Activist city-zenship: subversive interpretations of citizenship OR: Surviving as a woman in academia

The recent occassion of a joint inaugural professorial lecture, postponed for three years during Covid-19, made me reflect on how my life as a woman in academia became intertwined with my intellectual curiosity.

Copyright: Stefan Boness,

In my political engagement long before academia, I grew up with the slogan, originally from the feminist movement, ‘the private is political’ – a slogan that in essence means one cannot or should not divide the private and the political, but even furtive acts of private resistance or solidarity have political repercussions, however small. The literature on activist citizenship has a similar argument at its core: It analyses acts by people who resist a status or a category they have been placed in, a category that usually denies them the rights they should have as human beings or in a specific geographical setting. Often, such acts involve solidarities across boundaries and population groups with different types of status and entitlements.

I came into academia late. I had a past as a political activist and a career as a journalist. Part of my past activism was around revolutionary movements, and I spent some time in Nicaragua in 1987, during the first Sandinista revolution. I had the privilege to live with a young woman who was active in the women’s movement in Nicaragua during that time, and encountered first hand an issue that has repeated itself over and over again in revolutionary movements: The aim to include women and transcend traditional gender norms, but at the same time remaining gender blind and often oppressive for women. The drive to get a clearer grasp on this made me do a PhD on elite women in the Eritrean revolution. I had worked as a journalist in Eritrea, and the best way to engage with this theme in depth was a PhD. The book top right is one of the outcomes.

I did not do the PhD to go into academia, but when the opportunity arose to take up an interesting position in an academic department, I found this worthwhile exploring and started my life as a perofessional academic in January 2006.

While I had worked on the struggles of women before, I never felt disadvantaged as a woman – until I joined a university department. One of my first memorable encounters was a senior male colleague wanting to have coffee, and it soon turned out they simply wanted to see if my knowledge of Ethiopia would be beneficial to them. As soon as they realised I was working on Eritrea, in fact a different country, they lost interest and ended the encounter rather abruptly. Why do I mention this? Because encounters like this set the tone. If I had been a young academic whose main aim in life was an academic career, I would have been devastated by this and many subsequent encounters that followed a similar script, and the structures underpinning such encounters. I shrugged it off because I had a previous successful career, and saw academia as something to try to see if it worked for me.

I have over the years seen too many women colleagues crushed by dynamics like this – some have left academic for good even though they would have made valuable contributions, other only left their university. While these days a lot of equality, diversity and inclusion initiatives and procedures are in place, it is these hidden dynamics and structures that are so toxic, and that are not easily brought into the open, complained about, raised – and that makes working in many academic departments to this day so much easier if one is white, male, and has a grande sense of entitlement. I want to dedicate this blog to those of my women colleagues who left or felt they were forced to leave, and whose intellectual input is still missed and has made many university departments including my own arguably a poorer place – but also the batch of newish women colleagues, some of whom I have or had the privilege to mentor: I hope you will find an easier path to fulfilling careers than my generation.

I am a survivor of those dynamics – and there have been many more often painful examples, also very recently and in particular during COVID, examples of mansplaining or indirect discrimination. I am a survivor partly because of my previous biography, but also because I was lucky in many ways. And I owe me still being in academia to some great colleagues, colleagues who always believed in me and supported me. They know who they are and I am truly humbled and greatful for you being here.

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Transnational lived citizenship and local struggles: Ethiopian migrant communities in Nairobi

Reflections from the second emerging findings workshop of the ESRC-funded project: Transnational lived citizenship: practices of citizenship as political belonging among emerging diasporas in the Horn of Africa, held in Nairobi, 22-23 February 2023.

Bildschirmfoto 2023-04-19 um 20.16.57

The Transnational Lived Citizenship project examines how migrant populations establish different forms of political belonging. The empirical data highlights the complex dynamics of lived citizenship and belonging and how it interacts with changing political environments, locally, regionally and globally. The second emerging findings workshop in Nairobi included the project team, Prof Tanja Müller and Dr Oliver Bakewell from the University of Manchester, and local project lead Dr Linda Oucho and her team from the African Migration and Development Policy Centre (AMAPDOC), along with key stakeholders: representatives from community organisations and other NGOs, practitioners, and policymakers.

On a Saturday morning after the workshop, in the premises of a community organisation in a part of Nairobi where many migrants live, a group of around twenty Ethiopians gathered to discuss their struggles with Linda, Tanja and Oliver. Some young men wear football kits because afterwards, they train with the area’s youth football team; they started “to give the youth something to do and some hope”. Others wear fancy suits and shirts; they are off to their business ventures afterwards. A few women have brought their young children. The majority has lived in Nairobi since the late 1990s or early 2020s. Some were born here or came as very young children.

What unites many of them is the lack of papers or documentation. They all came as refugees and feel unable to return to their country of origin for many different reasons. Some used to be registered with UNHCR, but as refugee IDs typically need to be renewed every two years, they do not currently have valid papers. Others were never registered and are still waiting for the SMS that calls them to make an appointment. Since Kenyan authorities took over registration from UNHCR in 2015, the system has become “even more political”, in the words of one participant. Corruption in who gets papers at what price is a crucial grievance voiced by many.

In theory, things should be a lot easier since the new Refugee Act of 2021, which came into force in 2022. The act gives refugees multiple rights and protection from discrimination, at least on paper. It also gives them the right to work and access to multiple services, including health and education, on the same grounds as Kenyans – on the face of it, a progressive piece of legislation. The problem, however, is that the act doesn’t filter down to reality on the ground. And even for those with refugee IDs, as pointed out by a member of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission at the workshop, this piece of paper is often “powerless”. For example, even for refugees with relevant qualifications, it is, in practice, often impossible to enter the labour market. Even with legal protection in place, many remain in a state of liminal legality. What the refugee ID gives people, however, is hope, hope that one-day things will work out, and for many, the refugee ID is seen as the first step to potential resettlement. In reality, only a tiny percentage are being resettled – but hope is a powerful emotion.

In their everyday lives, refugees and migrants, like those we meet that Saturday, are determined by the networks with people from their place of origin, and their ethnicity, often combined with their faith. While they may get remittances from relatives abroad to manage everyday material struggles, their primary focus of lived citizenship is in their communities in the city. Networks are being formed, and the main limitation of those networks is the lack of finance or support, be it by the host nation or by ‘those organisations that should be responsible for us like UNHCR’, as several participants say.

Take the example of schooling: Youth can attend basic schooling where they live and join the Kenyan school system. But the Kenyan system is competitive and expensive, meaning most have no opportunity to participate in secondary school. Many fall into depression and are forced to live a life of few options; they have their ambitions cut short and are not given a chance. The football team and other community-led activities try to combat this but are no replacement for the aspiration of a meaningful professional life. Of course, one can say this is also the case for many Kenyans of poor backgrounds, so an issue that not only affects refugee or migrant youth. But if “an organisation like UNHCR would have one health facility and one school in this area where many refugees live, that would be a great symbol”. But urban refugees are meant to fend for themselves; such facilities are only available in the camps that nobody here wants to live in or return to.

The discussion with this group of Ethiopian migrants enforces some of the key themes and findings of the workshop: identities and belonging are always related to power dynamics at different levels: the state, the city, the international community and its actors. In this, migrant communities in different ways claim their spaces, sometimes at ethnic communities, but they also ‘negotiate to belong’, as a participant of the workshop called this, in other multiple ways that are determined by the shifting legal, social economic and cultural constraints they encounter. But ultimately, proper documentation opens doors, and formal citizenship or a status that gives equal rights on the ground and in reality, not merely on paper, will become more and more important in an increasing context of long-term displacement.

The research on which this blog is based is part of the project: Transnational Lived Citizenship: Practices of Citizenship as political belonging among emerging diasporas in the Horn of Africa (2020-2023), funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council, Grant number: ES/S016589/1.

The project is led by Prof Tanja Müller (PI) with Oliver Bakewell (Co-I). The partner in Nairobi is Dr Linda Oucho from the African Migration and Development Policy Centre (AMAPDOC).

This was first published as a Global Development Institute blogpost.

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‘One nation in two countries’ and anything in between: Transnational lived citizenship and the complex answers to the question ‘where do I belong?’

Reflections from the first emerging findings workshop of the ESRC-funded project: Transnational lived citizenship: practices of citizenship as political belonging among emerging diasporas in the Horn of Africa, held in Khartoum, 9-10 November 2022. This blog was first published as a Global Development Institue blog.

Group photo with workshop participants


The Transnational Lived Citizenship project examines how diaspora populations establish different forms of political belonging orientated towards their homeland, their current place of residence, and across a wider transnational network. It is building on the idea of lived citizenship, which is concerned with how populations who may lack legal rights or status, find ways to behave as citizens in everyday lives – for example, securing access to public schools and hospitals, involvement in local (neighbourhood) politics, participating in cultural and economic activities alongside formal citizens. At the same time, for many migrant populations, these everyday acts of citizenship may also be oriented towards their country of origin or even a transnational community. To make matters more complex, in Africa’s newest nations, South Sudan and Eritrea, former citizens of Sudan and Ethiopia may now live as South-Sudanese or Eritrean refugees/migrants in Sudan and Ethiopia, respectively. In our project we compare diaspora from Ethiopian and Eritrea in the cities of Khartoum, Addis Ababa and Nairobi.


In Khartoum, our research has focused on the lives of Eritreans and Ethiopians living in the city, often for most of their lives, and some were even born here. One workshop participant, an Ethiopian born to refugee parents in Sudan, whose refugee identity card states Ethiopian, asks himself that very question in the title quite often: where do I belong? Being born in Khartoum, eating Sudanese food, speaking Arabic most of the day – but still not ‘like them’, by which he refers to the people of Sudan. While this conundrum might be slightly easier for South Sudanese with a refugee ID, it is the very term to be regarded as refugees that they contest and object to, as a parallel project led by Prof Mohamed Bakhit from Khartoum University demonstrates. This rejection of refugee status is captured in the second quote in the title, ‘one nation in two countries’. It is what drives, according to representatives of the Sudanese Commission for Refugees (COR) at the workshop, South Sudanese in Khartoum to at least secure Sudanese passports for their children, which may mean marrying a Sudanese citizen – marriage as a strategy to overcome a status regarded as objectionable.

In our project, through interviews with Eritrean and Ethiopian refugees/migrants across the city, we have identified some of the different ways both populations practice lived citizenship in this city in which they have limited formal rights. This body of emerging work has highlighted the complex dynamics of lived citizenship and belonging, and how it interacts with changing political environments, locally, regionally and globally. It has also highlighted the importance of focusing on local dynamics when investigating transnational lives, as well as one key fact: status is an important factor that supports or undermines life in, and belonging to, the city.

City dynamics

With the city as the local space at the centre of our work, specific dynamics come to the fore. Dynamics that are different in rural areas and the borderlands between Sudan and its neighbours, where belonging is more fluid and less easily demarcated in terms of nationalities, ethnicities and other markers. More generally, the question arises of how processes of identification are tied to nationalities, and if this focus on national markers is not an imposition of European discourse.

When talking to Sami, the labels of Ethiopian and Sudanese certainly are important, and complex forms of belonging emerge from interrogating those labels in his own question about belonging. At the same time, from our interview data as well as what we hear about South Sudanese in the city of Khartoum, an important part of their everyday lives is claiming a form of right to the city, and ultimately claiming to be recognised as being part of the state. To make matters more complicated, for Eritreans and Ethiopians the national markers of an already complex identity, made more contentious with the current faultlines of conflict in Ethiopia that also involve Eritrea, is one thing. The other is to belong to the Habesha, a common term for Eritrean and Ethiopian population groups from the Abyssinian highland that transcends national markers.

Lived citizenship in these conditions here is only partly a way to contest exclusion and resist, it is equally a means to make sense of one’s own life in the city, and the possibilities that may come with it. It also is, perhaps surprisingly, sometimes used by those in power as a fluid category that may confer certain rights for political or economic reasons, not only the more widely discussed and more prevalent dynamics of exclusion.

The project is lead by Prof Tanja Müller (PI) with Oliver Bakewell (Co-I). The partner in Khartoum is Prof Mohamed Bakhit, Department of Anthropology, University of Khartoum and CEDEJ Khartoum (French Centre for Economic, Legal and Social Studies in Sudan), and the workshop co-ordinator was Ms Khadeeja Salih, BA.

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Mobilisation for a foreign war: Eritrean troops will not decide the outcome of Ethiopia’s war with Tigray

Eritrea is often cast as the villain in the Horn of Africa. The recent mobilisation of Eritrean reservists to fight in the Ethiopian province of Tigray seems once more proof of its pariah status. But such a view is short-sighted and hinders rather than helps the search for a solution. The war in Tigray – and, it should be said, violent conflicts in multiple parts of Ethiopia – is a war by Nobel Peace Laureate Abiy Ahmed and the central government against a province regarded as obstinate. Its roots go back to ancient history, to the annexation politics by Ethiopian emperors in the late 19th century. Other ethnicities were brutally subjugated and made imperial Ethiopian subjects, the Tigrayans being one of these. In turn, fights for freedom and over resources within what became the modern state of Ethiopia often turned to ethno-nationalism as a mobilisation tool.

Abiy made use of such ethno-nationalist militias when the conflict with Tigray first started, and, in line with the politics of shifting alliances in the Horn of Africa region, of all other allies he could get, most prominently his new brother in arms, Eritrean President Issayas Afewerki. Since the Peace Agreement with Eritrea that gifted Abiy the Nobel Peace Prize, both leaders seemed inseparable and Abiy started to refer to Issayas as the elder statesman from whom he could learn many things. But from the start this was not only an alliance between Ethiopia and Eritrea, it was equally, and with hindsight perhaps most importantly, an alliance against the TPLF, the old regime that had dominated Ethiopia for almost thirty years.

For Issayas, to be asked to help in the war against Tigray was an opportunity not to be missed, as tensions and outright hostility between the Eritrean rebel movement (the EPLF) turned state government and the TPLF are long standing. These tensions, also over political approaches and strategies, go back to the time when both were liberation movement against the Mengistu dictatorship in Ethiopia. The EPLF regarded the TPLF as a junior brother and the relationship became toxic and brutal when the TPLF did not do the EPLF’s bidding. Nowhere did this become more toxic than during the 1983-85 famine in Ethiopia, when the EPLF cut Tigrayan supply line – and it is no coincidence that again hunger is used as a weapon of war in the current conflict by the Ethiopian government. History repeating itself in some way. In the 1980s, the TPLF succeeded in establishing alternative supply routes to Sudan, and Sudan again has an important role to day, not least in supplying weapons to the Tigrayan forces.

Politics as usual in the Horn, with new alliances forming following the age-old dynamic that the enemy of your enemy is your friend. It is in this light that Eritrea’s involvement in the Ethiopian war with Tigray needs to be seen. But it is very doubtful that the recent so-called mobilisation of Eritrean troops will add substantial strength to the war effort. Eritrea is one the most mobilized country one can imagine anyway, with anybody below the age of 55 on quasi permanent call, at least in theory. If those who evaded active duty until now, who are thus not battle fit and whose military training is bound to have taken place a long time ago, will make a substantial contribution is unlikely.

Even if a substantial number of Eritrean soldiers were committed to fight – a big if – it is hard to imagine that the current war can be won militarily by the Ethiopian government side, with or without Eritrean help. In that light, what a full-scale offensive by Eritrea, as some have proclaimed happening, means in practice for an army made up of forced conscripts and with stretched resources, remains to be seen. In the end, Eritrean forces fight mostly alongside Ethiopian forces and it is the Ethiopian army that possess equipment like drones, supplied by Turkey, the UAE and China, that have severely hampered the Tigrayan military effort. In contrast, Eritrea does not have the military equipment to make a substantial difference.

TPLF fighters, in contrast, have the advantage that those being attacked on their home soil, just look at Ukraine, have: They fight for their land and people, they know the terrain, they are highly motivated and, as we have seen in earlier offensive, skilled tacticians. In essence, to come to Ethiopia’s aid is a risky business for Eritrea. While Eritrea may want to see the Tigrayans given a bloody nose, the disintegration of Ethiopia seems more likely the longer the fighting goes on, and if that is in Eritrea’s longer-term interest, to be on the losing side, is doubtful, and bound to have repercussions within Eritrea.

A UN report released on September 2022 into the war clearly states that all sides, including Eritrea troops, have committed war crimes, including massacres on innocent civilians and sexual assaults. But it also singles out Abiy’s central government forces as being responsible to use starvation as a method of warfare and sexual slavery of Tigrayan women.

It was equally the central Ethiopian government that failed to implement important measures of the humanitarian truce that was agreed earlier in 2022.

The re-involvement of Eritreans troops in the latest round of fighting simply adds another element to the conflict, but this is not a senseless civil war as some have claimed, rather a fight over the future of Ethiopia as a central state built on imperial legacies. Eritrea plays an auxiliary role here, but its conscript army with limited armour will not be the kingmaker or peace-wrecker, even if its President may harbour such illusions.

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When COVID-19 hits transnational urban lives: localisation and new solidarities

Photo by Nemuel Sereti on Unsplash

Semhar (not her real name) lives in an urban neighbourhood in Nairobi. She had by local standards a quite comfortable life. She and her family, her partner and two children, are urban refugees from Ethiopia, with the right papers to live and work in Nairobi. They always regarded their stay in Nairobi as temporary, and waited for the opportunity to move on to the UK, either through formal resettlement or with help from relatives. Semhar’s partner could not easily find work in Nairobi, so she became the breadwinner of the family with a qualified position. But then an opportunity arose for her partner to relocate to the UK, and they decided not to waste this chance but that he should go ahead. She would stay behind with the children and apply formally for family reunification once this was possible.

This had a number of implications for her day-to-day life: As the children were too small to be left on their own, she quit her job and stayed at home to look after them – a task formerly her partner had done. She now lived of the remittances he sent from his job in the construction industry in the UK. That all worked well – until COVID-19 hit. 

Lock-down measures in the UK COVID-19 initially left her partner without work for many months. She had just enough savings to survive and continue schooling for her oldest child. She also started to give some home-schooling lessons to others, as she was still house bound with her youngest child. With the UK lock-down easing, her partner started work again, just in time before her savings ran out. Semhar’s story is a pertinent example that demonstrates the fragility of such transnational arrangements and life plans.

Semhar is also realistic enough to know it may take a long time until she can join her partner in the UK. Her and her partner’s prime efforts are still geared towards securing economic survival and a better future for their children – therefore the big emphasis on supporting education. But the focus of her daily life has shifted, away from the grande future project of onwards migration to more local networks.

Her main support network and the focus of her life beyond financial remittances has become the local Ethiopian Oromo community in her neighbourhood, in a multinational and multi-ethnic city like Nairobi in itself a rather narrow network, confined to nationality and perhaps more importantly ethnicity. Semhar says in this respect: ‘Most of my time is with my friends who like me are mothers […] we spend time chatting over coffee and discuss life while our children play together […] my friends are mostly Ethiopian Oromo … there are also Kenyan Oromo in Nairobi but I do not socialise with them […] I mostly socialise with Oromo from my province’ (virtual interview, 31 October 2020).

Semhar’s story is a pertinent example of a local turn of transnational conceptions of life and belonging in particular when a crisis like COVID-19 interacts with migration journeys and migrant aspirations. In our ESRC-funded project on transnational lived citizenship we have found multiple evidence of how COVID-19 re-enforced or triggered a turn towards local environments. This has been most prominent in relation to a turn towards local networks of fellow nationals or fellow ethnic communities.

At the same time, this local turn in practices of lived citizenship has maintained or enforced a deep connection to the national and transnational community of participants’ country of origin. Through focusing on concrete lived experiences and how these have been re-assessed by research participants due to the pandemic, the project demonstrates that transnational lived citizenship can easily become reconfigured as a local practice within and among migrant communities, even if, as also shown in Semhar’s and other stories, not in relation to local Kenyan citizens. This turn towards the local may be temporary or more permanent, but above all it indicates that transnational lived citizenship holds promise when analysing the role of migrants in global networks.

This local turn also not only occurs at the level of everyday private lives. In parallel, new local support networks have sprung up, often based on similar narrow networks of nationality and ethnicity. In relation to the Ethiopian Oromo community, already a strong semi-formal global network of support existed before COVID-19. This is based on the believe that Oromos should help each other as much as they can, that this is a core part of Oromo culture. This has resulted in a web of social welfare organisations that are in fact structured entities in the different communities. They collect money on a regular basis from their members and then support either activities for the common good of all Oromo or, in times of crises like COVID-19, those in urgent and unexpected need. They are loosely interlinked also across closed social media groups globally thus can draw on wider support if needed. 

When COVID-19 hit Nairobi, and lock-down measures started in the city, Ethiopian employers would try to keep their compatriots on as staff. In addition, a partly coordinated response by business owners and other wealthy members of the Ethiopian community was started. Partly coordinated through the Ethiopian embassy, immediate support was provided and additional funds were raised to buy necessities like flour and sugar for those who lost their work or became destitute. In a further step, monthly stipends to those affected by lock-down policies and closures were set up by wealthy Ethiopian business people.

As discussed in more detail in this recent paper, responses to a shock like COVID-19 support the assertion that refugees and migrants enact their citizenship in relation to a transnational social field. Transnational linkages are being severed or enforced, but also the turn towards local networks is determined by how these networks are related to countries (or ethnicities) of origin. In addition, COVID-19 has enhanced pre-existing inequalities, but at the same time opened avenues for new forms of solidarity within migrant communities. A case in point here are various ad-hoc or organised networks where those with resources helped others in need.

The full paper on which this blog is based demonstrated in more concrete detail that even where transnational lived citizenship turns local, migrant lives unfold in a transnational social field that fosters innovative ways to sustain identities and belonging.

The research on which this blog is based is part of the project: Transnational Lived Citizenship: Practices of Citizenship as political belonging among emerging diasporas in the Horn of Africa (2020-2023), funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council, Grant number: ES/S016589/1.

The full open access paper behind the blog has been published in Global Networks (2022) and is available here.

This blogpost was originally pulished as a Global Development Institute Blog:

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Transnational lived citizenship and labour market integration: migration journeys in a globalised world

Copyright: Stefan Boness,

Transnational lived citizenship has gained prominence as a means to analyse mobility and foreground activist notions of citizenship over legal status. At the same time, lived citizenship and transnational movements are strongly intertwined with aspirations and belonging. Both of these often focus on meaningful professional lives, making labour market integration of migrants a priority that is often put to the background in an attempt to prevent a division into ‘deserving’ and ‘non-deserving’ migrants. But such a reluctance is short-sighted and in fact does little to support migrant aspirations.

In a recent paper, I have analysed this conundrum with a concrete empirical focus on labour market integration of migrants in Germany and the role the business sector might play here – beyond simply seeing migrants as a means to fill labour shortages.

For many of the migrants in Germany who were interviewed and visited at their workplaces for this study, a meaningful employment opportunity proved to be the foundation from which other enactments of citizenship emerged. This does not mean labour market integration is an end point in itself – but it is vital for lived citizenship in the here and now, and at the same time allows to plan for a future where core aspirations are being met. Whether this will be in Germany, in countries of origin or somewhere different, is beside the point here: for now, a point in their journey has been reached where core aspirations can be lived in everyday practices, on the shop floor and in wider society.

It reminds us of other studies that have demonstrated how local citizenship practices complement rather than contradict transnational citizenship. In fact, one may say lived citizenship as an employee in Germany makes transnational belonging feasible. It also enforces the argument that material and temporal dimensions of transnational lived citizenship constitute each other: To live transnational identifications is highly contingent on material conditions, or the socio-economic processes that determine such identification.

For those who participated in this research, transnational identifications are deeply intertwined with localised, everyday practices of citizenship and connected to being useful to society as well as having space where own aspirations can be fulfilled.

Latif, one of the research participants, reflects: ‘I never had any peace in my life except since I am in Germany, most of the people I have met are very kind, here in the company but also outside, I feel comfortable, and I can make a contribution here’. Being able to ‘make a contribution’, do something meaningful with his life but also with respect to the wider community, is of great importance to him.

Labour market integration is equally important for creating a sense of belonging beyond the world of work. Nabil explains how once he secured economic independence, he valued the freedom to make his own decisions. In Afghanistan he always had problems, he says of himself he is ‘liberal’ in terms of practicing religion. Once settled in Germany, contacts to other Afghans became complicated: ‘We argue about religion all the time, they accuse me of having betrayed my religion and my culture, but that is not true, so I try to avoid seeing my Afghan contacts’. He prefers to meet with other migrants he got to know during his journey, and also his work colleagues: ‘I want to stay in Germany as this allows me to live my life’ in the way he wants.

These examples should not hide the fact that even for those who successfully integrated into the German labour market, who live in German communities and have amicable relationships with their neighbours, transnational lived citizenship is a complex process. It may not only run into problems at the borders when trying to connect in material ways with the transnational connections of families and friends, but equally there remains a shadow of discrimination and difference, often visible in well-meaning praise by others of how well-integrated some of the migrants in fact are. But the economic location manifest in meaningful labour market integration and secure employment is a key to deal with this ‘otherness’ the migration experience also entails, and create forms of emotional attachment and belonging that transcend formal citizenship papers.

My research ultimately demonstrates that labour market integration is an important arena of lived citizenship. While one may regard such integration as a form of imposed imaginary of a ‘good citizen’ that helps otherwise exclusionary states enhance their reputation and distract from violent bordering practices, at the same time such integration fulfils a core aspiration of migrants themselves. In turn, aspirations around professional lives and economic location can often only be realised through transnational migration. Success in the pursuit of professional aspirations and labour market integration after such migration not only transforms social and economic location, but has important implications for emotional attachments and values.

The business sector is often neglected as an important actor in relation to advancing migrant lives, be it through creating employment, lobbying, and other involvement in potentially altering exclusionary state practices, even if success here is not always guaranteed. In the German case, various business sector initiatives have secured more formal rights for those in employment, while in other cases companies failed to prevent deportation of staff.

This leads to a point of caution: While lived citizenship and citizenship as a relational practice are important ways to conceive of and advance aspirations of migrants, the transnational lives they often lead and the multiple allegiances those entail, in particular in relation to intimate private connections, are hindered by state-based legal notions of citizenship and the rights these confer. This is most evident in the empirical data of my work in the restrictions that legal papers give participants to travel to connect with family in real life rather than virtually – restrictions that will be lifted once they gain full legal status as German citizens, and only then allow to properly ‘live’ transnational connections in the way they desire. Legal status thus remains an important marker of citizenship, physically and metaphorically, and for navigating transnational aspirations and mobilities as an expression of transnational lived citizenship.

The full paper, Labour market integration and transnational lived citizenship: Aspirations and belonging among refugees in Germany, Global Networks 22, 5-19, 2022, with additional data and findings can be accessed OA here.

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Advancing horizontal solidarity or long-term profit? The messy politics behind the German business sector response to refugee integration

We have seen over the past decades how sectors that are not traditionally involved in development or humanitarian action have become key actors. These include for example celebrities of various kinds – think Band Aid and Live Aid – a theme about which I have also written in the past.

Another important non-traditional actor is the corporate sector or the business sector. Its role has gained a new push with the 2030 Agenda for Development and the Sustainable Development Goals. SDG 17 specifically quasi mandates partnerships with the corporate sector.

This has led to important debates on the nature of the role of the business sector in ‘good causes’ and more specifically in development or humanitarian engagement. Of course, corporate social responsibility has been around for a long time, based on various assumptions about business and its embeddedness in wider society and a responsibility for that society. However, the question remains if a combination of doing good and making a profit at the same time is feasible or desirable.

In the debate on these issues, there is one side of the argument that says in any partnership with corporate actors, this sector will dominate and create or sustain a hegemony that follows a business or for-profit logic to solve developmental or humanitarian problems. This eventually leads to what has been called the commodification of humanitarian sentiment, combined with a neglect of other, often localised development needs in favour of corporate strategies that are ultimately aimed at fostering profit.

A more positive interpretation of corporate engagement states that such engagement tries to solve problems the corporate sector is best placed to solve.

Based on these debates and the different evaluations of the role of the business sector as a development and humanitarian actor, I conducted a piece of research on the role of the business sector in Germany in response to the comparatively large movement of refugees into Germany in 2015 and after. The integration of refugees in receiving countries is arguably one of the contemporary grand challenges and thus a pertinent example to interrogate the role the business sector may play.

The sentence ‘Wir schaffen das’ (we will manage or cope, roughly translated) is perhaps one of the lasting legacies of Angela Merkel’s  16 years in. Not known for short or snappy slogans in general, she said this in the summer of 2015 after she had decided to allow refugees stranded in various places in Europe and at the German border to enter Germany and apply for asylum there.

The challenge implicit in ‘wir schaffen das’ is twofold: It can be seen as referring to the immediate humanitarian crisis that the sudden arrival of thousands of refugees triggered in an initially overwhelmed German bureaucracy. But it also refers to the longer-term task of creating the resources to help these new arrivals to become part of German society and its future development – and here a key area is how to integrate them into the labour market.

This is where the business sector could have an important role to play, and Angela Merkel did invite around 20 German business leaders into the chancellery in autumn 2015,  to discuss how the business sector could help advance labour market integration. This move is not dissimilar from the global partnerships advocated by the UN and the SDGs – only that here it was not a multinational body but a nation-state government that aimed to draw on a partnership with the corporate sector.

The outcome of this invitation was, in addition to the individual business responses of those not invited to this meeting, the foundation of the ‘Wir Zusammen’ (We together) network. This network operated between 2016-2019 when businesses organised to facilitate refugee integration in different ways and with different time horizons.

Based on interviews with business leaders, trade union representatives and refugees, I have come to some of the following conclusions about this partnership:

Firstly, engagement by the German business sector has indeed not only provided integration opportunities through work but also at the same time transformed refugees’ sense of lived citizenship in Germany.

Secondly, business sector engagement was partly focused on and driven by labour market needs, but had also a strong underlying component of civil responsibility. This responsibility shaped refugee experiences in multiple, mostly positive ways. They received support and encouragement far beyond usual employer-employee relationships.

Thirdly, this support, and more generally business lobbying to grant rights to refugees who are skilled or in employment, has not fundamentally changed the overall environment in Germany. It did not stop the increasingly hostile environment towards refugees among some population groups and in political decision making at various levels as well. In that, one could say that business sector engagement mirrors the bottom-up engagement by activist networks or volunteers: Such engagement has the potential to transform the lives of individual refugees, and to foster voice and dignity. However, it ultimately finds itself subject to the constraints of the wider political system characterised by refugee governance that sees refugees as populations to control for the benefit of the native nation-state.

What the business sector can help to achieve is that refugees themselves have a better opportunity to fulfil their aspirations. Whereas the literature on the response of the voluntary sector in Germany finds that, many people expected gratitude from refugees, and became disillusioned when such gratitude did not materialise. The business sector is different here: it makes an offer that also corresponds to its needs, and as with German apprentices or employees, this offer usually works if employees’ aspirations and company needs match, and they part if it does not. It is thus a means to allow refugees the freedom to live the life they chose, at least in relation to employment.

Overall, locally at least, the business sector can be an important partner for humanitarian and development endeavours. In my project, I focused the empirical work on labour market integration and the businesses that were specifically involved in such integration within Wir Zusammen. Some companies who became part of the network provided a different and, in my view, more problematic response. These companies focused on the immediate humanitarian emergency and provided refugees with for example, IT devices – made by their companies with their company software, thus providing brand placements and arguably dependency together with free publicity as good corporate citizens. I more generally argue, in line with some of the literature critical of corporate sector engagement in humanitarian or development endeavours, that it is mainly a localised response that engages with local understandings and needs but also aspirations of those who were assisted where the corporate sector can be a force for good.

More details on project interviews and the findings are available in these two publications (please email Tanja Müller if you cannot access them but would like a copy):

This was first publsihed as a Global Development Institute blog:

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Travelling in the times of Corona: a personal story part two

The first part of those reflections were written in May 2020 and ended with the prophecy that this will probably have been my last journey for a while. And so it has proven to be.

My first flight since that time I took to London to attend my first in-person conference for what felt like decades. It was the annual RGS-IBG Annual International Conference – only that annual does not quite fit as well, as it was cancelled for 2020 – on the timely theme of Borders, Borderlands and Bordering.

After having navigated the complex rules that set the UK apart from the rest of Europe re travelling and COVID-19, as after all we are in the post actual-Brexit time (my last travels took place in the so-called transition period), I embarked with some apprehension to Berlin airport. This was already the first novelty: It would usually have taken me around 15 minutes to get to Tegel airport – only Tegel airport closed in 2020 and this was to be my first flight taken from the new airport on the outskirts of Berlin.

I felt like a toddler who is learning to walk, as I had somehow forgotten how it felt to travel by plane and be checked at various steps of the way, checks that are enforcing the borders, real or imagined, that one was crossing in multiple ways, often carried out by badly paid employees from a notorious security company.

But it all started well, my papers and COVID certificates were deemed correct and boarding passes were issued, first to Amsterdam and then onwards to London.

Time to relax I thought – and my trip to Amsterdam went smoothly – apart from the annoying fact that some passengers, usually men, chose to wear the compulsory face mask under their nose. The cabin crew was not inclined to enforce their own regulations and the repeated announcements that face masks had indeed to cover mouth and nose were simply ignored. Hey folks, if you do not cover your nose you may as well not wear a mask – it is not rocket science to understand that, or is it? And if you are not prepared to do that you should stay at home instead of becoming a potential threat to all others! But for some reason, face masks seem to be the new sign of oppression for a certain group of people instead of a sign of solidarity with all.

In Schiphol, a new means of bordering has been created, in all its beauty and absurdity. One gate is taken over by a COVID-paper check of the kafkaesque kind that results in a sticker on your passport that allows processing to the actual boarding gate (and potential entry into the UK). Queues at small cubicles with staff and passengers to equal degrees overwhelmed – but again I passed the test.

The rest was easy, and even my first post actual-Brexit entry into the UK was pleasant and straightforward – none of the intrusive questions one was routinely asked during the so-called transition period. No landing cards that I was partly expecting either – and my settled status was not once checked, nor was my vaccination status at any of the previous controls. Even my day two test arrived promptly and on time – result pending but fingers crossed!

Entering London then is a different story: in many places people behave as if COVID had never existed, luckily not in hotels and most restaurants and at the conference I was attending, and as long as one avoided the tube – where mask wearing is now a rarity in this badly ventilated space – it felt almost borderless. Only I rather wore a proper mask, as I really do not want to catch COVID, even with a double vaccination. This made me reflect on all the hurdles to get here, and the imagination that a new COVID-wave must surely come from the outside, whereas on this island of happiness all will be well as long as we keep the outside world at bay.

COVID rules seem to have mutated from rules based on medical or other scientific evidence to yet another feature of the hostile environment, an additional means to screen, divide and refuse. In a place that strives to be a scientific superpower, this is a rather sad state of affairs.

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“Samora’s children” – what we may learn from the celebration of (post-) socialist citizenship

In the autumn of 2014, Mano (not his real name) who is from and lives in Beira in Central Mozambique, had visitors from what was formerly East Germany. He took his visitors to the not far away Gorongosa National park. When they sat at a restsite, speaking German to each other, German tourists nearby asked why Mano spoke such good German. Mano answered he had the great privilege to be selected to attend a boarding school in East Germany in his youth. The (West-)German tourists looked horrified, poor Mano, that must have been a truly terrible experience.

No, Mano replied, it was wonderful; he received a good education, a new world opened for him, and he had caring second parents, in fact those with him were his guest parents from all these years back who had come to visit him now, as they had kept in contact since his return to Beira in 1988. In fact, going to East Germany, with a so-called solidarity programme between the governments of Mozambique and East Germany back then, had fundamentally altered his life for the better – he, a child of poor parents with little hope for his future, had been given this amazing opportunity. It had truly transformed not only his life, but also that of many others.

And, he added, those who now spoke so negatively and with horror of the former East Germany were not the ones who had helped a country like Mozambique and a poor child like himself at the time to get an education; thus, they should not pass judgment.

The story of Mano, and reflections on what today’s world may learn from or remember of solidarity at a time when socialism was still something of an imagined alternative, seems quite opportune in the present. However flawed at the edges, and driven, like much of the development aid of the Western countries by economic calculations and benefits for the aid-giver, be it in relation to clear conditionality prescriptions or more subtle geopolitical gains, it also was based on and created forms of solidarity that in many ways endured the collapse of socialism and the advance of capitalism in all its different guises.

At a time when the rich countries of the world rather give a third COVID-19 vaccine shot to their own populations so they can go to nightclubs and live a life as if COVID-19 never existed, while the poorer parts of the world are left dying and suffering, what solidarity may mean might determine the future of mankind. In that sense, stories like those of Mano can serve as an inspiration to think about and act out of solidarity in different ways, and remember the forms such solidarity had in the not so recent past.

Mano was part of one of the many educational exchange programmes that existed between former socialist countries, with one emphasis on educating people from what was then mostly called the Third World. All these programmes, even if they might not have fulfilled their original objectives and promises, have an afterlife. This afterlife is most visible in enduring networks of different kinds, locally, nationally and transnationally, networks that shape patterns of solidarity and create affective, often socialist-inspired, communities among their members – even if these communities ultimately failed to transform wider politics and societies.

A new Special Issue in the Canadian Journal of African Studies on ‘Africa and the crisis of socialism: postsocialism and the Left’ discusses this theme in detail and along multiple facets.

In my own contribution to that issue, I discuss the creation and afterlife of socialist beliefs and practices in the biographies of a cohort of people educated to be new socialist citizens in the framework of an educational exchange programme between the then People’s Republic of Mozambique and the former East Germany, the programme in which Mano took part. Framed around the concept of lived citizenship and Bourdieu’s writing on education as a strategy-generating institution, I show how through that educational exchange project socialist citizens as envisaged in the writing of Samora Machel were indeed emerging. Ironically, the understanding of socialism and the solidarity that, in the conception of graduates from that programme, was an engrained part of it, was even at the time of Samora Machel as Mozambican president an ideal far removed from the reality of Mozambique and its governing FRELIMO party.

But their understandings and enacting of socialist citizenship enabled many graduates to navigate the post-socialist political order of Mozambique and the world in a much better way; thus, their socialist citizenship is not simply or even mainly a nostalgic reminder of a golden past; rather, it exposes the frictions between ideals of socialist solidarity and the harsh political reality of a post-colonial state in the Third World.

Sadly, such enduring positive legacies of socialist histories are largely ignored not only in Mozambique or the united Germany, but globally. But in the present times of a world inn which short-term self-interests and profits dominate, perhaps best exposed by vaccine nationalism and the refusal to acknowledge climate change as the disaster it truly is for  mankind, it seems very pertinent to point out the faultlines of capitalism and at the same time remember that a different world may still be possible – not along the lines of how socialism operated in the past, but based on socialist forms of solidarity.   

My paper, entitled: “Samora’s children” – the celebration of (post-) socialist citizenship in Mozambique, can be accessed here (or email me for a pdf).

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COVID-19 and fraying solidarities: reflections after a pandemic year

It is more than a year now that COVID-19 has shaped lives globally, even if to varying extents. I wrote my first blog in relation to COVID-19 in March 2020, on issues around solidarity and distancing. This was a time when a lot of unknows existed about COVID-19, the ways it may spread and what damage it may cause. It was also a time when a discourse seemed to emerge about the opportunities that may be offered by pandemics in relation to ameliorating global inequalities and creating new forms of solidarity. It was a time when people felt not only that we are in this together (which of course was always a chimera as in reality the fact that some are more equal than others is known by us all), and a lot of spontaneous support and volunteering sprang up. Remember when eager volunteers started to complain that in fact not that many elderly, deemed as particularly vulnerable, needed help with shopping or other chores after all.

Demonstration against COVID restrictions, Berlin, April 2021. Stefan Boness, www.

Looking back at this time now, at the present moment, many of these initial conceptions seem hard to believe or imagine. If COVID-19 ever offered a chance to think more globally and expansively, in ways that would have taken a One Health approach seriously enough to enact real change, a year later solidarity and global thinking seems in rather short supply.

This seems quite astonishing, as a year ago nobody believed by the end of 2020 we would have the first vaccines that actually work, thus a huge step taken to combat COVID and in particular reduce the death rates of those most vulnerable to it. These successes seem to have triggered or perhaps rather accelerated a race to be a national champion, rather than provide the stepping stone to global achievements. COVID has moved from a global issue, measured in worldwide infection rates, to an issue of national pride, superiority or despair – a move enforced by the constant comparisons of national data. Instead of feelings of solidarity, this has triggered nationalist gloating on the one hand, and the rather absurd situation that a vaccine produced overarchingly in India is been referred to as the ‘Oxford’ vaccine. In parallel, it has proved to be a source of envy for others less fortunate in securing access to vaccines, at least among those who would have the means, financially and in geopolitical cloud.

When British PM Boris Johnson spoke about greed and capitalism as the ingredients that made the UK vaccination procurement succeed, that was in some ways perhaps one of the most honest statements he ever made.  Funnily enough, once spoken he immediately qualified his remarks and backtracked, as he realized to speak such truth is perhaps not opportune at a time when the phantasy of global development and win-win situations are key  geopolitical tropes.  But that is exactly what COVID-19 seems to have exposed most of all: greed and capitalism, survival of the fittest or most wealthy or best connected, be it to get vaccines at national level or quarantine on luxury islands, and millions of shades of grey in between.

This was from the start, at least in much of the Western world, accompanied by a sense of entitlement coupled with disregard for real empathy or the well-being of others – the effect the early pictures that came our way from heavily affected towns in Italy soon vanished. Perhaps most symbolically this came to the fore in the refusals to wear masks – in many parts of the world a yearly ritual during flu season. Here seen as an affront to personal freedom – and if forced to comply often worn below the nose, thus in a way that one may as well leave it. Unscientific observations over many months of mask wearing suggest predominately white males as the main culprits here, and when challenged often ugly scenes unfold and absurd comparisons are being made between mask wearing and oppression. A simple act of care towards oneself but more importantly the wider community turned upside down. This is the philosophy of greed and capitalism in a different guise, leading to behaviour that has scant disregard for solidaristic behaviour.

Even more deadly is that sense of entitlement in relation to vaccine distribution. While many wealthy countries have ordered or pre-ordered stock that could provide vaccinations to multiple times their actual populations, for the most vulnerable to the pandemic, those in the Global South who need to go out and work in whatever precarious conditions or otherwise not eat, all that remains is global charity through COVAX. Some may be lucky and get some of the breadcrumbs from the COVAX Facility, aimed at providing access to COVID-19 vaccines to all those in need, but vaccine nationalism has become the norm. What would really be needed, to abolish patent rights and allow generic production of all effective vaccines, is unlikely to happen. If the COVID pandemic is not the time to treat vaccine formula as a public good, it never will come. Questions where this state of affairs leaves humanitarian ethics and conceptions of global solidarity should therefore be at the forefront of our minds. COVAX ultimately is a symbol of the end of conceptions of solidarity based on global justice. It is a mere charitable gesture that costs little, not a way to distribute what should be a global public good based on vulnerability and need.

Maybe the most disturbing lasting legacy of Covid-19 will be that instead of being an impetus for a new social contract, it exposed global solidarity as a phantasy.

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