File: Supporters of Lebanon’s Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah wave Hezbollah flags as they listen to him via a screen, Aug. 16, 2013. (REUTERS/Ali Hashisho)

Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite Muslim political party cum social movement and militia, famously provides its constituents a wide array of social services. As my new book “Compassionate Communalism” suggests, the truism that Islamists buy support through the provision of social services depends heavily on context and should be qualified by acknowledging the multiple, simultaneous motivations for delivering and receiving social benefits. Why did Hezbollah, like other religious and sectarian movements, sometimes reach out to broad constituencies and at other times focus its efforts on its hard-core base? Why does Hezbollah offer social services at all? What does it really get for its efforts?

Hezbollah’s social service provision is rooted in the nature of Lebanon’s state and society. In Lebanon, sectarian differences are sharply politicized and institutionalized, and virtually all political players (as well as religious groups and secular NGOs) offer social welfare in one form or another. The Lebanese state is notoriously weak with respect to social provision and religious and sectarian organizations have long played a vital role in the health, education and social assistance. Competition between sectarian groups typically shapes the extent and intensity of welfare provision. More than electoral politics is at stake. Some sectarian organizations aim to build “street power” and engage in militia politics, and not just to win votes – which shapes their distinctive strategies of allocating social welfare.

Hezbollah in its early years primarily opted for an extra-state political strategy in which it works outside formal state institutions and challenges state authority, in part by maintaining an armed militia. It has disproportionately funneled benefits to its most committed supporters, who tend to be in-group members, rather than toward a larger mass of existing and potential voters. Beginning in the mid-2000s, however, Hezbollah increasingly worked through state channels by seeking executive and legislative positions. The electoral imperative and the need to convince a broader public of its “good governance” credentials compelled it to distribute at least limited baskets of social goods to a broader array of citizens. By the early 2000s, what’s more, Hezbollah became the dominant actor in an alliance with its one-time Shiite rival, the Amal Movement.

However, the organization’s decision to send fighters to Syria has once again placed heavy emphasis on its militia activities. Reports indicating that Hezbollah favors its hard core supporters with renewed vigor, especially the families of militia fighters, are consistent with this political shift. Mounting dissatisfaction with Hezbollah in Lebanon, including from in-group members, as a result of its ongoing and intensified participation in the Syrian conflict may be weakening its dominant position within the Shiite community. The narrowed distributional pattern reflects Hezbollah’s shifting political strategy but may also exacerbate a decline in popularity by bolstering the perception that it caters to a small core group of supporters.

The provision of social welfare by Hezbollah and other Islamists is not merely founded on a material exchange of services for support. A variety of non-political motivations coexist with more overtly political goals in shaping Islamist welfare activities. A long tradition of charitable work as well as an enduring history of non-state welfare provision in Lebanon have compelled Hezbollah and other Lebanese sectarian and Islamist groups to offer social goods as part of their organizational mission. Visions of social justice undoubtedly also motivate these organizations to provide social assistance. Hezbollah may distribute or facilitate access to social services to fulfill altruistic commitments, present itself as the protector and guarantor of well-being, gain supporters or consolidate control over territory and people. In short, specific political goals as well as charitable motivations likely underlie the provision of social services by Hezbollah and other groups in Lebanon.

“Buying support” through service provision is not necessarily an economic or material transaction, nor does it always occur through direct exchanges. As in-depth interviews with citizens in Lebanon reveal, the receipt of services directly or by family members or neighbors may compel some citizens to vote for the political party associated with the provider or to participate in demonstrations organized by the party. Even for these informants and other citizens, however, service provision is usually more than an instrumental exchange. Welfare engenders a sense of belonging to a community, which has enormous psychological benefits, particularly in the context of underdeveloped and unstable national state institutions. The provider organization establishes itself as a source of social protection or a guardian of the community, however defined, which may garner popular allegiances. “Bricks-and-mortar” welfare programs, which operate from fixed physical locations in specific neighborhoods and villages, are particularly effective in establishing the provider as a community guardian because they signal a long-term commitment to a geographical space and its inhabitants. The provision of social services from bricks-and-mortar agencies as well as long-term relationships of social provision are distinct from cash payments or one-shot food distribution efforts, which predominate during electoral contests.

Welfare programs may also inspire support by individuals and families who have not received services themselves but who have observed or heard about the actions of providers in their communities and beyond. Service provision projects an image of organizational capacity and efficiency as well as a commitment to protect, which may garner the admiration or respect of observers and not just the direct beneficiaries. This is especially valuable for a political organization that aims to build a reputation as a reliable and capable actor – one that is qualified to govern. The importance of building a strong reputation cannot be overstated, particularly because it enables Islamists to cultivate a much broader range of supporters, potentially even among non-supporters or those who are ideologically distant.

The provision of social services is not the sole means that Hezbollah uses to mobilize support, but it plays an important role, particularly in a national context in which alternative sources of social protection are underdeveloped or absent. So does it work? Hezbollah and other sectarian parties in Lebanon clearly calculate that welfare activities engender political support, even if this is not their sole motivation for distributing social goods. Thus far, my own research on the impact of services on the recipients (the demand side) has been far less systematic than my work on the politics of provision (the supply side). However, extensive qualitative interviews with recipients and non-recipients of social services from Hezbollah and other groups, as well as circumstantial evidence from electoral returns, indicate that social welfare has political payoffs. Furthermore, Lebanese citizens have come to expect that officials and political parties distribute social benefits on a discretionary basis. Survey data indicate that voters themselves prioritize the provision of social services by their elected representatives in their voting calculus. In 2001, a national poll asked citizens who voted in the 2000 national elections to list the two most important factors shaping their vote choices. Over 50 percent of the respondents listed the social service activities of the candidate as one of the two most important reasons for their vote.

For Hezbollah, which has largely prioritized non-electoral political mobilization, appropriate data for assessing the political effects of welfare distribution are not readily available. Extra-state political strategies entail forms of political engagement that are inherently difficult to measure, such as participation in demonstrations and riots and service in a militia, and therefore electoral data are less illuminating. That said, a look at electoral returns from the 2005 elections yields some suggestive insights given that Hezbollah stepped up its participation in mainstream, electoral politics and increasingly sought executive offices at this time. In the Lebanese context, shifts in the degree to which sectarian parties attract support from out-group members is an indirect indicator of the political efficacy of welfare outreach for parties that participate in elections. Although data on sectarian trends in voting patterns are difficult to obtain given their political sensitivity, local analysts have generated data on party vote share by sect for the 2005 and 2009 national elections. Thus, it is useful to examine the degree to which parties, including Hezbollah, garnered out-group support in these elections, with the rather large caveats that the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and mounting regional Sunni-Shiite tensions undoubtedly shaped voter behavior. The attendant fear-mongering and intergroup conflict muted the effects of clientelism on electoral trends in recent electoral cycles.

The turnout rates for the 2005 and 2009 elections provide some insights into the political effects of welfare outreach, although the linkages between social provision and electoral behavior are tenuous for the aforementioned reasons. A comparison of the returns of the two elections indicates that Hezbollah increased its share of Christian support substantially in all districts where the party fielded candidates. This is probably due to the alliance between Hezbollah and Michel Aoun’s predominantly Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) beginning in 2006. Many Christian FPM supporters undoubtedly voted for Hezbollah to express their endorsement of Aoun’s decision to ally with the Shiite party; however, the receipt of social benefits from Hezbollah, which placed more emphasis on a state-centric political strategy after 2005, may have reinforced this trend. In particular, in the aftermath of the 2006 war and the alliance with the FPM, Hezbollah embarked on an extensive effort to distribute social assistance to Christian families affected by the conflict. (At the same time, in the context of rising regional and domestic tensions, Hezbollah lost Sunni vote share.) The observable trends are consistent with the claim that state-centric political strategies garnered support from out-group voters for Hezbollah, particularly across Muslim-Christian lines, although other explanations cannot be ruled out.

Anecdotal evidence (and, for the education sector, test score results) indicates that Hezbollah is indeed an effective supplier of social services, as are other Islamist groups. I suspect this is due primarily to features of organizational culture, such as internal discipline and hierarchical structure, rather than to the faith component of their missions per se. Some studies of faith-based contend that religious organizations tend to attract personnel who are committed to their missions on spiritual grounds, making them willing to put in long hours, often for relatively minimal compensation. High levels of motivation among staff members therefore enable faith-based organizations to offer comparatively high quality services at low cost. Although Koranic injunctions to serve the community and engage in charitable works undoubtedly serve as a key motivation for many staff members of Islamist welfare agencies, the alleged Islamist governance advantage likely has less to do with religious commitments. Many religious institutions from Muslim and other faith traditions operate social service programs in the Middle East, yet do not all appear to offer services of equal caliber. Arguably, staff members at non-Islamist institutions are no less committed to religious principles than Islamists, yet do not have reputations for providing high-quality services. Furthermore, Hezbollah offers noticeably higher quality services on multiple dimensions than most other non-profit health networks, even when compared with co-religionist organizations.

Specific features of Hezbollah’s organizational culture are amenable to the provision of high-quality social services. In particular, its coherence and hierarchical structure facilitate the dissemination and standardization of practices and protocols as well as procedures for staff training and management. Of course, not all Islamists in the same countries or across different countries are likely to exhibit the same levels of organizational coherence and hierarchical structure. To the extent that the organizational culture explanation is true, differences in these organizational characteristics may at least partly explain their variable success in designing and implementing social programs. This raises many additional questions related to the origins of an organizational culture favorable to high-quality service provision as well as potential selection effects compelling motivated and qualified staff to seek employment at effective Islamist welfare networks in the first place.

The question of why and how Islamists distribute social services has garnered increasing attention, particularly as outside observers try to understand the roots of their popularity. Although social science frameworks compel analysts to isolate monocausal explanations for the motivations for and effects of Islamist welfare activities, in reality multiple factors underlie their decisions to delivery services and the effects on citizens. Beyond the political ramifications of Islamist social service provision, it is imperative to understand more about how such groups organize and deliver services. With the decline of public welfare functions, citizens increasingly rely on an array of public, private, and non-state actors to meet their basic needs, and Islamists play an important role in this welfare mix in some contexts.

Melani Cammett is a professor of political science at Brown University, as well as a faculty fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies and a faculty associate at the Population Studies and Training Center at Brown University. She is the author of “Compassionate Communalism: Welfare and Sectarianism in Lebanon (Cornell University Press, 2014) and co-editor of “The Politics of Non-state Social Welfare” (Cornell University Press, 2014).