Supporting the non-profit sector amidst Lebanon’s financial crisis

by Hana Farhat, Programme Officer, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, Trustlaw, Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 31 May 2022 16:42 GMT

This impact story is part of a new series to celebrate the extraordinary pro bono projects undertaken by legal teams to support NGOs and social enterprises with the support of TrustLaw. All projects mentioned in this series are nominated for this year’s TrustLaw Awards. Find out more. 

Lebanon has been experiencing one of the world’s worst financial crises since mid-2021, according to the World Bank. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has been exacerbating the country’s challenges, adding further uncertainty to its economic and social conditions.

In response, Lebanese banks imposed emergency banking restrictions and effectively blocked people’s access to most of their personal accounts. Such restrictions have significantly limited the vital work of non-profits, especially at a time when the country is recovering from the devastating impact of the 2020 Beirut explosion – one of the largest non-nuclear blasts in modern history.

The Samir Kassir Foundation (SKF) – a Beirut-based organisation working within the civil society and cultural circles to spread the democratic culture in Lebanon and the Arab world – was one of those non-profits whose work could have been hampered due to the country’s new banking regulations. Conscious of the potential impact on their operations in Lebanon, the organisation decided to set up a sister organisation in a more financially stable country to continue its work without disruption.

SKF reached out to TrustLaw – the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s free legal pro bono service – seeking pro bono legal support to set up an overseas sister organisation. Through TrustLaw, SKF was connected with global law firm Latham & Watkins, which assisted them in understanding the conditions to set up a sister organisation in France that would run its operations away from the unpredictable circumstances in Lebanon.

Speaking about the support facilitated through TrustLaw, Ayman Mhanna, Executive Director of SKF, said: “Receiving this legal assistance would allow our organisation to guarantee back-up and continue its mission regardless of the security and political situation on the ground, and therefore do more to help journalists and artists in the MENA [the Middle East and North Africa] region who face severe restrictions to their freedom of expression.”

This project is a powerful example of how lawyers can use their time and skills to make an impact on social issues that are close to them. In this case, one of the lawyers from Latham & Watkins who supported the organisation understanding the registration process and tax rules in France, was a former student of Samir Kassir – the slain journalist after whom the foundation is named.

Marc Makary, counsel at Latham & Watkins, said: “Taking on this matter meant to me much more than advancing our pro bono practice. It was a way to contribute to honouring the legacy of Samir Kassir and the values of critical thinking and freedom of speech that he was assassinated for. I had the privilege of being his student and the SKeyes* matter was an opportunity to pay a fraction of the debt I owe him for his invaluable contribution to my education and that of my generation.”

Mayssa Sader, associate at Latham & Watkins, said: “For my generation, Samir Kassir was a symbol of intellectual resistance, freedom of speech, and democracy. I was particularly proud to be able to assist SKF in expanding its mission and to contribute in a modest way to helping to make Professor Kassir’s dreams a reality.”

“The impact of TrustLaw on organisations in the Global South, more particularly in the MENA region, has allowed us to acquire more skills which are necessary when we engage in truly life-saving endeavours,” said Ayman of SKF.

“Without pro bono legal assistance, Global South based non- profits would not be able to dedicate much of their scarce or intermittent funding to the communities they serve. Pro bono legal support allows us to focus fully on our mission, while gaining knowledge and sophistication thanks to the great lawyers and attorneys who helped us.”

*SKeyes or the Samir Kassir eyes Center is an initiative of the Samir Kassir Foundation.