Friday, July 03, 2009


A video in three parts-- from (1) Vietnam, (2) Philippines, and (3) Singapore. I just got back from doing consultations on an Urban Strategy document for the World Bank. In Manila the Mayor introduced me from the podium as "very young", but accidentally deleted this priceless footage...anyway, there's some other nice bits instead.

It's five minutes long, but if you only have 1 minute 20 seconds then the middle bit on Manila is my favourite, from 03:26 to 04:46.

Some people were asking what equipment I use: it's filmed on a Sanyo Xacti HD700, and edited on Final Cut Express.

Click on HD if your internet connection & computer can deal with it.

If YouTube is being temperamental, you can also get the full works on Vimeo too:

Music is my own edits of:
1. Symphony Electrique, by Freak Electrique
2. Level 8, by Ardath Bey
3. Visible Light Eater, by Outlier

How can we change the UN?

Eloquent arguments and practical recommendations from my friend Hugh, published in The Guardian:

Radical reformers first look backwards. Remember one UN staffer, Ralph Bunche. Once, in Cyprus, he negotiated a simultaneous peace between Israel and her four neighbours which lasted a decade, then attempted to turn down the Nobel Peace prize. Remember Dag Hammarskjöld, the secretary general who could out-negotiate Congolese separatists from the cockpit radio of his low-circling plane. Once, he helped the security council to reach an agreement by 4am and established a peacekeeping mission by 7am, then appearing unruffled for his morning meetings.
These men guarded their impartiality. And impartiality is not neutrality: the UN is not the Red Cross. The only point of the UN staff is to act with the legitimacy conferred by a universal membership and universal principles. In good hands, developing and acting creatively in the space of international consensus, this legitimacy can help lance contagious problems of daunting complexity, poisoned by mistrust.

Original article here:

Saturday, March 21, 2009

A snapshot of international urban thinking

Some of my notes from the World Bank’s Urban Learning Week 2009, held on March 9th-12th in Washington DC...

Jeb Brugmann
  • Why don’t real cities reflect urban ‘best practice’? Unlike military strategy, public health strategy, etc, ‘urban’ may have planning, design etc, but much less of a strategic component. Cities which have adopted a strategic approach have achieved great things: witness the resurgence of Barcelona, Chicago, or the rise of Curitiba. Rather than tailoring their incentives to the building industry, they reshaped the market to meet strategic objectives, and fostered a local development industry around their own plans.

Alain Bertaud
  • On ‘land shortage’: city mayors often complain about land shortage, but “I’ve only ever seen a real land shortage once—in Male, capital of the Maldives—which is built on a 3km2 island and they’ve built on all the available land already. Everywhere else, the ‘shortage’ is man-made”. The high land prices which are generated by artificial constraints on land development are the main determinant of the informal housing sector. Look at the effects of artificial constraints in Seoul, Karachi, or London—they drove up land prices. In particularly perverse cases, artificial constraints are combined with low FARs and high minimum plot sizes, which mean people must consume more land than they want to!
  • However, there’s also the other extreme, where for example Cairo expanded land supply too much, and in the wrong place. For example, the ‘10th Ramadan’ new town was built 65 kilometres from the centre of Cairo. You can see there now the great infrastructure and roads, but that it’s pretty empty of land development. The informal sector meanwhile got it right, and expanded close to the existing city.
  • Meanwhile, why on earth do we use the word ‘sprawl’ both for Atlanta—which has a density of 6 persons per hectare—and for Mumbai, which has 400 per hectare? There are problems in both, but of a totally different order of magnitude.
  • On informal housing: note that there is no novelty in ‘getting the private sector involved’ in the informal housing sector... Private developers are already the ones building for the informal sector and urban poor! “I’ve never seen the government building for the informal sector.. The houses may look like it!—but it’s not!”

David Satterthwaite
  • It’s worth dwelling on the observation that most urban centres in Africa have no sewers. They have no sewers. That’s no surprise when you look at the funding situation: recently he was talking to a neighborhood councillor in Dar es Salaam in an area of 800,000 population, which has an annual sanitation department budget of $3,000. But the solution isn’t just increased funding: there aren’t yet good enough institutions to know how to use it either.
  • The World Bank must find ways to work with local governments, shack dwellers federations, etc—the big money must find its way to those with the most ingenious people doing something about it.

Marianne Fay (working on the World Development Report 2010, on climate change)
  • There’s a misconception that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions increase as people move to cities: remember that it’s actually the middle class lifestyle (not urban living itself) which generates GHGs. Cities themselves actually limit GHGs, since people are closer together and need to use transportation less, there are economies of scale in buildings, etc.
  • In order to support this argument, they ran some regressions with %urbanisation as a coefficient on GHG emissions. Actually it seems to have a zero effect. “I’m a little disappointed: I thought it was going to be a negative effect. So...we’ll play around with the regression a bit.” [joke]

Eduardo Moreno, UN-HABITAT:
  • Not all slum dwellers are equal. Remember that a slum dweller in Cairo can actually be better off (in terms of income, health etc) than a non-slum dweller in Luanda or Lagos, because of the way that slums are defined in terms of water & sanitation access and housing quality.
  • HABITAT’s recent State of the World’s Cities report found that 10-12% of cities in the developing world hava declining population. And this is likely to increase. So there’s a need for policies for urban decline as well as urban growth. Sometimes this ‘decline’ is just because people are moving to the suburbs, outside city administrative boundaries, but still.

Tim Campbell
  • Where do city governments get their policy ideas from? How do they learn? According to his web-based survey, the most important means—more than inhouse seminars, consultants’ advice, training courses, or reports—is city-to-city exchanges. So, these are really not ‘junkets’ but instead opportunities to see how others are doing it. [However, it wasn’t clear from his descriptive statistics whether differences in the ratings given to these various methods were significant or not, especially given some bunching.]

Andrew Norton, World Bank
  • Urban governance is a front-line in promoting citizenship—citizens begin to see themselves as participants rather than beneficiaries.

David Dowall, USC
  • Finds it astonishing that so many urban people in the Bank [and, presumably, in international development organisations in general..] focus on slums and slum-upgrading rather than housing markets in general. It’s distortions in housing markets which are generating the structural defects which cause slums!

Billy Cobbett, Cities Alliance
  • ‘Slum prevention’ is a misnomer because it’s unrealistic. What you’re really aiming to do is help governments prepare for slums, or to prepare for better slums, which will be upgraded over time.
  • “If 80% of your city is slums, it means you don’t have a ‘slum problem’, you have a city problem, and hence the whole system which is causing it needs to be rethought, from top to bottom.”
  • One of the keys is to get the private sector investing in its own future, and that means on-budget commitments form the municipal administration. “When a mayor says they’re committed to action on slums, we don’t look at the last speech, we look at what’s on budget”—what is the administration doing, regardless of external donor commitments?

George Peterson
  • Dexia—which was previously the largest subnational lending institution in the world—has now withdrawn from lending outside France and Belgium owing to heavy losses. Some of the details of loans they made before this portfolio shrinkage are totally astonishing: for example, the interest rates of loans to Lyon in France were tied to the price of a barrel of oil! It could have been even more bizarre: at one stage the idea was discussed of linking loan interest rates to the price of a barrel of champagne! As Junaid Ahmed then quipped, “You wouldn’t see that in an Islamic banking system..”
  • There are some lessons for municipal finance:
  1. Simplicity of loan structure: go for fixed-rate, long-term loans
  2. Develop a specialized municipal credit market, perhaps using special lending institutions, on a low-risk low-return model.
  3. Develop domestic credit markets too, so you’re not dependent on external credit, and not subject to foreign exchange risk.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Гулять in the North Caucasus

Decaying concrete towerblocks. Beige satin curtains. "Soup" of sheeps' lungs floating in fatty water. But also: freshly-squeezed pomegranate juice. Girls in thigh-high leather boots. Music that fuses accordion duets with Russian techno.

What's not to like about winter in the republics of Kabardino-Balkaria and North Ossetia?

--click the little X next to 'vimeo' to get it full-screen.

Cities: 0:54 to 2:57
Mountains: 2:58 to 4:10
People: 5:02 to 6:24
Soviet: 6:43 to 8:45

If you get stuttered visuals or clicks in the sound, try the low-defn version instead:

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Dystopia on the Arabian Peninsula: Yemen, Oman or Dubai?

Yemen 0:00 – 3:51; Oman & Dubai from 3:52
[And if anyone correctly guesses the number of hours it took me to edit this video I'll buy them a beer.]

--click the little X next to 'vimeo' to get it full-screen.

Yemeni women are beautiful, I think. Of course I can’t be sure, since I’ve never actually seen one—only the black silhouettes which sweep along the street in groups of two or three, either following a husband or with small children in tow—wrapped totally in black except for their eyes. But some of them have very beautiful eyes, and so I’m an optimist about the rest. Yemeni men are pretty impressive too. Mostly dressed in white cloaks, adorned with a curved dagger, held in place by an embroidered waistband. There are also a lot of children; but it’s difficult to tell how Yemenis get the money to fund so many. A lot of time is spent negotiating, buying, and then chewing bag of qat—the mildly hallucinogenic green plant—which seems to render the population good-natured but pretty lethargic. One bag costs between $3 and $5 per day, even though the national per capita income is somehow only $2.50 per day.. Some have their cheeks so full they can’t even talk. Bits of green leaf sometimes drop out the side of their mouth.

[Big fat qat. (and Yemeni bling.)]

I postponed coming here by a few days since the government was digging in its soldiers around the airport, expecting mortar fire from the hills around. Earlier this year the US Embassy got attacked by mortar rounds, several people got blown up by a suicide bomb, tourists got shot dead in the east of the country, and the government are fighting a civil war 50 miles north of the capital city, Sana’a. So—putting travellers’ bravado aside for a minute—I was pretty scared, even though Sana’a itself was apparently OK to visit.

But I also surprised myself with how much my own feelings about the Middle East have changed after three years watching TV footage of Iraqi carbombs and kidnappings. I had such great memories of backpacking through Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza in 1999—people welcoming me warmly, inviting me into their homes, telling me with great dignity about their lives. Middle Eastern hospitality is legendary. But these memories underwent a kind of attrition since then. Now, in a taxi from Yemen’s international airport towards the centre of the city, I lock my door to guard against kidnappers (as though that would help!) and peer nervously through the dirty windscreen at scrappy shopfronts and graffitied walls that look like a down-at-heel version of Baghdad. Even if these people haven’t changed since 1999, my perceptions got infected by mental association.

[Petrol pump in one hand, cigarette in the other.]

Anyway, then I got walking in the old city, and things felt very different. The streets are positively medieval: cobbled; quiet; shielded from the sun by tall stone buildings. Occasionally the calm is broken by a beaten-up 1970s Toyota pick-up truck careering round the corner and swerving to avoid a motorbike coming the other way. It took me an hour to get 200 metres from my hotel, after stopping to answer the questions of each person I passed about where I’m from, accepting gifts of bread and pistachio nuts, hearing the mantra: “welcome to Yemen”, being invited into shops for sugared tea.

My hotel—a palace with stained-glass windows and panoramic roof terrace—is almost completely empty. The flow of tourists has slowed to a trickle, and there are three power-cuts just in my first day here. Somehow Yemenis still take this deteriorated situation with good humour—perhaps gallows humour: when all the lights go out, the shopkeeper I’m with exclaims “Ah! It is good. They are conserving electricity for us!”

[Sana'a is added to my list of honeymoon destinations.]

Three weeks earlier I was in Oman—next-door to Yemen on the peninsula—visiting my friend Lamya. Everything seems to flow smoothly there. Lamya drove me around the city in her silver Mercedes Benz, driving with one hand, swerving us between construction lorries. The capital city, Muscat, is incessantly white, and hot, and humid; we dive between air-conditioned car and air-conditioned restaurant, house or glamorous hotel. Smooth roads weave between barren rocky mountains, on the way to Shangri-La hotel, between stopping at the regal atrium of the Hyatt, or the seductive elegance of the Chedi. The sultan of Oman—who apparently may be gay—lives some of the time in a squat blue-domed palace; however, he was out of the country in his holiday home. The other mini-sultans—those in the oil and gas industries, including many chubby expatriates—were still there, sliding through the marble-floored shopping centres.

Finally, when I wrote this, I was in Dubai. For me, Dubai was the real dystopia. The streets were blisteringly hot: a thick heat, which drips off your skin and soaks through your clothes. It was a Friday, so bus stops were crammed with Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Sri Lankans on their day off, waiting for buses which pass without stopping, also full of South Asians on their day off. Finally we were rescued from this sidewalk on a 6-lane freeway by a bus with standing room only, and we crawled through traffic into Deira—the closest thing Dubai has to a city centre. The place felt like something in between Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale: society is sharply stratified by economic category—an ‘A’ (Arab in his SUV), ‘B’ (sunburnt Brit or other Westerner trying to hail an air conditioned taxi), ‘C’ (Canny Nigerian buying up stocks of clothes and watches to sell in Lagos) or ‘D’ (Dazed south Asian, after many hours of work). Meanwhile there’s a tension in the city, continually raised by the distant roar of the outside world: perhaps the nearby war in Iraq, but most immediately the stream of Boeings and Airbuses hauling themselves up into the heavy blue sky.

The whole place is a jumble of the brand sparkling new and the rusting mouldy old. A dirty tiled kiosk sells samosas and fresh squeezed orange juice; its customers’ shirts have turned transparent through sweat, and a Visa card payment machine in the corner is strapped with an elastic band onto a Chinese four-way electricity socket, already worn and faded. The inside of Burj al-Arab, hotels in Jumeirah, luxury villas—or even the indoor ski slope in the ‘Mall of the Emirates’—are a different story; but the temporary paradise they provide seems even more surreal when it is supported by such a mass of struggle and sweat.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

visiting Ethiopia

High-bandwidth video here. You can get it full-screen if you click the little X next to 'vimeo' when the video loads:

If you get stuttered visuals or clicks in the sound, try the low-bandwidth version here:

Yesterday I had dinner with a guy named Brandon. A couple of weeks ago he was in the Democratic Republic of Congo, backpacking through a warzone. Having refused to pay a bribe to one of the Congolese soldiers who wanted to fine him for photographing a river, he hung out with them instead, and got a lift with their military convoy going into North Kivu. Apparently he was useful as a white guy, since they claimed to each checkpoint they were escorting him and needed to rush through without paying bribes. When they stopped in a village to eat papaya and peanuts, he found himself holding their AK-47s—even though a loose rock on the road while driving would prompt everyone to release their safety catches and prepare for a rebel ambush. All this reminds me about the exhilaration of proper backpacking: the delicate nexus of bravery and cavalier stupidity.

Anyway, that’s a bit different from my own experience here in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I’ve been here for the last 3 weeks, living quite regally in a hotel room dating from the 1890s. It is large, with high ceilings, a huge veneered wardrobe, velvet armchairs, a porcelain sink, and a hatstand. My balcony overlooks a tiered lawn below, with waiters shuttling trays of drinks when there are customers, and a view of the jumbled city stretching out towards an extinct volcano in the distance. I’ve been staring at this view quite a lot while struggling to finish a report on African cities for the World Bank, and am now studying for MIT exams. The only downside of the room is that there’s no bathroom, and I have to be careful of absent-minded mistakes with the two water bottles I keep in the room instead; one for drinking, one not.

It rains regularly twice a day. Storm clouds gather on the mountains opposite my balcony, the sky darkens, and rain starts running in streams down the streets. This is normally the time I play Verdi’s Requiem at full volume, revelling in this simulated apocalypse. But Addis remains very relaxed: not much commotion, everyone very polite. The rain and muddy streets make good business for the hordes of shoe-shine boys sitting on their little crates waiting for business. I duck into a small shop for a mix of papaya, mango, guava and avocado juice. Avocados really do have juice! Outside a few children pursue me down the street for money; when I hand some over they—like almost everyone else in Addis—take it by supporting their right forearm with their left hand, as a mark of politeness.

I wanted to come back to Ethiopia next year to study what happens when members of different ethnic groups—who may hold strong prejudicial views out in the regions—trade with each other in the city. Do urban economic interactions promote a reduction in intergroup prejudice? Fortunately for Ethiopia (but unfortunately for my research) Addis seems like such a remarkably peaceful city (of between 5 and 9 million people—no-one knows quite how many), that I’m now thinking I should choose somewhere else. Even if I just studied how and why it is ethnically peaceful, I’d need some variance in the outcome to be sure what was causing it; but there are very few instances of ethnic rioting elsewhere in Ethiopia too.

Last night after dinner with Brandon I stopped by a couple of bars on my street for beers. Incredible (albeit drunken) warmth from Ethiopians in the bars. Yes, every single place was such a crowded sausage-fest I began to wonder if I’d walked into a gay bar by mistake. But the atmosphere was still great—each bar was darkened and loud, raucous dancing, with softly flashing multi-coloured lights, and a range of music from Ethiopian tunes to ‘King of the Dancehall’ playing on the speakers. People instantly gave up their seats for me, offered their space at the bar, pulled me on to the dancefloor. Then, when I got home I read a newspaper article from Ireland, which is currently causing consternation in Ethiopia, titled “Africa is giving nothing to anyone -- apart from AIDS”.

Monday, January 28, 2008

safe returns to Mali

[click on the play button and you should get Sierra Leone's current top of the pops playing while you read... The sound quality is evocative of tinny speakers in a beat-up taxi with its back door held on by a bit of string.]

So, I write this from Sierra Leone: a brief holiday from Mali. I’ve been in Bamako—Mali’s capital city—for the last four weeks asking myself and various Bamakois themselves: what happens when a city of 1.5 million people is growing fast enough to double in size every fifteen years? Memorable days have been trooping round slums on the outside of the city, chatting with people over sugared tea about their choice of residential location and job. I recruited a sparky 22-year-old translator for the Bambaran language, since even my crappy French is better than most people’s here; and last week we also interviewed a gang leader in one of the city’s poorest districts—though it must be said that he was 14-years-old and quite small owing to malnourishment.

[A merry bunch inside of one of Bamako’s minibuses.]

Each day has the feel of a fairly regular routine: I wake at 6am with the sound of crying infants drowning out the muezzin calls, itch my mosquito bites, carry a plastic kettle of water to the toilet, and ‘shower’ with a bucket of cold water. I ease on my old pair of New Balance which are totally coated with red African earth, and emerge out into the daylight. Most of the women from four families sharing the same house are already up and about, cleaning or cooking. Out in the street I face a barrage of exclamations “toubabou!!” from neighbourhood children always delighted to spot a white person, and pop my daily malaria pill with a sachet of yoghurt from one of the small shops.

[Two of the approximately 17 children living in my house.]

Mornings are spent in dusty rooms at one of the myriad government ministries, consulting their documents, or turning up a municipal office to arrange a meeting and getting speedy treatment because I’m ‘un blanc’, or trying to follow through on one of the meetings with an NGO worker or civil servant (which they may have forgotten was on their schedule and left for lunch at 11am already). Lunch is likely to be rice. Probably from one of the market women selling plates of it with sauce from huge buckets containing mixtures of various animal parts. Most of the time I’ve maintained my pescatarianism, but have a couple of times accidentally chosen chicken cunningly disguised as fish.

[One of the chickens I might’ve eaten.]

Afternoons are more of the same, though probably involving a visit to the fluorescent-lit internet café, bumping into my friend Nouhall on the way, who waits every day from 7am to 7pm outside the bank for customers to buy telephone credit or change money with him. As the sun goes down at 6pmish, the burning and dusty streets begin to take on some of the bleakness I enjoy, with detritus of the immense market strewn all over the ground, and many layers of stray plastic bags covering up the road surface of rocks and dirt. Along with most of the rest of Bamako’s population, I join the exodus from the central market area to one of the transport hubs, and dive into a green minibus crammed with stallholders and shoppers heading back out to one of the peripheral neighbourhoods.

[Bleak streets at dusk.]

[Me, having just crossed part of the River Niger with my friend’s death-trap moped, which broke down 8 times that day.]

[Happy days when I was living in a hotel room.]

[The view from that hotel window.]

Then there’s Sierra Leone.... I could write about the warmth of the people and the repose of speaking English of sorts. But the poverty is truly wretched, and the country is filled up with people scrabbling money for food and shelter each day. I travelled from 6am until the most bewitched hour of the night, traversing the palm-treed hills, through towns with burnt-out buildings resurgent only with cassava, bananas or Indian glucose biscuits. A rusted tank. Bullet holes. Ubiquitous NGOs and their incongruous white SUVs. Mobs of children selling Vimto at sweaty roadsides. Sleeping 3 hours of the night in a town with no electricity or water, and starting again at 6.30am on the back of a motorbike bound for the Guinean border. Two hours of dirt tracks in the jungle, and greeted at the frontier by a smiling soldier in a red beret. By 11am I was carried across the calm river by poled canoe, arriving again in Guinea—a country sickly with corruption and oppressed by its battle-hardened military government. The village sells cassava, bananas and Indian glucose biscuits. And some glass bottles of petrol. The police ask for money, whether sitting under a tree or in their fly-infested concrete hut. I pay a soldier to scoot me over more hills to the nearest town, and cram in a northbound taxi with 9 adults, 7 children and two riding on the roof. The soldier wants my phone number so he can get a visa and get out. The road is a succession of potholes and ditches. I can barely concentrate on the dusty copy of Hamlet I cradle in my palm.

[Fast food at the Malian roadside.]

[Excess baggage on the Sierra Leonean border. Contents of the car itself will include 3+4+3 adults (in 3 rows), innumerable babies, and a chicken.]

[Vital signs in Sierra Leone.]

On a lighter note, I saw Toumani Diabaté and Amadou & Mariam on New Year’s Eve. Admittedly I didn’t know they are world famous until my friend Serena told me, but they were definitely two quality acts. More recently I went to Bamako’s Palais de la Culture, and found 2,000-3,000 people crammed into the immense music hall for a concert starting at 9pm and ending at 1.30am. A veritable feast of larger-than-life Malian women were decked out in larger-than-life colourful outfits, singing to a backing band of multiple kora, ngoni, guitar and drum players. Each would come on stage for 20-30 minutes, sing their hearts out, and then give way to the next one. But during all this, an almost constant procession of women from the audience clambers up onto the stage, almost as large but somehow negotiating the rickety stage steps in their tiny high heels, joining the singer on stage for a minute or two to hand her several monthly salaries’ worth of crisp bills. It turns out the songs are actually successions of generous praise heaped on Bamako’s most prestigious families (“Mr. Keita’s grandfather [yaaaahhhahhhhaaah] was a warrior [laaaalaaahhaaah] who killed 800 people”, etc), who then appear on stage to reward the singer with large wads of cash. I reckon I watched at least 3 million CFA get handed over (i.e. about £3,000). My taxi driver on the way home told me it’s not just the prestigious families: it’s actually a way of appearing prestigious when you’re not, accepting praise and throwing cash around: a good way of building the family name. People even take out loans from the bank to spend it like this. Meanwhile their housemaids at home have monthly incomes between 5,000 and 10,000 CFA ($11 to $22).

OK, that's all for now. Hello to everyone! Don't feel obliged to post a comment on this site-- you have to register and it's tedious.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Shenzhen biennale 2007

As I sit here in a World Bank office in DC, news reaches me of the Shenzhen biennale:
Yes it's Neville Mars up to his usual completely-nutty self!-- Good work Neville!