Volunteerism as a key to improved resilience and a strengthened local response to crises within Lebanon.

Publishing Date: 
August, 2016
Civil Society Observatory
Author(s): Madeleine Maxwell Hart
This articles investigates attitudes towards volunteering within Lebanon in the context of war, instability, poverty, sectarian divides, and hopelessness. Using samples, interviews and desk research, the article will analyse the role of volunteerism in Lebanon. It highlights the increasing professionalisation of volunteerism and how a culture of volunteerism can benefit both grassroots and development organisations.
Keywords: Volunteerism, grassroots, Bottom-up change, volunteers

To cite this paper: Madeleine Maxwell Hart,"", Civil Society Knowledge Centre, Lebanon Support, 2016-08-01 00:00:00. doi: 10.28943/CSKC.002.40004

[ONLINE]: https://civilsociety-centre.org/content/volunteerism-key-improved-resilience-and-strengthened-local-response-crises-within-lebanon
Cited by: 1
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For many analysts, the situation in Lebanon appears to be at a tipping point of violence, as the country has welcomed more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees since the start of the conflict in Syria. The consequences that this has brought to Lebanese society have been social, economic and structural, among others.

While this situation has brought with it a plethora of analyses and discourses, little has been said on the role of volunteers responding to the crisis and the subsequent development issues that Lebanon is now experiencing as the conflict is further protracted. In the international forum, there is much debate on the impact of volunteering on volunteers themselves, although there is much less attention given to the impact that this can have on key stakeholders and the target community.[2] Further analysing the role of volunteers within the Lebanese context is of great importance given the vast number of local and international individuals who have shown significant commitment to working within the Lebanese response to the Syrian crisis.

With the current strain on the Lebanese government, civil society, and citizens, the resilience of local communities and the sustainability of locally-led projects needs to be ensured. In addition, with a lack of sustainable long-term funding, community based and durable approaches for project implementation are fundamental. The role of volunteerism is vital within this framework, as it empowers both local communities and the host organisation, and promotes a “one humanity, one responsibility” approach.

Volunteering can be an important tool to build capacities and develop resilience as citizens become conscious and engaged in their surroundings. By employing such a tool, solidarity can be enhanced and socio-economic and sectarian lines can be crossed, particularly within a divided society such as that in Lebanon.

Using samples from surveys given to international and local volunteers, this paper will explore attitudes towards volunteering within a framework that encompasses war, instability, poverty, sectarian division, and hopelessness. Through interviews and desk research, the role of volunteerism, within a sector that is becoming increasingly professionalised, will be analysed. The benefits that organisations can reap through the inclusion and support of volunteers within their projects will be discussed, among them, the assurance of a grassroots approach, enhanced links with target communities and a strengthened focus on the principles of accountability and transparency.

In the first place, the discourse surrounding volunteerism should be considered. Volunteerism has been defined and redefined, with among the most common definitions including:

“Activities that are non-obligatory (there is no contractual, familial or friendship obligation between the helper and the helped, nor coercion); [that are] undertaken for the benefit of others, [for] society as a whole, or [for] a specific organisation; [these activities are] unpaid”;[3]

“Volunteerism involves much more than working without pay; it involves people making choices to do things to help society in ways that go beyond their basic obligations”.[4]

The skills that volunteers can offer are manifold, ranging from time to language, expertise, resources and knowledge, among others. Both international and local volunteers have their own role to play in the response to crisis and in development issues.

For further context, to give a brief summary of the history of Lebanese associative life through periods of both emergency and development, we can briefly refer to Karam Karam’s Le Mouvement Civil au Liban.[5] He highlights four key phases in the socio-political life of Lebanon which affected the role and development of civil organisations. During the first phase, which fell between mid-19th century and mid-20th century, the Arab region saw a movement of political, intellectual and ideological awakening. Organisations that were created in these times in Lebanon were based within a framework of rivalry and territorialism and were therefore used as vehicles to defend ideas and interests, be they cultural, social or political as communities became more aligned to defined identities.

This changed, however, between 1958 and 1975 after the 1958 Crisis in Lebanon, which highlighted the fragility of the Lebanese socio-economic situation. Through research conducted at the time by the Institut de Recherches et de Formation en Vue de Développement, conclusions demonstrated that wealth and development were largely concentrated in Beirut, and a mere 4% of the population owned 30% of the wealth. Realisations of such inequality and injustice provoked an era of reform focusing on development and the redistribution of wealth. This in turn saw the creation of many new organisations to profit from development plans initiated by IRFED and the Office for Social Development that was created in 1959. In fact, between the 1950s and the 1980s, 1150 new organisations were newly registered in Lebanon.[6] With this came dramatic shifts in the concept of civil society organisations work, from previously considered roles of benevolence and charity to a new focus on development and socio-economic empowerment, social justice and citizenship.

Nevertheless, this rapid growth in civil organisations was abruptly halted by the outbreak of the civil war in 1975. Only a small number of organisations had the capacity to respond to the new emergency scenario and to provide essential services. In this sense, these organisations often  assumed the role of the state and were largely comprised of cross-community organisations, regional and national NGOs. Furthermore, Lebanon saw the beginning of the arrival of international NGOs to deal with the consequences of the war.

After the resumption of peace in the 1990s, the lines had been blurred between civil and political organisations and civil organisations became the “third system”, alongside the state and political parties. In addition, there was a further influx of international NGOs, which transformed the face of the humanitarian sector within Lebanon yet more. These large, international bodies introduced “increasingly bureaucratic, technocratic and compliance-oriented approaches to programming […overlooking] local expertise and knowledge”.[7] This is currently the context in which we are situated. The influx of international and pop-up NGOs has only been magnified by the need to respond to the consequences of the Syrian conflict in Lebanon.

Methodology and initial survey results

In order to facilitate a better study of volunteers within the Lebanese context, a survey was developed and conducted with 16 individuals, Lebanese and other, volunteering within Lebanon, with a range of international and local NGOs, including the Red Cross and Amel Association. Some participants of the study were involved in community projects, often organised by the municipality or scout groups, such as environmental projects, or activities for local children including theatre and reading. The surveys were conducted with volunteers in Beirut and its Southern suburbs during the month of April. The questionnaire was shared among Amel volunteers and other local activists in the area, either in person or electronically. This was an unguided questionnaire which participants were then able to submit in person or electronically.

From the results of this survey, we found information on the profile of volunteers and the role of volunteerism within society. In response to profiles that participants felt were most suited to be volunteers, the following ideas were put forward: that anyone can be a volunteer as long as he or she is a motivated individual who cares about making positive change, is someone flexible and open minded, and is someone who is willing to help society without expecting anything in return. Furthermore, it was noted that volunteering is suitable for students and young adults at the beginning of their professional career.

Even with many volunteers seeking professional development through their work, other varying motivations that drive individuals to join volunteering initiatives cannot be overlooked. The motivations listed below, derived from the aforementioned surveys, have been ranked in order of agreement:


% of participants considering this a key motivation

To develop my skills and capacities


Social responsibility


Professional development


To integrate into a community


Because I am part of a community in need


Free time


For the wellbeing of the community in which I am living


Because I am part of a community with a lot to give


As seen above, there are both altruistic and self-serving motivations that drive individuals to participate in volunteering activities. At this point, one must return to the initial definition of volunteerism as an entirely voluntary act, with no coercion. This strict interpretation of volunteerism can be problematic as it does not take into account the motivations and contexts in which individuals are volunteering. Professional and personal gains may be key drivers for undertaking such activities. Furthermore, if there is a framework in place in which individuals are encouraged to volunteer, such as a community project, a school volunteering activity or religious impetus, then social, moral or religious obligations will come into play. This may be with or without the awareness of the individuals themselves. According to social learning theories, this expectation generated by peers, family, coworkers and surrounding influencers pushes individuals into situations in which they learn and develop their capacities.[8]

Regarding the current role of local volunteers within the Lebanese response, more than 85% of participants agreed that local volunteers should be better integrated into the current response to the situation in Lebanon. As so, within the reflections on challenges faced by volunteerism in Lebanon, we will consider why there has been limited integration of volunteers up until now. The participants of the questionnaires had a lot of input in relation to this particular point, and many thought that local volunteers, as members of the host communities, should be included in the empowerment processes that are taking place across the country in response to the Syrian crisis. Many stated that through trainings, capacity development and better education and information on the crisis within the country, volunteers themselves, as well as the communities they are invested in, could benefit greatly. Participation in the response to the crisis would give them a sense of ownership of development projects. Furthermore, participants noted that the inclusion of local volunteers in the response would build local capacities and hence, improve the sustainability of community projects as locals put their newly developed skills into practice.  

Local and International volunteers

In regards to when volunteers play a key role, it should be noted that local individuals have lived through the initial emergency response and the transition to development, providing them with unique experience and perspective on how to respond to the influx of Syrians within their communities. Moreover, in international discourse, local volunteers have been recognised as integral components in the immediate response to a disaster and are often considered within the first line of responders, given their prior presence in the area.[9] Their knowledge on the community, its members and the nuances of that particular area can provide great added value to the initial response from government and non-governmental organisations.

Soon after a disaster or crisis, international volunteers begin to join local first responders. It has become a growing trend to see large numbers of international citizens travelling to help in emergency response. However, a study found that this influx normally decreases significantly after 12 weeks, and that 64% of volunteers were only used and needed during this three month period.[10] Furthermore, the efforts that are needed to organise this additional work force during this short period is intense and without the correct management, their presence can result in being a “nuisance and a liability”. [11]

Both the spontaneous response of local volunteers and an unmanaged influx of volunteers can pose risks to the wellbeing of the community and pose other challenges. Within the State of the World’s Volunteerism Report, they highlight a practical example in which untrained and unaware individuals enter into unstable buildings, causing further damage or risk to the individuals trapped within the building or surrounding it, or, as another example notes, block road access for emergency services.

Regarding the expertise and skills that volunteers can bring, both local and international volunteers highly value local volunteers’ knowledge and access to local communities and traditions, language skills and knowledge. However, 30% of local volunteers found little benefit to the role of international volunteers (volunteers from outside Lebanon) within the Lebanese context. On the other hand, many noted the added expertise, the networks and the lessons learnt from other contexts that these individuals have to offer.

Nevertheless, as noted by a number of participants to the survey, priority is often given to international volunteers and employees in Lebanon, the suggested reason being that “organisations have greater trust in their professionalism”. Refugee International contested this outsourcing of skills in Lebanon though, stating that many UN and non-governmental organisations continue to fill staffing gaps by “deploying costly expatriate staff”, which leads to “poorly-adapted” responses to the “reality of the Lebanese context”.[12] This lack of local knowledge often makes communities feel that a “one size fits all” approach is employed by international organisations even when it comes to dealing with contexts that vary greatly. As stated by an interviewee in other field research: “They hire people who treat Lebanon like you would treat Haiti”, the Lebanese practitioner pointed out, in essence noting that international workers apply the same approaches to vastly different contexts.[13]

Within Refugee International’s recommendations, they stated that this practice should be swiftly changed, given that Lebanon is a country with strong academic institutions and a “very active civil society” which allows for capable, local individuals who could assume the positions of international workers.[14]

Stronger emphasis should be put on local volunteers, given that they will offer greater sustainability and constancy within a protracted crisis context. Furthermore, the presence of volunteers during the rebuilding stage can provide comfort and support to other members of the community. In this respect, accountability and trust is also ensured as there is a reduced threat that, in the rebuilding process, external influences will come into play. Zakharia and Know noted that those organisations with higher numbers of local staff and volunteers enjoy increased credibility and understanding with the communities they are targeting.[15] Furthermore, members of vulnerable communities build their capacities, which strengthens their ability to respond to future crises in the area.[16] Unfortunately, given the history of both the country and region, future crises should not be unexpected.

According to the surveys conducted, international volunteers, whilst bringing solid expertise and experience with them, can often lack the linguistic skills and cultural sensitivity that would allow them to act without close follow up from a local individual. This therefore demands further time and effort from locals in assisting the international volunteer in carrying out their tasks and duties. Furthermore, this can prove to be a highly unsatisfying experience for these volunteers if their skills are underused and undervalued.[17] It is true that when well organised, the presence of this expertise can be highly valuable in emergency response, but given the urgency in such a context and the need to interact directly with the target groups, it can be concluded that international volunteers may have a stronger role in development frameworks.

Whilst appreciating the role of the international volunteer, this article will focus more on the role of the local volunteer as a long-term agent for change and positive influence. We will need to consider the role of these individuals in the Lebanese system, in respect to both emergency response and transition to development, as well as what role they should play ideally.

In summary, it is important that local volunteers are better included in development discourse, particularly now that strategic approaches are being employed within the response to the Syrian emergency and connections between disaster and development are increasing. As infrastructure and public services reach a breaking point within Lebanon as a result of the influx of Syrian refugees, and with no end to the conflict in sight, the perspective on how to deal with the crisis is changing. Development analysis is now taking place to manage the situation from a long term perspective and to cater to the needs of this new and seemingly permanent population.

Impact of volunteerism

Given the extensive discussion on the benefit gained by volunteers themselves, this analysis will consider the impacts on other key stakeholders within the Lebanese context. These will be considered as the following: governments, local organisations and local communities. Most emphasis will be given to the impact on local communities in order to analyse the capacity of volunteerism to enhance the resilience of vulnerable communities.

Let us first consider the potential impact of volunteerism at the national level. There are various spheres in which volunteers are able to influence the positive progress of the country, particularly when an environment is conducive to volunteerism.

There have been numerous global examples of governments welcoming volunteerism through setting up institutional and legal frameworks for volunteers. These include the government of Togo, which set up a volunteering scheme to counter national youth unemployment. After the first three years of the project, the increased employability of individuals could be clearly noted, as 40% of those youth who had participated in volunteering initiatives had, as a consequence, found paid employment.[18] Other countries have enhanced spaces for volunteering in order to “reap the benefits” of these efforts towards national development goals. These include countries such as Honduras, Mozambique, and Peru. Each of these countries have passed laws that encourage and promote volunteerism and stakeholder participation. The rewards of such initiatives can be seen as educational and health services are improved in rural areas, volunteers find paid employment and civic engagement is increased. [19]

In Lebanon, there is no legal or official institutional framework for volunteers, although there have been efforts by the Ministry of Social Affairs to create enabling environments for volunteers, such as the development of a National Volunteer Service Program. [20] The relatively inactive website acts as a directory of (limited) volunteer opportunities and (extensive) organisations working in Lebanon.

However, without a solid framework within which volunteers can have a greater role in civil society, it depends on each organisation’s capacity to outreach, manage, and retain the committed and appropriately trained volunteers needed.

An additional benefit that volunteering at a national level yields is increased social inclusion and cross-community interactions. Such a benefit is  demonstrated through a case study carried out in the religiously divided Northern Ireland, where individuals volunteer in both their own and new communities and are encouraged to engage in cross-community, cross-religious, cross-cultural dialogue.[21] In the long run, this can develop social cohesion and, in turn, better unite the nation. Through these united and collective voices, advocacy groups will be able to move from the local to the national level, to push their demands.[22] Furthermore, this collective voice should include the voices of the most marginalised and most vulnerable, and will ensure the diversity and inclusion of opinions.

Nevertheless, to mobilise change within government institutions and promote good practice implies certain challenges, particularly when governments outsource (officially or unofficially) their responsibilities to the private sector or to non-governmental organisations. Such has been the case in Lebanon, as the government found itself incapable of covering the needs within its borders. For example, it was not until 2013 that The Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) was formally involved in the humanitarian response to the Syrian Crisis and not until early 2015 that real efforts of coordination and mapping began to take place, through the creation of a health steering committee. Up until that point, non-governmental organisations were the  leading health service providers for vulnerable communities.

In such cases, where state responsibility is “delegated”, it is difficult for individuals to know who to hold accountable, who to turn to when in need and where to receive correct and appropriate information. Hence, the inclusion of volunteers both in governmental and non-governmental bodies would do a great deal in ensuring the clear transfer of information to those communities in need. Furthermore, local volunteers with strong ties with their communities could act as mediators between these different stakeholders, and aid in efforts to push for the adequate and necessary services that vulnerable communities are in need of.

Local volunteers are also key in the improvement of democratic practices within governmental organisations, as they act as long term “monitors” of the state. Their presence is often deeply integrated within the humanitarian response and is therefore maintained during the timeframe needed to mobilise bottom-up change. This long term presence can be key in aiding sustainable progress. [23]

It is worth noting that the ability of volunteers to influence and create change has also been enhanced by the use of social media and the internet. Messages are more easily disseminated to the right audiences and in this way, the number of people who can be sensitised to a certain topic is increased. The use of social media has also been a strong tool in providing counter information to mainstream media. Given the cross-border nature of the internet, this information is easily shared and dispersed so that advocacy efforts can quickly become international.

The benefits that local organisations may be able to gain from engaging volunteers are also manifold; however, these benefits depend on the correct management and placement of volunteers. It is important to note that the below mentioned points relate to local NGOs working within Lebanon, although some points may also be relevant for international NGOs. The reason for focusing on local NGOs is that these recommendations may eventually work towards enhancing their capacities and their position within the response to the crisis, given the often unequal partnerships between international and local organisations and the unrealistic and demanding international donor requirements they are often subjected to.

Firstly, a spirit of volunteerism can help raise the profile of the organisation before its target group. Through the inclusion of local volunteers within its projects, the name of the organisation is more likely to reach new beneficiaries and the volunteer will be a source of quick information to which the beneficiary can refer to for knowledge on available services it provides.

Furthermore, of both advantage to the organisation and the beneficiary community is the fact that through the inclusion of local volunteers, namely active members of the local community, project outcomes are more likely to be more relevant to and better based on the needs of the targeted community. Services will directly respond to the needs noted on the ground and will therefore be highly responsive and effective. During a time in which many local organisations are constrained by the requirements of international donors, providing strong justifications for the implementation of certain services rather than others and basing project outcomes on reliable and intimate needs assessments will provide a strong case for alternative, yet relevant actions. This further capacitates the organisations in responding to the changing dynamics in the field. To have a direct communication point with beneficiaries will ensure that these changes can be quickly noted and acted upon.

As local volunteers gather feedback and comments from beneficiaries on the services they provide, organisations’ accountability with target beneficiaries will increase. With this,  organisations should have tools in place and the capacity to be able to receive the feedback from volunteers on its activities and to be able to respond when necessary and when possible. Given the role of the volunteer as an “information-giver” and an onlooker to organisations’ projects, they have a strong capacity to enhance the transparency of the organisation, ensuring that targeted communities have access to all the necessary information about the service provider. The access and transmission of information is a “vital element in the promotion of democratic principles”,[24] which will serve in the best interest of the organisation and its reputation.

In order for the organisation to reach its maximum capacity in achieving its objectives, and to have the furthest possible outreach to vulnerable populations, local volunteers should play a vital role in the structure of the organisation. Coming from these isolated communities, local volunteers provide a direct link to populations in need and can assist the organisation in ensuring that the most marginalised individuals are reached. As beneficiaries gain trust in organisations through volunteer intermediaries, the sense of connectivity between organisation and target population will be enhanced and organisations’ outreach to isolated and marginalised communities will be better facilitated. This in turn develops community resilience, through a feeling of mutual support and strong cooperative networks. [25]

In regards to workforce, whilst respecting the concept of volunteerism as not replacing paid staff, organisations can gain new, valuable sets of skills through the use of volunteers and can in turn develop a more diverse workforce.[26] Sixty-nine percent of survey participants agreed that organisations could reap the benefits of increased resources, skills, ideas, manpower, and expertise at no-cost by incorporating volunteers into their work. In this particular case, international NGOs can benefit from the language skills of local individuals and their intimate knowledge of the area. However, survey participants noted that a key obstacle to this so far may be a lack of strong leadership and capacity in organisations to manage larger volunteer capacities.

Finally, the influence on the community must be examined. However, before doing this, we must consider the multiple definitions of resilience.

From the surveys conducted with volunteers themselves, there were various interpretations of resilience. Given the lack of a standard definition in the international community,[27] these differing interpretations should be considered. Answers regarding individuals’ understanding of resilience varied greatly and included: “communities can face and adapt to challenges and difficulties that come from sudden crisis”; “a community's ability to absorb stress in a crisis”; “the ability of a community to respond to difficult situations and to utilise its available resources”; “the capacity of a community to adapt to a sudden crisis that affects the community with [the] least damage and rebuild what was affected”; “control of their lives”; “the ability of a community to bounce back from a negative event”; “the ability of the community to deal with problems”; and “flexibility within the community”.

The following factors can be considered as key elements in assessing resilience: exposure of individuals/community to risks; vulnerability, situations that do and could render the individuals/community vulnerable prior to and following a shock; coping and adapting, the ability of individuals/communities to cope and adapt in the face of problems; and finally, recovery, the ability of individuals/communities to “bounce forward”[28] to their initial circumstances prior to facing crises or challenges. Unfortunately, the World Bank envisages that the frequency and intensity of disasters, both manmade and natural, will continue to increase over the coming years.[29] This is predicted as a result of a number of factors including global warming and climate change, modern migration flows, population growth and reduced availability of natural resources. It is for this reason that many organisations are aiming to better mainstream resilience within their approaches to humanitarian and development work, as well as disaster response and prevention. Take for example the British Department for International Development, which now considers resilience to be a “vital component of their […] work […] in addressing both natural and manmade disasters”. [30]

Given the above prediction of the World Bank regarding the regularity and force of disasters, the sustainability of programs is something that needs to be deeply considered. According to an analysis on resilience from UN Volunteers, “community resilience […] can be enhanced through volunteerism […as a] basis for successful and sustainable programmes”,[31],[32] This sustainability, and consequential resilience, can be reinforced by the presence of volunteers, given as previously mentioned that they can provide clear information regarding the needs on the ground. Furthermore, this sustainability will be enhanced through developing skills within the community, and decreasing their needs and their dependency on external actors to carry out certain roles within the community. As local volunteers develop their capacities, they increase the skills available within the community. In this way, livelihoods will also be sustained as individuals will have the soft and hard skills to offer to the local area. This empowers the community to lead its own efforts in responding to crisis, without  relying, or with reduced reliance, on peripheral actors. Moreover, the continuous presence of local volunteers in their area ensures that those skills remain in the community and allow for sustainable development to take place.

This continuous presence of long-standing community volunteers also assists in the recovery component of resilience, as they are involved in the rebuilding efforts. This can contribute to a faster recovery, as “volunteers [… facilitate] a strong transition before emergency relief and the rebuilding of productive lives”.[33] These individuals are not dependent on project financing, nor are they as likely to leave as international volunteers are. Rather, they are the most likely to remain within the area to support community development efforts, given that they are invested members of the population.

Given the current emphasis from local and international bodies to prioritise resilience within their actions, interventions at the community level will be of key importance. As demonstrated before, as they are of benefit both to the organisations wishing to enter into communities, as well as to the community themselves, local volunteers can act as channels through which mutual trust can be developed and accountability before the target populations can be enhanced. As individuals volunteer within the framework of an organisation’s intervention, they hold knowledge that is not always directly accessible to the target beneficiaries. They also hold the capacity to convey this knowledge appropriately and comprehensively to the community at stake.

This has multiple advantages. Firstly, this can improve the engagement of the local community with the project. Moreover, this may lead to the community having a greater voice in the development and the progress of activities, which in turn ensures a more integrated grassroots approach. Furthermore, such trust can ripen perspectives on available support networks (from both organisations and from volunteers) for community members, as well as cultivate local and internal support systems. Volunteerism can promote connectedness and local networks that can contribute to developing resilience.[34]

According to UN Volunteers, “social cohesion and trust … thrive where volunteerism is prevalent”.[35] This is in part due to the commitment and engagement of volunteers in ensuring the wellbeing of the community. The presence of individuals who have voluntarily dedicated their time and energy to ensure the improved welfare of a population is profoundly appreciated. Social harmony can be fostered based on this shared interest in promoting the wellbeing of one’s community.

Through this commitment to the community as a whole, rather than to a specific group, peace and cross-community dialogue can be forged. These efforts can be further supported by organisations as volunteers provide the links and the constructive knowledge and opportunities for such initiatives to be developed.

These volunteers must be considered as “agents for constructive change”[36], whose skills should be developed for the benefit of the community that they serve These agents can aid in assuring the best quality and the most appropriate services for vulnerable populations.

As highlighted in research conducted by the Institute of Development Studies and VSO, “the biggest issue for the poor [is] not necessarily that services [aren’t] there; the issue is that they don’t get access to them”.[37] This can be for a number of reasons, including a lack of information, “discriminatory social norms, institutional discrimination, corruption and naked power”.[38] This is often the case in Lebanon given that a large number of actors in the field work on political or religious bases. Sadly, as reported by Amel social workers in the Bekaa valley, certain groups within informal tented settlements are taken care of by certain organisations due to their religious or political alignment, leaving others without equal levels of support and access to services.

Despite volunteers being able to do little to directly tackle this systematic discrimination, they can, nevertheless, be information givers for potential beneficiaries, mapping an outline of the services available to them. This in turn can contribute to ensuring that education, health and housing services, for example, are available to the most exposed and marginalised individuals.

Volunteerism will also help beneficiaries develop a positive image for organisations and will promote active citizenship, encouraging other individuals to get involved, thereby creating stronger networks and support for individuals and local NGOs. This can be particularly necessary for smaller NGOs with limited resources.

One-hundred percent of the individuals surveyed said that they believe volunteerism can help develop the resilience of a community in Lebanon.  Reasons behind this were that volunteerism increased cohesion and enhanced spaces for interaction;  helped fill gaps in community dialogue and needs; and gave the community a sense of responsibility in responding to crises. The latter can be particularly important in inspiring new ways of thinking, active citizenship and a sense of community. With these elements enhanced, members of community assume greater responsibility towards their own population and have a heightened ability to contribute to positive change.

Obstacles hindering the enhanced inclusion of volunteerism within Lebanon

Despite the clear importance of including volunteers in crisis response, there are still certain challenges within the Lebanese context that hinder the  effectiveness of such inclusiveness. Some of these have been previously mentioned, such as the risks that can come from (an influx of) untrained volunteers without the right supervision and management. This can cause not only physical risk but also cultural and practical risks. For example, if international volunteers arrive and are unable to communicate in the mother tongue of the beneficiaries they are working with, this could lead to cultural and linguistic misunderstandings and, in some cases, increased expectations from beneficiaries. Often times, beneficiaries view the presence of a foreigner as a sign of greater service as international organisations are presumed to be unbiasedly charitable and have greater resources and money, when this is not necessarily the case. In the particular case of Lebanon, with such sectarian and political divide, 81% of survey participants agreed that local volunteers can actually help overcome these dividing factors and can facilitate the development of trust and dialogue forums across diverse communities.

A second difficulty is in finding suitable volunteers for the needed tasks. With a lack of sufficiently structured forums in which local Lebanese organisations can announce volunteering positions and in which local and international volunteers can publish their curriculums,  networks to create a viable volunteering system do not exist. Furthermore, once committed volunteers become engaged with the activities of an organisation, it can be difficult to retain them. Many of the participants of the survey highlighted that one of their main challenges in accessing voluntary work in Lebanon was the amount of time they were able to commit. Many of them were students who have to balance studies, paid work, and volunteering. The Learning to CARE Institute refers to Safrit, Scheer and King’s Seasons of Service to analyse the advantages of including different age ranges within volunteering activities. Given that young adults only have limited spare time, this leads to a necessity for quality in volunteer projects they decide to become involved in.

Local organisations, despite their often limited resources, must therefore appreciate this fact and should manage to find a balance between engagement and over-burdening volunteers with tasks. This is a fine balance to achieve, given that “people need to see tangible outcomes from their work in order to support those activities and continue to engage with them”.[39] Furthermore, 56% of  survey participants also highlighted the concern of organisations over-using volunteers in place of paid staff.

An additional overarching problem is the ever increasing professionalisation of the humanitarian sector. The professionalisation of humanitarianism leaves little space for volunteers as they are not as skilled or educated as trained employees. The proliferation of BONGOs (business-oriented NGOs) within the sector in general, and in Lebanon with the influx of international NGOs, has further implications beyond volunteers. According to Kamel Mohanna, such developments within the sector are shifting the focus away from the “daily human interactions at the grassroots level”, and moving it towards “compliance-orientated” approaches.[40] Such a methodology has a tendency to sacrifice humanitarian values, as well as to reduce the importance of input received from the staff and volunteers working on the ground. Various individuals have expressed their concern over the role of community workers and volunteers within such a set-up. [41]

Local and international NGOs will of course have differing considerations and values given to volunteers. There were equal numbers of volunteers from the survey who stated that they would prefer to either work for a local NGO or an international NGO. Each have their pros and cons regarding organisation structure, management, flexibility, and access to the field. As such, it is for the individual volunteer to take a stance on the role of local and international NGOs in the response to the Syrian crisis.

Conclusions and Recommendations

It is within the context of the above mentioned challenges that I feel it is necessary to make the following recommendations for the enhancement of the volunteers’ role within the Lebanese crisis response.

  • First and foremost, as highlighted within a community of practice workshops focusing on volunteer management within Lebanese civil society, there is a great need for a clear volunteer management plan[42]. This could be on two levels: at the organisational level, as organisations looking to recruit and work with volunteers develop better organised structures in which to welcome volunteers; or at a national level, such as governmental or non-governmental bodies, the Ministry of Social Affairs for example, take the initiative to develop a welcoming environment for volunteerism in which opportunities are accessible and volunteerism is encouraged. On the organisational level, this should be assisted by a clear assignment of tasks and a clear definition of the scope and limits of volunteer responsibilities.
  • To make this possible, recruitment techniques or platforms must be enhanced. As previously demonstrated, there are currently limited online forums for volunteering options. Given the increasing use of online tools and social media, these could ensure that individuals are aware of opportunities available. That being said, word of mouth is an equally strong tool in the Lebanese context. As seen through Amel’s strong experience in beneficiary outreach, local communities respond very well to what they hear through trusted voices. Thus, volunteers can act in the recruitment of other reliable volunteers. In fact, a study by VSO and the Institute of Development Research found that “[witnessing] the impact of volunteer activities” can have a “ripple effect. [43]
  • Finally, a spirit of volunteerism should be promoted. This can be achieved through schools and universities and other public spaces. Furthermore, the Lebanese government should work towards establishing a nurturing environment for volunteers, in which favorable policies exists and volunteerism is recognised and promoted.[44] In a time in which the government itself is hindered from providing the necessary services to cover the needs on the ground, a collective response from governmental bodies, non-governmental organisations, civil society and all other communities, to the protracted crisis is the only way to withstand the continuing pressure the country is currently suffering from.

In addition to the above recommendations, UN Volunteers advocate for the following, which can also assist in developing a strong and rounded culture of volunteerism:

  • Define a common understanding of volunteerism and from that, foster greater appreciation of its values. Public dialogue surrounding volunteerism should take place between governmental and non-governmental organisations, as well as community leaders, in order for this to occur. Research, documentation, and dissemination of best practices is also vital in gaining the right recognition for volunteerism. This can also act as a guide for organisations looking to successfully recruit and retain volunteers.
  • Using a “diversity of approaches to mobilise and facilitate volunteerism will ensure that volunteerism is appreciated as a whole consisting of many parts. This will ensure that all communities are encouraged to engage in a range of voluntary activities, including short-term, long-term, office-based, field-based, and online volunteering.
  • Develop multi-year volunteer supported projects that fall in line with the country’s development objectives. [45]

Given the current Lebanese context and the increasing strategic approaches being employed in response to the presence of Syrians in the area, there are conceptual and realistic shifts in the understanding of the crisis as it is. Development discourse is now, naturally, being employed. The United Nations Volunteer body states that volunteerism should be fully incorporated within this discourse.[46]

Upon brief examination, the discourse on the transition of the Syrian crisis from an emergency to a development issue has yet to sufficiently incorporate the role of volunteers. Rather, it is still very much focused on compliance with donor requirements and does not give full consideration to involving the community with the response. As confirmed in the State of the World’s Volunteerism 2015 report, there needs to be “radical shifts” to better include a community in their own development and in the country’s progress.[47]Managing disasters efficiently and effectively begins and ends with communities”.[48]


[1] This article is published in the framework of Lebanon Support and Amel Association’s joint call for publications “Glocalizing humanitarian interventions in Lebanon: a reflexive look into innovative practices in times of crises”.

[2]VSO and the Institute of Development Studies, “The Role of Volunteering In Sustainable Development”, 2015, available at: https://www.vsointernational.org/sites/vso_international/files/the_role_of_volunteering_in_sustainable_development_2015_vso_ids.pdf [last accessed 10 May 2015].

[3] John Handermer, Blythe McLennan and Joshua Whittaker, “A review of informal volunteerism in emergencies and disasters: Definition, opportunities and challenges”, International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, Vol. 13, September 2015, pp. 358–368, available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2212420915300388 [last accessed on 28 June 2016].

[4]Michael E. Sherr, “Volunteerism and Human Behavior Theory”, Social Work With Volunteers, Chicago, Lyceun Books, Inc, 2008, pp. 31-46.

[5]Karam Karam, Le Mouvement civil au Liban: revendications, protestations et mobilisations associatives dans l’apres guerre, Paris, Karthala Editions, 2006.

[6] Karam Karam, op. cit. , pp. 57.

[7] Kamel Mohanna, “National and international NGOs: equal partners?”, CHS Alliance Humanitarian Accountability Report, CHS Alliance, 2015, pp. 42-47.

[8]Michael E. Sherr, op. cit. .

[9]United Nations Volunteers, “Volunteerism and disasters”, State of the World’s Volunteerism Report, New York, United Nations Volunteers, 2011, available at: http://www.unv.org/fileadmin/docdb/pdf/2011/SWVR/English/SWVR2011_full_%5B10%5D_chapter7.pdf [last accessed 11 May 2014].

[11]John Handmer, Blythe McLennan and Joshua Whittaker, op. cit. , pp. 358–368.

[12]Refugees International, “Lebanon: Local institutions must lead the recovery efforts”, 2006, available at: http://reliefweb.int/report/lebanon/lebanon-local-institutions-must-lead-recovery-effort [last accessed 30 June 2016].

[13]Sonya Knox and Leila Zakharia, “The International aid community and local actors: Experiences and testimonies from the ground”, Beirut, Lebanon Support, May 2014, available at: https://civilsociety-centre.org/paper/international-aid-community-and-local-actors-experiences-and-testimonies-ground [last accessed 30 June 2016].

[14]Refugees International, op. cit.

[15]Sonya Knox and Leila Zakharia, op. cit.

[16]United Nations Volunteers, “Strategic Framework 2014-2017”, New York, United Nations Volunteers, 2014, available at: http://www.unv.org/fileadmin/docdb/pdf/2014/corporate/Strategic_Framework_EN.pdf [last accessed 9 May 2016].

[17]United Nations Volunteers, “Volunteerism and disasters”,  op. cit.

[18]United Nations Volunteers, “State of the World’s Volunteerism Report: Transforming Governance”, New York, United Nations Volunteers, 2015, available at: http://www.volunteeractioncounts.org/SWVR2015-frame/21337%20-%20SWVR%20report%20-%20ENGLISH%20-%20web%201.pdf [last accessed 8 May 2015].


[20]Ministry of Social Affairs, “National Volunteer Service Program”, 2016, available at: http://nvsp.socialaffairs.gov.lb/LearnMore.aspx [last accessed 10 May 2016].

[21] Volunteer Now, “The Role of Volunteering as an Integral Part of Community Development in Northern Ireland”, Belfast, Volunteer Now, 2011, available at: http://www.volunteernow.co.uk/fs/doc/publications/community-development-and-volunteering-briefing-paper1.pdf [last accessed 12 May 2016].

[22] United Nations Volunteers, “State of the World’s Volunteerism Report: Transforming Governance”, op. cit.

[23]VSO and the Institute of Development Studies, op. cit.

[24]United Nations Development Program,"Essentials: Volunteerism and Development”, United Nations Development Program, October 2003, available at: http://www.worldvolunteerweb.org/fileadmin/docs/old/pdf/2003/essentials_vol.pdf [last accessed 10 May 2016].

[25]John Mealia, “Community Resilience And Volunteerism In The Emergency Management Context”, Torquay, Victoria, My Emergency Management, September 2015, available at: http://myem.com.au/wp-content/uploads/John-Mealia-Paper-community-resilience.doc.pdf [last accessed 7 May 2016].

[26] Volunteer Now, op. cit.

[27]Jaspreet Kindra, “Understanding Resilience”, IRIN News, March 4th, 2013, http://www.irinnews.org/analysis/2013/03/04/understanding-resilience [last accessed 8 May 2016].

[28]Laurie Mazur, “Bounce Forward: Building Resilience for Dangerous Times”, Solutions Journal, Vol. 6, Solutions, January 2016, pp. 13-19, available at: http://thesolutionsjournal.org/node/237418

[29]Department for International Development, “Defining Disaster Resilience: A DFID Approach Paper”,  London, Department for International Development, November 2011, available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/186874/defining-disaster-resilience-approach-paper.pdf [last accessed 16 May 2016].

[30]Department for International Development, op. cit.

[31]United Nations Volunteers, “Community Resilience For Environment And Disaster Risk Reduction: UNV Strategic Framework 2014 – 2017” New York, United Nations Volunteers, 2014, available at: http://www.unv.org/annual-report-2014/pdf/2-Community%20Resilience%20for%20Environment%20and%20Disaster%20Risk%20Reduction.pdf [ last accessed 12 May 2016].

[32]For the purposes of this article, in order to provide a concrete definition that incorporates the ideas above, we will consider resilience as the ability of communities to prevent and prepare for risks, and in the case of shock, the ability to cope and adapt; followed by a recovery in which the community moves forward to avoid further vulnerabilities of its members.

[33]United Nations Volunteers, “Community Resilience For Environment And Disaster Risk Reduction: UNV Strategic Framework 2014 – 2017”, ibid.

[34]John Mealia, op. cit.

[35]United Nations Volunteers, “Volunteerism is universal”, State of the World’s volunteerism report, New York, United Nations Volunteers, 2011, available at :http://www.unv.org/fileadmin/docdb/pdf/2011/SWVR/English/SWVR2011_full_%5B04%5D_chapter1.pdf [last accessed 11 May 2014].

[36]United Nations Development Programme, “Essentials: Volunteerism and Development”, New York, United Nations Volunteers, 2003, available at: http://www.worldvolunteerweb.org/fileadmin/docs/old/pdf/2003/essentials_vol.pdf [last accessed 10 May 2016].

[37]VSO and the Institute of Development Studies, op. cit.

[39]VSO and the Institute of Development Studies, op. cit.

[40]Kamel Mohanna, ibid, pp. 42-47.

[41]Feinstein International Centre and RedR UK, “Professionalising the Humanitarian Sector: A scoping study”, Elrha, April 2010, available at:  http://www.elrha.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Professionalising_the_humanitarian_sector.pdf [last accessed 13 May 2016].

[42]Richard Bteich, "Volunteers’ Management in Civil Society Organizations in Lebanon, Summary of Workshop”, Padova Hotel, Sin El Fil, September 20th, 2014, available at: http://baladi-lebanon.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/BALADI-CAP-Report-on-Volunteer-Management-Community-of-Practice.pdf [last accessed 10 May 2016].

[43] VSO and the Institute of Development Studies, op.cit.

[44]United Nations Volunteers, “Developing a Volunteer Infrastructure: A Guidance Note”, Bonn, United Nations Volunteers, 2003, available at: http://www.unv.org/fileadmin/docdb/pdf/2003/Develop_InfraSt_V_Guid_Note_UK.pdf [last accessed 16 May 2016].

[46]United Nations Volunteers, “Volunteerism and disasters”, ibid.

[47]United Nations Volunteers, “State of the World’s Volunteerism Report: Transforming Governance”, ibid.

[48]United Nations Volunteers, “Volunteerism and disasters”, ibid.

Cited by
About the author(s):
Madeleine Maxwell Hart:

Maddi Maxwell-Hart has been working with Amel Association since early 2015, coordinating a health project within the framework of the Syrian Crisis Response, and working in project development and research within the Migrant Domestic Worker team. She also leads many volunteering projects and youth workshops to promote volunteerism and leaderships skills within the local community. Maddi graduated from Cardiff University, Wales, with a Joint Honours degree in Spanish and Political science and went on to obtain her Masters in Human Rights from the Instituto de Derechos Humanos de Bartolome de las Casas, Carlos III, Madrid. Before coming to Lebanon, she supported a pro-migration organisation based in Madrid.