Mapping civil society in Lebanon: some critical observations

11050738_853256824730560_6776181994540508042_nI received like many other practitioners and interested in civil society the report “Mapping civil society in Lebanon” recently published by the Civil Society Facility South, funded by the European Union and conducted by Beyond Reform and Development. The report is definitely another serious attempt to understand the current landscape of civil society in Lebanon. It is an eye opener, yet it prompts questions rather than provides answers. (It is worth thanking BRD for putting the report to the public. This definitely reflect a high level of professionalism and transparency, but more importantly an indirect call for comment and feedback to better serve the policy-making process in Lebanon)

Driven by my interest in research and passion about CSO role in policy development/ dialogue, I am posting a contribution that aims at the better understanding the sector and its challenges. The post intends to be critical about the findings with the intention of enriching the discussion and shedding light on dimensions worth exploring in order to promote and find leverage for civil society to influence policy-making.

  • Approach: The report seems to be too descriptive to the extent that it falls short of providing a critical analysis of the current situation of Lebanese civil society. There is a tendency in the report to present the findings without qualifying them and analyzing their relevance. In addition, the report tends to furnish a wish-list of “valid” recommendations that address serious gaps and resonate well with the CSO community and the practitioners. Yet they seem to be disconnected from the findings! The eminent question is: what are the bases of the suggested recommendations?
  • Scope: There are some conflicting messages. On one hand, the report describes its methodology as inclusive with a sample of 10% of the total registered CSOs; while acknowledging that the 10% represent the active ones (page 23). On the other hand, it concludes (page 47) that the “Civil society actors in this report are those organizations and groups contributing to civic participation and inclusive governance, as such faith-based and partisan non-governmental organizations are excluded from the study”. The report can’t claim to map the Lebanese civil society. Its findings however help to draw trends.
  • On the history of CSO in Lebanon: it would be advisable that the report adds the volunteering dimension to the evolution it describes. Findings suggest that the level of volunteering and its spirit tends to dwindle as we move into the post 2005 era. Most recently, the activism and policy influence dimension (post 2005) is paralleled with another “contracting-like” dimension! This is worth further exploration! It is observed that it is mostly triggered by the Syrian crisis and the influx of Syrians into the Lebanese territory on one hand, and induced by the shift in the international organizations attention and consequently their fund allocation. Many CSOs with no mandate or experience in relief work seized the opportunity were tempted to apply for funds, and got contracted to deliver services. This is a typical shift toward a “contractor” mindset.
  • CSOs governance and internal challenges: the report suggests many internal organizational and governance challenges, yet did not address the emerging “undemocratic” and “authoritarian” tendencies. It is observed that many CSO management board remains on board for long. It is worth addressing and analyzing such undemocratic practices that might have multiple causes mostly associated with a cultural paternalistic attitude, loose government monitoring and oversight, limited constituencies, lack of internal processes, and increasing opportunity to use a CSO as a money generating tool (with the emerging of the “contracting” mindset). Besides, among the intrinsic internal challenges are: the lack of trust, political and sectarian affiliation, inability to capture and manage knowledge, lack of professionalism, lack of transparency …
  • The external challenges: it is evident how the security situation is perceived as the most eminent external challenge affecting the work of CSOs. Yet, considering the political context a challenge needs to be further analyzed.
  • Legal framework: There is general consensus among scholars and practitioners that the Lebanese law of association is one of the most progressive laws in the region, though it is a 100 year old. The report acknowledges that, and calls for reforming the law. This needs further elaboration, as it might be a window of introducing stringent requirements by the government. It would more appropriate to call for redesigning the processes to ensure transparency among others… besides, the report refers to “unfavorable legal framework” as a challenge facing CSOs without qualifying this framework and what is unfavorable about it!.
  • Advocating for policy change: It is reported that CSOs failed to lobby and advocate for policy change because it can’t generate a general public opinion/ pressure. It is worth exploring other factors such as (1) the ambiguous policy processes, (2) the lack of coordination with media, (3) lack of trust in CSOs for political or sectarian affiliation.
  • Monitoring and Evaluation: There is a global trend to promote M&E and performance management, yet there was no reference to improve/ enhance the monitoring and evaluation functions of the CSOs, both internally at the level of the organization and its programs, and externally at the level of government’s plans and programs. This is a dimension that is worth exploring in terms of capabilities as well as a tool to influence policy. Besides, the report does not make any reference to the audit function within the organizations.
  • The recommendations: the report lays down a wish-list of recommendations that are needed to further empower CSOs in Lebanon. They seem to be valid, yet the link between these recommendations and the findings is not clear.
  • The general recommendations: they might need further attention and reconsideration:
    1. CSO involvement in policy development is primarily pending developing a CSO-policy makers partnership policy that describes the relationships, lays down the process and sets the requirements for such engagement
    2. What is the link between “result-based strategy” and the list of goals suggested? There seems to be a mismatch and lack of alignment. It is worth revisited.

I hope the above review triggers a constructive discussion to develop and promote a partnership policy that recognizes the engagement of the civil society in decision making at all levels in Lebanon.

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