The Practical Radical

Pradical Blog: Harper Consolidates his Minority!

May 16, 2010
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10,000 Harper Loyalists

There has been much hullabaloo about Harper bring back the old chestnut of abortion – the reporting on this issue reflects the general opinion about Harper from many commentators (for example Rex Murphy, Don Martin) which  seems to be that this issue only plays to the Conservative base, demonstrates Harper is an ideologue, and won’t allow him to gain a majority.

I believe it is much more Machiavellian than that.

Except by complete implosion of one of the 4 main parties, there will be a minority government, and Harper knows it. Of course he will never say this – keep the dream alive! – but he is too canny a player not to realize it.

So, if we put his actions on abortion and other policy pronouncements such as climate change within this context, what he is doing makes sense. He is energizing his base through wedge issues, just as one Karl Rove was so good at with George W. in the states. Activate the base, demoralize the others.

So the 10,000 people on parliament hill rallying against abortion with 18 Conservative MPs in tow? All dyed-in-the-wool-never-to-vote-for-anyone-but-Stephen supporters.Those 10,000 people are the vanguard, and they will assure Harper his minority and slim chance majority (watch for a Conservative/Bloc alliance in the next election).  The Armageddon Factor is a good read on the religious right and Conservative politics in Canada, or read some quotes from evangelical youth leader and Conservative darling, Faytene Kryskow. She believes her Christian fan club should emulate the Hitler Youth, who she admires for mobilizing people to their cause, and ponders how much more who group could accomplish with the power of God behind them. To understand her impact, Check out her group MY CANADA and her blog, which outlines her political work like the recent face to face meetings with 30 MPs and the reception she hosted that had in attendance 70 conservative MPs.

Harper has made the calculation that it will be a minority government – and has duped the media and the general public into believing that a coalition against him would be the coup d’etat by the social hordes. The other parties? Still trying for a majority seemingly. Until such time as the NDP – who have never been in government – and the Liberals – who believe they have never been out of government – get together and strategize it will be Harper all the way.

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Pradical Blog: The Demographic Divide: Are Youth the Angels or the Demons of the New Millenium

May 10, 2010
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The Globe and Mail (Canada) ran a special edition on Africa which touched on the key issue of youth, but they missed the opportunity to put the issues into global context and look at next steps. Here is a bit more of an in-depth analysis.


In the 20th century it took decades for the international community to realize the value of women to the community – even though they were 50% of the population. We are in danger of this same thing happening with youth in the 21st century. Are youth angels, our hope for a new world, or are they demons who will rise up and bring our world crashing down?

Throughout history youth have been the leaders of revolutions and the fodder for generals. They are the victims of poverty and the engines of economy.

Africa is the youngest continent demographically. 70-80% of most African countries are under the age of 30. In developing regions as a whole, least developed countries are younger that the rest of the world and in 2005, the global median age was 28 years. In the 10 least-developed African countries it was 16 or younger.

Yet we need to look at the issues of Africa within the context of the larger demographic divide which exists globally.

In the North or developed world we have what can be characterized as the old geezers. The developed world population is rapidly aging, their productive (and reproductive!) capacity is slowing down, their needs are increasing. No longer can they depend on the entrepreneurialism of the boomer generations and its drive to conquer all, damn the consequences.

The South or developing world is youthful and in economic terms, in the prime of its life. Yet, they are living under deplorable, inhumane conditions and find the deck stacked against them, unable to fight their way out and up.

In the map below we can graphically see how the developing world, especially the African continent, is youthful. If we look behind the numbers we can also see an increasingly urban world, where it has been estimated that half of the world’s population will live in cities by 2030, with almost all of this growth occurring in developing world cities and slums, and over 60% of those being under the age of 18.

So what does this all mean for the developed and developing world?

On the positive side, for much of the developing world this “youth bulge” could bring about, with the appropriate investment in education and training, an economic boom. According to the recent World Development Report 2007 the time has never been better to invest in young people living in developing countries … rich and poor countries alike need to seize this opportunity before the aging of societies closes it. Doing so will enable them to grow faster and reduce poverty even further. Education and training has been found to be the key determinant in youth having an equal opportunity to succeed (State of the Urban Youth Report). Clearly, many people believe, both in the ivory towers of international agencies and on the ground in developing countries, that there is hope.

Yet, there is clearly a darkside to this youthful demographic, stemming from the aforementioned inhuman conditions youth live within, and their inability to attain a proper livelihood. According to the ILO, of the 1.1 billion young people aged 15 to 24 worldwide, one out of three is either seeking but unable to find work, and has given up the job search entirely or is working but living on less than US$2 a day. Youth as well face a scourge of other issues: violence at a higher rate than the rest of the community, youth being both the victims and the perpetrators; HIV AIDs rates higher than the regular population; etc. Youth are more often perceived as a threat than anything positive. Think tanks such as the Brookings Institute are not welcoming the “youth bulge” as the chance for a new generation to advance their countries out of poverty and destitution, but  are more worried about this as bringing about the growth of terrorism. I have written about this challenge and possible solutions in papers I have delivered recently in the Middle East.

In regards to the developed world there is as well good and bad.

We can see the negative effects of an aging society with schools closing because of the lack of children and a growing drain on our social services because of an aging and needy population. Economically it is projected that due to our aging and unproductive society, by 2050 two-thirds of the world’s capital will be in the developing world, compared to just 7.7 percent today. Though it is well understood that we need to keep young people coming in to maintain a youthful and productive society, both policy nor society in general seems to understand this. Society’s response seems to be represented by either the growth of militia groups and  new anti-immigrant laws in the Southern US, or the continuing riots in the suburbs of Paris and other major European cities.

On the positive side there is a greater recognition of the dividend that diversity brings both socially and economically. There has been some excellent work done on this both by researchers and journalists.

In the end we need to look at solutions that recognize youth as assets to their community. Many international agencies are recognizing the benefit of engaging youth as leaders of today, not only tomorrow. The recently published World Urban Forum Youth Dialogue Series is a good place to start, but there are many more. If you know of any please post them in the comment section and I will put them up in a future blog.

World Urban Forum Youth Dialogue Series publications

  1. Youth Led Development in Sustainable Cities – From Idea, to Policy to Practice
  2. The Place Of Children – Poverty + Promise
  3. Youth In Urban Development – Bringing Ideas into Action
  4. One Stop Youth Resource Centres – Local Governments Response to Improving Youth Livelihood
  5. Space for Change

Higher education will play a catalytic role in Africa

April 25, 2010
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The newly launched State of the Urban Youth Report clearly states that education is the key to leveling the playing field for youth in the developing world. What we now have to focus on is what forms of education. One clear suggestion is what they call “tertiary” education – that being education beyond the regular grade 1 – 12 system – training, apprenticeships, college and university.

Who delivers it, how can we get more of it, how can we assure its quality are all questions we must ask.

Here is a repost of an article from the World Bank on that issue:

World Bank Discusses Education In Africa – Spring Meetings

Making Higher Education World for Africa’s Competitiveness

WASHINGTON, April 24, 2010—Higher education should play a critical catalytic role in Africa’s economic growth, according to African policy makers and experts from the public and private sectors gathered today at a crowded seminar held under the umbrella of the World Bank-IMF Spring Meetings.

“We have made a lot of progress on primary education, but we can’t stop there,” said Obiageli Ezekwesili, World Bank Vice President for Africa. “Africa’s population is seeing a ‘youth bulge’, and so we simply cannot avoid tertiary education—it has to be the bedrock of Africa’s development.”

Ezekwesili, herself a former education minister from Nigeria, highlighted some of the challenges in expanding higher education in Africa. These include the need to strike a balance between democratization of access to higher education and the quality of education provided; and to ensure that higher education turns out graduates with the right skills for the job market.

“We cannot continue business as usual—education must meet the needs of the economy,” she said.
Africa urgently needs doctors, nurses, agriculturists, engineers, administrators, lawyers, and business leaders, according to Christopher Thomas, who manages World Bank education projects and analysis in Africa. Yet higher education faces financing constraints, and graduates often remain unemployed.

“There are no easy answers to the question of how Africa’s higher education institutions can grow and thrive,” said Thomas. “But we do know that good policies, strong political will, resources, leadership, and public-private partnerships are necessary.”

Ministers of education from Burkina Faso, the Gambia, Senegal, Mali and Mauritania, who remained at work late into the evening in their countries to join the seminar remotely, all agreed that the basic issue was that all countries needed a base of human resources, although needs varied in each country.

“In the Gambia, we went for thirty years after independence without a university,” said Mamadou Tangara, Gambia’s Minister of Education. “We are facing a huge resource gap, and we cannot emphasize enough the role of higher education in development. Higher education policies of today will determine our society of tomorrow.”

Ezekwesili noted that the private sector had a major role in expanding access to higher education in Africa. In Ghana, public universities were at one time so stretched that they had to admit as many as 1,500 students in a single class with no teaching assistants. But with the rise of the private sector, about 50,000 more students were enrolled in universities in Ghana in 2007.

Peter Okebukola, a Nigerian regulator, suggested three other steps to boost enrollment. “We should also think about setting up open and long distance universities, expanding degree programs beyond universities to polytechnics and other non-degree institutions, and encouraging multi-campus universities,” he said.
Speaking about quality and relevance, Prof. Teuw Niane, the Rector of Gaston Berger University in Senegal, stressed the importance of professors being adequately qualified to teach students, and of connecting regularly with private companies to make sure that young graduates have more access to employment.

Many participants agreed that students who can afford to pay for higher education should be asked to do so. “Parents and youth must be willing to make some sacrifices,” said Joseph Duffey, of Laureate, a private company that seeks to make higher education affordable and accessible through a global network of partnerships.

“It is clear that sharing costs is fundamental,” said Ezekwesili, “Those who can pay should pay, but there should be a mechanism to help promising students who cannot afford to pay.”

The other side of the coin, according to many participants, is that both public and private institutions need to be more accountable and transparent, offering measurable results to parents and students. For example, information such as the number of their graduates that find jobs within a year of graduating should be available to the public.

Participants also discussed the need for quality assurance and regulation. “Accreditation should measure output but reward innovation,” noted Patrick Awuah, President of Ghana’s Ashehi University. “Accreditation can easily stifle innovation,” he said. “For instance, universities should not be evaluated only on the basis of the paper libraries, but also their electronic libraries.”Boukary Savadogo, Division Chief, Science and Technology Education, at the African Development Bank, emphasized that education must be approached in a holistic way, recognizing the connections between all levels from primary to tertiary.

“Tertiary education is a sine qua non for Africa’s development,” concluded Ezekwesili, “We all recognize the importance of a resurgence of tertiary education in Africa.”


Nairobi Reflections

April 23, 2010
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The Nairobi Notebook blog post from americancity.org is a thorough overview of Kibera and the work of UN-HABITAT and the residents there.

If you are interested in more information on some projects going on in Kibera, go to the map kibera site to see how they are working with residents to tell the untold story of Kibera through maps.

Above are some maps before and after the mapping was done by Mikel Maron from openstreetmaps. Unplanned settlements like Kibera go from being seen from above as corrugated roof after corrugated roof, to what it really is, which is a home from those that live there that has streets, churches, clinics, etc.


Images may appear blurry from far away … Pot and the USA

April 21, 2010
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Actually, images are blurry close up as well, especially when you try and figure out the US in regards to marijuana.

One would assume that the US, barring a few aberrations like Berkley, is a pretty conservative place. Or at least, the conservative voices hold huge sway within the country. So, in regards to anything to do with the legalization of marijuana, you would think that there is no way this would happen.

Well, you think wrong.

Case in point – Colorado. Seems today was a “pot smokers” holiday in the US. At the University of Colorado in Boulder there was a smoke in – which meant lots of people buying, selling smoking and wearing anything and everything with pot leaf images on them – from t-shirts to frisbees to mardi gras like necklaces.

And there were police – everywhere. Last time I saw that many police was at the Olympics.

So, nothing new here, right? Kids smoking dope at school – been happening since the 60s. What is new is the laws that have gone into place which have basically legalized pot here – this happened in Colorado in 2000 – even though it is still a federal offense to posses and traffic pot. Now you can apply to dispense – as in like a pharmacy dispensary – medicinal pot. So, not a few hundred meters from the police, who were watching over those rowdy pot smokers, was a dispensary.


The Dr. Reefer.com dispensary

So, is it easy to apply to be a dispensary? It is dead simple. Basically you have to what any small business would do – apply for a business license, tax number, etc. Then you find customers and sell.

Are there a lot of dispensaries and users? Well, within a 5 mile radius of where I am staying there are 21 dispensaries according to weedmap.com – click here to see the map. Denver has some 250  and Boulder more than 100. In regards to users, more than 66,000 people have applied and are allowed to purchase medical pot, and currently there’s a six-month waiting period.

All you have to do to use medical marijuana is have a doctor approve your need to use it – basically phone the number on this lovely little brochure I was given, go in for a check-up and that is it.

So whether your close up, or far away, it’s pretty blurry all round. Maybe there something I can take for that ..


I am not an environmentalist …

April 14, 2010
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Ok, admittedly a rather dramatic statement from someone who was a senior manager of an environmental agency for 17 years. I often used it as a opening statement in speeches and presentations – it got peoples attention – and in meetings – it pissed people off.

I first noticed this affliction when I did my first real environmental activity and went on a “wilderness trip” to the Queen Charlotte Islands (now called Haida Gwaii) with a number of young environmentalists in kayaks. To make a long story short, i was often miles behind them, and almost didn’t make it across a stormy Hecate Strait (I remember the waves as 5′ – that might have been exhaustion though.) My try at being an “urban” environmentalist met with a similar fate – composting the heritage strawberries  brought about my ban from working in the community gardens. These two experiences (and there are many more)  made it clear to me that if I was  going to make it in this movement I was going to have to find my own niche.


Kayaking Haida Gwaii (me taking photo from behind)


A relaxing moment …

I found my answer through focusing on the “people” more than the “green” part of the environment agenda. What jazzed me was less what physical environment needed saving, but more a question of who did not have access to a healthy environment, and what were the social and economic conditions that kept them from that environment. In Vancouver, where my agency was based, the answer became obvious – it was those on the other side of the tracks in East Vancouver, or in a more global sense, those on the proverbial other side of the tracks in the developing world. They were the ones who did not have access to a healthy environment, an environment that no amount of kayak trips would give them.

So, with this expanded focus, I and EYA slowly and sometimes painfully changed how and what we worked on (see my Master’s thesis The Environmental Youth Alliance: An Exploration of Complexity Science to be understand how this changed happened in EYA). We moved from the richer Westside to the poorer Eastside of Vancouver; we partnered with marginalized communities such as aboriginal, gay and lesbian, immigrant, and street youth, and asked them what they needed for a healthy environment.  We began to expand our focus from the developed world to the developing world. We also committed to working where our new partners lived – the urban environment, and not the remote or rural areas.

Along the way our friends changed.  We gravitated away from traditional environmental agencies, and made links to social justice/human rights groups, urban environment groups, etc. This is not to say I or EYA left our environmental roots – there were many in the agency who were true environmentalists – we just assured that whatever we did was seen through a lens of social justice.

Much has changed in the 19 years since I started with EYA. Environmentalism has grown from being defined by the saving of wilderness areas, to incorporating social justice and economic issues. There is a growing realization that the phrase”urban environment” is not an oxymoron. I would argue that cities, which now house over half of the worlds population and growing, have an environment just as important and as diverse as any rainforest.

So, am I an environmentalist? Guess it’s all in how you define it.


Of Graffiti, Space and Youth

April 4, 2010
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Rio is a gorgeous city – stunning really. The city is up against both the mountains and the ocean. The people are vibrant. The music amazing.

Yet one thing that I missed that my 12 years old son, Liam, noticed immediately was the graffiti. It was everywhere. The last time I noticed graffiti was in Rome, where I found the incongruence between the ancient monuments such as the Coliseum with the proliferation of graffiti everywhere quite striking. The graffiti in Rome struck me as a way that youth were trying to take back a city they did not feel part of. The graffiti had an angry, gritty feel to it. The young against the old – an urban inter-generational argument of sorts.


Graffiti in a Rome Subway

What was different with the graffiti in Rio was that though there was seemingly an equal amount of it, the graffiti was, according to Liam, “#$%^ awesome”. These were truly graffiti artists, a cut above the scrawl that I saw in Rome. At Liam’s behest we took a quick urban safari and took photos of the different graffiti, some pictured here. From this safari I learned a lot about graffiti culture such as what “toying” is  (“toying” or writing over someones graffiti is a way to show  disrespect for inferior work); that EVERYONE has a tag, dad; and that you have to be careful not to toy or copy a gang’s tag. Complicated, illuminating and yet another thing I as parent had to get a handle on.

In stepping back and reflecting, there were are two things struck me about the graffiti. First, on my two experiences with graffiti – the angst filled graffiti of Rome vs the graffiti art of Rio – I think the difference between the two cities has a lot to do with the demographic context within which the graffiti was being done. Italy, as is most of Europe and the developed world, is demographically much older; compared to Rio where, like in much of the developing world, there is a much larger percentage of the population which is youthful. You can see this in the age pyramids below, where the bulge for Brazil is from 0-25 years old, and Italy where the bulge is between 30 and 50.

My experience in some developing country cities is that though youth often face oppression, there is also a growing realization that they are the majority, and, if the country is moving in a positive direction and they are able to engage meaningfully in everyday life, they are the ones to benefit first and their is a sense of hope.[1] In the developed world youth make up a much smaller percentage of the population and  they have a level of say in their city equal to their numbers. This lack of power and influence can breed discontent and often leads to violence. We have seen  some of this urban violence in Europe in the last few years, often  by youth from immigrant communities who are in the majority, but have little power within in their society. See an excellent article done by Jackie Amsden on the violence in France in 2005 – Fires, Festivals and Franchise – Youth Citizenship in France.

Second, it strikes me that graffiti is an important way for youth to claim their space within their respective cities. Research has shown that cities are not an inviting or engaging space for youth – in fact planners often design cities to “manage” the youth “problem”. Urban design is often focused on assuring youth activities such as skateboarding, biking, or hanging out are discouraged. Often recreation space and services for youth are in short supply. Through graffiti youth are able to symbolically claim their space and mark their territory so to speak. It is  important to note that some cities and international agencies recognize that space for youth is in short supply, and so are working to create space which can  engage their burgeoning youth populations. For example, UN-HABITAT and local governments have  developed programs such as the One Stop Youth Resource Centres, which are youth led and initiated, and focus on providing a safe and generative space for youth to work.

So, in the end, I come back to where I started – Rio is a beautiful city. What is less obvious but arguably more important for the long-term sustainability of the city, is that it is the cities youth who in large part are responsible for bringing about this beauty. They are its principal inhabitants, and through public demonstrations such as graffiti we can see both what they are capable of today and what promise they can bring for tomorrow.

[1] Having said this, if the country is not going in a positive direction, then youth can as well be the ones who bring violence to the streets. The violence following the Kenyan elections is an example of this.

* this post can as well be found on the Sustainable Cities blog


The Practical Radical

March 30, 2010
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The origin of this blog has been a 20 year idea in the making of a practical radical. A little of my brief personal history might help this make more sense.

I left my highschool years a conservative politically – my parents were conservative, and i didn’t have much time for any flighty lefty ideas. My first political involvement in grade 12 was to protest the then “solidarity” movement in British Columbia led by the unions against the government of the time. I never completely left my conservative ideology – this i would consider to be the “practical” side of me.

University — well — it was initially a bust. I ended up failing out in three semesters straight – mostly due to dating, friends and card playing. I as well did a stint in Europe (Strasbourg) where I was to go to school and learn french. Well, I found love, partying, and failed out of school there as well. In the words of an old girlfriend “I really didn’t think you were going to make much of yourself”. No kidding.

My “turning point” was an experience in the developing world through a program called Canada World Youth. I initially wanted to go to Thailand – better food – but ended up in Ecuador. This  opened my eyes to what was going on in the world – I found my passion. I came back from Ecuador determined and energized. This would be the start of my “radical” side – – fighting the good fight – social justice and all

I met a guy – Jeff Gibbs – after reading about his new organization the Environmental Youth Alliance (EYA) at University, (which I went back to and finished 10 years after starting). Within 6 months I was working/volunteering at EYA, and there is where I found my path for the next 17 years. This is where i learned to be a “practical radical” or “pradical”.

As all people who work for small NGOs  know, you never really have one job, but 10, from administrator to programmer to janitor to confidant. I worked with budgets from $50,000 when i first started, run out of a shoebox under Jeff’s bed, to 1.5 million in my last years running the youth program for the World Urban Forum. I loved and hated my job, reveled in the chaos, worked insane hours, got paid little at first, met life long friends, made life long enemies, and affected change. I never could answer “so what do you REALLY do?”, but nor did i care. I loved what I was doing.

Along the way I met my wife, who worked (initially) with an NGO, and we found common focus that has kept us together for now 15 years: social justice, “experiences” over “things” (especially travel), and kids (2 boys). We as well prove the adage “opposites attract” – which is what in the end keeps us together – we are NEVER bored.

I continued my schooling – I decided that I need a practical degree to drive my radical direction – so got a Masters in Management. It is there i learned more about chaos as applied to management and immersed myself in “complexity theory”. Following the World Urban Forum, I began working with UN-HABITAT, the agency within the UN focused on cities. It is from that point on that I left EYA, and I re-focused my work internationally. I have had the honor of working with youth from Nairobi to Dar es Salaam to Rio de Janeiro – much of our focus has been on how we can meaningfully engage youth in cities and slums. This work has led to another facet of my life – academia – where I have received a fellowship from the University of Colorado to do a PhD in urban planning. I have discovered that space, specifically how youth and other groups live in urban space, fascinates me. I have found that how one defines, claims and names space in our urban wilderness is key to social change. More on these concepts in later blogs.

In the end, I am practical by nature, radical by design. I believe in patterns not lines; paradox not certainty; and the chaotic not the orderly. Systems are stories not boxes, people not positions, which change and grow at each retelling.  To succeed one must be tenacious, open to new ideas, and able to act decisively when the time is upon you. Humor is often the best form of communication, and kindness and belief in humanity is essential. I judge myself, and hoped to be judged, in the moment, and by my actions. My intent is unfinished business.


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