People power brings Finns the right to say ‘I do’.

Finland took an important step towards realising marriage equality today when MPs voted on a citizens’ initiative to legalise same-sex marriages. Out of a total of 199 MPs, 105 voted to legalise same-sex marriages (they actually voted noted no, ‘Ei’, because of how the question had been posed). There are still various bureaucratic rigmaroles to go through – including another vote in parliament – before same-sex couples can actually marry (possibly in early 2017), but the general sentiment seems to be that there won’t be any backtracking after today’s historic development.


The result of the vote is not the only news worth noting either. The vote to legalise same-sex marriages followed a citizens’ initiative – Tahdon 2013 – started over bar table in 2012, and is the first citizens’ initiative pass through parliament since citizens’ initiatives were allowed that same year. The lesson? People power works.

And here’s a list of the MPs who voted against same-sex marriages, because I believe in naming and shaming (this is according to Helsingin Sanomat, and includes the party initials in Finnish before the vote against, ‘EI’):

Ahvenjärvi Sauli kd EI
Anttila Sirkka-Liisa kesk EI
Autto Heikki kok EI
Eerola Juho ps EI
Elomaa Ritva ps EI
Gästgivars Lars Erik r EI
Hakkarainen Teuvo ps EI
Hautala Lasse kesk EI
Heikkilä Lauri ps EI
Hemmilä Pertti kok EI
Hirvisaari James m11 EI
Holmlund Anne kok EI
Hongisto Reijo ps EI
Immonen Olli ps EI
Jalonen Ari ps EI
Jokinen Kalle kok EI
Joutsenlahti Anssi ps EI
Jurva Johanna ps EI
Jääskeläinen Jouko kd EI
Jääskeläinen Pietari ps EI
Kalli Timo kesk EI
Kalmari Anne kesk EI
Katainen Elsi kesk EI
Kerola Inkeri kesk EI
Kettunen Pentti ps EI
Kivelä Kimmo ps EI
Kiviranta Esko kesk EI
Kokko Osmo ps EI
Komi Katri kesk EI
Kopra Jukka kok EI
Korhonen Timo V. kesk EI
Koskela Laila kesk EI
Kääriäinen Seppo kesk EI
Lehti Eero kok EI
Leppä Jari kesk EI
Lindström Jari ps EI
Lintilä Mika kesk EI
Lohela Maria ps EI
Lohi Markus kesk EI
Louhelainen Anne ps EI
Maijala Eeva-Maria kesk EI
Mattila Pirkko ps EI
Mäkipää Lea ps EI
Mäntylä Hanna ps EI
Mäntymaa Markku kok EI
Mölsä Martti ps EI
Niikko Mika ps EI
Niinistö Jussi ps EI
Oinonen Pentti ps EI
Packalén Tom ps EI
Palm Sari kd EI
Palola Mikael kok EI
Paloniemi Aila kesk EI
Pekkarinen Mauri kesk EI
Peltokorpi Terhi kesk EI
Pirttilahti Arto kesk EI
Raatikainen Mika ps EI
Rajamäki Kari sd EI
Rantakangas Antti kesk EI
Rauhala Leena kd EI
Ravi Pekka kok EI
Rehula Juha kesk EI
Reijonen Eero kesk EI
Risikko Paula kok EI
Rossi Markku kesk EI
Rundgren Simo kesk EI
Ruohonen-Lerner Pirkko ps EI
Räsänen Päivi kd EI
Saarakkala Vesa-Matti ps EI
Sankelo Janne kok EI
Sasi Kimmo kok EI
Satonen Arto kok EI
Savola Mikko kesk EI
Sipilä Juha kesk EI
Soini Timo ps EI
Soukola Ismo ps EI
Tolppanen Maria ps EI
Tolvanen Kari kok EI
Torniainen Ari kesk EI
Tossavainen Reijo ps EI
Turunen Kaj ps EI
Tuupainen Kauko ps EI
Tölli Tapani kesk EI
Vahasalo Raija kok EI
Vehkaperä Mirja kesk EI
Vehviläinen Anu kesk EI
Virtanen Pertti ps EI
Vähämäki Ville ps EI
Väätäinen Juha ps EI
Wallin Harry sd EI
Zyskowicz Ben kok EI
Östman Peter kd EI


For marriage equality.

MPs in Finland are today voting on marriage equality following a citizens’ initiative launched in March 2013. I got married in Finland earlier this year – anyone else who wants to do so should be allowed to as well. (‘Tahdon’ means ‘I do’ in Finnish.)


The future remains plastic.


I’ve previously written about the ban on thin plastic bags in Malawi, which came into effect in June this year. At the time, I noted that it was a seriously forward move for the country, where plastic litter can be found all over the capital. Except that it wasn’t.

Initially, it seemed some changes were being made: my local supermarket, Chipiku, had signs up explaining the ban, and sold customers heavy-duty plastic bags to put their groceries in. Alas, that did not last. Only a week or so after the (supposed) ban, Chipiku and other stores were back at eagerly packing my items into multiple, free, thin plastic bags. What went wrong?

Local newspaper The Nation today reports that an industry appeal to the (then) Minister of Environment and Climate Change Management in March 2014 won them a year’s reprieve. Plastics manufacturers argued that the ban would have an adverse impact on their industry, and that they were setting up a plastics recycling plant to help reduce plastic waste. The Minister was swayed: “Considering the issues you have raised and actions proposed towards production of biodegradable plastics, investment in recycling machines, and commencement of social programmes to reduce indiscriminate production and use of thin plastics, it has been necessary to extend the commencement date of commencing the ban to 30 June 2015.”

This happened well before the ban was announced. So why then was the ban announced at all? According to The Nation, political in-fighting seems to have been the culprit. While the (then) Minister give the industry reprieve, the (then) Principal Secretary went ahead and launched the ban. Enter: confusion.

The ultimate loser in the saga is the environment. While the plastics industry’s claims to commence recycling of plastics and manufacturing of biodegradable products are positive, initial announcement followed by half-hearted retraction of the ban shows just how weak the government is in enforcing its own policies and legislation. Sadly, that leaves little hope that the ban will be compellingly revived in 2015.

urban_net #5: urban planning and managing access to water

nov meet

The fifth urban_net meeting took place at the ActionAid Malawi office this morning, featuring two presentations. First up was Asayire Kapira from WES Network, speaking about Water Users Associations (WUAs) in Lilongwe. WUAs are cooperative societies where communities establish a legal business entity and register it with the government to operate all water facilities – usually water kiosks – in a designated area. Through its Tilitonse Project, WES Network works with a number of WUAs mainly in Lilongwe’s peri-urban areas, seeking to improve accountability of the WUA model through participatory tools and approaches. While the project has met successes, including establishment of a WUA network and de-politicisation of existing associations, there have also been some challenges. A key challenge has been lack of responsiveness and even resistance by duty bearers, namely the Lilongwe Water Board, to be accountable to their customers. You can download Kapira’s presentation here.

The second presenter was John Chome of UN-Habitat in Malawi, though speaking in his private capacity. Chome delivered a thought-provoking historical presentation on urban planning in Malawi, and the failures of both past and current planning policy to address the challenges of urbanisation (and take advantage of the opportunities). He concluded that urbanisation in Malawi now occurs “outside of planning” and challenged the participants to deliberate on whether current planning in Malawi is addressing the real issues facing the country, and if the appropriate models to address these issues are being used. This lead to a lively discussion on the anti-urban bias at the government level, the need for Lilongwe City Council to take on a leadership role when it comes to city development, and how Lilongwe as a city needs to densify and grow upward, not continue to spread and sprawl. You can access Chome’s presentation here.

The next urban_net meeting will take place on Dec. 4. Join us!

To subsidise or not to subsidise?

Bricks drying in the sun in on of Lilongwe's poor settlements

Bricks drying in the sun in one of Lilongwe’s poor settlements

Heated debate over an upcoming subsidy for cement and iron sheets is raging in Malawi. Put forward in the new government’s 2014-2015 budget, the MK7billion ($18.4million) programme is, according to the government, aimed at supporting low income Malawians achieve decent and affordable housing. Critics, of which there are many, are not convinced. They have argued that it’s poverty, not availability of materials that is the problem, adding that other subsidy programmes, such as the Farm Input Subsidy Program (FISP), have not been properly managed and therefore have not always benefited the most needy. Furthermore, the low number of intended beneficiaries, around 15,000 families or 80 houses per constituency in Malawi, has been faulted for being a drop in the ocean in a country where 80% of residents are estimated to live in sub-standard housing, as well as a drain on public funds.

There’s no doubt that something needs to be done on the housing front in Malawi. And while the quality of housing certainly is an issue – homes built using sun-burnt bricks are known to collapse during the rainy season – my own research (forthcoming) in Lilongwe’s poor settlements suggests this is considered less of a problem than some of the other features of what is defined as adequate housing. Specifically, at least residents in Lilongwe’s urban areas seem to consider their lack of access to key public services such as potable water, education, and health care as far bigger challenges than the quality of their housing.

Bricks are made on-site even in some of the most dense settlements in Lilongwe

Bricks are made on-site even in some of the most dense settlements in Lilongwe

So should the government subsidise cement and iron sheets? They will, no matter what, but I definitely don’t think they should. The (now ruling) DPP party’s election promise to put subsidies in place was all about gaining votes, while implementation of the subsidy reveals a populism that betrays a lack of appreciation of the real situation. Sure, the majority of Malawians live in sub-standard housing. Sure, that’s a problem. Are cement and iron subsidies for 15,000 families – one percent of the population by a generous estimate – the solution? No.

Much more forward-thinking solutions would include reverting to developing sites-and-services schemes in the country’s urban areas, promoting better techniques for making durable sun-burnt bricks, improving access to finance among the poor, and strengthening tenure security to give people the confidence to invest in their homes.

And all of the above does not even touch upon how hot and loud roofs made from iron sheets can be, and the multitude of environmental concerns associated with cement.

My latest at urb.im: Tax breaks to improve commutes in Lilongwe

This month’s theme over at urb.im was all about how people in cities around the world get to work. I wrote about how commuters in Malawi could soon enjoy a more pleasant and reliable ride to work, as the country’s new government has bowed to industry lobbying and pledged to provide tax breaks for the import of new minibuses. The move is set to make minibuses more competitive against larger buses, as well as help improve the industry’s poor safety record. Read more here and join the discussion!

Death to the death penalty.

This soul-destroying piece by Lily Fury in Salon is another reminder (not that I at least needed one) of the fact that the death penalty has no place is this world. In her article, Lily describes how the man she loves is put to death in front her. State-sanctioned. It is so absolutely barbaric and horrifying that it’s impossible for me to even imagine.

We can, and must, act for the abolition of the death penalty. Go to Amnesty International’s site to take action. Kill the death penalty.