Elections in tight civic space

The elections in Pakistan, Cambodia, and Zimbabwe remind me of the treadmill option at my gym that offers a digital hike through stunning New Zealand or Hawaii woodland. The imagery is so good it brings to mind other national parks; you climb and get the right rush. Even though you cannot deviate, improvise or run any risk, this feels almost like a country walk.

Election simulation?

The elections in Pakistan, Cambodia, and possibly Zimbabwe, feel like elections. At the point-of-delivery, they have the basic elements: there has been political campaigning and some different views aired; many people have been permitted to vote, as the long lines testify; their votes have been counted in some fashion. Each election is imperfect in its own way, because – why leave important matters to chance? Losers complain, that is how it is done. Nonetheless, so far at least, each election has had a reasonable chance of passing as ‘good enough elections’, not fake enough to rock the whole treadmill.

The digital woodland setting at my local gym

Yet, like my digital forest hike, the facts tell us the path of these elections was always, to some degree, pre-programmed. In each of Cambodia, Zimbabwe, and Pakistan, civic and political space has shrunk significantly and recently. Each of the three elections was staged within a year of political leaders being removed from competition. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe was finally toppled in an intra-elite ‘coup’ last November. In Cambodia, opposition leader Kem Sokha was imprisoned on treason charges in September, and his party banned in November. Last July, the Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was convicted of corruption and disqualified from office, then jailed a month before the polls on corruption charges. The political pathways were thus sharply delimited in each country.

As in my risk-free, climate-controlled virtual forest, these elections blocked out the real features of a democratic political landscape. They went ahead with limited space for reasoned and informed debate, and without the freedoms of the media, of speech, and of association necessary to mobilize public opinion or build representative parties with a chance of competing. Media outlets had been silenced or threatened. Groups making demands of liberal democracy or human rights – NGOs, social movements, or civil society organizations – had been attacked, stigmatized and denounced. Laws and regulations were in place to restrict organizations with foreign funding, and to control digital communications (see here, here, and here).

Closures of civic space of the kinds seen in Cambodia, Zimbabwe, and Pakistan are now widespread. They don’t affect all groups equally: liberal democratic and human rights groups, as well as indigenous and land and resource rights defenders, are on the frontline of most attacks. But there is more space for neo-traditionalist groups, particularly those opposed to human rights or positioned on the right; others advocating violent, extremist, or disruptive measures have forcibly occupied more of the civic space. So civic space is changing, as much as it is shrinking – for some.

Crossroads for development

Elections are always a crossroad, a moment when political pathways are dug into, abandoned, or diverted. But because how political power is won shapes how it is exercised and for whom, elections also foreshadow the nature and pace of development progress. To try to understand the politics of development in closing civic space, a group of researchers has been reading widely and thinking comparatively about what has been happening in Cambodia, Pakistan, and Zimbabwe, among other countries, in the past decade. In this working paper we share our thoughts about how we can understand what changes in civic space mean for development in different countries. We look at how political settlements and state-civil society relations differ across settings to identify the mechanisms at work, and assess the unique development challenges and opportunities of each.

‘Fake development’ in closed civic space?

If our conceptual framework offers any guide, we can hope for higher growth rates in a political settlement forged in tight civic space, particularly with IMF structural adjustment programmes in sight in Pakistan and Zimbabwe. That might look good on spreadsheets, but we know beyond doubt that growth does not reach everyone equally and that inequality has political and economic costs. Where civil society is constrained we may expect more disruptive street protests against price rises or austerity measures: a wave of ‘fuel riots’ in fragile and conflict-affected settings in the past decade shows what happens when more civic modes of engagement fail.

Macroeconomic instability and corruption have been a drag on development progress, and we know that robust civil society and free media scrutiny and evidence can help keep finance ministries honest and stable. But in their often valid efforts to gain control over the national development process, governments have often squeezed the abilities of NGOs to do valuable work protecting the vulnerable, empowering and giving voice to the marginalized, and monitoring government and business to help avoid development disasters, boost inclusion, and improve policies and programmes. If academia and thinktanks cannot independently scrutinize or debate governmental performance, they cannot hold it to account; faith in official data may be thin, weakening generalized political trust.

A critical, independent civil society may give the political opposition an edge at times, but it is also functional for many of the needs of those in power: it improves both the quality of governance and of the wider development process. A robust civil society is good for government – inconvenient in the run-up to elections, but on balance, an essential part of the apparatus of democratic rule. A robust civil society is similarly good for development – again, inconveniently critical at times, but necessary to manage the development process inclusively, equitably, and sustainably enough – to register the kind of fair performance on which political elite legitimacy rests.

If you don’t listen to polite civil society, things start to get rude.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with their agendas of inclusion, equity, and ‘leaving no one behind’ are an unlikely pathway from elections fought in such tight civic space. Whether the elections in Zimbabwe, Pakistan, and Cambodia are a simulation of democracy or accepted as the real thing, their new political leaders face the challenge of delivering development in tight civic space. The roles of civil society in development need urgently to be debated, transparently and in a spirit of accountability. Our research group will watch civic space in these countries for whether they open up new paths we anticipate to be necessary for a model of development that has any chance of being sustainable, equitable, inclusive, or of ‘leaving no one behind’.

Download the new paper: What does closing civic space mean for development? A literature review and proposed conceptual framework


Key sources on the closing civic space debate:


All views expressed here are the responsibility of the author, and not of the IDS or of the funders of the research.

The IDS working paper no. 515 What does closing civic space mean for development? was made possible through funding from Act Alliance and UK Aid, who both financed a literature review on closing civic space and the implications for development. The UK Aid financed Action for Empowerment and Accountability (A4EA) programme is supporting the production of the series of working papers so check here for more information.


Cyclone politics in a warming world

Cyclone Mora: an untold good news story

Bangladesh momentarily made world news last week when force 1 hurricane Cyclone Mora peaked at 75 mph on May 31st, making landfall around the port city of Chittagong. Seven people died and 50 or more were injured, mostly by falling trees; dozens of fishermen are still missing. But these tragic casualties were far off the ‘1 million in nature’s crosshairs’ predicted in CNN headlines. In a matter of days 300,000 people had been evacuated from the area, many to some of the almost 500 public cyclone shelters. Without enough disaster-porn to attract interest, international news coverage soon dried up; after all, ‘Bangladesh Government does a creditable job of disaster prevention’ is hardly clickbait.


Tropical storms as political ‘tipping points’

Behind this non-story lies a dramatic tale of violence, betrayal, sacrifice, and heroism half a century old. Nestled in the low-lying Bengal Delta, Bangladesh was always exposed to tropical storms – 42% of all deaths from tropical storms in the last two centuries were in the Bay of Bengal – but the death toll from cyclones has declined rapidly since, and, I have argued recently, because, the country gained sovereignty in 1971. Nearly 50 years ago now, the Bhola cyclone, one of the most destructive tropical storms ever recorded, killed up to half a million people. The world was aghast and came out in full-force to help, but the government of then-united Pakistan was slow and lazy to respond, viewing such disasters as unavoidable and not their problem. The military regime’s indifference to the plight of their citizens in Pakistan’s far-flung eastern wing became such a hot political issue in the run-up to the first democratic elections that Bengali nationalists won what was ‘possibly the greatest victory of any party in a free and contested election anywhere’ in its impoverished eastern province. This triggered a genocidal attack and a bloody, but ultimately successful war, liberating Bangladesh from Pakistani rule in 1971.

The Bhola cyclone was a ‘critical juncture’ that changed South Asian history. Yet the intimate interrelation between ecology and politics in this context meant it crafted a social contract between citizens and ruling elites to defend against the disasters to which the geography of the delta leaves it uniquely prone. Since 1970, Bangladeshi governments have made it a political priority to prevent and manage disasters. How well a Bangladeshi government tackles a disaster is a litmus test of its legitimacy.

Hurricane political economy

That cyclones are properly political matters is not news in a week when the US withdrew from the Paris Accord on climate change. To the extent that such projections are possible, global warming is likely to increase the intensity, if not definitely the frequency, of such storms. This makes it worth thinking about what hurricane political economy might mean in the future. Some cyclone politics are obvious: who gets protected and who gets the resources needed to recover are clearly about political power, not rights nor needs. Hurricane Katrina brought the gross racial politics of the US into unforgettably sharp relief. Similarly, in 1970, the West Pakistani rulers knew little and cared less about the plight of the peasants and fisherfolk on the far side of the subcontinent. Apparently it never occurred to the ruling elites that their own legitimacy (and therefore their power base) depended on at least making an effort. It took mass mobilization into full-scale guerrilla warfare to persuade the Pakistanis that weak defence against disasters was a political deal-breaker for a population on the permanent frontline of the hurricane. National sovereignty, and later, democratic pressure, cemented the social contract that emerged with the Bhola cyclone, empowering citizens to hold governments to account when disasters struck.

‘Unwanted people’

How people come to be in the path of the storm in the first place involves a less obvious political economy, the result of longer processes through which economy, polity and ecology mutually shape each other. In 1970, the Bengalis subsisting on the fringes out in the delta had been pushing the agrarian frontier deeper into the Sundarbans forest over the past hundred years or more, growing jute and paddy for colonial and export markets. They were there largely because the British Empire needed them to be, and arranged its policies accordingly.


Fast forward to 2017, and a depressing political parallel soon becomes evident as news interest in the impact of Cyclone Mora shifts to the devastation of the Rohingya refugee camps. These people have been fleeing the genocide-tolerating regime of Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi. They have been reluctantly located by the Bangladeshi government in this beautiful harsh part of the world. These are people with nothing, not even citizenship, and their flimsy thatched roofs have now also been swept away. Hamida Begum, a 27 year old refugee from Burma told Al Jazeera:


We heard that a cyclone was coming. But there’s no place we can go … I hate being a Rohingya. We are being tortured in Myanmar. Now in Bangladesh we have no rights. Nothing. After this cyclone, we don’t have a roof. We are living under the sky. We have no future.


It is not hard to believe that these people facing the storm, close to the site of the Bhola cyclone of 1970, and in a country so renowned for its disaster management, are the ‘most unwanted people in the world’.

It is no accident that these ‘unwanted people’ were in the path of the hurricane. Again, in 2017, the after-effects of imperial policies of centuries past mix with the political economy of the present to transform some groups into cyclone victims. In the case of the Rohingya, these descendants, probably, of labourers and traders despatched from the Chittagong area to enrich the Empire are the despised minority around which warring ethnic groups find it convenient to unite. That they are Muslims that nobody, not even their Muslim neighbours, see it as in their interests to protect, makes it easy to push them off the land to make space for lucrative mineral and other extractive industries. That is how they end up in refugee camps facing down the cyclone. It is not just that they are poor and powerless that they come off worst. It is that their poverty and powerlessness has been the construction of decades, regimes, centuries, and it has always served the interests of economic power.


Powering the Capitalocene

These are the cyclone politics of what Jason Moore has renamed the Capitalocene – a geological era in which the imperatives of capital, stretching back hundreds of years, and not the current behaviour of people in general, shape the ecological crisis of our time. We must make sense of these politics to explain the irony of the Government of Bangladesh, a country founded in order to protect its people from the effects of disasters, building a 1320 megawatt power plant only 14 km from the very Sundarbans forest that might defend against such disasters. It does so with the impeccable logic that development requires power, and Bangladesh must develop. It builds its fossil fuel burning machines even while leading the affected world in climate change negotiations, a paradox from which it cannot escape.

The Aid Lab at the University of Dhaka

Embed from Getty Images

In a couple of weeks, my book The Aid Lab will be published by Oxford University Press, and I am very pleased to have engineered an invitation from the University of Dhaka to talk there about it at a joint seminar of the Departments of Public Administration and Development Studies. This is on February 22nd, the day before publication. I plan to use a slideshow to talk through the book – in which I failed to include any pictures, baffled by the challenged of selecting suitable ones.

But this picture by Munir uz Zaman of AFP of women Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) officers seems to me to summarize the paradox of Bangladesh’s progress on human development with bad governance very handily. Bangladesh has made great strides in human health, wellbeing and gender equity. It has done so mainly in periods of multiparty rule, but the country’s governance falls short of what the international community would consider ‘good’. I feel this image of RAB women reflects on that story in a single frame.

Obama’s Global Food Security Act – a new global politics of provisions?

This was first published by the Impact Initiative in August 2016

The Global Food Security Act of 2016

Terrorist attacks and a related rash of populist political uprisings in this hot and hungry El Nino season of mid-2016 pushed at least one event off the headlines it should rightly have occupied. This was the passage of the United States Government’s ‘Global Food Security Act of 2016’, signed by President Obama in July. The Bill, designed to bolster US-supported food security programmes worldwide, wrote the Feed the Future initiative into US law, authorized over USD 7bn to international food programmes, and directed the President to ‘develop and implement a Global Food Security Strategy to promote global food security, resilience, and nutrition’ with close attention to smallholder farmers, particularly women, and particularly in Africa. The Act is highly significant, although to date not so much analysed as it has been celebrated by hunger advocacy NGOs and praised by UN agencies with a food security mandate.

Food security as security against terror?

The political significance of the Act is that it treats hunger as a genuinely global problem – it matters to everyone if people are hungry, and so nothing short of the eradication of hunger is the goal. Much remains to be said about the substance of the Act, including that it further entrenches a role for Big Food in global nutrition programming (Coke has to date given USD150 million to Feed the Future for work on nutrition, a bit like the National Rifle Association paying gunshot victims’ medical costs). It also does little to reform food aid although it does make emergency aid easier to pass. But what is most striking, in a polity that can barely stomach state spending on public goods the rest of the rich world takes for granted is the powerful political consensus behind it: the Act was passed with uncharacteristically strong bipartisan support slap-bang in the middle of possibly the most divisive electoral season the US has ever seen. How did American politicians muster the political will to finance the hungry poor in places so far away and so electorally irrelevant? The Enrolled Bill version of the Act offers up the answers immediately and without preamble, citing the 2014 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community:

(A) the “[l]ack of adequate food will be a destabilizing factor in countries important to US national security that do not have the financial or technical abilities to solve their internal food security problems”; and

(B) “[f]ood and nutrition insecurity in weakly governed countries might also provide opportunities for insurgent groups to capitalize on poor conditions, exploit international food aid, and discredit governments for their inability to address basic needs”.

If food insecurity destabilizes and ‘discredits’ regimes that cannot address their own food crises and so encourages insurgency, it is a short step to arguing that global hunger breeds global terrorism. This is plainly the sub-text of the Act. And such thinking is well-placed. As Naomi Klein argued in her recent London Review of Books lecture Let Them Drown, more and more evidence supports the argument that violent conflict is closely associated with drought and other ill-effects of climate change. The impacts on food security are presumably not far behind.[1]

Lifeboat ethics vs. Feed the Future

What seems new and noteworthy about the political rationale for the Global Food Security Act of 2016 is the short straight line drawn between national security in the rich world and food security in the poor. In other words, ‘their’ hunger matters for ‘our’ wellbeing. This is quite possibly an important political-ethical step in the global politics of provisions, even if it is not yet quite clear why or how.

What we do know is that the last time we had a major world food crisis, the so-called OPEC crisis of oil price inflation-fuelled commodity price spikes in 1973-4, there was little urgency about hunger in far-off places. Instead, the crisis was seized as an opportunity to push recalcitrant developing world governments to take on US-preferred economic, social (particularly population control) and agricultural and food policies – including importing subsidized US grains. In fact, far from urgency, the spectre of mass hunger was arguably welcomed in certain Washington DC circles as an opportunity for a gruesome kind of experiment with the Malthusian ideas of ‘triage theory’ and ‘lifeboat ethics’ that did the rounds in the 1970s. In their alarmist text Famine 1975! America’s Decision: Who Will Survive? (1967) the Paddocks predicted (accurately enough) a major world food crisis, arguing that poor hungry populations should receive US food aid if (and only if) they showed signs of being able to help themselves – largely by adopting Green Revolution-type industrial food production methods. Those with too large and helpless a hungry population and no disposition to follow US agrofood policy prescriptions should be left to twist in the wind.

As Emma Rothschild recorded in her seminal essay on the political uses of US Public Law 480 food aid at this time, these were not merely ideas, but ideological figleaves to cover the entwining of cold war politics with the politics of food aid: US public policy used hunger and starvation to meet its objectives. In the then-new nation of Bangladesh alone, around one and a half million people perished during the 1974 famine, a disaster usually credited to the US withholding food aid as punishment for trading with Communist Cuba. (Notably, having used PL 480 food aid to bring Bangladesh to heel over its economic, social and agrofood policies, the Feed the Future programme in contemporary Bangladesh emphasizes its strong potential with only a whiff of Malthusian concern about it being the ‘most densely populated country in the world’.) There is no longer any political justification for the neglect of the ‘basket cases’ – everyone must be fed, everyone must be developed. It is in everyone’s interests.

One difference between the food crisis of 1974 and that of 2008 is the absence of important political and agrofood policy misalignments: 2008 was the moment of peak globalization, a time when the globalized corporate food regime was arguably at its most integrated. And so unlike in 1974, a food crisis in one part of the world became a test of global public policy more generally: did the way the world economy was being run enable the most basic provisioning? The wave of food riots around the world in 2007-08, and a second wave when food prices spiked again in 2010-11 signaled that it did not.

Food riots and food rights: the popular politics of global food security

What did these food riots teach us? In the immediate aftermath of the recent period of acute global food price volatility (2007-12), a group of researchers in Bangladesh, India, Kenya, Mozambique and at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex set out to make sense of whether and how popular mobilization around food crises had made a difference to how governments tackled the food crisis. Our particular concern was that in a globalized era, the capacities of developing country governments to protect their populations against sudden price rises or food shortages might be constrained due to trade rules or import-dependence, so even governments that wanted to protect their populations against crises of subsistence might have been unable to do so. There had been numerous subsistence-related protests around the world, including in the four countries of our study where people had struggled for fair prices for bread and maize flour, for wage rises to meet higher rice prices, and for eradicating corruption so that food assistance reached those in need. But to what effect?

Having looked closely at events in those four food-insecure countries we concluded that food riots still work in the 21st century: popular protests had effectively shamed and pushed public authorities to intervene to stabilize prices, subsidize food stuffs and protect the hungry throughout world history, and similar subsistence protests (or ‘food rebellions’) play a similar role in the present day. But there is an important difference with E. P. Thompson’s 18th century English crowd: in the 21st century, even people who have to fight for their right to food have a sense of that right as among the rights of nationhood, and (under ideal conditions) the spoils of democracy. Our conclusions:

Democratic transitions offer repeated, fairly regular moments in which to reassert food rights and responsibilities. They also offer opportunities to demonstrate the withdrawal of legitimacy, of assent to rule … electoral power is experienced as a corrective on bad food policies.[2]

In other words, when people face market failures or shortages in their most basic provisions, they turn to their governments for action. The ‘politics of provisions’ as the historian John Bohstedt terms the forceful popular negotiations over policies of subsistence – remain matters of national democratic competition. And this remains true even though the sources of those market failures are now firmly located in the global food system. It is with national politics that people feel they have traction, and so we are left with what Nancy Fraser defines as a problem of scale. If we take seriously the global nature of food systems we need to take seriously the need for a properly global politics of food. This means a world moral economy; an international right to-food movement; a global social protection response to food crises.

Resilience vs. precarity

After 2008, the shiny new watchword in global food security became resilience. Nobody is pretending any more that making the world food secure is going to be easy, so people will need to equipped to cope when prices spike or shortages loom. The Global Food Security Act of 2016 takes resilience very seriously, connecting it to small farmer efficiency and higher incomes, and to integration into value chains and agribusinesses. It is, as was the case in the 1974 World Food Conference, again a policy response concentrated on boosting production, not on protecting against the inevitable downsides of markets.

The problem now is that resilience in the face of food insecurity may not come from integration into food and agricultural markets; in fact, marketization on adverse terms produces precarity, the very opposite of resilience. We know this because some of us from the Food Riots project continued to look closely at how people adjusted to higher and more volatile prices after the food crisis period. Our findings show that the process of adjustment to the changing food system has been one of increased integration into markets as people respond to the squeeze of higher prices. But that integration has been on poor terms. People have a) ramped up their efforts to earn cash incomes by whatever means necessary and b) squeezed ever more value out of the food they consume, including by eating more processed and industrialized food than in the past. The relationship between the work people do and the nourishment this affords them has been pulled out of kilter by higher food prices, and people are working harder and longer just to stay fed. And so in the post-food crisis period we find more precarity than resilience, as people on low incomes find they work harder and in riskier, difficult or demeaning occupations, amid growing competition for cash incomes.

Obama’s answer to the threat of food crisis is mainly more markets. But it is increasingly clear that market integration needs to come with greater protections for when those markets (inevitably) fail. This latest wave of the Great Transformation has still not been met by the social protection response it needs, in large part because the emancipation necessary for people to organize to claim such protection against the global economy has not happened. This may be one reason for the sharp rise in populist politics in the rich world, where entire working classes feel they are the long-term losers of globalization, unprotected against the financial and commodity price shocks as well as the long-term wage declines and rising inequality. Now even the organizations at the frontline of neoliberalism are beginning to challenge its wisdom, pointing out that austerity and curbing state spending has been counter-productive and increased inequality.

It is in this light that we need to view the political rationalization of Obama’s Global Food Security Act. People may use riot to hold their national governments to account over subsistence crises, but what can they do when the sources of insecurity in their most basic provisions are globalized? The Global Food Security Act treats the threat of terror as a species of dispersed global food riot, but it is in everyone’s interests that people are protected against food crisis without such acts. What is needed now are the political means to enable people at risk of hunger to lay claim to the kinds of social protection that will protect their right to food from the uncertainties of a globalized food system. What will that global politics of provisions look like?

[1] Peter Gleick makes the point for Syria, specifically. See http://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/pdf/10.1175/WCAS-D-13-00059.1.

[2] http://www.ids.ac.uk/publication/them-belly-full-but-we-hungry-food-rights-struggles-in-bangladesh-india-kenya. Pp. 52.


This was first published in the Dhaka Tribune, April 4 2015

Say what you will about the Bangladeshi national character, but travel-shy we are most emphatically not. Young Bangladeshi men being transported for construction under a hot sun are a staple of the Asian-Middle Eastern routes. The middle class diaspora in the US, Europe and Australia seems permanently in the sky. Further afield, on a mini metro safari across the Sahara some years ago a friend met a group of Bangladeshi men in Western Sahara; its historic Spanish links were presumed to mean entry to Europe. (That driving a mini across the desert of deserts is outclassed by the adventures Bangladeshis endure to get to Europe surely says something). An impeccable concierge at a Dubai hotel was from Jessore. Bangladeshi women in DXB transit were en route to Jordan to work as nannies. I hear news of Bangladeshis nannies being ‘the most popular in Beirut’ from a Lebanese flight attendant. Here are Bangladeshi doctors going home to Virginia after a winter visit to ageing parents or a wedding. A grumpy group of young fellows sprawled muttering darkly in Bangla in Nairobi airport, having been there 48 hours after ‘paperwork issues’ on their way home from Maputo. Why Mozambique, I asked? Why not? His brother works there (nodding at one of the gang) and it sounded like fun. Was it fun? Yes, it was fun. What could Bangladeshis possibly be doing in Maputo, I wonder?

On my most recent flight to the airport FKA ZIA I sat with a pair of young women, Aisha and Marium, aged 27 to 29 (depending on which age you prefer), returning from a stint in the garments industry in Mauritius. There were maybe 60 of their colleagues on our flight, making it an unusually feminine flight to Bangladesh. It was news to me that Bangladeshi garments workers were now themselves being exported to work in another country. Aisha and Marium had been among 1200 young women recruited direct from their hometowns for garments work in Mauritius. I have no facts about their working conditions, but they gave the impression all was satisfactory – they got more or less what was agreed, and were treated reasonably.

But the work was always hard, and never paid as much as the hard work made it feel it was worth. So after three years and five years respectively, they were packing it in – not yet clear what they would do later – ‘perhaps tailoring because I know tailoring. Something I can do inside’, said Aisha vaguely. Marium had been away five years and so had missed a full third of her 15 year-old daughter’s life. Marium was thrilled to be coming home again. When we landed, she announced to those beyond her porthole, ‘People of Bangladesh, how have you been? People of Bangladesh!’

Taking off for an unknown other country, on a plane, with people you don’t know, to do work you don’t know – this must have been a terrifying prospect for these women in their late teens and early twenties. They agreed. It took great courage. One heard so many bad things. We talked about Mauritius – ‘well, as you work you eventually learn the language a bit’, and workers’ benefits. Marium was returning partly because she had been diagnosed with diabetes. It is not easy work, and people get sick and are always homesick, even when contracts are honoured and workers treated acceptably.

The idea of youthful travel and discovery is enduringly romantic in Western culture, and not only because of its imperial origins in Kipling and Rider Haggard. But these young Bangladeshis are not looking for Alex Garland’s beach, they are backpacking in the Dick Whittington tradition, trudging off in search of a living. They do this in the sky, making them not travellers as cosmopolitans enjoying the scene, cocktail in hand as they fly glamorously through the air, but as aerotropolitans, travelling workers, in their temporary nature always in motion between points. And in those points (and in-between) they are subject to rules and regimes governing who can go where for work.

Aerotropolitans or travelling workers are the majority denizens of what people have started calling the aerotropolis. The aerotropolis ideal – realised in cities like Atlanta in the US – is that the successful global cities of the future will be transport hubs, designed to transport goods and folk – city-scaled airports, in essence. The book Aerotropolis, The Way We’ll Live Next by John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay gets very excited about the economic growth and the infrastructure needed and the logistical problems the aerotropolis solves, but says almost nothing about the humans that have to navigate these spaces.

As is proper for the solution to the problems of global trade logistics, the aerotropolis is the only space in which blatant class discrimination is now not only allowed but actively encouraged. Airlines consistently upgrade their business classes to attract that higher-profitability better class of passenger. Economy class passengers are required to witness the comfort of the better classes, and (costless) courtesies are not extended to the aerotropolitan by airline staff, to ensure that the fact of the economics of class are properly brought home. But these facts include that international air travel is increasingly about people being moved for work who would not get on a plane to take a vacation: Javanese women going back to Singaporean employers; Chinese workers returning from Zambian mines; Nigerian traders off to Shanghai for something or other.

And yet on their way to and back from these workplaces across the seas, travellers learn all kinds of stuff. My neighbour on Malaysian Airlines, Aisha, had learned some creole. She had views, largely positive, about how the mix of Mauritians managed to live well together, despite their anxieties about the environment and climate change. They kept in touch with home through ‘the net’ – ‘facebook and that sort of thing’. They knew they were coming home to gondogol (the political emergency of February 2015 was peaking) and this meant someone’s mother couldn’t come, or another had to stop in Dhaka for a few days. These were worldly women, unsurprised by much, knowledgeable and experienced.

Aerotropolitans may be adventurous, worldly and even bankrolled. But they effectively waive their citizenship rights when abroad, and even at home, their claims as citizens are lame. Being the one with the pen and the apparent facility with English, I was given the arrival and customs forms for several rows of fellow travellers to complete. This meant extracting information consistent with the passport for the form. Both of these could differ from the information given verbally by their holder. Many of these women went by just one name – Salima or Rahela or Marium. Their birthdates were fictional, depending on what was convenient or on administrative error. As documents of certification, they are unconvincing, flimsy even. You would have no chance of a visa to Europe or the US with paperwork like that.

So what does it mean to be an aerotropolitan? The rewards are potentially high: you could earn a good living by the home standard. And international travel brings worldliness – an ability to move around a world that is far from the small towns of Bangladesh, to speak with people who know no Bangla, fly on a plane, mix with people from anywhere, the experience of seeing unimagined cities and landscapes. But it is risky – many people end up in trouble or are cheated and there is no one to back you up. And in these many in-between places, in the aerotropolis while being transported to work, rights are suspended.

We are all becoming aerotropolitans in a globalised world that cares nothing for people and place. What are our rights as the denizens of the airport? Let us start with the economy class seat. See you at DXB.