On cities

David Miliband, writing in the Guardian, asks why no one is talking about cities —

In all the many column inches on the European refugee crisis, one point has barely received a mention: the overwhelming majority of Syrian refugees are not in refugee camps. Rows of white tents in an otherwise sparse landscape are often featured in the media, but the reality is that 80% of Syrian refugees have sought refuge outside of camps, and the majority of these are living in urban areas – whether in “informal tented settlements”, rented rooms, or half-finished buildings.

He goes on to note the potential shift this means —

The challenges for humanitarians are huge. Outside the physical confines of a camp, refugees can melt away, almost invisible and dispersed amongst the urban population. This complicates the tasks of registering, providing services, disseminating information, and ensuring refugees are aware of their rights, and able to access assistance should they experience exploitation or abuse.

Humanitarians must change too, and tailor their responses to the urban environment. Whereas in a refugee camp, almost everything must be brought in from elsewhere and a micro-society built from scratch, in urban areas, refugees’ needs can be met in ways that support existing systems and contribute to longer-term development goals – benefitting the whole population: host and refugee.

Humanitarian programmes have the potential to make the difference between dependency and development. For example, providing refugees with cash rather than in-kind goods, so they can stimulate the local economy by buying what they need. Or making sure that refugees can access education and work – critical both for contributing locally, and for rebuilding the society on their return home. Or supporting municipal authorities to provide housing for refugees, thus contributing to longer-term sustainable urban development while avoiding the creation of expensive camps.

Related: IRC’s 10 urban planning principles every humanitarian should know


On responsibility, visibility

One of my favorite current essayists, Roxane Gay, has a piece up in the NYT about the recent events in a school in Columbia, South Carolina —

In the wake of such indecency, there has been a vigorous public response — shock and outrage, with many people denouncing Mr. Fields’s actions. There have also been those who questioned what the young girl did to beget such brutality and sought for her to take responsibility. Oh, how we are, as a culture, enamored with this ideal of responsibility when we don’t want to acknowledge the extent of an injustice or when we want to pretend that if we behave well enough, we will find the acceptance we have long been denied.


We are watchers and the watched, and we are burdened, never knowing when our best, or our most abject, moments will be preserved digitally and disseminated virally, exposing the vulnerabilities we aren’t allowed to keep to ourselves.

Given how pervasive surveillance has become, I would think the black body, black people would be safer. I would think that police officers or assorted racists would think twice before acting, inappropriately, against the black body. It is a horrifying, desperate reality where such people act with impunity, undeterred by the threat of surveillance. They know they might be seen and remain empowered in their racism, their sense of dominion. They realize the nauseating truth — there are some injustices, against certain groups of people, that can be witnessed without consequence.

Relatedly, it turns out my hometown wins a rather shameful title.

On Norwegian budget debates

[this post will be continually updated as debates about the final national budget continue — changes in immigration law included]

On intervention and vacuums

I feel like the same point keeps popping up in discussions about interventions:

From David Ignatius in the Atlantic, on the spread of ISIS —

The story of ISIS teaches the same basic lesson that emerged from America’s other failures in the Middle East over the last decade: Attempts by the United States or Islamist rebels to topple authoritarian regimes—in Iraq, Libya, and now Syria—create power vacuums. This empty political space will be filled by extremists unless the United States and its allies build strong local forces that can suppress terrorist groups and warlords both. When the U.S. creates such local forces, it must be persistent. If it withdraws from these efforts, as America did in Iraq in 2011, it invites mayhem. Halfway American intervention has produced nothing but trouble. Rebels have gotten enough support to continue fighting, but not enough to win.

From the Brookings website for Jean-Marie Guéhenno’s new memoir, The Fog of Peace

Guéhenno grapples with the distance between the international community’s promise to protect and the reality that our noble aspirations may be beyond our grasp.

The author illustrates with personal, concrete examples—from the crises in Afghanistan, Iraq, Congo, Sudan, Darfur, Kosovo, Ivory Coast, Georgia, Lebanon, Haiti, and Syria—the need to accept imperfect outcomes and compromises. He argues that nothing is more damaging than excessive ambition followed by precipitous retrenchment. We can indeed save many thousands of lives, but we need to calibrate our ambitions and stay the course.

From Ty McCormick’s piece in Foreign Policy on the Central African Republic, “One Day, We Will Start a Big War” —

Part of the problem has been the tendency for intervening parties to focus on what Nathaniel Olin, a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, calls “cheap solutions leading to quick exits.” As he writes in a new volume on CAR edited by Tatiana Carayannis and Louisa Lombard, “In the past, U.N. peacekeepers departed quickly after securing elections.” This left delicate political transitions in the hands of regional players like Chad and Congo, feeding into two other problems identified by Olin: the tendency of meddlesome neighbors to intervene in CAR in order to advance their own interests and for their forces to work at cross-purposes with one another. The latter problem was especially evident in the French and African Union intervention that preceded the current U.N. mission.

update: From David Rothkopf’s post in Foreign Policy’s Voice blog explaining the rationale behind the Obama admin’s recent decision to send troops to Syria, he predicts the endgame —

I understand the White House’s decision clearly. It makes some political sense. […] (And the reality of that end deal looks like this: Assad stays for transition, leaves with immunity, is replaced by Assad-lite alternative acceptable to Moscow and Tehran, and the United States gets a fig leaf of promise of a more inclusive Syrian government — one that is soon forgotten because everyone values stability above niceties like democracy or respect for human rights — while much of the country will remain in turmoil because Damascus doesn’t, and may never again, control it.)

(links in original; bold text not)

On blindness

The NYT just posted a wide-ranging conversation between George Yancy and Seyla Benhabib in their The Stone blog

George Yancy.: We far too often fail to understand each other across racial divides. A “post-racial” discourse might even occlude the effort to do so. How do we create spaces for understanding the conditions of others, especially within the context of racial boundaries that divide us?

Seyla Benhabib: Let me begin with a personal memory: I first came to this country from Istanbul, Turkey, as a foreign scholarship student in 1970 to Brandeis University. The program that sponsored me, the Larry Wien International Program, had great outreach success in African countries and there were many African Wien students. Yet, when we sat in the student cafeteria, the African students would sit in the company of African-American students, and effectively we self-segregated in one of the most progressive institutions of its time in the country.

G.Y.: What was your response to this?

S.B.: I was almost offended by this. I came from a country that was divided along all sorts of ethnic and religious lines, but not the color line. Having been active in the student movement of ’68 and beyond, to me it was incomprehensible that at least those of us who shared similar political views could not be friends and colleagues. Brandeis, like much of North America at the time, was in the grips of forms of black separatism. Angela Davis had been a student of Herbert Marcuse at Brandeis, and I had come to study with Marcuse, not realizing that he had already left for University of California at San Diego! It was not until I attended Yale Graduate School and formed friendships with Lorenzo Simpson and Robert Gooding-Williams that I began to fathom something about depth and hurt of the color line in this country.

I share this anecdote with you because, as Iris Marion Young reminded us, to understand one another across racial and many other divides we have to begin by “greeting” and “storytelling.” One of the worst offenses of racism is that it blinds us to who the individual person is — the color of your skin becomes the mask which I see and often, behind which I do not want to see the real person. And as Du Bois, a student of Hegel’s, reminds us, the one who is in the dominated position is aware of the perspective of the master: She is conscious of herself as being seen by the other. It is this double-consciousness that we must learn to understand. We must learn to see each other — to use terms which I introduced in “Situating the Self” both as “the generalized” and “the concrete other.”

As humans, we are like one another, equally entitled to respect and dignity; but we are also different from one another because of our concrete psychological histories, abilities, racial and gender characteristics, etc. Ethics and politics are about negotiating this identity-in-difference across all divides. We live in a “post-racial” society only in the sense that we are all generalized others in the eyes of the law; but as we learn painfully, not in the eyes of those who administer the law; the bank clerk who decides upon a mortgage loan or even — to use Cornel West’s famous example — the New York taxi cab driver who refuses to pick up the black man. The history of discrimination, domination and power struggles among the concrete others trump the standpoint of the generalized other.

Relatedly: listen to Radiolab’s Update: New Normal? episode, including the story about human complexity — “Stu is Stu.

On interviews

I think I safely fall into the camp that would happily have a conversation with Terry Gross. I’d be lying if — like the Ira Glass note below — I didn’t admit to listening to her interviews to study the nuance of the art.

From Susan Burton’s profile of Terry Gross in the New York Times Magazine

Matthew Weiner, the creator of ‘‘Mad Men,’’ has been among the most frequent guests on ‘‘Fresh Air.’’ He imagined being interviewed by Gross years before it first happened, and once it did, ‘‘you’re like: Oh, this is my fantasy of a conversation,’’ Weiner told me. ‘‘I’m not even talking about people hearing it. I’m talking about actually having the conversation.’’

‘‘Having the conversation’’ — that’s what’s compelling about the wish. It’s a wish not for recognition but for an experience. It’s a wish for Gross to locate your genius, even if that genius has not yet been expressed. It’s a wish to be seen as in a wish to be understood.

From Ira Glass’ blog over at This American Life,

I’ve always admired how well she imagines herself into the mind of the person she’s interviewing. Like she once asked the magician Ricky Jay something like “Is there ever a trick where the behind-the-scenes stuff – the secret stuff we don’t see – is actually more interesting than what we DO see?” Inventing a question like that is such a pure imaginative act of empathy. She does it all the time. She asked my cousin Philip Glass, memorably, “Do you ever try to write music that doesn’t sound like Philip Glass music?” The greatest question he’s ever been asked in an interview. “Yes!” he responded, excited by the question. “And every time I fail.” […]

She’s incredibly efficient in those interviews. I don’t know any other word for it. They seem to speed to where they’re going and to cover so much more ground than you usually hear. There’ve been times when I’ve re-listened, just to hear the order of the questions and to figure out what was planned and unplanned. Like a magician sitting in on another guy’s act for two nights so he can figure out the trick, to steal it. […]

Really so much comes down to her judgment. I think when we talk about what makes someone’s work great, we overemphasize technique and not enough gets said about the importance of having interesting taste. In the end, whether you’re David Simon or the South Park Guys or Beyonce or a radio interviewer, that’s so much of the game. Terry’s a person with broad-ranging very interesting thoughts about things. She’s up to the job. An interviewer doesn’t need to be as interesting as her interviewees, for sure, but she needs to be pretty damn interesting, and, more important, to have the taste to know what’s truly fascinating and new.

On a crisis of values

From Volker Türk’s remarks at the 133rd Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union General Debate —

Yet the single-most important challenge to the protection of refugees, as well as to reaping the development potential of migration more broadly comes from populist politics and uninformed public debates. They engender a climate of fear. In some countries there has been a proliferation of xenophobic and Islamophobic narratives, hate speech, fear-mongering, and inflammatory statements both at the political and civil society levels. In some instances this has even led to arson or other violent attacks directed against refugees as well as migrants.

We have also noted with concern that the terms “refugee” and “migrant” have in many instances been used interchangeably in the media and public discourse. The two terms have different meanings, and conflating them has serious consequences for the lives and safety of refugees. Both migrants and refugees are protected under international human rights law, but the failure to mention refugees specifically is a failure to recognise their unique predicament  their lack of national protection, the risks they face should they return to their home countries, and our obligations to protect them under a legal framework crafted specifically for them. This can undermine public support for the institution of asylum at a time when more refugees need such protection than ever before.

Preserving the institution of asylum is critical. Asylum is literally life-saving, and has ensured the survival of millions of people for decades. This is not to say that the problems and challenges of today’s large-scale mixed migration movements are not real, particularly in relation to adequate shelter, reception, security concerns, as well as burden- and responsibility-sharing. However, the situation is manageable and needs to be addressed in a manner that is consistent with obligations under international law to protect asylum-seekers and refugees.

All of this suggests that the more fundamental crisis that we are facing today is perhaps one of values the same values that we had sworn never to forget after the atrocities of the Second World War and that are embodied in the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.