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Lebanon: Injured, Displaced Can’t Deend on State

Letter from Lebanon: Injured and Displaced Can’t Depend on Government for Assistance

Hoda Yassine Attieh and her family have been forced to move back to their bomb-damaged house for financial reasons. The Lebanese Government does not offer them any assistance. Photo by Yasmine Rayn.

Column by Yasmine Ryan.
Images by Hugh Chatfield and Yasmine Ryan


(BEIRUT – 13 April 2007) – In the bombed-out suburb of Haret Hreik ( click here to see Photo Essay: Returning to Beirut’s southern suburbs seven months on), the Attieh family is returning to its home in spite of continuing safety concerns.

Hassan Attieh, his wife Hoda Yassine Attieh and their five children evacuated the area during the summer 2006 war. They left shortly after Israeli aircraft bombed the Al-Manar television headquarters located one block from their apartment.

The family has stayed elsewhere since the war, waiting for a safety check that government officials assured them would be conducted. The promise has remained unfulfilled. No longer able to afford the daily cost of taking their four children to school, the Attiehs are returning to their home.

Their apartment building was damaged when a neighbouring apartment block was completely destroyed by Israeli bombs.

Hoda is most concerned with two gaping holes in one wall of a bedroom in the family's apartment. The kitchen is still filled with rubble and a layer of concrete dust has yet to be cleaned, but Hassan and some friends unloaded furniture from the truck and carried it back into the family home.

Only one other occupant has returned to the building, Hassan says. "Because we own our apartment, we don't have to pay for rent here, so it is cheaper," explains Hoda.

Like many others displaced by the latest war with Israel, the Attieh family has been living off money provided by Hizbullah.

"We can apply for more money from Hizbullah, but we don't want to. The government should be helping us" Hassan says.

Neither the Ministry for the Displaced nor the Lebanese Higher Relief Commission replied to requests for comment for this article.

Last week, Letter to Lebanon visited cluster bomb victim Rasha Zayoun ( click here to see De Facto Landmines Continue to Maim). For those like Rasha, wounded by the 34-day War and its aftermath, there is no direct support provided by the state. It was the local branch of the Shia political party Amal which provided her with a wheelchair.

Rasha receives free medical treatment from the Lebanese Welfare Association for the Handicapped (LWAH), which is part of the Nabih Berri Rehabilitation Compound. Berri, whom the compound is named after, is Lebanon’s parliamentary speaker and the leader of Amal.

While the LWAH sometimes receives funding in the form of government contracts, Fatiha al-Horr, the physician caring for Rasha, says that at present the association relies entirely on non-governmental organizations for financial support. The government "doesn't take care of anything right now," she sighs.

Rasha visits the LWAH, located in nearby Sarafand, four times a week for treatment. Although the treatments are free, Salman says the family is struggling to come up with enough money for the taxi rides to and from the facility.

Asked if there are compensation packages or living allowances for which Rasha can apply from the government, Horr simply laughs and shakes her head.

When the state divests itself of basic social services, "the citizen divests itself from its duty toward the state," says ecosystems management professor Rami Zurayk of the American University of Beirut.

A vacuum is created that can lead to opposition to the state, "not because of political consciousness, but as a knee-jerk reaction to injustice," he states.
Zurayk adds that he has heard many people ask: "What has this state given us for us to want to protect it and to believe in it?"

Professor Melani Cammett of Brown University, who is currently conducting research in Lebanon, says the politically aligned non-state service providers she has visited "are not necessarily exclusionary in their provision practices, in terms of giving services to people from other confessional communities."

Cammett is researching the religious dimensions of social welfare, focusing on the provision of medical and educational services provided by Hizbullah and its affiliated charities.

Zurayk, however, emphasizes that in order to have access to fundamental welfare services, Lebanon's vulnerable often have little choice but to turn to a particular sect.

"The poorer a community, the more in need of its sectarian leadership," he says, of the overwhelming Shia alignment with either Amal or Hizbullah. "Anyone who falls outside of the sect cannot make it because they will not find anyone to support them and offer them basic welfare services."

The historic disadvantages faced by the Shia community in Lebanon is no secret, says Cammett. Hizbullah is offering an "extremely well-managed system of services" to traditionally neglected regions and populations, she says.

During her research, Cammett has been struck by the fact that the state often plays an invisible and yet critical role in the services provided by non-governmental agencies.

Uniquely in the Arab world, she says, Lebanon has always had something of a "laissez-faire tradition." In practice, this results in a "de facto state encouragement of, or tolerance for, these non-state providers."

The state plays an active role in funding the Lebanese healthcare system, she continues, but because the average citizen receiving services cannot see this contribution, they tend to feel that the government is ineffective and ignoring their interests.

Not all of the financing for political non-state providers comes from the foreign sources often denounced by detractors, Cammett claims. Although stressing that she "cannot say with any authority" the exact sources of funding for the social services provided by Hizbullah, for example, the researcher believes that Iran and Syria are not the sole providers.

Cammet suspects that the "wealthy Shia diaspora" is a key contributor. Furthermore, Hizbullah has "[collection] boxes all over the country." This grassroots funding system inside Lebanon, she says, is "incredibly impressive" and "very well-managed."

A Hizbullah collection box in the Bekaa Valley is part of the group’s grassroots funding system. Photo by Hugh Chatfield.

One problem with state funding of social services, even behind the scenes, is a tendency to inconsistency.

Horr says that now that Rasha's amputated leg has been treated, a prosthetic can be manufactured. However, the new limb will be paid for entirely by charity, she adds, once more explaining the lack of government aid.

Government funding for prosthetics, previously given to LWAH under contract, was cut for unexplained reason two years ago. The government provides no similar services itself.

Rasha is lucky to the extent that her prosthetic leg is being paid for. Many other cluster bomb victims must buy their own prosthetics, which, at $1,000 to $1,800 as reported recently by AFP, is well beyond the means of many.

For Cammett, capacity is a central issue in determining the state's ability to provide social services to Lebanese citizens such as the Attiehs and Rasha.

State agencies may have the desire and vision to carry out policies, but not the ability to do so, she argues. "I think that there's a complete lack of administrative capacity to actually carry out the plans that are there, at least in the short term," she says.

In the course of her work in Lebanon, Cammett has encountered "committed bureaucrats" with "positive long-term visions" to reform the nation's social services.

Because these actors do not work in a vacuum, however, "they have to work with political and administrative realities and so their visions for how to implement reforms are not easily implemented," she says.

During a recent speech organized by the Social and Behavioral Sciences Department at AUB, Zurayk argued that the "alleged weaknesses" of the Lebanese state are no excuse for this divestment in social services for the underprivileged and marginal areas.

"In reality," he asserted, "the state is strong in the areas it chooses to be strong in, and weak in areas it treats with disregard." The state, according to the academic, is acting out a "conscious decision."


Yasmine Ryan is a graduate of the University of Auckland, in Political Studies and French language. She is currently interning with a Lebanese newspaper in Beirut, as part of her Masters degree in International Journalism at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques, Aix-en-Provence.


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