The global water crisis is not driven by absolute water scarcity, but by a scarcity of governance: there’s enough water to go around, we just need to get better at managing it.
To meet the sixth sustainable development goal (SDG) we must learn from stagnation in the sector and make sure that water institutions – policies, laws, organisations and their financing frameworks – actually deliver the goods. If we don’t adopt fresh approaches to debug this institutional software, the global water goal – and the many SDG targets underpinned by better water management – will remain a mirage. Some of the priorities for change are:
In 2013, we led a systematic mapping of evidence on water institutions to find out what makes them work towards poverty reduction and sustainable growth. We examined around 30,000 journal articles and reports on the topic and found that only 38 (0.13%) showed clear evidence linking water management to these outcomes.
Inadequate knowledge about how and why water management delivers societal outcomes people would want means that efforts to improve performance in the sector lack direction, and will struggle to get financial support. It also leaves the sector vulnerable to politically or commercially driven fixes such as water markets, credits and offsets.
Radical improvements throughout the research-policy-action cycle are needed. For example, we need investment in new studies that track and compare performance on water management, as well as better standards and guidelines for commissioning, reviewing and reporting on research evidence.
2 | Accountability and system change, not sticking plasters
Development partners and INGOs often focus on place-based projects, extending the provision of services or managing water supply on behalf of beleaguered governments.
Although this can help to avert immediate humanitarian crises, it has long been recognised – not least by the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee – that the benefits of donor-led interventions which treat the symptoms rather than the root causes rarely endure. Instead, donors should prioritise approaches that hold water managers to account, help citizens get better services from their own governments and tackle things such as executive, legislative and judicial dysfunction, inadequate tax collection and mobilisation, overlapping ministerial mandates, power struggles, a vacuum of leadership and corruption.
As one example of a progressive response, we used social accountability monitoring, budget-tracking and evidence-based advocacy in our Fair Water Futures Programme. The initiative has helped more than 500,000 people in Tanzania and Zambia to obtain water rights, protect water resources and mitigate water-related disasters.
Early use of the standard by Olam International and Diageo has been shown to reduce the risks of pollution, interrupted supply and poor governance for production sites, supply chains, local communities and farmers. It’s now up to such progressive companies, responsible supermarkets and switched-on consumers to encourage other businesses to use the standard.
4 | Collaborative donor action, not competition
Despite the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness and its principles of alignment and harmonisation, proper coordination in the water sector is rare. It’s still common to find multiple initiatives by multiple donors focusing on the same issues with the same people in the same places.
The Paris Declaration urgently needs to be lived and breathed. Improving the accountability of donors and how investments and impacts are tracked can help but this should be supported by shared progress indicators, such as one on good water governance (still strikingly absent from the SDGs).
Including targets on water resource management alongside taps and toilets under goal six of the SDGs is an important step towards recognising mutual dependencies, but these still need to come with a smarter, fit-for-purpose monitoring framework.
5 | Capacity building, not demolition
Building capacity through training workshops doesn’t work. Ad-hoc, one-off workshops rarely provide contextual relevance or inspire action. And consultant-led technical assistance is rarely effective in building long-term capacity; without the ownership needed for implementation, the plans and strategies created by consultants are often left to collect dust.
We urgently need new approaches to build professional capabilities. Contemporary theories of workplace motivationcould bear fruit here. Creating opportunities to learn by doing and receiving practitioner support from peers has been shown to yield the creativity and tenacity needed across the water sector. However, such models do not tally with the conditions of donor procurement processes, despite being stratospherically better value-for-money.
We also need to address the issues that cause so many skilled people to desert public sector water management roles in the global south, such as by improving civil service wages.
Global goals and targets might come and go but the pressing needs for improved water management in the real world don’t change. Let’s make sure that the ways we deliver it do.
Nick Hepworth is the director of Water Witness International. Follow @water_witness on Twitter.
On Saturday 11 June government ministers and campaigners attended the funeral of three female street vendors, laid to rest in sturdy white coffins laden with flowers, with more than 2,000 people in attendance. Their brutal murders had shocked a country.
Jesula Gelin, a mother of six, Vanessa Previl and Monique Vincent were all deaf and worked in Haiti’s capital. That is itself was notable – they were economically independent and lived away from their families in a deaf community in Leveque, a village about an hour from the city.
On 18 March they had spent the morning in Port-au-Prince buying business supplies and visiting their families. They set off home in the early afternoon, leaving plenty of time to get back before dark on a normal day. However, a bridge had collapsed on Route Nine, one of the main thoroughfares, bringing traffic to a standstill. “It was on the radio, TV, so everybody knew to avoid those areas,” says Nicole Phillips, a lawyer who is representing the women’s families. “But if you’re deaf, you’re not going to benefit from any of that. They had no idea that the bridge had collapsed.”
The women had been travelling on a tap tap – the privately run Jeeps that are the equivalent of buses in Haiti. But at some point, in the heavily congested traffic, they got off the tap tap to continue their journey on foot. “They got exhausted,” says Phillips. “And then late at night, we don’t know what time, they stopped off in one of the victim’s relative’s house.
The house was owned by a distant relative. “She had been there before, by car it’s just 20 minutes from where she lives,” says Phillips. “She and the two other ladies went there to spend the night.”
Reports of what happened next are from two women who have been arrested in connection with the triple murder. They lived at the house and say that when the three deaf women arrived they were frightened and thought that they were lougawou. In Haitian mythology, lougawou or lougarou are evil spirits who come out at night and cause mischief such as killing your goats or eating your dog. They are something to be feared. Disabled people are sometimes labelled bad spirits. “They think that they are a different creature of god,” says Phillips. “That helps them justify the stigma of disabled people. You can tell yourself this [that they are different] and feel more justified morally.”
The sequence of events is not entirely clear, but at some point between 8pm and midnight the women were tortured and brutally murdered. Phillips has seen photographs of the bodies with burn marks and machete cuts. The two women who were in the house and a male accomplice have been arrested in connection with the murder. But the police have not captured another main suspect, a distant relative of one of the victims.
“Violence against women with disabilities is believed to be two or three times higher than against non-disabled women,” says Lisa Adams, programme director of the US-based Disability Rights Fund, which works in Haiti. “Disability, gender and sexuality compound to present a lot of cultural myths and stereotypes about women with disabilities – ranging from infantilising them to making them hyper sexual. I think that has a lot to do with the violence experienced by women with disabilities in Haiti – these three women in particular.”
The murders have brought a furious response from disability rights, women’s rights and human rights campaigners. “This has brought Haiti’s disability rights activists together,” says Phillips. “It has galvanised the community.” On 1 April hundreds of people marched in Port-au-Prince to demand justice for the three murdered women, and several other demonstrations around the country followed, including a march on 9 June in Cabaret near where they were killed.
Disabled people in Haiti are discriminated against in multiple ways. For example, only 5% of children with disabilities are in school, according to a report by the Haitian state submitted in the report to the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. And people with disabilities complain that the police don’t take them seriously when they report crimes and that they are taunted in public as “cocobe” (useless).
“Haiti is a model for exclusion,” says Michel Pean, who was secretary of state for the inclusion of persons with disabilities in Haiti from 2007-11 and is blind himself. “But it’s also a good example of the fight for inclusion of people with disabilities within society.” Pean says that 1 million out of Haiti’s 10 million people have a disability. Since the earthquake in 2010, there are more people with disabilities and they have become more visible.
But strong civil society groups have driven successes for disability rights campaigners over the past 15 years, says Pean. “The idea to have a secretary of state dedicated to people with disabilities came from civil society. The same with the idea to have proper legislation came from civil society. Disability rights civil society is very active.”
And those activists are determined to seize this moment of tragedy and force the government to act. “We want to transform this very negative event into something positive,” says Pean. “Something which would ensure that people with disabilities are respected, and their rights are respected. Their right to education, their right to access to health, in other words, their right to live, with dignity.”
“For me, as a feminist activist,” says Nadine Anilus, a member of the Ministry of Women’s cabinet, “we condemn this criminal act and call the state authorities to take the necessary steps to make justice and reparation to the family of three women. Every Haitian citizen must play their part to improve the situation of people with disabilities. We are calling for a big national campaign.”
She adds that Haiti needs to ensure national accidents are communicated in a way that is accessible for people with disabilities and that more financial resources are needed for organisations working on these issues.
Pean is clear that it will take a long time before people with disabilities are treated equally in the country. “For things to actually change, mentalities as well, takes a long process,” he says. “One of the things that has to change is the economic situation in Haiti. Also, it’s essential that we have political stability. These are necessary conditions to enable us to reach true inclusion.”
Ten months ago, the UN’s 2030 Agenda laid out an ambitious set of Sustainable Development Goals to be met over the next 15 years as 193 countries committed themselves to “leaving no one behind” in the endeavour to end poverty and promote development.
Was this merely a lofty-sounding phrase or is it actually compelling countries to extend their commitments to the 65 million refugees and displaced people living within their borders?
First, the bad news: the xenophobia and nationalism dominating political discourse around the world threaten to undermine the inclusive spirit of the agenda, and perhaps even the relevance of the UN itself.
Brexit, the EU-Turkey deal, Kenya’s plans to close its largest refugee camp, Dadaab, extremist attacks inspired or directed by so-called Islamic State, the inward-looking, alienating nature of Republican nominee Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, have all contributed to a climate where governments are focused on acting individually to keep refugees and migrants out rather than on addressing their needs.
This doesn’t bode well for those hoping that concrete commitments towards a shared responsibility for the refugee crisis will emerge from the upcoming UN summit on large movements of refugees and migrants, or from US President Barack Obama’s separate Leaders’ Summit on Refugees, nor for hopes that countries will use their development agendas to prioritise the most vulnerable.
The latest draft declaration on the UN summit, to be signed by leaders in New York in September, is peppered with references to the 2030 Agenda.
“Words, of course, are cheap” – Peter Sutherland, UN special representative for international migration
The agenda, says the declaration, recognises migrants as “agents of change and as enablers for development in countries of origin, transit and destination”; endeavours to “reach the furthest behind first”; calls for facilitating safe migration and mobility; and “explicitly recognises the “needs of refugees, internally displaced persons and migrants”.
Its targets deal with issues specific to refugees and migrants, like “education, labour standards, human trafficking, exploitation of children, access to justice and the building of self-reliance and resilience”.
“Meeting a year after 2030”, the draft optimistically notes, “we pledge to realise the full potential of the agenda for refugees and migrants”.
But during a recent briefing at the International Peace Institute in New York, where panellists attempted to join the dots between the 2030 Agenda and the UN refugee summit, their repeated calls to counter xenophobic rhetoric towards refugees and migrants sounded a desperate note.
Peter Sutherland, the UN special representative of the secretary-general for international migration, warned that pervasive and increasingly dominant political rhetoric was giving rise to xenophobia and racism and “breeding the type of extreme nationalism that many of us hoped was left behind us 40 or 50 years ago”. The optimism many felt when migration made it into the SDGs has dissipated, he said.
Besides the “leaving no one behind” spirit of the agenda that calls for addressing the needs of the most vulnerable first, Goal 10 (reduce inequality within and among countries) specifically calls for the “orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people”, through “the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies” (target 7).
But as Sutherland said: “Words, of course, are cheap.” Rather than embracing the spirit of the global development agenda, political leaders are nurturing “a misguided belief that safeguarding sovereignty means acting unilaterally.
“They’ve resisted calls for collective action regionally and internationally,” he said.
What about IDPs?
Another negative, which emerged as a source of tension at the panel discussion, is that internally displaced people will be left off the refugee summit agenda. Member states demanded that IDPs be left out because “they are an issue of national sovereignty”, said Karen AbuZayd, the UN special adviser on the summit. A perfect opportunity for countries to commit to taking responsibility for both their own and other states’ displaced people appears to have been lost.
Of the world’s 65 million displaced people, more than 45 million are IDPs, pointed out Josephine Liebl, policy adviser at Oxfam. “For the summit to only focus on refugees and not look at IDPs is a huge omission for us,” she told IRIN. “In our programmes we’ve seen that IDPs receive very little protection and assistance.” This is, in part, she explained, because their movement may be less visible, because they are not crossing borders. Another reason, of course, is that IDPs are often caught up in the political conflict perpetrated by the member states themselves.
The good news
On the positive side, the 2030 Agenda does attempt to address many of the root causes that drive people to flee their homes, including poverty, climate change-induced disasters, and conflict. The wide-ranging and ambitious agenda has a better chance than the Millennium Development Goals, its predecessor, of tackling what drives migration in the first place, said Paul O’Brien, Oxfam America’s vice president for policy and campaigns.
O’Brien said the fact that three interest groups prevailed in developing the agenda – those wanting to finish the goals of the MDGs, nation states calling for more economic growth to sustain development, and those pushing for solutions to global challenges like climate change and structural inequality – has led to an agenda that is far better positioned to address the underlying causes of mass displacement of people.
Also, the 2030 Agenda is about universality. “It places obligations on countries accepting refugees and migrants to fulfill commitments regarding education, healthcare, job opportunities and everything else that the 169 targets cover,” said O’Brien. This, he told IRIN, “creates an avenue for accountability”. “There is nothing in the SDGs that says these commitments apply to countries’ own citizens only.”
Christine Matthews, deputy director of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) office in New York, told the panel that the 2030 Agenda’s call to “leave no one behind” was a landmark opportunity to strengthen the bridge between the humanitarian and development arenas, and for countries to incorporate building resilience and self-reliance of displaced people into their national and local development frameworks. Implementation of Goals 1 (no poverty), 10 (reduced inequalities), and 16 (peace, justice, and strong institutions), in particular, will stop people from leaving their homes in the first place, she said.
There is at least some evidence of progress in this regard. Jessica Espey, associate director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, cited Nigeria as an example of a country looking at “leaving no one behind” as a way to address conflict. And the needs of Syrian refugees comprise a central component of Jordan’s new development plan, for example.
The World Bank and other donors are also supporting a scheme where Jordan gives employment, entrepreneurial support, and education to Syrian refugees in return for trade benefits. While the primary intention may be to stop Syrians from moving to Europe, it is also a sign that the focus – both within and outside the UN – is shifting to more development-oriented approaches to tackling the refugee crisis.
Some political accountability
Many see the inclusion of Goal 16 (peace, justice, and strong institutions) as a big positive in addressing a major driver of mass displacement – conflict. “During the SDG negotiations, many member states didn’t want to take on humanitarian and peace and conflict issues,” said Espey. “They saw this as the responsibility of the Security Council.
“The problem then is that the SDGs don’t tackle a number of pressing issues to do with instability and conflict,” such as refugees and displaced people. “Goal 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions) ended up being the closest thing to a compromise.” Besides the political sensitivities, Espey pointed out that conflict and migration present an intractable and daunting challenge to an already overloaded and ambitious development agenda. “Adding governance to the agenda was just too big an issue to bite off,” she said.
Nevertheless, Goal 16 is being seen as an important “political placeholder for these crises”, as she put it, and, she agreed, for strengthening the humanitarian/development nexus. “The goal ensures that these issues of conflict and migration are being discussed as part of national priorities. And ‘leave no one behind’ gives leverage to tackle this goal.”
A final positive is the inclusion of “disaggregated” indicators: applying the different categories such as sex, race, and age to the population so that vulnerable people do not slip under the radar, as was the case with the MDGs. ‘Migratory status’ is at least one of these categories in the SDG indicators, stressed Casey Dunning, a senior policy analyst at the Centre for Global Development. Unless refugees and other displaced people are identified and counted they won’t be able to access services.
But in Dunning’s view, the interest for collecting this detailed disaggregated information is “just not there at the moment”. Not only, she said, are countries intent on looking inward and putting up fences, they are more focused on their own economic growth than on ensuring that no one is left behind.
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Following political turmoil due to fraudulent elections in Haiti, the U.S. government has decided to cease funding for the country’s upcoming 2016 presidential election. A blessing in disguise, this cessation of external funds could possibly fortify Haiti’s autonomy. In the past, Haiti’s autonomy has been weakened by foreign involvement in its internal matters. For example, in Haiti’s 2015 presidential elections, the United States, along with other international bodies, provided a total of $38 million USD to Haiti’s Conseil Electoral Provisoire(Provisional Electoral Council, CEP). After this presidential election was declared void and inconclusive, another election was rescheduled and ultimately also declared null. Haiti’s next presidential election will be held October 9 2016—that is, if provided the necessary funding and stable political environment. The presidential election’s proposed budget stands at $55 million USD. With the United States stepping out of the image, Haiti has the potential to conduct an autonomous election, setting the stage for greater and beneficial sovereignty in the island-nation.
U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby affirmed that the United States would not finance Haiti’s presidential election in October. According to Kirby, the U.S. government had notified Haitian officials on July 1 that the United States would discontinue “its assistance toward the completion of the presidential electoral process.” The U.S. government’s spokesman also stated that the United States will not fund the upcoming election because it was not planned within its appropriated budget. The new strategy deviates from the United States’ historical approach on its heavy involvement in Haiti.
In recent history, U.S. involvement in Haitian internal affairs has been significant—particularly through monetary and political influence. For example, in the early 20th century U.S. Marines occupied the Caribbean nation for 19 years. Early in 2004, the U.S. government supported a coup to overthrow Haiti’s first democratically elected president. In 2009, the U.S. government further weakened Haiti’s democratic system by funding and supporting illegitimate parliamentary elections in Haiti. The United States’ extensive history of political and monetary involvement in Haiti has undoubtedly shaped the nation’s governmental structure. Overall, U.S. influence in Haiti has not aided the nation to develop into a stable and sustainable democracy.
Historically, Haiti’s reliance on assistance from developed nations, such as the United States, has done the opposite of propelling the nation forward. Instead, this dependency has prolonged the cycle of corruption—continuing a trend, as described by The Washington Post, of monopolizing economic and political power in Haiti by foreign entities. Now, with the U.S. government affirming its termination of finances for the upcoming election, the Haitian government, for the first time in many years, must rely on fewer outside sources and internal revenue for electoral funding. Spokesman Kirby has stated, “We believe it’s the sound thing to do, the right thing to do for the people of Haiti in the long-term.” This statement, in defense of the cessation of election funds, implies that the U.S. government’s withdrawal from providing funds is two-fold. In addition to not having a budget for the October election, the U.S. government’s discontinued involvement from the election will create space for Haiti to independently rebuild its democratic institutions. Provisional Electoral Council Chief Leopold Berlanger echoed this idea when he said, “a real sovereign country […] should get the means to fund [its] own elections.”
While the possibilities for Haiti’s growth towards autonomy are made possible through the lack of U.S. government funding and involvement, the situation also poses a plausible negative outcome. If the United States will not fund the election, it may not recognize its legitimacy. University of Virginia professor Robert Fatton finds this a troubling prospect: “The fact that the U.S. is pulling $2 million [USD] from the ‘election basket’ may be a sign that it is prepared to delegitimize the forthcoming elections if the results do not coincide with its interests.” This would be the worst-case scenario for Haiti—a country desperate for a valid and transparent election along with an officially recognized leadership.
Nonetheless, with the appropriate funding, the presidential election will take place this October. It is now time for the Haitian government and people to prove their ability to unite and exercise Haiti’s long-awaited autonomy. For long, Haiti, the second nation to gain independence in the Western Hemisphere, has relied on outside aid and intervention. This year Haiti will have the opportunity to reaffirm its autonomy.
Featured Photo: Coat of Arms of Haiti. Taken from Wikimedia.
 Nienaber, Georgianne. “How Is the US Involved in Haiti’s Current Elections?” Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. September 27, 2015. Accessed July 13, 2016. http://www.ijdh.org/2015/09/topics/politics-democracy/obama-sends-merten-back-to-haiti-as-new-election-crisis-looms/.
 Charles, Jacqueline. “U. S. to Haiti: Pay for Your Own Elections.” Miamiherald. July 07, 2016. Accessed July 13, 2016. http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/haiti/article88338777.html
 Dupuy, Alex. “Foreign Aid Keeps the Country from Shaping Its Own Future.” Washington Post. January 09, 2011. Accessed July 13, 2016. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/01/07/AR2011010706511.html.
 McFadden, David. “US: No More Financial Help to Conclude Haiti Elections.” ABC News. July 07, 2016. Accessed July 13, 2016. http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/us-financial-conclude-haiti-elections-40417737.
 “US Withdraws Funding for Haiti Elections.” The Center for Economic and Policy Research. July 08, 2016. Accessed July 13, 2016. http://cepr.net/blogs/haiti-relief-and-reconstruction-watch/us-withdraws-funding-for-haiti-elections.
Michael Sheridan will teach a semester long Filmmaking Fundamentals course at MassArt, Boston, this fall. Please join us or spread the word.
Film Production Fundamentals
September 6, 2016
December 13, 2016
An introduction to film/video production, this course will cover video production and post-production, principles of storytelling, as well as an overview of the history and theory of the different genres and aspects of filmmaking. The class will be very hands on and students will work on projects that will be applicable to interactive, online, TV or big screen documentary, experimental and narrative approaches.
Michael Sheridan, Founder and Director, Community Supported Film and SheridanWorks Productions.
For twenty years Michael Sheridan has produced films on people challenging the status quo and improving their economic and social condition. For 15 years Michael has taught filmmaking at the community and university level. In 1996 he co-founded Oxfam America’s documentary production unit, and later served as a Senior Fulbright Scholar in Indonesia. Michael founded Community Supported Film in 2010 to provide intensive training in documentary filmmaking to storytellers and activists in conflicted and developing communities. Their stories are screened in public engagement campaigns to educate concerned citizens and policymakers about sustainable paths to a more equitable and peaceful world.
But this month has also seen attacks in Baghdad and Dhaka, Bangladesh, both of which Obama briefly mentioned in his address after the killings in Nice. Likewise, the attack in Paris was preceded by one in Beirut the day before. Yet those incidents received little attention — at least, until the subsequent attacks in France brought them into the spotlight — and the news media appeared to largely pass on covering these cities with the kind of live updates and in-depth human interest stories we saw after Paris and Nice.
It’s not hard to understand why Americans care about France and worry when it’s in danger. Despite the intervening ocean, France feels close to home; our nations are politically, economically and culturally intertwined to the point of kinship. But the extensive coverage of the attacks in Nice and Paris force us to question the boundaries of this kinship: Do we not see our kids in the faces of the young people killed elsewhere?
Mohamad Bazzi, a journalism professor at New York University and a former Middle East bureau chief for Newsday, sees these discrepancies as just a few data points in a larger pattern of American reporting, one with vast and often underappreciated consequences. In a phone conversation about how the media covers terrorist attacks across the world, Bazzi said: “The death toll in the West tends to be lower most of the time, but the coverage the West gets is an order of magnitude larger.”
Of course, there are problems with drawing such a conclusion from a handful of examples. For one thing, each attack claims a different number of lives. Bazzi acknowledged this, adding that the sophistication and coordination of the Paris attacks lent itself more readily to intensive, minute-by-minute coverage. But he stood by his larger claim.
Fortunately, we have the statistical tools to be more precise about Bazzi’s claim. After controlling for the number of injuries and fatalities, will we find that terrorist attacks on Western cities are more likely to be covered by the U.S. media than similar attacks elsewhere?
The Rand Database of Worldwide Terrorism Incidents contains data on 40,129 terrorist attacks that took place from 1968 to 2009.1 Each incident is logged with a date, location, the number of injuries and fatalities, and a brief description of the attack, among other details. One piece of information that’s missing: Did we care?
To answer this question, I consulted The New York Times’s Article Search API, which allows developers to query a tagged database of every article published since 1851. For each attack in Rand’s list, I checked whether there were any articles about it in the database. To do this, I queried for articles content-tagged with “terrorism,” geo-tagged with the city of the attack, and published on the day it took place or the following day. If I got any hits, I labeled that incident “newsworthy.”
This is, admittedly, a blunt measure of news coverage; it would make no distinction between, say, Paris and Beirut, which were both covered by the Times. Bazzi’s critique focuses more on the nature of the coverage, the “sidebars and human features and profiles of the victims and all the associated stories” that the U.S. media published after the Paris attacks. Still, if it’s true that we care less about terrorism in non-Western cities, we should find not only that major attacks receive less depth of coverage but also that minor attacks receive less coverage, period. My analysis homes in on this latter question: Does the location of an attack near the threshold of newsworthiness affect its coverage in U.S. media?
Or at least, in The New York Times. I use the Times as a proxy for the U.S. news media because I was unable to find any other publication that makes its archives as accessible to researchers.
I ran a logistic regression on this data, asking my computer to predict whether an attack was covered based only on (1) the number of injuries, (2) the number of fatalities and (3) the country where the attack took place. Sure enough, this third variable was — for some countries — a significant predictor of newsworthiness.
There were 31 countries2 with enough data3 to study. In 11 (Egypt, France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the U.K., the U.S. and the West Bank/Gaza), a terrorist attack was statistically significantly more likely to be covered in the Times than an attack of the same magnitude that occurred elsewhere; in six (Afghanistan, Colombia, India, Iraq, Kashmir and Thailand), attacks were statistically significantly less likely to be covered.4
We can estimate the relative likelihood of coverage for each country by calculating an “odds ratio.” For example, France’s odds ratio of 5.9 implies that an attack in France is 5.9 times as likely to be considered newsworthy as an attack of the same magnitude not in France. We shouldn’t read too much into the exact numbers, as the error bars are pretty wide.5 But the vast disparities, from 10.2 in Saudi Arabia to 0.1 in Colombia, cannot reasonably be blamed on statistical noise.
Michael Slackman, the international managing editor for The New York Times, pushed back on my results. “We have no ‘terrorism formula,’” he said in an email. “The context for ‘terror’ in the range of countries you listed — and over a four decade time span — is so varied that it seems impossible to make any kind of objective comparison or insightful conclusion.”
Slackman’s skepticism is warranted. The term “terrorism,” which my analysis regards as a discrete category, is of course highly influenced by political context. Considering that the Rand database includes a variety of groups, from Colombian rebels to jihadists like al-Qaida, we have to be careful when considering these results.
Indeed, Colombia’s claim to the lowest odds ratio of any country in this data set may be because of its longtime armed conflict. Terrorist attacks were quite frequent there during the period covered by the Rand data, and perhaps the regularity of these attacks made them less newsworthy in the eyes of the U.S. media. As Slackman suggests, we have to consider that the nature of attacks in a certain region — not just location — affects how that region is covered.
As another example, Saudi Arabia has the highest odds ratio in the data set. Saudi Arabia is a key ally of the U.S., certainly, but another factor may be in play here: There is a history of anti-Western attacks in Saudi Arabia, many targeting Americans. When I controlled for the presence of the word “American” in Rand’s attack description, Saudi Arabia’s odds ratio dropped to 5.7. This indicates that the outsize coverage of Saudi Arabian attacks could have as much to do with who their victims are as where they took place.
In addition to relevant country-specific contexts, Slackman is also right to be wary of the wide time span that this analysis covers.6 In particular, the political context for “terrorism” differs greatly for the periods before and after the Sept. 11 attacks; an attack taking place after Sept. 11, 2001, was 50 percent more likely to be covered by the Times than an attack of the same magnitude before Sept. 11.7 This could confound our results in countries where terrorism is concentrated on one side of the Sept. 11 attacks — for example, a shockingly small 22 of the 6,878 Iraqi attacks in the data set occurred before the 2003 U.S. invasion.
We can’t reasonably conclude, then, that location affects coverage, all else held equal; in the complex world of international terrorism, it is not possible to hold all else equal.
In a broader sense, though, Slackman’s criticism rings hollow to my ears. Whatever the cause, the numbers do bear out a discrepancy that reflects the expectations of nearly every journalist and academic I spoke to. If confounding variables like those mentioned above were doing all the heavy lifting, we’d see a scattered assortment of countries on either side of the coverage spectrum. Instead, the odds ratios are significantly correlated with GDP per capita.8
Bazzi, for his part, believes the disparities are in large part due to anempathygap, fueled by audience interest just as much as reporter focus. “Editors and producers advance the argument that they’re satisfying the needs of their audience — especially now, when all traffic can be measured, coverage can be catered quite quickly,” Bazzi said. He also argued, though, that the audience doesn’t dictate the coverage focus so much as preserve an existing coverage focus that it has come to expect. “Why did the audience get this way?” he asked.
Mónica Guzmán, vice chair of the ethics committee at the Society of Professional Journalists, said she agrees that both parties are responsible but stressed the role that journalists must play in breaking the cycle. “Many newsrooms like to think they cover all parts of the world equally, but they don’t, really,” Guzmán told me by email. “Unconscious biases abound, and maybe some conscious ones, too. … Great journalists take these challenges head on, and never assume they’ve conquered them.”
In the meantime, what can consumers of U.S. news do to push for more equitable coverage? “It’s hard to impose habits on people,” Bazzi said. “One quick fix for the audience is to go to sources in those countries. … If they see things in those local sources that they think should have been done by their usual American outlets, then they should bring that up.” Being conscious of and vocal about discrepancies, pressing U.S. sources to improve by asking them to confront their place in the feedback loop, may be our best hope to break the cycle.
Even with heightened scrutiny, though, this problem won’t resolve itself overnight. Slackman promised that the Times has “a deep and growing commitment to cover the world” — about this, I have no doubt. The paperhas announced that it is making a $50 million investment in international coverage and distribution. But many readers are committed to seeking out equitable coverage, and still, peak Google search volume for “Beirut” fell short of 1 percent of the peak volume for “Paris” in the days following the attacks in those cities last year.
Intention is crucial, but it takes continued effort to change personal and institutional habits. “Let’s not kid ourselves,” Guzmán said. “This work is hard.”
The Rand Corp. is a nonprofit think tank located in the U.S. that does research for use in military planning. If its data has a systemic bias, I would expect it to be that its documentation of Western attacks is more comprehensive than that of non-Western attacks. This direction of bias, if it exists, strengthens the results of my analysis — my findings suggest that U.S. media coverage is more West-focused than Rand’s database.^
Rand’s database uses some “country” designations, like the West Bank/Gaza and Kashmir, that don’t match up exactly with United Nations-recognized boundaries. ^
Because of the size of Rand’s database and query limits on the Times’s API, I first limited my data set to attacks that caused at least 10 injuries or at least one fatality. This reduced the sample size to 14,547. I then limited my analysis to countries that had at least 25 attacks in this database, at least one of which was covered by the Times. For each of these 31 countries, I ran a three-variable logistic regression with a dummy variable for that country. A single regression with 31 country-specific dummy variables would produce odds ratios comparing each country to a baseline of all countries that aren’t part of this analysis — an arbitrary reference point. Running 31 regressions, each with a single dummy variable, allows us to compare attacks in a country to attacks not in that country. The results of these two strategies, moreover, are nearly identical. ^
A country falls in the “significantly more likely” category if we are 95 percent certain that its odds ratio is greater than 1.0 (which indicates no difference). This is represented on the chart by a country whose error bar lies entirely to the right of the 1x line. The reverse holds for “significantly less likely.” ^
For example, we can’t be sure that Saudi Arabia tops the list — we can only say with 95 percent confidence that Saudi Arabia’s odds ratio is between 4.2 and 24.8. Each point marked on the chart represents our “best guess” as to the true odds ratio, but there’s quite a bit of uncertainty. ^
If we limit the analysis to only attacks that took place after Sept. 11, 2001, the main difference is that error bars are wider because the sample size is smaller. As a result, four countries (Pakistan, the West Bank/Gaza, France and Italy) slip out of statistical significance, and three more (Lebanon, Egypt and the U.K.) fall below the threshold for inclusion in this analysis. Somalia is the only country that becomes statistically significant; it joins the “significantly less coverage” category. ^
This is true only after controlling for the country of the attack. Because of the increase in terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan after Sept. 11, a given post-Sept. 11 attack was actually less likely to be covered than a pre-Sept. 11 attack of the same magnitude, but this likely has to do with the concentration of post-Sept. 11 attacks in lower-coverage areas. ^
GDP per capita is the best single predictor of odds ratio I could find (r-squared = 0.64), although a number of other variables I tried — e.g., rarity of attacks, trade with the U.S., percentage of Sporcle users who remembered the country on a world map quiz — were also predictive. ^
Milo Beckman is a freelance writer for FiveThirtyEight. His work can be found at milobeckman.com. He also constructs crossword puzzles for The New York Times. @milobela
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 (FES) and 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).
CSFilm’s US Congressional Briefing with live link to Kabul and participation by American Friends Service Committee and 3P Human Security
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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 (FES) and 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).
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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)
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 (FES) and 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)
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)
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).
Three decades have passed since David Schwartz’s exploration of the connection between subjective perspectives and objective truths in documentary filmmaking, yet this essay remains as relevant and informative as ever. Reproduced here, the article was originally published in May 1986 and is also available in The Independent‘sprint archives.
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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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 ForeignAssistance.gov 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.
Even as the group has publicly celebrated its work, insider accounts detail a string of failures
by Justin Elliott, ProPublica, and Laura Sullivan, NPR
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 charityof 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.
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.
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?”
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.
The Red Cross says 91% of donations went to help Haitians. That’s not true.
Instead of making concrete improvements to living conditions, the Red Cross has launched hand-washing education campaigns. The internal evaluation noted that these were “not effective when people had no access to water and no soap.” (The Red Cross declined to comment on the project.)
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.”
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.
Those plans were further undermined by the Red Cross’ reliance on expats. Noailles, the Haitian development professional who worked for the Red Cross on the Campeche project, said expat staffers struggled in meetings with local officials.
“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.
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.”
This story was co-published with NPR. Mitzy-Lynn Hyacinthe contributed reporting. Design direction by David Sleight, production by Hannah Birch.
Michael 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)
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.
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.
“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.
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 Eastdocumentary 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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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 www.csfilm.org/films.
More Info: or Sarah Chapple-Sokol, IIIC, 617-542-7654 extension 36.