MIT Lebanon Challenge seeks solutions to country’s crises

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

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 envoy calls for greater sense of urgency in Syrian peace efforts

UN envoy calls for greater sense of urgency in Syrian peace efforts
Updated 23 January 2021

UN envoy calls for greater sense of urgency in Syrian peace efforts

UN envoy calls for greater sense of urgency in Syrian peace efforts
  • Geir Pederson wants enhanced international diplomacy, and tighter focus on progress in drafting new constitution
  • The fifth session of the Small Body of the Syrian Constitutional Committee begins in Geneva on Monday

NEW YORK: Geir Pedersen, the UN’s special envoy for Syria, on Friday called for “more serious and cooperative” international diplomacy as part of political efforts to improve the lives of the Syrian people and develop a vision for the future of their country.

Speaking ahead of the fifth session of the Small Body of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, which begins on Monday in Geneva, he also urged committee members to focus their efforts and work more effectively to speed up progress on constitutional reform.

Pedersen expressed hope that much-needed international engagement with the peace process is now possible.

“After all, despite the differences, key states are continuing to reaffirm their commitment to Resolution 2254,” he added, referring to the UN Security Council resolution, adopted in 2015, that calls for a ceasefire and political settlement in Syria.

Pedersen, who briefed the Security Council this week on the latest developments, highlighted the fact that five foreign armies are active in Syria and “violations of Syrian sovereignty and territorial integrity (have been) going on for years.”

Although the ceasefire agreement reached by Russia and Turkey in the northwest of the country resulted in a de-escalation of hostilities, Pedersen warned that this relative calm remains fragile.

UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File) 

“All of these issues cannot be sorted out by the Syrians alone,” he said. (They) need an international cooperation (and) a real exchange of views (among all parties).

“If that political will is lacking it would be very, very difficult to move this process forward ... if you leave this to the UN alone, we will not be able to succeed.”

Top on the agenda on Monday will be discussion of the basic principles of the Syrian constitution. Pedersen said he has been meeting with the two co-chairs of the committee on a regular basis, and has also had intensive discussions with the “Middle Third” civil-society group, which includes society activists and experts and other independents from inside and outside of Syria.

His experiences during the past year, he said, lead him to believe there is potential for finding common ground. No single actor or group of actors can impose its will on Syria or settle the conflict alone — they must work together, he added.

The time has now come for the co-chairs of the Constitutional Committee to organize and focus its efforts by establishing “more effective and operational working methods,” Pedersen said, so that they can begin to move forward from preparing constitutional reforms to actually drafting them, and agreeing on clear agendas and discussion topics for future meetings.

“There needs to be more urgency (in) delivering progress in this process,” he added.

As he saluted the work of civil society groups and “all the Syrians who do what they can to improve the situation on the ground and support a political process,” Pedersen singled out women in particular for praise. He has been particularly proactive in seeking input from the Women’s Advisory Board.

“It is a priority for all of us to make sure that we have full participation of Syrian women in the political process,” he said. “(Promoting) their core constitutional rights is central for me, as the facilitator of the work of the Constitutional Committee.”

Asked about plans for large-scale prisoner swaps, Pedersen said that although this is not on the agenda for the talks in Geneva this week, it is always part of his own agenda. The disappointment over the lack of progress on the issue so far means “that we should work even harder” on it, he added.

“This is a file that really has an impact on nearly every Syrian family, and it needs to be addressed,” he said. “(I) have appealed (for) more information on the missing. (We) need to see the early release of women, children, the elderly and the sick, and I think (nothing) should stop that from happening.”

The members of the Small Body of the Syrian Constitutional Committee are due to arrive in Geneva on Saturday, and Pedersen will consult with the co-chairs over the weekend before the main talks begin on Monday.

Asked whether he expects this latest round of negotiations to be a success for the UN, Pedersen said: “I really do not think this is the question; the question (is) whether it is a success for the Syrian people and (their) aspirations.

“My hope has been that the Constitutional Committee, if it is handled in the correct manner, could start to build trust and (be) a door-opener for a broader political process.

“But the (committee) cannot work in isolation ... we need political will from the different parties to be able to move forward.”

He added: “The (committee) is just one aspect, and it is not the one aspect that will solve the Syrian crisis. If we are to see changes in the situation on the ground, there are other factors that need to be discussed.”