Dr Ala’a Shehabi
The RELIEF Centre is launching a citizens' assembly on Energy on 23rd October 2020
The recent devastating explosion in the port of Beirut, as well as destroying lives, homes, livelihoods and dreams, has propelled Lebanon into a more profound political and economic abyss. One of the critical facilities that were damaged severely was the iconic building of Electricité du Liban, and key figures in the organisations were killed or injured. As with many other public services, electricity is a crucial sector that needs deep reforms to be able to meet the energy demands of the country. EDL became a lynchpin of the state's inability to meet the basic needs of its citizens.
After the Beirut blast, initiatives sprung almost immediately. Years of research into post-war reconstruction and recovery, urban inequalities and displacement culminated in a worldview of the explosion as a profound expression of the political and economic systems produced after the civil war ended. Beirut Urban Lab published a thoughtful piece about the risks and challenges ahead in rebuilding the city once again.
The challenges ahead are enormous, and the mood in the country has returned to one of despair, disappointment and scarcity. It is a challenging environment. As researchers, activists and citizen scientists from these communities, the value of our work is tied to our ability to affect change. At the same time, we must tend to the needs of our staff on the ground.
A necessary mission
For us, energy justice and democracy remain a critical mission to pursue. We are pushing ahead with our partners to pursue the pilot citizens' assembly in Hamra. We have engaged in serious discussions with our partners about how public engagement can take place in the context of multiple catastrophes in health, logistics, economics and politics. Our conversations with facilitators, advisors and speakers took into account and number of other factors. The conditions of severe economic hardship and insecurity at the loss of jobs and businesses, high inflation and cost of food were high on their list of concerns. We also discussed the high levels of anxiety and despair across all government services, particularly health, reconstruction, and economic welfare. Another concern was the reduction in physical spaces where people can meet, for example, Chehab Gardens, the venue we had initially booked to run the event, has now shut down.
Reconstituting the public sphere in lockdown – how to run a CA
Taking these into consideration, we asked the question, how would we reconstitute a public sphere under these conditions? How would we hypothetically and practically bring people together to convene a citizen assembly? There was an agreement that a physical meeting is necessary and could not effectively be replaced by a digital forum. Physical sessions should then, be short in duration, involve smaller groups, be in an outdoor or very well-ventilated space and socially distanced.
We also agreed that speaker presentations should then be filmed and shared online before every deliberation session to allow time to process information and formulate questions. And, that digital engagement can happen via WhatsApp for informational purposes, but effective deliberation and discussion can take place in smaller groups.
Given these challenges, it will be a feat to convene any form of the citizen assembly. Still, postponement is not an option as the future is even more uncertain than the present.
A new format for the CA
Based on the feedback from the consultations, we are convening a citizens' assembly using a hybrid physical and digital format. We will have two short evening sessions on Friday 23rd October and Friday 30th October from 6-8 pm in small groups. In the interim week, filmed speakers’ presentations will be shared with all participants. There will be a final digital session on Saturday 31st October
We will share the agenda and material on the RELIEF Centre website before the first session convenes.
Watch this space!
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