New Article in Critical Planning

The key questions that I am posing in this article are: how can we explain city-level politics in two countries located at the very fringes of global capitalism, and how can a resulting reconfigured theoretical framework be integrated into an international comparative urban research agenda.

Contemporary Sierra Leone and Afghanistan present major structural differences compared to highly industrialized settings, as their main cities have not been sites of capitalist production. At the same time, both countries have recently experienced major international interventions in the context of intra-state wars. I show how these two characteristics render the explanatory power of established theories of urban politics deficient.

I then examine key features of recent political restructuring in Freetown and Kabul. I pay specific attention to the incentive structures that have resulted from recent international interventions and how they shape urban politics. I illustrate how these incentives steer resource flows and forge new poles of accumulation and control—both within the respective settings and outside of them—to the detriment of local policy space.

I thus show that while the starting point for theory reformulation remains the urban context, a crucial conceptual challenge is to capture the alliances between national and international institutions and organizations, and to examine how they influence city-level politics. I ultimately argue that multiscalar governance as a theoretical approach is applicable to cities in conflict zones only if it integrates an analysis of international politics as a major determinant of local urban politics.

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Afghanistan Commentary on Swedish Radio

For the Swedish speakers among you, check out Marcus Hansson’s 20-minute feature on Afghanistan’s botched reconstruction, broadcast on September 2, 2009 on Swedish Radio 1.

It includes interviews with several international observers. For instance, Antonio Donini at the Fletcher School comments on the aid industry and the discrepancy between its global mobility and its lack of effectiveness.

In my contribution (16min 52sec – 18min 08sec), I focus on the local dimension, highlighting how supposedly ‘bottom up’ processes of ‘local empowerment’ were in reality almost entirely driven by donors.

Afghanistan: A Victory for Women – A Defeat of Democracy?

The Afghan Ministry of Justice has presented a revised version of a new law regulating marital affairs for the country’s Shi’ite minority. Many of its previous medieval provisions have been scrapped. No longer does it prescribe the frequency of sexual activity that Shi’ite women in Afghanistan would have had to observe, thus practically legalizing domestic rape; no longer does it allow men to prevent their wives from leaving the compounds where they live.

This is great news for Afghanistan’s Shi’ite women and for women living under repression, religious or otherwise, more generally. But the process also provides reason for concern.

US-installed Afghan President Karzai had in fact quietly signed the earlier version of the law, apparently hoping that it would win him the support of Shi’ite voters in the forthcoming presidential election in September. With women formally allowed to vote, Karzai did not seem overly concerned that while some Shi’ite men might have found their extended rights to subdue their wives appealing, most Shi’ite women might have retaliated by voting for other candidates.

In fact, at least in theory one could have expected a zero effect of this political move: male votes in favor canceled out by female votes against. This, of course, presumes that Afghan women vote in accordance with their preferences. More realistically, the President’s decision points to the continuing precarity of women in Afghanistan. Most of them illiterate, we must assume that a large percentage follows the political choices of their husbands. The photos depicting Afghan women ridding themselves of their burqas following the US-led invasion may not have been staged; yet they clearly do not represent the dire existence of most women who survived almost three decades of large-scale violence.

Of equal concern is the political dimension of this legislative revision. According to the BBC, Afghan “Justice Minister Sarwar Danesh said the changes had been made following complaints by human-rights groups.” The truth is that is was the international ‘community’ that reacted with outrage to the content of the initial version. US President Obama expressed deep concerns; NATO threatened with serious consequences, and numerous European heads of state intervened personally to prevent the law’s ratification and application.

This political pressure was surely justified on human rights-grounds. At the same time, it has added momentum to the widely held perception among Afghans that democracy is a system of government that opens the door for values and rules alien to what local traditions dictate. One might argue that in times of globalization, global norms and values must inform national laws and codes. Yet the Afghan President’s initial support of the repressive law as well as the angry demonstrations of conservative Shi’ites following the international protest seem to indicate that friction is unavoidable. In this case, Afghanistan’s dependence on international aid clearly overpowered local political deliberation. Put simply, the internationally induced revision of the law is a prime example of external social reengineering against the backdrop of a shallow democracy.

A new law governing family affairs for the Afghanistan’s Sunni majority is also in the making. It will be instructive to observe whose political motives and social values will prevail this time: Afghan or foreign.