Egypt, Lebanon and the Humanitarian Impact of Political Turmoil

02/09/2011 10:40 am 10:40:56 | Updated May 25, 2011

These last two weeks, the headlines have been dominated by political turmoil in the Middle East, particularly in Egypt, the most populous and precarious of the countries currently experiencing popular demonstrations against their leadership. Whatever the outcome in each of these countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa, we can expect huge political impacts that will shape the region for decades to come, just as the current rulers being demonstrated against have shaped the direction of their countries for a generation.

But alongside the many political changes that are being predicted, we can expect humanitarian impacts. The Middle East already has an extremely serious humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. Since the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip commenced in June 2007, and with the eruption of violence in December 2008 -- January 2009, there have been 1.6 million people living under a state of siege, with many thousands still living in tents beside their obliterated homes.

Regardless of the politics of the issue, no one can deny the scale of the human tragedy facing the people living in the Gaza Strip. CHF International's own staff there who, for example, distribute vital food through the UN World Food Programme , testify to the extreme difficulty of the conditions: reconstruction is impossible and even with the slight loosening of the blockade last year, there is still little that can be done other than to bring temporary relief. How the current turmoil will affect this humanitarian situation -- negatively or positively -- remains to be seen.

The more violent the political turmoil, the greater the humanitarian crises that follow. Before the demonstrations taking place across the Middle East began dominating the headlines, another political crisis was being reported: the fall of the Lebanese government due to the expected findings of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon on the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. An uncertain future awaits Lebanon as negotiations about the formation of a new government take place, with Hezbollah as the most powerful voice in those discussions.

Those of us who work in Lebanon know well the effects conflict can have. Many of the advances we were able to make after the end of the civil war were jeopardized by the 2006 war. But since then, despite periodic violence, we have been able to continue focusing on achieving long-term impacts: CHF International's work , focused on economic, agricultural and environmental development, is the kind of long-term development that is facilitated by a stable environment where investments can be made by the communities involved in directing their own lives and livelihoods.

We often hear discussions in the humanitarian world about moving from "relief to development", meaning moving from helping people with their immediate needs in the face of a crisis, to addressing long-term sustainable economic improvement for a community. None of us want to see this go backwards, from development to relief.

So we will watch the situation in Egypt and the Middle East carefully. We will watch in the hope that it will lead to genuine democracy, respect for human rights and the advancement of civil society in those countries. But we cannot forget the existing humanitarian crises and the potential for new problems that are so often created alongside political change.