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Synaps Seeks to Be a Lab for Ideas in Beirut

BEIRUT—Peter Harling, the founder of Synaps, is much more comfortable saying what his new institution based here is not: not a research center, not a think tank, not a consultancy or publication platform.

Or rather, since it’s up to me to define Synaps for the purpose of this article, it’s a little bit of all those things.

Synaps’s free published work includes three main elements: fieldwork that is often informed by the lived experience of the author; analysis and data processing; and a pleasurable, well-crafted read. The essays and reports it publishes aim to create a “dialogue between data science and social science,” says Harling.

For a decade before starting Synaps, Harling worked with International Crisis Group, an organization dedicated to research, advocacy and conflict prevention. At ICG, he was project director for Iraq, Lebanon and Syria and senior adviser for the Middle East and North Africa.

Synaps seems to have been born both out of his deep engagement with the Middle East and his frustration with traditional models of knowledge production in and around the region.

There is no viable economic model, Harling argues, for independent, locally based, innovative, high-quality analysis. His new venture, started in June 2016, is a hybrid.

Clients and partners—including philanthropies, development agencies and companies—hire Synaps to “do work that pays the bills, which is totally invisible and exclusive,” Harling says. Alonside this work, Synaps’s research fellows—young analysts from the region—also do work that’s distributed free.

Asked about possible conflicts of interest in this model, Harling says the organization’s research fellows are dedicated to producing frank and forward-looking assessments. Synaps’s clients and partners respect this, he says; many “pay us to tell them what they don’t want to hear.”

Focus on the Economy

One major focus of the organization is “looking at the economy in ways that are relevant to ordinary people,” Harling adds. “It is the most important topic in Lebanon, but one people don’t know how to talk about.”

He laments the fact that one can “easily raise money for ill-defined concepts like ‘preventing violent extremism’”—in fact, Synaps recently published an essay criticizing the vagueness of most initiatives focused on the “hard truths of soft counterterrorism”—but there is little investigation of “the notion that the [Lebanese] economy is on the verge of crisis that could have knock-on effects.”

Partly to address this lacuna, Synaps is publishing a series on the sources of resilience and dysfunction in the Lebanese economy. In one entry, “The Contortionist Middle Class,” Rosalie Berthier uses case studies to illustrate how middle-class families finance their lifestyle, and the extent to which they are “stretched dangerously thin.”

Meanwhile, in “Diaries of a Garbage Bag” (available in English or Arabic versions), Ranine Awwad, a Synaps fellow, gives an in-depth analysis of garbage politics and economics in Lebanon, of the environmental impact of untreated garbage and polluted water, and of the denial and corruption surrounding the issue.

Awwad argues that “Lebanon’s waste tells the story of a dense, consumerist society that has failed, for decades, to set up a functioning waste management system, as authorities dither from temporary fixes to partial solutions, from emergency schemes to unimplemented master plans.”

Other pieces published by Synaps describe how young Lebanese are drawn into the ranks of Hezbollah; how changes in “light signatures” or yearly rainfalls can help explain the Syrian civil war and its effects; what is holding back the economic development of the Lebanese city of Tripoli; and the complicated, traumatic aftermath of Islamic State rule in newly liberated towns in Iraq.

Mentoring Young Researchers

“My two criteria for hiring,” says Harling, “are a demonstrable eagerness to learn and an ability to communicate problems.” These qualities are more important than diplomas or languages, he says.

In his experience, many young researchers find it difficult and destabilizing to realize how much they still have to learn on the job. “The educational system needs to be re-wired, and small experiments like Synaps can help,” he says.

“We turn every problem we face into material for the mentoring platform,” says Harling. This platform contains excellent essays on methodological questions: how to conduct fieldwork, how to interview, how to structure one’s writing, how to edit. These are made available in the hope that they will circulate widely online. (I have used them myself in writing workshops.)

“Often what we’re sharing is based on what we’ve done wrong,” says Harling. This self-reflective approach is part of Synaps’s vision of itself as a “laboratory for another form of knowledge production, distribution and consumption.”

The questions Synaps is asking itself—about how to cut across the noise of social media, how to build a sustainable economic model for knowledge production—are also of interest to many other independent organizations in the Middle East. This was the focus of a “brainstorming” meeting between half a dozen online publications and platforms in Beirut in the fall of 2017.

“The various industries involved in producing knowledge are in crisis,” says Harling. “I think we need to be focused on synergies; do swaps and host folks from other institutions; be creative.”

He wants Synaps to be seen as “an institution that adds value to its environment rather than a competitor carving out a slice of the market.”


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