What we didn't learn from Lebanon's civil war

The lessons the international community should be learning now in Lebanon, 40 years after the start of the civil war.

    A Lebanese student writes on a wall during an event to mark the 40th anniversary of Lebanon's civil war [REUTERS]
    A Lebanese student writes on a wall during an event to mark the 40th anniversary of Lebanon's civil war [REUTERS]

    This week Lebanon marks the 40th anniversary of the start of the terrible civil war that claimed 150,000 lives over 15 years. Remarkably, the country will do so as one of the more stable parts of the Middle East - even though political gridlock has denied the country a president for over a year and the war in Syria has deposited over a million Syrian refugees into Lebanon's 1,300 towns and villages. It is worth reflecting on what can be done to sustain progress. 

    In the 1970s and 1980s the words Lebanon and Beirut became a byword for chaos and destruction. The killing of 283 US marines in 1982 remains the largest ever peacetime loss of American lives overseas. Visiting the country last week, the wounds are still visible in the bullet- and shell-marked buildings in the capital, as well as the political weariness and wariness of the people. The damage is evident, too, in the widespread view in the US that Lebanon remains very dangerous. But while it would be tempting fate to talk about a rebound, the resilience, wealth, and pride of the country are potent factors in holding it together.

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    It has always been said that Lebanon is the victim of other people's wars. Today that is true in a very specific sense: one in four people living in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee. No European or North American country could have coped with this influx.

    Other people's wars

    The tensions are real, not least in the pressure on the infrastructure of housing, water, education, and health. The misery is evident, notably in informal tented settlements housing refugees. The experience of creating "temporary" refugee camps for Palestinians after 1948 has convinced the Lebanese that nothing is ever temporary.

    The administrative crackdown on refugees is also clear. New regulations demand $200 to renew a residency permit, employment sponsors, and housing guarantors, commitments not to work. The danger, other than further misery, is that the refugee communities are driven underground.

    Yet Lebanon has so far managed. The economy has not collapsed. The social fabric has been maintained. All this despite the inability of the international system to generate even half of the UN estimates for required funding to feed, educate, shelter and care for the people who have arrived.

    As the Syrian crisis becomes background music to the headlines of war in Iraq and Yemen, it is vital not to lose sight of a simple truth: Humanitarian misery becomes a source of political instability if it is allowed to fester.


    The most striking aspect of Lebanon's political system is obviously that it is founded on the sharing rather than the concentration of power. Where other systems - republican in Egypt and Syria, monarchical in the Gulf - focus power on one person and his court, Lebanon is the antithesis.

    Its problem in making decisions is the dispersal of power, not its concentration. But in fact, giving all communities a stake in the system is the greatest source of stability. Everyone complains, but no one wants to go back to war.

    The existential question is now how to handle the new population of Syrian refugees. There is no home for them to go to in Syria. There is no sign of the war ending. And in fact there is work to be done to prevent the export of fighting by jihadist groups from Syria into Lebanon.

    What can be done

    There are some positive examples of what can be done. For example 100,000 Syrian children are being accommodated in Lebanese schools, using an innovative double-shift system while also mixing Syrian children into an expanded first-shift. But even here there is a warning: over 184,000 of 6- to 14-year-olds and 403,000 of 15- to 18-year-olds are not in school.

    Part of the answer for them must be international support to allow expansion of the population accommodated in government schools. But with the best will in the world, there will always be kids left out of this system, and they need proper out-of-school provision ("non-formal education"). This is not just recreational activity, but proper education outside the state system (but sanctioned by it).

    Christian Lebanese women train in a village near port of Jounieh [1976][AFP]

    But as the war continues, there needs to be an economic dimension to the humanitarian response. Kids need to be in schools but parents also need to become contributors to the local economy. It is not as if there is not work to be done. Nor do we lack evidence that humanitarian effort can have beneficial economic impact.

    Last year the International Rescue Committee assessed the impact of a UN programme to issue 90,000 families in the Bekaa Valley with $100 a month in cash. The money was intended to help families make provision to stay warm over the winter. The money achieved that purpose, but it also revealed something else. For every dollar given to refugees, $2.13 circulated in the local economy. So there was a net economic gain.

    If that is the impact of a cash distribution, then there is potential to break the argument that work for Syrians means less work for Lebanese. For good or ill, they are currently part of the same economy, and they rise or fall together. After all, a Syrian refugee should be a customer for Lebanese agriculture - and of course Lebanese business has historically relied on Syrian labourers.

    As the Syrian crisis becomes background music to the headlines of war in Iraq and Yemen, it is vital not to lose sight of a simple truth: Humanitarian misery becomes a source of political instability if it is allowed to fester.

    As Lebanon marks the 40th anniversary of the start of a nightmarish chapter in its history, there is a chance to learn some new lessons.

    David Miliband is the president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee and was UK Foreign Secretary 2007-2010.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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