BEIRUT: A lot of papers and panels but limited payoff – that’s how Fady Bustros and Sabine Abi Farah summarize the Lebanese Renaissance Foundation’s past work. “During the past years, a major part of our resources was devoted to academic and policy work in Washington,” Bustros, the LRF’s Lebanon-based communications and relations director told The Daily Star, speaking on behalf of the organization.
“We found out [that] even though this was interesting in a way ... it was not really creating success because nothing changed in the political discourse.”
He added: “We know that a lot of academic [materials] are put on the table in Lebanon ... [but] none of them ever see translation into concrete activities.”
But a change in strategy is afoot at the Washington-based foundation. Founded by a group of Lebanese whose professional lives involved the practice of nonviolence and democratic activism, the foundation describes itself as a non-governmental and nonsectarian educational organization dedicated to the development of an open, free and democratic Lebanon.
Gaining an audience for policy publications and live-streamed conferences was far from easy. “Nobody would even tune into it,” Bustros said.
“We found out it is better to prioritize our resources into programs that are nonacademic and that are targeting Lebanon, where the real problem is, or where the biggest part of the problem is,” he explained.
One of the foundation’s first forays into this altered approach appears to have achieved considerable success.
Last year, the LRF, working through the American non-governmental organization the National Council for U.S.-Arab Relations, invited 12 students from different American universities to participate in a two-week educational program in Lebanon and meet with various public figures and stakeholders in the country.
Upon their return to the United States those students were obliged to engage in a full year of follow-up activities based around sharing what they had learned.
“They managed to reach approximately 15,000 people through posts, blogs or direct lectures,” operations manager Abi Farah said.
Bustros said that with eight to 10 of the participants now employed in the U.S. public service, that means there are now more people working for the government “who have visited Lebanon, who have seen its diversity, who have met most of its politicians, business leaders [and] economic groups, who have read its history [and] who know the challenges.”
“We are putting seeds within the U.S. public service of people who are sympathetic to our vision of a state.”
In the months ahead, with a formalized branch of the foundation soon to be officially launched in Lebanon, the LRF is turning its attention to educational initiatives involving Lebanese.
These initiatives are designed to focus on the areas identified by the LRF’s annual “state of our state” index as priorities. This category includes any area that scores below a 4 on the index. At present that means priority issues are the quality of political leadership, corruption, government control of territory, capacity to resist foreign influence, and confidence in public institutions.
Presently, the organization is in the final stages of organizing a training program for 30 youth leaders from the country’s various political groups.
“You know that when you sit with people of different political groups in Lebanon, you see that they bring no added value to their discourse,” Bustros said. “I mean, the young Kataeb talk and speak like Pierre Gemayel; the ... Aounists are clones of Michel Aoun, the LF, Samir Geagea, etc. ...These people will perpetuate [the current political system]; we all know the quality of political elites.”
So, he explained, the LRF has designed a “nonacademic program” through which it will “invite members a variety of people to a curriculum of 60 hours of conversations, conferences, projections, plus two weekends in hotels in Lebanon where they will learn personal skills.”
None of the selected participants will be social science graduates, Bustros noted. “We don’t want lawyers and political science [majors] because they have the knowhow and the culture. We want people who either have not or will not be reaching university or that are engineers ... but are involved in politics.”
“We believe it [the program] will give them some good background in order for them to have some good material whenever they discuss a new subject,” Abi Farah added.
Although the lecturers and trainers are not yet secured and the political groups have not yet been invited to participate, Bustos thinks the program may start by January.
Another new, tangible LRF initiative involves a partnership with the Lebanese Transparency Association to set up a practical system through which corruption can be reported. The foundation is also working on a television campaign to highlight the “virtues of state [and] the responsibilities of state.”
While the specific messages have not been conceived yet and funding is still needed for the project, Abi Farah is adamant that such an initiative is essential: “Lebanese people don’t know what to expect from their state. They don’t have a clue, they haven’t been informed about it.”
The LRF is now presenting this project among others to potential contributors, many of them from the Lebanese diaspora and private sector as well as various institutional donors.
“Our aim is to take money from the Lebanese diaspora and use it here,” Bustros said. “We know that the international community won’t have the focus and patience to keep helping Lebanon as long as we don’t help ourselves. And we know that most politicians will not adhere to change because [the status quo] is the situation that brought them to power.”