The Utility of Women’s Caucuses in Today’s Political Climate

This week in North Philly NotesAnna Mitchell Mahoney, author of Women Take Their Place in State Legislatures, writes about the importance of women and bipartisan caucuses.

The toxic masculinity displayed perpetually by politicians and tracked by scholars (https://www.genderwatch2018.org/) in our current political climate reminds us of the importance of formal and intentional women’s spaces. Women’s organizations inside and outside of institutions serve many purposes including strategic planning and action for policy change as well as support for women who do disproportionate amounts of household, professional, and emotional labor. My book, Women Take Their Place in State Legislatures: The Creation of Women’s Caucuses, examines under what conditions women state legislators carve out a space for themselves within legislatures where men make up three-quarters of members.

Women Take Their Place in State Legislatures_smThe more things change, the more they stay the same.

My research found that many of the reasons women formed caucuses in the 1970s and 1980s are very similar to the motivations of today’s women caucus entrepreneurs. The bias and exclusion women felt when they were increasing their numbers in state legislatures continued to be reported by the women legislators I interviewed between 2009-2013 when their numbers plateaued around 24%. Apart from experiences of discrimination, women also reported wanting relationships with other women who shared their experiences as a woman in politics to learn from them and feel supported. This year has seen an increase in the number of women filing to run for state legislative seats (https://www.genderwatch2018.org/). If more women enter legislatures, will they seek out women’s only spaces?

What is in it for them?

In 2016, 22 states have such organizations whose missions vary from agenda setting policy caucuses, to those who take up policies on an ad hoc basis, to those whose primary mission is social – supporting each other as women, no policy consensus necessary. These caucuses allow legislators to express certain identities, signifying themselves as experts in certain policy areas and advocates for certain constituencies. Caucuses help members build relationships and gain information useful for accomplishing their goals. These groups also provide opportunities for leadership. Other studies have shown, depending on the proportion of women in the majority party, the presence of a women’s caucus may be correlated with higher proportions of women in leadership positions, increasing their status within the institution, getting them closer to the reins of power themselves (Kanthak and Krause 2012). Savvy entrepreneurs who want to strengthen women’s caucuses use many of these arguments when trying to motivate other women to join while simultaneously refuting counterclaims that women no longer need these spaces or that bipartisan caucuses themselves are inappropriate.

What is in it for all of us?

In light of today’s hyper-partisanship, one may ask what use a bipartisan caucus is, especially if it is only social in nature. Does it really matter? If the other side is populated by traitors and extremists, why even attempt relationships? In subsequent research, my colleague Mirya Holman and I found that states with women’s caucuses (even those that were only social) had an increased co-sponsorship rate among women indicating that policy outcomes are possible – even when policy is taken explicitly off the table for the caucus. Further, during the Kavanaugh hearings, much was made of the bipartisan relationship between Senator Coons and Senator Flake.  Bipartisan, personal relationships never go out of style in legislatures – even if they are strained during hyper partisan times (Victor and Ringe 2009).

Bipartisan caucuses are one place such relationships are formed in legislatures that prioritize partisan loyalty and gender norm expectations. In addition to the benefits for participants, women’s caucuses make three significant interventions to legislative institutions. First, by creating a legislative organization that signifies gender as politically salient, women legislators are challenging the false gender neutrality of politics. In my book, I make visible male dominance within these institutions that many consider androgynous. Observers may note this advantage in the social norms of legislatures where men call out women for speaking in groups larger than pairs, where men exclude women from social gatherings where they actually make the deals, and through more formal processes where party leaders concentrate women legislators in less powerful committee appointments and exclude them from leadership positions.

Second, the establishment of women’s caucuses inside male-dominated legislative institutions can provide a safe space for marginalized legislators to support each other, as well as help develop and refine legislative initiatives. Caucuses are a way to counteract institutional norms that may require women to play a man’s game, adopt a particular political persona, or adhere to someone else’s definition of appropriate political priorities. When gender norms are challenged or broadened in a public space like legislatures, the possibilities for all women grow.

Finally, as conduits for advocacy organizations into the legislature, women’s caucuses may contribute to better representation for many different constituencies.  These potential interventions are significant and indicate the importance of these organizations beyond the adoption (or not) of women-friendly policy.

Scholars must continue to probe the value or necessity of these bipartisan organizations. One day they may no longer be necessary as women are wholly incorporated into the institutions in which they serve. However, it may be that women will always seek comradery and support from those with similar lived experiences, regardless of how far their workplaces come in accommodating their presence. For now, the symbolic importance of women’s spaces within male-dominated institutions continues to signal that women belong in office and women can work together (even if in limited ways). More tangibly, the handful of women’s caucuses that participate in recruiting and training women for campaigns hold out hope that they may have a few new members come next session.

References

Kanthak, Kristin, and George A. Krause. 2012. The Diversity Paradox: Political Parties, Legislatures, and the Organizational Foundations of Representation in America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Victor, Jennifer Nicholl and Nils Ringe. 2009. “The Social Utility of Informal Institutions: Caucuses as Networks in the 110th U.S. House of Representatives.” American Politics Research. 37(5): 742-766.

 

 

 

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Celebrating Banned Books Week with a University Press community response to censorship

This week in North Philly Notes, in honor of Banned Books Week, we repost an article by Claire Kirch that appeared in Publishers Weekly on September 13, about Target’s practice of redacting certain key words in the product descriptions of their books and how the University Press community responded. 

Publishers Call Out Target for ‘Censoring’ Book Descriptions

A number of publishers, most of them university presses, are taking Target Corporation to task for redacting certain key words in the product descriptions of their books. They say the Minneapolis-based chain retailer has scrubbed certain words from their descriptions, including “transgender,” “queer,” and even the term “Nazi.”

While some of the redacted product descriptions were corrected by Wednesday morning, a number of publishers say their product descriptions currently contain asterisks instead of key words.

PW reached out to Target’s public relations department several times about the glitch but, as of press time, had received no response.

Heather Gernenz, publicity manager at the University of Illinois Press, said Cáel Keegan, the author of the November release Lana and Lilly Wachowski, alerted the press on Monday that the word “transgender” had been replaced in three places by asterisks in the product description on Target.com. The book is about transgender siblings,

Gernenz requested online that the description be corrected. And, although the product description for the paperback edition of the title was quickly changed, Gernenz had to make a second request before the description for the hardcover edition was updated by Wednesday morning.

Publishers told PW that Target.com has fixed some initially-altered product descriptions. But several books having to do with LGBTQ issues continue to feature redacted words, such as We Make It Better: The LGBTQ Community and their Positive Contributions to Society (Mango, Oct.) by Eric Rosswood and Kathleen Archambeau; and Trans: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability (Univ. of Calif. Press, Jan.) by Jack Halberstam.

Titles with LGBTQ themes are not the only ones being affected on Target.com, either. Some publishers told PW that their books about Nazi Germany also contain redactions. For example, Adolf Hitler’s last name along with the term “Nazi,” have been scrubbed from the product description of World War II: The illustrated Story of the Second World War by John Burns (Classic Illustrated Comics, 2015).

As it happens, Target has redacted words from book product descriptions before. In late December, Nina Packebush tweeted about the fact that the word “queer” had been removed from the product description of her YA novel, Girls Like Me (Bedazzled Ink, 2017), about a pregnant teen who identifies as pansexual.

Packebush told PW on Wednesday that a Target representative had responded to her complaint by explaining that the company regarded the word “queer” as a slur, and thus removed it from the description. After pressure from Packebush, her publisher, and others, the word was put back into the product description by January 6. Subsequently, however, Target replaced the word “queer” with “trans.” The change, Packebush points out, leaves the site with an inaccurate reference to the book’s protagonist.

According to Ohio State University Press director Tony Sanfilippo, Target’s move might be a well-meaning policy gone awry. “I understand that they might want to avoid controversy. But if they want to keep Nazis off their site, or Nazi-themed products out of their search results, there are ways of doing that that don’t censor. If you can’t say ‘Nazi,’ you can’t stop Nazis. And if you can’t search for books about the trans community and trans issues, your search engine and your corporate philosophy are morally flawed.”

Claire Kirch is the Midwest correspondent for Publishers Weekly.

Copyright (c) 2018 Publishers Weekly PWxyz LLC. Used by permission.

A Q&A with Judge Nelson A. Diaz

This week in North Philly Notes, an interview with Nelson A. Diaz, about his inspiring new autobiography, Not from Here, Not from There.

You came to America as a child—literally—in your mother’s belly. Can you discuss the experience of being part of the wave of Puerto Rican immigrants post-World War II?
During the 1940’s and 1950’s, many Puerto Ricans came to New York in search of greater job opportunities because the economic hardships confronting Puerto Rico after WWII. My mother came to New York to provide a better life for me. She was a woman who was ahead of her time because she was a working mom at a time when most mothers stayed at home with their children. She did not have a choice. She worked as a seamstress in a factory to make ends meet. Although I grew up in very humble circumstances, my mother always provided the example of love, hard work, and faith. The Marine Tiger where she landed was a famous ship used in WWII for transport of soldiers and many came to the shores of NY the same way having American citizenship since 1917. Public Policy in the availability of Public Housing made a major difference in our lives.

You grew up in Harlem and had some hardscrabble experiences. What was that period of your life like?  You talk about being in fear at age 15. What helped you get through that time and not just survive, but thrive?
Growing up in poverty does not give you many options. Violence, gangs, and drugs are all around. I had a lot of problems in school much of which stemmed from my inability to speak and read in both English and Spanish. Trying to live in two different worlds – Puerto Rican culture and American culture – was difficult. I was not doing well in school and was always struggling to get better grades. At the age of 15, I went from being a D student to an A student in one year through the saving grace of the church.

Through faith, I felt hope. Hope for my future, an expectation that better things lied ahead and a strong desire to work hard for it. Through faith, I no longer felt unworthy and I knew that I could achieve greater things, not only for myself but also for others. The intervention of people in my life made a difference.

Not From Here_smYou faced considerable discrimination in Philadelphia (e.g., passing the bar). Was there a particular experience that made you learn and grow?
Growing up as a poor Puerto Rican kid from Harlem, I always had to overcome the barriers of stereotypical attitudes: a school counselor who believes that you are not college material, or institutional or systemic bias in law schools and government, or law firms and corporate boards that lack diversity even though there are highly qualified people of color. That is why civil and human rights are important issues that I have spent my life fighting for. I have spent a lifetime breaking barriers so others can walk through the doors—whether it was becoming a founding member of Black Law Students Association and the Federation of Puerto Rican Students because I understood the power of coalitions of interest; or becoming a community activist to protest the lack of diversity and open up law school doors for others; or promoting economic development in the Latino community; or becoming the first Puerto Rican White House Fellow, where I worked for Vice President Mondale and was able to promote Latino diversity in the political arena and influence public policy both domestically and internationally; or becoming the first Latino judge in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania; or becoming the first minority administrative judge and presiding over court reforms that brought seven years of backlogged cases to the present and saved the courts millions of dollars; or fighting for the human rights of Soviet Jews; or becoming the first American judge to sit on a Japanese Court; or fighting against segregation in housing nationwide; or promoting the inclusion and promotion of minority and women lawyers in the profession; or fighting for diversity on corporate boards. I may have been the first, but I did not want to be the last!

The history of anyone but Caucasian who had passed the Pennsylvania Bar demonstrates that until the Liacouras Bar Committee found discrimination in the Bar exam the Commonwealth of PA since its founding, the bar had only admitted 67 African Americas and no Latinos before 1969 when I entered Law School. It was apparent that it was impossible to believe that I might get admitted and the city was so segregated by neighborhoods with continuous racial conflict between neighborhood boundaries.

Eventually, your career took off with appointments as the General Counsel at HUD, and as a city solicitor who helped with immigration issues. Can you describe your experiences?
The White House Fellows program gave me an education on the world and lifted my profile in my professional life.  The Judicial appointment and election also changed the public perspective of me. Both of these appointments, including the Administrative Judge title, were avenues of increasing diversity in the workplace. Although I was flattered to have been asked to by Henry Cisneros, who is a trailblazer and friend, to become his General Counsel at HUD, I did not want to go to Washington, DC. Henry was persistent and I eventually agreed. By breaking another barrier—becoming the first minority General Counsel—I was determined to increase the numbers of minority and women lawyers hired, retained and promoted because of the shocking lack of diversity among the government attorneys. I have always felt that the inclusion of minorities and women is an important step to changing systemic bias that exists in most institutions. As Latinos, we need to select our own leaders and continue to help each other climb the ladder of success.

Your book’s title is curious, it suggests a lack of belonging. Can you discuss that?
The title of my book, “I am not from here and I am not from there/No soy de aqui, ni de alla,” is about being a Puerto Rican born and raised in New York. We are not accepted here because of stereotypes and prejudice and yet not accepted as Puerto Rican from the Islanders because we were born in the States. It begs the question so where do we belong? That is a difficult barrier to overcome. You continue striving for excellence, inclusion, and moving the agenda forward so there is equality for all. There are many examples of rejection on both sides of the Atlantic both professionally and community where Puerto Ricans resided.

My parents lived most of their lives in Puerto Rico while I lived all of my life in the United States. I visited regularly since the age of 10 was educated in the issues of both countries, despite my professional capacity and assistance was there rarely an opinion they sought or cared particularly as you can see from the major Hurricane Maria. When they used my help it was limited to educate their officials and not my expertise which normally was ignored. That never gave me pause to keep trying wherever possible.

Do you think you achieved the American Dream?
Latinos positively contribute to the wellbeing of this great country. My story demonstrates some of the many ways, Latinos contribute to America. I hope that this book is seen in a bigger context than just my story. In the backdrop of the negative and racist attitudes about Latinos being only “criminals and rapists” my story is one of many, Latinos who work hard every day to put food on the table, house their families as best as they can and educate their children to have equal opportunities for the future. Isn’t that what everyone wants – the American Dream? History has eliminated most of our contribution and we fail to tell the story of how we have made America better.  My book will hopefully inspire young people to strive for a better life.

In winning U.S. House primary, Ilhan Omar breaks barriers and sets an example

This week in North Philly Notes, we re-post a recent editorial, written by Stefanie Chambers, author of Somalis in the Twin Cities and Columbus that appeared in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune about Ilhan Omar winning the U.S. House primary.

Ilhan Omar’s victory Aug. 14 in the DFL primary for Congress is a cause for celebration. Her triumph is especially gratifying for those in Minnesota and beyond who value opportunity and democratic inclusion.

Omar is well-positioned to become the first Somali-American and female Muslim member of the U.S. House. Moreover, she may enter the House with another Muslim woman, Rashida Tlaib, who won a Democratic primary in Michigan.

Omar’s political rise from state representative to congressional candidate implores us to consider how she achieved so much political success — against the backdrop of rising hostile and hate-filled rhetoric aimed at both Somalis and Muslim Americans — in a few short years.

In 2016 Omar was elected to the Minnesota Legislature, becoming the first Somali-American elected to a state house. She was an against-the-odds candidate, because Somali-Americans are often viewed with suspicion even in the communities they call home. Her election provided the media with a positive story about new Americans thriving in our democracy.

Omar’s success is a sharp contrast to the negativity espoused by America’s current president. During a 2016 campaign stop, then-candidate Donald Trump failed to acknowledge the progress being made in the Twin Cities to incorporate Somali refugees into the fabric of the larger community. Rather, out of ignorance or political expediency, he reiterated many misperceptions about such refugees, stating, “Here in Minnesota you have seen firsthand the problems caused with faulty refugee vetting, with large numbers of Somali refugees coming into your state, without your knowledge, without your support or approval.”

Trump went on to falsely state that “everybody’s reading about the disaster taking place in Minnesota.”

During Omar’s 2017 appearance on “The Daily Show,” she told host Trevor Noah, “I am America’s hope and the president’s nightmare.”

SomalisintheTwinCitiesThe hope that Omar mentions was apparent when I was conducting fieldwork in the Twin Cities in 2014 for my book Somalis in the Twin Cities and Columbus. At the time, Omar was a City Council staffer, already a well-known presence in the community and a source of inspiration to young Somali men and women.

During one interview with a group of Somali youth leaders, one woman told me: “She fights for what she believes in and has a public presence. We admire her willingness to stand up for the things she believes are right. She’s smart and knows how the system works. … She’s our mentor.”

This aligns with the theory that when young people have role models in public life they’re more likely to feel included and consider careers in public service, I suspect many young Somalis/Muslims were inspired by her historic first.

Omar’s victory is not the only Somali-American political success story in Minnesota. There are now several Somali-Americans in elective office. Others have run unsuccessfully. With so few women or people of color running for office proportionally in the United States, this trend is promising.

The success in Minnesota is also the result of innovative initiatives by political, business and charitable leaders in the state to expand opportunities and incorporation of Somali refugees and other recent immigrants. Outreach efforts have led to employment of Somalis in state and local government agencies and police departments. A growing number of Somali-Americans hold positions of leadership in labor unions.

Indeed, the Twin Cities are often viewed as a model for innovation by policymakers from regions around the world struggling to incorporate refugees into their communities. The combination of so many Somali-Americans’ desire to serve the public and the receptiveness of various community leaders has created opportunities for a group often vilified and condemned by white nationalists and their panderers.

We should all be proud of Ilhan Omar and the other Somali-American Minnesotans who have chosen public service in order to strengthen their communities. Political and economic leaders in other states should take a close look at how Minnesota has opened doors for new Americans eager to be part of our democracy.

Stefanie Chambers is professor of political science and chair at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and author of Somalis in the Twin Cities and Columbus: Immigrant Incorporation in New Destinations, published by Temple University Press. She is producing the documentary Dreaming in Somali: New Americans in the Twin Cities.

Wildlife crime: Understanding the human and social dimensions of a complex problem

This week in North Philly Notes, William Moreto, editor of Wildlife Crime, writes about how criminology as a field has much to offer in the understanding and prevention of wildlife crime.

In recent years, wildlife crime has generated considerable public attention. This can be partly attributed to growing concerns over environmental issues, including climate change, as well as increased attention on wildlife trafficking and its impact on the status of endangered iconic megafauna, like elephants and rhinoceros. The hard sciences, including biology, has tended to take the lead in the assessment and investigation of crimes that harm the environment, including the poaching and trading of wildlife products. This is not surprising given that the unsustainable overharvesting of wildlife can result in long lasting ecological and environmental impacts, as well as potentially devastating public health concerns resulting in the consumption of unregulated and unsanitary wildlife products.

Although wildlife crime has historically tended to fall within the purview of the hard sciences, the role of the social sciences, including geography, psychology, and economics, have increasingly been recognized in both academic and non-academic circles. Indeed, while wildlife crime is very much an environmental issue, it is also inherently a human and social problem as well. Recently Bennett and colleagues (2017) helped reinforce this reality when they published an article in a leading conservation journal, Biological Conservation, demonstrating the role that 18 distinct social science fields have within the conservation sciences. Noticeably missing from this list, however, were the fields of criminology (the study of criminal behavior), criminal justice (the study of how the criminal justice system responds and operates), and crime science (the study of crime). For ease, and I hope my fellow colleagues can forgive me, but I’ll refer to this group collectively here as “criminology.”

Wildlife Crime_smCriminology as a field has much to offer in the understanding and prevention of wildlife crime, while also contributing to broader conservation science topics. The volume, Wildlife Crime: From Theory to Practice, adds to the conservation science literature by underscoring how criminological theory and research can provide unique insight on a complex problem like wildlife crime. Questions related to the why specific activities and practices are outlawed, how such regulations are viewed by communities who are affected, why individuals begin, continue, or desist as offenders, how the criminal justice system responds to such actors, and what strategies can be developed in addition to the criminal justice system are all discussed in the volume. Additionally, scholars detail their experiences conducting research on active offenders involved in wildlife crime and further highlighting the very human aspects from those involved in such activities, as well as the researchers who perform such study.

Finally, the inclusion of practitioners in the volume who are or were involved in day-to-day conservation practice cements the need for more social science research that directly focuses on those tasked with the implementation and management of conservation policy and regulation. Essentially, by better understanding how conservation policy is implemented and the real-world challenges faced by individuals who work on the front-line is essential in understanding what strategies can be effective, what may be unsuccessful, and what may ultimately prove to be counter-productive or even harmful. In sum, Wildlife Crime: From Theory to Practice contributes to the growing literature on wildlife crime by illustrating the value of viewing the issue from a criminological perspective, promoting the need for increased academic-practitioner collaborations, and reinforcing the place of social science within the conservation sciences.

 

Another chance to see Tommy and Me

Tommy and Me, the autobiographical play by Ray Didinger, author of One Last Read and the forthcoming Eagles Encyclopedia: Champions Edition, is getting an encore production at the Media Theater August 8-26. This week in North Philly Notes, we re-post the author/playwright’s blog entry, slightly tweaked from what published last summer after the original production ended its run.

I didn’t know it was possible to have an experience that is both exhilarating and painful. But that’s what I was feeling when Tommy and Me, my first—and probably last—stage play, had its final performance at the Fringe Arts theatre.

It was exhilarating because the sellout crowd sent the play off with a standing ovation and afterwards people stayed around to say how much they enjoyed it. The story flashes back to the 1950s and ’60s and the career of Eagles great Tommy McDonald and dozens of people came up to me to relate their own memories of Franklin Field. Some still carried the ticket stubs in their wallets. Three bucks for a seat in the end zone. Yes, it was a long time ago.

TommyandMe SetThe painful part was walking back into the empty theatre and seeing the crew dismantle the set. During the two-week run I virtually lived in that theatre. It became my world and each night when the lights went down and the actors took the stage, I was transported back to my boyhood when I was the freckle-faced fan who wanted nothing more than to carry Tommy McDonald’s helmet as he walked to the practice field. It brought a lump to my throat every night. But on Sunday, seeing it stripped down and silent, reminded me it was, indeed, over.

I knew this night was coming. I knew there would be that moment when I had to let go and Tommy and Me would become a memory, but it did not lessen the sense of loss. We sat at the bar for a long time—the cast, the crew, the whole Theatre Exile team—and talked about the play and how it grew into something larger than we first imagined. All 12 performances were sell outs and each show ended with a standing ovation that seemed to grow louder each night. Tom Teti, the veteran actor who played Tommy McDonald, said, “This was a rare one.” The others at the bar nodded in agreement.

Picture_r688x459Once we left the theatre that night last year we would go in different directions. I would return to talking about the Eagles on WIP Sports Radio and Comcast Sports Net.

Eagles;Champions_smBut for a little while longer, we were sharing the bond that was Tommy and Me, the play I wrote about my boyhood hero and our unlikely 40-year journey to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I had never written a play before and when I started I wasn’t at all sure it would ever be produced. But thanks to Joe Canuso, who believed in the project, and Bruce Graham, the superb Philadelphia playwright who helped in its development, we were able to bring Tommy and Me to life. To sit in the theatre each evening and hear the audience laugh, sometimes cry, boo any reference to the Dallas Cowboys and ultimately applaud at the final curtain was a thrill unlike anything I had experienced before. I know I’ll never forget it.

Each night ended with the cast returning to the stage to answer questions from the audience. The very first night, a woman stood up and said: “I’m not an Eagles fan. I don’t even like sports…” I thought, “Where is this going?” Then she said, “But this story really touched me.” Several theatre critics [reviews below] made the same point: it isn’t a football story. It is a story about a boy, his hero and dreams coming true. It is a story I always wanted to tell and that’s why it was so hard to let go.

Read the DC Metro‘s review. 

Read the Broad Street Review‘s review

Read Philly.com‘s review

Read NewsWork‘s review

Read Philadelphia Magazine‘s review 

 

 

Who stands to gain and lose from peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea?

This week in North Philly Notes, Jennifer Riggan, author of The Struggling State, and Amanda Poole write about Eritrea and Ethiopia’s new peace deal in this article reposted from Middle East Eye.

On 9 July 2018, in a historic meeting in the Eritrean capital, Asmara, Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, and Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afewerki, signed an agreement on peace and friendship, officially ending their almost two-decades-long cold war. To reach this point, on 5 June, Ethiopia finally accepted a peace agreement that both countries had signed 18 years earlier.

Following two weeks of what appeared to be total silence, in his 20 June Eritrean Martyrs Day speech, President Afewerki responded favourably to Prime Minister Ahmed. Since then, events have proceeded rapidly.

A game changer

Following an emotionally evocative visit by a high-level Eritrean delegation to Addis Ababa, Prime Minister Ahmed travelled to Asmara. The prime minister’s visit to Asmara was rife with symbolism and emotion as thousands of Eritreans filled the streets of Asmara while Eritreans and Ethiopians in Ethiopia were visibly moved as they witnessed images of the Ethiopian and Eritrean flags flying together.

Most significantly, within moments of signing the agreement, phone lines between the two countries opened up for the first time in 20 years, connecting people across borders to a momentous historical event. On 15 July, President Afwerki visited Ethiopia for the first time in 22 years, coinciding with the opening of the old Eritrean embassy in Addis Ababa.

The emotional significance of this moment of peace between the two countries cannot be dismissed nor can its potential

Commentators, analysts and diplomats have hailed the peace agreement as a game changer that will lead to openness, benevolence and cooperation benefiting Eritrea and Ethiopia, the Horn of Africa, and Africa and the Middle East more broadly.

The emotional significance of this moment of peace between the two countries cannot be dismissed nor can its potential. It mends broken friendships and sutures together ruptured identities. It allows Eritreans and Ethiopians to think of each other as brothers and sisters and gives many citizens of both countries a much-needed and long-awaited sense of hope.

But does everyone stand to gain from peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea? The benefits are potentially greater to some than to others.

Arab allies’ role

At the center of peace negotiations is the sleepy southern Eritrean port of Assab bordering Djibouti at the mouth of the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, strategically located at the southern mouth of the Red Sea.

The United Arab Emirates has expressed a keen interest in Assab and stands to gain a great deal from Eritrean and Ethiopian cooperation over port usage. Ethiopia is Africa’s second most populous country and one of its fastest-growing economies.

With a burgeoning textile industry, the country has been desperate for expanded sea access. Prior to the beginning of the border war with Eritrea in 1998, Assab served as Ethiopia’s main port. Since the war began, Ethiopia invested heavily in Djibouti but has found that arrangement insufficient for its growing industries.

Although Assab is an indisputable part of Eritrean territory, the fact that Eritrea’s northern port of Massawa is sufficient for its shipping needs meant that Assab largely fell into disuse when the border war broke out until the United Arab Emirates leased it in 2016.

While reports show that UAE has developed the port for military use related to the war in Yemen, the port has a great deal of untapped commercial potential. Thus, UAE is well positioned to benefit once Ethiopia begins using the port to its full potential.

 It is not surprising that UAE is reported to be a key player in the peace deal although the specifics of its role are not entirely clear

A number of actors played a key role in bringing about peace, most notably Ethiopia and Eritrea themselves. Arab allies also played a key role. Saudi Arabia and UAE, on good terms with both countries, played a bridging role between the two. It is not surprising that UAE is reported to be a key player in the peace deal although the specifics of its role are not entirely clear.

The Eritrean president visited UAE in early July just as peace was being negotiated. And UAE recently gave Ethiopia $1bn to alleviate currency shortages, a move that coincided with the resumption of Ethiopian diplomatic relations with Eritrea. One of the five provisions of the recently signed agreement on peace and friendship notes the opening up of the port for Ethiopian use.

Struggling State_smLeft in the cold

Meanwhile, other stakeholders may fare less well in the peace agreement. Djibouti, arguably, may be unhappy with these arrangements having provided Ethiopia with a port since 1998.Assab has been effectively isolated since the border war began, giving Djibouti something of a monopoly over strategic control over the Bab-el-Mandab strait and enabling it to attract key investments and political alliances.

But there are others who will potentially be left in the cold as Eritrea and Ethiopia warm up to each other. While Ethiopians have been gleefully waiting to board flights to Eritrea, Eritreans in Eritrea are unsure whether they will be allowed to leave and Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia are wary of whether the country will be a place that they can ever return to.

It is expected that peace between the two countries will lead to economic benefits to both Eritrea and Ethiopia as commerce, trade and tourism crosses the border. Ethiopian airlines flights to Asmara resumed on 18 July and were full, but social media reports suggested that only 80 people were on the return flight.

Given Eritrea’s travel restrictions, it is not surprising that there would be much more traffic to Asmara than from it. To leave Eritrea legally, Eritreans are required to have exit visas, which are almost impossible to acquire. Many welcome an open border if it leads to increased mobility for Eritreans, but this will require the Eritrean government to alter longstanding practices of restricting population movements. Unlike Ethiopians, Eritreans may not benefit from these newly opened travel routes.

Refugees are another population who may not benefit from peace. Open borders and increased mobility between the two countries are a source of concern and fear for many of the 160,000 Eritrean refugees hosted by Ethiopia, many of whom live in camps close to the border. Refugees voice concerns about protection of political asylees when the nearby border opens up and representatives of the regime in Asmara are free to travel across that border into Ethiopia.

Some of those political asylees were labelled as political dissidents while still in Eritrea, leading to their flight. Some have aligned themselves directly or indirectly with Eritrean opposition groups who until now were supported by Ethiopia.

A greater number of refugees fear repercussions that could amount to a witch hunt for political dissidents should Eritrean spies or officials have access to the camps, some of which are open and easily accessible to major roadways.

Many Eritrean refugees are fearful that their relative safety which has been guaranteed by the enmity between the two countries will be eroded as camps and urban spaces become penetrable by agents of the Eritrean government. Ironically, peace may make refugee lives in Ethiopia less peaceful.

Peace questions

Along with protection concerns, increased mobility between the two countries raises other issues for refugees, such as the continuation of the prima facia basis for granting Eritreans refugee status in Ethiopia. Will Eritreans who currently have political asylum for their opposition to the regime in Asmara continue to be protected in Ethiopia? Or will Ethiopia become a place, like Sudan, where they are vulnerable to capture and forced return by the Eritrean military?

On the other hand, some refugees wonder if the presence of an Eritrean embassy in Addis Ababa might help them. Refugees needing documents, particularly passports, to reunify with family members in other countries, have not been able to get them in Ethiopia.

Many have travelled to Uganda or Kenya to visit an Eritrean embassy where they are required to sign a letter apologising for leaving the country, admitting that they left for economic rather than political reasons, accepting punishment upon their return and agreeing to pay the two percent tax to the government, all in exchange for consular services.

A handful of refugees seem to be looking ahead towards repatriation. Some worry about whether it will be truly voluntary. Others wonder what resources will be provided for them to facilitate their return home. Almost all express concerns for their safety and the desire to see peace, and the chance to live free of government harassment in Eritrea, not only between the two countries.

Considering the Eritrean state operates on a logic of control and continues to deny that citizens who have fled are refugees in need of asylum, the safe and voluntary return of refugees currently residing in Ethiopia seems uncertain.

There is no doubt that peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia will change things in the region giving Ethiopia much-coveted sea access, boosting the economies of both countries possibly to the benefit of its Arab allies such as UAE. But closer to home, peace raises a number of questions that have yet to be answered as Eritreans wonder whether peace will benefit them.

– Dr. Jennifer Riggan is Associate Professor of International Studies at Arcadia University.

– Dr. Amanda Poole is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Both have been researching Eritrea for two decades and have been engaged in research on Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia for the past two years. 

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