Category Archives: International Development

The Diplomat: Myanmar Grapples With Unifying Its Core and Periphery

(The Diplomat 27/7/2016) The challenges of forging federalism in Myanmar will be evident at upcoming talks in August.

Myanmar’s punctuated economic development since gaining independence in 1948 has often been framed through the shackles of ethnic conflict, authoritarianism, and neglectful governance. But as global human rights icon, and now State Counselor, Aung San Suu Kyi takes control of the country’s democratic transformation, she will find that the nation’s struggles are far more deep-rooted. Peace will remain elusive unless Myanmar can bridge its divisive geography.

The national story is defined by a chasm between core and periphery. The low-lying and fertile Irrawaddy River valley region includes the urban economic centers of Yangon, Mandalay, and the capital, Naypyidaw, and is largely populated by the majority Bamar ethnic group.

Meanwhile, awkward terrain on Myanmar’s fringes has encased minorities from neighboring states within the nation’s modern-day boundaries. A mountain chain to its west, rugged jungles to its northeastern border with China, and the Shan Hills on its eastern side have isolated distinct cultures and manifested separatist sentiments.

As such, Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is a mosaic of 135 officially recognized ethnicities (excluding the marginalized Rohingya in Rakhine state), all grouped into seven dominant minority border states, with the Bamar predominating in the seven central regions. Nation building has, as a result, been a cumbersome venture.

In 1947, Suu Kyi’s father and then de facto prime minister, General Aung San, penned an agreement granting greater autonomy to the Shan, Kachin, and Chin ethnic minorities at the Panglong Conference, but his assassination months later meant it never came to fruition. Since then, successive state leaders have failed to forge a delicate balance between political decentralization and the military, border, and resource control requirements of state building.

As disenfranchised ethnic groups took up arms in the world’s longest-running civil war, the most promising attempt to broker peace came in October, when former president Thein Sein signed a ceasefire with eight armed-groups—though seven major insurgencies were absent.

But at a meeting tabled for August dubbed the “21st Century Panglong Conference”—between the ruling National League for Democracy party, the military and, it is hoped, representatives from all armed ethnic groups, Suu Kyi is expected to revive her father’s vision of a unified, yet devolved, nation.

“Through peace conferences, we’ll continue to be able to build up a genuine, federal democratic union aspired to by all our countrymen,” she said during a nationwide address on Myanmar’s New Year holiday in April. “That’s why we need a constitutional amendment.”

The nation’s frontier states want more control over their economic and political affairs. And federalism may be the key to de-escalating tension with ethnic groups who feel underrepresented by the Bamar-dominant parliament and aggrieved by Naypyidaw’s central rule and military meddling.

But that may be easier said than done. Suu Kyi will require cooperation from the still powerful military, who are constitutionally entitled to 25 percent of parliamentary seats. But military leaders are likely to be reticent in ceding control over peripheral states, in order to protect their monopoly on the extraction and trade of jade, teak, and other materials in the resource-rich borderlands.

And then there is the risk that decentralization will help crystalize secessionism. The China-backed United Wa State army in the northeast, for example, already has significant military footing, and greater political powers may catalyze a push for separation. It’s an outcome Suu Kyi will be conscious of, with vocal Buddhist nationalists poised to stir discontent over state-weakening territorial losses.

Avoiding an all out disintegration of a devolved Myanmar would also require signaling considerable commitment to connect peripheral regions to the economic core and spread the nation’s now burgeoning foreign direct investment outward.

According to the UN Development Program, poverty levels are at around 26 percent of the total population, but that rate doubles in the rural areas where 70 percent of the population reside, with remote border areas significantly deprived. Constitutional adaptations may not be sufficient to overcome economic grievances unless ethnic states have a fairer share of resource extraction profits, access to social services, financing opportunities, and clear land rights.

The nation’s rickety roads and colonial era rail network will also require considerable work to radiate into the tougher terrain of the isolated border states. “[O]nly 38.9 percent of the total road network is paved, with the secondary and local road network in generally poor condition,” according to a 2014 Asian Development Bank report entitled “Myanmar: Unlocking the Potential.” Inland waterways and air transport facilities also need attention.

A unified core and periphery promises many national dividends—from enhancing the democratic process and connecting markets, labor, and industries, to stabilizing restive borders for trade. But while Suu Kyi has made peace the NLD’s “first responsibility,” the federalist model will need to be closely and rapidly synchronized with plans to spread economic opportunities if the ethnic frontier is to have a vested interest in an integrated Myanmar.

And so, as Suu Kyi and President Htin Kyaw get to work, just like leaders before them, they must face the nation’s age-old conundrum—how to create autonomy, whilst also achieving unity.

Tej Parikh is an international affairs journalist, and received his master’s degree from Yale University, with a focus on state building, ethnic politics and fragile states. He has published for Reuters, The Diplomat, The Cambodia Daily, the Guardian and Global Politics Magazine. He tweets at @tejparikh90.


The Diplomat: In Myanmar, Suu Kyi’s Brand Is a Double-Edged Sword

(The Diplomat 14/5/2016) Myanmar is being overwhelmed by foreign investments before its new government has built up the capacity to receive them.

While Aung San Suu Kyi’s inauguration as Myanmar’s state counsellor early last month was largely academic, it certainly wasn’t short on significance. With the globally revered democracy icon vowing to be “above the president” anyway, the international community is now queuing up to engage with the once pariah state.

But though Suu Kyi’s ‘brand’ has the power to attract rapid change for the nation, it could also quickly become Myanmar’s Achilles heel.

U.S. business delegations are expected to arrive in the country shortly to assess investment opportunities, says Scot Marciel, the new U.S. ambassador to Myanmar, also known as Burma. And on May 3, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida met with Suu Kyi as he reportedly weighs a development assistance offering worth $910 million. These visits follow the early-bird brigades of China, Italy, Germany, and Canada, which have already held talks with the new government since it came to office on March 30, according to The Myanmar Times.

Whether for business gains or foreign policy leverage, Myanmar—sandwiched between the Indian and Chinese economic powerhouses—is prime real estate.

But in a country severely lacking in institutional capacity, “the tsunami of aid” may actually hinder Myanmar’s transition says Lex Rieffel, an expert on Southeast Asia at the Brookings Institution, a U.S. think-tank. Foreign donors absorb precious ministerial time in coordination visits; they also hire the most qualified local citizens and drive up property prices in Yangon, the country’s largest city, says Rieffel.

Untamed foreign direct investment can be equally insidious by competing with domestic industries through unethical business practices or by feeding corrupt hands, particularly in the nation’s elite-tied gas, jade, and timber resource extraction industries.

Meanwhile, a rapid influx of aid also goes against the new government’s vision. National League for Democracy leader Suu Kyi (also the foreign minister) and proxy president cum long-time friend, Htin Kyaw, do not seek “abrupt changes” and have outlined, though vaguely, phases for Myanmar’s economic transition.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner wishes to lay out her own unique economic vision. During a 2013 visit to Singapore Suu Kyi stopped short of suggesting Myanmar should follow in the footsteps of free-market capitalism’s model student. “Perhaps Singapore could learn from us a more relaxed way of life,” she said at the time.

And the NLD’s 2015 election manifesto is also littered with ‘Suu Kyi-isms.’ It seeks to lift FDI but only with the “highest international standards” that can bring “sustainable long term mutual benefits.” The five economic pillars—fiscal prudence, efficient bureaucracy, agriculture, monetary and fiscal stability, and infrastructure—are considered necessary groundwork before global financial flows accelerate the nation’s growth.

The party, which won 80 percent of available seats in the November elections, wants to achieve a “controlled opening,”avoiding the asset bubbles, income inequality, corruption, and international risk exposures befalling some of its Asian neighbors.

For some, that ship has already sailed. Unanchored by the reforms under former president Thein Sein, which led to a tapering in international sanctions, Myanmar’s economy is expected to grow at a breakneck 8.4 percent this year, according to the Asian Development Bank’s latest outlook report—the highest in Asia. Meanwhile, FDI rose to a record $9.4 billion in the 2015-16 fiscal year.

And according to the local Daily Eleven newspaper, the country projects a cumulative $140 billion in FDI through 2030, assuming the United States restores the generalized system of preferences and lifts remaining sanctions.

But Suu Kyi needs time to assemble an able bureaucracy to implement the laws and regulations to manage incoming funds. Otherwise, the new funds may be destined to circulate among the corrupt—bypassing the 26 percent of the population below the poverty line.

She also faces the small tasks of negotiating governance terms with the military, forging peace deals with warring ethnic groups, and weighing controversial large-scale construction projects like the currently shelved $3.6 billion China-led Myitsone dam.

Myanmar’s economic sustainability is already at stake, before it has even taken off. As one poetic Yangon resident put it, “The foundations needs to be laid, and the cement needs to dry first before Myanmar can dream of building further.”

Tej Parikh recently received his master’s degree from Yale University, with a focus on state building, ethnic conflict, and fragile states. He has written for the Guardian, Reuters, The Cambodia Daily, The Diplomat andGlobal Politics Magazine. He tweets at @tejparikh90.

The Diplomat: Myanmar’s Democracy Paradox

(The Diplomat 26/2/2016) The lengthy talks over the exact shape of Myanmar’s government, and the identity of its new president, are just the first signs that the country’s path to democracy may not be orthodox.

On November 11, democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi, received a congratulatory phone call from U.S. President Barack Obama, after her National League for Democracy party romped to victory in Myanmar’s national election.

But while Western powers rejoice, and though Suu Kyi’s has sewn the seeds for democracy in Myanmar, the ground remains infertile.

“The distinguishing mark of a universal value is not that it already enjoys universal acceptance,” said development economist Amartya Sen. “But, that people everywhere have reason to see it as valuable.”

Unfortunately the nation that the NLD inherits is far from adopting universal values, with interests Balkanized along economic, ethnic and political lines.

The country lacks the cross-cutting cleavages to allow democratic change to take off, such that democracy today may paradoxically destabilize Myanmar, by giving power to entrenched, divided and unequal interests.

Suu Kyi does not seek “abrupt changes,” and hopes to bring about a steady transition of rule from decades of military dominance.

On the economic front the NLD is likely to continue pushing the country along its path to greater liberalization.

Foreign direct investment rose to over $8 billion in the 2014/15 fiscal year, but much of the money remains concentrated in the country’s jade, oil and gas industries – tied to former generals.

Urban “elites” and large corporations under armed force control are most likely to benefit from increased liquidity as the country opens up further – while poverty is expected to remain high in the country’s largely rural and ethnically segregated provinces.

“[The number of ultra-high-net worth] individuals in Myanmar could grow by more than seven times in the next decade – the fastest such pace of growth anywhere,” said Wealth-X, a wealth intelligence consultancy.

If the rural and unlanded are unable to tap into the country’s economic fortunes – fenced out by rising elites – vast chasms in wealth will remain an obstacle to building the broad-based citizen coalitions necessary for an efficient democracy.

Though democracy may be a banner for freedom in the west, true freedom will not be possible in Myanmar unless people have the power to make economic choices.

Beyond economic division, rife ethnic and religious conflict is likely to inhibit the creation of a society with cross-cutting interests, especially as recent peace talks continue in the absence of representation from the most active ethnic rebel groups.

Anti-Islamic sentiment has been mercilessly stirred-up among the near 70 percent Bamar population – carried in part by radical Buddhist monk Wirathu’s 969 movement, a nationalistic organization.

The majority Bamar thus forms an overriding part of the electorate with little tying them to the ethnic groups in Myanmar’s border states – where mountainous geography to its north and west has facilitated the preservation of distinct ethnicities, and the more traversable Shan plateau terrain on its Thai border has facilitated restiveness.

For all the promise of a more democratic Myanmar, even politically it is shaping up to be a pseudo-authoritarian state – lacking the natural forces to be truly representative at all levels.

Facing weak opposition and an winning an overwhelming 80 percent of available seats, the NLD take power with Suu Kyi vowing to “make all the decisions,” despite being barred from taking presidential post by the same constitution that retains 25 percent of seats for the military.

But, with question marks over how the military exercises its power, the political environment that Suu Kyi inherits may ironically be just the stage necessary to develop the nation.

Without a somewhat dictating hand, the liberties that unrestrained democracy brings may translate into the freedom to subjugate, hate and divide. But, with Suu Kyi’s aura, she can attempt to carve out a unifying long-term vision for the country.

She must tame military influence, manage inefficient ministries and act as a mediator across all ethnic parties.

A centrally planned development with employment projects, infrastructure investments and social welfare enhancement may create an economy that truly binds the vested interest of its people, rich to poor, Bamar to non-Bamar. Only when these divides are bridged will true democracy take root.

Suu Kyi’s task may echo that of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father.

A small ethnically divided nation, Lee championed nationalism and prepared Singapore for the global free market in his role as a visionary authoritarian. Suu Kyi, with her own maternalistic style, now has the opportunity to guide Myanmar – to forge a national identity and to create inclusive and broad-based development as the country opens.

There is a balancing act in Myanmar, fighting for the short-term phantom of democracy today may just inhibit its long-term evolution.

And so, while Aung San Suu Kyi embodies “the spirit of democracy” – in reality, it may be her role as a benevolent single-handed ruler that guides Myanmar forward.

Tej Parikh is an international affairs journalist currently based in Southeast Asia. He recently received his master’s degree from Yale University, with a focus on state building, ethnic conflict and fragile states. He tweets at @tejparikh90. He has written for the Guardian, Reuters, The Cambodia Daily and Global Politics Magazine.

The Soul of Kathmandu

On the day the Islamic State seized control of the 2,000-year-old oasis city of Palmyra, Kathmandu reminds us that while sites of heritage may crumble, deep-rooted cultural spirit remains firm.

Guided by the cooling Himalayan breeze, a spicy chai aroma wafts through the brimming November rooftops of Thamel district – the backpacker abode of Kathmandu. Below, in the dusty labyrinthine metropolis, men squat eagerly around an intense chess game as a rickshaw-laden chaos ensues behind them. The peaceful zip of rotating prayer wheels turns to the effervescent chatter of youth, as the soothing scents of Asan Tole’s spice market gives way to the clamor of Newar style bazaars. The pendulum rhythm of life is entrenched in the capital’s fabric. It is how the Nepalese derive their energy.

As April’s earthquake devastated the Kathmandu valley, local volunteers, young and old, have mobilized quickly to provide relief supplies and aid to impacted villages. Accounts of resourceful living, makeshift employment and the reopening of certain heritage sites are intermeshed with the wider humanitarian struggles. For the national and international response, transmuting the resilience of the Nepalese people to the country’s state and infrastructure is the future. To rebuild and emerge stronger from the rubble is to harness the soul of Kathmandu.

Kathmandu, as it was, November 2013:


Saris for sale: A woman crouches beside her vibrant fabrics


(L to R) Clamoring bazaar: Stall owners soak up the chaos on Siddhidas Marg,  The Urban Jungle: Intertwined chaos


Soothing scents: The spice market on approach to Asan Tole


Faith: A family worship to the God Mahakaala


Checking the accounts: A suave boy runs through the days earnings


(L to R) The universally embracing Jana Baha temple: A father and son emerge from prayer,  Entrepreneurs: Creative teens meld together sale items from scrap metal


(L to R) Silhouettes in the alley to Kathesimbu Stupa, Beard shaver and financial advisor: A man offers his services on Thamel Marg


A peaceful escape: A dog finds dinner off the chaotic Chokchya Galli


Gridlock: En route to Durbar Square


Towering temples: Peering out from a once heaving Durbar Square


The Monkey Temple: Worshippers encircle the now damaged Swayambhunath Stupa  


Kathmandu from above: Prayer flags blow over the ancient city

Hidden Perspectives: A Photo Essay

The developing world is often seen through a monochrome lens: a grey picture, yearning for the brush of western modernity. Yet, sandwiched between the emergent Elephant and Dragon economies of the new world, Bhutan challenges our vision of development, illustrating that under a new light the ‘developing’ world can also lend us its own color.


The land time forgot: Prayer flags traverse Bhutan’s Himalayan terrain like arteries. Each color represents its own sādhanā, or spiritual purpose, pertaining to the five elements; Earth, Water, Fire, Wind and Sky. With every mountainous breeze the verses they contain flutter off into the ether, spreading faith and blessing the Kingdom.

Untitled1The lonely hope: En-route to Punakha a woman roasts maize as a roadside refreshment to entice the intermittent traffic. Poverty prevalence in some rural areas is as high as 52.9%, compared to about 1.7% in urban regions[1]. Remoteness and mountainous terrain can isolate rural dwellers from significant markets.

[1] United Nations Development Programme, Bhutan: Rural Economy Advancement


Holding onto the past: At the Zorig Chusum School of Traditional Arts in Thimphu, youth undergo 4 to 6 years of training in Bhutanese traditional art forms. Global development policies for education often target more modern technical and industrial skillsets, to prepare students for the international job market and to stimulate innovation.


A refuge to religion: Almost 10% of the Bhutanese population is part of the monastic system[1]. Children as young as five are sent to monasteries by their parents who cannot afford to feed their families or pay for government schooling.

[1] Bhutan Youth Development Fund, December 2014

Untitled4Aged techniques: An elderly woman begins an arduous day’s labor, crushing chili after sun drying them upon her tin rooftop. Modern technology such as solar dryers would not only ease her strain, but it would allow her to sustain her livelihood throughout the year, including during the wet monsoon season[1].

[1] Fuller et al, Technical and financial evaluation of a solar dryer in Bhutan, 2005


Out of school: Young children wander through the Punakha valley. Owing to Bhutan’s undulating terrain, school coverage is often thin in rural areas. As a result, these children would have to walk miles across rugged terrain to their closest school.


Hard labor: Near Sopsokha in the Punakha valley, a subsistence rice farmer begins a day’s work under the heat of the Himalayan sun. The lack of modern farming equipment means rice harvesting is not as efficient as it could potentially be.


Community ties: The lone farmer is soon joined by fellow villagers. By mid-morning the Punakha valley ebbs and flows with the rhythms, laughter and spirit of its rice farmers.


A lesson in morality: A Zorig Chusum School student carefully cleans his paintbrush aside his ‘four harmonious friends’ portrait.  It is a universal Bhutanese image of a bird, rabbit, and monkey standing on each other’s shoulders upon the back of a patient elephant, symbolizing social and environmental harmony.


Entrenching traditions: Velvet robed monks wander into the colossal Punakha Dzong courtyard. Traditional arts not only teach morals, they become part of the fabric of the country, painted and etched into the walls of its regal religious architecture.


The poster-boys of Gross National Happiness: several monks beam with excitement as they initiate a fire purification ceremony. By their late teens, children who have been through the monastic system are well versed in Mahayana Buddhist teachings and spirituality.


Keeping faith: A husband and wife enter the Memorial Chorten in Thimphu. Buddhism transcends secular life. It creates an affinity between people, environment and traditions, which in turn brings meaning and happiness to everyday endeavors.


Two sides of the coin: A trio of monks softly hum verses outside the Gangteng monastery in the Phobjikha valley. When viewed from a different lens, the developing world can be as humbling to us, as it is to the countries we put under the microscope.

La Pura Vida

At the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve, Leon’s parque central enlivens to a cacophonous tune. The clamour of market stalls, murmur of hymns and crackle of fireworks add to the joyous yelps of children opening their new presents in the town square. A young Nica boy acquaints himself with the controls of his new remote-controlled toy car as it accelerates from the commotion toward a quaint cafe.

It speeds through the heated scent of roasted coffee beans, before braking suddenly beneath the eaterIMG_20141224_210440y’s artsy wall decor. Next to portraits of Nicaraguan revolutionaries is the chalked quote of the day written in swanky italics, today’s is from Bertrand Russell; ‘the Good Life is inspired by love and guided by knowledge.’

The good life or the pure life, La Pura Vida, is a phrase adopted by Nicaragua’s southern neighbours, Costa Rica, yet synonymous with the wider Central American region. From Guatemala’s colonial town of Antigua, through to Panama City’s old quarter, Casco Viejo, people are unified by their unique pace of life. Here an unhurried, restful and contented demeanor largely underscores everyday interactions and transactions. Its as if the chase for a further buck is outweighed by the stress it necessitates.

Russell’s quote perhaps resonates most with Costa Rica. Following victory in the country’s civil war in 1948 the then President abolished the army; a constitution that still remains today. Instead, finances have been channeled toward education, which has aided in improving living standards and the country’s welfare system. La Pura Vida has become about living sustainably, with economic growth not only in harmony with the environment, but also with lifestyles. For IMG_20141225_124739critics, a culture that checks the pace of life also arrests economic development, and is therefore seen as complacent, lazy and inefficient. Yet La Pura Vida advocates would argue that its viability avoids the stresses and the ‘rat race’ induced excesses of modern-day capitalism.

Along the PanAmerican Highway at Penas Blancas, on the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, scores of Costa Rican women meet crossing tourist buses. They offer wholesome hot empanadas, crisp plantain and sandwiches to hungry travellers. Despite the urgency of their situation, they approach in laughter, bantering among one another and not competing for customers. There is a somewhat genuineness to the services they provide, offering disposable plates, napkins and water at no extra cost. A stark contrast to what may be more common in the ‘western world,’ where the centrality of money almost devalues the humanness of service into purely a ‘transaction’. The women at Penas Blancas cherish the esteem and satisfaction, in addition to the  finances, that their occupation brings.

IMG_20141225_123830For the Central American region as a whole, historic circumstances may have built the foundations for current lifestyles and culture. A long suffering people, from the time of Spanish conquest through to extensive periods of civil war, the populace is arguably inured to the plundering of its wealth. ‘Seven families own Guatemala, we are not part of any’ adds Jairo in laughter, pointing down the cobbled street, as he polishes a mustachioed man’s shoe under the shade of Antigua’s iconic Santa Catalina arch.

Poor governance and rife inequality have humbled these people. There is a somewhat gratitude for the possessions they do own, and a worriless approach to life that maximizes on community ties and minimizes on greed. From Plaza Salvador del Mundo in San Salvador, to Plaza de la Independencia in Granada, Nicaragua, families and friends congregate each evening to share platos tipicos and enjoy card games. Perhaps a difficulty to dream beyond the confines of what they do have has sharpened their sense of the present, and desire to obtain total satisfaction from it.

Now the clatter IMG_20141228_080017of horse hooves join the pandemonium in Leon, as carriages shuttle families to and fro. As lemon and guava juice mixers run low, locals share white rum shots by handing out cups to any sober looking passers. Like the wayward toy car there is a seeming disorder to proceedings here. Yet like the boy at its control; the beat of Central America is driven by gratitude and steered by a smile. La Pura Vida

Related Articles:

Living La Pura Vida- The Huffington Post

‘Speed Limits’ examines modern society’s ever quickening pace of life – LA Times

Which countries have a faster pace of life?-  The Business Insider

Painting the town red

As the early afternoon Andean rainfall subsides, a dense mist rises through the cobbled streets of La Candelaria; Bogota’s historic quarter. With the faint rumble of thunder, overcast skies and patter of water droplets shedding from the Colombian capital’s colonial architecture, a distinct sense of revolution flourishes in the air.

Remnants from internal conflict born in La Violencia; the country’s ten-year civil war during the 1950s, continue to be felt today. An ongoing rift between the Colombian government, paramilitary groups and left wing guerillas such as FARC and ELN has claimed an estimated 200,000 lives since 1958[i].

While the armed conflict, drug and crime syndicates have largely quieted today; their legacy means that Colombia now has the world’s second largest population of internally displaced persons, that is, behind Syria[ii]. Topics of income disparity, education and industrial policy have now spilled onto Colombian streets. With plenty canntoxicomonoed up, some Colombians are finding a new revolutionary voice.

When the Bogotano haze parts, like a stage curtain, it unveils large murals of vibrant, colorful and illuminating street art. With their illustrations unfolding at each junction of the capital’s mazy streets, like new pages of a book, their messages, like Colombia’s history, are deeply etched into the fabric of the South American city. The grafiteros want to tell the story; the spray-can has become their voice.

La calle es tu calle, ‘the street is your street’ reads one stenciled piece. From the anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist graphics of the art collective, Toxicomano to the feminist and poverty visuals of Bastadilla, Bogotanos are rebranding the streets with their artistic messages. In February 2013 Bogota’s mayor promoted graffiti as a form of cultural expression, and with the city slowly becoming a hotbed for artistic voice, some authorities are even hiring grafiteros to spray-paint their own buildings.

Upon one Bogotano scaffolding wall, a large black and white fresco of an indigenous Choco region woman dragging a rich man and his material belongings comes into view. Nearby, DJ Lu’s stencil art portrays pinas granadas, ‘pineapple grenades’, alongside an image of a solider clenching grenade balloons. The multidimensionality and detail of the images, in their message and art form, has spurred grenadescuriosity. Graffiti tours offering up interpretation are now commonplace.

Toxicomano’s own front against ignorance and anti-mass media rhetoric strikes through the afternoon mist now rising into Bogota’s enveloping verdant hillsides. Their imaginary film promotions are stenciled throughout the city. One yellow highlighted title translates to, ‘Displacement: A film that should not be seen, let alone lived’, and nearby the phrase La vida real supera la fiction, ‘real life exceeds fiction’, is printed.

Bogotanos are coming to terms with their realities. Where social change still begets violence across the globe, the message of non-violent protest, and struggle for change, may find a new vehicle in the creativity and artistic penchant of humanity.

In the evening damp the doughy scent of sizzling Arepas, a Colombian flatbread, lingers in downtown Bogota. As Bogotanos refuel, spray-canisters reload. With the red-blood spill of history spread across the palette, tomorrow the grafiteros will attempt to recolor and redefine their very own revolution.

[i] Colombia’s National Centre for Historical Memory

[ii] Internal Monitoring Centre Global Overview report 2014

Related Material:

We need a creativity revolution – RSA, Adam Lent

The Wisdom of Tyler Durden – Tej Parikh

Bogota’s booming graffiti culture – Colombia Reports

Bosnia: Bridging differences

As the lagoon blue Neretva river cascades under the elevated rainbow-esque arch, a muezzin’s ezan prayer resonates from a nearby mosque; through Mostar’s cobbled Ottoman quarter and across the bank. There, in a quaint cafe, the sizzling scent of Bosnian ‘turkish coffee’ becomes airborne as a pot of boiling water hits the cup of roasted coffee beans.

Forged from the local pale tenelija stone, the Stari Most, or ‘Old Bridge’ is a poignant symbol to humanity, let alone an architecturally implausible feat.

It stood, against the expectation of its complex structure, for 427 years – only to be destroyed strategically by Bosnian Croats in 1993 as they attacked the Muslim Bosniaks on the Neretva’s eastern bank.  Both were formally allied against Serbia’s marauding troops, though a Croat thirst for Bosnian territory led to mutiny.

Human nature is to see those deemed foreign as inherently different beings. Our history reveals an innate desire to conquer, to subjugate ‘others’ and expand territories. An aversion to coalesce and instead to see geography and religion as barriers, rather than markers of cultural diversity, is a commonality of our past, and present behaviours.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to be a jostling for land space, where religious differences have been considered too great to tether a cooperative state, but instead has engendered a two-state solution. It is set amongst wider sectarian conflict in the Middle-east, where even variation in interpretation within a religion has led to conflict.

Himalayas (835)

In India, at the end of the lush green lawn in the shadow of Shimla’s Viceregal Lodge, stands the hollowed out statue of a dancing girl. She symbolises the cultural paradox of India’s partition, where the mother of the Indus valley civilization, Mohenjo daro, now lies in Pakistan whereas great Islamic monuments like the Taj Mahal now reside in India.

The girl represents the ‘presence of the absence,’ where a fervour for national identity, on religious grounds, has left a void, in the same way that borders can dismiss humanity’s collaborative and revering role as citizens of the world as a whole.

For Bosnians and Herzegovinians, their present is a shared vision toward developing their country. A multitude of mosques, synagogues and orthodox churches stand among the abandoned shell-shocked buildings and bullet-marked shops in its capital, Sarajevo. They may have different faiths, but that does not cloud their realisation for a universal goal as Bosnia emerges from its past.

With its destruction Mostar was divided, and the town became the poster of the war in Bosnia. Large cemeteries with tombstones dated to 1993 appear along its inner streets. In 2004, the Stari Most was rebuilt, replicating the methods used by its 16th century architect Mimar Hayruddin. With its reconstruction it has come to define the Bosnian spirit.

From the gardens of the Koski Mehmed-Pasa mosque, the darkened outline of a cross can be seen through the mountain mist behind the Stari Most. While the memory of war remains lucid, the message of Bosnia’s future is now stronger; to bridge across differences, and to develop through unification.

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The wisdom of Tyler Durden

“We’re the middle children of history man, no purpose or place. We have no Great war, no Great depression, our great war is a spiritual war, our great depression is our lives. We’ve been all raised by television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars, but we won’t and we’re slowly learning that fact.”

An Andean fog descends upon the Colombian capital, engulfing it in a timeless shell. A civil, guerrilla and drug warfare ridden history travels in its eerie haze. Yet its assault on the streets of Bogota’s old quarter, La Candelaria, is stymied by the vibrant tones of street art. Bogota’s grafiteros are the middle children-fighting a spiritual war.

Over the past two decades, socio-political, economic and technological advances have arguably enhanced the human experience.  This generation has been largely untouched by the conflict, economic maladies and social unrest to the extent faced by an early 20th Century global community finding its footing.   Today our battles focus on improving our rights, where our previous endeavours would have fought to create or defend them.

I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. “

The ‘spiritual war’ we face is endogenous to our environment. In the West, our battle is coming to terms with the consumerist society we have created, and questioning how to weight our values within it. In October 2012 a ‘’ video campaign went viral on YouTube. The video showed Haitians standing amid shanty huts, reading out ‘first-world problems’ such as ‘I hate it when my phone charger doesn’t reach my bed.’ Although its aim was to demonstrate the banality the ‘western world’, it still puts into perspective how spheres of concern shift as our basic rights are fulfilled.

For others, a spiritual war is about questioning their place in society. The growth of Islamic extremism illustrates how a proxy war to battle a western society, believed to be impeding freedoms, in reality is a redirection of anger from those finding themselves at the margins of society. Their frustrations have seen them indoctrinated into Jihad, and xenophobic organisations such as the English Defence League and British National Party, to find some semblance of voice.

A decade on from the 9/11, the Arab spring has demonstrated how the changing global environment has given humanity the opportunity to change the historic foundations forged for them. Social media provided the tipping point to battle against oppressive political regimes-and fuel a spiritual war for the Arab world’s people, who are trying to improve their positions in society.

In Bogota, the walls on each street tell a different story, from the anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist spray-paintings by the artist Toxicomano, to the feminism and poverty graphics of Bastardilla. On one Bogotano garage door, a large mural of a young woman carrying a rich man and his belongings on her back comes into view.  Despite the humid afternoon mist fanning the capital, the deeply etched Spanish word ‘culpa’ or blame is easily readable on the rich man’s crucifix. ‘The poor and rich cannot live in harmony’ adds Ana, my guide. ‘The details, the messages and the colours are so impressive that some property owners actually pay the grafiteros to spray paint on their walls’.  Where the spray-paint can is symbolic for anti-social behaviour, Bogotanos have made it their sign of defiance and empowerment, their canvasses become their voice.

As we reflect on our place in society and choose our ‘spiritual war’, we must select our creative voices over our destructive ones to give ourselves a purpose and place, and to make a mark on history, where we are ‘the middle children.’

The Guardian: Knights of change

(The Guardian) “I make more mezze for them than for my mother,” Isaiah, 15, points through the steam emanating from his sizzling pot of chickpeas, lime and spice, to a line of garment boutiques in down-town Amman. The vibrant souks of King Talal Street in the foreground reflect back in his hopeful eyes. They are Isaiah’s battleground for money, to feed himself and his ailing mother. The irony is not lost on him: “To feed us, I must feed others first.”

Young people are the creative lifeblood and future of the developing world. Jordan’s current Head of state, King Abdullah II, addressed his nation’s youth as “the knights of change” in his speech on the country’s 61st anniversary of independence in 2007. The words echo through the chaotic capital today, where a shrewd-faced Isaiah senses opportunity.

Each day before the Dhuhr salat, the noon prayer, he helps offload fresh carcasses for the local butchery and uses his six dinar earnings to purchase some meat and haggle expertly for Za’atar, a Middle-Eastern spice mixture. By midday he has created an assortment of sumptuous mezze dishes to sell to the wealthy clothing retailers. Though he earns enough to subsist, he walks precariously along the poverty line.

Whilst the World Bank estimates that about one billion people in the developing world will still live in extreme poverty in 2015, these regions also await a demographic ‘youth bulge’ with bated breath. For Jordan, chronic resource shortages are likely to be strained with the recent influx of Syrian refugees and increasingly burden the shoulders of youth, where approximately 55 percent of the population are aged below 25. “Without urgent measures, we risk creating a ‘lost generation’ of squandered talent and dreams,” lamented Ban Ki-moon, United Nations (UN) Secretary-General, in his International Youth Day 2012 message.

Last year Isaiah’s father left Jordan to work for a construction firm in Dubai. “His payments are not enough to cover both of us anymore. I cannot go to school, I must make money,” adds Isaiah fervently. Almost one-third of the world’s children live in countries where lower secondary education is formally considered to be compulsory but where the commitment is not met, according to the UN’s educational agency’s (UNESCO) Global Education Digest 2011.

Recent global focus has been upon resourcing for universal primary education, in line with the UN’s second Millennium Development Goal. Isaiah will struggle to find well-paid formal employment having only a primary school education, especially when the number of jobseekers in Jordan already outweighs the jobs created by its economy. UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova added in the Digest that secondary education was the “minimum entitlement for equipping youth with the knowledge and skills they need to secure decent livelihoods in today’s globalised world.” Thrust into early adulthood, without schooling, Isaiah’s future balances on leveraging his natural talents.

The King’s call to integrate youth into the development process has boosted support frameworks within Jordan. Youth for the Future (Y4F) is a program of the International Youth Foundation in partnership with the United States Agency for International Development and the Jordanian government. Isaiah’s resolve is rare- often youth can become disillusioned and expel their energy disruptively. Y4F’s goal is to empower youth at-risk to realise their potential, while helping Jordanian society maximise their flair and enthusiasm.

“A million mile journey must begin with a single step,” affirms fledgling entrepreneur Mohammed, 20, interviewing for Y4F’s summer 2012 newsletter. The first step was developing life and work place skills via enrolment in the Y4F program. Following an entrepreneurship workshop he took out a 2000 Jordanian dinar loan from the ‘Youth from the Neighbourhood Loans’ project, and only a month later he could cover the regular loan payment and generate a small profit from his air-conditioning business.

“I was daydreaming one day and saw the name ‘Al Nabuti Air Conditioning’ sparkle in front of my eyes and I knew I had to start a business,” he recalled. Mohammed is one of around 900 youths who have completed the entrepreneurship training through Y4F and one of 60 to establish a business. His success story is poignant for Isaiah. The tailored network of support initiatives can enable Isaiah to transform his daily battle to sustain himself and his mother into a viable livelihood, and to grow away from the margins.

As Isaiah dares to dream, Leyla, 21, dare not dream. Despite having a modern languages diploma from community college, the gifted linguist survives on tips from guiding tourists around Amman’s various Roman ruins. “The tradition here for women is to marry early and contribute to the family as a mother and housewife. At my age, employers are too worried to hire me.” In the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2012, Jordan ranked 121st out of 135 countries. The Middle East and North Africa region as a whole ranked lowest on economic participation and opportunity, and political empowerment. Leyla is talented like Isaiah and has the knowledge to succeed like Mohammed, but lacks a voice like most youth in the developing world.

Y4F also facilitate ‘Let’s Talk’ seminars which give Jordanian youth, including women like Leyla, the opportunity to voice their concerns in confidence. Lessons from Jordan’s Middle-Eastern neighbours, galvanised by the Arab spring, suggest that giving youth a voice and listening to them amidst economic and political strife can be a powerful weapon for change. Ban Ki-moon acknowledged that: “The time has come to integrate youth voices more meaningfully into decision-making processes at all levels.” Y4F’s personalised approach via forums such as ‘Let’s Talk’ places youth at the heart of change in their community. It provides the seeds to identify how best to harness the talents of youth like Isaiah and Leyla, considering their struggles, and empowers them to become the masters of their own future in the same vein as Mohammed.

The scent of Isaiah’s spices linger around him like a halo. Now he points from a different perspective, high up on Citadel hill overlooking Amman’s contemporary quarter. “I am the lucky one; my excellent cooking is my voice. I will own a restaurant just over there.” We need to start feeding young people’s ambition before they are unable to feed themselves.