Posted in Guest posts · Master's blog

This guest post is by Anna Mareschal (Arabic and Spanish 2016), who attended the ‘In Conversation with the Master’ event on working with urban refugees on 9 November 2017.

On Thursday 9 November, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to attend one of the many talks in the ‘In Conversation with the Master’ series organised by Nicky a few times each term. Each discussion is framed around the speciality of one or more guest speakers, and in these informal conversations input from the audience is encouraged, which makes the discussions all the more exciting. This time we were joined by Özgecan Atasoy, a Fitz alumna (MPhil Modern Society & Global Transformations 2014), who now works for the UNHCR in Turkey. The current refugee crisis is a massively important issue in politics and in our social conscience, and key to Cambridge life both as a city and as a university. Thanks to a variety of different perspectives and modes of intervention in the audience, we had a chance to think critically about different scales of intervention.

As one of the approximately 300 people directly employed by the UNHCR in Turkey, Özgecan Atasoy is the Senior Field Assistant for cash-based interventions; her job includes working with refugees to determine how they can get access to money in order to begin to rebuild their lives, and, at the very least, restore their dignity by gaining economic independence. This was a fantastic way for people with an interest in refugee rights to find out more about the systems within the UNHCR, how it works with different NGOs to allocate funds, and how it creates detailed files on all registered persons of concern. We got to find out how small-scale, local UNHCR interventions interact with each other and with different projects across the world.

We do not usually hear about cash-based interventions in discussions about refugee aid in Greece and Turkey. Atasoy’s role is to determine what funding refugees receive when they either get referred or come asking for help themselves. As you would expect, questions were raised about how funds are allocated, and the risk of corruption. For Özgecan, cash-based interventions are more humane and dignified than material assistance as they are flexible, encourage integration, help develop the local economy, the associated risks can be better mitigated and are well worth the benefit.

Like so many of the different factors of the refugee crisis, one of the main questions left unanswered is the end game, the goal of these projects working with refugees. Each organisation deals with a specific part of the problem whereas the end goal would be for such organisations to no longer be needed. Atasoy insisted that cash assistance, much like living in Turkey is, for many refugees, a transitional, temporary, solution that needs to be supported by more durable projects. This is, as Özgecan said, is where the UNHCR comes in: it can only act on a limited scale, with specific issues; our job is to reflect and act on the place of refugees in our countries and our societies.

The variety of questions both from Nicky and from the audience led us to think about our role as citizens in regards to this situation. There is not a comprehensive or quick solution to the refugee crisis; our job is to do what we can with the capacities that we have in the position we are in. For me, this discussion was enlightening in terms of thinking about the structures of monetary aid all over the world, and our limited yet not negligible power to act on social issues.

Posted in Guest posts · Master's blog

This guest post is by Sabine Dunstan (Land Economy 2015), who attended the ‘In Conversation with the Master’ event on affordable housing on 2 November 2017.

Yesterday I attended one of the several ‘In Conversation with the Master’ events Nicky hosts throughout the academic year. In case you are unaware, the format of these events involves welcoming guests into College to converse with Nicky about a topic which relates to their field of expertise and professional experience. However, for audience members, the event is much more than this; participation is actively encouraged in the form of both questions and challenges to arguments presented, making it a really dynamic and interesting event. If mingling (or, dare I say, networking) is your thing, then there is also the chance to meet the guests following the debate and get those burning questions answered over supper which, by the way, was divine.

This week, the title of the event was ‘Affording Housing in Cambridge, London and Manchester’, with Matthew Gardiner and Jonathan Rose as guest speakers. Whilst Jonathan is based locally as the Master Planner for North West Cambridge, Matthew kindly travelled down from Trafford, where he is the Chief Executive of a Housing Association. Matthew studied Geography at Fitz and, as a Northerner myself, it was great to meet a College alumnus who has made the venture back up to make a real difference where action is needed.

Whilst such events tend to be more conversational than more formal lectures (a welcome break from the usual academic structure), both Jonathan and Matthew had gone to the trouble of preparing a slideshow presentation to help illustrate some of the projects they are currently working on. Jonathan explored the development of Eddington in North West Cambridge which has been made possible by the release of greenbelt land and has been developed as a partnership between the city itself and the University of Cambridge. Meanwhile, Matthew talked us through the Old Trafford Masterplan and the importance of a holistic approach in tackling housing problems through examples such as the creation of a new health and wellbeing centre at the heart of the area. Both of these case studies set the scene of the current climate in the UK housing market, allowing even those who had no economic background to engage with the topic. It transpired quickly that, even with these fantastic examples of development, the demand for housing far outstrips supply, thus rendering it unaffordable to huge sections of the market.

During their case studies, Nicky was keen to establish definitions of key terms such as affordability and what a home actually was, which in turn led to discussion, raised by an audience member, about whether in fact housing was a right or a commodity. This sparked contributions across the audience and, whilst settling on an overall consensus that it was in fact a combination of the two, it was not without exploration of the very concept of human rights and the role that the state does and/or should play in what is essentially one of the most attractive private investments.

The overall theme of the discussion was the sheer complexity of the housing market. We touched on the importance of density, constraints to the supply of housing both in the form of institutional and political constraints and also within the housebuilding industry itself and explored the role of development in addressing this. There was a general consensus from the speakers that devolution and the election of City Mayors, whilst certainly a step in the right direction, is not sufficient and that there are still huge steps to take in tackling the problem.

As much as I would love to be able to report otherwise, we did not, unfortunately, manage to solve the Housing Crisis. Nor did we find a way for me to be able to continue to afford to live in this beautiful city after I, as a finalist, leave Fitz later this year. However, what we did achieve was a thoroughly enjoyable evening engaging with a topic which is absolutely crucial to keep discussing. Thank you, once again, to Matthew, Jonathan and, of course, Nicky for making it possible. And, if you haven’t yet been to an event, make sure you come along to the next!

In Conversation with the Master - Affording Housing in Cambridge, London and Manchester | 2 November 2017, Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge

In Conversation with the Master – Affording Housing in Cambridge, London and Manchester | 2 November 2017, Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge (Credit: John Cleaver)