Pragmatic partnerships in disaster response: Lessons learned from Lebanon -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Pragmatic partnerships in disaster response: Lessons learned from Lebanon

By Dan O’Brien

July 14, 2006 — Fighting between the militant wing of Hezbollah and the Israeli Defense Force ignited a 34-day conflict resulting in the forced displacement of nearly 25 percent of Lebanon’s population, thousands of casualties, the destruction of infrastructure and the disruption of livelihoods throughout the country. More than 15,000 homes were completely destroyed and an additional 120,000 homes were significantly damaged. Official estimates placed damages to homes alone in excess of US$1.4 billion.

Habitat for Humanity Lebanon (HFHL) responded with a program that enabled the rapid return of displaced families to their villages in rural South Lebanon. HFHL also worked to stimulate regional economic recovery by recruiting local builders and sponsoring livelihood development programs for youth in areas where farm lands had been lost to unexploded ordinances. The program, which USAID/OFDA funded, had initial targets of reaching 300 families through home repairs and an additional 40 beneficiaries through vocational training activities. Habitat selected two partners, YMCA Lebanon and the Center for Dialogue and Development, to supplement HFHL response team capacity during the intervention.

The Center for Dialogue and Development (D&D) is a community-based organization focusing primarily on reconciliation activities among the disparate sects of Muslims and Christians in Saida, a region that lies just north of the disaster response service area. HFHL had an existing relationship with D&D, and chose to partner with the organization for this particular effort because of its extensive experience in rural community organization. D&D was to provide an entry point for HFHL into the southern communities. Its primary responsibilities were to help organize and facilitate “leadership committees,” or groups of local leaders acting on behalf of the community, and to organize and manage volunteer build days. However, the integration of the D&D into the repair model proved to be much more difficult than anticipated. Placing a partner between the implementing organization and the beneficiary community led to several miscommunications with leadership committees, reduced HFHL control and created significant delays at the beginning of the project. Ultimately, HFHL staff had to assume control of the leadership committees, and D&D left the project when the volunteer program was canceled due to security concerns.

Unlike the case with D&D, HFHL had no prior formal relationship with YMCA Lebanon. One of the largest NGOs in Lebanon, the YMCA has been working in the South for more than 10 years. Past projects focused mainly on the organization’s medical dispensary network, but also included periodic work in cooperative development, vocational training and youth-related activities. YMCA was recommended by USAID/OFDA on the strength of the organization’s past performance in grant implementation and a proven track record for successful interventions in the service area. YMCA offered a level of flexibility in designing the program that allowed for additional components which more closely addressed OFDA interests in economic recovery in the immediate response environment. YMCA Lebanon designed and implemented an independent vocational training component within the response program. The two-month training focused on specialized construction skills and resulted in nearly 90 percent employment for the 42 beneficiaries. In comparing the two partnerships, one theme that emerges is the need for segregated responsibilities during disaster response program implementation. D&D was inserted into the implementation model for HFH Lebanon’s repair program. Because community engagement was central to successful implementation, HFHL’s ability to operate was directly tied to D&D’s success in establishing committees. The delays and unnecessary tension caused by this relationship made the arrangement impractical in the hectic response environment. Upon review, HFHL would have been better served by simply building this capacity internally. Alternatively, YMCA Lebanon was subcontracted for the vocational training project. They were responsible for all field operations and administration of the project while HFHL provided minimal oversight. The addition of YMCA allowed HFHL to create a more unique and attractive proposal for potential donors; furthermore, the segregation of the two programs allowed HFHL to concentrate on its repair program while YMCA worked on training.

These brief examples demonstrate the advantages of segregated project implementation in disaster response environments. While integrated partnerships can be very beneficial in long-term interventions, the speed and scale of response projects combined with the time-limited housing need in an early recovery environment make integrated relationships impractical. Separate projects allow highly complex programs to be broken down into smaller, more manageable components. Rather than forming partnerships to enhance HFH’s ability to implement a model, projects and partners can be added for the provision of more diversified services or simply for replication across larger geographies.

Dan O’Brien was the program manager for disaster response in Lebanon following the July 2006 war and is currently providing support to HFH programs in the Middle East. He has worked for HFHI since 2004 in various positions at its headquarters in Americus, A/ME headquarters and now in Beirut.

He may be contacted at