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

4.30.2010

chatting today

Today I'll be part of a conversation with several aid experts on smart giving, gifts-in-kind, and the 1 Million Shirts controversy. Everyone is welcome to listen in on the call and we will be taking questions. Here are the details:
  • Friday, April 30 at noon Eastern Time/US.
  • Log in online at http://readytalk.com and use code 3979111.
  • The call-in number is 866 740 1260 (note that this is a US toll-free number) / code 3979111. Alternative number is +1 303-248-0285.
  • If you're not in the US, local numbers can be found here.
  • If you can't find a local number, Skype should work with the above 866 number.
I'm looking forward to a productive chat that will help all of us to learn ways we can give well. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the conversation in the comment thread below. Thanks to @katrinskaya of Mobile Active for pulling it all together.

4.29.2010

snark isn't a bad thing

From Alanna Shaikh's wonderful UN Dispatch post on tropes used against aid critics:
Complaints about tone and attitude. “You are mean. You are shrill. Your tone is too aggressive. Don’t be so snarky. You’re not talking in a way that helps people listen. You should be nice to people who want to help and criticism isn’t nice!”

If you actually want to help people, you need to put your ego aside. Listening to criticism that’s phrased in a mean way is probably the least ego-wounding thing that is going to happen. You will go on to encounter communities who don't want to partner with you, staff members who think you’re an idiot, and government officials who think they can lie to you and get away with it. You need a thick skin to work in international aid. If you can’t handle some snark, you probably can’t handle all the misery your project will put you through as it gets going.
In other words, man up.

I think snark has its place in aid debates. Sometimes using humor is the only way to draw serious attention to a problem. Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying at how bad an aid idea is, how poorly thought-out a government decision was, or how horrible a situation innocent people have to endure can become.

Snark has its place. There are other times, though, when it really does detract from constructive debate. I'm inclined to think that the debate over 1 Million Shirts has struck a good balance between the two. How about you? Is a little snark useful? Would we be better off just playing nice?

4.27.2010

some alternative ideas to donating t-shirts

Most of you have by now heard about the 1 Million Shirts for Africa project, of which several development bloggers became aware yesterday thanks to a Tweet from @jonvwest.

Others have already given commentary on the plan ranging from snarky to insightful (in that order):
Late yesterday, I got a Tweet from @gentlemandad, who actually talked with Jason Sadler, the guy behind the project. He said that Jason is open to better ideas, and Jason and I have exchanged emails. While I get the sense that he still wants the project to involve t-shirts, I'm going to offer a few that don't. This is because I just don't see the need for such an approach. There's no shortage of used clothing on the continent.

So, how else could Jason - who, I should note, is really mad at the aid blogging community about this - direct his well-intentioned efforts to help people?
  • How about raising funds and awareness for an established organization? One of the stated goals of the project is to help widows establish businesses selling these shirts. Rather than spending the enormous sums it will cost to send $1 million shirts to the continent, why not instead direct those funds to an organization that already provides small business loans to widows or victims of conflict or disease?
  • Where to do that? One organization I really like is Heal Africa in the D.R. Congo. They provide small business loans to foster families who are willing to take in orphaned children. The families use those loans to start businesses, which help with the expense of housing, clothing, and feeding an extra child. They then repay the loan and the money is used to help another foster family. This is a sustainable, well-thought-out project that meets a critical need in a culturally-appropriate way.
  • There are tons of other programs that undertake similar or related activities. Fundraising for Kiva or a reputable, country-based microfinance institution like Ethiopia's Amhara Credit and Savings Institution is another a great idea. Again, these organizations have long experience with providing loans to small-scale entrepreneurs who want to get a business started.
  • Why not help African textile manufacturers? @tmsruge (who is actually from Africa) suggested on Twitter the idea of buying 1 million shirts from African vendors to donate to children in need stateside. This would provide African workers with desparately-needed jobs, income, and stability, in both the manufacturing and the cotton-production sector while meeting a need here as well.
  • @AfriNomad suggested using the Hope Phones model, which collects used cell phones, sells them in the US market, and uses the money from those sales to buy new phones in local markets. Those phones go to local health workers in several developing countries. On average, each donated phone lets them buy three phones in the field. This is a great idea, and while I'm not sure it would work directly with t-shirts (there's not a huge demand for used t-shirts in the US market, either), there are creative ways to make t-shirts into other products that are in high demand here in the west. Maybe women in a poor community here in the states could make rugs, coasters, magazine racks, or baskets from old t-shirts, sell them, and use the profits partly to provide themselves with a steady income and partly to support women in Africa. There are tons of possibilities.
  • Could you auction off some of the most popular shirts from the I Wear Your Shirt project? Or convince celebrities to wear or sign them before auction? That would be a great way to raise a lot of money quickly, which could then be donated to a reputable charity.
  • Check out Saundra's post on questions you should ask before donating goods overseas. This is a helpful tool for evaluating the idea and for thinking about other alternatives.
  • Ask people what they need. Look for established charities doing something called "community-based needs assessments," in which they survey people in poor communities about their needs, wants, and hopes for the future. Partner with an organization that is doing these kinds of assessments. Find out what the community needs. In almost fifteen years of studying African communities, I've never heard of a community saying that clothing is its greatest need. Things like access to clean water, better sanitation, easier transportation options to markets and schools, and basic security are far higher priorities. Direct your efforts as a response to needs the intended recipients have directly expressed.
There's nothing wrong with wanting to help those in need. But when we're not experienced or familiar with the people we want to help, the biggest mistake many Americans make is assuming that we know what poor people on the other side of the world need. I've learned over time that we're usually wrong. Poor people know what they need, and what seems like a good idea to us many be completely inappropriate for the culture, climate, or community norms. Since bad aid can actually be worse than no aid at all, it's really important to get it right.

The good thing about this is that it's not that hard to figure out how to make a real, lasting difference in someone else's life. All you have to do is ask.

UPDATES:

always springtime

Here's a beautiful post on how complicated Rwanda is. I think you should read it.

4.26.2010

public goods come to Goma

Really:

(Photo: Rachel in Goma)

4.24.2010

this & that

4.23.2010

Rwanda tightens its grip

Using made-up charges and obvious ploys to block independent investigations of human rights issues in the country, the government of Rwanda has refused to grant Human Rights Watch country researcher Carina Tertsakian a work permit. Her 90-visa expires tomorrow.

Tertsakian has done excellent work in reporting the limitations on political and expressive freedoms in Rwanda since assuming her post in January. It is unfortunate for the people of Rwanda that she will likely be unable to continue in her post there. An independent voice dedicated to finding facts and standing up for human rights is needed in Rwanda now more than ever.

There may be some good to come out of this unfortunate situation in that perhaps it will make it impossible for Kagame's supporters in the international community to deny that he is running a regime that is more authoritarian than democratic (I'm looking at you, Mr. Blair.). Free speech, respect for human rights, and a fair and transparent system that doesn't make up charges against individuals who say unpopular things - these are the hallmarks of democracy.

It's well past time for the donors to make sure Kagame is aware of that fact.

a fundamental human right

Reporter Alexander Panetta did an excellent job covering the press freedom issue in Rwanda, in the context of Canadian Governor-General Michaelle Jean's Thursday speech. Jean spoke in Butare to a crowd of about 700 students:
"Free media is a fundamental human right," Jean said.

"It is one of those pivotal rights that is crucial to your realization of a host of other human rights in any society: freedom of expression, the right to democratic elections, even the right to a fair and public hearing."

Canada and Rwanda have both subscribed to those obligations through membership in the UN, la Francophonie, and the Commonwealth, she continued.

"It is incumbent on our governments to make sure they are all fully respected."

...Rwanda's government calls divisive speech unacceptable as it struggles to build a united country. Sixteen years after hate radio fuelled a genocide, any reference to Hutu or Tutsi clans is strongly discouraged. Remarks deemed a threat to national stability are treated as a criminal offence.

...But Jean took a veiled swipe at the notion that the 1994 atrocities might still be a reason to limit fundamental freedoms. She warned the audience against becoming "captive" to history.

"You have to move forward. We all have ghosts in our past that send a chill down our spine," Jean said.

"There is a responsibility of the profession as well, to exorcise the fear around us and move on."

...President Paul Kagame expressed exasperation when the issue came up at a news conference this week with Canadian journalists, in the presence of Jean.

"Why do people keep talking (about this)?" Kagame said.

"You're talking about two (newspapers). But you have almost 20 independent privately owned radios - FM radios and other radio. You have close to 70 papers. . .

"Maybe these two actually are the ones in the wrong - not the 67 (papers), not the 20 private radios."

However, international observers argue that much of what's left of the country's media has deep ties to the government and is essentially subservient to it.

On the day the president met Jean, the country's leading paper carried a front-page photo of him under the headline: "Kagame launches new book." That day's editorial was titled, "National Police Force a Success Story."

...When one Canadian panellist, Ben Peterson, asked for a show of hands from students who supported the move, fewer than two dozen people in the audience of 700 raised their arms.

The crowd burst out laughing when an official with Rwanda's Media High Council described the regulatory body as arm's-length from the government. He explained that the timing of the suspension, which came on the same day that Kagame publicly denounced the papers, was purely coincidental.

4.22.2010

what works: acting locally

I was completely thrilled to see one of my students featured by Change.org's Environment blog this week. In honor of Earth Day, here's a great lesson about making a difference through community engagement:
Let's Raise A Million is a student-led environmental justice project based in Atlanta, Georgia dedicated to bringing energy and water efficiency to low-income and minority communities. The idea is simple: a crew of students go door to door, swapping out incandescent bulbs for CFLs and installing low-flow shower heads and sink nozzles. For free...

“We said why should only people who can afford the upfront costs reap the benefits of energy efficiency? As things stand, you have to have money to save money, which shuts out the people who need it the most,” says Merrit.

Because passionate student volunteers provide all the hard work needed to knock on doors and screw in light bulbs, the key has been finding sponsors who will underwrite or donate the bulbs themselves. Considering that Let’s Raise A Million is a completely grassroots, volunteer operation, they’ve managed to line up an impressive roster of supporters, include the World Wildlife Federation, the Center for American Progress, and the Clinton Global Initiative.

Once a month, 30 to 50 students from Atlanta’s various colleges get together. New volunteers are trained, and the crowd breaks off in teams of four. These teams go door to door, educating homeowners about energy efficiency and changing out every bulb on the premises. In an effort to prove results to homeowners, they even conduct an energy audit - volunteers take down a home’s monthly bill and return the following month to measure savings. Merrit says this follow up is the project’s biggest piece of community engagement, and has helped to foster goodwill with residents.

On an average install day, volunteers will distribute 700 to 800 light bulbs, which works out to roughly 30 homes. The project has been operating since September, and has touched over 300 homes.

“Not only is this a project driven by the numbers and by how much people are saving, but it’s also about building a connection with neglected neighborhoods,” Merrit says.

4.21.2010

it's hard out here for a semi-authoritarian regime masquerading as a democracy

From Radio France International:
Rwandan opposition leader and presidential candidate Victoire Ingabire was arrested on Wednesday on charges of denying the 1994 genocide and "collaborating with a terrorist organisation", an official said.

rwandan military officers arrested

From the BBC:
Two high-ranking officers have been suspended from Rwanda's military and put under arrest, a military spokesperson told the BBC.

Maj-Gen Charles Muhire has been accused of corruption and misuse of office, Lt-Gen Karenzi Karake of immoral conduct.

This comes just days after a reshuffle in Rwanda's military leadership and ahead of elections due in August.

It follows reports in a local newspaper that the men had misunderstandings with President Paul Kagame.

However, the government has dismissed these reports as rumours.

A few days later, the Kinyarwandan (one of Rwanda's official languages) independent newspaper was suspended for publishing false information and inciting resentment in the army, says the BBC's Geoffrey Mutagoma in Kigali.

...BBC Great Lakes analyst Kasim Kayira says the arrests will be seen by ordinary Rwandans as further evidence of divisions in the military.
Jason Stearns has some analysis of other recent actions in Rwanda's military leadership shakeup here.

4.20.2010

help with data collection

Natasha Himmelman is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Centre for African Studies at the University of Cape Town and she needs your help. If you are an undergraduate, graduate student, or recent graduate who's studied Africa, take a couple of minutes to fill out her short, ten-question survey on the role of African Studies in higher education.

If you're a faculty member, please consider passing the survey on to your students, or post the link on your blog. For more information, please do not hesitate to contact Natasha directly.

Rwanda defends suspension

No, no, no, of course the six-month suspension of two of Rwanda's independent newsweeklies just four months before the country's August 9 presidential elections has nothing to do with those papers' criticism of the RPF and support for opposition candidates. From the Economist:
Rwanda's Media High Council said the decision to suspend the Umuseso and Umuvugizi newspapers was based on their erroneous content.

"We are acting on the basis of the content of the publications. Elections are months away," said Patrice Mulama, Executive Secretary of Media High Council.

"This is not the first time we are suspending Umuseso for inciting the public. We suspended this paper in 2004 and 2009," he said. "We are challenging the professionalism of these papers and we have a firm ground to explain the case at hand to court."
So there. But, hey, if "erroneous content" is now grounds for shutting down Rwandan media outlets, I look forward to the closure of the government daily, the New Times. Goodness knows those editors could use six months to learn about professionalism and factual reporting.

CORRECTION - The above-linked to article is from Reuters, not The Economist. Thanks to the reader who caught my mistake.

4.19.2010

monday bleg

One sure sign that I've arrived as an assistant professor: I'm now in charge of figuring out a series of events and creating resources for our students on the topic "Careers in International Affairs." I'd like to have a list of all the possibilities for an undergraduate student who is interested in global politics, economics, and society.

Given that I 1) am still a first year assistant professor, 2) am grading papers in the busiest part of the semester, and 3) have three IRB applications due today, I thought I'd ask for your help with this project. If you work in any career that is related to international issues, would you mind answering a few questions about your job in the comments? I would SO appreciate it, and will definitely compile the list and make it available to the many students who read this blog.

Here's the info I need:
  • Job type (eg, aid worker, starving intern, policy assistant, development economist, etc.)
  • Examples of specific organizations that employ people in this job (eg, the UN, Save [fill-in-the-blank], Harvard)
  • Average starting salary in your field (If working for free is usually required in order to get a foot in the door, please note this.)
  • What kind of advanced degrees are required or helpful for someone in your field?
  • Is it better to get experience or go to grad school first in your career path? If the former, how much experience does one need before going to grad school?
  • Where are most jobs in your field located? (eg, London, rural outposts, lush tropical islands)
Thanks in advance for your help!

4.17.2010

this & that

4.16.2010

people, not characters

This comment on yesterday's post, from reader Shona, sums up the problem with Kristof's writing better than I ever could:
Why shouldn't he write about the most compelling character he can?

Because he should be writing about people not characters.

Having lived in Eastern Congo for 3 years, I read Kristof's anecdotes about people there, and cringe because they are exactly what you say, characters and not people. When a journalist decides to cover a complex conflict through the stories of individual people, I hope he is choosing the people he features based on more than whether they got shot in one leg or two.

Kristof appears to choose his subjects solely based on the one who will make the most dramatic and emotional first impression. Yet he should be acting as a journalist, not as a tv advertiser creating a 15 second commercial. Indeed he rarely seems to go beyond first impressions in his articles. The Congolese people have amazing, complicated, and thought-provoking life-experiences, and have complex views on the current conflict. This is true of all Congolese people, not just the ones who have been shot in both legs or who are 9 years old.

Kristof appears to go to Eastern Congo and look for that image of a person who best fits his understanding of what it means to suffer and be victimized, and who can reflect that image in a short paragraph description.

This approach will do little to truly report on the situation or to aid our understanding of it. But it does get a large audience to tune in,and listen to Kristof's personal views about the conflict, and I guess that is what he is aiming for.
I take a lot of heat for disliking Kristof's writing. Most commenters argue that we should excuse Kristof's sensationalism of victims of injustice since he has such a wide reach. "Isn't it better that more people are aware of the crisis?" they argue.

Not if their awareness is based on falsehoods or incomplete truths. Kristof's job as a reporter is to explain the parts of the world that the vast majority of his readers will never see. By always, only reporting on the worst of the worst, Kristof distorts reality. He may tell one person's story, but as Shona points out, it's not really even that person's full story. In doing so, readers get an inaccurate picture of what life is like in the eastern Congo, the southern Sudan, or, I'd venture to guess, the brothels of India.

Bad facts lead to bad policy. This is why journalists' sacred trust with the public is so important. Policy makers - most of whom will never go to or have a full understanding of these areas - read their stories. Because Kristof's reach is so broad and because his columns run in one of the most important papers in the world, he does a terrible disservice to the very people he purports to help. Mr. Kristof, it's time to show your subjects for what they are: people.

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4.15.2010

the kristof strikes again

From a Q&A at Columbia Journalism School on Monday night:
Question: Peace Corps and Foreign Service are two most common pathways for foreign service. What is your take on those?

Answer: My advice would be to take your time abroad... get out of capitals, get out of comfort zone. Embed yourself in some project somewhere. For that, the State Dept. isn't good. You tend to be in capital or restricted areas...

...Main problem with Peace Corps is that it's a long committement [sic] 27 months, etc. doesn't fit into graduate programs.... people sign up for TFA because they have time between college and the next thing... I wish there were a program that invited people to do something similar to Peace Corps, just for one year--- the great beneficiaries would be Americans, but it would be great for those individuals and for American foreign policy as a whole....
Right. Because it's all about us.

But, wait. It gets worse:
Question: How much of the year are you traveling? Don't you get compassion fatigue?

Answer: ...Embarrased [sic] how clinical I can become.... I'm leaving to go to Sudan... try to find most compelling story I can within limited time. Somebody will tell me a story about some heart-rending story about 30-year-old man, and frankly, I will know that I can do better as an anecdote... if I want to get middle-age man in my lead [sic], readers will turn out...

maybe it's going to be a 9-year-old girl with soulful eyes - some story that will get readers into the column.... I'm sometimes kind of embarrassed that I have to say - it's terrible that you were shot in the leg, but I will go off and find someone that was shot in both legs... I really want to find the most compelling anecdote to get readers into the story....
I don't believe any further commentary is necessary.

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4.14.2010

rwanda shuts down two independent media outlets

I find the "anonymous" comments that my Rwandan security minders leave on this blog to be pretty hilarious at times. They make unsubstantiated claims in the face of overwhelming evidence, accuse me of defending those who would perpetrate genocide and other crimes against humanity, and say that I don't do my research.

(It's not a big deal; I'm a grown woman and I can deal with crazy commenting. You should read my hate mail, most of which is hilarious and completely unprintable on a blog people read at work.)

But sometimes these comments make me wonder what kind of bubble Rwanda's government has built for itself. If the RPF is going to claim that it isn't suppressing free speech and freedom of the press in advance of the elections, then they're going to need to explain this. From the Committee to Protect Journalists (emphasis mine):
The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns today’s decision by Rwanda’s Media High Council to suspend two independent weeklies just months prior to presidential elections. At a press conference, attended only by state broadcasters and the pro-government radio station Contact FM, the Media High Council announced an immediate six month suspension of private vernacular weeklies, Umuseso and Umuvugizi.

The council accused Umuseso of insulting the head of state, inciting the police and army to insubordination, and creating fear among the public, council official Wilson Karamaga told CPJ. The council, a nominally independent body heavily influenced by the government, did not link these accusations to any particular article in Umuseso and did not specify the reasons for the suspension of Umuvugizi, local journalists said. Umuseso and Umuvugizi may challenge the council’s suspensions in court, he said.

The six-month suspension will ensure both independent papers are unable to cover the presidential elections scheduled for August. Both papers are known for critical coverage of the ruling party, the Rwanda Patriotic Front.

...The council can legally suspend a weekly publication for a maximum of two weeks unless the paper is seen as a repeat offender. Umuseso Deputy Editor Didas Gasana said the paper has never been suspended before and should not face a six-month suspension under the law.
Breaking your own laws to close down a publication that's critical of the RPF? For a length of time that just happens to extend right past the election date? Isn't that a little obvious, guys?

Supporters of Rwanda's regime will be quick to point out that Umuseso runs questionably-accurate stories about Hutu killings in Zaire, the use of fake genocide survivors by the RPF, and other poorly substantiated claims. This is a fair criticism; I'm certainly not going to leap to the defense of poor journalism.

What I will leap to defend, however, is the idea that a free press is necessary in a modern democracy. We have all kinds of crazy in the American media, and many of them say things that are obviously false on a daily basis. But we don't stop them from saying what they want to say, because the free exchange of ideas is absolutely crucial to the functioning of a democratic regime.

Rwanda's genocide ideology law and other laws limiting free speech are written in such broad strokes that it is virtually impossible not to be accused of insulting the head of state, inciting others to violence, or denying the genocide if one dares to question the RPF's policies and practices. That's not democratic. Every regime makes mistakes, and there's nothing wrong with pointing it out when they do. Encouraging openness and transparency in government almost always makes regimes more responsive to the needs of their citizens - all of their citizens.

Pretending that opposition doesn't exist or repressing every dissenting claim, meanwhile, is a recipe for disaster as Hutu resentment builds, splits in the ruling party mount, and donors become increasingly cautious about trusting the country's leadership.

Meanwhile, the question lingers: as architects of the peaceful, successful New Rwanda, why are the RPF afraid to have an open and honest debate about the country's past and its future?

4.13.2010

what's going on in rwanda, part 2

From Rwanda's official news bureau, confirmation of Saturday night's grenade attacks:
One person died and four others were injured last evening following grenade attacks in Kigali city. According to confirmed reports from the police spokesperson Supt. Eric Kayiranga, the attacks took place in Nyabugogo and Cyahafi areas of Kigali in a span of around thirty minutes.
This is the third set of coordinated grenade attacks to take place in Kigali in the last two months. What they have in common:
  • All have taken place in the evening or at night.
  • Most have taken place in areas unlikely to be frequented by expats after dark.
  • All seem to be designed to cause some casualties, but minimal deaths.
All of these factors suggest that the attacks are symbolic and intended to send a message, as does the fact that this latest attack occurred during the highly emotional week of genocide commemorations.

The question, as always, is to whom that message is directed, and by whom the acts are perpetrated. There are two major theories on this:
  • The government is behind the attacks, as they want to create a climate of fear and instability that will justify not allowing opposition parties to compete in elections scheduled for August. I've explained before why I don't think this is accurate: the RPF simply has too much to lose to take such a risk, especially when they have effective control over the political system and can prevent challenges to Kagame's rule via other means.
  • Supporters of Laurent Nkunda in the RPF are using the attacks to send a message to Kagame and his faction of the RPF. Specifically, the pro-Nkunda elements do not want Nkunda to be put on trial in a military court or elsewhere, and they would prefer to see him released. By all accounts, Kagame underestimated the support for Nkunda within his own ranks, and the grenade attacks are arguably a reaction to his decision to arrest Nkunda last year.
I've seen little to no evidence that overtly anti-RPF elements or the opposition political parties are involved in these attacks. Meanwhile, Rwanda's government is apparently arresting other Congolese Tutsis who were supporters of Nkunda. This may lend credence to the second theory about the attacks.

Some Twitter users have commented on the fact that the major news outlets don't seem to be covering this story. That's likely due to the fact that most of the Africa correspondents for Western news agencies are covering the elections in Sudan.

4.12.2010

So...how 'bout those elections?

Good land:
With lines of voters hunkered down for hours on makeshift benches or sheltering under trees from the baking sun, Sudan's complex and controversial elections got off to an often chaotic start.

Officials had spent months preparing for the polls, but confusion soon erupted on Sunday as centre after centre, sometimes hours into the voting, discovered that voters were using the wrong ballot papers or that names or symbols of candidates were either missing or incorrect.

Given that votes are being cast for two presidents, 24 governors and 26 state and national assemblies, using three different voting systems and up to 12 ballots, things were bound to go awry.

...It was a novel experience for many voters, and for election officials.

Some were too nervous to ask voters to dip their fingers fully into indelible green ink -- used to show that people had cast their votes -- and had to be reminded of the rules.

Quite which ballot papers to use also posed a problem for some election officials.
For more Sudan elections coverage, I'm following tweets from @geoffreyyork, who's on the ground covering the story. Rob Crilly has links to useful background here, and the always-excellent Making Sense of Sudan blog at the SSRC has comprehensive coverage of all election-related matters.

4.11.2010

what happens when political scientists fall in love?

You get a groom's wedding cake that looks like this...


...and need four tables for all the assistant professors who attend your wedding. All best wishes to the happy couple!

4.09.2010

this & that

4.08.2010

taking responsibility

@grantmgordon drew my attention to this quote from Lisa Shannon, who's been engaged in helping Congolese rape victims ever since she saw an Oprah episode about it:
It's not my job to measure the results. It's my job, as it is anyone's job, to show up.
Sorry, Lisa Shannon, but you're wrong about that. Of course it's your job to measure the results of your advocacy and activities. When you decide to become the public face of a major awareness and fund raising effort, you have a responsibility to ensure to your donors that:
  • Their money is being spent on what you say it's being spent on.
  • Their donations go to programs that have a proven record of helping women recover from rape, gain economic self-sufficiency, find housing, and address any of the other myriad of problems Congolese rape survivors face.
  • That you won't simply "show up," but rather will take effective action, the results of which are tangible and measurable.
The "I just need to show up" attitude prevails in much of Western advocacy for African causes. That's unfortunate, because advocacy without measurable goals is pointless. It tends to be more about the advocates than those on whose behalf they are advocating.

It's also unfortunate because it's not that difficult to evaluate program effectiveness. There are well-established mechanisms for doing so. In fact, I'm sure that Women for Women International, the organization to which Shannon directs her efforts, does regular internal evaluations. They're a highly reputable organization that does a lot of good, and I'm not the least bit critical of their efforts.

What I am critical of, however, is the attitude that just "showing up" is a sufficient condition for effective advocacy. It's not. Advocates must take responsibility for ensuring that the means to address problems for which they advocate are, in fact, effective. To do otherwise is not only irresponsible; it means that advocates risk doing more harm than good.

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it's all about them


Dave Gilson at Mother Jones has up an awesome, interactive map of celebrity humanitarian claims in Africa. Money quote, from Madonna's publicist: "She's focusing on Malawi. South Africa is Oprah's territory."

There's also a nice timeline detailing the history of celebrity attempts to "help" Africa from Band Aid to Bono, as well a sidebar of quotes from celebrities about what Africa did for them. Things of which I was blissfully unaware/had managed to forget until now:
  • "After visiting diamond mines in Botswana, Kim Kardashian blogs, 'I used to assume after watching the movie Blood Diamonds [sic] that diamonds were not acceptable to buy from Africa. However, it is the complete opposite!'"
  • "Viral video sensation: Salma Hayek breastfeeding a Sierra Leonean baby."
  • "Naomi Campbell says she's planning on starting a modeling school and rehab clinic in Kenya."
Heaven help the people Kim Kardashian decides to support.

(Image: Mother Jones)

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4.07.2010

too many shoes

I've never really understood why buying ugly, overpriced shoes is supposed to be a good way to help poor people in other countries. Yeah, I suppose I could pay $44 for a pair of shoes for myself to TOMS, which will then send a pair to a child. But in my mind, it's always made more sense to just donate all $44 to a reputable charity with a longstanding presence in the region who will respond to the myriad of problems that materially poor children face in a culturally-appropriate manner and that perhaps even pump much-needed cash into local economies by buying shoes from local suppliers and merchants to give to those children rather than simply giving them a pair of shoes that, quite frankly, aren't made to stand up to the unpaved terrain, raw sewage, or cold weather on, through, and during which those children generally have to walk.

But perhaps it's just me.

Anyway, tomorrow, the TOMS Shoes people would like you to not wear shoes for awhile so that you will sympathize with people who don't have any and maybe buy some of their shoes to send to those poor children. They are calling it "One Day without Shoes," and you can buy a t-shirt, pledge to not wear shoes, and get together with other barefoot people to marvel at the miracle of a thin strip of rubber topped by canvas.

I'm so tired of these nonsense "awareness-raising" exercises by American hipster do-gooders that I'm not even going to bother. Plus this reminds me that I need to get a pedicure. Add your own snide remarks in the comments. Here are some categories to get you started:
  1. Advocate-centered advocacy
  2. Opportunity costs
  3. Clueless celebrities
  4. Stunts that don't help anybody
  5. Shoe-related charity efforts

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4.06.2010

april 6

In memory of all of those who died
in the genocide, in the civil war, and in the conflict that spread across a border and continues today.

wars aren't pointless

Try as I may to ignore it, Gettleman's Foreign Policy op-ed "Africa's Forever Wars" won't go away:
There is a very simple reason why some of Africa's bloodiest, most brutal wars never seem to end: They are not really wars. Not in the traditional sense, at least. The combatants don't have much of an ideology; they don't have clear goals. They couldn't care less about taking over capitals or major cities -- in fact, they prefer the deep bush, where it is far easier to commit crimes. Today's rebels seem especially uninterested in winning converts, content instead to steal other people's children, stick Kalashnikovs or axes in their hands, and make them do the killing. Look closely at some of the continent's most intractable conflicts, from the rebel-laden creeks of the Niger Delta to the inferno in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and this is what you will find.
Derek Catsam has a nice takedown of the piece's central premise here.

One of the interesting things about teaching courses for the first time this year has been the experience of rereading articles I haven't looked at since taking preliminary exams. (Or, let's be honest, that I never got around to reading in the first place.)

For my first stab at teaching a seminar on conflict, I assigned Stathis Kalyvas' 2001 World Politics article, "'New' and 'Old' Civil Wars: A Valid Distinction?" (gated). In the piece, Kalyvas eviscerates an argument that became common after the end of the Cold War. The idea behind that argument was, in Kalyvas' words, that, "...new wars are characteristically criminal, depoliticized, private, and predatory; old civil wars are considered idological, political, collective, and even noble." The "old" wars are, in this view, "political," while "new" civil wars are "criminal."

I think it's fair to say that this sums up Gettleman's view of Africa's current round of conflicts.

Kalyvas goes on to rip this argument apart, first by noting that conclusions of this nature result from a lack of complete knowledge about current civil wars clouds our perceptions of what's really going on. He then points out that the fact that we are unable to clearly categorize the "new" civil wars does not mean that they are fundamentally different from those that occurred before and during the Cold War. In fact, it appears that rebel movements have quite often engaged in the sort of "senseless" violence - raping, looting, taxing, and murdering - for which Gettleman faults African rebels.

Kalyvas then cites a wide range of research that shows that "new" civil wars - including those in Africa - are actually not about looting and grievances, nor are they pointless.

Still with me? Let's keep Kalyvas' points in mind as we go back to Gettleman:
...what is spreading across Africa like a viral pandemic is actually just opportunistic, heavily armed banditry....

I've witnessed up close -- often way too close -- how combat has morphed from soldier vs. soldier (now a rarity in Africa) to soldier vs. civilian. Most of today's African fighters are not rebels with a cause; they're predators. That's why we see stunning atrocities like eastern Congo's rape epidemic, where armed groups in recent years have sexually assaulted hundreds of thousands of women, often so sadistically that the victims are left incontinent for life. What is the military or political objective of ramming an assault rifle inside a woman and pulling the trigger? Terror has become an end, not just a means.
A couple of questions: did Gettleman consider the underlying motivations that lead people engage in combat? There's a ton of research on this issue. Since he apparently didn't bother, I'll just sum it up briefly: people very rarely decide to go to war just for the hell of it.

Take the case of the eastern Congo. What evidence is there that the Congo's armed groups enjoy living in miserable conditions in the forests, or that they only rape because terrorizing people is the goal? Did Gettleman look at the very real grievances over land rights, the dynamics of state weakness, or the questions of ethnicity and citizenship that affect the behavior of every single armed group in the eastern DRC?

It would appear that the answer to those questions is no. Instead, he claims that "Congo today is home to a resource rebellion in which vague anti-government feelings become an excuse to steal public property."

Of course, anyone who seriously studies the region will tell you in a heartbeat that the Congo war is not now and never was a "resource war." It's a war in which resources fund part of the
conflict, but no one is actually fighting for control of the resources as an ultimate goal. The patterns of violence and all available evidence do not support Gettleman's claim.

As for the "anti-government feelings," I've never met a Congolese person who didn't want his or her country to be under the control of a strong, centralized regime. The only anti-government feelings I've ever heard expressed are those against the Rwandan regime, whom most eastern Congolese blame for their region's problems.

And, newsflash: it's been possible to steal public property in the Congo for at least 30 years. The vast majority of those who do so, however, engage in such behavior without ever resorting to armed rebellion. So that doesn't really explain what's going on.

For the last year or so, I've been trying to figure out why Jeffrey Gettleman consistently exoticizes Africa in his reporting for the New York Times. This piece gives us a glimpse into the overall framework in which he appears to be operating, and the result isn't pretty.

By failing to dig a little deeper and understand what's actually behind all the violence - and by ignoring the fact that all the "old" civil wars, including those in France and the United States, were pretty nasty as well - Gettleman does his readers a great disservice. He treats Africans who engage in war as irrational savages who have an insatiable appetite for destructive violence. He never acknowledges that many wars throughout human history - especially those in which ethnic or religious identity was a key issue - involved horrific violence against civilians, caused lots of unnecessary deaths, and lasted for decades on end. Thirty Years' War, anyone?

Treating African conflicts as another manifestation of "the other" means that we never get the full picture. By characterizing Africa's modern conflicts as meaningless and ignoble, Gettleman misses the point entirely. People always have reasons for fighting. They may be coerced into it by leaders who have larger goals, they may truly believe in a cause, they may feel that they aren't getting their fair share of available resources, they may feel it's the only way to protect their homes and families, or they may not have other options in life.

That a war does not make sense to an outsider does not mean it is pointless.

4.05.2010

betty watch 2010

After fourteen or so months under house arrest, it looks like Laurent Nkunda may finally get his day in court. Maybe:
Rwanda's Supreme Court has ruled that only the country's military court can hear a plea seeking the release of former Congolese warlord Laurent Nkunda, his lawyer said on Saturday.

Aime Bokanga, counsel for the former leader of the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), told Reuters he was relieved that his client had finally secured a court hearing but disappointed the court had not ruled his detention illegal.

...Rwandan Minister of Justice Tharcisse Karugarama said the case had taken a long time because international law and the laws of two countries had to be taken into account...

"He is a general accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. You don't just take that person and hand over to authorities on the Congo border ... let's give the judiciary a chance to finish it."
Did we all catch that last bit? I, for one, would like to thank Rwanda's justice system for not "just tak[ing Nkunda] and hand[ing him] over to authorities on the Congo border." But I hear there are quite a few in Kigali who would like nothing better....

4.04.2010

it's complicated

Via @zenpeacekeeper, a deconstruction of Toto's "Africa":

early morning, april 4

4.02.2010

stanley, interrupted

I don't have the slightest idea what to say about this:
As traditional dancers shake their bodies beside the Congo River in celebration of a 40-year-old museum opening to its public for the first time, one brooding man does not budge at all. A larger-than-life bronze statue of Henry Morton Stanley – the British explorer of "Dr Livingstone, I presume" fame, who carved out the country in 1885 with such scant regard for human life he earned himself the name "Breaker of Rocks" – lies uncomfortably on his back, a raised hand clutching a broken baton. His two feet are severed from him as if in ghastly tribute to the severed hands of the labourers punished during the unflinching horrors of Belgian rule over the country now called the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Under colonial rule, children's limbs were cut off, and one Belgian captain cherished a collection of severed African heads. Some military units were devoted solely to smoking the hands they'd amputated to preserve them as proof of action. In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad described the country's Belgian experience as "the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience".

Which is why it might seem strange that as DRC approaches the 50th anniversary of its independence from Belgium in June, the British have launched a tender to restore Stanley.

"I think the money could be better spent elsewhere than on restoring Stanley's statue," said Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold's Ghost, a history of the country which argued 10 million Congolese died under Belgian rule as the king plundered the country's ivory, rubber and people for what would amount to $1.1bn in today's money.

...Now that Kinshasa's Institute of National Museums of Congo has opened to the public for the first time, Congolese wander the mango tree-filled grounds of Mobutu's former presidential park, passing the eye-catching, albeit discarded, bronze.

...For those at the museum, restoring Stanley is part of their duty to the relics of the past, however, and represents a fervent hope to move forwards. "People have accepted that Stanley played a big role for the Congo," said Professor Joseph Ibongo, director general of the museum. "Now people say he's a genocidaire. But our collection should be known to everyone. We have to fight to reduce the scars."

For the British and Belgian money backing the opening of the museum, restoring Stanley alongside other artefacts makes sense. "Clearly it wouldn't be right to restore Stanley and put him in the streets of Kinshasa, but he belongs here in a museum of Congo's history where people can have a scientific regard for him," said Viviane Baeke, curator at the Tervuren Museum in Belgium, who has helped curate the Kinshasa show.

4.01.2010

the congo's oil

File this under, "Things I'll believe when I see them:"
Democratic Republic of Congo hopes to make its oil sector more attractive to foreign energy firms by offering competitive contracts and speeding the process for awarding blocks, according to energy ministry recommendations seen by Reuters...

"These resources should be realised so that they really benefit the country and its people," the ministry said in the recommendations. "To do this while ensuring the interest of the nation, the law that governs this sector should contain provisions to attract investors," it said.

Congo's tiny oil sector pumps about 25,000 barrels a day and development has been virtually paralyzed by decades of corruption and conflict.

...The energy ministry's proposals for the new oil code would allow producer companies to claim up to 60 percent of any eventual oil output after royalties to cover their costs, which are typically high during early field development.

That percentage would rise to 70 percent for reserves deemed difficult to reach, including those in very remote zones, in deep water, or swampy areas, according to the recommendations.

The state would then take no less than 40 percent of the remaining output, dubbed "profit oil", according to the recommendations.
The odds that the DRC - which, let's remember, has barely-functioning political institutions, a culture of entrenched corruption, and politicians who make little distinction between the public coffers and their private bank accounts - can pull this off such that it actually benefits the Congolese people seem mighty slim to me. Then again, stranger things have happened. Thoughts?