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Exploratory mission to Lebanon

Municipal actors from Germany's western Allgäu region visit host communities in Lebanon

From 5 to 17 November 2017, as part of the ‘Municipal know-how for host communities in the Middle East’ initiative, delegates from five municipalities in Germany’s  western Allgäu region – Hergatz, Heimenkirch, Opfenbach, Amtzell and Gestratz – spent a week in Lebanon comparing notes with actors from communities hosting Syrian refugees, and exploring opportunities for project partnerships.

Organisational support for the exploratory mission was provided by the Lebanese office of the international non-governmental organisation Democracy Reporting International (DRI). Professional support was also provided by the ‘Municipal know-how for host communities in the Middle East’ initiative of the Service Agency Communities in One World, and an official from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).
On day one of the trip to Beirut the delegation from the western Allgäu held talks with staff of the German Embassy and relief organisations. This enabled them to gain a first impression of how Lebanon is dealing with the large number of refugees taken in (mostly by municipalities) since the civil war broke out. There are now some 1.5 million refugees living in Lebanon, who account for around a quarter of the population. It clearly emerged that the need for support at the municipal level is very strong.

To enable the visitors from Germany to see for themselves the challenges facing municipalities and find out more by talking to people face-to-face on the ground, they visited five municipalities in northern Lebanon and in the Beqaa Valley that presented a range of different circumstances, needs and priorities. The delegation from the western Allgäu were struck by two things, as well as being emotionally touched. First of all they were impressed by the very warm and hospitable receptions, which included extended lunches, a musical interlude in front of the town hall and a cake of friendship. Secondly they were emotionally affected by what they saw in the municipalities, for instance when visiting the refugee camps – which left them shocked and appalled. The mayor of the municipality of Ghazzeh, which once had a population of 6,000 but is now home to 36,000 refugees, pointed out that the high number of refugees has triggered not only huge civil society engagement by Lebanese citizens, but also tensions within the population. The delegates from the western Allgäu discovered what this means for people and the environment for instance in terms of solid waste management problems – the 33 tons of waste generated every day are being dumped in the countryside. How important the environment is to the local population was emphasised by the mayor of Ra'shine, which has problems with its sewage system, amongst other things. The need for support in the solid waste management sector was also evident when the delegation visited the waste sorting planned at Al Minieh, where currently only 45 per cent of materials are recycled. The remainder eventually leach from landfills into rivers and lakes. There is also a huge need for support in the education sector, as the children of refugee families are now being taught in schools.

The delegation from the western Allgäu did not want to just gain an impression, however. They also wished to acquire an in-depth understanding of many things. So during large council meetings and during the field visits to the municipalities, they made use of every opportunity to ask questions about planned projects, the support provided by the Lebanese government, the transparency of local government policy, councillors' visions for the future and municipal master plans. Both sides found this professional exchange highly constructive and enriching.

The trip was completed with a workshop, at which Mario Abou Zeid, Advisor to the Minister of State for Refugee Affairs at the Ministry of Social Affairs, began by outlining the ministry's perspectives on the refugee situation. In the discussions that followed, the German and Lebanese participants were able to deepen their exchange and speak frankly about their expectations and hopes. They discussed intensively the focus on knowledge transfer pursued by the ‘Municipal know-how for host communities in the Middle East’ initiative. The representatives of the municipalities in both countries agreed that personal relationships were a sound basis for mutual understanding and possible joint cooperation.

The representatives of the five municipalities from the Allgäu will be sharing their impressions and experiences with citizens in their municipalities in November. It will then be possible to take decisions on next steps at subsequent council Meetings.