Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Conflict and Economics in the Great Lakes of Africa

Okay, so it has been a while since I updated. I have spent the past month catching up with my work back in Miami, where I am based for the time being. I am planning to start updating on a weekly basis now that I am back on track.

Firstly, our computer training classes in Johannesburg have continued for the past month, run by some Somali friends and a couple of students from the University of the Free State. From my phone discussions with friends in Mayfair, it seems as if things are going quite well.

The primary issue I would like to approach in today's blog is this Kony 2012 business. Several people have asked me for my opinion on the subject, as I have spent some time in East Africa and conducted now several years of research on religion and conflict in the area. First, let me say that this is a very difficult issue for several reasons: 1) the controversial nature of the ICC with regard to state sovereignty; 2) the issue of charities and their use of funds in general; and 3) whether or not stopping Joseph Kony will solve the problem that it is trying to solve.

In my opinion, Joseph Kony is a bad dude. I think most of us feel that way. So I would say that stopping his campaign that has ravaged areas of Uganda, South Sudan, the DRC, and even touched southern Chad would be a good thing. U.S. support for the Ugandan military will likely help catch Kony - or at least significantly raise the Ugandans' chance of catching him - even though the density of the bush in the areas the LRA has hidden in for the past 10 years will make the task of capturing him extremely difficult.

However, another question is whether catching Kony himself is the answer to the issues. Putting aside peoples' potential problems with the Invisible Children campaign in general, will stopping Kony stop violence in northern Uganda? My answer: it seems unlikely. Why? Well, before you started reading about Joseph Kony (a name many of my fellow students have likely only began to hear over the past three years), there was another movement that came out of Gulu District with many similarities: The Holy Spirit Mobile Forces, led by Alice Lakwena, who claimed to be channeling several spirits of various international and local personalities. In fact, Kony claims to be related to Ms. Lakwena and even (at least in the movement's nascency) claimed to channel a couple of the same spirits that Alice did, as these personalities had gained some legitimacy among the local population who were mobilized against the government (first Obote's and then Museveni's) in Kampala. It appears that some trend toward religiously motivated armed movements arose in the marginalized Gulu District, not simply a cult of personality around Joseph Kony or a single-man fanatic movement led by Kony.

The issue that made both the HSMF and the LRA dangerous was not primarily the leader, but the leader's ability to collect forces. It seems like it would be fairly easy to dismiss a religious fanatic who wanted you to pick up a gun and forcibly recruit children; however, high unemployment and a growing segment of dissatisfied youth joined the movement, and when they began terrorizing and psychologically distressing children so much that they could not figure out what was right and wrong, the movement became self-sustaining. Seeing the wrong that was being done to these children, Americans began to flock to the cause, led by Invisible Children movement, which has largely achieved its goal of making people aware of the problem.

Unfortunately, it appears that the LRA is not one unified group of soldiers led by Kony; nor is it the only armed group fighting in the Great Lakes/Upper Nile region. When the LRA moved into South Sudan periodically between 2005 and 2009, it seems that smaller groups of armed soldiers were raiding settlements, often independent of Kony's leadership for weeks at a time. So it seems possible that the movement could sustain itself without Kony's leadership. In fact, what would be needed would be social (not military, please) reintegration of all members of the LRA, not just apprehension of their leader - but this social reintegration may start with Kony's apprehension. It would also require capturing the other leaders of the movement - if not, the LRA could follow the SSLA in South Sudan, which simply declared a new leadership when Peter Gadet accepted amnesty from the government in Juba and continued to fight.

The prevalence of armed conflict in the region as a whole is another issue, pointing to several trends: again, unemployed youth, a lack of opportunities for livelihoods in general, and the proliferation of small arms in the area. So all of you social activists listen up: In my opinion, if you want to begin stopping the general tendency toward armed conflict in central Africa, it starts with your consumption habits and your conceptions of charity. Sure, giving things away feels good and sometimes it's a good thing to do. That's why companies like TOMS shoes have done well - people like feeling good about donating a pair of shoes to an African kid whenever they buy a pair. Unfortunately, this model is an African economy killer. Why buy shoes produced in Asia to give to unemployed Africans instead of paying Africans to produce their own shoes (and maybe yours too), and therefore creating employment opportunities? In order to solve this type of problem, you would probably have to be willing to pay more for your goods and look very closely at the source. But if you're an American, it is fairly likely that you can afford to pay marginally more, because you spend a much lower percentage of your income on necessities than do individuals in most of the rest of the world. If this idea makes you a little uncomfortable, you're not alone. But the first answer I would say is actually seeking to promote economic development in war-torn areas through consumption habits that target job creation in these areas.

The second thing I would say is similar: Africa has become huge on the international travel agenda for those seeking to "help" people. I think many people are beginning to see that often they are the ones benefiting from this travel more than the people they go to help. This is not a bad thing: Many people return to the U.S. to tell people of their experiences and develop a very necessary awareness of what is going on in the developing world, and often find ways to benefit the populations there. Furthermore, people educated in the U.S. are able to use their skills to help in ways that locals are not able to (e.g., public health, medical missions, engineering, etc.). But if you want to really "help Africa" (as people tend to generalize it), don't plan a one-week mission trip to work at an orphanage and think this is something that Africans need you to do. It would probably be better for them if you sent the money you spent on the plane ticket. Now that just makes sense. However, if you would like to use your education to help people in undereducated regions or to create opportunities for sustained engagement that would help long-term human development, by all means, please go for it and see what opportunities are out there.

Finally, please recognize that unlike the IC seemed to suggest in the Kony2012 video, the LRA's weapons don't come from nowhere in particular. They come from places like the U.S. and the U.K. So if you want to get involved in a political campaign, why not approach senators and congresspeople about arms export laws and reigning in a wild international arms trade? For the past ten years, the U.S. has featured at the top of the list of arms exporting countries. Of course, this is generally to ally governments like Israel and Ethiopia, but come on... where do you think the weapons come from? It's probably Russia, the U.S., or the U.K., all of which keep manufacturing more. While the LRA probably doesn't buy directly from these sources, there are always allegations of arms aid from governments in neighboring states who do. All I'm saying is look at the numbers and think about how guns and bullets get where they do. And for those of you who have read Romeo Dallaire's book, Shake Hands with the Devil, about the Rwandan genocide (highly recommended, although depressing), remember that the pangas (machetes) used in Rwanda in 1994 arrived from the U.S. as "agricultural" tools, although there were certainly warnings of an impending RPF invasion from the north. Hey, that's supply and demand.

I hope this does not come off as an extended rant regarding this issue. To those of you who support Kony 2012, I say go for it, but please consider the deeper issues and don't use Kony as a scapegoat or IC as a panacea for your desire to change the world. I don't have all the answers and I think there is room for debate; if you want to know more, stop reading this blog and read some history.

Reading list:
Niels Kastfelt, Religion and African Civil Wars
Romeo Dallaire, Shake Hands with the Devil
Heike Behrend, Alice Lakwena and the Holy Spirits
James Ferguson, Global Shadows

1 comment:

  1. One of the most critical steps towards the eradication of poverty and conflicts throughout Africa is to facilitate a method that will enable the society to be economically-independent through self-esteem and collaboration. If donations are directly consumable by the society, we are leading the African communities into being very very lazy(which is happening right now).