Refugees and the narrative of choice: why language matters

I like the Economist. Sure, it’s missing the hyperbolic headlines and questionable truths given by some publications,  but my preference is for more logical, less hysterical, political analysis.

This time, however, while I was reading an article about the recent EU agreement on ending “irregular migration” from Turkey to the EU, I found myself both familiarly weary and angry at the language used. The article makes repeated references to both refugees and migrants, the terms used interchangeably. The writer no doubt had a difficult job, balancing the need to echo the language of the agreement,  while also clearly wanting to speak about the movement of vulnerable people being deported “back to their home countries.”

Unfortunately, good intentions make for little clarity and the reader is left with the impression that migrants and refugees are one and the same. This is problematic, given that is weakens valid criticism of an agreement, widely condemned by human rights and aid groups.

Nonviolent Peaceforce / Creative Commons License

Nonviolent Peaceforce / Creative Commons License

It might seem like a small thing, ‘tomayto, tomahto’. But it allows for a more insidious problem to develop. It becomes part of a dangerous meta-narrative and our collective subconscious, justifying a pathetic lack of action. Not only that but it reduces the capacity of aid and peace efforts to work. This is because we’ve changed the narrative from one of vulnerable people seeking help and sanctuary to one of people choosing the circumstances of their situation. The former insists upon on our basic humanity, the latter does not.

So, it might seem like a harmless word choice, but when anybody contributes to this debate and talks in terms of migrants, you’re implying that the one million people who have fled to Europe, as of December 2015,  have freely exercised their right to choose their current situation.

You’re saying, in not so many words, that at some point, a family freely  made the decision to pay someone to ferry them and their children across the Mediterranean. A journey they know will likely take their life. Just so they can, what exactly? Steal your jobs and benefits? Let’s get real.

Just to throw some facts into a discussion that has been sorely lacking in rational logic and because the entire world has seemingly misplaced their dictionary, migrants are defined by the United Nations Human Rights Council as people who have made a choice to move, “not because of a direct threat of persecution or death, but mainly to improve their lives by finding work, or in some cases for education, family reunion, or other reasons.”

To think those who are making this journey meet the above criteria is ignorance at it’s finest. Human Rights Watch, for example, released a report noting that that people are fleeing Syria because they’re being bombed; schools are being destroyed; children are being recruited into armies; people are being targeted, kidnapped and killed by extremist Islamist groups, such as Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda’s affiliated Jabhat al- Nursra.

So take a minute and imagine that it’s you. Now remember that people are saying you’ve freely made a decision to flee. It’s like being between a rock and a hard place except you’re between probable death by a bomb or maybe death by a boat.

Of course, for some people, this isn’t hypothetical. It’s reality. Given that, I think the least we can do is to start talking about the crisis in the correct terms and start referencing to refugees and asylum seekers. People who are “so recognized precisely because it is too dangerous for them to return home, and they need sanctuary elsewhere.”

International Organization for Migration / Creative Commons License

Publications, politicians and governments are inherent to achieving this change. However, certainly the last two have the most to lose, because I’m going to go out on a limb and say that they are calling refugees migrants for a much more mercenary reason: They are bound by international law to start affording refugees basic rights. Migrants? Not so much.

Of course, we’ve flouted international law  so much, it barely means anything. But yet the establishment is still singing the song. Wording is carefully crafted, as illustrated by the EU-Turkey agreement, talking vaguely about the movement of migrants, never refugees.

Language has the unique ability to both connect us and destroy us, so it matters how it’s used. When utilized in the right  way, it can be a powerful tool for change. There’s still a long way to go, but correcting how we speak about some of the world’s most abused and vulnerable people is as good a place to start as any. It’s time we met our obligations, not just under under international law, but as fellow human beings.



[Originally published on Development in Action at



Feminist economics: what they don’t teach you in an economics degree

Money makes the world go around. Or perhaps the phrase should be that the global economic system makes the world go around. We have infused it with an enormous level of value and left it free to paint the world red. With it, however, we’ve let a few problematic tendencies go; (probably because it helps to make money for a lot of powerful people) like the reality that for the system to work, certain, more informal types of work have to happen quietly, in the back, with little acknowledgement going towards the people doing it.
This is because, for the economic system to ‘work’, we need some people to quietly raise the next generation on their own and look after the growing aging population, with preferably little to zero state support. Ideally, they need to also work while doing this, otherwise they are statistically unproductive to the global economy.
It could be men doing this type of work, but the other reality we are dealing in is that they aren’t. Time after time, study after study, from Europe, to the United States, to India, to Asia, women at on the global level are doing more of unpaid work than their male counterparts.
This means that the economy, for all it’s bells and whistles, is at it’s core, a “value system in which all good and activities are related only to their monetary value”. In other words, the way the economic policies are organised places no value on the work that primarily women do, and yet the entire economic system relies upon their ability to do this work and not be recognised for it.
In the UK, this is a debate that is gaining attention and traction, particularly in the wake of austerity justifications. The Fawcett Society, a group working to advance women’s rights, took the Lib Dem/Tory Government to court over their 2010 ‘emergency budget’ to find out whether there had been due consideration about the ways in which different measures impact differently on men and women. It was a unique interpretation of the Gender Equality Duty, now replaced by the 2010 Equality Act, which places an obligation on public authorities to ‘assess the impact of their current and proposed policies and practices on gender equality’ and produce what is commonly known as a ‘Gender Equality Impact Assessment’ (GEIA).
As it turned out, the Government hadn’t but little has seemingly changed. The Huffington Post highlighted that that under the Lib-Dem/Conservative government from 2010-2015, “more than 80% of the revenue raised by the Treasury from tax and benefit changes came from women’s pockets.” Cuts to local governments budgets have seen domestic services close down, and women are experiencing higher levels of violence, no doubt a result of the austerity policies implemented in the wake of the financial crisis. Some cry that women are in more jobs! Well yes, but there isn’t much talk about what these jobs are, as the Fawcett Society stated: “Jobs growth is welcome but our economy is disproportionately dependent on low paid part-time work and insecure employment [and] 75% of part-time workers are women.” It goes without saying that these impacts become worse for black and minority ethnic (BME) women.

However, it isn’t just the UK. International institutions are culprits too, accused of simply “ignoring women, their activities, their work and their various contributions to the societies in which they live.” The IMF and World Bank has a long history of promoting economic policies that impact women’s economic lives in a negative way, from the structural adjustment policies of the 1970s to conservative fiscal policies in the aftermath of the 2007 global financial crisis.
Solutions however are being discussed. Most cited is Diane Elson’s “triple “R” approach” which involves recognition of the unpaid work women do in the global economy; reduction of unpaid work and the redistribution of this work within the family.
However, despite the existence of practical ideas to solve these issues, it’s hard not to realise that the implementation of these solutions are sketchy at best. Arguably because women don’t feature in any of these institutions. There is a lack of understanding about the reality of women’s experiences in the global economy which has meant that policies, both at state and international levels have repeatedly failed to create, enhance and protect initiatives that support women’s economic development. To change this, we need more than a few token women thrown in for the perception of equality and we need to address the assumption that the economic system is gender neutral and effective, because when it only factors in the work of half the global population, we can barely maintain with the straightest of faces that it’s working at all, and it’s long time we stopped.

Originally published on Development in Action at on 05/05/16

Military and security forces: the problems with the new international aid workers.

The OECD has officially redefined what foreign aid means after the UK lobbied to be allowed to use overseas aid budgets to support the military and security forces in fragile countries “as long as this still promotes development goals.”

Additionally, the OECD has said that “tackling violent extremism [will be] formally recognized as a development activity”

This isn’t to say that tackling violent extremism shouldn’t be recognized as a development activity. Studies tell us that areas that suffer from poor social and economic development create an environment where violent extremism is more likely to flourish. The recent General Assembly meeting of the United Nations just echoed a similar opinion, hearing that “the deadly links between violent extremism and extreme poverty could be broken through the creation of jobs, a reduction in inequalities and by building just and inclusive societies.”  This all falls under the remit of development, or more officially, official development assistance (ODA) which is “government aid designed to promote the economic development and welfare of development”. However, the argument lies in whether the military and security forces are the most suitable institutions to be concerned with this goal.

Ultimately it’s a move that charities fear will lead to less cash being spent on directly alleviating poverty and instead give nation’s carte blanche use these funds to serve their own “domestic and foreign policies” reducing the capacity of development assistance to promote economic development. It is a reality that may fearfully come to pass, as the long history of foreign military involvement in a sovereign nation has rarely helped to promote any real economic or social development in a fragile state, arguably because this isn’t what a military is for. It serves a purpose, often one involving the protection of national interest which rarely serves the interest of another state, regardless of the somewhat aspirational names given to military interventions (Operation Uphold Democracy and Operation Peace for Galilee to name but two).

Additionally, there is the argument to be made that the increasing use of drone warfare and airstrikes in military operations, one of Obama’s lesser accomplishments, makes the institutions who partake in this type of warfare as wholly unsuitable to be aligned with any sort of realistic development goals. While the establishments justifying these operations argue that this new type of warfare is highly effective, with the ability to target select “individuals, automobiles and sections of structures such as rooms in a large house” with minimal harm to non-combatants, this evidence is optimistic at best, according to articles and data compiled by news organizations such as the Huffington Postand the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Moreover, the CIA itself has acknowledged that drone strikes and other “targeted killings” of terrorist and insurgent leaders can in fact “strengthen extremist groups and be counterproductive.” Additionally, this type of warfare has made it increasingly difficult for humanitarian groups to operate, given the ambiguous status of armed drones under international law and the classified nature of their operations. By this logic, the military and security forces are barely the best solution to tackle the terrorist threat, let alone as the institutions most likely to promote economic development in a fragile state.

Furthermore, the problem of granting security forces and military of a foreign state by virtue of their sole presence in a sovereign nation can often undermine any confidence citizens have in their own government, yet again limiting their capacity for achieving economic growth. While often inefficiency and corruption plague fragile states government bodies, the reality is strong governance and institutions are vital to ensuring development aid. If these mechanisms were strengthened instead of undermined, overseas development assistance could be used more effectively. Additionally, in fragile states, a country is less likely to become a breeding ground for destabilizing terrorist activities. Should there be overt interference by a foreign military body, any possibility of achieving stronger governmental institutions is destabilized and legitimacy is lost. Either the more liberal factions were unable to stop the foreign forces entering their sovereign borders or it was implicitly allowed.

The probability of the military and security forces impacting a specific demographic also makes them unsuitable to be concerned with economic empowerment in fragile states. Women and girls are acknowledged to be“uniquely and disproportionately affected by armed conflict’ and this sentiment was echoed famously by Major General Patrick Cammaert who stated: “It is now more dangerous to be a woman than to be a soldier in modern wars.” This reality makes post-conflict reconstruction and development in fragile states difficult and reduces the capacity for women to drive forward peace initiatives that can promote development, peace and security. The United Nations recently undertook three peace reviews which reflected the “indisputable” evidence of the impact of women’s participation and leadership on the “increased effectiveness of humanitarian assistance and likelihood of sustainable peace.”However, if we are diverting funds to the very institutions that can play a massive role in limiting the development of women’s work in post-conflict reconstruction, we undermine a sector of the population who can drive forward peace in fragile states and encourage economic investment and development.

Yet the establishment institutions fail to give any evidence contrary to their own the proper recognition, and yet again, as it always inevitably does, the focus shifts to more military and security minded resolutions to achieve development goals. Ultimately, this makes the reality of achieving any sort of real progress with regards to poverty reduction and economic growth minimal. Instead, it’s far more likely we are condemned to spend a few more years chasing our collective tails, trying to work out why, for all our resolutions and commitments, development progress remains static and foreign policy as intrusive as ever.

Originally published on March 29th 2016 at