June 18, 2012

The importance of speed for land rights in post-conflict reconstruction

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Legal Access to Land in Kabul is a constant dilemma (Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012)
Afghanistan has seen the completion of various development projects such as the building of roads, the establishment of a Coca-Cola plan, and the rebuilding of the central bank. But everyday in Kabul I witness a hard learned lesson.  The inability for people to access legal title to land has crippled the development of the city.   

Many of the people affected lost their claim to family own land during their displacement, as more than 6 million Afghans have returned from Pakistan or Iran since 2002.   There have also been about 1 million people who were internally displaced by war and have returned to their homes, only to find that they have no means to prove ownership, have been replaced by new occupants, or have found the landscape entirely changed.   There have also been an influx of migrants into Kabul, searching new opportunities or returning from diaspora.   In Kabul,  80% of the residents occupy informal housing settlements.  Many of these settlements are built on government owned land.

The Government of Afghanistan has struggled with informal settlement.  I would say that for 10 years the local and state governments have been rather obsessed with it as an issue, although perhaps not with the mind of solving it.  Many of these settlements are poorly constructed, lack appropriate sanitation, and are seen as a public health threat.  They are considered a bottleneck to development.  A few weeks ago, when conducting a training seminar at City Hall, I asked some engineers what they suggest is the best way to proceed when an informal settlement does not fit into the city master plan.  The response was "send in the police."  

But if a region has a long embedded history of violence, why would a government pursue policies that facilitate discontent, economic striation, legal marginalization, and civil disobedience?  

Open-air drainage ditch under construction in Kabul
That is not good planning.

Because the problem of land ownership was not reconciled in 2001 or 2002, when the city had 1.5 million people, it now struggles everyday with the consequences amid a population over over 5 million.  We have no effective postal system.  We have few street names.  Only now, 10 years later, are the streets being paved around the city and drainage ditches are being dug out.  We have no underground sewage system.  Utilities are a jumbled mess and electrical fires are common a common occurrence.  Nearly all of this chaos could have been avoided had the local government supported the provision of land rights to new occupants. Not to mention the grave economic loss to the city as land loses its productivity when has no determinable owner.  In the meanwhile, corruption has skyrocketed over land access and many people point fingers at the Mayor of Kabul.

I understand the desire to return to one's original home or to strive for urban policy that will provide high quality services.  But these personal interests must not cloud ones judgement.   In post-conflict environments, the speed at which policy is shaped and implemented is essential to avoid slipping backward into chaos.  Policies must be objective and realist.

For years the World Bank has encouraged the Government of Afghanistan to simply recognize many of the informal communities around Kabul.  Now in a massive undertaking, the USAID funded Project LARA is being implemented nationwide at the cost of 41.8 million dollars!  In an attempt to solve all the problems of land use, access, and development, this sprawling project could have been easily avoided about 10 years ago.  With a price tag of 41.8 million, there is also no guarantee of success.

Unfortunately,  I suspect many other countries will not learn this lesson from Afghanistan, and will instead choose to repeat the same decisions as made in Afghanistan.

June 10, 2012

How to work in International Development

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Water Delivery in Mogadishu, Somalia (Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012)
About 2 or 3 times a week I receive emails from curious individuals or graduate students looking for opportunities to work in international development.  Some of these inquires are also for urban planners interested in working in post-war reconstruction or in active conflict zones, but are unsure where to start.  If and when I have the means, I do my best to extend opportunities their way, but it just depends on the timing.  Often too, people are looking for general advice, which is difficult, as everyone working in this field tends to have a very individual path.

I do at least have  few general lessons which I can share:

  • Go to graduate school.  A graduate degree is essential.  I was once advised to get 2 graduate degrees, one that is technical, and one that is more contextual and social science oriented.  I followed this advice and it has served me well.
  • Learn to write.  Good writing is important because you will spend long hours writing reports.  Most "aid workers" do little more than stare at computer screens all day.  That of course is a different problem altogether, but being a good writer will get you the job.
  • Languages help but aren't critical.  If you want to work in South America or West Africa, Spanish and French will be essential but beyond that... I wouldn't worry about.  If you didn't grow up bi or multilingual there will always be lots of people better than you at languages.  So  try to learn one if you can, but don't worry about mastering it.  More importantly, just try to learn the local languages the best you can wherever you happen to eventually work.  You can improve your job options more by mastering a hard skill rather than a language.
  • Acquire technical skills. The ability to do GIS, database construction and management, and statistics are in constant demand.  Web skills are good too.  I was once told that people either work in management or have an actual skill, but managers are commonplace, so its better to do the latter. I've found this to be quite true and therefore have little difficulty acquiring new contracts.
  • Identify a high-demand geographic market.  One of the biggest mistakes I ever made was to move to Washington DC, thinking I would find a job in the aid field.  There is a reason everyone there works in fundraising.  In general, the location is over saturated and much the discourse is very out of touch.  On a similar note, many people think "I want to work in Africa" so they move to Nairobi and try to find a job.  Of course you can find what you want in both places, but it is difficult.  A better option is to identify a city with a lot of cash and a high demand for skilled people (regardless of their experience).  Kabul and Juba are good examples. 
  • If you are a US citizen, consider joining the Peace Corps.  I did not, but in retrospect, it would have made life easier if I wanted to join the USAID machine.  
  • Try to work for MSF.  I have more respect for Medicine Sans Frontiers than any other NGO in the world.  They are highly capable and highly respected.  If you work for them for 2-3 years, you will not have difficulty moving into any other organization (though you may not want to at that point).
  • Unfortunately most people who want to be aid workers find themselves working for free for 2-3 years.  I did my fair share of volunteer work as well, but looking back, I don't think it was the best idea. In fact, I'd argue this way of thinking is greatly antiquated and undermining.   Perhaps a better path is to pursue work in the private-sector, working in engineering, research, business or otherwise, and after a few years, cross over into for-profit development work or with a large-scale INGO.  

June 5, 2012

Why is Post-war Reconstruction and Conflict ignored by Urban Planners

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Informal housing adorns Kabul's mountains, complete with no water, no sanitation, and no roads (Photo: Sutika Sipus)
A quick look at some of the more popular urban planning websites and forums, such as Planetizen, Engaging Cities, Cyburbia, or the American Planning Association, and one will discover  articles on a vast array of issues such as rehabilitating industrial sites, methods for inclusive public participation in urban design, suburban sprawl and conservation, and occasionally the generic term "international development."  While I occasionally search these forums to see what new ideas have popped up, its disappointing to find that little of the content relates to my own daily work in cities like Kabul Afghanistan or Mogadishu Somalia, or within future projects in Libya and Nigeria.

Yet whenever I look at these forums, the same question always crosses my mind:

Why are conflict and post-war reconstruction not central to the discussion of 
 Urban Planning as a profession or Urban Planning education?

The Recently Completed Darulaman Road in Kabul (Sutika Sipus)
The topic is rarely discussed, yet reconstruction has been a mainstay of the planning profession throughout history.  One can quickly cite examples of planning and reconstruction, such as the rebuilding of London in 1666,  the rebuilding of Europe after WWII with the Marshal Plan, or the current reconstruction effort in Afghanistan.  Throughout each example there has been a massive demand for skilled individuals with the balanced knowledge of design, infrastructure, economics, and social sciences to design and implement sustainable initiatives.  In Afghanistan alone, USAID has spent 7.9 billion dollars on reconstruction efforts over the course of 10 years, with large portions of that funding directed toward road construction, agricultural development, and education.  Yet where is the discussion of Afghanistan on popular planning forums?  


So who is rebuilding cities in conflict?
In the 6 years that I've been working in urban planning, most of that time has been spent in conflicted or complex territories such as refugee camps, urban slums, or conflict cities.  Throughout this process, I've encountered only 4 other urban planners working in these environments!  There are always plenty of engineers, former military, active military, or aid/developments professionals with social, legal, and political science backgrounds but I've found that planners maintain certain advantages.
  • Planners are trained with a balance of contextual and technical knowledge that promotes clear communication between team members.
  • Planners have an innate understanding of  administrative and management skills
Defensive Perimeter, Kabul Afghanistan (Sutika Sipus)
  • Some consulting firms like to market themselves as skilled in "strategic design" but actually have little or no ability with design-thinking or the design process
  • Architects and engineers rarely have the ethnographic research skills to recognize and integrate subtle social processes into their design
  • Many architects and engineers do realize the value of basic site visits and create plans that are not consistent with the local economy or patterns in land use
  • Most professionals in social or political skills have the research skills, but are weak in areas of communication, presentation, and further more do not have the hard skills to design solutions from the research.  At best, they can only advise on policy or suggest solutions for others to design.
Because urban planners have so much to offer, I've found those working in the field of post-war reconstruction quickly gather respect by their employers and colleagues.  Sure, the sample pool is small, but it has been consistent enough to make me ask, so where are all the other planners?


The career track for most urban planners
Understandably, many graduates from urban planning programs are going to work for local or regional governments or private sector architecture studios.  I know a lot of planners who work for cities like Houston or Portland, and they spend most of their time sitting in public hearings, debating the merits of city zoning changes or traffic plans.  Often this was not the career path imagined while in school, but rather it was the mundane reality they discovered upon graduation.  This isn't unusual as graduate school frequently gives one a false sense of global influence, as if the future of humanity were dependent upon the outcome of your thesis research, but if planning education is so dynamic, why is normative planning practice so dull?  In this case, we as urban planners can blame no one but ourselves.  With so much training and capacity, not to mention an understanding of organizational structure and project management, only to end up working in a field overflowing with of boiler-plated building codes? No one else is at fault.

The more interesting work in the planning profession is frequently undertaken from an architectural perspective, but again, limitations arise.  The world continues to lust for new urban forms and beautifully rendered master plans.  Not a problem.  Yet where is the broader disciplinary attention to healing traumatized landscapes, rebuilding war torn cities, and nurturing emerging economies with scaled, responsive infrastructure?  Typically these sorts of plans are more glitz than substance, and lack the relationship to local informal economic structures or conflict remediation options to be viable.


The Planning Advantage
Art Deco Architecture in Mogadishu Somalia (Sutika Sipus)
Having started my career as an artist and designer, before transitioning into architecture, planning, and refugee law, credit my foundation in creative problem solving as my greatest asset. Working in conflict cities and post-war reconstruction as an urban planner is not a simple task.  It requires flexibility, creativity, and long hours.  It carries personal risks to myself and my family and demands great sacrifice.  

Yet it is also the most rewarding capacity in which I can apply my abilities to facilitate the collective interest of communities around the world.  By working in challenging conditions, I actually have the opportunity to do far more than my teachers in grad school ever suggested was possible.  I have the daily opportunity to work with all facets of planning, to work with people from many different backgrounds, and to creatively explore options for development that might be otherwise quickly tossed out the window. 

Sure, sometimes I have to sit in long meetings, but rarely is it over something as droll as stoplights.  I hope as more planners discover and read this blog they will be compelled to expand their own definition of the urban planning, and in the near future I will have the chance to find more individuals in the field with the sophisticated training necessary to solve some the worlds greatest problems.