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

7.27.2011

this & that

7.26.2011

today on congo

If I could be anywhere other than where I am this morning, I'd be at Voices from the Congo: the Road Ahead. Hosted by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the Eastern Congo Initiative at the USHMM (RSVP required), the event features a fantastic lineup of speakers on human rights and the upcoming elections in the DRC.

Not in DC or didn't get to RSVP in time? Never fear - the USHMM will be live-streaming the event on their website. It starts at 9:30am and lasts until noon.

7.25.2011

on malawi

Last week's 20 July protests in Malawi were met with a violent response from the country's police force, leading to 19 deaths and to President Bingu wa Mutharika to deploy the army to restore calm and openly threaten to "smoke out" the protest leaders if they continued. The horrible famine in the Horn of Africa and the tragic events in Norway have largely eclipsed this story, but it's one that needs telling in the international press in order to prevent more deaths and ensure that democracy remains strong in Malawi.

If you're looking for more resources to help tell this story, Global Voices' Steve Sharra wrote an excellent backgrounder that's available here. Malawian scholar Paul Zeleza provides excellent analysis of the politics behind the crisis here. Texas A&M political scientist and Malawi politics expert Kim Yi Dionne is keeping close tabs on events there; I highly recommend following her blog, Haba na Haba, especially the following posts:
On Friday, I was scheduled to be on the BBC's World Have Your Say 1pm show to discuss the famine in the Horn and piracy in Somalia. The topic was changed to the Malawi at the last minute, and given that it was 5:45 in the morning in Professor Dionne's time zone and therefore too early to call to get her to do it :), I did a quick read-up on the latest and jumped in on the show. You can listen to it here; it's worth listening to for the comments of Malawian journalists, protesters, and civil society leaders far more than for anything I had to add. It was a great treat to be on the show and I was so moved by the courage of the civil society leader and protester who spoke to the world about their country's troubles, thereby putting themselves at great risk.

7.22.2011

let's not arm south sudan

@laurenist has already said pretty much everything I have to say about Prendergast's latest idea for South Sudan: arming them with air defense systems. This sounds great until you remember that the South Sudanese air force isn't trained well enough to use air defense systems, the region is already super-saturated with arms, and, oh, yeah, arming the South might spook the North into going to war by creating a spiraling security dilemma. As Aly Verjee notes, "this is simply a bad idea."

David Sullivan, a smart guy who has unenviable task of defending Prendergast's ideas, argues that providing South Sudan with air defense systems is the least-bad of several bad options. I disagree, primarily because we do not have any guarantees about how the new South Sudan army will behave now that it is no longer a rebel movement. The population of South Sudan was united behind the idea of independence, but they are far from united in identifying with the SPLM and its army. As the euphoria of independence wears off and disappointments arise as unrealistic expectations go unmet, I fully expect to see healthy, democratic political fracturing in the new state. I hope that we will see more peaceful ways for South Sudanese to express disagreement; as Naomi Pendle notes, for the moment, there are no serious contenders. We are already seeing increased activity from the "renegade militias," which, as Jens Pederson notes, are challenging the SPLM government's credibility.

If we choose to provide these defense systems, we are taking sides not only with South Sudan, but also implicitly with one political party. What guarantees do we have that any kind of training we provide the South Sudanese military will not be used against the renegade militias, or against civilians perceived to support them? Yes, these are air defense systems we're talking about, but by providing them, we free up resources with which the Sudanese army can buy other weapons. I doubt they'll invest in rubber bullets.

Sullivan acknowledges that the training issue is a big one, and that even were we to provide air defense systems, that does nothing to help address these problems in the short term as it will take an extended period of time to properly train troops to use them. Could we not say the same of politics and diplomacy, which is far more likely to produce a lasting peace? The clear issues not resolved by the CPA - the status of the borders and of Abyei - are not going to be solved on the battlefield. It would be far preferable to focus our efforts and finances on hammering out a workable solution to the status of Abyei and the final demarcation of borders than to spend months or years on end training the South Sudan army in the use of weapons systems they may or may not need.

Finally, there's the question of the long term. While we can consider Juba a reliable ally for now, we don't know what will happen in the future. If there's one lesson we can learn from US engagement in Africa over the past fifty years, it's that putting more weapons into a situation always backfires against us, and, more importantly, against innocent civilians in the region. South Sudan is a prime example of this problem; go to a weapons dealer and you'll find US and Soviet-made weapons shipped into Somalia and Ethiopia during the Ogaden War, or perhaps a Kalishnakov that's made its way from Angola where it was used to fight South Africans before playing a role in the Congo wars. Or you could check the tank dumps outside Asmara and Addis Ababa, where larger weaponry sit in their graves after terrorizing countless civilians. The problem with giving weapons to South Sudan is that we can't guarantee how those weapons will be used over the short or the long term.

If we cannot know that the weapons we provide 1) will be used properly; 2) will not be used against civilian targets, and 3) will not be used against our allies or us, what then are we to do? I'd suggest another less-than-ideal alternative: nothing, at least nothing militarily. Instead, we should focus our efforts on diplomacy and politics, recognizing that two countries that managed to separate peacefully have a mutual interest in having stable borders and not being at war with one another.

Photo: Screen capture from colbertnation.com See Bored in Post-Conflict for thoughts on Prendergast's Colbert Report appearance.

7.17.2011

in which I run out of patience over conflict minerals

From the Wall Street Journal's editorial page (gated), a piece on the unintended consequences of the Dodd-Frank conflict minerals provisions:

The highest price is being paid in central Africa, where millions of people, and 16% of the Congo's population, are dependent on small-time digging. By all accounts most of the money from central African mining goes to these artisanal miners. Soldiers and rebels do pocket some of the proceeds, and that's a depressing reality.

But mineral operations also provide the local population with centers of commerce, with cash to pay for supplies and workers and easily traded goods. As money from the mines becomes increasingly scarce, Congo's warlords have moved on to targeting the banana trade. Perhaps conflict-free bananas will be the next object of activist enthusiasm.

Meanwhile, the butchery continues, with recent reports of government troops raping more than 100 women and children over a three-day spree in the Congo's South Kivu region. If all the money from minerals dries up, these killers will not shy from even more atrocious means to fund their ambitions. As for Western policy makers, Section 1502 is a useful lesson in how well-meaning attempts to "do something" in Africa unintentionally harm the innocent without touching the guilty.

I'm not sure where the WSJ got the 16% figure on the percentage of Congolese who depend on the mineral trade (certainly that would include people working in the non-conflict-affected commercial mines in Katanga and it is less likely that they are being so strongly affected by the ban) or whether it is accurate, but certainly the editorial team's conclusion is correct. Because it is almost impossible to verify whether minerals sourced from the DRC or its neighbors are truly conflict-free, electronics companies now have a strong incentive to source minerals elsewhere, leaving Congolese miners unemployed. While the advocates behind this provision claim to have never intended to create a boycott on Congolese minerals, their poor understanding of the near-impossibility of creating a reliable tracing scheme in a place where almost every public official can be bribed (not to mention that they don't understand the real drivers of conflict) means that there is now in place a de facto boycott on minerals from the conflict zones.

Moreover, cutting off demand for Congolese minerals on international markets does absolutely nothing to stop violence against civilians and only makes life for many civilians worse by leaving them with no viable means of financially supporting themselves or their families.

This was a completely predicable result and one that speaks to the irresponsibility of advocates who identified a solution without first really understanding the problems the region faces. The only question in my mind is why smart lawmakers like Representative Jim McDermott and reputable companies like HP continue to take advice from advocates who have very limited experience in the eastern Congo, don't speak French, and push policies that reflect a poor understanding the dynamics of conflict in the region. By pursuing policies that leave formerly employed miners out of work, they have actually made life worse for Congolese who live in the mining regions while doing almost nothing to substantially help to improve the situation. And it is not at all clear what anyone is doing or will do to help them pick up the pieces.

7.12.2011

on ethics and writing about rape

Amanda has a nice post over at Wronging Rights analyzing the latest in the Mac McClelland saga, which involves allegations regarding the lack of informed consent from the woman whose rape she tweeted several months back and a bunch of she said/she said back-and-forth with Mother Jones editors (see the comments section in that article).

I have no way of knowing what actually happened in this particular situation, but I expect it involved a lot of confusion, both linguistic/translation-related and otherwise. From my point of view, the basic problem goes back to the question of whether someone who has very recently suffered serious trauma can ever be capable of giving informed consent. I can't imagine what it is like to be raped in a Haitian camp for the displaced, but I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be thinking straight had it just happened to me. Add to that the victim's possible unfamiliarity with what Twitter is or what it means to be written about in the international media - not to mention that saying "yes" to McClelland may well have meant an easier, cheaper, quicker ride to the hospital - and there's just a load of issues here.

So. A few thoughts for researchers and reporters dealing with victims of violent trauma. First, researchers, this is why we have IRB's. When your interview subjects are vulnerable and may not be capable of making a well-informed decision about speaking with you, it is your responsibility to think through the implications of their decision. You may need to decide not to use information EVEN IF IT IS GIVEN if you or your IRB suspect that using that information would further endanger or traumatize a subject. It may make your research more challenging to leave that evidence out, but your theory is not more important than another person's health and safety. And if it's a good theory, you should be able to find evidence elsewhere.

Second, as Chris Blattman points out, you should not be interviewing victims of violent trauma unless you are specifically trained to do so. Seriously:
This would be a mere annoyance for the people affected by war if it weren’t also potentially hazardous. No one should consider interviewing victims of rape and violence, former child soldiers, or other potentially traumatized populations without psychological expertise and the backing of an organization that can provide services for the neediest. People are hardy, and the risk of re-traumatizing someone small, but not zero.
If you go out and interview people without training and institutional backing, you risk making their lives worse. It's that simple.

Journalists play by different rules and don't have IRB's, but they do have editors, and in my view, those editors should be upholding the highest possible ethical standards when it comes to reporting on victims of violence. Again, just because a reporter gets juicy information doesn't mean it needs to be published. Jina Moore's thoughts on the original live-tweeting story are well worth re-reading here, as is a regular re-reading of the SPJ Code of Ethics - especially the section on minimizing harm and not using real names.

I think we can do better in the ways that we report on and research the effects of violence on vulnerable people. As Amanda points out, claiming to be "voices for the voiceless" is untenable in this day and age. People can speak for themselves, and, more importantly, can be trusted to determine when they don't want their stories publicly told. We owe it to anyone who has experienced trauma to let them make real decisions, in their own time and ways. And we can do better.

7.11.2011

while we were out


I've been on vacation. While I was out, South Sudan became independent (Oyee!), The Kristof wrote a mind-bogglingly stupid and stereotypical piece on his Africa trip, Andrea Bohnstedt shredded his analysis in a way it deserved to be ripped to pieces, controversy erupted over whether Mac McClelland really got informed consent from the raped woman whose experiences she live tweetedv (read the comments for part of the debate among people who are involved), and Elizabeth Allen published a smart piece on US-Ugandan relations.

A bunch of really cool people are gathering for a Tweetup in New York City this Wednesday evening, and you should join us.

Oh, and I saw the space shuttle Atlantis launch for the final time. It was incredible. See above.