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


happy independence day

Today marks 49 years of independence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It's too depressing to think about how few of those years were free from civil war, dictatorial regimes, and/or economic collapse. Suffice it to say that the hopes of le 30 Juin have never been fully realized, and it's not likely to get much better any time soon.

Security and governance (or, more specifically, the lack thereof) are the central problems in the Congo these days. Each is dependent on the other and no one can figure out how to make either happen. Attempts to reform the FARDC (Congo's national army) are pretty much a disaster. (As I've written several times before, it should've been blatantly obvious from the beginning that giving uniforms to war criminals would end badly.) The government can't establish territorial control or create/strengthen institutions without basic security, but the army can't create a secure situation without basic insitutions of governance and civilian control overseeing its actions. The understaffed and underfunded MONUC peacekeeping operation - which needs about eight times as many troops as it has - cannot secure the entire territory all at once in order to give the government time to figure it all out.

Nowhere is this dilemma more apparent than in the disasterous Kimia II operation currently being conducted by the FARDC and MONUC in South Kivu. (Of course, we have to pretend that the FARDC only needs "support" from MONUC to carry out a major operation when in reality nothing would happen without MONUC's helicopters and trained personnel.) By all accounts, the mission is an absolute disaster. As human rights groups warned before it even began, civilians are bearing the brunt of the fighting between government forces and the FDLR Hutu militia. Both sides are responsible for massive human rights violations, particularly around Minova, a small town on the shore of Lake Kivu in the far northern reaches of South Kivu.

The worst part? It's far from clear that the operation is doing much of anything to knock out the FDLR rebels it's directed against. That's not surprising; few of these operations really have much of an effect. It's too easy for the rebels to disappear into the forests, and the FARDC is too lacking in discipline to accomplish anything.

That makes this independence day far from happy for the people of the eastern Congo.


a big misstep

I spent the whole weekend trying to figure out who thought it would be a good idea to send several million dollars' worth of small arms to the transitional government in Somalia. At first I thought I was just having nightmares as an effect of jet lag, but then an alert reader sent me the transcript of the State Department's briefing and it turns out to be true. The United States government has supplied something less than $10 million worth of "small arms and limited munitions" to the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia.

Since small arms are a tiny bit of a problem in Somalia, which is not at all controlled by the official government, there's a UN embargo on sending arms to the region. Apparently the U.S. government was able to obtain a waiver for these particular weapons. The reason? The TFG will be using the weapons to combat the radical Islamist group al Shabaab, which controls most of Mogadishu and the south. Al Shabaab is viewed by the U.S. as a close ally of al Qaeda, so the idea is that sending in weapons to a government that controls a few blocks of Mogadishu will help to combat the threat of radical Islamists in the Horn of Africa, thereby protecting our allies in Kenya and maybe even addressing the piracy problem.

This is a terrible, terrible idea. There's just no other way of putting it. Except to say that whoever approved this plan clearly has no concept of what the flood of small arms in the Horn of Africa has done to innocent civilians, not only in Somalia, but throughout the region. Every time we have sent weapons into Somalia, those weapons have been used to harm civilians, not only in Somalia, but also in Ethiopia, Eritrea, northern Uganda, southern Sudan, and the eastern Congo. In the markets in the eastern DR Congo, you can buy American, Israeli, and Soviet-made weapons that came into the continent via the Horn in the mid-1970's when the US and USSR were busy switching allegiances about as often as the wind changed. Somalia is saturated with small arms (many of which are brand-spanking new thanks to the profits the Puntland pirates are bringing in). Sending in more, even to the so-called "good guys," will only result in more civilian suffering.

The decision also reflects a clear misunderstanding of the TFG's capabilities. The TFG is a government in name only. Of all the markers of modern statehood that allow a government to claim legitimacy, the TFG has only one: international recognition. On every other marker - territorial control, capacity to manage the economy, ability to coin money, run a judicial system, defend borders, police the streets - the TFG fails the test. They don't even have a functioning website. And we want to give these guys weapons? For use by their so-called army?

Despite the fact that competence and critical reasoning skills have returned to the White House at last, this decision reveals an ugly fact about U.S. foreign policy towards Africa: regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats control the administration, the United States is really bad at Africa policy. The Clinton people - many of whom have returned to key positions in the Obama administration - were terrible in their dealings with Africa. Not only did they let Rwanda languish (and then actively prevent anyone else from intervening in what was clearly a genocide, their lame excuses notwithstanding), but people like Susan Rice (now U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations) managed to almost singlehandedly destroy our relationship with the French over African matters by steamrolling through the haphazardly conceived and poorly funded African Crisis Response Initiative program. They bungled HIV/AIDS policy, cowering to the drug companies until Clinton left office and letting millions of Africans die without hope.

Bush's people didn't do much better, except on HIV/AIDS, where a sensible policy on ARV's saved millions of lives. (That they caused countless new infections with their policy on condoms may negate the effects of PEPFAR's success down the line.) But on security issues, the Bush administration didn't understand African states any better than its predecessors. In the aftermath of 9/11, the administration's Africa-watchers became very concerned that Somalia would become a base for al Qaeda or al Qaeda-aligned groups. In fact, it's not clear that the Islamists showed up in Somalia until they learned it was a good idea from the statements of the Bush administration and others.

One hopes that Clinton's Africanists learned from their mistakes, but the decision to send arms into Somalia suggests that the Obama administration's Africa policy will largely consist of business as usual. What is the normal modus operandi for U.S. Africa policy? I'd suggest three common characteristics:
  1. A tendency to reduce conflict, policy disagreements, or territorial disputes to a "good guys vs. bad guys" mentality. Problem is, in many situations (see Darfur, most of the Congolese government), the so-called "good" guys have blood on their hands as well. In Somalia, it would behoove U.S. policymakers to remember that everyone has an agenda and that in that region, weapons marked for use against one group are always used against other groups by their owners.
  2. An insistence on pretending that the authorities in the capital city are in control of the country's territory and/or governing institutions, which usually leads to a refusal to deal with the people who are actually in control. This is a classic problem first identified in Robert H. Jackson's work on state legitimacy. Jackson pointed out that foreign governments usually ignore reality on the ground and instead confer legitimacy on whoever controls the presidential palace or government headquarters in an African state's capital city. It should be obvious why this is a problem. The Western-backed TFG is among the least legitimate institutions in Somalia, partly because they lack capacity (which this weapons plan is designed to correct) and partly because they are backed by the West. Pretending that they have real control - or that they have the consent of enough of Somalia's interest groups to establish real control at some future point - helps no one.
  3. The insistence that we must do something to help. Clearly, the situation in Somalia is terrible. There's a high degree of human suffering and the rise of al Shabaab is a threat to the national interest of the United States. But American policymakers have failed in this situation to recognize that doing something - especially in an open fashion - is not always a good idea. U.S. recognition is in many ways the kiss of death for Somali politicians. Once the TFG and its leaders got U.S. recognition, they lost legitimacy in the eyes of many Somalis and became even more of a target for the Islamists. Sending weapons to the government only makes them seem more like U.S. puppets in the eyes of most Somalis.
A friend who works at the State Department argued with me about this over the weekend. "Who should we support?" he said, the argument being that the United States can't support Islamists or non-state actors who actually control territory. But that's a logical fallacy, because it assumes support in the form of weapons provision is a necessary step. Sometimes doing something is much more harmful than doing nothing at all. The decision to send weapons to Somalia's TFG clearly fails the Love Actually test and it will almost certainly result in more civilian casualties. It will almost certainly not result in the establishment of actual control over Mogadishu or Somalia by the TFG.

Next up on the list of ineffable mysteries: who decided it was a good idea for Eliot Spitzer to commentate on Supreme Court decisions on MSNBC? Will someone be hiring Mark Sanford as a backcountry hiking expert next?


this & that: jet-lagged edition

I'll post something substantive soon.


this time I mean it

I am done with you, American Airlines. Done.

Just as soon as I get my bag back.

old school

In honor of the upcoming Congolese Independence Day, 30 June, a little African Jazz.


this & that


saving the natives

Seneglese entrepreneur Magatte Wade let Jeff Sachs and his Millenium Villages project have it over the weekend. The villages are supposed to be examples of ways to move poor communities in Africa out of poverty and into the realm of being in good health, well-educated, and, somewhere down the line, middle class villagers/peasants who have some control over their destinies. Wade dismantles the idea behind the way the villages are supposed to generate income with ease in her post, pointing out that perhaps a pack of white Ivy League professors aren't in the best position to understand how to "save Africa." Here's an excerpt:
"It enrages me that well-intentioned Americans, ranging from Hollywood celebrities, to academics such as Sachs, to philanthropists such as Soros and Gates, limit their focus on Africa largely to misguided advocacy for increased foreign aid. Rather than experiment on rural villagers in Rwanda (and in Senegal, my home country), I'd respect Sachs more if he supported real African entrepreneurs. Bono, to his credit, has moved beyond an advocacy of foreign aid to support trade through his DATA program (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa). I would like to see a new generation of caring Americans focus more on respectful collaboration with real African entrepreneurs to create great new businesses through investing in our companies, buying our products and services, selling products and services to us, and working with us as respected business equals. Poverty in Africa will be eliminated not by aid, but by entrepreneurial job creation, by real entrepreneurs creating scalable enterprises that will ultimately create millions of jobs. Despite Sachs' warning not to give us "sweets, cookies... or even money," you can, in fact, invest real money in real African entrepreneurs. In exchange, we'll supply you with great products and services because we Cheetahs are committed to excellence, to exchanging value for value rather than relying on handouts."
(Photo from the Signspotting Exhibition, currently in Copenhagen)


the last of the big men

The Economist's obituary for Gabonese President Omar Bongo is pitch-perfect. The author managed to accurately summarize his life while wryly covering his excessive spending and frivolity, most of which probably occurred by theft at the expense of the Gabonese people:
"Outside the glamour of Libreville, where the M’bolo hypermarché offered shining shelves of fine wines and best French cheese, a third of his people travelled on back-breaking roads between villages without clinics, subsisting on cassava and fishing. But Mr Bongo brought decades of tranquillity, a rare enough commodity in Central Africa; order, and prosperity for a close and favoured few. So on June 11th hundreds of Gabonese lined up, clutching his portrait, outside the presidential palace where, in a flower-filled chapel, he lay in state, rather small in his coffin, in the country that was his."
Bongo was among the last of his breed, a leader who ruled with near-absolute authority in close conjunction with his former colonizers. His people suffered under his rule, but they respected him, in part because he kept the country stable, and in part because respecting elders and authority is a supreme cultural value, one that, in many countries, extends so far as to suggest that one cannot actually speak of the death of a leader. Journalist Elizabeth Ohene also has a nice reflection on this problem of "respectfully" covering the deaths of Africa's Big Men.


this & that

  • Via Africa is a Country, very disturbing new statistics about the prevalence of rape in South Africa. If there's one good thing that comes out of this, it's that survey methodology that allows respondents to be completely anonymous seems to provoke more forthright responses. That's the first step towards developing better policies, providing more services for victims, and changing cultural attitudes about sex and power.
  • Alanna at Blood & Milk has a fantastic post on what aid workers can learn from missionaries.
  • Grant at Mo'dernity, Mo'Problems' post on Sarkozy in Africa is hilarious. Knowing that Sarkozy was booed at the funeral makes Grant's post even funnier.
  • Apparently a two-month relationship is enough to make being mayor of San Angelo seem like the less ideal alternative. Go fig.
  • Neo-con Middle East specialist Danielle Pletka is making news regarding her comments on the situation in Iran, where she really, really wants to go to war. Here's a note from one of her former interns about just how serious her agenda-driven "scholarship is." Pletka worked in the office in which I interned during the Unfortunate Summer in the Senate. I agree with the assessment.
  • I know very little about Iran, but Kate's found some people who do. Check out the Ask an Iranian series at Wronging Rights.


this is beyond awesome

A soul version of Wilco's "I am Trying to Break Your Heart." Need I say more?

don't miss this one

By far one of the best movies I saw at SXSW this year was Youssou N'Dour: I Bring What I Love. I'm happy to report that the film is now showing in New York and will be in limited release elsewhere later this summer. Here's a message about the screenings from N'Dour's Facebook group. If you're around and have any interest whatsoever in Senegal, African music, or the cultural clash between Islam and the west, you really should try to see it.

The Paris (4 West 58th Street) http://www.theparistheatre.com/
Show Times: 12:00 PM, 2:15 PM, 4:30 PM, 7:00 PM, and 9:30 PM
(Special Q & As with Director, Chai Vasarhelyi, after the 7pm screenings on Friday and Saturday, June 19th & 20th).

Village East (181-189 2nd Ave, at 12th Street) Starting Friday, June 19th
Show Times: 1:00 PM, 3:20 PM, 5:40 PM, 8:00 PM, 10:50 PM
(Special Q & As with Director, Chai Vasarhelyi, after the 8pm screenings on Friday and Saturday, June 19th & 20th).

BAM Rose Cinemas (30 Lafayette Ave, Brooklyn)
Show Times: 4:30 PM, 7 PM, 9:30 PM

If you haven't seen the film yet, here's your chance - don't forget to bring family and friends!

The film will be opening in LA on July 3rd.


this may be the best tweet ever

@ifilose YES!!! The crowd is singing Mshini Wam as Bafana Bafana closes in on a win! #confed cup

tervuren at last

Mercy. I always manage to forget how boring archival work is. Not that you don't learn some interesting things while digging through page after page after page after page after page of carbon-copied notes on the Belgian colonial regime in Congo. Because goodness knows the Belgians kept records. Who wouldn't want to know that:
  • There were 517 polygamists living in Goma territory at the end of 1952?
  • Four "natives" were imprisioned for between one and thirty days for insubordination to customary authorities there in 1954?
  • There were 38,323 cases of intestinal schistosomiasis (not to be confused with the other types of schistosomiasis, for which there are equally detailed records) among the Congolese in 1955, 84 of which resulted in death? (None of the 96 Europeans infected that year (67 of them in Kivu) died. All statistics were, of course, kept in line with the color bar that pervaded every aspect of life in the Belgian Congo.)
It's a good thing the Belgians were there to preserve it all for posterity. Year after year after year. (Or at least until 1959. They won't let you look at anything less than 50 years old without considerable hassle.)

I hope the readers of my hypothetical book appreciate this ephemera, even though none of it is actually what I need for the project. Luckily, buried in the thousands of pages of pathology reports, the information I need is readily available. It just takes awhile to find it.

By noon yesterday, my eyes had glazed over and I needed a break. So I went to a place I've been wanting to visit for ten years: the Royal Museum of Central Africa at Tervuren. Established by King Leopold II just as he lost control of what had been his private colony, the Royal Museum of Central Africa is legendary among Africanists for being an example of mind-boggling racist ideology that failed to catch up with the times. (Most of the descriptions of the place I've heard are semi-unprintable, ranging from outright profanity to a jaw-dropped, "It's something.") Until very recently, most Belgians were unaware of the horrible things Leopold II did to the Congolese, nor have they been made aware of how much their paternalistic system of colonization messed up the Congo by failing to prepare the country for independence.
If I were going to build a monument to racist ideology, it would look exactly like Versailles.

The museum did not disappoint. After passing several statues of anatomically correct elephants (see above), you enter the beautiful palace in which the museum is housed through a beautiful rotunda in which there are statues depicting the rescue of black children by (white) mother civilization. Aside from the huge wing dedicated to animal specimins (ever seen the skin of an okapi?), the historical and anthropological displays range in nature from curiosities to outright horrors. The most offensive part is the historical section, where the exploits of explorers and the adventures of "natives" in loincloths are demonstrated with an alarming lack of self-awareness on the part of those who originally put together the displays.

Thankfully, the museum has a new, enlightened director who is determined to bring the museum into the 21st century. He has clearly done his best to correct all the misconceptions presented by the museum's founders. This means that there are signs in front of the most offensive displays indicating that most of the images and films in the museum are from an era when attitudes about colonialism were very different. In some cases, the most racist cases are actually partially covered by other displays:

Poor Mr. Thys.

There's also a fantastic newer exhibit on what really happened in the Congo, including depictions of the brutality to which the Congolese were subjected in the late 1800's. It beautifully demonstrates how the colony shifted into independence, showing that World War II in particular was a galvanizing force in helping the Congolese realize that the Belgians weren't doing much to "help" them with their civilizing mission:
This is all next to a room in which there's a memorial to all the Belgians who died in the Congo. No mention is made in the original display of the 3 million Congolese who perished under Leopold's rule, nor of the 5 million who have died as a result of the current conflict.
Leopold II's likenesses are mostly shoved into unremarkable corners. He would be easy to miss except for the fact that he's about seven feet tall:
All in all, I found the Africa Museum to be really interesting, if more than a bit dated in attitude and display. The director and his staff clearly have a challenge before them; rebuilding an entire museum while forcing a nation to face its nasty history is a nearly impossible task. They're doing their best, however, and with a little more money, the museum could play an important role in helping Belgium understand what colonialism really did to central Africa.


the debate continues

Dustyn Winder replies to Invisible Children's Jason Russell. Previous IC posts are here and here.

Well, in regards to Mao, that is simply untrue. We have the email from Mao and we have multiple people who were conferenced in with Jason when he said Norbert Mao is a politician so you have to realize that when he says something. Politicians have to please their audience.

And as far as the film goes, premiered is different from released. The film started making waves in 2006 and was then touted as "look what is happening in Uganda." And what matters is that it is still be shown to people who believe it is accurate to this day.

We are most certainly not trying to drive a wedge between anyone and the leadership in Uganda, but the fact remains, that out of Jason's own mouth, Mao was not consulted before the release of the shirts. Again, we have the email from Mao.

There needs to be accountability. That is our biggest concern. As we said, IC does do great things and we don't wish to discount that. It just saddens me that those great things take a back seat to the media. Prioritize.

Jason, neither Erin or I were physically able to come to Lobby Days this year, but I - and I can confidently say Erin - have never rejected an offer to meet. We would love if our voices weren't only heard but actually taken into account. On that matter, the ball is in your court.

By all means, I have no desire to see IC fail. IC is an important organization in bringing Kony to justice and peace to the region, but things must be done correctly. I know Jason knows this, but this isn't just business. It is a 'business' dealing with the lives of people. We want IC to work to sure up its weaknesses because there is great opportunity.

There is a difference between saying you welcome criticism and are willing to listen and actually listening.

Sibba balungi!

it all makes sense...

I'm currently sitting in an internet cafe in Brussels' main Congolese neighborhood with glazed over eyes after a day of reading statistics in the colonial archives (the Belgians were nothing if not thorough in their record keeping) attempting to type on an Arabic keyboard. For what should be obvious reasons, the prospect of real blogging is declining in these parts with every passing second (how does the freaking "capital of Europe" not have Wifi anywhere useful?). but I know some of you out there attended Sunday' discussion of It's Our Turn to Eat in Nairobi? Anyone care to tell us how it went?


invisible children responds

Last week's guest post from Dustyn Winder and Erin Bernstein on Invisible Children provoked quite a dialogue on what makes for effective advocacy and humanitarian aid. What follows is a response to that post from Jason Russell, co-founder of Invisible Children:

We at Invisible Children are appreciative of this blog and the criticism made about the organization. It fuels us to listen more and do a better job moving forward. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

When I spoke to Dustyn and Erin (hi guys) on the phone a few months ago, I expressed my sincere appreciation for their voices and told them I would continue to take their criticisms into account while moving forward. We are already strategizing ways to include ideas like the ones they’ve suggested into out future campaigns.

I have also personally asked if either of them would like to come to Lobby Days, without paying $60 fees (the total of which will not meet the overall budget of the event) and accompany others and myself in our efforts to help end this war. Furthermore, I have invited them to see the powerful work Invisible Children is doing in northern Uganda. I understand they are both busy and traveling but I would love to sit down someday with them and others to brainstorm more ways Invisible Children can be a better brand and company.

I just want to be as transparent as possible as I clear up a few misunderstandings:

1. The Rough Cut was filmed in 2003 and premiered in June 2004, not in 2006. The Global Night Commute was in April 2006 and on that very same night, my own mother called as she was night commuting with the children in Gulu, Uganda. Also, it should be said that the film Hotel Rwanda is still relevant and important to tell 15 years after the genocide.

2. Invisible Children doesn’t fit inside the standard non-profit box, and I think that is where some individuals get confused – and the confusion often turns into frustration. The only thing consistent about us is our unpredictability. We do not consider ourselves solely a non-profit, a humanitarian organization, a mission’s ministry, an advertising firm, or an educational outlet- if any of these at all. We are a hybrid of many things simply because we believe that the current cultural and global paradigm that exists is broken, and we are purposefully breaking stereotypes and rules in order to engage in meaningful dialogue (like this one) as we find a new way forward – with good, powerful, transformative life change being the central focus – and end goal. We are very aware of and purposeful about our aggressive messaging and acknowledge that we are not going to be able to please everyone all the time. However, it should be noted that we always get local input from those we trust in Uganda – both employees and local leadership - when launching any new media or advocacy messaging.

3. The Norbert Mao muckraking is not only unfair and untrue- it simply won’t work. Mao and Invisible Children, along with Archbishop Odama, Bishop Ochola, Betty Bigombe, and the Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, are long-standing friends over several years. We’ve worked together in the past and continue to do so, personally and professionally. Of all the things written in this blog post, this one is the most hurtful and upsetting. You can criticize Invisible Children and myself all you want, but please don’t spread untruths about phone conversations. “Norbert Mao is a politician” is what I said, and it is true. He is a politician – an incredibly wise, generous and inspiring politician. Your interpretation, “Mao’s word cannot be trusted” is offensive. More than that, it is harmful. I don’t believe it is your intention to drive a wedge between Invisible Children and the leaders we rely on in Uganda, but at times it feels like that.

4. To clear up any misunderstanding as to our involvement in policy change, I will simply state the facts: we at Invisible Children have met with members of Parliament in Britain, The Pentagon Staff, The White House Staff, the President of Uganda, and members of the Lords Resistance Army numerous times. We desire this war to end, justice brought to Kony, and healing brought to the innocent people more than I can express in words. It has been our utter obsession since the day we met members of this beautiful community six years ago. We, like many others, consider Northern Uganda our second home, and the community our family. All the celebrities, hipster-antics, pop-flashy-media tools we use are an attempt to captivate a youth culture saturated by meaningless distractions. The end goal is of course to see our friends and their friends experience freedom.

I will leave you with one of my favorite excerpts from the genius author/designer Dave Eggers, taken from an interview conducted for YSKOV(Sacrement):

“What matters is not the perception, nor the fashion, not who's up and who's down, but what someone has done and if they meant it. What matters is that you want to see and make and do, on as grand a scale as you want, regardless of what the tiny voices of tiny people say. Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them. It is a lot work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but that is what matters.”

The Journey is the Destination.

From the bottom of my heart, I look forward to meeting you in person someday soon.

Much Love

I know Dustyn will have a response to Russell's comments, so I'll stay out of this one for now. Comments are welcome, but please continue to keep the debate civil, everyone.


happy weekend

(Photo from the Signspotting exhibit, now on in Copenhagen through the end of the month)


this & that

  • Via Kenyan Pundit, here's an outstanding reflection from a Senaglese entrepreneur on the problem with microcredit. As Wade points out, microcredit programs and their ilk are all well and good, but most don't really get people out of poverty and into the middle class with a hope for the future. This is something I've been thinking about quite a bit lately; what good does it really do the poor if all our aid only makes most of them slightly less poor? How can we ensure that everyone has the opportunity to life the kind of lifestyle he or she wants to pursue?
  • Could it be that the poor know more about poverty than the rest of us? Some interesting thoughts.
  • Mali's president, Amadou Toumani Touré, promises he won't run for another, constitutionally-prohibited term in office.
  • My Congressman - aka, Representative Non-Responsive to Constitutent Concerns Except in Summers Prior to Elections - has apparently taken an interest in Darfur.
  • The Texas Observer has some amazing photos taken in the Texas Panhandle during the Great Depression.
  • White African has some great travel tips for going to African countries, sans Kristof's exaggerations. Much appreciated.


guest post: the problem with visibility

Today I'm very pleased to present a guest post from Dustyn Winder and Erin Bernstein. As students, they got interested in the situation in northern Uganda and started spending time in the region, learning about local peace building initiatives. They've also risked the wrath of the celebrity-advocacy culture by pointing out some of the problems with Invisible Children's approach to the crisis in northern Uganda. I asked them to guest post today about specific reasons the organization's approach is less effective than it could and should be, and - for those of you who complain that we never offer solutions around here - ways IC could do better. Here are their excellent thoughts on the subject (I couldn't resist adding emphasis in bold on some of their best points!):

With the talk of “badvocacy” flooding the international aid/development blogosphere during the past few months, we feel called (by Texas in Africa, mainly) to discuss San Diego-based NGO for northern Uganda, Invisible Children, its most recent “Rescue” campaign, and the upcoming “How it Ends” Uganda lobby days.

When we learned of IC’s April 2009 rallying campaign, “The Rescue,” and the two controversial t-shirts to go along with the event, we contacted multiple people at IC’s headquarters to ask what it would take to remove or redesign the shirts. In hindsight, we realized that it was naïve to ever expect the shirts to be changed or taken off the market. After all, a lot of money had been poured into designing and producing a shirt that would appeal to the American adolescent.

Therein lies the problem.

It seems IC has been blinded by its accolades and fan-clubs, paying more attention to what grabs the attention of West Coast hipsters, rather than seeking to know what would best work for northern Uganda. With a mentality like this, anything can be justified and anything goes.

Invisible Children spends far too much time fretting over the sensibilities and fashion of America’s youth, rather than focusing its efforts on the plights and cultural comfort levels of the “beneficiaries” of their advocacy.

When we first heard of the campaign, we called IC’s headquarters expecting an explanation for the campaign’s audacity. We were informed that the shirts had been approved by notable northern Ugandan leaders, including Chairman Norbert Mao, Gulu District Chairman and Uganda presidential candidate for 2011.

In correspondence with Mao, we learned that he had not, in fact, been consulted about the shirts and instead found them appalling. Angered that IC had used his name to defend their program when under attack, Mao contacted IC’s offices and told them to “stop dancing on the graves of our children.”

When we informed Jason Russell, one of the filmmakers and founders of Invisible Children, about our conversations with Mao, he argued that, as a politician, Mao’s word could not be trusted. Russell also confirmed that he had come up with the “I Heart the LRA” idea on a whim and was not sure if any locals outside of IC’s payroll were consulted and approved the shirts.

This is a symptom of the larger problem at hand. Not only does IC fail to base its decisions on what Ugandans think is best for them, the organization also make efforts to explain away any dissent. IC has become a brand with machine guns and cameras as its apparent logo and celebrity filmmakers as the protagonists against the evil LRA. The war is no longer about the people versus the LRA; it has transformed itself into something far too sensationalized and, at times, seemingly insincere. Poole, Russell, and Bailey v. Kony.

IC claims to be educating a band of “revolutionaries” consisting of youth, celebrities, and celebrity youth, who have been known, on occasion, to prove how little the actually know. This is evident in Disney star Miley Cyrus’ appeal to fans and Twitter followers to “buy one of [IC’s] bracelets to end a war in Uganda! :)”

For many of IC’s supporters, their only source of information regarding child-soldiering, northern Uganda, and violence in the surrounding region is IC’s flashy website, which focuses more on the organization and its founders than its supposed cause. Many of those wearing the shirts and following IC still believe what the movie Invisible Children: Rough Cut tells them: children are still commuting to town centers due to the war in northern Uganda, which is raging violently. The movie was filmed in 2003 and was outdated when it was released in 2006, as hostilities in northern Uganda ended in 2006, with night-commuting also stopping around that time.

To top it all off, the “How it Ends” lobby days later this month have a $60 price tag for kids to lobby their representatives. This, along with the sensationalized misinformation, is the wrong way to educate impressionable minds.

Despite these concerns, Invisible Children is achieving good works on the ground, though local sentiment toward the organization can often be unfavorable. Its micro-finance programs can be commended, as can its Schools for Schools program, which benefiting head teachers consider to be one of the best education programs for northern Uganda.

And this is why we are as concerned as we are. IC has great potential and opportunity to do good. The organization has successfully motivated masses of young people to be globally and politically active. Advocacy, however, does not end at trendy t-shirts and cool graphics.

If Invisible Children would focus its efforts on its own projects, which have proven effective in some cases, it would gain legitimacy as an organization and broaden the horizon for its avid followers, allowing them to understand more of the complexity of the regional war.

IC must also revamp its education program for its young activists. It is vital that those advocating on behalf of a cause know where the LRA is currently active, how the Ugandan government has failed to protect its own people, how the United States is involved, and what steps have been taken to reconstruct northern Uganda (i.e., through the Peace, Recovery, and Development Plan). It is vital that they understand that the key peace builders are not Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey, and Laren Poole. The key peace builders are Bishop Ochola, Archbishop Odama, members of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, and many, many others who have lived through the war.

Invisible Children has paved the way in using media for social change. It would be a wise decision for the organization, then, to use its media talents for the sake of education. A video tutorial with detailed history of the war in northern Uganda and surrounding regions that focuses on the real-life happenings rather than the filmmakers’ personal journeys is imperative.

Even a remodeled website like IC’s former underground website, “Vanguard,” which was available only to those truly concerned about northern Uganda, would be beneficial if stripped of its militaristic language and imagery and made accessible to all who visit IC’s main website. Why the information on that website (i.e., how to be an activist, details of the war in northern Uganda, and accurate updates on the situation in Uganda, DRC, and South Sudan) was kept secret from the slews of people who visit the main website still doesn’t make sense to us. Being knowledgeable should not entitle you to secret club membership.

All NGOs have their pros and cons. At least Invisible Children is taking action and encouraging young people to do the same. The organization is young, though, as are its founders, who are filmmakers with no education in development, humanitarianism, human rights, or advocacy. None that we’re aware of anyway.

There is still room to grow and improve and gain respect by the people on whose behalf they advocate. We hope, then, that Invisible Children takes the advice of informed colleagues. If not, the children may remain "invisible" while the organization continues being entirely too visible.

Thanks so much to Erin and Dustyn for this thought-provoking post. Dustyn is live-tweeting from Uganda this month; if you're at all interested in what's going on there, you should definitely be following him on Twitter. You can follow Erin for great thoughts on peace building as well!


peace comes stealing slow

I am very frequently asked how it is that I came to be interested in studying politics in African states. There are several answers to that question, but one of the most significant has to do with two research projects I had to complete during my first year of university work. The second project was about refugees in central Africa, which, given that it was April 1997, was a bit of a challenge to complete.

The first was about the Ogoniland Crisis in Nigeria. Just about a year before I began working on the project in fall 1996, Nigeria's authorities had executed Ken Saro-Wiwa, an environmental activist from a minority ethnic group in the Niger Delta whose land and livelihoods were being destroyed by the oil-extracting activities of Royal Dutch Shell. The military government of General Sani Abacha trumped up charges against Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni leaders, tried them in a kangaroo military tribunal, and hanged all nine shortly thereafter.

The human tragedy of the case is hard to overstate. Nine people died after engaging in a campaign of nonviolent resistance against a corrupt authority and a corporation that destroyed their environment. The case also raised many interesting theoretical and practical questions. One of the most important is whether multinational corporations have a responsibility to protect the rights of people in the areas in which they work, especially when they are working in conjunction with a corrupt government like the one that ruled Nigeria in the early 1990's.

Yesterday, the families of the Ogoni Nine got some peace at last. The families filed suit against Royal Dutch Shell, alleging that the company and its Nigeria head were directly involved in violations of the human rights of the victims through such activities as supplying weapons to police. A trial was to begin this month, but yesterday, Royal Dutch Shell settled with the families for $15.5 million. As part of the settlement, Royal Dutch Shell insists that it did nothing wrong and holds no liability for the deaths of the Ogoni Nine. $5 million of the settlement will go into a trust for the Ogoni people, while the rest will cover thirteen years' worth of legal fees and as compensation to the families.

Saro-Wiwa's son, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Jr., wrote a very moving op-ed on the settlement in The Guardian yesterday. As he points out, the case is significant not because the families were finally compensated in some small way for the loss of their sons, fathers, and husbands, but because "Multinationals now know that a precedent has been set, that it is possible to be sued for human rights violations in foreign jurisdictions."

Royal Dutch Shell has always maintained its innocence in regards to what happened in Ogoniland so many years ago. We may never get to the full truth of what happened, but there is no question that Shell, along with many other oil companies operating in the Niger Delta, has never had the best interest of local populations at heart. The concerns of shareholders - and of people like American citizens who want cheap oil - have always come first. Here's hoping that the long-deferred justice for the Ogoni will help MNC's to reconsider their roles in the still-volatile Delta, and throughout the world.


book review: It's Our Turn to Eat

After months and months of waiting, last week I finally got my hands on a copy of Michela Wrong's expose of corruption in Kenya, It's Our Turn to Eat. The book will be published in hardcover in the states at long last later this week. Wrong, a journalist and author of two other very readable books on African states (including one that is a decent, if incomplete introduction to the D.R. Congo), does not disappoint in this unfortunately all-too-true story of lies, corruption, death threats, and intrigue.

It's Our Turn to Eat is the story of John Githongo, a Kenyan tapped to lead an anti-corruption crusade in the heady days after the country's 2002 elections. Voters finally threw Moi out of office in 2002, and the Kikuyu-led National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) government took over almost immediately, with promises to end the culture of corruption that had infiltrated every sector of the Kenyan government since independence. Wrong and Githongo are friends; he fled to her flat in north London when he was forced to leave the country after uncovering corruption at the very highest levels of government. As such, it is an intensely personal account of Githongo's situation.

But more importantly, the book provides a modern political history of Kenya that manages to untangle the web of ethnic affiliations, familial loyalty, disintegrity, and donor idocy that drive political events in the country of 32 million people. It's therefore a very sad story of rising hopes and complete disillusionment with a system that seems beyond repair.

I lived in Kenya as a student in 1998 and did not return until 2005. In those last dying years of the Moi regime, one simply did not discuss politics unless among close, trusted friends in a private space. Moi's henchmen were not as strong as they had once been, but people still disappeared in the middle of the night, were harassed by police at checkpoints, and lived with much fear. Nothing in the city worked, not traffic lights or police services or, for several hours a day, the electricity. The Nation newspaper openly criticized the government, but no one else dared do so in public.

The difference between 1998 and 2005 was like that between night and day. I came to Nairobi on a break from being in the DRC and was astonished from the airport forward. No longer was it necessary to lie to the immigration agents; they just smiled, welcomed me to Kenya, and asked why it had taken so long for me to return. There were no porters acosting me the moment I came down the escalator to baggage claims. There were no police checkpoints anywhere I went, streets had been repaved, and - miracle of miracles - the traffic lights worked. Mostly. There were malls with real stores, huge supermarkets all over town, not just on Ngong Road, and you could even get a decent quesadilla at Java House. Even more remarkable, the Nairobi City Council had put in place a law that the matatus (minibus taxis) had to provide one seat per passenger - and the people enforced that law, insisting to the drivers and touts that extra passengers could not ride. In a city in which I once rode on the outside of a matatu, legs held in by a seated passenger so I wouldn't fall off, it was clear that something had changed.

As Wrong demonstrates, however, the changes in Kenyan society that came after the 2002 elections were in many ways only a smokescreen for those in power. In his role as an anti-corruption czar, Githongo soon discovered that the old patterns of corruption continued as before, particularly in the massive Anglo Leasing scandal that saw government ministers (and probably President Mwai Kibaki himself), steal money equivalent to a significant percentage of Kenya's GDP.

One of the most important aspects of Wrong's book is her emphasis on the importance of ethnic identity. It's not fashionable to talk about "tribes" or "tribal politics" anymore, but as Wrong notes, "in Kenya much of what takes place becomes incomprehensible if you try stripping ethnicity from the equation." She clearly shows, the Kikuyus in charge of the NARC government believed that they had suffered deprivations at the trough of government wealth during the Moi era and were determined to steal as much money from the government to benefit Kikuyus (mainly themselves) as possible. Again and again, Githongo (also a Kikuyu) is criticized for asking too many questions about his tribesmen. These criticisms soon turn into threats, and Githongo, who taped conversations in which government ministers freely admitted their roles in the scandal, eventually had to flee Kenya for London in order to preserve his life.

The book also does a nice job of tracing the role of Kenya's privileged, moneyed elite, who have a tendency to enjoy lavish lifestyles while manipulating their poverty-ridden ethnic kinspersons into voting them into office again and again. Githongo was part of this elite, which made his role as a whistleblower even more controversial. He didn't simply betray the Kikuyu; he betrayed most of the social class that produced him.

Finally, Wrong does an excellent job of dismanteling Western government rationales for continuing aid to a government whose ministers are clearly stealing funds from government coffers. The book is particularly damning towards Britain's DfID aid agency, which, in addition to having a stupid logo, also looked blindly away from the corruption, ignoring the impassioned (and at times hilarious) pleas of the British High Commissioner in Kenya, who had no illusions as to what was going on.

Wrong balances arguments about the need to protect the poor and provide health and education services to vulnerable populations with the difficulties associated with giving that aid directly to governments nicely. As she points out, the new global focus on "saving Africa" means that the West has lots of money to give, and losing a "partner" like Kenya would mean that agencies like DfID and USAID might lose portions of their budgets. There's nothing a bureaucracy hates more than seeing its budget diminished, even if those funds aren't being put to good use. The West's willingness to set a lower standard of conditionality for African states, Wrong argues, led to the UK and others' willingness to either only make small symbolic cuts or to not cut aid at all. Thus the lesson Kenya's leaders took from the whole affair was that corrupt behavior wouldn't really hurt anyone at all. A minister or the president could steal millions of dollars from government coffers without hurting anyone at all.

Except it didn't turn out that way. The scandals that came to light from 2004-2007 turned public opinion against the NARC regime, and, more significantly, against the Kikuyu. NARC lost a large percentage of parliamentary seats in the 2007 elections and almost certainly stole the presidency through ballot box stuffing in the Central Province, where presidential returns were last to come in despite the fact that parliamentary results from the same polls arrived hours earlier.

The stolen election resulted in ethnic riots that claimed the lives of hundreds and that displaced at least 300,000 people, and probably caused another 300,000 to move back to their "ancestral homelands." The media - and most middle and upper class Kenyans - responded with shock and horror, but as Wrong points out, "under a system which decreed that all advancement was determined by tribe, such hostility was entirely rational. Had all Kenyans believed they enjoyed equal access to state resources, there would have been no explosion."

But there was. The violence was horrific and the population will not recover for a generation or two, Wrong believes. I agree. Her analysis is absolutely damning, and one of her closing points - that "saving Africa" is a dangerous basis for a foreign aid policy that turns a blind eye to destructive social forces - is extremely prescient. And as she makes it clear, difficult choices have to be made:
"Worried Westerners ... so often seem to fall prey to a benign form of megalomania when it comes to Africa, [but] would do well to accept that salvation is simply not theirs to bestow. They should be more modest, more knowing, and less naive. They owe it not only to the Western taxpayers who make development organisations' largesse possible, but to the Africans whose destinies they attempt to alter."
As readers of this blog well know, that's one of the many reasons I believe it's better to direct aid to local organizations that have already figured out how to do good work on the ground, with strict monitoring and controls for corruption. There are lots of smart, capable people in places like Kenya who are already doing good things. They need our support, not our savior complex and low standards. We would all do well to take the lessons of John Githongo's experience to heart.

Don't forget that if you're in Kenya, there's a discussion of the book (and the opportunity to purchase a real copy) this Sunday from 2-5pm at the Kenya National Theatre. If you attend, I would love to hear your thoughts on the meeting.


this & that

  • Gabonese President Omar Bongo is confirmed dead. Bongo, the longest-serving president in Africa, managed to resist pressures for real democratization that would have led to a change in rule despite the rising tide and cuts in aid that forced other African leaders to at least pretend they would share power. How did it do it? Oil money. And massive corruption, etc. A controversy as to who would succeed Bongo after his 42 years in power was well underway before his death and is sure to become more intense now. Our thoughts are with the Gabonese people in hopes that their next leader will serve their interests rather than his own.
  • PEN Kenya is hosting a discussion of Michaela Wrong's new book on corruption in Kenya, It's Our Turn to Eat on Sunday. If you're there and go, please let me know how it goes or send a link to your blog post on it. Official copies of the book have not been available in Kenya due to fears of raids on booksellers, but they will be available at the discussion on Sunday for 900 Ksh. (HT: Sukuma Kenya and @kenyanpundit)
  • Speaking of, I finished the book last night and will post a review tomorrow.
  • Well, apparently we're no longer going to be able to get judicial rulings in Texas, because all of our judges (most of whom are elected in partisan political campaigns) are now prohibited from hearing cases involving their campaign contributors. It would be interesting to see how many cases meet that threshold.
  • Speaking of corrupt politics in our crazy state, Texas Monthly released its Ten Best/Ten Worst Legislators list for the 2009 session this weekend.
  • Here is a very cool video about a Morehouse trip to South Africa. I'm so excited about teaching there! (HT: @dollabrand)
  • Way to go, AMD. Way to go.

what's a human right?

Amnesty International issued its annual report, The State of the World's Human Rights, last week, and among the usual country-by-country hodgepodge of extrajudicial killings, rapes, looting, and other war crimes, the influential organization announced that it now considers poverty a human rights violation. (One assumes this only includes poverty of the non-voluntary sort and not, say, the decision to refuse all assistance from family, friends, and government in order to go off the grid in the desert to make a statement.)

The rights-based approach to understanding poverty is nothing new (it's enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for one thing), but there's some controversy as to whether being poor means that one's human rights are being violated. As Bill Easterly points out, you don't have to believe that freedom from poverty is a human right in order to believe that poverty is a very, very bad thing. He also notes that it's difficult to quantify poverty as opposed to non-poverty and that identifying human rights requires the identification of the source of the violation of those rights. Chris Blattman adds these good thoughts to the debate:
"I could wave aside the philosophical quarrels if I thought the rights approach to poverty worked in practice. Unfortunately, I fear it reinforces all of the mistakes of past aid: it ignores the agency and the incentives of the poor; it focuses less on creating opportunities and structuring incentives, and more on public works and handouts. As an advocacy and fundraising mechanism, however, the rights approach may be unmatched. We can thus safely assume it will be around for some time."
Does it really matter whether we consider non-poverty a human right or not? It will matter, as Blattman notes, for funding of programs, most of which are unlikely to work. A representative of Amnesty responds to Easterly's arguments by pointing out that rights to basic human needs are in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (Because we all know that things said in international agreements are a great basis for a logical and pragmatic argument.) Amnesty contends that governments have the responsibility to protect their citizens human rights and that since these rights relating to poverty are in the Declaration, governments have to address those as well in order to protect their citizens.

Unfortunately, we know that governments aren't always the best organizations to help people get out of poverty. Sometimes - in wealthy, industrialized societies that can afford to tax their citizens at 50%+ rates - government can pretty much keep people out of poverty altogether. But elsewhere - in poor, weak states who are dependent on fickle foreign investors and - it doesn't work at all. The only people who escape poverty in those places are either 1) very lucky, 2) corrupt and in a position to steal from public coffers, or 3) beneficiaries of other forms of (often church-based) assistance or entrepreneurs who have done very well for themselves. Almost all of these people succeed not because of government, but in spite of it.

By contending that poverty is a human rights problem that governments have to address, Amnesty is setting up new aid programs for failure. Putting even more emphasis on assisting weak, corrupt, poor governments to solve problems of poverty (which, although Amnesty doesn't like it, is what this argument will force us to do) is a terrible idea that won't help anybody. Of course we need to encourage better governance, etc., etc. But the inevitable resulting focus on government activity will likely only make things worse.


in memoriam

We still remember, and we still miss you, Ken.


somebody's gotta do it

Well, here's what I can say at the end of week one of interviewing people about piracy off the coast of Somalia: academic research on pirates is pretty much the most fun academic thing I've ever done. It's also confirmation of the fact that I am absolutely in the right field and profession. Today I went up to Oxford to visit The Peacekeeper (who is now in fact a doctoral student) and realized about halfway down Broad Street that we'd just had a completely animated and fascinating conversation about rational actors and the pirates' business model before moving on to talk about her research on peace building.

Nerd, thy name is Africanist.

If I told you all the fun things I'm learning about pirates, there wouldn't be much data left for our article, so you'll just have to wait. In the meantime, here's an interesting piece from the BBC on how pirate attacks and negotiations proceed that should give you the idea.


this & that

  • Maybe Jacob Zuma's machine gun is actually a magic wand. That's the only way he could possibly uphold his new promise to create half a million jobs within the year and another four million jobs within five years. Either that, or South Africa's economy is about to expand a lot.
  • Here's why I don't accept student work via email. (HT: Euphrony)
  • The New York Times has a new "West Africa" correspondent. (The Times' definition of "West Africa" moves well into central Africa.) Given how bad/not-properly-fact-checked most of the paper's coverage of Africa is, maybe giving the beat to someone with experience in New Orleans isn't a terrible idea. (HT: @scarlettlion)
  • Speaking of awesome photographer Glenna Gordon, her pictures of the Miss Liberia pageant are up. And they are spectacular.
  • Former Liberian President Charles Taylor apparently found God in The Hague. And God is Jewish.
  • At last!
  • Are Somali pirates losing their base of support?
  • Bill Easterly has a nice chart summarizing the latest round of spiteful rhetoric interspersed with legitimate points in the ongoing battle royal between himself and Jeff Sachs.


"functioning government-free since 1991!"

From Africa is a Country

finland, finland, finland

Well, just in time for me to wake up from a nasty case of jet lag, we learned earlier this week that Finland has finally formally charged Rwandan Baptist pastor Francois Bazaramba with genocide. Bazaramba sought asylum in Finland in 2003 and has been in custody for the last two years.

It's hard to know what to think about these sorts of cases. On the one hand, there's no doubt that many participants in Rwanda's 1994 genocide have since fled the country. On the other, there's also no doubt that many, many Hutus have been falsely accused of committing genocide for political and economic reasons (eg, someone wants their land). The Rwandan authorities claim that Bazaramba, who headed the Union of Baptist Churches in Rwanda in Nyakizu, is responsible for the deaths of about 5,000 people. The Finns, for their part, have charged him with fifteen counts of murder, which may or may not indicate that the 5,000 figure is a bit of an exaggeration. Who knows?

One thing's for sure; the Finns are right that Bazaramba would be very unlikely to get a fair trial in Rwanda, even though the Rwandans claim to stand ready to help with the prosecution, "if contacted." By holding the trial in Finland, they have plenty of problems with bringing witnesses in to testify and with the judges really understanding the situation. But Bazaramba will at least have decent legal representation and a far better shot at a fair trial. Stay tuned on this one.


specificity and complexity

Here's a fascinating piece on teaching about Africa.


how big is africa?

Bigger than you think.