[This article is drawn from a paper presented by the author at the Vulnerability, Infrastructure, and Displacement Symposium (2019), as part of the panel on “Vulnerability and the (Built) Environment.” Click herehere, and here for other articles drawn from the same panel.]

This article reads notions of “vulnerability” employed in the humanitarian response to the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon against recent feminist and urbanist debates on the links between infrastructure and vulnerability. In doing so, it seeks to introduce and grapple with some of the key terms of the symposium. I argue that how we conceive of vulnerability impacts how we seek to address it. Thinking vulnerability in terms relationality and interdependency allows us to critically interrogate how humanitarian actors operating in Lebanon–who necessarily see vulnerability as a condition to be overcome–have employed the term in the context of the response to the Syrian crisis. Based on interviews as well as participant observation among UN agencies, international NGOs, and local NGOs working on the Syrian crisis response in Lebanon conducted in 2018-19, I examine several levels at which humanitarian actors conceptualise, measure, and seek to address (infrastructural) vulnerabilities.

Judith Butler views the always-vulnerable human body as fundamentally characterized by dependency on support systems beyond itself,[1] which she also describes as “infrastructure.”[2] Even though, to her, this denotes both human and non-human support systems, Butler’s understanding of vulnerability echoes Matthew Gandy’s work on cyborg urbanism: he describes infrastructures as a form of ”exoskeleton”[3]–that is, as extensions of our bodily selves upon which we rely for our very survival. Thus, vulnerability is intrinsically linked to infrastructure: our reliance on the circulations and services provided by others also creates a level of risk for disruption and harm. If we understand vulnerability in this way, refugees, having moved involuntarily, are lacking at least some of these support systems–be they physical environment, usual services and amenities, or social ties. They are, then, by definition more vulnerable than those who have not been displaced.

The Lebanese government’s “policy of no policy” vis-à-vis displaced Syrians leaves most without a legal framework to ensure the right to residency, work, or even free movement. Instead, local authorities devise individual responses.[4] Beyond the support system of a legal status or guaranteed rights, many Syrian refugees are also disconnected from physical infrastructures. The eighteen percent of displaced people living in tented settlements (informal refugee camps on private land) are explicitly not connected to wider water and sewage networks. Such linkages are politically controversial as they would be a material manifestation of a longer-term stay, and thus embody anxieties about the displaced settling permanently in Lebanon. Beyond the functional impact (not having running water or a functioning toilet), such infrastructural exclusion also always operates on a symbolic register:[5] the stigma that is advanced through abjection and the exclusion from infrastructure’s aura of modernity can act as an additional threat by legitimising dispossession or displacement. It can thus turn into a tangible risk as when the Litani River Authority evicted over 1,500 Syrians from along the river bank for the pollution their informal settlements caused.

Both Lebanon’s lacking infrastructural provision to all its residents and the ecological crisis emanating from this are frequently blamed on refugees. Official publications of the Ministry of Environment, for instance, attribute responsibility for water pollution to the Syrian crisis. This is despite the fact that Lebanon’s infrastructural crisis precedes the influx of Syrian refugees and “uneven geographies” of infrastructural distribution have long exacerbated existing inequalities.[6] The case of the Litani reflects the interdependency of displaced and “host” communities, whose living spaces and health are tied up through the human and non-human chains of waste disposal, drinking water, and food production. This interdependency means that even individual or private “solutions” to the lacking infrastructural supply, be they open-air defecation or buying bottled water from illegal wells, affect wider systems. They seep back into bodies and do harm, albeit sometimes at slow time scales and in microscopic sizes.[7] Our bodies are not bounded, we are always beyond ourselves (Butler refers to this quality as being “ecstatic”[8]), and vulnerable to those who are and that which is beyond ourselves. Viewing infrastructures as the manifestations of the way in which refugee-host, as well as built-and-“natural”-environment and human-non-human, relations are entangled and mutually influence one another, rather than the basis of conflict in a zero sum game, acknowledges people’s shared vulnerability. This relationality and interdependence differentiate infrastructural vulnerability from the “infrastructural violence” urban studies scholars have located in the inequitable distribution of resources, and consequently, life chances, by way of infrastructures.[9]

The recent proliferation of “vulnerability” discourse among humanitarian organisations can be understood as a means for them to limit their responsibility vis-a-vis the groups under their mandate by prioritising the “most vulnerable.”[10] Vulnerability, according to Butler, is both an ontological condition–everyone is vulnerable through their embodied exposure to the world and Others in it–and a political issue–in that some are (made) more vulnerable than others. She refers to the universal condition as “precarity” and the politically-induced one as “precariousness.”[11] The “vulnerability criteria” employed by many humanitarian actors and used in the resettlement process, however, fail to see vulnerability in this manner; instead, they locate the onus of the problem in individual members of those groups reified as “vulnerable.” Yet thinking of vulnerability as reliance on support systems makes visible the structural nature of privilege: Those not deemed vulnerable benefit from a scaffolding of support systems that enable them – rather than those deemed “vulnerable” being less complete or fully human. The often generic criteria for receiving assistance can make invisible the vulnerability some seemingly less deserving groups, such as single men, who are vulnerable to discrimination and violence as well as forced recruitment.[12] Further, these criteria obfuscate the structures that enable some people and disable others, and thus depoliticise the underlying inequalities, avoiding transformational thinking.

Tools to measure socio-economic vulnerability at the household level, such as the “Desk Formula” used to determine refugees’ eligibility for cash-based aid, are often very complex, in an attempt to ground decisions of aid inclusion and exclusion in “robust” and “scientific” methods. At the same time, they are intentionally obscure, both to humanitarian employees and to recipients. The latter, meanwhile, become increasingly transparent as vast amounts of data about them–ranging from their iris scans to their sexual habits–are collected, shared, and mined using advanced machine learning techniques. The opacity of programmes, the transparency of “beneficiaries,” as well as lacking data security, thus become meta-vulnerabilities arising from the aid response itself. However, the cash assistance for which the Desk Formula is deployed appears to have little long-term effect in improving vulnerability measures, as UN representatives noted. Thus, we might ask what other purposes injecting large sums (1.2 billion dollars annually, with a multiplier value of up to 2.4 when spent) into the Lebanese economy through these programmes might have. The aim of donors here appears to be stabilising Lebanon, most likely with the aim of containing the crisis in the region, rather than meaningfully improving people’s livelihoods.

The numerous projects that seek to address social issues through infrastructure, such as the Lebanese Host Communities Support Programme, appear to serve similar aims. This particular project operates on the basis of the following “Theory of Change”: that social stability (the absence of violent outbursts between Lebanese and Syrians) can be ensured by providing more infrastructural services on the municipal level and thus strengthening the legitimacy of state actors. It follows this logic although UN representatives from the Social Stability sector note that lack of infrastructural services is not the cause of most intercommunal tension or violence against refugees. Vulnerability, here, is conceived as a conflict over resources and a problem of lacking trust in the state–notably not the lacking trustworthiness of the state. In fact, despite aiming to compensate for a “weak state,” delivering aid through “communities” can deepen sectarian divisions, as Nucho has argued.[13] These kinds of stabilisation programmes, then, much like the large-scale loans for public works promised during the CEDRE conference, aim to use infrastructure to stabilise the country.

These projects under these programmes, and indeed the vast coordinated humanitarian effort under the Lebanon Crisis Response Plan, is based on conceptualising vulnerability as the counterpart to resilience, viewed the capacity to recover from or resist shocks. Therefore, humanitarian vulnerability thinking appears to aspire for a return to a mythical point of equilibrium. What such a presumed point of stability and normality might be in Lebanon’s history is unclear; as Davoudi notes, this kind of resilience thinking often fails to critically assess what a “return to normal” might entail.[14] Viewing vulnerability as the absence of an assumed state of wholeness and self-containment in this way denies our interdependence–that we are always beyond ourselves and always already bound up with one another. The bounded notion of resilience reflected in many aid projects is linked to donor countries aiming to defend their own boundaries–by enabling circulations through infrastructure on a local level in Lebanon, they seek to contain the Syrian refugee crisis at a distance from their borders. Thus, the production of infrastructures becomes itself part of a global infrastructure of control, in which boundaries are maintained to create the illusion of self-sufficiency. Vulnerability as projected onto the other, then, is linked to the denial of the vulnerability of interconnected selves.


[1] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, (London: Verso, 2004) and Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?, (London: Verso, 2010).

[2]  Judith Butler, “Rethinking Vulnerability and Resistance” in Vulnerability in Resistance, ed. J. Butler, Z. Gambetti & L. Sabsay (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2016), 12.

[3] Matthew Gandy, “Cyborg Urbanization: Complexity and Monstrosity in the Contemporary City,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 29, no. 1 (2005): 26–49.

[4] Tamirace Fakhoury, “Governance strategies and refugee response: Lebanon in the face of Syrian displacement,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 49, no. 4 (2017): 681-700.

[5] Brian Larkin, “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure,” Annual Review of Anthropology 42, no. 1 (2013): 327-43.

[6] Eric Verdeil, “Beirut. The Metropolis of Darkness and the Politics of Urban Electricity Grid”, in Energy, Power and Protest on the Urban Grid. Geographies of the Electric City, ed. Andres Luque Ayala and Jonathan Silver (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), 155-175.

[7] Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the environmentalism of the poor (London: Harvard University Press, 2011).

[8] Butler, Frames of War: 33

[9] Cf. Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin, Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition (London: Routledge, 2001) and Dennis Rodgers and Bruce O’Neill, “Infrastructural Violence: Introduction to the Special Issue,” Ethnography 13, no. 4 (2012): 401-12.

[10] Hande Sözer, “Humanitarianism with a neo-liberal face: vulnerability intervention as vulnerability redistribution,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies (2019) DOI: 10.1080/1369183X.2019.1573661

[11] Butler, Precarious Life and Frames of War.

[12] Cf. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, “Gender Audit Report of the High Commissioner’s Dialogue on Protection Challenges – Towards a Global Compact on Refugees”, Geneva 12 -13 December 2017 and Lewis Turner, “Syrian refugee men as objects of humanitarian care” International Feminist Journal of Politics (2019) https://doi.org/10.1080/14616742.2019.1641127

[13] Joanne Randa Nucho, Everyday Sectarianism in Urban Lebanon: Infrastructures, Public Services, and Power (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016).

[14] Simin Davoudi, “Resilience: A Bridging Concept or a Dead End?,” Planning Theory & Practice 13, no 2 (2012): 302.

[This article was originally posted by Jadaliyya on 19 December, 2019.]