MIT Lebanon Challenge seeks solutions to country’s crises

A view shows the skyline of the Lebanese capital Beirut at dusk on June 17, 2020. (File/AFP)
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Updated 21 June 2020

MIT Lebanon Challenge seeks solutions to country’s crises

  • Global initiative seeks to gather diaspora, locals from various backgrounds, specialties

When Jad Ojjeh started his MBA at the Sloan School of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) two years ago, he never expected to find himself leading an initiative to try and find ways to save his home country Lebanon from collapse.

Today, he and a team of compatriots and colleagues from all over the world have organized the MIT Lebanon Challenge, an event that brings together Lebanese from different backgrounds and specialties to focus on finding solutions to the country’s biggest problems.

“There are thousands of Lebanese abroad who are skilled, have time and resources, and who want to help, but they don’t know how to. There’s no single place where they can all get together and help,” Ojjeh, 27, told Arab News.

“Another side is that there are a lot of Lebanese in Lebanon who are skilled, who have time, but don’t have the resources to put something together and who haven’t done it before and need a little bit of help,” he said.

“So the problem really was how to get the diaspora to collaborate with each other and with the locals to set up businesses for themselves.”

The past year has proved to be catastrophic for Lebanon, which is in the midst of an economic crisis.

While the country has fared better than others in the region in tackling the coronavirus outbreak, the enforced lockdown and curfew have taken a significant toll on the economy.

The MIT Lebanon Challenge aims to split 600 applicants, 20-30 percent of whom are from the diaspora, into groups of seven that try to find solutions to problems arising from one of three main tracks: Basic needs, the industrial economy and the knowledge economy.

Teams will have access to expert mentors and a repository of resources throughout the event to “set them up for success,” Ojjeh said. These include more than 30 how-to guides on such things as pitching and using Zoom.

“We’re making an additional effort to reach the northern and southern areas (of Lebanon), where a lot of these problems exist. The issue of agriculture isn’t prevalent in Beirut, for example. We can’t work on agriculture solutions without involving the communities that are going to be implementing them,” Ojjeh said.

“At the same time, issues of food, shelter and water exist in Beirut and a lot of other communities, so they have intimate knowledge of what’s happening on the ground, what it takes to implement the project … We need them to be part of the solution,” he added.

“We want more non-business, non-engineering, lawyers, artists, designers. It’s all about bringing this different perspective to the table and looking at the problem from a different angle. If we continue looking at it from the same angle, we’re going to end up in the same place we started.”

The MIT Lebanon Challenge is set to kick off on June 26 and run for 48 hours. The teams will present to a panel of judges whose expertise is in the field for which they are finding a solution.

Proposals that make the cut will be given support from the MIT Lebanon Challenge organizers and partners.

Ojjeh said the focus will be on solutions that the teams can implement themselves rather than rely on heavy public sector intervention.

“This is an apolitical, non-sectarian, independent event working toward a better Lebanon for everyone in Lebanon,” he added.


UN fails to find consensus after Russia, China veto on Syrian aid

A woman talks with a soldier of the Syrian army during distribution of humanitarian aid from the Russian military, in the town of Rastan, Syria. (AP)
Updated 6 min 5 sec ago

UN fails to find consensus after Russia, China veto on Syrian aid

  • Russia and China argue that the UN authorization violates Syria’s sovereignty, and that aid can increasingly be channeled through Syrian authorities

NEW YORK: The UN Security Council failed to find a consensus on prolonging cross-border humanitarian aid to Syria on Friday after Russia and China vetoed an extension and members rejected a counter proposal by Moscow.
Without an agreement, authorization for the transport of aid to war-torn Syria, which has existed since 2014, expired Friday night.
Germany and Belgium were working on a final initiative to save the effort, with hopes of bringing it to a vote this weekend.
“We are ready to work round the clock, and call on others to think of the millions of people in Syria waiting for the Security Council to decide their fate,” said German Ambassador Christoph Heusgen, who holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council this month.
After Moscow and Beijing wielded vetoes for a second time this week, only three countries joined Russia in backing its proposal to cut the number of aid transit points from two to one.
China supported Russia, but seven countries including the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Belgium voted against, with four abstentions.
An attempt by Russia to pass a similar resolution also failed earlier this week.
The NGO Oxfam had warned that stopping cross-border aid would be “a devastating blow to the millions of Syrian families who rely on this aid for clean water, food, health care and shelter.”
Thirteen countries voted in favor of an earlier German-Belgian draft, but Moscow and Beijing opposed the extension because they favor a more limited proposal.
European countries and the US want to maintain two crossing points on the Turkish border — at Bab Al-Salam, which leads to the Aleppo region, and Bab Al-Hawa, which serves the Idlib region.
The UN authorization allows the body to distribute aid to displaced Syrians without needing permission from Damascus.
Russia and China argue that the UN authorization violates Syria’s sovereignty, and that aid can increasingly be channeled through Syrian authorities.
The latest proposal by Russia, which claims to want continued aid for the insurgent Idlib region, would have kept only the Bab Al-Hawa access point open, and for one year.
Moscow claims that more than 85 percent of current aid goes through Bab Al-Hawa and that the Bab Al-Salam entry point can therefore be closed.
Western countries oppose it, with the US having described two entry points as “a red line.”
In January, Moscow, Syria’s closest ally, succeeded in having the crossing points reduced from four to two and in limiting the authorization to six months instead of a year.
According to Washington’s ambassador to the UN, Kelly Craft, keeping only one border crossing open would cut off 1.3 million people living north of Aleppo from humanitarian aid.
Another diplomat noted that “if the authorization is renewed a few days late, it is not the absolute end of the world. It suspends the convoys for a few days, it does not put them in danger.”
For the UN, keeping as many entry points open as possible is crucial, particularly given the risk of the coronavirus pandemic, which is spreading in the region.
In a report in June, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for a one-year extension of the aid to include the two current access points.
When asked Thursday if the UN would be satisfied with a single entry point into Syria, body spokesman Stephane Dujarric said: “We need more aid to go through the border. We do not need less to go through.”
David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, called it a “dark day” for Syrian civilians and the UN.
He added it “defies logic or humanity to dismantle a system designed to bring life-saving aid to Syrians in the form of food, health supplies, vaccines, and now critical COVID-19 provisions.”