"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)

6.25.2007

democracy, simplified

This is part of a storyboard about how democratic elections work. If you think about how hard it is to pull off an election in a place where the vast majority of adults have no experience whatsoever with a democratic election, then add in an illiteracy rate that's too high, you can see the need to explain democracy in 20 or so easy-to-understand cartoons.

It's too bad that the reality of democratic consolidation is considerably more complicated. This is one of the reasons I opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003. My study of Congo and other African states had made it clear to me that even when everyone involved has the best of intentions, creating a democracy from scratch is terribly difficult.

As in Iraq, Congo's issue is that, while democratic elections are good and necessary, elections do not a democracy make. Especially if the central government can't secure its territory. So here in Goma we have the ever-present rumored threat of an invasion by warlord Laurent Nkunda. And people in the countryside of North and South Kivu really suffer, as Nick Kristof has been pointing out in his columns this week.

I largely quit reading the New York Times a couple of years ago out of a sense that the Post was just better (the CPP mocks me for being a snob about this to no end.). Once they instituted Times Select, which requires you to pay for access to their opinion columns, it became virtually irrelevant (Why would I pay for someone else's opinion when I wouldn't pay for my own?) But I learned this weekend that you can access Times Select for free if you have a ".edu" address, and since I wanted to read what Kristof had to say about Congo, I signed up, even though, as I've mentioned before, I really don't like Kristof's reporting.

I'm still annoyed. His columns contain blatantly untrue statements, such as his claim that there aren't very many humanitarian aid groups working in North Kivu. (For fun, I posted a comment listing about 15 of the many, many aid groups that are based in Goma, a list of which can easily be found here. My comment was not posted by the moderators. :) Sorry I can't get the link to that article - the connection just won't work.)

The column today is accurate (and it features A!), but I can't shake the sense that it's not the whole story. Kristof specializes in these doom and gloom stories all over the world (indeed, if you read the blog his win-a-trip protegees are keeping, you'll note that one of the winners says Kristof wanted to find a story that was even worse, when they'd already heard something awful.).

Maybe part of the reason Kristof's reporting bugs me so much is that his is the kind that relies on pictures of starving children and stories of misery to guilt you into doing something about it. There's a term for this kind of reporting on Africa's tragedies and other humanitarian tragedies: disaster porn. The analogy is a little silly. But. You see a picture of a dying child, it breaks your heart (as it should), you feel guilty, maybe you write a check to the people who are saving orphans in Congo, Sudan, Afghanistan, or wherever the international humanitarian aid traveling circus is this year. Rinse, repeat.

The problem is: that's not even close to the whole story. Kristof's trip winners were apparently so scared of Goma that they wouldn't go outside at night and thought that Goma is about to blow up. That's ridiculous. Despite how it sounds on paper, and despite all the rumors, Goma is perfectly safe. No one with access to any reliable information here would suggest otherwise. As a new friend and I discussed this afternoon, all the new construction and businesses are a sure sign that things are improving. The change from last year is obvious. Goma even has a legitimate bookstore now. If that isn't progress, I don't know what is.

As Kate points out, Congo is a crazy place, where you just never know what's going to happen, where you see the extremes of life. It's not stable, people suffer terribly. But it's also a place where you can't feel sorry for everyone forever, where you see life and death and wealth and poverty and heat and rain and mourning and dancing every day. Speaking of an article in the Africa issue of Vanity Fair, she puts it this way:

"The sense of complete freedom that only comes with the absence of government mixed with the destruction that decades without governance has intertwined itself with each story told."

I don't know why I feel a need to complain about Kristof's Congo reporting. Usually I just ignore him, but this incomplete story has hit too close to home. I want the truth told about this contradictoraly complete freedom and complete bondage, in all its complexity and confusion. I want the world to understand that this place I've come to love is home to people who are not all starving to death, not all hacking one another to death with machetes in the forest, and not all trying to scam away millions of dollars into Swiss bank accounts. I want the world to know that outsiders are not going to save the Congo from itself. I want our leaders to recognize that it takes more than an election to make a democracy.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is arguably neither fully democratic nor fully a republic (yet), but it is undeniably the Congo. It can't be explained in a cartoon, but in the end, that's what's going to save this place.

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