In this post, Estella Carpi examines the interface between ‘the urban’ and the humanitarian system in the small urban centre of Halba, in order to shed light on the antagonistic and, at times, collaborative relationships between local authorities, local and refugee labourers, and international humanitarian agencies. If you find this piece of interest, please also see the suggested readings at the end of this piece, or visit our Contextualising the Localisation of Aid Agenda series on our blog. 

Accessing Urban-Humanitarian Encounters in Northern Lebanon 

By Dr Estella Carpi, UCL and Southern Responses Research Associate 

Home to 128 municipalities and 160 villages, Akkar is one of Lebanon’s most deprived regions, with severe poverty levels and the worst unemployment rate in the country. Out of Akkar’s total population of 1.1 million, a little over 700,000 live below the poverty line: 341,000 Lebanese, over 266,000 Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR since 2011, 88,000 Palestinian refugees, and almost 12,000 returning Lebanese expatriates. Even prior to the arrival of Syrian refugees and international humanitarian agencies in 2011, the Akkar region in Lebanon has historically suffered from local and national instability as a result of war and social upheavals, without receiving adequate relief and support.

This piece focuses on the urban area of Halba, in Akkar: too small to be called a city, Halba is more like an urban centre. Urban and rural are therefore interdependent categories at multiple levels. Local people move back and forth between these two environments, trading goods and services, and visiting family split between the city and the villages. In this geography, the ‘city’ constitutes a spatial continuum with unclearly bounded informal assemblages, where large groups of Syrian refugees reside.

The refugee influx resulted in the arrival of several international humanitarian agencies further stretching the capacity of local government in Akkar. In this vein, a local development office (LDO) has been created to enhance coordination between local and international NGOs, and inter-agency meetings now take place on a regular basis. According to local governors interviewed in winter 2017, such meetings brought in INGOs to better understand the local context, therefore contributing to an amelioration of and an increase in local knowledge of needs, resources and capacities.  Unfortunately, this did not result in an actual coordination between different service providers. Contrarily, some local NGOs have begun competing with each other for better access to international networks and larger funds.

On the one hand, this demonstrates that humanitarian actors have looked to Halba as a city to improve their logistic strategies and their engagement with local authorities; on the other, they have ignored its urban character and potentialities. In this setting, the humanitarian system initially acted with a traditional, short-term, and urgent action-oriented focus. It neglected municipal and regional governors, local farmers and landowners, all of whom are not equipped to face emergency crises. The aid industry in Akkar, with meaningful delay, resorted to local authorities to guarantee legitimacy as a way to build quicker access to local populations, rather than invoking local in-depth knowledge of the territory. A deeper mutual understanding between local governance and the humanitarian system, and their respective approaches to crisis are still lacking, along with their possibility to integrate. Training local authorities and asking for their formal approval to operate have been mistaken for substantive engagement. No bilateral knowledge transfers between these systems of governance have occurred thus far.

The humanitarian system in Halba has initially sought to enable individuals to cope rather than provide appropriate infrastructure. The UNDP and UKAID-funded market in Halba illustrates how the provision of public infrastructure needs to be carefully planned and coordinated with relevant municipal authorities. The market, set in 6,000m2 of public space, and with the capacity to accommodate nearly 390 traders, was inaugurated in December 2016. However, it was shut down after four days as the newly appointed municipal authorities had not given permission to open the market and, moreover, the area was not served by any public transport. As a result, even though UNDP had provided financial management and capacity building support to the Halba municipality, the market was short-lived. Ignoring the socio-spatial implications of the market’s construction left it unused, abandoned, and ineffective, providing a tangible example of a lack of mutual knowledge in the coordination of the humanitarian response.

As the leader of the Akkar Traders’ Association reflected, “when shops shut down Halba dies”. Indeed, humanitarian actors have rarely resided in the city for everyday economic purposes, and based themselves in other surrounding villages where entertainment is more accessible. They approached Halba as a mere place of intervention. This further points to the missed opportunities for collaboration between city authorities, longstanding service providers and humanitarian agencies in Akkar. Indeed, an urban-humanitarian encounter is not simply related to systematic programming, but it is also characterised by spontaneous daily interactions.

As evidence of this encounter between the humanitarian and the urban system, some humanitarian livelihood programmes, such as the International Rescue Committee’s coast cleaning project (from al-Abdeh to the Arida border-crossing), employ vulnerable citizens and migrants in a bid to contribute to improving the Akkar landscape and environment. Yet, the short timeframes of the humanitarian system make it difficult to sustain impact. Such a delayed encounter has shown how provisional the effects of humanitarian action can be if the aim to create well-functioning public infrastructures (waste management, access to water, etc.) comes late. Despite the need to build access to local populations, humanitarian actors are reluctant to involve local authorities in their work. They unrealistically desire to keep humanitarian action out of local politics. Yet, their attempt at avoiding involvement in local politics and the decision to exclude public authorities, who still gate-keep urban settings to a certain extent, remain neatly political, often impeding multilateral knowledge transfers which would eventually lead to actual collaborations and exchange.

The collaboration between humanitarian actors and local authorities in Lebanon has historically proved to be successful and effective in already resourceful municipalities in Lebanon (e.g. Beirut’s southern suburbs and southern Lebanon after the July 2006 war). In these settings, the municipal approval of humanitarian programmes is an essential condition for intervening. In this vein, humanitarian resources and support should be particularly channelled into the most vulnerable municipalities.

Overall, local municipalities in northern Lebanon paradoxically lack the incentive to improve the city: solid infrastructure and well-functioning urban systems may attract larger numbers of refugees from other areas in Lebanon which are less well served. As the Global North’s borders become increasingly inaccessible, preserving the status quo, rather than enhancing the capacity of local authorities and infrastructures, spares Halba and other Lebanese areas having to host even larger numbers of refugees in search of job opportunities and a better quality of life. The lack of incentives for local infrastructural improvement questions the oversimplifying dictum of “working with local authorities” which nowadays overpopulates the experts’ recommendations contained in policy briefs and humanitarian accounts. Thus, the international community needs to recognise and address its failure in equally sharing humanitarian responsibility vis-à-vis the refugee influx. In fact, this failure often results in the abovementioned lack of cooperation of local authorities.

A longer version of this article was published with The Legal Agenda


Featured Image: the public market funded by UKAID, which was shut down (c) E. Carpi 


Read more pieces from the Refugee Hosts blog and Localisation of Aid series here:

Carpi, E. (2018) “Does Faith-Based Aid Provision Always Localise Aid?

Carpi, E. (2017) “Syrians in Akkar: Refugees or Neighbours?

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) “Contextualising the Localisation of Aid Agenda”

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) “Employment and Pension Rights in the Context of the Localisation of Aid Agenda” Refugee Hosts 

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) “The Localisation of Aid and Southern-led Responses to Displacement

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) “Histories and Spaces of Southern-Led Responses to Displacement

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. and Qasmiyeh, Y. M. (2017) “Refugee Neighbours and Hostipitality”

Jayawickrama, J. and Rehman, B. (2018) “Before Defining what is Local, Let’s Build the Capacities of Humanitarian Agencies”

Sharif, H. (2018) “Refugee-led Humanitarianism in Lebanon’s Shatila Camp

Svoboda, E. (2018) “Humanitarian Access and the Role of Local Communities”




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