Intercessory wasta and village development in Lebanon.

JurisdictionUnited States
AuthorMakhoul, Jihad
Date22 June 2004


THIS ARTICLE DISCUSSES THE ROLE of wasta in contemporary village life in Lebanon, focussing on its use in, and impact on, local development projects. Wasta (coll.--waseet in formal Arabic), which means either mediation or intercession, has had a long history in Middle Eastern societies. The term itself may be applied both to the person who mediates or intercedes or to the act of mediation or intercession. This paper deals with intercessory wasta, a social exchange which entails the intervention of a patron on behalf of a client or clients to obtain a service, a benefit or other resources for the client.

Cunningham and Sarayrah (1993, 1994) have written extensively about the wasta concept and the implications of the practice of intercessory wasta for economic development in Middle Eastern societies. Where wasta is the rule, a patron intervenes on behalf of a client to obtain an advantage for that client, perhaps a job or admission to a university. As a result, people with appropriate qualifications may not be appointed to positions and those that are appointed may not be able to do the job. This is obviously inefficient and may lead to poor job performance in areas important for the economic development of the country and for the social development of the people. It also results in dependence among those who obtain their position through wasta.

Cunningham and Sarayrah, acknowledging the deep entrenchment of the practice, suggest ways in which it could be used so that the people who obtain their positions though wasta could be held accountable for their own performance and ultimately fired if they prove to be unsatisfactory. This does not address the waste of human resources in the first place, however, where qualified people are unable to obtain appropriate positions through merit, and may never do so if they do not have access to a wasta. This situation is unlikely to improve while jobs and other resources are in scarce supply and hence competition for them is fierce.

Cunningham and Sarayrah point out that the economies of the Middle Eastern countries, where the practice of wasta is widespread, are influenced to a large degree by external factors over which they have no control. Surrounded by Israel and Syria, both of which maintain different degrees of physical presence, and home to a large population of Palestinian refugees, Lebanon demonstrates this to a unique degree (Ellis, 1999). The country is in a poor position economically. Unemployment is high, the value of the currency has been eroded by inflation and much of the infrastructure was destroyed during the civil war (1975-1990). Historically, the state has been weak and power has been distributed among the various confessional groups, eighteen of which are recognized by the constitution. These groups support, and in turn are supported by, different external powers. As a result, the balance of power between them has often been precarious at best, leading to instability in national life which culminated in the civil war. The status quo ante has now returned with no resolution to the underlying problem of factionalism. The Ta'if Accord of 1989, which led to the cessation of hostilities, called for the gradual phasing out of political sectarianism, but this has yet to occur (Hudson, 1999; Ofeish, 1999; Salem, 1994).

In this environment, wasta thrives. There is a widespread expectation that needs will be met more quickly through the exercise of personal relations than through the state (Joseph, 1997). A leader or zaim (pl. zu'ama) sought for wasta tends to be wealthy. Frequently he is a member of one of the prominent families which have had economic and political influence since the Ottoman era. A local leader has more contact with his followers than a national one and can take advantage of the needs of those around him to distribute jobs or to intervene in transactions on their behalf. This process can also occur between a zaim and people from outside his immediate community which allows him to gain broader popularity and power. One zaim can be the client of another zaim, exchanging support for services. The continuation of the system depends on the ability of the zu'ama to meet their clients expectations and hence to create dependency through favors (Gubser, 1974; Knight, 1992; Salem, 1973).

At the village level, wasta is used to access funds for much needed development projects. But the exercise of patron-client relationships can assume more importance than the project itself, which may not be successful as a result. Attitudes towards the use of wasta are ambivalent. While villagers recognize that it can be necessary to get things done, some deplore the dependency it creates and would prefer the intervention of the state.

This exploration of the role of wasta was part of a larger study investigating how development is viewed and experienced in rural areas. Before the civil war, many of the coastal cities, centers of trade and commerce, were prosperous and thriving. In the rural hinterland, however, large areas remained underdeveloped and lacking in basic infrastructure. The ambitious reconstruction plan which followed the ending of hostilities has been criticized for its emphasis on Beirut rather than that of the country as a whole. The plan concentrates on the financial sector rather than agriculture and industry and stresses physical infrastructure over human capital (Denoeux & Springborg, 1999; Kubursi, 1999). The paper argues that, given the continued lack of public goods and services provided by the state, and given the entrenched nature of wasta in Lebanese social, economic and political life, rural villagers have little choice but to continue to operate within the wasta system to obtain infrastructure and services, even though not all can participate and the benefits which might accrue to some are often partial and unsatisfactory.

Akkar in North Lebanon has always been, and continues to be, the least developed area of Lebanon and, hence, the receiver of much development assistance. Two Muslim villages in this region were chosen as study sites. One was given the pseudonym Dar el Lawz (House of Almonds) and the other Ain Zeitoun (Olive Spring), in reference to their principle crops. Although some development projects have taken place in these villages, they have not made a large difference to people's lives. The electricity supply, internal roads, water supply and waste disposal remain poor in both villages. Residents were asked about their views of development, what they valued about their village and their experience of development projects.

The discussion of the role of wasta politics in village life is derived from the accounts of the residents of both villages, since the similarities and differences between them offer important insights into the use of wasta and development projects. A water project in Ain Zeitoun is described in some detail, because it shows how wasta works at the local level and how officials of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) can become involved. This is an important issue. During the civil war, when government was largely absent, many local and international NGOs played vital roles in Lebanon. Their work included providing emergency assistance such as food relief distribution, repairing schools and infrastructure, providing medical supplies to hospitals in war affected areas, as well as some non-war related activities in other parts of the country. Since the war ended, their role has changed from relief work to development and there has been increasing criticism of proliferating numbers and unco-ordinated activities. According to Baalbaki (1994), the number of local NGOs rose from 59 to 168 between 1960 and 1980, and this has continued since the end of the war.

The sudden shift to development projects after the war meant that many NGO staff were not well trained for this task, and training needs for both new and existing staff tend not to be met by project grants. As a result, as the case study shows, NGO officials on the ground run the risk of being co-opted into wasta networks and neglecting principles of gender awareness and community participation.

The essay begins with a brief overview of clientalism and wasta. This is followed by a description of the situation in Lebanon, a discussion of the role of wasta politics in village life and the case study. The paper concludes with a discussion of the implications of wasta for rural development.


Clientalism is a set of interpersonal relations of a hierarchical nature based on unequal exchange between patrons and clients. Patrons are powerful individuals who control distribution or access to resources while clients are individuals or groups who are less powerful and request these services for their personal gain (Eisenstadt and Roniger, 1984).

The literature describes patron-client relations as having both premodern and modern forms. The premodern form is described as traditional, built around shared kinship, religious groups or similar ethnic backgrounds. This form thrives on a shared sense of belonging and shared ideology as well as mutual benefit. Such ties are strong and have endured. They have existed in many parts of the world, especially in the Middle East, which has a history of feudal systems of landlords and peasants, as in Lebanon during the rule of the Ottoman Empire (Gilsenan, 1977; Khalaf, 1977).

Other kinds of patron-client relations continue to be found as modern forms of clientalism around the world, in Southern Europe and the Middle East as well as the USA and Asia (see Eisenstadt and Roniger, 1984 and Roniger and Gunes-Ayata, 1994). In contemporary and industrialized societies, patrons may take the shape of political parties, labor unions or militia. Members of these entities become clients who are favored in receiving resources. However, in this case, the strength of this patron-client relation is tempered by...

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