There was silence in the room. No one seemed to want to speak up. I asked again: “what are the most important challenges that you face every day?” Suba, a young woman in her early 20s living in Tripoli, one of the regions with the highest poverty levels and concentration of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, finally raised her hand and said: “We are unemployed and have no access to basic services. We are sympathetic to the Syrian refugee cause. However, they are taking our jobs. They are receiving higher benefits (in the form of cash and non-cash assistance) from the Government and other donors than us Lebanese. They are making our hospitals and schools over-crowded, preventing us from receiving good quality services.” Similar feelings and concerns were expressed through various other focus groups that were carried out in 2016, which aimed at better understanding the needs and aspirations of the poorest and most disadvantaged Lebanese in order to inform some of the World Bank’s social protection, labor and jobs operations in Lebanon.
The on-going crisis in Syria has taken a toll on millions of lives, with an estimated 11 million Syrians having fled their homes since the outbreak of the civil war in March 2011. In Lebanon alone, the number of registered and unregistered Syrian refugees has reached over 1.5 million, or one-third of the country’s population. Those communities hosting Syrian refugees are struggling to meet basic needs, and face rising and deteriorating intra-communal social tensions. While government and non-government actors have recently intensified efforts to address these challenges, the high variability of needs compounded with existing structural problems prevalent in service delivery as well as limited resources, remain an ongoing challenge in addressing the gaps in the delivery of essential services.
Youth volunteering is an effective and efficient mechanism to alleviate some of the increasing and unmet needs of both Syrian refugees and their Lebanese host communities. I have seen first-hand how volunteering can put youth at the center of development and empower them to become agents of change, by enabling them to identify and find solutions to the most pressing problems afflicting them and their own communities. In doing so, volunteering helps to defuse tensions by bringing youth together around shared goals, thus building more cohesive societies through citizenship development. Volunteering is also believed to improve the employability of participating youth, by enabling them to participate in unpaid work.
With this in mind, Lebanon’s National Volunteer Service Program (NVSP), which was launched in 2011 thanks to grant resources from the State and Peace Building Fund (SPF) and which seeks to promote increased social cohesion and employability among Lebanese youth, will be scaled-up in 2017. The project’s second phase, which will be financed through an additional SPF grant, will provide Lebanese youth aged 15 to 24: (i) volunteering opportunities in the most vulnerable Lebanese communities hosting Syrian refugees; and (ii) soft skills training as well as psychosocial awareness and community-building activities. The NVSP is managed by Lebanon’s Ministry of Social Affairs.
The second phase of NVSP is one of the most innovative youth projects in the Middle East and North Africa region. First, through the scale-up, Syrian refugee youth in the targeted communities will be able to serve their communities alongside their Lebanese peers. In addition, the second phase of the NVSP recognizes that youth face many different and oftentimes overlapping challenges, and will provide participating youth a package of services whose design and delivery relies on collaboration across sectors (including social protection and jobs, health and education). Of particular importance is the project’s new psychosocial support component, which will promote awareness among participating youth of the mental health challenges afflicting Syrian refugees, and will provide opportunities for interaction between participating youth and Lebanese citizens and Syrian refugees living in the targeted host communities through psychosocial and community building activities. At a recent meeting, Pierre Bou Assi, Lebanon’s Minister of Social Affairs, stated that his ministry takes pride in partnering with the World Bank in scaling-up NVSP, which will finance volunteering activities and provide training opportunities to youth in the most vulnerable communities throughout Lebanon.
The scale-up of NVSP seeks to leverage and build on the project’s results to-date. Around 6,500 youths and more than 100 different NGOs, universities, schools and municipalities have already participated in the project’s activities. In addition, NVSP has created important public goods, including: (i) an online portal, which enables the project’s implementing partners to post volunteering opportunities and eligible youth to apply for them, thus effectively serving as a matching platform.; and (ii) a soft-skills training curriculum, which has been tailored specifically for Lebanon (characters, cultural references, dialect, etc.), and can be accessed both by participating youth (through in-class training) and any interested youth through the online portal (e-learning). This soft-skills training, which was created in partnership with the Youth in Development program of the World Bank, will soon be made available on youthindev.org for others to use globally. Finally, the NVSP is currently being subject to a rigorous impact evaluation, the first in Lebanon, to assess whether volunteerism and soft skills training do in fact have an impact on youth employability and social cohesion. The following video highlights some of the project’s main highlights to-date.
It is hoped that the scale-up of NVSP empowers Lebanese youth like Suba to become agents of change, and promotes improved service delivery and social stability throughout Lebanon.