February 27, 2013

A Simple Solution to Mogadishu's IDP Problem

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A Pathway to Ownership for IDPs can Change Mogadishu Forever. Image: Sutika Sipus 2013.
After every war, cities are burdened by many of the same problems.  The infrastructure is destroyed, there is a lack of money, a culture of violence, and a fear that war will return.  But another major obstacle is the heavy numbers of internally displaced persons who left their homeland elsewhere in the country and sought refugee in the city.   They sought safety, employment, and a chance at a better life.  They also frequently have little to offer, having abandoned everything with the move, and frequently coming from rural villages, lack the skills necessary to compete in the urban marketplace.

Internally displaced persons (IDPs) are typically seen as a burden, and city officials want them to go home.  With no money, IDPs frequently seek shelter in abandoned buildings or in impoverished, make-shift camps.  The UNHCR also encourages they return to their place of origin as UNHCR tends to advocate return as the only durable solution.  But at other times UNHCR will recognize that many IDPs cannot return home, as their homes have been destroyed and all that was abandoned is now completely lost.  In these instances, UNHCR and UN-Habitat will construct IDP displacement camps.

In Mogadishu, IDP camps are scattered throughout the city.  They are renown for being dangerous and unhygienic.  Murder, rape, and disease are common.  IDPs also inhabit many buildings throughout the city with no right to ownership.  When the original owners return to reclaim their property, conflicts frequently ensue.  As the city has no surviving property records from before the war, arguments over property rights are common and the courts get clogged as people fight for rightful ownership rights.   This problem is expensive and slow.  To make the changes in Somalia sustainable, it is necessary that change also takes place quickly.  I wrote about this before in a previous article on the importance of speed for land use rights in post-war reconstruction.

Think Different - Live Different in Mogadishu. Image: Sutika Sipus 2013.

Solving the IDP Crisis in MogadishuSomalia

To solve the IDP situation in Mogadishu, the issue must no longer be seen as zero/sum.   Many want the IDPs to leave or to suddenly have money to purchase housing.  But this is clearly unrealistic.  Rather, the problem must be considered in relation to time, space, resources, and the greater good of the city.

The best solution would be a "right to ownership" policy.  The Right to Ownership Policy could work very quickly and effectively if the following steps were pursued.

1. IDPs are provided a temporary identification number for the property they currently inhabit.  A record is made containing a description and possibly a photo of the space.

2. Each year the IDP/Occupant must invest a particular amount of money and time into the upkeep of the property.  This could consist of digging better quality latrines, constructing more permanent housing, painting walls, repairing concrete, clearing debris, installing doors and so on.    Notice that many improvements can initially be done at no cost.

3. If no one returns to make claim on the property in 5 years, the temporary identification number becomes a permanent record of ownership for the occupant.  

4. If another person returns to the site and claims the property as his own, and can provide at least 5 articles or witnesses as evidence, the returnee will acquire the property IF compensation is provided to the IDP resident for each year of invested ownership.


Why this IDP Solution can work.

1. Extensive research has shown that formal ownership of property provides economic leverage to residents.

2. The IDP acts as a caretaker for the property until full ownership is approved.  Thus streets are rebuilt which also reduces crime.

3. This policy is consistent with the principals of xeer, the traditional/informal legal system that is still used among many nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes in Somalia.  Consequently such a policy would be innate to those who would be affected by it.

4. IDPs who do not achieve full ownership leave the property with a sum of money reimbursed by the legal owner and are thus in a better position to acquire housing or even return to point of origin.


Why this solution to Mogadishu's IDP problem will not happen.

I have promoted this solution to several members of the Somali government, but it has gained no support.  Certainly, it is not perfect, but with tweaking, a right to ownership is far better than court cases which may go on for decades.  Many officials claim a desire for innovation and radical change, but are not willing to take the dramatic steps necessary to be truly innovative.  Rather, all politicians continue to see the problem in the same manner of the UN, even if they are not happy with the UN approach to solving the problem.

Unfortunately this policy means that many returnees will lose ownership of their property.  But five years is a long time and many Somalis have no interest to return anyway.  The bigger problem is among government officials who cannot presently prove ownership of their own family estates, and thus refuse to pursue policies for the common good because of their own selfish interest.

Another reason that the policy will not happen is because it will require that the city lose ownership some some property to IDPs and that vacant lots currently inhabited by turkels will need to be considered property of the IDPs.  What officials do not realize, is that letting informal settlements become formal is an advantage - not a loss - as these settlements will quickly transform to have permanent buildings, lower crime, and create new market opportunities.  It would actually expand the city!  

Lastly, from a planning perspective, formalizing a pathway to ownership for IDPs would reinforce the power of the government and provide an opportunity to build necessary infrastructure in the currently existing squatter camps.  Providing roads, sewers, communication and water to these sites will encourage the construction of permanent housing and improved living among residents.


Final Thoughts
I have travelled all over the world, and Somali people are perhaps more resourceful than any other group of people I have encountered.   If a clear policy is made which can provide an opportunity for property ownership among IDPs, while current land/housing owners will need to make a decision among reclaiming property, then people will jump to the opportunity.  The right to ownership should not be reserved for only the diaspora.  Public policy needs to be made for the interest of everyone, not just those who have power, and more than anywhere else, Mogadishu's leadership needs the vision to pursue the right path.  

Change is Possible in Mogadishu. Image: Sutika Sipus 2013.

February 20, 2013

What ever happened to the Russian Culture Center in Kabul?

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Russian Culture Center in Kabul 1982 - 2012 (Source)
For the first year I lived in Afghanistan, I would often drive past a massive bombed-out concrete structure of juxtaposing angles and bullet-riddled walls.  Everyday I thought about how I would like to explore this monstrous building, but put it off for another time.  Then last summer I passed by the building on Darulaman Road and saw it being raised to the ground.  I ran up to the entrance and asked the construction workers if I could take some photos and they looked at me with suspicion and told me to leave.  I expected to see an article in the New York Times or elsewhere about the loss of this iconic building, but no one wrote anything.  Nine months later, it is about time someone wrote an obituary for the Russian Culture Center of Kabul.

Destruction of Russian Culture Center, Kabul Afghanistan.  Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012.

Russian Culture Center, Source Unknown
Sadly I did not know the center very well. The old one was torn down with the intention to build a new Russian Culture Center. The original was greatly scarred by bullets and bombings from the 1990s.  It was also famous as a place for opium addicts to convene.

Often when driving past, I had the same taxi driver who grew up in Kabul then spent much of his adult life abroad in Russia.  I asked him if it was safe to explore the premises, and he told me that there are many drug addicts in the building but they are probably harmless.  I then asked him if there were any risks from landmines or other unexploded ordinance and he paused, smiled, then laughed.  After catching his breath he said "you have no need to worry about landmines, all the drug addicts would have cleared them!"  It took me a moment to realize that he meant all the landmines were gone because of the addicts who walked on them.

I also heard that one could find pieces of old film in the rubbles from the film library previously housed in the building.  Blown to bits, none of the film survives, but fragments are scattered about. 

At present there is nothing to replace the Russian Culture Center.  There are plans to construct a new version of the building on the same site, and the plans were to be completed by 2013, but at present there is only some modest construction on site.  If anything does get finished there, I expect it will be about two more years.  Of course who knows what will happen in Afghanistan, in two years, anything could happen.

Proposed Design for Future Russian Culture Center, Kabul Afghanistan.

February 15, 2013

Reinventing the Urban Interface: Service Design for Post-Conflict Cities and Landscapes

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Police Checkpoint on Ashura Holiday in Kabul, Afghanistan
Sutika-Sipus 2012
Wars have never had simple, neat, clean endings.  We like to envision that they have, but after the signature of nearly every historical treaty there remain scattered battles and acts of aggression by those who refuse to accept defeat or had yet to hear the news.  Today, the lingering aftermath of war is more obvious, as it is a given that wars never end but continue to trickle onward indefinitely.  Cities such as Kabul, Juba, Mogadishu, and Bagdad are rebuilding, but are not safe or stable.  

There are many reasons for their continued instability and lots of research out there to understand why contemporary wars have no ending.  Current research as investigated the problem from diverse perspectives such as  psychology, natural resourcesepidemiology, or even the notion that conflict simply creates more conflict.  But amidst all the efforts there has been little to no examination of the physical city and its role in promoting or reducing conflict.

Unfortunately traditional methods of security greatly undermine the health and function of cities.  Giant blast walls, police and military checkpoints, and steel guard shacks hinder processes socio-economic and cultural production by disrupting the spatial pathways and linkages necessary for their distribution and replication.  

Here are some examples of how contemporary security will hinder post-conflict urban reconstruction:

  • Detours caused by road blocks force the redistribution and retarded delivery of capital  causing unnecessary losses and social inequities.  For example, the guy who collects and sells firewood must pull his heavy cart an excessive extra distance before getting to his customer base, or because he cannot access his customers, he must compete against another firewood salesman in a more accessible neighborhood, reducing profits and potentially causing territorial conflict.
  • Lack of identification among citizens and the frequency of police checkpoints disrupts the flow of goods and people, and further causes new touchpoints for conflict occur.  In developing countries, most people do not have a birth certificate let alone a license or photo identification.  Just as often the police are illiterate and after long work hours are impatient and tired.  While checkpoints are important for security, they also create points of friction in the community and can inspire new conflicts.
  • Most neighborhoods were founded and grew around tightly defined tribal identities.  Over time these tribal concepts began to deconstruct, yet the emergence of social conflict will re-inspire tribal allegiances   When communities are heavily segregated by tribe, cross-tribal interaction is more likely to motivate suspicion and hostility than friendship and commerce. When physical barricades disrupt the movement of people, it prevents opportunities to again break down tribal allegiances.

Blast walls dictate all movement and transport cooridors in Kabul
Sutika-Sipus 2013
As you see, point of security are also points of disruption and thus obfuscate healthy social interaction. The question then becomes, how can governments and institutions create a viable security infrastructure while also promoting the advancement of the city?


To solve this problem, we must imagine some future possibilities:

  • What if police checkpoints could be design and operated in such a way that 10 years from now, citizens would say "remember when we had that checkpoint?  I rather miss it, that really added something to our community."

  • What if security infrastructure, such as blast walls or Jersey-walls, were created in such a way that their identity could become absorbed into the the landscape over time?  

  • What if urban security was approached as a process of customer service, and thus techniques successful in retail could be infused within security operations?  To extent we already have this, but does a visit to the police station feel like a visit to the genius bar?  Do customers have a way to provide feedback into the service experience for improvement?  Most people are afraid of security providers, how can this be changed?

Unfortunately those with the power to initiate and conduct war continue to forget the lessons forged by existing conflicts.  Take for example the swift path to victory by the French forces in Mali.  Achieving the military victory was possible, but before the militants moved in, Northern Mali was a poor and desperate landscape.  Will it return to the same sad state of affairs?  Likely, or even more likely, it will be worse as France appears to have no viable plan for the reconstruction process.  And if they rely upon the methods currently embraced by the aid/development community of the world, they wil only partly succeed, as evidenced by the lackluster reconstruction in Afghanistan.

Certainly the communities are resilient to certain issues and people will manage to survive, but resilience does nothing to prompt the radical transformation for a sustained peace and enriched development.  It is clear that a new approach is necessary, one that transforms the landscape so as to negate the conditions which facilitate conflict.  For years my company Sutika Sipus has been developing strategies and solutions to facilitate this change, but one company is not enough, others must take part in the process as well. We need to reinvent the interface between security and society in our cities, and to do so, it is essential that we redesign the relationship between security methods and the city itself.

Karte-Seh.  Kabul Afghanistan. Sutika-Sipus 2013