Political and Sectarian Dimensions of Welfare Provision in Lebanon
Lebanon’s government has consistently failed to adequately deliver a range of services, among them water provision, electricity, and waste collection and treatment. This state of affairs stems in part from the fact that service delivery in Lebanon is clientelistic in nature, meaning citizens often must depend on political leaders and parties to access state services. At present, these issues are at the forefront of public discourse as political deadlock has prevented national leaders from agreeing on how services should be delivered and citizens have on multiple occasions taken to the streets to express their dissatisfaction with the country’s political elite. A central theme of these protests has been curbing corruption and dependence on the sectarian political system. In Compassionate Communalism: Welfare and Sectarianism in Lebanon, I examine the method and conditions by which parties distribute services, and to which political and sectarian groups those services are delivered.
While it is generally assumed that ethnic or sectarian groups merely serve their own and exclude those affiliated with other communities, this blanket assumption should be questioned. Indeed, it is unclear why sectarian groups engage in public goods provision at all if they are virtually assured of the support of in-group members, as research on ethnoreligious politics implies. Charitable concerns and visions of social justice undoubtedly compel many officials and staff members of these groups to provide social assistance, but political motivations are also important.
In focusing on the political dimensions of the provision of social services two key factors shape how a sectarian party distributes welfare goods. First, it matters whether a party engages in a “state-centric” political strategy or one focused on providing services outside of formal state institutions. In the former case, parties are more likely to service members of other religious or sectarian communities, in addition to more passive supporters, including those with little to no record of directly supporting the party in question. The latter strategy focuses on hardcore party supporters and entails executing policy outside the scope of state institutions, often manifested in the form of street action such as protests, riots, or militia politics. Second, it matters whether a party faces competition from other parties claiming to represent the same community (in-group or intra-sect competition). In this instance, it is more likely that welfare goods will be distributed to “in-group” members, most often hardcore supporters.
In Lebanon, I compare the welfare distribution strategies of major Christian, Shia Muslim, and Sunni Muslim political parties with other ostensibly sectarian groups in Iraq and India. The distribution of welfare goods in Lebanon varies across different parties. For example, until the late 2000s, the predominantly Sunni Muslim Future Movement offered services relatively broadly, something which has changed more recently, whereas the Shia Muslim Hezbollah provided services mainly in Shia areas, although it welcomed members of other sects in its welfare institutions and had begun to branch out beyond its core areas of operation. Christian political parties tend to focus social assistance efforts in heavily Christian communities. The degree to which these parties face serious competition within their respective sects and the types of political strategies they prioritize help explain the variation in the propensities of these organizations to serve out-group communities or to reach out beyond their core base of supporters at a given time.
Although I focus on the sectarian dynamics of welfare distribution, sectarian identity should not be considered a fixed or immutable constant. Sectarian organizations have complex goals in offering social services; they may distribute or facilitate access to social services to fulfill altruistic commitments, present themselves as the protectors and guarantors of well-being, gain supporters, or consolidate their control over territory and people. Specific political goals—and not only charitable motivations—underlie the provision of social services by these groups. Yet, garnering support through service provision is not necessarily an economic or material transaction, nor does it always occur through direct exchanges. As in-depth interviews with citizens in Lebanon reveal, the receipt of services or welfare directly or by family members, members of their community, and beyond engenders a sense of belonging to a community, which has enormous psychological benefits, particularly in the context of underdeveloped and unstable national state institutions.
The delivery of social services by ethnic or sectarian groups provides much-needed support for some but comes with economic and political costs. First, the welfare activities of sectarian parties and their precursors arguably helped create and certainly reinforced a tendency toward fragmentation in the Lebanese welfare regime, which engenders inefficiencies and inhibits meaningful reform. Second, to the extent that sectarian organizations extend benefits to their supporters, they are less likely to foster shared commitments to a national polity through their distributional activities. The potentially detrimental impact of their social programs on national integration is most visible in the education sector, in which protracted struggles have complicated the process of devising curricula for subjects such as history and civics. The inability to agree on a common national narrative hinders the construction of national solidarities, which many social scientists associate with the improved delivery of social services and public goods. Third, although competition is generally assumed to boost accountability, under certain conditions it can limit the extent and inclusiveness of welfare provision. In power-sharing systems, such as the Lebanese consociational system, parties face incentives to prioritize in-group members when other parties compete to become the dominant representative of the same sectarian community.
For access to welfare, the consequences of service provision by sectarian parties are complex. On the one hand, these groups, among other non-state actors, fill a gap which public agencies might not otherwise fill. On the other hand, they distribute benefits on a discretionary basis, locking the poor and vulnerable into unequal relationships of clientelist exchange. As the director of a Lebanese NGO observed, “Without [the social programs of sectarian groups], Lebanon would have been poorer than India.” Yet Pére Gregoire Haddad, the founder of the non-sectarian Mouvement Social, has asserted, “Confessional organizations divided the country and they divided the mentalities of the Lebanese people.”