Xamar is the future. :cool:
We had the fortune of finding Mitchell Sutika Sipus, an urban planning expert with experience in places like Kabul and Juba, to help break down the key areas of his latest project in Mogadishu. You can visit Mitchell’s blog here and his online portfolio here.
Dissident Nation: What is your position, and which organization(s) are you affiliated with?
Mitchell Sipus: In the past I’ve worked for various NGOs and as an independent consultant. However today I operate my own company, simply called Sutika Sipus, which is a firm dedicated to providing governments and businesses with alternative strategies to end conflict, rebuild, and create new economic markets. e presently have projects in Somalia, Afghanistan, and a new one in development in South Sudan. By working independently and directly with governments and citizens, we have the ability to create solutions that others cannot because we are outside the politics and do not need to heed the mandates of donor countries. Our goal isn’t to make a bunch of money, we simply want to solve problems in the most direct and possible way. Of course that is actually really hard to do sometimes, but it is much easier when you do not work for a government or massive international agency.
Dissident Nation: How long have you been in your current field and which countries have you worked it?
Mitchell Sipus: To be honest, initially I started my career in art and design, yet that is also my greatest advantage because I foremost have a foundation in creative problem solving. In 2005 I decided to redirect my career to facilitate those populations who are most marginalized or faced with the most challenging problems. I started by doing that work in my own community in the United States in 2006, and by 2007 was doing architecture work in Kenya’s Dadaab camps. Since that time my work has continued to expand in Kenya, Somalia, Egypt, and Afghanistan. In these countries I’ve worked with gang violence, refugee camps, education, urban design, and business development.
Dissident Nation: Have you been to Somalia? What did you do there?
Mitchell Sipus: In the last year I have been to Somalia four separate times and plan to return for an extended stay this year. During these trips I have work closely with the Benadir Administration to advice on matters of governance, economic development, displacement, and operations management. Sometimes they consider and implement my advice, sometimes not, but together we have been developing some projects which will launch this year and will be of tremendous benefit to the city.
By working directly with Benadir I have had the opportunity to visit many parts of the city and spend time with local residents. Learning from the community and building real relationships with residents is the most important aspect of my work, as this is how I better understand the most pressing problems and also can determine possible resources for solutions.
Dissident Nation: Do the urban planning problems of Mogadishu differ from other similar cities, like Kabul?
Mitchell Sipus: Absolutely. I have been fascinated by Mogadishu for many years because it is a very unique city and so is the reconstruction process. Years ago I knew that one day Mogadishu would have an opportunity for change, but that international assistance would be limited, therefore the city really needs new ideas. While Mogadishu lacks political harmony or infrastructure, it also is wealthy with opportunity, given its strategic location and connections to the Somali diaspora.
Kabul is quite the opposite. It lacks natural resources and its location has been rendered irrelevant because of modern technologies. Likewise, when Afghanistan was overrun by extremist, many fled to Pakistan and did not necessarily become exposed to better education, employment, or new ideas. In rebuilding Kabul, everything has to be introduced and injected. But in Mogadishu, there are already many resources, the trick is to better organize these resources for the best outcome.
Dissident Nation: Do other Somali cities suffer the way Mogadishu does?
Mitchell Sipus: To be honest, I’m not qualified to speak on this. I have been in Baidoa only briefly and have not worked elsewhere outside Mogadishu. I would like to, but it is a matter of demand, security, and timing. Foremost, t is important that I finish my current projects.
Dissident Nation: What is the single greatest urban planning problem in Somali cities?
Mitchell Sipus: This depends on how you define urban planning. The goal of urban planning is to organize and interconnect all the different pieces of urban living to create a pleasant quality of life, yet this is a great challenge, so most planners specialize certain elements, such as economics or infrastructure. My own background is drawn from architecture, social economics, and law, so I do my best to stay focussed on the big picture.
From what I can tell, I believe the greatest challenge is much of the in-fighting within the government. Either at local, regional, or federal, there is much disagreement between generations and personalities. Also this government is young, so it is unclear who has what particular authority and many duties overlap between offices. But to be honest, I believe that there is enough momentum in the city that the critical element is that decisions need to be made more quickly, even if the wrong decision is made. One can always return to a policy and change it, but one cannot make up for lost time.
Dissident Nation: Are there any lasting improvements in the urban planning situation [in Somali cities]?
Mitchell Sipus: Certainly. I cannot speak for other Somali cities at this time, but there is vibrant change in Mogadishu. USAID has recently funded an initiative via the IOM for large-scale physical reconstruction throughout the city. Health workers at a hospital told me that they treat more clients today for pregnancy and vaccination and many less for acts of violence. Fishermen informed me that they sell more fish than ever before. And this year I’m working with the Mayor of Mogadishu on some issues including business registration, licensing, and mapping.
The only downfall is that while some journalists describe the changes, there are not enough people with direct experience sharing what they see. I’ve met many young Somalis who visit for a month then go back home to Europe or Canada, but I do not find their experiences online. So some partners and I recently started the website rebirthofmogadishu.com so that people can share their stories of change. There is already some good stuff on there, but I hope more will participate.
Dissident Nation: Some people worry about a property bubble in Mogadishu, what’s your opinion on that?
Mitchell Sipus: I fully understand why many are worried, and if I lived in Mogadishu, I would be concerned too. But I also know from experience that these are the pains of a changing economy and will eventually stabilize. I actually wrote a bit about this on my blog here.
I’m actually far more concerned about the future for internally displaced persons in Mogadishu. The classic UN approach is to put these people in camps or send them back to their place of origin, and for whatever reason, many individuals in the local and federal governments believe this is the correct solution. But if you look at the history of such settlements throughout the world, you will see that this never works. For example, the Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan have been in place for over 50 years! Now they look and function like cities, yet also maintain a particular stigma among local populations. There is no need for this.
A better option is to create channels for displaced persons in Mogadishu to more permanently settle, such as a right-to-ownership scheme. After all, not all abandoned properties will be reclaimed nor does the shape of the city need to be the same as in the past. Give people the opportunity to invest their lives in their surroundings and many more good things will happen, and quickly, than the bad.