Pakistan’s Hope

18 December 2014

One Teacher’s Signature Move

Despite increases in access to education in Pakistan, the country still has the third highest out-of-school population in the world. And, with events like this week’s Taliban attack on one Pakistani school, it’s understandable that parents and students alike might hesitate to attend.  How can we start to reverse this trend? Listen to one story of a teacher, who cleverly used a discovery about the mothers of students in Pakistan to boost enrollment in the school – and to make a larger point about what’s necessary to encourage educational access in the country.

More: Why protestors could be charged with terrorism in Pakistan.

The New Old Black-Jewish Alliance

It was Sunday morning, and I was in church. Being Jewish, this is not how I typically spend my weekends, but attending Washington, DC’s Nineteenth Street Baptist Church was an attempt to show —in my own small way— solidarity with a community that has once again suffered a miscarriage of justice.

The service did not disappoint. The Reverend, Doctor Derrick Harkins, delivered a powerful sermon on this critical moment— in the aftermath of Ferguson, Cleveland, and Staten Island— in America’s long fight for justice.

It’s a battle that historically, African-Americans and Jews have fought together— even as we have also often struggled through both real and perceived divides between our two communities.

In Judaism, we frequently begin religious gatherings with what might best be described as an old Hebrew spiritual: “Hiney ma tov u’ma-nayim, shevet ach-im gam yachad”— “How good and pleasant it is to sit together as brothers and sisters in unity.” At 19th Street Baptist, I felt that same feeling of brotherhood sweep over me.

The concept of brotherhood, of course, is a long-standing way to demonstrate unity across America’s diverse society. But brotherhood is not simply a Hallmark card relationship. It’s a relationship that in addition to love can also encompass jealousy, rivalry, hatred— or worse.

Brotherhood is not simply a Hallmark card relationship.

Yet, reflecting on both the full complexity of brotherhood and its simultaneous eternal nature could also help—in its own way— to heal America’s deep racial wounds

From the perspective of Judaism, brotherhood has been a relationship defined not only by shared blood but also by spilt blood. Nearly all of our Biblical forefathers struggled with their brothers: Joseph was sold into slavery by brothers jealous of his position as their father’s favored son; Jacob stole the birthright of Esau; Moses was raised as the adopted brother of the Pharaoh; Abraham’s two sons— Isaac and Ishmael— were divided by their mothers’ conflict. At its most extreme, of course, there is Cain‘s murder of his brother Abel.

God replied to Cain’s cynical question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” by placing a mark upon him– both as an implicit reminder of his own crime and as a warning for others not to seek vengeance against him.

This Mark of Cain still belongs to all of us as Americans. Today, our crimes against each other – our brothers– extend far beyond the scourge of police brutality. More than one million Americans have been killed by guns since the Assassination of Martin Luther King. More than 150,000 of them were killed in the decade after 9/11, a horrific attack that after its initial effect of unifying Americans has by now also contributed to our deep polarization.

Yet, as citizens we must now learn to fully live up to our responsibilities as our brother’s and sister’s keepers. This extends far beyond the admirable “Brother’s Keeper program, initiated by President Obama to help ensure that young men of color have equal opportunities, to the full fabric American life.

That point hit home for me at church. When I took my seat, the woman sitting in front turned to me and politely asked if I was looking for a synagogue. As I began to impishly explain my intention in attending, she warmly explained that the Church was once a synagogue, pointing out the menorahs and Stars of David that still adorn the building. Apparently, people occasionally wander in expecting it to still be so.

I told her that my synagogue– Washington DC’s Sixth & I congregation– used to be an African-American church.

“Turner AME,” she said knowingly.

Our country is so simultaneously enmeshed– and divided– by race, religion, and neighborhood that we often don’t recognize the deep and overlapping bonds that weave us together.

To quote Martin Luther King, “we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Sixth & I and Turner AME, in fact, not only jointly hold a beautiful annual Martin Luther King Day service, they marched together in this past Saturday’s “Justice for All” rally.

Yet, for all the important gestures –  and the repeated calls for a “national conversation” on race – America’s racial wounds remain largely unaddressed.

We have never fully come to  grips with the Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde reality of America’s national character– or of our own.

We are a nation whose “father”, George Washington, wrote to the Jewish community of Rhode Island after a visit that “…happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens…”— even as Washington owned slaves.

Yet, for all the important gestures – and the repeated calls for a “national conversation” on race – America’s racial wounds remain largely unaddressed.

We are a nation whose national creed— “That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” —  was authored by a founding father who not only owned slaves, but fathered several children by at least one of them.

We are a nation that still largely lives in denial of the full impact of what New America CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter succinctly described as the reality that “my ancestors owned slaves; my responsibility”— or that even for many of us whose ancestors didn’t own slaves, we still benefit from its legacy and subsequent institutionalized systems of racism.

The Black-Jewish relationship has been a similarly complicated and bittersweet subset of America’s own racial legacy.

Our communities have both been, to use the words of Moses, “strangers in a strange land”– even if that land has treated us distinctly.

The first Africans came to English-controlled America in 1619— the year before the Mayflower. Over the ensuing decades, they were ensnared into their own “400 years of slavery”— before reconstructing their community as free citizens against the backdrop of continuing terror and discrimination.

The first Jewish community in what was to become the United States arrived as refugees in 1654: Dutch Jews fleeing the Portuguese Reconquista of Northeastern Brazil— and its attendant Inquisition— seeking safe harbor in the port then known as New Amsterdam.

While the successive waves of immigration that built America’s Jewish community have experienced discrimination, it has paled to the horrors of their original homelands. Today, New York is one of the greatest cities in the Jewish people’s long history– and America’s Jewish population rivals that of Israel.

Our communities’ fate as minorities in America have been both deeply intertwined and divergent. And we have experienced alternating senses of kinship, familiarity, misunderstanding, suspicion, and distance.

The historical highs points of the “Black-Jewish alliance” are well-known: the battle against lynching from Reconstruction through Leo Frank; the partnership between Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel; the martyrdom of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman.

The lows are no less real: from Judah P. Benjamin’s service to the Confederacy to Louis Farrakhan‘s anti-Semitism; from the Crown Heights riots to the growing socioeconomic divide that affects the nation as a whole.

Yet, in this season of renewed activism, we should take comfort in the fact that the bonds of brotherhood– as religious communities and citizens– are more powerful and resilient than we tend to acknowledge.

No matter the very real differences we may have– or the violence we have perpetrated– we should not be content until the day when, to paraphrase Dr. King’s Dream, all God’s children “will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood” and, free at last, sing in words of that old Hebrew spiritual: “Hiney ma tov u’ma-nayim, shevet ach-im gam yachad”— “How good and pleasant it is to sit together as brothers and sisters in unity.”

About the Author

Ari Ratner
Ari Ratner is a fellow at the New America Foundation. From 2009-2012, he served as an appointee at the State Department. Follow him on Twitter at @amratner.

Securing Peace in an Age of Genocide

New America President Anne-Marie Slaughter and guests explore the ideas and policy challenges that not only dominate today’s headlines, but will shape our future. Subscribe to the Weekly Wonk Podcast in iTunes.

How do we prevent atrocities like those in Bosnia and Rwanda from happening again? Over the course of her career, Samantha Power – U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Problem From Hell, has approached this question from diplomatic, military, and historical angles. The subject of a 12,000-word profile in this week’s New Yorker, Power spoke recently with Anne-Marie Slaughter as part of New America’s Leadership, Innovation, and Ideas series. In this excerpt from their conversation, Power and Slaughter discuss how the U.S. government, civil society, and the United Nations can innovate to pursue a peaceful and secure global future.

Listen: This could be Iran’s nuclear negotiation playbook.

Retiring a National Crisis?

You’re 70 years old, and you have a choice. Do you pay your heating bill– or for prescription drugs? Do you stay in a home you can no longer afford, or do you move in with your children?

These aren’t hypotheticals. We’re in the middle of a national retirement savings crisis, and seniors across the country are facing choices like these everyday. They are over-relying on Social Security payments because they lack sufficient savings to meet their basic needs. And as more and more businesses fail to offer a retirement savings option for their employees, this trend will only get worse.

The solution to this national crisis might flow from a local source. Earlier this month, Illinois became the first state to pass legislation – the Illinois Secure Choice Savings Program– that will automatically enroll private-sector workers without access to an employment-based retirement plan into such a savings program. The question is: Can we replicate this program in other states and stem the crisis?

 The solution to this national crisis might flow from a local source.

First, a little more about how it actually works. You’re probably wondering: how much is this thing going to cost, exactly? Well, that’s one of the perks for both businesses and taxpayers.

Because employers aren’t allowed to contribute to the retirement accounts, the cost to businesses is minimal. Employers only need to cover the cost of administering a payroll deduction to the retirement account. Most businesses, especially those with 25 or more employees, use electronic payroll systems that easily allow for payroll deductions and direct deposits. Since employers merely serve as pass-through entities – facilitating the required payroll deductions to the approved Secure Choice account – they bear no other financial burden.  Oh, and though most are required to participate – those that are two years or older, employ 25 workers year-round and don’t have a retirement savings option currently – employers that don’t fall into that category can opt out.

Workers, too, have the freedom to participate or not. While they can opt out of the program, those that stay in will be able to build savings in a Roth Individual Retirement Account (IRA) through a payroll deduction. All accounts are pooled together and professionally managed (by a private investment firm contracted by the program’s board – more information on that here) to ensure that fees are low and investment performance is competitive.

More: Read the new anti-poverty playbook

More good news: Over time the program won’t cost the state, either.  The plan is to use the (small – 0.75 percent) fees on the accounts to cover all administrative and investment costs.  And because contributions to the accounts will be pooled and the number of eligible participants will eventually be large, the Program will achieve cost savings through efficiencies and economies of scale. The key here is that by requiring most businesses and workers to opt-out, rather than opt-in, this was built to be large and sustainable – part of what sets this model apart from other states.
Sure, this won’t happen overnight. The State may have to cover start-up costs associated with the Program — but these costs should be reimbursed as soon as there are adequate assets in the plan.  (The state could also use private dollars to cover the start-up costs).

Since so much of the success of this plan hinges on large amounts of people participating, how can we be sure that people will actually use the system? The Illinois Program incorporates lessons learned from behavioral economics and private employer examples that show automatically enrolling workers encourages participation. In other words, people typically won’t take the time and effort to opt-out. Employers offering 401(k)s for example, are increasingly using the opt-out model, dramatically increasing employee participation rates. And happily, these rising rates are highest among lower-income and minority workers.

It won’t just be important for other states to learn from Illinois, but also for Illinois to learn from what other states have already done.

Advocates anticipate that Governor Quinn will sign the legislation into law sometime in early January. At that point, the focus will turn to implementation. While passing the legislation was a big first step, proper implementation will be equally, if not more, important. Things that will be key include: worker & business outreach (so that everyone knows what this bill is, and what’s going on), accessible financial education for workers, easy account access, creating systems to measure participation rates, and development of a RFP for a private investment firm that meets the needs of workers and the state. Over these next few years, it won’t just be important for other states to learn from Illinois, but also for Illinois to learn from what other states have already done.

No state has implemented a program identical to this one, but more than a dozen are trying to enact similar ones or have pending legislation. Massachusetts, California, Connecticut and Oregon have all passed some form of retirement savings policy and are in the process of forming and implementing programs. Why was Illinois able to lead the pack? Some states, like Connecticut and California, had to first pass bills that commissioned a study or required the completion of a feasibility study before the state could move forward with a retirement savings program. Illinois was able to bypass this step.

Illinois’ retirement savings crisis mirrors national numbers – a little more than half of all Illinois private-sector workers don’t have access to an employment-based retirement savings account. While policymakers at the federal level have attempted to pass legislation similar to Illinois, it has failed due to congressional inaction. That means it will most likely be up to the states to ensure that their citizens have the opportunity to easily save money for a secure retirement. Now, at least, they have a model for action.

More: If you’re poor, don’t expect any privacy

About the Author

Lucy Mullany
Lucy Mullany is the Project Manager for Financial Empowerment Policy at Heartland Alliance. She also serves as the Coordinator of the Illinois Asset Building Group (IABG), which worked with its partners in the state to pass the Illinois Secure Choice Savings Program.

The Paternity Leave Stimulus


Rodrigo Neves wasn’t expecting a fight. After the city council of Niteroi, Brazil passed a new law earlier this month extending Brazil’s nationally mandated 5 days of paid paternity leave to 30 days paid leave for city employees who become fathers, Neves, the city’s mayor, vowed to overturn it. He didn’t expect to be bombarded by news outlets and a local campaign demanding that the law remain in place.  The story even made it onto BBC.

“How do we deal with the shortage of teachers, street cleaners with an absence for that long?” Neves said. “I‘m the father of three children and I don’t think it’s necessary or essential to have 30 days of paternity leave.”

Currently, Brazil offers only five days paid paternity leave, compared to four months fully paid maternity leave (the United States, of course, offers none).  And yet, many government officials at the local and federal level in Brazil (and in other countries) take Neves’ side: They believe allowing 30 days of paternity leave will disrupt worker productivity and the functioning of cities and countries. They’re wrong. In fact, the opposite is true.

Experiences from as far north as Sweden and as far east as Japan show that policies promoting fathers’ involvement at home is good for the economy, for gender equality, and for families. And it’s good for men, too.

Experiences from as far north as Sweden and as far east as Japan show that policies promoting fathers’ involvement at home is good for the economy, for gender equality, and for families. And it’s good for men, too. A litany of studies demonstrate the positive effects of active fatherhood on men’s own health and well-being, their relationships with their partners, and on the social, emotional, physical and cognitive development of their children.  Research shows that when men are more involved in the early care of a child, they are more likely to remain connected to that child and to carry out a more equitable amount of the care work.

And that has big economic implications. If men share half the care work at home  through the help of policies like extended, paid paternity leave, women’s participation in the paid labor force increases.  Numerous studies have found the economic benefit of maternity leave; the evidence is also mounting about leave for fathers.

More: If Norwegian women can’t have it all, can anyone? 

Consider this: the Organisation of Economic Coordination and Development reports that if women in the U.S. worked at the same rates men did, U.S. GDP could grow 9 percent; France’s by more than 11 percent; and Italy’s would see a 23 percent climb. On average, across OECD countries, if women’s participation in the workplace were to converge with men’s rates by 2030, we could see an overall increase of 12 percent in GDP.  This data comes in addition to recent policy recommendations from the ILO, the IMF and the World Bank all pointing to paternity leave and men taking on an equitable share of the care work as being essential components in promoting women’s participation in the workplace – and in boosting the economy overall.

This would be especially welcome in Brazil, where, after a decade of meteoric economic progress, economic growth has now slowed with a mere 0.3 percent  projected growth for 2014, the lowest in 5 years. Over the last two decades women’s labor market participation has increased to 60 percent in Brazil.  Paternity leave could boost that even more.

Brazil’s fight for gender equality could also use a boost. Brazil fell nine country rankings since last year in the latest Global Gender Gap Index report, putting it behind Cuba and Mozambique.  Not surprisingly, Iceland, Sweden and Norway–all of which offer paid paternity and maternity leave—rank first, third and fourth, respectively, in the report.   They represent convincing examples that father-friendly policies contribute to women’s economic empowerment – and to a country’s economic stability and growth.

To be sure, creating these policies is only half the battle. The next question becomes: If  we offer leave, will men take it?  Studies find that many men, particularly those in the private sector, worry about their job stability if they take extended leave to care for a child.  One key strategy to convince men to take leave is that it be paid and that at least part of it is non-transferable from the mother to the father.  Another key lesson learned  from places like Iceland, Sweden and Norway – countries that pioneered paid paternity leave more than 20 years ago– is that employers, particularly in the private sector, must encourage men to take leave and assure them that their career trajectories will not suffer if they do.

For example, Sweden’s famous “daddy leave” promotes parental involvement by compensating mothers and fathers at 90 percent of their wages while offering subsidies that ensure fathers take at least one month off (and making a portion of parental leave designated only for the father). Today, 9 out of 10 fathers in Sweden take paternity leave averaging more than 6 weeks.   One result: a study in Sweden found that women’s income increases 7 percent for each month that her partner takes leave.

Beyond countries, corporations are also catching on.  One Brazilian company is leading by example in extending paid paternity leave from the currently mandated 5 days to 30 days. Ernst and Young, which offers paid leave for mothers and limited paid leave for fathers, has found that such policies pay off in terms of worker satisfaction and retention, for both fathers and mothers.

Despite these bright spots, here’s our current reality: globally, the trend is that men work more paid hours when they have a child and women work less.

Despite these bright spots, here’s our current reality: globally, the trend is that men work more paid hours when they have a child and women work less. Furthermore, after the birth of a first child women are more likely to return to the work force in a part-time position than men are.  The result: men’s incomes increase, women’s remain lower and many women remain outside the formal labor market.  The other result:  we continue to see caregiving as women’s work, while men are seen, at best, as “helpers.”

Paid paternity leave breaks this destructive trend.  It is key to shifting traditional gender expectations and achieving full equality for women. And it could also be key to shaking up stagnant economies.

Almost 1,000 people have signed a petition to tell Niteroi’s Mayor Neves to give fathers leave.  Now it’s time for other politicians and policymakers, in Brazil and elsewhere, to listen to citizens and consider paid paternity leave. It’s not a question of whether it’s “necessary and essential,” to use the words of Neves. It’s simply a smart and just policy all around.

Related: Why work life balance starts at the top.

About the Author

Gary Barker
Gary Barker, Ph.D., is founder and International Director of Promundo, an international organization with offices in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Washington, DC, and Kigali, Rwanda, that works to engage men and boys in gender equality and ending violence against women.
Mary Robbins
Mary Robbins is a Program Officer at Promundo, an NGO that works internationally to engage men and boys in promoting gender equality and end violence against women.  Since 2012, she has supported their projects and research related to women's economic empowerment and children's rights.

The Power of Libya’s Female Arms Dealers


I am an arms dealer in Libya, but my weapons reduce violence and last longer than a bullet.

As the founder of the Voice of Libyan Women (VLW), a women’s rights organization focused on peace and security, the tools I use to drive change and create peace are rooted in diplomacy, cooperation, culture and history. In other words, what some people call “soft power.”

“Hard power,” on the other hand, refers to the use of surveillance, sanctions and military intervention to ensure international security. But in Libya, I’ve seen more progress on peace and security from the work of arms dealers like myself – women who wield weapons like dialogue, awareness, and education – than from the carriers of “hard” weapons. That’s because hard power solutions tend to focus on the short-term, whereas soft power fixes focus on the long-term.

Here’s what I mean: rather than press buttons far away to wipe buildings off the map, an act proven to instigate violent reactions from local communities, leading to greater instability and insecurity, we walk into extremists’ homes, schools and workplaces. We speak to those who feel they have no alternative, working with them to foster self-confidence and create greater opportunities – such as volunteering, part-time jobs and even creative outlets. Most recently a young rogue militia member from the southern Libyan city of Obari founded a “peace coalition” with educators, parents and fellow militia members in his hometown after attending our seminars. He expressed that working with other community leaders in our seminar and workshops was the first time he felt he had equal opportunity to contribute to the community and public life in a respected role without the use of arms. Our work gave him peaceful, practical tools to strengthen his voice, an opportunity that he was previously only granted through his militia role as a street patroller.

Hard power solutions tend to focus on the short-term, whereas soft power fixes focus on the long-term.

How do we make our case for peace to young militia members? The strongest tool in our educational arsenal involves challenging the misrepresentation and misuse of religious Islamic teachings that are used to promote extremism, and then using the accurate interpretations of Islamic verse to promote action on traditionally taboo issues, like domestic violence. We did that recently with VLW’s Noor Campaign – which invoked Islamic texts as a way to combat violence against women. “International Purple Hijab Day” was a similar campaign which called for greater action against domestic violence. It reached tens of thousands of men and women in its first year. For the first time, domestic violence – and its prohibition in Islam – was discussed in schools, universities, mosques, workplaces and on national media throughout Libya. The Libyan Prime Minister himself supported the campaign, wearing a purple scarf on television and throughout his daily meetings. The next year, the campaign was internationally supported by Jordan’s Queen Noor, and has since been replicated by organizations throughout the region.

Why does this “soft power” work?  It hands the community words and tools to fight against violence, poverty, fear and corruption – weapons of strength and self-actualization. It offers youth weapons of peace against an enemy that wants to drag them into war.

And when women are the key arms dealers, “soft power” can be even more effective. That’s because women, in their roles as mothers and as the majority of teachers, have greater and more organic access to the local community and to young students. I’ve seen that their ideas, surprisingly, are much more likely to be heard and respected. Why? Women often aren’t perceived as political or security threats to those in power (which is a problem in and of itself).

Consequently, it is women who lead the majority of awareness raising campaigns in Libya – from voter awareness to teaching students the mental and physical effects of war.

Our greatest weapon in the struggle for peace is, as Nelson Mandela so famously stated, education. Every additional year of formal education can increase a person’s future income by an average of 10 percent, and it also leads to significantly reduced maternal mortality rates and the spread of fatal diseases.

Formal education is key to economic and political stability. But so is informal education. Our belief is that by focusing on the informal education of young men and boys specifically we can build their understanding of how dialogue – rather than bombs and military strikes – is key to security and economic opportunity. This understanding is what will lead to a society in which all individuals pursue collective goals of prosperity, dignity and rights.

Our greatest weapon in the struggle for peace is, as Nelson Mandela so famously stated, education.

But not everyone believes us yet. The greatest challenge to the work of  women arms dealers like me is the continued focus of international security efforts on violent weapons and military intervention, rather than community development and dialogue. It’s like trying to unlock a door with one hand tied behind our backs.

Sustained international peace will come as a direct result of the greater emphasis on dialogue from the international community. If U.S. policymakers want to help us this murky, post-conflict environment, they’ll increase communication with women’s group on the ground, demand that they be involved in conflict and mediation processes, and give greater financial and technical support this kind of critical work.

Next time those policymakers  have a meeting about international security, they may even want to call the Libyan women arms dealers. We know which weapons actually work.

About the Author

Alaa Murabit
Alaa Murabit is the founder of the Voice of Libyan Women, a women's empowerment organization.

Instead of Re-Drawing the Map, Let’s Transform Our Borders


Should we re-draw our borders? This question keeps coming up whenever societies or groups of people face existential national threats or serious challenges to systems or institutions that organize society. These days, the question surfaces most often in response to anxieties generated by the fear of global conflict, environmental change, and growing populations of migrants and displaced persons.  Given that state borders – from a divided Germany to contemporary Israel—take varying forms and mean different things to different people at different times in history, any attempt to redraw state borders is bound to unleash even more complex problems. A more helpful approach would be to transform borders rather than redraw new ones or keep existing ones as they are.

For most people, borders have three critical functions: to help create order by delineating spheres of authority; to protect those living inside clearly-demarcated territories from outsiders; and to ensure proper control and management of citizens  and natural resources.

In order to transform borders, however, we must first understand humanity’s appetite for them in the first place—which does require us to examine the future of state boundaries. For most people, borders have three critical functions: to help create order by delineating spheres of authority; to protect those living inside clearly-demarcated territories from outsiders; and to ensure proper control and management of citizens  and natural resources. These functions trace back to the beginning of human sedentary existence, where they gained concrete expression through the building of walls, to today’s iterations, where electric fences and checkpoints proliferate.

Some thinkers predict that the power of globalization will destroy the significance of state borders, leaving behind a “borderless world,” where trade flows freely.  That vision has not come to pass: globalization has also resulted in more borders being drawn than erased, such as in the former Yugoslavia, where the allegiance of individual regions with either Europe or Belgrade rendered borders both increasingly significant and dangerously unstable. Whenever the border – a common marker of territory – is under threat or stress, governments do everything in their power to defend it. No wonder that borderlands are often sites of deadly encounters between state security forces and those threatening the sovereignty of states.

Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, the future of state borders hinges upon fundamental changes on notions of state sovereignty. An alternative future of state borders is possible when the territory under a sovereign state is redefined to promote inclusivity.  Cross-border arrangements seem to hold prospects for a progressive future in which borders continue to exist but derive new meanings and purpose.

Take the creation of transnational regions, most of which try to redefine state borders to create an entirely new space in which people from various states could share some form of common citizenship. No region is perfect, but regional constructions have been proven effective at transforming borders before. For example, in 2014, the European Union has brought 28 states into a jointly managed regional entity where original state borders now appear like subnational ones. Had Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda followed former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere’s proposal in the early 1960s to integrate the three countries into one regional polity, a “new East Africa” transcending colonial borders could have been created.

Here in southern Africa, the regional community has not yet reached the stage of political union, but is embracing cross-border arrangements in the domain of nature conservation. This development points to two promising avenues for transforming state borders. First, they inject nature back into the border discussion.  They bring back nature into ideas of borders. The relationship between nature and borders has a long history. Kingdoms were delimited by topographical features to make them – and the authority of Kings and Queens – look natural and unquestionable. Going back to ancient historical regimes in China and Mesopotamia, rivers and mountains formed the template on which borders were drawn, and these features abound in current maps showing state borders.

The urgency of environmental changes are waking us up to the reality that melting glaciers and pollution don’t need a passport to alter the landscape or wreak havoc across borders.

At the same time, natural features do not, on their own, form borders. Instead, borders exist because humans create them—often with disastrous results. Second, cross-border efforts at nature conservation can also demonstrate practical steps we can take to transcend colonially-inscribed state borders in Africa and other regions. The urgency of environmental changes are waking us up to the reality that melting glaciers and pollution don’t need a passport to alter the landscape or wreak havoc across borders. Because environmental problems call for cross-border efforts for resolution, they offer a microcosm for the study of the political and philosophical difficulties posed by state borders and a potential model for future postcolonial transformation based on both nature and culture.

One recent and specific example is the establishment of southern African peace parks: cross-border nature conservation projects operating across the borders of two or more states. These projects, such as the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park on the border between South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, demonstrate some of the practical ways by which state borders can be transformed. The Great Limpopo  and other cross-border spaces like Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, empower sovereign nations to allow their borders to cease to function as barriers.  These parks free wildlife—initially fenced into one state’s territory—to roam across state borders, making them a transnational asset rather than a national one. The fences come down and wildlife moves undisturbed while each state retains its sovereignty. Thus, a transnational entity is created without undoing the maps of the states involved.

This cross-border idea offers us direction in imagining what state borders might become in the future and invites us to think about conditions under which border transformation could be possible for citizens as well as wildlife. One of these directions should be correcting the errors of the past where humans use natural features to create barriers. These features should now be seen as theaters of opportunity for borderland communities who share rivers, mountains, and the like. It is bizarre, and even a recipe for conflict in places such as Kashmir or the border between Ethiopia and Kenya, to fence off rivers in the name of state sovereignty when water is such a basic human need and right.  A second necessary direction is to think carefully about an appropriate scale at which the idea of inclusive borders could be successfully pursued. Nation-states are incredibly complex entities to transform all at once not least because they are pillars of a world system on which notions of world order are built. The cross-border idea suggests possibilities for using micro-regions – small-scale regions that transcend international borders – to build confidence on inclusive borders. It is in these micro-regions that border transformation is likely to succeed and also have material meanings for, and effects on people living at the edge of the state.

More: Here are the foreign policy lessons the next President can learn from the Obama administration. 

About the Author

Maano Ramutsindela