Jean, a Christian Catholic, Graziella, a Christian Orthodox, Ali, a Muslim Shiite, Roukaya, a Muslim Sunni, and Ashraf, a Druze, met for the first time when they signed up to work together on a community project. The project was one of the 22 community projects financed in the first phase of Lebanon’s National Volunteer Service Program (NVSP) in 2015, and which benefited almost 1,300 Lebanese youth throughout the country.
The projects, which were implemented by local NGOs, included health awareness campaigns, care for the elderly and the disabled, cleaning and rehabilitation of public gardens, soccer fields, and trails, organization of inclusive art and sports activities, and organization of awareness campaigns of solid waste management practices, to name a few.
Young people working together in a community project is a fairly simply task, no?
Not in Lebanon! There are 18 different confessions in the country, and for the most part, there are very few opportunities for Lebanon’s diverse youth to interact with one another. Limited exposure to the "other" is exacerbated by a polarized confessional political system, all of which has fueled social tension throughout the country. Policymakers in Lebanon and many other countries in MENA have tried to understand and address the main drivers of social tension, with limited results.
To address some of these challenges, the first phase of the NVSP, which was implemented between 2013 and 2016 thanks to a grant from the State and Peace Building Fund (SPF), sought to increase social cohesion among Lebanese youth aged 15-24. To do so, NVSP provided participating youth civic engagement opportunities and soft skills training. One of the most innovative features of NVSP is that at least 20% of youth who participated in a NVSP-financed project must come from communities outside where the project was implemented. who claim that a change in context is a prerequisite for improved trust, respect, and cooperation among people from different backgrounds.
But can a "small" pilot have an impact on building cohesive societies, especially those plagued by many social tensions? There is now evidence showing that the NVSP had a statistically significant impact on social cohesion in the country. Indeed, the recently completed NVSP impact evaluation, one of the first to be carried out in the country, showed that NVSP participating youth were more likely to report higher tolerance values as well as a stronger sense of belonging to the Lebanese community one year after their participation in the program.
To date, around 7,150 youths and close to 150 different NGOs, universities, schools and municipalities have been directly involved in the project’s activities. This includes 3,600 youth who have participated in the implementation of 58 volunteering projects throughout Lebanon.
The already high levels of social tension in Lebanon were further exacerbated by the Syrian refugee crisis, as the influx of more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees to Lebanon resulted in increased competition over scarce resources. With this in mind, the SPF approved a second grant for NVSP in 2016, to tackle the fragile intercommunal relations and social tensions between Lebanese citizens and Syrian refugees living in the selected host communities. The second phase of the NVSP, which is currently in the last few months of implementation, has also showed impressive results, and prompted the Government of Lebanon to request additional technical and financial assistance to institutionalize NVSP across government programs.
Youth volunteering has proven to be a successful mechanism to improve intra-communal relations and has the potential to support governments around the world to rebuild trust and renew the social contract. It increases the participation and voice among youth as well as improves local social service delivery. The institutionalization of NVSP will help the Government of Lebanon to achieve these objectives in a sustained manner, by enabling youths like Jean, Graziella, Ali, Roukaya, and Ashraf to continue working together for a more cohesive Lebanon! Indeed, these youths continue to volunteer after their participation in NVSP, which shows that the program had a long-lasting effect, as it contributed to create a culture of volunteerism that is fundamental to bring about societal change in a country that has tremendous potential.