‘Southern’ and ‘Northern’ assistance provision beyond the grand narratives: Views from Lebanese and Syrian providers in Lebanon

Over the past few decades, scholars have increasingly employed the categories of ‘Global North’ and ‘Global South’ to explore different political geographies and economies in development cooperation and humanitarian aid provision. Without doubt, whether and how these denominations make sense are not merely dilemmas of terminology. The Global South has been historically referred to in a number of ways: as the ‘Third World’, coming after the First World, including the US and its allies, and the Second World, including the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc partners; as ‘non-DIAC countries, i.e. not belonging to the Development Assistance Committee of Western donors; or as ‘postcolonial donors’, which, however, does not manage to capture the different positioning of Southern countries vis-à-vis donorship and aid reception.

Against this backdrop, the categorisation of the Global South has existed since the mid-1970s, effectively indicating the changing power relations of this groups of countries with the Global North. With respect to the ‘East’ – a notion tentatively incorporating diverse realities but nowadays embedding them in the Orientalistic discourse first advanced by Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said (1978) – the Global South better allows for multi-directional flows of economic, cultural, and political capital between different countries, and therefore anthropology is surely well placed to explore such multi-directional flows. However, the definition of the Global South has too often been misleadingly reduced to a marginal or anti-imperial positionality, independent from context. In particular, in a bid to learn about and consider different Souths (from an intentionally plural perspective), Global South should not be our episteme – the point of departure for enlarging our knowledge about such a concept. It is in this regard that some scholars have opted for a conception of the Global South as ‘not an exact geographical designation, but as an idea and a set of practices, attitudes, and relations’ (Grovogu, 2011) or ‘a linguistic family, a belief system and an epistemology’ (Mignolo, 2015).

It may be helpful to examine a world map and reflect on the very geographic characteristics of the countries that are included in the Global South category. For instance, given that Australia is a political pole of the Global North, just as China is for the Global South, physical geography cannot fully explain what North and South are, since these categories refer not only to places but also, more importantly, to different political projects related to development and humanitarian action.

As Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and Daley highlight in their introduction to the Routledge Handbook of South-South Relations, the present South-South cooperation and its underlying principles are historically associated with anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles around the world: ‘The emergence of a South-South cooperation was originally conceptualized as a way to overcome the exploitative character of North-South relations through diverse models of transnational cooperation and solidarity developed since the 1950s and 1960s, including internationalist, socialist, and regional approaches and initiatives such as Pan-Arabism and Pan-Africanism’. Dahi and Velasco have recently pointed out that, in the decades following World War II, between the 1950s and the late-1980s, South-South trade represented roughly 5–10% of all global trade, but, by 2013, that share had risen to 54%. Over the same period, the direction of these exports shifted to other Southern countries, while global South-South financial flows also increased substantially. This shared interest in mutual collaboration in the Global South, presently championed by Northern actors (that purport to act as facilitators) is also reflected in the so-called ‘localisation agenda’ promoted by the international humanitarian apparatus, as endorsed during the 2016 Istanbul World Humanitarian Summit. At the ‘Africa Stories: Changing Perceptions’ workshop held at University College London in June 2018, Michael Amoah, from the London School of Economics, confirmed Dahi and Velasco’s findings by contending that, in its current form, regional solidarity ideologies like pan-Africanism imply a new material inter-relationality, namely a new shared political economy between African countries, rather than an exclusive political ideology.

Thinking of South-South Cooperation (SSC), which is today incorporated in the framework of the United Nations (UNOSSC), the member states own different levels of economic development (the so-called ‘Human Development Index’) and are viewed as being located at different stages of democratic transition. Many countries partaking in the SSC are, at the same time, both aid donors and aid recipients. Some of those that are also donors do not wish to be defined as such, since such terminology is loaded with negative connotations associated with the Northern aid industry. In this sense, grouping the different realities that form an imaginary South under the banner of ‘emerging’ or ‘non-traditional donors’ is anti-historical as it represents the Northern neglect of a Southern history of assistance, which has similarly been developing for a long time.

In the light of this, should we endeavour to modify the categories ‘South’ and ‘North’ and work towards new definitions that can still grasp power relations without dooming countries to essentialised geopolitical positions? Or, rather, should we liberate the ‘South’ from negative connotations and the ‘North’ from positive biases? North and South are very telling with regard to our mental and cultural maps, not always encompassing the different technical, economic, political, and cultural assets and deficiencies that these political geographies present.

The emergence of UNOSSC is only one symptom of the increasing claim to postcolonial solidarity within the South and between the North and the South. Similarly, it can partially indicate the difference of the South from the North in the way that development and humanitarian assistance are thought about and implemented. These debates go beyond the realms of global economy, international relations, and politics; instead, they relate to the way in which ordinary people conceive of, explain, and concretely manage ideas and issues related to development and crisis management. In March 2018, I had the opportunity to speak with Syrian and Lebanese aid and service providers in Lebanon, among whom were three religious authorities engaging in assistance to Syrian refugees, and meaningful ways of understanding the services funded or managed by countries in the Global North or Global South emerged.

For instance, for a Syrian Sunni sheikh from Homs (western Syria), now managing a school in Tripoli, governance and markets represent the substantial differences between aid actors. He asserted that, in the Global South, governments are more present, while, in the Global North, there are private assistance initiatives that have their own rules and independence. Assistance in the Global North therefore ends up being random (ashwa’iy), reflecting an unleashed labour market behind assistance provision: ‘paying rents, employees, careers, and so on’.

A Lebanese Greek-Orthodox priest who provides aid to refugees and vulnerable citizens on a discontinuous basis in the city of Halba (northern Lebanon) expressed his way of thinking about the South in relation to the aid he provides in terms of what is outside of the Global North. However, he pointed out that, to him, in the mind of the beneficiaries, there is no difference with regard to the source of help and they do not distinguish between actors: ‘If you do lots of sponsoring, eventually your name is going to stick in their minds, but people do not really separate out providers in terms of principles and motivations, only whether the political campaign is massive, e.g. services coming from Saudi Arabia […] in this case, the image easily sticks in their minds, but they don’t know the name of the organisations involved most of the time. I personally think that what differs for Southern and Northern providers is the funding: it is sustainable for UNHCR but certainly not for us. They have governments supporting them, [whereas] we just have the Lebanese government, which neglects us. In that sense, I would identify as a Southern provider’.

Another Lebanese Greek-Orthodox priest working for a branch of the Ministry of Social Affairs in Halba raised the issue of global power holders imagining one homogenous South while departing from the idea of several Northern perspectives: ‘The Global North is the macro-picture for the politics we mostly hear about. As Lebanese providers with few means and little funding, we’re just numbers to be taken care of: I’m a Muslim in the eyes of the West, even though I’m Greek-Orthodox, because we, Middle-Eastern people, are all Muslims in the eyes of outsiders. Instead, I don’t feel there’s a shared understanding or feeling of the East, of the South, as you prefer to put it: there’s no homogeneity outside of the North. I don’t feel any proximity to Asian or African countries, especially to the Arab Gulf, which has its own interests here. Moreover, as a Greek-Orthodox, I have little to do with Arabness’.

The Syrian director of a school in a Tripoli neighbourhood (northern Lebanon) similarly stated: ‘I don’t feel closer to the Arab states with respect to Canada just because we’re all Arabs. Arab states haven’t been supportive at all toward Syrian refugees. I think the real difference between assistance provided by Northern and Southern countries is our hijra [migration with spiritual connotations, related to the migration of the Prophet Mohammad from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD]. The South migrates, and the North doesn’t accept us, even if we are qualified and have culture’.

A Syrian service provider in Tripoli proposed that ‘Northern’ or ‘Southern’ mean something in relation to the social, political, and emotional positionality of the provider: ‘The real difference is not the country we talk about; it’s rather our human condition. It’s about sharing nationality and issues with the displaced you assist [and is] nothing to do with East and West, South and North […]. Beneficiaries identify with countries of reception primarily on the basis of their political position; for example, if I get stuff from Turkey, as a Syrian opponent, I feel closer to Turkey. If you get aid from Saudi Arabia or Qatar, you will prefer one of them if you are a salafi (a follower of Salafism) or ikhwenji (from the Muslim Brotherhood) respectively. So, there’s politics behind our proximity to a country. In this sense, I don’t think I have anything to share with the ‘other South’. As a Syrian, Syria is my Global South’.

Reflecting on the various understandings of ‘Southern-led provision’ is relevant insofar as it allows us to grasp the complex social and political positionalities of assistance providers in the global framework of development and humanitarian action. In this sense, some contemporary academic debates merely re-consign agency to the vulnerable and the disenfranchised, e.g. by seeing Southern actors and refugees as inherently ‘different aid providers’ or by aprioristically defining them as resilient. These debates are tiring at a time when ‘Southern agency’ is heralded as a human and an intellectual conquest of the Global North. Instead, a valuable point of departure may instead be acknowledging the existence of multiplicity and respecting what each side suggests – at times participating and at other times acting by oneself in the realm of development and humanitarian action.


* The research discussed in this blog post is being conducted in the framework of the European Research Council project (no. 541123) “Analysing Southern-Led Humanitarian Responses to Displacement from Syria: Views from Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey”.

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