How to Make a Difference? First, Understand.

I am a firm believer that in order to be a truly effective advocate on any issue, it’s crucial to really understand the dynamics that you are contending with.

For The Niapele Project this means recognizing that we are in a constant state of learning – as we progress and deepen our involvement with the refugee community of West Africa, we are also attempting to truly understand what the issues are, at their core, so we can better serve the interests of the organizations we work with, and the children they serve.
We are continuously challenged in this extremely complex developing world environment – as a small NGO with limited resources, we try to position ourselves as open, flexible and willing to collaborate as knowledgeable partners.
In Liberia, we are beginning to collaborate with the UNHCR and the Liberian Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission (the government agency in charge of coordinating refugee issues) – in spite of our differences with these institutions in the past regarding the way in which Liberian refugees in Ghana were treated, we strongly believe that it will take the collaboration of all key stakeholders to create sustainable strategies for the effective integration of displaced people in Liberia.
(I only wish I was there myself…. sigh… maybe some time down the line!)
In any case, in order to bring deep expertise to the table, The Niapele Project has been working with some of the world’s best universities to develop our research capacity – we just released this study produced by Masters candidates at Sciences Po (my alma mater in Paris), which provides a critical overview of policy options for protracted refugee situations, and we are currently working with the Yale Law School on another study which will outline the international and national legal framework with regards to returning refugee rights in Liberia.
We are really looking forward to 2009 – in spite of the arduous fundraising road ahead, I am full of confidence that The Niapele Project will continue to have a positive impact in the lives of vulnerable refugee children.


Defining "refugees"

I’d like to preface this post by reminding you what the global “refugee context” is: 

I’ve mentioned before, in some posts here, how the legal definition of “refugee” has become obsolete in the 21st century. While on paper, the definition seems quite broad, it fails to include dozens of millions of displaced people, who, as a result, see their most fundamental human rights violated. There are 16 million refugees in the world today who fall under the mandate of the UNHCR or the UNRWA (4.6 million Palestinian refugees, out of the 16 million fall under the latter’s jurisdiction). In addition to these already staggering numbers, there are an estimated 51 million displaced people who do not fall under any international legal mandate. 51 million. And that is not taking into account the vast numbers of people who flee their homelands but are never able to register as a refugee or an asylum seeker, for reasons as varied as inability to read, write and understand the process involved or too much psychological trauma to handle complicated, inefficient bureaucratic processes. It’s most likely impossible to know exactly how many people fall into the latter category – but I would say there are easily a few million displaced people who have not been taken into account by the UNHCR statistics. 
Anyway, this leads me up to the story of the day, that of Pape Mbaye, a gay Senegalese man who was granted refugee status in the US on the basis of his facing persecution due to his sexual orientation. The article (unfortunately) barely touches upon the novelty of this type of refugee case, merely noting that only “a handful” of similar cases arose in the past, and is focused on the plight of homosexuals in West Africa (as far as my experience goes, I haven’t encountered a single West African who is tolerant of homosexuality…. sadly).
It is nonetheless noteworthy that Mbaye was able to receive refugee status on those grounds – and given that his well-being was genuinely endangered by conservative zealotry, I think it’s fantastic that the US granted him refugee status. However, for every Mbaye, there are 100,000 (or more) individuals who yearn to live in a different country, far away from the misery, oppression and persecution that pervades their daily lives. What of them? What of the hundreds of Africans who end up ship wrecked on the coasts of the small southern European island of Malta? Why must they languish endlessly in precarious conditions? What of the thousands of Liberian refugees in Ghana who cannot avail themselves of the inadequate amount of assistance that the UNHCR is able to provide them with? 
The fight for the rights of those who suffer is far from over….

The "Thinking Brains" of Foreign Policy, continued

Does anybody else find slightly odd that Senator Biden wants the US to give Georgia $1 billion? What for?

Biden said the $1 billion would “help the people of Georgia to rebuild their country and preserve its democratic institutions.”

Ah yes, we all know that vast injections of foreign money have always helped “preserve democratic institutions”.

That said, I’d love to hear how he expects to do this – are we going to give them actual cash, like we did in Iraq (brilliant article)? Or perhaps in the form of military aid ? Or humanitarian aid? Or…?

There is definitely a situation of great need in Georgia (150,000 displaced, on top of the 1/4 million already displaced in the region) but promising $1 billion (just before the democratic convention?) is a bit fishy to me.

I have no idea where that figure came from… It seems disproportionate. He’s not really filling me with confidence, ahead of his possible nomination as VP in the coming days.

Urban planning for the other bottom billion?

From the New York Times Magazine (courtesy of IHT), an interesting piece about the billion people across the world who are homeless –

There are 80,000 people living on top of a garbage dump in Manila; a population of indeterminate size – perhaps as many as a million – who sleep every night in the cemeteries of Cairo; homeless encampments in San Francisco, Atlanta and Houston; guest workers camped beside the towers of the Persian Gulf; migrant workers in the San Fernando Valley. They are all displaced people.

The article begins with a discussion about the type of shelter provided for refugees – blocks, sectors of simple tarp tents which make up refugee camps as we imagine them to be.

Rwandan refugee camp in the DRC

There definitely is a huge, huge housing problem globally – unfortunately, refugees aren’t the only ones living in that sort of unbelievably precarious shelter. In Paris, where I live, there are lots of homeless people living in tents handed out by Medecins du Monde and the Red Cross. When I was an MA student at Sciences Po, I remember getting worked up after seeing those tents for the first time – it made me wonder “why am I so worried about people in places I’ve never seen, when there are needs right here, literally at my door step?”


Medecins du Monde tents in Paris

But I digress….

Pertaining to refugees, I wanted to – again – mention that all refugee crises are not the same. In fact, I’d say that the refugees I work with in Buduburam are probably better off (in terms of housing) than homeless people in Paris. They have solid houses, with sometimes more than one room, painted in bright colors – this gives the camp this incredible quality, where you could almost be lead to believe that things are ok for the community (not so, for reasons which I have written about extensively on this blog)


Buduburam Refugee Settlement

It seems to me that the housing/shelter issue is merely a symptom of a denial of basic human rights which knows no boundaries. Recently, groups in France have called for decisive action on the part of the government to deal with the sister issues of homelessness and precarious housing. Unfortunately, there are still dozens of thousands of people living in the most, well, disgusting housing in France, even in the very heart of Paris. And these people aren’t all immigrants, in case that thought popped into your mind…..

Paul Collier’s book, “The Bottom Billion”, which has been discussed more than extensively in the blogosphere, talks about the plight of those living in those countries who have missed the industrial revolution and globalization gravy trains.

But is there another “Bottom Billion”, spread out all over the world, whose most basic human rights are nowhere near respected? Geography, and a country’s GDP, hardly matter for these people who are the face of inequality created by globalization.

Article 25, 1951 Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

Sounds good, right? This begs the question: Is the IDHR the least respected international treaty in History?