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Towards a 21st century humanitarian response model to the refugee crisis in the Lebanon

By Simon Little

Simon Little is DFID's former humanitarian advisor to Lebanon, a position he held from January 2013 to July 2014. He is currently seconded by DFID to the UN Resident Coordinator’s/Humanitarian Coordinator’s Office and is currently working on developing Lebanon’s 2015 humanitarian/stabilisation plan.

This article represents the views of the author and is not an official DFID position.

It was written in early summer 2014, before the sixth Regional Response Plan (RRP6) mid-year review.   


The humanitarian situation in Lebanon is changing. After two years of a resource-intensive response, delivered through multiple agencies and sectors, the anticipated reduction of humanitarian funding is likely to change the scope and shape of the response. As a result, it is unlikely that what was achieved in 2012 and 2013 (a comprehensive package of life-saving assistance delivered to an ever enlarging caseload of refugee and non-refugee beneficiaries) will be achievable in the future. 

In the evolution of all crises, there are key moments when the humanitarian community has to make difficult decisions regarding the future maintenance and delivery of the response and for Lebanon, the mid-2014 review of the sixth Relief Response Plan (referred to as RRP6), represents such a time.  

The dimensions of the crisis in Lebanon are staggering. The country hosts the highest per capita refugee population in the world and the RRP6 is set at $1.7 billion for 2014. As of mid-2014, however, the appeal was just 17% funded ($287 million secured). It is unlikely that the RRP6 will secure anywhere near the $881 million secured against RRP5 in 2013, though refugee numbers are expected to continue to grow. 

The need for continued humanitarian and/or stabilisation/development assistance can be largely negated through the provision of livelihoods/employment opportunities. However, there is no easy way to create employment in a politically fragile environment where the economy is haemorrhaging1 and where the three primary employment sectors (agriculture, construction and services) are already heavily congested. Cash for work schemes delivered by humanitarian and non-humanitarian actors are providing value and utility to those that benefit but, collectively, the employment created amounts to tens of thousands of work days, rather than the millions required. In the absence of a massive multilaterally funded public works scheme capable of providing long-term employment to thousands of refugees and poor Lebanese, many households will continue to rely on the assistance provided by the humanitarian community. 

A model response or a challenging response model?

With greater numbers of refugees seeking sanctuary in Lebanon from mid to late 2012, the responsibility to lead and coordinate the humanitarian effort was debated between UNHCR and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The former declared that a steadily increasing flow of refugees accorded it the lead coordinating role, whilst OCHA highlighted aspects of the Transformative Agenda, notably the Cluster System and reinforcing the role of the Humanitarian Coordinator. Although the swelling of refugee numbers strengthened UNHCR’s claim, there were some within the humanitarian community who remained perplexed as to why a cluster system, far from perfect but refined over successive crises, was overlooked. Whilst UNHCR is certainly mandated to lead/coordinate refugee responses, introducing a sectoral response (though different from the cluster system largely in name only) caused confusion and delays amongst humanitarian actors more familiar with a cluster approach refined in recent crises.  Nonetheless, structures and leadership is one thing but for those we seek to assist, what’s delivered is always more important than who delivers it. 

A scaled up response was predicated on the delivery of blanket food assistance, hygiene, baby kits etc., complemented by more selective transfers of education, health and shelter support. The mode of delivery drew heavily on experience and practice acquired in successive crises over the past three decades, reinforcing the traditional response hierarchy with UN agencies securing the lion’s share of donor funds, and thereafter subcontracting the bulk of on the ground delivery to a range of international non-governmental organisations (INGOs)/NGOs2. As a rule of thumb, the more partners involved in delivering an operation, the less optimal the arrangement, in part because of the duplicate costs associated with UN oversight and INGO delivery (e.g. two sets of premises, vehicles, personnel, HQ costs, etc). Operating costs can spiral further if the implementing INGO delivers through a national partner. 

In terms of assistance delivered the response model applied in Lebanon is little different to that introduced elsewhere with a focus on the distribution of material lifesaving assistance. In applying a response model heavily influenced and shaped by practice in Africa, the humanitarian community may have failed to acknowledge the contextual differences of responding in middle income Lebanon, with well-established basic service delivery and a functioning private sector. Whether a model that is predominantly focused on disbursing vast quantities of material assistance was best suited to the specificities of the crisis in Lebanon - even during the peak period of refugee influx - is debatable3

It is interesting to note that eight sectors were established under UNHCR stewardship pretty much in the mirror image of the cluster system. The aforementioned eight sectors are jointly coordinated by a UNHCR sector coordinator (with the exception of the food security sector) and a Government of Lebanon (GoL) representative4. Six of the sectors have three or more coordinating agencies with global cluster lead agencies, such as UNICEF for WASH, WHO for health, etc. joining a UNHCR and GoL representative. This might be viewed as a suboptimal arrangement with sectors coordinated by two UN P3/4’s, whereas one might suffice5 and may contribute to costly and potentially cumbersome coordination6

Over the past couple of years, the humanitarian response in Lebanon has grown in direct proportionate to the needs that exist, and the resources available to respond to such needs. As a result, estimates suggest that 100 or so humanitarian/development agencies are currently present (though not all active) in Lebanon, employing upwards of 3,000 individuals, around 350 of whom are thought to be international staffers7. The collective cost of staffing this operation is conservatively estimated at $00’s of millions annually with an estimated 20% of overall project funding expatriated through personnel and other out of country costs. Furthermore, though RRP5 may have mobilised $881 million in 2013, just 50-60% of this is thought to have been converted into assistance and/or services that reach the beneficiary end user with the balance likely to have been absorbed by a range of in and out of country administration/operating costs8.

So, the response model in Lebanon has been designed and structured to adhere to the prevailing model of cross-sectoral multi-partner engagement. In this, the UN oversees a response model implemented in large part by INGOs. National and international staff are employed at the centre, and field level, to coordinate and implement. From the outset of the crisis the role of the private sector has been limited as has the willingness and/or ability of GoL structures and services to engage. The response model in Lebanon has assumed a largely predictable form. 

The current response model has probably grown beyond the means of donors to sustain it and whilst scaling up proved challenging, scaling back is probably more so with personnel and logistics tied to long-term contracts. Donors played a part in driving the response agenda as did the media and by extension the public. In today’s overheated and overly competitive humanitarian sector, it would have been unusual, if not unconscionable, for any of the larger agencies, be they UN or INGOs, not to have sought a foothold in Lebanon, though very few of either type operated in middle income Lebanon pre-crisis. Typically, in the free for all that follows the onset of crises, those that vacillate are left behind and thus potentially bereft of funding9. With the exception of institutional outliers, such as ICRC and MSF, this is unacceptable to the extent that the contemporary humanitarian market demands action from all, even those with limited contextual experience.  

What distinguishes Lebanon and how should we do things differently?

At an operational level, there’s little to distinguish the crisis in Lebanon - and the resulting need for humanitarian assistance - with comparable crises in Africa or Asia. As such, it makes perfect sense that the response offers an integrated package of lifesaving assistance, delivered through experienced and proven partners employing tried and tested methods of delivery. 

Most forecasters agree that humanitarian funding for Lebanon probably plateaued in 2013. The year 2014 will likely experience a steady reduction (perhaps 60% of that mobilised in 2013?) with a steeper decline in funding anticipated for 2015. Conversely, as funding reduces the number of vulnerable people, both refugees and non-refugees are expected to increase. So it really will be a case of looking to do more with considerably less! Compounding the challenge of dwindling resources is the fact that Lebanon is an extraordinarily expensive context in which to operate. The cost metrics of the response in Lebanon are enormous. Which other past or current response model is predicated on a household minimum expenditure basket (MEB) of $607 per month with the survival basket costed at $435 per month or $5,220 per annum10? The costs simply don’t bear comparison and yet, peculiarly, the response model employed in (for example) Kenya and Lebanon, and across the world, is effectively the same. 

Because the cost of responding in Lebanon is so extraordinarily high, the international community can ill afford suboptimal response systems or delivery mechanisms. Against the backdrop of reducing humanitarian funds, it’s imperative that the current response model is adjusted to be certain that agencies are truly delivering impact and value for money. In recognising the challenge and cost of continuing to operate in Lebanon two options are presented: the first, a reactive/inactive approach; the second, a proactive approach.

The reactive/inactive approach. As indicated previously, the RRP6 has secured less than one-fifth of the funding needed for the year at the time of writing. This is cause for concern, if not entirely unexpected. Few expect 2014 funding levels to equal those achieved in 2013. With fewer funds, the humanitarian community is less able to maintain levels of coverage and service provision. Cuts are inevitable and there is a danger than the response simply loses steam and gradually peters out. The narrowing of sectoral focus will be accompanied by fewer and fewer target households receiving assistance. Equally, the gaze of donors, responders and the media may be turned by a future emergency with Lebanon, not inconceivably, being abandoned to a painful cycle of ever diminishing returns. 

The proactive approach recognises the operational dilemma and looks to adjust in advance of its consequences. This is already taking place and the current Cash Transfer Programme offers a useful illustration. A recent review of the operational set up of cash programming in Lebanon suggested a number of refinements that, if introduced, could provide a leaner, more responsive and cost effective delivery model. 

Cost saving measures might a reduction in the number of actors involved in transferring cash, unifying the coordination of cash transfer programming, attenuating the structure for transferring cash, utilising a single ATM cash transfer mechanism, etc. 

Operational refinements only go so far as the scale of the crisis will outstrip available resources-the response model can be adapted until no further adaptation is possible. To make a real impact, the community needs to be bolder and more ruthless in introducing change. As a matter of urgency we need to review the optimality of the current structure, specifically the future requirement for 24 UN agencies and 100 INGOs11. We need to consider the appropriateness of maintaining the current sectoral structure and the various working groups and task teams therein. All these structures are populated with high cost international personnel. In addition, we should take the opportunity to review the value of a decentralised, resource intensive coordination system.  In essence we need to determine whether the existing response structure enables us to deliver more with less? With the crisis in Lebanon unlikely to end anytime soon we need new humanitarian order to ensure that our future focus remains firmly on those we are here to serve, rather than shoring up institutional mandates or finances. 

For more information, contact Simon Little, email:

Show footnotes

1 The GoL/World Bank estimates that by end 2014, Lebanon will have sustained economic losses totalling $7.5 billion due to the crisis in Syria.

2 Valued at $1.21 billion the appeal budgets of the three frontline UN agencies (UNHCR, UNICEF and WFP) collectively constitute 71% of RRP6. As well as supporting UN activities, donors such as DFID have provided bilateral support to INGOs.

3 One of the principle differences between responding in Lebanon and elsewhere are the costs associated in maintaining a response.

4 These are: education, food security, health, non-food items (NFI), protection, shelter, social cohesion, and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). The protection sector has the following two subgroups: Child Protection in Emergencies (CPE) and Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV).

5 The annual cost of engaging a P4 UN officer in Lebanon is estimated at around USD 200,000+.

6 By way of emphasising the suboptimal response model at play, it is worth highlighting the assessment of need. A recent DFID funded Multi Sector Needs Assessment reviewed 88 multi and single sector assessments conducted during 2013. The GoL, Red Cross Movement, Gulf actors and others outside the RRP6 probably conducted a further 30 or so assessments. All these assessments take time, cost money, duplicate effort and seek similar information that may serve to confuse beneficiaries.

7 The number of national and international staff is not exact but estimates put those currently employed by humanitarian agencies in Lebanon as follows; the four main UN agencies (UNHCR, UNICEF, UNRWA and WFP) employ national and international staff in the following ratios: UNHCR 480:160; UNICEF 100:20; UNRWA and WFP 61:15. Bear in mind that UN agencies subcontract the bulk of implementation to INGOs. National/international staffing levels for the lead INGOs (DRC, IRC NRC, SCI) are as follows: DRC 550:50; IRC 300:26; NRC 353:23 and SCI. The total number of international personnel engaged in the response clearly runs to hundreds of posts with thousands of national staff engaged.

8 The estimates presented are based on rudimentary calculations from individual funding proposals received over the past 18 months.

9 At the start of 2013, 22 INGOs were included in RRP4. By the end of the year, this number had increased to 51 INGOs.  The number of INGOs represented in RRP6 has grown yet further. The overall INGO/NGO community is thought to number in the order of 100 agencies. Twenty-four UN agencies are present in country (source: Inter-Agency Coordinator, Lebanon).

10 In 2012 Lebanon’s GDP per capita was $9,705 or approx. 50% more than the estimated survival basket. Though the MEB was calculated to cost the minimum living expenses for refugees, the figure is comparable to the $4 per day poverty line presented in the GoL’s National Poverty Targeting Programme.

11 The Red Cross Movement has its own parallel structure with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and 18 partner National Red Cross Societies orbiting around the Lebanese Red Cross.

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Reference this page

Simon Little (). Towards a 21st century humanitarian response model to the refugee crisis in the Lebanon. Field Exchange 48, November 2014. p59.



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