June 29, 2011

With my eyes fixed on Kabul

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*Posted 6/29/11, Edited and Re-posted 6/30/11


As I prepare to relocate to Kabul in the coming months, watching the chaos at the Intercontinental Hotel yesterday made me physically ill.  Simultaneously I felt angry and frustrated.  Part of me was questioning the resolve to go to Kabul and the other part of me felt only more determined to get there.  I don't go looking for fires in the world as much as I look for ways to extinguish them, and watching the tragedy unfold, I felt as if the fire just got a great deal bigger.

It is for the very fact that I want to see a world of peace and justice, where no one must suffer needlessly, that I support any institution- be it nations, armies, corporations, or otherwise - who dedicate their resources to bring education, capital, and legal systems into the corners of the world.  Terrorism and aggression byproducts of global injustice, a consequence of international systems having marginalized vast regions of the globe, creating pockets of chaos, poverty, and despair.  As long as the world contains vast populations of alienated, frustrated youth who are denied a better future due to illiteracy, misinformation, and extreme poverty, tragedy will continue to touch our lives.  

Perhaps the avoidance of such ungoverned spaces would have been excusable in the past, but in a global era, the chaos of these regions will continue to permeate into the world.  Avoided regions such as Somalia affect the world everyday, evident by the 8.3 Billion Dollars lost to piracy in 2010, a metric that does not reflect the loss of innocent life or the displacement of millions of people.  Without continued effort to stabilize and facilitate an educated peace, will  today's Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan or elsewhere be any different?  

We can choose to intervene and invest in the well-being of humanity, to spread education, improved housing, access to clean water and opportunities for social mobility, or we can continue to marginalize populations.  The construction of economic barriers will not solve problems by removing them from sight.  In contrast, it will only give reason for people climb them, and when that is not possible because the wall has grown too high, it is only too be expected that those on the other side will fight to break the wall down.

I am saddened to see the lost of life from yesterday's attacks, and naturally fearful when I look at the problems facing me down the road.  Such incidents shock the conscious and shake me at the core.  My job is not to solve such problems, to "save the world" or bring peace and justice.  My job is to supply straight forward solutions to complex problems, very much in the way that a mechanic fixes a car or a technician repairs a computer.  The only difference is that I have to work with communities.  It is unfortunate that solving these problems - such as providing education and technical training to expand economic markets and reduce poverty - must confront hostility by an isolated and active minority.  Yet it is more unfortunate that so few are contributing solutions. 

It is understandable that not everyone has the ability to directly contribute to solving such problems.  Yet everyone has an ability to contribute in some particular fashion.  One place to start is with a modest donation to an aid agency.  I suggest MSF, as they take on  the greatest humanitarian challenges in the world and do not have any political support, operating entirely by private donations. More importantly, they are arguably the one of the best agencies, and are a leader in their field. Click Here to Make a Donation Online.  For now, I will  continue to measure the conditions in which I need to work in the future, and will continue to calculate the ratio of risk I am willing to confront for a each particular job.  While I continue to determine the fine balance of personal ability vs personal risk, I hope that others can at least make a small contribution to support those who do the same, and often in far more dangerous circumstances.

June 26, 2011

Reading #Conflict in the Urban Terrain of Kismayo, #Somalia

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Recent reports from Somalia have described a helicopter attack on al-Shabaab fighters near Kismayo.  Originally reporting the death of two fighters, it now appears that 15 died in the missile attack.  Kismayo is an al-Shabaab stronghold where a great deal of fighting has taken place. 

A quick look at the city on Google Images reveals a large section of the city blackened by explosions and fires.  The pattern of scorched buildings is consistent with the major transportation corridors highlighted in red. As the conflict in Somalia is highly mobile and fast moving, gains are established by taking hold of the roadways, thereby assuming control of the neighborhoods pinned between roads.

If one isolates the individual locations of attack, a subtle collection of patterns emerge.  The largest areas of combat often take place at transportation intersections.  This provides  the largest variety of logistical and operational  input/outputs, such as improved range of vision and horizontal expansion of battle space.

Yet further analysis also reveals two primary bands of conflict.  Both bands are curvilenear, suggesting 2-3 primary points of entry for troops.  The band on the left, situated on city limits, shows on large point of conflict followed by a series of smaller points.  Either the conflict began at a fever pitch and tapered off, or it built to a climax in the first band.

As the conflict continued and forces swept into the city, the second band emerged. They traveled most likely from the lower corridor which contains clear horizontal roadways and is less entangled in the labyrinth of smaller, internal side-streets.  Al Shabaab would have likely traveled northward, continuing to take advantage of major transportation arteries and as the land came under their control, the intensity of conflict would subside.

June 21, 2011

#Kabul, #Afghanistan: #Skateboarding toward the future

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More often than not, international development is pursued as a purely economic process.  Roads must be built, banks must be strengthened, housing improved, and health care should be made accessible.  Yet the simple construction of institutions, the provision of infrastructure, and the implementation of social programming is not enough to solve all social problems because social problems are complex. It is common wisdom that these complex problems can only be solved internally, within the community,  yet the community generally lacks the means to to action.  Conversely, aid agencies frequently advertise for specialists in "capacity building" and yet within the job descriptions, the term "capacity" remains consistently vague.   While capacity is best defined as an internal ability to pursue and implement active change, when the workings of communities are merged with capacity, the concept bubble stretches to a breaking point.  The scale of the problem remains too much for the solution.  Sometimes something else is needed, a strategy that is less direct than teaching job skills or creating new markets.

While in Cairo, I witnessed the transformative power  of that simple social programming can have within the lives of youth who must grow up in poverty and who lack opportunities for personal advancement.  Viable social programming, such as sports, music, or even the provision of a space to play, can transform a child's life.  Certainly these things alone cannot remove the frustrations of poverty or the pains of social alienation, nor can these things provide the same concrete tools for personal advancement as education and job training.  Yet these sorts of programs create opportunities for confidence and self esteem, provide opportunities to for children to communicate and express themselves.  Self expression is easily undervalued because its role is immeasurable, but little imagination is necessary to recognize that a confident child will find more success in life than one who is alienated and unhappy.  Even where opportunities are limited, those with confidence and pride will creatively seek solutions, believing that solutions are possible.

This evening I discovered the brief documentary Skateistan: To Live and Skate Kabul.  This film shows the work of an ngo to bring skate boarding to youth in Kabul.  It shows how a nice space for play, how basic access to safety and fun may wield a transformative power.   The film reveals how something as simple as skateboarding can dramatic shape an individual's life.  Now imagine, if a child impacted by something as simple as skateboard had the chance to go to school, to drink clean water, and to walk down the street without fear.  Apply the same concept to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of children in a city like Kabul and the concept of capacity becomes strikingly clear.  Suddenly the future isn't so bleak.

Kenya's Superhighway

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super-highway through Kenya is under construction, complimented by the development of a new trucking industry and ocean port.  Chinese investment in the region is spurring such projects, leading the construction of the Thika Road. By expanding an existing route, this development will connect Kenya's local economy with the surrounding region, ease traffic, and facilitate the movement of roughly 80 million people.

The road construction includes the expansion of existing roadways to interconnect the new project with preexisting infrastructure, improving access to universities, cinemas, and the national museum.   It also includes flyovers, underpasses, and a full drainage assemblage. Construction hasn't been entirely smooth, as tensions over hiring processes have led to large scale protests. Many land owners were also dissatisfied to lose their land to the project. The project will take three years and three construction companies to complete the project, but will have large scale impact on the regional economy.

Economist Jeffrey Sachs once stated that one of the greatest projects our world could pursue to overcome poverty is to build an efficient transportation route throughout East Africa, "rather than a two-lane, broken-down road," that presently serves as the only transit corridor from Mombasa to Burundi.  Perhaps the Thika Road expansion is will lead to other such projects, and Sachs' vision will become a reality.

June 20, 2011

Reporting the Frontline of Conflict in Mogadishu

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A lighthouse in Mogadishu destroyed by war. National Geographic.
After monitoring the conflict in Somalia for several years, I can attest to the limited flow of information from the region.  Insufficient information results in insufficient analysis and Somalia is subject to the worst circumstance of all - insufficient concern.  While the conflict rages with global implications, the lack of journalism and knowledge on the region precipitates a disproportionate lack of conviction to intervene and assist. 


Today I found a video briefly covering the frontline of the conflict in Mogadishu.  It is not often that one has the opportunity to watch video footage of the central conflict in Somalia.  It is not possible to embed the flash video from the BBC's website, so it is necessary to use the following link [Somalia].  Given the subject matter, I thought I would share with readers some of the other common media sources on Somalia.


New York Times resource page on Somali [LINK]
The NYT page is frequently updated with AP stories and independent NYT journalism, however the technical references such as their 'Experts' section is strongly outdated.  


IRIN Humanitarian News Somalia Page [LINK]
The IRIN site is a major source for news on the region, and is comprehensively connected to other UN-related organizations such as OCHA, so it tends to have a focus on development and displacement issues.  I do wish more maps were available in addition to technical data, yet I do appreciate the constant updates.


Hiiraan Online [Somalia News Site]
This Somali news source is frequently updated and closest to the source, but also is difficult to navigate and not easy to understand.  Sometimes the journalism is also not of a very high standard, the news is provided at a variety of scale - with pieces focusing on anything between specific urban issues and broader concerns within the Somali Diaspora.  Much of it is written in Soomaali language, but there is enough work in English to maintain its value.


Somalia Report [LINK]
I just recently discovered this site and I absolutely love it.  It only hires local journalists and constantly provides thorough updates on recent events concerning piracy, militant groups, and political leaders.  They also provide an email subscription service.

Urban Planning in Conflict

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Kabul, Afghanistan

I haven't updated this blog for awhile, although daily updates can be found at The Humanitarian Terrain.  The next couple months will continue to have a low rate of posts, however in August I will have far more to write about as I begin my new position in Kabul, Afghanistan.  For the present are some small news blurbs concerning urban development issues in regions of interest.

UNHABIT releases Charter of Values [LINK].  In line with contemporary trends in economic and physical planning, UNHABITAT has required ongoing partnerships with private agencies to facilitate project implementation.  To encourage a strengthened relationship that remains centered on UNHABITAT priorities within the private sector, the agency as created a series of guidelines to frame future partnerships.

New Model on Evolution of Urban Settlements [LINK].  By merging an expansive study of regional linguistic structures and local political organization in South East Asia, scientists have advanced a theory on the rise and collapse of past civilizations, wherein those that advanced the most quickly became more vulnerable and prone to sudden collapse.


Upcoming Conference on Building Resilience [LINK]. Heritance Kandalama, Sri Lanka July 19-21. Interdisciplinary approaches to disaster risk reduction and sustainable urban development.


Brief interview with Somali Archaeologist Sada Mire [LINK].  Although initially displaced by the ongoing conflicts of Somalia, Sada returned from England's University CollegeLondon to discover prehistoric rock-sites in the northern province of Somaliland.

Approval for new Egyptian Science Research City [LINK]. The ruling military in Egypt approved the planning and construction of a new urban development dedicated to technological research and scientific advancement. The campus will be situated on 300 acres near Sixth of October City.

No Rest in Somalia. Somalia premier quits, Danish Warship offers Kenya 24 captured pirates, 25 member of al-Shabaab surrender, while continued fighting displaces more residents...  [LINK].  In a desparate attempt to round up new recruits, insurgents have been visiting Madrasa's in central Somalia, looking for schools to stop teaching and offer children to join the insurgency [LINK].