Issues & Analysis

AFGHANISTAN: Deciding to Leave Afghanistan, Part 3 of 3: What happens after arrival in Europe

Afghan refugees in Germany are concerned about their asylum application status; here a group of new arrivals is led to the registration centre in Munich in December 2015 (Source Tolonews)., by Martine Van Bijlert, May 19, 2016, original

AAN has done a series of twelve in-depth interviews with families of Afghans who recently travelled to Europe. The conversations provided a fascinating insight into the practicalities of both the decision making processes and the journey, the complex interplay between economic and security considerations and the mixed feelings families often have once their loved ones have finally, safely, reached Europe. In this third and last installment, AAN’s Martine van Bijlert takes a closer look at what happened since the migrants arrived and lays out the hopes and concerns their families have, now that brothers and sons are in Europe.

This series of three dispatches is based on twelve interviews done for a joint project with (and funded by) the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FESand resulted in a joint study titled “’We Knew They Had No Future in Kabul’: Why and How Afghan Families Decide to Leave” published on 27 April 2016.  The data collection was conducted in the spring of 2016 with selected Afghan households to explore the decision-making processes at the family level of a small number of migrants. (1) The three dispatches present the main findings and place them in a wider context. The first dispatch in the series focused on the main motives and decision making processes and can be found here. Thesecond dispatch focused on the details of the journey, the routes and practical preparations and can be found here.

Situation after arrival in Europe

During the interviews, migrants’ families were asked where their loved ones were now and how they were doing. The fact that the interviews were done with the relatives of the migrants, rather than with the migrants themselves, obviously means that the information is partial and that everything is seen through the lens of those who stayed behind. But it is also instructive, as it provides insight into the continued linkages with the home front – a factor that tends to be underplayed in asylum interviews. (Many migrants, in particular minors, are coached to claim they no longer have living relatives or that they have lost all contact).

In all interviews except one, the migrants who had left Afghanistan in 2015 had arrived in Europe, although their journey had often been long and stressful (see this earlier dispatch in the series for details). The one exception was an interview with a young man from Kandahar, a migrant himself, who had tried to reach Europe but had failed; he was in Kabul at the time and preparing to attempt the journey again.

All migrants who had arrived in Europe were now awaiting a decision as to whether they could stay or not. Information about their situation tended to be fairly patchy. All relatives knew in which country their family members were staying, but none of them seemed to know the name of city (or they did not mention the city during the interview). Details tended to be about whether they had received money or language lessons, whether they were allowed to work and how they had been housed.

My son is now in Germany, but I don’t know the name of the city where he is living right now. He arrived there almost a month ago. I don’t have a lot of information about his status, but he is living in a camp and is waiting for the bureaucracy to decide whether he can stay. (Father of a 19-year old migrant from Kabul)

They are in Germany. They are learning German over there and now know a little already. I do not know what is going to happen to them. They arrived 40 days ago. They have been registered in Germany now, but not interviewed yet. They were given a card so that they can go to the city and buy necessary things, but they are not permitted to work. My eldest son gets 180 Euros and my younger son gets 150 Euros every two weeks. That is all they have received until now. They were given a room in a block where other Afghan migrants live. I don’t remember the name of the city.(Mother of a 15-year and an 18-year old, from Kabul)

My son is in Belgium. He arrived there almost six months ago. He did not choose a country. He just wanted to leave Afghanistan because he was tired of everything here. … He wants to stay in Belgium and is taking language classes. He is paid by the Belgian government and is happy there. He was supposed to have his interview after two weeks. I don’t know how it went. (Father of a 23-year old migrant from Kabul)

The relatives tended to have rudimentary knowledge of the bureaucratic procedures, but often had little detail, other than whether interviews had already been held or whether a decision had yet been taken.

Now, he is in Germany. He has got through two courts in Germany. He gave them his documents that explain the main factors and reasons for him going. His last appearance – in the high court – is going to be next month. He told us on the telephone that they would send him to the next court. (Brother of a 22-year old migrant from Sar-e Pul)

He has an apartment with two bedrooms. I’m not sure [when they arrived there]. They are waiting for their second or third interview. (Brother of a migrant from Herat, who left with his whole family)

Linkages to home

In the past, once a migrant left his or her home country, communication became cumbersome, erratic and expensive. However, increasedaccess to the internet and the growing use of smart phones, well beyond urban areas and the upper middle class, have made it much easier for families to stay in touch. The access this provides to information all over the world and the ability to stay connected after departure has obviously impacted the migration process. Afghans contemplating the journey can now gather information beforehand, those en route can ask for help and those who have arrived can get their families to send copies of crucial documents needed for their asylum procedure.

We thought he was joking when he said he wanted to leave, but once he got his Iranian visa, we started believing him. He used Facebook on a daily basis to read about the situation along the route. He read that the border between Turkey and Greece was open, he might have been motivated by this. He is currently in Belgium. (Brother of 30-year old migrant from Helmand)

They went illegally, so they did not take any documents with them. They took money and when they got to Europe, we sent pictures of their national ID cards (Tazkira) via mobile phone. The day they left, my eldest son took one hundred dollars from me and left without our blessings. When my younger son left, we gave him money. His father gave him 150 USD for the journey. When they were in Iran, we again sent them money. (Mother of a 15-year and an 18-year old, from Kabul)

However, not everybody has easy access to communication. One father said he only had limited contact with his son as neither of them had a smart phone (which would make them dependent on an expensive landline-to-cell phone service rather than speaking via internet services such as Skype). (But his son had also left for Europe without telling his father and had only called him later, so he may also intentionally be keeping his father in the dark.)

He said it was a very difficult journey, but he did not tell us about the details because he did not want to make us upset. Also, neither my son nor I have the device [smart phone] to enable us to talk for a long time. (Father of a 23-year old migrant from Kabul/Maidan Wardak)

Hints of regret

Most families said their relatives planned to stay where they had ended up, even though in some cases this was a different country to where they had initially intended to get to, and that they were happy there. A few, however, said their family members in Europe were unhappy.

My 17-year old brother left for Europe. He basically intended to go to Belgium but couldn’t make it, as he was trying to reach Belgium when the Paris attacks happened. So he returned to Germany and then left for Italy. Belgium was his first choice because we believed that people were accepted as migrants easily there. He is currently living in Italy. He arrived there in 2015. He is very, very unhappy there with no legal status. He intends to leave for a city in France where it is believed he would be accepted as an asylum seeker more quickly. (Brother of a 17-year old migrant from Nangarhar)

The case of the younger brother from Nangarhar was further complicated by the fact that the boy had left against the wishes of his family and that the journey had been expensive:

He decided to leave even though all the other members of our family were opposed to it. I am still encouraging him to return because, even after spending around 8,000 US dollars, he now also regrets going. He decided to go because my niece who was already in Europe kept calling him to come to Europe. Also, my brother was not happy here because when he failed the entry test to university. He wanted to join the Afghan National Army (ANA), [but] we did not want him to join the ANA, because he would have been killed if he had joined. (Brother of a 17-year old migrant from Nangarhar)

When asked what his vision for his younger brother was now that he was in Europe, the older brother was not very optimistic:

There were serious concerns about him and now we don’t have any hopes for his future. He ruined his life and all we can do is hope for something better for him. We don’t specifically know what will happen to him next; he knows this better. (Brother of a 17-year old migrant from Nangarhar)

In another case, the migrant simply seemed to be tired of moving around and affected by being away from home.

He is exhausted from traveling and he says if his case is accepted in Finland, he will stay in Finland. He is really tired of moving, so he also said if his case doesn’t get accepted, he will return to Afghanistan. (Brother of 20-year old migrant from Baghlan)

In several of the interviews it became clear that those staying behind had disagreed with their loved ones’ wish to go. In some cases they were ultimately persuaded, while in other cases they continued to disagree even after their relative had left.

Actually everyone, including his wife, opposed his going. At the same time, family members were not sure how to stop him as neither the economic nor security situations got better. He said he wanted to leave and take the risk just like other people who were leaving. (Brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand, who left behind a family)

My brother had been interested in going to Iran or Turkey. His classmates and friends had discussed it for a long time. They heard life was better there and they would have better job opportunities, but my family did not agree with him. We wanted him to finish his studies and to get a job with the government. It is not easy for parents to send their kids away. Parents want their children to live with them. It was hard for us, but we wanted him to live in a peaceful place. My brother began talking about this topic, but we did not agree with him. But when security began to deteriorate, the family agreed to send him abroad. (Brother of a 20-year old migrant from Baghlan)

We all disagreed with his going, all the brothers. We believe more in our own tradition rather than going to another place. We are a traditional family with our own character. I’ve been to many conferences overseas and I know about the difficulties of being a foreigner, especially those with Asian traditions and culture, and languages and religion, even the skin is different. And even if your skin isn’t different, there is racism there sometimes. There are many advantages in Europe, but people can’t count on them. (Brother of migrant from Herat, who left together with his family)

Relatives who had had misgivings before the migrants left, other than just the risks of the journey, tended to still feel conflicted even after their family members had arrived in Europe. Some of them felt they had left behind a good life and would face greater difficulties in Europe. See for instance, again, the comments of the brother of the journalist from Herat:

I would have preferred him to stay because there is an advantage here for a traditional family and a journalist in having a normal life. He goes there and for many years he will try to learn a new language and a new culture and it will take some years for his case to be accepted – and then the golden time of his life will be over. That’s why I was telling him, and persuading myself, that if there is one chance to stay, it is better to stay. If there had not been a threat, he would have stayed. For an Afghan man, this might be the maximum adventure he can have: a salary, a car, a wife, kids. What more do you want? (Brother of migrant from Herat, who left with his family)

Visions for the future

Apart from feeling relief that their relatives had safely reached Europe, family members obviously hoped that their loved ones would be allowed to stay and build a life; that they would be able to focus on their education or finding a good job, maybe start a family or bring some of their remaining family over as well and, of course, help out those who stayed behind:

He is in Germany now and has been there for around eight months. He is waiting for some sort of court to decide his case. He intends to stay in Germany. We hope he can help us take our land back [ie pay back the mortgage that was needed to pay for the journey] and that he will help us build a house for ourselves, because we are currently living in a rental house. We also want to get him engaged. We definitely had worries about the journey, but now that he is there, we have some hopes. (Brother of a 25-year old migrant from Takhar)

At least now we are relaxed that he has a peaceful life, and will not be seeing robbers or bomb blasts. My hope for him was and still is that he will have a better life and that he may get married or have children, so they would have a better future. If he has a good salary, he can maybe help us too. We don’t know what will happen to my son. It totally depends on the will of God. (Father of a 19-year old migrant from Kabul)

The mother, who had initially opposed her young sons going, now feels relief that at least two members of her family are safe. And she hopes one day she may be able to join them:

I hope that, after enduring the risks and hardships of this journey, the boys study there and have a better future – because we knew that they had no future in Kabul. I would like to go and join them in Germany. Their younger siblings would also like to join them. Afghanistan is not safe anymore and everyone wants to live in a safer place. We are happy with this decision now. If, God forbid, something happens to us in Kabul, then at least two of our family are safe and alive in Germany. (Mother of two migrants, 15 and 18-year olds, from Kabul)

But there were also relatives who had concerns about the life the migrant may lead. For instance, in the case of the man from Helmand, who had left behind his family and had initially only planned to travel as far as Iran or Turkey:

Well, we are definitely hopeful he will get a good job and can at least help support his own family and children. But we cannot forecast the future. It’s up to the Belgian government now. … The only concern we have is that he left Afghanistan and will be working in another country instead of Afghanistan, while he could have spent his energy improving his own country. Also, my parents are worried about his religious practices. Even if he continues his religious practices, they are concerned about the next generation who they think might not stick to our religious beliefs. (Brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand)

And then there is of course the uncertainty over whether the migrants will be allowed to stay or whether they will be sent back. Many interviewees did not dwell on this very long, most of them merely referred to the fate of the migrant now being in the hands of God and the host country. Others were more outspoken.

The goals and vision we have for him are that he will have a safe and good life. We do not have to worry about his safety anymore. We do not have to worry that Kuchis, or Daesh, or the Taleban will kill him one day. [But] we are not sure about his future. It depends on the host country and whether they give him refugee status or send him to another country or deport him. In this regard, I cannot say anything. (Father of a 23-year old migrant from Kabul/Maidan Wardak)

Based on the information I have received from friends and relatives, if he gets accepted in Finland and stays there, I think he will have a better future. He will, at least, not live in war. He will get a better education and will have a better chance of getting a good job. But if his case doesn’t get accepted, he might have a very dark future. He spent more than a year trying to get there. He has been away from his culture during this time. He has also been away from higher education so if he doesn’t get accepted, he will be devastated and will have a dark future. He will suffer psychologically as well. If he returns home, maybe my father and all of us will tell him that we spent all our money on you and you returned home with nothing and no future. So there will be a lot of pressure on him. My father will probably tell him that we don’t have any more money to invest in you and nobody else will risk giving him any money either. (Brother of a 20-year old migrant from Baghlan)

The pressure to be a “good investment”

In many cases the wish for their relatives to do well was intertwined with the hope that the risk, the stress and the expenses of the journey would ultimately turn out to have been a good investment, not just for the individual but also for the larger family. In some cases this was an important reason driving the decision to “send” a relative to Europe. In the case of the migrant from Takhar for instance, after one of the brothers was killed and their house was set on fire, the family pooled their resources to send one of them to Europe:

All the family decided together that we would send our brother to Europe so he could help out the whole family financially once he makes it. We specifically chose Germany. We expected that our brother would be accepted as an asylum seeker in Germany and that he would be able to bring the whole family to Germany, because there is nothing left for us in Afghanistan. (Brother of a 25-year old migrant from Takhar)

Similarly, in the other cases, where the decision to embark on the journey seemed primarily driven by other factors, the opportunities that Europe represented still played a role in the families’ considerations.

His employment as a driver with an organisation brought him threats, so my father persuaded my brother to leave the country for a safer place. … At first my brother decided to go to Iran. Then his friends encouraged him to go to Turkey and consequently, he was motivated to try to reach Germany after consultation with family members. We thought, if our brother stays in Turkey, all he would do was work as a labourer. So we thought he should go to Germany, continue his education there and then help us to get there too. … We always wanted to go to a safer place but we didn’t have enough money to leave as a whole family – we still owe some of our relatives for the expenses we spent on our brother leaving. (Sister of a 22-year old migrant from Kunduz)

However, the possibility that their gamble may not pay off still looms, particularly for those whose families had struggled to gather the money and those who left despite opposition from their relatives. This is neatly summarised by the older brother of the 20-year old migrant from Baghlan:

Like my brother, my cousins who left, their families also struggle financially. They sold their land and other possessions and gathered money to send their kids to a safe place with better opportunities. It hasn’t been easy on either side. The families are still waiting to hear good news from their boys and the kids live with uncertainties in Europe. The family of one of my cousins who went to Europe still hasn’t paid the smuggler in full, so the smuggler comes knocking on their door every day asking for the outstanding money. 

I have to tell you that all the families that I know of, who sent their sons abroad, are hoping that their sons will get settled in Europe and will help them in return, because they have spent all their money to get their sons there. So far, no family has received anything from their boys in Europe during the last year. The families in Afghanistan are not very hopeful because we know that the influx of refugees in Europe has made it more difficult for Afghans. (Brother of a 20-year old migrant from Baghlan)

The pressure to be a “good investment” in this case was particularly strong, given that the young man came from a family that struggled financially.

In a way, travel to Europe has always been a ‘high-end’ addition to the regular diversification and coping strategies that many Afghan families employ. For several families this was not the first child or sibling to travel abroad, nor was it the first instance of displacement. Several families had moved—to the provincial capital, another province, or to Kabul—when the situation in their own area had become too insecure, and many of them had spent long years either in Pakistan or Iran. The family from Herat had spent many years in Iran, with several other distant relatives still living there and two siblings already living abroad.

Many youngsters from the family are still in Iran. Some have left for Europe or are planning to go because of economic difficulties and new restrictions there, but there are dangerous challenges. Many hesitate to go. … I have a small brother in Iran, another in India. But they are similar cultures. There is an advantage with education and facilities and incomes that encourage people to travel to Europe. Many from our own family, however, prefer to stay. (Brother of a 29-year old migrant from Herat)

One of the sons of the family in Helmand had also already gone to Europe in 2000.

Two earlier arrivals

The migrants who arrived in Europe some months ago are still very much at the beginning of their new lives, provided they are allowed to stay. Two interviews done earlier this year for AAN by Anne Wilkens provide some insight into the difficulties the recent arrivals might still face.  Both interviews are with Afghans who were still minors when they arrived in 2010. They were accepted and are, to a certain extent, well integrated. They were quite forthcoming about their difficulties, probably much more than they will have been to their relatives. The evaluation of their stay in Europe is also informed by hindsight:

In Sweden, Jawad has done exceptionally well: he has learned the language and graduated from high school with good marks. But he still thinks his life is tough, albeit in a manner different from before. He misses his country, its nature and his home. … He is not used to living alone and feels psychologically vulnerable: “In Afghanistan we had no money but we were together and we were happy inside. Here it is the other way around: we have money, but inside we are alone.” … He wants to return to Afghanistan as soon as possible, saying again: “In Afghanistan, we were free inside.”

Unlike Jawad, Massud has been reunited with his family. After a couple of years, his mother and five siblings arrived in Sweden, but it was not a happy day for him. Massud felt overwhelmed by his feeling of responsibility for them all: “I cried and cried so much, I had to leave the house. My mother seemed so much older, and was no longer the competent person I thought she was.”… Massud says he has lost himself: “I miss myself and will never be able to find myself again.” He has seen a couple of therapists, but it has not helped him. As he sees it, he has sacrificed himself for his family: “It was not the intention but this is how it turned out.”

(1) The study consisted of twelve in-depth, semi-structured interviews that took place across Afghanistan’s regions as follows: four interviews in Kabul and Wardak province; four interviews in Takhar, Sar-e Pul, Kunduz and Baghlan; one interview in Nangarhar; two interviews in Helmand and Kandahar; and one interview in Herat. The ethnic composition and urban/rural population ratio in the provinces was taken into account in the selection of interviewees. Respondents were selected and located through a referral system where AAN researchers reached out to their networks looking for families where at least one member had left for Europe in 2015. The respondents were interviewed about the departure of their family member(s), how decisions were made prior to their departure, details of the trip to Europe and thoughts on the future of the migrant in Europe. In addition, basic household information was collected for each of the families. For a shorter summary of the study, published jointly with FES, see here.

All migrants included in the study were male, with one exception where a whole family – husband, wife and young children – travelled together. In one case, two young brothers from one household travelled together, and in one case a migrant who had been forcibly returned, was interviewed directly. All migrants included in this study were between the ages of 15 and 30 years. Most of the interviewees giving information about the migrants in question were brothers and fathers (there was one mother and one sister).


AFGHANISTAN: Deciding To Leave Afghanistan, Part 2 of 3: The routes and the risks

Afghan migrants detained in Turkey after coastguards rescued them from an island in the Aegean Sea where they got stranded en route to Greece. (Source: Pajhwok 2015)

Afghan migrants detained in Turkey after coastguards rescued them from an island in the Aegean Sea where they got stranded en route to Greece. (Source: Pajhwok 2015), by Jelena Bjelica, May 18, 2016, original

AAN has done a series of twelve in-depth interviews with families of Afghans who recently travelled to Europe. The conversations provided a fascinating insight into the practicalities of both the decision making processes and the journey, the complex interplay between economic and security considerations and the mixed feelings families often have once their loved ones have finally, safely, reached Europe. In this second instalment, AAN’s Jelena Bjelica focuses on what migrants’ families relayed about the details of the journeys, the routes taken as well as practical preparations.

This series of three dispatches is based on twelve interviews done for a joint project with (and funded by) the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FESand resulted in a joint study titled “’We Knew They Had No Future in Kabul’: Why and How Afghan Families Decide to Leave” published on 27 April 2016.  The data collection was conducted in the spring of 2016 with selected Afghan households to explore the decision-making processes at the family level of a small number of migrants. (1) The three dispatches present the main findings and place them in a wider context. The first dispatch in the series focused on the main motives and decision making processes and can be found here. The third dispatch will take a closer look at what happened has since the migrants arrived in Europe and lays out the hopes and concerns their families have now that they are there. 

From Afghanistan to Turkey

All the family members of the migrants interviewed for the study said that their relatives who had travelled to Europe had gone through Iran and Turkey. Most went directly, entering Iran via the western Afghan provinces of Nimroz and Herat.

The shortest distance between Afghanistan and Turkey, as the crow flies, is 2,947 kilometres via Iran. Additionally, the land route from Afghanistan via Iran and Turkey is traditionally also used for smuggling opiates to Europe (this route is sometimes referred to as the “Balkan route.” (see UNODC’s map on the opiate flow from Afghanistan). As the brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand explained, many perceived the route via Iran as the usual route from Afghanistan to Turkey.

[…] He first went to Iran and then Turkey. Iran was chosen because it’s the route that everyone else takes. (Brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand)

Some migrants had an Afghan passport and a valid Iranian visa, for instance, as described by the brother of a 29-year old migrant from Herat, who fled Afghanistan with his family:

He went legally to Iran with his passport and then with smugglers. I don’t know about the smuggler contact. He had some savings and sold his car; maybe his wife sold her jewellery too. Maybe he borrowed money, I don’t know – he wouldn’t have said, he’s proud. He didn’t borrow money from the family.

Others made a detour via Pakistan because of tougher security along the border between Afghanistan and Iran:

They told us they went to Iran from Pakistan as it was difficult to go directly to Iran due to tight security [as they did not have a visa for Iran]. From Iran, there was another illegal route, but in the end they decided to return to Pakistan, then back to Iran and on to Turkey. It took them 15 days to reach Iran. They had to stop a lot and on the way there was hardly any food. It was a long journey. (Mother of an 18-year old and a 15-year old migrant from Kabul)

All but one migrant in the sample had not been issued with a Turkish visa. In some cases, the smugglers who organised their travel advised them and their families not to bother getting a passport, while in other instances, families said they did not have enough money to obtain visas (although applying for a Turkish visa through legal channels would be relatively inexpensive) and therefore had to rely on the (illegal) overland route.

Crossing the Aegean Sea

All but two migrants travelled to Greece from Turkey by boat. Of the two who avoided the sea route, one migrant (from Baghlan) travelled overland from Turkey to Bulgaria, then Hungary and finally to Germany. His brother explained that the smuggler chose this route. A 27-year old migrant from Kandahar who returned to Afghanistan and who was interviewed directly, said he decided to try the land route, as he did not feel the smugglers had made sufficient arrangements for a safe boat trip. He was, however, arrested on the Turkish-Bulgarian border.

We moved through Iran quickly, but in Turkey we had to move more slowly. We arrived in Istanbul after several weeks. From there, the smugglers took us to Izmir, but we did not want to get into the boat as the sea was rough and the weather was bad […] We heard from others about an alternative route so we decided to try the ‘land route’, moving first to Erdine, from where it would only be a very short trip by boat along the coast to Greece, avoiding Bulgaria. (27-year old migrant from Kandahar)

Many of the migrants who did travel by boat spent a long time (anywhere between several days to several weeks) on the Aegean Sea coast, as they often had to make several attempts to cross the sea to Greece. After each failed attempt (for instance because the engine broke down or the boat took on water), the migrants would return to Turkey and wait for a new opportunity to sail. Two interviewees, the mother of the two migrants from Kabul and the brother of a migrant from Sar-e Pul, explained what happened on the Aegean coast to their loved ones:

During the trip from Turkey to Greece, their boat hit a rock and sank but they were rescued. They spent a month in a camp in Turkey and were taken care of by UNHCR. They again tried to reach Greece by boat, but the boat’s engine stopped working. Fishermen rescued them again. The third attempt was also a failure. Only on their fourth attempt did they make it to Greece. (Mother of an 18-year old and a 15-year old migrant from Kabul)

He faced tough problems and only just reached Europe. He saw companions drown in the sea, when a storm hit. Some were rescued. He said, “We walked for about 20-22 hours to Turkey. Then, a storm caused the boat we were on to sink and a Greek vessel rescued us.” I don’t remember, but two Iraqi or Syrian people, who were in the same boat with my brother, died. (Brother of a 23-year old migrant from Sar-e Pul)

An interviewee from Takhar described how his brother called home and asked his mother to pray for him to cross the sea safely:

When he was about to cross the sea, he called my mother and asked her to pray for him. He told her: either I will make it or I will drown. (Brother of a 25-year old migrant from Takhar)

The Western Balkan route

According to a European Parliament report, throughout 2015 the Western Balkans route was the busiest. It starts in Turkey, heads west into Greece and then into the Western Balkans, at present primarily via the former Yugoslav Republics of Macedonia and Serbia. Some of the region’s aspiring EU candidates, particularly Kosovo and Albania, have been a source of irregular migration themselves, with outward border crossings peaking in 2014 and early 2015. Increased migrant flows from outside Europe, however, have shifted this trend, now turning the region into one of transit. It appears from the interviews that all of the migrants took this Western Balkan route.

Most of the information, however, that family members of the migrants recalled was focused on the journey through Iran and Turkey, with few being able to give much detail on the journey within Europe, either in terms of conditions along the way or the time it took for their family member to reach the country where they are now. For the interviewees, the accounts by their relatives of the routes taken after having left Greece were rather blurred and many had only a vague knowledge of European geography, in particular when it came to Southeastern and Eastern European countries. The brother of a 25-year old migrant from Maidan Wardak described his brother’s journey through the Balkans in temporal terms:

From Turkey he went to Austria through different countries, but I don’t remember the names of the other countries through which he travelled. I think he spent one and a half months travelling through all of these countries, 20 days of which he spent in Iran. The main reason for choosing this route was that it was cheaper than the other options and the decision was made to use this way because it was the only one we could afford.(Brother of a 25-year old migrant from Maidan Wardak)

The Balkan route is notorious for human trafficking and migrant smuggling (see the 2008 UNODC report on trafficking and smuggling in the Balkans). The porous borders between the former Yugoslav Republics were the result of ongoing hostilities between the newly established states. The relatively new police and customs departments there did not cooperate with one another, while traffickers and smugglers worked closely along ethnic lines. Since the end of war in the Western Balkans in the early 2000s, new regional forums have been established (such as the Migration Asylum Refugees Regional Initiative – MARRI, see also thisLSE paper on regional initiatives) to improve cooperation between the former republics.

In 2015, the states along the Western Balkans route created a humanitarian corridor. The open borders policy, as well as the relatively moderate political discourse and public attitudes, made them ‘refugee-friendly’ countries, despite reported cases of mistreatment, according to a European Parliament report. The state authorities of Serbia, Macedonia and later Croatia (after Hungary closed its border with Serbia in the summer of 2015) even organised border-to-border transport for refugees in their respective countries. The news of the humanitarian corridor reached Afghanistan and may have encouraged their families to send their relatives on the perilous journey:

[…] the media were broadcasting reports of people leaving for Europe. We said, “Let’s trust God. You will arrive somewhere.” (Brother of a 23-year old migrant from Sar-e Pul) 

He used Facebook on a daily basis to read about the situation along the route and he read that the border between Turkey and Greece was open. He might have been motivated by this. He is currently in Belgium. (Brother of 30-year old migrant from Helmand)

Difficulties along the way

Based on the information their families provided, all the migrants had set out between the (early) summer and late autumn of 2015. The families had often only sketchy details of how long the trip had taken, but it was clear that many of the travellers had been forced to interrupt their journey along the way. In Iran and again in Turkey, several had to wait for smugglers to arrange for their onward passage. In one case, a migrant worked in Turkey for seven months to earn money for his onward journey.

He had to leave for Iran, then Turkey [where he stayed some seven months because he didn’t have enough money to travel to Germany]. He found work in Turkey and eventually spent that money, together with money sent by the family, to travel on to Germany. (Sister of a 22-year old migrant from Kunduz)

Even for those passing through, the stay in Turkey was often long as most migrants entered the country on foot through the mountains. In many cases, they did not tell their families the extent of the difficulties they faced along the way, in order not to worry them. Some family members said they had asked not to be told any details because they would be too upsetting.

However, the mother of the two migrants from Kabul described how smugglers left her sons without food or water during the 15-day walk through the mountains between Pakistan and Iran:

They were told they would walk in the mountains for two to three hours. But in the area between the Pakistani and Iranian border, the boys had to walk for 10 hours per day, without any water for 15 days. The boys told the smuggler they could not go on without food or water. In the mornings, they were given some bread and a bottle of water for the whole day. One day, a boy who was part of their group collapsed and later died from exhaustion. My boys then asked for more water but were usually only given a little bit of muddy water once they ran out of bottled water. (Mother of an 18-year old and a 15-year old migrant from Kabul)

The brother of a 20-year old migrant for Baghlan shared a similar story:

He told me that he had been stuck on the border between Iran and Turkey for 20 days. I think the smuggler could not get him through the border on one particular day. The smuggler hid him in a desert area with 30-35 other people. In this area, there was a lot of trash and different kinds of animals. My brother said that the food they had lasted for only a day and that for the next three days they had nothing. He said if the smuggler had not shown up on the fourth day, they might all have died.

Other migrants told their families about difficulties that included instances of arrest, mistreatment and perilous journeys by boat. They described the hardships of being at somebody else’s mercy when it came to getting food, water and shelter. Some migrants told their families that the trek over the mountains around the Iranian-Turkish border had been horrible. Others said they had been mistreated either by the smugglers or the local authorities, as described by these two interviewees:

He said he was arrested with two smugglers along the Turkish border with Iran and mistreated. We didn’t have any news from him for almost two weeks. He then had to spend almost one month in a migrant camp in Turkey where the conditions were very bad. (Brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand)

My brother said a local smuggler in Iran beat him, along with a group of 50 Afghans; he gave them electric shocks and took their money and luggage. (Brother of a 17-year old migrant from Nangarhar)

A good smuggler is hard to find

The interviewees, most of whom had been involved in the preparations of their family member’s journey, described how in most cases the family contacted a smuggler to discuss their options, get assurances that their loved ones would be taken care of, and agree on a price. (2)

Finding the money and the smuggler was necessary. From the time of the initial discussion until he left, I made sure we found a good smuggler who would succeed in getting him to Europe. (Brother of a 20-year old migrant from Baghlan)

I discussed the issue with the smuggler […] There was no need to get a passport for my son, I was told. When my son got to Turkey, I paid the money to the smuggler. We were in touch with the smuggler while my son was in transit, and if something happened to him, the smuggler would report it to me, I was told. (Father of a 19-year old migrant from Kabul)

In Kabul, we found a smuggler and told him that only after the boys reached their destination would we pay him. The smuggler’s mother-in-law lives in our neighbourhood, and her son-in-law knows a lot of people and has connections to many other smugglers along the route to Europe.(Mother of an 18-year old and a 15-year old migrant from Kabul)

With a few exceptions, most families discussed at length the difficulties they faced in getting the funds together. For many, it required borrowing money from relatives and friends and/or mortgaging their homes. Payment arrangements, as well as the cost of the journey to Europe, seemed to vary widely: from 1,500 US dollars to more than 8,000 US dollars per person. (In some cases the price mentioned only concerned the journey to Turkey, with the families not specifying how much their sons or brothers had paid for the boat trip from Turkey to Greece. For the humanitarian corridor in the Western Balkans, where the governments organised the onward journey, no smugglers’ services would have been required).

I discussed the issue with the smuggler, who said payment from Kabul to Turkey was 1,500 USD. (Father of a 19-year migrant from Kabul)

He spent almost 8,000 USD getting from Mazar to Germany. (Brother of a 23-year old migrant from Sar-e Pul)

Some families said that their brothers or sons would contact them when they needed money while on their journey, and that they would provide them with instructions on how to pay:

He had already talked to the smuggler and paid him 1,500 USD. He paid this money to the smuggler to take him to Turkey. When he got to Turkey, he told his friends he needed more money. These friends then informed us and we sent him the money he needed, which we borrowed from our relatives. (Brother of a 25-year old migrant from Maidan Wardak)

Some migrants’ families were able to negotiate that payment would only be made once their family member had reached Europe, while others paid after each leg of the trip was completed (generally Iran, Turkey and Europe). The mother of the 18-year old and 15-year old from Kabul said that the smuggler told the family:

Whenever your boys call and say they are in Iran or in Turkey, then you can pay the money for this part of the journey.

The brother of a 25-year old migrant from Takhar said that several different smugglers had been involved in his brother’s journey to Germany:

He spent a total of 4,000 USD in order to reach Germany […] We first sent him to Nimroz then smugglers took him to Iran for 600 USD, another smuggler took him to Turkey for 700 USD, then to Greece and from Greece to Germany. It took two months for him to reach Germany.

The brother of a 17-year old migrant from Nangarhar described how he made a deal with the smuggler for his brother:

I took him to the smuggler and we made a deal and agreed that payment would only be made once he had reached his final destination. The money would not be paid if there were three failed attempts by the smuggler to get him there.

The 27-year old migrant from Kandahar (who was able to give the most detailed account of his journey), was repatriated and decided not to return to Kandahar and based himself in Kabul. He said he paid increments of 2,000 to 3,000 US dollars for each leg of the trip. He also said that smugglers set up a chain of hiding places along the way and they provided the migrants with food and water along the way.

On the way, we had to stay with the smugglers in apartments provided by them. We moved through Iran quickly but in Turkey we had to move more slowly. We arrived in Istanbul after several weeks. From there, the smugglers took us to Izmir. (27-year old migrant from Kandahar)

Although the interviewees knew only a fraction of what their family members had endured during their journeys and were thus unable to provide detailed accounts of their relatives’ travels through some parts of Europe (especially through the Western Balkans), it is clear that all the migrants used this relatively new and shorter migration route (when compared to the route via Libya to Italy). The Balkan route, although not devoid of peril, is considered safer than travel through Libya to Italy, as it is mainly a land route. For those migrants coming from the Middle East and Afghanistan, Turkey is within easier reach than Libya. However, there are now new challenges along the road, in particular in the Western Balkans, which include new fences along borders and unanticipated reactions and changes in policies by the primary destination countries, which burdens the transit countries (such as Greece). This is what has most likely led to the emergence of new, secondary routes in the region.

(1) The study consisted of twelve in-depth, semi-structured interviews that took place across Afghanistan’s regions as follows: four interviews in Kabul and Wardak province; four interviews in Takhar, Sar-e Pul, Kunduz and Baghlan; one interview in Nangarhar; two interviews in Helmand and Kandahar; and one interview in Herat. The ethnic composition and urban/rural population ratio in the provinces was taken into account in the selection of interviewees. The respondents were selected and located through a referral system where AAN researchers reached out to their networks looking for families where at least one member had left for Europe in 2015. Respondents were interviewed about the departure of their family member(s), how decisions were made prior to their departure, details of the trip to Europe and thoughts on the future of the migrant in Europe. In addition, basic household information was collected for each of the families. For a shorter summary of the study, published jointly with FES, see here.

All migrants included in the study were male, with one exception where a whole family – husband, wife and young children – travelled together. In one case, two young brothers from one household travelled together, and in one case a migrant who had been forcibly returned, was interviewed directly. All migrants included in this study were between the ages of 15 and 30. Most of the interviewees giving information about the migrants in question were brothers and fathers (there was one mother and one sister).

(2) The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime and its protocols on human trafficking and smuggling, and manufacturing and smuggling in arms from 15 November 2000 are signed by all states on the route that the migrants described (only Iran has yet to ratify it).


ON THE MEDIA: Documentary Filmmakers Find That an Agenda Helps With Financing

An image from “Indian Point” gives a view of the nuclear power plant of the title. Credit Indian Point Film Productions

An image from “Indian Point” gives a view of the nuclear power plant of the title. Credit Indian Point Film Productions, by John Anderson, original

Social-issue documentaries are the white knights of cinema — vanquishing dragons, tilting at windmills — but they are not intended as agents of diplomacy. Right is right, wrong is wrong. Take no prisoners. Divide and conquer.

So the director Ivy Meeropol’s “Indian Point,” due in theaters on July 8, is a bit out of step with the competition. The film, which revolves around a portrait of the titular nuclear reactor about 25 miles up the Hudson from New York City, has brought together parties on both sides of the long-running debate over whether the plant should stay or go.

“It was such a nice, friendly atmosphere, because the movie was so evenhanded,” said the longtime anti-Indian Point activist Marilyn Elie, who, with her husband, Roger Witherspoon, a veteran environmental journalist, and Brian Vangor, the senior control-room operator of the plant, are principal characters in the film and have appeared together at festival screenings.

 “But,” Ms. Elie cautioned, “it’s not an advocacy film.”

And by not being one, “Indian Point” sets itself apart not only from the drift of current documentaries but also from much of the money available to make them — money coming from institutions that place considerable importance on a film’s cause and its outreach plan (the organizational networking necessary to reach the audience sympathetic to that cause).

“If these funders weren’t funding activist films, they would be funding some other form of activism — not some other form of filmmaking,” said Marshall Curry, a director. His admittedly thorny films, including “If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front” and “Street Fight,” about African-American Democrats fighting one another for control of Newark, have faced problems with financing and outreach because they “were hard to rally troops around.” Green groups, for instance, fled from “If a Tree Falls,” with its sympathetic portrait of an environmental “terrorist.”

 There is also an implicit constraint imposed when a filmmaker has pitched a film one way, and the story goes another.

 A scene from the documentary “Detropia.” CreditLoki Films

“The closest we ever came to an agenda film was ‘Detropia,’” said Rachel Grady. She and Heidi Ewing thought their 2012 documentary would be a positive story about Detroit. Then they started filming.

“As one does, if one is doing a good job, we found out the story was different from our thesis,” Ms. Grady said. “Luckily, the money we’d gotten was from the Ford Foundation, which was a no-strings grant maker.”

But other foundations, like the MacArthur Foundation, are no longer providing grants for individual documentary projects, choosing instead to channel money thorough smaller institutions. That change “was very, very painful,” said Julie Goldman, a producer of “Indian Point.” She said foundations have historically been places you could go for significant financial help “and not have to scrap for every $15,000. But they both decided to do the same thing. So it’s really challenging.”

The alternative is going to financiers who often want a post-release plan from a filmmaker, in preproduction, about how the movie will create a conversation, online or off. “The reality is you end up kind of guessing a lot,” Ms. Goldman said. “Look, some things are going to be obvious — who the partners are, what you can do for outreach. When you’re doing a film on Indian Point, it’s a question.”

What’s happened to documentary financing over the last decade, said Debra Zimmerman, the executive director of the specialty distributor Women Make Movies, “is the coalescence of a number of different trends, none of which has been really good for filmmakers who aren’t interested in making social-issue docs.” She cited the closing of the National Endowment for the Arts’ regional grants, the Rockefeller Foundation’s decision to directly stop financing film, “and the fact, unfortunately, that we don’t have any real national support for film as an art form.”

“So it’s left to private foundations that are basically created to get tax deductions so they can work on social issues,” she said. “That’s what the role of a foundation is.”

“It’s good that social-issue films are getting money,” she added, “but it’s bad that nothing else is getting funded.”

A scene from “If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front.”

That isn’t quite the case, though many of the social-action entities — Impact Partners (“How to Survive a Plague”), the Bertha Fund (“God Loves Uganda”), Participant Media (“An Inconvenient Truth”), Chicken & Egg (“(T)error”), BritDoc (“3 and ½ Minutes, 10 Bullets”) and its forum Good Pitch (“The Invisible War”) — make no apologies for their agendas. “We’re seeing an explosion of funders moving into the films-for-change space who are working with films for the first time and are coming from more traditional philanthropy and need to be assured that the films will have application beyond the general audience,” Maxyne Franklin of BritDoc said.

Amy Halpin, the director of filmmaker services for the International Documentary Association in Los Angeles, oversees the Pare Lorentz Fund, which gives production money to films focusing on equal justice, environmentalism and other social issues. She said she has not found that “the tail wags the dog” — that filmmakers were tailoring their films to meets financing expectations.

On the other hand, “it’s a question within the field right now about how much we’re asking filmmakers to do other than being filmmakers,” Ms. Halpin said. “We’re asking them to drive these activist campaigns that can have career implications, because when you’re speaking at churches and schools and libraries for two years after you’ve made the movie, you’re not making your next movie. And you only get to be a filmmaker once every four or five years.”

But it’s hard for a financier foundation or broadcaster to not to hear the siren song of social action. “I wouldn’t say it’s a requirement,” said Courtney Sexton, vice president of CNN Films, “but we have an internal outreach and partnership person who works closely with the filmmakers we commission to help coordinate efforts that CNN can participate in.” CNN-financed documentaries have included “The Hunting Ground,” about sexual assault on college campuses.

Significant support for the filmmaker-sans-agenda has come from the Sundance Institute, where Tabitha Jackson, who runs the documentary fund, is widely recognized as sympathetic to the cause of the art documentary. A new Sundance initiative called the Art of Nonfiction is intended to support individual filmmakers, not strictly social-impact movies.

“It felt like we were at danger point maybe a couple of years ago,” Ms. Jackson said. “There was a risk that an inappropriate form of measurement would tend to reduce the funding that filmmakers got unless they jumped through hoops, or pretended to be able to do things they couldn’t. I think the conversation is different now. It’s about sustainability and diversity.”

For Ms. Meeropol, it’s also about objectivity, and how it goes unrewarded.

At a recent Q. and A., she said: “I had not a single filmmaking question from the audience. So despite my best efforts, the film becomes an advocacy piece. And I am a reluctant poster child for the anti-nuke movement.”

Correction: July 8, 2016
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the Ford Foundation’s policy regarding grant money for documentary films. Ford, through its JustFilms unit, continues to provide money to individual filmmakers; it is not the case that the organization has stopped giving grant money to documentarians.

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AFGHANISTAN: Why are so many returning refugees still landless?

Nangarhar, 2008: People returning from Jalozai and Naser Bagh camps in Pakistan have found it difficult to find clean water in some of the places they have settled. (Photo Credit: Pajhwok), by Jelena Bjelica, March 29, 2016, original

More than 5.8 million Afghans, about 20 per cent of Afghanistan’s population, are refugees who have returned home since the fall of the Taleban according to UNHCR figures. Many found their houses destroyed or occupied, or discovered that a new set of laws had scrapped their tenancy rights. The government plan for distributing land to them, and to IDPs, is now a decade old, but has been one of the most corrupt and ineffective government schemes. AAN’s Jelena Bjelica looks at how difficult it has been for these most vulnerable of Afghans and asks whether anything might now change.

Shortly after the December 2001 Bonn Conference which established the post-Taleban political set up, at UNHCR’s urging, President Karzai passed the Decree on the Dignified Return of Refugees – decree no 297. It became effective as of 22 December 2001. The decree guaranteed the proper treatment of returnees, their exemption from prosecution (except for war crimes and crimes against humanity) and the recovery of lost property. (1)

Although the recovery of property was recognised as a right, in practice, many returnees found they could not just walk in and reclaim their original houses and farms. New occupants often held documents supporting their own claim to the property. In some cases, they may have actually bought the property (from someone who did not own it); in other cases, the new ‘owners’ had acquired legal titles through dubious legal means. In some cases the new ‘owners’ simply refused to leave.

A further complication was that, for many property transactions, no official documents exist. According to this in-depth 2013 AREU study, many people do not have any documentation to confirm their ownership. (According to Afghan law, customary, religious, legal and administrative documents are legitimate.) The same study found that there was no documentation at all for many rural properties for the period from 1961 to 2001:

Most landowners and tenants held and used their land on trust, under customary norms. These norms were community-based and sustained arrangements, which had evolved over time. These drew upon various customary or religious (Shari’a) norms. The shared conventions agreed that a certain field or house was owned by a certain family.

Under the post-2001 land laws, people who had enjoyed customary usage rights over land, in fact, had no right to own the land. This made many people effectively landless.

Other returnees were adversely affected by a decision taken at the Bonn conference to take the 1964 Constitution as the temporary basis for all laws, until the adoption of a constitution. Presidential Decree No 66 (5 January 2002) abolished all decrees and legal documents enacted before 22 December 2001 that were inconsistent with the 1964 Constitution and the Bonn Agreement. This revoked all land rights people had gained through the land reforms in the 1970s and 1980s (for example 250,000 families had been given 600,000 hectares of land by the end of 1979). It also strengthened the state’s de jure ownership of an estimated 80 per cent of the country’s land. (The remaining 20 per cent of the land was in private ownership.)

In September 2002, less than a year after the Bonn conference, President Karzai established a special Land and Property Disputes Court (by his Decree on the Establishment of Land and Property Disputes Court; Circulate Letter No 4035). The court, that was ordered to adjudicate disputes within two months and was supposed to have a special police force to enforce its decisions, was abolished again in November 2003 (Executive Decree No 89).

The same decree created a new institution, the Special Property Dispute Resolution Court, based in Kabul with the responsibility of handling all returnee and refugee property cases. It had a primary court, which was also responsible for areas outside Kabul and was authorised to travel to the provinces with the Supreme Court’s permission to deal with any special disputes, and an appeal court. A year later, in February 2004, another executive decree (No 112) was issued, to allow claimants who were dissatisfied with the special courts’ judgments to appeal their cases to the Supreme Court and the Office of the President. This legal centralisation of power, in particular in the hands of the president, said the AREU study, discouraged returnees from bringing claims against the government, which itself had become the owner of many estates. According to the same study, “By January 2005, the court had dealt with only five per cent of cases before it and an astounding 80 per cent of its verdicts were being appealed.”

In January 2007, a presidential decree (No 105) abolished the authority of the primary courts to handle cases outside Kabul and transferred it to the provincial judiciary. In July 2007, the Supreme Court, using its authority to establish or change court divisions, abolished the Special Property Dispute Resolution Court altogether and its authority was transferred to Afghanistan’s regular courts.

Introducing a land allocation scheme

There were also many returnees who lost their access to land through the abolition of post-1964 land laws or the dissolution of customary arrangements. Others had never had access to land. In 2003, UNHCR estimated that 41 per cent of returnees had no homes or land, while another 26 per cent owned farms or houses, but had found these destroyed or damaged beyond repair on their return. All over the country, IDP and refugee returnees started forming informal settlements on land they did not own. In urban areas, they joined the ranks of other urban migrants who made up cities’ growing informal settlements. (2)

In the face of all these problems and partially in response to UNHCR pressure, in December 2005, Karzai passed another new decree:Presidential Decree 104 on the Land Distribution to Eligible Returnees and IDPs. It was colloquially known as the ‘land allocation scheme.’ It was supposed to ease the return of refugees, but has been ineffective and racked by corruption.

Presidential Decree 104 created provincial commissions chaired by the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation that were to vet and approve applications for the allocation of land (Article 7). The Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livelihoods was charged with finding available land (Article 9), a responsibility subsequently given to the Afghanistan Land Authority (known as Arazi). By 2006, over 48,000 parcels of 3 to 10 hectares (15-30 jeribs) of land had been identified and listed. However, most of the allocated land was actually on the commons. This land only officially belonged to the state, but communities saw it as their own, shared land which they managed communally.

The implementation of the land allocation scheme was far from smooth. Many affected communities rejected the allocation of lands to those they saw as outsiders. An example of this can be read about in a 2010 TLO study  which describes a case in Zhari Dasht, in Zhari district of Kandahar, where UNHCR and the local government had negotiated a permanent settlement, in line with Presidential Decree 104, for IDPs from the north and west of Afghanistan who had settled in Zhari Dasht in late 2001. Their IDP camp was registered in 2004. The local community, however, resisted the plan so strongly that the government decided that the return of the IDPs to their place of origin would be the only viable solution for them. Most of the Zhari Dasht IDPs never went ‘home’, however, but eventually resettled themselves in Kandahar City and Spin Boldak district of Kandahar.

There have been sustained complaints about how the government has distributed land (see AAN previous reporting here). According to a 2015 UNAMA report on land grabbing, government officials often distributed land for personal gain or because of threats to those who were not eligible. For example, a governor (from a province not named by UNAMA) had “sold land allocated for IDPs and returnees for personal profit,” while in another place, “the Decree 104 commission ha[d] not convened in over four years, ostensibly because no state land ha[d] been made available for allocation, as a result of state land grabbing.” Often, land distribution priorities appeared biased, favouring other groups who might legally be given land, such as government employees. In Herat, for example, the municipal land commission distributed 14,000 parcels of land to government officials and only 850 parcels to returnees and IDPs.

The land actually allotted for distribution to returnees and IDPs often ended up being far from the cities and not meeting basic living standards – with, for example, no access to water and no job opportunities, health services or schools. This may partially explain the relatively low number of applications for plots: by the end of 2014, the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation had received some 266,000 applications. The majority of IDPs and returnees may simply have preferred to reside in urban or peri-urban environments, particularly since many of them had become used to a certain level of basic services while in exile. Another important reason may have been the particularly arduous process involved in applying for land.

Presidential Decree 104 – “inconsistent, defective, vague and uneven”

Getting land through the available legal procedure is difficult to the point of making applicants despair. The Independent Joint Anti-Corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee (MEC), in its 2013 vulnerability to corruption assessment, described how “many of the [decree’s] articles were inconsistent, defective, vague and uneven, paving the way for corruption.”

To register for the land allocation scheme, the applicant first of all needed to submit three basic documents (article 2): a voluntary repatriation form provided by UNHCR, a requirement that excluded people who had not returned via a formal UNHCR-administered process (for some background on this, see this AAN dispatch), a tazkera (ID document) and proof of landlessness, certifying that the person does not own land or a house in Afghanistan under his/her name, nor in the name of a spouse or under-age child. For IDPs applying for a plot of land, a document confirming their internal displacement status is required.

Providing a document proving landlessness, in particular, turned out to be very difficult. Moreover, the entire procedure to obtain a temporary land ownership deed consisted of six stages (3) and 63 separate administrative steps, almost all of which included the collection of signatures from the different authorities and departments of the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation. MEC, in its report, described these steps as unnecessary, provisional and aimed at “escaping individual responsibility.” Completing the whole process can take years.

The process was so cumbersome that during the second step of the process the minister himself needed to review each individual application and refer them to the concerned directorate. The chief of staff, heads of different departments, heads of units in the districts, provincial directors of refugees’ affairs and so on, all also needed to confirm, sign off or stamp the application. It was not until the 37th and 38th step of this six-stage process that the provincial commission actually evaluated the application and determined whether the applicant was an eligible beneficiary.

Such a process provided ample opportunity for corruption and ‘rent-seeking behaviour,’ as confirmed by the MEC assessment. Anecdotal reporting indicated that, for a bribe of approximately 300 US dollars per person in the household, an applicant could speed up the collection of signatures, stamps and sign-offs, at least in some stages of the process. But given the number of steps required to complete this bureaucratic process, many people would have felt discouraged by the sheer amount of bribery needed.

The actual fees were rather reasonable and affordable. Based on the Council of Ministers Resolution No 16 from 21 August 2006 (article 6) a person who was approved to receive the land only needed to pay a symbolic official state fee of 1,500 Afghani (then around 30 dollars) per 100 square meters (1 beswa). Usually the land people received was between three and six beswa.

By the end of 2014, after nine years, according to the UNHCR database, the ministry had allotted only 57,500 plots of land (out of a total of 266,000 applications). Of this number, only 39,000 beneficiaries had actually received their title deeds, while the actual occupancy was recorded at just over 21,000 plots. To put these figures in context, on a rough estimate based on UNHCR figures, there may be more than two million landless returnees in Afghanistan who could be eligible for the scheme.

Anwary as minister

Since the Bonn conference, the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation has been led by seven ministers: Enayatullah Nazari 2002-04; Azam Dadfar 2004; Sher Muhammad Ettebari 2004-09; Abdul Karim Brahui 2009-10; Abdul Rahim 2010; Jamahir Anwary 2010-14; and, since 2015, Sayed Hussain Alemi Balkhi 2015. It is difficult to distinguish the legacy of each minister, but Anwary’s tenure is probably the best documented in the available media investigative stories, UN reports and MEC vulnerability to corruption assessment.

Jamahir Anwary, appointed in June 2010, (4) was a pharmacy graduate from Kabul University who appeared on the political scene in 2002 as a delegate of the Turkmen shura (representing Turkmen refugees in Pakistan and residents in Afghanistan) who had come to meet the interim government’s senior officials; he was later described as ‘the newly elected representative of the Turkmen community’. (5)

His ministerial tenure (from June 2010 to December 2014) will mainly be remembered for the accusations of corruption, nepotism and embezzlement of government and international aid agencies’ funds. Anwary was called in by both houses of the parliament (Wolesi Jirga and Meshrano Jirga). The first time, in February 2012, it was at the request of the Complaints Commission of the Meshrano Jirga, to answer for the appointment of his niece and two cousins in the ministry. Anwary, however, failed to show up and, instead, responded via the media saying “the three people who have been employed were interviewed by a commission [that] consisted of a representative from the ministry and a representative from UNHCR [sic].”

Then, on 10 October 2013, the Wolesi Jirga summoned him for an interpellation session (isteza), a serious matter where a minister can be sacked if he or she does not provide adequate answers to MPs’ concerns. The Afghan media reported that Anwary was summoned over allegations of graft, including embezzlement of funds, failure to clear the ministry’s power bills, anomalies in recruitment and the ministry’s overall failure to address the plight of refugees.

The allegations had, by then, been well documented. A UNHCR evaluation of its Shelter Assistance Program conducted in the fall of 2012 stated that the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation was not considered a reliable partner to take over or continue UNHCR’s program, due to numerous instances of corruption, inefficiency, mishandling of funds, lack of human resources and an inability to demonstrate technical or thematic knowledge of the populations falling under the ministry’s responsibility.

A year later, on 28 September 2013, the Independent Media Consortium (IMC) published an in-depth and widely publicised investigative report about corruption in the ministry. Allegations by the IMC included that Anwary had requested UNHCR to transfer tens of thousands of US dollars to the personal accounts of his family members and others.

A month later, in October 2013, the MEC released its vulnerability to corruption assessment on land distribution for returnees and IDPs, also describing widespread administrative corruption, bribery, forgery, nepotism, embezzlement and poor customer service in the ministry. Although the report did not specify when these practices had taken place, it was published three years into Anwary’s tenure. The report also found that senior officials in the ministry were incompetent and the internal control mechanisms were inadequate. It also found the land distribution process to be corrupted, informal and chaotic (see previous section). Moreover, the 2013 MEC assessment indicated that, due to a sloppy and unnecessarily long procedure, the lack of a central database and widespread corrupted practices, in more than 3,500 cases in Kabul province the same plot of land had been distributed to more than one applicant.

Anwary, however, survived the vote of no confidence held on 9 November 2013. His defence was that “we should not point an accusing finger at each other and instead we should jointly work to resolve the problems facing Afghan refugees.” Many thought it pointed rather to problems with the parliament. President Karzai also chosen to keep the widely discredited minister in post.

New minister: new rules… and new problems

When the current refugee minister Sayed Hussain Alemi Balkhi took over the ministry in January 2015, he faced a mammoth task. (6) He not only had to deal with a notoriously corrupt ministry, but his appointment coincided with a growing mass exodus of Afghans to Europe (see AAN previous reporting) and pressure from European countries to ‘take back’ those who failed to get asylum. There was also the ongoing increase in IDPs due to the intensified conflict. (See the ministry’s statistics on IDPs, returnees and refugees, and the 2015 UNAMA report on civilian casualties.)

On 19 May 2015, the new minister introduced what MEC, in its Ninth Six-month Progress Report (25 February 2016), described as a simplified procedure for land distribution. AAN interviews with MEC and ministry officials suggest it is not yet clear how the new procedure will work and whether the minister himself still needs to rule on who is eligible and who is not in the early stage of the application. According to MEC’s monitoring and evaluation unit, 1,534 plots have been distributed based on the new procedure. Everyone is watching to see how the new procedure will pan out.

In the past, as the 2013 MEC report found, the lack of a systematic, computerised database in the ministry provided ample opportunity for forgery and corruption. There is now a database, although it is not yet fully functional – in particular, it is not yet connected to the provinces. However, there is still no streamlined bureaucratic procedure, a ‘one-stop-shop.’

The ministry has also established a legal committee to deal with the 3,500 doubly/triply distributed plots in Kabul province. According to the MEC, 800 cases have since then been resolved. The ministry has also referred several cases to the Attorney General’s Office in relation to the Kabul plots.

Balkhi made these important changes after June 2015 when the High Commission on Migration chaired by President Ghani himself was established. The commission, which brings together 17 different ministries and governmental institutions, held its first meeting on 22 June 2015.

The strong political pressure from the president on refugee and migration issues is related to their high international political profile. Pressure from the president also intensified in the run-up to a UNHCR meeting in Geneva in October 2015 (see here and here), at which aid for the refugees’ ministry was discussed. Both donors and the government had slashed the ministry’s budget earlier in the year. (7)

Solutions never explored and outlook for the future

After the passing of many years and the spending of billions of US dollars, Afghanistan still has huge numbers of returnees and IDPs who are landless. The fact that only a small portion of the millions who could have applied for the government’s land distribution scheme have done so hints at fundamental problems: either people lost hope and interest in the scheme, or the land offered (far from the cities, with not even basic services) was not attractive. A high number of landless returnees and IDPs in Afghanistan have clearly expressed a desire to be located near or in cities, but the government has never proposed public housing schemes which might have catered to them. Possibly, such solutions would have been seen as too ‘socialist’.

Both CEO Abdullah Abdullah and President Ghani promised in their election campaigns to facilitate the return of refugees still living abroad. Part of that would have to be creating a system which helps those who have already come ‘home’. There is some sense that the government wants to clean up the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation. The spotlight is now on the ministry to see if it can rescue its damaged reputation and start helping those it is supposed to serve.

(1) In 2001, the number of laws regulating land issues was rather complex: next to the constitution, more than 70 laws, edicts, decrees, orders and administrative decisions regulated the land rights. Currently, there are still over 30 different pieces of legislation. For more information on land management and land administration issues in the post-Bonn era see this detailed AREU study: Land, People, and the State in Afghanistan: 2002 – 2012; February 2013

See also the 2014 UNAMA report on the legal framework and the Norwegian Refugee Council’s A guide to property law in Afghanistan, Second Edition 2011.

(2) In Kabul, in 2009, the informal settlements (where settlers included poor people, urban migrants, returnees and IDPs) made up an estimated 69 per cent of the city’s residential area (from Sheila Reed and Connor Foley, Land and Property: Challenges and Opportunities for Returnees and IDPs in Afghanistan, unpublished report prepared for the Norwegian Refugee Council, June 2009).

(3) A permanent ownership deed is supposed to be given by the municipality after five years (article 13), while the beneficiary has to refrain from selling the land for ten years (article 11). The six stages of the whole process are: 1 submission of the application and identity check; 2 checking the proof of repatriation or internal displacement; 3 recording and registering, determining whether this is a deserving or non-deserving applicant; 4 payment and allocation of the land; 5 receiving a temporary deed, after completion of 30-40 per cent of the construction work; 6 receiving permanent ownership.

(4) Between December 2009 and June 2010, Karzai tried to complete his cabinet three times, but never managed to get approval for the full cabinet. In the end, six of the 25 ministries continued to be headed by acting ministers. See previous AAN reporting on this issue here,  here andhere.

(5) Anwary’s official biography also has him as the leader of the Turkmen Peace Council and a member of a leading delegation of carpet traders. He was a delegate for the 2002 Emergency Loya Jirga and, from 2006-10, the Director General for Pharmacy in the Ministry of Public Health.

(6) Sayed Hussain Alemi Balkhi, Abdullah Abdullah’s appointee, was approved by the Wolesi Jirga on 26 January 2015. He is a Shia Sayed from Balkh, a religious scholar and founder of one of the small jihadi parties that fought the Soviet occupation, was backed by Iran and formed Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami in 1989. He was elected as an MP in both the 2005 and 2010 elections and resigned in 2013 to run as vice president to Gul Agha Sherzai in the 2014 presidential elections (see AAN earlier dispatcheshere and here)

(7) The Afghan government slashed the discretionary development budget for the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation from 1.2 million US dollars in 2014-15 to 250,000 in 2015-16, due to budgetary constraints and the ministry’s poor expenditure track record. The operational budget for the ministry for 2015-16 was 3 million US dollars. Additionally, aid funds had been on hold for most of 2015 (see, for example, SIGAR’s recommendations to the US government in its August 2015 report); it was concerned about the widespread corruption in the ministry during the last cabinet of the Karzai government.

The ministry’s 2016-17 operational budget is 3.9 US dollars. The development budget, both discretionary and non-discretionary, is 3.7 million US dollars.

AFGHANISTAN: Deciding To Leave Afghanistan, Part 1 of 3: Motives for migration

Afghan youth in Nimruz province about to cross illegally from Afghanistan into Iran, and then onward via Turkey to Europe. It is a risky journey that the young Afghans embark on in order to leave behind unemployment and insecurity. (Source: Pajhwok October 2015)

Afghan youth in Nimruz province about to cross illegally from Afghanistan into Iran, and then onward via Turkey to Europe. It is a risky journey that the young Afghans embark on in order to leave behind unemployment and insecurity. (Source: Pajhwok October 2015), by Lenny Linke, May 8, 2016, original

AAN has done a series of twelve in-depth interviews with families of Afghans who recently traveled to Europe. The conversations provided a fascinating insight into the practicalities of both the decision making processes and the journey, the complex interplay between economic and security considerations and the mixed feelings families often have once their loved ones have finally, safely, reached Europe. In this first instalment, AAN’s Lenny Linke takes a closer look at the reasons families gave for either sending or allowing their sons or brothers to leave for Europe.

This series of three dispatches is based on twelve interviews done for a joint project with (and funded by) the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FESand resulted in a joint study titled “’We Knew They Had No Future in Kabul’: Why and How Afghan Families Decide to Leave” published on 27 April 2016.  The data collection was conducted in the spring of 2016 with selected Afghan households to explore the decision-making processes at the family level of a small number of migrants. (1) The three dispatches present the main findings and place them in a wider context. The second dispatch will focus on the details of the journey, the routes taken and practical preparations. The third dispatch will take a closer look at what has happened since the migrants arrived in Europe and lays out the hopes and concerns their families have now that they are there.

The decision-making process

The demographic of the migrants in the sample was relatively young (all under 30) and predominantly male. (1) Many family members reported that it was their sons or brothers themselves who had initiated the discussion about going to Europe.

When my son told me he was thinking of going to Europe, I approved; we decided that if my son continued living in Afghanistan, there would not be an improvement in his or our current situation, so it was better for him to go to Europe… We all agreed and there was no reason to disagree. (Father of a 19-year old migrant from Kabul)

To be honest, we thought he was joking when he said he wanted to leave, but once he got his Iranian visa, we started believing him. He himself brought up the issue of going to Europe. He used Facebook on a daily basis to read about the situation along the route and he read that the border between Turkey and Greece was open. He might have been motivated by this… (Brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand)

In several cases, family members, including wives and fiancées, were initially opposed to the migrants leaving, but several of the migrants subsequently persuaded their relatives to give their blessing and to support them, even if some were still reluctant.

…finally their father agreed to send them, because many times the boys had planned to leave without letting us know. Their father was compelled to send them with his blessings, rather than sending them off to deal with unreliable people. (Mother of a 15-year and an 18-year old migrant from Kabul)

One migrant from Maidan Wardak, whose father was interviewed, had left without telling his family or talking about possibly leaving beforehand: “I was not at home when my son left for Europe… When he reached Turkey, he called and said he was in Turkey and would leave for Europe.”

In some cases, however, families remained antagonistic towards the idea of their relative going to Europe, even after son or brother had left. The brother of a 17-year old migrant from Nangarhar said, “Well, we all opposed his leaving,” while the brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand said “To leave was his personal decision after the economic crisis hit Afghanistan. His wife and children begged him not to leave.”

In other families, the decision to leave for Europe had been a joint decision, where family members had decided to send the migrants away or had urged them to go to Europe. In these cases, worsening security had often been the main, or at least an important, driver for leaving Afghanistan.

It was a family decision to send my brother abroad. We all agreed because we wanted him to live longer and to not die in the war… When security began to deteriorate, we started discussing whether he should go to Europe. We discussed this for a month, and after a month we decided he should go to Europe. We also talked about what he might do in Afghanistan if he didn’t go to Europe.  (Brother of a 20-year old migrant from Baghlan)

Due to the fact that his employment as a driver with an organisation brought him threats, my father persuaded my brother to leave the country for a safer place. (Brother of a 22-year old migrant from Kunduz).

In fact, we had never thought about such words as ‘going to Europe’ nor did my brother evoke them. In the end, though, we said, “Where should he go?” We thought, “Should he go to Pakistan or Iran?” The media were broadcasting reports of people leaving for Europe. We said, “Let’s trust God. You will arrive somewhere.” (Brother of a 22-year old migrant from Sar-e Pul)

After the insurgents killed our brother and set our house on fire, the decision was made to send our brother away…. All the family decided together that we would send our brother to Europe so he could help out the whole family financially once he made it … We expected that our brother would be accepted as an asylum seeker in Germany and that he would be able to bring the whole family to Germany, because there is nothing left for us in Afghanistan. (Brother of a 25-year old migrant from Takhar)

It was decided by my family that I should leave after I received threatening letters from the Taleban because of my work with NGOs and also because I had worked for the US forces as a translator and project facilitator in rural Kandahar… My mother, my sisters and my wife were the driving force for me and also my brother leaving for Germany, as there was an imminent threat against the entire family as long as we stayed in Kandahar. (27-year old migrant from Kandahar, who was interviewed in Kabul after he was forcibly returned)

In several cases, where deteriorating security had been a main concern, there was a longer period of contemplating going ‘somewhere.’ For example, the brother of the migrant from Herat said:

He [the migrant] was feeling unsafe. I said “You can come to Kabul.” He said “Even there, they will reach me.”… He’d had threats from some Taleban. He’d also had threats from some unknown people. The threats had increased. He had been thinking for a while and talking about what he should do. For a long time, I tried to persuade him to stay, but in the end, as the threats against him increased, he said, “I have to go.”

While most migrants travel alone, some leaving wives and children behind, there was one case where a whole family left together.

It’s very difficult [for a father] to keep a family in Herat, both financially and morally, when you are not there. He decided that if they would face any difficulties, they would face them together. (Brother of a 29-year old migrant from Herat)

Motivations for leaving

People’s motivations for going to Europe, as reflected in the twelve interviews, were often a combination of frustration felt over the lack of jobs and/or educational opportunities as well as concerns over the deteriorating security situation. Even in cases where the lack of opportunities for employment and education were mentioned as the primary reason for migration, these were usually followed by explicit and implicit references to the security situation. None of the respondents cited the lack of opportunity as the exclusive reason for leaving.

What also emerged from the interviews was that in at least four cases, migrants had either come under threat because of their past employment and/or could no longer find or take on work due to direct insurgent threats or the fear of being exposed to insecurity because of their work.

A lack of economic and educational opportunities

Many of the migrants’ relatives mentioned the lack of economic and educational opportunities as an important factor in the decision to leave. Several of the migrants had just finished high school or university and were unable to find employment or to continue their education.

His main motivation [for leaving] was his failure to get into university. If he had succeeded in the exam, other factors wouldn’t have played an important role. (Brother of a 17-year old migrant from Nangarhar)

…we thought he should go to Germany, continue his education there and then help us to get there too. (Brother of a 22-year old migrant fom Kunduz)

[Advice I gave to my brother:]…you are a medical student in the 6thsemester and you can’t finish your education here, [but] you can keep your education up there. (Brother of a 22-year old migrant from Sar-e Pul)

When my son finished high school, we thought since there are no jobs and the situation is getting worse day by day, it would be good if he went to Europe, where he could find a good job and have a good future. (Father of a 19-year old migrant from Kabul)

When the boys were studying in school, I could not afford to send them to a private school for better quality education. … My husband is disabled and I am the only breadwinner in the family. Due to financial and family problems, my eldest son could not continue his education. He studied until the 8th grade and then started to work and earn money for the family. … He was working during the day and therefore could not go to regular school. I managed to find a job and my eldest son returned to school. He went to evening school so that he could continue working during the day as well. He was looking for a better paid job but could not find one… (Mother of two migrants, aged 15 and 18, from Kabul)

He said he had studied for almost 18 years, but could not find a job and nobody would hire him. He thought it would be better for him to go to Europe and maybe try to find a job there. It seemed a relatively new decision to leave, which he made after he had sent his CV off to several organisations and not received any positive responses. He only seemed to have decided to leave once his frustration in Afghanistan became too much. (Brother of a 25-year old migrant from Maidan Wardak)

He was jobless and it was difficult to feed 15 people with the money he earned as a bus conductor. (Father of a 23-year old migrant from Kabul/Wardak)

The main motive was economic. Because his work situation [ability to find a well-paying job] had not been good in recent years, he thought it would be better to leave Afghanistan. (Brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand)

Everyone agreed that because of our family’s bad economic situation there was nothing to do about it except send him away. (Brother of migrant from Takhar)

In one case, the mother of an 18-year old migrant explained that while the general lack of income opportunities had been one factor, the need to earn money in order to get married had also featured in her son’s decision to leave:

Her father asked for 240,000 Afghanis [just over €3,000] as the bride price but my eldest son could not earn that money in Afghanistan and get married quickly. (Mother of two migrants from Kabul) 

Others who did not cite the lack of economic or education opportunities as a primary factor for leaving often brought it up as a secondary factor behind the more dominant security considerations.

The second most important reason was his future, his education and the financial support [he could give] to the family. We wanted him to live in a peaceful place, pursue his education and help his family in Afghanistan.(Brother of a 20-year old migrant form Baghlan)

But there were also migrants for whom life in terms of economic opportunities and professional satisfaction had been good and who, according to their families, would have been better off staying in Afghanistan—had that been possible.

There are many advantages in Europe, but people can’t count on them. For traditional people, people who have jobs, journalists with credibility in this country, who have a salary, [for them] life is good. But then, when it comes to safety, there is no choice… If there had not been any threats, he would have stayed…For an Afghan man, this might be the biggest adventure he can have: having a salary, a car, a wife, kids. What more do you want? (Brother of a 29-year old migrant from Herat)

Security threats

About half of all interviewees stated that their family members had gone to Europe because of reasons related, at least in part, to security. While some seemed mainly threatened by the overall deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and did not have any direct exposure to threats or violence, others left because of direct threats or exposure to violence, as experienced by themselves or their immediate family members.

He’d had threats from some Taleban. He’d also had threats from some unknown people. The threats had increased. … With no clear idea of the future and of what might happen in Herat – he thought there was no better future in Herat because of the increasing threats and the insurgency in the western region. (Brother of a 29-year old migrant from Herat)

My brother began talking about [leaving], but we did not agree with him. When security began to deteriorate, the family agreed to send him abroad. …The deteriorating security situation was the main reason for my family finally agreeing to send my brother to Europe. (Brother of a 20-year old migrant from Baghlan)

As he’d worked as an interpreter for two weeks, the insurgents told him that because he had been an interpreter for the Americans, he had become an infidel. He could neither come to Sar-e Pul, nor go anywhere else. He was just stuck in Mazar, trapped. As security got worse each day, the obstacles he faced amplified. If he had stayed here, he might have been killed. (Brother of a 22-year old migrant from Sar-e Pul)

After the insurgents killed our brother and set our house on fire, the decision was made to send our brother away. (Brother of a 25-year old migrant from Takhar)

Interestingly, while some respondents initially only mentioned the lack of economic opportunities as a primary motive for leaving, during the course of the interview it often became apparent that the migrant of the family had in the past been directly exposed to traumatic events. Even though these events were not given as a reason to leave, they did seem to have contributed to the overall decision.

One day (in late 2014) we had gone for a feast in Logar with relatives there. A boy’s car was attacked; he was taken out of his car and dragged along behind a motorbike. Someone had told the insurgents that the boy was working in a government office. At the time, we were close to where the incident took place. After that incident, we were more frightened. Also, when the explosion happened in the Police Academy [in August 2015], the boys were on their way to Qargha Lake [just west of Kabul]. At the time of the explosion, the boys were in the car in the area and witnessed the incident. They saw the dead bodies of police lying on the ground. After the incident, for three nights, my boys could not sleep. (Mother of two migrants, aged 15 and 18, from Kabul)

Another reason behind his decision was security. We are from Maidan Wardak, the situation there has not been good and so we chose to move to Kabul. My brother could not go back to Maidan Wardak either, as security there is still bad. People told him that as he was an engineer, it was not good for him to go to Maidan Wardak because the insurgents would try to kill him…. He didn’t feel safe even in Kabul, because once when my father went to the mosque in Kabul, someone threw a hand grenade at him. It only injured him and did not kill him, but this had a bad effect on my brother. He had never previously had any thoughts about going to Europe, but the situation got very bad in Karzai’s final years and it is even worse under the new government. (Brother of a 25-year old migrant from Maidan Wardak)

Beyond direct threats, the deteriorating security situation has clearly been concerning enough, or has affected people’s lives enough to warrant sending a family member abroad. Sometimes even rumours were all it took to make the decision.

…there were rumours that, if there are two young men in a family, the Taleban would take one as a fighter – that’s how we came to the decision.(Brother of a 22-year old migrant from Kunduz)

The insecurity and lack of income/educational opportunities nexus

The lack of security and economic and educational opportunities were the two main reasons given by the respondents for why family members left. But some interviewees clearly struggled to just name one, or to determine which one had been the most important.

 He left because of insecurity and joblessness… at the same time, we see the security situation getting worse and worse. (Father of a 23-year old migrant from Kabul/Wardak)

Several interviewees highlighted the connection between declining security and rising economic pressures on migrants’ families.

Well, in a way the worsening economic situation is an outcome of the bad security situation. He would say that [even] if we were rich in Afghanistan, we would be threatened and if we were poor, again we would be in a bad condition. He was also threatened by insurgents because he used to work with international organisations. (Brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand)

From the interviews, it is apparent that because of their jobs, migrants faced increasing insecurity and threats. In some scenarios, these threats forced migrants to give up their employment or prevented them from seeking new jobs.

My brother was an intelligent guy, he was top of his class throughout high school. He completed a two-year English course and learnt English fluently. Later, he applied for a job as an interpreter in Sar-e Pul. The US forces sent him to Mazar and then they [the US forces] wanted him to work in Helmand province, but because of the risk my father told him not to take the job and never go to Helmand or to other places. Hence, after two weeks working as an interpreter in Mazar, he didn’t go back to work. (Brother of a 22-year old migrant from Sar-e Pul)

 Being associated with certain activities deemed as inappropriate by the insurgency, for example, put people at risk:

…he was working as a driver and taking female colleagues home from the office … we thought it was becoming more dangerous for him. (Brother of a 22-year old migrant from Kunduz)

His wife is a teacher and a social activist; he would take his wife to participate in programs organised by these international organisations. People thought badly of him because of this. (Brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand)

A specific scenario cited by several interviewees concerned the possible recruitment of their sons or brothers into the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Without prospects for other jobs or further education, some migrants said they had intended to join the ANSF as a last resort, which caused their families to fear for their security to the extent that they considered it safer to send them to Europe.

My older son had initially said he would join the national army. If he could not find any other job, then he would join the army. His father was frightened about the prospects of him joining the police or the army as the war was going on and he would be sent somewhere to the battleground.(Mother of two migrants, aged 15 and 18, from Kabul)

My brother was not happy here because he failed the entry test to university. He wanted to join the Afghan National Army (ANA). We did not want him to join the ANA because he would be killed if he joined.(Brother of a 17-year old migrant from Nangarhar)

Possible recruitment by the Taleban of unemployed youth was also a concern.

The Taliban were recruiting young men in the area to fight the Afghan government forces. We were afraid they might hire my brother. My brother was young and unemployed, so we feared he might make the wrong decisions. (Brother of a 20-year old migrant from Baghlan)

Sometimes even just the danger of travelling to and from the workplace was cited as an issue of concern. This was either due to not being able to safely access employment or the constant risk that a person is exposed to when leaving the house.

He did not have a good job here and could not go to Dai Mirdad [a district in the south of Wardak province] freely. On the way to Maidan Wardak, anything could happen to him. … He used to say “you [the entire family] are all at home and safe there. I have to deal with the risks and dangers because I have to earn money.” (Father of a 23-year old migrant from Kabul/Wardak)

The primary motivation was to escape revenge killings and Taleban threats, the secondary motivation was to be able to find a good job, one which we could take on without feeling threatened. My brother and I could not have gone outside the house to find work anywhere in Kandahar because we were afraid of the Taleban and of revenge attacks – we stayed at home, borrowing money from others, relying on our extended family to provide for us as we dared not leave or have any routine, or take a public job, for fear of being discovered and killed. … Even in Kabul or Pakistan, I would not have been safe. I wanted to break the cycle of violence so as to not endanger my own family – the only way to do this was to leave the country. (27-year old migrant from Kandahar)

‘Pull’ factors

 In addition to the ‘push’ factors related to insecurity and the lack of income and education, about a third of the respondents mentioned that the final decision to leave had been influenced by the actions of others who had already gone to Europe. These interactions seem to have either contributed to the final decision, or appeared to have helped families justify their consent to the migrant leaving once the decision had been taken.

It was not long after we saw other people from the neighbourhood leaving that we decided that our son should also go. (Father of a 19-year old migrant from Kabul)

My younger son’s friends from our neighbourhood – there were three of them, one is 20 years old and the other two are also minors – left for Germany. He was in contact with them via Facebook. (Mother of two young migrants, aged 15 and 18, from Kabul)

He decided to go because my niece, who was already in Europe, kept asking him to come to Europe. (Brother of a 17-year old migrant from Nangarhar)

From my own family, my younger brother left for Europe. After he left, one of my paternal cousins and three of my maternal cousins left as well.(Brother of a 20-year old migrant from Baghlan)

He said he wanted to leave and take the risk, just like other people who were leaving. (Brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand)

From the twelve interviews conducted with families of migrants, a picture has emerged of families either struggling to decide whether to send a family member, or scrambling to come to terms with the decisions already made by their relatives, usually sons or brothers. With regards to the motivation for the journey to Europe, although the majority of the respondents mentioned economic and/or educational opportunities as a main contributing factor, it was clear that in almost all cases declining security had also been a significant (primary or contributing) factor. In some cases where insecurity and threats had been a primary concern, the subsequent negative impact on the families’ income opportunities appeared to have become the final push in the decision to leave.

(1) The study consisted of twelve in-depth, semi-structured interviews that took place across Afghanistan’s regions as follows: four interviews in Kabul and Wardak province; four interviews in Takhar, Sar-e Pul, Kunduz and Baghlan; one interview in Nangarhar; two interviews in Helmand and Kandahar; and one interview in Herat. The ethnic composition and urban/rural population ratio in the provinces was taken into account in the selection of interviewees. The respondents were selected and located through a referral system, where AAN researchers reached out to their networks looking for families where at least one member had left for Europe in 2015. Respondents were interviewed about the departure of their family member(s), how decisions were made prior to their departure, details of the trip to Europe and thoughts on the future of the migrant in Europe. In addition, basic household information was collected for each of the families. For a shorter summary of the study, published jointly with FES, see here.

All migrants included in the study were male, with one exception where a whole family – husband, wife and young children – travelled together. In one case, two young brothers from one household travelled together and in one case a migrant who had been forcibly returned was interviewed directly. All migrants included in this study were between the ages of 15 and 30 years. Most of the interviewees giving information about the migrants in question were brothers and fathers (there was one mother and one sister). 


MEDIA: First Person Singular, Autobiography in Documentary Film

The filmmakers of tomorrow will express themselves in the first person, and will relate what has happened to them . . . and it will be enjoyable because it will be true and new . . . the film of tomorrow will be an act of love.
—Francois Truffaut, The Films in My Life

I haven’t written a nonfiction piece in the first person since elementary school, where I learned to use “we” and “one” if I wanted to express an opinion. The voice of authority, of truth, was impersonal. As I grew up, writing for newspapers in school and in the “real” world, I learned to apply the tenets of objective journalism and ignore any impulse to write “I.” These were the rules of the game.

A couple of years ago while struggling with editing a short film about a bizarre suicide pact between two lovers I knew that I’d have to narrate the story myself. I couldn’t approach this incomprehensible event using the style of TV news, with the voice of an instant expert. After all, I was still in the process of trying to understand the act. Also, making my own story part of the film would help create a narrative structure, much the way events of a picaresque novel are often held together by the main character’s narration.The search could become the structure for the story and, in a way, become the story itself. I looked for models of first person nonfiction style and became fascinated with newspaper columnists such as Jimmy Breslin, Mike Royko, and Bob Greene. Here was one place where journalists were allowed to use the word “I.” There were, however, more examples of the first person style in film.

Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Poto and Cabengo was one of my inspirations. The story of a pair of twin girls who were thought to have developed their own private language was transformed by Gorin into a personal essay. This 1979 film was about the girls, but also about language and communication, and Gorin’s own sense of exile—a French filmmaker adrift in Southern California. In this and other first person films, I found a fascinating tension between autobiography and journalism. These were not diary films, because they did not make the filmmaker’s life the subject. But they did not try to hide the presence of the filmmaker either. The filmmakers found new ways to deal with a fundamental concern of documentary: how to reconcile reality with perception, how to situate oneself, as observer and participant, in the world.

What follows is hardly a complete survey of works which could be called first person nonfiction. Here, I am limiting the term to films where there is a narration provided by the filmmaker. Otherwise, I might incorporate for example, Shirley Clarke’s Ornette . . . Made in America, an extremely idiosyncratic and personal portrait of the jazz innovator Ornette Coleman. Also, I have limited my topic to film, neglecting the entire field of video, which includes much intimate, personal documentary work.

One reason for talking mainly about films narrated by their makers is that these works overtly cast the filmmaker as a character as well as a creator. Poto and Cabengo begins with a juxtaposition of a variety of languages. The first images are of Katzenjammer Kids cartoons, with a narrator reciting the Kids’ nonsensical blend of German and English. We then hear the unintelligible voices of the two young girls conversing. A title rolls across the screen asking, “What are they saying?” Next is an expository montage of newspaper headlines and the newscaster-style voice of a woman who describes the media’s interest in the San Diego twins, romanticized as another “Wild Child” story. Then we are introduced to the filmmaker. Over still photos of himself (including one, fittingly, seated at a typewriter), Gorin explains his interest in the twins. Speaking with a fairly heavy French accent, he states, “These two girls were foreigners in their own language.” He wanted to film them before they began to speak like everyone else: “I would have to beat the clock, before they became English majors.” The next shot from his car, racing down the freeway towards their home, gets the story rolling.

Gorin explores the environment around the girls, particularly their bizarre family. Christine, the mother, was born in Germany, and Paula, the maternal grandmother who lives in the house, speaks only German. Tom, the father, was born in the South. The entire family converses in a Katzenjammer-like hodgepodge. As a linguist says in the film, the girls “had two different linguistic models, both of them defective.” Unlike traditional narrations, which attempt to provide answers, Gorin fills the soundtrack with questions that encourage involvement in the process of trying to make sense out of the story. At times, he freezes an image during an interview or repeats a shot. When Christine describes her daughters as “two ding-a-lings who are pretty much alive,” Gorin repeats this segment for emphasis. With such devices and the use of titles and black leader, the film frequently interrupts the flow of the investigation.

Gorin also describes his own interest in the case. “There was a ring of Ellis Island to the story,” an important notion to a French filmmaker working and living in San Diego. And he finds it difficult to maintain an impersonal distance. As he goes towards the family’s house for the first time, he wonders aloud, “How would the girls react to my French accent?” He takes the girls to the zoo, a picnic at the beach, and a library, before realizing, “There was no way I could escape it. The story wasn’t with me but back with the family.” But Gorin and his voice remain integral to the story. In a film that suggests that all language is, by virtue of being an external, unnatural system, foreign to the speaker, it is fitting that there is no central authoritative language, no objective narration.

Ross McElwee opens his new film, Sherman’s March, with a traditional narration, only to dispense with it. The movie begins like an educational film with a narrator describing General Sherman’s Civil War campaign, as a dotted line traces the route on a map. But any resemblance to standard documentary ends here. The complete title, Sherman’s March to the Sea: A Documentary Meditation Upon the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation, indicates the movie’s blend of history, life in today’s South, and McElwee’s search for a new girlfriend.

In a prologue, McElwee explains that he originally intended to explore the lingering effects of Sherman’s Civil War victory. Though William Sherman, born in Ohio, reportedly loved the South and its people, he devastated the Confederacy in a series of brilliant and ruthless military campaigns. (Remember, it was Sherman who said, “War is hell.”) After his troops burned Atlanta in November 1864, he led 60,000 men on the famous march, leaving a trail of destruction across several states. But just before McElwee began filming, his girlfriend announced that their relationship was over. Too distracted to stay with his original plans, McElwee decided to deal with his personal life in the film, combining his inquiry about Sherman with his own quest for a new love.

McElwee’s own synopsis of the film describes its various levels well:

It is a non-fiction documentary story in which I shape narratively the documentary footage I’ve gathered during a serendipitous journey through the South. My film is a story in so far as it adheres to the autobiographically narrative line of a return home followed by a mutedly comic quest in which, repeatedly, boy meets girl, boy chases girl, boy loses girl. It is documentary in so far as all the people, places and situations appearing in the film are all unscripted and unplanned.

McElwee operated the camera and recorded sound alone; the women he befriends talk directly to him behind the camera. They include Pat, an aspiring actress desperately seeking Burt Reynolds; Claudia, an interior designer involved with a survivalist group; Winnie, a doctoral student who lives alone on an island, and a number of others. The portraits of these women are remarkably vivid and lively, which keeps the film from feeling self-indulgent. Interspersed with these encounters are McElwee’s monologues about his floundering film project, his nightmares of nuclear destruction, which increase as his love life worsens, and the film’s ostensible subject, General Sherman. “Sherman was plagued by anxiety and insomnia,” claims McElwee, who attempts to conflate his “creeping psycho-sexual despair” with Sherman’s psyche.

Is this a film about Sherman or McElwee? And what is the relation between McElwee’s life and his film? He conjectures, “It seems like I’m filming my life in order to have a life to film. ” An old friend and mentor, Charleen, advises him on camera, “Forget the fucking film and listen to me. This is not art. This is life.” However, Sherman’s March shows that there is no clear-cut dividing line. McElwee strikes a fascinating balance between being an ironic observer of his own pursuits and an active participant. By maintaining a sense of irony about his romantic pursuits, McElwee uses his search for a girlfriend in the same way that he uses Sherman’s March, as a kind of red herring, a structural narrative device to shape his documentary material. What we remember most vividly about Sherman’s March are the people and places that the filmmaker encounters.

A personal view of more recent history is provided by Nancy Yasecko’s 1984 film Growing Up with Rockets. What is the relationship between news events and our individual lives? Is history just something we watch on TV? These questions were raised earlier this year, when the Challenger disaster instantly became part of our national consciousness. Millions of people experienced a strong personal reaction to the explosion. That tragic, but chilling incident revealed some of the technological complexity of the space program. At the same time, space travel often functions as fantasy, enjoying a hold on the public imagination for many years. Early cinema history provides a fine example: Melies’s A Trip to the Moon, made a half-century before the existence of NASA.


Nancy Yasecko reflects on missile launches, Cape Canaveral, and growing up with rockets.

Growing Up with Rockets is a firsthand look at NASA that goes a long way towards demystifying this massive public project. Yasecko grew up in Cape Canaveral, where her family ran a “Spacerium” tourist attraction; her coming of age parallels the growth of the space program. With home movies, newsreels, and original footage, Yasecko provides a personal history of the space agency. While the film doesn’t cover much new factual ground, it is mildly subversive in evoking the scientists and engineers who created the space program as real, imperfect people. Listen, for example, to how Yasecko describes her return to Cape Canaveral as a grown-up several years ago to witness the first launch of the space shuttle:

Mom said there was some concern around town that if the first test flights were unsuccessful, the negative publicity alone would be enough to set the program back a number of years. Dad and some of his friends were skeptical about the complicated design that was required to launch the shuttle like a rocket and return it like an airplane. Mom was amused that the same bunch of mavericks that had put wings on the old Snark and Matador had gotten so conservative in their old age. I remember those old military launches and how we all grew up with rockets going off almost every day, and the special feeling of a manned launch. After that, I had to see this one, and get that old countdown and liftoff rush.

Yasecko’s portrait of the space program is less than mystical. She charts its ups and downs, capturing the emotions of the familiar events in diary style. She talks about the exuberant early days of constant rocket launches, when her schoolmates would run outside and yell, “Missile! Missile!” whenever a rocket went off, to the feeling of despair as the space program fizzled in the mid-seventies. Yasecko was working for NASA at the time, and she recalls, “I left the engineering tract and signed up to study art. … It seemed like a more practical idea at the time.”

The union of Yasecko’s voice with familiar images of news events creates a surprising effect. We are used to having NASA explained to us by male voices of authority, be they the TV anchors who traditionally served as our guides to the news, or the deep-voiced narrators of the documentaries some of us watched in school. Speaking somewhat ironically and intimately, Yasecko provides an alternative to these nondescript, impersonal voices.

The voice and perspective of a woman filmmaker is again strongly asserted in Joel DeMott’s film Demon Lover Diary. DeMott records the making of a low-budget horror film being photographed by her partner Jeff Kreines. DeMott’s “diary” is filled with bizarre incidents that are far stranger than the movie that is in production. The filmmakers, Don and Jerry, are factory workers fulfilling a lifetime dream. Don mortgaged his furniture and car, and Jerry cut off his finger in an industrial “accident” to collect insurance money towards the film’s expenses. DeMott films all this and records sound by herself. She talks to people in the scene, even arguing with the filmmakers, who are frequently condescending toward her because she is a woman. (At one point, they expect her to wait home all day for a phone call while they are out running errands.) She makes asides meant only for the viewer’s ears, mainly commenting on how the horror film is turning into a complete mess. And she films from an extremely close range.

In the past dozen years, DeMott and Kreines have developed a distinctive style of one-person shooting. They each use a combination camera/tape recorder rig that weighs about 12 pounds. They film with a wide angle lens that enables them to stand within three or four feet of their subjects, and they use extremely sensitive film stock, eliminating the need for lights. In a written description of their shooting technique, DeMott explains the philosophy behind this approach:

The filmmaker doesn’t carry on with “his people” (the crew) in front of “his subjects.” The dichotomy those labels reveal, in the filmmaker himself [sic] is gone, along with the crew. Relieved of the alliance, and a need for communication of an alienating sort —the filmmaker becomes another human being in the room. He participates without awkwardness in the society that surrounds him.

DeMott’s technique in Demon Lover Diary responds to a problem evident in many cinema verite films that do not explicitly acknowledge the presence of the filmmaker. A recent example of this is the commercially successful documentary Streetwise, a chronicle of the lives of street kids in Seattle. Though filmed in a sort of Candid Camera style, albeit with more sensitivity and elegance than Allen Funt ever displayed, *Streetwise* never obviates the nagging suspicion that the subjects are acting for the camera. The film’s main characters wore radio microphones. While this allowed for intimate sound recordings, wearing a radio microphone will entail some self-consciousness. To the filmmakers’ credit, most of the moments captured in *Streetwise* seem authentic. But from time to time the audience must wonder, “What about the film crew?” In contrast, the first person filmmaking style of DeMott and Kreines foregrounds their presence, leaving no uncertainty about their relationship to the project.

The question of distance becomes central in many first person nonfiction films. To ask what is the place of the filmmaker in a film is to hint at a broader question: what is the place of a person in the world? Lisa Hsia makes this explicit in her half-hour film Made in China, where she explores her hyphenated Chinese American heritage. Born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago, Hsia filmed a visit with relatives in China. Her goal there was to become an insider, not a tourist or a mere observer. In fact, this desire is the source of much of the film’s humor. Using an informal, anecdotal narration, and mix of home movies, animation, and original footage, Hsia recounts her experiences, including a variety of embarrassing moments that demonstrate the difficulty of making a connection with one’s cultural roots.


Chisu Ryu in a scene from Wim Wenders’s film diary “Tokyo-Go.”

Wim Wenders, on the other hand, plays an outsider in many of his films. The New York City of his Reverse Angle doesn’t seem very different from the Tokyo of his Tokyo-Ga. In both films, the city is presented as a depersonalized place, cluttered with meaningless images. However, whether in Germany, the United States, or Japan, Wenders has been inspired by the films of Yasujiro Ozu, whose austere, ordered compositions depict a tranquil center of family and personal relationships in the midst of a modernizing world. Wenders also has adapted from Ozu his episodic, laconic storytelling style, where minor, quotidian incidents make up the films’ slender plots. Wenders manages to find the common ground of Ozu’s films and his favorite genre, the road movie. This type of narrative structure approaches the diaristic, and Tokyo-Ga is Wenders’s filmed account of his trip to modern-day Tokyo to find what remains of the austere, orderly world portrayed in Ozu’s films.

Tokyo-Ga can be seen as two films in one: his vision of Tokyo and a tribute to Ozu, employing interviews, film clips from Tokyo Story, and Wenders’s narration about Ozu’s movies. What connects these two elements, and what shapes the entire film, is Wenders’s personal experience. As he wanders through a crowded, hectic Tokyo, complete with noisy pachinko parlors, ubiquitous TV sets (even in the backseats of taxicabs), a rooftop golf range, and a park where Japanese teens dance to American rock and roll, Wenders laments, “I was searching for the mythical city of Tokyo. Perhaps that was what no longer existed, [Ozu’s] view that one could find order in a world of disorder. Perhaps such a view is no longer possible.” Yet Wenders does not despair totally. He adds, “In spite of everything, I couldn’t help but be impressed by Tokyo.”

In many of the practices that Wenders observes, there is an obsession with pure form that becomes almost meditative. In the pachinko parlors, the hours in front of the machine “induce a hypnosis, a strange form of happiness. The person merges with the machine, and forgets whatever it is that one wants to forget.” Early in the film, at a train station, Wenders spots a young boy who is being dragged along by his mother; the stubborn child keeps sitting on the floor, refusing to budge. Wenders compares the mischievous child to the kids in Ozu’s films from the 1930s, and he is heartened to see a sign of continuity between Ozu’s world and modern Tokyo. “No other city has ever felt so familiar to me,” he comments. But after all, he views Tokyo through his own memories, thoughts, and desires, searching for a city that really exists only in his imagination.

In the past, the realm of the personal has belonged primarily to avant-garde filmmakers, and as a subtext, to fiction filmmakers. These first person documentaries, though, assert subjectivity, which has long been a dirty word in documentaries, and attempt to reconcile the social with the deeply personal. I think of my favorite photographs of people looking straight at the camera, breaking down the boundary between photographer and subject, implying a connection. In a similar way, the films I have designated first person documentaries explore the encounter between filmmaker and subject. They make the person behind the camera a subject of the film. From McElwee’s confessional monologues in Sherman’s March to Gorin’s analytic narration in Poto and Cabengo, these films suggest the variety of cinematic forms that can situate a person in the work and in the world.

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DEVELOPMENT: Foreign Aid Accountability Bill Unanimously Approved by Congress, Heads to the President for Signature

MFAN-logo-blue-e1447284681741, July 6, 2016, original,
July 6, 2016 (WASHINGTON) – This statement is delivered on behalf of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN) by Co-Chairs George Ingram, Carolyn Miles, and Connie Veillette

The House of Representatives unanimously passed the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act (H.R. 3766) last night, following unanimous passage by the Senate last week. This important, bipartisan legislation will now head to President Obama for his signature. The bill, sponsored by Reps. Ted Poe (R-TX) and Gerry Connolly (D-VA) and Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Ben Cardin (D-MD), will help to increase the accountability of U.S. foreign assistance resources so that they can be tracked, measured, and allocated to have the most impact.

Specifically, the bill requires that detailed foreign assistance information be regularly updated on the website, and that development and economic assistance be rigorously monitored and evaluated. We are particularly pleased that the bill extends this transparency and accountability to some aspects of security assistance, specifically the International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement program, which is something that MFAN has long called for.

“We are deeply grateful to the bill sponsors for their tireless efforts to work together across the aisle and across chambers in order to see this bill passed into law. This legislation has been introduced in each of the last three congresses and marks an important step towards making U.S. foreign assistance more effective,” said George Ingram, MFAN Co-Chair and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“By passing this bill, Congress has institutionalized the important gains that have already been made in the areas of transparency and evaluation. This legislation will help to ensure that our aid programs are being driven by evidence-based decisions and that our assistance is accountable to U.S. taxpayers and developing country stakeholders,” said Connie Veillette, MFAN Co-Chair and Senior Fellow at The Lugar Center.

“As the United States faces an ever-growing number of humanitarian and development challenges around the world, effective U.S. foreign assistance is more important than ever. Recognizing that our resources are limited, we must be doing all that we can to use them most effectively so that they can have the most impact on those in need around the world,” said Carolyn Miles, MFAN CO-Chair and President and CEO of Save the Children.

MFAN applauds and thanks the bill sponsors, as well as its partners in the development community, for all their work in getting this bill passed and to the President’s desk. With this legislation enacted, the progress that has been made on increasing transparency and improving monitoring and evaluation practices can be built upon when a new Administration and Congress are sworn in next year.


HAITI, DEVELOPMENT: Red Cross Built Exactly 6 Homes For Haiti With Nearly Half A Billion Dollars In Donations

Even as the group has publicly celebrated its work, insider accounts detail a string of failures

THE NEIGHBORHOOD OF CAMPECHE sprawls up a steep hillside in Haiti’s capital city, Port-au-Prince. Goats rustle in trash that goes forever uncollected. Children kick a deflated volleyball in a dusty lot below a wall with a hand-painted logo of the American Red Cross.

In late 2011, the Red Cross launched a multimillion-dollar project to transform the desperately poor area, which was hit hard by the earthquake that struck Haiti the year before. The main focus of the project — called LAMIKA, an acronym in Creole for “A Better Life in My Neighborhood” — was building hundreds of permanent homes.

Today, not one home has been built in Campeche. Many residents live in shacks made of rusty sheet metal, without access to drinkable water, electricity or basic sanitation. When it rains, their homes flood and residents bail out mud and water.

The Red Cross received an outpouring of donations after the quake, nearly half a billion dollars.

The group has publicly celebrated its work. But in fact, the Red Cross has repeatedly failed on the ground in Haiti. Confidential memos, emails from worried top officers, and accounts of a dozen frustrated and disappointed insiders show the charity has broken promises, squandered donations, and made dubious claims of success.

The Red Cross says it has provided homes to more than 130,000 people. But the actual number of permanent homes the group has built in all of Haiti: six.

After the earthquake, Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern unveiled ambitious plans to “develop brand-new communities.” None has ever been built.

Aid organizations from around the world have struggled after the earthquake in Haiti, the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country. But ProPublica and NPR’s investigation shows that many of the Red Cross’s failings in Haiti are of its own making. They are also part of a larger pattern in which the organization has botched delivery of aid after disasters such asSuperstorm Sandy. Despite its difficulties, the Red Cross remains the charity of choice for ordinary Americans and corporations alike after natural disasters.

One issue that has hindered the Red Cross’ work in Haiti is an overreliance on foreigners who could not speak French or Creole, current and former employees say.

In a blistering 2011 memo, the then-director of the Haiti program, Judith St. Fort, wrote that the group was failing in Haiti and that senior managers had made “very disturbing” remarks disparaging Haitian employees. St. Fort, who is Haitian American, wrote that the comments included, “he is the only hard working one among them” and “the ones that we have hired are not strong so we probably should not pay close attention to Haitian CVs.”

The Red Cross won’t disclose details of how it has spent the hundreds of millions of dollars donated for Haiti. But our reporting shows that less money reached those in need than the Red Cross has said.

Lacking the expertise to mount its own projects, the Red Cross ended up giving much of the money to other groups to do the work. Those groups took out a piece of every dollar to cover overhead and management. Even on the projects done by others, the Red Cross had its own significant expenses – in one case, adding up to a third of the project’s budget.

Where did the half billion raised for Haiti go? The Red Cross won’t say.

In statements, the Red Cross cited the challenges all groups have faced in post-quake Haiti, including the country’s dysfunctional land title system.

“Like many humanitarian organizations responding in Haiti, the American Red Cross met complications in relation to government coordination delays, disputes over land ownership, delays at Haitian customs, challenges finding qualified staff who were in short supply and high demand, and the cholera outbreak, among other challenges,” the charity said.

The group said it responded quickly to internal concerns, including hiring an expert to train staff on cultural competency after St. Fort’s memo. While the group won’t provide a breakdown of its projects, the Red Cross said it has done more than 100. The projects include repairing 4,000 homes, giving several thousand families temporary shelters, donating $44 million for food after the earthquake, and helping fund the construction of a hospital.

“Millions of Haitians are safer, healthier, more resilient, and better prepared for future disasters thanks to generous donations to the American Red Cross,” McGovern wrote in a recent report marking the fifth anniversary of the earthquake.

In other promotional materials, the Red Cross said it has helped “more than 4.5 million” individual Haitians “get back on their feet.”

It has not provided details to back up the claim. And Jean-Max Bellerive, Haiti’s prime minister at the time of the earthquake, doubts the figure, pointing out the country’s entire population is only about 10 million.

“No, no,” Bellerive said of the Red Cross’ claim, “it’s not possible.”

When the earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010, the Red Cross was facing a crisis of its own. McGovern had become chief executive just 18 months earlier, inheriting a deficit and an organization that had faced scandals after 9/11 and Katrina.

Gail McGovern (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Inside the Red Cross, the Haiti disaster was seen as “a spectacular fundraising opportunity,” recalled one former official who helped organize the effort. Michelle Obama, the NFL and a long list of celebrities appealed for donations to the group.

The Red Cross kept soliciting money well after it had enough for the emergency relief that is the group’s stock in trade. Doctors Without Borders, in contrast, stopped fundraising off the earthquake after it decided it had enough money. The donations to the Red Cross helped the group erase its more-than $100 million deficit.

The Red Cross ultimately raised far more than any other charity.

A year after the quake, McGovern announced that the Red Cross would use the donations to make a lasting impact in Haiti.

We asked the Red Cross to show us around its projects in Haiti so we could see the results of its work. It declined. So earlier this year we went to Campeche to see one of the group’s signature projects for ourselves.

Street vendors in the dusty neighborhood immediately pointed us to Jean Jean Flaubert, the head of a community group that the Red Cross set up as a local sounding board.

Sitting with us in their sparse one-room office, Flaubert and his colleagues grew angry talking about the Red Cross. They pointed to the lack of progress in the neighborhood and the healthy salaries paid to expatriate aid workers.

“What the Red Cross told us is that they are coming here to change Campeche. Totally change it,” said Flaubert. “Now I do not understand the change that they are talking about. I think the Red Cross is working for themselves.”

The Red Cross’ initial plan said the focus would be building homes — an internal proposalput the number at 700. Each would have finished floors, toilets, showers, even rainwater collection systems. The houses were supposed to be finished in January 2013.

The Red Cross promised to build hundreds of new homes in Campeche but none have been built. Many residents still live in crude shacks. (Marie Arago, special to ProPublica)

None of that ever happened. Carline Noailles, who was the project’s manager in Washington, said it was endlessly delayed because the Red Cross “didn’t have the know-how.”

Another former official who worked on the Campeche project said, “Everything takes four times as long because it would be micromanaged from DC, and they had no development experience.”

Shown an English-language press release from the Red Cross website, Flaubert was stunned to learn of the project’s $24 million budget — and that it is due to end next year.

“Not only is [the Red Cross] not doing it,” Flaubert said, “now I’m learning that the Red Cross is leaving next year. I don’t understand that.” (The Red Cross says it did tell community leaders about the end date. It also accused us of “creating ill will in the community which may give rise to a security incident.”)

The project has since been reshaped and downscaled. A road is being built. Some existing homes have received earthquake reinforcement and a few schools are being repaired. Some solar street lights have been installed, though many broke and residents say others are unreliable.

The group’s most recent press release on the project cites achievements such as training school children in disaster response.

The Red Cross said it has to scale back its housing plans because it couldn’t acquire the rights to land. No homes will be built.

Other Red Cross infrastructure projects also fizzled.

A Red Cross effort to save Haitians from cholera was crippled by internal issues. “None of these people had to die,” said a Haitian official.

In January 2011, McGovern announced a $30 million partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID. The agency would build roads and other infrastructure in at least two locations where the Red Cross would build new homes.

But it took more than two and a half years, until August 2013, for the Red Cross just to sign an agreement with USAID on the program, and even that was for only one site. The program was ultimately canceled because of a land dispute.

A Government Accountability Office report attributed the severe delays to problems “in securing land title and because of turnover in Red Cross leadership” in its Haiti program.

Other groups also ran into trouble with land titles and other issues. But they also ultimately built 9,000 homes compared to the Red Cross’ six.

Asked about the Red Cross’ housing projects in Haiti, David Meltzer, the group’s general counsel and chief international officer, said changing conditions forced changes in plans. “If we had said, ‘All we’re going to do is build new homes,’ we’d still be looking for land,” he said.

The USAID project’s collapse left the Red Cross grasping for ways to spend money earmarked for it.

“Any ideas on how to spend the rest of this?? (Besides the wonderful helicopter idea?),” McGovern wrote to Meltzer in a November 2013 email obtained by ProPublica and NPR. “Can we fund Conrad’s hospital? Or more to PiH [Partners in Health]? Any more shelter projects?”

Jean Jean Flaubert says the Red Cross promised to transform his neighborhood. “Now I do not understand the change that they are talking about,” he said. (Marie Arago, special to ProPublica)

It’s not clear what helicopter idea McGovern was referring to or if it was ever carried out. The Red Cross would say only that her comments were “grounded in the American Red Cross’ strategy and priorities, which focus on health and housing.”

Another signature project, known in Creole as “A More Resilient Great North,” is supposed to rehabilitate roads in poor, rural communities and to help them get clean water and sanitation.

But two years after it started, the $13 million effort has been faltering badly. An internal evaluation from March found residents were upset because nothing had been done to improve water access or infrastructure or to make “contributions of any sort to the well being of households,” the report said.

So much bad feeling built up in one area that the population “rejects the project.”

The Red Cross says 91% of donations went to help Haitians. That’s not true.

The group’s failures went beyond just infrastructure.

When a cholera epidemic raged through Haiti nine months after the quake, the biggest part of the Red Cross’ response — a plan to distribute soap and oral rehydration salts — was crippled by “internal issues that go unaddressed,” wrote the director of the Haiti program in her May 2011 memo.

Throughout that year, cholera was a steady killer. By September 2011, when the death toll had surpassed 6,000, the project was still listed as “very behind schedule” according to another internal document.

The Red Cross said in a statement that its cholera response, including a vaccination campaign, has continued for years and helped millions of Haitians.

But while other groups also struggled early responding to cholera, some performed well.

“None of these people had to die. That’s what upsets me,” said Paul Christian Namphy, a Haitian water and sanitation official who helped lead the effort to fight cholera. He says early failures by the Red Cross and other NGOs had a devastating impact. “These numbers should have been zero.”

So why did the Red Cross’ efforts fall so short? It wasn’t just that Haiti is a hard place to work.

“They collected nearly half a billion dollars,” said a congressional staffer who helped oversee Haiti reconstruction. “But they had a problem. And the problem was that they had absolutely no expertise.”

Lee Malany was in charge of the Red Cross’ shelter program in Haiti starting in 2010. He remembers a meeting in Washington that fall where officials did not seem to have any idea how to spend millions of dollars set aside for housing. Malany says the officials wanted to know which projects would generate good publicity, not which projects would provide the most homes.

“When I walked out of that meeting I looked at the people that I was working with and said, ‘You know this is very disconcerting, this is depressing,’” he recalled.

The Red Cross said in a statement its Haiti program has never put publicity over delivering aid.

Malany resigned the next year from his job in Haiti. “I said there’s no reason for me to stay here. I got on the plane and left.”

Transitional shelters like these on the outskirts of Port-Au-Prince, paid for by the Red Cross, typically last three to five years. (Marie Arago, special to ProPublica)

Sometimes it wasn’t a matter of expertise, but whether anybody was filling key jobs. An April 2012 organizational chart obtained by ProPublica and NPR lists 9 of 30 leadership positions in Haiti as vacant, including slots for experts on health and shelter.

The Red Cross said vacancies and turnover were inevitable because of “the security situation, separation from family for international staff, and the demanding nature of the work.”

The constant upheaval took a toll. Internal documents refer to repeated attempts over years to “finalize” and “complete” a strategic plan for the Haiti program, efforts that were delayed by changes in senior management. As late as March 2014, more than four years into a six-year program, an internal update cites a “revised strategy” still awaiting “final sign-off.”

The Red Cross said settling on a plan early would have been a mistake. “It would be hard to create the perfect plan from the beginning in a complicated place like Haiti,” it said. “But we also need to begin, so we create plans that are continually revised.”

The Red Cross says it provided homes to more than 130,000 Haitians. But they didn’t.

“Going to meetings with the community when you don’t speak the language is not productive,” she said. Sometimes, she recalled, expat staffers would skip such meetings altogether.

The Red Cross said it has “made it a priority to hire Haitians” despite lots of competition for local professionals, and that over 90 percent of its staff is Haitian. The charity said it used a local human resources firm to help.

Yet very few Haitians have made it into the group’s top echelons in Haiti, according to five current and former Red Cross staffers as well as staff lists obtained by ProPublica and NPR.

That not only affected the group’s ability to work in Haiti, it was also expensive.

According to an internal Red Cross budgeting document for the project in Campeche, the project manager – a position reserved for an expatriate – was entitled to allowances for housing, food and other expenses, home leave trips, R&R four times a year, and relocation expenses. In all, it added up to $140,000.

Compensation for a senior Haitian engineer — the top local position — was less than one-third of that, $42,000 a year.

Shelim Dorval, a Haitian administrator who worked for the Red Cross coordinating travel and housing for expatriate staffers, recalled thinking it was a waste to spend so much to bring in people with little knowledge of Haiti when locals were available.

“For each one of those expats, they were having high salaries, staying in a fancy house, and getting vacation trips back to their countries,” Dorval said. “A lot of money was spent on those people who were not Haitian, who had nothing to do with Haiti. The money was just going back to the United States.”

Soon after the earthquake, McGovern, the Red Cross CEO, said the group would make sure donors knew exactly what happened to their money.

The Red Cross would “lead the effort in transparency,” she pledged. “We are happy to share the way we are spending our dollars.”

That hasn’t happened. The Red Cross’ public reports offer only broad categories about where $488 million in donations has gone. The biggest category is shelter, at about $170 million. The others include health, emergency relief and disaster preparedness.

After the earthquake, Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern unveiled plans to “develop brand-new communities.” None has ever been built. (Marie Arago, special to ProPublica)

It has declined repeated requests to disclose the specific projects, to explain how much money went to each or to say what the results of each project were.

There is reason to doubt the Red Cross’ claims that it helped 4.5 million Haitians. An internal evaluation found that in some areas, the Red Cross reported helping more people than even lived in the communities. In other cases, the figures were low, and in others double-counting went uncorrected.

In describing its work, the Red Cross also conflates different types of aid, making it more difficult to assess the charity’s efforts in Haiti.

For example, while the Red Cross says it provided more than 130,000 people with homes, that includes thousands of people who were not actually given homes, but rather were “trained in proper construction techniques.” (That was first reported by the Haiti blog of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.)

The figure includes people who got short-term rental assistance or were housed in several thousand “transitional shelters,” which are temporary structures that can get eaten up by termites or tip over in storms. It also includes modest improvements on 5,000 temporary shelters.

The Red Cross also won’t break down what portion of donations went to overhead.

McGovern told CBS News a few months after the quake, “Minus the 9 cents overhead, 91 cents on the dollar will be going to Haiti. And I give you my word and my commitment, I’m banking my integrity, my own personal sense of integrity on that statement.”

But the reality is that less money went to Haiti than 91 percent. That’s because in addition to the Red Cross’ 9 percent overhead, the other groups that got grants from the Red Cross also have their own overhead.

In one case, the Red Cross sent $6 million to the International Federation of the Red Cross for rental subsidies to help Haitians leave tent camps. The IFRC then took out 26 percent for overhead and what the IFRC described as program-related “administration, finance, human resources” and similar costs.

Beyond all that, the Red Cross also spends another piece of each dollar for what it describes as “program costs incurred by the American Red Cross in managing” the projects done by other groups.

The American Red Cross’ management and other costs consumed an additional 24 percent of the money on one project, according to the group’s statements and internal documents. The actual work, upgrading shelters, was done by the Swiss and Spanish Red Cross societies.

“It’s a cycle of overhead,” said Jonathan Katz, the Associated Press reporter in Haiti at the time of the earthquake who tracked post-disaster spending for his book, The Big Truck That Went By. “It was always going to be the American Red Cross taking a 9 percent cut, re-granting to another group, which would take out their cut.”

Given the results produced by the Red Cross’ projects in Haiti, Bellerive, the former prime minister, said he has a hard time fathoming what’s happened to donors’ money.

“Five hundred million dollars in Haiti is a lot of money,” he said. “I’m not a big mathematician, but I can make some additions. I know more or less the cost of things. Unless you don’t pay for the gasoline the same price I was paying, unless you pay people 20 times what I was paying them, unless the cost of the house you built was five times the cost I was paying, it doesn’t add up for me.”

A resident in a Port-Au-Prince transitional shelter paid for by the Red Cross. (Marie Arago, special to ProPublica)

This story was co-published with NPR. Mitzy-Lynn Hyacinthe contributed reporting. Design direction by David Sleight, production by Hannah Birch.

Read about how the Red Cross botched key elements of its mission after Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Isaac in PR Over People: The Red Cross’ Secret Disaster. And about how the Red Cross’ CEO has been serially misleading about where donors’ dollars are going.

If you have information about the Red Cross or about other international aid projects, please email

author photoJustin Elliott is a ProPublica reporter covering politics and government accountability. Previously, he was a reporter at and TPMmuckraker and news editor at Talking Points Memo.

Laura Sullivan is a NPR News investigative correspondent whose work has cast a light on some of the country’s most disadvantaged people.


THIS FRIDAY: Michael Sheridan to Present at ACM Annual Conference

ACM_web_header_551x2791Michael Sheridan, director and founder of Community Supported Film, will join Anthony Riddle, BRIC Brooklyn Public Network, and Bonnie Schumacher, St. Paul Neighborhood Network, to speak about building documentary programs at the Our Town Annual Conference of the Alliance for Community Media.

Friday, August 19 • 4:30pm – 6:00pm, Westin Hotel, 425 Summer St, Boston, MA 02210 (next to the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center)

Requires Registration

Building Documentary Programs

Community media has a place in documentary traditions and history, but recently community media centers have created programs that systematically seek to build the tradition in their communities. Some have created filmmaking programs, learning cohorts, film festivals and other ways to support documentary practice. We’ll talk about how to develop these programs, what works, and how these programs contribute to social change, community building and supporting local film communities.

Register here



HAITI, DEVELOPMENT: U.N. Accused of Cover Up as Cholera Ravages

Haitians wash clothes in a stream January 8, 2011 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
(Mario Tama / Getty)

Since cholera first broke out in Haiti five years ago, Doctors Without Borders estimates that it has killed as many as 30,000 people, and another 2 million have survived the disease.

Journalists and scientists have traced the disease back to a U.N. compound that was housing peacekeepers from Nepal. The cholera outbreak was sparked after the compound began disposing of raw sewage in a nearby water way.

The U.N. has never taken responsibility for the outbreak or the deaths, but Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has said the U.N. has “a moral responsibility” to help end the spread of the disease.

In a letter, the second highest ranking U.N. official promised the organization would fulfill “its human rights obligations” in Haiti, but U.N. efforts to fight the disease are less than 20 percent funded, meaning the disease is likely to continue to claim more lives.

Here, The Takeaway speaks with Jonathan Katz, author of “The Big Truck that Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster.” He was the first journalist to report the U.N.’s role in Haiti’s cholera outbreak.

“The U.N.’s position essentially hasn’t changed for five years now,” Katz says. “At the very beginning, they were extremely actively involved in a cover up — literally destroying evidence and putting out press releases disclaiming any possibility that they could be responsible, [all] based on evidence and assertions that just weren’t true.”

But Katz says that evidence has come to light that definitively links the U.N. to this deadly cholera outbreak.

Click Listen to get the full story. 4 minutes   The TakeawayThe Takeaway

AFGHANISTAN, DEVELOPMENT: What the future holds for Afghan

Afghanistan-womenAl Jazeera speaks to Noorjahan Akbar, a human rights activist, about the immense challenges facing Afghan women, By Liz Guch, 5/26/16

Afghanistan’s women have made significant gains in recent years, with more girls attending school and more women working outside the home.

But fear still overshadows the lives of many.

A resurgent Taliban recently provoked outrage by publicly executing two women, but as this 101 East documentary shows, the greatest threat many women face comes from loved ones at home.

Activist Noorjahan Akbar talks about the challenges in overcoming conservative attitudes in the face of rising “anti-woman propaganda”.

Al Jazeera: How would you describe the current state of women’s rights in Afghanistan?

Noorjahan Akbar: Like the current state of the country, the current state of Afghan women is tumultuous and unstable. While – since the US-led intervention – Afghan women have made a considerable amount of progress, with [today’s] increased insecurity, economic inequality, and radicalism, we are afraid that our accomplishments will be threatened, and the few civil rights and individual freedoms we have will be taken away from us.

Since 2009, the number of Afghan women working has increased, but a large number of female activists and journalists have left the country due to fear of violence.

When I talk about the threat of violence, I don’t just mean the Taliban – even though they are largely responsible for targeting and killing female teachers, police officers, journalists, and activists.

On a daily basis, Afghan women face harassment in public spaces. In fact, nine out of 10 women say they have faced harassment at some point on the way to work or school, and out of those, 14 percent say they stopped going to school because of it. Eighty-seven percent of Afghan women have faced verbal, sexual or physical violence at home.

The vast majority of cases of violence against women, even the public targeted assassinations, are not met with any legal consequences.

Despite all this, Afghan women are teachers, ministers, parliamentarians, musicians, writers, journalists, photographers, vaccinators and more, and we are working hard to make things better for ourselves and the country.

But in order for us to really participate in rebuilding Afghanistan, our security should be a priority for our government. When our bodies are fair game, when it is always open season on women, when we are fearful of losing our lives on a daily basis, how can we move the country forward?

Al Jazeera: The Taliban recently publicly executed two women – one of them in an apparent honour killing – in northern Afghanistan, according to news reports. Are you concerned that this could signal a downward spiral for Afghan women?

Akbar: The harsh reality is that even though this case caught the eye of the international press, these ‘honour’ killings are not out of the ordinary. Whether by the Taliban or family members, Afghan women are killed regularly for the simple fact of being born female or choosing their own husbands. However, what these specific public executions tell me is that the rule of law has further deteriorated in Afghanistan and that is not good for anyone.

Al Jazeera: Many Afghan women suffer domestic violence at the hands of their family. How difficult is it to change attitudes towards women?

Akbar: It is extremely difficult to change attitudes towards women and decrease gender-based violence anywhere in the world, but in Afghanistan it is hard also because radicalism, Talibanism and gender-based violence at home are all related and perpetuate one another.

Especially in the last few years, there has been an increase in radical anti-woman propaganda in the big cities. Local mosques that were once moderate and somewhat accepting of women’s rights, now spend entire sermons on how women shouldn’t be allowed to work, study, or even speak in public.

In addition to using public executions to make a show of women’s punishment and terrorise women into silence and into the margins, today’s radicals use televisions, social media, sermons, and even schools to perpetuate and sanctify violence.

Al Jazeera: Impressive gains have been made in the number of girls attending school in Afghanistan. Is there a danger that these rights could be eroded?

Akbar: Yes, and we are seeing the erosion right now. In 2014, 163 schools were attacked in Afghanistan.

The majority of these schools were girls’ schools. This year, these attacks have increased. In January, a girls’ school was torched in Kabul – something that hasn’t happened in the capital city since the Taliban took power in 1996.

In February, the Ministry of Education said 700 schools were closed due to insecurity depriving thousands of girls and boys of an education. Just this week, 20 school girls were poisoned in Ghor province.

These attacks are terrifying, not just for those who have faced the violence themselves, but for the country as a whole.

Al Jazeera: International organisations have raised concerns that women’s rights activists are being deliberately targeted. How difficult is it for activists to stand up and demand change?

Akbar: I don’t know any human rights activist working for gender equality who feels safe in Afghanistan.

We have seen our sisters killed and asked for justice only to be threatened and sidelined more. We have called for the prosecution of those who killed Malalai Kakar, Hanifa Safi, Safia Ahmed Jan, Zakia Zaki and many more journalists and activists killed for being outspoken women and we have been told to shut up.

We are told on a daily basis that we shouldn’t talk about the issues we face, the rape threats we get, the violence women around us face because it will bring shame to our country.

The reality is that the fact that these injustices exist is a matter of shame – not people demanding an end for it.

Al Jazeera: Afghan women still face numerous challenges in their daily lives. Are you optimistic about the future? 

Akbar: Yes. I am optimistic because I see the passion with which young women are working for change inside the country and because I know that despite the heartache, the threats and the disappointments this fight are worth it.

Being pessimistic will not help us. It will only discourage us from working. I prefer not giving up. Afghanistan belongs to me and my peers as much as it belongs to the radicals advocating for violence, and we will not surrender the country to them – not without a fight at least.

@liz_gooch, Liz Gooch is a journalist covering Southeast Asia.

Click here to watch the 101 East documentary, “Afghanistan: No Country for Women”.


HAITI: Clinton’s Long Shadow –

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton visiting the Sae-A garment factory at Caracol Industrial Park in Haiti, in 2012. USAID / Flickr

Is Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid suffocating democracy in Haiti? A growing number of informed observers, both in Haiti and in the United States, think so. They contend that the former secretary of state’s political ambitions are having a profound effect on the Haitian electoral process.

The island’s deeply flawed elections — held last August and October, backed by over $33 million in US funding — triggered massive political unrest this past January.

Coming on the heels of Michel Martelly’s disastrous presidency, the elections spotlight how badly Clinton’s attempts as secretary of state to direct Haitian politics have backfired. The unrest caused the final round of balloting to be suspended and sent the US State Department into damage-control mode.

The department’s overriding — though unofficial — concern over the past year has been to finish Haiti’s elections before the US general election campaign begins in earnest this summer. It desperately wants to keep the results of Clinton’s involvement in Haiti out of the media glare.

Brazen Robbery

Michel Martelly has been aptly described as a Haitian version of Donald Trump. Brash, uncouth, and unapologetically reactionary, Martelly used his celebrity as a popular konpa singer (known as “Sweet Mickey”) to power his rise to the presidency in 2011.

While in office Martelly earned a reputation for corruption and authoritarianism. He wooed foreign investors with the promise that post-earthquake Haiti would be “open for business,” and surrounded himself with the children of Duvalierists and shady underworld figures known to be involved in drug trafficking and kidnapping.

For four years, Martelly declined to organize elections, appointing mayors directly and allowing parliamentarians’ mandates to expire without elected representatives to take their place. He jailed and intimidated political opponents, repressed anti-government demonstrations, and, at the very end of his term, revived the disbanded and much-despised Haitian Army.

By January 2015, Haiti’s parliament was dysfunctional and Martelly was ruling by decree. Under pressure from growing street protests against the return of one-man rule, Martelly grudgingly agreed to organize elections.

Openly declaring his intention to establish a twenty-year political dynasty, he selected Jovenel Moïse, a politically unknown agricultural entrepreneur, as his successor. In August and October of last year, Haitians went to the polls to elect representatives at all levels of government.

Neither election would meet any reasonable democratic standard. Widespread violence, disorder, and stuffed ballot boxes characterized the August elections; in October, hundreds of thousands of fraudulent votes, cast using party accreditation cards sold on the black market, completely skewed the results.

These perversions of the democratic process were compounded by historically low turnout rates and corruption scandals within the electoral council itself, which further undermined the elections’ credibility. In both the legislative and presidential races, Martelly and his allies predictably came out on top.

“Even by Haitian electoral standards, this was brazen robbery,” saidHenry “Chip” Carey, a political scientist who has observed numerous Haitian elections since the 1986 fall of the Duvalier dictatorship.

Despite the election fiasco, the United States (and the other wealthy nations) were enthusiastic, declaring them “a step forward for Haitian democracy.”

The small European Union (EU) and Organization of American States (OAS) observer missions rushed to approve the vote, claiming that the “irregularities” and “isolated” acts of violence had not affected the results.

Elena Valenciano, head of the EU’s electoral observation mission, did not even wait for the polls to close before declaring that the August election day had unfolded in conditions of “near total normalcy.”

Shortly before the October vote, Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Haiti to reaffirm US support for Martelly’s stewardship of the process. As former Haiti expert for the US State Department Robert Maguirelamented, the international powers’ “objective seem[ed] simply to be able to check an ‘elections done’ box.”

But most Haitian observers denounced the elections, and Haitian citizens proved unwilling to accept the low democratic standards set by donor countries. Confronted with the outright theft of their elections, hundreds of thousands of Haitians rose up against what they called an “electoral coup d’état.”

Street protests surged after the October balloting, culminating in January’s angry and disruptive demonstrations. Protesters demanded the establishment of an interim government and an independent election commission to verify the vote.

Saving Face

At the peak of this crisis, former Brazilian diplomat Ricardo Seitenfus made an intriguing allegation: he charged that Haiti’s electoral calendar had been subordinated to the US election cycle. Meeting popular demands for a verification process would require time, much more time than Martelly had left in his mandate.

But American diplomats Kenneth Merten (who served as ambassador to Haiti under Clinton from 2009 to 2011) and Peter Mulrean were demanding that the elections be completed without delay and pressuring opposition candidates to drop their boycott of the final round scheduled for January 24.

Merten and Mulrean insisted that the United States simply wanted constitutional deadlines respected — a laughable claim given how little respect US policy has historically accorded to Haiti’s constitution.

Seitenfus has another explanation for their hostility to an independent investigation of the elections or the establishment of any kind of transitional government: “They want to quickly elect a president in Haiti in order to not make any waves, so that Hillary Clinton’s campaign goes smoothly.”

The reason for the haste, Seitenfus argues, is that Clinton is to blame for both Michel Martelly’s disastrous presidency and the present crisis of Haitian democracy. During the 2010–11 elections, Clinton was determined to see Martelly elected.

His pro-business outlook made him the ideal candidate to lead Haiti’s post-earthquake reconstruction. But, according to official (though strongly contested) results, he did not win enough votes in the first round to advance, so Clinton threw the full weight of the State Department behind her favored candidate.

Clinton’s team exploited every pressure point: cutting off aid, denying visas to top government officials, even plotting a coup against then-president René Préval. In January 2011, Clinton, with the help of behind the scenes pressure from Haiti’s business elites, persuaded Préval to bump Martelly up to second place and into the next round, where he would win the presidential runoff.

“Since Ms. Clinton was deeply involved in the decisions of 2010–11, if things have started badly, they must finish well,” notes Seitenfus, who, as the Organization of American States (OAS) special representative in Haiti, saw these strong-arm tactics firsthand. Seitenfus’s critique of US electoral influence made him a minor celebrity among Haitians, but cost him his OAS post.

The renegade diplomat is not the only one pointing the finger at Clinton. Many other analysts agree that the United States has unduly influenced the international response to the current elections, out of concern for her campaign.

“What international community? In Haiti, it doesn’t exist,” a disgusted diplomat remarked to Swiss journalist Arnaud Robert. “It is the United States that decides, in particular the Clinton couple who simply want to save face before the elections.”

Members of Haiti’s powerful elite agree: “I do not see it going longer than the US election, for obvious reasons,” a member of the Private Sector Economic Forum, a powerful group of Haitian businessmen, said. “They can’t afford this not being solved by the full US election. If Clinton is still in the process . . . they don’t want Haiti in the news, so they want it solved by summer.”

Robert Maguire concurred. “Keeping Haiti off the front page” is a major concern for US policymakers, “even more so with US presidential elections approaching.”

The Sweatshop Model

Sweet Mickey’s presidency is only part of Clinton’s dismal history in Haiti. Jonathan Katz, who covered Haiti for the Associated Press before, during, and after the 2010 earthquake, argues that America’s rush to get past Haiti’s tumultuous elections stems from Clinton’s ongoing involvement in the failed reconstruction efforts.

“Instability in a place where she and her husband have planted a big flag would hardly help her campaign,” he notes.

Throughout her term as secretary of state, Clinton made Haiti one of her top foreign-policy priorities. She and her chief of staff Cheryl Mills closely managed the internationally financed effort to rebuild Haiti after the quake. Bill Clinton pitched in as co-chair of a commission tasked with approving reconstruction projects.

As Clinton wrote in her memoir Hard Choices, rebuilding Haiti was “an opportunity . . . to road-test new approaches to development that could be applied more broadly around the world.”

Wielding an unparalleled level of influence over massive flows of public, private, and philanthropic capital, the Clintons set out to turn their slogan — Haiti “built back better” — into reality.

As Katz told the Washington Post: “There’s nowhere Clinton had more influence or respect when she became Secretary of State than in Haiti, and it was clear that she planned to use that to make Haiti the proving ground for her vision of American power.”

In retrospect, the Clintons’ bold, new vision for Haiti looks more like a mirage. The “new” approach was the same old “sweatshop model of development,” pursued by the United States since the Duvalier days, in a slick new package, and it had the same disastrous results.

A multi-million dollar industrial park the Clintons promoted as Haiti’s economic salvation was a flop on its own capitalist terms, generating only one-tenth of the promised sixty thousand jobs.

Meanwhile, mammoth new slum areas have sprung up north of Port-au-Prince, a testament to the mind-boggling decision to prioritize building luxury hotels for foreign tourists, NGO workers and businesspeople over permanent housing for the over one million Haitians made homeless by the quake.

Six years later, there is no hiding the fact that the Clintons have not helped many ordinary Haitians. Hillary Clinton would prefer to ignore this unflattering reality as November approaches. Katz notes:

By now I’d imagine she was expecting to constantly be pointing to Haiti on the campaign trail as one of the great successes of her diplomatic career. Instead it’s one of her biggest disappointments by nearly any measure, with the wreckage of the Martelly administration she played a larger role than anyone in installing being the biggest and latest example.

Perhaps most troubling from the Clinton campaign’s perspective: the tiny handful of players who did profit from Haiti’s reconstruction includes several members of her inner circle, like Tony Rodham (Hillary’s brother) and Irish billionaire Dennis O’Brien, a fact that Peter Schweizer and other Republican critics delight in pointing out.

Today, Clinton and her political managers prefer not to talk about Haiti at all. When Katz asked how her experience in Haiti shaped her foreign policy, a campaign spokesperson declined to comment, saying Clinton would address that “when the time comes to do so.”

Judging by her campaign website — which touts many of her foreign policy endeavors but makes no mention of Haiti — that time has still not come.

In fact, the time for Clinton to account for her embarrassing entanglements in Haiti may not come at all. There was a brief uptick in national media coverage during the January election protests, but Haiti has, for the most part, stayed out of the headlines, which is exactly where Clinton wants it.

President Martelly’s departure (without an elected successor) has defused a potentially explosive situation, at least for now. And with theminor exception of Hillary’s efforts to block a 2009 minimum wage increase, Clinton’s challenger Bernie Sanders has ignored her ignominious record in Haiti to focus on inequality, health care, and other domestic issues.

But Haiti’s simmering electoral crisis is far from resolved. The interim government that took over in February faces growing hostility from Martelly and his allies — including paramilitaries who claim to represent the re-mobilized military.

A verification commission, convened against American wishes, is currently reexamining the election results for fraud: the United States and other international donors have responded by cutting off all non-humanitarian aid. The commission’s findings are due at the end of the month, and could be the spark that once again sets Haiti aflame.

Dismayed by the vehement international opposition to the verification commission, Antiguan diplomat Ronald Sanders warned that the search for an easy exit from Haiti’s election troubles could backfire.

“There can be no ‘quick fix’ in Haiti,” wrote Sanders in a recent editorial. “Indeed, it is the urge for quick fixes in the past and the desire to wash hands of the country that has kept it in constant turmoil and retarded its chances for long-term political stability and economic growth.”

Whether or not US officials heed Sanders’s warning, the underbelly of Clinton’s much-vaunted foreign policy experience is plain for all to see.

The new issue of Jacobin is out now. Buy a copy, a discounted subscription, or a commemorative poster today.

If you like this article, please subscribe or donate.


Screening of Haitian-made films in Boston

Wednesday, June 29th, 6:00 – 8:30 PMOutdoors
Irish International Immigrant Center
100 Franklin Street, Lower Level, Boston, MA 02110 (entrance at 201 Devonshire St)

Join Community Supported Film (CSFilm) and the Irish International Immigrant Center (IIIC) for a screening and lively discussion of Owning Our Future – Haitian Perspectives in Film. Haitian documentary filmmakers, trained by CSFilm, with backgrounds in journalism, theater and poetry, provide a unique opportunity to experience Haiti as it is lived by street vendors, business women, artists, farmers and more. Their stories nourish an understanding of Haiti that goes beyond the western media’s focus on crises and disasters. See excerpts of the films at

More Info: or Sarah Chapple-Sokol, IIIC, 617-542-7654 extension 36.


Summer 16 Newsletter




Screening of Haitian-made films in Boston

Wednesday, June 29th, 6:00 – 8:30 PM
Irish International Immigrant Center, 100 Franklin Street, Lower Level, Boston, MA 02110 (entrance at 201 Devonshire St)

Join Community Supported Film (CSFilm) and the Irish International Immigrant Center (IIIC) for a screening and lively discussion of Owning Our Future – Haitian Perspectives in Film. Haitian documentary filmmakers, trained by CSFilm, with backgrounds in journalism, theater and poetry, provide a unique opportunity to experience Haiti as it is lived by street vendors, business women, artists, farmers and more. Their stories nourish an understanding of Haiti that goes beyond the western media’s focus on crises and disasters. See excerpts of the films at

More Info: or Sarah Chapple-Sokol, IIIC, 617-542-7654 extension 36.

NIRV – New Immigrant and Refugee Voices 
Filmmaking TrainingWe have raised $25,000 of our $65,000 goal for the implementation of NIRV – the New Immigrant and Refugee Voices documentary filmmaking training and production project in the US.

Please help us reach our remaining $40,000 goal by August 31 so that we can start the training in the fall.

DonateWe have the perfect local partner, the Irish International Immigrant Center (IIIC), with whom we are working on project development, fundraising and community outreach. IIIC offers 3,000-plus people, from more than 120 countries, a full range of free or low cost legal, educational and wellness programs.

Fundamental to the IIIC’s core values is their vision of a shared society where all people are valued and enjoy equal opportunities and protections. Their Education and Inclusion Program builds connections across immigrant communities and between new immigrants and the general public. With the deliberate intent of helping people be at ease with differences, IIIC conducts and partners with organizations like CSFilm to provide experiential learning and storytelling programs. As part of the next phase of their Inclusion Program, IIIC and CSFilm are working together to provide a program that allows immigrants to tell their and their communities’ stories through the production of short documentary films.

We hope to begin this work in the fall but need an additional $40,000 by August 31 to make that happen.

Thank you so much for your help.  No amount is too small!  Donate

Learn more about CSFilm’s New Immigrant and Refugee Voices initiative and IIIC’s Education Program


Issues and Analysis

We are launching a new resource: Issues and Analysis Monthly. We will send a monthly listing of our favorite articles on the media, development and the countries where we are working.

Readers have thanked us for calling their attention to interesting articles on these issues. We post them regularly to our social media feeds and to Issues and Analysis on the home page of our website.

We would love to know about your favorite articles. Please send them to us via our social media feeds or email. Thanks!

On the Media
– Inside the Storytelling Revolution
Why an imperilled media needs better support

Economic and Social Development
– The Humanitarian Clock Is Ticking, The Powerful Feign Deafness
– Why the Poor Have Become Poorer in the US

– Don’t Dump US Peanuts on Haiti
– Health workers in Haiti on mission to thwart spread of Zika

– Chinese role in Afghanistan Pakistan relationship
– Afghanistan’s Growing Unrest: Implications for India’s Security

Click here for more from Issues and Analysis

Filmmaking Class

Filmmaking Class – Enroll

If you are interested in learning the fundamentals of filmmaking and are in Boston, USA, CSFilm director, Michael Sheridan, will be teaching a seven-week intensive course at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, June 30-August 17, Tues and Thurs 6:30-10pm.

Get the details and enroll

Train your staff in visual storytelling

Many non-profits do not have the funds to hire filmmakers and photographers to document their many activities and to visualize their stories. Organizations often rely on an already over-worked staff to snap pictures or record video on the run. Too often the results are not usable.

Community Supported Film provides cost effective trainings to individuals or organization in visual storytelling.  We can improve the impact of your work by helping your constituents and supporters better understand your mission. Visualize your message across media and platforms.   We are the masters of teaching visual storytelling effectively and efficiently in one hour or multi day sessions.  Please get in touch at

Read about a recent training

Haiti DVD

Haiti DVD Available

Owning Our Future – Haitian Perspectives in Film is available and receiving positive feedback.  Get your copy!  Get a free copy and help us out by hosting a screening: email us at

Community Supported Film’s innovative work and creative storytelling allows Haitians to reveal their own reality.” Serge JC Pierre-Louis, President, DuSable Heritage Association, Chicago

At the heart of it, artists can only really talk from their own experience, so if you want a story about sumthin’ that sumthin’ has got to tell the story itself. And, that’s just what these Haitian storytellers have done – beautifully and powerfully.” Dawn Kramer and Stephen Buck, Artists

Through these films, Community Supported Film is facilitating a powerful way for citizens – who are not necessarily professional journalists or filmmakers – to use film to narrate their lives in ways that Western media rarely shares.” Lisa Ulrich, Regional Director, Let’s Get Ready
Watch Excerpts;    Buy the DVD;    Host a Screening

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AFGHANISTAN-Chinese role in #Afghanistan #Pakistan relationship –

FILE - Afghan Taliban fighters are shown Nov. 3, 2015. The U.S. and Afghanistan accuse Pakistan of providing a safe haven to the Afghan Taliban.

FILE – Afghan Taliban fighters are shown Nov. 3, 2015. The U.S. and Afghanistan accuse Pakistan of providing a safe haven to the Afghan Taliban.

When Afghan President Ashraf Ghani took over in late 2014 and talk of peace and reconciliation with the Taliban gained momentum, skeptics derived hope from China’s newfound interest in the process.

China could succeed, many thought, where the United States had failed — in convincing Pakistan to change its behavior toward the Afghan Taliban. Both the U.S. and Afghanistan accuse Pakistan of providing a safe haven to the Afghan Taliban. Pakistan has so far resisted any pressure.

At the heart of Chinese interest in stability in Afghanistan are two major factors. One is fear that religious militancy in Afghanistan will further fuel Islamist insurgency in China’s own Xinjiang province bordering Afghanistan. Militants from the Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjiang have occasionally received support and training in Afghanistan.

The second is hope of extending the One Belt, One Road initiative through the region to Central Asia.

The initiative is an effort by China to build a network of overland road and rail routes, oil and gas pipelines, and other infrastructure projects spanning from West China through Central Asia to Europe while simultaneously developing ports and coastal infrastructure through South and Southeast Asia all the way to the Mediterranean.

What China can do

It may be difficult to precisely measure the kind of influence China can exercise, according to Dr. Hassan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based political analyst.

FILE – Delegations from Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States of America and China discuss a road map for ending the war with the Taliban at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, Jan. 18, 2016.

The conflicts between Afghanistan and Pakistan, he said, are so inherent that China cannot force them to change. All it can do is encourage the two rivals to downplay them.

China is a new player at this table. For the first 15 years of the war in Afghanistan, it stayed out of security arena, focusing more on economic interests. Now its economic interests have become intertwined with regional security. So it has joined the game, but is still in the learning stage.

China is more likely to watch and wait rather than act prematurely, according to Kabul-based analyst Hamed Sabori.

Still, Khalid Mahmood, one of Pakistan’s former ambassadors to China, thinks the country is ideally placed to play the role of mediator between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“[China] commanded respect in Afghanistan, had good ties to Pakistan, and regional stability was in its own interest,” according to Mahmood.

China initiated contacts with the Taliban and eventually agreed to become part of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), set up to help facilitate reconciliation talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

Diminished enthusiasm

The initial U.S.-Afghan euphoria with Chinese involvement has slightly worn off.

The QCG failed to lead to a decrease in violence in Afghanistan. Both Afghans and Americans realized that China would not pressure Pakistan beyond a certain point. With the killing of Taliban leader Mullah Mansoor and the election of new leader Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada, chances of peace talks this year are grimmer than ever.

FILE – Pakistani local residents gather around a burning vehicle hit by a U.S. drone strike, May 21, 2016. Afghan Taliban Mullah Akhtar Mansoor was the target of the drone near Dalbandin, Baluchistan, Pakistan.

“I don’t believe that we will see peace talks anytime in the short term,” said Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland, deputy chief of staff for communications for Operation Resolute Support, the NATO mission in Afghanistan.

Analyst Rizvi thinks the Chinese approach has been more measured because it recognizes the limits of Pakistan’s capacity to influence the Afghan Taliban.

Plus, China has a strong alliance with Pakistan, made even stronger by the U.S. courting of Pakistan’s rival India as a regional counterweight to China.

“They [the U.S.] have clearly stated which side they are on, which country they want to raise as [a] counterweight to China … which has implications for Pakistan also,” Mahmood said.

In the eyes of many Pakistanis, including many in the civilian and military leadership of the country, the U.S. does not care about Pakistan’s interests and does not keep in mind its sensibilities when dealing with the region. Mahmood said that drives the country more toward China, which is viewed as a tried and tested friend.

Still hopeful

Nonetheless, China sees stability in the region as being in its own long-term interest. Shahmahmood Miakhel, the country head for the Washington-based United States Institute for Peace, said China has made significant investments in Afghanistan, particularly in the mining sector. These are not short- or medium-term investments, he added, but long-term ones that require a secure regional environment.

Which was why Afghanistan is still pinning its hopes on China.

“China has to work with Pakistan on how to cooperate with Afghanistan,” Miakhel said.

China, Sabori said, is waiting to see how the U.S. and other major players are going to act. Still, it is aware of the danger of continued long-term instability.

“Terrorism is not something that can be confined to a border, so it will finally, at some time, penetrate their border and it will become a major issue for China,” he said.

ISLAMABAD –,  Ayesha Tanzeem, June 02, 2016 5:30 PM

DEVELOPMENT: The Humanitarian Clock Is Ticking, The Powerful Feign Deafness

Among the issues discussed was how the humanitarian sector could improve protection of civilians from violence. Jan Egelend, who heads the Norwegian Refugee Council and is also the Special Advisor to Staffan de Mistura, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, said that the international community needs to “blacklist” any group or Government that bombs civilians and civilian targets. Pictured, Baharka IDP camp in northern Iraq. Photo: OCHA/Brandon Bateman

–, by Baher Kamal – 6/6/16 – – The humanitarian clock is now ticking away faster than ever, with over 130 million of the world’s most vulnerable people in dire need of assistance. But the most powerful, richest countries—those who have largely contributed to manufacturing it and can therefore stop it, continue to pretend not hearing nor seeing the signals.

The World Humanitarian Summit (Istanbul, May 23-24) represented an unprecedented effort by all United Nations bodies who, along with member countries, hundreds of non-governmental aid organisations, and the most concerned stakeholders, conducted a three-year long consultation process involving over 23,000 stakeholders, that converged in Istanbul to portray the real½ current human drama.

Led by the UN, they put on the table a “Grand Bargain” that aims to get more resources into the hands of people who most need them, those who are victims of crises that they have not caused. The WHS also managed to gather unanimous support to Five Core Responsibilities that will help alleviate human suffering and contribute to preventing and even ending it.

Around 9,000 participants from 173 countries, including 55 heads of state or government, and hundreds of key stakeholders attending the Summit, have unanimously cautioned against the current growing human-made crises, while launching strong appeals for action to prevent such a “humanitarian bomb” from detonating anytime soon.

In spite of all that, the top leaders of the Group of the seven most industrialised countries (G 7), and of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, have all stayed away from this first-ever Humanitarian Summit, limiting their presence to delegations with lower ranking officials.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hailed the Summit as a “turning point” that has “set a new course” in humanitarian aid. “We have the wealth, knowledge and awareness to take better care of one another,” Ban said. Photo: UNOCHA

Although several UN officials reiterated that it was not about a pledging conference but the fact is that massive funds are badly needed to start alleviating the present human suffering which, if allowed to grow exponentially as feared, would cause a human drama of incalculable consequences.

The notable absence of the top decision-makers of the most powerful and richest countries sent a strong negative signal with a frustrating impact on the humongous efforts the UN has displayed to prepare for the Istanbul Summit and mobilise the world’s human conscious– let alone the millions of the most vulnerable who are prey to human dramas they are not responsible for creating.

In fact, most of world’s refugee flows are direct results of wars not only in Afghanistan and Iraq—both subject to vast military operations by coalitions led by the biggest Western powers (G 7), but also a result of on-going armed conflicts in Yemen (also with the support of the US and Europe), and Syria where the Security Council permanent member states, except China, have been proving weapons to the parties involved in this long six-year war.

Other victims of the current humanitarian drama are “climate refugees”, those who flee death caused by unprecedented droughts, floods and other disasters resulting from climate change, which is largely caused by the most industrialised countries.

The sole exception was German chancellor Angela Merkel who addressed the Summit, though she reportedly went to Istanbul to meet Turkish president Recep Tayyib Erdogan to try to alleviate the growing tensions between Ankara and the European Union, who accuse each other of not fulfilling the refugee deportation deal they sealed in March.

In fact, the EU-Ankara deal is about deporting to Turkey all asylum seekers and also migrants arriving in Europe mainly through Turkish borders, once the European Union announced last year its readiness to host them but decided later½ to flinch. In simple words, the deal simply transforms Turkey into a huge “deposit” of millions fleeing wars and other human-made disasters.

In exchange, Ankara should receive from the EU 3 billion euro a year to help shelter and feed the 3 million refugees who are already there. The EU also promised to authorise the entry of Turkish citizens to its member countries without visa.

At a press briefing at the end of the Summit, Erdogan launched veiled warnings to the EU that if this bloc does not implement its part of the refugees deal, the Turkish Parliament may not ratify it.

In other words, Turkey would not only stop admitting “returnees”, i.e. refugees repatriated by Europe, but would even open its borders for them—and other millions to come and go to EU countries. The “human bomb” is therefore ticking at the very doors of Europe.

That said, the Istanbul Summit has set us on a new course. “It is not an end point, but a turning point,” said the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon at the closing session.

Governments, people affected by crisis, non-governmental organisations, the private sector, UN agencies and other partners came together and expressed their support for theAgenda for Humanity, and its five Core Responsibilities, Ban added.

“Implementing this agenda is a necessity, if we are to enable people to live in dignity and prosperity, and fulfil the promise of last year’s landmark agreements on the Sustainable Development Agenda and Climate Change.”

Ban stressed that humanitarian and development partners agreed on a new way of working aimed at reducing the need for humanitarian action by investing in resilient communities and stable societies.

Aid agencies and donor governments committed to a ‘Grand Bargain’ that will get more resources into the hands of people who need them, at the local and national level, said Ban.

Unfortunately, when funding is sparse, the UN and partners have to reprioritize preventive and resilience-building actions to aid emergencies. In Sudan, women line up to receive food at the Tawilla site for newly arrived internally displaced persons (IDPs) fleeing Jebel Marra in Darfur. Assisting those urgent needs meant less funding for a nutrition project in Khartoum. Photo: OCHA

“And Governments committed to do more to prevent conflict and build peace, to uphold international humanitarian law, and live up to the promise of the Charter of the UN, he added. “I hope all member states will work at the highest level to find the political solutions that are so vital to reduce humanitarian needs around the world.”

According to Ban, ”Together, we launched a ground-breaking charter that places people with disabilities at the heart of humanitarian decision-making; a platform on young people in crises; and commitments to uphold the rights of women and girls in emergencies and protect them from gender-based violence.”

Ban also announced that in September this year he will report to the UN General Assembly on the Summit’s achievements, and will propose “ways to take our commitments forward through intergovernmental processes, inter-agency forums and other mechanisms.”

The WHS Chair’s Summary: Standing up for Humanity: Committing to Action issued at the end of the Summit states that “civil strife and conflicts are driving suffering and humanitarian need to unprecedented levels and serious violations of international humanitarian law and abuses of international human rights law continue on an alarming scale with entire populations left without essential supplies they desperately need.”

It adds that natural disasters, exacerbated by the effects of climate change, are affecting greater numbers of women, men and children than ever before, eroding development gains and jeopardising the stability of entire countries.

“At the same time we have been unable to generate the resources to cope with these alarming trends, and there is a need for more direct predictable humanitarian financing,” the statement warns.

“The Summit has brought to the forefront of global attention the scale of the changes required if we are to address the magnitude of challenges before us. The participants have made it emphatically clear that humanitarian assistance alone can neither adequately address nor sustainably reduce the needs of over 130 million of the world’s most vulnerable people.”

A new and coherent approach is required based on addressing root causes, increasing political diplomacy for prevention and conflict resolution, and bringing humanitarian, development and
peace-building efforts together, it adds.

“Global leaders recognized the centrality of political will to effectively prevent and end conflicts, to address root causes and to reduce fragility and strengthen good governance. Preventing and resolving conflicts would be the biggest difference leaders could make to reduce overwhelming humanitarian needs. Humanitarian action cannot be a substitute for political action.”


MEDIA: Inside the Storytelling Revolution

April 2016,

commDownload PDF Storytelling is on the rise. With the continued expansion of technology sharing stories has never been easier. Our latest issue of Building Peace, Inside the Storytelling Revolution,examines the countless ways we communicate with one another and the power that stories hold to inspire peace as well as war.

The sixth publication looks at the processes of advocacy and advertising—both selling peace in their unique ways. We feature the work of StoryCorps and how they are lifting up local voices to contribute to a more peaceful society. Our stories also come from the Countering Violent Extremism and filmmaking communities as they explore the ways that narratives can rewrite history—and what it takes to reveal the truth.

Letter from the Editor-in-Chief

Stories are both universal and individual. They are our mannerisms and our beliefs, our choice of words and our dreams for the future. Most of all, stories shape the way […]

Selling Peace: Story by Story

Before dawn on Friday, December 17, 2011, Mohammed Bouazizi pulled his cart to the Tunisian marketplace where he sold his goods. Local officials there harassed him and confiscated his wares […]

Short Stories: Community Murals in the U.S.

When it comes to peace, walls are rarely the solution. Walls separate people and prevent dialogue. They build suspicion and unease. The examples are everywhere including Northern Ireland, the West […]

Peace Needs a Sharp, Pointy Stick

(Legal disclaimer: The author of this article is an outsider with total respect and appreciation for the peacebuilding community but only limited knowledge of how it actually works, its protocols, […]

The Catalyst for Change

“Tell me the facts and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.” – Native American […]

Short Stories: Darfur’s Hakamat

In Darfur, in the Western region of Sudan, an influential group of women, known as the Hakamat, are beginning to change their tune. The Hakamat hold a special place in […]

Film, Truth, and the Pursuit of Peace

Film has power as a pathway to peace. In a certain kind of filmmaking, the ends and the means are inseparable; the way that a film is made is reflected […]


AFGHANISTAN: Afghanistan’s Growing Unrest: Implications for India’s Security, By Akanksha Narain, May 26, 2016, 4 min read, original

U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to halt the further withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and instead send additional advisers to assist the deployed forces underscores the deteriorating security situation. His decision comes after high casualties among the Afghanistan National Security Forces in combat operations, coupled with the resurgence of Taliban and a fast-evolving threat environment in the region.

Afghanistan is a place where post-war engagement will prove to be a more crucial battleground than the war itself. India cannot be a spectator as chaos ensues in Afghanistan, for it will not be safe from the spillover. Hence, it is imperative for Indian to assist Afghanistan in building sound political structures, a strong military and economy, along with human resources. It cannot afford to let Afghanistan slide back to the days of Taliban rule after 15 years of Western intervention. Against this backdrop, India’s push for Afghanistan to be included in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), in 2005, was a smart move, given close links between peace in Afghanistan and regional security.

The Threat to India’s Security in Afghanistan

India’s apprehensions about Afghanistan’s instability are primarily driven by its own pragmatic security concerns. On March 2, 2016, the Indian consulate in the city of Jalalabad in Afghanistan was attacked, leaving nine dead and many more injured in the fourth attack on the Indian consulate in the city. Earlier this year, the Indian mission in Mazar-e-Sharif saw a 25-hour long shootout between the terrorists and the security forces.

An unstable backyard is not only pernicious to India’s larger strategic interests abroad and future goals but can also impact its internal security. After the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989, jihadists moved to new conflict zones, including Kashmir. Following 9/11, Pakistani militant groups moved to Afghanistan to fight against the Western coalition; after the withdrawal of ISAF forces from Afghanistan, it is highly likely that they could focus their attention back on Kashmir. Groups like Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), Harkat ul-Mujahideen (HUM), and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) might increase their activities in Indian Kashmir, which saw a steady decline in cross-border terrorism over the past decade. This is further intensified by the spike in the number of young Kashmiris joining militant groups over the past year. Burhan Muzaffar Wani’s route to militancy is a case in point. The 21-year-old commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen (HM), described by the locals as the “Robin Hood of Kashmir,” is among the new generation of Kashmiri militants.

The emergence of the Islamic State terrorist group’s local franchise, IS-Khurasan, and al-Qaeda’s South Asian affiliate, AQIS, has further complicated the regional threat environment. Presently, the two militant rivals are currently locked in a furious competition for influence among the local jihadist groups and monopoly over the illegal drug trade. InDabiq, Islamic States’ flagship monthly magazine, the group has clearly mentioned its intention of expanding its presence in Khurasan, which includes India, though the presence of traditional groups like the Taliban and geopolitical conflicts in the Af-Pak region and Kashmir lessen Islamic States’ traction. Similarly, though AQIS has not carried out any significant terrorist attack since its creation in September 2014, it has been reported to be building deep terror networks in South Asia.

Securing India’s Strategic Interests

If history is anything to go by, Afghanistan has served as springboard not only for al-Qaeda and the Taliban but also for Kashmir-focused terrorist groups. The re-emergence of al-Qaeda’s camp and the presence of Kashmiri militant groups in Afghanistan could be detrimental to Indian regional security and economic interests. During the 1990s, al-Qaeda and the Kashmiri militants worked hand-in-glove with each other in Afghanistan. The hijacking and diverting of an Indian plane by HUM in 1999 to Kandahar, then under the Taliban rule, secured the release of Maulana Masood Azhar, who later founded JeM.

In order to mitigate the threat from an unstable backyard, India has employed a “soft-power” approach in Afghanistan. Its aid, estimated at $1.5 trillion, and development projects are an attempt to strengthen a war-ravaged young democracy, thereby attempting to reduce the vacuum which may allow the Taliban and other groups to emerge.

Another aspect of India’s interest in Afghanistan relates to its need to reduce Pakistani influence in the region. India should contain and balance Pakistan’s influence, which may otherwise hamper Indian interests. Afghanistan has been the battleground for an India-Pakistan proxy war since 2001. New Delhi needs Kabul to get a better view of Islamabad and hence it is pertinent that it fosters positive relations. This relationship can only blossom if Afghanistan is stable and strong.

The threat, however, is not just to Indian embassies and consulates but also to New Delhi’s economic interests in the country. In 2011, a consortium of six Indian companies was awarded mining rights in the Hajigak area. However, after a debate over reducing their initial plan of investing $11 billion to $1 billion, the consortium eventually decided to pull out. The increasing flux in the region was one of the contributing factors behind this significant decision.

The mounting fears in the country are not only an impediment to Indian companies’ ability to tap into Afghanistan’s mineral resources, estimated at $1 trillion, but can prove to be detrimental to ever-growing Indian energy demands. The proposed gas pipeline project TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India), which seeks to connect an energy-rich Central to South Asia, will only see the light of the day if stability is established in Afghanistan

It is important to note that Afghanistan not only serves security and economic interests but is also closely tied to India’s vision of being a regional leader and a great power, coupled with its competition with China over resources and its need to counter Pakistani influence. India’s ability to mentor a nascent democracy will go a long way to demonstrate to the world that India is indeed a major power, especially a responsible one. However, this vision can only be materialized if Afghanistan does not descend into a state of chaos and conflict.

The Way Forward

India’s civilian-centric policies, be they the construction of the Salma Dam project or offering annual scholarships to Afghan students, will only bear fruit if India ensures that events do not unfold the way they did after the Soviet pull-out from the country. It is India’s pragmatism that drives its decision not to put boots on the ground and instead invest in constructing the new Parliament building in Kabul and gifting a 97-foot high Afghan flag to in order to cement their friendship.

India, however, needs to enhance its current assistance to Afghanistan given the growing security challenges and economic difficulties. Suffering huge losses from a resurgent Taliban, especially now that the group has grown stronger and expanded territorially, Afghanistan has asked India to provide military supplies. In response to Kabul’s military and economic demands India needs to take a tough decision – how is the regional superpower going to address the burgeoning threat in Afghanistan while keeping in mind its own strategic interests?

Akanksha Narain is a Research Analyst with the Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies (SRP) Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. 


MEDIA: Curbing corruption and fostering accountability in fragile settings – why an imperilled media needs better support, Media Action, original


An independent media is one of the most effective assets we have in efforts to curb corruption and foster accountability. Yet it is deeply imperilled, particularly in fragile states and often poorly understood by the international development sector. This policy working paper argues that unless development strategies begin to prioritise support to independent media, corruption may continue to go unchecked and the accountability of states will diminish.

Download Publication:

Publication date: May 2016

Author: James Deane

Overview:  This policy working paper draws on BBC Media Action’s own research as well as the wider sector to examine the media’s ability to hold power to account, particularly in fragile settings. The paper provides a summary of the evidence base supporting the media’s role in tackling corruption and argues that effective media support strategies require more than financial contributions. They require the development of coherent, context-specific, evidence-based strategies rooted in learning from what works and what does not. It concludes that while there have been notable investments in media from a small number of donors the development system as a whole has a poor record in in supporting this area. The paper should be of interest to decision makers in donors and other development support organisations concerned about the development costs of corruption.

We welcome your comments. Please contact using the subject line: Comment: fostering accountability working paper.


DEVELOPMENT: Why the Poor Have Become Poorer in the US

‘Tiny holding Horsey with Keanna,’ Seattle, 1993; photograph by Mary Ellen Mark from the exhibition ‘Tiny: Streetwise Revisited,’ at the Aperture Foundation, New York City, May 26–June 30. The book includes essays by Isabel Allende and John Irving and is published by Aperture. The film ‘Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell,’ made by Mark and her husband Martin Bell, will be shown at BAMcinemaFest on June 25.
Mary Ellen Mark

‘Tiny holding Horsey with Keanna,’ Seattle, 1993; photograph by Mary Ellen Mark from the exhibition ‘Tiny: Streetwise Revisited,’ at the Aperture Foundation, New York City, May 26–June 30. The book includes essays by Isabel Allende and John Irving and is published by Aperture. The film ‘Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell,’ made by Mark and her husband Martin Bell, will be shown at BAMcinemaFest on June 25.

According to the Census Bureau, the percentage of Americans living in poverty is higher today than it was in the late 1960s. Last year I argued in these pages that these “official” poverty statistics are extremely misleading.1 When the United States first explicitly defined an official poverty line in 1969, it was supposed to be adjusted every year to ensure that it represented a constant standard of living. However, two problems arose and were never fixed.

First, the Consumer Price Index, which was supposed to be used to adjust the poverty line for inflation, turned out to have flaws that made it rise faster than the cost of living. Second, the official measure uses pretax money income to measure families’ economic resources; but anti-poverty measures enacted since then, such as the expansion of food stamps and then the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), made low-income families’ total economic resources increase faster than their pretax money income. As a result of these problems, roughly half the families now counted as officially poor have a higher standard of living than families with incomes at the poverty line had in 1969.

In $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer argue that what they call “extreme” poverty roughly doubled between 1996 and 2012. If they are right—and I think they are—the reader might wonder how I can still claim that poor families’ living standards have risen. The answer is that inequality has risen even among the poor. Half of today’s officially poor families are doing better than those we counted as poor in the 1960s, but as I learned from reading $2.00 a Day (and have spent many hours verifying), the poorest of the poor are also worse off today than they were in 1969. $2.00 a Day is a vivid account of how such families live. It also makes a strong case for blaming their misery on deliberate political choices at both the federal and state levels.


Kathryn Edin is a professor at Johns Hopkins University who has spent much of the past twenty-five years talking with low-income Americans about their lives.2 In 2010, when the national unemployment rate was over 9 percent, she began meeting parents who said they had no regular income whatever from work, from welfare, or from any other source. Their economic plight sounded worse than anything she had previously encountered, and she began pondering how to figure out what had happened, and why.

In 2011 Edin met Luke Shaefer, a young professor at the University of Michigan who had worked extensively with the Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP). This survey was the best available source of data on poor families, and Edin persuaded Shaefer to investigate what it showed about households with little or no income.3 To do that, they had to decide what criteria to use.

A single mother with two children was officially poor in 2011 if she reported an annual income below $18,123. If she reported less than half that amount, the Census classified her and her children as living in “deep” poverty. However, the Census had never had a term for families as poor as those Edin and Shaefer wanted to count, so they chose their own term: “extreme” poverty.

They also chose a third-world definition of who belonged in their new category. The World Bank counted third-world families as poor if they lived on less than $1.90 a day per family member. Edin and Shaefer rounded that up to $2.00.4 This cutoff was between 9 and 13 percent of the official poverty threshold for most American families. For a single mother of two, for example, Edin and Shaefer’s “extreme” poverty threshold was $6 a day while the “official” 2011 threshold came to just under $50 a day. Neither measure included noncash benefits or EITC refunds.

When Shaefer analyzed the SIPP data, he found that 4.3 percent of American households with children reported living on less than $2 a day per person for at least one month during 2011. When he looked back at the SIPP data for 1996, only 1.7 percent of parents had reported a month like that (see the first row of Table 1).


Edin and Shaefer were shocked by how much the SIPP estimate had risen, so they checked to see if other evidence pointed in the same direction. Their best comparison was with data collected by the Food Stamp Program. Families applying for food stamps must report their income to qualify for assistance, and they must then keep reporting it every year to remain eligible. The number of parents telling the Food Stamp Program that they had had a month without income matched the SIPP estimates closely in 1996 and 2005. From 2005 to 2012, however, the number of parents reporting a month without income rose faster in the Food Stamp Program than in SIPP.5 No one seems to know why the two trends diverged, but the divergence may mean that the 2011 SIPPestimates in Table 1 are too low.6

For reasons that will become clear momentarily, I now need to mention that Congress renamed the Food Stamp Program in 2008, calling it the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The name change reflected the fact that the program now gives recipients an electronic card instead of stamps to pay for their groceries. Outside Washington, D.C., however, most people still talk about food stamps, not SNAP. I will do the same, except when I discuss the SNAP card itself.

The most obvious explanation for the increase in extreme poverty between 1996 and 2011 is that jobs were harder to find in 2011, but that is only half the story. Until 1996 single mothers with no income were eligible for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Edin and Shaefer argue that extreme poverty rose after 1996 because Congress replaced AFDC with an even less generous welfare program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Because TANF benefits are much harder to get than AFDC benefits were, parents who cannot find a job are more likely to find themselves penniless.7

Prior to 1996 each state had its own AFDC program, with the federal government paying about half the cost in rich states and far more than half in poor states. States could set their AFDC benefits as high or low as they wanted, but in each state the eligibility rules had to meet a variety of federal requirements, one of which was that all legally eligible applicants were entitled to benefits. A state could not turn away eligible applicants because the legislature wanted to use the money for some other purpose or because a caseworker thought an applicant had loose morals.

All states still get federal money to cover part of TANF’s cost, but they now have more leeway in deciding how to spend such money. They can divert federal TANF funds to programs like financial aid for college students and pre-kindergarten programs, for example. Such programs are worthwhile, but they do nothing to help poor single mothers pay their electric bill or their rent. States also have almost complete freedom to decide what applicants must do to qualify for benefits and retain them. States can also shorten the federal time limit on TANF eligibility.

If states cut the cost of TANF by reducing the number of recipients, they can use the savings for other purposes. That gives state officials a strong incentive to discourageTANF applications. Potential applicants may have to spend weeks applying for jobs before they can apply for TANF. Or they may have to produce documents that they cannot find or do not know how to get. Understaffed welfare offices can create long lines that discourage applications. Many TANF applicants also report having been turned down with no explanation at all.

The opening chapter of $2.00 a Day describes a Chicago mother whom the authors call Modonna Harris. Harris graduated from high school and then took out loans to attend a private university. However, she got no financial help from her divorced parents, and when she hit her student loan ceiling at the end of her second year, she dropped out. Misadventures in love followed, and after her marriage broke up she had a child to support. The best job she could find was as a cashier, but after eight years her employer fired her because her cash drawer was $10 short. The store eventually found the missing $10, but it did not rehire Harris.

Harris looked for new jobs, without success. After her unemployment benefits ran out, a friend noticed that Harris had no food in her apartment for herself or her child and persuaded her to apply for TANF. The welfare office opened at 8:30 AM, so Harris showed up at 8:00. At least on that particular day, however, there were only enough appointment slots for applicants who had joined the line in the rain outside the welfare office before 7:30. After waiting most of the day, Harris left without having been given a chance to apply, convinced that TANF would never help her.

It is tempting to say that Harris was too easily discouraged. However, it is also tempting to say that in Illinois, as in most other states, TANF’s primary goal is not to protect children whose parents cannot find work by ensuring that their family has shelter, heat, light, food, and shoes, but to cut program costs by reducing the number of recipients. (California, which now accounts for a third of all TANF recipients, is a partial exception to this rule.)

State efforts to cut the TANF rolls have been quite effective. The overall unemployment rate, which is a fairly good proxy for how hard it is to find work, was almost twice as high in 2009 as in 1996. Yet the number of families getting TANF in 2009 was less than half the number getting AFDC in 1996.8 Edin and Shaefer write about meeting poor parents who said they didn’t know anyone who got TANF. Some parents thought welfare had been abolished, or that it was no longer accepting new applicants. This grim story deserves more attention than it has gotten, and Edin and Shaefer deserve a lot of credit for emphasizing it.

They also report a shift in social norms that may have made TANF shrink. When Edin interviewed single mothers in the early 1990s, they often told her that a good mother should stay home with her children. In 2012, even mothers who could not find work said they wanted a job rather than a welfare check, because a working mother set a better example for her children than a welfare mother did. This shift in attitude presumably encourages single mothers to keep looking for work, but it does not create more jobs for them. As a result, reducing access to TANF leaves more single mothers with neither a paycheck nor a welfare check. As Edin and Shaefer document in some of their saddest stories, such mothers often find jobs when times are good, but many of those jobs vanish when the economy slows. When single mothers can’t find work, they sell their plasma to hospitals and scavenge for cans and bottles in trash barrels. Sometimes they also sell sex or drugs. As a result, their income is usually meager and erratic.

One basic goal of welfare reform in the 1990s was to “make work pay,” and the Clinton administration created a new system that did just that. Instead of giving parents more help when they could not find work, the new system gives parents more help when they find and keep a steady low-wage job. When Modonna Harris worked as a cashier, Edin and Shaefer estimate that her take-home pay was about $1,325 a month. The government topped that up with another $160 a month in food stamps.

The Clinton administration also persuaded Congress to increase the Earned Income Tax Credit between 1993 and 1996, so when Harris was working she got a check from the US Treasury for about $3,800 a few weeks after filing her federal tax return. That check provided her with an additional $317 a month. Overall, the government supplemented Harris’s paycheck with benefits worth $477 a month. Once she lost her job, she stopped accumulating EITC benefits. Her food stamp benefits rose from $160 to $367 a month, but she was still getting $110 a month less than she had from food stamps and the EITCwhen she had a monthly paycheck.


Edin and Shaefer’s descriptions of families in extreme poverty are both convincing and deeply troubling. However, two potential objections to their analysis deserve discussion. First, the estimates of extreme poverty in $2.00 a Day almost never include the value of food stamps, rent subsidies, or EITC refunds for work during the previous calendar year. Those omissions mean that Edin and Shaefer underestimate the resources available to most families in extreme poverty.

In papers published elsewhere Shaefer and Edin show how their estimates of extreme poverty change when they treat the value of EITC refunds, food stamps, and rent subsidies like income. The second row of Table 1 shows that including these resources reduces the estimated prevalence of extreme poverty among households with children from 1.7 to 1.1 percent in 1996 and from 4.3 to 1.6 percent in 2011. Because the reduction is so much larger in 2011 than it was in 1996, the increase in extreme poverty between 1996 and 2011 falls from 2.6 to 0.5 percentage points. In other words, the growth of EITC refunds and noncash benefits offsets about four fifths of the decline in extremely poor families’ pretax money income between 1996 and 2011.

Edin and Shaefer argue that we should not view a SNAP card that buys $500 worth of groceries every month as equivalent to $500 in cash, because the SNAP card can only buy food, whereas cash can buy whatever a family thinks it needs most. That is true. But if a family of three were given $500 in cash and used it to pay the rent, they would have to depend on local soup kitchens and food pantries to eat. Such institutions do not exist everywhere, and they are not open every day even in the places where they do exist.

I think Edin and Shaefer’s objection to treating food stamps like cash derives from a more fundamental problem, which is that a single mother with two children needs more than $500 a month to survive. If Edin and Shaefer were to treat a single mother’s $500 worth of food stamps like money, food stamps alone would represent about $16 a day in income. Because they have set the extreme poverty threshold for a three-person family at only $6 a day, treating food stamps like cash would mean that, according to the standard they have set, no family that got food stamps could be in extreme poverty, even if they had no money at all for rent, heat, clothing, or other necessities.

That problem cannot be solved by replacing $500 worth of food stamps with $500 in cash. Unless a single mother with two children has a federal rent subsidy that limits her payments to 30 percent of her income, she will need both $500 in food stamps to eat and another $500 (or more) for shelter and other expenses. A more transparent approach would, I think, be to adopt a broader measure of economic resources that included the EITC, food stamps, and the rental value of subsidized or owner-occupied housing, and then to set the threshold for extreme poverty at something like half the official poverty line.

Another concern about Edin and Shaefer’s estimates of extreme poverty in $2.00 a Dayis that they include families whose income fell below $2 a day per person for even one month. If a single mother loses her job, has no relatives, no close friends, no romantic partner, and no assets she can sell or borrow against, one month without income can be catastrophic now that TANF is so hard to get. However, a single mother who has just lost her job often has some of those assets, as $2.00 a Day shows. When that is the case, her first month without income does not always mean that her family will go hungry, much less that they will all be put out on the street for not paying the rent. The longer she goes without income, however, the more likely she is to exhaust her relatives’ sympathy, her boyfriend’s willingness to bring over pizza for dinner, or the cash she had left from her EITC refund for her work during the previous year. There is no “one-size-fits-all” rule for deciding how long a family can survive without income, but for some, at least, one month need not be disastrous.

The fourth line in Table 1 shows that when Shaefer counted only those who had spent three or more months living on resources worth less than $2 a day, the prevalence of extreme poverty among households with children fell from 1.7 to 0.5 percent in 1996 and from 4.3 to 1.0 percent in 2011. This more stringent definition of extreme poverty among households with children clearly leads to a sharp reduction in its estimated prevalence. But it does not change the upward trend. The prevalence rises from 0.5 percent in 1996 to 1.0 percent in 2011, and the actual number rises from 189,000 to 373,000 households with children.


The best way to visualize how the economic lives of low-income families have changed since the 1960s is to track the flow of economic resources to households at different percentiles of the distribution. Figure 1 focuses on the bottom half of the resource distribution, showing changes at the second, fifth, tenth, and fiftieth percentiles. Each group’s resources are shown as a percentage of its resources in 1967. The labels for the lines identifying each of these four percentile are shown in boldface.9 I omit the top half of the resource distribution, because the rising share of income going to the top 1 percent is already so well known. I also omit the bottom 1 percent, because of doubts about the accuracy of the estimates.


Between 1967 and 1999 the resources flowing to the second and fifth percentiles grew by an average of two thirds, whereas the resources of the tenth and fiftieth percentiles grew by about half. As a result, inequality between the bottom and the middle of the resource distribution narrowed. This narrowing was driven primarily by the growth of food stamps and the EITC.

After 1999 this egalitarian trend reversed. The second, fifth, tenth, and fiftieth percentiles all suffered some reduction in their economic resources after 1999, whereas Figure 1 shows that the percentage decline was much larger at the second percentile than at the fifth, tenth, or fiftieth percentile. The fifth, tenth, and fiftieth percentiles also received about 50 percent more resources in 2012 than in 1967, but the second percentile received only 23 percent more, wiping out two thirds of its gains between 1967 and 1999.

Figure 1 supports my claim that Americans at the fifth and tenth percentiles are much better off today than they were in 1967. Those at the tenth percentile are counted as poor only because the poverty measure is flawed. However, the estimates in Figure 1 for the second percentile also support Edin and Shaefer’s claim that the poorest of the poor were a lot worse off in 2012 than in either 1996 or 1999. Had the federal government not handed their fate back to the states in 1996, these families might still be as well off as they were in 1999. That is not the kind of speculation that can be either verified or refuted; but it is worth serious consideration nonetheless.

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