A financial brick for the future

Katia Raguzzoni

Expert in financial inclusion

I first visited Lebanon in 2016; a crossroad country on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean sea, land of ancient civilizations and cultures; place of transit and exchange with a deeply-rooted openness to people and cultures. Since the beginning of the conflict in the neighboring country, Lebanon has hosted about 1.5 million Syrians escaping the war, becoming the nation with the highest number of refugees in the world in proportion to its population size[1].

According to UNHCR data, registered refugees are mainly located in Beqaa (36.7%), North Lebanon (26,4%), Beirut (25.5%) and South Lebanon (11.7%)[2]. Most Syrians are living in shelters nearby agricultural lands or neighborhoods. The landscape has changed, and Lebanese municipalities have increased in size upon the arrival of refugees trying to find an adequate placement. Living conditions are extremely difficult: winters are long, cold and the snow falls in several areas; summers are scorching. Last spring, the rainy season caused major floodings, and the harsh climatic conditions only exacerbate this highly precarious situation.

Basic assistance (shelters, water, protection procedures, cash support) has been provided since the very beginning of the Syrian conflict by the “international aid industry”, but this prolonged crisis demands different and innovative responses to address the needs of these people. The Syrian protracted displacement emergency is strongly affecting the most vulnerable people, including women, elderly persons or youth and children to whom education is denied or only partially secured.

Field visits among refugee camps are increasingly touching, in a country that does not recognize legal status to those fleeing the war. Lebanon’s government is increasing its pressure on their displaced neighbours, trying to limit their permanence in the country. Shelters must be built to be temporary, some of these are made with recycled advertising sheets illustrating large burgers that none of them has ever eaten.

Stories, expectations, dreams and hopes of individuals are amplified when, looking further afield, one sees the many tents and settlements in the beautiful Beqaa Valley, running parallel to the Syrian border. In a situation of such instability and uncertainty, where many questions remain unanswered (When will the war come to an end? What will happen to the people who are experiencing further drama with the demolition of their temporary homes? What are these people going to do tomorrow and what will they do to re-build their future?), we shall continue to find ways to improve the living conditions and cultivate the knowledge of these people. New strategies need to be identified to support them making their dreams come true in the nearest future.

Serving refugees requires to understand their social, human, material and financial[3] key capitals, to gain a deep perception of the issues they face on a daily basis and to appreciate how they value relationships and previous knowledge and connections, declined in the context of a protracted crisis.

To address refugees’ needs, we discussed at length with them, specifically focusing on their financial situation, to understand how they manage limited incomes, how expenses are carried out and kept under control, and how issues can be avoided or anticipated. The majority of the people involved was not used to deal with financial instruments in their home country and financial resources were and are still managed according to funds availability and needs. Even though some of them, especially women, have already been part of savings groups in Syria, the saving culture is not valued within the household nor by development operators in the fragile context in which they currently live, primarily because of the absence of certain revenues. Savings are generally perceived as an impossible goal and the aid dependency hamper the shift from emergency initiatives towards resilience and development.

In this environment, raising awareness and helping people to increase their financial capabilities is nowadays crucial for stimulating proactive behaviors through an innovative and experienced-based learning process. Financial education is essential to support refugees in translating even basic knowledge into daily habit. The concept we promote includes a greater awareness on the use of all kind of financial, natural and material resources, which are extremely limited, and therefore to be exploited and managed wisely.

Tracking expenses throughout the day, such as food, water, electricity, waste fees, medical and school expenses, mobile phones, diapers, cigarettes, etc. as well as the inflows, remittances and savings is needed to keep financial expenditures under control and be aware of spending limits, in order to prevent overindebtedness (to shop owners, Shaweshes[4] and other community members) and to start saving for a better future according to one’s goals and thoughts. Saving groups are an opportunity to save for refugees who face financial and economic difficulties. These groups can be set up according to different methodologies, but they all have the potential to foster cohesion, self-esteem and participation among group members. A small daily saving, multiplied by the number of group members, can lead to significant amounts that can be used to promote interesting initiatives – not only economic, but also with a social value and impact – within the camps (for example on education, health, renewable energies, etc.). This way, savings become an investment in resilience and future perspectives; participation in savings groups could become the way to build and feed refugees credit history, creating new methods for credit scoring of refugees across countries and regions, and thus improving their financial inclusion durably.

Nowadays financial education can be the way and the right approach to encourage social and financial inclusion of refugees in Lebanon or in their own country. Economic justice and financial literacy are the two main drivers of our field work. Supporting the development of refugees’ financial proficiency will help women and men to make informed financial choices based on their needs and capacities, thus allowing them to better understand how they can improve their financial well-being despite the still existing barriers to social and financial inclusion.

 

[1] Maja Janmyr, No Country of Asylum: ‘Legitimizing’ Lebanon’s Rejection of the 1951 Refugee Convention, International Journal of Refugee Law, Volume 29, Issue 3, October 2017

[2] https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/syria/location/71

[3] Ana Uzelac, Jos Meesteer, Markus Goransson, Willem van den Berg, The importance of social capital in protracted displacement, https://www.fmreview.org/sites/fmr/files/FMRdownloads/en/syria2018/uzelac-meester-goransson-vandenberg.pdf, February 2018

[4] In Arabic the word refers to the person having a leadership role within each refugee’s settlement. This role is most commonly held by a man, though few female examples exist. The Shawesh has a supervisory function and plays a decision making role within their community. Shaweshes also coordinate the Syrian labor force required in Lebanon especially in the agricultural sector. This figure was common even before the Syrian Civil Conflict, since it represented the key to connect Syrian workers with Lebanese landowners.

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