Denmark: An Increase in Happiness, but a Decrease in Inclusiveness

with No Comments

Denmark’s “anti-ghetto” laws in 2018 made the life of non-western ethnicities a misery. In 2019, Demark ranks the second happiest country in the world, stepping up from third place in 2018.1 Is Demark becoming the utopian city of Omelas?2

Denmark ranked the 2nd in the World Happiness Report 2019, back from the 3rd place in 2018.
photo: Nyhan in Copenhagen (source)
Denmark lists up ‘ghettos’ every year, and applies special rules to the residents. In 2018, Demark passed several laws of anti-ghetto, harsher than ever before. ‘Ghetto parents’ have to send ‘ghetto child’ to mandatory pre-schools as soon as the kid becomes one year old. Many families will be forced to move to other places without alternatives. Immigrants are not allowed to move into ghettos where they can find their communities. Noncompliance results in the welfare payments being stopped. Non-Western immigrants pay tax, convey their duties, and the unemployed are striving for education and job opportunities.  
(source: Mauricio Lima for The New York Times)
Omelas is a utopian city with unbelievable happiness and delight. Its prosperity can sustain only when a single unfortunate child is in perpetual misery.
(Illustration by Michello Santoso)

“Ghettos” in Denmark

In Danish authorities, the term ‘ghettos’ is an official term. For about ten years, Denmark has defined “ghetto areas” by five factors. For the ghetto residents, special regulations apply. The criteria of ghetto include income, unemployment, crime rates, education levels, and family background. If a district fulfills at least three of these five criteria, the district is labeled “ghetto”. The system ‘formally’ applies these criteria for all Danish people. However, in reality, the laws and criteria target non-western immigrants.

Surprisingly, the criterion of family background explicitly uses the phrase ‘non-Western countries’. It measures whether the share of immigrants and their descendants from non-Western countries is higher than 50%. For the education levels, it counts only those educated in the Danish systems. Thus, an immigrant with a doctoral degree in Iraq will be counted as an under-educated resident, unless the degree has been transferred.

‘Anti-Ghetto’ Laws in Denmark: In 2018, the Laws got harsher for non-Western immigrants

In 2018, 25 ghettos were listed up. Denmark is the only western democratic country to mark out official “ghettos” and to apply different rules to the residents. In Danish newspapers, the phrases of “ghetto parent” and “ghetto child” appear. Having such official ‘ghetto lists’ and ‘ghetto policy’ is already unusual and controversial. But, in 2018 the government made this ‘ghetto policy’ even harsher. The intervention in non-Western immigrants’ lives has become more extreme. The government announced the plan “One Denmark without Parallel Societies: No Ghettos in 2030“. What changes are going to happen? Some examples are as below.

  • Demolishing family dwellings in the hard ghettos.3 A maximum of 40% of housing remains as a form of social housing (known in Danish as almene familieboliger – normal family housing). But there are no answers yet to the question of where these people are to live
  • Starting at the age of 1, “ghetto children” must spend a minimum of 25 hours a week in state-approved Danish language childcare, for mandatory instruction in “Danish values”. The mandatory 25-hour does not include nap time. Noncompliance can result in a stoppage of welfare payments. Other Danish citizens are free to choose whether to enroll children in preschool up to the age of six
  • Residents who have received integration allowance or other allowances for six months are not allowed to move into hard ghettos
  • Crime-convicted residents are not allowed to move into hard ghettos, and if a resident commits a crime within a 1 km radius of their residence, they are evicted from the residence
  • Extra jail time for “ghetto” residents when they are convicted of a crime
  • Harsher sentences for crimes committed inside the ghetto areas
  • (under consideration) Immigrant parents are not allowed to force their children to have extended visits to their country of origin. Noncompliance results in a four-year prison sentence on immigrant parents
  • (under consideration) Local authorities can increase their monitoring and surveillance of “ghetto” families.

(sources: Gunvor Christensen, The Guardian, The in March 2018, The in November 2018)   

*Note: For in-depth stories and feelings of immigrants about this change, and the problems they will face, there are many good news and opinion articles. Some articles worth reading: In Denmark, Harsh New Laws for Immigrant ‘Ghettos’, Stigmatised, marginalised: life inside Denmark’s official ghettos, and Denmark’s ‘anti-ghetto’ laws are a betrayal of our tolerant values.)

Happy and prosperous country of Demark, and Omelas

Denmark is one of the happiest countries in the world. On the other hand, with the anti-ghetto laws and ‘ghetto list’ system, the country has put non-Western ethnicities into an unhappy and unfair situation, while the country needs immigrants for sustaining its economy. This sounds quite similar to the story of Omelas.

Omelas is an imaginary utopian city in the fiction “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (Ursula K. Le Guin, 1973). It is a city of unbelievable happiness and delight. The prosperity of Omelas can, however, sustain only when there is the perpetual misery of a single unfortunate child kept in filth and darkness. Citizens of Omelas know of its existence but stay mute on this matter.

“They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

Demark took back the 2nd place in the World Happiness Report. But can we say the Danish society progressed?

On 20 March, The World Happiness Report 2019 was published. Denmark ranked the second happiest country in the world. The country was in third place in 2018 (score 7.555) and is now celebrating its increased rank (score 7.600). Denmark is well known for having a good welfare system. Not only its GDP level is high, but also the level of access to education and health care is high, and of public corruption is low. Some articles point out “hygge” as one of the most important reasons (such as a post by Marie Helweg-Larsen). “Hygge”, Danes’ unique cultural value, means a feeling of cozy contentment. Its value has an implication of high-quality ‘social interactions’.

If we look at the happiness rank, Denmark has achieved social progress. But, its inclusiveness and the sense of equity and justice seem to have declined. It also casts doubt on whether ‘happiness’ can tell much about the progress of a country. For instance, Singapore ranked as the 34th happiest country in 2019. Its rank has dropped from the 26th place in 2017. On the other hand, it is the country of inclusive multiracialism. It has comprehensive and proactive policy measures to engineer multi-racialism and harmony in society. In recent years, the government has even set racial requirements for its presidential election. It is to reserve the presidential post for a particular racial group – Chinese, Malay, Indian or others – if that group has not occupied the presidential office for five consecutive terms or the equivalent of up to 30 years.

Freedoms & Capabilities in Game of Thrones

with No Comments

“I don’t need your permission to defend the North”

Lyanna Mormont, in Game of Thrones, Season 7

In Game of Thrones, the speech of Lyanna Mormont in Season 7 went viral. It was because of her feminist and empowering speech. I find this scene interesting not simply because of a feminist-hero-speech. It is also an interesting example of pursuing freedoms and enhancing the capabilities of individuals, for which the capability approach advocates that it is what public policy ought to aim for as its end goal.

Lyanna Mormont Game of Thrones season seven episode one

In this scene, the lords of all banners in the North are gathered at Winterfell. Jon Snow stands up and asks all to have both men and women train to fight against the Night King and the White Walker army. All men in the room start questioning his plan, and Lady Mormont (Lyanna Mormont) stands up and gives a speech. 

Jon: Everyone aged 10-to-60 will drill daily with spears, pikes, bow and arrow.

Lord Glover:  It’s about time we taught those boys of summer how to fight. 

Jon: Not just the boys. We can’t defend the North if only half the population is fighting

Lord Glover: (shocked) You expect me to put a spear in my granddaughter’s hand?

Lady Mormont: I don’t plan on knitting by the fire while men fight for me. I might be small, Lord Glover, and I might be a girl, but I am every bit as much a Northerner as you. 

(Lord Glover tries to explain but Lady Mormont continues)

Lady Mormont: And I don’t need your permission to defend the North. We will begin training every man, woman, boy and girl on Bear Island. 

Lyanna Mormont expands freedoms of the Bear Island people

In this scene, Lyanna Mormont’s line “I don’t need your permission to defend the North” is an example of pursuing freedom. As I wrote in another post, freedom in the capability approach is positive freedom: you have freedom if you can act in a way to take control of your own life, can realise your fundamental purposes and can play an active role in your community. In this example, the important aspect is whether she has the freedom to choose her action, regardless of whether her final choice is defending the North or not.

Lyanna Mormont’s decision also expands the freedoms of girls and boys on Bear Island. By training them, their capabilities of defending themselves, or friends and families are enhanced. Their choice of fighting or running away does not have to rely on others. In the end, some girls and boys may decide not to fight and run away. But there is a difference between running away because they don’t have the ability to fight, and running away because they actively choose to do so even though they have the ability to fight.

The concepts of freedoms and capabilities are simple

Freedom and capability are core concepts in the capability approach. The words freedom and capability are commonly used in our daily life. Because they are such familiar words, their meaning seems so obvious. However, when people start reading academic papers, they often find it difficult to grasp what freedom and capability really mean. The two terms become very unfamiliar and highly abstract words. “Freedoms to achieve the lives that a person has reason to value”, “capability as a proxy of the freedoms“……

But if we bring these concepts to a more simple daily life situation, then you may find it is actually a simple idea, and perhaps you may even feel, it’s nothing special. There are many examples, and the scene of Lyanna Mormont would be one of them.

Applying the capability approach for housing research. A golden methodology? No such thing exists

with No Comments

“if the capability approach is expected […] to generate a specific and distinctive methodology, […] one may be disappointed.”

Sabina Alkire (2007)

“You know, more housing researchers are interested in the capability approach. But they don’t know how to apply it”. Time and again, I’ve encountered the questions: “What methodologies should we use for applying the capability approach for housing research?”

Of course, choosing a research methodology depends on what the housing researcher wants to investigate. It also depends on how the researcher transforms the concept of the capability approach (CA) into practical research terms. It is also related to which tenents of the CA the researcher wants to keep for designing a research methodology, considering the purpose or hypothesis of the research.

A Myth on Distinctive CA Methodologies

Looking for a methodology without defining what s/he is going to research…? Indeed, this approach is not normal. Obviously, a research methodology is a logical procedure of problem-solving. It is regardless of which theory (or framework) a researcher is applying. However, this basic principle is often forgotten even among the experienced researchers.

For some housing researchers, there seems to be a misunderstanding of ‘specific and distinctive methodologies for the capability approach exist’. But, there are no such golden methodologies. In many papers and books on the CA, the words ‘operationalization’, ‘measurement’ or ‘evaluation’ appear often. I sometimes wonder if this causes such misunderstandings.

Perhaps it is also because of the term ‘approach’, rather than ‘-ism’ or ‘…. theory’. The CA is not a theory because it does not explain about poverty and inequality. It is rather a framework for understanding wellbeing and justice. Although it is only a framework, I would say that it has an aspect of ‘theory’ and ‘-ism’ because it is a way of understanding a social matter. In this sense, I can compare it to the situation “what methodologies can I use for applying Marxism to housing research?”. Marxism is a way of understanding a socioeconomic symptom and problem causality. However, researchers would hardly expect a distinctive methodology for its application.

I personally have not yet conducted empirical research with the CA, at the time of writing this post. But, at least from literature reviews, I can say one thing: The process of applying the CA is the same as for other common research. A researcher selects a theoretical framework, digests its perspective, tries to see a problem from that perspective, defines a hypothesis or question, and designs a methodology by integrating the tenets of the theoretical framework (i.e. distinctive features comparing to other theoretical frameworks).

Some recommendations

Applying a theory (or theoretical framework) is like to wear glasses with coloured lenses. Through the different lenses, you see a symptom, problem or causality of something differently. And you analyse whether this brings better insights closer to reality. If you are struggling to find a way to apply the CA, it is best to start with, at first, digesting what the CA is about (You may think ‘Isn’t it too obvious?’ Maybe, but many housing researchers want to skip this step and look for a shortcut to conduct research). After that, perhaps you can analyse the tenets of the CA in comparison to other conventional theories/perspectives that have been used for your research topic. By reflecting the tenets, you can design a methodology that aligns to the CA.

Adapted from Stephnie Duguay

There are no golden methodologies for applying the CA. However, it can still be useful to have a look at other examples and get some sense. For the housing researchers who want to have a look, I recommend starting with the literature listed below.

  • Alkire, S. (2007) Choosing Dimensions: The Capability Approach and Multidimensional Poverty
  • Chiappero-Martinetti, E. and J. M. Roche (2009) Operationalization of the Capability Approach, from Theory to Practice: A Review of Techniques and Empirical Applications. In Chiappero-Martinetti, E. (ed.) Debating Global Society: Reach and Limits of the Capability Approach. (Or, for its draft version: click this link)
  • Comim, F. (2008) Measuring Capabilities. In F. Comim, M. Qizilbash and S. Alkire (eds.) The Capability Approach: The Concepts, Measures and Applications.

But, I strongly recommend researchers pay attention to the purpose of the CA applications, while reading the literature. The readers should keep it in their mind that ‘for which problem to solve, and for what purpose, did they design this methodology?’ ‘where is this application on the broad spectrum of the CA application?’ In addition, these papers are already more than 10 years old. So much research has been done since then. I recommend you consider the literature above only as an entry point. Housing researchers need to explore other literature to get inspired, and design a methodology that fits with their problem-solving logic.

Additional notes

For highlighting again that there is no such golden methodology of the CA application, I add these texts from Alkire (2007:2).

“It needs to be emphasized that the CA engages with and draws upon a plethora of methodologies and analytical techniques. It does not compete with the techniques used to identify domains of interest, or different data for multidimensional poverty comparisons. The capability approach can draw on quantitative, qualitative, participatory, or subjective data, as well as examine income data, although income data alone are perhaps the crudest form of measurement.”

“Different applications of capability approach can – and no doubt will – be utilized, depending on the place and situation, the level of analysis, the information available, and the decisions involved. Methods will be plural. So if the capability approach is expected to generate one specific, universally-relevant set of domains for all evaluative exercises, or to generate a specific and distinctive methodology for identifying the poverty domains of any particular group values, one may be disappointed.”

The Concept of ‘Freedom’ in the Capability Approach

with No Comments

“How come ‘freedom’ can be a goal for human wellbeing? Why is it better? If everybody has the freedom to do whatever they like, it will be chaotic. What about responsibility? Social goals?”

“If people are free to choose a house, everybody will choose the house in the city centre. The house with high property value. Expanding freedoms of individuals as a housing policy goal? It’s impossible.”

I often encounter these questions. Researchers are questioning about ‘freedom’ whenever I try to explain my research interest (i.e. applying the capability approach to housing policy evaluation). Freedom is a key concept of the capability approach. The approach suggests that development and policy intervention should aim at expanding the freedoms of individuals to achieve the lives that s/he has reason to value.

Positive vs. Negative Freedom

The concept of freedom in the capability approach is different from the freedom what people usually understand. Its concept is different from the one in the well-known phrase of ‘freedom of expression’. How are they different exactly?

Freedom is defined in two ways: positive and negative freedom. Here, the term ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ can be used interchangeably.

  • Positive freedom (Freedom To): I can act in a way to take control of my own life, and thus can realise my fundamental purposes. I can play an active role in my community.
  • Negative freedom (Freedom From): I’m free from external interference or coercion on my actions. Interference by others is absent.

This description is very simplified one. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy page provides an excellent overview of positive and negative freedom (but it requires quite an intensive reading). An additional useful source is a blog post “Freedom From…Freedom To…“. I find this can be good for (relatively) easy reading. It is also interesting to read how this blogger applied the two concepts of freedom to one’s life from childhood to manhood.

Positive freedom in the capability approach

The concept of freedom in the capability approach is positive freedom. Typical examples of negative freedom are the freedom of speech (expression/opinion), freedom of religion, and freedom of property. It also includes other daily practice matters, such as the freedom to own a gun. At the beginning of this post, I quoted some researchers’ question on freedom. They asked such questions because they understood it as negative freedom. In other words, they understood the capability approach promotes ‘absence of interventions’, while it actually promotes the enhancement of ‘one’s control over his/her own life’.

I realised that not many researchers in my field are familiar with two concepts of freedom, and are even unaware of its existence. Many people are familiar with only the negative definition of freedom. For example, if someone says, ‘I’m in favor of individual freedom’, we usually perceive s/he is strongly against the state’s intervention.

Positive freedom and capabilities

To convey positive freedom, a person needs to have abilities to lead her/his life. Amartya Sen calls it as ‘capabilities’. Thus, expanding the freedoms of individuals as a policy goal means enhancing the capabilities of individuals to control her/his life. Put it simply, the capability approach is about (imagine you have a daughter), for instance, ‘In order to let my daughter control and lead her life in the future, what capabilities of her should I foster?’ In relation to housing, it would be about (imagine you are a policy maker), for instance, ‘How can I expand the freedoms of citizens to take control and lead their own way of residing, rather than being subordinate to housing markets? What capabilities of citizens should I foster? ‘

More houses, better housing welfare?

with No Comments

For decades, people have been struggling to secure a place to live in big cities. It is not simply because of housing shortages, but also because our housing system often is unfair.

A story of tenants in Uppsala, Sweden

It was June in 2018. I joined a field trip to municipal housing in Eriksberg district in Uppsala, Sweden. It was a half-day programme during a housing research conference. The European Network for Housing Research organised it. When I saw this event, I immediately signed up. It was definitely a good learning opportunity. Sweden is well known for its good government housing programmes. Under soft sunlight in the middle of the day, we arrived at the field visit site, not far from the city centre. The modern design apartment blocks were in peaceful neighborhoods with full of green and open spaces. There were also good community centres and childcare facilities. Indeed, Sweden deserved their high reputation for government housing.

A field trip to municipal housing, Eriksberg, Uppsala, Sweden (28 June 2018)

“My happiness didn’t go long. It was only a 3 month dream”.

We had a chance to listen to the experiences of a resident. She moved in this housing a half year ago. “I was so happy to find this place. It was perfect. The rent is affordable, there is enough open space outside for my kid, and the little forest just behind of my block was so perfect”. But, she started telling another story with a bit of a quiver in her voice. “My happiness didn’t go long. It was only a 3 month dream”.

Over her residential area, there has been a plan for urban renewal and redevelopment. The Municipality has discussed the plan for a long time. But only recently, she learned about it. Nobody informed her about it when she moved in. She had to struggle to pull out more detailed information from the government. The project will clean the trees and lovely forests around the blocks. She wanted to know how her neighbourhoods would be changed. Most importantly, whether the rental fee would increase. “One day, my neighbour shared a leaflet. An urban renewal plan over here…I realised, the municipality sent it only to homeowners. The tenants like me were totally excluded!” She’s now organising other tenants, setting up an association to claim their rights, and to secure her place to live.

The tenant explains the issues in Eriksberg

“One day, my neighbour showed me a leaflet. An urban renewal plan over here… I realized, the municipality sent it only to homeowners. The tenants like me were totally excluded.”

Eriksberg Municipal housing, Uppsala, Sweden

In Eriksberg, 2,400 dwellings are to be built during the coming years. The local centre is to be refurbished, and local infrastructure expanded. The tenants are worried about their living costs – will rent increase in the process? In other parts of Uppsala, rents have increased by up to 60% during similar renewal projects. Perspectives of environmental concern, diversity, green space, traffic and the right to stay in place are additional issues in the ongoing debate.

Policy indicators do not capture an unfair housing situation

Yes, something was going wrong in Uppsala. Surprisingly, experts and policymakers hardly take into account this unfair situation for evaluating housing policy. Whenever you hear any news about housing, you will frequently hear: “housing shortage”, “falling/rising housing price”, or “new apartments to be built”. Or, if you are a bit interested in the news of the global south, “one out of three people in cities are living in slums”. The numbers, physical conditions and prices of housing have been key indicators to define housing problems and policy outcomes. And additionally, how satisfied people are with their houses.

Based on these indicators, the experts make a decision and have an influence on your efforts for securing a place to live. This means, the policymakers and experts have little or no motivation to improve other conditions, such as the tenant’s situation in Eriksberg. Can those indicators tell whether people are living well, and in a stable way? How much can they tell us about the fair opportunities the people have for securing a place to live?

Some examples: how the current indicators are lacking to tell about unjust outcomes

How the current indicators of housing policy are lacking to tell about unjust outcomes?  Let’s imagine a housing project that perfectly meets the current policy indicators. Enough houses are produced. The houses have good physical conditions in terms of floor areas, windows, housing utilities, gardens, and balconies. They are also green areas nearby. The purchase and rent prices are affordable. A high percentage of residents report that they are happy with their house. This project will be evaluated as a good housing policy outcome improving the residents’ well-being.

However, we can easily think about scenarios that people are still insecure and in unfair situations.
What if she is renting the house but there is no proper system for protecting tenants’ right? She becomes vulnerable to the landlord. She may be forced to accept any unfair conditions from the landlord and endure violations of her dignity.

What if she cannot have a joint tenure title over the house, even if she also invested together with husband? She may have to depend on her husband for her pension. Or she has to be obedient to her husband for securing a place to stay even if she does not want to. She has lower levels of freedom to choose the life that she values.

The project implementer may say, ‘We have benefited many people. It is a successful project.’ What if only those who can easily mobilise lump-sum money are benefited from this project? If there is such inequality in the access to the newly built housing units, can we say that it was a successful project simply by referring to the total number of housing units and benefited households?

We need to discuss more than ‘nice houses’

“Central to analysis would be a focus on identifying how and where unjust outcomes are currently occurring.

Mike Berry (2017:308)

Ethics and justice are not properly addressed in the housing policy discussion. Professor Mike Berry, a leading scholar of urban studies and public policy at RMIT’s Centre for Urban Research, criticizes that public policy discussions have neglected ethical issues. Housing policy is no exception to this. He highlights “Central to (policy) analysis would be a focus on identifying how and where unjust outcomes are currently occurring”. 

We have long been focused on building more houses, more possession of houses and nicer houses to live. Where is the space for ethical issues and injustice in our housing welfare? Are you living in a fair housing system? In recent years, public policy researchers are increasingly discussing how to bring the ethical issues to the center of public policy and economics. Applicable indicators are being examined. What about among housing policy researchers? Unfortunately, the discussion is not yet proactive.

Bringing ethics to the centre of housing policy discussion

“The nature of modern economics has been substantially impoverished by the growing distance between economics and ethics.”

Amartya Sen (1987:7)

Amarty Sen, the professor at Havard University and the Nobel Prize winner in economic science, criticizes “the nature of modern economics has been substantially impoverished by the growing distance between economics and ethics”. The logic of modern economics has heavily influenced the deep underlying perspectives of housing policy. Material and monetary aspects of housing have been at the centre of the discussion. There has been a strong belief that ‘more wealth and more commodities lead to better life’. Not only policy makers and experts, but also the majority of citizens has had such belief.

The tenant’s story in Uppsala and the list of possible unfair scenarios in a housing project are telling us that we need to be concerned with more than just material and monetary issues. Many people are struggling with finding stable and adequate housing. This cannot be solved only by building more houses. This leads to a strong need for moving our attention to our sense of fairness, inequality and justice. Housing experts have to look into how we can advance justice in our housing system. Citizens also have to be aware of this issue and claim proper actions of decision makers.

Amartya Sen, capability and social justice | Amartya Sen, an economist and philosopher, has introduced the concept of ‘capability approach’. According to this approach, policy outcomes should be evaluated in terms of the capabilities of their citizens, such as mortality rate and literacy rate. Such capabilities create opportunities for people to lead their lives in a way that they value, instead of people being forced to live in a certain way. He therefore argues that we should not simply focus on commodities and opulence such as GDP or income-per-capita. This approach has formed one of the major schools of studying poverty, human development, inequality and social justice.

1 2