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."