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Challenges in Improving Utilization of Antenatal Care Services in Rural Bihar, India

June 25, 2021
By 27503

(Note: This article is an abridged summary of a chapter from the PhD dissertation of the author submitted to Oregon State University.)

Gautam Anand, a 2019 Sylff fellow, shares insights from his dissertation research, focusing on the poor utilization of antenatal care in India, a problem that is pronounced in rural areas. Based on interviews with health workers and group discussions with women in rural Bihar, he sheds light on the challenges and obstacles to improving access to antenatal care.

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In 2018, nearly 2.5 million neonatal deaths[1] were recorded globally, 22% (549,000) of which were from India alone (WHO 2019a). Similarly, out of a total of 295,000 maternal mortalities globally in 2017, more than 11% were recorded in India (WHO 2019b). Access to antenatal care (ANC) is crucial for reducing neonatal and maternal mortality as well as improving birth outcomes for both mothers and infants (Baqui et al. 2007; Coley and Aronson 2013). However, improving access to antenatal care in India remains a persistent challenge.

Antenatal Care Utilization Still Low in Rural Bihar

A primary health center building.

The 2015–16 National Family Health Survey (NFHS-IV) of India reported very poor antenatal care utilization with significant rural-urban disparity (IIPS and ICF 2017). Only 17% of pregnant women in rural areas received full antenatal care, meaning four ANC visits, 100 days of iron and folic acid (IFA) intake, and two tetanus (TT) injections, compared to 31% in urban areas. Further, there are significant geographic disparities too. In Bihar, one of the poorest states with a population of more than 110 million, only 3% of pregnant women in rural areas received full antenatal care, and only 13% of women had four or more antenatal checkups (ibid.). The challenge of low antenatal care utilization in rural parts of Bihar persists despite a targeted policy focus under the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), which introduced a community health worker (CHW) program under which an accredited social health activist (ASHA) is appointed for every 1,000 in the population. ASHAs have been incentivized to identify pregnant women in their community, register them with the local public health facility, and mobilize and accompany them to visit the facilities to receive antenatal care.

A focused group discussion being conducted with female community members.

It is thus important to understand the challenges faced by ASHAs in improving the utilization of antenatal care in rural parts of Bihar. My study was conducted in two blocks of Nawada district in Bihar utilizing a qualitative research design. Semi-structured in-depth interviews were conducted with 22 ASHAs and 10 local health officials, auxiliary nurse midwives, and Anganwadi workers. Seven focused group discussions (FGDs) were also conducted with women community members to understand their concerns with health service delivery at the local level. Using thematic network analysis (Attride-Stirling 2001), findings could be categorized into four major themes that emerged from the study: the perceived importance of antenatal care, lack of economic development, institutional obstacles, and sociocultural challenges.

It is important to highlight that utilization of antenatal care has increased significantly thanks to the sustained policy focus on its improvement under the NRHM. ASHAs and community members have observed an overall increase in the level of awareness among women for the need of antenatal care as well as a reduction in incidences of neonatal and maternal mortality over during the last 15 years. However, they noted that ensuring utilization of full antenatal care, especially four checkups and 100 days of IFA intake, remained a big challenge and that they faced many barriers in their efforts to improve it. The ASHAs very well understood what constitutes full antenatal care, and they also emphasized the importance of utilizing the services.

 Challenges and Impediments

Persistent lack of economic opportunities and widespread poverty in Bihar have for long impelled mass internal migration of laborers from the state to other parts of the country (Keshri and Bhagat 2012; Rasul and Sharma 2014; Sharma 2005). This was reflected in the findings; most of the ASHAs identified seasonal migration as a major challenge to their efforts toward full antenatal care utilization. ASHAs reported that seasonal migration was common in their communities as families, mostly poor, migrated to northern and western states for five to six months every year to work as agricultural laborers or in seasonal industries such as brick kilns. This has two critical implications here. First, it severely restricts continuity in outreach and access to care. Second, it often causes delays in identification of pregnant women, resulting in late initiation of antenatal care. In some cases, pregnant women left the community while they were pregnant, disrupting continuity in access to care. In other cases, women returned to their communities and reported to be in the later months of pregnancy without having initiated antenatal care. Widespread poverty poses a barrier too, given that it is correlated with lack of education, resources, and awareness.


A maternity ward in one of the primary health centers in Bihar that was in use until 2019. A new maternity ward is being constructed.

It was also reported that the health infrastructure has improved over the years but was still not adequate to meet the needs of full antenatal care. Arrangements to provide antenatal care services were not efficient and lacked quality, which demotivated pregnant women from returning for frequent checkups. Pregnant women must stand for hours in a queue to receive care. Waiting rooms, proper clean toilets, and drinking water were not available in many cases.

Several cultural norms also restrict ASHAs’ ability to ensure utilization of full antenatal care. ASHAs often talked about the cultural norm of pregnant women moving to their mothers’ place, especially during their first pregnancy, which can be challenging. They pointed out that this disrupted the continuity in utilization of antenatal care. A generational gap also restricts their ability to convince women to initiate antenatal care early in the pregnancy and going for frequent checkups, given the traditional belief of reporting pregnancy only after the first trimester is over.

Implications for Policy Design

The findings discussed above have important implications for the design of health policies aimed at improving antenatal care utilization, especially in the context of economic underdevelopment and widespread poverty. The study indicates that there is a limited focus under the program to improve quantity of care utilization and inadequate attention to the quality of care. ASHAs repeatedly pointed out that the poor quality of antenatal care offered at the public health facilities combined with the poor service experience of pregnant women are severe barriers to their mobilization effort. Also, the program design seems to have taken cognizance of the context mentioned above, judging from the importance it has placed on mobilization efforts by ASHAs and its incentivization of these efforts. However, the current incentive structure of ASHAs is narrowly defined, as it places most of the weight on physical outputs achieved and not so much on their counseling and education efforts to improve overall understanding of the need for antenatal care in their communities. A focus on improving the quality of antenatal care and providing adequate institutional support and remuneration to ASHAs will lead to significant improvement in antenatal care utilization.


Attride-Stirling, J. 2001. “Thematic Networks: An Analytic Tool for Qualitative Research.” Qualitative Research 1 (3): 385–405.

Baqui, A. H., E. K. Williams, G. L. Darmstadt, V. Kumar, T. U. Kiran, D. Panwar, R. K. Sharma, S. Ahmed, V. Sreevasta, and R. Ahuja. 2007. “Newborn Care in Rural Uttar Pradesh.” The Indian Journal of Pediatrics 74 (3): 241–47.

Coley, S. L., and R. E. Aronson. 2013. “Exploring Birth Outcome Disparities and the Impact of Prenatal Care Utilization among North Carolina Teen Mothers.” Women’s Health Issues 23 (5), e287–94.

Girard, A. W., and O. Olude. 2012. “Nutrition Education and Counselling Provided during Pregnancy: Effects on Maternal, Neonatal and Child Health Outcomes.” Paediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology 26, Supplement 1: 191–204.

International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS) and ICF. 2017. National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4), 2015–16: India. Mumbai: IIPS. http://rchiips.org/NFHS/NFHS-4Reports/India.pdf.

Keshri, K., and R. B. Bhagat. 2012. “Temporary and Seasonal Migration: Regional Pattern, Characteristics and Associated Factors.” Economic and Political Weekly 47 (4): 81–88. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41419769.

Rasul, G., and E. Sharma. 2014. “Understanding the Poor Economic Performance of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, India: A Macro-Perspective.” Regional Studies, Regional Science 1 (1): 221–39.

Sharma, A. N. 2005. “Agrarian Relations and Socio-Economic Change in Bihar.” Economic and Political Weekly 40 (10): 960–72. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4416306.

Wehby, G. L., J. C. Murray, E. E. Castilla, J. S. Lopez-Camelo, and R. L. Ohsfeldt. 2009. “Prenatal Care Effectiveness and Utilization in Brazil.” Health Policy and Planning 24 (3): 175–88.


[1] Within 28 days of birth.

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Normality Is an Illusion: Crisis Is Not

June 10, 2021
By 28804

In this article, 2020 Sylff fellow Amit Singh questions the concept of normality. While the COVID-19 pandemic may have redefined “normality” for India’s privileged classes, the very idea is an illusion for the marginalized, who live in permanent crisis. The pandemic, under which the state has done poorly in securing the basic needs of its vulnerable, “has exposed the fault lines of fragile Indian society,” says Singh.

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The disruption of daily life, due to COVID-19 pandemic in India, reminded me of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s shock decision in November, 2016 to scrap 86% of India’s currency (demonetisation); the abrupt disappearance of cash crippled supply chains and led to systemwide job cuts, which made life worse for the poorest in India—disrupted their normal lives—in a similar manner, this health pandemic is also affecting. Due to COVID, Indian state, like others, faced an abnormal situation-suspension of normality. What does normality mean for the marginalised Indian population? Whom does normality serve? We need to ask this question. Well, for the millions of daily wage workers ‘normality’ may be an illusion.

During the Indian lockdown, hundreds of inter-state migrant workers have died and disappeared from the surface of society without any trace. What normality would have meant for them, I just wonder! Professor Boaventura de Sousa Santos (2020) thinks their lives were not an exception to normal situation. Daily wage labourers, vegetable sellers, poor farmers, street vendors, homeless people—all are part of this normality of exception. They have been living in dire situation—abnormal life—being normal for them. These people from abject spaces, as Julia Kristeva (1982) would call them, survive on meagre daily wages, face police violence and receive apathy of general society on a daily basis; possibly normality is just an illusion for them.

India’s nationwide lockdown amidst the COVID-19 pandemic has critically dislocated its migrant population. The pandemic is not a crisis situation clearly opposed to a normal situation; for thousands of inter-state migrant workers, unable to cope with hunger, were forced to walk to their villages, hundreds of kilometres, barefoot, with no food, and transportation shut down—with some dying during the journey—this crisis is permanent; they are not an exception of this so called normality. They have already felt the disruption of their daily lives so many times that ‘normality’ has lost meaning for them. Their lives have been hijacked by discourse of normality; making it appear that they are living a normal life like most of their compatriots. However, the fact is that they have been trapped in the circle of crisis by the State, by the Corporate, by the privileged middle classes. Mainly living in slums, they feel the crisis through extreme poverty, starvation, disease, and wage inequality; crisis, being an essential part of their lives, where the idea of ‘normal life’ is absent.

They are the invisible foundation of visible societies on which nation and state stand; from manual scavenging to farming, without them, Indian society would not function. For 450 million of India’s informal sector’s workers, life was never normal. Their existence mattered to the Indian State—I seriously doubt it. With no health insurance, poor working condition, crammed living conditions, lack of social security and low wages, their lives have always been in a permanent state of crisis—even in so called ‘normal times.’ During the lockdown, it was mainly the dead bodies of the hungry, the poor, the beggars, the unemployed, the migrant workers, women and children, were scattered all over the country. Even in normal times, they have been dying like that, due to starvation, lack of health care, malnourishment, burden of debt, state violence and caste discrimination. Nevertheless, it was during these abnormal times when their deaths get more attention and sympathy. However, those who are alive, would gradually die because of unemployment, rising inflation and inability to buy food. Paradigm shift, necessary for social change, is yet to happen in the Indian society. Indeed, the pandemic has deeply disrupted the lives of millions globally; however, it was the incapability of the leadership to deal with the pandemic efficiently which has exacerbated this crisis. Organised governmental chaos in India has led the humanitarian crisis of an epic proportion, has reproduced existing inequalities and exclusion of the marginalised population.

These are the times when the capability of the States to secure basic needs for their vulnerable population is being tested to the core. In such crisis, an effective leadership could navigate society away from impending disaster, like leadership in Portugal and New Zealand did. However, unlike India, in Portugal, a humane approach was adopted in dealing with the pandemic; people were given ample time to settle before national emergency was enforced (in India lockdown was brutally enforced only on four hours of notice), no one was brutalised by the police, and public transportation was totally free for all. However, I was sad to see that in Lisbon (where I stayed during the lockdown) how some Asian communities’ members, primarily Bengali Indians (Martin Muniz area), Pakistanis and Chinese businessmen exploited their Asian employees. Less payment, long hours of work, firing employees without any pay, coercion, disregarding work contract, are some of the human rights abuses. During the lockdown, Asian immigrant workers have suffered at the hands of their Asian employers. But, in normal times, they suffer the same fate on a daily basis. Normality, probably, is an illusion for them, but crisis is not. Pain, agony and frustration arising out of the crisis is very real for them.

Finally, it can be said that COVID-19 pandemic, maybe by nature is exceptional and temporary to the ruling elites and middle classes, however, for the millions of the poor Indian inter-state migrant workers, crisis is permanent. Pandemic has exposed the fault lines of fragile Indian society. It certainly has shown the Indian migrant workers that they are unwanted in their own country. How much such societies are able to sustain the forces of volatile disruption, only time will tell. COVID-19 pandemic may have redefined the ‘idea of normality’ to the privileged one, but for the excluded, marginalised and discriminated, comfortability of normality is just an illusion.



Kristeva, J. (1982). Power of horror: An essay on abjection. Translated by Roudiez, L. Columbia University Press: New York. Retrieved from https://users.clas.ufl.edu/burt/touchyfeelingsmaliciousobjects/Kristevapowersofhorrorabjection.pdf

de  Sousa Santos, B. (2020). Black Issues in Philosophy: Virus that is solid melts into air. Blog of the American Philosophical Association (APA). Retrieved from https://estudogeral.sib.uc.pt/bitstream/10316/89211/1/Virus_all%20that%20is%20solid%20melts%20into%20air.pdf


The original article is published in: Explorations, ISS e-journal <http://app.insoso.org/ISS_journal/Issues/October_2020> , Vol. 4 (2), October 2020, published by Indian Sociological Society.

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Is Egypt’s Economy Surviving Corona’s Bumpy Ride?

April 6, 2021
By 28847

Christine Guirguis, a 2020 Sylff fellow from the American University in Cairo, addresses the outlook for Egypt’s economy in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Egypt was one of only three countries in the region to maintain positive growth in 2020, an impressive record given the difficulties it has experienced over the past decade, as Guirguis details.

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View of Cairo from the top of Cairo Tower, August 25, 2014.

Egypt’s economic condition in 2012–13 was dubbed the worst crisis since the 1930s. The severity of the economic troubles reached its peak in the first half of 2014 with a fall in the GDP growth rate to 1.2%—the lowest in about 50 years—as well as a rise of the inflation rate to 9%, a surge in the unemployment rate to 14%, a fall of eight places in tourism ranking, and a shortage in essential food products. As a result, Egypt’s economic status as of 2014, which was downgraded from emerging market to frontier market in Russell’s Annual Index, left the country scrambling to rescue its 86-million population at the time.

Before reluctantly resorting to the International Monetary Fund, Egypt—whose national security is a safety valve to the region—had received generous aid from the Arabian Gulf and Saudi Arabia totaling as much as $30 billion. While such aid breathed life into Egypt’s economy, the bill was far from paid.

In 2015, three-quarters of Egypt’s budget vanished into subsidies, government wages, interest payments, and capital loan repayments; only 5% of the budget was left for other purposes. In the same year, the crash of a Russian airplane due to an act of terrorism marked the Egyptian tourism’s clinical death before it was gradually resuscitated in 2019 by stricter security measures in airports. This was when Egypt decided, on November 3, 2016, to brace up for a $12 billion IMF loan by devaluing its currency by 48% and fulfilling the IMF’s requirements by way of cutting subsidies, increasing VAT, and floating the currency.

Luxor temple, Luxor, January 2015.

In a recent television interview, Mr. Tarek Amer, governor of the Central Bank of Egypt, talked about the Herculean responsibility he had in his hands in 2015. Egypt’s foreign cash reserves were only $800 million, an amount Egypt normally spends in a week. Consequently, its economy would have faced the risk of a total shutdown unless an urgent “surgery” of painful economic reform was done. The political and social sensitivity of the November 2016 decision, at a time when Egypt was craving for stability, rendered the proposal impossible from the point of view of almost all the cabinet members. No one was able to digest the unimaginable scenarios that could have taken place if the economic reform process had failed to meet its purposes, especially because its probability of success was estimated to be between only 10% and 30% at the time. With no alternatives on the horizon, President Sisi gave the green light for the execution of the economic reform proposal, a decision that signified a new, independent approach that enabled Egypt to skip the limitations that had long impeded its economic restructuring.

In a country where a quarter of the people live below the poverty line, the government wanted to ensure that its measures would not cause a humanitarian crisis or a social backlash. The government kept intact the cash transmission programs and subsidized food systems launched earlier.

Given the painful austerity measures, some envisioned a doomsday scenario taking place in Egypt. Yehia Hamed, a former investment minister in Mohamed Morsi’s 2012–13 government, wrote an article in the Foreign Policy in 2019 where he conjectured that Egypt was heading toward bankruptcy and warned Europe against a mass flocking across the Mediterranean of Egyptians fleeing an inevitable bleak fate.

In response Ahmed Shams El Din, an Egyptian capital markets professional and adjunct professor at the American University in Cairo, published an article on the same news site where he expressed his wonder at the former minister’s criticism of securing an IMF loan even though the government in which he served had approached the IMF in 2012 for a loan. He noted that Egypt’s economy is growing rather than collapsing, with the account and budget deficits cut in half and a 5.5% growth in 2019 compared to 2.2% in 2013.  

The current pandemic is already suffocating some of the biggest economies, supporting the IMF’s description of it as “the worst economic crisis since the 1930s depression.” For Egypt, the challenge is tougher due to losses in the main revenue sources, such as tourism, the Suez Canal, and remittances, which together constitute 15% of Egypt’s GDP. Therefore, in its June report the IMF initially expected a decline in Egypt’s GDP growth rate from 5.6% in 2019 to as low as 2% in 2020—a percentage it later changed to 3.5% in its October report. Given the global economic challenges, this relatively low growth rate makes Egypt one of three countries in the Middle East and Central Asia to maintain a positive figure in 2020.

Antique Bazaars, Aswan, January 2015.

During the apex of the global pandemic uncertainty in 2020, Egypt managed to pay $35 billion of its liabilities without suffering a severe decline in its foreign currency stockpile or any shortage of essential goods. This explained Egypt’s ability to maintain its credit ratings by Standard & Poor’s at “BB” in April 2020, by Fitch at “B+” with a Stable Outlook in July, and by Moody’s at “B2” in August. Based on these ratings, J.P. Morgan praised Egypt’s economic performance, stating that, thus far, its economy had successfully withstood the test of the pandemic and kept the trust of the international community. Hence, Egypt’s economy has been given well-grounded positive appraisals.To contain corona’s economic repercussions, the Egyptian government allocated 100 billion Egyptian pounds (EGP) as a stimulus package, including half to support the severely affected tourism sector, EGP 8 billion for the health sector, a 14% increase in pensions, energy cost relief for factories, fewer taxes on businesses, more cash transmissions, and financial support for irregular workers until the end of 2020.

Egypt’s top priorities in the economic agenda include augmenting domestic savings, as well as adopting a more liberal approach toward the market, revisiting tax penalties and exemptions, and laying the basis for a fairer accountability system.

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A Triple Crisis in the Indian Sundarbans

January 7, 2021
By 25159

The article describes how the people of the Indian Sundarbans delta, who have adopted migration as a means of survival in an ecologically fragile deltaic region in eastern India, have been affected by the combined impact of the global pandemic and tropical cyclone Amphaan, which struck India in 2020.

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Inhabitants of Banashyamnagar in the Sundarbans queue for disaster relief while trying to maintain social distancing norms to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Picture by Amartya Ray)

The word cyclone was coined in the city I am writing from, Calcutta. A colonial officer, Henry Piddington studied tropical storms peculiar to the Bay of Bengal and named them cyclones after the Greek word ‘kuklōma', meaning the coil of a snake. When in 1853, the colonial government decided to build a port in the lush green deltaic region south of Calcutta, Piddington wrote an anxious letter to the then Governor-General of British India, Lord Dalhousie, to explain how the plan might not succeed should a cyclonic storm strike. True to his word, fourteen years later, a ferocious storm razed the newly built Port Canning to the ground. Nearly two hundred years after Henry Piddington’s lifetime, the forested deltas of present-day India and Bangladesh, called the Sundarbans, continue to reel under severe environmental stress.

People began settling in the hostile climate of the Sundarbans during the colonial period when the British Raj decided to deforest much of the largest mangrove forest in the world, and the natural shield of the eastern portion of the Indian mainland against sea storms, for agricultural revenue. Because of their low-lying, riverine and coastal setting, inhabitants of the region have never been unfamiliar with the threat of cyclones. But those living in the ‘transition’ zone between ‘stable’ inland areas contiguous with the mainland and ‘core’ seaward areas of legally protected mangrove forests, remain most vulnerable to environmental hazards. Located along major tidal rivers, only 23 percent of the roughly 1.5 million inhabitants of the transition zone had access to safe water in 2011, while less than 2 percent could access storm shelters.

The region faces a basket of environmental hazards round the year. It experiences sudden-onset extreme weather events in the form of about nine cyclonic storms a decade, a third of which are severe. In the recent past, Sidr (2007), Aila (2009), Phailin (2013), Hudhud (2014) and Bulbul (2019) have struck the Sundarbans with cycles of immense destruction. In the background of recurring cyclonic storms, are slow-onset environmental hazards that people have lived with for centuries. Some of these, such as a rising sea level, salinisation of soil and water, loss of ecosystem services and failure of the ring of embankments built to protect the region from erosion have led to decreased access to safe drinking water, lack of food security and inadequate WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) facilities. Salinity in soil has reduced land productivity in a region primarily dependent on agriculture as its chief livelihood strategy. Salinity in water sources and lack of piped water supply have resulted in poor health outcomes and high diarrhea-related mortality, especially among children. This year, however, the people of the Indian Sundarbans face a triple crisis. In the fourth week of May, the deadliest tropical cyclone to have ever impacted the Bay of Bengal, Amphan, coincided with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in the background of deep-seated impacts of slow-onset hazards.

The Sundarbans is celebrated as a World Heritage Site, a recognition accorded by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to the rich biodiversity of the Indian Sundarbans in 1987 and of the Sundarbans of Bangladesh in 1997. But its 7.2 million inhabitants confront as part of everyday life a web of slow-onset and sudden-onset climate stress and socio-economic vulnerability that lead them to migrate from the region in search of work to adapt to  their hostile living conditions. There are also instances of environmentally-induced displacement in the region. The islands of Lohachara, Suparibhanga and Bedford have already submerged in the sea, while Ghoramara has shrunk to a fourth of its original size, witnessing the displacement of thousands to the neighbouring island of Sagar. Climate change and human activities such as tidal-based aquaculture and overexploitation of natural resources further aggravate the impact of environmental hazards in the region. In fact, sea level rise in the Sundarbans does not result only from eustatic processes, or the thermal expansion of sea water due to global warming, but also from isostatic processes, which is a local decrease in land level due to compaction of soil and deltaic subsidence. Isostatic processes contribute to about 3 to 8 millimetres of sea level rise in the region every year.

Environmental migration has no locus standi in international treaty law at present, nor are there any national legal provisions in place that can support or compensate migration from the Sundarbans. Policies on disaster risk management in India are limited to disaster relief that address extreme-weather events alone. They do not include instances of displacement or migration due to environmental stress. Additionally, environmental change cannot always be separated from other drivers of migration, and it is therefore difficult to identify environmental migration as a discrete phenomenon. Cross-country research has shown environmental migration to be a multicausal affair, with factors of extreme poverty, socio-political insecurity and environmental dangers reinforcing each other in driving people to move. It is no different in the case of the Indian Sundarbans, where the living standards of the people are grave. According to a household survey conducted after Cyclone Aila of 2009, in a typical group of thousand residents, 510 people, most of them children, were found to suffer from some form of malnutrition. The survey revealed three broad patterns of migration from the region: long-term migration to distant big cities in search of work, seasonal migration during paddy-sowing and harvesting seasons to neighbouring districts as farm labour, and short-term migration to the nearest big city, Kolkata, for informal employment in masonry, sanitation services and public works. Although these people are not called forced environmental migrants because the term does not legally exist, environmental hazards and climate change contribute to the absence of employment opportunities for which they migrate. Extreme poverty both arises from and contributes to their vulnerability to environmental hazards.

When COVID-19 broke out in March, India witnessed the imposition of a nation-wide lockdown with only four hours’ notice. Businesses shut, streets were emptied, factories stopped and workers were laid off. Over 90 percent of India’s population work in the informal sector, and migrants form a large share of it. With abject poverty at source and little income in big cities, migrant workers in India straddle extreme uncertainty and vulnerability even without a pandemic or its economic fallout. But with the COVID-19 crisis, loss of work, and the government’s stringent lockdown rules, they were left with no choice but to return to their home states.

From very early into the lockdown, special repatriation flights were arranged to bring back Indian citizens stuck in foreign countries, but no effective measure was undertaken to facilitate the reverse exodus of migrants from cities or to provide them with alternative sources for earning a living. In a recent report by the country’s central bank, push factors such as high cost of living in urban areas, loss of employment, uncertainty of the lifting of the lockdown, and limited access to social and unemployment benefits, combined with pull factors such as the onset of winter harvesting season, employment opportunities in public assistance programmes in their native villages, and wanting to feel secure with their families, acted as major drivers of the massive reverse migration of migrant workers. With inter-state transportation halted, millions of migrants began a long journey home with babies and bundles under their arms, an unrecorded number of them collapsing on the way. By late March, about 250,000 to 300,000 migrants had returned to the Sundarbans alone. This amounted to an increased threat of disease in the islands, loss of remittances in migrant households, increased pressure on natural resources and an overwhelmed local labour market.

When Category 5 cyclone Amphan struck Bengal and Bangladesh in the afternoon of 20 May this year, inhabitants of the Sundarbans were already neck-deep in trouble. With a surge of return migration, loss of jobs and inadequate public health facilities making living conditions dismal, the cyclone caused irreparable damage to life in the Sundarbans. The 111 mile per hour winds washed away huts, cattle, trees and electric poles, broke through the protective embankments that had been built around the islands and filled paddy fields with seawater. People thronged in school buildings and storm shelters despite fear of contagion. In a month’s time, the spread of COVID-19 surged from 3,103 cases and 181 deaths on the day of the storm to nearly 5,500 cases and over 300 deaths in the region by early June. The state government estimated over 28 percent of the mangrove forests to have been damaged. The storm ripped off the 100 kilometre long nylon fencing that had hitherto prevented tigers from straying into human habitations. Subsistence agriculture, the dominant livelihood for most inhabitants, was badly hit. The agricultural department of the government estimated heavy losses incurred by 1,08,000 farmers across 17,800 hectares of crop field. The surge of brackish water in fields and ponds killed off fishes and rendered fields uncultivable for years ahead. With hundreds and thousands of extra mouths to feed, man-tiger conflicts spiked as islanders began venturing deep into the forests in search of fish, crab, honey and firewood.

When Cyclone Aila had struck in 2009, able-bodied islanders migrated out in search of work. Their families remained behind, living on a thin flow of remittances. But with the devastation of Amphan, a global pandemic showing no sign of decline and an unprecedented surge of return migration into the Sundarbans in early 2020, possibilities for exploring economic opportunities outside the region— the primary means of adapting to environmental hazards at home— remain bleak. The state government announced 827,000 dollars in aid for rebuilding life in the Sundarbans after Amphan while the central government has released 130 million dollars from the National Disaster Relief Fund for the state of West Bengal. But short-term relief cannot reverse the damage caused by Amphan unless supported by forward-looking strategies of overcoming the triple crisis of slow and sudden-onset environmental hazards, poverty and COVID-19 that the region faces today. Some climate experts and economists point to the benefits of planned and managed retreat of inhabitants living in the transition zone to more stable zones over in-situ strategies of adaptation while others point to the dangers of extracting people from their land. But with inhabitants trapped in a public health crisis amid extreme environmental and economic vulnerability, migration will have to be managed and facilitated by the state instead of scraping by with local efforts of building resilience.

The author would like to thank her friend Amartya Ray for his insightful comments. He went to the Sundarbans along with his mother Chaiti Ghoshal with relief for 500 inhabitants of the village of Banashyamnagar on 4 June 2020. Both of them are film actors in India.


Reprinted from the IOM's special blog, https://environmentalmigration.iom.int/blogs/triple-crisis-indian-sundarbans


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The State of South African Education: Covid-19 Implosion Brings Good News and Bad News

November 24, 2020
By 25517

How much worse will things get in our education system? Teachers are familiar with the effects of extended periods of downtime, like that during the Covid-19 lockdown. The longer children are out of school, the more difficult it is to get them back into the routine and into the headspace needed for learning.


*  *  *

I have some good news and, unfortunately, some bad news too. Which would you like to hear first? Most people want the bad news first so that they can move on to the good news and end on a high. And this is the formula I will use. The bad news is, unfortunately, very bad: Take cover! Tsunami warning for the SA education system! Get ready for waves of poorly educated children exiting the education system over the next decade or longer.

But how much worse could things really get in the education sector? Have we not already reached rock bottom? No, I suspect that we still have some way to go. One of the unintended consequences of the Covid-19 lockdown in South Africa has been to push our already ailing education system to an unprecedented low.

“Children are not the face of this pandemic. But they are at risk of being among its biggest victims… in some cases, by mitigation measures that may inadvertently do more harm than good. The harmful effects of this pandemic will not be distributed equally; they are expected to be most damaging for children in the poorest countries, in the poorest neighbourhoods, and for those in already disadvantaged or vulnerable situations.” – United Nations Policy Brief, 15 April 2020.

Covid-19 will naturally affect those who are the most disadvantaged to the greatest extent. This is also true in the field of education. The renowned psychologist Edward Thorndike’s “Law of Learning” provides further support for this. It states that the more one learns, the more learning one can achieve in the future. Learning generates further interest in learning.  

In fact, at a biological level we know that being exposed to interesting ideas and being curious triggers the human body’s narcotic-like dopamine chemicals to flood the brain, a positive stimulus that guarantees the individual would want to recreate these experiences.

Conversely, one who has not been exposed to learning opportunities would be less inclined to seek out cognitive stimulation. Thus, children who are described as educationally disadvantaged and were physically locked out of the education system and left to their own devices during the Covid-19 crisis are at much greater risk of not making adequate school progress in the future.

What do we know about the effects of extended periods of downtime on children’s learning? Teachers are very familiar with such scenarios as they often see a tailing off of children’s learning after long holidays and even long weekends. The longer children are out of school, the more difficult it seems to be to get them back into the routine and into the headspace needed for learning.

Teachers at the training working with the BCP materials.

In these situations, teachers constantly have to revert back to previously taught content. These learning setbacks might not be permanent, but they impact future learning.

Human cognitive development is a complex and individual process. How do we start to intervene in it? 

The good news is that we have accumulated a lot of knowledge about this process and that cognitive science does have a fairly good grasp of the fundamental principles that guide effective teaching and learning.

Most importantly, we know that human beings are cognitively modifiable, thanks to the pioneering and extraordinary work of the late cognitive psychologist Professor Reuven Feuerstein. The implications of this seemingly unassuming statement are profound for educators and for children not already in the learning loop. The notion of cognitive modifiability gives substance to the cliché that “all children can learn”. For too long we have been dominated by a deterministic, all-or-nothing view of human cognition; either you have the “smarts” or you don’t.

Children who are working with the BCP materials.

This recognition of cognitive modifiability has resulted in the development of cognitive intervention programmes, such as Instrumental Enrichment, Bright Start and Basic Concepts Programme. While traditional curative (remedial) programmes aim to close gaps in content learning, cognitive programmes aim to promote the growth of cognitive structures that are needed for higher order and abstract reasoning.

But is it possible to enhance the development of cognitive processes inside the classroom and can teachers do this? It is our experience that emergent cognitive structures can be enhanced and teachers can be trained to become mediators of learning. Mediated learning differs vastly from traditional “chalk-and-talk” pedagogical approaches on both a philosophical as well as humanistic level. 

Human mediators are caring, engaged, open, interactive and intensively involved with their children in the classroom. Young children happen to need these kinds of engagements to free up their involvement and participation. Children who take risks and share their thinking and are able to express their ideas are set on a path to improve their thinking, to reflect on it and consider the views of others.

So why are such cognitive educational approaches not being used more in learning institutions, particularly for young children who are not already engaged in learning and might have cognitive vulnerabilities? 

Children who are busy with an activity related to the programme

The Basic Concepts Programme is being extended across Grade R classes throughout the Northern Cape. The Northern Cape Department of Education has been forward-looking in helping to establish solid cognitive foundations needed for enhanced learning. There is an understanding that cognitive development and the school curriculum are not mutually exclusive activities, but both are integral. In a pilot study we have found almost universal improvements in school readiness of children who have been exposed to this cognitive programme during their school day.

The disruptions to teaching and learning in these very unsettled Covid-19 times might, in fact, allow those invested in education to pause, take stock and re-evaluate our understanding and approaches.

How does our practice as educators align with what we know about learning from cognitive science, and are we following the best evidence-based practices that will help children to improve their learning? It might be that the unintended outcome of the crisis also mobilises those involved in education to develop a range of special interventions to re-establish an interest in learning. 

All children can learn and make educational progress, but it might be that some children need a more thoughtful, intentional and mediational approach to successfully re-enter the educational mainstream. 

This article acknowledges the Douglas Murray Trust and Ryoichi Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund for their generous support of the work done by the author with the Northern Cape Department of Education.

*  *  *

Reprinted, with a lead by the author, from DAILY MAVERICK which is one of the largest and most credible online newspapers in South Africa; https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2020-11-02-the-state-of-south-african-education-covid-19-implosion-brings-good-news-and-bad-news/.

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Life of Transcarpathian Hungarian Women Working in Kolkhozes under Socialism in the 1950s

April 30, 2020
By 27333

Julia Orosz, a 2019 Sylff fellow at the University of Debrecen (Hungarian Academy of Sciences), focuses on the situation of Hungarian women in Transcarpathia in the post–World War II communist era in her PhD dissertation. She has been dealing with this topic for many years, and as a Sylff fellow she has broadened her basic research topic by examining the connections and differences between the circumstances and opportunities of women living in the communist era, comparing it with the position of today’s young girls in the fields of further education, women’s work, career development, family formation, and childbirth. In this article, she gives a little insight into the lives of women living in the communist era.

 * * *

Transcarpathia has been the westernmost region of independent Ukraine since 1991, bordering four countries (Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania). It currently covers an area of 12,752 square kilometers. Transcarpathia’s twentieth-century history is extremely versatile, as it has undergone several changes of empire. Under the 1920 Trianon Treaty, the area was separated from Hungary and came under Czechoslovakia’s control. Due to the border revision goals of Hungarian foreign policy and the First and Second Vienna Awards (1938 and 1940), by the time of World War II (1939–1945) the separated territories were returned to the motherland, but the outcome of the world war again changed this. By virtue of the Soviet-Czechoslovak Convention signed on June 29, 1945, the region became part of the Soviet Union, and the decree of the presidency of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union of January 22, 1946, declared it to be the Transcarpathian territory of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.[2] Transcarpathia was thus put into the mold of communism, as were all countries undergoing or forced into socialist development, which influenced the political, economic, and social life of the region.

Topographic map of Ukraine. Transcarpathia is located in the western part of the country, with the regional headquarters in Uzhhorod. (Source: https://www.prntr.com/ukraine-map.html)

I chose Transcarpathia for my study for two reasons: firstly, it is my motherland and I am interested in the history of my ancestors, and secondly, due to its location and nationality, Transcarpathia is a specific area that connects the East with the West. Although Ukraine has not had an official census since 2001, recent estimates put the population of Hungarians in Transcarpathia at 120,000–130,000. In 1941 the Hungarian population was 233,840, but according to the 1946 county census (which is not an official census), the number of Hungarians had dropped significantly to 66,000 by that year.[4] This decline in population is mainly explained by the high death toll on the fronts, the mass escape, and the abduction of Hungarian men to Soviet labor camps (the Malenki Robot) in 1944.[5] All of these contributed to the decline in the male population and the transformation of female roles. In many cases, women were forced to take over the place of men and to manage the family alone. In addition, government policy on women contributed to the transformation of women’s roles.

The Stalin Constitution of 1936 stated that women should enjoy equal rights with men in all areas of life. A well-built network of propaganda sought to emphasize to people that communism had led to the breakdown of decades of barriers and the opening of opportunities for women. As an era, I deal with the period from 1944–45 to the 1950s, as the 1950s are the most characteristic and most dictatorial chapter of the communist regime. In the Stalin era, the new female ideal was the stanovist top worker, someone who excelled at her workplace and was able to cope with more difficult physical jobs, even masculine ones, and this was the example to follow.[6] It was the responsibility of the press to promote it, so it should not be surprising that women workers in a wide variety of fields became frequent figures in the newspapers. Of course, these reports could only glorify the communist power and the opportunities offered by the system.

One example among many is Etelka Bálint, a former kolkhozist at the Lenin kolkhoz[7] in Bereg. Etelka said: “During the capitalist rule, I had no goals. My life was miserable, I worked for kulaks.[8] But the situation changed in the years of the Soviet system. I was given freedom. I entered the kolkhoz. I am provided with annual bread, and as a team leader and as a board member I take part in managing the kolkhoz. As a simple working woman, I was given leadership and the right to freedom and happiness.”[9] In 1948, she was honored with the Order of the Red Flag of Work for high grape yield.[10] The Soviet government was also keen to reward women with various honors, such as the Lenin Order, Red Flag Order, and Socialist Labor Hero, to emphasize their merits to the state and society. The party leadership wanted to prove that, regardless of their social status and qualifications, women who work and are committed to the development of the country are rewarded.

The active builders of communism. Top half, left to right: Margit Katkó, leader of the group for the Rimavské Janovce Vineyard, Socialist Labor Hero, Lenin Order–honored worker; Ilona Kosztel, burner of the Berehovo brick factory; and Gizella Titka, a stanovist at the furniture factory in Berehovo. Bottom half, left to right: Maria Hrobák, commander of the Kalinin kolkhoz in Berehovo, recipient of the Lenin Order; Malvin Kovács, brigade commander of the Berehovo garment factory; and Maria Papp, group leader for the Muzsajj Vineyard, recipient of the Order of the Red Banner of Labor.[11]

However, there are some differences between the portrayal and idealization of women by the communist party leadership and the real, everyday life of women. As there are few written sources about women’s daily lives and activities, and what is to be found was produced under very strong ideological pressure and censorship, I have sought to supplement archival sources and contemporary press publications with reminiscences. Today, we are fortunate enough to be able to visit people who have lived during the socialist era and, through their personal experiences, gain interesting information that is not always evident from archival materials and official documents. This not only gives us a more complex picture of the era, but also allows us to interpret and understand people’s lives.

The author, right, with an interviewee.

After 1945, the major turning point in gender roles worldwide was the influx of women into paid employment,[12] which of course does not mean that women had not worked before. In the socialist countries, the state tried to treat the mass employment of women as an achievement of equality, whereas the real reasons were the difficulty of living, the postwar labor shortage, and the need for employment. Because of low wages, a single salary was not enough to support families, and because of the state’s extensive economic policy and strong industrialization, it was necessary to employ every person of working age, so that more women could be employed.

My informants are simple, ordinary women, born in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. They come from peasant families with many children, where the father was the breadwinner and the mother worked in the household. As children and young girls, they lived through World War II and its effects. Because of a lack of opportunity, they have a low level of education, and most of them were employed as farm workers in the kolkhozes or in various branches of industry.

Transcarpathia was a strongly agricultural region. With the sovietization of the area, individual and private farming was abolished and the so-called kolkhozes appeared, providing the only job opportunities in the villages. Stalin considered it important to actively involve women in socialist production: “The issue of women in kolkhozes . . . is an important question, comrades. I know that many of you underestimate women. . . . However, this is a mistake. . . . It is not only about half of the population being women. First and foremost, the kolkhoz movement has raised many outstanding and talented women to leadership positions. . . . Women have long since risen to the forefront from previously lagging behind. In kolkhozes, women represent great power. Keeping this power under restrictions . . . is a sin.”

Agricultural girl group, Szernye. Róza S. is on the right in the middle row.

One of my interviewees, Róza S., was born in 1933 in Serne.[14] Her father was a farmer who died in 1944 as a soldier of the Hungarian army, and her mother raised three children as a widow. Róza spoke with poignant sincerity about their daily problems: “My mother would go out to the meadow and climb the tree. From there she would cut off the dry branches, tie them, and bring them home on her back so that the three kids would not freeze.” Róza had a difficult childhood, so she only completed five classes, plus one repetition. At a very young age, she was already working as a farm worker in the kolkhoz. “I was a very good student. They [her two older brothers, Janos (born 1928) and Balázs (born 1930)] persuaded me to go to school if they couldn’t; at least I would be able learn and go to school. I did not go; I chose to work. . . . I was fourteen, and I went to work on the field. . . . We carried the bobbins together. Well, by the same time the next year everyone had become a worker at the kolkhoz [in Serne, which was formed in 1947). Life became very, very difficult. . . . They took our land, and everyone was forced to work there. They did not ask if you wanted to give up your land. Some resisted. Their land was sown in the spring, and it was harvested by the kolkhoz in the autumn.” My interviewee was a milkmaid, a farm worker in her youth, and went to work at the kolkhoz tobacco plantations. “Every day we went to plow, we went barefoot, we didn’t have slippers like that. . . . Back then, it wasn’t really machine plowing, just hand plowing.” In 1955 Róza, as a group leader, was able to represent a group of local kolkhoz girls at a Moscow agricultural exhibition as a result of her abundant crop yield. “I even went to Moscow for an agricultural exhibition. They took me from the kolkhoz because I was a group leader. We were girls, only girls. We had a good crop of beets, we had beets that weighted ten kilos. Well then, they got me out there.”

Roza S., fourth from left, as a milkmaid.

Roza S., front row center, in Moscow, 1955.

Similarly, Jolán B. had no easy youth.[15] Born in 1943, Jolán had seven siblings. They lost their mother early, and she was fifteen years old when her mother’s duties fell on her. (As her four older brothers were already married, she had to care for her two younger brothers, born 1945 and 1947, and her younger sister, who was ten years younger than her, having been born in1953).

Jolán B. working on the hen farm.

“One would go to school in the morning in boots and come home at noon, then the other would go to school in the same boots. This was our life. . . . For my sister, I was able to alter what I had outgrown.” Jolán worked at the kolkhoz for 30 years: 8 years on the hen farm and the rest on the vegetable-producing brigade.

There were also many women in Transcarpathia who were placed in higher leadership positions by the party leadership. Such was the case of Jolán Antal, president of the Marx kolkhoz in the village of Szolovka. The kolkhoz was formed on October 11, 1947, with the participation of 16 families, and by August 21, 1948, the peasantry of the whole village had joined. The president gushed about the greatness of the kolkhoz system: “All our hard work is done by machine, and this year we have been harvesting with a combine. As a result of Soviet agro-technology and well-organized joint management, the land gives twice as much as it used to before to individual farmers. . . . As the kolkhoz grows, people can live in a better way. Of course, it was difficult for us in the beginning. But we’ve gotten over it. No one would replace his present life with his old life. After the poverty, prosperity and post-oppression freedom came.”[16] Other individuals who have gone through the era remember things a little differently. Erzsébet B., a 1931-born resident of Velyka Dobron, recalled: “The Russians came in, took the land, cleaned out everything, took away all the animals. . . . I was still a girl when the kolkhoz was formed [in 1949]. We went to the field. . . . We had to hoe cabbage, potatoes, everything with a hand hoe; we had to break the corn by hand. . . . In the winter we only went to do tobacco. . . . They didn’t pay us a salary, just the norm. . . . It was very little, but back then everything was cheap.”[17]

Erzsébet B. at the age of 14 in Nagydobony folk costume.

In the 1950s, women were welcomed to work where previously only men worked. Many were engaged in heavy industry, construction, mining, turning lathes, and welding, but the greatest spotlight of the era was given to the women operating tractors. According to historian Zsófia Eszter Tóth, they wanted to symbolize that women are completely equal to men and that they are capable of the same performance in any job.[18] As the tractor operating industry was not very attractive to women, all means of propaganda had to be used to promote the profession, such as Soviet role models like Pasa Angelina, articles, movies, posters, brochures, songs, and poems. While studying the press, I found that there were quite a few women in Transcarpathia who had completed courses at the Machine and Tractor Station and worked on a tractor, but there was no published information indicating that most of them were forced to do so. “We are proud to be the first tractor operating women in Transcarpathia. We all follow the shining example of Pasa Angelina, known worldwide for her work victories. None of us would have thought yesterday that we girls and women would master the tractor operating profession.”[19] So said Sarolta Szalontai, the female brigade commander of the Rákosi GTC. Most of my 32 interviewees so far worked in various kolkhozes in Transcarpathia, and they recalled that it was not common for women to be tractor drivers; they know or have heard about singular cases, but for some reason women were forced to do so and only temporarily.

According to my interviewee Jolán B., her sister-in-law Gizella Szijjártó, the wife of her eldest brother, drove a tractor: My sister-in-law lived in Heivtsi,[20] and when she was a girl, her father was a kulak. . . . They were treated very strictly. When her father was taken away as a kulak to Donbas,[21] they wanted to take my sister-in-law also, so she had to enroll in a tractor driver course in order to not be taken away. There was a school here in Dobrony where girls also went, and my sister-in-law worked on a chain tractor. . . . Not for long, but she worked . . . to not be taken to Donbas.”

Over the centuries, women’s roles have also constantly evolved. In traditional society, women’s primary tasks were childbirth and parenting, along with running a household and caring for the family. Their activities were mainly confined to the home. In the twentieth century, significant changes took place in this area. With the influx of women into paid employment, they faced the problem of double burden bearing. It was not easy for women in the 1950s. Working women were given only six weeks’ maternity leave before childbirth and after. In reality, however, this did not really make life easier for young mothers.

As Gizella D. (born 1941) and Gizella T. (born 1942) shared with me: “The decret [maternity leave] lasted for two months before and two months after. Four months off. We got two hours for breastfeeding a day, so we could go home and breastfeed, and then we had to go back. . . . We also washed the diapers. . . . We had no pampers [disposable diapers] as we do now. Today’s world cannot be compared to [those days].”[23] In order for women to be able to work with young children, the state had to ensure that the children were properly accommodated. In the 1950s kindergartens opened, and even seasonal nurseries were organized in Transcarpathia for farm laborers. But places were limited, so many women could only work if their children were with the older generation at home, and many grandparents helped with child-rearing. Jolán B. talked about the problem of women’s dual burdens: “I almost went into labor on the farm. I worked up until December 25 and went to the hospital on January 1. . . . Then my mother-in-law agreed to take the boy, so I went back when he was two years old. . . . The kindergarten only accommodated twenty-five children.” Jolán Sz., who was born in 1937, had a similar story: “Even the day before giving birth, I was in the kolkhoz. After I gave birth at night, I didn’t go for a month. My mother-in-law looked after the little girl. Then when my son, Sanyi, was born on January 1, I was back at work by February. . . .  Only twenty children were admitted to kindergarten in such a large village, so I tried to get a place for them in vain; there were none.”[24]

In addition, it is important to bear in mind that households were not at all mechanized. They were lacking the most basic household appliances (such as refrigerators and washing machines), without which we could not imagine our lives today, and which make it easier to do household work. “When we butchered the pigs, as there were no refrigerators, we would lower the meat into the well, where it was cold,” recalled Erzsébet. B. The washing was also done by hand. According to Emma K., born in 1935: “When we bought our first washing machine, in 1968 or when it came to fashion, maybe 1970 . . . we were so happy, but we had to bring the water in and warm it, and then take it back out. But that was good too.”[25] Not everything was available in grocery and clothing stores. “I remember we went to the mountain to work. Easter came, and we were seven girls in a group. . . . We went from Popovo to the mountan in Koson on foot, we worked all day and then went home on foot in the evening. . . . There was a black shop . . .  [where] sometimes there was a little sugar. Then we went in . . . and asked Uncle Samu [the shopkeeper] to give us some sugar. He says there isn’t any. Uncle Miska [chairman of the local cooperative] comes and says, what’s up girls? We told him that Easter is here but we don’t have a single piece of sugar, not even for a small milk bread. . . . He says to Samu to weigh half a kilo of sugar for every girl. . . . We lived that way.”

The long decades of the communist era have transformed the structure of Transcarpathia and destroyed the well-functioning peasant lifestyle. Over the years the local population has grown accustomed to and adapted to the new regime, which has become embedded in people’s daily lives. There are many similarities in my interviewees’ life histories and opinions about the era. They were simple, conservative female workers, representing a traditional family model. They have undergone several regime changes, and they vividly remember the tragedy of World War II and the process of collectivization. Their stories can make us feel as though we are hearing the stories of the same people about their difficult postwar lives, their everyday lives, and the opportunities available to them as citizens of the Soviet Union.


[1] József Molnár and István D. Molnár, Population and Hungarians of Transcarpathia in the light of the census and population data, (Berehovo, 2005), 8.

[2] Oficinszkij Roman, “Transcarpathian Ukraine, 1944–1946,” in Transcarpathia 1919–2009: History, Politics, Culture, ed. Csilla Fedinec and Mikola Vehes (Budapest, Argumentum: MTA Institute for Ethnic-National Minority Research, 2010), 233, 243.

[3] Patrik Tátrai et al., “Impact of migration processes on the number of Hungarians in Transcarpathia,” Engravings 7, no. 1 (2018): 26.

[4] Molnár and Molnár, Population of Transcarpathia, 9.

[5] Molnár and Molnár, Population of Transcarpathia, 11.

[6] Mária Schadt, “Emerging working woman,” Women in the fifties (Pécs, 2003), 13.

[7] Kolkhoz: a collective farm or agricultural cooperative of the Soviet Union.

[8] Kulak: an affluent, large-scale farmer. Kulaks have been called out by communism as enemies of the people.

[9] “What the Soviet government did,” Soviet Village 1, no. 47 (October 4, 1950).

[10] “Our kolkhoz star workers: Etelka Bálint Aladárovná is the group leader of the Lenin kolkhoz,” Soviet Village 1, no. 16 (June 17, 1950): 2.

[11] “The active builders of communism,” Red Flag 6, no. 20 (450) (March 9, 1950): 3.

[12] Victor R. Fuchs, On economic inequalities between the sexes (Budapest: National Textbook Publisher, 2003), 28.

[13] Joseph Stalin, from a speech at the first congress of top collective kolkhoz peasants. In Lenin-Stalin: Party and party building, Collection of Lenin and Stalin (Szikra, Budapest: 1950), 655.

[14] Interviewed in Batiovo on April 22, 2015. Róza’s native village, Serne, is located in the Transcarpathian region of Mukachevo, Ukraine. It is situated 20 km southwest of Mukachevo on the banks of the Serne stream.

[15] Interviewed in Velyka Dobron on October 27, 2019. Jolán’s native village, Velyka Dobron, is located in the Uzhhorod region and is the biggest Hungarian-speaking village.

[16] Katalin Osvát, “Two Hungarian kolkhoz peasant women from the Soviet Carpathia,” Women's Magazine 2, no. 40 (October 5, 1950).

[17] Interviewed in Velyka Dobron on December 9, 2019.

[18] Eszter Zsófia Tóth, Daughters of Kádár: Women in the socialist period (Budapest: Open Book Workshop, 2010), 58.

[19] Victory of Stalin 2, no. 21 (62) (Mar. 14, 1951).

[20] Velyki and Mali Heivtsi are located in Transcarpathia, 17–18 km from Uzhhorod.

[21] Donbass: an abbreviation referring to the Donetsk coal basin, an industrial region of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine.

[22] KTÁL. Fond. P-14, opisz 1., od. zb. 737. 8.

[23] Interviewed in Batiovo on July 24, 2015.

[24] Interviewed in Velyka Dobron on February 9, 2017.

[25] Interviewed in Batiovo on December 14, 2016.

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Resilience Spaces: Rethinking Protection to Address Protracted Urban Displacement

April 23, 2020
By 25334

Using an SRA grant, Pablo Cortés Ferrández conducted participatory action research (PAR) in Altos de la Florida, an informal settlement for internally displaced persons in an urban area outside Bogota, Colombia. He is making a firsthand analysis of the humanitarian conditions in the settlement to uncover challenges and propose pathways to improve interventions through protection and resilience approaches.

 * * *

Capacity building for urban IDPs (internally displaced persons) and host communities is emerging as a new way of working to confront the root causes of protracted displacement in unsafe, informal settlements in Colombia. Despite the challenges, these urban contexts provide an opportunity to advance the complementarity, connectedness, and localization of humanitarian and development aid.

View of Altos de Florida and Soacha on the outskirts of Bogota, the capital of Colombia.

“I was displaced by the paramilitary from Llanos Orientales to Chocó in 2005,” says Yomaira, who lives with her husband and three children in Altos de la Florida, an informal settlement in urban Soacha, just outside the Colombian capital of Bogota. “Three years later we fled to the urban areas of Buenaventura and then again in 2012 to Bogota due to increased violence. In 2014 we started to build a house on this hill because the cost of living in the city was too high.” Yomaira’s narrative reflects the experience of many families for whom armed conflict prompted just the first of many internal displacements: 5.8 million people remain displaced in Colombia as of the end of 2019.[1]

The Root Causes of Displacement

In Colombia, initial displacements due to armed conflict or generalized violence often results in displacements again to urban areas, where families seek protection and economic opportunities. An estimated 87% of the country’s IDPs come from rural areas, and they wind up in the only places that they can access due to their vulnerability: the informal settlements,[2] where more than half of the IDPs live.[3] Both authorities and humanitarian, development, and peace actors need to better understand these supposed urban refuges.

This article is based on a research project implemented from 2015 until 2018 in Altos de la Florida, including surveys of 211 households, 98 in-depth interviews, 3 social cartographies, and 3 focus group discussions.[4] Altos de la Florida is a neighborhood in Soacha, a municipality of approximately 1 million people, the largest of the cities surrounding Bogota. Over two-thirds of its population was living under the poverty line as of 2010.[5]

According to the city’s development plan, 48% of the municipality—378 neighborhoods—are deemed “illegal” by local authorities. The IDP population in the municipality stood at around 50,000 in July 2018. Since the outbreak of the economic and political crisis in neighboring Venezuela, at least 12,300 Venezuelans have joined the ranks of Soacha’s displaced people.

Altos de la Florida suffers from the common pattern of social and spatial segregation in a poverty area with low-quality housing, services, and infrastructure: 72.9% of households are in conditions of structural poverty. The neighborhood as an urban community, formed by 1,011 families of around 3,657 people, has two main characteristics: 52.49% are less than 25 years old, and 48.81% are women.

An article in a local daily linked so-called social cleansing with the murder of the son of a community leader in Altos de la Florida.

From One Informal Settlement to Another

The UNHCR and UNDP have diagnosed Altos de la Florida as a “vulnerable community due to the informality of the neighborhood.”[6] The informal nature of these urban settings limits the capacity to reduce vulnerabilities, yet the planning secretary of the mayor’s office refuses legalization.

Due to the absence of political will, households lack tenure security and have no official proof of home ownership. The neighborhood faced eviction attempts in 2009, and the lack of basic services and infrastructure in Altos de la Florida increases residents’ vulnerability. According to my survey results, 97.1% of households do not have access to drinking water except for a tank trunk, around 300 children need a kindergarten, and there are no primary health centers in the area—in fact, Soacha’s hospital has only 250 beds for 1 million people.

Altos de la Florida is regarded as an urban territory without state.[7] Urban violence increases protection risks. Informality combined with the settlement’s geostrategic position, and the absence of local authorities makes the neighborhood a strategic location for nonstate armed actors. According to Forensis data, the homicide index in Soacha was 40.58 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2016, the highest in the department of Cundinamarca. The profile of victims follows a common pattern seen in other urban contexts in Latin America: 91.5% are men, and 44.3% are between 20 and 29 years old. Interpersonal violence also represents a significant challenge with 2,898 cases per year, the fourth highest behind the cities of Medellin, Cali, and Barranquilla.

The lack of political will, the structural vulnerabilities of communities in informal urban areas, and high levels of insecurity are the causes of new urban displacements, both intra- and inter-urban. Re-victimization and re-displacement are the two main characteristics of this vicious cycle. Intra-urban displacement is the victimizing event with the greatest impact on the urban dynamics of the conflict in Colombia.[8] Urban IDPs are forced to flee their informal settlements due to violence, only to arrive in other settlements with similar protection risks. Informal settlements are therefore at once expelling zones and arrival areas for displaced populations. In socially and spatially segregated Altos de la Florida, IDPs represent 30%–40% of the population.

A man in Altos de la Florida building a brick house.

Promoting Community Participation

Humanitarian, development, and peace actors have increased their interest in urban contexts in recent years. Despite increasing knowledge, though, a lack of experience and challenges inherent to urban settings continue to undermine humanitarian and development interventions. International humanitarian aid began in 2001, when World Vision International established a presence in Colombia. In 2006 UN agencies and the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) started their intervention. Particularly interesting was the UN Human Security Program (2010–12) and the UN Transitional Solutions Initiative (TSI) project (2012–16).

In the settlements, a protracted and supply-driven emergency response has caused people to become dependent on external aid. Emergency assistance is an essential form of humanitarian aid, mainly for displaced families, but protracted aid can discourage community participation and increase the gap between assistance and development. According to one development worker operating in the neighborhood, to avoid creating dependency, “it is necessary to promote sustainable public policy solutions and the participation of IDPs in the political, economic, and social life of the host community.”[9]

The dependency of community leaders on humanitarian assistance also undermines social cohesion in the neighborhood. Limited consultation and lack of coordination decreases the effectiveness of the intervention. Past project evaluations have found that “international cooperation is insufficient and requires the integral intervention of the State.”[10] Therefore, achieving a durable solution for urban displacement requires closer collaboration between the humanitarian sector and local authorities, along with strong political will at both the local and national levels.

Resilience Spaces as a Protective Approach

In urban informal settlements, humanitarian, development, and peace actors must work in a weakened and less cohesive social engagement environment, exacerbated by sporadic violence. These circumstances lend themselves to short-term responses and silo-approaches to deal with emergencies, further increasing dependence among the communities that receive support. Poorly integrated responses have limited capacity to address complex urban crises. Cooperation between humanitarian and development actors and engagement with national and local actors are essential, given the potentially limited capacity and political will of certain municipalities.

The protracted vulnerability of urban IDPs and host communities in informal urban contexts has revealed the need for real change in humanitarian aid, particularly as fragile situations are exacerbated by urban violence. Protracted urban displacement requires better connectivity between humanitarian and development efforts, and the needs of IDPs should be balanced with those of the host communities. Current debates show a growing consensus around new and comprehensive approaches. To face the challenges of protracted urban displacement, interventions must go beyond immediate humanitarian needs and should aim to reduce the vulnerabilities of both IDPs and local host communities.

Humanitarian aid should be committed to not only ensuring survival but also supporting people to live in dignity. “Resilience spaces” were developed as a complementarity approach in the UNHCR’s Policy on Refugee Protection and Solutions in Urban Areas (2009), combining assistance and recovery by not only addressing urgent needs but also strengthening local capacities. The framework combines a top-down protection approach with a bottom-up capacity building approach through three areas of intervention: creating education, economic, and labor opportunities; strengthening social cohesion; and, supporting leadership capacities.

Such resilience spaces have been set up in Altos de la Florida, resulting in the creation of two important grassroots organizations in the informal settlement: Comité de Impulso, a fortnightly meeting among community leaders, dwellers, IDP associations, and humanitarians; and Florida Juvenil, a youth community organization engaged in break-dance, theater, and football activities.

Resilience has emerged as one of the strongest responses to the humanitarian and development divide. In Altos de la Florida, the joint work of humanitarian and development actors, in collaboration with national and local counterparts, aims to achieve collective results in the short to medium term (three to five years) to reduce risk and vulnerability. The situation in Altos de la Florida features three criteria that are on the rise in modern humanitarianism and deemed essential in urban responses to displacement: complementarity, connectivity, and sustainability.

A youth theater group supported by Fe y Alegría in Altos de Florida.

In Altos de la Florida, international actors strengthened rather than replaced local and national systems. The complementariness of response included collaboration with local and national aid providers in affected territories, empowerment of leaders of both local and national NGOs and community-based organizations, as well as inclusion of authorities and municipalities at the urban level. Going beyond complementarity, connectivity can not only to bridge the humanitarian-development divide but also incorporate approaches like resilience, which is key to strengthening local capacities. Sustainability, evident through positive long-term results for the supported individuals and societies, depends directly on this capacity for collaboration among the actors and the strengthening of local and national capacities.

Currently, there is consensus in the humanitarian community that in urban contexts populations can be protected by strengthening their capacity. In this sense, humanitarian action has a particular and perhaps unique role in protecting the population through strategies that allow people to build their resilience. Resilience approaches bridge lingering disparities and disconnections between humanitarian and development responses in urban interventions. The approach observed in Altos de la Florida helps better articulate an urban response around the construction of resilience as an instrument of protection. This protection, in turn, represents a comprehensive strategy to address the root causes of urban displacement.

Resilience space in Altos de la Florida supported by the Jesuit Refugee Service.


[1] IDMC (2019), ‘Global Report on Internal Displacement 2019’, IDMC, p. 44, https://bit.ly/2WNKeKQ.

[2] CNMH (2010), ‘Una nación desplazada. Informe nacional del desplazamiento forzado en Colombia,’ CNMH and UARIV, p. 38, https://bit.ly/29uyNzv.

[3] IDMC (2015), ‘Global Overview 2015. People internally displaced by conflict and violence,’ IDMC, p. 20, https://bit.ly/2TSq3ZK.

[4] This part of the project was funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 691060.

[5] UNDP (2010), ‘Política Pública de Desarrollo Social Incluyente. Municipio de Soacha,’ UNDP.

[6] UNHCR and UNDP (2017), ‘Documentación proceso de integración local comunidad Altos de la Florida, Soacha,’ UNHCR and UNDP, https://bit.ly/2SQ0vgc.

[7] Laura Tedesco (2007), ‘El Estado en América Latina ¿fallido o en proceso de formación?’ Fundación para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Diálogo Exterior, Vol 37.

[8] CODHES (2013), ‘Desplazamiento forzado intraurbano y soluciones duraderas,’ CODHES, p. 18, https://bit.ly/2EEfmpf.

[9] Interview, April 4, 2016, with a UNDP TSI coordinator in Soacha.

[10] Econometría Consultores (2016), ‘Evaluación externa del programa “Construyendo Soluciones Sostenibles-TSI,”’ Econometría S.A., p. 19.

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Developing an Inclusive Distribution Model Using 3D-Printed Prosthetic Legs

January 30, 2020
By 24612

Keio University fellow Yutaka Tokushima—who became the first recipient of a Sylff Project Grant (SPG) in 2018 for an initiative to provide affordable 3D-printed prosthetic legs—recently completed the second year of his project. The grant enabled him to form a partnership with a university hospital in the Philippines to improve the functions of the prostheses by conducting usability trials with 49 patients. In 2019, he continued to produce and provide artificial limbs while also reaching out to local governments, donors, and the national insurance commission to help expand his project. The following is Tokushima’s account of some of the difficulties he encountered and the knowledge he gained over the past two years, which have engendered new aspirations and prospects. A video introducing his activities can be viewed here (YouTube channel) or by clicking the link below


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I am currently advancing an ultra-low-cost, 3D-printed prostheses project in the Philippines. The 3D-CAD software and 3D printer that we developed for prostheses can create a prosthetic leg from suitable materials (filaments) using data from a 3D scanner. At present, the price of producing one leg is 20,000 pesos (about US$400), roughly a tenth the average price of a conventional prosthesis and equivalent to the starting salary for a college graduate in the Philippines—making it affordable to the local people who in the past were not able to buy one.

In the past, prosthetic limb manufacturing required the patient to visit a production facility many times over several weeks, but 3D printing takes about 24 hours from scanning to production, so the patient only needs to visit the clinic twice; once for the diagnosis and again to pick up the leg.

What initially got me involved in this project was my experience working in Bohol, a small rural village in the Philippines, as a member of the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers (JOCV) between 2012 and 2014.

Diabetes was prevalent among the poor there. Without the means to go to a hospital, they would not get regular medical checkups. Illnesses would get neglected, resulting in diabetic gangrene and forcing people to amputate their limbs or die from not being able to, as many actually did. Visiting the rural clinics where I was assigned as a volunteer, I discovered that about 1% of the residents had decaying legs. The major cause of this can be attributed to their eating habits. Poverty did not provide for more than a very small amount of salty fish or meat to go with a large amount of rice, resulting in an excessive intake of carbohydrates.

There are only three public facilities in the Philippines that manufacture prosthetics. During my research I asked people who had left their gangrene unattended why they did not get medical attention. I suggested that leaving the leg unattended might kill them, but most had no reply, their faces telling me that they had largely given up on life. Getting an amputation would only mean lying around at home because they could not afford prosthetics. They would just become one more mouth to feed, so they were better off dead. I was saddened and shocked when I first realized their plight.

From this experience, I decided to develop ultra-low-cost prostheses that could be made in emerging countries and purchased by anyone. I thought that this could save people all over the world who, like the diabetic gangrene patients I had met, had decaying legs but were not able to do anything about it.

Carefully measuring the dimensions of a patient’s leg.

Understanding the structure of a patient’s leg.

Scanning leg shape data.

I started by examining a wide range of possibilities regarding prosthetic limb production in emerging countries, including the use of construction waste, bamboo, and other readily available materials. I finally came to the conclusion that 3D-printer manufacturing was the best way to balance functionality and price to meet the demands of prosthetic leg production in developing countries. However, there were many problems in terms of quality and cost in designing and manufacturing prostheses similar to existing types using commercially available 3D-CAD software and 3D printers.

After I returned to Japan in 2015, as a Sylff fellow at Keio University, I started developing 3D-CAD software and 3D printers specifically for prosthetic limbs that could overcome these issues. I set out to develop 3D-CAD software and a 3D printer exclusively for prosthetic 3D printing, eliminating all extra features and applications of commercial printers—a process that took three years.

The ever-evolving 3D prosthetic leg printer today and artificial leg brace.

From fiscal 2018, thanks to the Sylff Project Grant and in cooperation with the University of Philippines, Philippines General Hospital (UP-PGH), we conducted material strength tests to secure patient safety and usability tests to obtain medical evidence while advancing preparations for local production.

In the usability tests, we asked 49 patients to wear our 3D-printed prostheses for three months while living as before. Compared to conventional prostheses for emerging countries, we were able to achieve a 128% functional improvement (based on patient evaluation using a prosthesis evaluation questionnaire).

Based on these results, in fiscal 2019, we started local production in the Philippines for the purpose of manufacturing and selling 3D-printed prosthetic legs in emerging countries. As of December 2019, we have been able to deliver approximately 20 prostheses per month to amputees in metropolitan areas in the Philippines, and 112 people now use our prostheses. We are aiming to reach annual production of 1,000 units in fiscal 2020.

Visiting a patient who has started wearing a prosthetic leg.

A patient is able to climb up and down steep steps after regaining a normal lifestyle.

Thus far, the people using our prostheses have been limited to those living in metropolitan areas who are middle- to high-income earners. As such, we can hardly say that the prosthetic problem in the Philippines has been resolved.

My next step is to deliver our prosthetic legs to amputees not only in Metropolitan Manila but also those in remote areas like Bohol, where I had previously served as a volunteer, and in the poorest areas where people cannot afford a $400 prosthesis.

This is why I established the Instalimb Foundation, a nongovernmental organization whose mission is to develop a new distribution model for prostheses delivery catering to those who live in remote areas and who cannot pay $400 for an artificial limb and to implement this model as a social business.

Through the activities of this organization, I hope to establish a sustainable system to ensure that all people who require prosthetic limbs, including the poor in developing countries, have access to them, starting with the Philippines in fiscal 2020. 

With fellow's project members and cooperators.

As for our performance in fiscal 2019, five leg amputation patients were referred to us from local governments, and contributions from local donors were enough to pay for 12 prosthetic legs. Next year, we hope to expand our cooperation with local groups throughout the Philippines.

We have also begun approaching central government agencies in the Philippines, such as the Department of Health and the Department of Trade and Industry, as well as relevant Japanese ministries, such as the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry and the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, to have our prostheses distribution model incorporated in the PhilHealth government health insurance framework that is being advanced by the Philippine Insurance Commission.

We will continue to consult with stakeholders and make policy recommendations in the hopes of quickly realizing a social system capable of providing prosthetic legs to all amputees in the Philippines.

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REDD+ and the Forest Commons in Nepal

November 22, 2019
By 21457

Sylff fellow Shangrila Joshi, a researcher on environmental studies and climate justice, held workshops and a forum on REDD+, one of the climate mitigation initiatives, for forest community users in Nepal, with funding from Sylff Leadership Initiatives (SLI). Although REDD+ is widely promoted as a global effort to reduce carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, Joshi argues that the implementation of associated projects often lacks informed consent by all stakeholders, and it is often the case that community forest users are left out from the discussion. Joshi conducted the SLI project to raise proper understanding of REDD+ among forest users with the ultimate goal in mind of realizing climate justice.

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As climate change moves from being an impending crisis to an ongoing planetary emergency, it is important to critically evaluate the many so-called climate solutions that have arisen in response. REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) is one of the mitigation options that have emerged out of the United Nations deliberation process. It is a market-based mechanism to address climate mitigation by promoting the sequestration of carbon dioxide in forests while facilitating a global trade in certified emission reductions of sequestered carbon. This arrangement allows high emitters to meet their emission reduction targets by financing emission reduction programs in forest-rich developing countries.

Internationally, REDD+ has been heavily criticized and opposed by affected communities, scholars, and activists due to concerns about land grabs and human rights abuses and for not addressing the primary source of greenhouse gas emissions, namely fossil-fuel-based industries. Nepal has been an attractive prospect for those seeking to pursue these mitigation attempts while minimizing their worst side effects, because REDD+ has been proposed for community forests with a proven record of governance that empowers local communities while enhancing forest cover.

Shangrila Joshi with members of Chaturmukhi Community Forest in Gaduwa, Chitwan.

SLI Project Highlights

The perceptions of REDD+ among Nepal’s community forest users have been the focus of my research investigations for the past few years. Specifically, I interviewed forest users and conducted participant observation in the three sites in Nepal where the REDD+ pilot project was implemented—Gorkha, Dolakha, and Chitwan—during the monsoon of 2017. I conducted follow-up meetings and site visits in Chitwan in 2018. During August 2019, with SLI support, I facilitated a series of workshops in Chitwan and a three-day forum in Pokhara bringing together 24 members of the Community Forest User Group (CFUG) and Federation of Community Forestry Users Nepal (FECOFUN) from 12 districts of the Terai, where Nepal’s first World Bank program for REDD+ is slated for implementation.


Participants hearing a presentation by Dr. Joshi at the three-day forum in Pokhara.

Conversations in the workshops and forum revealed that while the desire of forest users to benefit from REDD+ is strong, their knowledge of how REDD+ specifically and carbon trading more generally operates in the local, national, and international contexts is weak. There is high demand for such knowledge to be widely disseminated in areas where REDD+ programs are to be ushered in. Participants were highly enthusiastic about welcoming REDD+ to their communities in ways that maximize economic and ecological benefits while avoiding harm to local communities. There was strong consensus among all participants that knowledge regarding REDD+ is highly inadequate in the local communities to be affected by REDD+, that access to such knowledge is desirable and necessary, and that any policies and benefit sharing should be equitable and just and involve meaningful participation of all stakeholders from the start. Community forest users at the forum and workshops overall expressed a strong desire to be active participants, not passive recipients in Nepal’s REDD+ programming.

Without a proper understanding among those who would be most affected by REDD+ of how REDD+ operates, how it strives to mitigate climate change, and how local forests and forest users are implicated, I argue that its proponents risk ignoring the principle of free, prior, and informed consent. The deliberations of the forum and workshops have been summarized in a white paper that has been shared with concerned officials in the Ministry of Forests and Environment, the World Bank, and FECOFUN, as well as media outlets in Nepal, so that the voices of community forest users may reach concerned authorities. In the white paper, I argued that meaningful participation and fully informed consent were not facilitated in all community forests in the Terai before the agreement on REDD+ was made between Nepal and the World Bank. If REDD+ is to move forward in Nepal, it is urgent that these gaps and oversight be rectified with a coordinated drive to involve local forest stakeholders in all REDD+ districts, through educational programs and discussion about the complex connections between climate change and forests, how REDD+ operates, what the rights of local forest users are, and how they can best advocate for their rights, if REDD+ is to move forward in Nepal.



Neoliberal Climate Solutions and the Commons

Although Nepal does not present blatant cases of disenfranchisement such as land grabs in areas where REDD+ projects are being introduced, concern is warranted for possible erosion of progressive structures. REDD+ is often characterized as a neoliberal solution, meaning it is predicated on the problematic assumption that free trade is the best way to maximize well-being and that the market is the best place through which to resolve social and environmental problems by virtue of the enlightened behavior of consumers buying and selling commodities. This is a decidedly different approach to resolving problems from that of members of a community deciding to impose rules and regulations to change behavior and address identified problems. Those interested in learning further about these two distinct ways to conceptualize and resolve problems may wish to look into the work of Elinor Ostrom, who tirelessly sought to correct the misconceptions introduced into the realm of environmental problem solving by Garrett Hardin through his highly influential yet problematic article “The Tragedy of the Commons.”

Is the tragedy of the atmospheric commons best solved through collective action—such as through a concerted global effort to scale back the burning of fossil fuels, addressing the problem at the source—or by commodifying the atmosphere, buying and selling carbon credits in the global marketplace? Carbon trading commodifies the atmospheric commons by assigning a price for a unit of reduced emissions: a carbon credit that can be bought and sold in the global carbon market. As a commodity, the price of carbon is determined not by its actual worth but rather by the vagaries of the market, and hence it is greatly underpriced. Ironically, the buyers of carbon credit—the ones creating emissions—determine the price of emissions reduction, while those who are already relatively blameless have little to no say. The latter are also more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, hence the importance of a climate justice lens to evaluate these neoliberal climate solutions.

Not only do those members of the global community who are making a carbon trade possible due to their labor and everyday choices have little power to influence the price of the carbon commodity they are selling; they are in many cases enabling this trade without their fully informed consent. Intermediaries such as the World Bank and government agencies often mediate the transactions between the buyers and sellers of carbon credits in ways that diminish the agency of the seller. Even if blatant instances of disenfranchisement may not occur in Nepal, these subtle ways of what geographer David Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession” are concerning. In addition to these issues that are generic in the world, the stakes are high for Nepal also because of credible threats to common pool resource governance structures such as community forestry.

Community forestry users and leaders are generally highly welcoming and desirous of REDD+ projects due to the resources they promise, even if and perhaps precisely because the complex connections between forests, community forestry institutions, and global climate change are not well understood. The integration of local forests into a regime of global carbon trade requires quantification and measurement of carbon sequestered in forests in such a manner that privileges reductionist ways of managing forests. A related concern then is whether a move to embrace REDD+ might disenfranchise forest users from their ability to use their local and/or traditional ecological knowledge for forest management in ways that disproportionately privilege outsiders with technological skills and training in “scientific forestry.”

Power dynamics in the local context are important to understand as well. Specifically, programs such as REDD+ operate within an established culture of patriarchal domination, caste privilege, and disproportionate power of the urban educated elite. Attempts at gender sensitization and gender mainstreaming are laudable if insufficient, but there are indications that efforts to encourage equity for Dalit and Janjati groups are occurring in problematic ways that appear to further exacerbate animosity between social groups. If these instruments of carbon trading are to continue and do so in socially just ways, the question of what constitutes a “fair trade” in carbon as commodity at multiple scales begs serious attention.

The climate crisis can be seen as creating opportunities to reevaluate power dynamics at multiple scales, as well as to re-envision how the earth’s resources are used. Even as climate change offers new frontiers for the decades-long project of commodifying nature, thus enhancing the power of corporations, it has strengthened the resolve of activists who are striving to keep remaining fossil fuels in the ground and to hold companies and countries accountable for the climate crisis. In Nepal, there are opportunities to strengthen existing institutional arrangements designed to empower ordinary people to engage in ecologically sustainable behavior. The challenge is to do so equitably and in meaningful, not tokenizing, ways. The current moment in Nepal—and the world—serves as a reminder that the stakes for a battle between these competing forces have never been higher.

Shangrila Joshi, author of the article, visiting Baghdevi Community Forest in Parsa, Chitwan.

(All photos by Addison Joshi Felizola)

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Political Reconciliation in Postcolonial Ghana

October 9, 2019
By 25116

Frank Afari, a 2017 Sylff fellow from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, visited Northwestern University in the United States to conduct archival research at the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies, which holds the largest Africana collection in the world. Using an SRA award, his project centered on Transitional Justice, defined as a field of activity and inquiry focused on how societies address legacies of past human rights violations through the use of truth commissions and other mechanisms. His focus was on Ghana’s National Reconciliation Commission, a truth commission set up in 2002.

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Since independence in 1957, Ghana has had a reputation for being a relatively peaceful and stable country. While the country has not experienced any civil war or violence on the scale that has wrecked other countries in the West African sub-region, there are still isolated pockets of simmering conflicts in parts of Ghana. Most conflicts in Ghana revolve around chieftaincy disputes[1], ethnicity[2], and power struggles between and within political parties. Though isolated, these conflicts have often resulted in loss of property and lives. In the northern part of Ghana today, most of the conflicts pertaining to chieftaincy and ethnicity have long historical roots and were complicated under British colonial rule. In theory and practice, the British colonial policy of indirect rule compelled strong powerful chiefs who wielded centralized authority to rule over noncentralized acephalous states, a move that facilitated the imperial bureaucracy of ruling through powerful indigenous political structures. Consequently, hitherto independent societies and polities lost political autonomy and control over their land and resources. This system of subjugating acephalous or stateless societies under powerful centralized states perpetuated a legacy of contentious subject-overlord relations. Unfortunately, the postcolonial state did not redress these colonial anomalies.

In 1992, Ghana transitioned from a military dictatorship to constitutional rule, ending a spate of military truncations of democratically elected civilian governments, and this birthed the Fourth Republic. The Fourth Republic ushered in a culture of smooth transfer of power through the ballot box. An outgrowth of the country’s growing democratic culture since then has been its capacity to deal with internal conflicts through institutional means. One such institution is the National Peace Council (NPC), a statutory body created to effectively resolve conflicts and build peace in Ghana. The NPC was established in 2006 by the Government of Ghana under the aegis of the African Union, with operational support from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

A decade ago, while I was pursuing my graduate studies in Ghana, I interned as a part-time research assistant with the NPC. I understudied the working staff during its numerous field trips to conflict-ridden communities and major flashpoints in northern Ghanaian towns such as Bawku. Bawku is plagued by regular outbreaks of inter-ethnic and chieftaincy-related violence. During my several field trips to Bawku, I encountered victims of horrendous atrocities. These conflicts, whose effects I witnessed firsthand, got me interested in the history of politically motivated and state-sponsored violence, human rights violations, extra-judicial killings, and illegal confiscation of property. I later discovered that I could use the findings of another statutory body, the National Reconciliation Commission (NRC), a truth commission established in 2002 to investigate past human rights violations and foster reconciliation in Ghana, as a window into the history of state-sponsored political violence in postcolonial Ghana. Until the establishment of the NRC, so much of Ghana’s turbulent past had been obscured by its recent democratic successes. When I was admitted into the PhD (International History) program at the Graduate Institute in Geneva in 2016, I chose to investigate as a doctoral project the historical undercurrents of the NRC’s reconciliation exercise under the rubric of transitional justice and human rights.

At the entrance of my host center, the Buffett Institute for Global Studies, Northwestern University.

On October 27, 2018, I traveled from Geneva, Switzerland, to Northwestern University (NU) in the United States to conduct seven months of archival research at the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies, which holds the largest Africana collection in the world, and also to conduct interviews with experts for my ongoing doctoral thesis. I sought to explore what the archives contain about governance in Ghana over the longue durée since its independence in 1957, but more specifically to learn more about the phases bedeviled by authoritarian and turbulent military upheavals with their associated human rights violations.

My method of research included searching through troves of archival repositories and printing and digitally scanning relevant primary and secondary texts into assorted file formats from a catalog of sources using personal handheld digital scanners and the libraries’ scanners. Additionally, I consulted various rare books and manuscripts of substantial historical value, which as sources provided me significant interpretative frameworks for drafting aspects of my thesis. Among my most important archival findings was the specialized Africana Vertical File Index, which contained numerous correspondence, papers, memos, press statements, and articles written in the 1980s and 1990s by Ghanaian expatriates abroad who sought to bring to light the gross human rights abuses and violence of Ghana’s military regimes. These diasporic communities and individuals, drawing upon their understanding of international human rights treaties and conventions, made sustained agitations to end political violence and restore Ghana to democratic rule in the 1980s and 1990s. Their writings have great significance, because in them is evident the agency of diasporic actors as historically noteworthy drivers of political change.

Inside the Northwestern University Library. Setting up to use the Overhead (KIC/Bookeye) scanners for scanning books and digitizing archival images.

Additionally, I devoted some time to writing drafts of my thesis while interviewing some of NU’s experts on Ghana’s recent past. Here, I wish to gratefully mention Professor Sean Hanretta, an intellectual and cultural historian of Ghana, Professor Naaborko Sackeyfio-Lenoch, a visiting scholar at NU’s Program of African Studies (PAS) who specializes in the social and political history of Ghana, and Professor Richard Joseph, a political scientist and expert on African governance. All three scholars shared insights from their expertise on Ghana’s recent history, pointing to pertinent sources and suggesting alternative frameworks for crafting my main themes. Professor Joseph, in particular, who was a one-time fellow of the Carter Center, shared his experiences as the program director of the Ghana Election Mission, an international election monitoring body that oversaw the milestone 1992 general elections that transitioned Ghana from a military dictatorship to an electoral democracy. As a governance expert, his role positioned him to engage directly with political leaders and with transitional processes and activities that inaugurated Ghana’s return to democratization. Thus, interviewing him uncovered an invaluable firsthand account of a frenzied political transition involving international and domestic actors, choices, and decisive trade-offs that have permanently shaped the trajectory of Ghana’s current democracy. In this respect, the pledge by all political party leaders to cooperate toward conducting free and fair elections set a standard for the subsequent nonviolent electioneering culture for which the country has come to be known.

Northwestern’s Program of African Studies also provided a warm intellectual environment through its weekly graduate student seminar series (Afrisem) and its sponsored Annual Graduate Conference (April 4–6, 2019), all of which I participated in. Through these wonderful opportunities, I productively engaged scholars in conversations relating to issues of human rights, political violence, reconciliation, and transitional justice, which are the core themes of my research.

The overall importance of my project lies in its capacity to deepen scholarly understanding of the undercurrents of Ghana’s attempt at national reconciliation and the impact of that exercise on the country’s democracy. Such an understanding has practical applicability for policy formulation in the field of human rights and the rule of law—the two areas where Ghana in particular and most African countries in general have considerable challenges. Moreover, a critical analysis of Ghana’s postcolonial history through the lens of the NRC offers an opportunity to reexamine the evolving modus operandi of truth commissions and their role as mechanisms in the politics of justice and reconciliation in Africa.

[1] Examples of such places are Yendi, Bawku, Anloga, and Accra.

[2] Examples of such places are Alavanyo, Bawku, and Nkonya.