The McKinsey UK partner leading a Syrian refugee relief agency in Lebanon

10 January 2019 Consultancy-me.com

Basmeh & Zeitooneh is one of a number of organisations providing aid in Lebanon to the more than one million refugees who have poured into the country since the beginning of the Syrian crisis. Recently, McKinsey UK partner Richard Verity took on the role of CEO.

“This past October, the vast Shatila refugee camp in southern Beirut echoed with an unusual sound: the crack of bat on ball. More than 40 Syrian children – most of whom had never heard of, let alone played, the game – were participating in a cricket camp. News travels fast in Shatila. The following day, 120 kids showed up, a quarter of them girls, navigating the narrow streets lined with spider webs of electric wires to reach the modest playground.”

The cricket camp, according to the latest blog entry on McKinsey.com, was an early highlight for UK McKinsey & Company partner Richard Verity after relocating to Beirut with his wife for a year-long leave of absence from the elite strategy and management firm to take on the role of CEO for Basmeh & Zeitooneh – a Lebanon-based aid agency established to tackle the Syrian refugee crisis which has to date provided relief for more than 17,000 individuals.

Basmeh & Zeitooneh

Founded in 2012, as the exodus from the Syrian civil war which would eventually reach in excess of five and a half million people was still in its early stages, Basmeh & Zeitooneh set out to assess the needs-gap unserved by other agencies and empower those affected by the conflict through a range of programmes which aimed to restore a sense of humanity and dignity – concentrating efforts toward the most marginalised of refugees.

Since then, the non-profit – its name in Arabic combining the words for smile and olive, a symbol of peace and nourishment – has following its first base in the Shatila refugee camp established community centers in the most poorly served areas of Lebanon, along with outlets in Tripoli in Libya and Gaziantep, Turkey, providing a variety of programmes from essential relief assistance through to shelter renovations, arts and culture spaces, and women’s workshops.

One of Basmeh & Zeitooneh’s most important programmes; education, commonly one of the first functions shed in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, but also one of the most important on the longer-term road to recovery. According to estimates, 750,000 school-aged children have been displaced into Lebanon alone, with little prospect for formal education and after seven years of conflict an uncertain future which continues to drag on.McKinsey partners with Lebanese Syrian refugee relief agency on education

While their paths to the refugee camps are straightforward if not complex and tragic, the switch of a management consulting veteran from the London office of McKinsey to the coalface in Lebanon is a little less expected. As partner at McKinsey, Verity focuses on clients in the downstream oil and chemicals sectors, but was drawn to Basmeh & Zeitooneh and felt McKinsey’s education knowhow and influence could help.

Verity joined with Tarek Mansour, McKinsey’s Public and Social Sector Middle East lead and senior partner in the firm’s Dubai office, and together they rallied their respective offices to the tune of $100,000 in direct donations and countless more value in pro bono contributions, including in the areas of teacher training and curriculum development along with strategy guidance, with Verity joining the Basmeh & Zeitooneh board.

“They adopted us, in a way, as we adopted them,” Verity says, with Mansour, who is of part Lebanese and Syrian descent, adding, “This issue is very personal to a lot of us at the firm. We need to change the conditions to ensure each individual gets the chance to succeed in life.” Fadi Hallisso, Basmeh & Zeitooneh’s co-founder, is even more to the point: “We cannot leave these people permanently on the margins of society and of history.”

New CEO

Working tirelessly since the founding of Basmeh & Zeitooneh, Halliso is now on a year-long sabbatical to pursue a master’s degree in the UK – with Verity in turn taking a leave of absence from McKinsey to step into Halliso’s shoes. With more than 20 years of management consulting experience behind him (Verity was a Vice President at Booz & Company in the UK during a 17 year stint at the firm), the experienced exec has set his sights on the education programme.

Among other plans to introduce new operating practices around finance, HR, communications and fund-raising, Verity is seeking to transform the organisation’s informal schools into proper academic institutions with high standards – while also hoping to address a waiting list of 3,000 students and a current capacity of 750 across its two locations, with a third opening next month. He’s also spending 6 hours a week studying Arabic so as to communicate with the students.

“I had always wanted to help manage an organisation and to make a more direct social impact,” Verity said. “Basmeh & Zeitooneh is no longer just a group of volunteers working out of a church basement but an organisation of some size and importance.” Another highlight for Verity so far; watching hundreds of students attending school for the first time, many who were functionally illiterate when they began. “Two months later, they could read and write.” he says.

Related: BCG partners with the WFP on refugee food security innovations in Jordan  

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