The Right to a Home: A Human Rights Perspective on Forced Migration.

This article was originally published in Freerange Journal 4: ‘Almost home’. We are currently accepting $5 donations towards the Red Cross refugee response efforts with downloads of this journal at the following link:


Article 25. Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1948)

(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his fomily, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration sets out a number of key elements that can be said to constitute the concept of ‘Home’. Sadly, we are failing to provide these necessities of nutrition, shelter, healing and a social support structure to all members of the global community. The reasons for this failure are various and interconnected but a major contributing factor is the displacement caused by the endemic problem of ‘forced migration’. How can we ensure that in the future these Human Rights relating to the home environment are truly universal in more than just name?

The term ‘forced migration’, as defined by the International Association for the Study of Forced Migration, includes a wide range of people displaced either within or outside of their nation of origin by circumstances beyond their control. This definition is wider than the traditional, and often misunderstood, term of ‘refugee’. Crucially, this definition of forced migration includes those people displaced by natural, environmental, chemical and nuclear disasters as well as by famine or development projects. This gives the term far more relevance to the society of the future in which such events may be major drivers in migration patterns.

shadenetting_right to a home
Shade netting in the Sheikh Yaseen camp in Pakistan.

Forcibly displaced people have a very acute awareness of the importance of Human Rights to the concept of ‘Home’ and of the fact that ‘Home’ relates more to a mental or physical state of refuge than to any fixed geographic or spatial location. With this in mind, it is understandable that simple items, such as this shade netting provided by the Sheikh Yaseen camp in Pakistan, can drastically alter the environment and enhance the comfort and lifestyle of the inhabitants.

The first humans started spreading out of Africa around 110,000 years ago. We have always been a migratory species and seem to have an insatiable curiosity about what opportunities may lie beyond the horizon. Our culturally diverse modern societies were all created by, and are still being shaped by, successive waves of migration from indigenous peoples through to more recent arrivals.

‘Forced migration’ is not a new problem, however the potential human and economic cost resulting from the displacement we face in the near future is a serious cause for concern. Environmental destruction, resource wars, diminishing food security, rapidly rising populations and developing ‘third world’ economies mean that forced migration will be a major contributor to these growing numbers in the coming years. According to the International Organization for Migration’s World Migration Report 2010‘, estimates are that the nunber of international migrants worldwide is currently over 200 million and at the current rate will reach 400 million by 2050.

One major accelerating factor in future migration levels will be the acute manifestations of global climate change. Many communities worldwide are facing rising sea levels, extreme storm surges, flooding, drought, insecure food supply and other associated problems causing population displacement at unprecedented levels. According to academics and international agencies, there are currently several million ‘environmental migrants’ worldwide, and this number is expected to rise to tens of millions within the next 20 years, and hundreds of millions within the next 50 years. This phenomenon was recently dramatically evident in Somalia and in Pakistan where simultaneous drought and floods have left over 12 million people displaced or in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.

A house in Alaska which is no longer a home.
A house in Alaska which is no longer a home.

Such environmental migration tends to disproportionately affect developing nations because their precarious geography, histories of imperialism, and unsustainable development leave them without resources to face such challenges. This vulnerability further cements the place of developing nations as victims of the global economic order and as mass exporters of human capital. An example is the current famine in the ‘Horn of Africa’ region where most refuge and assistance is being provided by developing countries while the aid response from wealthy nations has been somewhat slow and underwhelming. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recently stated in his address on World Refugee Day 2011 that: Despite what some populist politicians would have us believe, approximately 80 percent, [of refugees] are hosted and cared for in developing countries. To take a current example, only about two percent of the people fleeing Libya are seeking refuge in Europe.”

Many commentators believe that developed nations should be contributing much more to addressing this displacement problem due to their superior wealth and their greater contribution to creating the economic and environmental problems we face today. However, the global financial crisis is currently being skillfully manipulated to create resentment against migrants and refugees and to justify rigid national immigration policies and small refugee resettlement quotas. UNHCR has recently expressed concern that the current resettlement programs of the few nations who do offer them are not even keeping pace with the growth of refugees in urgent need of resettlement.

Both permanent and temporary migration to developed nations can play a highly valuable role in development by allowing migrants to achieve safety and stability, to gain skills and experience and to remit money back to their homeland. Current protectionist policies in developed nations fail to promote such valuable development tools and simply guard the wealth and privilege amassed at the expense of underdeveloped nations and the environment.


Although organisations such as UNHCR and various NGOs are doing an admirable job with limited resources, the sheer volume of the displacement likely to occur in the future necessitates a new approach. The interconnectedness created by globalization and technological progress means that no migration situation can now be seen in isolation, and also offers us potential solutions to the problems we face. We urgently require a wholesale re-application of our global resources and technology to address the causes of displacement rather than the symptoms.

It is within the power of developed nations to radically reduce the root causes of forced migration by altering the course of the global market and economic system, and assisting democracy and social justice to flourish. We need proactive policies at both national and international levels that target the poverty, environmental destruction, wars and inequalities causing our current displacement problems.

We must adopt a ‘Human Rights’ centered understanding of what constitutes a ‘Home’ and work towards providing all members of our global society with access to these rights without exception. Only a system that respects the rights of all to a stable home environment will allow us to work towards a new age of greater freedom of movement, stability and equality in the area of human migration.


Further Reading

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights- Adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations and proclaimed on December 10, 1948.

‘What is Forced Migration’ Online

‘World Migration Report 2010- The Future of Migration: Building Capacities for Change,’ International Organization for Migration, 2010. WMR_2010_ENGLISH.pdf

‘United .Nations High Commissioner’s message for World Refugee Day 20 June 2011′. 4e033be29.html


Joseph Cederwall is a writer, social entrepreneur and immigration consultant with degrees in Law and Anthropology. He has worked extensively with migrant and refugee communities in New Zealand as an Immigration lawyer and adviser. 

The Politicisation of CERA and the planning of new Christchurch

This, strangely, is a crossback-cross-post originally published at Rebuilding Christchurch by Barnaby Bennett, chief egg of the Freerange Press and editor of the magnificent book “Christchurch: The Transitional City Part IV“. This is the first of an epic four-and-a-half-part analysis of the political machinations in Christchurch, and how they are influencing the rebuild. -Byron, Ed.


No government was ever going to be able to seamlessly respond to a crazy series of events like the earthquakes that hit Christchurch between September 2010 and the end of 2011.  It was an insanely complex and difficult event and the tangled nature of all the little parts mean the development of new ideas and plans and the construction of these is no easy task. Yet, this shouldn’t mean a pass card for our representatives. In this article I’ll argue, and explain, why I think the removal of the public from most of the rebuild process is a critical mistake both politically for the government and for the citizens of Christchurch. Continue reading “The Politicisation of CERA and the planning of new Christchurch”

Freerange on Tony Abbott: how gays make him uncomfortable, how to publicly insult dying men, and how lying is ok sometimes, or something…

Here is a selection of choice cuts from the mouth of soon to be Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Don’t say you were not warned!

This is an excerpt from Freerange Vol. 5: Dangerous and Wrong that was written late last year.

By Nick Sargent.

[download_box]Freerange Vol.5: Dangerous and Wrong can be downloaded here for free or bought from here. 

We would like to take this opportunity to celebrate the future Australian Prime Minister for his imminent contribution to popular culture,  to get in while he is still a little bit underground and show we are not bandwagoners, but genuine cultural explorers here at FR. Whilst we know the last laugh will be on us, the prospective “Decider’’ has been revealing a talent for clumsily (or slyly, your call) insulting minority groups that is, at the very least, uncomfortably entertaining. He’s unfortunately a little too silver-tongued to ape like-minded idiot savant and meme producing tour de force George W, and therefore is unlikely to ever acknowledge “how hard it is for you to put food on your family’’ or take the opportunity to explain the value of life to “children living in, you know, the Dark Dungeons of the Internet’’. Nevertheless his carefully planted seeds are beginning to germinate into forms that tenderly suggest the mean little fruit they will bear once he takes power.

Abbott’s most recent claim to mainstream success was this little poison-plant about the mostly Muslim and very clearly desperate people trying to enter Australia via treacherous seaward journeys:

“I don’t think it’s a very Christian thing to come in by the back door rather than the front door.  I think the people we accept should be coming the right way and not the wrong way.  If you pay a people smuggler, if you jump the queue, if you take yourself and your family on a leaky boat, that’s doing the wrong thing, not the right thing, and we shouldn’t encourage it.’’

As flagrantly un-Christian as that display of chicanery may have been, it was not without significant hostile precedent. Speaking about a man dying from asbestosis who presented a petition for better care to government:

“It was a stunt. I know Bernie is very sick, but just because a person is sick doesn’t necessarily mean that he is pure of heart in all things.’’

And in response to the inevitable public outrage this caused:

“Bernie is a sick man and obviously he has the moral high ground. Obviously I shouldn’t have been as dismissive as I was.’’

Not an apology as such, but a surprisingly cocksure public statement about morality. Up next, maternity leave:

“Compulsory paid maternity leave? Over this Government’s dead body, frankly.’’

He has actually completely changed his mind on that by the way, but don’t think that means women are getting off lightly:

“What the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing is that if they get it done commercially it’s going to go up in price, and their own power bills when they switch the iron on, are going to go up.’’

Apparently this was meant as criticism of the Gillard government’s new emissions trading scheme (a pollution tax that the government states is not a tax), but it also succinctly describes his own proposed carbon tax:

“If you want to put a price on carbon why not just do it with a simple tax. Why not ask motorists to pay more? Why not ask electricity consumers to pay more?’’

OK, so he doesn’t really have a stone cold position on many things. But what about that archaic little bit about the ironing, and the outcry that caused:

“It’s just people being hypersensitive. But I think in many households it is still much more common to see the woman of the house with an iron in her hand.’’

Naturally this also caused some offence, but don’t go thinking Abbott’s not down with the ladies:

“I just want to make it clear I have never told an inappropriate joke, I’ve never pinched a woman on the backside and I never make inappropriate gestures to women.’’

Phew! And how do you feel about homosexuals?

“I probably feel a bit threatened, as so many people do. It’s a fact of life.’’

Again, some vocal upset. The response:

“There is no doubt that (homosexuality) challenges, if you like, orthodox notions of the right order of things.’’

And the response to the outcry that caused:

“Yeah, look, it was a poor choice of words. Look, I think blokes of my generation and upbringing do sometimes find these things a bit confronting.’’

Which I must admit is a refreshingly honest admission. He was straight forwardly honest, too, when asked about whether he would continue Labour’s policy to reduce homelessness:

“No. The poor will always be with us.”

Which is actually a Biblical quote that is considered by many Bible scholars to be on their most frequently misused list, basically a sentence that contradicts the overwhelmingly and unarguably major Biblical message about taking care of the poor. But that is, at least, consistent with our flagrantly un-Christian opening quote and the theme running through all Abbott’s frank truths: the savvy ‘I don’t care what I say as long as the majority of people like it.’ And, about this, he is also consistent:

“Misleading the ABC is not quite the same as misleading the parliament.’’

And, famously, here:

“I know politicians are going to be judged on everything they say, but sometimes, in the heat of discussion, you go a little bit further than you would if it was an absolutely calm, considered, prepared, scripted remark, which is one of the reasons why the statements that need to be taken absolutely as gospel truth is those carefully prepared scripted remarks.’’

All this honesty & truth lead former Liberal Party leader and Prime Minister Sir Malcolm Fraser to describe Abbott as “unpredictable’’ and “dangerous’’, basically willing to say or do whatever is necessary to get power, which is pretty much the definition of a tyrant or,  in more puerile terms, a “bad boss”, about whom Abbott had this to say:

“A bad boss is a little bit like a bad father or a bad husband. Not withstanding all his or her faults, you find that he tends to do more good than harm.’’


The point being, this is all suggestive of surprising chasms and bridges between what the future Prime Minister thinks, what he thinks he thinks, what he thinks he ought to think and what he actually says or does. The expression of which should see frank Tony transfigured in the unflinching media light into Australia’s budgie smuggling Prime Minister Pantsdown. This we predict, unless Jesus, growing tired of all this misrepresentation, intervenes before the big show in November, 2013. A closing quote about Jesus (and, again, immigrants) from the future Prime Minister:

“Jesus knew that there was a place for everything and it’s not necessarily everyone’s place to come to Australia.

(But) let’s not verbal Jesus, he is not here to defend himself.’’



Voices for Equity in the Profession.

It is the last week to provide feedback to a set of important gender equity guidelines being developed in Australia for the architecture profession.

The commentary and resources published by Parlour and their researchers are formidable, and their conference Transform earlier this year was the most engaging I had been to in a long time. Parlour is probably the most important and articulate voice in the profession right now, and they want to talk to you.

It’s immediately clear that a great deal of care, experience, and intelligence has gone into these guidelines. I believe Neph Wake and Naomi Stead are to thank for the hard yards in producing these documents (please correct me if I’m wrong), which is yet another significant outcome of the parent project ‘Equity and Diversity in the Australian Architecture Profession: Women, Work and Leadership’ funded by the Australian Research Council through the Linkage Projects scheme, made so much more accessible thanks to Parlour, edited by the “effective” Justine Clark. (This wonderfully cryptic and completely deserved title was recently used to introduce Justine).

They explain:

The Parlour Guides to Equitable Practice are being developed to help architectural workplaces facilitate change towards a more equitable profession. Aimed both at employers and employees, the guidelines will address the specificities of small, medium, large and regional practice. They will provide hints and tips, and guides to thinking on a range of issues relevant to the architecture profession in Australia today.

As tailored as these are for the culture of the architecture profession, these really have relevance to all workplaces, so if these issues ring true, regardless of your professional penchant, I’d recommend a good sit down with these.

The ten Draft Guidelines address:

1. Pay equity: Moving towards equal pay between women and men in architecture.

2. Leadership: How to promote and support women to senior roles in architecture.

3. Recruitment: Equitable recruitment and hiring diverse talent in architecture.

4. Mentorship: Mentors, sponsors and career champions in architecture.

5. Negotiation: Negotiating flexible working conditions in architecture.

6. Long hours: Challenging the long-hours culture in architecture.

7. Part-time: Meaningful part-time work in architecture.

8. Flexibility: Making flexible patterns work in architecture.

9. Career break: Returning from parental leave and other career breaks in architecture.

10. Registration: Supporting women who choose to register in as architects.

11… Parlour also offers suggestions for other areas they haven’t already addressed.


If you can, these drafted guidelines should be devoured at length, they are highly addictive and very readable. Even if you take a crack at two or three of the issues close to you heart, it’s worth offering your contribution this way as the online form below allows specific feedback to each individual theme, so every bit counts.

You can download the Draft Guidelines here, and link to the feedback form on that page. Following consultation, the finalised Parlour Guides to Equitable Practice will be published later this year.

Boycott the Russian Olympics

Copied below is an open letter written by Stephen Fry to the British Prime Minister.   The same letter deserves to be written to the leaders of all countries attending the Russian Olympics.  Please read it for it is an extraordinary piece of writing that explains an issue that deserves utmost attention. 

Dear Prime Minister, M Rogge, Lord Coe and Members of the International Olympic Committee,

I write in the earnest hope that all those with a love of sport and the Olympic spirit will consider the stain on the Five Rings that occurred when the 1936 Berlin Olympics proceeded under the exultant aegis of a tyrant who had passed into law, two years earlier, an act which singled out for special persecution a minority whose only crime was the accident of their birth. In his case he banned Jews from academic tenure or public office, he made sure that the police turned a blind eye to any beatings, thefts or humiliations afflicted on them, he burned and banned books written by them. He claimed they “polluted” the purity and tradition of what it was to be German, that they were a threat to the state, to the children and the future of the Reich. He blamed them simultaneously for the mutually exclusive crimes of Communism and for the controlling of international capital and banks. He blamed them for ruining the culture with their liberalism and difference. The Olympic movement at that time paid precisely no attention to this evil and proceeded with the notorious Berlin Olympiad, which provided a stage for a gleeful Führer and only increased his status at home and abroad. It gave him confidence. All historians are agreed on that. What he did with that confidence we all know.

Putin is eerily repeating this insane crime, only this time against LGBT Russians. Beatings, murders and humiliations are ignored by the police. Any defence or sane discussion of homosexuality is against the law. Any statement, for example, that Tchaikovsky was gay and that his art and life reflects this sexuality and are an inspiration to other gay artists would be punishable by imprisonment. It is simply not enough to say that gay Olympians may or may not be safe in their village. The IOC absolutely must take a firm stance on behalf of the shared humanity it is supposed to represent against the barbaric, fascist law that Putin has pushed through the Duma. Let us not forget that Olympic events used not only to be athletic, they used to include cultural competitions. Let us realise that in fact, sport is cultural. It does not exist in a bubble outside society or politics. The idea that sport and politics don’t connect is worse than disingenuous, worse than stupid. It is wickedly, wilfully wrong. Everyone knows politics interconnects with everything for “politics” is simply the Greek for “to do with the people”.

An absolute ban on the Russian Winter Olympics of 2014 on Sochi is simply essential. Stage them elsewhere in Utah, Lillehammer, anywhere you like. At all costs Putin cannot be seen to have the approval of the civilised world.

He is making scapegoats of gay people, just as Hitler did Jews. He cannot be allowed to get away with it. I know whereof I speak. I have visited Russia, stood up to the political deputy who introduced the first of these laws, in his city of St Petersburg. I looked into the face of the man and, on camera, tried to reason with him, counter him, make him understand what he was doing. All I saw reflected back at me was what Hannah Arendt called, so memorably, “the banality of evil.” A stupid man, but like so many tyrants, one with an instinct of how to exploit a disaffected people by finding scapegoats. Putin may not be quite as oafish and stupid as Deputy Milanov but his instincts are the same. He may claim that the “values” of Russia are not the “values” of the West, but this is absolutely in opposition to Peter the Great’s philosophy, and against the hopes of millions of Russians, those not in the grip of that toxic mix of shaven headed thuggery and bigoted religion, those who are agonised by the rolling back of democracy and the formation of a new autocracy in the motherland that has suffered so much (and whose music, literature and drama, incidentally I love so passionately).

I am gay. I am a Jew. My mother lost over a dozen of her family to Hitler’s anti-Semitism. Every time in Russia (and it is constantly) a gay teenager is forced into suicide, a lesbian “correctively” raped, gay men and women beaten to death by neo-Nazi thugs while the Russian police stand idly by, the world is diminished and I for one, weep anew at seeing history repeat itself.

“All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing,” so wrote Edmund Burke. Are you, the men and women of the IOC going to be those “good” who allow evil to triumph?

The Summer Olympics of 2012 were one of the most glorious moments of my life and the life of my country. For there to be a Russian Winter Olympics would stain the movement forever and wipe away any of that glory. The Five Rings would finally be forever smeared, besmirched and ruined in the eyes of the civilised world.

I am begging you to resist the pressures of pragmatism, of money, of the oily cowardice of diplomats and to stand up resolutely and proudly for humanity the world over, as your movement is pledged to do. Wave your Olympic flag with pride as we gay men and women wave our Rainbow flag with pride. Be brave enough to live up to the oaths and protocols of your movement, which I remind you of verbatim below.

Rule four: Cooperate with the competent public or private organisations and authorities in the endeavour to place sport at the service of humanity and thereby to promote peace.

Rule six: Act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement.

Rule 15: Encourage and support initiatives blending sport with culture and education.

I especially appeal to you, Prime Minister, a man for whom I have the utmost respect. As the leader of a party I have for almost all of my life opposed and instinctively disliked, you showed a determined, passionate and clearly honest commitment to LGBT rights and helped push gay marriage through both houses of our parliament in the teeth of vehement opposition from so many of your own side. For that I will always admire you, whatever other differences may lie between us. In the end I believe you know when a thing is wrong or right. Please act on that instinct now.

Yours in desperate hope for humanity

Stephen Fry

This post first appeared on

Dear Editor

NOTE: This is a letter to the editor at Australian newspaper the The Age in response to this this editorial piece asking for Julia Gillard to step aside so that Australians can discuss policy issues again. Nothing to do with the media right.  It is printed below without permission, but its great, so read it. 

Dear editor,

The hypocrisy and arrogance of this masthead in calling for the resignation of Julia Gillard “so that vigorous, policy-driven democratic debate can flourish once again” is absolutely breathtaking. I don’t even feel that it’s necessary to talk in detail about my reasons for such a reaction, as you need only look to your own implicit and complicit involvement in the tear-down of this government on a basis that has nothing to do with “policy” and “democracy”, via an endless and frequently baseless obsession with the leadership issue. I am disgusted to hear this view espoused by a newspaper that I once considered reflective of liberal democratic Australian views. Your official editorial stance at this late hour will prove to most Australians of a reasonable intellect the exact nature of your betrayal of the very principles that you claim to stand for. This is nothing but a cynical attempt to distance yourselves from your own role in crushing any ability of this government to talk about policy, as it has actually been doing for the last 3 years, despite every news outlet’s claim to the contrary.

I am an intelligent, educated, rational and considered individual with complex views on the full range of policy addressed by this current administration. I have very good reason to disagree with a lot of decisions and details about policies and legislation that this government has endorsed, but almost never have I formed the opinion that Julia Gillard has not been selling her policies and explaining her position. I resent and refute your claim to represent the views of Australians that this government has ”struggled to explain and justify its policies to voters, and to remind them of its achievements”. I am intricately aware of their achievements, in spite of The Age’s lack of ability to report on them in any level of detail. They may not be achievements that enjoy a majority poll favour, but since when has poll favour determined policy achievement? You insult my intelligence over and over again. It is for these reasons that Australians like me feel that it is not political leadership for which we are underrepresented, but indeed journalistic leadership that is found grossly wanting in this current era of Australian politics. We may be a minority, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t count, and we are the kind of minority that looks to your newspaper for leadership in these matters.

Australians are now finding alternative ways of informing themselves about the actual meaning of policy decisions as they relate to our lives, and are in fact more and more disillusioned as to the Australian mainstream media’s ability to investigate such meaning. Your newspaper, by virtue of this very editorial article has a duty to Australians to engage our politicians in policy debate and in so doing, strengthen our democracy. Your call for Julia Gillard to stand aside in light of her failure to maintain the strength of our democracy proves to me your own abject failure in this regard, and as a long time reader, I feel deeply ashamed and betrayed. Average Australians do not have the privilege of a microphone to put in front of our leaders, and are not therefore able to hold them to account. You should treat that privilege as what it is, a privilege, and not a right to repeat the current narratives of the press gallery and other media outlets. I would ask that you resume your own self-professed duties in this regard, and prove that you have editorial integrity when claiming to be interested in the strength of the Australian democracy.

Matthew Ellis


It’s not about twenty cents, but it IS about transport

NOTE: This article has been kindly cross-posted from our buddies up in at The Volcanic in Auckland.  Thanks to Anna and Connor for making the connection. Freerange Volcanos! 

Except where stated, all images are courtesy of Pedro Paulo Ferreira.
Except where stated, all images are courtesy of Pedro Paulo Ferreira.

When protests began in São Paulo about a week ago, over a rise in public transport fare of twenty Brazilian centavos (approximately eleven NZ cents), the majority of participants were university students. The rest of metropolitan São Paulo’s 20 million residents were too busy with their every day lives to take much notice – too busy dealing with long commutes (an average of 2 hours and 40 minutes a day in 2011), too busy trying to fit into packed metro cars and buses (some metro lines reaching up to 12 people per square metre at peak times), too busy trying to negotiate apocalyptic traffic in their cars while avoiding hitting one of the thousands of “ motoboys” – guys on motorbikes who dart between cars in a constant quest to beat delivery deadlines, too busy trying to dodge those cars on their motorbikes and avoid being the one motoboy killed on São Paulo streets every day, too busy trying to work out how to cross the highway on their bicycle, or maybe too busy just trying to walk somewhere with their baby in a pushchair – an obstacle course of potholes, irregular footpath levels, and incessant traffic.


I lived in São Paulo for three years, from 2009 until 2012, and I loved it. I loved the electric vibrancy of the city, loved the warmth of Paulistas, loved their positivity in the face of a city blighted by traffic jams, crime, floods and pollution, loved the orchids flowering on trees, and the street art and the street markets. I could easily write an entire post about how much I enjoyed my time there. But it was an exhausting place to live. A huge reason for that was that every trip outside the door was a battle.  Mainly for the reasons outlined above, trying to get anywhere in São Paulo is extremely stressful, and the stress compounds over time into a general fatigue with the city. The smaller the radius you can live within, the better your life can be. For the majority, however, that’s not an option. São Paulo is a city with massive spatial divisions. Most of the poorest people live around the edges, while jobs are heavily concentrated in the centre and a few wealthy surrounding neighbourhoods, giving people little choice but to accept long commutes in order to make a living. Research by the LSE Urban Age found that Paulistas with a low education level were likely to live twice as far (24km) from their employment, than those with higher education (12km).

When I first noticed the São Paulo protests appearing in the media – both Brazilian and International – I was frustrated by the heavy emphasis the articles placed on the violence that had broken out between protesters and police, although I was not surprised that there was violence. I’d seen police storm a small peaceful protest on the same major avenue, Avenida Paulista, in SP a couple of years before, and was once in a Carnaval street party in Rio de Janeiro, hundreds of thousands of people strong, when police began firing rubber bullets from within the crowd. Police in Brazil aren’t known for keeping calm, especially not the military trained Riot Police, “or Shock Troops” as their title directly translates. Aside from a brief reference to the 20 cent fare increase as the reason for the protest, there seemed little media analysis of why this apparently small amount, “lower than inflation”, as the government kept emphasising, could have triggered such an outburst, especially in a country which has been famed in recent years for its significant economic progress. As is frequently reported, millions of its poorest have been elevated to “middle class”, new family benefits are linked to children attending school, the country avoided the worst impacts of the global economic recession, and major investments in public infrastructure, including transport, are being undertaken in the lead up to Brazil hosting of the Football World Cup in 2014 and Olympics in 2016.


I was frustrated, however, that there was no analysis of what was actually going on with public transport there. There was so much to talk about, and it was being overlooked! Finally one São Paulo newspaper released data showing that public transport in the city was attaining the lowest satisfaction levels in 20 years (more or less since last time there was a massive social movement in Brazil, coincidentally).

Then all of the sudden, the protest became protests – not just in São Paulo, but also in Rio de Janeiro, and other cities across the country – about so much more than transport. In São Paulo members of the media, as well as middle class students, were violently targeted by police, and suddenly mainstream media was on the side of the protesters. People were shocked into action by such public police brutality, which is usually confined to the poor peripheries, and more or less ignored by the media.

“If the fare doesn’t drop, the city will stop”

This brazen suppression of democracy suddenly woke Brazilians up – they have had enough of all the small difficulties, the big corruptions, the way that increased consumption power hasn’t really gone hand in hand with better public health, education, or quality of life, and certainly not transport.  During my years in Brazil I was impressed by the way Brazilians could remain positive in the face of these challenges. Brazilians have an admirable ability to make the best of things – to find their way around excessive bureaucracy with a “little solution”, to make a joke out of outrageous corruption, or to stick to dreaming that one day, maybe far in the future, but certainly not now, things could be different. However, this also frustrated me. How could they accept so many blatant injustices?

And now it seems, they can’t. They are saying that enough is enough. IT’S NOT ABOUT TWENTY CENTS has become one of the catchphrases for a swelling non partisan social movement, raising concerns about corruption, continuing inequality, inadequate public services, and huge amounts of public funds being invested in World Cup stadiums, many in impoverished cities, or linked to evictions of informal settlements.

And it’s not about the twenty cents. And it’s about so much more than just transport. But transport shouldn’t be forgotten, not only because it is my very favourite topic, but because it is a very interesting viewpoint from which to consider Brazil’s social awakening. It is an issue which cross-cuts every single one of the concerns that the wider movement is now raising, and affects every single Brazilian, no matter what their occupation, education, or social class.


Firstly, transport in Brazil is a focal point for class divisions and prejudice. I found this hard to comprehend, coming from an egalitarian country like New Zealand, and living for many years in Wellington, where most of my friends didn’t even know how to drive, let alone own a car, because public transport and walking are such cheap and easy options. It may seem like a novel fact that São Paulo is famous for having the largest private helicopter fleet in the world, patronized by the largest concentration of billionaires in the word. But this is no laughing matter.  In Brazil, using public transport is strongly associated with being poor. Cycling is considered either a leisure activity for the middle classes, or transport only for those who have no other option. Pedestrians killed in traffic accidents are disproportionately low income. Partially as a result of these class prejudices, public transport suffers from massive underinvestment. It’s true that São Paulo has one of the best metros in the world – it’s new, clean, and safe. But it covers a tiny proportion of the city, and many lines reach astronomically cramped levels on a daily basis, and the lack of investment in complementary express buses to ease the pressure is just one example of officials turning a blind eye to a huge problem, with a clear solution. It’s no surprise that people aspire to own a car, when the alternative is a three hour commute standing up in a rickety bus.

Secondly, transport equality advocate and former Mayor of Bogotá, Enrique Peñalosa, has pointed out that mobility is perhaps the only quality of life element that does not improve as GDP increases. It’s hard for people to enjoy their new disposable income while they are stuck in traffic, missing out on time to spend with their families, on leisure, or on further education. Increased cars in cities are also associated with deterioration in public space, and safety for pedestrians. Rapid motorisation in Brazil has been one of the strongest indicators of the increased consumption capabilities of the new middle class. An exponential increase of cars has pushed the number of private vehicles in São Paulo over seven million. The roads are so over capacity that even the slightest disruption somewhere in the system – let alone a typical tropical downpour – can lead to hours trapped in traffic jams. And still, being stuck in your own car is preferable to hours squished in a bus or metro. So people keep buying cars, and the roads keep getting worse.

Image courtesy of Sarah Bryce

Thirdly, the current transport situation in São Paulo actually makes existing inequalities even worse. São Paulo is one of the most unequal cities in the world. Research by the LSE Urban Age showed that the combination of São Paulo’s low quality public transport and peripheral location of poor communities compounds existing economic and social exclusion, even worse than cities with comparable income inequalities. High quality public transport can reduce the impacts of income inequality. But in São Paulo, the lower your level of education, the longer it is likely to take you to reach basic health or education services by public transport – up to 40 minutes. Not only are you receiving a poor service, but you are paying a lot for it. Twenty cents may not seem like much, but this is a city where many of the poorest residents already spend more than a third of their minimum wage on public transport – for the privilege of standing up for hours on buses which are poor quality, unreliable and way overfull. Research by a São Paulo university has found that in Rio and São Paulo, residents earning the average income must work 13 and 14 minutes respectively to gain the value of a public transport fare. This is in comparison to approximately six minutes in Ottawa, Paris or New York.


There is so much more I could say – I haven’t even begun to go into corruption associated with major transport projects throughout the country, or the politicisation of the public service which makes so many promising transport projects near impossible to complete. On the other hand, I would also like to emphasise that a lot of great progress has been made with public transport in Brazil in recent years, particularly in Belo Horizonte and Rio de Janeiro (you can see an article I wrote recently here, on page 8). Meanwhile São Paulo has seen a great reduction in pedestrian fatalities thanks to an ambitious cross-department programme. But for now I’ll leave it at this. It is amazing that Brazilians of all societal levels are finally standing up, and saying “enough is enough”. A broad discussion of the issues of corruption, misdirection of public funds, and poor public services is important. But I hope the issue of transport and mobility doesn’t get lost. Because a more transparent approach to transport, with investment based on the actual needs and priorities of the public, rather than on prejudices or on opportunities for kickbacks, would be a fast and powerful way of addressing many of Brazil’s bigger issues.  In response to this swell of people power, officials in São Paulo and some other cities have already agreed to revoke the fare increase. We eagerly await their next steps.

The LSE Urban Age research on Transport Equity in São Paulo that I referred to in this article was presented by Philipp Rode at the Urban Age conference in Hong Kong in 2011. You can view it here: :

Pirates Write Blogs Too, Right?

We’re looking for new authors to join us as we embark (again?) on our courageously uncertain course through piratey waters, and try to make some sense (or at least pretty-up the non-sense) of our contemporary world. We like the four sturdy masts that keep our sails aloft: the City, Design, Politics, and Pirates, and we try to write, scratch, scrawl, draw, photograph our love, protest, insight, outrage and inspiration through Project Freerange.


The Freerange Blog is a strange constellation of ideas that we haven’t got close to mapping yet, but there’s bound to be an inhabitable planet or two in there, and some other very strange things that make our stomachs & brains ache, like this.


The Freerange Blog really is the nervous system of the Freerange Cooperative Press, slightly anxious, but vital for us to keep our senses. From the blog, the Freerange Journal emerges, new print projects, and a community of writers that are frighteningly worldly and utterly interesting.



Get in touch with me ( if you’re keen to set sail,

Looking forward to talking the plank,


The Sweaty Toothed Madman / Secretary.

Some thoughts of a white girl involved in the West African feminist movement

Walking down the street the other day, I heard a call of ‘hey madam white, how are you?’ I turned around, surprised. I was used to the familiar call of ‘obruni’ (foreigner) or ‘white lady’, but ‘madam white’ was a new one. Working as the only white girl in a pan-African feminist organisation in Ghana, my presence as an ‘obruni’ is always visible although obviously not called out as it is on the streets of Accra. My ‘whiteness’ can therefore often feel irrelevant to the feminist task at hand of challenging the marginalization of women and girls in the region.  However the criticisms that recently emerged over how Western feminists responded to a particularly brutal gang rape in India have led me to reflect on my own role within a feminist movement in the Global South.

In December, Aruna Shanbaug a 23-year-old Indian woman was gang raped by a group of men and boys with such severity that she died of internal injuries. The rape drew widespread criticism from women and men within Indian. Shocked by the severity of the attack, and tired of the regularity at which similar incidents occur, the attack became a rallying point for change to the systems that allow women to be treated with such brutality. In this instance, the calls for change that have long been called for by feminists within these countries, have been amplified by the number of other people now standing behind them.

The attack was far from both my lives in Ghana and New Zealand, and the lives of many Western feminists. However despite the unified goal of feminists to end violence committed against women, Dr. Swati Parachar noticed a certain silence about the attack on the part of Western feminists who seemed “silent or less outraged today because the rapists are not ‘white’ men or soldiers oppressing the poor female of colour”.

As the feminist movement gained traction in the 1960s, there was a tendency for Western feminists to speak for women in the Global South – to simplistically frame the violence and oppression they faced as a product of backward cultures. In speaking out, many Western feminists ignored the privileged positions from which they spoke and showed a lack of understanding about the complex social, economic, political and cultural factors that created and maintained the oppression of women. In the process of trying to ‘liberate’ these women, they marginalised their voices and reinforced crude cultural stereotypes about the Global South which allowed the continued imposition of simplistic ‘Western’ solutions.

According to some, the nuance of the original argument has been lost, and Western feminists have become reluctant to speak out against oppression occurring in the Global South for fear of misunderstanding the issues, and appearing to speak for, and silence women. What started as a caution for Western feminists to “listen, think and critically reflect before making arrogant judgments on the situation of ‘othered’ women”[1] has turned into silence and a new fear that attempts to foster solidarity may have diminished. In comments on Swati’s piece, a number of Western feminists explained their positions, stating that their concern with speaking out about a situation they have little understanding of prompted their silence, and without knowing the best way to support women on the ground leading these efforts, a certain kind of paralysis occurs. This silence of Western feminists has once again brought up the question of what role they should play in challenging violence against women in the Global South.

Since starting work in Ghana, these debates about cross-cultural feminist solidarity have become central to my life and work. Everyday I see, hear or read about issues that women face within West Africa. There are the young girls in Liberia who must suffer through sexual abuse from those they trust in order to receive schooling; there are the women in Sierra Leone who try to run for office but receive physical threats should they stay in the race; and there is the everyday discrimination of women in workplaces throughout Ghana where many men seem to think it’s their role to ‘pamper’ women by telling them they’re beautiful rather than treating them with the same professional respect their male colleagues receive.

Through my work I could be perceived as acting in solidarity with these women. I spent the first few months trying to figure out what exactly genuine solidarity was and trying to enact it. There’s this character in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, who is one of the few white people in an ‘African’ novel who isn’t in some way arrogant, domineering or patronizing. He’s humble and quite lost, a writer who wants to understand Nigeria but realises that he’s not the one to write about it. It seemed like a reasonable model to adopt, so like him, I tried to be one of the ‘good’ white people, thinking that so long as I avoided being appearing arrogant in office meetings it would somehow right centuries of colonial wrongs.

However in this region where each county’s history of colonialism and exploitation has been unique, and where each society is divided by a distinctive combination of gender, ethnic, class and generational divides, knowing the best way to navigate the terrain can be challenging. This is the fear of course, that not being fully aware of the context and of the cultural cleavages, you can bowl on in and irritate old hurts and create new divides. While it is true that people make mistakes in any occupation and situation, in this circumstance the fear of contributing – in whatever small way – to historical mistakes so grand in scale can be intimidating.

Working within these new environments can create the type of personal tensions described by Salman Rushdie where “the act of migration puts into crisis everything about the migrating individual or group, everything about identity and selfhood and culture and belief”. You find yourself in stressful situations where old insecurities can come into play and you worry that you are inadvertently becoming the bad stereotype of the Western ‘development’ worker: unreflective, unaware and arrogant. In these situations where your sense of self has been disrupted, being confronted with the prospect of conforming to a stereotype you don’t like can be unnerving.

A lot of it comes down to a fear of the unknown. I realised recently that despite thinking about these issues frequently, I had never actually asked any of the women I work with what they thought about my being here. In speaking to a colleague about it, her experiences reinforce the necessity of these debates as she had seen feminist organisations that were accused of speaking for women from the Global South while working in the U.S.

But she also pointed out the uniqueness of my situation by highlighting that I am working for an African-led feminist organisation and there are, I think, some lessons to be learnt about solidarity from this. Before I applied for the job I hesitated, knowing that the organization’s mandate is to increase the number of West Africa women in peace and security work. There seemed to be little likelihood that I would receive the job, and if I did should I even be taking it or was I taking a job from someone in West Africa who deserved it more? I did get the job and I took it while also realizing that there had been a certain arrogance in my hesitation. I was hired by women who have been at the forefront of the women’s and peace-building movements in the region. They clearly know what is best for their organization, and who is suited to achieving its aims. The only reason I am able to do the kind of work I am now doing is because I have been vetted by these women and was invited to practice a form of solidarity on their terms.

This kind of solidarity is difficult to create when the inequalities are built into the system. Often these inequalities can be difficult to pinpoint but one way they can be measured is monetarily. Most international NGOs and multinational organizations have salary structures where international staff are paid at a higher rate than local staff so that if I was working for one of these organizations doing similar work to what I’m doing now, I would likely be paid more than local staff. There are reasons for the need for different international salaries, some very valid, and some less so. But it still begs the question of how you can have genuine solidarity when from the outset those from outside the country are being valued more monetarily than those who likely have a deeper appreciation of what is happening in the country.

Speaking to a friend about these issues a while ago he commented that whenever barriers are in place that stop people being able to communicate with others, change is unlikely to happen. These barriers can be those systemic inequalities that cause some people’s voices to be valued more highly than others. They can also be those barriers that have emerged which render smart, reflective, compassionate feminists silent for fear of reproducing inequalities. In some ways, a space has been created within my organisation in which people can talk across boundaries. Most of us have crossed various borders to get to where we are: Ghanaians who have moved from smaller towns to the city, Sierra Leoneans and Ghanaians who have spent long periods abroad and have recently moved back home and me coming from the other side of the world. When we can talk honestly about these boundaries we can learn about, and from, each other and figure out ways to move forward. Because of this, I have had the luxury of encountering powerful African women and girls on a daily basis, and, as time goes on, the idea that anyone could even attempt to speak for women who are so outspoken becomes increasingly bizarre. However, due to the inequalities in the system this continues to happen.

Strangely, one of my most intense experiences in West Africa came in a taxi somewhere between Togo and Benin, as I read Teju Cole’s story of a Nigerian man in New York. Confronted with a version of himself he was not able to reconcile with, he said this:

“Each person must, on some level, take himself as the calibration point for normalcy, must assume that the room of his own mind is not, cannot be, entirely opaque to him. Perhaps this is what we mean by sanity: that, whatever our self-admitted eccentricities might be, we are not the villains in our own stories. In fact, it is quite the contrary: we play, and only play, the hero, and in the swirl of other people’s stories, insofar as those stories concern us at all, we are never less than heroic … And so, what does it mean when, in someone else’s version, I am the villain?”

Isolated culturally and linguistically, and unable to be the type of ‘development’ worker I had originally envisioned myself to be, I curled up in the corner of the car and closed the book.

We strive for these perfect ways of being and are constantly put up against the limits of our understandings, the limits of our empathy. And maybe that is why some feminists have become silent about these issues, because the constant implication of yourself within this injustice can become exhausting. You write yourself into a caricature that begins to define you and slowly you start to lose yourself and what you believe you stand for. Maybe in these moments the most you can do is be gentle to yourself; to acknowledge that you will make mistakes and try to learn and change. I’m not sure what this means as solidarity is stretched across countries and continents and feminists throughout the world must decide how to respond meaningfully to rape in India. But when I think about the future, I think about the feminist friendships cemented in my office in Accra, and how they will stretch across countries and continents whenever any of us decide to leave.

After all, the feminist movement is an exciting place to be. Despite being confronted with a host of injustices committed daily against women, you get to see the strength and resilience of women fighting against it; women who may have grown up being told they will never amount to anything more than a set of ovaries and a pretty face but who refuse to take this and push forward. So for the moment I will stay here trying to push forward too, guided by my own sense of self and beliefs, in whatever form of solidarity I am invited to do.


[1] As one commenter on Swati’s piece put it.