Civil society organizations (CSOs) in Lebanon are no strangers to operating in unstable and changing circumstances. Indeed, in the past few years alone, they have had to face overlapping economic crises, the Beirut port blast, the COVID-19 pandemic, and, more recently, the rapidly deteriorating regional security landscape.
Taken together, these events have exacerbated the challenges faced by Lebanese CSOs, notably when it comes to their ability to meet rising needs across the country while being on limited budgets. Negative public perceptions toward CSOs’ work have further added a layer of complexity, making it all the more difficult for them to operate in various Lebanese regions.
As part of the I4C MENA Hub’s objective of protecting civic spaces using innovative research and capacity-building methodologies, the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS), in partnership with the I4C MENA Hub, has seen an increased campaign on civil society in Lebanon from various actors, undermining public trust in civil society organizations. The “Enhancing Individuals’ Public Perceptions of CSOs in Lebanon” project aims to empower CSOs by fine-tuning their understanding and awareness of the drivers of misinformation and defamation campaigns and the public’s vulnerability to them. It also focuses on building CSOs’ capacity using conventional and new communication tools to better inform the public of their achievements and push back against misinformation and negative attacks. This project builds on the findings of the “We Act Together Campaign” that the Hub launched in October 2022.
As part of this project, the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS) conducted a study on “Strengthening the Capacity of Civil Society Organizations,” where they interviewed 30 diverse CSO representatives from across Lebanon. When asked about the public’s perception of their roles, interviewed CSOs relayed greater public pressure to deliver aid and services. They shared that the public held misinformed and flawed perceptions of CSOs. Some of these false perceptions included believing that CSOs have access to substantial funds and that they are not helping enough or fully investing their budgets. CSOs additionally stated that many individuals erroneously accused them of having their own agendas or of being tools of foreign funding.
Nevertheless, the results of LCPS’ recent public perception survey administered to 1,200 respondents point to the positive roles that respondents believe CSOs play in Lebanon. Indeed, approximately 70% of those surveyed “somewhat agreed” or “strongly agreed” that CSOs should be watchdogs and monitor the activities of public institutions and actors. Furthermore, around 88% of respondents believed that CSOs should advocate for core rights like human rights, civil liberties, and accountability. 92% of respondents felt CSOs should deliver aid and assistance, particularly to vulnerable groups. Overall, 77% of respondents wanted CSOs to fulfill all the aforementioned roles. Additionally, more than 70% of respondents stated that they “somewhat trusted” or “trusted” local CSOs’ contribution to the reconstruction and humanitarian response after the Beirut port blast and in delivering aid and assistance throughout the financial and economic crisis.
As such, this article explores key challenges faced by Lebanese CSOs in meeting individuals’ needs and expectations and proposes implementable recommendations to overcome them and build more trust with constituents.
Current Challenges Experienced by CSOs in Lebanon
Instability and Funding Cuts
The unstable economic and security situation throughout the past few years and more recently, coupled with rising tension across various Lebanese regions have translated into an inability to implement certain projects either partially or in their entirety. This has meant a loss of potential positive impact as well as a loss of funding for CSOs that are faced with mounting needs versus dwindling budgets.
The Banking Crisis and Its Related Difficulties
Since the start of the economic and banking crisis in 2019, Lebanese CSOs have faced difficulties in accessing their funds in banks across Lebanon. This has caused administrative issues leading to delays in aid delivery, project implementation, and in meeting donor requirements. Indeed, interviewed CSOs within the framework of LCPS’ study candidly shared about their struggles to make appointments with bank representatives to discuss the state of their finances. They additionally relayed the challenge in issuing invoices and disbursing money for services rendered and to implement their programs, particularly in relation to set timeframes previously agreed upon with donors. The varying currency exchange rates have also made it more difficult for CSOs to get stable quotes regarding services, further aggravating their plight in front of donors.
Brain Drain and High Turnover Rates
CSOs across the country have also been impacted by brain drain and high turnover rates, with competent staff either migrating abroad for better work opportunities or going to International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs) to work. The fluctuating currency rate and many CSOs’ inability to pay salaries in US Dollars have worsened this trend. The constant turnover has also meant getting stuck in continuous hiring processes if the CSO can afford to hire new staff, having to train current staff to take on additional roles or responsibilities, and an increased reliance on volunteers. All CSOs have spoken positively about volunteers, but they simultaneously understand individuals’ reduced ability to volunteer in today’s context and have expressed their desire to symbolically remunerate them, if they could.
Challenges Coordinating with Official Institutions
In light of strikes, closures due to the economic crisis, and protests, many CSOs have had to face additional challenges tied to needed coordination with official institutions. This has led to delays in CSOs submitting their taxes and paying their NSSF dues, in addition to forcing them to pay fines for these delays that were out of their control. Moreover, several CSOs have shared difficulties with case management, particularly considering protests and closures at the judiciary level. This was further aggravated by the state’s inability to keep national hotlines continuously operational and by the Internal Security Forces’ inability to implement court orders due to high transportation costs.
All interviewed CSOs shared various programming challenges that they were attempting to face. These relate to both in-person and online programming. Regarding in-person programming, they cited the difficulty in implementing such programs due to the high transportation costs for stakeholders. As for online programming, they mentioned several obstacles including internet cuts and fuel shortages impacting the availability of electricity.
Disinformation and Misinformation
Several CSOs were prone to misinformation and disinformation or had already faced them. These were generally due to the lack of public awareness around CSOs’ work, more specifically, how CSOs receive and implement their funding, and because of constituents’ inability to discern fake news or non-credible information.
Initiating Transparent Dialogue with Donors
Many CSOs would benefit from engaging in a dialogue with donors regarding the constraints posed by the current situation in Lebanon and impacting their ability to meet program requirements. These dialogues could help them reach mutually agreed-upon solutions to overcome these obstacles or reconfigure requirements.
Diversifying Banking Risks
Given the lack of progress on the banking reform process, several interviewed CSOs spoke about the benefits of diversifying their banking relations to avoid a redo of having their monies stuck in one bank. Others felt that opening an account in a foreign country with more stability was a need. Finally, many noted the more complex cash-based procedures they had to follow because of the restricted banking services and the fact that they were exploring new ways to reduce their reliance on cash withdrawals.
Creating a CSO Liaison Person or Representative with Public Institutions
CSOs would benefit from establishing in public institutions the position of a CSO liaison person. This representative would be selected from civil society to help build trust between CSOs and public institutions, maintain regular contact between the two sides, and assist in convening joint meetings on issues of concern on a regular basis. This experience was tried in the past at the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities during election times and proved to be successful.
Remunerating Volunteer Work and Cost-Sharing Employees
To encourage volunteer work and high turnover rates, CSOs could enter into a partnership with INGOs with the purpose of symbolically remunerating volunteers for their hard work or cost-sharing employees to fill voids in employment.
Securing Communal Meeting Spaces to Minimize Transportation Costs
One way of circumventing the rising cost of transportation for constituents is for CSOs to provide community centers with communication equipment and renewable power sources that could encourage greater participation in various CSO activities across the country. This work would have to be coordinated with municipalities and local community groups or clubs.
Countering Disinformation and Misinformation
Two ways of resolving these issues relate to CSOs raising awareness about their work among the general public and about their processes from receiving grants to implementing them, monitoring and evaluating them, and auditing them. Training CSO staff and informing constituents on how to distinguish fake news and credible information can also reduce organized campaigns targeting CSOs and their work.
Developing resilience and contingency plans that take into account various economic, political, and social scenarios is essential. These plans should include risk assessments and strategies for mitigating challenges.
While CSOs have been facing mounting challenges and operating in uncertain conditions and situations, they have struggled to take steps with donors and other actors to overcome some of these challenges and continue playing the roles expected of them and entrusted to them by constituents. CSOs should take concrete steps to address these challenges and the government and international organizations should assist in making this a priority.