South-to-South cooperation: A solution from within


I arrived in Beirut (Lebanon) in 2013 to support the humanitarian emergency response unfolding as a result of the Syrian crisis.

One of the things that struck me about the response was the ability of Lebanon as a country and the average Lebanese, in particular, to welcome their neighbors and rapidly assist people arriving from many parts of Syria seeking refuge from the conflict within their country. I was privileged to witness, first-hand, the famed Lebanese hospitality and resilience in the face of yet another strain to the country’s already stretched infrastructure

I had already been in Lebanon in 2006 where the country itself was rocked by the crisis with Israel. During that time, over one million Lebanese from the south of the country were displaced and quickly moved further north and into Syria. With support from the international community, the remainder of the country and neighboring Syria quickly mobilized to help needy Lebanese.

A 20-year civil war, the above emergencies and countless political crises later, I realized that Lebanon is a nation of survivors. Actually, many people persisted to make sure that their most valuable asset – the youth – thrived in the face of so many challenges. Educated youth flourished in various areas and as a result, their technical abilities in several industries were the envy of the world. In addition, they ably traveled and settled abroad for work, using their famed linguistic abilities in Arabic, French and English to seamlessly settle in many countries including the Gulf region as well as the rest of the Middle East.

Within the humanitarian world, I also saw how many Lebanese swiftly turned many of their professional skills to their new roles. National Lebanese staff across the humanitarian spectrum left an impression with many international aid workers for the quality of their work and willingness to go beyond the call of duty. My belief was that their history was a strong contributor to their flexibility. I thought about the reasons behind these traits that in recent years struck me all the more.

I realized that their experience matched a new reality in the region. In 2011, the Arab uprisings had started in various countries in the Middle East. Most of these countries are still fragile and several became new recipients of assistance as their transitions to becoming democratic states took a different turn. Some countries, such as Libya, were even failing as internal political, tribal and ethnic conflicts engulfed them and they faced the threat of becoming failed states.

So why could more not be done for experienced Lebanese resources to deploy to other fragile countries in the Middle East? The World Bank ‘Lebanon Systematic Country Diagnostic 2015’ highlighted over the past few years that the Lebanese economy, like many other Arab countries, faced a hurdle with its youth unemployment rate reaching 34%. In essence, they had an ever-increasing number of resources but limited opportunities for young educated people. As I just mentioned, this was the case for several Arab countries. The difference was that the quality of Lebanese resources was higher than in many other countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

When thinking creatively, a country like Libya would clearly benefit from the Lebanese experience. In very basic terms, support to Libya’s vibrant civil society sector is critically needed. Some 40 years of autocratic rule failed to ensure its education system produced the ‘right’ types of marketable skills. The past 5 years of violent strife created an unfortunate humanitarian scenario within the country and according to the Humanitarian Response Plan published end of 2015, almost 2.5 million people will be requiring protection or assistance in this unfolding year. The numbers may not seem high but this accounts for almost 40% of Libya’s population. These requirements are quite large-scale and I do not claim that Lebanese human resources will fully meet these needs.

What I would like to propose, though, is that when considering assistance to embattled countries in the Arab world, issues of language, cultural affinity, and empathy should figure more prominently when devising support, aid, and reconstruction narratives. In my view, these factors will be essential to success on the ground. In a nutshell, the right Lebanese profiles could be deployed to work with and build the capacity of Libyan counterparts, who primarily speak Arabic and have a relatively sheltered world-view. Further, Lebanese people could share with them a deeper understanding of their plight and propose approaches to resilience based on actual, relevant experience.  To me, this would epitomize a win-win situation and a successful south-to-south cooperation.

Ekram photo

Ekram El Huni is yet to leave Beirut since she last set foot in the city. Her Libyan roots run strong in her and her experience in the region is one of a kind. 

On hiatus from her professional life as a seasoned humanitarian, Ekram is our first guest blogger, dispensing her expertise on parts of the Arab world she knows like no one else.