Fault lines: Rethinking resilience in Lebanon

Two girls, Aya and Labiba, walk side by side along a road at an informal settlement for Syrian refugees in Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. More than a third of Syrians who have fled the civil war in their country have found their to Lebanon. Photo by: S. Baldwin / UNHCR / CC BY-NC-ND

Four million refugees have fled Syria since the start of the country’s civil war in March 2011. More than a third of these refugees have found their way to Lebanon, a nation of just four million people. This small, mountainous country now has the highest per capita refugee population in the world.

The Syrian crisis continues to escalate. The Lebanese have responded generously, but as the influx of refugees strains the nation's basic services, tensions mount. Fault lines are appearing in over-stretched communities, largely mimicking the divide that defines the battle lines in Syria.

People usually think of resilience in the context of natural disasters — how families cope with the aftermath of an earthquake, how communities adapt to increasing cycles of drought, or how governments strengthen their capacity to protect their citizens from the next typhoon. But the next generation of resilience thinking is finding merit in adapting and applying the lessons from recurring disasters to those vulnerable to conflict-related crises.

The stakes are high. The Syrian conflict has reversed development by 35 years. Nations and the international community have to work together quickly to prevent that conflict from spreading farther — what is commonly referred to as a spillover effect — and stabilize a region in the midst of a humanitarian and political crisis.

That these crises are not static — they evolve and spread — means that we need to think differently about how we address them. We cannot focus solely on solving the immediate humanitarian need today. We also must work to build resilience in places facing crises, as well as in neighboring areas to prevent spillover.

Resilience challenges humanitarian, development and local actors to plan, integrate and build longer-term strategies together that reflect both the present and the future. In addition to integrating humanitarian and development approaches, emphasizing diverse perspectives and recognizing the need of longer time horizons, resilience also brings a commitment to build lasting local capacity that can continue to adapt as quickly as the context shifts. As practitioners, this means asking ourselves not only how we helped communities today, but also to what extent the communities themselves are better able to meet the challenges of tomorrow.  

In Lebanon, longer-term and integrated strategies can seem a far reach, particularly when devolving governance systems are nascent, political realities are stark, and refugees and host communities alike need urgent assistance. At the same time, these strategies are necessary; otherwise, the constant stress of a fragmented and overburdened government and the growing need for basic services may indeed create another conflict to shock the country.

Earlier this year, Mercy Corps and the U.N. Development Program conducted a research study in Lebanon’s communities to explore promising entry points and identify shared incentives for resilience in the context of a conflict. Discussions with many levels of stakeholders and our programming experience in Lebanon support UNDP Administrator Helen Clark’s view that, "Our approach … emphasizes the importance of transforming the structures and systems which repeatedly perpetuate fragility and undermine resilience.”

There are signs of success. Host and refugee communities are working together with their local institutions such as schools, health care centers, social development centers and municipalities to increase community-wide access to services and build trust in the process. In a recent project funded by the British Embassy in Beirut, through a series of community-level workshops and consultations these diverse stakeholders were able to find common ground and increase their access to shared community infrastructure by 15 percent.

Mercy Corps believes by promoting localized decision-making, it will in time be possible to improve service delivery, increase transparency in local government, change local decision-making to be more inclusive, and therefore minimize the negative effects of the Syrian crisis on Lebanon.

We see this crisis as an opportunity; one in which Lebanon can continue to push for its own systemic transformation.

Conflict in Context is a monthlong global conversation on conflict, transition and recovery hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, Cordaid, Mercy Corps, OSCE and USAID. We’ll decode the challenges and highlight the opportunities countries face while in crisis and what the development community is doing to respond. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #ConflictinContext.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Shannon Alexander

    Shannon Alexander is a senior director of strategic initiatives at Mercy Corps, where she leads the agency's global resilience initiative. Shannon is responsible for Mercy Corps' integration of resilience thinking across its technical sectors and establishing regional hubs to put theory into practice for on-the-ground impact.She combines her private sector experience working in the U.S. and Europe, with 20 years of experience in the development field. She started her development career in Romania, where she was chief of party for a business development program.
  • Victoria Stanski

    Victoria Stanski is director of programs for Mercy Corps in Lebanon, where she leads the development and implementation of relief and development programming to support the Syrian refugee crisis.