Category Archives: Voices

Dismantling While Preserving the Pastoral Commons in Olderkesi, Southern Kenya

June 16, 2022
By 19806

The Maasai community of Olderkesi in southern Kenya is in transition from the traditional pastoral commons to individual land tenure. Kariuki Kirigia, a 2012 Sylff fellow and 2016 SRA awardee who conducted his doctoral fieldwork in Olderkesi, writes about what prompted this shift, what the process entailed, and the community’s efforts to avoid the shortcomings of such a change, as well as potential areas for concern.

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When I arrived back home in Kenya in 2017 from Montreal, Canada, to conduct my doctoral fieldwork, I often found myself imagining what kind of place Olderkesi would be. Constituting the southern border between Kenya and Tanzania and neighboring the iconic Maasai Mara National Reserve and the Serengeti National Park, Olderkesi looked every bit the nucleus of biodiversity conservation that attracts safari tourists, nature scientists and enthusiasts, and conservationists from all corners of the globe. My efforts to get to Olderkesi virtually, however, fell short owing to the limited information available online about Olderkesi. In the current digital age where a click on a web page or a tap on a smartphone unveils superfluous information, Olderkesi seemingly ignored the clicks and the taps.

What Olderkesi had heeded to and espoused was the push to transition from pastoral commons to the private individual tenure. I set out to conduct an ethnographic study on the process of land subdivision in Olderkesi, which is one of the few remaining Maasai commons in Narok County and southern Kenya. In this piece I focus chiefly on the important ways that the Olderkesi community has sought to preserve the welfare of the commons despite efforts to transition to individual landholdings and on the imaginaries of life under individual tenure. 

Sheep grazing on the Olderkesi commons. (Photo by the author)

Kenya’s Maasai rangelands have for long constituted the quintessential site for the coexistence of humans and wildlife. But increased fragmentation of the rangelands in the push to confer private individual tenure has left a mosaic of fenced parcels on its trail, curtailing the mobility of both wildlife and pastoralists in the process. As pastoralists are forced to pasture livestock within their individual plots, thus fencing out other pastoralists and wildlife, grave concerns have arisen regarding the likely future of wildlife, primarily because the majority of wildlife in Kenya is found outside the state-protected areas (Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association 2020). Meanwhile, whither pastoralism?

Wildlife in Olderkesi. (Photo by the author)

My interest in land governance stems from living and, later, conducting research in rural Kenya, a time when I learned and appreciated how invaluable land is to people’s lives in Kenya’s countryside. The primacy of land to rural lives only increased as I expanded my geographical focus across sub-Saharan Africa, including conducting research among smallholder farmers in the Ashanti region in Ghana and southern Ethiopia. For rural dwellers to reap maximum rewards from their land, De Soto (2000) strongly argues, it is imperative to ensure the security of tenure through rendering land a private commodity. As Manji (2006) asserts, the privatization of tenure in Kenya in particular, and sub-Saharan Africa in general, has been motivated by the quest to liberalize land markets in the region. With its external, market-driven genesis that fails to account for local pastoral conditions, the private individual tenure has often negatively impacted pastoral livelihoods including by loss of land through the market, reduced pastoral mobility, unfair land allocations, and local land accumulation through dispossession (Galaty 2013; Mwangi 2007; Riamit 2014). It is following such negative impacts that Leeson and Harris (2018) refer to the individualization of tenure in the pastoral rangelands of Kenya as a form of “wealth-destroying private property rights.” Given these ominous realities, why then have the people of Olderkesi chosen to dismantle the commons in favor of private individual tenure?


Experiences, Expectations, and Negotiations

Propositions to subdivide the Olderkesi commons started in the late 1990s, but it was only in 2010 that formalized discussions began at the community level. Community meetings led by the community land adjudication committee[1] were held in different villages in Olderkesi. The meetings were primarily attended by men, and women were only invited to attend if they were widowed.

Having seen Maasai communities near and far subdivide land, the residents of Olderkesi felt it was just a matter of time before Olderkesi went through a similar process. Subdivision around Maasailand effectively restricted access to pasture by Olderkesi residents. At the same time, Olderkesi remained accessible to non-Olderkesi residents, thus becoming a wet-season grazing area for many pastoralists from outside Olderkesi, which limited pasture in Olderkesi during the dry season. Faced with this external demand for pasture, Olderkesi residents felt that the only way they could regulate external access to the Olderkesi land was through subdivision and individualization of tenure, where each individual could regulate access to their plots. This push toward private individual tenure echoes Tania Li’s (2014, 591) argument that “to turn it [land] to productive use requires regimes of exclusion that distinguish legitimate from illegitimate land users, and the inscribing of boundaries through devices such as fences, title deeds, laws, zones, regulations, landmarks and story-lines.” In this regard, the private individual tenure became a tool not only to render Olderkesi residents legitimate within Olderkesi, but also to render non-Olderkesi residents illegitimate as the landowner saw fit.

Following community-wide agreement to subdivide the Olderkesi land, the registration of the bona fide members of Olderkesi started. The bona fide members were to be males born by the closure date of the registration process (year 2015), and there would be a maximum of three male children per household. If the household head had passed away, the spouse (widow) would be registered as the household head. Olderkesi comprises 25 villages, and each village has a representative member in the land adjudication committee. Each of the 25 village leaders was tasked with verifying that the persons registered from a given village were indeed bona fide members of Olderkesi.

The government of Kenya had promised to facilitate land subdivision across the country, but upon requesting funds for land subdivision, Olderkesi leaders were informed that there were no finances for subdivision. The community land adjudication committee was then given the green light to proceed with land subdivision by employing a private surveyor. Land subdivision is an expensive undertaking, and every member registered to be allocated land was required to pay 23,500 KES (approximately 235 USD), termed as the surveyor fee. The next step was to search for a private surveyor to carry out land demarcation. The community land adjudication committee conducted interviews with three potential candidates before settling on a surveyor who had ample experience demarcating land in other areas in Maasailand.


Indigenizing Land Privatization in Olderkesi

The private individual tenure is largely a foreign concept in the Maasai rangelands, and the Olderkesi community has made efforts to indigenize the privatization process to account for local realities, culminating in a hybrid of land ownership and governance strategies that both uphold and challenge the idea of privatization in a pastoral context. The first phase of land subdivision entailed the identification of communal resources, which included water sources, schools, health centers, churches, a wildlife conservancy, and salt licks. By setting aside these resources, it ensures their access by Olderkesi residents even after relocation to individual plots. Olderkesi in this regard charts a different path from many other areas where land subdivision entailed individualization of communal resources, whether by design or illegitimately. Olderkesi therefore demonstrates an art of communal governance that has proved elusive in many other parts of Kenya’s Maasailand. This mode of governance generates optimism in that, on the one hand, it can be adopted by other groups transitioning from the commons to private individual tenure in the future and, on the other hand, it can form a firm basis for challenging earlier subdivision processes where individuals illicitly appropriated communal resources.

While the Olderkesi community has made efforts to avoid various shortcomings that come with the transition from the pastoral commons to private individual tenure, potential challenges remain. One such challenge stems from the land adjudication committee members having been vested with complete adjudicative powers over land allocation. This means that individuals having weaker social networks in the community could be allocated plots of land with less potential to support livestock and farming. This was the experience of Mr. Tulei, who now resides in Olderkesi but hails from another Maasai community. As Mr. Tulei narrated, “They gave me a piece of land that is on a hill full of rocks. You cannot graze or do anything with that piece of land. It is as if I am landless because I cannot use the land for any meaningful purpose.”

Asked why he thought he had been allocated such a low-quality piece of land, he responded, “Maybe it is because I have been spending most of my time in Olderkesi and not in that community. Also, you need to know people for you to get a good plot.”



The subdivision of the Olderkesi commons demonstrates the complexity of land privatization processes in the Maasai rangelands of Kenya. As one of the last areas to subdivide land, Olderkesi positions itself as having learned from the mainly “wealth-destroying” transition from the pastoral commons to the private individual tenure. While these lessons have been upheld and institutions put in place to correct for potential land injustices, there remain critical areas for concern. For instance, the expectations that life under the private individual tenure will secure the future of the Olderkesi community fails to account for the reduction in the mobility that has been instrumental in supporting life in the Maasai rangelands. At the same time, subdivision elsewhere resulted in reduced pasture access by the Olderkesi residents, underscoring the need for individualized control over pasture access. As these land privatization dynamics become indigenized in Olderkesi, they are at the same time couched within global dynamics of capital flows that have largely liberalized land markets in sub-Saharan Africa.



De Soto, H. 2000. The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else. New York: Basic Books.

Galaty, J. G. 2013. “The Collapsing Platform for Pastoralism: Land Sales and Land Loss in Kajiado County, Kenya.” Nomadic Peoples 17, vol. 2 (December): 20–39.

Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association. n.d. “Overview.” Conservacies. Accessed June 1, 2020.

Leeson, P. T., & C. Harris. 2018. “Wealth-Destroying Private Property Rights.” World Development 107 (July): 1–9.

Li, T. 2014. “What Is Land? Assembling a Resource for Global Investment.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 39, no. 4 (October): 589–602.

Manji, A. 2006. The Politics of Land Reform in Africa: From Communal Tenure to Free Markets. London: Zed Books.

Mwangi, E. 2007. “Subdividing the Commons: Distributional Conflict in the Transition from Collective to Individual Property Rights in Kenya’s Maasailand.” World Development 35, no. 5 (May): 815–34.

Riamit, S. 2013. “Dissolving the Pastoral Commons, Enhancing Enclosures: Commercialization, Corruption and Colonial Continuities amongst Maasai Pastoralists of Southern Kenya.” Master’s thesis. McGill University.

[1] The locally elected group ranch committee morphed into the land adjudication committee following the community-wide agreement to subdivide the Olderkesi GR.

Prestige and Dominance in Finland and Colombia

May 30, 2022
By 27764

In her PhD project, 2020 Sylff fellow Maija-Eliina Sequeira combines ethnographic and experimental methods to explore how the sociocultural environment shapes children’s understanding of social hierarchies. Following a study in Finland, she is currently conducting further research in Colombia using an SRA grant. The outcome of the comparative study will shed light on how children in the two countries differ in their preferences for prestige or dominance and how they develop these preferences.

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Humans must be understood as both social and biological beings; a focus on nature or nurture alone is not enough to explain both the diversities and the consistencies in how humans across the globe structure and live their lives. Instead, underlying universal human cognitive tendencies and capacities, such as the capacity to learn language or the tendency to ascribe agency to nonhuman beings at a certain age, are shaped by various factors including the sociocultural environment within which a child is socialized. This socialization occurs through active processes such as teaching, as well as through more passive exposure to norms, structures, and patterns in the world around them. Certain tendencies and capacities might be taught, encouraged, or nurtured in the growing child, while others are stifled or simply not given attention, depending on local norms, values, and customs—which themselves vary between individuals and across time periods. In short, I consider that children learn what it means to be human within a certain historical setting and in the context of specific social groups—such as their local community, family, and the wider society—and that these factors shape and direct their development throughout their lives.

With this in mind, I took on a PhD project that allowed me to combine “bottom-up” exploratory ethnographic methods—and generate the deep, nuanced understandings of social relationships that they lend themselves to—with the more structured “top-down” experimental methods that enable fruitful comparisons between two groups. Having lived in Colombia for several years before moving to Finland in 2019, I was struck by just how different the two countries are at the societal, familial, and school levels. I knew that such stark differences would provide an interesting and informative backdrop for a comparison of the socialization of children.


Children painting. (Source: Canva)

Basis of Social Status: Dominance or Prestige

My research explores how children’s sociocultural environment shapes how they understand, use, and navigate through social hierarchies in their everyday lives. Human societies tend to be stratified; they have certain people with more power or influence than others, although such stratification takes many different forms, ranging from more systematized and explicit caste or class systems to very subtle differences in influence according to age, gender, or some other marker of status in a relatively egalitarian society. Research from psychology suggests that an individual’s high status can be built on two different processes: dominance processes, a coercive process based on fear, strength, or intimidation and threat, and prestige processes, which are based on merit and knowledge or on skill in a locally valued domain.[1] Dominance processes are found in many nonhuman primates and other animals, whereas prestige processes appear to be a uniquely human phenomenon, and it has been suggested that prestigious imitation—the tendency of humans to choose to learn from and copy prestigious individuals—might serve as an important social learning mechanism for cultural transmission in human social groups.[2] It is therefore very interesting to consider how and when children learn to identify dominance and prestige and to determine how their sociocultural environment shapes the way in which they react to prestige and dominance.


A scene from the experiments, showing the dominant, prestigious and subordinate characters.

Research from developmental psychology suggests that children start to develop a basic ability to reason about rank, and particularly to identify dominance, from when they are just months old, which suggests that there are universal cognitive mechanisms underlying the ability. This is supported by the fact that cues of dominance appear to be similar cross-culturally and are also consistent with dominance cues found among nonhuman primates, such as “squaring up” behavior. Prestige, meanwhile, is dependent on local cultural value placed on different skills and behaviors, since what is valued and considered to be an important ability or knowledge varies dramatically across different societies: in one it might be the ability to hunt a specific large animal and in another to sing in a particular pitch, while in others it might be associated with the accumulation of highly specific knowledge about local fauna and flora. Therefore, as children grow and are socialized within a specific sociocultural environment, they must develop a much more nuanced and locally specific understanding of how power and influence are distributed in their society, and they must learn to navigate within these complex systems.

There is cross-cultural variation not only in the understanding of what behaviors are considered prestigious, but also in people’s preference for dominant and prestigious leadership. In societies characterized by instability and resource inequality, dominant-style leadership is considered to be more acceptable and, in some cases, preferable to prestigious-type leadership.[3] In my PhD work, I use a combination of ethnographic and experimental methods to explore and compare how children in Finland and Colombia—two extremely different sociocultural environments—learn, use, and navigate social hierarchies. Colombia has high levels of insecurity and extreme socioeconomic inequality, making it a very different social environment from the equality, stability, and safety net of a generous social security system that Finland is known for. Interestingly, despite these differences, both Colombia and Finland have been named “happiest country in the world” depending on the measures of happiness that are used.[4]


Tents at the summer camps where I carried out ethnographic fieldwork in 2021.


Conducting Research in Helsinki and Santa Marta

In 2021 I carried out 12 months of ethnographic research with children and families in Helsinki, Finland. This was followed by a series of experiments to investigate whether children (i) infer high social rank from cues of dominance and prestige, (ii) differentiate between prestigious and dominant individuals, (iii) show a personal preference for prestige or dominance, (iv) assign leadership skills to prestigious or dominant individuals, and (v) choose to learn from a prestigious or dominant individual. I tested over 170 children aged 4 to 11 years over a series of weekends from December 2021 to March 2022, basing myself at Heureka science museum. The experimental data are still in the process of being checked for validity, and so analysis has not yet started, but through ethnographic research I have identified a strong aversion to dominant behavior among children living in Helsinki, which I expect to be reflected in the experimental results.


Research assistants during testing at Heureka museum in Finland.

The SRA grant allowed me to hire a research assistant, Valeria Aza Barros, and to collaborate with the research group on cognition and education at the Universidad de Magdalena, Colombia, to replicate the same experiments with children in Santa Marta. After undergoing training and pilot studies via Zoom and checking the translations of the experiments to ensure that they were locally valid, Valeria conducted the experiment with 160 children—our required sample size—between the ages of 4 and 11. Although I am still coding the data, after which they will undergo validity checking and then be analyzed in the coming months, they show signs of very different patterns compared to the data from Finland.

Upcoming ethnographic fieldwork in Santa Marta from August to December 2022 will allow me to contextualize the findings within local norms and hierarchies. This combination of ethnographic and experimental data allows me to interpret the experiments while considering contextual information that might influence the choices and answers of the children during the experiment. Future analyses will reveal whether the children in Colombia really do show a greater preference for dominance over prestige and allow me to determine whether they trust in and prefer dominant individuals to a greater extent than the children in Finland do.

Research in hierarchy is relevant to ongoing debates in many academic fields, such as those related to the evolution and nature of cooperation and morality. However, this project is not just of academic interest; it also holds important societal lessons about the lifelong impact that the early socioeconomic environment can have on individual people and wider society. A preference for dominance in the face of insecurity may have been highly adaptive when the insecurity stemmed, for example, from small-scale warfare with neighboring groups. In such circumstances, dominance may indeed have been the best strategy to ensure survival and prosperity for a community. But such a preference may be maladaptive in modern industrialized societies where a dominant-type leader, who depends on threats and intimidation to gain and maintain power and influence, is unlikely to provide any genuine benefits to people living in situations of insecurity and economic inequality. If individuals raised in more insecure, unequal societies are more inclined to prefer and ultimately choose dominant leaders (such as in elections), they may ultimately be doing more harm than good to themselves and their communities. Dominant leaders are not necessarily the best placed to improve the circumstances of the average citizen and instead might serve to simply perpetuate the cycle of insecurity and inequality that leads to them being selected as leaders and given power in the first place.

[1] J. T. Cheng, “Dominance, Prestige, and the Role of Leveling in Human Social Hierarchy and Equality,” Current Opinion in Psychology 33 (June 2020): 238–244,

[2] M. Chudek, S. Heller, S. Birch, and J. Henrich, “Prestige-Biased Cultural Learning: Bystander’s Differential Attention to Potential Models Influences Children’s Learning,” Evolution and Human Behavior 33, no. 1 (January 2012): 46–56,

[3] R. Ronay, W. W. Maddux, and W. von Hippel, “Inequality Rules: Resource Distribution and the Evolution of Dominance- and Prestige-Based Leadership,” The Leadership Quarterly 31, no. 2 (May 2018),

[4] D. Roos, “Colombia, Not Finland, May Be the Happiest Country in the World,”, March 26, 2018,

India Should Be a Human Rights Concern for Japan

May 16, 2022
By 28804

Amit Singh, a 2020 Sylff fellow, is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Coimbra in Portugal. In this article, he discusses how Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s March 2022 trip to India was paradoxical in the light of the latter’s poor human rights situation. But Japan has the potential to influence that situation by using its financial leverage, he says.

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The recent visit by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to India was a normal diplomatic trip that occurred under abnormal circumstances, given that the Indian government is waging an indirect war against its own citizens—the Indian Muslims, seculars, and liberals. Indeed, these are not normal circumstances for democracy and human rights in India. And signing trade agreements with a country that is currently on the list of countries at risk of genocide brings the human rights commitment of the Japanese government under question. Japan supports the idea that protecting human rights is the most fundamental responsibility of any nation and affirms that the human rights of all people should be respected, regardless of their countries’ cultures, traditions, and political and economic systems. In addition, it recognizes the importance of a thriving civil society and attaches great importance to dialogue with it. But even as Kishida shook his hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India’s scathing assault on human rights and civil society continued unabated.

Narendra Modi and Fumio Kishida in New Delhi 19 March 2022, Source: Government of India


Japan and India

Relations between Japan and India go back to the sixth century, when Buddhism was introduced to Japan. Since then, with the exception of some intervals, their relationship has continued to today.

In principle, both Japan and India are committed to taking bold measures to tackle challenges to sustainable development and global peace. But this task becomes even more difficult than it already is when democracies around the world are gradually overtaken by authoritarian and populist rulers who could seriously undermine the rule-based international order. Without strong democracies, it is hard to imagine a fair and just world. As such, the dismantling of Indian democracy should be a concern for Japan, an old ally of India that is connected with the latter through shared values of human rights, democracy, and the Buddhist precepts of nonviolence and peace.

Labeled as “partially free” and an “electoral autocracy,” India is currently governed by Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was once shunned by Western governments due to his complicity in the Godhra massacres. Even though India’s being a secular democracy provides constitutional safeguards to religious minorities, Hindu nationalists do not support the idea of religious equality. Hindu nationalism is radically far right, and given its belief in Hindu supremacy, it is a dangerous mix of religion and politics; it supports the discriminatory caste system, negates racial and religious equality, and disregards the discourse of human rights. Since 1925, The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has been India’s staunchest proponent of Hindu nationalism. The RSS is a parental organization of the current ruling party of India, the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP). Modi was a full-time RSS worker in the past, notorious for his complicity in the Godhra communal riots when he was the chief minister of the Gujarat state in 2002. Since Modi’s ascendance to power in 2014, a consistent move to curtail freedom of speech, the right to dissent, freedom of press, and religious freedom has descended India into a state of “elective despotism.”  

Kishida’s Human Rights Diplomacy

Against this background, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida landed in India on March 19, 2022, to strengthen Japan’s special relation with its old ally, ignoring ongoing human rights violations in India. Interestingly, Kishida wrote an article in an Indian newspaper highlighting the commonality between two countries, noting that they are “linked by universal values such as freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.” During his visit, however, there was no scrutiny of the current human rights situation in India or constructive dialogue on the subject with the Indian government. Even though Kishida supports a forceful brand of human rights diplomacy and firmly believes that the promotion and protection of all human rights is a “legitimate interest” of the international community, dialogue on this “legitimate interest” was absent in his India visit, as if his government did not want to offend the Indian government. His human rights concerns seem limited to China, Tibet, and Hong Kong.

There is a strange paradox between the two countries: whereas Japan has consolidated its democratic political structures and developed policies for the promotion and protection of human rights, the Indian government is in the process of dismantling democratic structures, vandalizing independent institutions, and vaporizing constitutional safeguards meant to protect its citizens. In the 2020 Human Freedom Index, which ranks countries based on civil, economic, and personal freedom, India was ranked 111th. Another report by the Economic Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index highlighted the “democratic regression” and “erosion of civil liberties” in India. In the land of Mahatma Gandhi—who introduced “civil disobedience,” a method of peaceful protest, to the world—the criminalization of peaceful expression is becoming a legal norm intended to stifle democratic dissent.

Procession of Hindu religious nationalists during the Hindu festivals often turns violent.

Potential for Japanese Influence

Using its financial leverage, though, Japan can support human rights in India. As Japan is currently India’s largest aid donor, it could positively influence the Indian government’s hostile attitude toward human rights by adding human rights conditionality (in trade negotiations), that is, providing that preferences can be withdrawn in case of systematic violations of human rights. In this context, Japan could follow the example of mainstreaming of human rights in European Union trade policy. To make human rights more effective, Japanese academic Maiko Ichihara suggests that human rights assistance to non-state stakeholders  could play an important role in supporting human rights abroad. It should be noted that Japan’s entire international aid apparatus is currently built around government-to-government assistance, excluding civil society and the human rights community of the beneficiary country.  

Observing Prime Minister Kishida’s efforts to promote human rights domestically and globally, however, his silence on the human rights situation in India has seriously impacted Japan’s positioning as a trustworthy and credible supporter for human rights worldwide. His reticence on the human rights situation in India also questions his noble intention to promote freedom and democracy as a universal value.

While Japan had hitherto been reluctant to intervene into the human rights affairs of other countries, this is likely to change under the Kishida government with the creation of a new cabinet-level position of special adviser on human rights, who would coordinate mainstreaming human rights issues across Japan’s ministries and in its foreign relations. But in order to promote and protect human rights abroad, Japan’s human rights diplomacy must go beyond realpolitik in its foreign relations, and the country needs to be more assertive in matters of human rights, particularly with its old ally India. Without a “serious commitment to human rights,” Japan’s human rights diplomacy will be ineffective in bringing any real, intended change.  


The European Citizens’ Panel on Democracy: An Opportunity for a Holistic Approach to EU Values

April 12, 2022
By 24301

In this contribution, 2017 Sylff fellow Max Steuer presents his insight on the first session of the European Citizens’ Panel (ECP) on democracy, jointly organized in Strasbourg by the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union, and the European Commission in September 2021, which he attended as a “citizen participant.” He highlights a key risk as well as opportunities of the European Citizens’ Panels for developing a more robust and inclusive democracy in the EU.

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The Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) is a flagship initiative in deliberative democracy and experimentation. The Joint Declaration of the EU institutions organizing the CoFoE speaks about “open[ing] a new space for debate with citizens to address Europe’s challenges and priorities” that will generate authoritative conclusions by 2022, including on the potential needs for a structural reform of the EU. The European Citizens’ Panels (ECPs), of which there are four, are at the heart of the “experimental face” of the initiative: they provide randomly selected citizens with the opportunity to articulate their visions of the EU in a structured environment with the possibility for the outcomes to be taken seriously by policymakers.

While the impact of the expected conclusions from the CoFoE is uncertain, the ECPs can already be seen as a success from a symbolic perspective after the first sessions in September and October 2021; as the European Parliament was the venue for all four meetings, citizens replaced parliamentarians for a (very) short while and presented their ideas in the Strasbourg Hemicycle.

Based on my experience as one of the approximately 200 “citizen participants” of the ECP on democracy (second ECP), I argue that the key challenge ahead of the ECP is an approach to EU values that divides them into separate streams and limits the discussion about them as integrally connected and inseparable. On the bright side, three moments from the second ECP—where an alternative, holistic approach to EU values surfaced in a bottom-up fashion—point to the ECPs’ potential to foster EU democracy.


The start of the first ECP plenary session in the European Parliament Hemicycle in Strasbourg, September 24, 2021. All recordings of the plenary sessions are publicly accessible. (Photo: Max Steuer)

The Procedure in a Nutshell

The second ECP was set out to focus on “European democracy/values, rights, rule of law, security.” The title itself is puzzling, because the list of EU values, as defined in the Treaty on the EU (Article 2), encompasses “respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities”; hence, the rule of law and (human) rights are part of EU values, alongside democracy and others, rather than standing separate from them.

During the first session of the ECP, citizens were invited to articulate their visions of the EU in 2050 by drawing their “EU vision trees” and then “zoom in” on specific questions that they consider important to be debated during the subsequent sessions. Most discussions unfolded in working groups composed of around a dozen citizens. These were accompanied by a few plenary meetings introducing the session, which also included discussions with experts, and a final plenary devoted to approving several main topical “streams” to be addressed during subsequent meetings as they emerged from the “sum total” of the working group discussions.

Thus, the design of the sessions—and that of the ECPs more generally—was intended to work in a bottom-up fashion. The problem here is that democracy does not come with its exclusive pool of questions. All major questions on the EU’s future are also questions of democracy. Moreover, if “democracy questions” are not to be reduced to those of elections, they are integrally related to other EU values, including human rights and the rule of law.

Citizens were not constrained to engage with particular values while formulating the topics. Yet the limitations posed by the separation of individual values became apparent during the final plenary. Here, based on the citizens’ identifications of key questions, the moderators presented the key topical areas (called “streams”) for subsequent sessions. These, in the version voted and approved by the plenary of the panel, encompassed rights and nondiscrimination, protecting democracy and the rule of law, institutional reform, building European identity, and strengthening citizen participation.

A Key Challenge

As noticed by some citizens, questions categorized under human rights could equally be discussed under democracy, and vice versa. For example, the protection of human rights in the context of pandemic-induced restrictions is not merely a question of democracy, and gender equality is not merely a question of human rights. The danger in preparing neat “streams” is that connections between the topics become less visible and the final recommendations less informed.


One of the “EU vision trees” produced in the ECP working groups. Participating citizens were encouraged to place their visions near those of their fellow citizens that are most appealing to their own vision. September 25, 2021. (Photo: Max Steuer)

In addition to topical separation of EU values in the ECP discussions and emerging “streams,” the risk of failing to achieve a holistic approach to EU values stems also from the formal “eligibility requirement” that needs to be met in order to “have a voice” at the ECP: EU citizenship. The exclusivity generated by this requirement comes across as particularly pertinent when “democracy” is explicitly listed in the ECP’s title. In short, the CoFoE that sets out to address the future of Europe is not open to all Europeans. Even if accepting the (by no means obvious) assertion that the future of the EU can be debated between EU citizens on their own, the future of Europe as a continent is hardly limited to EU citizens, with other Europeans standing “on the outside” of democratic deliberations.

While there appear to be no easy solutions to this conundrum, one could potentially be found directly in Strasbourg. The Council of Europe brings together all Europeans (except the citizens of Belarus, whose plight clearly falls within the subject areas of this ECP). Yet there are virtually no signs of collaboration between the Council of Europe and the EU on the CoFoE. Inviting representatives of the Council of Europe, including those of the European Court of Human Rights, to interact with the conference participants could help foster knowledge about both institutions and emphasize their common goals. Furthermore, discussing human rights as sources of legal protections in Europe via an intertwined web of mechanisms and institutions could provide very useful impulses. Ultimately, an involvement of all Europeans, and not just EU citizens, is necessary for an inclusive debate on the future of Europe.

Another possible solution is specific to the five discussion “streams” as they have been approved for the second ECP. An increased focus on noncitizens could also have been part of their formulation. While migration is one of the main themes of the fourth ECP, it should not be absent from the ECP addressing EU values.

Three Signs of a Unique Opportunity and Potential

The impact of the second ECP on the discussions about democracy as an overarching basis for all ECPs remains to be seen. Challenges ahead encompass the capacity to foster holistic approaches to EU values and inclusive conversations. This does not require embracing the unity of value, but it does invite discussions that avoid “us” (EU citizens) versus “them” (everyone else without EU citizenship) dynamics.

Yet the first session of the second ECP still generated several particularly promising moments for a holistic, as opposed to fragmented, understanding of EU values. One is the connection between democracy and key societal issues that were not originally anticipated to be discussed by the second ECP—notably, climate change and socioeconomic development. Discussing climate change as a question of democracy, fundamental rights, and the rule of law might yield refreshing perspectives and facilitate bridges with the other three ECPs, reinforcing the impact of all of them on the CoFoE plenary.

Secondly, an emphasis on connecting economic security to democracy, understood as the possibility to effectively participate in public life, was added as a result of the “feedback round” to the thematic streams preceding the final plenary. This indication of a more democratic understanding of security may open the door for including security as a public good into the discussion on EU values and democracy, rather than seeing it as potentially justifying restrictions on fundamental rights that are the bedrock of democracy.

In front of the EP Hemicycle after the end of the ECP, September 26, 2021. (Photo: Max Steuer)

A third promising moment lies in the emphasis on education on democracy as a matter of EU values. As pointed out during one of the expert presentations, one is not born a democrat but learns to be one. Education as a tangible life experience of the ECP participants may raise awareness of the importance of free media and open communication, fostered by independent institutions, and encourage a “tree-like” perspective, much in the spirit of the “EU vision trees” drawn by the working group participants.


This post is an edited and abridged version of a contribution that appeared via, a major forum for debates on constitutionalism in Europe and beyond. Since its publication, the ECP on democracy completed its work in December 2021 with a series of recommendations that are currently being considered by the CoFoE plenary.

The COVID-19 Pandemic in the Islands

April 6, 2022
By 30091

Maria Riwana Sahib, a 2012–13 Sylff fellow, looks back on how the COVID-19 situation unfolded in her native Fiji. As has been the case everywhere, the pandemic’s impact on the Fijian economy amplified the issues of domestic violence, unemployment, and xenophobia and affected school education. But the silver lining, Sahib says, has been the revival of the barter system, which has helped many weather the pandemic storm.

 * * *

Living in the Pacific Islands has many advantages and disadvantages. It is probably one of the most unsafe places when it comes to infectious diseases. Historically, populations have been depleted by infectious diseases due to our geographical location, that is, our isolation. But COVID-19, or the novel coronavirus, has changed the course of history in the modern age of technology and globalization. It has certainly caused a paradigm shift in terms of how we conduct our business and our lives. It is one of the many experiences throughout my life that has been etched in my memory, and as a millennial, it is one of the most interesting times.


Departing Majuro

I have worked and lived in the Republic of the Marshall Islands away from my island home of Fiji for the last seven years. In early 2020, I was contemplating returning home, unsure of my future and unaware of the realities that would follow. The novel coronavirus was declared a pandemic in March 2020, right around when I booked my flight back to Fiji. The flight was during the week in which the Marshall Islands declared that it was closing its borders. Subsequently, all flights going into and out of the islands were canceled. In this haste of closing the borders, many tourists in Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, were stranded with no guarantee of the next available flight out. Among the stranded was me! My heart sank as I read the email from Nauru Airlines two days prior to the flight day, in which it provided options for the next available dates of flights going out of Majuro. I felt helpless and frustrated. I remember my friends Laisa, Kelesi, and Melba encouraging me and filling me with positivity. I believed more in their faith than I did my own.

I would like to believe that their prayers and mine were answered, as I sat in the last flight out of Majuro two days later. It was an eight-hour flight with two stopovers before I finally reached Nadi, three hours away from Suva, my home. Although I had come back numerous times before, it had never felt the way it did that day when the plane landed at Nadi International Airport. I was home, finally! The anxiety, the fear, the dreading had all been over, and I felt a weight had been lifted from my chest. I was finally home to see my beautiful daughter. She was initially the reason for my return, but I think the pandemic fueled my decision to return promptly.

Fiji went into lockdown one week after my return, as a case was soon discovered. People immediately went into panic mode, and naturally, panic buying followed. During the lockdown, a curfew was implemented together with movement restrictions and social distancing. These actions resonated with many countries where the coronavirus had spread. This was when reality hit home—that we were as vulnerable as the most developed countries, where the virus had far worse effect. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a way of mother nature telling us that we needed to slow down our development and put a brake on exploiting our natural resources, contributing to the greenhouse effect, and harming our planet.

The economic downturn due to the virus had serious implications for the tourism industry (the largest revenue generator) in Fiji, and this affected thousands and thousands of Fijians. COVID-19 has led to an increase in social issues such as domestic violence, unemployment, and even xenophobia toward the Chinese people. The restriction measures brought out the best and worst in people including me. Fearing for the lives of our loved ones and taking to social media to hit back at people who broke the restriction measures were some of the traits displayed that I am sad about. I, for one, always try to empathize with people and their situations, but during this particular occasion it became clear that the worst in us could be brought out even when we try to the find the best in others.


Sahib and her daughter.

COVID-19 also affected the way education was conducted. My daughter’s private school was prepared to provide full-time online classes, as they already were using online platforms for learning at school. The transition to schooling full-time from home was a big adjustment for both my daughter and me. I am a single parent. Firstly, home is a place for relaxation, and it did not mesh well with the idea of schooling. Secondly, focusing on your own work while supervising your child’s schoolwork can sometimes be challenging when you both have deadlines to meet. It took me a while to adjust myself first before I could start focusing on my child. So instead of writing up a schedule, I followed a routine while flexibly switching the times of doing assignments and researching. My daughter usually had her scheduled Zoom classes (Zoom became a boom in 2020) in the early mornings. That would leave me some time to get my work organized.

I could not help but wonder about those who did not have the convenience of good Internet connections and those who could not afford the Internet. Schools were closed indefinitely as the government kept extending the opening date of normal school hours. The government went into overdrive and maximized their resources to provide subject lessons via Walesi, Fiji’s digital television service. This proved useful but to some extent only; students still had to print their notes and submit assignments at school, which meant mobility and exposure to the virus. The pandemic undeniably brought many social challenges, and it has been an economically trying time for many.

There is always a silver lining in a grim situation, they say. An ancient system was reintroduced in Fiji called the barter system. In the eighteenth century Adam Smith, a Scottish economist, philosopher, and author, argued that markets and economies existed before states. The father of modern economics believed that money was not created by governments but from bartering for goods and services. Anthropologists argued otherwise, saying that exchanges of goods and services occurred between strangers for reciprocity and redistribution. In any case, the pandemic revived this ancient trading system through Barter for Better Fiji, a Facebook page created by Marlene Dutta, a Fijian, in the spirit of giving when money has been tight and employment tough to find. This innovation through the use of technology connected people all over the country and the world, bringing solidarity to the human race in the belief that we are all in this together. This form of trading of goods and services without the use of money has assisted hundreds of people across the nation. For instance, in exchange for goodwill and groceries, six men known as K9E from the western side of Viti Levu, Fiji’s largest island, provide services ranging from indoor work such as maintenance, clearance, painting, moving homes, and light plumbing work to outdoor work such as grass cutting, farm preparation, backyard land cultivation, chicken shed construction, flower bed preparation, cutting, trimming, and pruning of trees, firewood collection, and fishing.

It has not all been hunky dory as far as the bartering goes, as there have been reports of dishonesty and fraudulent services. One of the challenges of dealing with strangers is that there is risk involved. Nevertheless, it has brought to many the assistance they desperately needed. Bartering has even assisted university students who suddenly had to stay home and study remotely. Although there has been a huge economic downturn in Fiji and across the globe, bartering has helped many to survive this pandemic.

One can only hope and pray that we can all bounce back from our situations and improve in 2022. Our new normal is the one in which we need to collectively support each other during a time of crisis, and perhaps bartering is a result of the new normal.


The Sustainability of Food in Japan

March 28, 2022
By 19606

Motivated in part by his experiences living in Japan, 2002 Sylff fellow David D. Sussman conducted a review of current research about the sustainability of food in the country. Here he shares his findings, observations, and recommendations for improving Japan’s food sustainability—in a nutshell, eat less meat, consider the origin of food and associated energy use, and reduce waste in food and packaging.

* * *

Japan is renowned for both its popular cuisine and the health and longevity of its population. At the same time, present concerns about planetary health and climate change are receiving more attention than ever, with food playing an essential role in achieving sustainability. Given these circumstances, what does a review of existing research (in English) reveal about steps that Japan can take to increase the sustainability of its food?

My research on this topic is motivated by personal experiences while living in Japan, as well as my work as a fellow at the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies. I conducted a review and assessment of the latest literature, both international and within the country, about the sustainability of food in Japan. This summary presents relevant research findings, alongside some personal observations, and provides three key evidence-based recommendations. The observations are not a critique of Japan—as an American, I know that my own country’s per-capita ecological footprint is more than 1.5 times that of Japan.[1] Instead, my approach is one of noting the current situation and thinking about how Japan can apply some of its cultural strengths, such as planning, attention to detail, cohesion, and following social norms, to improving the sustainability of its food.

Importance of the Topic

While there is now overwhelming evidence that humans are influencing the Earth’s climate, what might not be at the forefront of everyone’s mind is the important role that food plays in sustainability. In short, to be sustainable means using natural resources in a way that is balanced in the present but also enables them to be preserved for future generations. However, the global threat posed by climate change is now readily apparent, and the food system accounts for approximately 18.4% of all carbon emissions. This is an astounding number—with these emissions from “agriculture, forestry and land use” in the ballpark of those from energy in industry (24.2%), transport (16.2%), and energy in buildings (17.5%).

Another important reason for examining food is its basis for human health. If we were to eat in a way that is planet friendly by consuming more plant-based food and cutting back on meat, there would also be health benefits amounting to, by one estimate, more than ten million lives saved annually.[3] As Johan Rockstrom, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, stated in 2018 at a sustainability conference in Yokohama, “If we get it right on food, we get it right for the planet.”[4]

What is the current situation with food in Japan? When living in Tokyo, I have seen both Japan’s prosperity, such as a large spread of food at a restaurant meal with friends, and its profligacy, with the same event leading to half a plate of unfinished items that would be thrown away. My curiosity about food and sustainability in Japan was another motivation for to this investigation.

Food waste in Japan. (photo: Kyodo news)

What Can Be Done

Food can be considered “from farm to fork,” which means analyzing how it is produced, manufactured, transported, sold, and used—and also disposed of. The research I reviewed suggested a focus on core areas where actions could best be implemented and make a difference—namely in diets and choice of eating, the production of food, and the issue of food waste.

Food Choices

Japanese (as with denizens in many other industrialized countries) generally view having a piece of meat or fish as an integral part of every meal. Some restaurants—like popular ramen places—do not offer a nonmeat option, with the broth also based on pork or beef. Bento box lunches found at school, social, and business gatherings inevitably include meat or seafood. Anecdotally, I have found many Japanese to be unaware of or uncertain about vegetarianism, whereas it is commonly offered as a meal option in the United States.

Increased meat consumption in Japan is not surprising given the post–World War II time period when hungry populations benefited from food imports, while advertising companies also presented Western plates of food as an ideal.[5] Over the following decades, supplies of meat increased 5.8-fold and trade pressure from the United States led to further imports, ranging from beef to oranges.[6]

As a basic step to increase sustainability, people can eat more vegetarian meals. Food is personal and for that reason accessible as a means for change. Multiple times a day, what we eat is an opportunity that we (in more developed countries where access to food options is generally not a concern) have to make an impact on the Earth—or at least to lessen our impact.[7] In the aggregate, our individual choices make a difference, and when we eat morning, noon, and night, we can see it as an opportunity for choosing the more sustainable option.

Food Production

Japan’s level of productivity and development is special given that more than 80% of its land consists of mountains. It is not surprising that many foods need to be imported, with approximately 63% of food calories coming from outside the country. What happens, inevitably, is that Japan’s reliance on food from overseas leads to the use of land, energy, fertilizer, and fuel for transport, which are associated with carbon emissions embedded within the foods. As such, the Japanese could further consider the origin of their food. With high levels of imports, there are sometimes significant production- and transportation-related carbon emissions.

Conversely, it is also worth noting that some foods grown in Japan are very energy intensive; in some cases, it would therefore be more eco-efficient for them to be grown elsewhere, in warmer climates. A 2011 study of hydroponically grown lettuce in Japanese greenhouses found that its CO2 emissions per kilogram were seven times greater than those grown in open fields in California, United States.[8] A BBC story titled “Japan’s Obsession with Perfect Fruit” featured a melon grower who said that despite his extremely careful methods, only 3% of his melon produce achieved the top grade, even as his three medium greenhouses burned through more than 50 liters of oil on a daily basis.[9]

In the end, the complexity of the food chain is apparent. Even though food is an essential part of our daily lives, we rarely know how something was grown and where it traveled from before ending up in our supermarket. What we have better control of is our use of the food after purchase and on our plates.

Food Waste

Waste associated with food occurs across the supply chain, from farm to fork, and must include all waste that happens from production onward. Related to this investigation, “significant quantities of food waste are generated by supply chains originating outside of Japan.”[10] Within Japan, the previously mentioned focus on perfect-looking fruit means that more resources are expended on producing them and items that are not up to an exacting standard discarded. Composting is still rare, meaning that food scraps and leftovers end up being incinerated with other trash.

Japan, as with other industrialized countries, prizes convenience, and this leads to a reliance on pre-prepared meals. The presentation and packaging of food in Japan is readily apparent to outsiders, with a commonly cited example being the plastic-enclosed bananas (which already come with their own natural protection) or individually wrapped apples or pears. It is not anything new to say that Japan is big into cleanliness—and with this comes a reliance on single-use products as well as packaging. Plastic or foam bento boxes are almost always single-use disposables. When it comes to drinks, vending machines seem to be on every corner and plastic bottles ubiquitous. In modern society, little thought is given to using something for a minute, or ten minutes, and then tossing it away.

Imperfect fruit does not have to be thrown away. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Japan, however, is also a leader in terms of its focus on food waste through policy initiatives. A Food Waste Recycling Law, for example, led to measurable improvements, though more at the level of manufacturers. While households account for about half of the food waste that is incinerated, “there has been little behavioral change towards food waste reduction at the consumer level.”[11] In the end, “food waste and loss remain a critical issue, owing to the country’s low food self-sufficiency rate and shortage of available landfill sites for waste disposal.”[12]

Next Steps

The sustainability of food in Japan can be seen as a challenge but also as an opportunity. In particular, the country’s food sustainability is worth considering because it may be a harbinger of the future. A highly industrialized country, “Japan’s diet and demographics make it a bellwether for other Western and Asian nations” in that the population is highly urbanized, aging, and eats foods that is less traditional and more processed and convenient.[13]

When Japan sets its focus on something, it can really make terrific progress. Its rebuild and development after World War II is a classic example. More recently, we have seen how it started more slowly on COVID-19 vaccines but steadily progressed so that it now stands as one of the most vaccinated countries in the world. Its approach to food and sustainability can be the same. There are available options, and it is now a matter of aligning policy with the most planet-friendly options—shifting people’s preferences so that they eat less meat, focusing on environmentally sound growing practices, and cutting down on waste. It will be exciting to see what the country does in the coming years.


[1] “Ecological Footprint by Country 2022,” World Population Review,

[2] Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, “CO₂ and Greenhouse Gas Emissions,”, last revised August 2020,

[3] Walter Willett et al., Summary Report of the EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems (Stockholm: EAT-Lancet Commission, 2019), 3, 14,

[4] International Forum for Sustainable Asia and the Pacific 2018, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies.

[5] Atsushi Watabe et al., “Uneaten Food: Emerging Social Practices around Food Waste in Greater Tokyo,” in Food Consumption in the City: Practices and Patterns in Urban Asia and the Pacific, ed. Marlyne Sahakian, et al. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016), 162–3.

[6] Watabe, 163–4.

[7] Kate Hall, Reducing Your Carbon Footprint in the Kitchen (New York, NY: Rosen Publishing Group, 2009), 5.

[8] Eugene Mohareb et al., “Considerations for Reducing Food System Energy Demand while Scaling Up Urban Agriculture,” Environmental Research Letters 12, no. 12 (December 2017),

[9] Roland Buerk, “Japan's Obsession with Perfect Fruit,” BBC News, March 15, 2012,

[10] Chen Liu et al., “Food Waste in Japan: Trends, Current Practices and Key Challenges,” Journal of Cleaner Production 133 (October 2016): 563,

[11] Liu et al., 562.

[12] Liu et al., 558.

[13] Keiichiro Kanemoto et al., “Meat Consumption Does Not Explain Differences in Household Food Carbon Footprints in Japan,” One Earth 1, no. 4 (December 20, 2019), 465.