Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Civil Society Strikeout

Last week I wrote a bit about youth sports programs used for peacebuilding purposes. I used the organization Ultimate Peace as an example of how these programs can overcome the sectarian nature of sports in Lebanon by introducing a sport no one has ever heard of.

I am sectarian - I worship at the altar of Baseball. (Ha ha.) A natural evolution in my thinking about using sports as a peacebuilder is going from ultimate frisbee to the sport I have devoted so much of my life. I thought, here's a sport that is growing in popularity across the globe, why not bring it to Lebanon? It might be fun for Lebanese kids to learn how to play such a strange sport. I could contact my favorite team, the Cincinnati Reds, to come help out

Then I thought, why not develop an exchange program where American kids come over and help Lebanese kids of all sects learn how to play the game that is so woven into the fabric of America that it might actually help patch up tensions between East-West? We could get the Lebanon Baseball and Softball Association to help out - Lebanon, Ohio, that is, just a short jaunt up the highway from Cincinnati.

Baseball in America is much more than a sport. Baseball was instrumental to the Civil Rights Movement. Jackie Robinson became the first black player to break the color barrier in 1947, a decade before the Civil Rights Movement was born. Baseball players in the fifties, sixties, and seventies were not just ballplayers, they were an integral part of turning the page from a deplorable chapter of American history. Today, baseball is lifting Latin Americans out of poverty (though not without controversy.)

Then the pragmatist side of my bipolar idealism/pragmatism personality came out. This would never work. You'd never be able to convince American parents to send their kids for a week to Lebanon. First of all, well there's that whole Marine barracks memory scarred upon every American's brain, the scar that would heal if only cable news wasn't ripping it open with manipulated facts and "War on Terror" impressionism. The truth is, many of us thirty-somethings grew up associating the word "Beirut" with bullets. Hey, we're all products of the environment in which we grew up. Some of us, however, are able to shake stereotypes and false ideas.

Even if we could get past the Marine barracks thing, there's that whole other issue of Hizbollah, not a great friend of the State Department, you know, given that the group is on the US terrorist list. Restrictions on NGOs are so tight that if your brother's friend's neighbor's dog's cousin knows someone in Hizbollah, you probably aren't going to get a grant. (Yes, that is hyperbole.)

I guess it's probably good parenting to not let your kid travel to a country with a State Department warning to not travel there and where embassy officials live in a fortress.

All of this longwindedness is leading up to the whole point of this post. It is darn hard to work with civil society in Lebanon. You could have brilliant ideas but you aren't allowed or able to execute them - Lebanese civil society organizations face this all the time. They have great ideas that are shot down for complications or simply because we just can't legally do them according to laws in donor countries. By no means am I saying this is wrong; I'm just pointing out a major complication in the work of civil society organizations. Go out and give 'em a hug!

But maybe trying to build peace by using a sport whose main piece of equipment is a bat could be troublesome...

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