Dear friends and colleagues of the AUB community,
Let me first wish everyone a Happy Labor Day for yesterday and say thank you to our magnificent staff, who work wholeheartedly every day to make this university the remarkable and transformative place that it is and always must be.
Women's empowerment in politics
With Lebanese parliamentary elections imminent, AUB hosted a timely transatlantic discussion, part of the New York-Beirut (NY-B) Briefings series, on the challenges to Lebanese women entering politics. We need only look at the current 3.1% representation of women in parliament to see how serious a problem we have. Out of 21 countries in the MENA region, Lebanon ranks only 15th in this regard.
Change is afoot, thankfully, as 111 women are candidates for the May 6 poll, in comparison to the 12 who ran at the last elections nine years ago. Obstacles to female political participation have deep roots however. A history of zaeem patronage, the sectarian political system, and legal discrimination against women across the board have left them with a weakened voice when it comes to running the country. I am proud to report that AUB is actively working to raise that voice.
I recommend the NY-B Briefings to you: a new initiative, showcasing AUB's on-the-ground research in the Arab world to a global audience. Professors, students, and guests connect by video between campus and the AUB office in New York and the exchange is streamed on YouTube. Participating in the latest briefing, Dr. Carmen Geha, assistant professor of public administration, shared her research on the effect of women's political empowerment programs in Lebanon, concluding they often miss their mark. The programs make the assumption that women candidates in Lebanon need only learn to campaign like women in western democracies, forming policy and messaging platforms, while the greater challenges lie in gaining access to male-dominated decision-making structures and overcoming the entrenched masculinity of the Lebanese political arena.
“I do not want to be in politics anymore," one frustrated research subject told Dr. Geha. “It is really the job of a man in this country!"
How do we combat this intolerable situation? Dr. Charlotte Karam, associate professor of organizational behavior and associate dean of programs at OSB, gave an overview of recent advances at AUB to challenge gender inequality at the university (see President's Perspectives—February 15, 2017; March 1, 2018; March 15, 2018) and how these must catalyze changes externally in Lebanese society. But it will need an extended and strategic outlook, she argued, to shift the experience of women not just being shut out of the political and academic process, but also experiencing complex, multilevel inequalities in health and wellbeing, educational attainment, and economic opportunity and participation, which compound and interact with one another.
The academy is in a strong position to spotlight these harsh inequalities, and sensitize our whole society to the power dynamics of gender and the oppression which is perpetuated by them. For example, women's participation in economic activity in Lebanon stands at just 26%, the fifth worst in the region and less than half the global average. Reducing the gender gap in the workplace would increase our GDP substantially. AUB has the will, the resources, and the data, to foster these changes to the benefit of all people.
Banker to the rural poor
As an institution of global standing, it is always fitting when we host figures of global impact. Few deserve that recognition more than the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner and father of microcredit, Professor Muhammad Yunus, who came to AUB as a guest of the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences last week. Professor Yunus's native Bangladesh has been climbing steadily in the human development index ranking thanks—in considerable measure—to the transformative approach to financial services to poor rural communities of his brainchild, Grameen Bank, which lends $2.5 billion a year to about nine million poor Bangladeshi women based only on trust. Repayment rates are 99%!
Although Grameen Bank started in the villages around Chittagong, the idea of microcredit has spread rapidly around the world, including Lebanon, helping lift hundreds of millions of the poorest citizens out of poverty. Professor Yunus is a man of big, provocative ideas, but immense humility and selflessness. On this, his second trip to campus (AUB got a few months' start on the Nobel committee by recognizing Professor Yunus with an Hon. DHL at the Commencement), the energetic late-septuagenarian impressed everyone at AUB—especially our FAFS students—with his abundant warmth and freshness of thinking.
Professor Yunus's latest book, A World of Three Zeroes, takes aim at the “invisible hand" of capitalism which leaves nearly half of humanity—more than 3 billion people—living on less than $2.50 a day, sharing the equivalent wealth of the world's eight richest men (and they are all men). He looks to a new economic movement known as “social business" which he believes can close the gap by fostering a new generation of entrepreneurs—not job seekers, but job creators—who focus on people, planet, and profit, rather than profit alone. The philosophical links with AUB education and research are clear, not least with FAFS as it refocuses its attention towards food and water security, alternate non-traditional agricultural scenarios, reviving rural areas, and optimizing water and energy use in the arid and semi-arid regions—exclusively in ways that are local, holistic and economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable.
Apart from giving a press conference, in-depth video interview, and two keynotes, Professor Yunus was guest of honor at the inaugural Raji and Fawzieh Sinno Promising Leader in Agriculture awards ceremony, one of several transformative initiatives instigated by Khaled Sinno, a successful food wholesaler and exporter, who sits on the FAFS External Advisory Board, and believes passionately in revitalizing the Lebanese agricultural sector through education, transfer of technology and private sector intervention. The R&FSPLA awards, in addition to 10 full scholarships funded by Mr. Sinno, have been introduced to prepare the next generation of leaders and change agents in agriculture to give the farming sector in Lebanon the technical and innovational edge it needs to be competitive with much larger countries and to address the interconnected challenges of energy, food, and water security upon which we all rely. The competition is open to grade 12 students from all Lebanese schools and contestants must submit projects highlighting the value of the agricultural sector, identify a problem it is facing, and propose an environmentally friendly solution to help small farmers with limited resources.
Hussein Abbas (above), of Khalil Jaradi High School, Maaraka, focused on bees and apiculture as a key element in national food production whose viability is threatened by seasonal variations in nectar availability. His presentation on the value of the year-round flowering eucalyptus plant as a solution scooped the generous $6,000 first prize. Congratulations to Hussein and all the finalists, and we wish them an impactful future role in our vital agricultural sector.
A new perspective on refugees
“Welcome to Lebanon!" is an expression you often hear in our country. Once a hallmark of pride and hospitality before the civil war and in the immediate post-civil war period, nowadays it tends to be reserved for other occasions—a power cut that throws your unexpecting guests into inky darkness or a traffic jam that seems to stretch from Byblos to Beirut. But in recent years Lebanon has welcomed (with varying degrees of hospitality, it must be admitted) the largest number of people displaced by war and military conflict per capita of population of any country in the world.
Although it defines legal status, I dislike the terms “refugee" and “displaced person," preferring instead one that implies an onus of hospitality and friendship—“guest." But we must remember, the heaviest burdens—for guest and host—are borne not by the wealthy and entitled, but by the most marginalized communities who possess the least share of our economic and political capital. Last week, I was in London to help launch an exciting new research project that aims to seek pathways to building a prosperous and inclusive future for communities affected by mass displacement. The RELIEF Center is a collaborative project between the Issam Fares Institute, the Faculty of Health Sciences, and the #AUB4Refugees initiative, and the Institute for Global Prosperity at University College London, and the Center for Lebanese Studies.
The center will foster research and learning focused on inclusive growth and prosperity—particularly in Lebanon, but also as part of a larger agenda for developing sustainable ways to improve the quality of life of people throughout the world. It seeks to create economic prosperity by engaging both the displaced citizens and their hosts in joint enterprises that create opportunities for all to prosper. It aims to uncover the means and mechanisms of turning the wealth of our economies into inclusive prosperity, whose benefits are shared more evenly across all social groups. The value of the RELIEF initiative is that it will operate not just at the level of governmental and non-governmental policy and intervention, but that it will also recruit as researchers the communities that these programs will impact.
I hope it will help revive that other side of “Welcome to Lebanon!"—the social generosity, the vibrancy and cohesion of our neighborhoods, the optimism of our youth, the freedom of thought and opinion, the tolerance towards the other, and the millions of daily acts of kindness and respect that lend our country and its capital city the timeless charisma and dignity that they exude.
Fadlo R. Khuri, MD