This is the second part of our Global Country Highlight on Lebanon. If you have not seen the first part, please click here.
In my view, the NGOs working in Lebanon set a fantastic example for activists everywhere, covering key areas of policy change, network building, medical treatment, and harm reduction. Civil society’s interrelated web of activity demonstrates just how much can be accomplished regardless of the policy environment, and this second installment of Lebanon’s Country Highlight will focus on the efforts and successes of civil society organizations within the country.
Policy Research and Reform
When I think of policy reform in Lebanon, the first organization which comes to mind is MENAHRA, the Middle East and North Africa Harm Reduction Association. They are a network organization which coordinates harm reduction and policy efforts across the whole Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Their headquarters is located in Lebanon’s capital city, Beirut, and they’re increasingly operating in Jordan, another Arab nation located in the MENA region. True to their name, MENAHRA operates multiple “knowledge hubs” scattered around the region, housed in Morocco, Iran, and Lebanon.
I was immediately impressed not only by the extent of their work, but by their successful network model in a region which is not exactly known for its progressive drug policy. Nevertheless, the organization is very active: they produce policy research and population studies to identify the needs of people who use drugs in the region, informing those who build better policies and expand health services for people who use drugs. When I had the chance to visit the Beirut office, I remember Elie Aaraj, Executive Director of MENAHRA, pulling publication after publication off a shelf while explaining the organization’s history. If this alone wouldn’t prove it, you can find everything online: their publications page is packed with research-oriented informative reports from the effects of drug use across the MENA region, to policy briefs for law enforcement on harm reduction services. The extent and quality of research is impressive, and this is a fantastic place to look for anybody who wants to learn more formally about drugs and the populations who use them in Lebanon and the broader MENA region.
Medical Treatment Options
Alongside policy efforts are the organizations offering the medical and addiction treatment services. The most obvious is Skoun, the Lebanese Addictions Center, which we also mentioned in our first installment of the Country Highlight. Skoun manages much of the addiction treatment and medical referral program in Lebanon. Among their facilities are two outpatient hospitals, one in Beirut and a second in Baalbek, another Lebanese city closer to the Syrian border. Their treatment is comprehensive and individualized, ranging from prevention work, to psychotherapy and psychiatric care, to family support for those tangentially affected by a patient’s struggles. The integration of community measures, such as family inclusion, is not only important for anybody who has social needs–in other words, everybody–but also important in the Lebanese context, where family and community is front and center for most people’s lives.
Skoun was also involved in activating the Drug Addiction Committee, a program through which those struggling with addiction can break the cycle of incarceration and punishment, and instead receive treatment and care. This was covered more extensively in the first installment of Lebanon’s country highlight, but it’s worth mentioning again–this is a major achievement for civil society in Lebanon. Moreover, it blurs the line between medical treatment and advocacy, which we will examine next.
Unsurprisingly, advocacy efforts among Lebanese civil society organizations are very active, and some of them might look familiar! Last year, Skoun organized an event on June 26th for Support. Don’t Punish’s “Global Day of Action”, as did MENAHRA back in 2016. Chiri Choukeir, a Lebanese activist recently featured in one of our Global Member Highlights, covered Skoun’s story in Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar, indicating that this advocacy and awareness work is not happening in secret. In fact, organizations like Skoun have repeatedly received media attention, bringing awareness to the strife of people who use drugs in Lebanon and the country’s laws and resources. Skoun’s “Know Your Rights” campaign aims to assist people in navigating law enforcement and expanding awareness of their rights within Lebanon, and has also been covered in the media.
Additionally, MENAHRA has assembled accessible information on harm reduction, including ten key interventions related to drug use. This information is clearly aimed for both drug users and organizations who work within the harm-reduction and health spheres. SIDC, as one of MENAHRA’s three knowledge hubs–the one located in Lebanon–promotes three main areas: the Resource Center, Advocacy, and Network and Outreach.
Harm-Reduction & Network Efforts
Lastly, I think it’s crucial to mention the on-the-ground harm reduction work in Lebanon. SIDC runs a whole site dedicated to harm reduction called the Escale site. There, you will find a wide range of classic harm reduction measures: needle exchange services, STD testing, case management, Opioid Substitution Therapy (OST), Mental & Sexual Health support, among more. The site takes a truly extensive approach to managing the harms of drug use, while providing space and dignity to the lives of people who use drugs (PWUD).
On a personal note, the SIDC site felt very similar to the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod (ASGCC), a local harm reduction organization in my hometown where I spent some time volunteering. Just like the ASGCC, when I visited the SIDC site in Beirut, I was greeted very kindly and openly by Directors who were willing to chat with me. As we talked, people filtered in and out of the building, being greeted by name, as they arrived for various services and treatments. It genuinely felt like a welcoming environment and a testament to the ongoing efforts of the SIDC to create a safe community space for PWUD in Lebanon. For me, it was inspiring to see such successful parallel efforts between the ASGCC and SIDC, two organizations with presumed little or no contact, located 8,716 kilometers away from each other.
Commentary and Conclusion
Clearly, there is extensive overlap between civil society efforts in policy reform, research, advocacy, network building, medical treatment, and harm reduction services, evidenced by the work of Skoun, MENAHRA, and SIDC alone.
When I first stumbled upon these Lebanese organizations, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of action taking place in the country. At first glance from the legal perspective, I wouldn’t have expected it to be so active. Although I learned that law and reality are often much different from my time living in the United Arab Emirates, civil society participation in Lebanon vastly exceeded my expectations, and perhaps challenged some of my subtle biases about the work taking place in the MENA region. I distinctly remember asking Elie from MENAHRA why civil society is so active in Lebanon. Without skipping a beat, he insisted it’s simply Lebanese culture: to be steadfast, active, and progressive. As a nation which is continually challenged by struggles on all fronts, and with a heavy intertwined colonial history, a culture of determination and striving for the better makes perfect sense.
Lebanon is a complicated country, and no less when it comes to drugs and policy. The corruption and sectarian conflict bleed into its convoluted relationship with hashish and any attempts to change corresponding laws, one’s outcome if caught with drugs may vary exceptionally depending on one’s wasta (connections), and it certainly is not unique that there is much room for advocacy and improvement. However, it certainly is unique for hosting an impressive amount of civil society commitment to policy reform, research, community engagement, and harm-reduction that is not only exceptional for the region, but for any country in general.
From an organizational perspective, Students for Sensible Drug Policy engages very little with Lebanon, and stands to gain and learn so much as an institution, especially within its global efforts, by collaborating with Lebanese organizations. My brief engagement with community actors in the country revealed a rich culture of taking charge and enacting the type of change for which SSDP advocates. Ultimately, I hope this very first Country Highlight fosters awareness and curiosity towards Lebanon and its actors, and just maybe, inspires further action and engagement for both Students for Sensible Drug Policy and curious readers alike.