Public Services and Vulnerability in the Lebanese Context of Large-Scale Displacement

This project aims to identify the ways in which refugees and hosts experience multiple forms of vulnerability, and to develop pathways towards implementing more inclusive service provision for better social welfare.
Project status

Despite the fact that Lebanon is considered an upper middle-income country, basic public services such as electricity, drinking water and waste disposal are not available consistently. In recent years, the presence of 1.5 million Syrian refugees in a country of only 4 million inhabitants has further strained already frail infrastructures, threatening quality of life and stability for both host and refugee communities.

Lebanon is the country with the world’s highest number of refugees per capita. The increased pressure on Lebanon’s public services has exacerbated already existing social inequalities. The burden is falling primarily on those refugee and Lebanese communities who are already in a position of precarity. In this context, it is crucial to identify the ways in which refugees and hosts experience multiple forms of vulnerability, and to develop pathways towards implementing more inclusive service provision for better social welfare. In order to address the structural problems and the issues arising from mass displacement in Lebanon, the Institute for Global Prosperity (UCL), the UCL Civil Engineering Department, the UCL Development Planning Unit and the Architecture Department at the American University of Beirut, have bundled their expertise on basic services and urban vulnerability to collaborate on this project.

The project examines the following questions: How is vulnerability conceived and operationally defined by governmental and non-governmental aid agencies? How do differing understandings of vulnerability create discrepancies, inequalities or gaps in the public services provided? How does an approach that highlights the interdependent and connected nature of infrastructures allow us to understand urban vulnerability differently? The aim is to find and test innovative ways in which refugees and host communities can work together to improve infrastructural service provisions for everyone.

Transmission tower as swing structure in the Bekaa Valley - 2016 - by Joana Dabaj © CatalyticAction
Transmission tower as swing structure in the Bekaa Valley, 2016, by Joana Dabaj © CatalyticAction

The research team seeks to understand the forms of vulnerability faced by refugees and hosts in Lebanon, and their links to unequal distribution of services. The first sub-area of this research topic examines how state actors as well as international and local agencies conceptualisenotions of vulnerability. This is especially relevant as the response to the refugee ‘crisis’ enters its eighth year and responses are shifting to longer-term thinking focusing on building resilience in both the local economy and the displaced communities. This research also addresses the links betweendifferent types of vulnerability mediated by infrastructures (or the absence of them) – including, for instance, the personal and physical repercussions of lacking service provisions as well as social tensions based on pressure on resources. The project examines how hosts and refugees in Lebanon are able to participate in the design of more inclusive and resilient public services. The researcher team will study how existing refugee, migrant and host infrastructures enable or hinder inclusion and explore the spaces of potential collaboration. Through participatory research and pilot infrastructural interventions in several research sites, the goal is to test how this can be done successfully on the local scale. Through these engaged research activities, the team will also contribute to the re-configuration of universities’ research- and knowledge-transfer capacities to develop innovative responses to these challenges and implement policy changes.

Citizen Scientists recording street movements in Bar Elias -  2018 by Hanna Baumann
Citizen Scientists recording street movements in Bar Elias, 2018 by Hanna Baumann

The conceptual and empirical research of this project will inform co-designed solutions that take into account people’s experiences of vulnerability, resilience and agency as key factors in the design of service delivery. Members of both host and refugee communities in Saida in southern Lebanon and Bar Elias in the Beqaa Valley will be engaged in the work. The research will be carried out in collaboration with 'citizen scientists' who will receive training to carry out research and partake in shaping the project (an approach taken in many projects within the Institute for Global Prosperity and its partner institutions). The plan is to work with researchers from the local community beyond the scope of this project – with further training in other parts of Lebanon and potentially in the UK – to ensure long-term collaboration and capacity-building. The innovative infrastructural interventions emerging from these participatory activities will serve to showcase new ideas to address these issues, with the aim of potential future scaling-up.

The project team is working closely with multiple stakeholders committed to improving public services in Lebanon. These include international agencies such as UN Habitat and UNHCR, NGOs and members of municipal government.

Principal Investigator: Professor Henrietta Moore, University College London

Co-Investigators: Professor Howayda al-Harithy (American University of Beirut); Dr Andrea Rigon, Dr Nikolay Mintchev, Professor Nick Tyler and Dr Camillo Boano (University College London)

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