Can I really make a difference? The people of Lebanon have an answer

Do small actions add up to big change? Does what I do really make a difference? These are questions facing people over the world many times a day.

The people of Lebanon have an answer for you. For some of them, it started at an ATM in a bank lobby in Beirut, the capital city, in August 2019.

Customers came in to get cash for the day. They had to go shopping for food, buy a birthday present, or pay for whatever else is on their list.

Problem was, the maximum withdrawal was $4. Captured on hidden cameras in the bank lobby, people looked perplexed. “That can’t be right,” they thought. They tried again. Still $4. They tried another machine, and yet again the limit was $4.

One by one, customers called over a bank employee, who informed them that, yes, the withdrawal limit for the day was indeed $4. Could they manage on that amount just for today? No? Well, please think about the more than one in four people in Lebanon who have no choice but to live on that little—or less—per day. The poverty rate in the country is a staggering thirty per cent.  

A video of the episode produced by the UN in Lebanon went viral on social media, getting 15,000 views in two hours, eventually reaching a hundred times that many, and earning mentions in some of country’s top media outlets.

That was a provocative peak in #TakeAStep, an ongoing campaign of all 26 United Nations agencies, funds and programmes in Lebanon to mobilize the country to take action on ending poverty, achieving peace, and fulfilling the rest of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

A few of the many steps

“This campaign was a wake-up call that we need to work collectively for the good of the people,” says Abeer Obeid, a young Lebanese woman who took part. Abeer’s big cause is education. “I began reaching kids in rural areas of Lebanon whenever there was a need,” she reports. “Then I started raising funds and buying books and set up a library in a rural village.”

As happens with so many people who start with a small action, Abeer got more involved as time went on. “I worked on helping less fortunate children get the quality education they deserve. I developed a curriculum that targets Syrian refugees,” she says. “Every child has the right to learn.”

Obeid and many thousands of others heard about the campaign through social media, traditional media, and other channels that participating UN agencies used during the campaign. People nationwide were encouraged to tag #TakeAStep when posting on social media about action they’d taken or would commit to taking.

Malak Al-Terkawi’s first step was…not a great success. After doing some cursory research online, she created the prototype of a reusable cotton bag, which she hoped to turn into a brand and sell. “It was ugly,” admits Malak, a 19-year-old Syrian national who moved to Lebanon in 2018.

Fortunately, Malak is a not the kind to give up easily. “I realized that the most important phase in any project is research,” she says. So she went back to the drawing board. What drove her to continue was her passion for life under water, and the countless marine animals that die from plastic contamination every day. She hoped that when people used and reused her cotton bag for their errands, it would help spare some animals the fate we so often see in news images.

Eighteen prototypes later, and Malak finally had what she called a “Brio Bag,” which she started marketing. Looking back on her efforts, Malak says she learned that “The only way to finish is to get started, to develop your skills, get to work, and learn more.”

Education. Marine life. Those are just two of the issues that #TakeAStep participants addressed in their efforts.  Others reported on social media about their work in health, hunger, and poverty.

Over the course of the campaign so far, #TakeAStep recorded a total of 13.6 million impressions and people have engaged about 3 million times online. Close to 3,000 people joined the UN Lebanon on their website and hundreds took real-life action that touched many thousands of lives.

Those are big numbers in a country of 6 million people.

So, does it really matter if I teach some refugees? Will it actually help if I use a cloth bag to carry my groceries in? I’m just one person, do I really make a difference?

The people of Lebanon have answered: Yes, yes, and yes.

“The old proverb says, ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,’” says Margo Helou, director of the United Nations Information Centre in Beirut and chair of the UN Communications Group in Lebanon. “The people of Lebanon have logged a lot of steps on the way to the SDGs.”