Viewing entries tagged

The Role of Land Use Laws in Architectural Planning and Design for Reconstruction, Refugee, and IDP Camps

When the earthquake immediately happened in Haiti, I recall having several conversations about the creation of IDP camps and popular criticisms regarding a slow reaction by aid agencies.  Time and again, as natural disasters strike, displaced populations are forced to seek temporary shelter  while various actors struggle to put the pieces beck together.  A key, yet heavily under discussed element of this process, is the role of land use laws and ownership.

Land ownership is a messy situation in impoverished countries, as formal systems of documentation and ownership found in the wealthiest countries simply do not exist, or are incredibly corrupt and complicated.  Economist Hernando de Soto even advocates that much of the world is trapped in poverty primarily because populations lack access to the articles of ownership and leasing of property.  Without deeds, leases, or contacts to facilitate transactions of property, the greatest commodities are the least utilized.   Without these mechanisms, land use and ownership laws vary by culture and economy, such as in Somalia where the traditional Xeer system is founded upon the interests of nomadic pastoralism. In much of Somalia, Xeer works alongside  secular state law and Islamic Sharia law to form a loosely understood system of Somali Common Law.  While it is a challenge for outsiders to penetrate these complex, informal systems, it is often just as difficult for residents to pursue the formal channels of land ownership in their on countries.

Given the range of land use laws that exist in a single site, it is no surprise that humanitarian action can be slow and difficult.  In an emergency, the rights and regulations of land use and ownership are not suspended, but must be integrated in the recovery process.  This of course does great disservice to the most vulnerable populations, who are left seeking safety along public transportation roots and government land.  To complicate matters further in Haiti, many citizens to not hold land ownership but rent or sharecrop land from an often absent landlord via informal agreements that have been in place for several decades or longer.

If informal arrangements dominate the settlement of displaced persons in Haiti, how can designers, architects and planners advance the reconstruction of Port Au Prince and surrounding regions?  Whereas the city organically developed by means of these loose arrangements, can a western system of design and planning facilitate the reconstruction?   Clearly it is possible to introduce new housing and urbanism solutions, but then a new complication will arise, as it demands the finding and rightful compensation to existing land owners.   Of course this process takes time, and under the constraints of a pending crisis time always appears to be the one resource that is never available.

Enroute to Kenya?

I had a phone interview the other night with a San Francisco non-profit, about working as their Project Officer within Kenya to oversee projects within Nairobi and the Dadaab Refugee Camps.   Although I was rather nervous at the outset - especially as there were complications getting skype to operate - within moments I found a comfortable relationship developing between us. 

I had discovered this agency while up late one night, reading about new technology developments on CNET. As much of my own research and work experience has consisted of technology, development, and refugee populations, I was immediately intrigued to learn of this company.  It is not an aid 
agency, but instead promotes innovative entrepreneurship within developed and developing nations.  By making it possible for anyone to outsource tasks via an iphone application, Samasource redirects these tasks to workers and refugees within developing nations who promptly accomplish the task and send it back.  These jobs might include data entry, analysis, research, programming, or tedious yet important processes of analysis.

New to working with refugees, it became clear within the conversation that my own background and expertise could be of tremendous value to the agency.  It would be my responsibility to oversee their projects within Nairobi and the Dadaab Refugee Camps where I had previously worked in 2007.  I've been thinking a great deal about the problems they have beenfacing within their program, and already I have an array of potentialsolutions in mind that would be socially-culturally consistent with Kenyan national and refugee workers, while also logistically feasible for thecompany.  It is clear that this could be an exciting and valuableoppurtunity for both of us. 

Unfortunately, although I can design and implement sustainable programming on their behalf, it is clear that the company does not quite have the resources to be as sustainable within my own life.  A little bit of negotiation needs to occur, as I simply don't want to go back to struggling to pay my bills, student loans, and fear getting sick for lack of health insurance.  That would feel like a personal step backward, and not something I really something I'm looking for.  It gets further complicated by the prospect of leaving my life in Cairo, where my girlfriend will continue to remain as she finishes her masters in Human Rights Law, and where I have grown many valuable friendships.

However, they seem willing to work this out with me.  I think they understand that the contribution I can make to their organization could ultimately save money by streamlining current operations, and improving  productivity while remaining consistent with their mission toward economic development and socio-cultural compatibility.   So they are looking at building a better offer, so that I'm not left floundering in Nairobi once the most urgent work is taken care of - after about 2 months out of a 6 month contract.

We are to talk again in a few days, and with luck, establish a more concrete agreement.

I'm really excited about this, to return to my favorite city in the world and to work on a project that has significant personal value.  Best of all, as soon as I get to Kenya - prospectively within a couple weeks- I'm going to feast on some roasted goat, mimi napende nyoma choma!

Dadaab, Kenya: The Worlds Largest Refugee Camp

[caption id="attachment_106" align="alignleft" width="280" caption="Kenya"]Kenya[/caption]

Dadaab is the largest refugee camp in the world.  Composed of three individual camps (Ifo, Hagadera, and Dagahaley), it contains over 250,000 people and has been declared by Oxfam as unfit for humans.   Founded in the early 90's,  the camps were established with the intended lifespan of only one to two years, the continued growth of the population and expansion of the camps has required continuous adjustments to camp infrastructure, management, and policy.

The camps are located in a semi-arid region that is otherwise largely inhabited by a nomadic pastoralists.  This environment greatly limits livelihood opportunities within the camps, and it is highly unlikely that the refugees would survive there without assistance from international and national organizations.  At the same time it is highly unlikely that the refugees would survive there without the assistance from international and national organizations.  At the same time, it is highly unlikely that they could survive only on the assistance from the international community.  Food distributions include maize, pulses, wheat, oil, and salt, along with a few non-food items.  The agencies offer ‘incentive’ job opportunities for refugees, which pay a maximum monthly amount of 6,000 Ksh.  The only jobs in which the refugees can engage legally, as they are not allowed to formally work in Kenya.  Alternatively, refugees engage in business or at times are employed by other refugees for manual work and household tasks.  According to researcher Cindy Horst, earlier research suggested 10-15 percent to receive remittances, although this has certainly expanded.

[caption id="attachment_109" align="alignright" width="368" caption="WFP Rations Distribution at Ifo Camp"]WFP Rations Distribution at Ifo Camp[/caption]

The main reason why improvements in socio-economic conditions in the camps are very gradual and levels of self-sufficiency are still limited is obvious; the refugees are confined in a semi-desert area with very limited economic opportunities.  Agencies working to improve livelihoods within Dadaab must address the structural constraints that refugees face within the camp as well the value of their interventions for a future outside of the camps.   However, upgrading the physical infrastructure of the camps is a daunting tasks, not only due to expected financial costs, but also because of the legal and political complications.  With no legal right to the land, the refugee populations and international agencies bear tremendous risks to invest in camp developments, especially as the Kenyan government would just as likely prefer the refugees to repatriate to Somalia.  Clearly, new ideas of "infrastructure" must be explored for the advancement of economic health within the Dadaab camps.

Not only are prospects for economic growth limited by the physical and political constraints, but so are opportunities for social justice and environmental health.  I have attached a power point presentation that provides an overview of how all three of these issues are interconnected within the camps.

[slideshare id=2252252&doc=justiceequityandsustainability-091016213057-phpapp02]

New Hip Hop Video

I recently finished this video for Life of Slim J.  For whatever reason, I am having much difficulty in getting the appropriate resolution for Youtube, so the image is not as nice as I would prefer.  Regardless, if it is not visible below, then you can link directly to it at

The Art of Rapitecture

I just got home from a day of constantly running around, and now I'm about to pull an all night long homework session.

I met with the guys from VIP today and we started laying the groundwork for their album.  They also introduced me to a French rapper who is living here in Cairo that I will start working with also.   Its amazing, as producing these hip hop records is simply something that I thought would be fun but I didn't really expect much to come from it.  Instead, I am finding a very receptive audience and many excited artists who view this as their chance to make the sort of music that they asprire toward.   So now I have three different albums in production, and this Friday Unigunz will be debuting much of our work in a live performance here in Cairo.  Another glimmer of good news is that a UK radio show called Refugee Radio, which broadcasts on Monday nights in Brighton and Hove, is interested in doing a special on the project.  You can learn more about the radio show at

In other news, school is getting close to ending... so close, but just not close enough.  If getting older doesn't make me lose my hair, I quite sure that continuing my education will.  I started this term totally fried, so at this point I'm beyond crispy.  One more semester... just 3 classes more...

Tonight I need to write a collection of papers, one on Sudanese refugee camps, one on the dynamics of money transfers by migrant communities, and another on the distinctions of refugee vs. general migration policy.  You know, its been nice to learn the intricacies while I've been here, but more than anything it makes me miss doing Development Planning.  I miss creating diagrams and drawings, elaborate presentations to convey the results of my studies and being able to talk about the intercourse between large concepts such as social justice and the particular components of architecture or urban design.  Working with migration, economics, and foreign policy within the context of Planning made it so much easier to grasp while my more recent academic research remains within the abstract.

Speaking of which, I just remembered that I need to submit an abstract to a university in India right now.  I've written two separate papers on Humanitarian Space thus far and if the University of Delhi is interested, I might present my research on the complications of Humanitarian Spaces within conflict zones at a conference called Imagined Horizons: Spatial Configurations of the Present.  For anyone interested, here's the opening paragraph...

"Humanitarian operations within conflict zones often require military support to satisfy security demands, a practice frequently at odds with the humanitarian objective to deliver aid to demanding populations in a politically neutral manner.  This contradiction is most evident within the necessary action to carve out humanitarian spaces for the implementation of aid programming within conflicted regions.  The creation of such spaces frequently demands military support, leading to an increase in conflict by additionally politicizing the role of humanitarian aid and thus politicizing a landscape created for logistical purposes.   Furthermore, by impinging upon the pretense of neutrality, humanitarian actions supported by militarization adversely affect the expression of rights among displaced populations who must occupy the same territory.  This imbalance is likewise reflected within the physical transformation of the humanitarian space, as a space created for the sake of institutional operation and human rights expression, is converted into a zone of controversy and power."

Cairo's Lost Boys

Today I visited the Lost Boys to initiate another hip hop program. 

It's interesting to observe the differences between the two primary Cairo gangs, the Outlaws and Lost Boys, considering that the members both come from the same parts of Sudan.  The Lost Boys have been the predominate youth gang within Sudan for many years, while the Outlaws only recently formed in retaliation to constant harassment.

Within Cairo, the two gangs live in different neighborhoods and have evolved to maintain particular characteristics.  The Lost Boys live in the nicer neighborhood of Maadi, are generally better educated, have less structure within the gang, and are often the more violent.  In contrast, the Outlaws were founded, and accordingly named,  because they exist 'outside the law. '  The Outlaws live within the poorer neighborhood of Ain Shemz, have limited education or oppurtunity, maintain a strict system of order within the gang, and generally engage only in retaliatory acts of violence.

Today I managed to immediately befriend a guy named James within the Lost Boys who is excited at the prospect of being able to record professional quality reggae music.  Apparently he has a couple traditional drums which he plays at church services (all members of both gangs attend christian churches on a weekly basis or more).  For several years he has been trying to play music with other people for awhile, yet nothing would ever come together - certainly something to which I can relate. 

Now with the other guys, the general gangsters, it is definately more challenging to get these guys off the street and into the studio - but, since that is the point of the project, it is a matter of using any means necessary.  Unfortuanately the best strategy right now appears to talk about how the oppositional gang is doing so well with the project.  I played some tracks of music recorded with the Unigunz, and said "This was made in Ain Shemz."  I didn't say who made it, but since they assumed it was made by the "Outlaws," the guys began to listen with rapt attention.  I suspect now that when I show up on wednesday, there will be more interest and motivation to make the project happen. 
Of course, once I get a little bit out of these guys, I'll return to the Outlaws in  Ain Shemz and say 'listen to what the Lost Boys have made!" 

Its frustrating, but this is really the only way to get either gang to do anything.  I fully intend to direct the attention away from that motive with each increment of progress, but for now, I obviously have start somewhere.  As for James, I already gave him some homework to do, and I'm curious to see if he will manage to deliver when I see him again in three days from now.