A home for everyone

Lebanon can learn from Brazil’s attitude to immigrants

Early photo of the Port of Santos, Brazil 1907 LERC Archives, Roberto Khatlab Collection
The Port of Santos in São Paulo, 1907 (LERC Archives, Roberto Khatlab Collection)

One striking feature about the Lebanese–Brazilian community is how divided they are on the topic of the land of their forefathers. Older Lebanese–Brazilians or those whose families emigrated in recent decades tend to be deeply attached to their mother country. They will follow the news and have opinions about the region, even if they have little physical interaction with it.

In contrast, many of the younger members of the community — often third or fourth generation — feel, at most, ambivalent toward their roots. While they recognize the struggles of their ancestors, they have little interest in the culture of Lebanon or even identifying as Lebanese. Many, in essence, have forgotten about Lebanon.

This reflects negatively on Lebanon. Clearly decades of crises have strained links with the diaspora. As one third-generation Lebanese–Brazilian who was young during the civil war put it: “At that time the information flow was cut completely. We grew up with an increasingly distant idea of what Lebanon was, until we very sadly gave up. Lebanon was like something from the past that was very tragically lost.”

Yet it is not all due to Lebanon’s problems — the ebbing away of the Lebanese–Brazilian identity also reflects positively on Brazil. Since the late 1800s the country’s model of immigration has been to encourage people not merely to move to make money, but to make a home. Waves of people from Italy, Germany, Japan and the Middle East have started new lives. These groups have mingled and merged to create new identities, with intermarriage common.

This in turn has helped spur innovation — the country’s largest Arab fast-food chain, Habib’s, was founded by a Portuguese man after a chance encounter with an elderly Lebanese. The long-term benefits can be seen in Brazil’s modern, multicultural and largely tolerant society. While the country’s economy is currently suffering a slowdown, it remains well positioned to develop into a leading force globally in the coming decades.

Brazil’s successful integration of immigrants is a prime example of the efficiency of what economists Daron Acemoğlu and James Robinson term ‘inclusive institutions’ — the politics that allow many to govern, minimizing marginalization and subjugation. Such institutions, they argue, produce sustainable, long-term economic benefits — as seen today in Brazil.

The contrast with the Middle East could hardly be starker. In the region, migrants are often seen as little more than an extended financial transaction — with workers in Lebanon slaves to the satisfaction of their employers through the systematically exploitative kafala system. This is a prime example of Acemoğlu and Robinson’s ‘extractive institutions’ — politics that concentrate power in the hands of a few and cannot produce sustained economic returns in the long term.

While crises have often caused Lebanese to emigrate, so too have economics. And so long as Lebanon clings to extractive institutions — with a small, permanent political class robbing the people of their wealth and dignity — the Lebanese will continue to leave for sunnier shores.

While attempts like that by Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil to reconnect the Brazilian diaspora with Lebanon are to be welcomed, they must be followed by substantive action at home.

And to be truly transformative, these actions must be far broader in scope than currently envisaged. Instead of only trying for one-off investments from the diaspora, policymakers should attempt to fashion institutions that are more inclusive of both the Lebanese, and the large number of non-Lebanese who want to be here.

Concrete steps would include: simplifying visa requirements, affording unskilled workers more rights and realistic means of exercising them, easing restrictions on Palestinian labor, and abolishing the vile kafala system.

But such changes will require a shift in mindset. Crucially, it will require Lebanese to have the audacity to be optimistic about the future — eager, instead of threatened by the prospect of including a more diverse range of people in the country’s governance.

It is perhaps the best lesson the diaspora could teach us.

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