Viewing entries tagged
psychology

Formulations of Post-Conflict Reconstruction Beyond and Within

Aerial Image of MIT during WWII from Lamelson Center for Invention and Innovation
The world will always have war and poverty. There is also no moral justification for the nature of war or poverty to be as severe and punishing as can be found throughout much of the world. Diseases can be reduced, incomes can be increased, and war can be less violent. It would seem that simple and practical solutions - common sense - could solve many these problems. But I've found over the last 15 years or so, that common sense is often the point of failure. True innovation is irrational. Systematic methods can be designed to facilitate innovation, but the starting point is an entrenched understanding of the problem.

Today's wars do not end, are rarely state-to-state engagements, and technology has shifted the capability of the non-state actor, giving individuals power on par with the state. Yet if technology can empower individuals to create chaos and fight the state, then it can equally empower an individual with state capacities to create peace and opportunity. Where terrorists destroy the present tense, an individual - not a government can likewise create a new future tense. Stability-minded, entrepreneurial individuals are the antithesis of terrorism, not government employees.

Inspired by organizations like Independent Diplomat, I went down this road as an urban planner, and built a private business for governance. In this capacity I aided governments in Afghanistan, Kenya, and Somalia for several years in addition to advising multilateral institutions. Unlike many of my peers in the humanitarian and development industry, I never once provided a report as a project deliverable (this is no easy thing, given that the entire industry is obsessed with reports). Rather, I focussed on building concrete mechanisms and leveraged technology to perform necessary change within entrenched problems.

The interesting consequence wasn't so much within the success or failure of those mechanisms, but the way other institutions responded. The best known example is how the UN restructured its Somalia efforts to compete and then later appropriate my municipal-level urban technology center in Mogadishu.  Years later, that effort has faded away, but a key lesson remains intact: if you want to change the operations of ]global institutions, a faster method than advocacy or protesting is to beat them at their own game because they fear competition.

For awhile, I believed that I had gone as far as I could personally take this work in postwar reconstruction. Over the years, marriage, fatherhood, and the brutal realities of active war zones left me believing that I had dug in as deep as possible, and that it was perhaps time to look into the future and shift gears.  I set new targets far from the front lines, leading to doctoral studies and a deeper immersion into the technology. Making an honest departure from the domain of reconstruction was valuable as it exposed me to new ways of thinking and working in addition to the acquisition of other skills.

Yet today, I find myself working in governance in a refreshed capacity. As an innovation specialist for the US federal government, I essentially work as an entrepreneur in residence. In this capacity I am approached by, or reach out to, federal agencies with deeply rooted and complex problems in search for new vision, strategies, and tools. Much of this work has been connected with Veterans Affairs, and thus my work within the domain of post-war reconstruction continues.

When rebuilding a wartorn city, or considering the future reconstruction of a city presently in war, I have always thought primarily about the actors there - in that space - and those who grew up there but left. Consideration of conflicted and secure space were constant to the extent that it gave a name to this blog. But in the way that I work, space is merely a container for relationships between people, and in the case of Mogadishu, for example, the stakeholders were the Somalis and the AMISOM soldiers (among others on site).  Throughout all my years of working, I never once thought about how the lives of those AMISOM soldiers will continue to influence the stability of Somalia upon return home.  Post-war reconstruction is not the rebuilding of a place - it is a web of flickering interactions between people, perceptions, objects, places, and wounds.

Mapping the Stakeholders in Post-Conflict Reconstruction of Future Wars as a Field of Lightbulbs

Working with Veteran Affairs, I have found myself looking into the eyes of the same soldiers who were in Afghanistan during my years there.  We were there for different reasons, to do different jobs, and possibly with different goals.  We also had different kinds of relationships with the local population and lived in entirely different ways.  We made and lost friends. We think about Afghanistan everyday, and also, think about it very differently, but it always in our minds. From this I know that the Afghanistan and Iraq wars will shape American politics for generations, just as the Vietnam war was discussed in every US political debate into the early 2000s.

To consider the demands of every node in the complex and time-warping web of global conflict is not feasible as a design approach. But consistent with the methods I have applied to other complex problems, to consider the thematic and territorial overlaps does prove effective. For example, in the domain of mental health, the impacts of war via PTSD are well documented within America and other NATO states. It is, however, less discussed among resident populations of war-torn regions and only marginally (if ever) discussed in reference to displaced populations.

The healing from trauma is complicated, and there are many who never fully recover or find effective remedies to move forward in their lives. Yet initiatives that have brought soldiers in contact with the places where they served, to build new memories and relationships with long harmful experiences, have been found to effective to some.  For others, there is a need to cut all ties, to relocate, and build new lives elsewhere. No matter how you approach it, healing becomes geographic as much as a psychological process.

To advance the state of postwar reconstruction, there is a necessity to go beyond security, architecture, and socio-economics. Like most design problems, there is an obvious need to factor such variables across time and space. But now I realize the necessity to reconsider our definitions of war in terms of how we conceive of stakeholders and stakeholder needs. This is not a static domain. New individuals and entities will emerge and disappear over time as will their contributions to the problems and the solutions. We cannot end war but we can formulate our present understanding of its ramifications so as to position a better tomorrow.

The Demand for Urban Planners to Heal the Trauma of War

Residential Road in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo Sutika Sipus 2012.
Contemporary warfare psychologically traumatizes millions of innocent people every year.  Since the industrialization of warfare at the end of the 19th century, the wreckage inflicted upon humanity  has torn communities apart, crushed families, and rendered vast swathes of land throughout the world useless.  In contemporary war,  the range of actors consists of independent militants, private armies, gangs and criminal elements, and thus the issue of trauma and land use have become additionally problematic as there is no clear end to the conflict.  

Today, the world is dotted by low-intensity protracted conflicts, stretching onward by scattered acts of terrorism and insurgency, thus continually threatening civil society and undermining the development of state sponsored institutions.  The elongation of war not only drains state resources, but reinforces a cyclical condition of violence, as the population subjected to war must continue to live and die in a constant state of fear and aggression.  While contemporary psychology may have individual methods of therapy, tied to the personal history of the victim, how can we move forward at an urban scale?

In contemporary wars and post-war landscapes, the triggers for trauma do not go away.  The also risk remains constant.  On the most peaceful days, the threat of terrorism lurks around the corner and the random loss of a loved one haunts  every family.   How can one overcome trauma when threatened by the possibility of bombings in cafes or the return of insurgents at night to abduct family?  Particularly for those populations who were a major part of the conflict, such as in Rwanda or Somalia, how can psychological change take place, to shift the normative mindset of the community from a culture of war into one of peace, when the environment and the people are always the same?  

Not only does the constant stress drive conflict by twisting normative social patterns, but can induce increased rates of risk in other areas of our lives.  A victim of PTSD may struggle to focus at work, or may become more likely to become subject to physical illness.   A population under stress is less likely to be physically healthy and also less economically productive.  If trauma can have a negative impact in the US alone at $42 Billion a year, imagine how it must affect entire populations under threat of war.

In the post-conflict environment, there is a necessity to rely on traditional security methods, such as the imposition of military installations and checkpoints, but the ability for complete transformation and thus also reduces the level of security over time..  If we drop the traditional security mechanisms then the fear of returning instability dominates the society and the stressful feeling of risk becomes more oppressive.  Solutions must be multifaceted to maintain security and to facilitate healing.

The problem of maintaining military security alongside psycho-social healing clearly demands the attention of urban professionals.  At present, security infrastructure is generally handled by engineers, architects, and planners as technical problems with little regard for the broader impact on society.  Among those who are working to provide social counseling and trauma workshops there is negligible ability to modify the physical environment.  While these conditions are demanding and maintain risks, it would seem that more Community Planners and likeminded individuals would be drawn to this problem, considering the problems of post-conflict transition are not exactly new.  Yet where are they?

The support of al-Shabaab through diaspora


I am pleased to announce publication of my article "The support of al-Shabaab through diaspora."  The research was conducted in two phases, in the winter of 2010/2011 and with follow up research in October of 2011.  The first phase was conducted personally in Nairobi while the second required more subtle means with the help of a local research assistant and translator whose name must be withheld to protect his identity.

The article does not go into methodology, however, research was conducted by qualitative techniques, relying upon non-participatory observation, participatory observation, unstructured and semi-structured interviews.  Research was conducted in public locations in Nairobi, Kenya.

The article posits some answers to the question, "why would those who have suffered from the actions of Somali militant group al-Shabaab be inclined to support this organization?"  Ultimately research has found that the ideology of the group to promote Islam over the interests of tribalism, the organizations socio-economic integration with the diaspora community, and its potential to provide an eventual peace are fundamental to the support of the organization.  Other initial findings include organization recruitment strategies that exploit pscho-social trauma, however additional research is necessary in this area.

Click this link to download a free .pdf copy of the Forced Migration Issue 37.  

To download a pdf of my own article,  http://www.fmreview.org/non-state/29.pdf

Architecture, Refugee Camp Design, and Psycho-Social Refugee Health

 How can the design of refugee camps positively  impact the psychological health of refugees?

Some time ago I asked this question in a blog post and meant to get back to it, yet it never quite happened, so I might as well explore the topic today.  Refugee camp design is a common interest among architects and urban planners, although after several years of working within this subject, I admit that it isn't not nearly as illustrious as a Hollywood movie.  Every year books and exhibitions like Design Like You Give a Damn or Design for The Other 90 Perceent spotlight initiatives by designers to solve problems in the third world often by means of new technologies, new research, and usually really expensive and sleek looking products.  But in truth, the solutions to many of these problems has more to do with just legal systems, public interests, access to capital, and then eventually to skillful implementation.  Nonetheless, everyday people read my blog looking for information on Refugee Camp Design, Refugee Camp Technology, and Refugee Shelter, so I figured I might as well expand on some of these issues.

As for innovations within refugee camp design, these are slow moving because new technologies often fail to be well implemented or are too expensive  or are  totally unnecessary.  The most common reason why architects and planners design solutions that will never see the light however is because these designers do not understand the legal framework in which humanitarian interventions exist.  For example, the plan for Dadaab below by New York based architect Deborah Gans is completely impossible due to the restrictions of Kenyan Policy as outlined in the 2006 Refugee Act, their reservations on the 1967 Convention on Refugees, and the social limits of these camps.  While the architect wants to use these camps as a means to experiment with creating a new idea on cities, the truth is that such a presumption is impossible.  Not to mention, a protracted crisis is not a laboratory for social experiments.


There are other aspects of this plan that are inconsistent with the reality of the camps.  The camps are high-density to maximize all resources and security, and  any form of agricultural production within the camps is illegal.  Consequently to expand the settlement and build on agricultural production will simply not be possible.   Although Dadaab has been in place for 20 years, long term settlement planning is against the interest of government policy and consequently initiatives such as this can never be constructed.  Therefore any planning initiatives must somehow comply with policy while advancing the interests of the population.  I'm not saying this is a good thing, but if one can't build illegal structures in America, why would that be okay anywhere else?  On last thing, the architect has clearly done only limited research as the water pathways and vegetation within the diagram are only present during the aggressive floods in October and November.  The rest of the year the place is a dry, bleak, and empty gravel parking lot as far as you can see.


When contemplating refugee camp design from an architectural perspective, a more useful approach is to analyze the architecture of the institutions.   Displaced people are only designated refugees when they obtain the legal status from the host country, which often requires the assistance of UNHCR.  Depending upon the laws of the host country, refugees may or may not have access to employment, healthcare, social services or education.  Yet this institutions appear hostile and are dehumanizing.

Life as  refugee means hours upon hours standing in line.  Waiting to for your name to be called, waiting to be addressed, waiting to be heard, being told to come back tomorrow, or the day after, and waiting for weeks or months, or even years, for phone calls that never come.  Time and again I've seen institutions abuse people through this process, failing to consider what it must be like to always wait and never have an answer.  Some agencies are even located far from the urban center, such as UNHCR's office in Cairo, and therefore people in need of assistance have to travel nearly 2 hours to stand in line with little hope of receiving attention.

If architects and planners want to really improve the lives of displaced populations, the biggest contribution they can make with new design is not within the immediate crisis.  It is by reorganizing the interface by which refugees interact with agencies.  To remove the hostile fencing and aggressive facades and to replace these structures with something equally inexpensive, equally utilitarian, and significantly more humane.  Architecture has always been the tool of the power, and to aid the powerful organizations to better assist refugees is a natural progression for the discipline.  Sustainable refugee camp design and technology is an important area of concern, yet as these only occupy a small part of the problem facing displaced peoples, it is time rather to make architecture more humane.