BEIRUT: In the aftermath of last week’s devastating explosion at Beirut Port, damaged neighborhoods have been filled by a wide array of voluntary organizations and NGOs. Within this buzzing atmosphere of collective clean-up, there has been one conspicuous absence: the state.
“We haven’t seen any public sector officials,” says Rabih Shibli, who heads the Center for Civic Engagement that was established following the 2006 war and which has enlisted 1,000 volunteers and setup two field-stations in Ashrafieh.
Speaking to The Daily Star, Beirut Municipality member Yusra Sidani argues that this perception is not accurate, but reflects the municipality’s failure to promote itself. “There is no coverage of our work. We are absent from the press.”
Mohammed Shouman, who heads the Lebanese Scouts and has been managing the municipality’s volunteer efforts, acknowledges a problem with communication and promotion. “They have no uniform or logo. I asked many times if they have a logo volunteers could wear, but they don’t want us to, I don’t know why.”
This stands in contrast to the plethora of well-funded foreign NGOs whose workers walk the streets easily identifiable by their jackets and also hire well-paid communications officers to update their social media and ensure photo evidence of all the good deeds being done.
Yet Sidani claims the municipality does act as an umbrella group for volunteers. “We are working with 1,200 volunteers and act as an association for different volunteer organizations. We are offering brushes, nylon and plastic to cover broken windows and doors. The municipality is the godfather of these volunteer groups.”
Shouman also says the municipality is leading a response, now under military leadership. “They give instructions, provide engineers and source heavy equipment like trucks and Bob-cats from private construction companies,” he explains.
One of these is Batco, which after volunteering its services, was asked by the municipality to clear a block of streets in Mar Mikhael, according to the on-site manager who spoke to The Daily Star two days following the explosion.
However, the municipality’s failure to lead a coordinated volunteer recruitment campaign was feeble. “Because of governance procedures, we couldn’t put a call out for volunteers,” explains Sidrani. “There are certain administrative channels we have to follow,” she continues, acknowledging the inherent problem in this.
For Shibli, busy on the ground, city authorities are simply unqualified. “They lack the vision, and have no people trained in crisis management. A crisis on the ground is very different to long-term urban planning,” he says.
While the municipality is responsible for decision-making within the city, access to funds and resources is in the hands of the governor, Marwan Abboud. The day after the explosion the municipality’s 24 members met with the governor and allocated LL30 billion to the emergency response, divided into nine areas within Beirut.
“Our governor was at the port 10 minutes after the explosion,” the governor’s adviser Haitham Sayyed says, speaking to The Daily Star. He adds that the emergency response had 200 rescue workers at ground zero following the explosion.
“We are working 24/7 in the military operations room we’ve set up, pooling all our sources, co-coordinating with NGOs. The Army is assessing damaged households and distributing food-parcels,” he continued in defense of the response. “We are open to everyone,” he continues, explaining that this was a group effort and their role was to take make use of and coordinate any help they could get, given the severe lack of resources.
For Karim Ghandour, who offered his company’s generator equipment to the emergency response, this co-ordination hasn’t amounted too much. “They were happy when we approached them,” he tells the The Daily Star, “and we tried to collaborate but people are doing their own thing. We support them when we can. But are there daily meetings? Are there follow-up meetings? Have they set up shelters?” he asks rhetorically with frustration. For Ghandour, criticism of the state’s response is very justified.
For his part, Sayyed underplays the urgency of shelters. “Until now, people don’t want shelters, most are staying with family relatives or choosing to stay in their homes even if they are damaged.” He also insists that the state response is comprehensive. “We are looking at this from a panoramic view and thinking about various aspects,” he says, citing work to help traumatized children and to preserve traditional buildings in Gemmayzeh.
Taina Christiansen of UN-Habitat says she appreciates the complexity that comes with a crisis response and so many actors on the ground, adding, “In an emergency, there’s more than meets the eye.” However, for many eyes on the street, the image appears to have coalesced around young and willing volunteers clearing up as soldiers stand idly by. When it comes to public relations at least, the state-response seems to have failed to place itself at the center of the collective spirit. Quite the reverse. Given the state of Lebanese politics, this is a massive failure.