Archive for ‘Intervention’

February, 2014

Academics Stand Against Poverty: Professional Association Helps Researchers Enhance their Impact on Poverty Alleviation

Dr Luis Cabrera


For my first entry on the project blog, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about a newish academic association that shares many of the same interests as those affiliated with Saving Humans.

This association is Academics Stand Against Poverty (ASAP). It’s a non-profit, voluntary initiative designed to enhance academics’ impact on poverty alleviation. The driving idea is not so much to get academics out of the ivory tower, but to get those who’d never think of locking themselves up in such a place to share their ideas and experiences, collaborate where it makes sense, and generally just join forces to do a more effective job influencing poverty alleviation policy and practice.

ASAP was the brainchild of some relatively junior academics – political philosophers, in fact – working in Australia in 2009. They wanted to be able to play a more active role in some of the issues of global justice they were researching, and to help the global academic sector worldwide play as strong a direct role as possible on poverty and related issues. Their organizing efforts got a big boost from Thomas Pogge, the Leitner Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs at Yale University, who was intrigued by the idea and ultimately agreed to serve as president of a formal organization.

Pogge is known as anything but an ivory tower philosopher. He has helped lead a team to investigate the most sound methods for actually measuring poverty. He also has a major project underway to develop the kinds of monetary incentives that would entice big pharmaceutical firms to develop treatments for diseases that mainly afflict the world’s poor – and to be paid by how many of those treated actually get better.

Under Pogge’s leadership, and with a great deal of behind-the-scenes work from the nine members of the ASAP Board, a 19-member advisory board comprised of very prominent poverty-focused academics and a single paid staff member (the indefatigable Rachel Payne), the organization has greatly expanded its presence. It has staged conferences at Yale, Birmingham and the University of Delhi, as well as at universities in Mexico, Spain, Germany, Australia, Norway and elsewhere.

ASAP also has launched or sponsored a number of projects aimed at enhancing academic impact on severe poverty. These include one focused on ensuring that the best research insights inform the global poverty alleviation goals which will replace the Millennium Development Goals after 2015. They also include projects concerned with economic rights and global climate change, the ways in which insights from psychology might inform poverty alleviation efforts, and a project aimed at helping poor persons in India become better informed and able to claim their government-backed entitlements.

I serve as vice president of the ASAP Board and head of a project called Impact: Global Poverty. It features profile articles on academics seeking to go beyond their straightforward research work to have a direct positive impact on poverty alleviation policy or practice. I have been amazed by the kinds of impact projects people have taken on in addition to their day-to-day responsibilities at their universities or as doctoral students.

Profiles have included one on Sukhadeo Thorat, longtime Professor of Economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, who has had enormous influence on Indian government and private sector policies on integrating dalit persons (former untouchables). We have profiled Prof. Alan Fenwick at Imperial College London, who heads a project that has treated millions suffering from neglected tropical diseases. We also have profiled Bijayalaxmi Nanda of the University of Delhi. She works with groups in the city focused on the worth of girl children and  ending sex-selective abortion. Other profile subjects have included Birmingham’s own Paul Jackson, for his work advising the Nepalese government on re-integration of former rebels into society; and Nicolas Lemay-Hébert, who has worked with Haitian academics and students suffering in the aftermath of that country’s devastating 2010 earthquake.

I have found all of these academics’ stories inspiring, and we have many more similar profiles in the works. If you know of an academic who is engaging closely with NGOs, policy makers, or is generally seeking to make an impact in addition to standard research work, we would love to know about her/him. Please send a note to me at 

Many things are planned for the future with ASAP overall. The organization is growing rapidly, with a number of country chapters forming globally. We are now in the midst of a developing a long-term plan aimed at fully incorporating the chapters and opening more volunteer and related opportunities for ASAP’s 800-plus members worldwide. I am happy to answer any questions about the organization, and I would encourage all academics with an interest in issues of poverty to join.

Luis Cabrera is Reader in Political Theory, Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham. 

November, 2013

“Thinking politically” Part I: “Thinking and working politically” in development interventions Jonathan Fisher

The ‘age of austerity’ has not been kind to Western aid agencies and their staff or to those who would defend them. Though Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID) has had its budget ‘ring-fenced’ since 2010 its counterparts elsewhere in Europe have not been so lucky while its equivalent in Australia – AusAID – has disappeared altogether as an independent entity, subsumed into the country’s foreign ministry only weeks ago.

Tales of costly white elephant projects and failed interventions from the likes of Dambisa Moyo (Dead Aid) coupled with stories of corruption in Uganda and space programmes in ‘more people living in poverty than the whole of Africa’ India have seriously damaged the image of the development enterprise across the world. Western publics have been particularly frustrated – or so we are told – at the sight of hospitals at home being closed while taxpayers’ funds are sent abroad seemingly – depending on which newspaper you read – into the pockets of well-fed, venal crooks. In this unforgiving context observers might be forgiven for viewing Western ‘donors’ today as incorrigible, disingenuous amateurs – singing the same tune they have sung for decades with the audience growing ever more restive and impatient; “When does this end?!”

In fact there is room for optimism – albeit not so much, perhaps, for those former AusAID staff facing redundancy. For the last decade has seen a crucial shift in the mindsets of most donors with potentially profound implications for the ways in which development actors approach and engage with the developing world. Until the early 2000s, development ‘failures’ were seen as the fault of the recipient. In the 1980s, the World Bank concluded that economic stagnation in Africa and elsewhere was the result of dirigiste economic management and that removing the state’s grip on a nation’s economy would lead to economic growth. Structural adjustment was born.

By the 1990s, with this ‘medicine’ proving ineffective, flawed political systems became the culprit for stalled development processes. Western donors therefore sought to make their aid flows conditional upon democratization in many parts of the world resulting in the abolition of one-party states in some aid-dependent countries (notably Malawi, Kenya and Zambia) but the continuation in power of numerous autocrats including Zairian dinosaur Mobutu Sese Seko.

In recent years, however, donors have started to reflect on their own role in the successes or failures of the development enterprise. Since the early 2000s, donors have begun to ask not ‘what is the recipient doing wrong?’ but ‘what are we doing wrong?’. This welcome – and overdue – introspection has led donors to several important conclusions, the most central being that successful development interventions require the donor to fully understand the political dimensions of the country or region it is intervening in. Development projects fail when external actors attempt to impose something upon a society or culture whose contours and nuances they do not understand. Development projects rely on the buy-in of local actors to work – donors now accept – and so donors need to understand who the local actors are, what they want and why. To this end, donors have enthusiastically accepted the importance of ‘thinking politically’ in their operations.

This move from ‘doing development’ to ‘thinking politically’ represents perhaps the most important sea-change in donor mentalities since the end of the Cold War. The ‘thinking politically’ project has not, however, come without its difficulties. This week’s blog entries will explore this project and its implications for those interested in ‘Saving Humans’. Many of those with such an interest – both in the academic and policy-making worlds – are gathering in Birmingham this Friday 15th November to discuss ‘Making Politics Practical’ in a joint International Development Department (IDD)-Political Studies Association (PSA) workshop. The final blog entry of the week will reflect on this workshop and its key messages – along with those of Manchester University’s Professor Sam Hickey, who will be presenting on ‘Taking Politics Seriously’ in development following the IDD-PSA workshop.

Dr Jonathan Fisher is a Lecturer in International Development at the University of Birmingham.

Further links:

Thinking politically about development

Overseas development Institute: Thnking politically

Thinking politically, IDD blog Heather Marquette

Development leadership programme

November, 2013

‘Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water’ – the importance of training in a low resource setting, by Miss Sadia Malick, Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist & ammalife trustee

Training in the management of Obstetric emergencies is essential to prevent unnecessary disability and death in women. It is very important that all training is tailored and targeted for the group of healthcare workers being trained. All skilled birth attendants in the UK received skills updates every year.

In Pakistan, this is often not the case. There are three main groups of maternity healthcare providers. Firstly the trained doctors who are not working in hospital settings and do not take part in mandatory Clinical professional development programmes. These doctors remain on front line duties facing Obstetric emergencies all the time but unfortunately do not initiate or are part of programmes where they have to keep their knowledge up to date. Some NGO’s are involved with this cadre to improve and update skills with an aim to reduce maternal mortality and morbidity.

The second group are the trained nurses or midwives who provide midwifery care to women. These health care professionals usually work in district general hospital or smaller hospitals where they do not have the support of trained doctors’ majority of time. They have their experience and knowledge of working in obstetrics for many years but unfortunately have no formal training programmes to either update their skills or to learn new skills which would help them improve their care for the women they deliver. Some NGO’s are also involved with improving skills of this cadre.

The third group is that of the traditional birth attendants. This group is largely controversial and due to their lack of regulated training is blamed by the above mentioned group for the majority of the complicated cases that arrive too late in the hospitals, and present in a moribund state. The reality is that the services offered by TBAs are the most commonly used healthcare provider used by women, particularly in rural areas. This is due to many reasons, such as social (many women are not permitted to attend hospital to give birth for fear of exposure), financial (expensive, unaffordable healthcare, financial bribes by staff, or costly transportation to hospital) and a lack of any other service available (an absence of healthcare staff at the facility, as there is a global shortage of nurses, midwives and doctors).

Published research (Wilson et al, 2011, BMJ) suggests that engaging more with this group, by training and supporting them to detect and refer women experiencing signs of obstetric complications can improve outcomes for women and their babies.

Until societies decide that saving women is an absolute priority (economically and socially) and increase the numbers of skilled birth attendants to allow every pregnant woman to have a skilled birth attendant, like here in the UK. We should look to TBAs to fill the gaps. Evidence has shown that they can be effective, we should not ignore this. If there are interventions that work then we should use them. We cannot not ignore evidence; we should support TBAs until we have the optimal intervention to reduce maternal death – a skilled birth attendant such as a midwife or a doctor.

Useful links:

WHO maternal death

MME org

Pakistan maternal mortality

Maternal info world bank

Perinatal deaths

Obstetric care Pakistan

October, 2013

Refugee camps

Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan

Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan
Click image for source

In my post on Monday I wrote a bit about refugee camps. The words seem to go together naturally: where there are refugees there are also camps. But the practice of putting displaced persons in camps is historically fairly new, a twentieth-century phenomenon, and as I suggested on Monday, the camps themselves are politically and morally complex places. They may provide refugees with shelter, and make it easier for aid agencies or host states to provide food and medical assistance; but they serve other purposes, too, and they create political logics of their own. They’re not an unproblematic means of saving humans.

Most Syrian refugees today aren’t actually in camps, though camps provide most of the images of refugees we see. (The picture at the top of the post actually comes from a photo-essay entitled Beyond the camps, accompanying a fine recent piece on the refugee ‘catastrophe’ in the New York Review of Books, and most of the pictures in it are of refugees outside camps.)

Turkey has established a kind of refugee-camp archipelago in and beyond the border zone (the high quality of the camps being widely recognized), but even there refugees outside camps outnumber refugee inside them by three to two—or, more precisely, three hundred thousand to two hundred thousand. Jordan has a similar number of ‘encamped’ refugees, all concentrated in a single vast camp, Zaatari, which is said to have become Jordan’s fourth-largest city; a second vast camp is being built at al-Azraq, but Jordan also has even more refugees living outside camps than Turkey does. Lebanon, meanwhile, which hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees—about three quarters of a million of them—doesn’t have any camps at all.

Al Azraq Refugee Camp (as of 25 Jul 2013)

Construction of al-Azraq refugee camp (as of 25 Jul 2013)
Click image for source

This makes it harder to track individual refugees, and for humanitarian agencies to gather reliable and comprehensive information about refugees’ needs—let alone provide assistance to meet those needs. The flood of refugees has sent the cost of living soaring in parts of neighbouring countries and put enormous pressure on essential services. Rents in some parts of Jordan rose 300% in the six months to April 2013 alone (and have certainly risen further since). The half-million refugees there have added nearly 8% to the total population—which in one of the world’s most water-scarce countries is a serious matter. Putting refugees in camps would be one way of limiting some of these impacts, and ensuring that the international community can shoulder some of their cost.

But there are reasons why the refugees themselves may be reluctant to move into camps, and why not all governments want to establish them—and a historical perspective can help explain them.

For example, uprooted Syrians have, since 1948, lived their lives in close proximity to generations of Palestinian refugees. In Syria, Palestinians were reasonably well-integrated into the host society (the camps weren’t ‘closed’), but only up to a point: ‘Ibn al-mukhayyam [the child of the camp] will never be like ibn al-balad [the child of the country]’, as a young Palestinian from the Yarmouk camp told an interviewer a few months before the war in Syria began. And Syrians are well aware that in Lebanon, Palestinians in their camps were excluded from the host society in all sorts of ways: barred from many occupations, for example. During the civil war, Palestinian civilians in Lebanese camps were often targeted directly: the massacres at Sabra and Chatila in 1982, or later during the ‘war of the camps’. For Syrians informed by the Palestinian experience, camps may represent exclusion from the host society, the risk of massacre—and the possibility of permanent exile.

Wariness of camps exists on the side of states too, for related reasons. When Palestinian refugees housed in camps started to organize themselves politically in the 1960s, their aims and aspirations clashed with those of the host governments: ultimately they came to threatened state sovereignty. The camps, where refugees lived in isolation from the host societies and exclusion from their political institutions, became fiefdoms of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), and it was difficult or impossible for host governments to control them, even when they launched attacks across the border on Israel and the occupied territories. In its conflict with PLO militants, Israel did not hesitate to target the host states. In Jordan this process led to the expulsion of the PLO leadership, after a short but bitter conflict in 1970, to Lebanon—where the same process contributed to the outbreak of the civil war, in which camps themselves became targets. It is little wonder that Jordan is uneasy about placing Syrians in camps, and Lebanon positively allergic to it.

Getting assistance to refugees—and host communities—becomes more complicated, and perhaps more costly, when the people you want to help are dispersed through towns and villages. But my own view is that it’s a necessary effort, and history can help us understand why. The UN increasingly takes the same view: “You cannot lock people into a camp”, the UNHCR’s representative in Turkey said recently, while talking about mechanisms for supporting refugees outside camps, like cash assistance programmes. So, even though the UNHCR has its own complex and not always positive history, I’ll end by linking to its current appeal on behalf of Syrian refugees. The UN’s appeals to help those displaced inside and outside the country are barely 50% funded (and their relative success may be making it harder for the UNHCR to attract support for other refugees). And the crisis isn’t going to go away.

October, 2013

Very contemporary history

A recent discussion with the coordinator of the Global History of Modern Humanitarian Action project at the Overseas Development Institute got me thinking about the very recent history of humanitarianism. It was interesting for me to try and think historically about what still feel like current events, way outside my own period of expertise. Here are the unfootnoted and speculative, but hopefully useful, thoughts I came up with. Comments welcome.

In an article published in 2006, Tony Vaux analyzed the international context within which humanitarian agencies, especially Western ones, operate. ‘The current trend’, he wrote, ‘is towards greater assertiveness by the Western powers and less consensus about their legitimacy’—a trend which created many worries for agencies that found themselves, for example, being perceived as tools of Western governments. This led to wide-ranging, and soul-searching, discussions in the field: Vaux’s article was part of a big special issue of Development in Practice on trends and dilemmas for humanitarian practitioners. (There’s a link at the bottom of this post.) But is his description still accurate?


Part of the context for western humanitarian action, c.2001–2009

It seems to me that Vaux’s statement quite clearly dates from that distinct but now-vanished period between the end of the Cold War and the 2008 financial crisis. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the constraints on Western—essentially American—interventions elsewhere in the world appeared to have been loosened entirely. Iraq in 1991, Kosovo in 1997, Britain’s intervention in Sierra Leone in the late 90s, Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq again in 2003: in a unipolar world the trend appeared to be towards unilateral interventions by untrammeled Western power—albeit with setbacks (Somalia) and deliberate non-interventions (Rwanda). This trend was radicalized after 9/11.

Western humanitarian agencies had to live with this geopolitical strutting. In some senses it created problems for them— that’s why aid workers get murdered in Afghan villages—but in other senses they probably shared the arrogance of the times: one reason why they’re having trouble adjusting to what are still termed ‘new actors’ in the humanitarian field, the increasingly active and influential agencies based in countries outside the old ‘West’ (some Turkish NGOs, for example, are now operating in dozens of countries).

So: ‘greater assertiveness by the Western powers and less consensus about their legitimacy’ is a pretty accurate depiction of the period from, say, 1990 to 2005. It was reinforced by the Asian economic crisis of 1997, which handily slapped down the ‘tigers’ that had been growling increasingly loudly, and it survived the short recession that affected many western countries when the dotcom bubble burst.

In retrospect, though, there were already underlying shifts. China is an important one: its phenomenal, rapid growth throughout the 1990s and 2000s was changing all sorts of basic equations in the distribution of global political and economic power. The largest single holder of US government debt; a crucial export market for both industrialized and extractive economies (ie, for both the West and the Third World, two already questionable terms which have become more outdated with every percentage point of Chinese GDP growth); an alternative source of financial and diplomatic backing for states and non-state actors… The context within which Western humanitarian agencies became accustomed to operating from the 1980s as the Soviet Union declined was temporary and contingent, not a permanent restructuring. Think back only a decade or so to how many books and articles were talking about a unipolar world, and how shortsighted they seem now. And plenty of other shifts have taken place too, many—though not all—of them linked to this one. Brazil, for example, has combined an economic boom that owes a great deal to commodity exports (directly and indirectly linked to China) with growing political stability and self-confidence. In my churchgoing youth I was often exposed to depictions of colourful poverty in Brazil, produced by Catholic aid agencies. But what should CAFOD do in the era of the bolsa familial?

Mavi Marmara

A ‘new actor’ making some pretty big waves

Equally, the gung-ho interventionism of western powers rapidly ran up against external and internal constraints. The cake-walks to Kabul and Baghdad were followed by long, costly, and unsuccessful occupations that have amply demonstrated the limits of US power: unequalled destructive capacity can only get you so far. The extravagant cost of these military adventures, meanwhile, is one of many factors that contributed to the financial crisis of 2008 and the contraction of most western economies, large and small, since then. (That’s why I gave 2008 as the end of the ‘post-Cold War’ period, though to cover both these aspects the hinge point really needs to be 2005/2008.)

All of which means that ‘less consensus about [Western powers’] legitimacy’ is increasingly true—but I’m less convinced that the bit about their ‘greater assertiveness’ is still the case. (Libya does not represent a significant exception to this.) I think that western humanitarian agencies, whose own budgets have suffered from the financial crisis, are now living through a period where the self-confident zeal of the 1990s is giving way to much greater self-doubt: partly because of the model that China and other cases present (of successful state-led development that owes little to western aid agencies) and partly because of the alternative sources of aid that they represent for other countries.

None of this is to take any of these emerging features of a changing landscape for granted as permanent, either. But those changes, which I’m sure the humanitarian sector is still grappling with, have now gone beyond a ‘greater assertiveness’ of Western powers.

Tony Vaux, ‘Humanitarian Trends and Dilemmas’, Development in Practice, vol. 16, nos 3-4 (2006), pp. 240–256, quote on p. 241.

Click images for source

October, 2013

Grudging rescue

After the Ottoman empire signed an armistice with the Allies in October 1918, British and French armies in the Middle East both took the opportunity to move into zones beyond what they’d occupied in the final year or two of the first world war. Britain, with troops in Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia, took the opportunity to add the oilfields of Mosul province to its gains—the incorporation of a large Kurdish zone in the north of the new state of Iraq was the result. And in 1919 France occupied what was referred to as Cilicia, an important and agriculturally wealthy region around the city of Adana in southern Anatolia.

The multiple foreign invasions of the defeated empire (Greece sent an army into western Anatolia, expanding out from the port of Smyrna; Italy took the islands of the Dodecanese; a combined Allied force occupied Istanbul and the Straits zone; and an Armenian republic declared itself in the Caucasus) triggered a rapid resurgence of popular and organized opposition among its Muslim population. Across Anatolia, ‘societies for the defence of rights’ sprang up and were rapidly coordinated around elements of the Ottoman state bureaucracy and military—the imperial government in Istanbul, which signed a humiliating treaty with the Allies at Sèvres in 1920, was soon marginalized by this emerging nationalist movement. One by one, the nationalists defeated or came to terms with their enemies, until all foreign armies had been driven back and the ‘national’ claim to rule all of Anatolia had been asserted on the ground, and accepted internationally.

For Turkish nationalism this is a heroic story of rebirth, leading to the emergence of the modern Turkish Republic, free of both foreign intervention and the empire’s disloyal erstwhile possessions. For historians who aren’t Turkish nationalists, the story is more complex. The Turkish victory in the wars of independence, culminating in the murderous destruction of the recaptured city of Smyrna in 1922, was no simple triumph. Some of the most notable cadres of the nationalist movement had, during the first world war, been closely involved in the genocidal deportations of Ottoman Armenians, and benefited from the expropriation of their possessions.

Kerr, Armenian men reaping wheat

Armenian villagers reaping wheat in the village of Kishifli, south of Marash (today’s Kahramanmaraş), 1919,
taken by Stanley Kerr and included in his book ‘The Lions of Marash’

Click image for source (Joyce Chorbajian collection)

It wasn’t surprising, then, that when the French government decided to end its war with the Turkish nationalists and hand Cilicia over to them, the Armenians resident there decided to get out. The French estimated their numbers at about 60,000: some who had originated from the region and returned to their homes after surviving deportation during the genocide; others from elsewhere in Anatolia who had settled there during the French occupation, hoping either to return to their own homes or to make new lives in what the French briefly promised would be an Armenian state in Cilicia. These hopes were short-lived. The local population was mostly Muslim: hostile to the French occupation, profoundly suspicious of Armenians (who were integrated into the occupying forces, and therefore closely associated with France), and increasingly persuaded by the claims of the new Turkish national movement based in Ankara. The French forces were overextended, with a long front line and too few troops to maintain control over the restive and divided population of the occupation zone. As the Ankara leadership increasingly demonstrated its ability to channel the loyalties of Muslims across Anatolia and overturn the postwar settlement, Paris decided to come to terms: the diplomat Henry Franklin-Bouillon travelled to Ankara and negotiated a peace accord. French officers in Beirut and Cilicia were not part of the discussions, and had mixed feelings about them. The commander of the occupying forces felt that he and his men had been sold out (though France, bankrupt after the first world war and having seen perhaps a quarter of its working-age men killed or mutilated, was hardly in a position to sustain a costly overseas conflict). The High Commissioner in Beirut, still ‘on the ground’ but at one remove from the occupation, recognized the military and diplomatic necessity of ending it but warned that France would also have to bear important consequences in the region. One of these was taking responsibility for Cilicia’s Armenians.

The handover period was set at eight weeks, covering the last two months of 1921. In this time the French forces had to recover hundreds of prisoners of war, evacuate their forces, withdraw (or abandon) their military equipment, and publicly hand authority over to representatives of Ankara. They did so in the face of persistent needling from armed groups in the local population, quite probably working in collaboration with the nationalist forces. The French military cemetery at Ayntab (modern Gaziantep) was vandalized, for example, a humiliating attack on French symbolic authority that the commander there—isolated from the main occupation force around Adana—could do no more than protest about.

As the French forces organized their own withdrawal, they also warned that Cilicia’s Armenian population was also preparing to depart. The French government in Paris insisted that the Ankara accord included guarantees for the safety of Armenians in the handover zone: Franklin-Bouillon reiterated these as he travelled through the region, and petulantly condemned anyone who cast doubt on them as working against France and the peace agreement. The High Commissioner in Beirut, General Gouraud, also travelled to Cilicia and publicly affirmed these pledges—but he himself knew that the Armenians would not believe them. Through November 1921, while the French foreign ministry issued endless reassurances (to other governments; to the Vatican; to Armenian and philarmenian groups across the world) that the Armenians in Cilicia could safely remain, French officials in the region were already watching them leave. Perhaps half of the entire Armenian population departed on their own account, for Cyprus, Egypt, Palestine, Smyrna or Constantinople—all of which, under pressure of numbers, closed their ports to Cilician Armenians. These people were refugees, but they left in good order, with laissez-passer issued by the French authorities in Adana.

By early December, the strident reassurances of Paris—echoed by Gouraud even as he reported on the Armenian exodus—were ringing increasingly hollow. Half the Armenians had left; almost all the rest were gathered, waiting, around the port of Mersin or at the railway town of Dörtyol near the Syrian border. These were the Armenians who didn’t have the resources to travel further afield under their own steam. Gouraud recognized, well before Paris admitted it, that Syria and Lebanon were the only possible destinations for them—and that the French authorities would have to take responsibility for their transportation.

What seems to have triggered an official change of mind was an action of the refugees themselves. As November turned to December, nearly 350 of them, packed into a barely seaworthy vessel that had crossed the Mediterranean amid wicked early-winter storms, arrived at Alexandria to be refused entry by the British authorities in Egypt. Other ports were closed by now. Rather than allowing themselves to be sent back to Mersin, they took control of the ship, insisting that they be sent to the French mandate territories. After a stand-off of a few days, during which the British authorities in Egypt refused to intervene, this was agreed; and soon afterwards the decision was taken not only to allow the remaining Armenians of Cilicia to enter Syria and Lebanon, but to transport them there. A relay of three large passenger vessels transported at least 13,000 from Mersin in the final two weeks of December, while the 7,000 or so concentrated at Dörtyol were brought in overland.

Risk and perilWhat was behind this grudging, and costly, rescue? I’m still thinking about it, but here are some of the themes I’ll be trying to explore when I present a paper on this subject at SOAS in a couple of weeks’ time, and here at Birmingham in the Eastern Mediterranean seminar series on 21 November.

It’s an interesting episode for a variety of reasons, though you will have noticed by now that I’ve approached it entirely through French sources—and if these pay some attention to Armenian voices, and to the Turkish nationalists, they noticeably ignore both the Muslim majority population of Cilicia and the inhabitants of the mandate territories. But in the different pressures (from other states, from a concerned and international public, and from observers in France) that led the French government to recognize that it was morally on the hook for the fate of the Armenians, we can recognize the emergence of a modern humanitarian consciousness, to borrow a term from Keith Watenpaugh—with all the blind spots and biases that humanitarianism has always displayed in practice. I don’t know of any previous examples of a state taking responsibility for the humanitarian evacuation of a foreign population, albeit one that the state’s own actions have placed at risk, though there may be such examples. The British would certainly make no such moves on behalf of Assyrians threatened in Iraq at the end of their mandate there a decade or so later. Deciding when, where, and how to take responsibility for saving humans is always complicated, and questions of self-interest are always involved. Meanwhile, the way the Armenians were kept within the bureaucratic embrace of state authorities—laissez-passer, ship’s passenger manifests—even as state authority was changing hands illustrates the importance of displaced populations as a site where state authority itself can be exercised. In different ways, this dynamic would continue once the Armenians of Cilicia were resettled in Syria and Lebanon. At a time when Syria is exporting refugees by the million, it’s worth remembering that a century ago the then-new country was a haven for refugees from elsewhere in the Middle East.

October, 2013

Professor Paul Jackson: The unintended consequences of foreign intervention

After the horrors of the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, there will be inevitable questions about the nature of Islamic terrorism in East Africa. However, the attack itself is part of an on-going conflict in Kenya that in turn is part of a bigger regional conflagration based on Somalia. In fact the attack on the mall can be traced back to an international intervention that produced a number of unintended consequences, one of which has been the transformation of the group that perpetrated the attack, Al-Shabaab.

In fact the continued fighting in Somalia and the relative success of the African Union forces against Al-Shabaab fighters may have made the situation less stable and more dangerous for a number of reasons, not least because the movement may have splintered in to a number of cells capable of perpetrating terrorist atrocities rather than holding territory.

What of Al-Shabaab itself? A rather shady organisation that grew out of the youth wing (‘shabaab’ means ‘youth’) of a wider organisation, al-Ittihad al-Islami, one of the Somali extremist groups that existed in the 1980s and 90s, al-Shabaab itself remained relatively unimportant until 2007 following the invasion of Somalia by Ethiopian troops. At that time, al-Shabaab was serving as the military wing of a group known as the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which established a form of governance within Mogadishu and in parts of the countryside. Following the Ethiopian invasion, the ICU collapsed and al-Shabaab took up arms against the Ethiopian forces, retreating in to a swampy area in the South.

At this point, the movement runs a very conventional guerrilla war against the Ethiopians, at various times supported by the Eritreans in a proxy war against her Ethiopian rival. However, the growing prominence of al-Shabaab and its Islamic roots make it fertile ground for the growth of Al-Qaeda links, as part of a regional spread of Islamic radicalism from Yemen, into the Horn and down the East coast. The increased links are attended by a change in philosophy of violence and a move to the use of suicide bombing as a means of spreading terror at the same time as continuing its conventional warfare against international forces.

In 2008 al-Shabaab mounts a series of suicide bombings against government offices and international agencies as well as the Ethiopian consulate, stating that the attacks are retaliation against the international community for the invasion of Somalia. With the advent of AMISOM in Somalia and African Union troops from Uganda and Burundi, al-Shabaab widened its terrorist campaign and in 2010 mounted its first international attack against an Ethiopian restaurant and rugby club in Uganda.

The AMISOM forces have been very successful on the ground in Somalia and al-Shabaab does not control the same level of territory as they did in 2008. The Kenyan military incursion that started in 2011 has been particularly successful, with the effective Kenyan military pushing back the fighters significantly, including capturing one of al-Shabaab’s last strongholds, Kismayo, a key source of revenue. It was this that led al-Shabaab to call the Westgate attack revenge for Kenyan involvement in Somalia.

The horrific attack can therefore be traced right back to an international intervention in a regional conflict. Not only does this point to a close link between terrorism and more conventional warfare, but also to the transnational nature of much conflict within Africa. The purpose of the attack itself was clearly to send a signal to the Kenyans that they should not send troops to Somalia, and yet it was also a signal that the African Union Somali offensive was being successful.

Losing territory and increasingly unable to hold territory against troops, al-Shabaab has been forced to rethink its strategy. Unfortunately the most logical model for a new strategy is localised cells of terrorists, usually connected to the Somali diaspora, which is very developed following twenty years of conflict. There are approximately 250,000 Somalis in Nairobi alone, which could provide a fertile breeding ground for radicalism, let alone other groups in Uganda and Tanzania.

The blueprint for this type of incident was the Mumbai hotel attack of 2008, which showed the weakness of many public areas frequented by westerners and wealthy locals and was capable of provoking an over-reaction by security forces that could lead to further radicalisation.

Whilst the blueprint is clearly international, al-Shabaab is likely to remain localised and regionally focussed, which makes it far more clear that the only way to deal with radicalised and violent groups like this is to adopt a regional security strategy linked to the conditions as well as the control of regional diasporas. The advantage of groups like al-Shabaab is that once they lose territorial integrity they can reinvent themselves as localised actors with a decentralised form of governance that does not require central bureaucracy and control. This has clear implications for the western approaches to supporting states without related regional strategies.

At the same time, they have a tight system of rules governed by Sharia law, although as the emergence of the most recent al-Shabaab leader, the hard line Ahmed Abdi Godane, also known as Mukhtar Abu Zubair, shows following considerable internal political conflicts and continual defeats of al-Shabaab fighters in Somalia. Worryingly for the region, however, according to a paper from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Godane’s tactics were considered too crude by Osama bin Laden.

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