Supporting Municipalities in Responding to the Refugees Crisis
Six years into the Syrian crisis and in light of the “Supporting Syria and the Region” conference held in London on 4 February 2016, Oxfam and LCPS convened a roundtable on 15 March 2016, on assisting local governments in Lebanon that are coping with the refugee crisis. Since refugees first began arriving in Lebanon, municipalities have been forced to shoulder an ever growing share of responsibility, as they are now tasked with using limited resources and capacities to deliver services to both Lebanese residents and refugees. The current state of affairs is expected to continue presenting challenges to Lebanon for the foreseeable future, meaning more responsibilities will fall on local governments.
Municipal representatives from Ghobeiri, Qobayat, Hrar, Akkar, Ghazze, Jezzine, Bar Elias, Anjar, Hermel, Becharre, Karoun, and the Municipal Union of Tyr were among the ninety-two participants who spoke about experiences with Syrian refugees in their localities. Representing the central government were the Chief Advisor to the Lebanese Prime Minister Dr. Shadi Karam, Advisor to the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities Dr. Khalil Gebara, as well as representatives from the Ministry of Social Affairs.
The discussion focused on two issues. First, the most pressing priorities and constraints facing municipalities in light of the refugee crisis, and the ways in which the central government can better address fiscal and administrative matters. Participants also discussed how municipalities responding to the crisis can adequately deliver services to residents, ensure that funds are allocated properly, and plan for the future.
Second, as some donors have taken a renewed interest in supporting local governments, an opportunity has arisen to improve municipal performance and service delivery. To this end, the roundtable helped shed light on the challenges that local leaders are facing in working with donors and in capitalizing on aid that has been pledged. Moreover, efforts exerted would help to further align the interests of donors and local leaders, both from the perspective of local governments and those donating funds. In return, donors expect municipal governments to adopt better practices and take concrete measures to ensure accountability and transparency.
The conversation highlighted challenges faced by the central government, municipalities, and donors, in order to better address challenges resulting from the refugee crisis and to signal points of strength in each of the aforementioned stakeholders’ experiences. The roundtable discussion hence helped all three parties further understand their responsibilities and respond in a unified and efficient manner.
Challenges at the Central Government Level
1. In light of the protracted nature of the crisis in Syria and the high probability that Syrian refugees will remain outside of Syria for years to come, the Lebanese government is responsible for devising and implementing an all-encompassing plan to face the growing challenges of the Syrian refugee crisis. This is crucial on the level of the central government, especially since it was late to take any action in the early days of the crisis.
2. The central government must help ease municipalities’ burdens through devising a broad reaching plan of action concerning Syrian refugees. This step further asserts the government’s responsibility and role in aiding local authorities in regulating the presence of refugees and necessary responses in their localities. As representatives of municipalities pointed out during the discussion, the lack of a clear government plan early on in the crisis presented a range of challenges such as those stemming from the formation of many informal tented settlements and camps. Moreover, misinterpretation of governmental decisions and regulations lead municipalities to take matters into their own hands by adopting courses of action that were not always in line with national laws, such as the imposition of curfews.
3. The Lebanese government is responsible for providing the necessary funding for over 1,000 municipalities across the country that suffer from inadequate funds to perform their regular duties, let alone to address pressing issues related to Syrian refugees. The government is responsible for releasing money from the Independent Municipal Fund to help municipalities finance their operations. During the discussion, NGOs and several municipal members shared their concerns about the government’s failure to transfer money to municipalities in a timely and organized manner. Moreover, the Lebanese government needs to disclose to municipalities the criteria on which it will base any financing support and distribution of municipal budgets following the donor conference in London.
4. The Lebanese government is responsible for gathering and making available missing data, since in times of crisis, one of the basic roles for the government is providing clear and correct information. Yet, participating NGOs and donors noted that Lebanon currently suffers from a shortage of data, especially on poverty. Participants asserted that providing such information would better inform them about the country’s strengths and weaknesses and consequently affect projects being implemented.
Challenges at the Municipal Level
1. The municipality’s most important role is carrying out its responsibilities and working within its jurisdiction as a local administration, while maintaining a level of fairness in relations with both Lebanese citizens and Syrian refugees. As populations increased some localities became congested with high numbers of Syrian refugees, and municipalities suffering from neglect even before the Syrian crisis began in 2011 to face challenges at the administrative, developmental, and security levels. During the discussion, municipal representatives discussed how the increase in the number of people in their area had posed multiple challenges. The deputy mayor of Bar Elias talked about the various challenges the municipality faced as it took in 70,000 refugees. The mayor of Cheb’aa claimed there are 7,000 refugees in the area, the mayor of Qaroun indicated the presence of 5,000 refugees, while the mayors of Becharre and Ghazze claimed their towns are home to 2,000 and 25,000 refugees respectively; each of which has its own particularities further reflecting the need for municipalities to take on more active roles.
2. Going forward, municipalities need to adopt better practices and disclose information more clearly and transparently in order to benefit donors and municipalities, as well as constituents by ensuring needs-based projects are implemented. This kind of transparency enhances communication between all parties and leads to a more efficient and unified approach to battling administrative, developmental, and security challenges and managing people’s perceptions.
3. The discussion shed light on an important and unexpected positive aspect of the direct interaction between municipalities and Syrian refugees. Municipalities are the first and most direct link between Lebanese authorities and refugees, and with this level of interaction an opportunity arises whereby local administrations are more capable of playing an active advisory role regarding the policies and projects implemented to help Syrian refugees. An example of that is the issue of classification, where upon the request of donors, municipalities were required to classify which Syrian refugees qualified for different forms of aid based on their varying needs and vulnerabilities, while their Lebanese counterparts were excluded although they lived in similar conditions. However, since this exercise proved to be very challenging for many municipalities, and given the problems that it caused in their localities, they conveyed the challenges of classification to the central government and donors. This moved them in the direction of providing aid to Lebanese host communities as well. Communication between municipalities and other stakeholders hence becomes of high importance since it helps reflect the view from the ground as to how central government and donor policies directly affect communities.
Challenges at the Level of Donor Organizations
1. Participants stated that donors should be tailoring local capacity building initiatives and taking into consideration the particularities of different localities across the country. For example, Bar Elias has agricultural potential, while Anjar is more known for tourism. This implies that donors ought to recognize that different localities require different developmental projects. This is important because when donors strengthen and develop pre-existing potential in a locality, they are helping municipalities help themselves in the future.
2. Roundtable participants discussed the importance of information and expertise sharing between donors and Lebanese stakeholders (central government, municipalities, NGOs) through facilitated communication and recognition of responsibilities and challenges. This kind of constructive communication is a key element in creating concise action plans where each party is aware of its role.
3. Donors must recognize the importance of rethinking the issue of classification and targeting. Municipalities voiced their grievances regarding the difficulty of classifying refugees to determine who receives certain types of aid. Moreover, municipal representatives described how the problem with current targeting practices extends beyond technicalities, as it poses social inequality challenges which lead to further conflict in their localities. Hence, donors become responsible for devising policies that are more effective, are conflict-sensitive, and do no harm.