Rise to Peace blog

Civil Society Organizations as a Possible Structure for Recovery in Lebanon

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Lebanon experienced massive protests calling for a new government in response to declining economic opportunities amongst other issues. While lockdown measures have put these protests on pause, the core grievances remain. Its survival hinges on the ability of the government to address its citizens’ concerns.

However, the disconnect between the government and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) that work to combat local issues and aid development puts the Lebanese government at a disadvantage.  To prevent Lebanon from collapsing and adding to the instability of the region a framework built on the cooperation of these two groups to create meaningful policy change must be established.

Lebanon has a long and large history when it comes to CSOs. CSOs in Lebanon are defined as organizations working to promote intra-sectarian cooperation, civic participation, and inclusion in the governance and political order in Lebanon. As of 2015, there were 1.3 CSOs for every 1000 people in Lebanon. Official records indicate that there are 8,311 registered organizations and many more loosely organized groups.  But while the number of CSOs is numerous, the effectiveness of CSOs is extremely limited is due to Lebanon’s political structure and the weak organizational capacity of CSOs.

CSOs are currently largely locked out of the policy creation process because of the Lebanese government’s structure of sectarianism.  This structure breeds tribalism and voting based on sect rather than allegiance to effective governance. Additionally, policymakers are uninterested in working with CSOs, and largely ignore the local issues for pandering to the sect of their constituents and engaging in party politics.

The internal organizational capacity of CSO’s are limited in two major ways. The first, is that accurate information on the group’s functions, membership, and influence is largely unavailable, which makes it difficult for donors to contribute. In fact, over 60% of Lebanese CSOs suffer from a lack of financial resources. The lack of resources leads to the inability to maintain full-time staff, operate offices, and other essential functions or successful organizations. The second is that over 41% of CSOs in Lebanon have problems maintaining volunteers. This makes larger community projects unachievable and limits the effectiveness of the CSO, but also its ability to influence policy through citizen pressure on policymakers.

To increase their effectiveness CSOs need to develop reliable information management, create robust strategic plans, keep volunteers engaged, and lastly, develop a relationship with the media. However, unless the government makes changes to cooperate with CSOs the changes CSOs need to make will not greatly increase their effectiveness.

The current “lockout” of CSOs from the policy making process is extremely harmful to maintaining Lebanon’s stability as it approaches a socio-economic collapse. If the crisis of a failed state is to be averted the government needs to include the CSOs to address the local issues that contribute to the larger grievances like the public health crisis (water pollution and poor healthcare) and economic fatigue (18% youth unemployment, low job creation, low wages, mismatch of the job market demands and skills earned in the education sector).

The risk of collapse is predicated on the elites of Lebanon exploiting the relatively liberal political atmosphere and absence of a welfare state to create informal dependency networks that preserve the status-quo.  The lack of cooperation between the government and CSOs allows extremist groups and parties like Hezbollah to use the same strategy to create their own dependency networks that supports the survival of these organizations and adds to the already heightened fragmentation without contributing to the overall well-being of citizens.

A lockout of CSOs from the policy process not only threatens the stability of the region, but will also lockout the inhabitants of Lebanon from experiencing real, and needed, change. Not only does the current Lebanese government need to learn and adapt, but the current situation provides a framework for other states in the region to learn a valuable lesson — failing to include CSOs in the policy making process may preserve the status-quo temporarily, but that it leads to a failure in good governance and eventually political upheaval.

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