Following the demise of the Washington Consensus, which was insisting on the need of freeing markets in order to achieve sustainable growth, politics and the state have came back at the center of the debates about development. In the new mind-frame Good Governance has become the core of the strategies aiming at sustainable development, while the State has been identified as the key player in order to achieve the long term aim of eradicating poverty[1].

As the debate in the development field was unfolding, even humanitarian workers began to question themselves over the risks connected with their action, discovering that it was contributing to shape the political environment in which they were intervening. Notably, in the new frame of state building, humanitarian aid was always more perceived to be at risk of undermining the aim of extending the legitimacy and authority of the central government by establishing channels alternative to the state to provide services to the population[2].

In response, the humanitarian community came up with a series of proposals, summarized under the formula ‘Do not harm’, which was essentially based on the idea that humanitarian aid was to be provided in a way that would not prove counter-productive in the long term[3]. Some contributed to this concept broadening the scope of humanitarian aid encompassing activities aimed at transforming the conflict context in which humanitarian action was taking place. However this transformative humanitarianism, advocated by authors such as Mary Anderson or Robert Miller, was considered by dunantist and principled organizations as carrying the implicit risk of politicizing humanitarian aid by jeopardizing the fundamental principles of neutrality, and impartiality.

This article analyses the case of the steering committees established by the Italian NGO INTERSOS in Lebanon following 2006 war between Israel and Hizbullah. They are proposed here as an example of transformative humanitarianism which is able to fully respect the principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence, acting at the same time as a mean to strengthen state’s authority, and to reinforce the linkages between the central government and the local civil society. Obviously the experience which will be described in this article is deeply rooted in the context of Lebanon, however some relevant features could prove extremely useful in other areas of intervention.

To carry on the analysis this paper will be divided into three sections: The first one, is aimed at describing the context of southern Lebanon in particular focusing on the period following the 2006 war between Lebanon (Hizbullah) and Israel; The second section, evaluates the project of the steering committees which have been set up with the support of INTERSOS, and their impact in terms of state building and humanitarian action. The third section contains the conclusions of the article.

The article is based upon interviews collected on the ground during an ad-hoc field mission between 16th and 20th of August 2009, this is compounded by an analysis of official documents produced by the steering committees themselves, and by follow up interviews of INTERSOS Lebanese staff in Rome in November 2009.

The Context: Lebanon after the 2006 War

While launching its two rockets and subsequent kidnapping two Israeli soldiers the July 12th 2006, Hizbullah fighters were not aware of passing one of the red lines which characterize the Israeli-Lebanese relations. Up to that point attacks by the Islamist militiamen were responded through rounds of artillery fire from the Israeli side of the border, and vocal condemnation by the International Community. The same Hasan Nasrallah – Hizbullah Secretary General – by kidnapping the soldiers was aiming at a prisoner swap, not at causing a war between Hizbullah and the State of Israel.[4]

However, that 12th of July something new happened, the Israeli Government, under heavy internal political pressure decided to reassert its military deterrence by launching a full-fledged invasion of the South of Lebanon.

The 34 days of campaign were characterized by two prominent features, on one side the inability of the International Community to build up consensus in the Security Council to stop the war, on the other the inability of the Israeli Army, despite the successful air-strike campaign, to win the war on the ground. Hizbullah on its side, by merely resisting and ‘not loosing’, was gaining ground in Lebanon as the ultimate guarantor of Lebanese sovereignty, in contrast to the regular army that was remaining on the sidelines of the war, and reasserted its credentials as the only Arab competitor of Israel, thus digging in the emotions of other Arab public opinions from Egypt to Syria.

The war ended thanks to a Security Council sponsored ceasefire, under the terms of Resolution 1701, the 14th of August 2006. The agreement reached in New York provided a face-saving device for Israel by empowering the UN peacekeeping mission (UNIFIL) up to 15.000 men, and extending the reach of the Lebanese Army to the South where it was entrusted with the outstanding authority to carry out, in collaboration with UNIFIL, the disarmament of armed personnel in the area south of the Litani river. Hizbullah, and partially Lebanon, were obtaining their own advantages from a resolution of this kind as the new UN Force mandate was designed in order to make it unable to truly pursue the disarmament of the militias, or altering the balance of power in the region, but was strong enough, or at least this was their hope, to provide for a deterrent against Israeli violations of Lebanese sovereignty. Essentially Resolution 1701 was a realist device, able to stop the conflict without fundamentally changing the status quo in the region[5].

However, though effective conflict ended 14th of August its humanitarian consequences were there to stay. The South of Lebanon, an essentially agricultural area, was flooded with Unexploded Ordinances (UXOs), with the Israeli Army reticent to hand over the strike details of its artillery and air force thus impeding effective demining of the area[6]. The death toll was amounting to over 1000, and increased during the following years due to the presence of landmines and cluster bombs, the economic damage to Lebanon, mostly concentrated in the relatively poorer south, was estimated around 5 billion/$, almost 20% of Lebanon GDP, while the number of IDPs was estimated at 1 million people. However, the intervention of the International Community in this specific case was swift and resourceful, with non-western actors playing an extremely relevant role in the reconstruction process. This resulted in OECD countries pledges for around one billion US$ in humanitarian and development aid, and probably an even much stronger engagement by Gulf States and Iran, seeking to strengthen respective power positions in the country[7].

The main difference between Western and non OECD actors was connected to the programs that were financed, in fact, while Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar mainly focused on infrastructural reconstruction channeling the funds through non-state actors such as Hizbullah or other sectarian groups, the Europeans and the United States concentrated their efforts on strengthening Lebanese Government’s ability to project its power over the country, under the so-called ‘good governance’ agenda[8].

Despite imagining to implement successfully a good governance agenda in a country characterized by a sectarian conception of the central state could have been considered a chimera, some important advancements in a state-building direction have been made so-far. In particular, the southern regions which, ever since they were occupied by the Israeli army in 1982 had been mostly excluded from the calculations of the policy-makers in Beirut, thus increasing reliance on local non-state actors, witnessed some important developments in a state-building direction. This was due to three main factors, first of all the presence of the Lebanese Army in the south as a guarantor of everyday security was accepted and greeted by most of the southerners; second of all the authority of local municipalities, elected for the first time in 2001, was on the rise thus partially shifting service provision from informal to formal actors; finally, the decision by Hizbullah to exploit its resistance standing through internal democratic procedures ensured the election of its representatives in key positions of southern municipalities, thus reinforcing the legitimacy of local institutions. This is not to say that non-state and civil-society actors were fundamentally weakened and substituted by the central state, but only that for the first time in Lebanese recent history part of the governance in the south was ensured by official Lebanese authorities, and not by civil society or sectarian organizations.

This evolving context was the one faced by humanitarian organizations intervening in Lebanon. As a consequence, one of the main problems for humanitarian NGOs intervening in the area was to follow the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence without undermining the state building process taking place in the south. In fact, if the NGOs intervening in the area were to deliver services outside formal channels, here intended as those controlled by the central or local authorities, the risk was to undermine the attempt of official administrations to strengthen their role against an extremely powerful and polarized civil society; at the same time channeling funds through formal authorities, which in Lebanon are dominated by sectarian logics, was carrying the risk of undermining the neutrality of humanitarian endeavor. Consequently if by delivering aid on its own an external humanitarian agency could have been sure about the respect of humanitarian principles, this was at risk of undermining an already difficult state building process.

The next section of the paper deals with an innovative solution, employed by the Italian NGO INTERSOS, to tackle the above mentioned problem.

The Experience of the Steering Committees – Building a State Through Humanitarian Action

INTERSOS intervened in Lebanon with its Emergency Team in the first days of the 2006 conflict. From the onset it set up a mission as locally driven as possible hiring highly capable local staff which, along the time, has taken the lead of the mission. INTERSOS actions in the country included in a first phase: food distributions; humanitarian protection, in particular through psycho-social assistance to children; mine risk education; and primary care. However, with the emergency phase fading down INTERSOS began to reflect how to provide durable and sustainable solutions, able to transform in the longer term the socio-institutional framework of the South of Lebanon.

The main problem for a humanitarian organization engaging activities other than ‘mere’ relief is how to keep in line with the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence while entering the political realm. However, thanks to the deep knowledge of the setting provided by the local staff, INTERSOS has been able to imagine creative solutions which, though aimed at supporting the strengthening of the state-society relations, would not tarnish the perception of INTERSOS as an humanitarian and neutral actor.

The solution the organization came out with are the so-called ‘steering committees’. These are second-level organizations participated by a wide number of actors operating in a given administrative area (Kadaa) in the field of social assistance. Each committee’s membership includes: (1) local NGOs and voluntary organizations representing civil society, (2) the local Union of Municipalities, representing local institutions, and (3) the Ministry of Social Affairs of Lebanon acting through local Social Development Committees.

The idea at the core of the Steering Committees was not simply to create a forum for discussion between different actors, but to coordinate different actors to implement  social assistance projects in a given area through joint ventures between their members thus favoring dialogue and reconciliation by acting together. The opinion of one of INTERSOS’ local workers is that: ‘the main asset of the Steering Committees is their ability to be operative and to foster dialogue between institutional and non institutional actors on projects which are jointly implemented’.

The statute of the committees is contained in an ad-hoc Term of Reference (ToR), which defines operative procedures to enable the work of the committees. By analyzing the ToR it appears immediately evident the effort to be inclusive and to provide for a fully voluntary mechanism not to hurt the sensibility of any actor. This is evidenced for instance by article three of the ToR which identifies ‘coordination’ as the key goal underpinning Committees activity, but defines it  mainly in a negative form by stating that: ‘coordination is the main methodology of action, however it does not aim at uniting policies, at creating competing organization, at criticizing work made by others, at interfering in internal issues of any member’[9].

The operational capability of the Steering Committee is ensured through democratic voting procedures which are based on majority voting and not on consensus (art.5 – ToR), this is compounded by an executive body, the ‘sub-committee’, which is responsible for the implementation of the projects and is composed by four members, two of which belonging respectively to the Union of Municipalities and the Ministry of Social Affairs.

Projects implemented so far have always been small in size (20.000-30.000$) focusing upon four fields of action: Children and Youth, Environment, Elders, Mine Victims and Disabled, evidencing a preference for social assistance projects targeting the most vulnerable categories. The overall aim was to guarantee decent living conditions through an official channel to people that had usually relied on faith or sectarian-based charity in order to get the necessary assistance.

Resources for the projects and the functioning of the committees have initially been provided by INTERSOS, which acted even as a catalyst and promoter of the entire process, and by other international actors such as the Italian Development Cooperation, UNHCR and UNIFIL.  However, since their creation, the committees have been designed as self-supporting organizations able in the medium term to fundraise autonomously. This is evidenced by the statute itself as it requests each member of the steering committee to pay a symbolic amount, 100.000 Lebanese Pounds (66$), to become members. Nowadays, some of the projects implemented are partially contributed by Steering Committees’ members which contribute to single initiatives through ad-hoc contributions coming from their own budgets.

The selection of the target groups benefitting from the projects is carried out jointly between INTERSOS and the Steering Committees in order to ensure maximum degree of impartiality, and an action exclusively based on needs. Moreover, the same participation to the committee of all kind of associations, with different backgrounds ensures a high level of peer-review guaranteeing against sectarian or party preferences. However, despite participating in the financing and monitoring of the projects to ensure compliance with humanitarian principles, INTERSOS has reduced its external visibility to the minimum in order to foster that of the steering committees. This was understood as an essential step to avoid undermining of the institution-building process in the area.

Nevertheless, despite present success, recognized both by local institutions and by the population of the South, the creation of steering committees has been a difficult process. In particular, in an area dominated by sectarian rivalries entrenched in years of civil war and inter-communal violence, the ice-breaking process to coordinate the activities of the various actors was extremely challenging. The asset of INTERSOS in engaging in this process was deriving primarily from its humanitarian mandate, in fact having asserted its neutrality on the ground – by distributing according to careful needs assessment and by employing staff belonging to all different communities present in the area, INTERSOS has been perceived as a credible broker by the different organizations involved in the Steering Committees’ creation process. However, though the mediator was considered neutral and able to deliver in terms of project financing, the process of signing of the Terms of Reference has included many bi- and multi-lateral meetings – for instance between the first draft of the articles of the ToR and the final approval ten interim meetings had to be gathered.

Today six Steering Committees are operating in the area of South of Lebanon covering the Kadaa of Maarake, Nabatiyeh, Bint Jbail, Tyre,and  Khyam. They provide services for the most vulnerable sections of the population, and are participated by more than one hundred associations, various Social Development Centers – belonging to the Ministry of Social Affairs – and tens of Municipalities. As a consequence they provide not only an essential forum for interaction between the civil society, the local and the national authorities, but represent an important factor to empower the credibility of institutions in the eyes of the local population. The success of this initiative in granting humanitarian principles while supporting state building process was confirmed both by the widespread recognition of INTERSOS’ work by extremely different institutional and non institutional actors, which was evident at the time of fieldwork, but most of all by the wide participation of very different civil society organizations to the experience of the steering committees. These organizations, although often competing between themselves and with state authorities for service delivery, in this particular framework have been able to act in a collaborative manner.


Humanitarian debate of the last years has been dominated by the polarization between transformative humanitarians, advocating a humanitarian action directed at influencing root causes of conflict, and dunantist, convinced that to respect humanitarian mandate and principles any engagement in the political realm is to be avoided.

This article points at a case where, by respecting humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence, a NGO has been able to become the catalyst of a state building process in the area of the South of Lebanon. In fact, by insisting upon its neutral and humanitarian credentials, INTERSOS has been able to act as a credible broker and mediator between civil society organizations, local institutions and the central state fostering trust between them.

This process of trust building has resulted in the creation of ad-hoc steering committees which provide both a forum for discussion between different actors, and which are actively providing services to the local vulnerable people, thus ensuring the respect of humanitarian fundamental aim of delivering only on the base of need. Moreover, by providing services the steering committees increase the standing of formal and coordinated institutions in the eyes of a population accustomed to sectarian and communal logics.

It is clear that this approach was possible thanks to the particular situation of the South of Lebanon where partial stability and the absence of conditions of extreme poverty have allowed the project of building steering committees to be pursued without risking to undermine access to the local population, or to delay response to extremely urgent needs. Consequently its application in other areas should be carefully assessed as in many cases urgent humanitarian concerns will prevail against an highly consultative and time-consuming process such as the one which lead to the creation of the steering committees.

However, despite a conducive context, the framework created by INTERSOS in Lebanon represents an interesting mid-way between different approaches to humanitarian action, allowing for space of discussion and providing an example where respecting the humanitarian mandate does not necessarily clash with the long term aim of state-building. This advocates for similar frameworks to be employed in non-primary emergency phases where confidence building concerns, as well as the need to favor the processes of state building, can go in hand with the respect of humanitarian principles which can help the NGO involved to be perceived as a credible broker.

Giulio Di Blasi is a policy officer working for the Italian NGO INTERSOS. He holds a MA in Conflict, Security and Development by King’s College of London, and has extensively travelled in the Near Middle East.


[1] Harvey, P. (2009)

[2] USAID (2002)

[3] Anderson, M. (1999)

[4] Hasan Nasrallah interview with Al Jazeera (Jul 20th, 2009)

[5] International Crisis Group (2006)

[6] Report of the Secretary General on Resolution 1701 (2009)

[7] Hamieh, S. & Mac Ginty, R. (2009)

[8] Ibid

[9] Tyre Steering Committee Term of Reference – Article 3

Essential Bibliography

Anderson, Mary (1999), Do no Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace or War, (London: Lynne Rienner)

Hamieh Sylva Christine and Mac Ginty Roger (2009), A very political reconstruction: governance and reconstruction in Lebanon after the 2006 war, Disasters, Vol.34, n°1

Harvey Paul (2009), Towards good humanitarian government: The role of the affected state in disaster response, HPG Report 29, Overseas Development Institute

International Crisis Group (2006), ‘Israel/Hizbollah/Lebanon: Avoiding Renewed Conflict’, Middle East Report n°59

United Nations Security Council (2009), ‘Report of the Secretary General on the Implementation of Resolution 1701’, United Nations (New York), S/2009/119


The author would like to thank all INTERSOS staff in Lebanon which his hospitality and great availability throughout the drafting of the paper.


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