Disaster Governance and Aid Effectiveness: the Case of Lebanon’s 3RF

Sophie Bloemeke, Mona Harb - 07.11.2022
Following the Beirut Port Blast, the Reform, Recovery, and Reconstruction Framework "3RF" came to life. Sophie Bloemeke and Mona Harb examine three interconnected sets of structural constraints that limit the platform's performance. 
Two years after the Beirut Port blast destroyed one-third of Lebanon’s capital and killed more than 220 people, two of the main champions and designers of the aid architecture that now governs the recovery process left their positions in Lebanon to lead reform programs abroad.1 They leave behind a structure known to a few as the “3RF” – the Reform, Recovery, and Reconstruction Framework – albeit one that is largely invisible to the majority of Lebanon’s population. 

The 3RF is a platform established by the European Union (EU), the United Nations (UN) and the World Bank in 2020 as an institutional response to the Beirut Port explosion, which aims to provide “a framework of key actions to support the recovery and reconstruction of Beirut,” relying on “inclusive institutional arrangements” that bring together the government, international partners, the private sector, and civil society organizations (CSOs).2

Based on a mixed-methods study using primary data from 24 interviews, participant observation, and desk research,3 we conducted a study on how the 3RF has performed to date. We examined the 3RF’s effectiveness in terms of initiating reforms, institutional strengthening, and adaptability to the political context, focusing on the inclusion of CSOs, particularly at the Consultative Group level (which grouped selected CSOs) and at the sector coordination level (through working groups). The study makes two arguments. First, although it includes adaptive and effective institutional arrangements that may enable reforms, the 3RF is furthering civil society fragmentation. Second, international organizations’ incoherence and competition is consolidating the political status quo.  

In this article, we examine and describe three interconnected sets of structural constraints that limit the performance of the 3RF: (1) donors’ competing agendas and the platform’s institutional incoherence, (2) political stalemate and the Lebanese Government’s lack of political will, and (3) the insufficient involvement of CSOs in decision-making processes. Before expounding on these constraints, we offer an overview of the 3RF. 


The Lebanon 3RF follows a two-track approach. First, the people-centered track aims to address immediate recovery and urgent needs, particularly among the most vulnerable groups, and is funded by international grant financing conditional on light reforms. The second track, reform and reconstruction, is funded through concessional loans and private finance, and depends on implementing essential reforms and macroeconomic stabilization. For financing, the UN, EU, and World Bank established a multi-trust fund, the Lebanese Financing Facility (LFF). As a mechanism for pooled grant funding, the LFF aims to strengthen the coherence and coordination of financing to address short- and medium-term recovery, reforms, and reconstruction priorities. 

The 3RF is based on the 2008 Joint Declaration on Post-Crisis Assessments and Recovery Planning, which establishes the foundation for cooperation between the EU, UN, and the World Bank in assessing and planning recovery, reconstruction, and development in crises-affected countries. This tripartite agreement is typically put in practice based on a rapid damage and needs assessment (RDNA) in countries recovering from disasters or a recovery and peacebuilding assessment for countries recovering from crises related to conflict or fragility.

The establishment of the Lebanon 3RF was based on the RDNA conducted between August 5 and August 31, 2020. The 3RF primarily addresses reconstruction and recovery at the scale of Beirut, but some reforms scale up to the national level. 3RF priorities for each sector are structured around four strategic pillars: (i) governance and accountability; (ii) economic opportunities and job creation; (iii) services and infrastructure (namely: housing and urban services, and the rebuilding of the port); and (iv) social protection, inclusion, and culture. 

The 3RF institutional structure comprises four units: a technical team and secretariat; a consultative group, including representatives of the government, international donors, NGOs/CSOs, and the private sector; an independent oversight body led by civil society; and a steering committee, also known as a partnership council, which simultaneously serves as the governing body of the LFF to ensure that financing aligns with the 3RF's prioritization. In addition to those four institutional bodies, the 3RF document mentions the establishment of working groups at the sector level. 

Impediments to Aid Effectiveness

(1) Aid Incoherence
The 3RF thematical and geographical mandate lacks clarity in terms of scope, which likely impedes its effectiveness. Indeed, the scope of the 3RF in relation to other coordination mechanisms like the Lebanese Crisis Response Plan (LCRP) and the Lebanon Emergency Response Plan (ERP) is unclear and therefore likely to dilute the 3RF and create parallel structures instead of leveraging existing coordination. Furthermore, coordination between the principal organizations in the 3RF and at the sector scale is complicated due to a lack of common terminology and other internal institutional matters. Even unintentionally, the international community’s actions produce inertia on account of their different institutional logics, which are accountable to different agendas. Additionally, the 3RF lacks a unified mechanism for monitoring and progress reporting, which undermines accountability to commitments, while feedback mechanisms like the citizen engagement platform and grievance mechanisms are insufficiently addressed or not yet implemented. Accordingly, these incoherent modalities are detrimental to the effective implementation of the 3RF in terms of both projects and reforms.

(2) The Strategy of Political Stalemate
The 3RF also features sector working groups, which are supposed to bring together CSOs, donors, and representatives from sector ministries to avert the sidelining of the state and to prevent public institutions from easily shirking their responsibilities. In theory, sector working groups should operate as flexible units, which aim to leverage existing coordination mechanisms and to enhance effectiveness. However, one year after its introduction, sector coordination has not gained traction and is constantly renegotiated by stakeholders. Three challenges can be noted in this regard. First, the coordination between principal organizations as leads and co-leads lacks clear role definition and is further complicated by internal institutional matters such as different agendas and modalities of work, as well as the lack of common terminology and progress reporting. Second, CSOs lack information about the existence and composition of sector working groups and the process of joining or liaising with them. Third, when they do, sector working groups often include public servants and/or representatives from the government who do not have sufficient decision-making power and are thus disengaged. 

Even though the principal organizations who conceived the 3RF did consider Lebanon’s political context, the institutional architecture they constructed did not sufficiently take into account existing institutional bottlenecks and the lingering political stalemate that structurally impede reform. Thus, 3RF’s initiatives for institutional strengthening (such as the set-up of sector coordination and other institutional bodies like the Central Management Unit at the national level and the Planning and Coordination Unit at the municipal level4) are being conceived of in ways that can easily be co-opted or undermined by the government and public agents, which could then result in perpetuating political stalemate and the sectarian political system. Hence, this could be another case in which aid is facilitating the survival of the political sectarian elite. 

(3) CSOs on the Bench
The Consultative Group is an innovative institutional setup which brings together selected CSOs and provides them with a platform on which donors and the government can hear their demands. This is particularly relevant in the absence of a coordination mechanism between the government and civil society. Indeed, the 3RF provides CSOs with high-level representation in the Consultative Group, in the Independent Oversight Body5, and in implementation of commitments and projects at the sector-level. However, in practice, the 3RF provides insufficient modalities for CSOs to work collectively in coherent and effective ways.

The 3RF adopted an unclear selection process for CSOs in the Consultative Group, which favors CSOs with distinct positionalities in relation to reforms and project implementation and did not specify the rotational system among selected CSOs. Moreover, there are no adequate mechanisms for decision-making processes and for the effective organization of CSOs, which exacerbates the existing lack of coordination among CSOs and the capacity gap. Thus, the 3RF missed an opportunity to boost CSOs’ capacity for collective action on reforms, undermining prospects for incremental change.

Our study found that both internal and external factors6 constrain the effectiveness of CSOs to initiate reforms. The lack of clear governance structures and organizational provisions by the 3RF raises questions about participatory intent because these negatively affect decision-making process. By making CSOs responsible for their own coordination, and by stressing their agency in the 3RF as a partnership of equals, the international community disregards power structures that impede participative quality. The international community’s reasoning for not providing CSOs with clear structures is bottom-up empowerment. However, this assumes CSOs can self-organize, which is contrasted by the lack of capacity described by CSOs themselves and does not consider the capacity gap between CSOs and 3RF stakeholders. This capacity gap is also closely associated with the lack of information available to CSOs, which limits their effectiveness to initiate reforms and hold other 3RF stakeholders accountable. However, following the election of a new co-chair of CSOs in Spring 2022 for the second rotation in the Consultative Group, CSOs have taken new steps to better organize their collective efforts. The new co-chair established a coordination and communication committee, as well as a CSO council, referred to as al-Majlis, including 12 CSO representatives (six from the first rotation and six from the second) to enhance governance and decision-making modalities. The co-chair is also seeking grants to support the operation of these coordination units. 

These gaps and constraints are compounded by the disregard the government holds for the Consultative Group and CSOs. High-level Consultative Group meetings have become performative stages where CSOs speak for few minutes, after which principal organizations scold the government for not progressing on reforms. CSOs and the government do not engage in direct dialogue, with the latter’s delegates often appearing disinterested in CSOs’ concerns and demands. The prime minister barely listens to CSOs’ speeches and ministers are focused on defending their political party’s position.  

Good Promises, Many Pitfalls

As a case study, the 3RF shows how aid effectiveness is impeded not only by elite capture, but also by complex relations among donors that lead to incoherence in modalities and structures of intervention, in addition to the inability to effectively leverage the active engagement of CSOs. Indeed, to date, the implementation of reforms, institutional strengthening, and projects has been insufficient and delayed. In June 2022, according to the 3RF Secretariat’s Progress Report, 10% of Track 1 commitments and only 1% of Track 2 commitments were achieved; 68% of Track 1 and 58% of Track 2 are supposedly in progress, and 22% of Track 1 and 41% Track 2 are "on hold or delayed".

Three sets of challenges can be addressed for a more effective and accountable process.

• First, 3RF decision-makers must clarify CSOs’ roles if they want a more effective Consultative Group, perhaps by institutionalizing this role and making it more sustainable. Moreover, communication channels should be made more systematic to increase CSOs’ access to information regarding the 3RF.  

• Second, the 3RF Secretariat needs to be empowered to play a more active role in coordination and provide more resources and support to CSOs in the Consultative Group.  

• Third, 3RF decision-makers must push for the immediate establishment and staffing of sector working groups and provide them with a clear mandate of operations. This has the potential to enhance coordination across the four pillars and enable the initiation of sectoral reforms. The 3RF’s operations have been primarily focused on the production of a couple of projects and programs (Building Back Beirut Businesses Better, the “B5”;7  the Beirut Housing Reconstruction and Cultural and Creative Industries Recovery Project;8 and Beirut Critical Environment Recovery, Restoration and Waste Management Program9) at the expense of institutionalizing processes for reforms. In the same vein, to counter the political stalemate caused by delayed government formation, reforms with low institutional requirements (in other words: reforms that require low involvement of political actors from different parties and institutions) can be prioritized such as the establishment of institutions like a central management unit at the level of the government, and of a planning and coordination unit at the Beirut Governorate level, where CSOs would have more central decision-making roles.

In closing, the 3RF presents a noteworthy institutional model of aid architecture between the three major international organizations (the EU, UN, and World Bank) that typically lead the governance of disaster recovery, especially in its incorporation of CSOs in oversight and decision-making bodies. However, the blueprint of disaster recovery seems to have taken primacy, at the expense of the originality of the institutional experiment. Indeed, the challenges faced by country platforms elsewhere are experienced again within the Lebanese 3RF case: ineffective coordination between donors, organizational inertia, reproduction of political unsettlement, and weak institutionalization of reform processes. It very well seems the 3RF will be remembered as a noteworthy experiment in aid’s institutional architecture, which held good promise for effective and accountable reforms, but fell short due to several pitfalls.

This article was first published on The Policy Initiative's (TPI) website, as part of a project co-led with the Beirut Urban Lab and funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

1 Najat Rochdi (UNDP) has relocated to Syria; Saroj Kumar Jha (World Bank) is now based in Washington DC.

2 See 3RF’s FAQs, on this link.

3 The research was conducted between September 2021 and April 2022 as part of a larger project which assesses the governance modalities structuring the urban recovery response in the aftermath of the Beirut Port explosion on August 4, 2020, and the range of actors who mobilized to provide services and goods. The interviews were led by Sophie Bloemeke for her master thesis. The research project is conceived and managed by Dr. Mona Harb, research director at the Beirut Urban Lab and professor at the American University of Beirut, in partnership with Dr. Sami Atallah, from the The Policy Initiative. The research team includes Sophie Bloemeke, Hussein Cheaito, Luna Dayekh, and Sami Zoughaib.

4 Requested by the 3RF’s Consultative Group and endorsed by principal organizations, the Central Management Unit (CMU) in the government would enhance aid coordination and 3RF commitments between multiple stakeholders like ministries, public agencies, local governments, CSOs, and donors. The Prime Minister’s Office started by responding positively and issued a decree in March 2021 establishing a “joint consultative committee.” However, when reviewed by members of the 3RF’s Consultative Group, the committee’s terms of reference showed they were effectively diluting the role and functions of the CMU. The Prime Minister’s office did not respond to the Consultative Group’s review and did not follow-up on the committee, which only exists on paper, namely serving to pay lip service to aid coordination.
Another example is the Planning and Coordination Unit (PCU), requested by the Consultative Group to initiate a people-centered urban recovery strategy. At the time of writing, the PCU had been reconceived as a loose extension of the Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) serving one of the 3RF’s projects (Housing and Culture). CSOs in the Consultative Group are still lobbying for an autonomous PCU but principal organizations are not keen on endorsing this recommendation.
The CMU and the PCU illustrate how both the government and the international community prefer sticking to the relatively easy-wins that come with project-making, rather than laboring with processes of institution-building that would initiate the reshuffling of existing power structures.   

5 The civil-society-led Independent Oversight Board monitors the 3RF and is supposed to ensure transparency and accountability, e.g., by providing broad oversight on 3RF implementation and holding 3RF stakeholders accountable for the progress of the 3RF. The IOB’s main functions include assessing the implementation of guiding principles of the 3RF (inclusion, leaving no one behind, etc.), monitoring the implementation of the 3RF (following up on policy recommendations by the CG), reporting on the 3RF, and promoting citizen engagement in the 3RF. The IOB consists of six CSOs. At the time of this study, the IOB was not yet fully operational and therefore is not addressed in this analysis. Future research is needed to assess the IOB and to complement the analysis of the CSOs’ role as watchdogs over the 3RF implementation.

6 We define internal determinants as factors that fall under the purview of CSOs or, in other words, relate to their agency and abilities to reconfigure governance structures. In contrast, we refer to external determinants of effectiveness as factors beyond the scope of CSOs’ agency.

7 For more information on the B5 Fund, check here and here.

8 For more information on the Beirut Housing and Cultural and Creative Industries Recovery Project, check here and here.

9 For more information on the Beirut Critical Environment  Recovery, Restoration and Waste Management Program, check here.