• Norhan Alshihabi

Woujouh: Samer Hajjar

Pioneering Policy Work in Tripoli

TIPS Co-Founder: Professor Samer Hajjar

Background: Professor Samer El Hajjar is the co-founder of the Tripoli Institute for Policy Studies. He received his Bachelors of Business Administration from the Lebanese University, his Master in Marketing from the University of Rennes, and went on to obtain a Ph.D. in Marketing from the University of Strasbourg where he specializes in business innovation and economics. Currently, Dr.Hajjar is a senior lecturer in Marketing at the National University of Singapore.

What is TIPS: Founded in September 2021, the Tripoli Institute for Policy Studies is the first think tank and research center in Tripoli, Lebanon. The goals of TIPS are to propose solutions to critical economic, social, and political issues and mediate between researchers and decision-makers. Additionally, the institute engages in activities such as framing policy issues, researching and writing books, articles, policy briefs, and monographs, conducting evaluations of government programs; disseminating their research findings, and conducting various outreach activities (advocacy campaigns, media appearances, and speeches); creating networks and exchanges via workshops, seminars, and briefings. If utilized with purpose, this institute will be groundbreaking for the future of the city. 

-The goal of the brief interview is to introduce Dr. Hajjar and highlight the importance of TIPS. A shoutout to Lynn Ayoub (Former Research coordinator at TIPS) for making this interview possible!

Norhan: Before we start I want to thank you for the interview. I firmly believe that formulating equitable policies for the city will ensure stability and prosperity and the presence of this institute during economic, political, and social instability will be an important tool for stakeholders in Tripoli

Dr. Samer El Hajjar: Of course. Thank you for being here. 

Norhan: What are your thoughts on Tripoli and a general idea of why Tripoli is the way it is today. 

Dr. Samer El Hajjar: To start, I would say that a challenge that is facing Tripoli is a lack of vision and leadership and plan. We need people who can strategize for the city in terms of political, social, and educational sectors, etc. The main problem that we have is identity not only a political identity but also in terms of what the city can do for Lebanon on a national level. What can the city provide? Is it a logistic city, or is it a tourist city? The question to be asked is what type of advantages can the city provide. What is the value that the city can add to Lebanon? 

Dr. Samer El Hajjar: I believe that after the colonization period we started to have problems because we didn’t have an identity. Our main advantage is being a logistical strategic location. In a short amount of time you can go to Syria, U.A.E/Saudi Arabia if you transporting goods, we are also a coastal city. Additionally, at the same time, we are a touristic and historical city. To emphasize the main issue is to state that the city is not playing the logistical strategic role in the economy because the importance has been placed on the port of Beirut. The city is not playing a cultural role because there is no investment in all aspects of this city. Even though it is a city that is full of culture and history and comes in second place compared to Egypt when it comes to the architecture of the mamluk period. Yet, the city lacks an identity. At the same time, other secondary cities in Lebanon also have the same problem. 

Norhan: Of course. This is what makes me outraged. We hit all the checks. We have all things that make the city a successful city but there are no foolproof long-term plans to do so. 

Dr. Samer El Hajjar: Exactly! The issue is centralization. All the attention has gone to Beirut. Because Tripoli is important and because all residents know its importance and have read its history, they always end up feeling like the victim. We always end up feeling like the oppressed because we know how amazing the city is. Additionally, our national government places the blame on Tripoli. As if all of the bad choices and events that have happened in Lebanon are Tripoli’s fault. We have watched this happen for decades. For example, in the 1970s you have the revolution of the wanted (Thawret al matloubeen), during the war in the 1980s, a resistance happened against the presence of the Syrian regime.

Dr. Samer El Hajjar: This entire package of events and stereotypes stems from the lack of identity. This lack of economic, political, and social identity limits the role that can be played by Tripoli. A city of this size, power, strategic location, and history is not playing its role. Tripoli is always finding itself locked in a dead-end and always being blamed. This is why when we end up reading statistics/indicators it’s very hard to do so. It has the highest rate of poverty in the country, a high unemployment rate, suffers from a high rate of social issues, and a high rate of illiteracy, so with all of this, we are in a place where we ask ourselves where are we heading?

Norhan: This is where strategic policy planning comes into the equation. What role do TIPS play in solving the challenges that Tripoli faces? 

Dr. Samer El Hajjar: So this is the reality of Tripoli. From our point of view at TIPS, we see that to solve this problem, to solve such a complicated and challenging problem we need to go to the root cause which is a lack of identity, vision, strategy, and public policy. We need to start with research. With research, you can develop policies that can help tackle the issues facing Tripoli. Such issues that require policies are health policies, environmental policies, economic policies, and social policies. 

Dr. Samer El Hajjar: Because I have a background in research I wanted to found the research center to help solve the issues. We help assess the issues faced, collect the data, analyze the data, and provide recommendations on how to move forward. The values that TIPS adheres to are an improvement, prosperity, and sustainability. We want to improve and it is the most important thing to achieve on all levels. Unfortunately, as detected by stats/indicators we are not doing good in any aspect. We have failed in all sectors: economy, society, environment, culture, and education. Prosperity as a value is the foundation. This historical city is of great importance in terms of its strategic location, and human capital. Lastly, sustainability in Tripoli is lacking. We don’t have a vision for sustainable development. For example, we have someone who enters the city with a plan to open a company and ends up becoming a disaster because the person did not think about the environmental and societal consequences. Additionally, we don’t understand sustainable development. So this is what TIPS values and hopes to improve in the city. 

Norhan: I think that sustainability in this city is nonexistent for sure. The amount of construction feels chaotic and ruins what was once a city filled with orange orchards. 

Dr. Samer El Hajjar: This is why research and policy are important. The goal of TIPS is to conduct research, to be a research hub for the city, and become a melting pot for all professionals, and stakeholders in the city that share a love for the city and would like to give back to their community. Whether it be social media, research, content creation, design, or strategy planning, everyone is welcome to TIPS. Our third long-term goal, we can be a data center, a reference for stakeholders. We have started to gather data related to the local problems of the city. 

Norhan: That is amazing! I was thrilled to know that the city has a research center. Somewhere where people can work to make the city better. It's good to know that there are people such as yourself and I that have hope for the city and know that with the right tools things can change so that future generations do not have to leave this remarkable city. In my opinion, I believe that research centers are a catalyst for change in their communities and society. Do you think that traditional political/public figures in Tripoli will know the value of a research center? I ask this because the issue is that you can have a research center and you can have a few leaders who might pat you on the back but it might not get you anywhere if you are not taken seriously. I can only imagine an old politician sitting in his private quarters and laughing at the words policy, research, and data. 

Dr. Samer El Hajjar: You make a point. We have been testing the waters. It is the first local think tank in Tripoli and the first think tank in Lebanon. When we advocate for research the politicians are not the only important actors it is also the people in the community. Part of our system includes older politicians but there is also hope in the newer political circle. I feel optimistic especially when it comes to the older political figures in the city. 

Norhan: That is good to hear! Let’s hope that when a policy recommendation is suggested, leaders are open to the discussion. 

Norhan: When looking at the current work that TIPS has conducted, what data has been collected? Publications?

Dr. Samer El Hajjar: Currently, we have had many projects being worked on this year. We have not passed our first anniversary since founded TIPS so we are still fairly new about 9 months. We have worked on the economic impact on the private sector, economic crisis impact on youth which was very important, assessment of the economic situation in the city, and a baseline study on the city of Mina which is an assessment of the socioeconomic situation and several recommendations have been made and it resulted in gaining interest from several NGO’s. 

Norhan: Dr. Hajjar I want to thank you for your time and the informative and eye-opening conversation. Stay tuned for a collaboration between TIPS and Tripolicy!

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