‘We Felt Like Beggars’: Assistance, Recovery and Social Tensions After the Beirut Explosion

Jul 19, 2021

In January 2021, as part of the Tensions Monitoring System, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Lebanon commissioned a research study centered around a qualitative WhatsApp survey to analyse the impact of the Beirut Port explosions and the immediate response on intra-Lebanese and inter-communal tension dynamics. The WhatsApp survey adds an in-depth, people-centred and localized perspective on how the post-explosion response has shaped community relationships.

This study focuses on the impact of the Beirut Port explosions and subsequent immediate response on community relationships and tension dynamics in the city. It analyses how assistance and aid distribution have impacted inter- and intracommunity relationships. It provides a qualitative understanding of the tensions landscape, as well as lessons learned on conflict sensitive response planning. It assesses the post-explosion response in three different neighbourhoods in Beirut: Karantina, Zoukak Al Blat and Khandak Al Ghamik.

Methodology:

This report’s analysis relies on three research components: a qualitative WhatsApp survey of Beirut residents living in the three selected areas, Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) and Key Informant Interviews (KIIs). Qualitative research produces nuanced insights into social relationships and perceptions in times of upheaval through a close analysis of people’s stories and ideas. As such, it helps to identify shifts in tension dynamics before they are picked up by quantitative surveying while also offering a deeper reading of such quantitative data. We conducted the research between 19 January and 3 March 2021, adjusting our research approach in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic made WhatsApp surveying an even more pertinent research tool as it allowed us to stay in close contact with research participants over several weeks while avoiding the public health risks of face-to-face research. With the onset of the pandemic, people around the world relied even more on WhatsApp for daily communication with friends and families, as well as with colleagues, employers and customers. A study by Kantar Consultancy suggests that WhatsApp usage saw a 40% increase beginning in late March 2020, as people started to work from home and reduced social contacts.

The WhatsApp survey is an innovation which has simply repurposed a technology that is already widely in use. In Lebanon, for instance, 78 per cent of Syrian refugee households use WhatsApp for daily communication; with the number likely to be similar for Lebanese communities. In order to collect data from a range of participants, including those who struggle with literacy or dyslexia, participants were invited to send voice notes detailing their stories, insights and experiences. Collating these accounts in this way also facilitates new ways to connect with refugees and host communities at the human-level, valuing their knowledge and input beyond fundamental statistics. The survey covered a range of topics including conflict dynamics, individual safety and needs, gender relationships, and people’s vision of the future.

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