[Published here on August 19, 2013]
In a tiny town snuggled about halfway between Nabatiyeh and Bint Jbeil, politics, tradition, and finances take their toll on a local NGO. The Association for a Better Society (ABS), based in the largely pro-Amal town of Souaneh, has plans to renovate a park, host inter-sectarian dialogue sessions, and increase the size of their multilingual library.
But ABS and other local Lebanese NGOs, unlike branches of international organizations that operate in southern Lebanon, face social, political, and financial pressures that have significantly restricted their work. These limitations broadly are manifested in the types of activities hosted and the funding sources solicited. Nabil, an organizer for ABS who preferred not to use his real name because of political repercussions, described the restrictions on his group’s activities.
“We hold English classes, Mother’s Day celebrations, and forums on the environment and civic responsibilities,” Nabil told NOW. “But we can’t bring a singer to a celebration.” Hosting a musician, performing a dance other than dabke, or hosting co-ed physical activities would be out of the question, Nabil said. He attributed it to the need to remain within the “traditions and customs” of the conservative Shiite society in which ABS operates.
Layla Serhan, from the Youth Network for Civic Activism (YNCA), acknowledged similar boundaries. “To be socially acceptable, activities have to be within certain lines,” she explained to NOW. Serhan’s organization works primarily in the larger town of Nabatiyeh and has recently gained attention for hosting numerous controversial events, like talks on sectarianism, co-ed dancing in the streets of the town, and youth activism against drug use. Despite now being able to organize these kinds of events, Serhan emphasized that YNCA continues to face significant social pushback as a consequence.
Lamya, a journalist familiar with the issue who asked NOW not to print her real name so that she could speak candidly, added that further restrictions on “joyful” activities now exist because of the ongoing war in Syria. “There’s an atmosphere of sadness, of pain, of fear [in south Lebanon],” she said. “Young men are in Syria fighting, and people don’t know if they’ll come back injured or dead… NGOs can’t work at ease in this kind of environment.”
According to Nabil and Serhan, the repercussions for hosting these kinds of controversial activities are largely social and political. “Party heads in the region exert political pressure,” said Nabil, whose community is heavily pro-Amal and pro-Hezbollah. As an active member of the Amal Movement, Nabil said he has trouble convincing the region’s party heads that ABS’s social work should not be politicized.
“The social pressure comes from people talking about you, not showing up to events, and ostracizing you,” Nabil told NOW. In a town as small as Souaneh, it was easy to see how this kind of social isolation could be a significant deterrent.
YNCA activities, which push the boundaries more than ABS’s, have brought the organization some unwanted attention in Nabatiyeh. Young people attending their events have been harassed, windows in YNCA facilities have been broken, and the organization’s requests to host events are regularly and inexplicably rejected by the municipality. Most recently, YNCA was forced to relocate and postpone a theater play because of “security reasons.” On the day of the rescheduled performance, YNCA was again informed that they would have to postpone, this time indefinitely.
Luckily, though, YNCA has built some leverage which has granted them the maneuverability to send out messages or host events that would have otherwise been prohibited. “We’ve figured out a number of clever games to play,” Serhan told NOW. “We print double-sided posters and flyers. That way, we can send out an important message ‘within’ the event that we’re already hosting.”
“We also do a lot of events in collaboration with other NGOs. They typically don’t have difficulties getting licenses, whereas we do. But we bring the people power.”
Restrictions aren’t limited to the types of events held, however. Both YNCA and ABS commented on how funding sources can be problematic for local NGOs. “Applying for funding from the American embassy always causes issues,” Nabil said. He explained that it was much easier to apply for grants from European embassies or from USAID in particular. “As soon as they hear that we’re engaging with people from the American embassy, there are problems.” Unfortunately, this has left NGOs like ABS with increasingly limited options to fund their programs.
Lamya said that money also plays a significant role in drawing youth away from “problematic” local NGOs. “Hezbollah pays the youth that are working in ‘unacceptable’ NGOs so that they leave the group,” she said.
Lamya, Nabil, and Serhan all stressed that local NGOs in Lebanon are much more susceptible to financial, social, and political stresses than their international counterparts. Since local NGOs are often staffed by members of the community, political parties can more easily exert pressure on them.
YNCA’s Serhan remained positive, however. She proudly recited the strides her organization has made in recent years, especially when addressing challenging topics like freedom of expression, dissatisfaction with political leadership, and taboo social issues. When asked how she measures YNCA’s success, Serhan’s cheerful answer indicated both hope and defiance.
“We know we’re being successful because of the challenges we’ve been facing.”
*Aliases were used for Nabil and Lamya. Both cited fears of political repercussions and chose to remain anonymous.