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Elections and the homeless: who is heard?

LaurenAsfour30 April 2015

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Image: Courtesy of the Electoral Commission/Flickr via Homeless Link

With the UK elections creeping up on us, on the 7th May, I’d like to grapple with the volatile question of elections for who? Given the general apathy towards voting and politics, and the Guardian asking us, “are you engaged and energised by the election campaign – or can’t wait for it to end?”, I find myself considering: who is being represented in the political sphere, and are those marginalised by society being heard? On the MSc Social Development Practice, we have been exploring the importance of hearing from those who are regarded to be on the margins of society, and how their voice can be articulated to generate new knowledge and approaches to urban development.

IMG_0668The government encounters complex challenges in identifying those experiencing homelessness, particularly with the presence of the ‘Hidden Homeless’, who typically reside in bed and breakfast hotels or sleep on friends’ sofas. As such, there is no distinct voting classification for the homeless as a ‘sector’, but rather these individuals are grouped with those living in social housing.

My personal concern is that government fails to recognise the diversity between those experiencing homelessness and those in social housing – and thus an ignorance of the difference between those who benefit from the state, and those who appear to fall outside the system. Although those experiencing homelessness have a right to vote and exercise their voice in society, figures indicate that while 74% of homeowners turned out to vote at the last UK election, only 55% of those living in social housing (and those experiencing homelessness) voted. Such statistics would indicate that many of these individuals are not articulating their voice.

Democracy for who?

While the government maintains that it is working to ensure homeless people have and can access their rights, organisations such as Homeless Link ask: “are residents of social housing and homelessness services really part of democracy?” The government might argue that rough-sleepers’ right to vote indicates that they can access the ballot along with the rest of society – but are they doing so? Those experiencing homelessness need a declaration form from local authorities to vouch for them – but will such bureaucratic hurdles actually encourage individuals to engage in the system?

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Encouraging homeless voters

The ‘Your Vote Counts’ scheme is an initiative funded by government, aiming to engage rough-sleepers and those in social housing to participate more actively in democratic practices through voting. This is a great encouragement, and I look forward to seeing how such initiatives will materialise in the upcoming election.

With growing inequality in the UK, the voices of the marginalised are vital if we are to develop our society into one which safeguards all members of our community. Organisations such as Homeless Link are working diligently to encourage such engagement, with a recent article endeavouring to break down the barriers for those experiencing homelessness and provide clarity on themes such as:

  1. Have a say on important issues
  2. Make sure decision makers don’t ignore your views
  3. Improve your credit rating
  4. No fixed address? No problem
  5. Keep your information private
  6. Register online in minutes
  7. You don’t have to go to a polling station
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Photo taken at Webber Street Day Centre (or All Souls Clubhouse) courtesy of ASLAN, the ministry for homeless and vulnerably housed people of All Souls, Langham Place. Volunteer for ASLAN: http://volunteer.aslan.org.uk

Individualism or Dependence?

My question to all (and to myself), is how can we engage those experiencing homelessness – and others who have become marginalised by social structures – to contribute in the political sphere? How can we encourage such individuals into invited spaces for participation, to learn from their experiences and create substantive change for our society? [1]

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http://volunteer.aslan.org.uk

No matter who comes into government, whether you believe in the power of the welfare state or not – it is important that we don’t forget our individual duty to care, outside of the model propelled by the state. At the third annual conference on Homelessness, Social Exclusion and Health Inequalities, Dr Lynne Friedli, author of Mental Health, Resilience and Inequalities, highlighted that dependency is not failure, but rather a feature of being human.

As a sense of community is eroding, particularly amidst a growing individualism in London, how are we recognising our natural dependency on one another? And thus, if the vulnerable aren’t being heard, what is our role in advocating for their needs? Whilst inequality continues and homelessness remains prevalent in our society, how do we avoid silencing the most vulnerable – the very people who will depend most on the social system that all of our votes shape?

[1] See Gaventa, J. (2006), Finding the Spaces for Change: A Power Analysis. IDS bulletin. 37 (6).


Lauren Asfour is currently studying the MSc Social Development Practice at the DPU. She has been part of research in London on Regeneration Aspirations for Euston: Local Perspectives on the High Speed Two Rail Link and is a volunteer at ASLAN.

Doing Participatory Photography: the politics of home-making in Valparaiso

IgnaciaOssul Vermehren14 April 2015

‘No matter how familiar the object or situation may be, a photograph is a restatement of reality; it presents life around us in new, objective, and arresting dimensions, and can stimulate the information to discuss the world about him as if observing it for the first time’  – Collier, 1957: 859 [1]

Ignacia PP1

The use of visual methodologies has been introduced to help expand the efforts of data generation beyond more established avenues such as language-based interviews. Photo-elicitation, specifically participant-driven photography, can capture life experiences, spaces and emotions that may be difficult to grasp through other methodologies.

Although not considered a miracle cure, it is thought to have particular qualities such as:

  1. Producing different type of information – many times more precise and vivid than other techniques
  2. As a primary ‘language’ – it can be used with people of different ages and with different levels of oral or written language
  3. Addressing concerns of power relations between researcher and subject, as well as knowledge production.

Participatory Photography Research Workshop

As part of my PhD fieldwork I have been using participatory photography to explore the meaning of home for residents in informal settlements in Viña del Mar, Chile. Particularly in discussing home-making practices, home aspirations and housing policy. In practice, the workshop develops across 6 sessions, in which participants learn basic photography skills and take cameras home to capture images for the next session.

The workshop starts with an introduction to photography, discussing the different uses, participants’ personal relationship with pictures and basic skills such as how to operate the camera, framing, colour and the use of light.

In an introductory activity Luis chooses a picture of a colonial building in a magazine, he says: 'I chose this picture because I like architecture, looking at old buildings, pictures help maintain them even if there are not there any more'

In an introductory activity Luis chooses a picture of a colonial building in a magazine, he says: ‘I chose this picture because I like architecture, looking at old buildings, pictures help maintain them even if there are not there any more’

Participants practicing how to frame a picture, taking into consideration what to include and what to leave out of the photo

Participants practicing how to frame a picture, taking into consideration what to include and what to leave out of the photo

The first assignment refers to images that represent their home. It was important for the data collection that participants felt free to take any picture they wanted – without been concerned of getting the ‘right answer’.

Some of the pictures taken by participants (Francisco Ahumada, Katerine Montecinos and Mariela Aravena); (top-left) privacy of a single room, (top-right) community centre which was constructed recently by the residents, (bottom-left) house and the dogs as part of the family and (bottom-right) nature, not only their own plants but the surrounding environment

Some of the pictures taken by participants (Francisco Ahumada, Katerine Montecinos and Mariela Aravena); (top-left) privacy of a single room, (top-right) community centre which was constructed recently by the residents, (bottom-left) house and the dogs as part of the family and (bottom-right) nature, not only their own plants but the surrounding environment

Participant looks at her printed pictures for the first time.  Participants were impressed with the results, stating that is was not the same as seeing them on the screen.

A girl looks at her printed pictures for the first time. Participants were impressed with the results, stating that is was not the same as seeing them on the screen.

After revising the pictures individually, the group puts together all the pictures and divides them into categories of what represents home

After revising the pictures individually, the group puts together all the pictures and divides them into categories of what represents home

The second and last assignment was to take pictures of elements that they like and do not like about a house. Participants were encouraged to look for these elements not only in their house, but also in the neighbourhood and city.

Participants exercise the type of pictures they would like to take for the assignment

Participants practise taking the types of pictures they would like to use for the assignment

The pictures from the second assignment were rich in content and included much more elements from the city than the first assignment. Many of them took pictures while they were going to work and in the streets.

Ignacia PP8

Elucidating Everyday Aspirations

Some of the results of the second task are shown in this image (above). These were taken by Nayaret Gajardo, a woman living in the settlement. She took five pictures of elements she would like for her house such as a better kitchen, a big backyard, water tap for the settlement in case of fire, and connection to services. The three elements she does not like refer to the way she is currently connected to services, which she evaluates as dangerous and a poor quality of life.

In brief, the participatory photography workshops facilitated discussion on some elements which could be easily disregarded using other techniques. It has shed light on everyday life, the personal, the collective and the political. The concept of home portrayed is wide and diverse, it does not only refers to the home space but also to multiple places, people and feelings. The challenge now is to do a rigorous analysis moving from images to findings, so that pictures serve not just a nice visual complement for the research but as solid data for the study.

 Notes:

[1] Collier J. Jr. (1957), Photography in anthropology: a report on two experiments. American Anthropologist, New Series, 59 (5), 843-859.


Ignacia Ossul Vermehren is a PhD candidate at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit. She previous studied the MSc Social Development Practice at the DPU. She worked for 4 years at Techo, a youth-led organisation that works in informal settlements where she was Director of the office in the region of Valparaiso. Ignacia is currently undertaking her PhD fieldwork in Chile.

The Meaning of Solidarity

Étiennevon Bertrab13 March 2015

Protestors outside Downing Street in London, February 2015. Image: Étienne von Bertrab

Protestors outside Downing Street in London, March 2015. Image: Étienne von Bertrab

For me, the most significant definition of solidarity is expressed in the words of Eduardo Galeano’s, the  extraordinary yet humble Uruguayan writer:

“Charity humiliates because it is practiced vertically and from above; solidarity is horizontal and implies mutual respect”

This is what many of us, upset about the state visit of Mexico’s president Enrique Peña Nieto last week to the UK, found not only in the streets, but in lecture theatres in UCL, LSE, SOAS, Queen Mary University, and several other public spaces.

The other pleasant surprise was the discovery, at least for me, of Jeremy Corbyn, MP, who was the most outspoken about this state visit (the Queen has two of these per year) in light of the ongoing human rights crisis in Mexico, which the Mexican state has been contributing towards in a significant manner.

The two videos featured in this post say a lot. The first (in English), about the protest on the first day of Peña Nieto’s visit; the second (mixed English and Spanish), about the extraordinary discussions held in universities in the space of just one week.

Finally, while the bilateral Dual Year Mexico-UK insists on focusing on trade and investment – and yes, also a bit of education, culture, and nice arts and yummy food – a growing number of people, including 44 members of the UK Parliament, insist that without addressing the pressing issues that affect Mexican society, this initiative is at best misguided, and at worst a slap in the face to Mexican society at large.

In Mexico traditional media is highly controlled or pro-government (supporting whoever is in power). In the UK, Mexico has been afforded very little attention in the media, though this is changing.

For this reason, we have created this site with meaningful, trustworthy information of what really goes on in Mexico, all in English, with the hope of educating and increasing awareness: www.ukmx2015.org

I invite you all to visit the pages and simply to watch and read some of the content, in solidarity.


Étienne von Bertrab is a Teaching Fellow at the DPU and a guest lecturer in universities in Mexico. He also works as a consultant in the UK and in Mexico, where he has been a social activist for ten years. Twitter: @etiennista

Gender and sanitation: the hidden issue of gender-based violence

ChristopherYap11 March 2015

Trucks depositing liquid waste operate on the edge of the Kombo Ward in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Image: Adriana Allen

Trucks depositing liquid waste operate on the edge of the Vingunguti settlement in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Image: Adriana Allen

Access to safe, dignified and appropriate toilets and sanitation facilities is a basic right for women, men, boys and girls worldwide. However an estimated 2.5 billion people still do not have access to adequate sanitation facilities globally. This issue is most prevalent in the Global South, and in urban contexts a lack of appropriate sanitation facilities is a particular, commonplace condition of informal and unplanned settlements.

Sanitation in informal settlements

Lack of access to appropriate sanitation facilities is closely related to the complex reality of insecure living conditions facing informal urban inhabitants. Those living in ‘slums’ are often denied access to formal infrastructure due to their insecure tenure and livelihoods, and marginalised status within the city.

As a result, these citizens are forced to develop their own infrastructures for toilets and sanitation. Each solution, including communal, privately funded facilities, and pit latrines, comes with its own assemblage of risk, be it health or hygiene-related, environmental or social, or a combination of these.

The vast majority of toilets and sanitation facilities in informal settlements exist not in private homes, but in public spaces. The nature and degree of risk associated with these spaces reflects the broader social relations of power in the community. Central to this inequitable distribution of risk is the issue of gender inequality.

Image: Adriana Allen

Image: Adriana Allen

Gendered differences in use of public space

In many patriarchal societies, a public/private space dichotomy exists by which women’s access to public space is more restricted than men’s. Women’s mobility is restricted due to both time constraints associated with reproductive roles as well as ‘symbolic dimensions surrounding the ‘forbidden’ and ‘permitted’ use of spaces governed by patriarchal power relations and norms of female propriety.’ [1]

Gender-based violence is an expression of these unequal gender relations. It exists in a variety of forms, from physical abuse, assault and rape, to verbal insults and psychological trauma.

In this sense it might be understood as a response to perceived infractions of gendered ideologies (such as women moving freely in public spaces or earning more in a household than men). While the vast majority of gender-based violence is perpetrated by men against women, men and boys can also be victims. In Mumbai, for example, the practice of ‘eve-teasing’ is commonplace, with men targeting women with obscenities and in some instances throwing stones.

Women adapt to avoid risks – but where does the problem lie?

In informal settlements, women are often at greater risk of gender-based violence due to the lack of effective policing, and lack of access to formal recourse mechanisms, including the justice system itself. In many cases the onus is on women to alter their behaviour in order to avoid risk, rather than the perpetrators.

For example: WaterAid found that 94% of women they surveyed in Bhopal, India faced violence and harassment when going to defecate, and a third had been physically assaulted [2]. Communal toilets are often built near the peripheries of settlements, meaning that women are more vulnerable to assault, particularly at night and in areas with little or no public lighting.

The facilities themselves can be poorly maintained, unhygienic and lack privacy for women. These conditions drive the practice of open defecation in settlements, which increases the health risks to the community and further exposes women to violence amongst other risks.

The association between gender-based violence and toilet and sanitation facilities in informal settlements is only one manifestation of citywide injustices relating to gender, class, caste, and identity amongst others. Lack of access to adequate toilet and sanitation services can lead to an increased vulnerability to gender based violence in different forms.

Vingunguti in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Image: Pascale Hofmann

Vingunguti in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Image: Pascale Hofmann

A right to safe and secure sanitation

Focusing on this issue makes it possible to identify ways of improving the everyday safety and well-being of women in informal settlements through better design and management of facilities. It also has the potential to confront the gendered ideologies driving the reproduction of risk and violence in informal settlements.

We must grasp the urgency of taking action to combat the disproportionately hostile experiences facing many women when accessing sanitation, particularly in informal settlements.

The realisation of the right to sanitation is a necessary but insufficient step towards addressing gendered inequalities, not least the elimination of violence against women. But it is only by recognising the daily challenges facing women around the world that we can begin to address them.

 

Indefensible Space: Gender based violence and sanitation in informal settlements

is a Project implemented by the DPU and the Institute of Child Health, UCL, and SNEHA, Mumbai and supported by the Institute for Global Health/UCL Grand Challenges.

On Tuesday 24th March practitioners and academics will host a half day Colloquium exploring the issues relating to gender-based violence facing women in slums; there will be a first London screening of a participatory film produced with slum communities in Dharavi, Mumbai as part of the Project. Read more about the project and book your place in the audience today.


Notes:

  1. Chant, S. and McIlwaine, C. (2013). “Gender, Urban Development and the Politics of Space”, 4 June 2013.
  2. WaterAid and National Confederation of Dalit Organisations (2013). Research on the DFID-supported IPAP programme in India in five states (unpublished).

Chris Yap is the Graduate Teaching Assistant for the MSc Urban Development Planning. He has worked with a number of organisations including the International Institute of Environment and Development, London International Development Centre, Pastoral and Environmental Network in the Horn of Africa, and Oxfam America on topics including the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda, communal and collective land tenure options for low income groups, participatory budgeting in a post-disaster context, community led-mapping and urban agriculture.

How can social media help assert citizenship rights?

OlusegunOgunleye5 March 2015

The use of social media by people to assert their citizenship rights and make demands of their government has been enabled through the emergence of a variety of platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, change.org and avaaz.org.

This can be traced back to incidents such as the Arab Spring, and the ‘Occupy’ movements seen in some western countries such as the United States of America (Occupy Wall Street being perhaps the best known). More recently political crises in Spain and Greece, and significant campaigns such as #bringbackourgirls and Je Suis Charlie have found a global audience online. Social media as a mobilising tool continues to gain in currency.

The successes of social media have varied from locality to locality based on different factors and contexts. What cannot be denied is that such practices have increased the ability of citizens to rally around solidarity not only locally but global issues.

Source: Punch Newspaper | Credit: Olatunji Obasa

Source: Punch Newspaper | Credit: Olatunji Obasa

#bringbackourgirls: Global visibility shrouds local action

One recent incident that is especially close to home for me, as a Nigerian, has been the #bringbackourgirls campaign. This originated in Nigeria due to the kidnap of 276 girls by the Boko Haram sect from a school in Chibok located in North-eastern Nigeria on April 14, 2014.

Reflecting on the #bringbackourgirls campaign: its gains were its ability to solicit global support and situate the blight of those impacted by the Boko Haram insurgency into the international consciousness. However, its key pitfall has been the inability to elicit concrete response and action from the Nigerian government.

My conclusion is that the reason for this can be attributed to several factors among which is the fact that the global support garnered was not matched by sustained local pressure. Additionally the politicisation of the issue by both the government and the opposition has meant that in the process the voice of the victims been muted somewhat.

Silencing the victim’s voice

Before delving further into reasons for the limited success of the #bringbackourgirls campaign, I would like to expand on this critical issue; the silencing of the victim’s voice, which came to the fore. This is not particular only to the #bringbackourgirls campaign but its reflective of various mass movements of activism in the developing world.

Vyncent Elvin Eebee highlighted this in an article titledFor Whom Does the Speaking Woman Speak?, where she concluded that rural women’s voices are submerged by the voice of urban female advocates, which result in rural women becoming invisible due to the articulation of their voices by the other.

She further stated that when the rural woman participates in action, it is upon trumpeted and highly advertised invitations, which are not conducive to effective participatory mass movements.

To me this was visible in the #bringbackourgirls campaign, because these trumpeted and highly advertised invitations were tools utilised by the campaigners, government, and the opposition to publicise themselves while the plea of the victims was not concretely tackled.  

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The ‘digital divide’

In my opinion key factors that contributed to the limited success of social media in Nigeria and developing countries as a whole relate to the digital divide.

This is not only in terms of penetration but also with regards to access and understanding of how to utilise these tools and platforms, especially when the literacy rates in many countries are taken into consideration.

This was reflected upon by Merridy Wilson who acknowledged that

“the problem of the growing technology and/or knowledge gaps between and within countries, places certain groups of people further in the shadow regions of global information flows. These gaps persist both at the level of access to ICT infrastructure, and in terms of the form of information conveyed and who is able to use, understand and produce the information and knowledge which ICTs potentially make accessible.”

We need conscious, strategic approaches to effectively use social media for change

My conclusion therefore is that social media can become an enabling and transformative tool for people to assert their citizenship rights and make demands in developing countries, such as Nigeria. But it calls for prudent adaptation of techniques and tactics for effective strategies towards mass mobilisation.

This can only be attained by being conscious of local realities in the African continent, as in other climes, and supported by concerted and sustained pressure on ground to match the global support a social media audience provides.

What this therefore requires, as put in the words of Andrew Burkett,

“are much more difficult, time-consuming and probably not as glitzy as ICT development efforts – that is, political will, recognition of personal and social responsibilities, and ultimately action on the part of governments and civil society.”


Olusegun Ogunleye is a development practitioner with several years working experience in the field of town planning in Nigeria. He has also taken part in urban-based research in Nigeria, London and, Dar es Salaam. His passion lies in the area of urban governance as he sees it as a veritable tool to ensure and enhance the wellbeing of citizens. He also believes in the potential inherent in community-led development as a means of ensuring sustainable development. Olusegun graduated from the MSc Urban Development Planning in 2014.

Mexico: Where does hope reside? (Part II)

Étiennevon Bertrab10 February 2015

Just one week on

To understand the depth of the socio-political crisis in Mexico it might be illustrative to go through events that occurred since Part I was posted a week ago: a mayor in the State of Mexico authorised police to shoot those who protest against the dispossession of their communal water system; a newspaper editor in Matamoros was abducted, beaten and left with a death threat: “no more reporting on violence along the border”; and as if it was a horror film, 61 bodies were found in an abandoned crematory in the outskirts of Acapulco, a famous tourist destination in the State of Guerrero (where the disappearance of the 43 teacher training students took place four months ago).

No caption needed. Image: Colectivo Lapiztola

Much to the disappointment of those in power, what happens in Mexico can no longer be kept within the country’s borders. The prestigious Hay Festival, which would take place later this year in Xalapa, was cancelled after hundreds of Mexican writers and journalists signed a petition in protest. “We recognise that the killing of Moisés Sánchez, the 15th journalist to have been murdered or disappeared in Veracruz since 2010, has caused unbearable pain and rage” – reads the organisers’ official statement.

In Geneva – in the same week – the UN Committee of Enforced Disappearances (CED) identified ‘prominent discrepancy between words and deeds’ while for Amnesty International the hearings evidenced the failure of the Mexican State in its international responsibilities. Furthermore, The New York Times revealed over the weekend that amongst the secret buyers using shell companies to grab the most expensive real estate in New York is an ex-governor of Oaxaca and father of the current director of INFONAVIT – Mexico’s social housing agency.

Elections: opportunity or distraction?

While it is almost a consensus that the party system is rotten beyond repair, what to do during the elections is always a divisive issue: to back the least worst party or candidates, or to boycott the elections altogether? As a result of a recent political reform it will now be possible – for the first time in Mexican history – for citizens to be elected without affiliation to a political party. For many this is a double-edged sword, but there are glimpses of hope: Wikipolítica, a group of young student-activists, could give Jalisco its first independent legislator – without using any public resources but rather dozens of creative and enthusiastic volunteers.

Intentions of a long journey Image: Colectivo Lapiztola

Beyond these more localised opportunities there is an increasing recognition that our social contract has been broken: the Mexican Constitution of 1917 (often referred to as the most progressive of the early 20th century) has been subject to almost 500 reforms, mostly to facilitate capital accumulation in detriment of rights and communal and public ownership of natural resources.

A call for the formation of a constitutional assembly with the aim of refunding the State is gaining traction, reinvigorated by the very circumstances and by the vocal support of progressive and highly respectable public figures such as bishop Raúl Vera, the last prominent priest of the Theology of Liberation in Mexico, who since the Zapatista uprising has made his cause the voices of the poor. His mission: “to listen to everyone’s feelings and aspirations, particularly those of the poor and marginalised”. However, it is undoubtedly a long-term social and democratic endeavour that no living Mexican has ever experienced. For many, including myself, it might be the only way to avoid a violent revolution.

In this emotive video, Omar García, survivor of the attack, expresses how the case of Ayotzinapa has awaken millions throughout the country.

 

Part III on the role of journalism and new media, and on why it’s important to focus on the (non-urban) territory and those who defend it, will be published next week.

All images are courtesy of Colectivo Lapiztola, a street art collective that emerged in the suppressed social movement in Oaxaca in 2006. Part of their work is exhibited in Rich Mix, London, until 28 February.

Opening the wings. Image: Colectivo Lapiztola

Étienne von Bertrab is a Teaching Fellow at the DPU and a guest lecturer in universities in Mexico. He also works as a consultant in the UK and in Mexico, where he has been a social activist for ten years. Twitter: @etiennista

Mexico: Where does hope reside? (Part I)

Étiennevon Bertrab2 February 2015

They want a different future, Yucatán. Image: Étienne von Bertrab

They want a different future, Yucatán. Image: Étienne von Bertrab

Mexico is going through turbulent times and its future looks, if not pitch black, then highly uncertain and complex. This is a personal attempt to make sense of recent developments and to share some reflections on causes, implications, and sources of hope.

The recent wave of high-level corruption scandals and particularly the forced disappearance of the 43 rural students from Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, have been, for a majority of Mexicans, the straw that broke the camel’s back. Studies over the last few years had already shown a steady decline in levels of trust in State institutions; however, trust has reached an all time low and there are calls to ignore and boycott the mid-term elections this summer. Although most attention is placed on the machinery of corruption and impunity of PRI (the infamous political party that ruled Mexico for 70 years and came back to power in 2012), people are losing trust in all political parties.

Mexico has the worst political class in decades” concluded a recent panel on democracy and elections held at IBERO University. Internationally, only a year ago mainstream media made reference to ‘the time of Mexico’ and Time magazine portrayed president Peña Nieto as saviour. The Economist, which had praised his constitutional reforms – particularly the juicy energy reform that allows the privatisation of oil – has now referred to him as “a president who doesn’t get that he doesn’t get it”. For The New Yorker, the President himself is the clearest example of corruption in the country.

Protest street art, Guadalajara. Image: Étienne von Bertrab

Protest street art, Guadalajara. Image: Étienne von Bertrab

But corruption and impunity have been there for a while and the distance between the political class and ordinary people has been widely perceived and commented upon. Why are so many Mexicans in the streets over and over again, shouting ‘enough is enough’ and getting engaged in the public sphere in ways never seen before? Behind the Ayotzinapa case are around 100,000 deaths and more than 23,000 disappearances since 2006 (according to official figures), plus 150,000 displaced people according to Freedom House. Unsurprisingly, those affected the most are the poor and the marginalised amongst Mexican society.

More than two decades of neoliberal restructuring and particularly the culture of capitalist cronyism built by those in power, have benefitted only a few while too many women and men continue to live in poverty. Not to mention indigenous groups who for centuries have been victims of oppression and dispossession (for most, little has changed since colonial times). Across the country over 7 million young people can’t find opportunities to study or work and thus are unable to imagine a future in their own country. Apart from the negative effects on human development the country is losing its ‘demographic bonus’.

‘Where those above destroy, below we flourish’. Image: Creative Commons

‘Where those above destroy, below we flourish’

There is simply too much suffering in so many families and communities, and too few provisions to deal with the repercussions of eight years of crude violence on top of the generalised sense of injustice. The situation of human rights in Mexico, according to Amnesty International, is now the worst in the American continent.

In the latest developments, while the federal government declared the official investigation on the 43 disappeared students ‘closed’ last week, a new journalistic investigation revealed that most of the government’s ‘evidence’ was obtained through torture. The federal government will surely defend its version (referred to as the ‘historical truth’ by the attorney general) with full force, and repression to protestors is likely to escalate. These practices should also not come as a surprise: according to Human Rights Watch, there have been over 9,000 complaints of abuse by the army since 2006.

For an audio account of the investigation that proved that the authorities at the national level were involved in the disappearances, you can listen to Steve Fisher, one of the authors of the original article in Proceso magazine, here. Channel 4 News has also produced an informative video entitled ‘Are Mexico’s disappeared students victims of drug war?’ – available on its website.

 

Part II, on hope, solidarity and opportunities for research that can make a difference will be published on the DPU blog next week.

Étienne von Bertrab is a Teaching Fellow at the DPU and a guest lecturer in universities in Mexico. He also works as a consultant in the UK and in Mexico, where he has been a social activist for ten years. Twitter: @etiennista