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Madness Not Allowed: A Review of Spiritual Travelers under Religious Conservatism in Indonesia

November 29, 2022
By 28871

Religious activists in Indonesia have taken to social media to harass spiritual travelers who do not belong to the Muslim majority. Jesada Buaban, a 2019–2022 Sylff fellow at Universitas Gadjah Mada, argues that the religious majority sees the spiritual travelers as morally sick persons who need to be cured. Jesada was a Theravada monk in Thailand for 18 years and now researches gender, violence, and religious legitimacy.

* * * 

Religious diversity in Indonesia is limited because religious organizations must express their nationalism. Minority religions are especially at risk when they are not in line with mainstream organizations like Majelis Ulama Indonesia.[1],[2] The state also forces its population to believe in God and identify as belonging to one (state-recognized) religion.

On a smaller scale, this Islamization paves the way for the rise of religious specialists who play a significant role in each province. Some activists are even popular on social media. These factors affect the lives of spiritual travelers who are seen as mad/insane persons who must be medicalized and convinced to change their behaviors. Ultimately, they become commercial objects of “moral restoration.”

Pilgrimage to the tomb of Muslim saints on Mt. Tidar, Central Java (photo by Jesada 2022)

In the Javanese tradition, visiting the tombs of saints (wali) is viewed as a pilgrimage. Some people also leave household life and become homeless, like an ascetic (petapa). These people tend not to cut their hair and wear old, dirty clothes. But since YouTube and Facebook became popular in Indonesia, such spiritual travelers began to be bothered by groups of social-media activists such as Sinau Hurip and Pratiwi Noviyanthi.

These two groups are non-profit foundations (yayasan). Sinau Hurip (Learning Life from Lives of Other People) has 1.01 million subscribers on YouTube (channel created in 2019). Meanwhile, Pratiwi Noviyanthi (Ripple) is followed by 3.4 million (channel created in 2020). The same names are used on Facebook. Videos are uploaded every day by the foundations’ teams, consisting of 5-10 members. The channels earn income via YouTube and Facebook advertisements.

These two groups look for the homeless or solo-traveling persons, sometimes acting on tips from their Facebook followers. They especially focus on people who travel on foot. Walking is the symbol of those who have no job, which means (in these YouTubers’ opinion) that they have mental problems and do not want to work, associate with friends, marry, or live a household life—all of which are contrary to Islamic practices. If someone wears a necklace or a rosary, they will be asked to remove it because it is considered heretical according to Islamic radicalism.

The YouTubers always begin by asking permission to talk with the spiritual travelers but turn to force if they deny it. Fights erupt in some cases. Even though the YouTubers start the disturbance, their compassion is emphasized—they are the ones who come to “help.”[3] The homeless are usually asked/convinced to cut their long hair, take a bath, wear new clothes (mostly clothes of the YouTubers’ foundations), and receive some food and drink, and then are allowed to leave.[4]

Talkative spiritual travelers seem to be disturbed less compared to the quiet ones: physical compulsion tends to occur less when the YouTubers can engage in a discussion with the traveler, even if they disagree on religious beliefs.[5]

Being non-talkative does not mean that the spiritual traveler must be mad or has a mental illness; they could simply be introverted, for example. But the foundations’ YouTube and Facebook followers seem not to understand the diversity of lifestyles. They perceive the two activist groups as heroes who help correct the distorted behaviors and beliefs of the spiritual travelers. Pratiwi always invokes the name of God, like saying “please go back, this is Allah’s word” when asking the spiritual traveler to stop their journey and return to their homeland.

If a commenter on YouTube or Facebook warns the groups to stop disturbing the spiritual travelers, writing “this person may be a saint (wali),” other followers will reply “there is no correct practice outside Islam. Muhammad is the last prophet and his teaching is complete.” Many commenters also suggest bringing the travelers to Islamic schools (pesantren) on the grounds that they would live as good Muslims.

Interestingly, there are no comments that directly mention human rights. In Indonesia, especially in the religious sphere, rights are not important. And few people consider photographing or recording a video of someone without consent as an ethical issue.

Michael Foucault said that medication is not pure science but a combination of medicine, economics, power, and society.[6] The “medical gaze” means the medical separation of a patient’s body and identity, in which people are dehumanized into an object of analysis based upon medical knowledge.[7]

The imagined “mad” persons in Indonesia are not judged by medical knowledge but by religious conservatism that does not understand nor respect those who are different from the Islamic mainstream.


[1]     Jesada Buaban, “Online Waisak: Celebrating Discrimination of Indonesian Buddhists,” Journal of Human Rights and Peace Studies 7, no. 2 (2021),

[2]     Syafiq Hasyim, “Majelis Ulama Indonesia and Pluralism in Indonesia,” Philosophy and Social Criticism 41, no. 4-5 (2015).

[3]     Sinau Hurip, “BRIINGAAS BANGET!!! Jempol Mas Adi Harus Dijahit Karena Robek di Gigit” [So violent!!! Brother Adi’s thumb had to be stitched because it was bitten], posted on June 24, 2022, Facebook video,

[4]     Pratiwi Noviyanthi, “Lamongan!! Semua Warga Bilang ODGJ Ini Memakai Rambut Palsu Untuk Ngemis??” [LOL!! Everyone says this guy wears fake hairs to beg], April 21, 2021, YouTube video,

[5]     Sinau Hurip, “Macan Putih? Jalannya Emang Cepat Bangat, Apakah?” [White tiger? Travelling is really fast, is it not?], July 26, 2022, YouTube video,

[6]     Michel Foucault, “The Crisis of Medicine or the Crisis of Antimedicine?,” Foucault Studies (2004): 9.

[7]     Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception (New York: Random House, 1973): 165.

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Pursuing an International Strategy to Promote and Protect Indigenous Peoples’ Land Rights in Brazil

November 17, 2022
By 26115

Bruno Pegorari, a 2017 Sylff fellow, has been proactively involved in advocating for the rights of Indigenous peoples, including the Guarani Kaiowá in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil. He has contributed a brief article providing an overview of the situation that the Guyraroká community of the Guarani Kaiowá faces in Brazil.

* * *

In 2019, I was very fortunate to be awarded a Sylff Leadership Initiative (SLI) grant to continue my legal work with members of the Guyraroká community of the Guarani Kaiowá Indigenous people and their allies in Brazil. This SLI project helped me to carry out specific legal actions oriented at strengthening the community engagement with international human rights institutions in the face of Brazilian institutions’ evasive responses to the community’s attempts to recover their traditional territory. As a matter of law, the Brazilian Constitution and international treaties protect the right of Indigenous peoples to their traditional lands, among them the Guarani Kaiowá. However, it is important to highlight that this SLI project touched upon only a fraction of the broader political and legal struggle of the Guarani Kaiowá from Guyraroká. In this short article, I introduce some aspects of the Guyraroká Guarani Kaiowá’s battle for their traditional territory and explain why this struggle is not only representative of similar experiences faced by other Indigenous communities but also central to the resolution of the legal problem concerning all Indigenous peoples in Brazil.


Dona Miguela Vilhalva, a Guarani Kaiowá, greets the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Rapporteur for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Antonia Urrejola during her 2019 Brazil visit. (Source: CIMI 2019)

Guyraroká is part of the Guarani Kaiowá territory located in today’s Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul. Although Guyraroká is not officially recognized as Guarani Kaiowá territory today, its occupation by the Guarani Kaiowá goes far back, to before the arrival of settler colonizers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Guarani Kaiowá call their territories Tekohá. Guyraroká is a Tekohá, which combines the notion of land and life in a holistic, symbiotic manner. Teko means “mode of living” while means “physical place.” So, according to Kaiowá cosmology, Tekohá is the land where the mode of living of Guarani Kaiowá takes place. One does not go without the other. The teko is profoundly affected if the há (the land) is taken from them.[1]

During most of the twentieth century, the Brazilian government incentivized settlers to occupy Indigenous lands in the Midwest. During this period, settlers seized Guyraroká and expelled their inhabitants from the land. For many decades, members were banned from their traditional land, which had been turned into monoculture farmlands aimed at export. This massive land expropriation created severe consequences for the Guarani Kaiowá people. For many, the only alternative to ensure survival was to “integrate” into settler society and detach from their former Indigenous identity and territory or to stay around and work for the settlers running their stolen traditional lands under precarious labor conditions.

In the 1990s, the Guarani Kaiowá initiated a movement to take back their stolen territory. In 1999, community members finally reoccupied Guyraroká and brought the Guarani Kaiowá mode of living back to the land. The movement sought inspiration and legitimacy in the Brazilian Constitution.[2] Although anchored in a solid legal foundation, the take-back movement clashed with the economic interests of settler occupants, who had developed a stable agriculture export economy out of Indigenous lands and labor. As a result, the Brazilian Indigenist Agency (FUNAI) initiated demarcation procedures to resolve the issue. If successfully demarcated, Guyraroká would finally return to the community. However, in the final stages of the demarcation, settler landowners filed a lawsuit against FUNAI, claiming that because community members were not physically occupying Guyraroká at the date the Brazilian constitution was enacted (1988), the Guyraroká community and others under similar circumstances were to be deprived of their right of land restitution. The Supreme Court accepted the settlers’ argument in a biased and controversial decision. It ruled that, in the case of Guyraroká, the right to private property should override Indigenous rights to traditional land. Because of this case’s success, many farm owners across the country started to bring legal claims against ongoing Indigenous land demarcation procedures, producing a cascade effect. This is why the Guyraroká case is so important. It represented a large-scale backlash against Indigenous territorial rights that affected the Guyraroká community and many others all over the country.

Because the highest instance of the Brazilian judiciary had failed to protect the inherent land rights of Indigenous peoples, the Guyraroká community, under the guidance of the Guarani Kaiowá Great Assembly (Aty Guasu) and their allies, decided to appeal to international human rights institutions that have a legal mandate to oversee states under its jurisdiction, including Brazil. This is where this SLI project comes into play. The project helped to advance the international action plan to pursue reparations for the harms committed by the Brazilian judiciary against the community (that is, not protecting their land rights). So far, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (Washington, DC) has granted a Precautionary Measure to the community based on the rights enshrined in the American Convention on Human Rights, to which the Brazilian government is a party.[3] Among other things, the commission requested that Brazil take measures to stop surrounding farmers from dumping aerial pesticides over the community.

While the case does not reach the Inter-American Court of Human Rights—the institution that holds the legitimate authority to order final, binding reparations to Brazil—the community and its allies continue to advance their international strategy to expose Brazil’s violation of the fundamental land rights of Guyraroká community members.


[1] Tonico Benites, “Recuperação dos territórios tradicionais Guarani-Kaiowá. Crónica das táticas e estratégias,” (2014) 100 Journal de la Société des américanistes 100, no. 2 (2014): 229–40.

[2] The 1988 Brazilian Constitution switched from the paradigm of assimilation to one of protection and respect of Indigenous distinctiveness through the recognition of their rights. Article 231 recognizes Indigenous peoples’ “social organization, customs, languages, creeds and traditions, . . . as well as their original rights to the lands they traditionally occupy.” The same article also established that “The Federal Union has the responsibility to demarcate [their] lands and to protect and ensure respect for all their property.”

[3] A press release on the commission’s decision is vailable here:

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Mechanisms for Conflict Resolution in Employment Relations at a Multinational Company in Nigeria and South Africa

November 14, 2022
By 29628

Western and Southern Africa is a hub for multinational companies to operate their business. Olaniyi Joshua Olabiyi, a Sylff fellow in 2019 and SRA awardee in 2021, conducted his PhD fieldwork in Lagos and Cape Town. This led to research on the mechanisms available for multinational enterprises to avert industrial conflict in their host community.

* * *

Introduction and Background

The existence of labor disputes is inherent in all labor relations systems (ILO 2001). Collective bargaining breakdowns usually occur when the process of collective bargaining reaches its breaking point and then results in industrial actions, such as strikes or lockouts. Sound labor relations policy, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO 2001), is based on a system for preventing and settling labor disputes. Employee-employer relationships are characterized by divergent interests and deferred objectives from each party that frequently lead to conflict (Venter 2003). 

Photo by from PxHere.

Methodology of the Study

The study focused on the assessment and effectiveness of conflict resolution mechanisms in Nigeria and South Africa, two host countries of the multinational company Huawei. It focused primarily on collective bargaining mechanism processes. A portion of this work was devoted to applying and interpreting mechanisms that can be used when disputes arise between employers and unionized workers.

In addition, the study conducted a comparative analysis of conflict resolution mechanisms used in South Africa and Nigeria to improve our knowledge of how conflict resolution works in South Africa’s labor relations environment compared to the conflict resolution mechanism in Nigeria. In this study, we investigated the tools and frameworks of legislation that facilitate reconciliation and peace in employment relationships and result in fewer disputes in South Africa and Nigeria.

The study employed a nonexperimental descriptive research design based on a survey approach. For data collection, a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods was applied. In both Nigeria and South Africa, a questionnaire was distributed to 200 employees of the group in that country. After compiling the aggregate data generated from the responses of employees across Huawei group companies in both countries, 363 responses were obtained for data. The data collection activity took place over the course of three-plus months.


Data Analysis Procedure

The methods of data collection and analysis used in this study include both quantitative and qualitative approaches. Interviews and questionnaire surveys were conducted to determine the process followed in addressing industrial conflict. 

For qualitative data analysis, 20 senior managers from Huawei multinational were interviewed face-to-face. We asked each manager to describe two or three specific incidents that have mandated the implementation of conflict resolution processes, procedures, and mechanisms within the organization. We then followed how the conflict was resolved by learning what measures were taken to that end. The interviewer asked participants a follow-up question, and they answered according to their knowledge, thus generating sufficient data to meet the research objective. The responses were analyzed using software program called NVivo and ATLAS.ti. 

For the quantitative arm, a closed-ended structure questionnaire was used to select a total of 400 employees from the Huawei multinational enterprise group in Nigeria and South Africa as the optimal sample for the quantitative arm. Of the 200 employees who were given the survey at the Nigerian site, 177 completed the survey, 14 did not respond, and 9 were excluded due to undisclosed information. Thus, 177 employees were part of the data collection in Nigeria.

A questionnaire was likewise provided to 200 employees of the company by the South African counterpart of the study. A total of 186 employees responded and 14 refused to respond, so 186 responses were taken as the final sample. In all, 363 responses were gathered from Huawei group employees in Nigeria and South Africa for the study’s data analysis.

To analyze the quantitative data collected using descriptive and inferential statistics, we used the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) version 19.0 for Windows, as it offers a variety of parametric as well as nonparametric statistical tests. A demographic analysis was conducted to determine the demographic composition of the sample. The data was presented in graphs, charts, and tables.

Data Coding and Cleaning

The data collected from Huawei group companies in South Africa and Nigeria needed to be coded and cleaned. Babbie and Mouton (2015) describe how social science data can be manipulated and read by computers and similar machines based on quantitative and qualitative data analysis. By using closed-ended questions with limited answers, data could be analyzed unpretentiously and directly, along with graphs.

There were two sections for demographics and research questions. For the researcher to perform a credible analysis, demographics and research questions were collected independently. Data analysis was performed on the quantitative data to analyze the theme and subject of the research. To ensure that the cleaning and coding processes are free of error, they were systematically observed several times at random.

Findings and Results

The mechanism for resolving conflict was more successful in South Africa than in Nigeria. Moreover, the study showed that industrial conflicts in Nigeria were not well managed. The reason for this was the Nigerian government’s spineless approach to labor legislation and resolution of labor disputes. The lack of intent to improve employment relations was due to the volatile labor relations environment in Nigeria. Within the South African space of labor relations, meanwhile, the labor policy was highly regulated, and the procedures were properly followed and implemented.

A total of 4.0% of respondents agreed that Nigeria’s organization had an appropriate and efficient conflict resolution mechanism. The majority of 44.1% disagreed that there was an effective and efficient mechanism for resolving conflict. In the South African organization, 58.6% of respondents agreed that an effective and practical conflict prevention device exists in their organization, while 2.2% disagreed. The Nigerian organization demonstrated through the low percentage of positive responses to both statements that it did not have a functioning dispute resolution mechanism.

In the survey of South African employees, 58.6% of respondents believed that formal mechanisms are necessary to explain how conflict should be handled within an organization. Another 21.0% strongly agreed that a conflict resolution device is present within the organization, adding up to 79.6%. Conflict resolution mechanisms were perceived as prevalent by approximately 2.2% of respondents and strongly so by 0.5%. The positive responses from 79.6% of employees indicate that a just conflict resolution mechanism is present in South Africa’s organization. This conclusion comes from the fact that if unbiased conflict resolution mechanisms exist between management and labor, it automatically enhances harmony in the workplace.

Of the Nigerian respondents, 44.1% disagreed with the assertion that the organization enforces or ratifies international labor standards. Since the largest percentage of employees disagreed with the statement, it appears that the Nigerian organization disallowed internationally accepted standards of work practice regarding conflict management. In total, 79.7% of respondents agreed with organizations upholding and promoting the international labor framework for conflict resolution, while 4.5% disapproved, 0.6% strongly agreed, and 15.3% said they were neutral about it.

In the South African survey, 82.3% of respondents approved of and accepted international labor standards for managing conflicts in employment relations; 3.2% said they did not, and 14% said maybe or unsure. There was a significantly higher percentage of employees who answered “yes” than those who answered “no.” This is because the organization consented to the worldwide framework for adjudicating workplace conflicts. In view of the foregoing, it is clear that organizations within South Africa use the mechanisms of international labor standards for conflict resolution. This is because they resolve conflict whenever it arises within the organization. Consequently, that organization would practice labor relations in a way that is fair, equitable, and equal in terms of conflict resolution mechanisms.

Concluding Remarks

The study concludes by recommending that host countries of multinational corporations in Africa constantly review their conflict resolution frameworks. This is so that the frameworks serve as a guide for multinational companies operating within their borders. As part of such mechanisms, the study points out that there needs to be a process of sincere dialogue between employers and employees. This must be accompanied by effective channels of communication between them. The study suggests that a nonviolent workplace environment can be facilitated by encouraging accommodating and congruent conflict resolution strategies among employees.

The report from the study revealed a case in which a multinational company that originally intended to infuse the international standard of employment relations into its host country’s conflict mechanisms abandoned and neglected the prevailing international practices of employment relations. In such a circumstance, the host country may have regressed from its labor relations legislation standard regarding conflict resolution. The multinational company has been able to sidestep the normal dispute resolution process by following the easiest route, disregarding normal protocol. Consequently the development of the host country, such as Nigeria, has been adversely affected. If a foreign corporation fails to observe the labor laws of the host country, how will the government sanction this behavior? Is there a procedure or regulation for dealing with such transgressions in the host country’s legal framework? It is common for governments to lack mechanisms to keep them in check.

As is evident from the findings presented in the study, multinational companies believe that they have influenced the host country’s environment by using the appropriate international standard for labor relations practice. This has resulted in the development of mechanisms that limit conflict among members of the workforce. Employees of the company in Nigeria, as well as reports of operations and actions of a multinational company in Nigeria, provide some support for this assertion. Even though multinational enterprises reap a tremendous number of economic and financial benefits, they have served as contrarian vehicles for capital flight from their host nations, exclusively in Africa (Allen-Ile and Olabiyi 2021).



Allen-ILE, C. O. K., and J. O. Olabiyi. 2021. “A Preliminary Comparative Perspective on the Role of Multinational Enterprises in Influencing Labour Relations of Their Host Nation.” Advances in Social Sciences Research Journal 6, no. 12 (December 2019): 298–318.

Babbie, E., and  J. Mouton. 2015. The Practice of Social Research. South Africa ed. Oxford University Press Southern Africa (Pty) Ltd.

ILO (Internationa Labour Organization). 2001. “Substantive Provisions of Labour Legislation: Settlement of Collective Labour Disputes.” Chap. 4 in Labour Legislation Guidelines. International Labour Organization. Available online at (accessed November 20, 2019).

Venter, R. 2003. Labour Relations in South Africa. 2nd ed (revised). Cape Town: Oxford University Press Southern Africa.

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Creating a Collaborative Perinatal Care System in Puerto Rico

November 10, 2022
By 19739

In Puerto Rico, midwives used to be the primary care providers for expecting individuals and families. But the community-based model has been displaced by hospital-based care—an unsustainable model with less-than-optimal birth outcomes. Holly Horan, 2015–2016 Sylff fellow and doula, used a Sylff Leadership Initiative grant to work with community partners and convene leaders and practitioners to improve integrated perinatal care in Puerto Rico.

 * * *

“My midwife saved me from a cesarean”, my doula client shared with me when reflecting on her first birth. “She saved me from being cut in half because the doctors don’t have faith in the process [of physiologic birth].”

It was a comfortable, late winter evening at my client’s home in the suburban sprawl of San Juan, Puerto Rico. I was conducting my dissertation research on maternal stress and timing of birth and undergoing pre-midwifery training at the community center Centro MAM (MAM) in Carolina. My pre-midwifery training required that I provide doula services for homebirth clients working with MAM’s midwife team. This was our first prenatal visit, where I met the mother at her home to begin to discuss her goals and plans for birth and postpartum. At our visits, I would also share information, resources, and provide additional supports to the family as needed to achieve these goals.

I looked down and touched the cool tile floor, common to homes in this tropical environment, and thought for a moment. Then I said: “I’m so glad she was there with you. How did you feel about transferring to a doctor to when your birth wasn’t going as planned?”

My client sat in silence for a moment, embracing her 8-month pregnant belly that was home to her second child. She looked at me intently and said, “I thank God we have access to doctors when we need them. But they don’t like midwives, they don’t like people who use midwives. Holly, the whole process is so violent.” 


Maternal stress and birth outcomes

I am a clinical, biocultural, medical anthropologist who specializes in applied and community-engaged research. I am the daughter of a Puerto Rican woman who had three spontaneous preterm births that clinicians could not predict nor explain. When I began to explore the intersections of maternal stress and birth outcomes (such as timing of birth), I asked my mom why she thought she had preterm births. Her response was brief but complex: “I don’t know, but life was hard.”

Many sets of hands with different skin tones resting on a pregnant belly. Conference title “Integrando la ciencia y el arte del nacimiento” and dates “22-24 de Febrero, San Juan, Puerto Rico”.

Conference magazine cover.

Robust research has found associations between racism, chronic stress, and poor perinatal health outcomes. As I read the literature, I started to think about how my mom was the only person of color in our Midwest neighborhood. And I remember public instances of blatant discrimination that occurred in front of us, her children. This led me to a professional pursuit exploring experiences of maternal stress – to better understand from social and biological perspectives how such experiences manifest and to think about reducing stress through mechanisms that focus on respecting the lived experiences of the pregnant person.

At the same time I started my doctoral program in 2012, I trained as a birth and postpartum doula. I became familiar with models such as the JJ Way,[i] which has shown that a supportive, midwifery-led, person-centered model of care can nearly ameliorate preterm birth rates. When I told my mom I was becoming a doula, she responded: “A what?!” —a common reaction still despite rising awareness about doulas, globally.

Doulas are non-clinical providers who offer customized education, resources, and support during the perinatal period to meet the expecting family’s needs.[ii] When I explained to my mother what doulas do, she commented: “I can’t imagine what that could have done for me.” I also told her about the midwifery model of care, to which she said, “Why don’t women have more access to these wonderful things? Even if you need a doctor, they can work together.”


The coopting of community birth knowledge in Puerto Rico

My mother’s personal experience inspired me to better understand the lived experience of stress, the embodiment of stress, and preterm birth among pregnant people living in Puerto Rico. I came to intimately understand our perinatal healthcare system in the United States, as Puerto Rico is currently colonized as a US territory. I learned about the role of midwives in Puerto Rico in the early era of US colonization, where midwives served as community-based, public health professionals, primary care providers, and healers known as comodronas.[iii]

I learned about their integration into the public health and biomedical system and, ultimately, their near extinction that coincided with the growth of the biomedical industrial complex—a complex that co-opted the pregnancy, birth, and postpartum-care knowledge and procedures that midwives and others founded and openly shared with physicians to collaborate to better serve pregnant people across the United States and US territories. By the 1970s, comodronas in Puerto Rico, like midwives elsewhere in the United States, went underground because of the due to the elimination of regulation and licensure for their profession and as the healthcare system began to decentralize and privatize.[iv],[v],[vi],[vii]

Fast-forward to the 2000s and see the landscape of maternity care in the United States and US territories dramatically changed, and not entirely to the betterment for birthers and their families. Over four decades (1960s to 2000s), birth in Puerto Rico transitioned predominately to the hospital setting, where obstetricians practice care that is “technocratic, interventionist, and hierarchical.” Within this setting, obstetricians have increasingly conducted episiotomies cesareans, and restricted access to partners and family members.[viii] Today, obstetrician-attended birth is the norm on the island, and other providers, such as midwives, are still not recognized or regulated despite evidence-based research demonstrating the profound efficacy of the midwifery model of care across birth settings and geographic contexts.

Further, despite there being more than 500 trained obstetricians on the island, only one-fifth of them practice obstetrics, with the remainder offering only gynecological services. Unlike many obstetric and midwifery practices in the United States, where labor and delivery units and birth centers rotate on-call shifts for providers, many providers in Puerto Rico work in high-volume, single-provider practices.[ix]

This model of care is unsustainable and negatively impacts perinatal health outcomes. Currently, the island has significantly higher rates of primary (first birth) cesarean birth (42.2% in Puerto Rico versus 25.6% in the United States),[x] perinatal mortality (infant deaths between 28 weeks of pregnancy to 28 days after birth; 7.9/1000 in Puerto Rico versus 6/1000 in the United States),[xi] and preterm birth (an infant born <37 weeks of pregnancy; 11.6% in Puerto Rico versus 10.1% in the United States).[xii]


Bringing together leaders to promote integrated perinatal care in Puerto Rico

Smiling speakers (a politician, midwives, and a lawyer) standing in front of projector screen and behind podium.

Panel session discussion economic and political perspectives of integrated perinatal care.

In ethnographic research that I conducted with my Puerto Rican colleagues, the participants identified two critical steps to ameliorate outcomes and improve healthcare service delivery, namely:[xiii]

  • legally recognizing and supporting additional maternity care options, including midwives and doulas
  • increasing patient and provider educational initiatives to convey the benefits of preventative medicine and “right-sized” maternity care

Based on the research, midwife instructor and Co-founder and Director of MAM Vanessa Caldari Melendez and I decided to develop a proposal for the Sylff Leadership Initiative. As a first step to work toward these potential solutions, we wanted to bring together perinatal care providers and professionals to re-imagine how we can encourage and implement collaborative perinatal care and perinatal health systems integration in Puerto Rico.

Collaborative perinatal care is when clinical and social support professionals work together to provide trauma-informed, patient-centered care to the expecting person and their family.

Perinatal health systems integration focuses on improving the healthcare infrastructure, such as by establishing standard operating procedures, allowing clinicians in the community setting to practice at the top of their scope, creating reasonable licensure policies for community providers, and expanding health insurance coverage and billing practices, to encourage collaborative perinatal care.

Community partners suggested hosting a conference to bring influential people within and Puerto Rico and from outside together to create a plan to improve perinatal healthcare on the island.

We submitted our proposal to Sylff in March 2020, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. After months of delays, we hosted a hybrid, international conference at the Senate in the Capitol in Old San Juan on February 22 to 24, 2022: Integrando La Ciencia Y El Arte Del Nacimiento (Integrating the Science and Art of Birth).[xiv] The goal of the conference was to move forward on implementing integrated perinatal care in Puerto Rico.

More than 300 people registered. Speakers included influential politicians, physicians, birth workers, researchers, lawyers, educators, and advocates. The conference spanned three days. Each day included a welcome address , two morning panels, a networking lunch, two afternoon sessions, and time for community dialogue and planning for next steps. MAM hosted a cultural event on the first evening that included local music and a birthing enactment ceremony. Birth workers, physicians, legislators, students, and public health professionals attended and received continuing education credits.


On the path to better perinatal healthcare

Community partners said the conference was transformative for the birth workers of Puerto Rico. Outcomes included a meeting with lead researchers and politicians to develop a plan to legislatively move forward with integrated care. We are also developing a conference brief that can be used for legislative purposes across the island.

Vanessa Caldari Melendez and I are now planning to create a holistic, collaborative women’s health center in Puerto Rico. The center will focus on clinical service, teaching, and research—so people like my client and my mother can have access to perinatal healthcare that is person-centered, evidence-based, and transformative for pregnant people, their families, and their care teams.


 Arbona, Guillermo, and Annette B Ramirez De Arellano. Regionalization of Health Services. The Puerto Rican Experience. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Association of Maternal and Child Health (AMCHP). 2018 Puerto Rico: State Profile. (2018).

"The Jj Way®." n.d., accessed 31 October, 2022,

Córdova, Isabel M. "Transitioning: The History of Childbirth in Puerto Rico, 1948–1990s." University of Michigan, 2008.

"What Is a Doula." n.d., accessed 31 October, 2022,

Hamilton, Brady E., Joyce A. Martin, and Michelle J. K. Osterman. Births: Provisional Data for 2019. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Washington, DC: 2020).

Horan, Holly, Melissa Cheyney, Yvette Piovanetti, and Vanessa Caldari. "La Crisis De La Atención De Maternidad: Experts’ Perspectives on the Syndemic of Poor Perinatal Health Outcomes in Puerto Rico." Human Organization 80, no. 1 (2021): 2-16.

March of Dimes. 2021 March of Dimes Report Card. (2022).

Pagan-Berlucchi, Eileen, and Donald N. Muse. "The Medicaid Program in Puerto Rico: Description, Context, and Trends." Health Care Financing Review 4, no. 4 (1983).

Perreira, Krista, Rebecca Peters, Nicole Lallemand, and Stephen Zuckerman. Puerto Rico Health Care Infrastructure Assessment. Urban Institute (Washington, DC: 2017).

Revista Integrando La Ciencia Y El Arte Del Nacimiento. 2020.


[i] "The JJ Way®," n.d., accessed 31 October, 2022,

[ii] "What is a Doula," n.d., accessed 31 October, 2022,

[iii] Isabel M Córdova, "Transitioning: The history of childbirth in Puerto Rico, 1948–1990s" (University of Michigan, 2008).

[iv] Córdova, "Transitioning: The history of childbirth in Puerto Rico, 1948–1990s."

[v] Guillermo Arbona and Annette B Ramirez De Arellano, Regionalization of health services. The Puerto Rican experience (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).

[vi] Eileen Pagan-Berlucchi and Donald N. Muse, "The Medicaid program in Puerto Rico: Description, context, and trends," Health Care Financing Review 4, no. 4 (1983),

[vii] Krista Perreira et al., Puerto Rico health care infrastructure assessment, Urban Institute (Washington, DC, 2017).

[viii] Córdova, "Transitioning: The history of childbirth in Puerto Rico, 1948–1990s."

[ix] Holly Horan et al., "La Crisis de la Atención de Maternidad: Experts’ Perspectives on the Syndemic of Poor Perinatal Health Outcomes in Puerto Rico," Human Organization 80, no. 1 (2021),,

[x] Brady E. Hamilton, Joyce A. Martin, and Michelle J. K. Osterman, Births: Provisional Data for 2019, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Washington, DC, 2020),

[xi] Association of Maternal and Child Health (AMCHP), 2018 Puerto Rico: State Profile (2018).

[xii] March of Dimes, 2021 March of Dimes Report Card (2022),

[xiii] Horan et al., "La Crisis de la Atención de Maternidad: Experts’ Perspectives on the Syndemic of Poor Perinatal Health Outcomes in Puerto Rico."

[xiv] Revista Integrando La Ciencia Y El Arte Del Nacimiento, (2020),

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Online Mindfulness Training for South African Teachers: Reflections on a Shared Journey

October 21, 2022
By 27087

Liza Hamman, a 2012 Sylff fellow, became a qualified mindfulness facilitator after finding a personal need for mindfulness as a means of ensuring her mental health. With the help of an SLI award, in 2021 Hamman developed an online course on mindfulness for South African teachers, who could then share what they learned with their students. Here she recounts the journey, from her initial encounter with mindfulness to some of the feedback she has received from teachers who have participated in the course.

* * *

When the Sylff Leadership Initiative (SLI) award was granted to me in 2020, it enabled me to put an idea into action—an idea that has been at the back of my mind for many years but I was unable to execute. It was an idea that was formulated based on my own journey with mindfulness, which stared in 2008.

At the time, I was working full-time as a lecturer and studying toward my master’s degree in adult education. It was a particularly challenging period for me, as I constantly felt overwhelmed and exhausted, struggling to cope with my workload and other responsibilities.

I had to find a way to balance work, studies, and my family responsibilities or face burnout. As I started exploring the practice of mindfulness by enrolling in courses and reading extensively on the subject, the benefits and healing qualities of mindfulness were revealed to me. It became apparent to me that to survive the fast pace and demands of modern-day life, I had to integrate a mindfulness practice into my routine—a mindfulness practice to promote mental health, very similar to an exercise regime to ensure physical health.


The website that was developed for online mindfulness training for educators in South Africa.


As I continued my journey with mindfulness, later becoming a qualified mindfulness facilitator, I realized that sharing the practice of mindfulness with others can contribute to relieving some of the suffering in our frantic society. As an educator, and as a mindfulness facilitator, it seemed vital to me that I find innovative ways to introduce as many teachers and their students as possible to the practice. That is when I started formulating the idea of offering a free online mindfulness course for South African teachers. The goal was to introduce them to mindfulness and hopefully initiate their own personal journey with mindfulness. Furthermore, I wanted to empower them to lead their students in simple mindfulness practices in the classroom.


Sharing the Journey with Others Online

In 2021, as a result of receiving the SLI award, I was finally able to offer the first online mindfulness training course developed especially for South African teachers. In the past I had facilitated mindfulness courses for educators in face-to-face settings, and it was always a humbling experience. I was constantly amazed when people shared how the practice influenced their lives for the better or they revealed their own insights during course discussions. It reminded me that a mindfulness practice has the potential to unlock a deep-seated wisdom within all of us. All we needed to do to access this wisdom was engage with ourselves in the present moment, through mindfulness. New knowledge is available to us, if we are willing to simply pay attention to our own experience, whether physically or emotionally, in a kind and mindful manner.


A screenshot from a video included in the online mindfulness training course for educators.


This new knowledge and wisdom were apparent in the feedback from the participants, related below in their own words. Sharon, one of the first participants, remarked on a journey of “healing and self-discovery,” stating that it enabled her to focus on the positive aspects of her life. She said the following about her journey of personal growth:

“Before doing this course, I often felt uncomfortable, like I was being lazy, realizing that I seem to have my own idea of what doing enough is and what being enough is, which isn’t even true. I know that I am doing this course for me, my growth, and to find healing and self-discovery. Perhaps love me more, flaws, disappointments, guilt and all, and thus contribute in a more positive way to people and things around me. Previously, I could not see the value in spending time with myself, but during the course I realized the value of spending time with me. It also opened my eyes to the positive aspects in my life; I could find at least one thing a day that left me feeling good, no matter how small. I discovered that I can be quite judgmental and negative, especially when it comes to me, because I tend to skirt over the positives. Now I focus more on the positive aspects.”

George also related his journey of personal growth and noticed how his ability to listen and connect with others had improved.

“It became very apparent to me that we need to listen more often. We need to take the time to listen to each other, the people we love: children, students, colleagues. So often I am too busy to really listen, to take the time to give my full attention to that person, thinking about tasks that I still need to complete today instead of listening. I often feel the pull of my cell phone. The course reminded me that true wisdom and insight comes when we listen, not when we are the ones speaking. And creating a pause before responding—so often in my life I have been burnt because I am too quick to respond, I go with my first instinct, and this is often not the correct response. Listening, taking time to consider and contemplate, that is what stood out for me.

“The practice of mindfulness forced me into stillness; it forced me to do ‘nothing,’ for a while. At first it seemed very strange to me, almost impossible. And then I convinced my mind that it is not doing nothing, I am still doing something. And that seemed to make it easier to create the moments of stillness and reflection. The calm of these moments supported me throughout my day, and I hope that I will have the discipline to continue including the formal practices in my life.

“The way forward with mindfulness for me means that I would like to continue with the formal practices, and I have invited my wife to join me. Somehow, it is a special time for us, even though we are not speaking to each other, just sitting together—both focusing on our own practice, but it brought a certain connection to each other, a closeness. And in my opinion, we were more in harmony with each other on the days that we did practice together. It is an interesting combination: you are spending time focusing on yourself and working on your own thoughts, yet you are also together. You can feel the presence of the other person.”

Like George, Thandeka and Maposa related the need to share their experience with others. This, as stated previously, was one of the goals of the course. Thandeka, in particular, remarked that she had found a sense of “stillness and peace” that she would like to share with others.

“During the last eight weeks, I have found a sense of peace that I was not able to connect to previously. When I sat down to meditate, I found moments of peace. Not all—of course my mind is still busy, and it drifts and wanders, but one of the greatest gifts for me during the past eight weeks was this sense of stillness and peace. I want to hang on to this. I want to continue experiencing these moments of rest, peace, and stillness, and I would like to share it with others.”

Maposa commented that he learned how precious his health is, that his sleep patterns have improved, and that he finds it easier to manage his anxiety and emotions.

“I have learned how to focus on my health instead of on the pain. This is a huge change from how I used to treat pain. It has made me realize how precious my health is. Through this journey, I have learned about the benefits of meditation, and I am beginning to make it happen for myself, and I do breathing with my students. My sleep has also improved after a session. I have also experienced a reduction in my anxiety and have learned how to manage my emotions better. I am starting to find a way to stay in that rhythm, so that I can keep myself motivated to continue doing it. This is a journey that I will never forget.”

These are just four examples of the type of feedback that I receive after the conclusion of the courses. It is these words, the insights and new knowledge shared by course participants, that motivate me. It underlines that this type of work, although not often prioritized in educational settings, is important and worthwhile. It highlights that if we can allow ourselves to discover our own wisdom, and be willing to share it with others, we have the potential to create meaningful and lasting change.


Final Reflections

As I reflect on my time offering the mindfulness training for South African teachers online, and I read the feedback received from participants, I realize that not everybody had the same experience. For some participants, the experience of mindfulness was more profound than for others. Some participants were willing to commit to the practice and do the hard work, while others wanted a quick fix and was disappointed when they realized that it takes time and effort. For some, just being able to share their experience was already healing, while others remained unwilling to explore too deeply. I accept that some will continue with the journey, while others may decide that the practice of mindfulness is not for them. That is their choice, and I know that each individual must choose the path that is right for them.

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Belgrade Rector Visits Chairman Sasakawa and Sylff Association Secretariat

October 18, 2022

Mr. Sasakawa welcoming Professor Djokic during the visit to The Nippon Foundation.

On October 6, Professor Vladan Djokic, rector of the University of Belgrade, visited Sylff Association Chairman Yohei Sasakawa at The Nippon Foundation.

Professor Djokic, who was appointed rector in 2021, was in Japan to attend the Science and Technology in Society Forum in Kyoto. He and his wife, Dr. Ana Miladinovic, visited Tokyo on their way back to Serbia.

Mr. Sasakawa and Prof. Djokic exchange views on a range of topics.

In their meeting, Prof. Djokic and Mr. Sasakawa shared their views on a broad range of topics, including recent international developments and issues in Japan’s educational system.


A traditional Serbian handicraft is presented as a gift.

Prof. Djokic also stopped by the Tokyo Foundation’s Roppongi office. As an expert on urban architecture and design, he expressed great interest in the view of Tokyo from the Foundation’s 34th floor office.

A group photo at the Tokyo Foundation.

Face-to-face visits had been put on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic but are now gradually resuming. We are looking forward to the day when we can once again have in-person meetings with Sylff fellows and SSC members on a regular basis.



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Participation of Communities, Groups, and Individuals in the International Safeguarding Mechanism for the Intangible Cultural Heritage

October 17, 2022
By 28626

Aliki Gkana, a 2018 Sylff fellow, took advantage of an SRA award in 2021 to conduct research on a question related to the field of intangible cultural heritage protection under international law. As well as sharing her findings, she goes on to make suggestions for ways to improve on the framework of the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.

* * *

The safeguarding of the intangible cultural heritage (ICH) appears to be a very interesting and, in my opinion, one of the most challenging areas of contemporary international cultural heritage law, as well as being new and constantly evolving. Following the adoption of the 2003 UNESCO Convention (Convention),[1] which was endorsed by the international community rather quickly in terms of public international law procedures (with already 180 States Parties as of July 27, 2020), important related progressive developments increasingly attract the attention of all stakeholders involved: UNESCO, states, academics, and ICH bearers (interested communities, groups, and individuals).

Photo accompanying the inscription of the Polyphonic Caravan on UNESCO’s Register of Good Safeguarding Practices, 2020. (© Alexandros Lampridis, 2007)


The field of ICH attracted my attention very early on during my studies in international law, and my theoretical engagement with it developed in parallel with a previous and manifold engagement in the practice of living heritage—through years of active participation in the Polyphonic Caravan, an institution of Panhellenic and cross-border action dedicated to safeguarding the Epirus Polyphonic Song.[2] These two aspects of my involvement were ideally correlated to deepen my contact with the subject matter of my doctoral research, which is intended to reflect in its theoretical legal analyses a dialectic relationship with the actual circumstances and concerns on the ground.


Research Focus and Objectives

Under this prism, my doctoral thesis researches the position of ICH in international law in whole by examining the existing protection framework that governs, defines, and potentially restricts it, as well as the conditions for its evolution at a moment when it is already dynamically developing. It aspires to contribute to ICH protection in relation to “unresolved” legal issues by investigating the limits and “inaccessible” areas of the existent legal framework and to the progress of scientific research in the field by making innovative suggestions for reformation, creative enlargement, and specialization, dealing with existing constraints towards a more functional safeguarding. In this context, its approach uses ICH as a basis for giving prominence to the interactive relationship between international cultural heritage law and other areas of international law, such as human rights, intellectual property, and environmental law, as well as highlighting the field of ICH as an ideal case study for the detection and examination of fundamental public international law issues.

In particular, the issue of participation of communities, groups, and, where applicable, individuals[3] is crucial for the function of the safeguarding system in its whole and is pointed out as one of the prominent topics gaining ground in international discussions[4] at expert and intergovernmental levels. In fact, it constitutes a rather challenging aspect of the Convention’s application, since it directly involves civil society in a mechanism that is functionally addressed to states, trying to compromise the interests of states and peoples over their living heritage expressions.[5] As a result, the said participatory approach to cultural heritage safeguarding initiated by the 2003 UNESCO Convention,[6] which positions the ICH bearers at its heart, could be questioned insofar as relevant state practice disrespects or undermines this role at a national or international level, especially given that the existing protection framework does not contain the necessary legal guarantees.

Photo accompanying the inscription of the Polyphonic Caravan on UNESCO’s Register of Good Safeguarding Practices, 2020. (© Alexandros Lampridis, 2012)

As such, the objectives of my SRA project consisted of the following axes: detection of the legal gaps and deficiencies related to the participation of communities, groups and persons, examination of relevant state practice and possible consequences to communities’ and people’s relationship to their ICH, analysis of the consequent legal as well as social and anthropological questions, study of the emerging contemporary tendencies and perspectives, sharing and exchange of views with active and experienced experts involved in such discussions, and formulation of proposals for alternatives in view of a more effective protection framework for communities, groups and, where applicable, individuals in light of the above.


Observations and Proposals

The research led me to collect a series of interesting remarks, positions, and experiences, shared directly by experts and representatives of NGOs and communities involved in various ways in the UNESCO’s safeguarding mechanism for ICH. Interestingly, their positions were often divergent with regards to the central question, depending mainly on the level and nature of their involvement (for example, as “administrators” or “addressees” of the safeguarding mechanism), their background, informed knowledge, and approach to issues of ICH “management” in general. At the same time, the bibliographic research allowed me to collect valuable resources and find contemporary tendencies, practices, and progressive developments, as well as systematize information around the examination of the main subject matter, including in the context of UNESCO’s statutory procedures and relevant scholarly writings.[7]

As a result, the project led to the correlation of practice and theory in detecting the legal gaps of the ICH safeguarding mechanism and formulating relevant proposals as a response. On the one hand, the mechanism could be characterized by the following major deficiencies: absence of specific legal guarantees in favor of communities’, groups’, and individuals’ widest possible participation in the Convention’s implementation and active involvement in the management of their ICH,[8] inclusion of “weak” and “loose” legal obligations promoting only a best-effort approach, and absence of an enforcement tool ensuring states’ compliance with even these loose obligations apart from the periodic reporting process.[9] By extension, some of the major questions that were highlighted in the course of the research project and would need further examination are whether communities are at all invited or encouraged to participate in state actions for their ICH’s safeguarding, if they or their ICH are misrepresented or marginalized, if their involvement is full and direct or limited and canalized, and how their participation and consent in the nomination process are measured.[10]

Photo accompanying the inscription of the Polyphonic Caravan on UNESCO’s Register of Good Safeguarding Practices, 2020. (© Alexandros Lampridis, 2019)

On the other hand, the association of the personal views of the people involved with the more theoretical analyses permitted an overview of not only the legal but also the social and anthropological consequences related to the possibly improper function of the UNESCO’s system in question. It is notable that, in some cases, the identification of ICH elements and their communities is considered fundamental when it comes to which and whose ICH can “reach” protected status under the UNESCO mechanism, something that is left completely at the states’ discretion and may inevitably raise political or other social issues. And this becomes especially apparent during the procedure of nomination for inscription of elements on the ICH National Inventories or the Convention’s Lists,[11] when problematic policies of States Parties can often instrumentalize ICH or favor conflicts over ICH’s “ownership” and “misappropriation,” even within the same communities and groups of people.

The following could be some proposals for ameliorating the system’s function in favor of a more meaningful participation of communities, groups, and, where applicable, individuals in it, aimed at filling the systemic gaps and deficiencies and responding to the concerns raised: the positive use of the international human rights protection mechanism for more effectively protecting ICH bearers and their relationship with their ICH, and the reinforcement of a human rights-based approach within the existing UNESCO system that could ensure the respect of the Ethical Principles for Safeguarding ICH and that could be translated into concrete measures, such as the recognition of an enhanced role of civil society actors, including but not limited to the ICH NGO Forum, to act in an advisory capacity to the ICH Intergovernmental Committee, the provision of possibilities for communities and persons to directly address the Committee, as well as the possible adoption of other new rules and procedures in this direction.

Photo accompanying the inscription of the Polyphonic Caravan on UNESCO’s Register of Good Safeguarding Practices, 2020. (© Alexandros Lampridis, 2018)

In conclusion, the research that I conducted with an SRA award offered the opportunity to focus in particular on the critical questions mentioned above, highlighting the role that the progressive development of international law could play in favor of respect for an enhanced active role of communities and their members in the evolution of the 2003 UNESCO Convention’s protection framework and in view of its future implementation.


[1] See the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, which was adopted in Paris on October 17, 2003, and entered into force on April 20, 2006: (last accessed May 31, 2022).

[2] For more information on the Polyphonic Caravan, which was the first-ever proposal from Greece for UNESCO’s Register of Good Safeguarding Practices in the field of ICH—one of the three international lists of the 2003 UNESCO Convention—and was inscribed on the Register in 2020, see: (last accessed May 31, 2022).

[3] See the reference by UNESCO on the involvement of communities, groups, and individuals: (last accessed May 31, 2022).

[4] Read about the interesting topics discussed at an expert meeting dedicated to community involvement in safeguarding ICH that took place in Tokyo, Japan, a while before the Convention’s entry into force, as well as its conclusions, here: (last accessed May 31, 2022).

[5] For a more thorough analysis, read my article, “Peoples’ Heritage or States’ Heritage? Sovereignty in the UNESCO Mechanism for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage,” ESIL Papers Series, 2020, available at SSRN.

[6] The Convention recognizes the bearers’ important role as well as inherent connection to their ICH. See for example the Convention’s preamble, paragraph 6, article 2, paragraph 1, article 11(b), and article 15.

[7] An updated list of 116 research references related to the theme of “community participation” can be found in the 2003 Convention Research Bibliography: (last accessed May 31, 2022).

[8] See the States Parties’ commitments as reflected in a series of provisions within and beyond the conventional text: “UNESCO Operational Directives for the Implementation of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage,” as amended (2020), paragraphs 24, 79–99, 157(e), 160, 171, 176, 185, 186, and 189,; and “Ethical Principles for Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage,” adopted by the ICH Intergovernmental Committee in 2015, (last accessed May 31, 2022).

[9] See more at (last accessed May 31, 2022).

[10] The “free, prior and informed consent” of the communities, groups, and individuals is one of the most discussed prerequisites for every inscription on the Convention’s Lists and should in principle be ensured by the state at every stage of policy or measures’ implementation. See more on the inscription criteria at; see more on the Lists and the inscribed elements by each State Party at (last accessed May 31, 2022).

[11] Read about the very interesting discussions held in the context of the ongoing global reflection on the Convention’s listing mechanisms, which may in the near future lead to revision of the Convention’s Operational Directives, here: (last accessed May 31, 2022).

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The Role of Education on the Labor Market and Unequal Educational Opportunities: An Empirical Analysis for the CEE Countries

October 12, 2022
By 29630

Nemanja Vuksanovic, who received a Sylff Research Award grant in 2021, conducted an empirical analysis of the economic role of education in the labor market and unequal opportunities in education in the Central and Eastern European countries. While policy makers in these countries need to increase the availability of higher education, financial resources must be primarily directed to the poorer segments of society, notes Vuksanovic; over-subsidizing post-primary education could increase income inequality rather than reduce it.

*  *  *

Subject, Aim, and Motivation

The subject of my research was the analysis of the economic role of education in the labor market, observed from the aspects of human capital theory and signaling theory, as well as the analysis of unequal opportunities in education in the Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries. The aim was to empirically determine the extent to which, in the CEE countries, education improves productivity or represents a characteristic that signals productive capabilities, as well as to empirically examine the degree to which selected countries are characterized by unequal educational opportunities.

There are several basic motivating factors for choosing the research topic.

Firstly, this research contributes to the development of scientific and professional literature related to the economics of education in the CEE region. It is pioneering research that addresses the economic role of education in the labor market and unequal educational opportunities among the CEE countries. No attempts have been made thus far to evaluate the premium on education, the effects of diplomas, and the influence of factors limiting the achievement of a certain educational level in this region by means of the proposed theoretical and methodological framework. I chose this topic because this research can contribute to a better understanding of the transition paths of Serbia and selected CEE countries in the segment related to the educational process.

Secondly, the research conducts a detailed and systematic overview of theoretical models developed to explain the economic role of education and unequal educational opportunities, by looking at the historical development of these models and the most significant results of previous research. Special emphasis is given to describing the problems that researchers encounter in empirical studies when assessing the rate of return on investment in education and the effects of diplomas. In a broader context, the significance of the research lies in general contribution to the development of scientific and professional literature in the field of economics of education. My intention was to present through the research an appropriate theoretical and methodological framework for future research on topics in the domain of this economic field.

Another scientific contribution of the research lies in the empirical results, which could help policy makers in the CEE region to create a more complete picture of the education system and, based on that, to develop guidelines for improving the education process. The findings of the research should make more visible the problem of inequality in income distribution, which arises from circumstances beyond the control of the individual. The study of unequal opportunities in education has gained in importance in recent years as a result of the increasing attention that researchers are paying to the problem of income inequality. The study of factors limiting equitable access to education is important because it can clarify the effects of education as a mechanism for reducing inequalities in income distribution. So my main motivating factor is that the research results can provide a better understanding of the segment of demand for education and distribution of education and be helpful to education policy makers among the CEE countries.

Figure 1. Relationship between ratio of share of high-educated and share of low-educated population (x axis) and GDP per capita (y axis) among CEE countries

Education boosts the living standard of a country.


Basic Findings and Public Policy Implications

Seen from the social aspect the significance of the research results is manifold, since it can provide several guidelines for policy makers.

The results of my empirical study assessing the rate of return on investment in education indicate that in all CEE countries the positive return on investment in tertiary education is higher than the negative return on investment in primary education. That is, the link between education and earnings is convex, suggesting that in the CEE countries the highest rate of return is tied to the highest level of education. This tendency of the rate of return on investment in education—whereby the premium on education does not decrease with educational levels, so that it is highest in primary and lowest in tertiary education—has already been noted in a number of other studies.

In all CEE countries apart from Hungary, the positive premium on higher education is six to nine percentage points higher than the negative premium on primary education. points out that the relatively high rate of return for tertiary education may be because rates of return on investment in tertiary education are higher in those countries where the supply of more educated individuals grows at a slower pace than the demand for such individuals. Acemoglu (2008) argues that the gap in supply and demand for highly educated individuals may reflect the specificity of the country’s institutional framework or differences in changes in the openness of the economy and changes in the field of technological progress. Consequently, the present gap may have negative implications for the country’s economic development, as it leads to underutilized human resources. This implies that a country like Serbia, where the rate of return on investment in tertiary education is among the highest in the CEE region, is characterized by a significant gap in supply of and demand for highly educated individuals. This situation indicates the need for policy makers in Serbia to take appropriate measures to increase the supply of highly educated people.

Figure 2. Returns to high education in CEE countries

An investment in high education pays the best interest.


For policy makers, the observed pattern of returns on investment in education in CEE countries may also mean that a significant rise in the percentage of the population with lower levels of education will not greatly increase the earnings of individuals with these levels of education. The convex link between education and earnings suggests the possibility that over-subsidizing post-primary education may increase rather than reduce income inequality. Many international agendas, such as the Millennium Development Goals, have focused on increasing the share of the population with primary education. But when the link between education and earnings is convex, public investment aimed at increasing the coverage of the population with lower levels of education will not significantly increase the earnings of low-educated individuals. Moreover, Schulz (2003) points out that in countries where public subsidies in tertiary education are high—as is the case in many African countries—the convex link between education and earnings means that large amounts of public transfers to individuals in higher education, if not targeted, benefit most those whose families are of better socioeconomic status. In this case, such a public policy will not be very effective in reducing inequalities in income distribution. Both facts indicate that a successful public policy in Serbia must be directed toward more efficient allocation of educational investments; in other words, that special attention must be paid to distributing these investments by levels of education and targeting appropriate socioeconomic groups.

The results of the second empirical study show that every additional year of schooling over the years necessary for obtaining a university degree has a negative effect on earnings. This finding has significant implications for education policy. If some individuals benefit more from gaining a certain level of education, then policy makers need to recognize such different influences. This is especially important in the case of less developed countries of the CEE region, such as Serbia, where children from families of lower socioeconomic status face greater financial constraints. Namely, when education plays the role of a signal, it is important that highly gifted individuals be able to reach the highest levels of education to prevent the quality of the signaling role of education in the labor market from collapsing. Caplan (2018) points out that excessive public investments in education that are not directed toward appropriate groups devalue the importance of the role of education as a signal. Generous and untargeted public investment in the education system may jeopardize the importance of education as a means of overcoming the problem of information asymmetry between workers and employers. A nonselective policy of over-subsidizing higher education could lead to inflation of diplomas, which would greatly weaken the role of education as a signal. This is especially true in Serbia and Romania, where the signaling role of education is relatively weak among the CEE countries. Public policy makers in Serbia and Romania must therefore take care that financial resources are primarily directed to children from poorer families, with a focus on the talented ones, so that those children can reach the highest levels of education.

Improving the availability of higher levels of education through increased and well-targeted public investment is particularly important given the results of the third empirical study, which indicate the existence of unequal opportunities in education among the CEE countries. Increasing the proportion of the population with higher education may represent an appropriate public policy aimed at reducing income inequality, in line with the demonstrated link between education distribution and wage distribution. Pikkety et al. (2020) point out that this is important because the significance of implementing appropriate predistribution measures has recently been emphasized in the international agenda. Predistribution, which can influence the distribution of income before redistributive measures—taxes and social transfers—take effect, is based on the view that a country’s institutional framework through the legal and social system can contribute to reducing income inequality. Appropriate public policy in the CEE countries should be aimed at increasing the availability of higher education, while care must be taken to ensure that this coverage primarily affects individuals of lower socioeconomic status. A well-targeted predistribution policy oriented toward creating a fairer education system and a society characterized by equal opportunities can contribute to the country’s economic development and to the reduction of poverty and income inequality.


Acemoglu, D. 2002. “Technical Change, Inequality, and the Labor Market.” Journal of Economic Literature 40, no. 1 (March 2002): 7–72.

Caplan, B. 2018. The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Piketty, T., A. Bozio, B. Garbinti, J. Goupille-Lebret, and M. Guillot. 2020. “Predistribution vs. Redistribution: Evidence from France and the U.S.” Working Paper, 10.

Schultz, T. P. 2003. “Higher Education in Africa: Monitoring Efficiency and Improving Equity.” In African Higher Education: Implications for Development, 93. New Haven, CT: The Yale Center for International and Area Studies.

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Religion, Caste, Social Mobility: Researching Precolonial Bengal

October 7, 2022
By 27497

As a 2016 Sylff fellow and 2019 SRA awardee, Abhijit Sadhukhan has studied how religious philosophy and attitudes toward the caste system interact, focusing on a Hindu sect called Chaitanya Vaisnavism. As his thoughts on the subject evolved over time, for his doctoral studies he set out to challenge the conception of the caste system as a static structure and proposes a ‘grammar of change’in the mobility pattern. His findings, based in part on archival documents in the British Library, contextualizes social mobility in precolonial India.

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While studying as a Sylff fellow at Jadavpur University in the MPhil program back in 2016–17, I was particularly focused on exploring the interaction between religious philosophy and attitude toward the caste system in a particular religious sect. To be specific, I was working on Chaitanya Vaisnavism, a devotional religious sect propounded by Chaitanyadeva in sixteenth-century India. This school, highly popular in Bengal as well as in other parts of the country, has a distinct orientation toward the caste system. Caste is a kind of social stratification unique to India and is a hierarchical model based on the principle of hereditary occupation, restrictions in marital relations and commensality, and rank-based privileges and discriminations. It is often seen as a “closed system of stratification” that offers very little opportunity for change in and of society. The caste system has its own historical, sociological, economic, anthropological, philosophical, and religious underpinnings. I explored how religious philosophy shaped the attitude toward the caste system of a group of followers in the Chaitanya Vaisnava school in medieval Bengal. At the time, I mainly worked on normative texts (such as scriptures), philosophical texts, and literature to find out the importance of religious philosophy in shaping attitudes toward the caste system in the theoretical and partly practical spheres. But my attitude to this topic gradually changed, and after being enrolled in the PhD program, I began focusing more on the practical sphere of the caste system and tried to locate the idea of change in this “static” structure.

In my doctoral thesis, therefore, I have handled a wide range of sources (literature, scriptures, inscriptions, travel accounts, administrative records, census reports, and so forth) and interacted more and more with sociological and anthropological research and works on economic history along with my disciplinary training in literature. I have chosen to work on the process of upward mobility of three hitherto marginalized groups (Subarnabanik, Bagdi and Sadgop)in the caste hierarchy in medieval Bengal and the role of Chaitanya Vaisnavism in this process. Essentially, the idea was to propose a “grammar of change” in this hierarchical model through the investigation of three cases and confront the age-old idea of a “static” precolonial India. The research also intended to analyze the varying importance of ritual status in the process of upward mobility from precolonial to modern times. My work has focused on the interaction between the religious ideology of Chaitanya Vaisnava schools, the economic condition of a particular subregion in Bengal, the aspirations of upwardly mobile groups, and dominant Brahmanical ideology seeking sustainability in the existing hierarchical system.   


Choice of Methodology

As I had a plan to propose a “grammar of change” in the process of mobility, I set three different markers: cause of change, register of change, and intensity of change. These markers demand a diachronic study of the entire process; this is especially applicable for the latter two markers. Here I diverge from the research of the sociologists and the anthropologists. The sociologists and the anthropologists, because of their disciplinary training and limitations, tend to focus on the “product.” They do not always have the opportunity to probe into a diachronic study, as they are mainly concerned with the contemporary field view. I therefore took the opportunity to reveal the shifting connotations of the register of change as well as the change in intensity across time. For example, the Subarnabaniks, an upwardly mobile group, achieved legitimate rights in rituals and social customs through their economic supremacy and started to gain higher ritual status in one of the eminent Chaitanya Vaisnava schools in sixteenth-century Bengal. But no claim was made in the community then to wear the “sacred thread” to prove their mobility, while the same group was eager to wear the “sacred thread” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a marker of their higher ritual status. This is evident from their activities and writings to the census administrators and is an example of how register of change can take a new turn over time.

I have always had a dialogue with the “process” and the “product” in my research and tried to assimilate both historical and sociological-anthropological insights in my writing. This also means handling a wide range of primary sources across time. In particular, I was able to access unpublished documents available in the India Office Records of the British Library with the support of a Sylff Research Abroad (SRA) award. These documents were very helpful in getting a clear idea of the ongoing process of mobility and common perceptions regarding the attempts of upward mobility of a few aspirant groups, which allowed me to substantiate my arguments even more boldly.


An unpublished letter written to Mr. H. H. Risley, census commissioner of British India, in 1901, available at the India Office Records, British Library.


Major Findings

My research has yielded a number of observations. Firstly, upward or downward mobility of any group was not a pan-Indian phenomenon. Mobility is in most cases very limited spatially and temporally. Hence local economic factors, dominant religious ideology, and local caste hierarchy must be studied very carefully. This is why each and every case study is unique and important for the discourse. These case studies, in my research, also signify that the marginalized groups were trying to seek upward mobility within the caste structure. They were not interested in conversion in any other religion and achieving a better status. These studies suggest that these groups preferred upward mobility within the structure because of some context-specific economic and political benefit and didn’t consider conversion much as an alternative.  

Secondly, I have also discovered through this work that economic supremacy was not the only factor in establishing higher status in precolonial Brahmanical society. Ritual status was probably even more important, and almost all of the upwardly mobile groups tried to forge “ritual status” with the help of economic and political power. This suggests that one cannot just straitjacket precolonial India into a Marxist mode of interpretation.

Thirdly, a religious school can accommodate and legitimize the mobility of a certain group within its own domain. This is an indication of the autonomy of the religion. However, no two schools will have the same positive inclination to this process of mobility. The inclination varies depending on the material situation as well as the religious philosophy of a particular school. Some Bhakti schools may seem reluctant to accelerate the mobility. They may have a reluctance to mere adjustment within the hierarchy, likely striving toward annihilation of the caste structure at least in their philosophical realm. Some other schools are not so nonconformist in nature and allow the mobility of a few groups if necessary to sustain the structure. This point bridges my earlier research with this one.

Lastly, mobility is also a way to sustain a structure. Instead of annihilation, this process actually gives the system a new lease on life every time. However, mobility is not necessarily progressive; it has its own trajectory associated with discrimination and exploitation. The process of climbing up the ladder probably cannot avoid that either.

This research, on one hand, examines the factors of sustainability of the caste system and its relative flexibility, and on the other, provides a framework to conceptualize mobility in general.


Suggested Readings

Chakrabarty, Ramakanta. Vaisnavism in Bengal 1486–1900. Calcutta: Sanskrit Pustak Bhandar, 1985.

Kane, P. V. History of Dharmasastra. 5 vols. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1977.

Sanyal, Hitesranjan. Social Mobility in Bengal. Calcutta: Papyrus, 1981.

Srinivas, M. N. Social Change in Modern India. New Delhi: Orient Black Swan, 1995.



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A Robust India-Japan Partnership is Largely Courtesy Shinzo Abe

September 28, 2022
By 21705

As visiting Japan Foundation scholar in 2011, Madhuchanda Ghosh, a Sylff fellow from academic year 2004-05 to 2006-07 at Jadavpur, had the privilege of conducting a one-on-one research interview with then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on his vision for the evolving Japan-India relationship. This article, reprinted from Sunday Guardian Live, is her tribute to the late prime minister, who left a lasting and formidable legacy in rejuvenating Japan-India relations.

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Abe’s push for a much closer security relationship between the two countries has continued robustly in the post Abe period as well.

The assassination of Japan’s longest serving Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has stunned the world. Abe leaves behind a formidable legacy in Asia of a visionary leader inspiring the formation of the expansive geostrategic construct, the Indo-Pacific. He authored the free and open Indo-Pacific concept through his articulation of the “Confluence of the Two Seas” in his historic address to the Indian Parliament in 2007 which has been embraced by the US, Australia, India, New Zealand and several other democracies. Abe’s further expanding the concept, during his second term as Prime Minister, by talking about a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” which calls for connecting the “two oceans”—the Indian and the Pacific and the “two continents”—Asia and Africa, was another visionary initiative of Abe to link Africa and Asia together as a single economic and strategic entity.

Winning six electoral contests, Abe gave Japan the political stability which the nation was desperately seeking. As the architect of Japan’s foreign policy vision, the FOIP, Abe played a critical role in expanding Japan’s strategic profile at the regional and global levels. Amidst the changing regional geopolitical scenario, his concerns over China’s growing military assertiveness factored in his intent and endeavour to “normalise” the Japanese approach to country’s national security. He also attempted to revitalise the stagnant Japanese economy through his signature strategy of “Abenomics” and sought to transform Japan into a more internationally engaged power. One of the most important highlights of Abe’s legacy was, perhaps, his enduring passion to consolidate Japan’s ties with India which brought about a massive transformation of Indo-Japanese relations during his premiership.

Abe was, perhaps, the most Indophile Japanese leader who recognised the importance of India even before he became Prime Minister in his book, “Towards a beautiful country: A confident and proud Japan” (Utsukushii kuni e: jishin to hokori no moteru Nihon e). During his maiden visit to India as the Japanese Prime Minister, Abe was given the rare honour to address both Houses of Indian Parliament when he pointed out that “a strong India is in the best interest of Japan, and a strong Japan is in the best interest of India.”

Japan’s robust strategic partnership with India has been largely shaped by Abe’s concerted efforts towards forging close ties with the Indian leadership. Abe’s bonhomie with Prime Minister Narendra Modi culminated in some unprecedented developments in the bilateral relationship. The nuclear issue, which was a longstanding irritant in the bilateral relations, was resolved with the conclusion of the landmark civilian nuclear agreement between the two countries in 2017. Abe led large business delegations to India and committed huge investments focusing on India’s infrastructural needs. Tokyo’s massive infrastructure investment in India, Japan’s permanent membership in the Indo‐US Malabar exercises, the nuclear deal, institutionalisation of a robust defence dialogue inter alia transformed the low-intensity Indo-Japanese relationship into one of the fastest growing bilateral relations, acquiring new strategic and economic dimensions. While Japan played a critical role in building India’s industrial corridors, railway and freight corridors and urban metro, the Abe administration also increased its focus on connectivity initiatives in India’s northeastern states. India’s Northeast has emerged as a pivot area of New Delhi’s Act East Policy as the Indian government considers the Northeast as the gateway to its greater engagement with the Indo-Pacific region. Infrastructural upgradation of the Northeast is, therefore, vital for New Delhi as it will build a connectivity continuum that will help strengthen India’s linkages with the Indo-Pacific region, especially the ASEAN countries including the South China Sea. New Delhi’s welcoming Japanese investments in boosting connectivity in the ANI and the northeast is quite symbolic. It indicates that New Delhi perceives Tokyo as a key strategic partner whom India is prepared to trust when it comes to its strategically sensitive border regions where New Delhi has not allowed other countries to invest.

The Abe government’s important strategic conceptualisations like the “Confluence of the Two Seas,” the “Quadrilateral Initiative,” the “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity,” Asia’s “Democratic Security Diamond” and the latest FOIP, all referred to India as a key partner of Japan in the region. Abe’s push for a much closer security relationship between the two countries has continued robustly in the post Abe period as well. Japan’s holding regular maritime exercises with India for promoting regional security in the Indo-Pacific, bilateral mechanisms as the Annual Defence Ministerial Dialogue, annual summit meetings, 2+2 Dialogue, the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA), all have deepened the strategic depth and scope of the bilateral security and defence cooperation.

Abe also attached much importance to the US factor in India-Japan relations. In course of a research interview with the author, Abe noted that Washington’s efforts to rejuvenate US-India strategic partnership and put US relations with India on a more solid foundation helped bring about a change in Japan’s perception of India as well. Abe viewed that this trilateral framework would be a powerful factor in consolidating the Quadrilateral Initiative. Abe also pointed out that people-to-people contact needs to grow between Japan and India in the manner they have grown between the US and Japan and between India and the US.

At a personal level, during the research interview with the author, Abe reminisced his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi’s close ties with India, stating that it shaped his perception towards India during the formative years of his life. India conferred Abe with its second-highest civilian honour, the Padma Vibhushan, for exceptional and distinguished service in public affairs. Few relationships among the major powers have undergone such a remarkable turnaround as that between Japan and India and Japan’s longest serving leader Abe had been instrumental in harnessing the potential of these two natural allies. Abe’s rich legacy and his vision for an enduring India-Japan strategic and global partnership will have a lasting impact in shaping the future course of India-Japan relations.

Meeting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his office in Tokyo during one-to-one research interview.

Reprinted from Sunday Guardian Live