Ka'ak left hanging on a broken street sign for anyone in need. Beirut, Lebanon. October 29, 2019. (Bachir Asmar/Fawra)

Ka'ak left hanging on a broken street sign for anyone in need. Beirut, Lebanon. October 29, 2019. (Bachir Asmar/Fawra)

Beyond Charity: Our Critical Need for Mutual Aid (Part 2 of 2)

Day 67: Sunday, December 22, 2019

Every day, generous donation initiatives are cropping up across Lebanon, many of them organized on social media. These spontaneous grassroots activities have demonstrated people’s willingness to assist one another, without any overarching structure (governmental or other) dictating their actions. Individual donations are certainly helpful, and necessary right now, for many to make ends meet. To brave the economic crisis in the long term, however, it is not enough to rely on the kindness of strangers on Facebook or on one-off transactions from donors. Communities must work together to create new self-sustaining micro-economies — otherwise known as “mutual aid networks,” “cooperatives,” or “solidary societies.”

At its core, mutual aid is defined by communities self-organizing at the local level to address their needs directly. Given that mutual aid structures arise from communities’ specific needs and resources, their form of governance naturally varies according to context. Recent experiments in Greece and Syria — rare contemporary examples of ,large-scale implementation of mutual aid — prove that organizing on principles of direct democracy and solidarity is possible. As regional cases, and as examples of mutual aid arising out of crisis, they shed light on what might be feasible  in Lebanon. 

In Greece, crippling austerity and massive national debt in the aftermath of the 2007-2008 financial crisis made experimentation in new forms of social organizing a public necessity.In Greece, crippling austerity and massive national debt in the aftermath of the 2007-2008 financial crisis made experimentation in new forms of social organizing a public necessity. By 2012, communities across the country had formed mutual aid networks primarily around food provision, healthcare, housing, and childcare: cooperative grocery stores, communal farms, solidarity kitchens, solidarity clinics, pharmacies, squats, and daycares. In addition to providing basic needs and services, these networks also organized resistance to home foreclosures, consumer debt, and the privatization of water, among others. By 2014, there were at least 103 groups and 92 community clinics, the largest of which services 500 uninsured or partially insured patients per month. Several hotels were repurposed as squats to host refugees arriving on Greek islands. Food distribution systems directly connected consumers to producers, reducing consumer cost while increasing producer income. 

In Syria, local councils were established starting in 2012 in areas no longer under the control of the regime. Developed at the village, municipal, or provincial level, these largely democratically elected councils aimed at providing their communities with the public services and functions previously administered by the state. The ad hoc councils were in large part inspired by the late Omar Aziz, who envisioned them as “socially flexible structures that are based on the collaboration between the revolution and the daily lives of humans.” Even though Aziz didn’t live to see these ideas fully manifest, the councils were indeed responsible for almost all aspects of life in the places where they governed, providing food aid, housing, water, electricity, education, healthcare, and sanitation. By organizing and collectivizing, councils provided farming equipment for farmers to propagate sustainable farming, especially of wheat and potato. Numerous initiatives across the country promoted food self-sustainability: seed banks, community agriculture (sometimes on balconies or rooftops), and bakeries. 

The cases of Greece and Syria provide practical, implementable strategies for Lebanon, where discussions about alternative forms of aid distribution have begun to emerge. For example, at a roundtable discussion on December 7 in al-‘Azariyya organized by concerned citizens to share ideas on circumventing the worst of the economic fallout, some participants called for aid to be community-based, local, and bottom-up. Part of the discussion revolved around communal farming, communal fridges and closets, and time banking (a reciprocity-based work trading system in which hours are the currency). Although much of the discussion revolved around potential future projects, there were a few mentions of existing initiatives. 

One such initiative is the Tripoli-based Habaq movement, which is working to develop sustainable cooperative farming: growing organic vegetative crops in unused fertile land and harvesting the produce collectively. According to Mourad Ayache, one of the 20 members currently involved, this is “an opportunity to organize ourselves around cooperative farms as opposed to competitive ones.” Ultimately, Habaq envisions a cooperation between a network of self-sustaining farms and related cooperatives, such as local kitchens and food distribution networks. 

Unlike traditional, transactional donations, what sets Bread and Salt projects apart is that they are operated by and for the communities themselves. The initiative also exemplifies how small community-led structures in disparate areas can be connected to one another through umbrella networks. Habaq is currently working with another cooperative agriculture operation in the village of Al-Qoweita‘ in Koura. Its founder Alaa Farhat used social media to connect with owners of unused lands and farming equipment; he now has access to over 40,000 meters of land, 18,000 meters of which is already being used to plant wheat and other vegetative crops. Some of the produce will be sold below market price; the rest will stock a new bakery called Magadalou (Al-Qoweita‘’s ancient name), thereby also creating jobs for unemployed locals. The bakery’s profits will go back into the cost of operating the farms. As Farhat put it in December, “I don’t care what happens with the government, if they find a prime minister or not. What’s important is that we work together. From the people to the people.” To ensure that the cooperative’s priority remains the community, he has created a development council composed of a couple dozen locals, none of whom, he notes, “had any involvement in the previous government or any political parties.”

Another example of mutual aid in action is Bread and Salt, an umbrella initiative through which individuals working in different Palestinian camps in Lebanon are raising donations and distributing aid (mostly food and medicine) within their own communities. Unlike traditional, transactional donations, what sets Bread and Salt projects apart is that they are operated by and for the communities themselves. The initiative also exemplifies how small community-led structures in disparate areas can be connected to one another through umbrella networks. 

Recognizing the need to foster additional economic projects that are sustainable and productive, Daleel Tadamon is a new online platform for individuals and groups who are interested in solidarity economies to meet, discuss, and collaborate. Currently still in development, Daleel Tadamon aspires to become a hub for new and existing initiatives to support and learn from one another. They encourage anyone interested in solidarity initiatives to contact them, whether they are already involved in a project or have an incipient idea. 

These initiatives are some examples of how, in times of economic distress, communities can organize, collaborate, and think imaginatively about securing their basic needs. These structures may not be perfect at first, but we can learn from history and from different initiatives across Lebanon until strong and sustainable communities thrive outside of the confines of the state.