How Humanitarian Aid Shapes the Development of Refugee Self-Governance

By Daniel Masterson
Submitted to Session P4810 (Refugees from Syria: State Policies, Humanitarian Aid, and the Lived Experience of Exile, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
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Refugees often live in contexts defined by severely constrained rights and limited access to legal protections and public services, leaving their communities to bear significant responsibility for self-governance. As part of a project on the politics of organizing and governance in Syrian refugee communities, I examine how humanitarian aid influxes create both positive and perverse incentives for Syrian-run NGOs and camps to create governance institutions. Based on participant observation and interviews, I conducted an ethnography with a Syrian-run NGO and a camp in the Bekaa valley, to trace the intertwined development of the Syrian NGO sector and Syrian camps, which I present as the two foremost repertoires of Syrian institution-building in Lebanon.

To draw inferences about how humanitarian aid affects local governance, I turn to a pivotal event in the camp's development: an electrical fire that destroyed half the community's homes, and precipitated a major influx of humanitarian resources and subsequent institutionalization of governance structures. Before the fire, only one NGO worked in the camp, the small Syrian-run NGO with which I conducted my ethnography. In response to the fire, a number of large international NGOs began supporting the camp and the NGO -- increasing the amount of resources in the camp, the influence of leaders, and the visibility of the camp and NGO to the local community. I treat the fire as a single-case natural experiment, which allows us to study the effect of the influx of humanitarian resources into the camp and NGO.