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

9.30.2009

bad news from conakry

Things are not good in Guinea. After 50,000 people took to the streets to protest a rumor that the head of the military junta that took over the country last December intends to run for the presidency, the army reacted with force. Given Captain Moussa Dadis Camara's somewhat less than stable behavior of late - not to mention his increasingly strong grip on power in the country - it appears the people of Conakry have a well-founded fear. At least one Guinea-watcher expects the demonstrations to continue for several months.

Local human rights activists report that at least 157 people were killed by government troops during Monday's protest. They also note that women are being raped in public and that soldiers are bayonetting civilians. From the BBC:
Alpha Conde, head of the Rally of the People of Guinea party, said he would return there to "mobilise the people".

..."We can't fight and then draw back, we fought for change so we can't retreat now," Mr Conde, speaking from New York, told the BBC.

"We want free and democratic elections, but considering what happened yesterday, we now want the government to go and for it to be replaced by a national government that can organise elections."

Mr Conde said the government had been "discredited" by the violence, which he said had been "planned and were directed by the president's own advisor".

On Tuesday, the French government took the key step of cutting its aid to Guinea's military and will push the EU to do the same today.

Here's a useful Q&A about these events. Are there any Guinea-watchers who could give us more information or context?

9.29.2009

what works: search for common ground

Today I'm starting what I hope will become an occasional series about community-based initiatives in Africa and elsewhere that are successful in raising the level of development, building civil society, or contributing to something else positive in places that are otherwise fairly miserable. (Although given the whole "it's my first year as an assistant professor" thing, all bets are off as to just how occasional "occasional" will be.) These efforts might or might not be supported by international NGO's, donors, or other organizations, but they need to be community-driven and community-focused (eg, most of the work should be done by locals).

In an effort to be slightly less pessimistic than is the norm around here, the series will be entitled "What Works." If you have suggestions about programs that would be good for this series, send me an email here.

For the first installment of this series, I'd like to talk about Search for Common Ground's work in the eastern DR Congo.* As an international peace building organization that carries out its efforts through local partnerships, SFCG's stated aim is, "to find culturally appropriate means to strengthen societies' capacity to deal with conflicts constructively: to understand the differences and act on the commonalities."

SFCG has a long history in the DRC and they do a lot in the east, including running a brilliant series of programs designed to help locals understand their rights and to find ways to resolve conflicts without resorting to violence. They run radio and television programs, engage participants in street theater, and promote voter registration**

One of the things that impresses me the most about SFCG is their commitment to letting local civil society leaders lead. I've been to SFCG's offices in Bukavu and don't recall there being a single expat staff member there. It was clear that the Congolese were in charge, that they were empowered to make decisions and implement programs they believed would work. The local leadership is truly part of the community, and as such, they can formulate responses to difficult issues in a culturally-relevant, sustainable manner.

Take, for example, SFCG's response to the understandably tense relationship between soldiers and the civilians they often terrorize. SFCG has come up with a novel approach to build understanding between the two sides: engage soldiers and civilians together in participatory theater. Can you imagine a crazier idea? And yet, at least according to SFCG's internal surveys, the efforts work. Of the 27% of Goma civilians who have participated in one of the theater troupe's 53 performances, 78% said they had learned to manage daily conflicts in a non-violent manner.

Then there's the remarkable Mobile Cinema initiative, aimed at starting a real conversation about rape among victims, civilians, and the military. If you don't have time to watch this whole clip, scroll ahead to 5:20 or so and watch a group of soldiers confront their role in the rape crisis:


You'll note that the discussion there was led not by a Western expert on women's empowerment, but rather by a Congolese soldier.

It's this kind of grassroots, on-the-ground activity that can really change things for people in the eastern Congo. No, local peace building initiatives won't solve all the country's problems. But while we wait for the political, security, and economic solutions necessary to establish a lasting. comprehensive peace in the region, Search for Common Ground is doing a great job of rebuilding the threads of mutual respect and common decency that hold a society together while implementing culturally-relevant programs that seem to change behavior for the long term. Those efforts will go a long way towards restoring a much-neglected piece of the Congo's peace dilemma puzzle.


Photo: Search for Common Ground

*Full disclosure: a friend's parents founded SFCG, and that friend happened to be the one to rescue me from a very unfortunate detention situation at the Ruzizi border crossing a few years back, so I am totally predisposed to admire their work.
**A key task, given that local elections will theoretically happen sometime soon, maybe, although probably not until 2010. We don't really know. They were supposed to happen in 2006. Then 2008. Like I said. Maybe.

Labels:

9.28.2009

does africa have an sms crisis?

Joshua Goldstein thinks so:
It would be easy to conclude that Africa is entering the golden age of mobile innovation. In Kenya, mPesa, a Safaricom service, allows users to send money anywhere in the country via mobile phone at very low rates. Next door in Uganda, rural users out of reach of the Internet can use a new SMS-based service from MTN, Grameen Foundation and Google to trade goods, search the Internet and query local reproductive health and agriculture information.

These services, however, represent a trickle of innovation where there should be a downpour. The source of this sluggishness is the structure of African mobile phone networks, which discourage entrepreneurs from quickly and cheaply creating, testing and deploying applications.

Mobile networks are costly in Africa. The price of sending SMS texts is kept high by a combination of high taxes, interconnection fees and network provider choice. And because mobile networks are closed, no one can deploy a new application without the network expressly adding it to a consumer package.

Meanwhile, this week's Economist cover story highlights mobile-based banking for the poor, using Kenya's mPesa as an example.

Tech types, what do you think? Is the innovation Goldstein notes elsewhere (and in Uganda) likely to spread in Africa? Can the barriers to more expansive mobile-based banking be removed? By whom?

9.25.2009

advocate-centered advocacy

Via Africa is a Country, the Onion News Network takes it on:



Happy weekend, everybody.

this & that

9.24.2009

psa

I spent yesterday evening helping a friend clean out her house after it was inundated with six feet of nasty, muddy water when a creek near her neighborhood flooded earlier this week (That school you kept seeing on the news? That's the neighborhood elementary school.). The situation in her neighborhood is among the worst things I've seen, and that includes a bombed-out embassy and a war zone, which, while a far worse situation overall, certainly smelled better.

Do you know what happens to books (and their shelves) when they get wet? They expand. And wood warps. You end up with some very interesting shapes in the end. (And a handy guide as to how high the water got. Everything above 6 feet was perfectly dry.)
As for your major appliances, well, it turns out that water can do some pretty interesting things to them as well:

All this is to say, floods are really bad. If you own a home and don't have flood insurance, it's worth the cost. This home wasn't in the flood plain, but it and homes in the surrounding neighborhood are completely destroyed. Get the insurance. You do not want to have to deal with this.

If you'd like to help victims of this week's flooding in Atlanta, you can donate here:
  • Clarkdale Elementary (via the Cobb Schools Foundation) - Will go to buying supplies for classrooms and students, all of whom have been relocated to other campuses.
  • American Red Cross - Providing assistance to families in emergency shelters & other flood victims
  • Ewing Road Baptist Church - This church sits just outside the subdivision entrance. Their volunteers are distributing water and providing meals for the families in the subdivision. I'm sure they would appreciate some financial assistance directed towards funding those meals as they try to meet the most basic needs of those in their neighborhood.
  • If you're in the Atlanta area, the two things most badly (and immediately) needed are manpower and gift cards. These houses have to be emptied out asap; almost all need to be gutted and most families are trying to get that done before the mold takes over. If you can take a truck and some strong arms to the area, there will be someone you can help. Gift cards, especially those that can be used at any store (eg, Visa or Mastercard) will help families who have to replace everything. This is especially important for things like children's clothes, toiletries, diapers, and cleanup supplies. It is not a good idea to show up with items (except for cleanup supplies - trashbags, mops, shovels, wheelbarrows) as there's nowhere to put stuff like that. Better to donate to the Red Cross or someone you know individually.

under the big tent

The American press has discovered how Colonel Qaddafi travels. And somebody has an idea:

Dick D. Zigun, the unofficial mayor of Coney Island and impresario of its sideshow and museum, pointed out that the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus put up its tent this summer along the beach and took it down around Labor Day.

“Without question, Qaddafi is a circus,” he said.

Indeed, $100,000 worth of drainage and other improvements were put in to make the site on West 21st Street viable for a tent, and the Libyan leader could take advantage of those repairs to make himself and his guests comfortable. Moreover, Coney Island has been struggling to keep up its razzle-dazzle image while plans for the rebuilding of abandoned amusement sites seem perennially caught up in conflicts between city officials and developers.

“Since Coney Island needs attention and needs development and since we’re circus-friendly, I for one would welcome him here,” Mr. Zigun said. “Politics aside, it would bring tourists to Coney Island and that’s what we need.”

You read that right. Muammar Qaddafi: circus attraction.

9.23.2009

Don't bother. They're here

Oh, boy:
Less than 24 hours after the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists sent an open letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressing concern about the safety of three female Congolese journalists covering women’s issues in Bukavu, south of Goma, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) issued a press release about “Clowns Without Borders” entertaining children in the IDP camps near Goma. What about Reporters Without Borders? An even more novel idea would be Doctors Without Borders. Frankly, I am not sure how to write about this amazing disconnect. Do we laugh or cry about the search for truth?
Bukavu-based Congolese journalists Delphie Namuto, Caddy Adzuba, and Jolly Kamuntu have all recently had their lives threatened by those who don't want the free flow of information in South Kivu. All three are members of AFEM, an amazing regional organization that trains women journalists. Namuto and Adzuba work for Radio Okapi, while Kamuntu is with Radio Maendeleo. AFEM was finishing up a training session the last time I was in the Radio Maendeleo offices. They do incredible work with women journalists in the DRC, Rwanda, and Burundi, with an emphasis on peace building and the development of active civil societies.

Like many of their colleagues who are interested in telling the truth about what goes on in the eastern Congo, Namuto, Adzuba, and Kamuntu are in real danger. Like Nienaber, I doubt that clowns are the best body to protect them.

9.22.2009

this & that

9.21.2009

is somalia unsolvable?

My students are fascinated by Somalia. Anytime I use it as an example, their hands shoot up with question after question after question. I haven't pinpointed the source of their interest, but it might have something to do with the idea of unmitigated disaster. How do you solve a problem like Somalia?

The African Union, which sponsors the only peacekeeping force that's actually attempting to do anything in Somalia at the moment, thinks more weapons (for their soldiers) is part of the answer. The 5,000 person force of Ugandan and Burundian soldiers is woefully underequipped. Some soldiers actually starved to death earlier this year for lack of rations. The mission will theoretically be taken over by the United Nations. Someday. For the moment, the AU soldiers are unable to do much to restore order, and their efforts to help the Somali government secure more of Mogadishu have not resulted in much success. Meanwhile, Al-Shabaab militants killed seventeen AU peacekeepers last week, leading the AU to request more weapons for Somali government forces:
"The AU envoy to Somalia made the plea in the wake of the suicide attacks in Mogadishu in which 17 AU peacekeepers were blown up by the al-Shabab group.

"'If we go after Shabab, we'd destroy them in no time,' said Nicolas Bwakira.

"He said the attacks should not deter countries from keeping to their promises to bolster the AU force."

I've argued before that it's a bad idea to inject even more weapons into the mess that is Mogadishu (primarily because they're more likely to end up in the Bakaara Market than in the hands of government forces). But it's easy to see why the AU believes they don't have much of an option. The government can't even control its own capital city, much less defend its borders, tax its population, or ensure basic order in the countryside. How do you begin to fix it?

In most failed states (Somalia, DR Congo, maybe Afghanistan and a few others), the solution to every problem often seems to be contingent upon the solution to every other problem. You can't have an economy without basic security. You can't have basic security without governance. You can't have governance unless you have an army that can secure the territory. It goes on and on and on.

The first "states" as we now understand the term weren't formed through peace building and power-sharing arrangements. Those states that didn't have the form superimposed on their territory by the colonial system came about through the process of power consolidation. That type of power consolidation almost always happened through nasty, unmediated warfare. There was a winner and there were losers. Somebody's army had to be strong enough to take over in order for "the state" to become real and for peace and order to be imposed. Legitimacy was conferred upon these nascent states through a semi-formal process of international recognition, most well-specified at Westphalia.

Unfortunately for American policymakers, the strongest army in Somalia right now isn't that of the so-called government. Al-Shabaab is far more powerful than the peacekeepers and the Somali army combined; they control most of the south and a good portion of Mogadishu. Interestingly enough, the areas al-Shabaab controls are apparently more orderly than is the norm in most of Somalia.

This order comes at the cost of considerable freedoms, of course. Like most extremist Islamic movements who gain control of territory, al-Shabaab is imposing a very strict form of sharia law that doesn't exactly account for freedom of speech, the women's rights, or practices out of line with their interpretation of the Qu'ran. Still, if you're an average Somali who's lived more-or-less in a chaotic state of anarchy for the last eighteen years, you might be willing to trade some liberty for stability.

And therein lies the problem. It's not that Somalia is unsecurable. We now know that a force with sufficient manpower and weaponry can assume effective authority large swaths of the territory. Whether al-Shabaab could actually function as a state - not to mention provide vital social services - remains to be seen. If they continue to move towards taking over completely, we'll almost certainly see the effects of covert and overt military action by many interested powers. An al-Shabaab-governed Somalia is too much of a threat to the interests of Ethiopia and Kenya, not to mention the authorities in Puntland and Somaliland, to allow a real consolidation of power to happen without a fight. Oh, and pretty much all of the West. And Israel. And anyone who wouldn't benefit from al Qaeda having a solid ally on the Horn of Africa.

The dilemma currently facing policy makers in all of these places is this: how can one secure Mogadishu and the rest of Somalia to the extent that basic public order is restored while simultaneously preventing a hostile government from taking over? I don't envy those who have to figure this out. But I'm pretty sure that providing more guns to a small, incapable army or its well-intentioned but understaffed peacekeeping force won't do the trick.

9.18.2009

this & that: drowning in the crazy edition

Those of you not in los Estados Unidos are surely aware by now that we are having a very nasty debate over health care that has in many ways degenerated into a screaming match between a bunch of right-wing nutjobs and the other side. (Who knew health care would be the issue that made the Democrats look like the grown-ups in the debate?) Anyway, it's all very hostile and the undertones of racism among the part of some (I said SOME.) of those who oppose all health care reform and anything else Obama tries to do are increasingly evident. Here's the results of my semi-obsessive following of this issue since the weekend:

9.17.2009

reforming the mineral trade in the DRC

Harrison Mitchell and Nicholas Garrett have a new report out as part of the Communities and Small-Scale Mining project. The report, Beyond Conflict: Reconfiguring Approaches to the Regional Trade in Minerals from Eastern DRC, is a must-read for those of you who work in or research Congo-related diplomacy and advocacy.

As in their previous report, rather than condemning the conflict mineral trade, Mitchell and Garrett instead seek ways to legitimize and, where necessary, demilitarize the mineral trade in the eastern Congo. They note:
"We believe that the primary reason why there is insecurity in Eastern Congo is because the Congolese state is unable to control the monopoly of violence and protect its citizens. This has translated into the presence of a number of armed groups who act with impunity, high levels of violence, including sexual violence, and the militarisation of the economy, including the mineral trade. In this context, military control of the trade in minerals is another symptom of the general insecurity in the Eastern DRC, rather than the principal cause of insecurity or sexual violence as some mistakenly stipulate. The non-militarised trade in minerals in the Kasais, southern Katanga, Bandundu, and large swaths of Maniema, Ituri, and Equateur underline this point."
Longtime readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that I completely agree with this observation. But that last part about non-militarized trade elsewhere in the country is an excellent point. (And one that left me hitting my head and saying "Doh!") If the presence of a mineral trade in a failed state causes militarization of that trade, which in turn causes sexual violence, why don't we see a militarized mineral trade throughout the Congo? The answer is that those other mines are in areas that enjoy much higher levels of stability. As Mitchell and Garrett point out, minerals are only a small part of the story of insecurity in the eastern Congo, and solving the mineral trade problem will only solve part of the problem. (As I'm giving a talk on conflict minerals entitled "Symptom or Cause?" in a couple of weeks, I particularly appreciate their points in this regard.)

The piece is chock-full of recommendations for policymakers and other players, so I encourage you to read it for yourself. Here are a few of their ideas that struck me as particularly original and/or helpful:
  • "Rebuild administrative structures...by establishing accountability mechanisms and a retraining programme with incentive structures to end harassment of economic actors." This goes to the heart of solving two problems: the disaster that is government administration in the eastern DRC and the near impossibility of engaging in legitimate, large-scale economic activity without having to pay bribes.
  • "Launch and support programmes to increase the productivity of labour and land in agriculture," including the re-invigoration of small-scale agriculture. This is key. It unfortunately depends on successful security sector reform to have a lasting impact, but if we ever figure out a way to do that, getting farming going full-scale again will do a lot to improve the regional economy and the population's health and well-being.
  • "Promote investment in the reconstruction of road infrastructure and prioritise the reconstruction of roads that are important to trade, particularly in agricultural commodities." I've heard the argument that rebuilding the roads is a bad idea because doing so makes it easier for armed groups to move through the territory. This is a concern, but I think the positive benefits of being able to transport agricultural products in a timely fashion far outweigh the security risks. (It's not as though armed groups have difficulty moving about as it is.) The model for road reconstruction should be the Goma-Sake road, which was financed by German Agro-Action a few years back. The refurbishment of that road made it much easier to transport food from Masisi into the city. Given the influx of IDP's into the city and its environs, the need for easy access to food is more critical than ever. Anything that will lower transport costs for producers (and therefore market costs for consumers) would help the food insecurity situation so much.
  • "Simplify and standardise cross-border trade regulations, to reduce or eliminate delays, increase predictability of costs to traders and increase revenue collection by state authorities." That pretty much sums it up. Making regional trade flow more smoothly is good for everyone who's doing legitimate business in the DRC. And getting a reliable cash flow into the state's coffers can only help, so long as there are strict, externally-monitored codes in place to guarantee that state monies are only used for legitimate state business.
You really should read the entire thing for yourself.

9.15.2009

communist fluoridation

Yesterday in my intro IR class, we were discussing deterrence & mutually assured destruction and all that fun stuff. I mentioned Dr. Strangelove, which is, of course, a brilliant cinematic depiction of the theory. Not one of my students had seen it, and most had never heard of it. They were all born after 1988.

It occurs to me that it might be fun to organize an IR movie series to help enlighten the minds of my youngsters. But all I can think of to show them beyond Dr. Strangelove is Red Dawn, and that won't make for much of a series.

This is where you come in. What say ye, loyal blog readers? What movies could I show that are both entertaining and that will enhance my students' understandings of international relations theory, Cold War history, and the art of diplomacy?

Bonus points for commentaries on constructivism.

this & that

Finally, our thoughts and prayers are with the family of Yale graduate student Annie Le and her fiance, whom she was to have married on Sunday. Just as he was on that horrible day eight years ago (when he dismissed our seminar by saying, "This is no time to talk about the Cold War"), John Gaddis knew exactly the right thing to say.

9.14.2009

saving the date

I've been staring at this post from Alex de Waal over on the SSRC's excellent Making Sense of Darfur blog for the last few minutes, trying to figure out why on earth the Save Darfur movement has decided that September 21 is a good day to fast for Darfur, given that it marks the Eid, the day that devout Muslims (including most...Darfuris) break the Ramadan fast. While I'm sure that this is all an unintended coincidence, um, guys, you might want to think about rescheduling. Just a suggestion.

However, as de Waal points out, a culturally insensitive, poor choice of date is the least of the problems in the movement for the moment:
"Having spent most of the last few months in Sudan, especially Darfur, it is increasingly evident that “Save Darfur”—here meaning not just the Save Darfur Coalition but the wider movement—is out of touch with realities. What they describe and prescribe has little or no relation to what is happening and what should be done.

"Next was a revealing quote from John Prendergast in response to the remark by Gen. Martin Agwai, outgoing UNAMID Force Commander, that the war in Darfur was essentially over. He could not dispute Gen. Agwai’s facts nor his integrity. Prendergast’s criticism was that this was 'something that takes the wind out of the sails of international action.'

"This was perhaps more illuminating than Prendergast intended: his campaign is not about domestic solutions but international (read: U.S.) action. That’s Save Darfur’s second big error: if there is to be a solution, it will come from inside Sudan, and must be political, addressed at the structural political challenges of Sudan. A campaign focused on a genocide that isn’t happening, for the U.S. to step up its pressure to stop killing that has already ended, is just making Save Darfur look poorly-informed, and America look silly."

That should keep the activists good and mad for a few days.

I've long maintained on this blog that poorly informed activism is often more harmful than good. If de Waal is right, then the Save Darfur movement's focus on what was going on 2004 is certainly hampering peace efforts today, which isn't good for the people of Darfur. Surely the thousands of committed Darfur activists in the U.S. and Europe can recognize this, and can agree that it is better to advocate for a long-term peace than to insist on a set of objectives that are no longer relevant to the situation. Right?

(HT: @alunmcdonald)

(Before those of you who hate Alex de Waal leave a mess of comments and send nasty emails about how this entire post is invalid because you hate Alex de Waal, please remember that the fact that you don't like Alex de Waal or things he has said in the past doesn't mean he's wrong here. And remember that he, unlike you, has spent decades working in Sudan, including in Darfur, where he conducted his doctoral thesis research in the 1980's. It's possible that even if you disagree about the particulars, he does know what he's talking about.)

UPDATE: An anonymous commenter lets me know that the Eid is actually September 20 this year (beginning at sunset on the 19th), not the 21st. This appears to be accurate, at least according to the Lebanese cleric cited in a story I found on a google search. Since de Waal's wife is Muslim, I would assume he has some good reason for thinking it's the 21st. Can any readers enlighten us here?

white refugees

Via Africa is a Country, here's a fascinating observation on race & class in modern South Africa:
"Fifteen years after the end of white minority rule, race is not the issue that dare not speak its name. Instead it is shouted from the rooftops at every opportunity. Its sensitivities pervade political debate, newspaper columns and radio phone-ins. One journalist said to me last week: 'There is a hyper-vigilance that's inevitable after a traumatic event.'

"...William Faulkner wrote: 'The past is never dead. It's not even past.' My African-American girlfriend feels that way when she's in South Africa. As a white Englishman, I have to look a little harder, but I can see the old wounds, too. I remember a cynic whispering in my ear: 'The whites are pretending it didn't happen; the blacks are pretending to forgive.'"
More on the "white South African refugee" phenomenon is here.

9.12.2009

faster than traffic, too

"Pigeon Transfers Data faster than South Africa's Telecom":
"Local news agency SAPA reported the 11-month-old pigeon, Winston, took one hour and eight minutes to fly the 80 km (50 miles) from Unlimited IT's offices near Pietermaritzburg to the coastal city of Durban with a data card was strapped to his leg.

"Including downloading, the transfer took two hours, six minutes and 57 seconds -- the time it took for only four percent of the data to be transferred using a Telkom line.

"Internet speed is expected to improve once a new 17,000 km underwater fiber optic cable linking southern and East Africa to other networks becomes operational before South Africa hosts the soccer World Cup next year."

Didn't that pigeon make it from PMB to Durban in better time than one could physically move the data oneself? Wow. If anyone knows a supplier, I've got a friend in Dar es Salaam who's looking to rent a carrier pigeon.

9.11.2009

9.11

Calm is the morn without a sound,
calm as to suit a calmer grief,
and only through the faded leaf
the chestnut pattering to the ground;

Calm and deep peace on this high wold,
and on these dews that drench the furze,
and all the silvery gossamers
that twinkle into green and gold;

Calm and still light on yon great plain
that sweeps with all its autumn bowers,
and crowded farms and lessening towers,
to mingle with the bounding main;

Calm and deep peace in this wide air,
these leaves that redden to the fall,
and in my heart, if calm at all,
if any calm, a calm despair;

Calm on the seas, and silver sleep,
and waves that sway themselves in rest,
and dead calm in that noble breast
which heaves but with the heaving deep.

- Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam A.H.H. 11

this & that

9.10.2009

closing the information access gap

Chris Blattman posted yesterday about the welcome news that JSTOR now offers free access to its incredible archive of academic material to academic and non-profit institutions in Africa and other parts of the developing world. Access to current research is a huge barrier for African scholars at universities on tighter budgets than you would believe.

I could not do my job without easy online access to the latest research (I spent about an hour digging around on JSTOR today) and know that the barriers African researchers face to getting information can sometimes seem insurmountable. Kudos to JSTOR for working to close that access gap.

After I mentioned JSTOR's program on Facebook, a friend who's an Africana librarian alerted me to an innovative project run by the University of Iowa's Widernet program. Because internet access can be a problem for scholars in developing countries, Widernet's eGranary loads millions of documents - including academic articles, web pages, videos, & multimedia presentations - onto hard drives, which can then be used over local area networks in-country.

These are great initiatives to help close the information gap between the developed and developing worlds. Click here if you'd like to learn more about JSTOR's project and the African Access Initiative. You can learn how to be a contributor to the eGranary or donate a used computer to the project here.

9.09.2009

crazy is as crazy does

What the mainstream of the fringe birther crowd actually believes, in convenient satirical cartoon form:

p's and queues

Removing the most senior members of Kenya's police force is a very important step on the way to the security sector and anti-corruption reform that are desparatly needed in the country. But here's betting that receiving a package at Nairobi's central post office just got a whole lot harder than it already was.* Then again, maybe Major General Ali's experience is just what's needed in a bureaucracy that's currently out of post office boxes.** But I doubt it.

*For those of you who've never had the pleasure, the approximate way receiving a package via the postal service in Kenya "works":
  1. You get a slip in your mailbox in your area post office indicating that you've received a package.
  2. You go to the central post office downtown and show them your slip.
  3. And your passport.
  4. After waiting in a very long and slow line.
  5. Then you get in another line and wait.
  6. Until someone retrieves your package.
  7. Which you take to another line.
  8. Where they watch carefully while you open your package.
  9. And then a customs officer calculates how much duty you'll have to pay to be allowed to bring the goods in the package out of the post office.
  10. But keeps the package.
  11. While you get in another line.
  12. To pay those fees.
  13. Then return to retrieve your package.
It's a lovely way to spend an afternoon. Then again, it's been awhile and I may have misremembered a few things in my attempts to forget the whole experience. Kenya-based readers, does the system still work this way?

**At least that's what I hear on this side of the pond. Can anyone independently confirm this?

9.08.2009

haraka haraka haina baraka

@kenyanpundit reports that two Kenyan activists were arrested outside (wait for it) Integrity House this morning. Their "crime"? Protesting President Mwai Kibaki's reappointment of Justice Aaron Ringera as the head of the Kenya Anti Corruption Commission (KACC). The two are being held in Kilimani.

By all accounts, Ringerwa does not deserve reappointment; the failure to formulate responsible, responsive solutions to the many corruption scandals that have rocked Kenya since 2004 alone should be enough to disqualify him from the position. Moreover, technically, Kibaki doesn't have the power to make this appointment in such a fashion; by law, it has to be done with Parliamentary approval. The KACC is now such a mess that some want to get rid of it altogether.

I fear that these disturbing developments are yet another harbinger of the fact that some people in Kenya want to return to the days of political dictatorship. What they fail to understand - and what most Kenyans see clearly as day - is that the country's economic development is inextricably tied to its political development. Everybody in Nairobi knows that things there didn't get better until democracy arrived, and everyone knows that things will continue to get worse as the Kibaki administration siphons more and more cash from the public coffers. And I'm not convinced that the Kenyan people will stand for such nonsense again.

The outstanding public interest watchdog site Mars Group Kenya is providing good coverage of the situation. They have a great post today on the danger of getting rid of the KACC (HT: @kenyanpundit) and I'm sure they'll be able to provide more info about these arrested activists as it becomes available.

this & that

9.07.2009

manufactured controversy

Well, it's obvious why this speech that President Obama will deliver to America's schoolchildren tomorrow would be objectionable to God-fearing, right-leaning, white suburbanites. I mean, why would we want to teach our children that working hard, taking responsibility for one's education and life, not making excuses, and rising above difficult circumstances are worthy aims?

Sigh. At least the kids in my neighborhood schools, almost all of whom are African-American and poor, will get to hear it. I doubt there was a single parent who objected.

9.05.2009

this & that

9.04.2009

this & that

"A few years ago, a Chinese tourist was standing on the rim of Mount Nyiragongo, a live volcano in the Democratic Republic of Congo, snapping photographs as the lake of lava smoked and bubbled hundreds of yards below her. Straining for an angle, out on a ledge, something happened and she fell like a cartoon character down the inside of the crater. Apparently still alive, she lay a distance from the lava but a first rescue attempt, using a United Nations helicopter, had to be aborted. When a rescue team of climbers finally reached her, she had died. A rebar cross juts out of the volcano's lip where she fell. Within 50 miles of Mount Nyiragongo, tens of thousands of people live in refugee camps. The UN provides them with calories and tarps to sleep under. I don't think it would fish a refugee out of the volcano."

9.03.2009

in memoriam

Morehouse College, where I teach, is part of the Atlanta University Center. The AUC is a consortium of five historically black institutions of higher learning, including the other two undergraduate-serving institutions, Spelman College and Clark-Atlanta University. The campuses all border one another, and students can cross-register between the institutions.

We lost a Spelman sophomore to gun violence last night. She was walking through an area of Clark-Atlanta that serves as a hangout for students from all of the AUC institutions.

The child of a single mother, Jasmine Lynn grew up in Kansas City and was the first person in her family to go to college. She won scholarships and grants and her family held a fish fry to raise money to make it possible for her to attend Spelman, the women's college at which she'd dreamed of studying since seventh grade. Jasmine didn't waste her hard-earned opportunity; she finished her freshman year with a 3.8 GPA and having decided to major in psychology.

We are sad to have lost a young woman with so much promise. We are concerned for the safety of our students and our campuses. And our thoughts and prayers are with Lynn's mother, grandmother, and all those who loved her.

the ethics of aid

American Public Media's Speaking of Faith program just started a series on the ethics of foreign aid. For the first segment, they spent an hour talking to Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina. It's well worth your time to download the podcast. He covers everything from why "guilt money" (the dollar you give to a charity after seeing a picture of a starving child) is problematic to Kenya's post-election violence to the growth in banking services for the poor. I particularly enjoyed his discussion of the role of local institutions in providing services (emphasis mine):
"And what is amazing is just how much good work is often done by the churches … you know, to this day. Some of the most interesting projects I've seen, the Catholic Church networks, et cetera, really do exceptional work, the Muslims as well, in a certain way, because you have a very long relationship with people and you understand their value. ...And they do the things themselves. So when we had a drought in '84, the Catholic Church decided to do these water projects. They brought technology. You know, the valley water has a lot of fluoride, and the project for the Catholic Church did provide water, get the community participating in paying money, you know, the relationship of the priest with his parishioners, quite often doing projects even in places where people are not necessarily Catholics. It's just very much on the ground. It's very sensible. It's very cost effective and it's very natural and it's part of our lives. It's not the sort of dizzying thing that arrives and departs...with somebody else. So even though I'm not a practicing person of the churches, those are things that I really actually do appreciate, you know, quite a lot."
So much of the debate over international aid ignores these extremely local initiatives, which, as Wainaina notes, work because they are part of their communities already. They can change norms of behavior because they fully understand and can communicate within the culture. Their solutions last. While many local NGO's are anything but altruistic (or capable), local faith institutions seem to have an advantage over many international agencies when it comes to providing simple, cheap, sustainable, and relevant solutions to development problems.

Listen to the entire program or read the transcript.

9.02.2009

this & that

9.01.2009

the war is over, long live the war

Before departing his post last week, UNAMID commander General Martin Luther Agwai caused a bit of a stir by declaring the war between the Sudanese government and Darfur's JEM rebel group to be over and that the main problems there are now political. Critics were quick to counter his statement by pointing out that even UNAMID still can't access parts of Darfur, that the Sudanese government can restart tensions at any time with little effort, and that there's the small matter of 26 rebel factions that all still have their own agendas in peace negotiations.

Rob Crilly, who has more experience in Darfur than just about any other Western journalist, has a nice summary of the reasons Agwai might be right. As he points out, the reaction to Agwai's comments by some in the Save Darfur movement and its related lobby groups was off-base:
"The man who has spent the past two years trying to protect the camps and keeping a lid on banditry was actually saying Darfur was still mired in a humanitarian emergency, but that the insecurity was no longer the sort of genocide or military conflict that people like [John] Norris [Executive Director of the Enough Project] like to imagine."
And therein lies the problem. Crilly goes on to note that the problem with viewing Darfur as a genocide and a war means that the automatic response is to formulate military solutions to the problem. Which, as he notes, generally don't solve humanitarian crises:
"The crisis in Sudan's western region is humanitarian, needing humanitarian not military solutions. As General Agwai's analysis makes clear, banditry, water and local issues need to be tackled if Darfur is to find security. He has not missed the point."
I've been intrigued for awhile by the international community's eagerness to declare the status of major wars and humanitarian crises as "over" or "transitional." The DRC, you'll remember, is technically a post-conflict situation, in that we now live in an era when the peace settlement from the 1998-2002 war still keeps the old rebel groups and government from fighting one another by giving their leaders equal opportunity to steal from government coffers.

The problem with that peace deal was its failure to take into account the myriad of local-level conflicts and actors that still drive violence in the region today. Thus, while it's not accurate to say that there is full-scale war in the eastern Congo at the moment, it's also inaccurate to pretend that it's a post-conflict situation, as the families of the 1200 Congolese people who die every day from war-related causes would surely tell you. The Congo crisis exists as something less than a full-scale war and something more than a humanitarian crisis.

(I could also note that most of the international response to what is very much a military and governance-based crisis in the DRC has instead been political and humanitarian. Those are necessary elements to any solution to the DRC crisis, but we won't see peace there until a military problem is met by an adequately-resourced military response.)

Despite some efforts to pair them as similar due to the use of rape as a weapon of war, the presence of land disputes at the heart of the conflicts, and the massive refugee/IDP crises, the DRC and Darfur are very different crises. The role of the central government and its interaction with local rebels is completely different in the two countries.

But this debate over whether the war is "over" in Darfur does make for a nice parallel with the Congo case. The Darfur war is over in the same sense that the Congo war ended in 2002. Does that mean that the local issues at the center of the conflict are solved, that civilians won't still be attacked, that the refugee crisis will end in the foreseeable future, or that al Bashir will realize the error of his ways and turn himself over to the ICC for prosecution on a bright Sunday morning in Khartoum?

Of course not. Beyond understanding that an humanitarian crisis requires an humanitarian response, perhaps the next most important lesson we can take away from this semantic kerfluffle is the need for more nuance in our understanding of how conflicts progress. We need to understand as an international community that the difference between what makes a war "over" or "ending" is often far from clear. There are plenty of in-between states in which humanitarian crises and conflicts can exist. Acknowledging that fact in no way diminishes the importance of recognizing the suffering of victims or the severity of crimes committed by the perpetrators. But doing so just might help us to figure out solutions that would work.