Each year, The Motley Fool selects five charities from reader nominations to be part of our annual charity drive, Foolanthropy. Last year, international relief organization Mercy Corps was one of the five chosen. As with our investments, we watch the progress of our charitable donations closely. To that end, I was granted an interview from Mercy Corps CEO Neal Keny-Guyer, upon his return from Beirut.
Carrie Crockett: How long were you in Lebanon, and where did you stay?
Neal Keny-Guyer: I was there for five days, and I stayed along the Mediterranean coast in western Beirut, in a hotel the U.N. is staying in, as well as some press.
CC: What about Mercy Corps' staff and volunteers? Where are they situated?
NKG: Mercy Corps has a permanent headquarters in Lebanon out of Beirut, including more than 100 Lebanese staff. So those people were already on the ground living in apartments around Beirut, but we also rushed in additional staff.
CC: What other agencies are on the ground? I'm sure there are a lot.
NKG: Actually, we were one of the very few there when this started. Since we've had permanent operations in Beirut for about 13 years now, we were able to respond within the first hours. Doctors Without Borders, the U.N., Save the Children, Caritas, and The Catholic Relief Services International Medical Corp. are among the other organizations there now.
CC: You ran aid operations in Beirut from '82 to '85, during an earlier invasion by Israel. Did anything strike you as different this time, or is war war?
NKG: It did, yes. What really struck me this time was running into some of the people I'd known when I was there back in '82. I was a young man then [laughing]. I had friends there who were young like me, who now have families. They looked at me when I saw them with sadness in their eyes, and they said, we were the war generation. We were the ones who grew up with this on a daily basis. But our children have grown up knowing only peace. They don't know this, what it's like to live at war. We just feel lost. That's what they kept telling me, and that's what struck me the most, I think.
CC: Some organizations have complained that Israel isn't allowing access to humanitarian agencies into Lebanon. Is this what you saw, or is it more complicated? Are both sides impeding access?
NKG: Both sides, frankly, are in violation of international law, but I will go so far as to criticize Israel for not allowing humanitarian access in a regular and secure manner. Still, both sides are making it almost impossible for aid to get in. In the zone of conflict along the border, the fighting is so intense that no humanitarian convoy is completely safe, and safe passage for civilians doesn't exist, either.
CC: What do you think most Americans don't realize about the current situation in Lebanon and Israel?
NKG: I think what people here might not realize is that Lebanon is a vibrant, entrepreneurial country, especially in the cities like Beirut. Of course, there was civil war there in the not-so-distant past, but for the last 15 years, it's been stable and moving forward. I mean, there are Starbucks (NYSE: SBUX ) in Beirut. There's been a very sophisticated nightlife developing -- clubs, shops, restaurants. It's known as the Paris of the Middle East. I don't think people realize that. And another thing is that ordinary people -- whether they're Israeli, Lebanese, Jordanian, Palestinian -- they just want security and opportunities for their children, and they want to live normal lives. Just like us. I think we in America, who have been lucky enough to have largely avoided conflict like this, don't realize that the ordinary people living through this are just like us.
CC: I read that you recently received funding from various U.S. and European government agencies, as well as private donors. You're currently helping 40,000 people. With the new funds, what are Mercy Corp's long-term goals in the region?
NKG: Actually, we're closing in on assisting 50,000 people as of [Aug. 9]. The numbers will be increasing to 200,000. But our long-term goal is to assist the Lebanese people when they get back home, and hopefully, the relief phase will end as soon as possible, and we can get started helping them rebuild their lives. We're all aware that this is an extremely complicated political issue and has been for decades. We're also aware that in a big swath of northern Israel way up into Lebanon, ordinary civilians are suffering. More than a quarter of the population is displaced, and 150,000 people are living in public places -- parks, schools. Everywhere in Beirut, all the public spaces are just filled with people. And the longer it goes on like this, the bigger a toll it will have, especially on children.
You can read more about Mercy Corps' operations in Lebanon here. If you'd like to nominate Mercy Corps or any other charity as a Foolanthropy candidate, we kick off our 2006 campaign with a call for nominations to our Foolanthropy discussion board on Oct. 16. We'll announce the selections and begin directing donations on Nov. 20.
The Motley Fool is very proud to have Hilton Family Hotels (NYSE: HLT ) as a partner in our Foolanthropy 2006 campaign.
Starbucks is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick.
Online editor Carrie Crockett is Foolanthropy co-chair, along with David Gardner. She owns no shares of any company mentioned in this article, although she does donate to some of the charities mentioned.