Posts by Maha Rafi Atal

What Men Must Do To End Violence Against Women

By , 7 March, 2016, No Comment

Last night, I attended a Reclaim the Night march here in Cambridge, against the sexual violence and wider gender discrimination that is sadly common on our campus and elsewhere. I gave a short speech about the key role of men in this movement, and this is what I said:

“When thinking about what I wanted to say here tonight, I reflected on the years I have spent in the feminist movement, attending marches and rallies and protests and signing petitions and calling legislators and so on. I reflected on the feeling of support and pride and strength that I often draw from this work, and also how quickly I find that feeling dissipates when an event like this does not lead to some concrete, material change in the problem we’re trying to highlight and solve.

And so I found myself thinking about what we can do when we leave here to stop gendered violence in our community.

Let’s start with what we know about gendered violence in general and how it happens at universities in particular. The National Union of Students reported last year that 1 in 4 women students will experience some form of sexual assault during their studies. We know that’s not because 1 in 4 men are committing violence, but because the small number of men who do it tend to be repeat offenders. We know that they will continue, and commit increasingly violent acts, so long as they get away with it the first time. We know that the perpetrators are likely to know their victims socially – 90% of victims of assault say they knew the perpetrator. We are talking about boyfriends and colleagues and supervisors and professors, and not, for the most part, strangers in dark alleys.

We know too that sexual violence is not about sex. It is about power.

And one thing we know about power is that people acquire it not just to have it, but to show it off. Using sexual violence to acquire and enforce power over women – who is the audience for that? It is partly women, to make us feel victimized, weak, afraid to assert independence in other areas of our lives. And we know, horribly, that it often works to do that.

But violence against women is also something men do to show off to other men, a way of demonstrating how ‘manly’ they are, based on a particular, patriarchal definition of masculinity that hurts men too. And because violence against women is part of this status competition men are having with each other, there is, ultimately, no solution to this problem that does not involve men.

Urban Air Pollution Is a Public Health Emergency

By , 22 January, 2016, No Comment

I’ve finally returned to Cambridge after spending the better part of 2015 conducting field research in India, South Africa and Kenya. With luck, I’ve now got all the data I need to finish my thesis, and I’m going to be chained to my desk from now until I finish writing it. Naturally, I am procrastinating by writing assorted other things instead, including my monthly blog at

My most recent piece covers the air quality crisis affecting the developing world’s major cities. India, where I spent much of the summer, is home to many of the worst offenders, and Delhi is the most polluted city of all. I have been visiting Delhi regularly for the past decade, and the change is visible. Many a rickshaw journey consists of wondering exactly how the driver knows to break before crashing into a car in front of him, when neither he nor I can see the road in front of us. The situation in African cities is not as bad, but Nairobi, where I spent the fall, is getting there. Yet despite traveling regularly in the developing world, often in the company of asthma sufferers in my family and household, statistics saying pollution kills more people than HIV and malaria combined, still shock.

We are making progress, and huge credit is owed here to my mother, the incredible Shazia Z. Rafi, who campaigned successfully to get air quality targets included in the new Sustainable Development Goals. This should put pressure on governments, but it is not just a government problem. Urban air pollution in the developing world is a direct product of economic growth, of the fuel consumed both by industrial operations and the transport workers use to reach those new factories. Businesses who are driving this wave of industrialized urbanization bear some responsibility here. My piece, which you can read here, lays out some steps companies can take to clean up their act.

Back to the thesis now, I swear…

Divided We Can Change the World

By , 23 November, 2015, No Comment

Recently, while in India, I met an economist named Deepti Sethi who told me about some research she’s doing into organizations advocating social change, like non-profits and activist campaigns. She and her team have divided them into three categories:

1. Organizations that aim at material change – new laws, money moved from point A to point B.

2. Organizations that aim at ideological change – persuading others that their ideas are wrong,  changing hearts and minds.

3. Organizations that aim at personal expression – large protests bearing witness to injustice or support groups validating the experiences of oppressed groups.

All social movements need all of these modes of activism. But, Sethi argued, the organizations that make up these movements (usually) only succeed if they pick one to focus on.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in recent weeks, as squabbles over feminism and anti-racism have erupted on my social feeds.

Some Things I’ve Written, or I’m Still Alive

By , 29 September, 2015, No Comment

Though I’ve been very quiet on here since starting my PhD, I have actually been commenting quite a bit elsewhere on these here interwebs. For those who aren’t on Twitter (where I do extensive self-promotion in between posting pictures of my food), here are some things I’ve blogged.

I’ve been writing a regular monthly column for the website (who cover the intersection of science, technology and development) on the role of the private sector in development. I’ve covered:

Fairtrade and other attempts at ethical consumption will probably not work, even if they make us feel better about ourselves

Automation imperils employment in the developing world. Anthropologist James Ferguson’s has bold (but ultimately unworkable) vision for a society without jobs.

India’s new ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ law mandating firms donate to social projects is really an inefficient tax on corporate revenue, and a step backwards.

The best way to empower women in business might not be the C-suite, but the supply chain: hire women-owned businesses to source your parts or supply consulting services.

India exploits a loophole in international trade law to sell cheap drugs to sub-Saharan Africa. If they change their policies under US pressure, poor Africans will suffer.

In a world of finite resources, one-shop oil, gas and mining towns are planning for the day when the goods run out. Companies should help.

I’ve also blogged a little bit for the blog of my department’s policy journal, which I briefly edited last year. Recent pieces include:

How the Iranian government charmed the Western press, and thereby saved the peace process.

Foreign correspondents lie, or how news organizations conceal the work of local fixers they employ in conflict zones.

What is capital, and how did capitalism survive the financial crisis? An interview with economist Geoffrey Hodgson.

I’ll try to remember to cross-post all future blogging here going forward, and maybe even find time to write some original pieces for this site again soon*.

Finally, I’ve been interviewed about my research over on BBC Radio 3. It’s a special episode on Indian history, so I’m talking about the East India Company, who are one of several key historical predecessors for the kind of contemporary corporate politics I’m researching for my PhD.


*Don’t hold your breath.

On Charlie Hebdo and the culture of free expression

By , 11 January, 2015, 1 Comment

I’ve been trying to avoid writing about Charlie Hebdo, so I’ll keep this short. I won’t add to the debate about whether the cartoons were offensive to Muslims, or racist to France’s minorities, or just crude, because the best thing about writing online is that you can link to stuff rather than repeat it.

What concerns me is the idea that the only ‘right’ response to the attack is to re-circulate the paper’s cartoons. Jon Chait and Ross Douthat have argued that the right of free expression is meaningful specifically because it protects expression that some find objectionable. And we have to promote that objectionable speech, to show that we’re still protecting it, or the terrorists win.

But the reason liberal societies protect free expression, including offensive speech, is the belief that there’s a market for ideas. And that bad ideas, if they circulate freely, will lose out: people won’t buy those magazines, or watch those TV shows, or download those songs, and the ideas will disappear.

A central component of that ideal is that we have to be as free to not consume or circulate speech as we are to make it in the first place. Insisting that everyone who believes in free expression share a Charlie Hebdo cover or they’ll be an apologist for terror is entirely out of spirit with what free expression means. It is thought policing, which is as fundamentally illiberal when it appears in the pages of New York Magazine as when it comes from the mouths of clerics.

The best response to the attacks is to actively have these debates – about whether the cartoons were good satire or bad satire and why, about how terrorism comes about and what to do about it, about identity in modern Europe – not silence them all as somehow demeaning the dead, because debate is how free societies work out what they believe. If we don’t have debate anymore, we’ve got nothing.

An Announcement

By , 30 September, 2013, No Comment

As you may have noticed, blogging has been light-to-non-existent for a while around here. That’s because I’ve been preparing to make a big life change. Beginning next week, I’ll be working towards a PhD in Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge, which, with luck and coffee, I should finish by 2017.

My research, in its current vaguely defined state, looks at the way multinational corporations function as governing authorities when their business operations take them to places where the writ of the local state is weak.

I’m especially interested in the way corporate land acquisition – a prerequisite of doing business in resource-heavy industries like oil & gas, mining or agribusiness  – shapes the political relations between firms and local communities, placing firms in a position of territorial authority with control over many elements of basic infrastructure that would otherwise be the purview of the state. I’m also interested in the way land use laws in many developing countries reflect colonial legacies, and through this, the structural parallels and differences between the company towns of the late 20th and early 21st centuries and the colonial corporate fiefdoms of the 18th and 19th centuries.

(Aside: One Day I am going to write an essay entitled, “The British Raj was the First Corporate Bailout.”)

This project grew directly out of my time as a reporter, writing about Chinese mining companies on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and Scandinavian agribusinesses in East Africa. Sometime last year, I decided that this was a topic I needed to pursue in more depth than journalism allows for. Around the same time, I discovered that some of my ‘news’ articles were veering off into academic territory, and thought, “Hmm, maybe that’s not a bad thing. In fact, I think that’s actually where I want to be.”

I’ve begun by reaching out to sources – activists, corporate strategists, and lawyers who have worked on land use cases – building a rough list of potential cases which I’ll start exploring this year, hoping to combine land and legal records, correspondence, interviews where possible and some data collection on local social and economic development. Because I’m tracking change over time, I’m looking for resource-industry companies with long histories in a particular area and a willingness to let a young researcher inside their archives. Geographically, I’m confining my search to sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, both for linguistic reasons and because it’s where I have prior experience looking at these issues.

Methodologically, I’m aware that everything about this is a bit unorthodox. The analysis I do once I have my data and documents is going to be academic, but because so much of this material isn’t in the public domain yet, much of my initial research is going to rely on my journalistic skills. I’m also planning to put as much of my material online as I can, and to build some interactive historical maps of corporate land holdings in the regions I wind up studying.

There has been much chatter about social science research methods since the dustup over NSF funding in the spring – whether political science is too quantitative, not quantitative enough, whether scholars can or should engage in matters of public policy. My small contribution to that debate is to try to do some research that is empirical but not primarily quantitative, policy-relevant while still being theoretically valuable, and critically, as open and transparent as possible.

For the next four years, I’ll be living in Cambridge, but I’m planning to be in London frequently, where I’ll be continuing to oversee my nonprofit Public Business from our U.K. office. I’ll also be writing occasionally, primarily on topics related to my research, and blogging here when I can. But for now, my main hat is going to be an academic one.

Wish me luck!

David Miranda Is A Journalist

By , 20 August, 2013, No Comment

This weekend, the British government detained David Miranda, for nine hours at Heathrow Airport, where they also confiscated some flash drives and laptops.

The detention took place under the UK’s Terrorism Act, which is badly written enough to provide cover for behavior that has naught to do with preventing acts of terror. In this case, the detention is a reaction to the Guardian’s reporting on the NSA leaks, and any detention that treats journalism as a crime is wrong. This comes on the heels of Whitehall threatening the Guardian, and sending GCHQ representatives to the Guardian newsroom to oversee the destruction of some hard drives. That too is wrong.

None of what follows is a defense of the UK’s thuggish behavior.

But there is something disturbing about the way the Guardian has presented its relationship with Miranda.

Miranda is the partner of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist spearheading the NSA reporting, and they live in Rio. Miranda was passing through Heathrow on his way back to Rio from Berlin, where he had been staying with filmmaker Laura Poitras, who has been collaborating with Greenwald on the reporting.

When the story first broke, it appeared that Miranda had been traveling in a personal capacity. We now know that Miranda was traveling on a trip funded by the Guardian and was carrying some flash drives pertaining to the reporting. We also know, from a previous account of the dealings with Snowden, that Greenwald has been sharing details of his work with Miranda for some time. And we learn from Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger that Miranda often helps Greenwald with his work.

The Guardian initially concealed these details. The New York Times broke the news about the flash drives and the plane ticket, at which point the Guardian updated its own story to include this information. But even then, Greenwald told the New York Times that Miranda, “is not even a journalist,” a claim repeated by Alan Rusbridger.

But David Miranda is a journalist, because he is committing acts of journalism while he is in the Guardian’s employ. His role as described above is similar to the temporary staffers western news organizations routinely hire in developing countries. Local journalists who do the background reporting for pieces with American or British bylines. Fixers who make calls and arrange meetings with difficult sources. Drivers and receptionists who make and take deliveries that contain sensitive material.

It is an ongoing struggle inside news organizations to argue that so long as these people are involved in the production of news, they are in danger of persecution by governments in countries where there is no press freedom, and that they deserve the same protections that major international news organizations afford to their full-time staffers. When Rusbridger enumerates a set of duties any fixer would recognize, and then says, “he’s not a journalist,” he is hurting the cause of people who work in far more dangerous places than London, New York or Rio.

Moreover, if those debating the incident decide it doesn’t matter whether Miranda is a journalist, they endanger thousands around the world who have the (mis)fortune to be related to reporters. Many governments would love to round up the families and friends of journalists and interrogate them about their loved ones. Many reporters live in fear that this will happen. They guard against it by keeping their work secret from family and friends and making sure the authorities never think otherwise.

The UK’s actions have set a terrifying example for other governments that family members are fair game, but if those challenging Britain’s actions are not absolutely clear that Miranda is a journalist, not just a journalist’s partner, it will make that example worse.

I understand that for the purposes of evaluating whether the UK acted wrongly Miranda’s role is not the key fact. Either way, the detention was an attempt to suppress the story, and either way, detentions of anyone for a non-terror issue under a terrorism law are wrong.

Yet events do not take place in a vacuum, and while British and American journalists may be evaluating this incident with respect to press freedom in our countries, others around the world will be applying its lessons in their own political context.

Journalism is beset from all sides. Journalists in the places where, relatively speaking, things are not as bad as they could be need to make choices and use language sensitive to the interests of our colleagues in far more precarious positions. David Miranda is a journalist, as are many others, and we should protect them all.

Bangladesh and Sweatshop Economics

By , 10 May, 2013, No Comment

Very belatedly, posting the link to my debut piece for the Guardian. I look at the debate about the economics and ethics of sweatshops that has erupted in the wake of the Dhaka factory collapse last month. In particular, I’m intrigued by the logic of sweatshop apologists, who argue that because individual workers chose to work in these sweatshops over available alternatives, sweatshop jobs are the best possible jobs in Bangladesh. This is rational choice theory taken to an absurd Panglossian extreme, where everything that happens in a market economy must be good because if it wasn’t good, it wouldn’t be happening. It’s a way of thinking that strips out A. any normative analysis of what is a good choice B. any real engagement with the context in which choices are made. You can read the piece here.

Pakistan: Women’s Empowerment and the Women’s Vote

By , 22 March, 2013, No Comment

Political stalemate continues in Islamabad, where government and opposition leaders have failed to reach a deal on an interim government. While a parliamentary committee meets to resolve the issue, the outgoing Prime Minister is governing the country without a cabinet or parliamentary oversight. Lucky him.

In the meantime, I’ve been looking at issues that will color the upcoming election and I’m particularly intrigued by the government’s record on women’s issues.

Pakistan is a patriarchal society and that is reflected in its politics. Although women have had the right to vote since independence, female voter turnout has historically been low. That may be about to change.

The Express Tribune reports that the government has, over its five-year run, increased female voter registration by 88%, and the nearly 40 million female voters account for 44% of voter registration over all.

That’s due in large part to a popular cash-transfer program for poor women, the Benazir Income Support Program or BISP, introduced in 2008. The program has been immensely popular, and compared to other areas of Pakistani bureaucracy, relatively corruption-free. Indeed, the Asian Development Bank recently announced  a $200 million loan to help BISP to expand its work.

Its economic impact, however, is far less certain. A project manager for BISP tells me most of the recipients are spending their cash on food and other necessities. It’s not enough money for women to save and invest in education, health care or ventures that might actually lift them out of poverty for good. And with high inflation (Pakistan’s CPI is up 80% since 2008), the cash is of limited value.

A more important benefit of the program is political. In order to receive cash payments, women were required to register for national ID cards, and thereby for the electoral rolls. If those 40 million women exercise their new voting power in May, they may break heavily for the government that has been transferring them cash, a possibility not fully taken into account by polls that focus on registered voters from the previous cycle.

Women are likely to thank the government also for its legislative record. In its five year term, the National Assembly passed acts against acid attacksworkplace harassment and sexual harassment in public placesbanned forced marriages and the withholding of women’s property rightscreated a government commission on girls’ and women’s rights; and elected its first female speaker.

And yet, as the security situation in the country has worsened, women’s rights have been eroded on the ground. From the shooting of Malala Yousafzai last fall to the murder of a Karachi social worker earlier this month, militant groups have disproportionately targeted women and girls. Meanwhile, seeking to pacify these extremists, local government agencies have outsourced critical public services to religious charities with anti-woman views.

The People’s Party’s inability to curtail the violence is a huge failure in its own right, but it has also served to undermine the effects of some of the government’s best policies.

Back In Pakistan

By , 15 March, 2013, No Comment

I’m back in Pakistan today, for the first time since I ended my stint as a foreign correspondent three years ago. I’m here because a risky but incredibly important thing is about to happen. For the first time in the country’s history, a democratically elected government, having served out its full term, is going to hand over to another democratically elected government in a constitutionally sanctioned process.

Pakistan’s constitution provides for a caretaker government – whose composition must be agreed upon by both government and opposition parties – to govern from the moment the outgoing team steps down until elections can be held. This government’s term officially expires tomorrow, March 16th, and elections are expected to take place in early May.

Yet with 24 hours left, the composition of the caretaker government remains something of a mystery. The leading opposition party, PML-N, put forward its list of nominees last week, but government leaders dismissed those names. The government’s own list of recommendations is out today and backchannel discussions are underway to find a solution by tomorrow. The Express Tribune has published a useful set of bios of the contenders.

Meanwhile, both of the major parties have unveiled their electoral manifestos.

The governing People’s Party manifesto focuses on making populist promises to the country’s poor: expanding a cash-transfer program for poor women, raising the minimum wage and promising to keep energy prices low. There is an interesting section on addressing Pakistan’s youth bulge and youth unemployment, proposing a scheme by which young people would be provided with training and work experience opportunities with the goal of enabling them to find formal work or start their own businesses. “A large proportion of the jobs created will be in the social sector (elementary education, basic health care) and will form part of the Party’s programme for the expansion of social services,” says the manifesto. It’s a nice idea, like David Cameron’s workfare program crossed with Americorps, but it’s exactly the kind of structural change that the PPP has failed at implementing over its five year term, so color me skeptical.

It’s not just the security situation, which has gotten steadily worse over the government’s run, or the cloud of corruption and incompetence that hangs over day-t0-day administration. The country’s economy is in dire straits. The latest Worldwide Threat Assessment from the U.S. Director of National Intelligence is damning in its section on Pakistan:

Pakistan, with its small tax base, poor system of tax collection, and reliance on foreign aid, faces no real prospects for sustainable economic growth. The government has been unwilling to address economic problems that continue to constrain economic growth. The government has made no real effort to persuade its disparate coalition members to accept much-needed policy and tax reforms, because members are focused on retaining their seats in upcoming elections. Sustained remittances from overseas Pakistanis (roughly $13 billion from July 2011 to June 2012, according to Pakistan’s central bank) have helped to slow the loss of reserves. However, Pakistan has to repay the IMF $1.7 billion for the rest of this fiscal year for money borrowed as part of its 2008 bailout agreement; growth was around 3.5 percent in 2012; and foreign direct investment and domestic investment have both declined substantially.

Indeed, the government’s record has been so dismal that many Pakistan watchers thought it unlikely the PPP would survive a five-year term at all.

Many parties helped get the government this far, but particular credit goes to both the army chief General Kayani, and the opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, who could have rocked the boat by pushing for military takeover or early elections during the government’s vulnerable moments. In the case of Sharif, that’s an entirely pragmatic choice. He surmised, as I wrote 4 years ago, that the government’s poor performance combined with the collapse of Pervez Musharraf’s party (PML-Q) following his fall, would make him the frontrunner in any elections. So he chose to wait it out in Punjab province, which his party controls, and exploit the contrast between the PML-N’s record in Punjab and the national party’s floundering. I’ll be looking at that record in detail while I’m here.

But that’s not enough to ensure that Sharif has a third shot at the Prime Minister-ship (a post he held twice in the 1990’s): current polling suggests a hung parliament and negotiations to bring a coalition government into place. In those negotiations, Imran Khan, the ex-cricketer whose party has risen to an unlikely third place by appealing to young people and those disaffected from mainstream politics, is likely to play a critical role as a potential king-maker. His manifesto will be released on the 23rd, but I am hoping to sit down with him before then and talk about his priorities and the audience he’s reaching that the major parties are not.

I’ll be updating this blog and posting for Forbes while here, so stay tuned.