Democracies around the world are suffering not only a public health crisis but also a governance crisis that has hindered the delivery of services and undermined social solidarity in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. More than ever, citizens need governments to restore trust in institutions by acting quickly to address public concerns.
In Lebanon, NDI is focused on maintaining policy dialogues and debates between young people and public officials so that leaders will be able to make informed decisions in response to citizen needs. Even with a nationwide lockdown to limit the spread of the coronavirus, NDI has continued collaborating with the television station MTV-Lebanon for its weekly program Sar El Wa2et (It’s About Time), which features political leaders responding to questions not only from the host, Marcel Ghanem, but also from young people trained in policy analysis and debate skills by NDI.
As originally envisioned, Sar El Wa2et premiered in the fall of 2018 with a studio audience mostly composed of Lebanese youth who took turns participating in policy discussions with guests—including ministers, members of parliament, and party leaders. At the end of each episode, two teams of three youth would debate an issue raised during the program—the first live policy debates of their kind in Lebanon, which has not yet held formal political debates. During the show’s first season, NDI trained hundreds of youth with data-driven analysis and debate skills to prepare them to serve on the rosters of teams and ask questions from the audience.
Marcel Ghanem and MTV hope that by expanding debate culture in Lebanon and by proving that students can debate, they will pave the way for hosting Lebanon’s first debates between national political leaders before the next elections, currently scheduled for 2022. The show has achieved broad viewership and has resulted in viral moments on Lebanese social media. Some political leaders have remarked that they tune in specifically to watch the youth debate segment.
By the start of the show’s second season in the fall of 2019, NDI had helped Sar El Wa2et expand the debate segment and add criteria for awarding points so that the episodes could build toward a national debate tournament. NDI and MTV were also working to recruit and train 100 additional students to participate in the debates. However, those plans were interrupted first by nationwide protests that started in October in response to Lebanon’s economic crisis, and more recently by distancing measures enacted in March to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Nevertheless, NDI and MTV have adapted the program and trainings to continue with virtual participation by Lebanese youth. Rather than asking questions live from the studio audience, they can submit short videos, and the debate participants have opportunities to ask questions live before competing in the debate segment via a video conferencing platform. The March 26 episode hosted the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expats, Nassif Hitti, who responded to videos not only from the young debaters, but also from Lebanese ex-pats around the world asking questions about how and when they could return home amidst the pandemic. The April 2 episode featured the Minister of Education, Tarek El Majzoub, who responded to concerns about how schools and universities have been affected by the crisis.
NDI and MTV are also hosting virtual forums with policy experts to prepare the young debaters for future episodes by providing them with credible sources and databases to support their arguments and enhance their policy knowledge. The Gherbal Initiative assisted with a recent training by sharing tools for using Lebanon’s Access to Information Law, and another training featured a legal expert who detailed the government’s challenges in establishing a National Anti-Corruption Commission.
As in all countries grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, citizens are looking for effective governance not only in direct response to the virus, but in response to other economic and political challenges, and leaders are trying to respond to citizen needs in order to uphold faith in democratic institutions. Yet the spread of viral misinformation can sow distrust in ways that could cause political and economic instability, and even the virus itself, to spread further. That is why it is important for citizens, including young people with eyes toward the future, to continue engaging government officials in fact-based policy discussions during this crisis and beyond.
Sar El Wa2et airs on Thursdays at 9:30pm local time on MTV-Lebanon.
NDI’s programming in Lebanon is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy.