In October 2014, the Observatoire National de la Realite Socio Economique (OURSE), a research center affiliated with the Universite Saint Joseph (USJ), presented the findings of their latest study into remittances by emigrants and their impact on, and contribution to, living conditions in Lebanon. The study was undertaken and led by Professor Choghig Kasparian.
Article by: Rana Hanna
HOME Magazine sat down with Professor Kasparian in her office at USJ to understand a little better the significance of this study and what it means to Lebanese society as a whole.
Why did you undertake this study?
This study was a natural progression from a prior three-part study we had done on a national level concerning the demographics of the young population in Lebanon aged 18–35 years. The first volume deals with population demographics, the second with employment and the third with emigration. It is really hard to study the Lebanese population and not take into account emigration. That initial study was completed in 2001 and published a few years later.
We interviewed 18,000 households and by the time we had completed the study, we had information on over 20,000 emigrants who had left Lebanon between 1975 and 2001 – what we call the “new emigrants.”
The study was very detailed; we looked at where the emigrants are, what they do, when they went, their level of education, their profession, whether they intend to return, if they own property in their adoptive country, if they own property in Lebanon, etc. Detailed questions allowed us to depict the new emigrants only to a certain extent, since the information we obtained was from their families and not them directly. A natural question in this questionnaire is about remittances; we went on to study the importance and effect of these remittances from abroad, whether in the form of money or gifts to these Lebanese families.
Have you made any follow-up studies on the subject?
A study like this needs tremendous resources, in terms of manpower, finances and time. Even for this particular study, we did not go back to all the families we interviewed, but chose 2,000 families across Lebanon, half of whom receive remittances and half who don’t, and compared them.
What did you find?
Well, we found many important facts and anyone interested should really consult the study, which can be procured from our offices at the university. The main points we discovered were that most of the remittances are used for education, for health services such as the purchase of insurance cover, and to help with daily life, such as food and clothing and paying the bills. We also discovered that households with older people tend to receive more remittances than households with younger people.
For example, a quarter of the people in households receiving remittances were aged 60 years or over (against 14.6% of people in houses not receiving remittances). Also, remittances were higher in households with fewer children. There are fewer children aged 15 years or under in households with remittances (14.2%) than in households without remittances (19.1%).
“The country is simply too small to absorb us all. What is essential, in my opinion, is that we get to keep our ties with our people.”
What is the importance of this study?
It is of utmost importance from a sociological and even an economic point of view. Firstly, it helps put matters into perspective. For example, the current thought was that two million people left the country during the war years, almost half the population. But our study showed that between 640,000 and 960,000 left, and that includes our wide margin of error. That is noticeably less than the perceived number. Secondly, it has allowed us to put a real value on remittances as they affect the population because we did not get our data from the banks but from the people and households directly affected by them. We also painted a relatively detailed picture of the emigrant: male university graduates send more remittances than their female counterparts (66% and 50.5% respectively). This difference becomes more pronounced if we look at the regularity and frequency of remittances (36.4% versus 17.8%). Emigrants to Africa also send more per year (about $9,000) than emigrants to Europe and the United States (about $4,300). There are also many other aspects that we cannot cover here in their entirety but that are covered in detail in the document.
How important would you say these remittances are?
It really depends a lot on the household. For some it is a necessity, for others it is a supplement to help with leisure activities. But note that we did not only look at the monetary aspect of remittances but also what are considered as gifts: televisions, phones, appliances, toys, even land.
Did you encounter any resistance from people or did you face any cultural challenges?
Yes, of course, because for many people it is taboo to talk about money or spending habits, so we do try to break down the questions to their minutiae so that it renders them more technical—for example, when it comes to expenses and revenues, we would even ask about the currency used—but the fact that we are a university and not an official organization, it makes it easier for people to talk. But these issues are delicate and difficult and we take that into consideration when we are formulating our questions.
Do you worry about replacing stories with data? About erasing people and turning them into numbers?
Of course we do, after all we are sociologists. We are interested in society and the people who make up this society. There is naturally a danger of losing sight of subjects through statistics, of turning people into numbers, data. But statistics are a tool, they help orient us in these social studies. We cannot do these studies without these numbers to guide us. But that is why, when we interview people, we ask quantitative as well as qualitative questions. When we are gathering data, we also collect stories about our interviewees, that we may not always publish but that we keep for our records.
Do you get personally affected by these studies?
Not sentimentally. But I am affected by the reality of the situations they show. We do ask our researchers to note any extraneous elements to the interview— how people react to the questions, their level of comfort or discomfort, any difficulties in talking—and we make sure we note these things, to give the questionnaire a human face. We do not necessarily use this information but as a sociologist I am very interested in it and it allows me to evaluate better the results of our research. These elements tell us a lot about the people we are interviewing.
What is in the future for OURSE and for emigration?
Right now we are working on data about graduates of USJ and their future choices. And, naturally, emigration plays a big role in this study as well.
It is difficult to separate Lebanon and emigration. It has always been part and parcel of our identity and it always will be, the country is simply too small to absorb us all. What is essential, in my opinion, is that we get to keep our ties with our people.
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