For people who flee violence and conflict and seek refuge across borders, pain and suffering does not necessarily end once their destination is reached. According to IRIN, as many as 46,000 Somali refugees are living in Kenya with an “unclear legal status.” (The Refugee Consortium of Kenya puts this number around 100,000.) For all intents and purposes, a refugee with an “unclear legal status” translates into “illegal”:

“Urban refugees live largely without material assistance or legal protection, leaving them vulnerable to police arrest at any time, and face high levels of xenophobia from the local population,” Okoro [from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] said. “The challenges faced by urban refugees in Kenya falls within the broader issue of the ‘hidden’ urban humanitarian challenges.

“Confusion over the processing of legal status for urban refugees and fear of deportation is exposing more than 40,000 urban refugees to serious humanitarian challenges with significant protection issues,” she said. “Responding to protection issues for urban refugees is a challenge without a clearer and better plan for implementing legal status for urban refugees.”

“Illegal” refugees – as they are sometimes mistakenly called – cannot avail themselves of their legal rights as refugees, nor can they access educational or employment opportunities without risk of alerting the authorities. Another IRIN report from last week quotes the Kenyan commissioner for refugee affairs at the Ministry of Immigration:

“The government has a duty to provide protection to refugees and this involves provision of shelter, food, health and medical care and education,” said Peter Kusimba, commissioner for refugee affairs at the Ministry of Immigration and Registration of Persons. “These, however, are only provided to refugees with legal immigrant status or are mandated by the UNHCR [the UN Refugee Agency] to be in the camps.

“It would, however, be difficult to provide services to unregistered urban refugees because they wouldn’t come out for fear of arrest but we encourage them to come and apply for legal immigrant status so that they receive these services like everybody else,” he added.

Yes, I’m sure that the process of applying for legal immigrant status is simple, straight-forward and focused on protecting individuals…No wonder so many refugees linger in legal limbo.

The New Black

IRIN, the UN news wire, put out a piece called “Humanitarian work – it’s the new black” today. It starts off with this joke:

At an open-air concert somewhere, Bono is called to the stage to speak to the crowd.

At first, he says nothing, only claps his hands every few seconds. After about five claps, he says to the audience: “Every time I clap, a child in Africa dies.”

An audience member yells back: “Well stop sodding clapping then!”

Pretty funny stuff, eh?

But the rest of the piece, much to my dismay, doesn’t really attempt to answer any questions concerning celebrity endorsement of humanitarian causes. This is the bottom line, according to the author:

The bottom line, however, is that whatever their motives, big names do get publicity for the charities and causes they champion. Many people in the West know about the impacts of HIV in Africa because of Bono, they know about the crisis in Darfur because of George Clooney and Mia Farrow, and they know about orphans in Malawi because of Madonna.

I emphasized the verb “know”, because that is my main qualm with celebrity activism. What do people actually know about these issues? Very little. Raising awareness is great, but when complicated issues are boiled down too far, it creates a lot of misinformation, misunderstanding, which, ultimately does not serve the cause. And unless the “knowing” is accompanied by the “doing”, what’s the real value?

The other issue, that my prof Rony Brauman had raised, is that the crises or issues that are chosen by celebrities to be covered do not necessarily reflect the highest level of need. For instance, not a lot of celebrity activists are standing up for the distribution of rehydration salts which help children with diarrhea survive (2 million children per year die of diarrhea – that’s 6,000 children every day – if I were a huge cynic, I would point out that that represents a sh*t load more victims than the Darfur conflict.)

Mainstream media already does a pretty poor job of coverage – so many issues that are crucial in terms of human security (diarrhea), or regional security (the ongoing conflict in Somalia) for example, are sometimes brought up but never given the kind of attention that other “pet” issues have received. When you add another layer that determines coverage worthiness (is someone beautiful talking about this in large public gatherings?), then the reasons for which a crisis is covered in the media become increasingly less objective.

That being said, we should definitely differentiate between Jessica Simpson’s trip to Kenya and the real commitments made by the likes of Bono. Clearly, the two operate at very different levels of engagement, and their actions have different motives and consequences. Still though, to come back to the IRIN piece, how much more do people really know thanks to celebrity endorsements?

Winning Hearts & Minds, One Body at a Time

For once, a refreshing story which I thought was interesting for a few reasons (aside from the title, which really floats my boat: “Japan courts Africa with a gentle touch”.) I like the idea that Japan, in trying to deepen strategic relationships with Africa, is using novel, innovative approaches. I have no doubt that other aid and diplomatic agencies also have their own unique approaches to development which challenge the modus operandi, but I really DIG the idea of having Japanese shiatsu experts train unskilled workers to offer this service.

It does fall in line with the whole skills-training, sustainable development approach of assisting individuals in learning a trade they can use for self-sustenance, a practice which I have criticized here, mostly because while the theory is great, in practice, these programs achieve very little.

However, I find it really interesting to offer unusual skills training – not only does this mean that those trained in that skill will meet less competition on the market, but also contributes to diversifying the economy AND contributes to the multifariousness and richness of societies. Indeed, if Kenyans somehow get into the habit of visiting their local shiatsu masseuse (is that the term? or shiatsu master? I have no idea), that would be a fabulous testament to the beauty of globalization.

Furthermore, I thought that the fact that this training is offered to blind women is particularly interesting – for most in the developing world, that kind of handicap can signify life long dependency and stigma. Exploring new ways to empower the most marginalized at the micro level and help them become productive, contributing members of society in innovative ways, while not the panacea of development, does provide the impetus for development practitioners to think more creatively.

The War on Common Sense

This is incredibly sad. Muslim clerics in Kenya have agreed to campaign against the use of condoms as a means to prevent HIV infection. Over here, the author asks if it’s a war “on common sense”.

“A lot of money is being wasted to poison our community … a huge amount of money is spent on buying condoms, buying immorality,” Sheikh Mohamud Ali, of Garissa district, told IRIN/PlusNews.

The leaders agreed to actively preach against the use and public promotion of condoms as a strategy to contain the pandemic and prevent pregnancy. They also agreed to oppose the distribution of condoms in villages and educational institutions across the northeast […]

The leaders expressed their view that the best way for the youth to avoid HIV was through the observance of Islamic teachings such as fasting, regular prayer and shunning extramarital affairs. They advised men to avoid looking at women, who should dress modestly […]

“After all, we have heard in the past that the Western world is using the condom to eliminate Africans, and Muslims in particular.”

Well, that’s great, isn’t it? More religious leaders who are actively against the use of life saving contraception. Luckily for them, the rate of infection is low in their region (1.4%, compared to 5.1 nation wide). But still, can we afford to back track like this? It’s also extremely unfortunate as people
can pick up on this and assume that this is the position taken by Muslims – which is untrue. In West Africa, some progressive religious leaders are harnessing their influence to have a positive social impact. Meanwhile, there are stories pouring out of the continent on a daily basis about preachers and pastors who condemn HIV/AIDS and infected patients.

In other, completely unrelated news, I read this story about “$2.99 gas

Chrysler’s new incentive program that guarantees consumers who buy one of their new cars or trucks won’t pay more than $2.99 a gallon at the pump for the first three years they own the vehicle.

Random incredibly large SUV

And the author proceeds to tell us that he thinks it’s a “brilliant idea”. I just wrote about how Americans (and Westerners in general) have hard time getting to terms with the fact that their lifestyle and habits will have to – at the very least – be modified. The fact that Chrysler offers this (probably following massively expensive market studies) is very telling – to me, it represents people clinging on to an obsolete way of life. Isn’t it time to move away from cheap gas, precisely because it perpetuates a very unsustainable life style?

The Chrysler offer is going to appeal to people who refuse to face the facts – that the era of cheap gas is over, or nearly over (even if it happens in 20 years, that is not a very long time to contend with). Am I the only one who finds this incredibly near-sighted??

Wanted: Paradigm Shift

The policy choices and the decisions made in terms of dealing with the return of refugees are today at odds with the reality of these people’s lives.

MS shared this article, which discusses the return of IDPs in Kenya.

One phrase strikes me as “universally” applicable to refugees and IDPs who are considering return:

“Why are they ignoring our sentiments and resorting to forcing resolutions down our throats? We are the victims and our views have to be considered,” said an angry woman.

Save the date, World Refugee Day is June 20th.