A journey through CARE’s work in OPT and Lebanon

By: 
Laurie Lee
A building in the Occupied Palestinian Territories still bearing the damage from the 2014 conflict

Last week, I visited the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Lebanon. I was really pleased to do the trip. I had not been to either country before, and of course both have been in the news throughout my life. So it was a real privilege to be shown around both countries by CARE’s dedicated national and international staff and excellent local partners.

Gaza

I wasn’t able to visit our work in the south of Gaza, because it was considered unsafe. Working with a local partner we rehabilitated a destroyed water pump for a community that suffered significant destruction. This work was funded by the UK public through their donations to the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC).

Having read the recent DEC evaluation on Gaza, I was expecting the worst. And indeed it was tragic to see both the extent of destruction of ordinary homes and businesses in Gaza, even two years on, as well as the clear economic blockade on the territory.

Ahlam at her greenhouse in Gaza
Ahlam at her restored and flourishing greenhouse business in the Occupied Palestinian Territories

A lot of people understandably wonder how much sense it makes to keep giving aid to Gaza, if it just gets bombed and further destroyed every two years. So meeting Ahlam was a ray of light. CARE assessed her as one of the most vulnerable people after the 2014 conflict. She was a widow with eight children and little income. As you can read in my blog, after training and support from CARE and our partner organisation in Gaza, she said that she was now better off than she had been before the 2014 spike in the ongoing conflict; and she was probably more likely now to be able to cope with the next, sadly likely, round of hostilities.

West Bank

The economic blockade of Gaza is better known than the economic blockade of the so-called ‘Area C’ in the West Bank. But it’s almost as bad. Area C is 60% of the West Bank and is controlled by Israel, even though it’s inside the West Bank.

It’s where most of the so-called settlements are. What I had not realised before this visit is that the settlements are not small homesteads staked out by individual Israeli farmers. Most of them are major housing developments with hundreds of homes, shopping malls and hospitals.

And in between the settlements, tiny Palestinian villages are surrounded, not allowed to fix a goat shed, let alone build a single new home for the children of the community to grow up in.

Women packing cheese at a factory in the OPT
Women packing locally-produced cheese at a dairy unit in Al Aqaba village

In one of those Palestinian villages, Al Aqaba, we saw CARE helping to create a dairy unit which is able to buy milk from local farmers and produce delicious yoghurt and cheese. It empowers local women as well as men. The women said this was the first job they’d ever had, bringing them independence, status and freedom. This economic development is vital for the livelihoods of the 300 people living in this besieged village. And for some families it is also about being able to remain in their communities in the West Bank.

I do want to say, by the way, that as I was going around West Bank and Gaza, I was trying really hard to maintain an objective perspective. In fact the security was not as heavy as I expected for me personally. But in the end it was impossible not to see that the Israeli actions of a protective security policy have significant negative economic consequences for Palestinian communities.

A run-down building in Lebanon
A run-down building in Tripoli that is typical of the dwellings refugees are renting and living in

Lebanon

We went up to Lebanon’s second city, Tripoli, which is much poorer than Beirut and, like Beirut, still has plenty of evidence of the 1975-1990 civil war. (Note that the Syria civil war has ‘only’ been going five years so far…) There are around 100,000 Syrian refugees in Tripoli, a city of approximately 700,000 people, over half of whom are also poor and vulnerable. The Syrian refugees have, for these residents of Tripoli, suppressed wages and inflated rents. CARE is focusing on assisting vulnerable Lebanese and Syrian and Palestinian refugees, living in slum-like areas of Tripoli, squeezed into informal, overcrowded, and broken-down dwellings.

As elsewhere around the Syria region, CARE is also trying to help especially women to create a livelihood for themselves. We visited a great start-up hub, called SHIFT, in Tripoli, where CARE was funding business and bakery training for women, based on a market analysis that there was a potential to sell sweet patisserie.

Kitchen of a patisserie in Lebanon
The kitchen of the bakery where women are receiving business and bakery training

Women’s economic empowerment

One of the themes of the visit was how important our work on women’s economic empowerment is for the resilience of people, families and whole communities suffering conflict and poverty in Palestine, Lebanon and Syria. One of CARE’s main messages for the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul next week will be that in longer lasting emergencies – and every conflict-related emergency I can think of has lasted years or decades – we must be thinking and acting longer term, and giving people the tools to help themselves cope and be resilient. Growing food and earning a livelihood is essential to this.

Partnerships with national and local organisations

We met fantastic local partners working in Gaza, West Bank, Lebanon and Syria. They were generally appreciative of CARE’s support and often said we were better partners than some other international NGOs. But I am pleased to say they also gave us some constructive feedback on how we could still do better.

  • Yes, they want to receive more funding directly, but more important than that, they want donors to fund their ideas, not tell them what to do.
  • They understand why we at CARE – and donors – need some red tape and procedures, especially to avoid terrorist financing. But they still plead with us to keep it down to what is essential. And especially to reduce the delays it causes.
  • And it’s still obvious that as the last in the chain, local partners get squeezed the most on their core costs (the general costs of simply keeping their organisation going and enabling it to operate). But they need them just as much as we do: to survive between grants, to insure families of aid workers who might get killed trying to get through a siege, and to do a good job.

Policy and advocacy

In both Lebanon and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, it was apparent that several policies of foreign and national governments and authorities were contributing massively to people’s problems. It was a strong reminder of how important our work on policy and advocacy is, at country level and globally.

Most Syrian (and Palestinian) refugees in Lebanon still lack the legal right to be there, let alone to get a job. This leaves them open to widespread exploitation, as has recently been gruesomely reported in the Lebanese media and the Guardian. What is needed is not just promises of action, but actual change on the ground.

Nevertheless, it is totally impractical, in fact, to think that Lebanon’s formal and informal economy can create 250,000 jobs for all of the Syrian refugees that need them in a few years. And Palestinian refugees and unemployed Lebanese need them too. So part of the answer has to be for Europe, and the rest of the world, to welcome more Syrian refugees.

Laurie Lee's picture

Laurie Lee is Chief Executive of CARE International UK – Read his blog posts on our Insights policy and practice website