Democracy on the Rebound?

May has been an exciting month with elections in both Tunisia, Lebanon, and Iraq – even for a street sports fanatic like this blogger. In the first two countries, it was the first municipal and parliamentary elections, respectively since the Arab Spring in 2011. So what’s the verdict in these three countries, which are all a bit better than the region’s poor democratic image according to The Economist’s Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. The index lists Syria at the bottom of the list only one spot above North Korea as the very last and 167th least democratic country in the world. For the three ballot ticking countries you find Tunisia placed #69, Lebanon #104, and Iraq #112.

The Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index map for 2017. Bluer colors represent more democratic countries.

Back in 2011 the whole world was watching and many (including this naive blogger) thought that the democratic wind of change sweeping through the region would allow for transformational and systemic change for the long term. As we all know history took another turn and today the region is in more despair than before with high unemployment and several ongoing civil wars. Covering the basic physiological and safety needs is therefore higher on the agenda for many of the 411 million people living in the region, than the name of the political system. This is not surprising. But it’s a shame, if it results in a less transparent and just governance of the country, because the people aren’t holding the ones in power responsible.

The recent elections can therefore be seen as an indicator of whether there is still a belief in a democratic system in the region, where the people hold the politicians accountable and where the voice of women also matters. Let’s just say that prior to the elections my hopes were high. And that the actual results are mixed.

Low voter turnout

In terms of voter turnout I must say, that I was disappointed to see that in all three countries less than half the voters fulfilled their civic duty and showed up on election day. In Lebanon voter turnout was 49%, in Iraq 45%, and in Tunisia as little as 34% showed up.

Supporters of Joumana Haddad, a novelist and candidate running on an independent list, protest against what they say are clear signs of fraud to deny her victory (source:

Another highly anticipated and much debated aspect of the elections was the number of female candidates in the race. We all know that you can’t win if you don’t run. That’s why several NGOs have focused on getting more female candidates on the ballot. This resulted in an impressive 700% increase in Lebanon, where 86 candidates ran for election compared to only 12 in 2009. Unfortunately the election didn’t go as well as the nominations. Only six women were elected for the parliament’s 128 seats, indicating a 50% increase compared to the 4 women elected in 2009. But having only 5% women in parliament is just not good enough.

Collaborating for transformational change

In Tunisia and Iraq the final results haven’t been published yet, but the situation is less grave, as both countries have a quota of seats reserved for female candidates, resulting in at least 25% of the decision makers being women in Iraq. I like this idea for several reasons. First of all because it is an effective way to move towards gender equality on a political level. Secondly, it helps NGOs break the illusion that we can change the world on our own. Susan Wolf Ditkoff and Abe Grindle describes this quite convincingly in their article “Audacious Philanthropy”, which illuminates how to achieve transformational change:

“Audacious social change is incredibly challenging. Yet history shows that it can succeed. Unfortunately, success never results from a single grant or silver bullet; it takes collaboration, government engagement, and persistence over decades, among other things.”

Over the years GAME has implemented several programs in Lebanon focusing on gender equality with the audacious long term objective to increase the number of women in parliament. By teaching and promoting the skills of democratic citizenship and by inspiring young women to take on a leadership role in their communities and challenge the traditional views on what women are capable of, I like to think that GAME has played a role (however minor) in the increase of women daring to engage in politics today. And encouraged young men to vote for them.

Female role models in GAME pitching their advocacy campaign targeted the public and politicians of Beirut Municipality.

But the result of the election also shows that more is needed. If we want to see real transformational change we have to work together with the politicians who are the primary duty bearers in providing for the people who elects them. Only then can we succeed, whatever the challenge may be.

I guess the activist and civil rights leader Coretta Scott King was right:

“Struggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really won you earn it and win it in every generation.”


A safe space for children to play sports

By guest blogger Katrine Bruun Bonnén

The citizens of Beirut are facing several challenges if they want to stay physically active. The city is full of cars and the traffic is heavy. Membership of a sports club is a luxury many can not afford and there are hardly any places for free public play. This is causing obesity and diabetes rates to be on the rise. To break the disturbing statistics future generations need more opportunities for physical activity in their everyday life.

Youth in Beirut using what space is available

A safe environment where children can develop their potential
The latest report on the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in Lebanon released last month revealed both improvements as well as challenges that have to be faced. Amongst the latter Lebanon’s commitment to create a safe environment where children can develop their potential in line with the fundamental principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child was reaffirmed. A safe environment to develop potential must also include a safe place to do physical activity. A further look into the report shows that it also concludes that the opportunity to play sports is not available for children free of charge.

Lack of public spaces in Beirut
So what are the chances that children living in Beirut can meet up and play a match of football in their neighborhood without spending a lot of money on membership fees? Or what are the opportunities for the youths who want go for a run in the streets? Well, these young people might face some difficulties. The problem is, that there is a lack of green, public spaces in Beirut, as described in earlier posts on this blog. While the public spaces in Beirut have decreased the population have increased over the later years. WHO recommends that urban areas should have a minimum of 9 m2 of green space per person available with an ideal standard between 10 to 15 m2 (UNDP). Beirut has as little as 0.8 m2 per person. But isn’t this just the reality of the Middle East, one of the most contested areas in the world? Well, according to UN Habitat, Middle Eastern cities consist of only 2 % public space, compared to 12 % in an average European city. But in Beirut the number is mere 0.5 % (The Economist), so Beirut seems to be in a league of its own. The biggest park in Beirut is Horsh Beirut, but the park is fenced in and the entrance is restricted and only open in the weekends. The only public places you can go and play sports for free are in Qasqas and Corniche El Nahr in Ashrafieh which thus should make it up for the approximately 1,6 million people who lives in Beirut (World Bank). The public place in Qasqas is very popular and well attended, which indicates that more places like this is needed in Beirut.

Car accumulation in Beirut
If you want to stay active, an alternative to the public spaces could be a run or a ride on your bike. But in Beirut that option also seems to meet some severe challenges. The sidewalks are often bumpy, full of trash or parked cars and sometimes the sidewalks are non-existing so you would prefer to run in the road. According to WHO’s Global Status Report On Road Safety in 2015 there are no policies that promote walking and cycling. You rarely see a bike or a runner in Beirut and it’s easy to understand why. Precarious road conditions, heavy traffic and risky driving cause a high number of road casualties. In 2013, the traffic mortality rate was 22.6 out of 100.000, 43 % of which were pedestrians (WHO). The roads are not designed for runners or bikers so this is not a place to turn to for physical exercise.

Wanna go for a run?

Diabetes on the rise
The citizens’ access to safe spaces for exercise is an important factor in order to reduce the high level of diabetes cases that Lebanon is facing. According to a report from International Diabetes Federation, 12.2 % of the population in Lebanon had diabetes in 2015. In comparison the global prevalence rate is 8.5 %. An unhealthy diet and a sedentary lifestyle is resulting in rising obesity among the population. As many as 65 % of the Lebanese are overweight, and every fourth men and every third woman are obese (WHO). One of the main risk factors of developing diabetes is overweight. Also the urban life is linked with the disease due to factors such as increased junk food consumption, the lack of space for exercise and economic inequalities. The citizens of Beirut might be aware of how to live a healthy life, but knowledge by itself is not enough, as social determinants also have a significant impact on people’s lifestyle. Before the Syrian crisis, one out of four of the residents of Lebanon had problems covering the basic needs such as rent, food and health care. With the high number of displaced people today this number is now estimated to more than one out of three, making a nutritious diet an option not available to many.

Free sports for children and youth
The list of barriers for physical activity is long and includes a severe lack of public spaces for exercise, membership fees that are only affordable for a fraction of the population, and heavy traffic that makes it difficult for the individual to stay active running or biking. These are just some of the challenges the citizens of Beirut are facing if they wish to stay fit and healthy. And if people are not provided with the option to choose a more healthy and active lifestyle then the obesity rates will continue to increase leading to an epidemic rise in non-communicable diseases such as diabetes.

The Municipality of Beirut seems to be aware of all this, as they in partnership with the NGO GAME are looking for more places for play. One of the projects is to find an unused building, which can be refurbished as a public indoor street sports facility where the children and youth of the city can engage in sports. GAME which is founded in Denmark but has been present in Lebanon since 2007 has engaged more than 10,000 children and youth through its weekly football, basketball and dance activities across the country. In the first month of GAME’s 10 year anniversary season, more than 800 children have benefitted from the flexible and accessible sport-for-all opportunity. A delegation from the Municipality of Beirut visited GAME’s indoor street sports facility in Copenhagen in February this year to get inspiration for a similar facility in Beirut. Finding a suitable space is still the next big step to move ahead on the pressing need for more public spaces for play, but unfortunately the Municipality hasn’t yet succeeded in finding a building they are willing to prioritize for the purpose.

Children participating in GAME’s weekly street sports practices in Beirut

If staying active and healthy is a priority amongst the population, the promise to include it in the urban planning of Beirut must be taken seriously. Lebanon has faced and is facing many challenges, but without a population with a healthy mind in a healthy body, the challenges are not going to get any easier. A new bike path across the city is supposedly on its way, but it would suit the Municipality of Beirut to fulfill its commitment to establish more free public spaces where children and youth can play and engage in sports. This will both serve to prevent lifestyle diseases as well as let people with different backgrounds meet and build social ties across Lebanon’s many divides.

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