In Defense of Universal Empathy: Thoughts on Ukraine War (& Reactions to it)

Picture shows  populations at risk of mass atrocities around the world. Does not include Ukraine yet, or other countries where human rights are under threat (e.g. Belarus)

War sucks.

I’ve been trying to articulate my thoughts on the war in Ukraine and the reactions to it. My thoughts are scattered, go in many different directions, and are full of feelings and emotions. 

So, I thought I’d start in an unprofessional but compelling way. War sucks. Death sucks. Violations of human rights, suck. And they should all suck. Equally. 

That Russian actions in Ukraine are rightly deplored is a truism. At the same time, for days I couldn’t escape the anger, frustration, that there seems to be a hierarchy of empathy. It’s obvious that the “international community” can act swiftly. That our hearts can stop pumping blood in the face of violence. We can feel the heaviness thousands of kilometers away. But only sometimes. The accounts of racism at the border, unsurprising as they are, only made it worse.

But I wanted to interrogate the situation. Besides the actors involved (“the West”, Russia) and the color of most of the victims, what other components distinguish this particular conflict from others? The pain inflicted by conflicts on loved ones is universal, the contours of specific situations, differ.

I believe there are two elements that are specific to this particular case: nuclear threat + crime of aggression.

Nuclear threat.

Russia has nuclear weapons. The US has nuclear weapons. The UK has nuclear weapons.

MAD is the military doctrine that stands for “mutually assured destruction.” The use of nuclear weapons would cause the annihilation of both the attacker and the defender. This is pretty self-explanatory. In the case of Russia, the use of nuclear weapons cannot be discarded. The taking of nuclear power plants in Ukraine is only a small and probably unnecessary reminder.

When any of these states is involved, the whole world is at risk. 

Crime of aggression

After the defeat of Nazi Germany, international justice developed significantly. During the Nuremberg trials the crime against peace was defined, which later became the crime of aggression. 

For the past few decades, most wars and conflicts we have seen have been either civil wars (Ethiopia, Colombia), internal conflict in parts of the territory (parts of Nigeria, Myanmar), involved a terrorist organization (ISIS, Boko Haram), an international interreference in a limited space (Crimea), or the targeting of a specific population (China with the Uyghur, a situation that seems the clearest example of genocide as defined in the convention that doesn’t seem to be gathering much attention).

According to the ICC statute, a crime of aggression means “the planning, preparation, initiation or execution […] of an act of aggression which, by its character, gravity, and scale constitutes a manifest violation of the Charter of the United Nations. […] means the use of armed force by a State against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of another State.” 

For long, we have not seen a crime of aggression at this scale (the case of Israel and Palestine has significant differences with the Russian invasion). Its occurrence, then, naturally feels notorious. 

While I understand that the common way of analyzing conflicts– and inevitably, the security/ military approach – centers the state and governments as the main actors and lens of analysis, I think this diverts us from a more universal and empathetic approach. I am not advocating for replacing this lens of analysis, but rather an additive approach more generally, and a human-oriented lens when considering a conflict as a private individual.

From a legal and human rights perspective, it is states that are legally obliged to guarantee human rights. In this sense, states and governments do matter. An attack against the political independence of a state means that the guarantor of those rights disappears (and it would be naïve to believe that the occupier is going to be mindful of the rights of the population, as war crimes seem to abound). 

But from a state centric perspective, it means that we give more preponderance to national sovereignty as a principle than to the respect to life and fundamental rights and freedoms. 

This responds to the current logic of nation states as the most important unit in international relations and respect for national sovereignty as the anchor of our system (hence why China, who holds this principle in high regard, is keeping quiet). As military strategists, as governments, this approach will remain, it makes sense, it is the one embedded in our international system. 

From a public opinion and individual perspective, I’d rather approach it predominately from a human perspective. Or a civil society perspective, one that is not married to nation state calculations but more general principles. Solely because it is the most universalist approach. What hurts is that innocent people are dying, not who are the actors involved. Following this logic, we should care equally when there is a conflict, crime of aggression or none, be it Ukraine, Ethiopia, Yemen, and so forth. That the sovereignty of a state is not under threat shouldn’t mean that we can turn a blind eye, as we so often do.

Another small note: Listening and reading some of the American and European coverage the “international” and “universal” condemnation of the war that is so invoked is not such. It is not such if we consider government declarations as the measure of condemnation. 

Screenshot from Adam Tooze’s newsletter. 

From a citizen and civil society perspective, however, I want to believe that we are, indeed, closer to that international and universal opprobrium. 

PS: I want to clarify that this is in response to the reactions I am observing in the Global North and the actions of international institutions.

Thanksgiving, Neuroplasticity, and Santosha

I have always been fascinated by neuroscience. As a teenager, my high school psychology professor recommended a newsletter called “neuroscience for kids” that explained neuroscience in a digestible manner. My hotmail address probably still receives those emails to this day.

Much is unknown about the brain yet our knowledge of it has also advanced greatly over the past decades. One of the most interesting aspects to me is neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to modify, change, and adapt both structure and function throughout life and in response to experience. This offers so much hope and promise!

If the brain is plastic, it means that the more we repeat something, the more we reinforce it. We create neural pathways. But we can also undo them or create new ones that serve us better. The brain can change in response to sensory experiences but we can also do this consciously (in fact, we can even change our personalities, particularly on the introversion – extroversion spectrum).

According to psychiatrist Besser Van der Kolk, “when a circuit fires repeatedly, it can become a default setting – the response most likely to occur. If you feel safe and loved, your brain becomes specialized in exploration, play, and cooperation; if you are frightened and unwanted, it specializes in managing feelings of fear and abandonment.”

This is what makes gratitude such a powerful tool. And why I love thanksgiving (if we take it as a gratitude celebration, won’t enter other debates today…). Some studies suggest that when we express gratitude and receive the same, our brain releases dopamine and serotonin, two neurotransmitters responsible for our emotions. Expressing gratitude induces positive emotions, as it brings about feelings of pleasure and contentment.

In other words, practicing gratitude can help neural pathways strengthen and “create a permanent grateful and positive nature within ourselves.”

As humans, we have a negativity bias. Our brains are more likely to focus or retain negative occurrences or emotions. This can be unwired with gratitude as well.

The practice of gratitude is inherent to yoga (the actual yoga, not just the postural). The eight limbs of Patanjali underpin most of the yoga philosophy that we focus on today. Amongst the niyamas (codes of conduct) is santosha, which is usually translated as contentment. Gratitude is one aspect of contentment, one that I try to practice on the daily and even more outwardly on thanksgiving.

As a teenager I struggled with big family celebrations. A friend of mine and I became a bit like the Grinch. As an adult, as I’ve worked towards new neural pathways and deepened my yoga practice, I have changed dramatically to the extent that I now embrace celebrations from other countries as well. I celebrated my first proper thanksgiving in North Caroline many years ago (with the wonderful Logan family, hi!). I lived in the US for a while… and now, I will take as many opportunities to celebrate life as I can. Specially if they involve bringing loved ones together and vast amounts of food.

Before I go back to the kitchen to roast the turkey, bake a pumpkin pie, and all of the sides (mac&cheese included) for tonight’s dinner, I thought I’d make a quick list of the things I’m grateful for today:

  • My friends, my family, my grandmas, my partner
  • Health
  • My work environment
  • Yoga, particularly the Dharma and Rocket communities
  • All of the lessons that London has taught me
  • Food
  • Did I mention food?
  • The brain’s neuroplasticity and how much I’ve grown over the past few years
  • My upcoming trip to the US
  • The many homes that I experience: in particular cities and places, the home that I find in some of my friends – because being with them feels like being home – and in Gerard, and mostly, the fact that I have found home within

And just like that… I am back. But differently

My love for the written word emerged with my conscience and self-awareness. I may have been five or six years old when I decided I had overgrown kids’ books and I was done with the illustrated ‘childish’ tomes that adults gave me. I can vividly remember being at my grandparents’ mountain home, a cozy evening of what must have been winter or fall and asking my grandfather (demanding) that he gives me one of the books with ‘only writing.’

“but you can’t read” – said he while he gave me a book. He was always the one to invest in my intellectual growth and push me to do more.

I carried it under my arms for days. Not being able to read – yet – being only a temporary hindrance.

I started writing poetry (illustrated, the irony!) as soon as I could write, and I began my first (and last) novel when I was about eleven years old. I gave the first 28 pages to my dad to read and he lost them, thus concluding my first foray into the effort of creating a new imaginary world.

My godfather worked in publishing and he would give me piles of books that I would devour in no time. To this date, I am not an incredibly fast reader, which meant that I simply would spend endless hours immersed in a book.

In this society that we live in the idea that everything we do must be in some way productive became quickly ingrained in me. As a type A overachiever, the motivation behind doing most things was goal-oriented (except eating, that has always been purely for joy and not extremely correlated to being hungry – strong Mediterranean roots here).

If I learnt something this year is to simply do some things for joy. How you live your days is how you live your life, as the saying goes. And I am seeking moments of joy in daily habits and the small things.

I started this blog back in 2016 as a way to document my research endeavors and my musings on social and political events that sparked my curiosity. My intention was to share research and science (social), book reviews and academic lessons that I learnt – all in a digestible language. I wanted to cultivate a space that would serve me professionally.

This has led to about a post per year and the recurrence of a failed new year’s resolution of writing more (I am surprisingly good at meeting goals, but writing is the one goal that I keep missing). It only recently dawned on me that if I took the pressure off writing something productive, academic, or professionally advantageous, and started writing on what truly is inspiring me or making me feel love, I might once more put ‘pen to paper’.

So here I am. Showing up again, but showing up differently.

Much as was intended I will continue to share research, social science, and reflections of current events. But as I do everywhere else in my life, I will show up fully, which also means: books, yoga, food, literature, and yes, politics, human rights, travel…

A few things that I am enjoying…

I don’t think I’d be back to writing if it weren’t for the constant inspiration that I get from three women:

  • My love for Kim’s writing has already been documented here (and she’s probably tired of hearing me say that I enjoy when she posts often). Her blog, recently rebranded as Soft Sensibilities, is simply delightful.
  • My friend Alex keeps surprising me. A PhD student at Oxford, Alex is also a beautiful baker and is now sharing a newsletter. She shares food news, science news, and insights. Subscribe here.
  • I have followed Leslie Stephens’ writing for years. She know pens a newsletter called Morning Person.

In London…

For the past year I have been raving about a bakehouse in our neighborhood called Aries. Run by Jackie, a Brixton local, this Black-owned bakery makes pastry-lovers’ dreams come true. Last week, however, I took myself on a solo date to Arome, a central London bakery that brings an Asian flair to French classics. Their honey butter toast is crispy outside with the right amount of sweet. But I’ll always fall for an almond chocolate croissant.

In the world of politics…

COP26 has just concluded. Climate change is inevitable. The extent of warming is however within our control. For a short take on how the first few days went, I found this podcast useful.

I am currently doing work on public opinion on climate. One of my biggest concerns as the next big challenge to overcome in those societies where there isn’t climate scepticism per se but there is also work to do (all of them) is conformism in the form of technooptimism. Climate change is not like covid. There is no silver bullet (vaccine). Maybe I will share more on my views on this in a future post.

International justice & Global Affairs

I am trying to understand and get information on what is going on in Ethiopia. And it is incredibly difficult. Africa Is a Country is a reliable source, but I am thirsty for more information.


Nothing has transformed my life as much as yoga has. After completing two trainings, I see the need of practicing with aligned teachers even more. On Friday I tried Echo’s yoga class (online) and learnt more tricks in an hour than I sometimes learn in a few months. She has the most beautiful energy, is kind, and she drops dog references. What else do you need?

“It is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations” – hence the need to interrogate it

Saying that these are unprecedented times would be trite. In many ways, they probably aren’t. The world has been through pandemics before. We have seen civil unrest prior to our times. What is happening in the streets of many U.S. and Europeans cities and towns is absolutely necessary in the face of ongoing injustices. It was about time. 

Yet none of it had happened in the era of social media, of citizen-led reporting. Power asymmetries still exist but we are less constrained than we were before by gatekeepers of access and information. There are reasons to be optimistic, as Ta-Nehisi Coates eloquently discusses with Ezra Klein in one of the best podcasts I have heard in a while. The coalition now is much larger and diverse than it was in 1968 (another idea: what would society look like if the state was not based on the idea of the monopoly of force but rather on the idea of non-violence?).

I deleted Instagram a few days ago, which was a rather necessary act of self-care. I wanted to be focused and deliberate with the information that I am consuming and the actions that I am taking. Yet the scrolling impulse is deeply embedded in my psyche and while the Instagram-less life has indeed afforded me a more peaceful mind to focus on what really matters, I have found myself scrolling through Twitter more than I usually do. To be honest, I am not sure I can do Twitter. It is rage and fight (not debate) at its worst (most of the time). It seems that either you are in an echo chamber or you are in the midst of pettiness and ad hominem attacks (although there are notable exceptions). Yet as with everything, there is something to be gained as well.

One of the debates that is now filling my feed relates to statues in the U.K., although this is of course applicable elsewhere. One of the simplest arguments and yet most compelling I’ve heard is that monuments, as art, are not meant to teach but to turn people into ideas and icons. While I am not sure I necessarily agree with the idea that monuments can’t teach, I think it is absolutely spot on to say that the art that we display and show in our streets does reflect who we uphold as moral, inspiring, role models. Who we deem deserving of celebration and appraisal. As everything else in life, this should be subject to re-evaluation and criticism. I am not saying we erase it, I’m not defending we destroy it. But we should always interrogate what we are shown, what we are taught, and that applies as much to arguments from the “other side” as to those from “our side”. It also definitely applies to the history we are taught. Others have reflected on this much more eloquently than I have, so I wanted to finish this short entry with the words of the great James Baldwin in “The White Man’s Guilt”, a short essay I highly recommend”:

“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations. And it is with great pain and terror that one begins to realize this. In great pain and terror one begins to assess the history which has placed one where one is, and formed one’s point of view. In great pain and terror because, thereafter, one enters into battle with that historical creation, Oneself, and attempts to re-create oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating: one begins the attempt to achieve a level of personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power, and also changes history.”

We need to reckon with our history, own it and stop defending ourselves from it. Interrogating and course-correcting where necessary. I hope this is really a turning point and that there’s no going back.

There are many lists of anti-racist resources out there, which is absolutely brilliant. My good friend Kim has created one list I highly recommend, accessible here (she’s also reading one book a day, which she is documenting in her blog, I have found her recaps to be really helpful and have led me to great literary discoveries).

This might be the most comprehensive database.

P.S.: I cringe every time I think of how the history of Cristóbal Colón and his trips to the Americas were taught to me in Spain. 

Reflections on Northern Ireland, Catalonia, Division, Institutions, and Post-Conflict Reconciliation

“You need to watch this,” the cab driver told me.

I stood outside the cab after I had to retrieve money from the ATM to pay for the ride, half of my body inside the car bent over the rolled down window. In the video, an open casket, a man wearing a black hood that only showed his eyes, and a row of children witnessing how the hooded man shot several bullets to the sky. In the background, I could hear kids screaming. “These things still happen, you know.”

Two days later, an Uber driver provided context for the video. During “the Troubles,” the period of conflict between the late 1960s and 1998 in Northern Ireland, members of the IRA, the Irish Republican Army which supported a united Ireland, were killed in Gibraltar by members of the British Special Air Services. Their bodies were brought back to Northern Ireland and the funeral was attacked by a Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist (supporter of union with Great Britain), leaving three mourners dead. In retaliation, at their funeral, the IRA killed two undercover police officers who had driven into the procession. The man in the casket was one of the IRA members who had been convicted for that murder and recently died.


Nothing, ever, should be decontextualized and in a place like Northern Ireland, where everything seems to be seen through the prism of sectarianism, everything can be misinterpreted. I have spent the past five days here as part of a research and outreach trip for our UK project. I have been in more than 30 countries, but I had never witnessed such palpable and physical manifestations of division and polarization. This, as most, is not a simple story. Division and sectarianism are very much heightened by the institutions and trickle down from above. The leading politicians from the DUP (unionist and [very] right-wing party) and Sinn Féin (nationalist party at the other extreme of the spectrum) dominate politics and have vested interests in maintaining a divided society as that guarantees their survival and power.

As I started to write this, I was sitting at a coffee shop near Queen’s University in Belfast (if you are ever here, I highly recommend you visit the Pocket). Looking around me and visiting the neighbourhood, it felt exactly like any other university city in the United Kingdom. Yet when we visited other neighbourhoods with Paul Nolan, who kindly showed us Republican and Unionist neighbourhoods, it felt completely different. While the area where the university is located is integrated, a big part of the city is segregated.


Belfast is dotted with “Peace” walls (there are now more walls than during the armed conflict) that keep communities separated/ “protected” from each other. The system perpetuates, entrenches, and even promotes apartheid. Division is a continuation of the past as much as it is reinforced and perpetuated by the institutional set up and the market reactions to the situation. If you are looking for housing, you have to choose whether you want to live in a Catholic or a Protestant area. Applying for social housing, you have to tick one of the two boxes. A woman I met with was telling me that if you want to live in an integrated neighbourhood, you pay at least double in rent. If you are not well-off, you are condemned to living amongst “your tribe,” separated by walls, sending your kids to segregated schools (only 7 per cent of children are in integrated schools). This has horrible effects for working class people who are doubly locked into poverty and segregation. The neighbourhoods are clearly identifiable by the flags and murals that decorate the streets.

The forced choice between one or another tribe is present everywhere. Because of “equality legislation,” everything and everyone needs to be tallied. If one community receives something, the other must as well, so everyone must be included in either one of the two official categories. Sometimes, you can opt for the option “other”, lumped into an all-encompassing group that can mean many things and nothing at all. The system does not facilitate multi-layered or complex identities, nuance or empathy.

The Good Friday Agreement that “formally” (if perhaps, not really) put an end to years of armed struggle, included a power-sharing agreement (consociationalism). It is cross-community power sharing at the executive level. Only two communities matter. The First and Deputy First Minister, one unionist and one nationalist, have equal powers. The multi-party executive is made up of both unionist and nationalist parties and the d’Hont system determines how many of each.

The Good Friday Agreement was a laudable effort. Power-sharing was perhaps the best way of getting all parties to sign the agreement and give up arms. But in a time when dominating parties seem to be out of touch with the reality of the people they need to serve, it is mandatory to revisit the question: are those provisions still fit for purpose?

I would say that most people we talked to agreed that many DUP voters do not vote for the DUP because they agree with their policies, but because of identity. They fear that if they do not vote for the DUP, Sinn Féin will win and immediately they will lose. As long as the ultra-nationalist and the ultra-unionist parties play into the politics of fear, they will retain power (high levels of poverty, illiteracy, and PTSD, the presence of paramilitaries, and high addiction to prescription drugs also help). What are the consequences of such a system for society?

The Uber driver that took me to the airport told me he used to vote for the DUP because he was brought up to do so, but he believes in same-sex marriage and abortion, two policies that the DUP fights against. The reverse is also true for many Sinn Féin voters. It creates a vicious circle where the leaders of those parties have a vested interest in maintaining division and tribalism and get a free pass for incompetence and extremism. It does not matter that they are inept (as the failure to have a government – let alone a functioning government – since 2017 demonstrates); they will be elected because of the identity they represent, not because of their policies or their abilities.

Likewise, the Spanish transition was perhaps the best it could be at the time. Yet it included a “a pact of forgetting” which ensured no accountability and allowed for a transition devised by the very same people who for four decades maintained the dictatorship (with others that were eager to find peace and establish a democracy, even if it would be a flawed one that required them to find agreement with former supporters of the dictator). Institutions were not purged. There was no Truth and Reconciliation.

A society that does not deal with the past has a doomed present. The consequences of that past are more ever-present in Spanish society today. A country that over the past four decades has seen tremendous change in a positive direction has stalled. A country of great culture and geostrategic significance is now one in which issues of identity are once again brought to the fore and on the driving seat of politics. People’s fears and anxieties can be exploited by the far-right. Institutions are once again less trusted, and to be honest, in some instances rightly so (preventative prison for political prisoners for such an extended period of time should not be an occurrence in a modern European democracy). We need institutional reform, just as Northern Ireland does.

This morning I spoke at a panel about the rise of the “Neithers”. According to the last Life and Times survey in Northern Ireland, about half per cent of the population does not identify as unionist or nationalist but as “Neither.” I suspect that if they did a survey in Catalonia where they asked people to self-identify as either independentist or unionist, there would also be a non-trivial percentage of the population who would fall in that category. I probably would. And yet, there is no space for nuanced discourse in an age of fake news, tribalism, and strident politics. The incentives are simply not there.

These reflections come at a time when the Peace Agreement in Colombia is also being jeopardized by some (not all) leaders of the FARC, who have decided to take back arms. Colombia, another country that for decades has suffered a conflict as complex as the Northern Irish, worries me. Gabriel García Marquez’ magical realism simply seems realism if you know about the Colombian conflict.

And I worry.

I believe in politics and as someone who leans towards idealism with a strong dose of pragmatism, I have perhaps become more moderate over the years. A few years ago, when I read that a woman I truly admire, Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg, said that change is better when gradual, I got upset. Now I understand that perhaps, sometimes, we need change to be gradual to prevent backlash (I also understand how there are things, like racial justice, that simply cannot wait).

I do not have answers to our problems and what I usually say, that we need empathy, understanding, kindness, nuance, seems fluff in the face of a rogue American president, increasing hate crime, recurring armed violence, and the surge of authoritarian populism. What I do know  is that we need to have those uncomfortable conversations and we need to have them not only with “our side.” That change is sometimes necessary, and we need to revisit past agreements. If there is another peace process, another democratic transition, as much as there are agreements, revision of them should also be part of the final pacts. And we need to learn from the past to not relive traumatic experiences.

I am incredibly fortunate that I am leading our UK project with a dear friend and committed member of the conservative party. As a progressive, very socially liberal woman, I need to hear that side.


Binita and I crossed the border from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland. Calling it the border is almost a misnomer as there was simply a blurred line on the floor and no controls. It is simply a continuation of the road. This is one of the many spots that is likely to become problematic if there is a no-deal Brexit without agreement on the Northern Irish situation.

On Literature, Politics, and Empathy

I once heard in a podcast that literature is the best vehicle for empathy. As a social science researcher, it is part of my job to design surveys, analyze data, conduct interviews and focus groups and try to understand our reality to find a way to improve our societies. In this day and age, to look for ways of strengthening a social pact that is now fragile and shattered. Yet no amount of scholarly research can be as powerful as a well told story.


What I am saying is far from novel. Pundits talk about the power of stories to inform beyond data, although we often stick with numbers and fail to connect with the people that matter.  “Thinking small,”in fact, can be the best way to understand something that is big. Thinking small is the notion that by focusing on what is individual, local, and within our sphere of influence, we can make sense of the story, empathize, and have a greater sense of agency, as opposed to the paralysis and powerlessness that we feel when we are faced with what seems like an unmanageable crisis. To provide a few examples, if we think about international affairs, we do not usually see much uproar in the face of Saudi Arabia’s actions, yet there was massive mobilization when activist Khashoggi was assassinated. The refugee crisis in the Mediterranean Sea claimed the lives of thousands, but few events gathered people´s attention as much as the death of Alan Kurdi. This is called the singularity effect.

Yet, how can we move past the singularity? Perhaps one of the possible answers is through complex stories delivered in the form of beautiful novels. Storytelling is incredibly powerful, and few authors do it as well as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I started the year reading her book Half of a Yellow Sun. Already a fan of hers, I had previously devouredPurple Hibiscusand also enjoyed Americanah.

Half of a Yellow Sun is the story of a series of characters during the Biafran war of independence in Nigeria. The story is told through the eyes of three characters. Ugwu, a houseboy, Richard, a British writer living in Nigeria/Biafra, and Olanna, a professor at Nsukka university. Each chapter develops the narrative iterating between characters. Displaying her literary prowess, Adichie tells a story that marries love, politics, family, and betrayal in a way that does not give more weight to one or another. It carries the reader with the story, it makes the reader empathize with the feelings and pressures that all experience. There is a powerful scene in which one of the characters engages in extremely disgusting behavior yet as the reader you understand how peer pressure led him to do what he did.

There is much talk now about lived experience. I have no desire to enter the debate and I would never question that there is nothing as compelling as experiencing something first-hand. But perhaps literature is the next best thing (although I am keeping my eyes open for virtual reality!).

Contact theory is a theory first developed in the fifties to study the effects of intergroup contact. The idea is that under certain conditions (equal status, common goals, intergroup cooperation, top-down support, and potential for friendship) contact between people of difference can decrease prejudice. Perhaps a good novel can achieve the same. Spending time with a novel, you can connect with characters that are extremely different to you, relate to their circumstances, and without having anything to lose in real life, feel invested in their success. Perhaps literature is contact theory via fiction.

It is my belief that we are now at a historical critical juncture. Empathy will be key in overcoming division and polarization. Empathy towards groups that have traditionally been discriminated against and empathy between people who hold different ideologies. I wish it were as easy and enjoyable as picking up a great book and getting lost in its pages, but in the meantime, I recommend to all to pick a book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It is fiction, but great fiction, fiction that shows you the complexities of love, human emotion, how flawed we are as people, and how politics fits into it all.





Language Orthodoxy and Political Correctness

They say language is performative. I get that. I would not contest it.

Over the past month my colleagues and I have been conducting in-depth interviews with Americans of all walks of life. I must say, it has been one of the most interesting professional experiences I have had (quite possibly, this is a feeling I always experience when I do qualitative research). We are so deeply embedded in our own bubbles that sometimes it doesn’t even occur to us that a conversation with someone different can flow almost naturally. As someone who actually struggles at small talk (I claim I am an introverted extrovert), a script helps and sometimes I forget that we have such different lives and backgrounds even though we have limited time and specific topics to cover.

Our project aims to understand polarization in the United States as well as the role identity, otherization, and in-group and out-group dynamics play into this phenomenon (as well as the extent of it). Methodologically, we used cluster segmentation analysis to identify different segments within American society. We have named the groups at the extremes the Progressive Activists (8 per cent of the population) and at the other end the Religious or Christian Conservatives (25 per cent, names are still under review). There are four other groups in the middle, who hold different views (in tone and intensity). As someone who is clearly not American, I have not interviewed the people who most strongly opposed immigration as that could bias the interview, but I have talked to everyone else from the spectrum. I am also lucky that my colleague who has interviewed the Religious Conservatives is extremely brilliant and I can watch his interviews – he is one skilled man at eliciting interesting information.

And wow. Speaking to people of different beliefs generates a sense of empathy and understanding that perhaps only fiction can also engender. Qualitative research entails suspending judgment and letting the interviewee express her views without challenging them and hopefully with full honesty – I’d strongly encourage everyone to do that at least every once in a while.

Don’t get me wrong, I still hold my progressive views, but as time goes by, I am more and more convinced that the way the left in the U.S. (perhaps also in the U.K. and increasingly more in some European countries) goes about it is only fostering more backlash and taking us further and further away from our ideals. This applies in different realms, but today I want to briefly talk about language.

Americans from all segments told us that political correctness is a problem. This included (and I hate hate hate categorizing) black, Hispanic, Asian, and white Americans. Everyone, except a few in the Progressive Activists segment. We must be respectful and mindful when we speak, there are rules of decorum and human decency that we should all follow, but when language orthodoxy gets on the way of people’s ability to ask genuine questions, we have a problem.

There are now many words or things that one is not supposed to say and the list increases at a fast pace. I must admit that I am still trying to figure out how to go about it and I can definitely understand the rationale behind it, yet even as I write these words,  I fear that what I am saying might be perceived as offensive and insensitive (should we really feel like that?). The left too swiftly assumes ill-intent and casts those who stray away from acceptable language as someone to be ostracized, black-listed. In doing so, in a way, we are distancing ourselves from (may I add, essential) ideals of freedom and deliberation.

In a podcast I was recently listening to, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie put it better. She said that in liberal orthodoxy there are now things that we are not supposed to say and there are now “fiercely leftist crusading well-meaning people” that make those who don’t use the right language feel tainted; people in my “tribe” respond by silencing, not with debate.

More than shutting others down we need to be better equipped to, first (and most importantly) listen with an open mind and an assumption of good will and, second, debate with respect. I am afraid that if we don’t do that, we will push people towards Trump-alikes, not for the love of them but for lack of alternatives that don’t leave them feeling like inferior beings not worthy of conversation.

I’d love to have a conversation about this. Thoughts?

Reflexiones sobre el caso catalán

Hay múltiples versiones sobre lo que está sucediendo en Cataluña. Mientras los medios de comunicación españoles y catalanes ofrecen sus respectivas versiones, la prensa internacional se hace eco de los eventos con mayor o menor rigor.

Vivimos en un mundo totalmente distópico. La realidad catalana lo demuestra. Mientras algunos en el gobierno español niegan que haya habido referéndum y afirman que los catalanes están atacando a la policía (¿?), algunos en el lado secesionista se aferran a la idea de que este referéndum es válido y que si gana el sí se puede declarar la independencia en 48 horas (digo algunos en ambos casos porque realmente quiero creer que queda gente con dos dedos de frente en todos bandos, aunque se mantengan escondidos).

En teoría del juego este sería un caso de no ganadores o de “lose-lose situation”. No tenía por qué serlo, pero la ineptitud de los líderes políticos nos ha hecho llegar a este extremo. No cabe duda de que el gobierno español tiene la ley de su lado, aunque quizás no la legitimidad. Operamos en un ordenamiento jurídico que – acordémonos – puede y debería ser cambiado según evoluciona la sociedad. No se puede negar que el gobierno catalán ha transgredido ese marco legal.

El Gobierno Catalán tenía la superioridad moral. Al principio, querían negociar (2012), y cuando el gobierno español se negó a dialogar, querían votar. Siempre, sin excepciones, el gobierno catalán ha rechazado el uso de la fuerza.

Cuando el gobierno catalán decidió saltarse leyes españolas y reglamentos catalanes, y cuando el lado independentista acosa e insulta a aquellos que osan cuestionar las garantías del referéndum, los independentistas pierden la superioridad moral, la legitimidad.

El gobierno español, no obstante, se ha superado con creces y ha transgredido varias líneas rojas. Nos ha llevado a un mundo completamente Orwelliano. Mientras representantes del gobierno español niegan que se ha celebrado un referéndum, el gobierno central llama a hacer uso de la fuerza contra los que intentan votar. Repito: fuerza en contra de una papeleta.

Que las instituciones españolas se han ido deteriorando a un paso alarmante parece incuestionable (si eran sólidas y legitimas en primer lugar, es una cuestión que felizmente podemos discutir otro día), pero lo que se ha visto en los últimos diez días – detenciones de opositores políticos, violencia por votar, y cantos que devuelven recuerdos de los momentos más oscuros de la dictadura – es devastador. Lo que no es, es sorprendente.

El sr. Rajoy tenía hoy una oportunidad única. No quiso negociar en su momento, no ha querido oír a hablar de secesión o referéndum. En España, todos esperábamos esta respuesta. Por lo tanto, tenía la capacidad de sorprendernos: se podría haber mantenido dentro del marco de la ley evitando ciertas prácticas y permitiendo una votación en la que seguramente habría ganado el no y que habría sido nula (por extra-legal). Nos habría sorprendido a muchas y calmado a una comunidad internacional que empieza a mirarnos con preocupación. Por desgracia, escogió no sorprendernos. Rajoy lo mejor que podría hacer es dimitir y convocar elecciones generales. Nada, ni siquiera violar leyes sobre referéndums en cumplimiento de la constitución (ja!) justifica la violencia.

No sé cómo va a acabar todo esto. Lo que sé es que hemos embarcado en un camino que quizás no tenga retorno. Quizás es lo mejor. Quizás esto marque el inicio de la desaparición de una democracia frágil para construir una más sólida. Quizás esto nos recuerde que los problemas políticos necesitan soluciones políticas. Que el poder judicial no debería meterse en política. Que la separación de poderes era una gran idea (lo es). Quizás abra las puertas a un dialogo que permita reescribir la constitución y permita a las leyes servir su mayor propósito – avanzar la sociedad hacia un tipo ideal, no reprimir la disidencia. Son muchos quizás, y mientras esperamos respuestas, mi corazón llora ante las imágenes de policías atacando a civiles inocentes.

Eso sí, catalanes y españoles tenemos algo en común: nuestro sentido del humor. Solo en España (vale, y quizás en Italia y Macondo) se hospedaría a la policía en barcos de los Looney Tunes.


Eso es todo amigos!

An attempt to write a balanced account of what is happening in Catalonia

Photo via

There are multiple accounts of what is happening in Catalonia. While Spanish media and politicians spread different versions of what is occurring, international media report the events with more or less accuracy.

We live in a dystopian world. The Catalan case evinces this reality. While some in the Spanish government claim that no referendum is taking place and Catalans are attacking the police (?), some on the secessionist side cling onto the idea that this referendum has validity and if the result comes positive independence can be declared in 48h (I say some on both cases because I really really really want to believe that there are sensible people – if perhaps hidden – on all sides).

In game theory this would be a case of no-win or a lose-lose situation. It needen’t be, but all parties have brought this situation on us. It is undeniable that the Spanish government had the law on its side, if perhaps not the legitimacy. We operate within a predetermined legal framework that – let’s remember – can and should be adapted as societies evolve. There is no denying that the Catalan government went beyond that legal framework.

The Catalan government had the moral high ground. They wanted first to negotiate (2012) and when the Spanish government refused to dialogue, to vote, and have always – without exceptions – rejected the use of force.

When the Catalan government decided to more than questionably bypass Spanish laws and Catalan rulings in the Catalan government, and when the Catalan side thwarts the voices of those who dare question the guarantees of the referendum, it loses the moral high ground.

The Spanish government, however, has taken it several steps further and led us to a completely Orwellian world. While representatives of the Spanish government deny the existence of the referendum, the government has called for force to be used against those that try to cast a vote. I repeat, violence for voting.

That Spanish institutions have been deteriorating at an incredible pace is unquestionable (if they were very solid and legit in the first place, that is another issue that I am more than willing to discuss another day) but what we have witnessed in the past ten days –arrests of political opponents, violence for voting, and chants that bring back memories of the worst years of the dictatorship – is  devastating, if not surprising or unheard of.

Mr. Rajoy had a unique opportunity. He did not want to negotiate years ago, he did not want to hear any talk about secession or a referendum. In Spain we all expected the current response. He thus had the ability to surprise us: to remain within the scope of the law by refraining to engage in certain practices and allowing a vote that would have probably come out negative and would have been null (as it is extra-legal). He would have surprised lots of us and reinforced an international community that is finally looking with concern. Unfortunately, he chose not to surprises us. The best thing he could do is to resign and call for general elections. Nothing, not even the violation of a referendum law enshrined in the constitution, calls for violence.

I don’t know where this will lead. What I do know is that we have embarked on a dangerous journey that we might not be able to undo. Perhaps this is for the best. Perhaps this will mark the beginning of the undoing of a fragile democracy to build a stronger one. Perhaps this will remind us that political problems need political solutions. That the judiciary should not meddle in politics and separation of powers was a great idea (it was). Perhaps this will open a dialogue that allows for the Constitution to be redrawn and laws to serve their ultimate purpose – to advance an ideal type of society, not to constrain dissidence. These are lots of perhaps, and while we wait for answers, my heart is crying in the face of pictures of police officers attacking innocent civilians.

At least one thing that will keep us united – Spanish or Catalan, we all have a good sense of humor. Some things can only be branded as #madeinspain (okay, maybe Italy and Macondo as well). This is were the extra police that was deployed in Catalonia has been staying.


That’s all, folks!




Ghana Politics 101 – Elections Contextualized

On Wednesday, December 7th, Ghana will once again celebrate democratic elections.  Ghana is usually hailed as the star of Africa or Africa’s most peaceful and stable country. Since 1992, the country has enjoyed substantial levels of political peace and stability. Yet as elections approach, tensions arise and there is a sense of uncertainty in the air.

There is no dearth of skeptical Ghanaians. On many occasions, I have been told something along the lines of “Ghana is hot,”  “this time, the stakes are even higher,” or “tensions are really high.” Incidentally, often these sentences do not come from “ordinary” citizens but from people who work in the NGO, policy, or peacebuilding space. Incendiary language abounds, pundits usually cite the role of the media as concerning, and amidst accusations of stolen policies (for example, here, NPP accused NDC of stealing its policies) or electoral rigging, it is hard to discern what the actual policies are. Even international media is painting a grim picture (see this article from The Economist).

Why this skepticism? In order to understand Ghana’s current political and economic environment, one needs to contextualize it. A broader historical frame helps to avoid overestimating the strength of Ghana’s democracy but also to value the institutions, mechanisms, and people that have allowed for peace to prevail. An understanding of the political economy of the country, helps elucidate how the electoral campaign has unfolded.

Ghana’s political history

In 1957, under the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah and the Convention People’s Party (CPP), Ghana was the first sub-Saharan African country to attain independence. Unlike the surrounding countries in the region, Ghana has not suffered widespread violence, yet the country’s political history has also been convoluted (for those interested, though, I recommend to delve even deeper; the history of the Gold Coast at large is fascinating).

Nkrumah’s rule can be divided in two periods. From 1957 to 1960 and from 1960 to February 1966. The first period was characterized by a more laissez-faire policy in the economic domain (including vis-à-vis the expatriates that dominated the economy), and a series of political measures that promoted peace and stability but also aimed at strengthening Nkrumah’s position as well as that of the CPP. Notable among these measures were the “Avoidance of Discrimination Act” that banned organizations, parties, and societies which were confined only to “particular tribal, racial, religious groups, which were used for political purposes” and the “Preventive Detention Act.” During the first period, however, these acts were not excessively used. Nkrumah, throughout his life, was also one of the main proponents of an African Union and worked actively to promote Pan-Africanism. In 1960, Nkrumah’s position shifted more toward socialism (he had always been a socialist but had not promoted it once in government) and he became increasingly more authoritative. In 1966, he was overthrown in a coup d’état that marked the beginning of two decades of alternating military and civilian rule.

Ghana experienced four successful coups d’état in a period of fifteen years. Each of the coups – 1966, 1972, 1979, and 1992 – was followed by a period of military rule that ultimately led to a peaceful transition to a Civilian Republic (there was one last failed coup in 1983).

The 1979 coup was led by a group of young officers, including Flight Lt. Jerry John Rawlings. That same year, elections were called and Ghana returned to Constitutional rule. Yet in 1981, once again, Rawlings led another successful coup; the military was not satisfied with the way in which the country was being ruled. Under his mandate, the Constitution of Ghana was suspended and political parties were banned. In 1992, Rawlings funded the NDC, the party currently in power,  the fourth republic was proclaimed, and Ghana celebrated presidential elections. Rawlings himself was elected. He was reelected again in 1996.

This history of coups d’état coexists with the presence of unresolved regional conflicts that are at times exacerbated by political parties. Conflicts are of different nature: chieftaincy, natural resources, land, borders, religious, ethnic, or a combination of any of these, yet chieftaincy-related conflicts, in which the stool is contested, are probably the most prominent ones. Additionally, chiefs are not supposed to align with any party (as law mandates) yet in many instances, they are taking sides. Political parties are sometimes tied to factions that dispute chieftaincy rights. While political parties can gain support by spurring the feuds, it seems that the quarreling groups can also use the parties to settle old disputes.

It is against this historical background that elections take place in Ghana. Elections in Ghana are also strongly influenced by the country’s demographics and its political economy.

Ghana’s Political Economy

Ghana is a middle-income country of about 28 million inhabitants. Highly heterogeneous in ethnolinguistic terms, Ghana’s growth strategy was partially based in the primary-export-led model[1] (currently, the top exports of Ghana are Crude Petroleum, Gold, Cocoa Beans, Cocoa Paste  and Cocoa Butter).[2] Its top imports are Refined Petroleum, Crude Petroleum, Gold, Rice, and Packaged Medicaments and the most recent exports are led by crude petroleum which represent 26 percent of the total exports of Ghana.[3]

Ghana’s economy grows steadily although according to Bloomberg markets, growth has slowed. Inequality levels remain extremely high, with an estimated Gini coefficient of 42,77 that keeps rising. So does unemployment. Precise data on unemployment does not exist due to the size of the informal economy, albeit it is uncontested that large swathes of youth remain unemployed (even regardless of educational achievements).

[More on Ghana’s political economy here.]

Ghana’s Contemporary Politics

Ghana is a multiparty democracy but there are two main parties that can realistically win the elections. The National Democratic Council is currently in power, with John Mahama Dramani as president. Nana Akuffo-Ado, of the National Patriotic Front, is his main opponent.

The NPP was in power from 2001 to 2008. Nana Akufo-Addo was the NPP’s runner up in the 2008 election and he run again in 2012. John Dramani Mahama took office in July 2012 following the death of his predecessor and he was elected to office shortly after, in the December 2012 elections. The NPP contested the results of the 2012 election before the Supreme Court. The appeal created tensions but in the end Nana Akkufo-Ado made a statement accepting the Court’s ruling in favor of Mahama and congratulated the president.

Now, in 2016, the same two men contest the election. Looming over this election is a sense of “a president’s right to a second term.” Over the course of the fourth republic, all presidents have been reelected and it appears that Mahama feels entitled to the same. That notion is strongly influencing this election as well, but people are also tired of the pervasive corruption and the palpable inequality.

How different are both parties and their policies? Reality is that they are both center-right parties with rather vague and sometimes unrealistic policies. One of the parties has promised “one district, one dam.” The manifestos include provisions such as “manage the economy competently” and they are rife of attacks against the other major political party and the respective leaders.

The elections are very tight and so far it is impossible to predict who will win. In the next few days, we will know the results. The conduct of the elections is relevant first and foremost to Ghanaians, but also to the rest of the continent and the world. In light of the events in Gabon, expectation over results in Ghana is even higher. Fortunately, the most recent election in the continent, that of Gambia, resulted in the incumbent admitting defeat and conceding the election. Whatever occurs in Ghana, the country has the advantage of having strong institutions and devoted citizens who are committing themselves to a peaceful election. The National Peace Council, the West African Network for Peace, the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Center, among others, are just a few examples.


[1] Attah K. Boame, “Primary-Export-Led Growth: The Evidence of Ghana,” Journal of Economic Development (1998), 175.

[2] The discovery of oil in commercial quantitites, however, did not take place until 2007. For more on Ghana’s oil management see Ransford Edward Van Gyampo, “Saving Ghana from Its Oil: A Critical Assessment of Preparations Made so Far,” Africa Today 57 (2011), 49-69 and Kwamina Panford, “The Academy and The Successful Management of Ghana’s Petroleum Resources,” Africa Today 61 (2014), 79-107.

[3] Ibid.

Other readings:

Clementina Amankwaah. “Election-Related Violence: The Case of Ghana.” Current African Issues 56 (2013).


Africa is a Country. “All you need to know about Ghana’s December 7, 2016 elections.”

Report of the Commonwealth Observer Group. “Ghana Presidential and Parliamentary Elecitions.” (2012).

Anything by historians Adu Boahene and Naomi Chazan