Journalist Doug Saunders

The Globe and Mail‘s European bureau chief explains the concept of an ‘arrival city’ and how it is reshaping the world.

Doug Saunders is the London-based European bureau chief for the Canadian national newspaper The Globe and Mail. He also writes the "Reckoning" column, a popular and award-winning weekly piece devoted to intellectual ideas and social developments behind the news. Winner of four National Newspaper Awards—Canada's Pulitzer Prize counterpart—he's written from Asia, Europe, the Middle East and the Americas. The Ontario native has been a researcher and freelancer for various journalists and national bureau chief for the Canadian University Press wire service.


Tavis: Doug Saunders is an award-winning journalist and writer who serves as the European bureau chief for Canada’s paper of record, “The Globe and Mail.” He is also the author of the new text, “Arrival City: How the Largest Migration in History is Reshaping Our World.” He is, of course, based in London, but I’m honored to have him here in Los Angeles tonight. Doug, good to meet you.
Doug Saunders: A pleasure to be with you, Tavis.
Tavis: Glad to have you here, sir. Let me start with a couple of things about Libya, if I can.
Saunders: Please.
Tavis: I understand you were there for the first couple of weeks of this uprising in Libya. So the news today, of course, is that here in the U.S. at least we are backing down our engagement, backing down our involvement, which means that the U.N. has to step up theirs, and yet because of that there are questions now about the success of this mission. Your thoughts?
Saunders: Well, I think unlike Iraq this was a case where I think most people in the world would agree some help was needed from outside. This was a popular uprising that was going to happen one way or the other and was going to be crushed by Moammar Qadhafi, who does not have political support within the country.
There’s not some huge basis of support for his regime, but he has a large military presence, he’s able to crush and kill people. The question is whether to go in with a full military campaign and so on, and I actually think the United States was fairly wise in not taking the front seat role in this and leaving it to NATO, the United Nations, to do that.
You do not want to create perceptions in the Arab world that this is the American military coming in with its oil investments and this sort of thing. It’s not. That’s not what’s going on here. You don’t want to create that perception.
There’s a strange moment of goodwill in the Arab world right now where people are willing to say to the United States this time around, could you help us out? But that could fade very quickly.
Tavis: So what is, then, to your mind, the degree of success of this mission without the U.S.’s involvement from this point forward?
Saunders: I think it’s possible, because this is not a huge war we’re talking about here and if it turns into one, something’s gone wrong. There needs to be an end to Qadhafi’s leadership in Libya. The second that is gone there’s going to be another set of problems then involving the transition to whatever form of government comes after.
But as soon as that’s gone, there’s not a widespread group of people who support the idea of Qadhafi. Without the man, there’s no idea, there’s no support and so on. So it should be a relatively limited, relatively achievable operation.
Tavis: If I had a dime for every time in my own short lifetime I’ve heard “relatively limited, relatively achievable.”
Saunders: It’s true, it’s true.
Tavis: With all due respect, you hear these words all the time.
Saunders: We said it about Afghanistan, it’s true.
Tavis: We heard that about Afghanistan, we heard that about Iraq and Qadhafi, whatever you think of him, to your earlier point, is showing no signs of going anywhere any time soon.
Saunders: Yeah.
Tavis: I had on this program last night one of the now-released “New York Times” journalists who was captured in Libya, beaten; we know that story well, you know that story well. Even he said last night on this program he doesn’t think Qadhafi’s going anywhere any time soon. So this notion of relatively easy, relatively quick, relatively what doesn’t seem to work.
Saunders: Relative to other things. Really, we’re going back to the lessons that we learned in the 1990s that caused the excesses and mistakes of Afghanistan and Iraq and so on, which is that we overcompensated the other way. We allowed things like the Rwandan genocide and Slobodan Milosevic’s campaigns of killing in the former Yugoslavia to go on without any sort of assistance when people were begging for help.
Western countries overcompensated in one direction, got much too heavily interventionist, often for the very wrong reasons. There’s a danger of tipping back the other way as well. I don’t think these things ever go well or ever are easy or neat or pretty, and the results are never going to be some instant transition to democracy.
I do think this was a case where it would have been a humanitarian catastrophe if people had not done something.
Tavis: But you buy that argument, then.
Saunders: Having been on the ground and listened to Libyans and knowing their views, I would say for the moment, yes, but we have to be very cautious and not get stuck here.
Tavis: Since you’re here and since you are the guy that runs “The Globe and Mail” out of that bureau in London, what role have our neighbors, Canada, played in this process? I’m just curious.
Saunders: This is actually a case where Canada is militarily involved. It’s dropping bombs. Canada was involved in Afghanistan; is still stuck there, I think would be the best way to put it. Stayed out of Iraq and was involved in the Bosnian and Kosovo conflicts and so on. It’s a small military but it’s very controversial in Canada. Anything that involves the military is never treated as a cause for enthusiasm. It’s a debate.
Tavis: Right quick here, their justification – I should say Canada’s, the government’s justification for going into Libya when they didn’t go into Iraq is what? I hear your point it’s limited, but what was the justification for doing it?
Saunders: The United Nations Security Council asked for it was the reason. It was an international, nearly unanimous decision based on international law and humanitarian principles. The U.N. doctrine of responsibility to protect, which says that you need to rescue citizens of a country when they are facing murder from their leader, was a Canadian invention and so on, so there’s a bit of ownership of that sense of responsibility.
Tavis: Thanks for taking those questions. Since you were in Libya, I thought I would start by asking a couple of questions about that crisis. To your new text, “Arrival City: How the Largest Migration in History is Reshaping Our World,” it begs the obvious question what is an “arrival city?”
Saunders: This is the bottom-rung neighborhood in any city, where people first arrive from a poor place, usually a village, and make their start in a city. I’m arguing that these neighborhoods are the center of either big conflicts, such as we saw in Egypt recently, or the rise to stability and end of poverty in countries.
In “Arrival City” I’ve gone and visited about 20 such places on five continents, find out what makes the bottom-rung immigrant or migrant neighborhood a success and a pathway to prosperity, what makes it a failure and a place filled with violence, gangs, poverty, misery.
Tavis: I don’t want to do this for you, I’ll let you pick, but pick a couple cities that are arrival cities – one, of course, here in the United States – and give me a sense of what – just walk me through what the – paint the picture for me of that arrival city.
Saunders: Sure. I’d take a look at south Los Angeles, several neighborhoods there that were, in the late 20th century, fell into poverty, dependence and so on. They were African American neighborhoods that had failed as migrant neighborhood really in the previous century because of barriers placed in their way.
After the riots in the early 1990s essentially emptied out, the property values plummeted, people from Central America moved in. I track what happens as Central Americans, very poor, poorer than any Americans who’d lived there, slowly invest in their properties, buy their properties rather than renting them, set up small businesses and shops, set up networks of support that send money back to the originating villages, finance their agricultural development and try to do things to create a better life for their children.
At the same time as running into traps involving gang warfare, crime, deprivation and so on that result from barriers placed in the way of the success of these neighborhoods. Bureaucratic barriers, physical barriers involving transportation links and difficulties like that, citizenship barriers.
Tavis: Since you mentioned Egypt as another example and you spent some time there, they’ve been in the news, for obvious reasons, of late, give me the Egyptian example.
Saunders: When things exploded in Cairo on the 25th of January this year, the first neighborhood to send people who dared to go into Tahrir Square in the center of Cairo and face the guns and tanks and so on was a neighborhood called Bulaq, which was formed by people who’d migrated in from upper Egypt, from northern Egypt, from the agricultural villages there, to squat and set up their own self-built neighborhood on the edge of central Cairo.
It’s always been a dense and very busy and troubled neighborhood, and the people who’d made a success in this what was regarded by most people as a slum there, who’d started small businesses that succeeded, who’d wanted to get their kids into university and so on ran up against the regime-controlled middle class, the old middle class of Egypt and had a history of confrontations in which they discovered they had no access to the good jobs, they had no access to the good life.
People wanted to bulldoze their neighborhoods and move them out to high-rises on the edge of town. That tension was behind the first waves of people who began to rise, and all across the Arab world in the Middle East you get this conflict between a new middle class coming from people who were born on dirt floors up against the old, protected regime middle class. That was a lot of the tension in Tunisia, that’s what’s behind a lot of the changes in Egypt, that’s what caused Turkey to stabilize eventually.
Tavis: So ultimately, how is all of this reshaping our world?
Saunders: The urbanization of the eastern and southern quarters of the world is probably the largest population trend driving politics and so on in the world right now. We’re about halfway through it. After World War II the world was about three-quarters rural and peasant and so on. Now it’s 50-50 and it’ll pass the point at some point by the end of this century where Asia, South America, Africa are as urban as Europe and North America are now.
Unless something cataclysmic happens to stop that, that tends to be a human movement that doesn’t reverse itself.
Tavis: You wrestle with this near the end of the book and it’s fascinating to me. I can see how this migration is good for them – when I say “them,” I mean these particular groups of people, these particular constituencies. It’s good for them, but is it good for us? And when I say “us,” I mean in the States. Is it good for the country?
This is the most multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic America ever. What you’re arguing is these people come here to their own communities, it’s good for them, but is it good for us as a nation?
Saunders: It can be if it’s done right, if the mistakes aren’t made that have been made before. America was built on waves of people coming through exactly these sort of bottom-rung neighborhoods, which were just as squalid and mistrusted and illegal, often, 100 years ago as they are now. A lot of the same debates happened.
Somehow, it worked. Somehow, people started businesses; they succeeded, got their kids into politics and school and so on. I’m looking for pathways, assuming that the economy is going to keep demanding people and that people are going to come in whether we want them or not, which tends to happen, historically, how to make their neighborhoods work for them so they can help themselves rather than having to deal with it 20 years from now as a criminal or welfare problem.
Tavis: I’m just scratching the surface on what is a provocative book that raises some serious questions about our future in this country and beyond. It’s from Doug Saunders. The new text is called “Arrival City: How the Largest Migration in History is Reshaping Our World.” Doug, good to have you on and thanks for the text.
Saunders: A real pleasure, thanks.
Tavis: My honor.
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Last modified: August 6, 2011 at 12:59 pm