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April 22, 2016
Tackling the Refugee Crisis at the Local Level: Building Capacity and Strengthening Dialogue


Oxfam and LCPS convened a roundtable on 15 March 2016, focused on pressing issues facing Lebanese municipalities due to the refugee crisis and capitalizing on aid offered by international donors. Since refugees first arrived in Lebanon, municipalities have been forced to shoulder an ever growing burden, as they are now tasked with delivering services to both Lebanese residents and refugees.

In addition to top advisors from the Office of the Prime Minister and Ministry of Interior, as well as mayors from across Lebanon, the roundtable featured the participation of international NGOs addressing the refugee crisis. Among them was Lorenzo Paoli, head of programme policy on local governance and decentralization at Oxfam Italy. LCPS sat down with Mr. Paoli on the sidelines of the roundtable to get his take on how local governments in other contexts have coped with influxes of refugees.

How can and should responsibilities be divided between local and national governments when addressing a refugee crisis?

I think the primary issue should be focusing on the most vulnerable people. We want to uphold the same rights for all refugees (Syrians, Palestinian refugees from Syria, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon) but also for poor Lebanese citizens. Oxfam has been able to do this by working with local municipalities that have deep knowledge of the territory.

Within this process we know well that some issues and topics are related to national policy but we think that by starting from assessing and addressing local needs, we can be more successful in forwarding change at the national level. This normally entails strengthening dialogue between local authorities and civil society with the objective of promoting positive local and sub-national policies and practices in order to overcome poverty and reduce inequality. Within this paradigm, transparency and accountability are imperative, but so is engagement with local authorities.

Based on these general considerations, we think that the central government should better recognize the importance of local authorities in responding to the Syrian crisis. It should prioritize decentralization and improve the effectiveness and equity of financial resource distribution to ensure local authorities have the independence and legitimacy to respond to constituents’ needs and to specific needs resulting from refugees’ presence. Furthermore, the Lebanese government should develop a new comprehensive, multi-sectoral Syrian refugee policy based on international human rights law. This policy would need to ensure better protection of the refugee population during displacement, enabling Syrian nationals on Lebanese territory to easily access a form of legal status that grants them basic rights and allows them the capacity to sustain themselves.

What are international best practices for governments addressing a refugee crises?

I think we learn more from failures. Speaking about best practices is important but it is also necessary to reflect in terms of what went wrong. To be honest there have been some huge mistakes made across the world. In my experience, the most frequent error is replicating models without the ability to adapt the experience to local needs and contexts. In Southern Africa or Latin America, this was very common.

The book “Beyond charity” written by Gil Loescher is pertinent in this regard. The text includes an interesting overview of refugee crises and emphasizes the need to develop a comprehensive policy on this issue. At the same time, the author argues for the strengthening of governments and international organizations as a crucial element to assuming more effective assistance, protection, and political mediation functions.

Are there case studies you are familiar with that are similar to what Lebanon is experiencing now? What lessons can be learned from those cases?

Based on my knowledge concerning refugee crises, the Lebanon experience is rather unique due to its complexities. There are similar aspects to other cases regarding targeting, within a sustainable development perspective. Also, it would be useful to look at Lebanon before the outbreak of the Syrian crisis, with its many challenges in terms of poverty, inequality, management of natural resources and public services, and transparency, among others.  

If we are discussing this more comprehensive approach, I think the experience that has been tested is Southeastern Europe, which has a number of similarities to Lebanon, including some aspects which can be models for change. These are middle-income countries where active citizenship is growing, a debate on decentralization has started, and the dynamic of sustainable local development is at the center of the political agenda.

There are some good experiences in Lebanon as well. Take for instance Jezzine. I think that could be systematized and could be one of the experiences that is shared with other municipalities or municipal unions. Jezzine is a good example in terms of the role local authorities have played in boosting local development, but, given the minimal number of refugees in the area, it is less strong as an example of how to cope with large refugee influxes. Therefore, we need to look across many municipalities and draw collective lessons from a range of experiences.

How do you think international donors can better engage with local governments in Lebanon?

I tend to think that you can bring all the funds you want to Lebanon but if you don’t create the conditions within the country to be able to manage these funds effectively and benefit those most affected by the crisis, our efforts to address the crisis will be unsuccessful. In other words I think we have to reinforce and create the conditions necessary to build the capacities of actors, in particular at the local level. Exchanging experiences among Lebanese local authorities and learning by doing through joint pilot actions between CSOs and municipalities might be a good ways to develop stakeholder and institutional capabilities. No one claims this is easy. In Lebanon you have more than 1,000 municipalities. I think we must support the capacity of local authorities to be more vocal, and to speak, as much as possible, with one voice. At the same time, it is crucial to facilitate the right of people to be heard.  

Additionally, I am very happy to listen to the international donor community speak about transparency and accountability but it is not just a problem of monitoring expenditures. From my perspective there is something more. There should be an active participatory role among the people in the planning process.  Take for instance Buffalo City Municipality, South Africa. There, the method of Ward Based Planning has been implemented, which promotes community action and better engagement/participation in the formulation of municipal development plans, through the promotion of ‘locally-owned’ ward plans linked to an Integrated Development Plan. Key to the success of this approach is an active and empowered citizenry who take co-ownership (along with local government) in planning and managing their own development and carrying out their responsibilities as citizens. I think for this reason we need to speak about local capacity building and supporting local actors, private and public. If we are not able to increase the capacity of both actors—citizens and local authorities—in my perspective you will not be successful. What I am concerned about is the sustainability of some of these processes. For instance, cash for work is a good solution for today and we have to use it to mitigate the current impact of the crisis. At the same time, we must support local sustainable development focusing on people’s wellbeing. This could entail promoting innovative ways to create jobs for youth and women and stimulating the participation of young people in social, economic, and political aspects for sustainable human development. It is for this reason that Oxfam in Lebanon supports and incentivizes a relevant continuity between humanitarian and medium-term development programs. 






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