April 30, 2013

City. Text. Laboratory

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A small sample from my research on graffiti for social analysis in conflict zones. Sutika Sipus 2013.

Any casual reader of this blog is familiar with my obsession over social research methods.  Not only am I fascinated by the idea of measuring and quantifying the intangible, but I also question the general viability of most social research instruments.  In the areas that I work, it is not practical to conduct standard surveys or the usual data collection procedures do to security threats, so consequently I'm somewhat critical of the information that does surface.  

For the last two years I've used Kabul as an urban laboratory to experiment with alternative methods of social analysis, and one project has been the cataloguing of graffiti and social imagery throughout the city.  Almost one year ago I wrote about initial explorations in this area of critical cartography.  

More recently I've been able to break newer ground by merging this technique with other methods.  I will be presenting my work this weekend at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  I can't divulge much on the details till the finished publication comes out next fall but anyone in the Boston area is welcome to attend the conference MIT8: Public Media, Private Media.   

For anyone that can't make it, I do have a semi-related book chapter coming out in August (just submitted final draft yesterday!) and hope to publish on this particular project in the late fall.   Its been a busy last couple weeks, and the year is just getting started!

April 27, 2013

Scaling Tools and Hacking Methods for Urban Development and Reconstruction

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Case 1:
Last year an organization analyzing tribal conflicts in the Pashtun belt hired an outside consultant.  He had never been to Afghanistan before, had no familiarity with the issues, but had instead spent a lifetime studying patterns of gang violence in South and Central America.   I was optimistic about his role in the project as I hoped he would bring some keen insight and a new point of view that would revolutionize everyone's understanding of systematic violence in Afghanistan, creating a pathway toward viable solutions.   In contrast, the consultant made a series of irrelevant observations but charged a hefty sum, and left behind only a drained budget and a frustrated research staff.

Case 2:
In the latter years of Albert Einstein, he became obsessed with discovering GUT, the "grand unified theory" that will provide a scientific basis to create a total explanation for everything.  He approached the problem by trying to fuse theories on electromagnetism with relativity.  Not only did he fail in this endeavor, but his pursuit of it made him removed from the newer discoveries of his discipline, in particular the new field of quantum physics.  


The Pursuit of Universal Solutions
I mention these two examples as a consequence of a conversation I had last week with a professor from Columbia University. At this moment I'm loaded down with some deadlines over the next few days so I have little time to spare, but with  a new project on the horizon, I called her hoping to find the cliffs-notes version on relevant industry toolkits and best-practices to save time and ensure success.  Surprisingly, she didn't really have any answers for me.   

Initially I was annoyed, as I'm one forever interested in particular issues rather than specific geographies, and thus have a compulsion to study broad trends to glean useful cross-disciplinary and cross-geographic kernels of knowledge.  I too would likely have hired the Latin American violence expert for the project in Afghanistan.  In my own practice, I make a point to not be geographically specific in my abilities.  Yet over the last few days, my ideology has begun to shift.  Universality is a myth.  

Institutions are forever trying to build toolkits to bolster resilience, establish sustainability, or ensure economic development.  Development interventions, such as technology and business incubators for economic growth are often formulaic.  Certainly these projects can succeed, but how often and under what conditions?  While these are valuable tools, one of the first rules of carpentry is to use the right tool for the job, so we must ask, are these the best tools available?  If they are the only tools, then we need to modify the tools we have to better fit the tasks at hand.

When I was a graduate student, I spent years examining the viability of Sphere Humanitarian Standards for shelter creation within protracted refugee settlements.  Sphere outlines methods for disaster relief and reconstruction, making it a fairly useful tool for cross-coordination among stakeholders and relief organizations in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.  At the time, I questioned if it was well suited for upgrading in displacement camps that had been in place for decades since the tool is also used in that manner by some ngos.  After conducting extensive field work in Dadaab Camps of eastern Kenya, I learned that Sphere failed to fully account or accomodate the complex socio-economic mechanisms that developed overtime within the camps.  Consequently interventions crafted with Sphere, when applied to long-term settlements, were foreign and arbitrary to the matured local systems.  

Nowadays I question if the very essence of Sphere, as a framework designed for widespread and global application is perhaps entirely flawed upon conception.  While a tsunami will wreak the same kind of damage anywhere in the world, the levels of preparedness, the available social capital, and the legal structures in place will differ dramatically.  Within the current Sphere guidelines, it informs actors to examine and utilize local laws and customs but it does not explain how to do so.  How does this guidance, which is painstakingly obvious, actually helpful?  Rather than construct a universal Sphere, why not begin crafting Sphere guidelines at the country-level, so that all laws and mechanisms can be accounted and introduced in greater detail?  This will not work perfectly and an iterative process is also necessary on the ground, yet it will likely work better than the Sphere guidelines we have at the present.

Rather than focusing on the universality of our outcomes, we can better ensure our outcomes by refining the precision of our tools.  Are all intervention and research methods applicable anywhere?  One might initially think so, given that these methods are empirically designed.  Yet I would say otherwise.  Hence one cannot effectively conduct standard social research in hostile landscapes.  Due to the limitations imposed, the tools can become diluted to the point of uselessness.  For example, In Afghanistan, I would go so far as to say that all social research is flawed on account that it is "perception-based," which is nothing but a delicate phrase to describe indeterminable validity.   

Researchers working in Kandahar and other regions cannot carry any mobile technology to assist in data collection.  Nor can they probe deeply in local issues (at risk of becoming part of the problem) or maintain strict oversight of the data-collection staff.  Individuals who are paid to provide responses have no incentive to be accurate or tell the truth.  Notably, people are often questioned on issues to which they have no direct knowledge or experience, so they can only provide assumptions or guesses as answers.  

Conflict is not the only variable that shapes the effectiveness of our research tools and methodologies.  Language, social conventions, and insider-outsider relations all shape our abilities to do our jobs as researchers, planners, or policy-makers. This isn't new information.  These are typically the concerns discussed with an "Intro to Anthropology Class," but it is essential to question the foundations of our disciplines so as to avoid the pitfalls of chasing after a grand unified theory when the data itself is evident of something entirely different.  

April 16, 2013

Should We Paint the Sandbags Pink? Redesigning The End of War

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A fundamental lesson within the major literature about counterinsurgency, such as Nagel's How to Eat Soup with a Knife or Galula's Counterinsurgency Warfare, is the lack of institutional memory regarding the end of conflicts.  For whatever reason - social, organizational, cultural or otherwise - popular conceptions of history describe wars as having a messing beginning and a tidy ending.  Images of helicopters hovering over Saigon or masses of WWII soldiers boarding ships homeward bound resonate in the global social conscious.  But it is unlikely that any war in history concluded with the simplicity of closing the cover on a book.

Historical battles were heavily shaped by the seasons, as the winter obstructed movement and in the spring many soldiers would need to leave the front lines to plant seed.  Wars would be resumed once the seed began to sprout, postponed for harvest,  then returned to again until winter.  A quick look at the wars of the 19th century on wikipedia reveals that most wars lasted 4-5 years, but  the wrong impression is given by this list as it provides a nice simple year for the conclusion of every conflict.  In contrast, many of the wars featured ongoing skirmishes, small attacks, and a trickle of minor incidents for months or years after each battle.  

Today's conflicts are no different.  Low-intensity, protracted conflicts stretch onward into the future.  Major international conflicts and localized internal conflicts seem to never end.  Yet a significant  difference between these conflicts and those of the past is the role of advanced communication technologies and access to simple yet powerful weapons that put small groups on par with massive military forces.  

So if wars have messy endings but the mess is bigger these days,  do we defend our cities with the same methods as in the past?  At present we rely upon militant checkpoints, guard towers, road blocks and a whole array of methods intended to restrict movement, obstruct attackers, and provide tactical advantage to one force while negating abilities of the other.  This is all well and good in terms of security, but it does nothing to add finality to the ever-steady trickle of attack incidents.

When fortifying a point of interest, the goal is to focus on utility, with the broad assumption that the newly installed elements are temporary.  Consequently  security architecture is stark and simple, an element that becomes threatening when contextualized by armed guards and interrogations.  The greater problem is that these features are rarely temporary.  Because the hostilities continue, the security infrastructure remains, detracting from the quality of the urban experience and reinforcing the sense of danger.  One could even argue that such infrastructure promotes ongoing militarization and escalates conflict.

To instill finality into contemporary conflict, we must create defensive infrastructure to facilitate a post-conflict urban condition.  We must create security mechanisms that not only satisfy their primary objective, but can contribute to the health and wellbeing of urban living.  Imagine if one day someone in Kabul or Baghdad or Cairo could wake up in the morning and say "remember that police checkpoint that used to be around the corner?  I really miss having it there, it really made walking down the street a little more pleasant."  People make such statements about art, fountains, gardens and landscaping.  They do not say this about barbed wire fences, blast walls, or security installations.  

So what should we do? Should we paint the sandbags pink?  Maybe.  It seems absurd, but why not?  Perhaps global society could benefit to emasculate the battlefield.   Discard the drab olive green and replace it with a mural of clouds.  Many could argue that such acts beautify war and devalue its significance, but this is only partly true.  Such acts beautify our environment and celebrate our common humanity,  thus giving an opportunity for peace, otherwise lost, by devaluing the the significance of violence.  It is time to design a new battlefield, not to fight war, but to end it.

April 10, 2013

Resurrecting Ancient Cities from the Dead

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Ankor Wat Temple Complex, Cambodia.   Photo by Mitch Sutika Sipus 2013.
Yesterday I read the recent National Geographic article on the new possibilities to re-introduce extinct species of animals into the world via genetic engineering.   The idea is to utilize DNA from animals that have died as a consequence of human intervention, such as the passenger pigeon, to repopulate the planet.  Some researchers felt an ethical obligation to pursue the de-extinction of these animals, others note that due to environmental change, the native habitats of these species no longer exists and that repopulating the species might only lead to its eventual disappearance, again.

I found the article compelling, but it immediately made me question the ability to regenerate ancient cities from the dust.   Rather than continually build new towns on the outskirts of today's cities or struggle with creating a sense of place in newly constructed environments, could we resurrect old settlements to connect the old with the new?  Do archaeological sites of vast cities such as Pakistan's Mohen Darjo or Cambodia's Angkor Wat need to remain isolated like museum specimens? 

I recall last year on a visit to Istanbul, Turkey the amazement that the historic fabric of the urban landscape was so neatly woven into contemporary living.   There was little distinction between old and new, tourist zone and local habitation, business and residential.  Unlike other ancient cities, such as Amman Jordan where the architectural heritage of the Roman Empire sits isolated from the urban core, Istanbul neatly integrated the past and the present.  By resurrecting ancient cities from the dust, we could potentially create more urban environments as harmonious as Istanbul.

Human settlements rarely pop up by accident.  So often they arise when one form of transportation intersects with another - such as a road and a river - and their lifespan is interconnected with the regional economic geography.  By resurrecting a settlement, we could theoretically guarantee a particular type of economic and social success and likewise project a lifespan for the settlement based on our understanding of that settlement's history.  

In this manner,  we would have the choice to utilize or negate previous assets and obstacles to the settlement based on archaeological evidence and historical research.  In settlements that consist of multiple layers of archaeological evidence, diligent mapping of the spatial allocation of artifacts and digital reconstructions might facilitate the conceptual rebuilding of historical events so as to better understand the spatial failures and advantages of previous civilizations.  With a rough map of resource allocation and planning from multiple civilizations, we could better engineer a new city from the old.  

Is this feasible?  No idea.  But if we can resurrect extinct animals, as far back as Mammoths, then why not resurrect civilizations?  

April 4, 2013

Fake Pirates, War Journalists and Old White Men

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A couple guys on break or a dynamic security force? Depends on who you ask.  Afghanistan, Sutika-Sipus 2012.
I typically prefer to keep this blog limited to subjects of post-war reconstruction, but over the last few days I've been thinking a great deal about all the weirdos I've encountered along the way.  

Since 2003 I've been travelling or working in some fringe locations in the world, some of which are fairly dangerous, so its only natural that I've crossed paths with a lot of unusual personalities.  For example, Southeast Asia is full of old British men who all tout stories about their days at Oxford University, their years as a music producer touring the world, and their decision to return to the outskirts of Cambodia 15 years ago... but outside of potentially being wanted in 48 countries for arms and human trafficking, these guys seem relatively harmless over a beer.  Just don't make any future plans with them. But people that I encounter more often are the pseudo-journalists who have managed to change my perception of journalism, war, and Earnest Hemingway - and not for the better.

Today I stumbled across the article "The Somali Pirate Who Never Was," which exposes an ongoing
ruse of Kenyan-Somalis posing as Somali pirates for journalists.  The article cites Time Magazine and BBC documentaries as victims of this scam, and I find it completely believable.  Not because I have faith that the pirates to be such amazing actors, but rather because I have such little faith in war journalists.

To be fair, there are some exceptional war journalists out there.  I have massive admiration for people like Sebastian Junger who not only embed with combat units, but develop personal relationships with the subject matter and the people around them to tell the story.  But such individuals are rare.  So often when I read an article, I find it has more to do with presenting the writer as a badass than actually giving context or content.  How many articles start open with a sequence like the following:

"Driving down a dark, unpaved road in (insert conflict city here),  my driver pointed at a mud brick house and said 'we must be careful, because of the warlord (insert multi-syllabic Islamic name here) lives in that house.'  We barreled around the corner and stopped at a nondescript door when the driver nervously whispered 'we are here.  I stepped out of the car to discover an AK-47 only inches from my face."

Just one week ago a friend shared a German publication with me about the Gandamak Lodge, a bar and restaurant in central Kabul.  The article read nearly identical to what I just wrote.  Of course Gandamak, like most businesses in Kabul, has security guards, but its location is not a secret and travelling there is not an adventure.  I've also read articles exactly like this about countless African nations, refugee camps, border areas and innercity slums.  So what kind of journalist writes such over-sensationalized copy?

Every war zone or fringe location usually has one or two coffeeshops or hotels with wifi connections and decent espresso.  Inside are men and women with nice haircuts and stylish jeans, obsessing over twitter and talking about how awesome their lives are.  Most the time these individuals grew up in privileged conditions, attended reputable schools for international relations or political science, and without the burdens of student loans and lots of family support, set off to be tourists of the underdeveloped world, and occasionally publishing something between expat parties.

Thanks to the benefits of their upbringing they have a social network that facilitates access to top-tier publications and in the end, all they need to do is be somewhere to become journalists.  As for the coverage, it often doesn't stray to far from the coffeeshop, and that is the part that kills me.   Again, not all war journalists are like this, but there are plenty of the kind I describe to make your head spin.

Then there are of course the kind of journalists who "parachute" into town to swoop up a story.  I'd say this sort of coverage is often even worse because every small thing takes on exaggerated significance.  The child asking for money on the street becomes a symbol for the regional economy, the woman wearing a burka is suddenly representative of national women's rights, and the sleeping security guard at the corner store becomes a metaphor for lackluster national defense.  An entertaining story so often becomes more important than an accurate story.

I'll never forget when a friend in Juba Sudan told me that on the official day of constitutional independence, a large crowd of old white photojournalists trailed behind the central parade, documenting only the costumed dancers, but likewise looking like a parade feature themselves.  Of course they weren't there for very long, as they arrived in the morning and were on another plane that night.  I've witnessed similar reporters, often looking like he or she walked straight out of Williamsburg Brooklyn and into an IDP camp to photograph some kids pumping water from the ground and then leaving again, having contributed nothing to improve conditions but simply having been a voyeur.  Is raising awareness truly enough?  Could that person presence have contributed more to lessening the problems?

As for Earnest Hemingway, I always loved his writing and he was a childhood hero.  I also wanted to move around the globe, go on adventures, and be a good writer.  But today, I suspect I wouldn't have cared for his company.  When I read his work I sense that it is about him, its about looking like a badass and doing things specifically to have the story to tell others, not because the moment happened by chance.  What a shame.

April 3, 2013

Development Makes A Strange Bedfellow

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"Bengali Friends" in  Bangladesh  by David Lazar.
Guest Post by Thomas Lasseau

There is an old Bangladeshi saying that goes, "you can't take out the trash without getting your hands dirty." On a previous visit to Bangladesh to work in microfinance in 2009, my fellow interns and I found ourselves staring into the twin barrels of a sawed-off shotgun, wielded by a man with a police badge, blue jeans and flip flops. We had rented ATVs to explore Cox's Bazar, the longest beach in the world, and this man was claiming, in screamed Bengali, that for this infraction we owed him a "fine."

After paying him off and returning from our adventure, an argument ensued with the owners of the ATVs about who should internalize the cost of the bribe. After much haggling, it was divided between our cost of rental and the owner's cost of doing business, but we still left suspicious of an even bigger con. Needless to say, on a national level, the World Bank recently declined to loan Bangladesh $2 billion to build a bridge on account of a $17 million dollar "fine" required to grease the gears of construction.

Although it's dangerous to generalize about poverty, conflict zones and authoritarian regimes, a delicately stated common theme appears to be the mismanagement and misappropriation of national assets. Counterproductive resource allocations are visible in the global struggles between squatters, landowners and developers, in the violent seizing and reseizing of Africa's diamond territories, and in the pilfering of aid money by corrupt bureaucracies.

I believe the Bangladeshi proverb rings true insofar as we have to make the initial assumption that the governance of communal resources in extreme economic and political conditions has "fallen into the wrong hands." The tragic result of this grand misallocation of capital is that the majority stakeholders on the other side of the table (or the sawed-off shotgun as the case may be) have every reason to hold on fast, unless we can change their incentives.

The success of any process of disarmament, reconstruction, regime change or wealth redistribution hinges on the incentives of its participants who have the most to lose (whether inherited or acquired). Consequently, unless forcing new incentives through revolution or armed intervention (neither the province of the planner), the war criminals and corrupt officials of the world are our necessary allies in the philanthropic cause. The obvious risk of this acknowledgement is that in forging these alliances we become partners in corruption and crime.

So if successful development work is necessarily transactional, this means that we, as development workers, must learn to trade in trade-offs. How can we structure the deal to keep our hands as clean as possible while still actually helping people? The collateral damage can be measured by the degree of opportunity for taking back what's being given away. The trick is to somehow work against, while working with, but not working for the kleptocrat or militia on the other side of the deal. The sensitivity of this balance is why so many development projects merely perpetuate the crippling inequities they set out to fix.

Extreme conditions are tough on the stomach in more ways than one. Working in them is fundamentally a question of amplitude. In my legal training, I'm being taught to represent my client's interests against hostile forces with friendly professionalism. This training in civility has been invaluable. Cultivating the level of clarity and compassion necessary to negotiate amiably, no matter the stakes, is a lofty goal. I'm still a long way away, but I approach it like a kind of yoga. It may take years to finally touch your toes, but every inch counts.

In building the multidisciplinary toolkit required for improving urban living, I've studied and worked in architectural design, green building, development economics, finance, governance, real estate and contract law. While I believe that each of these is an essential piece of the puzzle, the secret sauce that ultimately coheres these ingredients is the human element that isn't taught in school.

Good analogies for trying to improve the distribution of resources are at worst piratical parleys, and are at best legal representation in settlement negotiations. At best, your clients get damages and injunctions and the guilty party gets off the hook. At worst, you have to somehow pay the dictator more to go away than they can make by staying and oppressing (e.g. fire sale privatizations only benefitting the former regime and multinational capital).

The practical balance lies somewhere between these poles. The necessary alliances must be built on common ground. Building the common ground is where our work begins. The most violent and oppressive people in the world, whether acting from greed, hate, fear or desperation, are also human. We should start there, no matter how reluctant we may be to do so. We need to be able to make friends with the warlord before we can convince him to build sewers and hospitals instead of buying more guns.


Thomas Lasseau is currently a law student at the UCLA School of Law.   He previously worked with Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and studied economics and art at Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design.