Compassionate Communalism: Welfare and Sectarianism in Lebanon

By Kingston, Paul | Arab Studies Journal, Spring 2017 | Go to article overview

Compassionate Communalism: Welfare and Sectarianism in Lebanon


Kingston, Paul, Arab Studies Journal


COMPASSIONATE COMMUNALISM: WELFARE AND SECTARIANISM IN LEBANON Melani Cammett Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014 (xv + 315 pages, bibliography, index, illustrations, maps) $82.95 (cloth) $27.95 (paper)

Reviewed by Paul Kingston

This impressive book by Melani Cammett examines patterns of welfare distribution by sectarian political parties in Lebanon, with some brief comparisons with the patterns of sectarian welfare distribution in Iraq (the al-Sadr Movement) and India (the BJP). It is the product of exemplary and extensive research over many years and employs a variety of methods, including GIS mapping to determine the "bricks and mortar" location of sectarian welfare agencies and a large national survey (almost three thousand households) followed up by in-depth qualitative interviewing. Its historicized analysis improves our understanding of variation in patterns of welfare distribution among communally based political parties in the country, be it welfare distributed to those within a particular communal group (ingroups) or outside of it (out-groups), or to those who are core supporters versus those who are non-core supporters of a particular sectarian party.

To structure her analysis, Cammett puts forth and tests two main hypotheses: that the approach to sectarian welfare distribution is conditioned, first, by the degree to which a party's political strategy is state-centric or non-state-centric and, second, by the degree to which sectarian political parties face high levels of intra-sectarian competition. The interaction of these two variables explains variations in welfare distributional practice of particular sectarian political parties over time and between different sectarian political parties at particular moments.

Cammett begins her analysis by asking why sectarian political parties in Lebanon became involved in welfare distribution in the first place. Through an unpacking of various possible explanations, she succeeds in constructing a complex answer to this question, stressing that "the logic of sectarian welfare outreach cannot be reduced to a single factor" (3). With respect to the argument that sectarian parties are interested in welfare service delivery in order to strengthen the bonds of communalism-to become the "guardian of the community" (14)-Cammett argues that this explanation is compromised by the fact of the widespread distribution of welfare goods outside of communal groups. With respect to the suggestion that sectarian welfare provision is motivated by a charitable desire to serve the needy, Cammett argues that her findings indicate that sectarian welfare is not always delivered to the most needy, nor are sectarian welfare agencies necessarily located within the poorest neighborhoods. This observation opens the opportunity for an analysis of the political motivations behind sectarian welfare distribution, given that it is clear, she argues, that sectarian parties are making choices as "to whom to reward, attract, and exclude" (4).

Cammett's strongest explanation for the rise of the nonstate provision of social welfare relates to the inability of the Lebanese state to provide universal access to public goods and social services for its citizens. This weakness stems from the country's system of sectarian power sharing, cemented in place since the French Mandate. This system, Cammett explains, has created "incentives for parties to seek monopolistic control over representation of their respective communities" in part through the establishment of nonstate systems of public goods service provision in health care, education, and social welfare (59). Constrained by the rising infrastructural power of the various sectarian communities, attempts to strengthen the role of the Lebanese state in the field of development and public goods delivery, especially in the 1960s during the Shihab presidency, were of limited success and were subsequently undone by the country's long civil war, which had devastating effects on Lebanon's public health infrastructure. …

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