Elisabetta Pietrostefani, Joana Dabaj, Yara Sleiman, Mayssa Jallad, Sara Maassarani and Efrosini Charalambous
The case of Mar Mikhael neighbourhood
On the 4th of August 2020, a large amount of ammonium nitrate stored at the port of the city of Beirut exploded, causing at least 200 deaths, over 7,000 injuries, US$3.8-4.6 billion in material damages, and the displacement of over 300,000 people. Lebanon was already suffering from a rapidly escalating financial crisis, further aggravated by the outbreak of COVID-19. The explosion devastated various neighbourhoods adjacent to the Beirut port area. Livelihoods were upended and people were forced to leave their homes or live in heavily damaged residences.
A new report published by the Institute for Global Prosperity (IGP) explores the changing landscape of local vulnerabilities from pre-crisis to post-explosion in the neighbourhood of Mar Mikhael, one of the areas that was heavily affected by the blast. Beirut residents have been exposed to a triple crisis comprised of multiple economic and political threats: from a financial collapse, to the COVID-19 outbreak, and the 4th of August explosion. The term ‘pre-crisis’ marks the period before the Lebanese liquidity crisis which started in August 2019. The term ‘post-explosion’ marks the period after the 4th of August 2020 port explosion.
The explosion attracted attention from political, humanitarian, and scientific groups all over the world. Impressive reconstruction efforts were underway immediately following the blast, whether by Lebanese residents, community-based organisations (CBOs), local non-governmental organisations (NGOs), International Organisations, or the Lebanese Army. Pronounced coordination problems between the various entities however quickly led to an overwhelming frustration with the lack of governance, where many NGOs remarked the necessity for public institutions to lead in coordinating. The research comes as a medium-term assessment, six months after the blast, enabling a clearer understanding of fluctuating local vulnerabilities following immediate efforts mobilised on the ground.
The report focuses on three of the most relevant indicators of vulnerability in Mar Mikhael: livelihoods and employment, housing security, and mental health and well-being.
LIVELIHOODS: SECURING BASIC NEEDS AND DEVELOPING COPING STRATEGIES POST-BLAST
The current economic situation has impacted the financial wellbeing of households at every income level, albeit more so for lower-income households. Findings show considerable reductions in real wages across all income groups in the area, with the exception of those in the top income bracket. The data also illustrates increasing numbers of households being pushed below the minimum wage. To cope with financial difficulties, households across the entire income spectrum have resorted to borrowing money.
HOUSING: EXTENSIVE NGO ASSESSMENT WHILE RENTS KEEP RISING
The data confirms that NGOs have led in the assessment of building damage across all blast-affected neighbourhoods, while public bodies have been selective in their building-assessment. Housing in Mar Mikhael has on average become less affordable and residents are living in less space with fewer residents benefiting from old rent contracts in 2021 than they were in 2018. Findings show an increase in average rents, with households with higher incomes are more likely to pay higher rents post-blast, most likely to obtain better infrastructural services such as generator access following the worsening electricity shortages.
MENTAL HEALTH AND WELL-BEING: FINDING COPING MECHANISMS IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD
Most households reported social life as being the main reason they chose to stay in Mar Mikhael. Despite this finding, there is a significantly lower sense of neighbourhood belonging in 2021 compared to 2018. Overall, feelings of happiness and safety are reduced, along with heightened stress levels. Findings show a preference for outdoor recreation activities in the neighbourhood to deal with stress, depression, or trauma post-blast, presenting opportunities for local CBOs and NGOs implementing interventions in the neighbourhood.
Citizen scientists: an integral part of the research and analysis process
Throughout the research process, consultations were organised with citizen scientists to validate both research questions and findings.
Citizen scientists rediscovered and re-experienced the neighbourhood during survey data collection:
“This neighbourhood became very familiar, special, and close to our hearts through the stories we listened to, people we bonded with, who welcomed us as if they knew us from a long time ago. This neighbourhood became different to us. It is not a strange place anymore, but an area that represents all the stories and all the lovely people we met.” Two citizen scientists
Once the data collection was completed, further consultations were organised with citizen scientists, local key stakeholders, and community representatives to address local vulnerabilities and contribute to the larger urban recovery process in response to the Beirut blast. Sessions with citizen scientists were designed to initiate ideas and reflections towards possible interventions.
The consultations consisted in brainstorming and mapping exercises and were divided into three interconnected activities. First, a consultation mapping spaces of exchange in the neighbourhood with citizen scientists. Second, a consultation where initial findings were presented and discussed with the citizen scientists to formulate problem and solution trees to jump-start reflections towards possible interventions. Finally, a third consultation with a wider-range of neighbourhood stakeholders including researchers from diverse backgrounds, NGOs, data scientists, community activists and the project citizen scientists. During this final session stakeholders presented findings and discussed the difficulties of going from data-collection to action in the Beirut post-blast context.
Read the full report here.
The research was carried out as a partnership between the Relief Centre and CatalyticAction (CA) charity, the Institute for Global Prosperity (IGP) and the Development Planning Unit (DPU) at University College London (UCL). The team was led by Dr. Elisabetta Pietrostefani (IGP) and Joana Dabaj (CA). The research team included Yara Sleiman (Relief Centre), Mayssa Jallad (Relief Centre), Sara Maassarani (CA), Dr. Efrosini Charalambous (IGP) and Professor Camillo Boano (DPU). The team worked together with 12 citizen scientists and involved Mar Mikhael residents in the activities.
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