have been chronically neglected in the years since the French mandate (1920), the post-National Pact State (1943) and the post-Taef Agreement State (1990). Nowadays, local residents of the northern region must still deal with a twenty-hour power cut every day, lack of drinking water and scarcity of public schools and local hospitals.

Media entrepreneurs seem to care more about protecting the orthodox morality of humanitarianism, with the excuse of preserving social order - as conceived by them - rather than educating the public. On the one hand, it advertises north Lebanese hospitality to maintain the international image of the welcoming Akkaris, as prompted by humanitarian workers; on the other, whenever it decides to distance itself from the humanitarian mainstream, it portrays Akkar’s people as greedy beings getting profit from the Syrian humanitarian crisis.

Humanitarian organizations should realize by now the infeasibility of intervening in an empirically ‘empty space’, ideally void of social frictions, expectations, paybacks, resentment and mutual mistrust. The implementation of humanitarian projects, hence, should take these conditions into consideration. Further research is needed on how failure and success of humanitarian projects can grow within an organization and gradually affect social history, regardless of the good intentions of the working staff.

National and inter-community relations seem to be the only media narratives to explain the social frictions in Akkar. This obsession for categories is unluckily a common trend of international journalists attempting to grasp violence outbursts in the religiously mixed Akkari villages. As a result, individual reasons and disputes, therefore, go totally unseen.

The media directly connected to humanitarian organizations omits the kind of information that we, international philanthropists and middle class locals working in the humanitarian sector, would feel uncomfortable with. Such unpleasant truths might undermine the nature itself of our ‘for-the-sake-of-mankind’ work. All the 'side effects' humanitarian work engenders - as it normally occurs in any enterprise - need to be disguised in the name of its survival.

The intellectual effort to explore the historical reasons for the present social frictions to avoid the oversimplified ethnic lens between ‘Syrian-takers’ and ‘Lebanese-givers’ is dangerously left to the public. By adopting arbitrary descriptive terms in the media, such as civil war, sectarianism, terrorism, Islamisation and so forth, and by ‘ethnicising’ the explanation of social facts, we have already created human imaginaries of Lebanese against Syrians and Syrians against Lebanese.  

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