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

7.31.2010

this & that

7.30.2010

harder than it sounds

From Reuters' Katrina Manson:
"Suffering caused us to know how to do this work -- there was nothing else I could find to do," said mother-of-eight Marie as she crouched in a cramped mud hut near a mining village emptying a plastic bag of red and green stones, among them emeralds and tourmalines worth $3,500 (2,242 pounds).

...Tracking bulky bags is hard enough, let alone much more valuable and portable gold, which is easily moved unseen.

A U.N. panel of experts is due to recommend Congo's mineral customers take greater responsibility for the chain of sale, in line with guidelines under development from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, but it may not be enough.

"It is currently impossible to trace all gold exports effectively," Nicholas Garrett, director of RCS, told Reuters. "The state is weak and underpaid state services are often implicated in gold smuggling along porous borders."

7.29.2010

yeah....

I didn't quite get all the minerals week posts done before leaving Kampala, so minerals week will resume next week. In the mean time, you can take comfort in knowing that the Atlanta immigration officer who welcomed me back to the United States asked what I'd been doing in the "Dominican Republic of Congo" this summer.* Your tax dollars at work.

*Although, in his defense, I suppose "Dominican" is about as apt a modifier as "Democratic" in this case.

7.27.2010

minerals week: history

The first thing you need to understand about the Kivus is that the tension that drives conflict there - over ethnicity, citizenship rights, and land rights - developed long before the 1994 Rwandan genocide and long before the trade in the 3T minerals was much of an issue.

Most of you are probably already familiar with the story of Belgium's involvement in crystallizing identity in the Ruanda-Urundi colony. What is less known is that the Belgians moved many Rwandans - mostly Hutus - into North Kivu to work the plantations there during the late colonial period (the 1930's-50's was the period of greatest significance). When independence came to the Congo in 1960, the status of the persons of Rwandan origin immediately came into question. Anti-Tutsi violence broke out just after Rwanda's independence in 1962, driving hundreds of thousands of Tutsis into Uganda - including most of the country's ruling clan from which the traditional kings, the mwamis, were drawn.

The first five years of Congolese independence were turbulent, to put it mildly. The government never fully established control over the territory, several rebellions broke out in the east, what is now Katanga tried to secede and take its mineral wealth with it, and, long story short, until Mobutu took over in 1965, the east was a mess. Mobutu initially provided welcome stability, but he eventually went off the deep end of kleptocracy and nationalism, which sent the country's economy into a decline from which it's never really recovered.

Mobutu, however, was a key beneficiary of Western Cold War patronage, which he used to great effect in his own patronage networks, thereby enhancing his ability to stay in power. In the Kivus, this meant (among other things) that he used money, influence, and the citizenship status of Kinyarwanda-speakers as a political tool. When it would help him to gain support in the region, he took away their citizenship rights. At other times, he gave them back. The important thing to keep in mind is that Mobutu always - always - used patronage to further his political goals.

Why is citizenship status so important? For one thing, it's directly tied to land rights in the DRC. You can't own property there if you aren't a citizen, and property in the Kivus is a mighty valuable thing indeed.* (And I'm not talking about the mines, although those became increasingly important later on.) North Kivu in particular is incredibly fertile land, a result of the volcanic soil that can yield up to three harvests per year. Add to that that much of the land there is suitable for cattle ranching and dairy production, and, well, everybody wanted the land.

Mobutu used this fact to great effect. Along with his manipulation of citizenship rights, he handed out land to anyone from whom he needed support. The Catholic Church, prominent Tutsi and Nande businessmen - whatever suited his needs at the time, Mobutu did. Of course, as with citizenship rights, that also meant that whatever Mobutu giveth, Mobutu taketh away, especially in the 1980's, when the collapse of global commodity prices for copper and other Zairian exports fell, exacerbating the economic decline that began with the nationalization program of the mid-1970's.

When the Cold War ended, Mobutu lost his Western donors' resources and could no longer use money to manipulate the country's politics. He was forced to allow a national conference about democratization, civil society groups were allowed to form, and, because he couldn't pay his soldiers enough cash to keep them loyal, Mobutu gave them a couple of chances to freely loot Kinshasa and terrorize its citizens.

It was against this backdrop that tensions between Kinyarwanda-speakers and other Congolese - who refer to themselves as the autochthones, or "natives" - erupted into ethnic violence, both in South Kivu's Haut Plateau (where Kinyarwanda speakers had christened themselves the Banyamulenge in part in order to distinguish themselves as a distinct ethnic group apart from Rwandan, Hutu, or Tutsi) and in North Kivu. Then the Rwandan genocide happened, sending at least a million, mostly Hutu refugees into the Kivus, where they were housed in camps that were rapidly militarized by those who perpetrated the genocide.

To say that the Rwandan genocide had an effect on life in the Kivus would be an understatement, and that's not just because its effects set off the wars of the late 1990's and early 2000's. When you talk to long time residents of Goma and Bukavu, they note that life became much, much more difficult when the refugees arrived. Environmental degradation caused by refugees who cut down trees and stripped the land in order to eat, the spread of epidemic diseases (especially cholera), and increased pressure on food supplies and the mechanisms of public order all sent the region into even greater decline.

Once Rwanda invaded, and later, when it supported the RCD-Goma government, for most Kivutians of non-Rwandaphone origin, that was it. The RCD-Goma used its power to redistribute North Kivu's valuable land, particularly to Tutsi elites in its ranks and in Rwanda. And then the wars ended, Rwanda eventually formally pulled out, the RCD-Goma's leadership joined the DRC government, and ever since, the Kivus have been left with a giant mess when it comes to who owns what land.

Non-Rwandaphones in the region blame the Rwandaphones - particularly the Tutsis, and particularly Rwanda's government - for most of their problems. Sometimes that criticism is valid, but others it is not. Regardless, the perception that anyone who speaks Kinyarwanda is not a legitimate Congolese citizen - and therefore not entitled to own land in the region - is widespread and hugely problematic. The 2006 constitution guarantees citizenship rights to ethnic groups that were in the country at the time of independence, which includes most Rwandaphones in the Kivus, but the constitution doesn't list the groups by name, which leaves them vulnerable.

It's critical to understand this context when thinking about the region, because these issues - not minerals - motivate much of the current fighting. Although their stated goal was protecting Rwandaphones from the FDLR, one of the CNDP's main purposes was actually to guarantee rights and influence for Rwandaphones in the region after the demise of the RCD-Goma. That's not to say that Rwanda only backed them for that (clearly, funding the CNDP helped Rwanda maintain access to minerals and to keep an eye on the FDLR and the Congolese government), but there is a real cross-regional concern in Kigali about the status of Rwandaphones in the Congo, and Tutsis in particular. The Mai Mai militias initially formed to defend local populations and their land.

As I've repeated many, many times, it's not that the mineral trade doesn't matter in the Kivus. It certainly does. But it is not what started the conflict there, and it is not what ultimately motivates the ongoing violence.

In the interest of not letting this post get even more ridiculously long than it already is, I'm going to hold off on discussing ideology until tomorrow. We're also going to have some guest posts in the week to come about the gold trade and the international effects of the minerals legislation. Stay tuned.

*For an excellent discussion of this issue, see Pierre Englebert's latest book.

minerals week: funding & violence in the kivus

One of the reasons I'm not convinced that the recently signed-into-law conflict minerals provisions of the U.S. financial reform legislation will make much of a difference has to do with the nature of violence and the way violence is funded in the region.

As I understand it, the advocates claim that effect of this legislation will cut off major sources of revenue for the various armed groups operating in the Kivu provinces and Ituri district. The logic goes something like this:
  • Monitoring supply chains and pushing companies to avoid using conflict minerals will cut armed groups off from their primary sources of revenue.
  • Without the revenue gained from mineral extraction and/or taxing the mineral trade, armed groups will not be able to purchase weapons, ammunition, and other necessary supplies to continue fighting.
  • The effects of the lack of revenue will eventually be a factor that forces the armed groups to the negotiating table, where a peace process can be worked out.
If I'm incorrect on the basic logic of the argument, please explain where I've got it wrong.

I believe this logic is flawed for a number of reasons. Taking it point-by-point:
  • The mineral trade is not the only source of revenue for rebels in the Kivus. There is solid data to suggest that the CNDP (which has theoretically integrated its troops into the national army and become a political party, but still maintains a parallel administration in North Kivu) derives about 15% of its revenue from the mineral trade. The FDLR gets up to 75% of its revenue from minerals, but that mostly comes from gold, which is completely unregulated and almost untraceable. The 85th brigade of the Congolese national army, the FARDC, gets as much as 95% of its revenue from the mineral trade.*
  • The conflict minerals legislation will not leave the most significant rebel groups destitute. This is key. Elizabeth Allen provided an excellent discussion of this issue a few months back. As she notes, alternative revenue sources will continue to fund the rebels' activity. The FDLR and CNDP, along with some of the Mai Mai groups (which originated as local defense militias), derive revenue from taxing trade and transport through the areas they control, the timber industry, charcoal production, and interests in plantations and cattle ranches. The CNDP and some Mai Mai militias also get some backing from prominent businessmen in the region. All of the armed groups in the region are likely to find other means by which they can support their activities. Without functioning public security institutions, no one can stop them.
  • Even if they lose all funding, armed groups are unlikely to stop terrorizing the population. It's unfortunate but true that armed groups in the Kivus don't necessarily need to buy weapons or ammunition in order to attack the population. They don't necessarily need the revenue from the mineral trade to keep buying weapons, either. The region is super-saturated with small arms. They are cheap and readily available. And the patterns by which violence happens in the Kivus do not always involve guns. Many rapes are committed by groups of men who attack young girls and women as they are on the way to work their fields, or while they're fetching the day's water. This type of violence is likely to continue whether or not the rebels are cut off from their funding stream. Why? Because there's no one to prevent them from doing so.
  • What about the army? Of the Kivu's armed groups, the FARDC's 85th brigade is by far the most dependent on the mineral trade. It is also responsible for a large number of human rights violations. Its soldiers will not be demobilized even if the brigade loses its primary source of income. So what will they do to support themselves? It's very likely that they will become more likely to prey upon the population, which they will now need for all of their sustenance. The 85th brigade of the FARDC is not the only unit that generally fails to act in the interest of the population, but the consequences of a lost revenue stream in the absence of functioning institutions is likely to make for much more violence, especially in the short term.
  • Negotiations are unlikely. Even assuming that the CNDP threat is finally in decline, it's very unclear why anyone thinks the FDLR will ever come to a negotiating table. The FDLR is led by people who participated in the Rwandan genocide. While some fighters have been persuaded to enter the DDRRR process, the hard-core elements of the organization have no interest in negotiating, being integrated into the armed forces, or taking any actions that they perceive might have the effect of forcing them to face justice in Rwanda. It's not at all clear with whom the 85th brigade would negotiate, or how they can possibly be brought under command and control structures when the DRC's government can't regularly pay its soldiers a reasonable salary on a predictable basis.
I believe that the advocates on this issue are operating based on a flawed understanding not only of the nature of violence in the Kivus, but also of the logic that motivates the fighters. Again from Elizabeth Allen:
...many actors fighting in eastern Congo are motivated by ideological concerns that compete with, and oftentimes supersede, economic motivations...
We'll turn to a discussion of these ideological motivations and of the region's history tomorrow. If you're following this issue, you should definitely read Jason Stearns' defense of the legislation.

*UPDATE: This is why I shouldn't write posts late at night. As Jason points out in the comments, the 85th disbanded in late 2009 and has been replaced by the 1st, which includes many ex-CNDP. Sorry for the failure to update.

7.26.2010

minerals week

Advocacy groups, the United Nations and academic researchers...agree that the mines fund rebel groups, homegrown militias and rogue elements of the Congolese army.

But the academics say the advocacy groups have been overselling the link between the mines and violence, such as when John Prendergast, the co-founder of the Enough Project, told "60 Minutes" last year that minerals are the "root cause" of the fighting.
The AP's Peter Svensson has a nice piece covering the issues surrounding the conflict minerals legislation. (Full disclosure/shameless self-promotion: I'm quoted in the article, as are Sara Geenan and Nick Garrett, two experts on the Congolese mineral trade whose views you should take far more seriously than mine.)

Although I've been writing about this issue for at least a year, I'm not sure I've been very clear on some of the context in which this debate happens, and in which the mineral trade in the eastern DRC occurs. For example, I talk a lot about land and citizenship rights being key drivers of the conflict, but I'm not sure we've ever really discussed what that means in historical context. Issues relating to refugee return are another huge issue in the Kivus, as is the nature of violence in region. In discussing these issues, I'm hoping we'll also be able to get some traction as to why the "resource war" narrative came to dominate the discourse when every serious scholar of the region disputes that claim.

So this week, I'm going to take a few days to try to provide some context. The topics listed above will be first up, starting tomorrow. But what am I leaving out? What else would you like to know about the eastern DRC, the mineral trade, or the advocacy movement? I won't know the answers to every question, but together we can find someone who will.

7.24.2010

this & that

7.23.2010

Gettleman discusses Somalia on NPR's Fresh Air:
But the problem is when you have these places that remain mired in the state of anarchy for that long, every day that's like that, it gets harder and harder to reimpose authority. In Somalia, people adapt. They get used to the fact that there's no central government. Businessmen start schools. Neighborhoods band together to provide their own generators. I even saw, during my first visits to Mogadishu, a privatized mailbox where you buy a stamp from a businessman, stick it on a letter and stick it in a mailbox and they deliver it for you. And then you have this young generation in Somalia. These kids who haven't been in school for their entire lives, if they're 25 years or younger, basically this is all they know. They don't know what a functioning government does. They don't know the need for it.
I frequently pick on Gettleman for stereotyping the African continent as a land of disease, distress, and despair. While there's certainly some of that in this discussion, on this point about state authority, he's right. Here we get a glimpse of the incredible strategies with which people in collapsed states come up in order to survive. This is key to understanding life in extremely weak states. People don't sit around waiting for help to arrive. They use their talents and skills to make what needs to happen, happen.

That said, I'm not sure that young Somali adults who've grown up without government "don't know the need for it." Most people of about the same age in the DRC are acutely aware of the need for an entity that can protect the territory, enforce public order, and guarantee contracts. Somali survival strategies are remarkable, but in the end, life in a collapsed state is hard. Most of us would prefer the alternative.

7.22.2010

minerals, minerals, minerals

From Reuters, regarding the conflict minerals rider to the financial reform bill that President Obama signed into law yesterday:
Yet the impact of the legislation is far from clear and will depend partly on whether it is now followed up by complementary action from industry and Congolese authorities.

"It's a high-risk gamble by the NGOs and legislators -- it may lead to a de facto embargo on formal trade if businesses decide to pull out of the region," said Nicholas Garrett, director of London-based Resource Consulting Services.

"The consequence...will be that thousands of Congolese will be jobless and might most probably (be) joining the armed groups," warned John Kanyoni, head of the Association of Mineral Exporters in Congo's eastern North Kivu province.

Such a reaction is out of the step with the government line in the capital Kinshasa, where Information Minister Lambert Mende called the bill a "noble initiative" in Congo's best interests and urged other countries to follow suit.

Yet the challenge ahead should not be under-estimated.
The level of frustration with the advocacy community's conflict minerals narrative is palpable among people who live and work in the eastern DRC. I can't tell you how many Congolese, aid workers, and academic experts have expressed frustration about the narrative created by the Enough Project to me in these last few weeks. They don't understand why the overarching focus on minerals has come to dominate international discourse on the region while the vexing problems that actually drive the violence there - land tenure rights, citizenship rights, and the state's inability to establish a monopoly on violence - continue to fester.

If you ask the Congolese what the region needs in order for the situation to improve, almost everyone says that the government needs to re-establish control, that ex-combatants need education and jobs to work at when they finish their education, that displaced persons need to be able to return home, that soldiers and civilians have to stop raping women and girls, that Rwanda has got to stop meddling in Congolese affairs and stealing Congolese minerals, and that schools, health centers, community buildings, and businesses need to be rebuilt and outfitted with necessary materials. The land situation has to be sorted out and the status of Kinyarwanda-speaking Congolese - both in the Kivus and those who are refugees - has to be settled once and for all.

The argument that cutting off the mineral trade will make any of this possible defies reality. As does the idea that soldiers will stop raping, looting, and burning down villages if one of their sources of revenue is cut.

Just about every local leader in the east will tell you that the mineral trade is not the cause of violence and that ending the trade is very unlikely to end most violence, especially given the absence of functioning political and security institutions. Ending violence is of course a huge priority for the Congolese, but this is the wrong way to go about it. The legislation is unlikely to do harm (until it causes some of the 1 million people who depend on the trade for their livelihood to become unemployed), so it's mostly just been a waste of time and energy. But why the advocates won't listen to the people they purport to help is beyond me.

7.21.2010

celebrity aid done right

Longtime readers of this blog know that I am very cynical about celebrity advocacy in general. My eyes glaze over when I see a link to a story about whichever starlet Prendergast is courting to "be a voice for Darfur" or a heartwarming 60 Minutes segment about Madonna becoming one with Malawi's orphans. For all the talk about "bringing attention" to "neglected crises," the vast majority of celebrities who get involved on the African continent do little more than bring attention to themselves while funding small programs here or there that might or might not do anyone any good.

All that's to say, this next sentence is going to shock some of you: at least one celebrity is getting it right when it comes to the eastern DRC.

I know. I'm shocked, too. When I heard that Ben Affleck was headed out to Goma, and that he was starting the Eastern Congo Initiative, I groaned. But the more I'm learning about the organization, the more I'm convinced that the ECI is getting it right. Starting with their mission to promote the hadisi, the stories, of the people of the eastern Congo:
The Swahili word for “story”. Every person has the capacity to create their own story. ECI supports local organizations, leaders, and advocates in eastern Congo that are writing a new story for the region.
What is the Eastern Congo Initiative doing right?
  • Demonstrating a commitment to hiring local leadership. Very few international charities or NGO's that talk about community development actually follow through by trusting locals to direct programs, manage budgets, and run the show. Kudos to the ECI for a commitment to working differently from the beginning.
  • Working with community organizations that have already established a record of solving problems, providing services, and making programs work, even with extremely limited resources. This is not a program that involves outsiders coming in and telling communities what to do. Rather, ECI is focused on supporting organizations that have a proven record of leading development in their own communities.
  • Not trying to reinvent the wheel. By working with existing organizations, unnecessary duplication of programs can be prevented. Best practices developed in Congolese communities can be expanded and transferred to other communities. Local expertise developed through the long years of the wars and the transition can be drawn upon.
  • Being program-driven rather than personality-driven. Yes, the celebrity founder's name is on the website. But the website isn't all about the celebrity. Instead, the focus is on community empowerment in five areas: support for victims of sexual violence, support for vulnerable children, community-based peace and reconciliation, improved health care access, and economic opportunity promotion. That there are more pictures and stories on the website of Congolese leaders helping affected populations than of Affleck's trips there is a good sign that the ECI isn't going to be all about self-promotion. And that is a good thing.
I'm looking forward to watching what happens as the ECI names a country director and begins funding programs that work. Every single time I'm in the region, I meet remarkable people who are doing amazing work to rebuild their communities without any outside support. If the ECI can use Affleck's celebrity to raise funds and provide support to those community leaders in a way that empowers and builds up the eastern Congo while helping support the tremendous potential that exists in the region, I'm all for it.

7.20.2010

rwanda breakdown

The United Nations has demanded a full investigation into allegations of politically motivated killings of opposition figures in Rwanda in the run-up to the country's election next month.

The UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon demanded the inquiry in a meeting with Rwanda's president, Paul Kagame, after a series of attacks on figures unpopular with the regime in Rwanda and in several other African states.
That's from Peter Beaumont, who had two pieces on the increasingly worrying situation in Rwanda in Sunday's Observer. The second piece focuses specifically on Kagame's public image:
But Kagame has never lived up to the breathless hype. Not Blair's, who described him as a "visionary leader". Not Bill Clinton's either, who last year handed him a global citizenship award for freeing his people's minds. Nor from his other gushing British fan, the former international development secretary, Clare Short, who had a blind spot over Kagame's failings, once describing him as "a sweetie".

The real question is not whether Kagame is as marvelous as his supporters claim, but whether he's as sinister as his fiercest critics charge...
The comments on the second piece are particularly entertaining. I never get tired of the immediate response from Kagame's loyal web-watchers, which, while almost always failing to actually refute a single point, tend to be hysterical rants about racism, neo-colonialism, a "desire for Rwanda to fail," and a bunch of other attempts at distracting the global public from the regime's flaws.

As for what's going on in Rwanda, it's increasingly clear that divides within the RPF over the party's future (particularly regarding the question of how long Kagame gets to keep running the show and controlling the party's finances) are likely driving much of the targeted violence we've seen of late. The situation is likely to get worse leading up to the August 9 election. Stay safe, friends in Rwanda.

7.19.2010

collective irrationality?

Pop quiz: Which of these is NOT valid currency in the eastern DRC? (Clockwise from upper left: ten-dollar US note, 10 Congolese franc note, one dollar US note, 50 Congolese franc note)

Here's a hint: the largest denomination of Congolese currency is the 500 franc note. It's currently worth about 55 cents. US Dollars are used for larger purchases.

Give up? It's the ten dollar bill.

But why?

Still not sure what's up? This is a legitimate, non-counterfeited ten dollar bill. But that miniscule tear in the upper right-hand corner of the note (just above the "0" in "10") makes it completely useless. It would also be invalid if it were a pre-2001 series note, or if it had any other markings or tears.

Why? Your guess is as good as mine. No one involved in a transaction in the DRC will take this note in exchange for $10 worth of goods or services. This is a phenomenon that extends across most of eastern and central Africa, albeit with some variation across space (in south Sudan, for example, you need post-2006 series notes nowadays). Meanwhile, no matter how tattered, torn, and utterly filthy the Congolese francs might be, as long as the pieces are held together one way or another, they're valid.

If you ask any Congolese merchant or forex dealer why they won't take perfectly good money, the answer is generally the same: because "they" won't take it. Who is "they"? "They" is everybody. And they are correct. No one around here will take torn dollars. They're barely worth the paper on which the bills are printed, although usually the black market dealers will trade the notes at reduced and very unfavorable exchange rates.

The interesting thing is that almost everyone realizes this is absurd. Last week my driver asked me if things worked this way in the U.S. "No!" I replied, "This is crazy." He agreed, and noted his frustration with the system the way it is.

This is a serious problem for the citizens of this region. If I get stuck with a $10 bill with a miniscule tear in one corner, it's no big deal. I'll hang onto it and use it to buy a bottle of water the next time Delta strands me at Newark. But for the Congolese - especially those who don't have the means to travel beyond their hometowns - it's different. If the normal wear-and-tear that happens to currency just happen to happen while that currency is in one's possession, he or she could lose his savings, the money to pay her children's school fees, or the dollar that would have purchased that day's meal. It hinders economic development and makes the economy function poorly.

It's an interesting collective action dilemma. How do you overcome a norm that everyone knows to be ridiculous, but can do nothing about? It strikes outsiders - especially outsiders who are used to currency systems that regularly rotate out used bills - as completely irrational behavior on the part of millions of people.

Those millions include me. Every time I travel to the DRC, I have to go to the bank, explain the situation, convince them I'm not a drug dealer or human trafficker, and take out cash in unmarked, pristine condition bills in a variety of denominations. When I engage in a transaction here, I check the notes I receive very carefully before agreeing to accept them, and I hand back any that don't meet the standard.

What else can we do?

7.17.2010

this & that

There's been a lot of reaction to the Kristof White Man's Burden story:
I'm on limited internet access - if you know of others, please link in the comments.

7.15.2010

why Rwanda's facade of reconciliation is dangerous

Timothy Kalyegira hits the nail on the head:
If Rwanda witnessed a mass exodus of part of its population in 1959 and a horrendous genocide in 1994, it follows that we should evaluate Rwanda’s progress not in the abundance of WiFi Internet connections, clean streets and laptop computers available in every home, but in how far these deep-rooted Hutu-Tutsi ethnic tensions have been resolved or addressed.

In Rwanda, there has been a strained effort since 1994 to blot out in total any reference to ethnicity, emphasise nationhood and focus on economic growth and management. This approach does not make sense.

If religion and ethnicity have been the driving force behind the raging civil wars and violence in the breakaway regions of Europe and the Caucuses in and since the 1990s - places that, presumably, had been turned into wholly secular and Socialist in belief for 45 to 74 years - how realistically can we claim that in the much more agrarian and rural African society, just 16 years from an appalling genocide, tensions between Tutsi and Hutu have eased?

Rwanda’s top priority and the image it projects to the world should be over matters of reconciliation and the attainment of real harmony between the Hutu and Tutsi. Ethnic tensions had lain hidden for decades in Europe, only to erupt in the 1990s. Between 1959 and 1994, there seemed to be a stable situation in Rwanda.

What is to prevent this ethnic hostility going underground for another 20 years, only to erupt again? Facing up to this aspect of the country’s history is what matters the most, not the mechanical, policy, administrative, logistical side. Certainly not beautiful flowers or street lights or nice pavements.
Beautifully put. This is exactly why I worry about the Rwandan government's increasingly tight grasp on the country's political space. For years, the RPF have put on a lovely show for the donors, journalists, missionaries, and politicians who pass through to admire the country's astonishing beauty and talk of reconciliation without asking too many questions.

But it's a facade. Tensions are boiling under the surface - both between Hutus and Tutsis and within those communities - and there is a very serious possibility that those tensions will again erupt into violence. More likely than not, as has been the case since the genocide, the next round of violence resulting from this tension will probably play out not on Rwandan soil but rather in the DRC. The elections scheduled for August 9 will be largely a sham; by not allowing any significant opposition candidates from parties not aligned with the RPF to register, Kagame has guaranteed his own re-election. And resentment of his policies will continue to grow among the Hutu majority.

By pretending that ethnicity doesn't exist - which nobody in Rwanda actually believes - rather than having open and honest discussions about everything that happened during the civil war and the genocide, as well as Rwanda's role in the wars in Congo-Zaire - Rwanda's government is playing with fire.

7.14.2010

somalia: what now?

In the light of Sunday's horrific bombings in Kampala, it was only a matter of time before proposals for a U.S.-backed invasion and/or bombing of Somalia started popping up, along with less specific calls to do "more." A few thoughts on this:
  • If everything you know about Somalia you learned from Black Hawk Down, it's probably best that you stop providing commentary. You don't know the territory, you don't understand the political situation there, and it just makes you look ignorant to continue pontificating.
  • If you think Afghanistan is a quagmire, you ain't seen nothing yet. Somalia would make Afghanistan seem like a walk in the park on a pleasant Sunday afternoon.
The al-Shabab threat is real and it is very, very serious. More than seventy people lost their lives on Sunday, and it's likely that more will lose their lives in Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, and/or Burundi before this is over. Supporting the Somali government will not do much to mitigate the threat from al-Shabab. Let's be clear: Somalia's current, internationally-recognized federal government is a joke. It does not control its own capital city. It operated out of a hotel in Nairobi for several years. It would not exist were it not for the presence of foreign troops and substantial U.S. backing.

As G. Pascal Zachary notes, we are long past due for a reckoning on America's policy vis-a-vis Somalia. The insistence on the part of the Department of Defense, the State Department, and the White House that the best means for stabilizing the situation involves maintaining Somalia's fictional territorial integrity represents the same sort of thinking that got us into a mess there in 1993.

So what should happen with respect to U.S. policy in Somalia? A lot will depend on the decisions taken by the African Union at its summit in Entebbe next week. Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda have gone along with U.S. plans for the region in exchange for support, training, and materiel. Will they be willing to continue to do so in light of the fact that al-Shabab now has the capacity to threaten civilian lives in their own countries?

Finally, there is the question of Somaliland, the autonomous entity in northern Somalia that has all the attributes of statehood save the most important one: international recognition. Somaliland just held successful elections that will apparently result in a turnover of power from one party to another. It is a functioning state with a growing economy and a solid modicum of territorial control. It's long past time that the U.S. stopped dithering around in Mogadishu and worked with those who are actually capable of governing in the Horn.

Zachary advocates for the recognition of three "autonomous provinces" in the region. Puntland is probably not strong enough to govern outside of a few strongholds, but Somaliland most certainly is. Recognition would allow the U.S. to train Somaliland soldiers, and, more importantly, potentially provide a base for operations that is far more stable than the volatile border in Kenya.

Will doing so solve all the region's problems, particularly the threat from al-Shabab? Of course not. But it's high time we stopped kidding ourselves that the current m.o. will ever work. It won't.

In the days to come, look for Ken Menkhaus' thoughts on the current situation. Menkhaus is the smartest American academic working on Somalia today; I'm sure he'll have much to say.

7.13.2010

sauti

My research in the DRC is about social services, which means that when I'm here, I spend a lot of time in church offices. Religious groups run almost all of what's left of the DRC's education and health care systems, and they do a lot of work in democracy promotion, child protection, reintegration of former combatants, and other sectors. Every major religious organization has a bureau de coordination at which you can find various bishops, coordinators, counselors, secretaries, pastors, and assistants who are in charge of all these programs.

Friday, I found myself at the office of one church in Butembo. I met with the appropriate authorities, gathered statistics on the number of schools and hospitals and clinics they run, and got ready to leave. As I stood up to go, they said, "You need to greet our bishop." And so we went to greet the bishop, who not only speaks English, but who proceeded to tell me that the day prior, on a long drive through the mountains, he had prayed to ask, "Who will come and help us?" And he looked at me and said, "And now you have come. And you must be our voice. You must be our ambassador, to tell the world about our lives here." He used the word "sauti," Swahili for "voice."

And then the bishop blessed me and I left.

They didn't cover this in graduate school. How people will pin their hopes, their belief that one day things will get better on a foreigner simply because of the fact that you are there. How do you tell a brilliant and kind man that it is not your job to be the sauti for the Congolese, that he is a far better voice for this place and these people than I could ever be?

I can't be the sauti for the eastern Congo. But here is what I can tell you: there are churches in a medium-sized city in North Kivu. They run hospitals, clinics, and most of the schools. Life is very difficult in this city; most of the population are desperately poor, there are urban IDP's and former child soldiers everywhere, and the state is weak. But there are schools, and they open their doors day after day, year after year, so that children can be educated. There are health centers, where only basic medications are available, but there are nurses who care, doctors who make miracles happen without the right equipment, and specialists who nurse dying children back to health. And there is a bishop who wants you to know that this work exists.

7.12.2010

the white man's burden

Back in May, @viewfromthecave tweeted that The Kristof was taking questions from readers to be answered via YouTube. This is the question I asked:
Your columns about Africa almost always feature black Africans as victims, and white foreigners as their saviors.
There was more to it than that, but I can't find the original post. At any rate, the gist of the question was, "Why not feature more of the work that Africans are doing to solve their countries' problems?"

And, lo and behold, Kristof answered. NYT Picker thankfully has the transcript for those of us on dial-up connections:
This is a really important issue for a journalist. And it's one I've thought a lot about.

I should, first of all, from my defensive crouch, say that I think you're a little bit exaggerating the way I have reported. Indeed, recently, for example, among the Africans who I have emphasized, the people who are doing fantastic work are the extraordinary Dr. Dennis Mukwege in the Congo, Edna Adan in Somaliland, Valentino Deng in Sudan, Manute Bol in Sudan, and there are a lot of others.

But I do take your point. That very often I do go to developing countries where local people are doing extraordinary work, and instead I tend to focus on some foreigner, often some American, who’s doing something there.

And let me tell you why I do that. The problem that I face -- my challenge as a writer -- in trying to get readers to care about something like Eastern Congo, is that frankly, the moment a reader sees that I'm writing about Central Africa, for an awful lot of them, that's the moment to turn the page. It's very hard to get people to care about distant crises like that.

One way of getting people to read at least a few grafs in is to have some kind of a foreign protagonist, some American who they can identify with as a bridge character.

And so if this is a way I can get people to care about foreign countries, to read about them, ideally, to get a little bit more involved, then I plead guilty.
As NYT Picker aptly notes, the persons to whom Kristof refers have either not been mentioned in his print columns or are typically only mentioned briefly.

Two things: first, I appreciate that Kristof has some self-awareness on this issue. It's a welcome acknowledgement of a clear and consistent pattern in his writing.

Second, I'm not satisfied with the answer. I'm really hard on Kristof, but it's not without reason. Does he really believe that New York Times readers are only interested in good work being done by their fellow Americans? That we can't relate to people on the other side of the world? Because to me, that seems insulting to the readership. Maybe I'm insulated from the need for a "bridge character" because of what I study this for a living. I feel a kinship and a desire to support people who are doing good things no matter what their background. Don't you?

In the end, this answer is just another variant of the "good intentions are enough" mindset. It excuses stereotyping in the name of awareness, while assuming that Americans are too parochial to be able to recognize, relate to, and applaud the work of people whose names sound different from ours. It reveals much about Kristof's approach to the people he profiles; as we've discussed here many times before, they're more often characters than people.

Mr. Kristof, I think you can do better.

7.11.2010

what kampala means

Africa Works:
That Shabaab-directed violence may now be spilling into Uganda adds urgency to the importance of crafting a US policy towards Somalia that reflects the realities on the ground, which include the de facto partition of this geographically well-endowed region into 3 autonomous “provinces.”

Having spent many pleasant and productive days in Kampala, I hope the city soon returns to “normal.” Kampala is perhaps the most peaceful, crime-free large cities in the entire African continent.
PBS's Need to Know:
The bombs targeted sports spots—one a well known rugby club and the other an Ethiopian restaurant where patrons had gathered to watch the World Cup Final. Both locations have some symbolic significance: Al-Shabab has banned soccer (and presumably other sports as well) in the areas it controls, labeling them un-Islamic. By going after sports clubs where lots of foreigners gathered to socialize and watch unIslamic things on TV, Al-Shabab was sending a social, as well as a political message: you are not safe.
Andrew Mwenda will have much to say, I'm sure.

Like millions of others all over the world, my heart aches for lovely Kampala tonight.

don't knock china

Say what you will about China's multi-billion dollar deal with the Congolese government to trade infrastructure development for access to minerals with little regard for human rights and environmental issues. They've still managed to turn a big segment of North Kivu's main highway from this:


Into this:

And there are KILOMETER MARKERS.

And I have to tell you, after riding down one of the huge walls of the Great Rift Valley escarpment on a terrifying dirt segment of the highway that has yet to be paved, China's intentions in Africa don't seem so bad at all.

I may have to rethink a few things.

7.10.2010

butembo


I left Butembo today, a bit earlier than planned, but not so early that I didn't gather all the data I needed. Butembo is a lovely city; it's one of the most-governed places I've ever been in the DRC (granted, the bar is low). Most things work. Stores are well-stocked. There's not a lot of crime. Not a single person asked me for money. There's still desperate poverty, and huge problems (what to do with all the former child soldiers and IDP children for whom there are no desks at school is a big one). But Butembo is peaceful and pleasant and seems to work according to a norm that refuses to give in to the insecurity that pervades the countryside just a few miles away. It's a haven.

Which is why the events of this week are all the more disturbing. Thursday night, a Butembo student was killed. Friday night, another young adult was killed in Butembo. A police officer and an FARDC soldier are held as suspects in the first murder. Radio Okapi has a full report here.

Butembo's students have reacted angrily; they were out protesting from the backs of trucks in the city on Friday. I finished up interviews Friday morning and my driver headed downtown to make some copies, but we were slowed considerably by a plume of black smoke smack in the middle of Butembo's downtown. Students set fire to piles of tires along the city's main street in protest, set up barricades, and most shops stayed closed on Saturday morning.

Friday night there was a huge, freak, dry-season thunderstorm that lasted for hours on end, and then there was an earthquake during the lull. The earthquake doesn't seem to have caused any serious damage, but the feeling that all is not right with the world predominates. Suffice it to say that there is a good bit of unease in normally-peaceful Butembo.

this & that: live from the sucking vortex

7.09.2010


Things you cannot buy in Butembo:
  • An A544/6V battery
Things you can buy in Butembo:
  • Electric guitars
  • Wireless microphones
  • Wireless routers
  • Wireless headsets
  • Wireless modems
  • Soundboards
  • Laptops
  • HP printers
  • Digital cameras
  • Smart phones
I know, because we went to every electronics store in the city trying to find the battery. So much for the sucking vortex theory of the DRC.

I've mentioned before that one of the more interesting effects of the state's weakness is the lack of regulation on the market. Although there are informal taxes paid to authorities by shop owners, traders, and transporters, but otherwise, trade is pretty much completely unregulated. It's the ultimate free market. Which means that an astonishing variety of products are available in the city's markets and stores.

7.08.2010

life goes on

From Oxfam:
Before leaving, we visited Furaha Bembe, President of the Buhanga farmers’ collective that is also part of UPDI. She looks after her family through the production of a variety of crops, and also provides leadership to the hundreds of UPDI members in the surrounding villages. Furaha explains how loans from UPDI have helped farmers to buy inputs and that this, along with the farming advice, has helped improve the production. One of the important benefits, she argues, is the improvement of women’s health in the village, as they now have access to a wide variety of fresh vegetables and staple foods. We also benefited, leaving her home with a gift of sweet potatoes.

Despite the wars and continued instability in the DRC (the last militia raid in the village of Ludaha was a month ago), these farmers, through their own organisation and with a little assistance, are steadily improving their lives. They are hungry for new ideas and new crops. Their hard work deserves better returns and this will require more accessible and affordable inputs as well as much better access to markets. UPDI and the national and regional farmer organisations they are part of, which Oxfam also works closely with, are vehicles through which these farmers in a corner of DRC are taking up these challenges.
In my experience, there's a very common misconception that poor people in conflict zones sit around waiting for someone to come and help them. This view suggests that little can be done without the international community's assistance.

But that's rarely how it actually works in places like Ludaha. Congolese communities consistently and almost uniformly create innovative solutions to their problems. The other day, I met a woman who's associated with a nearby organization created to help children who are victims of war. The leader, without any outside assistance, developed a plan to place two groups - teenage girls who conceived children as a result of rape and former child combatants - in homes with families in the community. She created a foster care program that has successfully placed 100 children (plus the girls' babies) in homes in the community, keeping those children off the streets and giving them a chance.

Could they use some support? Heck, yeah. The community is extremely poor, and the families can't really afford the burden of the extra children. They're working on creating income-generating activities, and I have a feeling the organization could benefit from some outside expertise and financial support.

But that doesn't mean good hasn't been done without it. Nor does it mean that the work will cease, even as more victims need homes and more families struggle to provide a place.

7.07.2010

sange

I haven't commented on this because it's just unspeakably sad. The flags here have been at half staff for the last two days as a period of national mourning. This morning a friend sent me a picture of the aftermath of the devastation that I never wanted to see. It looked like Pompeii.

From the BBC:
At least 230 people were killed when the overturned oil tanker exploded and sparked a fire in Sange village.

Some of those who died were trying to collect leaking fuel but others were trapped inside buildings, including a cinema, by the blaze.

UN peacekeepers, aid workers and troops have been helping the injured.


Weak state = few public goods = no fire department when you need one. At least 60 of the dead were children.

Oh, oh, oh.

7.06.2010

at the end of the day

I'm in a Congolese city called Butembo for a bit, continuing my research on the role local organizations play in providing public goods in fragile states. The work is going fine; for the first time ever (I'm no longer a grad student and I have research funding! Happy day!), I have a fixer/driver. We are jetting around town in a white Land Cruiser collecting data and doing interviews faster than you can say "conditional cash transfers." It's going faster than I expected, which means I may be able to add an additional site to this study. Butembo's interesting because it's ethnically homogeneous (more on that later), pretty much free from conflict, very prosperous, and almost completely free of expatriates. In other words, if you need a control case in the eastern DRC, this is the place.

As this project is a continuation of previous research, I'm asking questions about service provision that I have asked over and over and over and over again. And you know what? Despite all our theories and ideas and the fact, as Easterly is fond of saying, that we really have no idea how people escape poverty, I'm increasingly convinced that one thing is clear: school fees are the enemy.

In Butembo, about 75% of the population (of between 600,000-700,000 people) live on less than $2 a day. School fees, on average, run $25-35 for primary school and $30-50 for secondary school per year. Per child. For a family that has three, or five, or ten children, the burden is enormous and insurmountable.

There are almost no well-organized, large aid projects that pay school fees for children in the eastern DRC. Outside of some child sponsorship programs (most of which are inactive in the DRC for the very simple reason that they can't guarantee to donors that the children won't become displaced or die), the international NGO's typically don't touch it. There are good reasons for that; they tend to focus their energies on reconstructing schools destroyed in the war, getting teachers better training in modern pedagogical methods, and other very needed areas - including offsetting school administrative costs so that fees can be lowered.

School fees are necessary here. Although it technically owns and runs most of the schools here, the government is incapable of managing them, which is why the churches have taken over their "management." Under the agreements that govern this arrangement, the government is supposed to pay teacher salaries, construct buildings, and provide classroom furniture, books, and other necessities.

It doesn't. Which leaves the churches doing everything and parents paying directly for the entire cost of their child's education.

Or, more often, leaves children not being educated at all.

And it leaves me wondering if maybe we'd be better off just paying the damn school fees. Taking that burden off of families so they can spend their money on medicine, balanced diets, or better sanitation at home. Would doing so create dependency? Yes. Would people in this city have a better chance to make it? I don't know.

7.05.2010

proven innocent?

Shelby Grossman has a somewhat appalling anecdote from northern Nigeria, where she's studying this summer:
Every time I access Facebook from an internet cafe I spend 10 minutes identifying pictures of friends so that Facebook knows it’s me.

I used my Mom’s password to access JSTOR the other day. Her account was canceled due to suspicious international activity.
Ah, yes, the assumption of guilt and attempted fraud until proven otherwise. It's a strategy more and more international corporations and small businesses are using with regards to Africa-based transactions. I experienced this firsthand a couple of weeks ago when trying to check in for my Delta/KLM flights to Entebbe. Their system wouldn't allow me to check in online or at the airport kiosks. When I finally got to the front of a ridiculously long line, I was informed that Delta requires passengers traveling to certain countries to present the credit card with which the ticket was purchased in order to be allowed to check in for the flight.

I found out later that this is because they assume that transactions involving the purchase of a ticket to Uganda are fraudulent. The burden of proof otherwise is on the customer.

As it happens, despite my purchase having been entirely legitimate, I could not present the card with which I'd purchased the ticket, because that card was compromised when someone booked a fabulous vacation on it with a company in Germany. The bank chopped up the old card into bits, as well they should have.

I could provide Delta with three photo ID's, the card from the same account that replaced the compromised card, and several other valid forms of identification, but Delta wouldn't have any of it. Instead, they refunded the ticket (which took 3 business days), charged it again on my new card (which, naturally, was an instantaneous transaction), and had the nerve to charge me a fee for "purchasing my ticket at the airport."

(Have I mentioned that I hate Delta and will never fly them internationally again? Or the 22 hours they made me spend in Newark?)

The irony of all this is that Delta keeps insisting that they were protecting me. "It doesn't feel that way," I told them, " when I can clearly prove my identity."

What makes me nuts is the assumption that because I was flying to Africa, it must have been fraud. Or that Facebook and Gmail don't believe that someone who's been in Nigeria for a good two months now isn't really in Nigeria. Or that no one could possibly be doing legitimate academic research on JSTOR from West Africa. Or that I couldn't get a wireless modem remotely unlocked from the DRC because I was on a satellite internet connection. These blocked purchases or use of systems aren't because of a block from my bank (which, of course, I called beforehand to notify that I would be here); it's the corporations themselves that are blocking transactions before they're allowed to happen.

Fraud happens everywhere. This kind of thinking on the part of businesses certainly reflects legitimate concerns about fraud protection. Never mind that the only international fraud ever committed using any of my accounts came not from central Africa, but from Germany.

But it also reflects knee-jerk prejudice and the willingness to write off an entire continent of people as liars and cheaters. The consequences of this attitude are far reaching, in ways as varied as the crazy TSA decision a few months back to require extra screening of all passengers associated with Nigeria to immigration rules that assume most citizens of developing countries wouldn't want to come home to their families and homes.

Furthermore, by making it more difficult for Africans and others on the continent to conduct business, purchase goods and services, and engage with the rest of the world, international companies are setting back Africa's economic development even further.

That's not okay.

7.03.2010

oh, no, no, no

So last week I linked to a Slate series of reflections from an aid worker who formerly worked in Goma. I thought it was a nice way of capturing the tension that many aid workers feel: they help people professionally, but are torn about what to do when the problems they're fighting become personal.

Well. As you may recall, the series finished on Friday, when I was halfway through the Delta Airlines Journey from Hell 2010 (which involved unplanned stopovers at Dulles and Nairobi, as well as 22 hours in Newark, New Jersey). Given that I was enjoying the wonders of Newark, the land of no free wifi, I missed the conclusion of the series on Friday, which a friend in Goma informed me I'd better read tout-de-suite. Because here's how it ended:
I was confused and upset. I realized that I didn't know anything. I didn't know whether Aimé was tricking me. I didn't know why he would trick me. I didn't know if anything I have told you about his life was true, and I didn't know if foreign aid works.

But I was pretty sure about one thing. Aimé once told me that you can't trust Congolese people. Now, I agreed with him. From the parents who wouldn't let their children go to school, to the soldiers who raped women they were supposed to have been defending from rebels, to the rebels who killed for mining profits, to the witch doctors who sold phony cures, and the deacons who accused children of sorcery, and the government that didn't pay its officials, and the officials who bribed, and the culture that taught corruption as a means of progress, I was sick of this Hobbesian place, and I didn't feel guilty about their suffering anymore.
Now. While I'm sure these are feelings that, if we're honest, many of us have shared from time to time, I hope everyone who reads this blog knows that I don't endorse the idea that you can't trust the Congolese. To conclude thus ignores the mountain of evidence that many Congolese are quite trustworthy - including the hundreds of trusted drivers, cooks, housekeepers, logisticians, and other support staff who keep the international humanitarian circus running. It ignores the doctors who stay at their posts despite not having been paid government salaries in a decade, the fearless lawyers who pursue justice for the women and girls who've been victimized by armed forces, and the compassion of those who start orphanages not to make a profit, but because they cannot bear to see so many children living alone on the streets.

It also ignores the complexity of what we in the west call "corruption," because while the Congolese grumble as much as the expats at made-up fees and endless bureaucratic wrangling, there's a tacit understanding here that everyone in government work also has to eat. That bureaucrat who makes one pay a bribe at the border doesn't get a salary. What else is he supposed to do? And is that system really that different from taxation at its core?

(An interesting dissertation project for an economist, by the way, would be to figure out what the threshold of collective action is on these issues. The general population is fine with certain fees, but not others. Why? What does that tell us about taxation in weak states?)

7.02.2010

What you never see...

If you rely on the international media to inform you about what life is like in the eastern DR Congo, you're only getting a small part of the picture. Case in point: the changes that have taken place in the city in just the last few years.

I've chatted with several old friends and met many new ones here this week, and one common theme in the conversations is frustration that the story of Goma is not being accurately told. As one put it, if you took the media's word for it, you'd think that every Congolese woman is a rape victim and every man is a criminal. That's not the reality here.

What is? Tons of new businesses are opening, eyesores are gone and new buildings have gone up in their place, and factories are being built. And infrastructure has improved more than I believed possible. The main roads in the central city have been paved:
On those same roads, there are street lights. STREET LIGHTS!
And there are other kinds of needed changes as well, like limited legal services for victims of sexual violence:

Is everything perfect in the Kivus, especially outside of a peacekeeper-protected city? Of course not. But the situation here is far more diverse and complex than the standard m.o. might lead you to believe. And it's not all bad news.

7.01.2010

legislating for africa

Something I've been thinking about in light of the all the press about the Conflict Minerals Trade Act and a series of breathless press releases over the passage of the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act: why on earth do advocates think that passing legislation in the United States will end violence in Africa?

In the case of the conflict minerals legislation, the idea is that violence in the DRC can be mitigated by creating an auditing and certification system for the mineral supply chains. I've already explained at length why I think this won't work; the complexity of the mineral trade in the eastern DRC and the lack of accountable political institutions that can enforce auditing and certification systems make it an exercise in futility. In addition, as we've discussed ad nauseum, ad infinitum, the mineral trade is not the root cause of violence in the eastern DRC. What's happening there is not a resource war, and it never has been. Regulating the supply chains and pressuring electronics companies not to use DRC minerals will not solve the disputes over land and citizenship that predate the wars and the Rwandan genocide and that continue to drive violence today.

The LRA Disarmament act has already been signed into law by President Obama. This legislation requires the administration to come up with a strategy for mitigating the effects of the LRA's activities (which, it should be remembered, are currently centered not in Uganda, but in the DRC). It also expresses the "sense of Congress" that aid should be withheld from Uganda's government if it fails to move the reconciliation and reconstruction processes in the north forward.

What both of these pieces of legislation have in common (besides "Africa") is a sense of optimism about the possibilities for American engagement in longstanding conflicts. I don't share this optimism. Why? Because I can't think of a single instance where American legislation actually led to the end of a foreign conflict. The South Africa divestment legislation of the mid-1980's seems like the closest case, but as I understand it, experts on the country are divided on whether the U.S. law itself was the real catalyst for the end of apartheid. (Help me out here, South African readers.)

Pushing for legislation seems to be the "good intentions are enough" motif writ large. After all, horrible things happen in the world. Just as many untrained volunteers assume that their desire to help is sufficient preparation to do so, so do advocates assume that the might and power of the United States, backed by a genuine desire to "help" can actually make a difference.

In some cases it can. Here's what U.S. legislation can do: fund programs, provide humanitarian aid and development assistance, and encourage changes to be made.

But U.S. legislation - especially legislation based on a fundamental misreading of a conflict - cannot mitigate the effects of nonfunctional, extremely weak institutions. It cannot change the fact that some governments may not want to end violence in their territories. It cannot change the problem that foreign governments may not see the threat of losing aid as being nearly as serious as the threat of losing power.

The fact is, even as a global superpower, the United States can't do everything. Legislating to end Africa's conflicts strikes me as something that sounds good on paper, but will do little to help anyone in the end. Instead of wasting time and effort on ineffective legislation, it might be better to undertake a serious process of reforming our entire approach to African conflicts by building institutions and recognizing that, in the end, these may not be our problems to solve.

What do you think? Can Western legislation significantly impact conflicts abroad?