Friday, 9 March 2012

Development and Conflict in Africa: What can we do?

As controversy continues to surround Kony 2012 and Invisible Children, I would like to take advantage of the opportunity (and the momentum I have in my blogging - twice in a week is unheard of) to encourage a little more critical reflection on the subject of conflict resolution in Africa. First, let's see what are NOT the fundamental issues, before we move onto what are. I think several points that have been raised are not the fundamental issues, although they may have some bearing on the course of events. Among these are:

1. The financial habits of Invisible Children (specifically). Why is this not the issue? While invisible children has suddenly come under scrutiny for giving only about 25-30% of their budget to people on the ground in Uganda and spending the rest on travel and filmmaking, this budget follows directly from their stated purpose. They are an advocacy organization, creating awareness of issues surrounding child soldiers, particularly in Uganda - although their awareness campaign does touch other countries due to the subject matter. Furthermore, 30% may sound like a small number, but this is more than most international NGOs actually dole out to people on the ground. If you went to work for an international organization, would you want them to pay you, and would you want them to pay you according to the standard of living where you currently reside? Uganda's GNI per capita based on purchasing power parity is about 1/40 that of the US, meaning that a dollar goes a lot farther in Uganda than in the US. Go there - you'll see. What this does lead us to is first, the income differential that casts some doubts upon the economic efficiency of Westerners working for NGOs in Africa in general (and just to clear this up, I'm one of those people and thus I am questioning the source of my own income); and second, the proper way of donating money if you have money to donate.

2. The geographical location of Joseph Kony - namely, whether or not he is in Uganda. Whether or not Joseph Kony is within Uganda's borders does matter to the extent that the US military is assisting the Ugandan military, but it does not have a whole lot of bearing on the overall dynamic of conflict in the upper Nile/upper Congo watershed. Why? Because Joseph Kony himself is not the driver of conflict, although he is an effective mobilizer because he forces children to join his ranks. Furthermore, if he is not in Uganda, then he is terrorizing children somewhere else. So why would this make you criticize the invisible children movement? The campaign isn't "Uganda military 2012"; it's "Kony 2012". Theoretically, this should mean that if he's in the DRC, the US should support the DRC in stopping Kony. Of course, you might point out that there are issues with assisting the Ugandan military - their incursions that have violated the sovereignty of South Sudan and DRC in recent times have been denounced but not widely publicized. It was after the US arrived that Sudanese warlord George Athor died under dubious circumstances after a visit to Uganda. But if you really want to stop Joseph Kony, why not back a military that's not afraid to step across its own borders and violate the sovereignty of other states? It's more effective than them staying home!

3. The fact that the video is "too late". The video is 15 years too late to stop major bloodshed in Uganda; but why is this not an issue? Warfare persists in many parts of central and East Africa. Militias that were expelled from Rwanda in 1994 are still active in eastern Congo; Ethiopia - an American ally - continues to see conflict in the Ogaden; in South Sudan, ethnic strife has actually increased in the months since independence, and 2011 saw a lot of conflict during the wet season, which is somewhat atypical; and half of all Somalis have left their own country - imagine 150 million people simply walking out of the US - because of clan conflict there. The attention on Kony 2012 has the potential to draw more attention to these other issues, some of which the US government has been implicated in (how many of you were following when the US attacked Somali militants in 2011 or backed the Ethiopian invasion in 2006?).

Okay, so for now let's just look a little deeper at these three. Regarding the financial habits of NGOs, it is common knowledge that international organizations generally pay American employees (or workers from other Western countries) more than they pay locals, because the American employees tend to be more highly trained and thus have higher positions. But think about this: NGOs also often pay hazard pay, grant paid R&R time (generally 1-3 weeks after 6-8 weeks of work), and also give a per diem to workers in the field. Would you want to get that if you left the comfort of your American home and slept in a hut in South Sudan with the possibility of contracting malaria or being kidnapped by a rebel group or even by the national army? I'd say probably. But you're getting paid more to go to a place where people are paid less - and to deal with dangers that exist partially because people are paid less. So don't single out Invisible Children for criticism - criticize the whole NGO funding scheme if you don't like it, but if you don't like it, then do something to change it.

What can you do to change it? Rethink your whole non-profit giving model. Don't get me wrong - non-profit organizations do a lot of good and will continue to do good things, both in America and elsewhere. And there are certain sectors that should be non-profit, definitely. But you don't "save Africa" by giving to a nonprofit organization. It just extends the period of time until a for-profit model is developed that really allows Africa to take off economically and provide for its people. Save your dollars and cents (personally I refuse to donate my "bag credit" and other small sums) and either give money to something that is going to create sustainable livelihoods - meaning profitable employment - to people in Africa. Give it to educational bodies after doing research to make sure it's going to be spent well, because education will create sustainable livelihoods. Or save some money and invest in a business in Africa. The innovation that created the modern capitalist system and started America on the path to what it is was not driven by nonprofits - it was driven by people getting creative because they would receive something in return that would allow them to generate more creativity. As the world is constantly changing and markets are shifting, there are continual opportunities for innovation. Who would've thought ten years ago that blockbuster stores across North America would suddenly shut down because of a little red box in front of a 7-11? So that's my first point. "Non-profit" sounds nice, but somebody is making a profit off of it, meaning the employees - and it is not a sustainable model for locally-driven economic growth. So invest in socially responsible and innovative businesses. Don't just give people money and expect Africa to generate livelihoods - give them the accountability of making them pay it back and then reinvest. On the other hand, in order to create these productive opportunities and social/market innovators, we need to give money to education and philanthropic programs such as community festivals and the arts. So if you want to give money, education is a good place to start. You might say "yeah, well kids cannot go to school if Joseph Kony is kidnapping them." Sure, that's true. But there are millions of kids who are not threatened by Joseph Kony, and they want to go to school and then find a productive job, and if they do, they can take care of the future Joseph Konys (Konies?) themselves - that way you don't marginalize the Africans, as Ugandans are accusing us of doing.

Secondly, regarding whether or not Joseph Kony is in Uganda. Possibly IC should simply open up the possibility of US support for the area where Kony might be - somewhere in the DRC, most likely, or in Chad, or along the disputed border of South Sudan. The direct result of the Kony 2012 movement, if it is achieved, will be to prop up a government that does not meet our standards of democracy, by assisting the military branch of that government. There is relative peace in northern Uganda these days - that has been pointed out. But is Yoweri Museveni still president after 26 years and 2 months? Yes. Undoubtedly Museveni has done a lot for the country and his policies have brought Uganda a far cry from the days of Amin or Obote, but if you want to change Africa, I would say it's dangerous business propping up "presidents" who have been around since the 1980s. We criticize Robert Mugabe all day long, but one thing I can say for Zimbabwe is that its citizens are relatively well-educated due to a relatively good school system, and thus even though the world has crushed Zimbabwe's economy, aided along the way by Mugabe himself, at least Zimbabweans can find work in South Africa and elsewhere and have hope for a post-Mugabe future. I don't think Museveni's a bad guy - but once you get too comfortable in power, it is hard to do anything else. That is why America did a great thing by not letting its presidents get too comfortable as the executive.

Finally, the fact that this Kony 2012 video should have been "Kony 1997", or even "Kony 2000" is not a fundamental issue with what it is trying to get across. If you are reading this, you are interested in the subject, and so Kony 2012 has served its first purpose - to raise awareness. Now, I would like to point you to the conflicts that are currently serving up the highest death tolls in Africa - South Sudan and Somalia. I think in the future if you are interested (and please let me know if you are interested), we could post a short history of these conflicts on this blog. Suffice it for now to say that these conflicts are caused at least partially by a lack of livelihood opportunities and markets that provide for innovation - what we talked about above - that drive people to competition through warfare rather than through market means.

A major problem for South Sudan is the hemming in of its historically migratory population within defined borders, which creates population pressure on the pastoralist cattle economy, which is the only economy in much of the country. Many people here don't have money - their wealth is in their cows and in the crops grown around their villages. So what happens when you have a bunch of youth whose only job is to keep cattle and who would in the past have moved off to find their own grazing land? They start stealing each other's cows. Then they kill each other for the cows, so there's no one to come and reclaim them. Then they join a local militia group to get a gun so they can protect their cows, and they use that gun to steal other cows. Then militia groups start stealing the cows from political figures who have accumulated massive herds. You see where this goes. The point is that the pastoralist economy is now geographically limited and hemmed in by a global market that excludes these youth because they have no other skills than cattle keeping, so they buy guns to hold their own in this environment and this trend has led to the death of thousands of people - yes, thousands - since the beginning of 2012. You don't hear much about it in the American media, do you?

Likewise, few people talk about the drivers of piracy in Somalia - the nuclear waste that was dumped offshore and the hazard containers that broke open during an indian ocean tsunami a few years go, contaminating local waters; or the twenty years of illegal fishing that have decimated fish populations and pushed fishermen to piracy. I'm not saying piracy is okay or the answer by any means. But you should know why some groups of pirates call themselves "the Somali Coast Guard" and things like that. They started out by levying fines on illegal European fishing boats. And as for the Somali conflict, I know firsthand that the Somalis are an unruly lot, but Somalis are also generally some of the nicest people I know. I would say they are certainly among the most democratic in the world, and they will argue about politics for hours because politics is a central facet of modern Somali life. Now a Cold War-era rebellion against a dictator has turned into a self-sustaining clan conflict in which kids are psychologically traumatized at such a young age that war is all they have ever known. The guns and ammunition that flow into the region, produced in the developed world, don't help.

By no means am I saying that taking away guns and bullets will solve the world's problems - I am a proponent of the right to bear arms, albeit in a regulated manner. But I bet you everything I have that if every home in the US had an AK-47 and a box of bullets, neighborly conflicts and bar brawls would take on a much more sinister aspect, especially if a significant percentage of American kids had watched firsthand as family members were shot.

Apologies for the length; I will try to keep future posts somewhat shorter. If you are interested in Global Venture and the educational opportunities and socially responsible business models that we are attempting to begin spreading across Africa as we begin programming this year, please let me know. And before you accuse me of being just another American starting an NGO, ask me some questions and let's talk about it. I didn't start the organization - I'm just the best at typing.

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