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.

October 16, 2009

Justice, Equity, And Sustainability

I created this presentation about some planning issues within the Dadaab refugee camps a year ago, however I only recently uploaded it to the web. Nonetheless, I believe it is a decent presentation, so I thought I would share it.

October 11, 2009

Pyramids of Egypt and Piping Hot Pizza.

Just a quick word.  I went to the pyramids the other day with some folks.  Had a good time.  It was the 4th time that I've been there, and I found it just as enjoyable as previous times.  However on this trip I also climbed into one of these things.  Not much to describe except that it was super hot and humid.  But I thought I would mention for those who haven't been to Egypt, are you aware of how close the pyramids are to the city?  Usually, thanks to movies and books, we all generally presume the pyramids are located somewhere out in the desert, accessible only by horse or camel or something.  But no.  They are immediately on the edge of suburban Giza, one of the largest suburbs in the world.  Immediately across the street is a combination KFC/Pizza Hut.  Below is a photo I shot from the 3rd story window of Pizza Hut.  I will admit that I flipped the photo horizontally so that the text is properly readable.  

October 7, 2009

Voices Of Cairo

Several weeks ago I mentioned that my friend from art school, Anna Kipervaser, was coming to Cairo to film a documentary about the daily call to prayer.  Her production company On Look Films recently released a teaser/trailer for this documentary.  Here is a brief description of the film and a link to the trailer.

A documentary about a 1400 year old oral tradition that is about to be erased forever from the audioscape of Cairo.

Voices and Faces of the Adhan: Cairo tells the story of the adhan in the ancient metropolis of Cairo, introducing the muezzins of this generation. In 2010, a new law will go into effect reducing the daily symphony of thousands of diverse voices to a single pre-recorded call broadcast throughout the entire city using wireless receivers. It is necessary to document this tradition before it ceases to exist....  (Read More)

Voices of Cairo from On Look Films on Vimeo.

October 2, 2009

The Power of Ideas

I just came across an article about a boy in Malawi who has changed the future of his entire village after finding two physics textbooks found within a rural library and thereafter taught himself to construct windmills.  Initially hoping to generation enough power to illuminate a singe lightbulb in his home so that he could read at night, his work has since provided enough electricity for the entire village in addition to an array of other benefits.  I highly recommend reading it.  There is also a brief youtube video.

You can find it Here.