December 31, 2009

Somalia: Americans as Militants?

Mansour Al Amriki

One such individual who has risen to a level of high visibility within Somalia is a man named Mansor Al Amriki. This guy is actually from Alabama, and has a large fan base within Somalia.  After  researching him online, he is cited as just being a typical rebel, an anomaly as a white American in Somalia.  However, the rumor is that this guy is actually much more significant.  He periodically releases recorded videos and audio messages  which are of great popularity among many Somalis living within Kenya.

Americans in Somalia are becoming a growing complication.  Most of the time however it is not guys like Al Amriki, but Somali-American youth from major urban areas such as Minneapolis, Phoenix, and Atlanta.  The truth is, that America itself will struggle to gain much progress into reducing this threat until it changes its own recruitment policies within the CIA and the Department of Homeland Security.  I heard today on PRI, that within the CIA, only 18% of employees have second language capability.  Yet even with and increased supply of funding into language instruction, the truth is, that young Somali men living within America are the guys that need to be sought.  Until that day comes around, if it ever does, the majority of Americans found within Somalia won't be the guys helping to make the world a safer place.

December 30, 2009

What comes first: Stability or Development

There is a frequent debate within the humanitarian field: must one first impose stability upon a location to advance socio-economic development, or must one somehow impose both concepts simultaneously. The answer to this question does not exist within the broad realm of theory, but does exist within application. One must establish a degree of stability wherein participating humanitarian and development actors may affectively do their job. If they are required to function in para-military fashion, the integrity of their actions is compromised and the agency loses the mobility of independence. However, if they are at risk of kidnapping, death, torture, or other needless forms of conflict and suffering, their actions are once again compromised.

The Changing Terrain of Humanitarian Aid

Within an era of asymmetric combat, the role of asymmetric humanitarian aid is crucial to overcome the emergency aid to development gap.

Architecture, Refugee Camp Design, and Psycho-Social Refugee Health

 How can the design of refugee camps positively  impact the psychological health of refugees?

Some time ago I asked this question in a blog post and meant to get back to it, yet it never quite happened, so I might as well explore the topic today.  Refugee camp design is a common interest among architects and urban planners, although after several years of working within this subject, I admit that it isn't not nearly as illustrious as a Hollywood movie.  Every year books and exhibitions like Design Like You Give a Damn or Design for The Other 90 Perceent spotlight initiatives by designers to solve problems in the third world often by means of new technologies, new research, and usually really expensive and sleek looking products.  But in truth, the solutions to many of these problems has more to do with just legal systems, public interests, access to capital, and then eventually to skillful implementation.  Nonetheless, everyday people read my blog looking for information on Refugee Camp Design, Refugee Camp Technology, and Refugee Shelter, so I figured I might as well expand on some of these issues.

As for innovations within refugee camp design, these are slow moving because new technologies often fail to be well implemented or are too expensive  or are  totally unnecessary.  The most common reason why architects and planners design solutions that will never see the light however is because these designers do not understand the legal framework in which humanitarian interventions exist.  For example, the plan for Dadaab below by New York based architect Deborah Gans is completely impossible due to the restrictions of Kenyan Policy as outlined in the 2006 Refugee Act, their reservations on the 1967 Convention on Refugees, and the social limits of these camps.  While the architect wants to use these camps as a means to experiment with creating a new idea on cities, the truth is that such a presumption is impossible.  Not to mention, a protracted crisis is not a laboratory for social experiments.

There are other aspects of this plan that are inconsistent with the reality of the camps.  The camps are high-density to maximize all resources and security, and  any form of agricultural production within the camps is illegal.  Consequently to expand the settlement and build on agricultural production will simply not be possible.   Although Dadaab has been in place for 20 years, long term settlement planning is against the interest of government policy and consequently initiatives such as this can never be constructed.  Therefore any planning initiatives must somehow comply with policy while advancing the interests of the population.  I'm not saying this is a good thing, but if one can't build illegal structures in America, why would that be okay anywhere else?  On last thing, the architect has clearly done only limited research as the water pathways and vegetation within the diagram are only present during the aggressive floods in October and November.  The rest of the year the place is a dry, bleak, and empty gravel parking lot as far as you can see.

When contemplating refugee camp design from an architectural perspective, a more useful approach is to analyze the architecture of the institutions.   Displaced people are only designated refugees when they obtain the legal status from the host country, which often requires the assistance of UNHCR.  Depending upon the laws of the host country, refugees may or may not have access to employment, healthcare, social services or education.  Yet this institutions appear hostile and are dehumanizing.

Life as  refugee means hours upon hours standing in line.  Waiting to for your name to be called, waiting to be addressed, waiting to be heard, being told to come back tomorrow, or the day after, and waiting for weeks or months, or even years, for phone calls that never come.  Time and again I've seen institutions abuse people through this process, failing to consider what it must be like to always wait and never have an answer.  Some agencies are even located far from the urban center, such as UNHCR's office in Cairo, and therefore people in need of assistance have to travel nearly 2 hours to stand in line with little hope of receiving attention.

If architects and planners want to really improve the lives of displaced populations, the biggest contribution they can make with new design is not within the immediate crisis.  It is by reorganizing the interface by which refugees interact with agencies.  To remove the hostile fencing and aggressive facades and to replace these structures with something equally inexpensive, equally utilitarian, and significantly more humane.  Architecture has always been the tool of the power, and to aid the powerful organizations to better assist refugees is a natural progression for the discipline.  Sustainable refugee camp design and technology is an important area of concern, yet as these only occupy a small part of the problem facing displaced peoples, it is time rather to make architecture more humane.

Business Processing Outsourcing in Refugee Camps

What is the international legal framework for BPO (Business Processing Outsourcing) within protracted refugee settlements?

December 10, 2009

New Dangers in Dadaab

For the last few weeks I have been in Nairobi, awaiting transit to the Dadaab refugee camps.  However it appears that I might have sufficient reason to not go these camps.  Perhaps if I was working for a large NGO or UN organization that had the capacity to provide med/evac and proper security assistance, I would be comfortable to accept the current risks.  Yet working for a small non-profit out of California, I'm not so sure.  Today I received word that Oxfam has pulled out its staff from Dadaab and the nearby town of Wajir.  Consequently, I'm having doubts if this is worth pursuing.

In recent weeks, Al Shabaab have overtaken the border town of Dhobley from another major militant group, Hezbal Islam.  Now in power, they have already begun to enforce their own twisted form of Sharia law upon its citizens as evidenced by the recent demand for all women to to wear veils.

Somalia-Kenya Displacement
With Al Shabaab so close, Kenyan border patrols are on high alert.  Yet as the Kenyan government has also been recruiting and training Somali youths from within Garissa and the Dadaab refugee camps to fight in Somalia, the new proximity of Al Shabaab has tremendously raised security concerns.  Not only because of the threat of Al Shabaab crossing into Kenya, but also concerns of Al Shabab recruiting Somali youth and training them for terrorist activities.

When I worked at Dadaab in 2007, there was of course a security concern, yet it appears that much has changed within the last 2 years.  While the camps contain the operations of multiple NGOs, that may begin to change as well.   As much as I love the people and the place of Dadaab, it is certain that I should not pursue this in a reckless manner.  As I continue to consult with various ngos etc, I will have a better understanding of the circumstances.  For now my plan is to get in, do my job, and get out.

December 9, 2009

24 Hours Like None Other

The day started off well enough.  It was a very productive morning and afternoon.  Around 6 pm I grabbed a medium Pineapple and Ham pizza from the one lone pizza place in Nairobi.  I devoured the whole thing, satisfied to have consumed a massive quantity of Ham and Pizza at the same time. 

I took the bus back to the Hospital near my place, but as it had become dark outside, I arranged for a cab to drive the 1.5 mile distance to my apartment.  Now this is typical, as its just not safe to walk around at night, in particular as a foreigner. While I live in a very nice neighborhood, the streets are typical for East Africa, with each house surrounded by a large concrete wall and a guard standing at the gate.  The guards where I live are two Masai men.  The Masai are an interesting tribe within Kenya, as the most feared warriors, the most likely photographed among tourists, and also the lowest social class.  I believe they are seen as 'backwards' to the other people of Kenya, as the Masai struggle to balance their cultural history and identity with the forces of the outside world. 

One of the guards has often asked me for money.  I never really cared that he would ask, but as I have been living on a tight budget, I always told him no and thought maybe at the end of the month to give him a nice tip or christmas bonus.  Yet last night the situation got out of control.  As I departed the taxi, the guy went into the compound and locked the gate, refusing to allow access unless I give him money.  Highly irritated, I called the landlord from my cell, who promptly ended the situation.  It turns out that the guard was also intoxicated and he denied the whole situation.

I feel sorta bad, but the man was fired today for being such a jerk.  Yet the landlord insisted that the guards are well paid, and should never behave in such a manner.  After all, thats the sort of thing guests at his guest house would probably never complain about, yet in the future never actually return.

This incident was only the beginning of my troubles for the night.  I'm not really sure what happened, but I suspect the Pizza I hate actually gave me food poisoning.  I spent the whole night clutching my stomach in agony, repeatedly vomiting, suffering from all sorts of cold sweats, hot flashes, nausea, dizziness... about every system out there.  At one point I stood up and suddenly felt feint - and NOT wanting to relive the India experience again - I immediately laid down at the place I was standing.  It was horrid really.  Once the constant vomiting ceased, I took 500 mg of Antinol, and immediately began to feel better. 

Eventually around 8 am I fell asleep.  I also cancelled all my appointments today. Around 2 o'clock I called my favorite cab driver (same from the night before) who then drove me to a pharmacy and a grocery store where I stocked up on antibiotics, juice, water, and tea crackers.

I do feel much better now.  But there are few things worse than sudden acts of physical illness to prompt feelings of homesickness.  I did, as for good news, receive some information to further proceed with acquiring access to Dadaab.  I also received an email stating I can now make an appointment for an interview with MSF.  I am quite excited about that, as earlier today, I was thinking about the difference of having strong institutional support when traveling vs. the frustration of doing it on your own.   Had I been working with a larger agency, especially MSF, I would have been able to access immediate health care, and perhaps much of the last 24 hours could have been avoided.  Not to mention just the support of having other people around.  As for now, I guess I'll just continue to buddy up with the cabbie.

Before I go, I guess I could mention the one interesting thing today.  Kenya, like Egypt, is a very simple place to obtain medication.  In fact, the antibiotics I purchased today are the manufactured in Cairo.  For an entire box of pills, the cost was 180 schillings, or just over 2 dollars.  In Cairo I believe it might cost even less.  I didn't require a prescription, but simply walked in and told them what I needed.  Other folks stood around doing the same thing.  I really wish America could learn something about this, having affordable and easy access to medication.  I know people always argue that lower prices would staunch innovation, but when you look at the quantity of innovative medications produced in Northern Europe, evidence points out that this is simply not true.  Had I been in the States today, I would have had to just 'tough it out' and continue fighting the illness much longer than today.  About 5 years ago, when I lived in Camp Washington and acquired food poisoning from a fried fish joint, an attempt to 'tough it out' by going jogging at 3:30 in the afternoon turned into a disaster.  Certainly learned my lesson!

December 6, 2009

Innovation or Fad?

While presently working in Nairobi, Kenya and awaiting transit to the Dadaab Refugee Camps to oversee a new economic development project, I have been reading Lords of Poverty by Graham Hancock.  Published in 1989, Hancock provides an aggressive overview of the multi-billion dollar aid agency and its inability to actually achieve the goals of aid or development.  While stating that NGO's are likely more capable in the field do their reliance upon private donations and public transparency, the text otherwise slams institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank, and the other primary bi-lateral and multi-lateral players on the development scene.

The good news is that a great deal has changed in the 20 years since this book was published.  Although there is extensive room for improvement, the fields of economic development and humanitarianism have significantly improved.  Today there is more oversight, higher expectations, greater coordination among agencies, and standardized protocol.  Throughout the 80s and most of the 90s, aid agencies were often at odds with one another in the field, each operating independently of one another and with differing agendas, expectations, and methodology.  Now with tools such as the Sphere Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster response, aid agencies can at least work alongside one another in the interest of accomplishing the same objectives.  However, there is still great variation in how agencies may pursue these objectives.  As Sphere only provides guidelines, and not methodologies, agencies must rely upon the skills and experience of their staff to attain these objectives.

It is much more difficult work in aid and development today than it was in the 80s.  At least when comparing my own experience to that of Hancock's portrayal.  Today a relevant graduate degree (at least one) is an essential pre-requisite to working within humanitarian and development work.  In addition, an aid professional today will require foreign language skills, specialized training, management and budgeting experience, specific technical skills, and several years of similar work history experience;  which is generally unpaid for for 1-3 years prior before landing a decent job.  A former World Bank development consultant once told me that an ideal strategy is to acquire two Masters degrees, as one should provide technical skills - such as engineering - and the other within social science.

The desired consequence of all this education and experience is naturally a great deal of versatility within the field.  A competent aid professional should be capable of attending to any task that might arise with an array of skills, concepts, and insight.  Of course it is only natural that differing opinions will arise among such professionals, depending on their areas of expertise and geographic experience.  While reading Lords of Poverty, the variation among these concepts have apparently remained a mainstay within the evolution of the humanitarian field.
"Since the Second World War, the aid industry has, at one time or another, appeared to believe all of the following things;

* That progress in the poor countries will only be achieved through rapid, high-tech industrialization administered by central-planning boards under the aegis of the state; after a few years the benefits will 'trickle down' to the poor;

*Ditto, except that the state control and central planning are inefficient and that private entrepreneurs must be given a free hand in the industrialization process;

*The the industrialization drive has been premature and that the progress in poor countries can in fact only be achieved by boosting agriculture - since this is the real economic base of the majority of people in the majority of developing countries;

*That agriculture is best boosted by supporting large-scale farms;

*That agriculture is best boosted by supporting small farmers;

*That wealth will not trickle down to the poor and that, therefore, development must be 'bottom-up' in design rather than vice versa;

*That the main focus of development should be on meeting the 'basic needs' of poor and vulnerable groups through the provision of primary health care, village-level education systems, food subsidies, etc;

*That it may, unfortunately, be necessary to neglect the basic needs of the poor and vulnerable groups in order to achieve 'structural adjustment' to a hostile international economic environment;

*That it is possible to have 'adjustment with a human face' that achieves austerity goals but that also builds in protections for the poorest;

*That it is impossible to have adjustment and growth at the same time;

*That it is after all possible to have adjustment and growth at the same time."

Upon reading this list, I could only laugh to realize it basically summarized everything I was taught in graduate school.  Hancock further points out that while these concepts didn't evolve within any particular chronology, they did nonetheless evolve in relation to the development of various fads.

These evolution of fads within development ideology continues today.  Within the last 5-7 years, it seems that every NGO has established a micro-loan program, based on the success of the Grameen Bank.  NGOs have likewise developed the flawed construction of targeting specific demographics within the their programs - such as micro-loans only for youth or women.   Yet by continuing to fracture the societies with development programs, they only cause more societal strife by prompting new internal inequities.  A successful program would better take on those who truly want to participate and succeed, regardless of sex, race, tribe and so on.

The challenge however is to discern the differences between fads and actual innovation.  Are concepts building on interconnectivity or micro thinking actual models for development, or are these simply fads that reflect the economic happenstance of now?  What defines a fad, aside from the longevity of the concept?  And is it wrong to ride the waves of new ideas, or is this really the best we can do, regardless of where it takes us?

December 2, 2009

The Something that went Bump in the Night

Today blew my mind.  Not in the immediate way, but in the slow burning manner, where you know that something crazy is happening but can't quite describe it.  I suppose the phrase 'the calm before the storm' would better describe my thoughts, but in all honesty there is nothing calm about it.  Perhaps ' the storm before the storm' would be a better metaphor.

Things started out normal enough.  I woke up, drank some tea, read some emails, made some phone calls.  Nothing unusual.  I went into my office and again pretty much did the same thing.  I had an appointment with a large technology outsourcing company this afternoon, and looked forward to their driver picking me up at 2:30.  As Nairobi is a massive sprawling city on par with New Dehli or Amman Jordan - far larger than Cairo, thats for sure - I thought the offer for transportation was a simple courtesy and that the firm was simply sending me a cab, maybe even footing the bill.  Greatly appreciated as the company is located about 20 minutes outside of downtown and taxis are expensive.  

At 2:30 my phone range, and I could hear the sounds of traffic and wacky music in the background.  A man with a strong non-western accent told me he was nearby and to meet the car at the sidewalk.  I smiled, imagining some rundown taxi with smoke pouring out the back and loud afro-reggae blaring on blown-out speakers.

I step out into the sunlight, when suddenly  a bright shiny minivan pulls up with tinted windows, adorned newly painted company graphics wrapped around the entire vehicle.  Inside were three Indian guys with blue-tooth ear pieces, a stack of freshly printed marketing materials on irrigation systems, and the loud pulsating beat of Cher's greatest hits - the Techno Dance Remix.  For the next 30 - 40 minutes these guys whipped this van around the side streets of Nairobi like it was central New Delhi.  Pulling into oncoming traffic, swerving around slow vehicles, nearly clipping pedestrians as it backed up a one way street, I had flashbacks of India while gritting my teeth in modest terror.   It was truly bizarre, as I looked out the window at a landscape iconographically African, and yet felt somehow transported further East.  Somewhere between the cigarette smoke and the men singing along to Cher's "Do you believe in Love after Love" with thick Indian accents, I had the feeling that today was no longer just any ordinary day.

When we arrived at the office building (ahem, office complex), I was struck by its massive size, empty floor level rooms, vacant hallways, and sprawling parking lot.  Not sure where to go, I followed one of the guys from the van.  We made small talk in the elevator while I tried not to stare at the 4 shiny gold earrings in his left ear, that matched his massive wristwatch, and assortment of rings.  We stepped out of the elevator and into the lobby of tomorrow.

While of recent years America has struggled with the issue of unemployment, it is arguable that many of the other countries in the world have instead been battling the issue of under-employment.  Hungry for an opportunity to succeed within the global economy, more and more people have sought to acquire the skills and knowledge to be at the economic forefront.  Some economist have described this process as having occurred "while America slept," but however you look at it, the global playing field has leveled.  India for example, has more universities and a higher enrollment rate than any nation in the world.  We all know that China has expanded its industrial production along the entire coast line and is presently building its mineral and natural resource sector within its interior.  Certainly America has worked to advance its own position as well, most notably with the recent Stimulus Plan, but under the constraints of a privatizing education system and hard-line free market position, the US just doesn't have the same mobilized labor force nowadays.  At least not for the higher order of labor that actually will build income in the contemporary marketplace. 

What I saw today was only a peak at what is out there, and thats the crazy thing.  I walked into a multi-million dollar operation that employs 100's of  people, twice per day, to write software, handle large accounting portfolios, language translation, transcription, data input, software testing... you name it.  If you have a project in mind, and they don't have the means at the moment, then they are more than happy to acquire those means within a matter of hours.  Within days or hourse they can train their staff on new software, or even custom write software if the task is unusual.  The manager told me of a recent development in which a client asked for a tele-marketing service within America - but that the phone number on the caller ID is to be displayed as an American phone number, not Kenyan.  This request was able to be accommodated immediately.  In fact, if you live in the US, you might have already spoken with one of these people on the phone, as they handle some MASSIVE accounts over there.  Oh, and don't forget about the accounts in Britain, Australia, Canada... 

When I asked if they have difficulty obtaining qualified employees, I was told that the situation is in fact, just the opposite.  There is such a massive labor force of qualified individuals within East Africa, that they really can hire as many people as they choose, and whenever they choose.  The general manager then made a joke, that of course the people don't quite have much experience and so this is only a medium scale business in Kenya - light years behind the capabilities of India. 

I smiled, as if I knew what he was talking about.  But all the while, I knew that I was actually clueless about the capability of India.  I still am.  Sure, I might of taken a dip in the Ganges river, but I never went to Bangalore.... I'm starting to think it might be like visiting a different planet.

I stayed for about 2 hours, talking with administration and associates.  Everyone was very friendly and there was a lot of energy in the room.  Hip hop music blared in the background while the sound of typing cut through from cubicle after cubicle after cubicle...

I  walked around the facilities - training rooms, cafeterias, voice centers, programming, hardware... - with my tour guide.  Every room was separated by a solid metal door, with a lock that reads your finger prints to open.  I was told that the locks also keep track of individual employee entry and exit times, which may be important as a security measure as they handle a lot of banking, finance, and investment projects.   I also noticed the occasional poster of a Hindu god or the smell of incense.  If it wasn't for the large room full of Kenyans diligently working or the booming African hip hop in the background, I might have begun to think I was somewhere else.

Around 6 the director of the company was kind enough to drive me back to my office. We spoke for a little about the company and his own experience.  When I asked how long he has been doing this, he said he got into the business about 6 years ago in India, and worked for someone else.   As for the operation I saw today, he started it about 2 years ago.  He told me that the biggest challenge to starting this sort of business is access to sufficient start up capital, because you must start big.  That too compete in the information market of today, you need several hundred employees who can begin working immediately, with back up support systems, IT and hardware infrastructure, the ability to purchase all the necessary software and space... while no job is too big or too small, it is always possible for your operation to be just too small, and so you must go from non-existant to gigantic simply overnight. 

I asked "Is this difficult to do here?"

He responded, "No, not at all."

November 28, 2009

So Far You Can Walk There

The one quality that really distinguishes Nairobi from other cities is not necessarily the cuisine, the architecture, or even the hospitality of the people.  It is the sprawling distance.  I have repeatedly experienced the same conversation in which people give me directions from one place to another, specifically stating that I am 'very close' and while I can of course take a bus or a matatu (micro-bus), I can just as well walk.

Over and over again I fall for this.  In my mind, walking distance is probably a bit farther than some other people's ideas.  I think of anything less than 30 minutes as walking distance, although less than 20 is probably the ideal distance.  Of course measuring distance by units of time does little to describe the terrain or the fluctuating elevations.

I haven't been this sore in a long time.  The problem apparently with living in the neighborhood of Upper Hill is that I am constantly walking up the hill!  Everyday to go to the bus stop, to catch a cap, or to make the 25 minute stroll into downtown, I am walking up and down dirt paths, rocky broken sidewalks, in and out of ravines, through the chaotic passage of traffic.  And this is the heart of the city!

I don't generally mind all the exertion.  So I'm certainly not complaining.  Its just one of those surprises of being in a new place and of living in new conditions.  I never really considered the terrain of Cairo as flat until I moved here.  In general, I enjoy all the green space within this city.  Its sprawling parks and green space shoved between the buildings, the dirt shortcuts people have carved into the landscape, and the blossoming flowers adorning the trees.  For those who know me well enough can confirm, I have a terribly weak sense of smell, and as I find all sorts of delicious perfumes within the air, it must be really something special.

November 24, 2009

Fanye Kazi

I always hated the phrase "good hustle," but somehow I can't really think of another way to describe my day.  Except maybe the word "exhausting," or the swahili translation fanye kazi which means "make work."  

Needing to find a place to stay, I hiked all over a particular neighborhood within Nairobi, where I used to stay in 2007.  It was very strange, as so much has changed in Kenya.  Some things have changed for the better, and somethings have not.  Many businesses have improved, disappeared, or been replaced.  I can say that many businesses now appear more 'upscale' and quite nice, traffic seems more relaxed, and the air is much cleaner.  Of course that idea might also just be the consequence of living in Cairo for the last 15 months.  But I don't remember cars staying in their lanes or people using cross walks.  

I did eventually find a place to stay at a place called International Guest House.  Even though it has a fancy name, it was actually completely empty of foreigners. I was told this is low season, and after December it will be packed. The owner and I spoke for quite awhile, as he went to college in Kansas and upon starting his own tourism company in Kenya, he has traveled through much of Europe, America, and Africa.  He has been to Cairo several times, and he also owns a bus company that transports children to and from school within Nairobi.  

As we spoke, I explained my situation, that I don't have very much money, am starting a new job, need to find an apartment, but will constantly travel between this apartment and the Dadaab camps, so I don't want a very expensive place since I will rarely be there.  He offered to rent me a room at the rear of the compound for 100 dollars per month.  It is a very private single room, furnished with a bed, cabinets, and an attached bathroom with shower.  I explained that I want a 'normal' life, and do not want to be living like a hotel guest for my time in Kenya, so he agreed that I may freely use the kitchen and appliances.  He also offered that if I require anything special, like a microwave/minifridge/heater etc., that we can arrange a system, wherein he will purchase that item back from me at a discounted cost.  In this manner I won't waste any money on buying stuff, only to abandon it in 6-9 months.  

It is certain that finding accommodation this safe or convenient for 100 dollars per month will be very difficult in Nairobi.  If I was Kenyan, this would be normal, but as a foreigner the going rate is at least 400 dollars. It is also in my preferred neighborhood of Upper Hill, about a 15 minute walk from the National Hospital (ATM location) and bus station.  It is a good location because it is clean, green, and adjacent to downtown.  It is also near Westalands, where many ngos operate and expats live.   I have certainly lived in nicer places, and seeing where I will stay now really makes me miss living in Cairo... but this is probably an ideal situation for me.  The owner, Kumaou, gave me a ride back to my current place and I told him that I will see him in the morning.

November 23, 2009

A New Day In Nairobi

What a day.
I have officially left Cairo and relocated to Nairobi, Kenya today.  I am also quite that I'll be back in Cairo on various occasions in the future.  Cairo was dusty, tense, and loud yet like a case of bronchitis or emphysema, it never really seems to go away.  People who have spent a fair amount of time in Cairo often end up back in Cairo.  Its understandable of course, as it is remarkably expat friendly. With a few hundred dollars and a basic grasp of the English language, one can probably live in Cairo indefinitely.  The only demand is flexibility.

In Cairo, the inconsistent enforcement of migration laws will allow you to remain for years, get an apartment, get an internship,  get a job in a kindergarten, and maybe get a bank account (in that order).   I will admit however, that my will to be flexible reached a plateau, and it was at that point my time in Cairo began to deteriorate.  I was tired of being in school, tired of working jobs that only partially correspond to my career goals, and tired of working for free. I came to Cairo because I wanted to be in sub-saharan Africa, yet didn't have sufficient resources to make that happen. The longer I stayed, the more frustrated I became, but this is not the fault of Egypt - it was my own.  Nonetheless I will miss Cairo and much of the life that I've had there.

As of today, I am now in pursuit of something different. I boarded a plane at 2 am, and flew to Khartoum Sudan, made a connection to Addis Addaba Ethiopia, and about 4 hours later, landed in Nairobi Kenya.  I stepped off the plane into a brilliant sunlight, with clean, breathable air and strong blowing wind.  Immediately upon arrival I was reminded of why I love this place.

As for now, I'm bombarded with an array of logistical and employment related tasks.  I am still working out where I will be living, my prospective personal budget, the full details of my job.  I still need to find my office, meet an array of partners, get familiarized with the products being created within the computer centers.  Fortunately I don't have the frustrations of also having to discover Nairobi, as knowing where to buy groceries, how to use the bus system, and a relative sense of market prices is invaluable.  Since I don't have to fumble around town lost and frustrated, it saves a lot of time.

The only complication thus far concerns where I am staying for the short term.  I intended to stay with a friend for a few weeks, yet it is obviously clear for various reasons that I need a different situation.  I am staying tonight, but tomorrow I will seek out a hostel somewhere and stay there for the next week or so.  Hopefully I will go to Dadaab on Sunday, although this plan is tentative at best.  I'll pass on more info as I have it.

November 20, 2009

In case this comes up...

I really hate writing this, as it might not end up becoming an issue, but just in case...

About a week ago was a soccer game between Algeria and Egypt to compete for the World Cup.  Quick synopsis is as follows:

  • Algerian soccer team arrived
  • Hooligans in the streets threw rocks at the soccer team
  • Some Algerian soccer players were injured.
  • Game proceeded... 
  • Egypt won, but not by enough points to qualify.
  • Millions of Egyptians celebrated all night long in the streets.
  • Wed, was Game 2, this time in Sudan.
  • Algeria won (in an incredibly boring game, couldn't stand to watch the whole thing)
  • After the game, some fights broke out between Egyptian and Algerian fans within Sudan.
  • The Sudanese police didn't really care, and a lot of Egyptian's 'got w'upped'
That brings us to now.  For the last 2 nights, a growing crowd of young, angry, Egyptian males have been raising a ruckus at the Algerian embassy.  Egyptian security was called in, some fights happened and stuff got broken.  Tonight I'm seeing postings on Facebook by some friends about crowds of people at the Algerian embassy or packing into a downtown plaza called Talat Harb.  Folks are chanting, throwing rocks, burning flags, and acting in a generally obnoxious manner.  Things don't sound very safe there at the moment.  I've heard lots of inconsistent reports regarding the size of the crowd (everything between 7,000 thousand and 100) and lots of rumors about what has been happening.

A story was recently released on the AP newswire.

I am writing all of this because it might pop up on Television screens in the US soon, and I want to avert any worry.  I already found an inflammatory Fox News Headline saying "Will Soccer be source of New War in Mid East?"  Nope, but I'm sure those sort of headlines might help spike the ratings.

So now I've shared the news, I can also tell you that I'm fine, and that these problems don't concern me.  The Algerian embassy is far away and I don't live anywhere near downtown.  In fact, I live on the completely opposite side of the Nile, in Giza, near the pyramids.  I just went and looked around outside, and my chill middle-class neighborhood continues to function in its same laid back manner as usual.  I never have any need to go anywhere near the Algerian embassy, so there is nothing to worry about.  If it wasn't for some messages between friends, I would have no knowledge that anything unusual is happening in Cairo tonight.

Sadly this sort of behavior will do little beyond harming diplomatic ties between Egypt and Algeria.  Otherwise its just another example of irresponsible human behavior.  I keep thinking of Ohio State blowing up after the Michigan State Football game in 2002, and wondering why people act like this?  Win or lose, why is it suddenly okay to set a car on fire because of a sporting event?  A quick online search didn't really answer this question, but is did show me that there were Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver?! Really? Canada eh?  Weird.

So yeah, I'm cool, and intend to stay that way.  If nothing pops up on your tv screen in the next few days, then sorry to cause any alarm.  But if it does, now you at least have a heads up and it there won't be any need to worry.

November 14, 2009

Women's Entrepreneurship: Empowerment through Innovation

This was found on MIT's website for the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at

Photo Contest 2009  The Photo Contest, entitled Women's Entrepreneurship: Empowerment through Innovation sought photographs of women in low-income countries engaging in entrepreneurial activities and demonstrating innovative uses of technologies.


November 13, 2009

Refugee Camp International Development Consultancy

Some Good News

What a week!  Busy, productive, and satisfied.

The last couple months have been rather frustrating, as my search for a new and interesting employment opportunity has been rather tiresome.  Although there have been plenty of jobs to apply for, it has taken incredibly long for to hear responses, arrange interviews, and get results.

However, last night I officially accepted a position.   Although I was initially uncertain about the capacity of this organization to undertake the ambitious projects they are pursuing throughout the world, I have come to the conclusion that their ambitious work is backed with by a talented, brilliant, and dedicated staff whose objectives correlate greatly to my own.  I am quite pleased to join the team, and look forward the further expansion of this partnership.

This NGO approaches international development and aid from a different perspective than might be traditionally assumed.  Rather than giving aid, they give work.  In their words, it is a micro-work organization, that brings computer based work to women, youth, and refugees living in poverty.  Over several years, I have witnessed individuals within an array of companies work hard to acquire skills necessary to participate in the global economy, yet with few opportunities to put these skills to use, these efforts have remained unmerited.  It works to target the locations where skilled populations with limited economic activity are located, and collaborates with various institutions and business partners to generate income facilitating activities by means of online data entry, research, or product testing.  Samasource is a global operation, pursuing projects throughout Africa, Asia, and low in-come communities within the United States, such as within rural south-west Mississippi.

I will now oversee all projects within Kenya.  This includes 18 projects located within Nairobi, 2 within the Dadaab Refugee Camps, and the potential expansion of camps within other towns or nearby countries in the future.  This is a very exciting opportunity for Samasource, the Kenyan and Refugee populations, and myself.

Pursuing development within a protracted refugee settlement is a complicated issue.  In the classic model of humanitarian aid, the disaster happens and international agencies show up to dump lots of stuff on people - food, skills development programs, micro-loans, building materials, security, and clean water.  Certainly these things are important, because we have a responsibility to help one another in the world, and no problem can be solved if people are dying of starvation, sickness, and war.  But after awhile, new problems emerge. The infusion of food aid, might undermine the ability for the food markets to recover. For example, as free sugar will always cost less than the locally grown or sold product.  People who might have made a living growing, shipping, or selling sugar, will no longer have a livelihood and will need to find new methods to stay afloat.  Such problems have a way of spiraling out of control.  Clearly at a certain point, adding more stuff is no longer the answer.  The trick is to then start identifying strengths and to work toward removing the obstacles that keep these strengths from blossoming.  Problem is, so far no one has been able figure out how to determine this 'point of transition.'

When I was in Dadaab I noticed that the construction of a

cell-phone tower had become a major strength within the development of these camps.  After is was constructed, thousands of individuals scraped up whatever money they could find to get some sort of cell phone.  Maybe several families would buy one together, while others could be purchased through loan programs.  With a cell phone, refugees could stay in contact with relatives abroad, make arrangements for money to be wired, learn about weather conditions before grazing animals and a multitude of other advantages.  Money began to flow into the camps, and then new businesses emerged.One man would purchase an electric generator and re-charge your phone batter for a fee, while another would get hold of a used computer and provide email access via the cell phone network.  Next another man would start a business teaching computer classes so that interested men and women could expand their opportunities.  Keep in mind that people living in circumstances of conflict induced displacement are not 'poor illiterate farmers.'  These people had livelihoods and professions in their nation of origin.  Many were carpenters, lawyers, truck drivers, secretaries, and mechanics. Seeking to improve their livelihood and support their family, people always seek to adapt to market demands.  The problem with a refugee camp however, is that government policies restrict viable economic growth.  Although someone might acquire an array of computer skills and have access to a computer, it does not necessarily translate into having a job.  Someone else will need to provide that.

By giving work, they are providing a means to for individuals to help themselves.  By opening the door to the global economy, a major obstacle on the pathway toward stability and development has become available to that population.  Projects such as those undertaken by Samasource might be the essential element within overcoming the gaps between humanitarian relief, development, and a functioning stable economy.  I am grateful to have this oppurtunity to work on the forefront of such a project, and look forward to a healthy and vibrant experience in the near future.

I will be relocating to Nairobi within the next couple weeks.

November 9, 2009

Coca Cola and Global Poverty

I am a big fan of Coca Cola.  I know the company has a long history, full of problems and criticisms, but I still admire their product.  Not only do these folks know how to make carbonated high fructose corn syrup taste really good, but few other companies can compare in terms of global recognition and distribution.

Because of its widespread distribution, I've been able drink Coca Cola all over the world.  From the streets of Cairo, to the back alleys of New Dehli, or even in the heart of the Gold Triangle in Burma, you can always buy a coke.  It makes things easy when feeling a little homesick, because you don't need to take up precious space in the backpack, but can simply drop some change at any local shop.  There is no language barrier, because the brand is always pronounced the same, and no matter what the language, the iconic script and bold red are universal.  

Earlier today I found a blog where another aid worker had some observations on Coke in relation to public health development in Tanzania.  Coke is clearly a leader in logistics and her blog entry highlighted a few things the development community could learn.  It also inspired me to write down some of the thoughts that I've had for a few years on the role of this product within humanitarian and development work.

I've always relied upon Rapid Research Appraisal techniques when entering new communities although I never actually learned about this term until I was in grad school.  The idea is to simply recognize socio-economic indicators specific to that community and to map their geographic distribution to better understand how that economy and society function.  For example, I was told by a former professor that when working in the Philippines about 35 years ago, he noticed that the wealthier households would often have denim blue-jeans hanging on their clothes lines.  Likewise in Malawi he noticed that the richer households in often had more metal containers near the front door than other households.  By making these observations he could instantly map, either mentally or on paper, where the richest and poorest households were located within a community that might otherwise look completely homogenous to an outsider.  This can be very important as it might also provide important information regarding personal security or key issues in local conflicts.  Although I would never advocate that these techniques alone form the basis of policy decisions or project design, they nevertheless  important body of  data in a fast and fairly accurate fashion.

Although each culture, society, and economy will have its own custom set of indicators that must be distinguished and observed by the outsider, I've found that Coca Cola is an excellent universal indicator as a consequence of its globalized distribution and identity.  While traveling or working within some of the worlds lesser developed nations, I've  found Coke functions as a reliable indicator of regional security, poverty, and access to Western ideas.  The accessibility and cost of Coca Cola and Coke merchandise can serve as a excellent means to quickly analyze the social economic landscape of a new community.  

While Coke is always available within city centers, it is also available at an inflated cost.  As one travels further away from the city center, the cost will decrease until a certain point in which the inflated cost of the urban economy has subsided to the rising costs of transit.  As the distance increases from the city, the logistical expenses are compounded with the increased cost of electricity, the limited access to refrigeration, and the reduced access to populations who can afford the beverage.  The greater the distance leads to a higher cost and limited distribution.  At a certain point, one has ventured so far from the city center that Coca Cola is completely inaccessible until you advance into the distribution zone of another city center and the same price/access trends function in reverse.

I have never been anywhere in the world and discovered it untouched by this fizzy sugary beverage. This is no surprise as Coca Cola has plants everywhere, even Somalia!  I have found however that when the product is expensive and more difficult to access, it is also a place where outside/foreigners rarely visit.  In such places, the local population often has limited access to education, viable employment, or social mobility. These places might also be more dangerous, or might require great planning to access and later exit.  I've also had a hunch, though not been validated by any serious methodology, that in such places people are also less likely to be have a significant understanding or knowledge about western nations or people, because I have trouble seeing how reliable information about America could access a landscape barren of this ubiquitous American product.  Of course at other times I've seen people in such places secure access to satellite television, radio programming (such as the BBC), globally distributed cell phone networks with migrant relatives in other nations, and preciously handled newspapers from far away.  Consequently the value of Coke as an ideological indicator is only valid when assessed in relation to these other phenomena.

I've sometimes wondered, if I actually find a place that has never heard of Coca Cola, should I even be there?  There is no decent answer to this question, as its too circumstantial, but I think its worthwhile to ask anyway.   

November 8, 2009

Movin' with the beat

I've been a little quite again as its been difficult to write any captivating posts lately.  Everything is constantly in that "in between state."  I guess this is okay though, as its really just a matter of transitioning from one set of life circumstances to another.

I've continued contact with Samasource, and while I don't want to state anything prematurely, I believe that the relationship is unfolding well enough and its possible that I might end up in Kenya soon enough.  This is a transition I really look forward to, considering how much I enjoy African societies, cultures, and languages.  I've been in contact with an array of friends in Nairobi, and am working on making some new connections at this time.

One new project that I have been working toward actually concerns my side hobby of producing hip hop music.  I had recently learned of a new record company, Gatwhich Records, founded in Nairobi by hip hop artist Emmanuel Jal.  A former child soldier in Sudan, Emmanuel has been touring and recording albums within Europe and America for several years now, his most recent release,  Warchild, is a favorite in my collection and highly recommended.  Anyway, I contact the record company he recently started and they are interested in hearing some of the music that I have been recording in Cairo for the last year.  As I might be moving to Nairobi within the next few weeks, this could be a good opportunity to further expand my recording project, as I hope to work with more hip hop artists across the continent.  If possible I would really like to use this as an oppurtunity to showcase the guys that I have enjoyed working within over the last year in Cairo.

To share some of these recordings, I recently uploaded more tracks to my Youtube account.  These are not music videos per se, but simply a few photographs taken by my Australian friend David Lazar (this guy is an international award wining photographer, so check it out!!!) of the guys, with the camera panning and the music playing.  I am attaching below a sample clip of my recent production with Slim J, called Number One Romeo.  This is definitely one of my favorite songs.

October 24, 2009

Enroute to Kenya?

I had a phone interview the other night with a San Francisco non-profit, about working as their Project Officer within Kenya to oversee projects within Nairobi and the Dadaab Refugee Camps.   Although I was rather nervous at the outset - especially as there were complications getting skype to operate - within moments I found a comfortable relationship developing between us. 

I had discovered this agency while up late one night, reading about new technology developments on CNET. As much of my own research and work experience has consisted of technology, development, and refugee populations, I was immediately intrigued to learn of this company.  It is not an aid 
agency, but instead promotes innovative entrepreneurship within developed and developing nations.  By making it possible for anyone to outsource tasks via an iphone application, Samasource redirects these tasks to workers and refugees within developing nations who promptly accomplish the task and send it back.  These jobs might include data entry, analysis, research, programming, or tedious yet important processes of analysis.

New to working with refugees, it became clear within the conversation that my own background and expertise could be of tremendous value to the agency.  It would be my responsibility to oversee their projects within Nairobi and the Dadaab Refugee Camps where I had previously worked in 2007.  I've been thinking a great deal about the problems they have beenfacing within their program, and already I have an array of potentialsolutions in mind that would be socially-culturally consistent with Kenyan national and refugee workers, while also logistically feasible for thecompany.  It is clear that this could be an exciting and valuableoppurtunity for both of us. 

Unfortunately, although I can design and implement sustainable programming on their behalf, it is clear that the company does not quite have the resources to be as sustainable within my own life.  A little bit of negotiation needs to occur, as I simply don't want to go back to struggling to pay my bills, student loans, and fear getting sick for lack of health insurance.  That would feel like a personal step backward, and not something I really something I'm looking for.  It gets further complicated by the prospect of leaving my life in Cairo, where my girlfriend will continue to remain as she finishes her masters in Human Rights Law, and where I have grown many valuable friendships.

However, they seem willing to work this out with me.  I think they understand that the contribution I can make to their organization could ultimately save money by streamlining current operations, and improving  productivity while remaining consistent with their mission toward economic development and socio-cultural compatibility.   So they are looking at building a better offer, so that I'm not left floundering in Nairobi once the most urgent work is taken care of - after about 2 months out of a 6 month contract.

We are to talk again in a few days, and with luck, establish a more concrete agreement.

I'm really excited about this, to return to my favorite city in the world and to work on a project that has significant personal value.  Best of all, as soon as I get to Kenya - prospectively within a couple weeks- I'm going to feast on some roasted goat, mimi napende nyoma choma!

October 18, 2009

The Black Cloud of Cairo

October and November is not the best time in Cairo - although it should be.  The weather drops from deep fry to a mild simmer, the evenings are crisp and the mornings are lazy.  Yet thanks to impatient demands of poverty and the lack of government regulations (in addition to the lack of implementation), the Egypt's autumn is anything but pleasant.

Its dreadful.
Absolutely dreadful.
I can only compare it to drowning.

Or at least how I imagine drowning.  You find yourself disoriented, everything is familiar but different.  You know that the most important thing to do is keep you mouth closed but your lungs crave oxygen, forcing your eyes to burn and water and swell up inside your head... eventually your body forces you to open your mouth and its over, everything comes rushing in.

The black cloud.

Your lungs ache, your throat itches. The afternoon sun cakes your body in a combination of soot and sweat.

I now experience sporadic afflictions of dermatitis once or twice a day, and I really just want to stay inside, but of course this isn't feasible. Anyway, air is air, and being inside the house or out on the street is only a marginal difference.

So what's the deal?

The deal is that Cairo is suffering from the annual Black Cloud, generated every fall by the combination of industrial pollutants, car exhaust, and most notably, the burning of agricultural waste after the harvest.  The amazing thing about the Nile Delta is that this stretch of land is astoundingly fertile; planting and harvesting seasons are simply put on a year round production schedule.  Strawberries in January, prickly pears in June, vegetables year round... its incredible.  Egypt is also one of the largest producers of rice within the world, producing around 4.5 Million Tons of rice every year.

According to the rice farmers, the problem is that after the harvest, they are left with mountains of agricultural waste, obstructing their land and making it unusable for the next planting.  Although I have my doubts, I read some stories on the internet that some troublesome kids in 1999 had set fire to a giant pile of such waste, and after farmers noticed that the fire never spread, but only sat smoldering and coughing up a black pillar of smoke, burning has become the common solution to their problem.

It has been stated by the Egyptian government in the past that the issue will be taken care of, that regulations will be created and enforced, and that the black cloud will stop showing up every fall.  As you can see from the photo taken this afternoon from my bedroom window, its clear that these changes haven't happened.

October 17, 2009

Dadaab, Kenya: The Worlds Largest Refugee Camp

[caption id="attachment_106" align="alignleft" width="280" caption="Kenya"]Kenya[/caption]

Dadaab is the largest refugee camp in the world.  Composed of three individual camps (Ifo, Hagadera, and Dagahaley), it contains over 250,000 people and has been declared by Oxfam as unfit for humans.   Founded in the early 90's,  the camps were established with the intended lifespan of only one to two years, the continued growth of the population and expansion of the camps has required continuous adjustments to camp infrastructure, management, and policy.

The camps are located in a semi-arid region that is otherwise largely inhabited by a nomadic pastoralists.  This environment greatly limits livelihood opportunities within the camps, and it is highly unlikely that the refugees would survive there without assistance from international and national organizations.  At the same time it is highly unlikely that the refugees would survive there without the assistance from international and national organizations.  At the same time, it is highly unlikely that they could survive only on the assistance from the international community.  Food distributions include maize, pulses, wheat, oil, and salt, along with a few non-food items.  The agencies offer ‘incentive’ job opportunities for refugees, which pay a maximum monthly amount of 6,000 Ksh.  The only jobs in which the refugees can engage legally, as they are not allowed to formally work in Kenya.  Alternatively, refugees engage in business or at times are employed by other refugees for manual work and household tasks.  According to researcher Cindy Horst, earlier research suggested 10-15 percent to receive remittances, although this has certainly expanded.

[caption id="attachment_109" align="alignright" width="368" caption="WFP Rations Distribution at Ifo Camp"]WFP Rations Distribution at Ifo Camp[/caption]

The main reason why improvements in socio-economic conditions in the camps are very gradual and levels of self-sufficiency are still limited is obvious; the refugees are confined in a semi-desert area with very limited economic opportunities.  Agencies working to improve livelihoods within Dadaab must address the structural constraints that refugees face within the camp as well the value of their interventions for a future outside of the camps.   However, upgrading the physical infrastructure of the camps is a daunting tasks, not only due to expected financial costs, but also because of the legal and political complications.  With no legal right to the land, the refugee populations and international agencies bear tremendous risks to invest in camp developments, especially as the Kenyan government would just as likely prefer the refugees to repatriate to Somalia.  Clearly, new ideas of "infrastructure" must be explored for the advancement of economic health within the Dadaab camps.

Not only are prospects for economic growth limited by the physical and political constraints, but so are opportunities for social justice and environmental health.  I have attached a power point presentation that provides an overview of how all three of these issues are interconnected within the camps.

[slideshare id=2252252&doc=justiceequityandsustainability-091016213057-phpapp02]

Sudan: Exploring Development for the Internally Displaced

[caption id="attachment_112" align="alignleft" width="280" caption="Sudan"]Sudan[/caption]

Since independence from Britain in 1956, the Nation of Sudan has been consumed with civil war for 27 of its 38-year history.  As a consequence of continuous turmoil, several hundred thousand individuals have been displaced throughout the country, establishing an array of displacement camps within bordering nations and throughout the state.  In Khartoum alone, as many as 100 informal camps have been constructed with limited access to water, sanitation, electricity, roads, goods, or services. Laden with poverty and disease, many of these informal settlements have been razed by government officials to, yet these attempts to sanitize the landscape do little more than further persecute an already displaced and marginalized population.

While government policies and development initiatives seek to establish new settlements, I argue that the emerging livelihood strategies within many of these camps contain the potential for community wide development opportunities.   Although an array of restrictions exist within camp economies, the reformatting of government policy and procedure may provide the leverage necessary to stimulate the improvement of living condition.  Given the symbiotic relationship between housing consolidation and home based enterprise within informal economies, the direct investment into the market place to engage the physical reconstruction process by promoting a trade in materials and small-scale support industries could promote several positive consequences for displaced populations within Sudan.

The Economies of Refugee Camps

Upon arrival at most camps, refugees are completely dependent upon the delivery of international aid to improve their situation. However once they become embedded within the encampment, their dependency on aid may be offset through their own efforts toward economic independence, leading toward the establishment of complex economic systems (Bookman 2002, 87). As the physical conditions of refugee camps vary, these economic systems evolve to reflect the unique aspects and conditions of the resident population. In general, most refugee encampments are located on inferior land with few resources and an inadequate infrastructure; many camps contain high rates of malnutrition and disease. While the extreme conditions present within the camp may motivate the process of individual capacity building, refugee societies also make conscious efforts to build capacity as a collective as well (Bookman 2002, 86).

The economies of permanent encampments become sophisticated micro-economic systems in which people produce, exchange, consume, and interact with each other in order to improve the quality of their lives.  In this manner they develop a codependent relationship with other local economies, and may even appear to function in the same manner as the economies of villages throughout the developing world.  However, refugee camps are  “microcosms of artificial economic relations (Bookman 2002, 87).”  They have features that are too contradictory to survive as a functioning economy, as the role of the aid institutions, the delivery of aid, the harsh environmental conditions, and the continually shifting framework of state policies undermine the potential for viable markets.  Refugee economies fail to become systems of growth, but they do serve an important role within the lives of refugees of systems of survival.

Often refugee camps contain market places similar to most human settlements. The persistence of markets creates a demand for employment, thus generating alternative forms of income to reduce the consumption of goods and services, decreasing outside financial obligation upon humanitarian agencies. Yet the demand for camp labor tends to be low.  This results from the depressed economic activity in encampments and the subsequent low rates of job creation, leaving an excess supply of labor.   Although camp residents want jobs in order to earn incomes and supplement the inadequacies of supplied aid, demographic factors create a surplus of labor, overwhelming the limited demand for services. Consequently, new workers enter the labor force faster than jobs are created through growth within formal and informal sectors. Given these labor conditions, most camp residents are unemployed, underemployed, or irregularly employed, reinforcing the continual threat of idleness among refugees – in particular among the youth.  With no means to participate in the meager economy, the idleness of youth becomes a security threat as their restlessness may lead destructive activity (Bookman 2000, 99).

Another common consequence of such constant unemployment is the de-skilling of the population. While programs that emphasize skill creation and maintenance are crucial, such as through vocational training, other components of human capital should not be overlooked.  “These include the adaptability to new conditions, creative thinking, risk taking, the ability to follow instructions, and the personal freedom to respond to incentives.” Before the conflict, livelihoods in Darfur were based on a combination of farming, herding, trade and labor migration. This pattern of violence and displacement has done much to create a new demographic composition within displacement camps, as the outflow of men and boys has created a rise in female-headed households, reducing the traditional domains of human capital and establishing a necessity to pursue the formation of new livelihood strategies (Bookman 2000, 103).

The Demand for New Livelihood Strategies within IDP Camps

The dynamics of forced migration and informal settlement have resulted in sprawling, poorly constructed encampments producing bleak opportunities for a population that can no longer rely upon its traditional mechanisms for subsistence. The sudden population influx has rapidly stripped the natural vegetation and water sources from the surrounding environment. Refugees are legally prohibited from bringing new cultivable land outside the designated areas into production either in response to population increase or depleted soil fertility.  In addition, the government has made allocations since the mid-1960s, so that farms have become overly fragmented to accommodate newly established families (Kibreab 2003).   Unable to pursue the traditional pastoral methodologies of income generation within their new settlement, alternative means must be found.

Until 1998, building and construction managed to employ some men while women worked within informal activities such as making tea or brewing alcohol (Agnès de Geoffroy 2007).  As housing consolidation within informal settlements is a constant process, brick-making is a common source of day labor.  However this maintains an inconsistent wage as fluctuations in food aid and market saturation increase or reduce the demand for bricks.  A similar initiative is the collection of natural resources, such as grass and firewood, for sale.  These materials may be used within the housing consolidation process or as fuel for cooking, yet the constant pressure exerted upon the landscape to produce these goods has stripped the surrounding hinterland and forced the women and children who collect these goods to drift further and further into the countryside where they become exposed to the dangers of violence and rape. Continual insecurity thus undermines the collection of natural resources for any use (Lischer 2005, 9).

Due to the influx of humanitarian aid between 2004 and 2006, some livelihood opportunities improved.  Some individuals were able to undertake farming with the improvement in security and the distribution of food in rural areas. For others, new financial strategies emerged, such as the creation of redistributive collectives where a group of individuals pool money for large purchases (Bascom 1993).  In addition, many IDPs were able to engage in basic trading activities, as food aid stimulated market places.  However these minor improvements were easily affected by fluctuations in security and failed to provide an impetus for major development opportunities.

For those displaced individuals who live outside of urban camps, increased mobility provides the opportunity to pursue agricultural and pastoral activities.  However the limited access to labor markets reduces their ability to capitalize on their access to forest products and cash crops.  Among those who live within relatively secure regions, high concentrations of livestock and people exert great pressure on water resources and the looting of livestock always remains a threat (Buchanon-Smith 2007).

Developing New Markets in a Landscape of Displacement

A web of trading relationships that stretch between the North and South, connecting the rural and the urban, has always characterized the regional Darfur economy.  Consequently the continuation of conflict has wreaked massive havoc upon the national economy, reducing the ability of even local markets to sufficiently accommodate their population.  Local markets have suffered as a result of the displacement of producers and traders, of restrictions by militant groups, insecurity in rural areas, the constant risk of looting, and the high cost of random payments or taxation my militants (Buchanon-Smith 2007).

Although most of the secondary and urban markets are still functioning, the primary village market network has been devastated and few still operate. Although livestock continues to maintain a fraction of its previous significance, the cost of transporting cattle has multiplied several times as transport routes become more circuitous and longer. The increase in transport cost is naturally passed on to the consumer while the trickle of supplies fails to accommodate the massive demand. Trade in locally produced grain is also badly affected by the difficulties of moving grain from traditional surplus areas to key markets. This is the inevitable consequence of so many farmers having become IDPs, and of the limited access that much of the remaining resident rural population have to their farms (Buchanon-Smith 2007).

Amidst the consistent patterns of reduced scale and high costs, a new market opportunity has however developed due to the influx of food aid.  Although the sale of food aid is much a consequence of poor management by relief organization, such as problems with registration and or corruption among local leaders and agencies, it has doe much to stimulate local markets.  The impact on extremely precarious livelihoods in Darfur has been overwhelmingly positive for IDPs who have limited livelihood alternatives. The distribution of food aid has encouraged some people to return to their villages in each of the three states, both from camps and from hiding in the bush, thus enabling agricultural production to resume.

Furthermore the distribution of food aid has had a positive effect by mitigating conflict between IDPs and resident populations. It has provided them with a stable source of food and income so it is unnecessary to engage in dangerous livelihood strategies such as firewood collection. Where food aid is being provided to all population groups in an area it has eased tensions with local populations (Buchanon-Smith 2007).

Displacement Camps and Urban Development Initiatives

Although displacement camps and informal communities continue to persist throughout the Khartoum metropolitan area for several decades, government initiatives to advance the physical urban development of the landscape have remained rooted within methods generally appropriate for advanced economies and stable political domains.   These methods include the demolition of low-income communities and the arbitrary consolidation and redistribution of property rights and land plots.  Unable to pay the high costs for formal ownership, forced migrants living within Khartoum are ultimately evicted from their current dwelling and forced to live at the further outskirts.  Other planning initiatives, such as sites and services projects, that might actually benefit IDP camps and informal settlers never actually come into place, consequently leaving a bleak landscape of destruction in the name of development – but never actually prompting development among residents (Geoffroy 2007).

An Argument for Housing and Asset-Building for Development

A major disadvantage within the development of refugee settlements is the reduced capability to expand upon capital assets such as property and housing. Already burdened by the constant threat of insecurity, the social tension rooted within environmental consumption, and a limited means of economic advancement, refugees face an additional body of problems when concerned with investment and development.  Living within a state of suspended socio-political temporality, refugees are exiled from the culturally defined, socio-economic mechanisms that have commonly supported processes of exchange or value determination.

Throughout the developing world it has been a longstanding problem to build upon existing property and housing assets as such nations suffer from the inequitable distribution of legal and administrative mechanisms to promote the fair exchange of such capital.  As successful policy decisions must imbibe a social consensus to represent a collective understanding of ownership, value, and exchange, the development of such mechanisms demand a sophisticated psychological and social transaction between the government and the people (De Soto 2000, 156-157).  As a product of this socio-political transaction, property is not merely a physical thing, but becomes a “legal expression of an economically meaningful consensus about assets (De Soto 2000, 157).”

Although developing nations struggle to institute this transaction, refuges may not even attempt to participate within this process of social production as an authoritarian framework dominates their daily lives.  Stripped of the capacity to formulate a social contract via legal and administrative procedure within their own community, refugees cannot rely upon the systems of their origin country, nor can they rely upon the politics of their host government. Although the transferability of refugee assets would provide systems of incentive and streamline development initiatives, the prospects of asset oriented policy development is undermined by the constant possibility of repatriation or resettlement (McDougal, 2007).  Within a refugee population, the lack of property ownership, the inability to later transfer accumulated capital across state borders, and the constant threat of asset stripping by militants or the host government, all complicate the prospects of any development initiative far beyond the conditions found within most developing nations.  However, as displacement camps do maintain vital informal economies and self-help housing is the standard shelter procedure, a review of the intersection between informal activity and housing consolidation may provide vital insight toward the further development of viable housing programs within refugee communities

The Informal Sector and Housing Consolidation

One way that government and humanitarian authorities could advance development among force migrants in Sudan is to build upon the symbiotic relationship that is established between housing and income generation.   The process of housing consolidation is frequently a straightforward process as homeowners are often willing to display housing improvements, however to understand the dynamics of income generation within the informal sector is a more complicated task.  It must be first recognized that the foundation behavior within the informal sector is to derive income within an economic framework that has otherwise denied his ability to enter the formal economy due to the lack of resources, or because the individual lives within an economy that has inequitably distributed capital and resources across multiple sectors and has thus subjected low income populations to additional hardships.  Within the latter circumstance the individual has a severely limited means to acquire capital within the existing economy beyond the pursuit of informal activity.

A frequent approach toward the upgrading of informal settlements is to better connect the informal settlement to adjacent formal communities, to absorb one enclave into the other with a focus on social and economic programming rather than a focus on the physical condition of the shelters (Abbot 2002, 194).   However I argue that a better approach within the situation of displacement camps within Sudan – as refugees have no property rights, and insufficient economy, and supplied infrastructure is lacking- is to invest development funding into the local economy in a manner that will aid the consolidation of informal settlements.  As these homes are intimately connected to the development of home based livelihood procurement, the success of which would be directed toward reinvestment into further housing consolidation (Gough and Kellett 2001, 235).


Although limited in scale, market actives and livelihood strategies continue to persist throughout displacement camps and informal settlements within Sudan.  As conflict remains to undermine former economic patterns, new patterns are forced to exist among internally displaced peoples, while international aid and government programs achieve only minimal positive impact.  Although food aid has influenced market prices, and to a small extent employment sectors as well, the consumptive nature of this assistance hinders long term objectives.  Given the extent of disease, poverty, and the limited opportunity for advancement within IDP camps, additional measures need to be taken.

Although IDP camps certainly maintain population and social dynamics unique from informal settlements throughout the developing world, the majority of characteristics in terms of housing and employment are shared.  As the Sudanese government fails to capitalize upon these existing circumstances by engaging a tabula rosa approach to development, it is important for humanitarian agencies to utilize the economic social capital at hand to spur development processes.  Although displaced peoples have no legal right to property within spontaneous settlement, and are therefore continually limited within their capacity to improve their housing, by investing in home based enterprises, and driving the advancement of informal consolidation, development may occur in an irregular but socio-culturally appropriate fashion.

Works Cited

Abbot, John. 2004. “Upgrading and Informal Settlement in Capetown.” Reconsidering Informality: Perspectives from Urban Africa, Ed Karen Tranberg Hansen, and Mariken Vaa. Nordiskaa Afrikainstitutet

Agnes, de Geoggroy. 2007. Internal to International Displacement in Sudan. Unpulblished paper for Migration and Refugee Movements in the Middle east and North Africa.

Assal, Munzoul A. M. 2007. Unpulblished paper for Migration and Refugee Movements in the Middle east and North Africa.

Buchanan-Smith, Margie. 2007.  “Conflict, camps, and coercion: the ongoing livelihoods crisis in Darfur.”  Disastors, Vol. 31, No. 51, pp s57-s76

De Soto, Hernando.  2000. The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs In The West and Fails Everywhere Else.  Basic Books; New York NY.

Downing, Theodore E. 1996. “Mitigating Social Impoverishment when People are Involuntarily Displaced,” in Understanding Impoverishment: The Consequences of Development-Induced Displacement by Christopher McDowell, ed. Berghahn Books, Oxford UK

Gough, Katherin V., A. Graham Tipple, and Mark Napier.  2003 “Making a Living in AfricanCities: The Role of Home-based enterprises in Accra and Pretoria.” International Planning Studies, Vol. 8, No. 4, 253-277

Jacobson, Karen.  2002.  “Can Refugees Benefit the State?  Refugee Resources and African Statebuilding,” The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 40, No 4, pp 577-596

Jacobson, Karen. 2006. “Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Urban Areas: A livelihoods  Perspective.” Journal of Refugee Studies Vol. 19, No. 3. pp 273 - 286

Kibreab, Gaim. 1996. “Eritrean and Ethiopian Urban Refugees in Khartoum: What the Eye Refuses to See,” African Studies Reivew, Vol 39, No. 3. p 131-178

Kibreab, Gaim. UNESCO 2003. “Constraints on the construction of sustainable livelihoods.”  Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Lischer, Sarah Kenyon. 2005. Dangerous Sanctuaries: Refugee Camps, Civil War, and the Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid. Ithica and London; Cornell University Press.