For nearly five years the conflict has dragged on; yet the world is only more daunted by the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis. Here in Lebanon the challenges are numerous – from the strained economy and infrastructure to health care, education, politics and security. All aspects of life have been affected. But we cannot afford to wait out the crisis; it is time we address the opportunities rather than the challenges, building on our core strengths. Lebanon’s unique style of innovative entrepreneurship has kept the country afloat even through decades of internal violence, and it can continue to do so now.
This year, refugees are facing yet another cold winter living in tents. Dozens of organizations are providing relief. But given the protracted nature of the conflict, we at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and other agencies are going back to the drawing board and rethinking how best to provide long-term help to the more than 1.2 million Syrian refugees and the Lebanese host community.
Partnerships with the private sector are key. Lebanese entrepreneurs can develop the innovative technologies and solutions that will revolutionize the way the government and aid agencies provide assistance. Some of these technologies already exist and just need to be adopted: in Kenya, the ICRC uses mobile money transfers to give cash more simply, securely and cost effectively. Other technologies are just emerging, such as the olive-husk generator that the ICRC recently set up in Shebaa. It can heat an entire health-care facility using biodegradable material that is three times cheaper than conventional energy sources. These types of engineering solutions can make a huge difference in getting people the water, energy and shelter they need.
Sustainable business initiatives too are helping people get back on their feet. We recently led a programme that helped Lebanese people coming back from Syria to start their own business raising livestock and selling dairy products. Other such initiatives could help people become more self-sufficient and improve their standard of living. Companies and aid agencies both stand to gain from sharing each other’s perspectives and expertise in logistics, managing large-scale operations, human resources and networking.
The people that we are helping today are those that will one day rebuild Syria. It is in Lebanon’s interest for Syria to be rebuilt by a healthy, educated and skilled workforce. That is why efforts by aid agencies and the private sector to help those in need and bolster the economy should be backed by government policies and regulations. Policies should make it easier and provide incentives for companies and individuals to develop new technologies and solutions. Labour and education laws should be reformed to safeguard the rights of both Lebanese people and refugees and help fill jobs in sectors such as nursing. Legislation should support broad-based growth and improve the stability of the country.
In turn, the Lebanese government needs the full support of the international community. This month, world leaders, international aid agencies, NGOs and members of civil society are meeting in London for the Supporting Syria conference, co-hosted by the UK, Germany, Kuwait, Norway and the United Nations. Its goal is to secure funding to help those most affected by the crisis both inside Syria and in neighbouring countries. Participants will also work on long-term solutions for educating and creating jobs for people who have been forced to flee their homes. Theirs is no easy task: for five years now there has not been enough funding and the conflict has shown no signs of abating.
If efforts at the London conference fail to come up with long-lasting solutions, then next winter, like this one, will be a bleak reminder of the increasingly precarious situation that people are facing. For now we, together with the Lebanese Red Cross, are distributing food and other relief items to Syrian and Palestinian refugees, Lebanese returnees and Lebanese families who are struggling to make ends meet. We have installed insulation in tent settlements and shelters to help with heat retention and made other improvements to prevent flooding during the rainy season. We are also transferring cash to the people in the most precarious situations so that they can purchase much-needed heating fuel. But as the people of Syria and Lebanon wait for a serious political solution that will end their suffering, they cannot simply rely on aid.
It is time for the Lebanese private sector, with the help of the government, to live up to its long-standing reputation of ingenuity and help turn this crisis around – both for the Lebanese people and for those who have fallen victim to the conflict. The ICRC has been in Lebanon for every major conflict since 1967. We have seen first-hand Lebanon’s ability to overcome obstacles and find innovative solutions, even in the darkest of times. It may not be easy, but it is possible.
* A version of this article appeared in Executive’s February issue, #199.