While no human society is simple, Lebanon is known for the particular complexity of its political settlement. One of the world’s last remaining consociational states, Lebanon is largely ruled through an agreement between the elites which represent the country’s three main confessional groups: Sunni, Shi’ite and (majority Maronite) Christians. This state of affairs is further complicated by the fact that some of these groups maintain proxy relations with rival regional powers, most prominently Saudi Arabia and Iran. This power sharing arrangement is formally reflected in the country’s governance structures and informally in the country’s economy. For these reasons, any reference to Lebanon as a state speaking in a single voice should be caveated, and positions and actions of individual state officials are best understood in the context of sectarian and regional divisions. This is even — or especially — true when some among them try to cross such divisions and act in support of the fragile public interest.

As a matter of deliberate methodological choice we spent most of our time talking to Lebanese political and economic actors and to the refugees themselves. We have also interviewed numerous representatives of the aid community and some key European donors, as well as the broad range of EU officials engaged in this response. But the main added value of our research lies in the glimpse it offers into the complexities of the host country and the ways in which Lebanon’s political economy responds to the refugee and donor presence. In order to understand the ways in which various interests influence Lebanon’s capacity and willingness to host refugees, or receive and utilise assistance offered for this purpose, we have tried to cover as broad as possible a spectrum of sectarian opinions and positions. With outstanding assistance from our research partner, the Lebanese American University, we were able to approach some of the key decision-makers across sectarian divides and speak to at least one representative of each main political community, as well as representatives of all line ministries relevant to the response. Our interlocutors were members of parliament, high-ranking civil servants, ministerial advisers and in some cases ministers — as well as members of the Lebanese business community, from small and mid-sized entrepreneurs to prominent international businessmen and bankers.

We also tried to understand and capture the lived experiences of protracted displacement across as broad a spectrum of communities as possible within the constraints of time and funding. We held focus group discussions, followed by in-depth individual interviews in the South (Hebbariyeh), North (Akkar), the Beka’a valley (Zahle and Saadnayel) and finally in Beirut (areas of Bourj Hammoud and Aramoun). Our main interests were refugee households and the ways in which they interact with their social environment.[3] These discussions informed our understanding of the reality of refugees’ lives in Lebanon and the way in which donor efforts impact that experience, giving a personal dimension to the literature and statistics that are already available.

We combined this field research with a careful study of the often mutually contradicting economic data produced by the country itself and by international financial institutions such as the World Bank. The economic analysis — and the challenges we encountered in conducting it — was particularly important for understanding the complexities that stem from combining reform and refugee protection agendas.

We have tried to mitigate the complexity of Lebanese reality by proposing a simple report structure. The first section focuses on politics, exploring its sectarian nature and the ways in which different interest groups align around the refugee issue. The next section is about the economy of the refugee presence, analysing its macro-economic impact and the narratives, which surround it. These two chapters feed into our final arguments about the ways in which Lebanon’s political economy interacts with the international aid response and the specific challenges related to protection in the region. The conclusion lays out our main findings and discusses policy options available to donors and EU policymakers.

We recognise that donors have an exceptionally difficult task in front of them. Engaging with Lebanon requires knowledge and political sensitivity of the highest order. But we believe failure to rise to these challenges could cause long-term damage not just to refugees and Lebanese society but to Europe’s political reputation and its ability to use this policy tool in future crises. We hope our findings will help in finding new ways to ensure that refugees are protected and their hosts’ needs are met, on the basis of their shared interests and human dignity.

The specific insights we derived from those conversations is captured in Uzelac, A. et al. 2018. ‘The untapped resource: Protecting and leveraging refugee social capital in protracted displacement’, CRU Policy Brief, the Hague, the Clingendael Institute, link.