Three weeks after the huge port explosion that mangled vast tracts of Beirut, Lebanon’s vibrant civil society is mobilizing to place people, not private interests, at the heart of the capital’s rehabilitation.
Faced with real estate developers seeking to profit from disaster reconstruction, the Lebanese are creating new networks and digital tools to draw funding where it is needed most.
But the task ahead of them is monumental. More that 8,000 buildings were damaged in the blast; landlords in the affected areas have demonstrated a tendency over the past 10 years to evict tenants and demolish old properties rather than repair them; and a crippling financial crisis now means that many are unable to afford renovation.
“Any reconstruction needs to take into consideration the quick and dignified return of residents,” Abir Saksouk, the co-founder of urban planning organization Public Works Studio, said. “Anything done now needs to follow a process where people have a voice and can claim the rights to their houses.”
Enabling the return of residents and involving them in the redevelopment process would go a long way in preventing some of Beirut’s most historic neighborhoods from meeting the same fate as Downtown Beirut, which was redeveloped after the 1975-1990 Civil War by public/private company Solidere.
Many Lebanese fear a repeat of that top-down process in which Solidere appropriated the land and leveled hundreds of historic buildings. After being uprooted from its social foundations only to have high-end shops and luxury flats implanted, Downtown Beirut has for years stood deserted.
There are however a number of legal obstacles that make it hard for residents of blast-hit areas to stay put.
“Occupancy and tenancy do grant you the right to housing,” said Maha Ayyoubi, shelter specialist at the Norwegian Refugee Council. “The problem is that on the national level there is no stipulated policy to preserve the right of housing as a basic right. The authorities have financialized housing and turned it into a supply rather than a right.”
To help residents face off the real estate vultures and resist eviction by unscrupulous landlords, Naqaba Tantafid, a union that grew out of a pro-reform electoral coalition in the Order of Engineers and Architects, has offered them free legal assistance and surveyance of the damage to their properties.
“There have been a few cases where owners or the municipality said that the building is not safe, but when we visited, it turned out that they were,” union volunteer Danny Abu Shakra said. “We also help to prepare legal documents to report damage, giving people a legal mechanism to stay.”
The structural and internal damage assessments carried out by Naqaba Tantafid and other groups also allow for an accurate assessment of needs, so that NGOs and donors can start allocating resources for reconstruction.
“We are trying to make linkages with organizations that want to fund the renovation of houses, so that people who don’t have means to renovate, but want to return, can do so quickly,” said Saksouk, who also volunteers with Naqaba Tantafid. “That’s why we’re doing a cost estimate for a lot of buildings.”
Open-sourced data and digital mapping tools are proving to be powerful in linking these groups together.
One example is Open Map Lebanon, an interactive open-source map that Naqaba Tantafid and several other grassroots groups are using to upload elements of their surveys.
Its co-founder, Melda Salhab, told The Daily Star the initiative aims to create a consolidated database of geo-located needs assessments in blast-hit areas.
“The groups collecting the data might not be the best to respond, so we’re thinking about how to get those other groups [onboard] and create this system where it’s very clear which household has been assigned to which group, and which needs they are going to match,” Salhab, a doctoral researcher in spatial data science at University College London, added.
And while state-led reconstruction efforts have previously involved murky deals between a coterie of politically connected entities with private interests, the principles of transparency and accountability are at the heart of the mechanisms being put in place this time.
Khaddit Beirut [Shakeup Beirut], for example, seeks to guide the rehabilitation process by providing an online platform for residents of blast-affected areas to submit needs assessments and flag developing issues related to the recovery process.
Its team of activists and academics plans to use these submissions to create road maps containing policy recommendations, safety guidelines and standard operating procedures for the rehabilitation of the health, environment, education and business sectors.
These will be used to direct foreign relief funding to “trusted departments or centers within governmental institutions,” and local NGOs committed to these principles and guides, Khaddit co-founder Najat Saliba said.
“We are trying to reinvent the guidelines and procedures by which we approach reconstruction, because none of them were observed or followed before,” Saliba added.
These emerging mechanisms offer a viable way for major international donors, who recently pledged nearly $300 million in immediate post-blast aid, to live up to their promises that it will not fall into “corrupt hands.”
“A lot of funders like Impact Lebanon and big funders like UNICEF and UNDP know everything that we’re doing and are interested in this platform as a way of knowing which organizations are doing what, so they know who to fund … [or provide] in-kind donations to,” Salhab said.
“I think [the platform] will add a huge amount of visibility that’s hard to get otherwise, a huge amount of transparency and a huge amount of monitoring of the continued efforts,” she said.
Importantly, helping local organizations get the funding and support they need means that there is greater chance that residents are brought into conversations on how the city is rehabilitated in the longer term.
“The priority is a people-centered process,” Saksouk said. “In previous reconstruction experiences, as much as a lot of experts and activists tried to resist state-led projects that were loaded with gentrification and private interests, those affected residents themselves were not at the core of this process.”
This process is built on the understanding that people and connections are what make cities, not just buildings. Getting an accurate understanding of the social and economic fabric of the blast-affected areas is thus an essential first step in the rehabilitation of Beirut.
To this end, Public Works Studio and Naqaba Tantafid are conducting occupancy surveys, showing “how many people are living in the houses, if they are new or old tenants and if they have a tenancy contract or not,” Saksouk said.
AUB’s Beirut Urban Lab has meanwhile made publicly available its built environment database of the city, which provides a “very detailed, geo-referenced map of Beirut, including everything from the building footprint, to public spaces, municipal sector divisions and property law zones,” according to AUB assistant professor Ahmad Gharbieh.
The database also maps out residential housing permits during the postwar period and has provided valuable insights into questions around housing, evictions and gentrification.
“There has already been an eviction process taking place in the affected areas, and we have to keep that in mind while making a recovery plan,” Gharbieh said. “The aim is to protect some of these affected people and tenants from exploitative plans that might come in place.”
“The work begins when we get all the new data [from groups like Public Works Studio, Naqaba Tantafid], enter it into the database and analyze this data guided by particular research questions,” he explained.
The plan is to use these research findings to start an informed dialogue among residents around their rehabilitation priorities.
“It’s only through such resident mobilization where they claim their voices that we can resist the big interests in investment in the area,” Saksouk said.
Gharbieh added that this form of post-trauma capacity building begins with forming networks on the ground, identifying community leaders, and doing activities that allow for an understanding of the neighborhood in terms of its practices, the people in it and the NGOs working there. “Eventually the policy advocacy work happens with the municipality, or whoever is charged with recovery itself,” he said.
But pushing for change and lobbying a public administration that has time and again shown itself to be absent or indifferent to residents’ needs is likely to be one of the largest obstacles to reimagining Beirut.
“Unfortunately, at the government level, we don’t have the proper administrative structure to start a dialogue on housing issues,” Ayyoubi said. “Municipalities also undoubtedly have a legal role to play when it comes to housing but not all are aware of the legal framework that they own in terms of pushing forward more adequate housing solutions.”
“Governing is the real challenge, not winning an election” Khaddit co-founder Carmen Geha said. “If we are building a system that is viable, of course the aspiration is that the government would adopt this. It’s not about replacing the state, it’s acting in the absence of the state so that we get back on our feet.”