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A Syrian farmer assists a customer at a market stall.
Syrians and Lebanese work and shop together at the Marj market in the Bekaa Valley, eastern Lebanon. UNDP photo

Here, we are afraid to walk on the street and be verbally assaulted by someone. We can’t respond because it’s not our country. So, we never dare talk to him, even though his words are full of disrespect and mockery. Some days we are beaten, but we have to stay silent and not respond. Why? Because it’s not our country.

- Male Syrian worker, 23 years old, Qaraoun

Seven years into the Syrian crisis and with almost a million Syrian refugees residing in Lebanon, a country of 6 million inhabitants, surveys show that fatigue is rising in host communities. In 2014, when there was still hope that the displacement crisis would be temporary, 40 percent of Lebanese said that there were no tensions with Syrians. By 2018, that number had dropped to 2 percent.

At the same time, protection conditions for refugees have been deteriorating. In February 2018, 30 percent of Syrians reported having experienced verbal harassment in the last three months, a 10 percent increase compared to data collected in May 2017.

What exactly drives Lebanese-Syrian tensions and how can conflict be prevented? In the absence of rich qualitative data from the people themselves, it is left to the media to shape that discourse; and that media narrative increasingly uses blunt stereotypes and pits one supposedly homogeneous Lebanese community against an equally homogeneous Syrian community.

Our WhatsApp tool ‘Speak Your Mind’ aims to address this data gap by more effectively harnessing Lebanon’s vibrant social-mediascape. Digital literacy is widespread among both host communities and refugees in Lebanon: 84 percent of refugee households use WhatsApp (VASyR 2017) and younger people in particular consider information relayed through WhatsApp as more trustworthy than traditional media. Tapping into these digital possibilities helps UNDP Lebanon have a more egalitarian relationship with programme participants and collect real-time, localized data to strengthen its conflict-prevention systems.

The desired outcome is that Lebanon will remain stable and refugees will be safe through a crisis response that proactively responds to people’s fears and needs and detects early warning signs to prevent conflict.

We piloted our first WhatsApp survey in November 2017 in the village of Qaraoun in the Bekaa region, which hosts the highest number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The WhatsApp tool was developed together with target users, using a design thinking approach, during a one-day workshop. We then sent the survey questions as voice messages to 1,434 mobile phone numbers. Participants were asked to tell a story recorded as audio WhatsApp messages responding to questions on community needs, conflict dynamics and feedback on stabilization projects in the area.

A woman stands in the doorway of her home in an informal settlement.
UNDP Lebanon piloted its WhatsApp survey tool in the village of Qaraoun in the Bekaa region, which hosts a large number of Syrian refugees. Photo: UNDP Lebanon

The voice message option helped us to reach people who struggle with literacy and may not have been comfortable replying via text. The survey ran for a whole month, with a new topic starting each week. A total of 242 people participated in the survey, and more than 500 people have already responded to another WhatsApp Survey that we are currently conducting in Bar Elias (also in the Bekaa).

The narrative data we received was very rich, giving us a data volume comparable to conducting 242 qualitative interviews. The material added much nuance to our understanding of host community/refugee relationships in tense and vulnerable areas. It also shed light on some ‘hidden barriers’ to stabilization projects for vulnerable populations in the area, which will help us to refine these projects in the future. Crucially, our respondents gave positive feedback on the tool itself, saying it was an easy way to communicate their needs and concerns to international organizations.

One key finding was that both Lebanese and Syrians have more nuanced understandings of inter-community relationships than the media narrative suggests. For example, our respondents clearly distinguished between social and transactional relationships. One young Syrian man told us:

There is no tension, and we thank the Lebanese for bringing us into their lands and welcoming us. You can find a bad Syrian, and you can find a bad Lebanese as well…So, people aren't the same. And there are no problems…On the contrary, there's no distinction between Lebanese and Syrians. I have Lebanese friends more than I have Syrian friends. We go out and party together, but the thing is that if I work for someone, I won't get paid. This is more than 60 percent; hence, when we work for someone, he forces us to quit and doesn't pay us.

poster for WhatsApp survey
A poster advertising the WhatsApp survey hangs in an informal settlement in Qaraoun.

Even though the account is positive and makes the point that the categories of ‘Lebanese’ and ’Syrians’ do not matter in social circles, it also reveals that exploitation is often nested in the more transactional relationships between Lebanese and Syrians. Our respondents also pointed out that there is a diversity of Lebanese attitudes towards Syrians, which often depend on people’s interests:

Lebanese construction workers hate Syrians because wages have gone down due to the large number of workers. On the other hand, the owners of houses and shops love Syrians because they rent their houses and shops. All of that is for the sake of profit. Those who gain say that they love Syrians, but those who don't gain want Syrians to leave…

Combatting exploitation and improving livelihoods opportunities for both Lebanese and Syrians would go a long way in mitigating these tensions. We believe that, once scaled up, the WhatsApp ‘Speak Your Mind’ tool will make four important contributions to development and humanitarian work.

First, it will give vulnerable communities more voice by creating a new, easily accessible channel of communication between international organizations and people on the ground.

Second, it will make project selection and design more inclusive, as the community input collected via WhatsApp is fed into needs assessment.

Third, it will boost monitoring and evaluation capacity, as bottom-up feedback supports a more rigorous evaluation of the impact and accessibility of projects long after they have been completed.

Finally, the tool will produce outstanding qualitative data on conflict dynamics that enriches early warning and tension analysis.

The result: better conflict prevention.

This initiative is made possible through the generous support of the UNDP Innovation Facility, funded by the Government of Denmark.

About the author

Leila Ullrich is a social stability analyst with UNDP Lebanon. Follow her on Twitter: @leilaullrich