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The Fatigue of the 9/11 Generation and the Rise of ISIS

Perhaps every generation has their moment in which the ideological terrain abruptly shifts, and tomorrow feels different than yesterday. Growing up my parents would occasionally describe the JFK assassination with precise clarity. When Challenger exploded I was unaware of the disaster on the television several feet away because I was too young to notice but it certainly affected others.

When the first plane hit the World Trade Center, I was 19, in college and helping my professor dispose of used plaster from a sculpture class. Someone shouted, we went into the hallway and watched the next plane hit the second tower on the television.  It was difficult to understand.  

Weeks prior I had purchased a ticket to soon fly to New York and it was with hesitation that I boarded the plane in late September. The flight was nearly empty. Two hours later we passed over the city and I could see the smoldering debris of the World Trade Center below. Walking the streets, the city was quiet and the air tasted like burnt dust. I intentionally wanted to avoid lower Manhattan, but walking around late at night, I got lost and searching for a subway entrance, I wandered into ground zero.  Smoke rose from the ruins while workers combed the rubble.

Ten years later I was living in Afghanistan, teaching at a university, advising ngos and city governments, and traveling to other conflicted states to work on similar problems of urban conflict and reconstruction. By that time I had already lived elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa. I could speak a couple different languages in multiple dialects. Everyday I tackled issues of youth militarization, forced displacement, and extreme poverty. I did my best to apply the mundane insights of urban planning and design to the world's most challenging problems. 

My friends were no different. We all studied foreign languages and earned multiple degrees in middle eastern studies, economics, law, social sciences, and history. Some of us joined the military, some of us worked alongside it, and others moved into humanitarian relief and development. We found no reason to fear Islam or those different ourselves but discovered the joy of difference and we indulged those cultural identities to inform our own. Regardless of what we chose or discovered, we all left our homes to travel and live in foreign communities to understand the root causes of terrorism, hoping to unravel the strands and in some way lessen the brutal consequences of global market failures. We all sought an understanding.

Some of us took additional steps to plant ourselves into the center of these problems so as to be truly effective.  We spent years without consistent access to running water, working toilets, or proper heat in the winter. We experienced deep trembling fear as bombs exploded in eyesight.  We laid on the floor as bullets ricocheted and spent days locked in steel paneled rooms. We found these moments both terrifying and addicting because those places and people that once constituted home now felt boring and static. In contrast, we were on the edge of living. Between the hardest moments we indulged in ridiculous parties with contraband booze to blow off steam and make ourselves feel like normal human beings. On occasion we fled to an exotic beach to spend our hard earned money on any distraction that will make us feel reconnected to the world we once knew. We pushed every moment to the threshold of human experience.

Our lives were saturated but not sustainable. We found ourselves increasingly estranged from our families who were incapable of understanding our lifestyles. We found ourselves alienated among everyone but each other and new relationships became challenging as we quickly brushed off anyone that didn't measure up to our unique expectations. Most people do not.  In the meanwhile the pools of money have dried in many hotspots, leading to less jobs, less people, and less parties. The risks seem less manageable.

One by one we have found ways to cope and change. Most of us have quit our jobs and perhaps found another place to live. Some of us spent too much time in the deep and our choices have made us unemployable in our own professions. If you spent five years in Iraq and try to find a new life in Washington DC, you will be surprised to find yourself overlooked. Some of us are so deep that we have dropped the career goals but have remained in Kabul or Baghdad or Peshawar because we now feel that we belong there.  A few of us have managed to better adjust than others, but none of us have gone back to the homes where we started, or want to.  We have instead found relief in making a home somewhere else. Some of us are working as english teachers in Qatar. Others have returned to school for PhDs and many are struggling to make a decision. Some of us run successful consulting companies. But none of us have a desk job. 

We have changed our paths not from lack of caring. Watching the rise of the Islamic State on television we are stricken with deep fear and worry. These problems are not distant, but are connected to our lives and are personal. We believe in a moral imperative that something must be done because we know what happens, how it happens, and the imminent future if nothing is done. Because we actually know the problems, we are also the most afraid.

But we are the 9/11 Generation and we are exhausted. We will not likely be a remembered generation for our efforts and our losses. People will accuse us of being colonialists rather than empathizers and technicians. While rightly we honor the sacrifices of soldiers there will be no monument for my friends who died working as teachers. We do not have an Allen Ginsberg to write about us or a Jimi Hendrix to rewrite our anthems. We listen to the same outdated Katy Perry songs and read the same terrible airport novels as everyone else.

And now as we step out of one life and into another, we watch the rise of ISIS on television and we despair.  Having dedicated over a decade to these same problems, we understand where it comes from and how it functions. We know the history of caliphates and modern jihadism. We understand what the guy is saying on the radio before the translator chimes in with a softer version. But this doesn't feel like our war. We are not rushing to confront it because we have already given ourselves. We are uncertain if we can give more. We are uncertain if there is anything else left to give.

The New Sphere #Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Response Standards 2011

I am quite excited to see that the new edition of the Sphere Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Response standards are coming out this April.  Although the printed edition is not yet available, the pdf is may be directly downloaded from the website here.  After a cursory glance, there is a significant improvement within the new edition, as it presents information in a more concise manner.  The new standards are not perfect of course.  As Under Secretary General of the ICRC says in the video below, there are times that meeting the standards may not be feasible, such as the provision of adquate space for shelter within Haiti, however, it is important that humanitarian actors utilize the Sphere standards to understand the repercussions of planning settlements with overly concentrated density; such as furthering gender divisions and escalating health dangers.

I have a particular interest in the Sphere Settlement Standards, having previously researched the feasibility of such standards to meet the demands of refugee camp planning in a protracted settlement.    My previous research concluded that Sphere lacked the tools to facilitate protracted communities within refugee camps as it did not engage the tools, assets, and networks that developed over time.  Furthermore, I felt that it was insufficient for meeting the needs of populations displaced by violent conflict, as it failed to tie the needs of the population to the pyscho-social conditions of their legal status and departure.  By not considering how the roots of displacement are reflected within new social and settlement patterns, intervening agencies arguably provide less benefit than may appear.  

Fortunately the new Sphere Minimum Standards covers many similar issues, or at the very least, many of the of the emerging issues facing the humanitarian community including: civil-military relations, the role of protection and vulnerable populations, a discussion of rapid and long term assessments, monitoring and evaluation, aid worker performance measures, and most importantly, a recognition of the relative values of these standards depending on circumstance.   All of these new tools and frameworks accommodate a more community-centered approach and demonstrates the new Sphere 2011 as a significant improvement.  Of course the real value of its improvement is to be demonstrated over the following years through implementation.

Mapping the Humanitarian Terrain

I've been incredibly busy lately, so the posts have slowed down, but today I discovered UNOCHR's dynamic regional maps on the ongoing multi-sector status of various regions and felt its worth sharing.   I'm always impressed by UNOCHR's website, although I'm often frustrated that the wealth of information available is so hard to locate or discover.  Just click the image above to explore the site.

I also discovered the monthly humanitarian update, its not very detailed, but it does at least present a decent overview.

Lastly, for today's post, I'm attaching a brief article from the ICRC on the perils of combining humanitarian aid with military support.  The author makes the point that humanitarian actors need to be clear in there policies, not just politicians or military commanders, that humanitarian aid should be independent of military support.  He also raise the point that "humanitarian space" may not actually exist, although most humanitarian's lament the space as merely shrinking.  Ultimately he argues that while conflict becomes increasingly fragmented, it is important to draw clear lines between military and humanitarian actors so as to assist the most vulnerable populations and with the least risk.  

How to write about Africa

I love this piece, How To Write about Africa.

"In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates."

For years it has always been a frustration when reading about developing nations and internal conflicts as time and time again, the authors use  language that does little more that reveal the privilege of the author than the quality of the place.  I've done it myself.  It is in many ways, an unavoidable situation, because these romantic distortions are in many ways imbued within the geography as much as the writer.    After a lifetime of watching Indiana Jones and reading  Joseph Conrad, how can one look at South American Jungle, the rocks of Petra, or the raging Congo with a sense of detachment?   Perhaps then, following the wisdom of How To Write about Africa, it is best to completely abandon oneself to the romance, the power, the prejudice, and the absurdity.  

Somalia: Land of Lost Opportunity



One of the longest inhabited regions within the world, Somalia is home to a longstanding history of trade and independence.  Never successfully colonized by a European power, yet always a major component within Arab trades systems, Somalia has the geographic proximity and definitive character necessary to become a vital actor within the global economy.  Yet entrenched within a prolonged history of regional and internal conflict, the burden of extreme poverty has forced this failed state into a precarious position.  With a population of over 8 million, the nation contains 1,277,200 displaced individuals, while 561,154 others have fled to other nations for refugee.  Within only the last 4 months, over 300,000 others have had to flee their homes in Mogadishu.  According to the BBC, within the last two years alone, 18,000 people have been killed.  After an extensive web search, I have been unable to locate a single estimate of the death toll within the last 18 years of its civil war.

America briefly involved itself within Somali during the Clinton administration as part of the UNISOM task force, wherein the UN and the US worked side by side to stabilize the nation and push it toward prosperity.  Yet as the lessons of contemporary asymmetrical warfare continue to repeat, the United States was unable to utilize its advanced technologies and formal combat interface against the flexible resistance of criminal war lords and Islamic fighters.  Evacuating with great haste, the US left Somalia in a state of greater despair than prior to its arrival. As America's internal allies were left behind, new targets for violence by local militants.  I have several friends, and have met many others, who were victims of this abandonment, as their American affiliation left them subject to torture and persecution.


[caption id="attachment_13" align="aligncenter" width="523" caption="Woman walking across Somali desert"]Woman walking through Somali desert[/caption]


Today the most popular headlines pointing toward Somalia are concerned with the fleeting acts of piracy on its coastline.  Sexy and adventurous, America and Europe have embraced the romantic notion of piracy as a subject of pegged legs and black flags rather than a tragic externality of poverty.  Piracy has been approached as problem to be solved with coast guards, naval fleets, and armed escorts.  I suppose that at least some degree of international interest has been directed towards Somalia and the struggling efforts of its president, Sherif Sheik Ahmed, to bring stability to this nation.  Thus far, this approach has been severely misguided, as piracy is not the problem, it is simply a consequence of greater issues.

A brief review of the CIA World Fact Book should illuminate many of the complications facing this struggling state.

[caption id="attachment_16" align="alignright" width="151" caption="Woman at Water Tap"]Somali woman at water tap[/caption]

• Population median age: 17.5           (U.S. 36.7 years)

• Life expectancy at birth: 49.3         (U.S. 78.11)

• Total population literacy: 37.8        (U.S. 99%)

• GDP per capita: $600                    (U.S. $49, 900)

• Exports: $300 million                    (U.S. $1.291 trillion)

• Telephone Landlines: 100,000        (U.S. 163 million)

• Mobile phones: 600,000                 (U.S. 255 million)

• Internet host: 1                              (U.S. 316 million)

• Airports with paved runway: 7        (U.S. 5,146)

• Roadways: 22,100 km                    (U.S. 6,465,799 km)

• Paved roads: 2,608 km                    (U.S. 4,209,835 km)

• Merchant marine: 1                         (U.S. 422)

• No national military

• 1.1 million internally displaced people

• Exchange rate of 1438.3 Somali Schillings (SOS) per 1 US Dollar


Such strong indicators of poverty do not stand in isolation, but operate in conjunction with an array of human rights, public health, and social complications including: gender based violence, ongoing conflict, absence of codified law, and humanitarian accessibility.  Furthermore, in recent years, aid workers have become targets within conflict, reducing the capability for aid delivery.  Today, Somalia has become the worlds greatest humanitarian struggle, with the highest concentration of famine.

I understand that successful nations see little reason to address these problems.  Western States wrongly perceive international development as a zero-sum game, while not recognizing the advantages of equitably distributed wealth.  The location of Somalia however places it directly within the heart of all oceanic shipping and traffic, making it a primary point for penetrating the underdeveloped markets of Africa from either Europe, Asia, or the Middle East.  Its globally distributed population provides immediate financial and economic linkages for the transfer of wealth, ideas, and education.  With investment within its agriculture and animal husbandry resources, North African and the Middle East can access a new food source, as their own water supplies continue to deplete.

If nations want safer waters, the last thing they need to do is approach the problem by means of military solutions.  The problems are better solved by engineers.  With only 2, 608 km of paved roads, governments could easily facilitate the growth of supply chains and resource networks by means of simply pouring more concrete.  With only one merchant marine vessel, governments could create a "rent-to-own" or large scale government micro-finance industry to prompt the growth of regional sea trade.  There is no need to invest in speed boats to further piracy, but instead to supply large shipping vessels that will ignite and industry for the current "pirates" who have no income, no resources, and no opportunities for self advancement.  Expanding the mobile phone networks will further distribute a form of flexible infrastructure for trade and business creation.

Nonetheless, at the root of all these ideas remains the demand for security.  How does that happen?  Although the answer will continue to be explored herein, one thing is certain.  The solution is not found within isolation, by ignoring the problem, and by only treating symptoms.  Remedies can only be achieved through direct engagement, communication, and an active approach to problem solving.  Until then, Somalia will always remain in chaos.

[caption id="attachment_14" align="aligncenter" width="480" caption="Somali Child in Market Place"]Somali Child in Market Place[/caption]