When it comes to humanitarian crises, is all awareness good awareness? Does responsibility ever trump sovereignty, and if so, when? NYU Wagner students gathered to discuss these questions, among others, at an International Public Service Association (ISPA)-sponsored reading group with Professor John Gershman on March 21, 2012.
The thought-provoking and animated discussion began with a look at the controversial Kony 2012 video, a production of Invisible Children, Inc. that has gone viral, especially among young people in the United States. The video tugs at viewers’ heartstrings, encouraging them to join an international movement that is calling for the arrest of Ugandan Joseph Kony, a leader in the Lord’s Resistance Army, on charges of war crimes and child abuse. The video has generated substantial support for the campaign against Kony. However, it has also drawn criticism from those who say it misrepresents and oversimplifies the conflict.
Reading-group participants noted the video’s lack of information about what Ugandans have done to fight Kony, and the limited airtime for African perspectives. The video ignores the potential costs of military intervention and many other issues affecting Ugandans and other countries involved in the crisis, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic, where Kony is believed to be living. Does the IC production constitute “badvocacy”? What do we make of all the college students who might not have otherwise known the name Kony, and now wear wristbands for the cause?
This led to a broader conversation about U.S. intervention in international affairs. Too often, sound bites about conflicts in Syria, Libya, Egypt and Uganda, among other nations, leave out the history of U.S. actions that exacerbated the problems giving rise to these conflicts. Domestic politics and dependence on oil also play a role in whether and how the U.S. chooses to respond to conflicts across the globe.
It is often easier to criticize than to propose solutions. But the IPSA group did have some ideas:
- Consider the appropriate size and scale of U.S. military budget and action. While the costs and benefits of social programs has been a hot topic in U.S. politics in recent years, there has been relatively little talk of this nature with regard to the military and international interventions.
- Prepare for peace, not just for war. Support culturally competent peace-building efforts to try to avoid the need for international interventions in the first place.
- Tell the truth about complicated conflicts. Sometimes quick summaries are necessary, but public awareness campaigns must eventually translate into nuanced, contextualized understanding and action.
- When considering international intervention, think critically about questions such as: What is the history of this conflict? Who is telling the story and how does that affect the way it is told? What is the source of legitimacy for the intervening parties? What is their relationship to local actors? Who is best served by their actions?
- Make eye-catching movies about ways to address inequality in our own neighborhoods. Where is the shiny video encouraging people in the U.S. to occupy bank-foreclosed homes?
The IPSA Reading Group, organized by NYU Wagner students in coordination with Professor John Gershman, meets regularly to discuss issues related to international development and policy. This conversation will be continued at IPSA’s 2012 conference on Friday, April 13, 2012. RSVP here.
Targeting women in international development is a cost effective way to maximize multipliers and improve outcomes for vulnerable groups.
Many studies have highlighted the benefits of supporting women through international development efforts. Initial publications in the 1970s by Ester Boserup and other leading scholars indicated that advocating for women enhances both material and societal development outcomes.
In her book Women’s Role in Economic Development, Boserup disrupted the traditional assumption that men were the primary actors in raising food. Her research showed that women often take on the tasks of food cultivation, as well as food preparation. She also learned that women often lack control over the products of their labor. Put simply, their husbands and fathers were taking the food they grew and the money they earned.
This disconnection between the actor and the decision maker in this situation is an example of a structural inefficiency that can hobble development efforts. It is the result of patriarchal systems of dominance that privilege men at the expense of the society in general. Boserup concluded that by challenging that patriarchal structure and placing decision-making power in the hands of the working class (women), it was possible to achieve greater rates of economic growth and enhance social equity.
The World Bank took up women’s issues and equality in their most recent World Development Report. It builds on numerous studies to show that women’s empowerment can have significant impacts on all development indicators. For example, in Ghana they discovered that the share of assets and land owned by women is positively correlated with higher food expenditures among rural households. This is beneficial for the women and also beneficial for all other members of the household, who enjoy greater access to food. In Bangladesh, women who exercised greater control over their travel, household purchases, and healthcare were found to be better nourished.
Women also have a role to play in conflict and dispute resolution. They are often active in informal family and community peacemaking efforts, making them well suited to sit at a negotiating table. Furthermore, women tend to experience the consequences of conflict in more extreme ways than other groups. This, if nothing else, should give them the right to participate in peace processes. They act as caregivers of last resort for the elderly, the ill, and children. It is not uncommon for women to be forced to care for wounded soldiers as well. In their role as caregivers, they suffer acutely from the infrastructure failures that accompany conflict. The collapse of food and water distribution systems, economic implosion, and the breakdown of transportation and communication networks all make life in conflict zones very difficult for women. Often, they are unable to leave, due to the infirmities of their dependents. As a result of these experiences, women in formal peace processes are more likely to advocate for measures to restore essential services and improve the status of vulnerable groups
From peacemaking to food production, developing women can ameliorate historical imbalances in the allocation of resources, and improve health and well-being for entire communities. Developing women is an essential tactic for creating just and sound outcomes.
This post is part of IPSA‘s pre-conference blog series.
The topic of this year’s annual IPSA conference, REVOLUT!ONS: People, Politics and Change, was almost certainly chosen in light of the political and social changes occurring in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Given the importance of these events to our conference discussions, I will use this blog post to provide an overview of the MENA movements and to share some supplementary materials.
On December 18, 2010, Tunisians organized a protest calling for the restoration of their national constitution, which had been suspended under President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. This event marked the start of a wave of other movements in countries across North Africa and the Middle East, now collectively known as the Arab Spring.
Since the start of the Arab Spring there have been protests in more than 18 MENA countries, with some movements receiving more support and realizing greater success than others. In four Arab nations –Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen – citizen movements succeeded in toppling their oppressive dictators, often times through violent struggles. In other countries like Syria and Bahrain, protestors and opposition groups have been less successful, as they have been aggressively suppressed by state forces, resulting in numerous civilian casualties.
Governments in Saudi Arabia and Morocco have gone out of their way to appeal to the population by promising to increase spending on their citizens. In countries like Mauritania, Sudan, and Western Sahara, protests have occurred on a relatively smaller scale, and yet often receive significant support. (See map above and click on the links below the image to learn more about the protests in each country.)
Though each movement has been shaped under unique political contexts and in response to varying grievances, they all share a common theme –citizens demanding to shift power away from dictators in order to have more influence in the political sphere. As it turns out, the Arab Spring embodies a larger global historical trend toward relatively less powerful dictators. As a Cornell Professor explains in an NPR report, “It’s not only that there are fewer dictators, but there are virtually no dictators left who don’t talk the language of democracy and turnover of executive power.”
Holding on to power has gotten much harder for dictators in the past decades. Through social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, opposition leaders are able to mobilize and organize protests at unprecedented levels, with less effort, and in less time. Moreover, digital mass media allows for instant dissemination of information, often in the form of powerful video footage or pictures. These images have the potential to make dictators less popular by exposing oppressive and inhumane practices; thereby increasing the likelihood for support or intervention on the part of local allies and the international community (which as we have seen in Syria, only works in some cases).
Though it may take some time to reach political stability in some parts of MENA, in the long-run, the success of the Arab Spring movements will depend on the degree to which people’s lives improve under the new systems of governance. Some argue that in order for a stable democracy to succeed in these countries, political institutions must emphasize the inclusion of ethnic and religious minorities. Others are more concerned that these nascent democracies may elect radical anti-west Islamists into power, limiting people’s freedoms even further. Regardless of how these events play out, the MENA movements will undoubtedly have lasting and profound political, social, and economic effects on the countries of that region and the rest of the world.
by Nicolás Galarza, MUP ’13
While working at the Presidential Agency of Social International Cooperation in Colombia, my coworkers and I set out to harness the power of the internet to help us in deploying a comprehensive poverty alleviation strategy for the country’s poorest citizens.
Our challenge was to use technology to build a volunteer network that could help Colombian citizens. We first turned to the internet, and thought about how it could be used to create new possibilities for the poorest families inColombia. Just over 50 percent of Colombian households have access to the internet, compared to 78 percent of American households.
Then we thought; if the poorest ofColombiacannot access the internet, we should deploy a strategy that involved volunteers that were already linked up.
Like in theUnited States, plenty of citizens inColombiawere willing to help, but many didn’t know how. So we started working on a volunteer strategy based upon technology and social media. We were inspired by volunteermatch.org in theUS, and “portal do voluntario” inBrazil.
Even though we knew most people were concerned about poverty, we wondered why they were not taking concrete actions to help the poorest population. We found that it was because they are largely unaware of the roots of the problem, much less the consequences and the policies that were being implemented to address it. To find the information, they would have to at the very least read a policy paper. This begged the question: should willing citizens have to read policy papers before they could help? The answer was self-evident.
We thought about how to make this information accessible to the public, and then we had it: we could launch a website with easy to digest content on poverty issues. Then we could set out to develop a volunteer campaign, using an E-Government strategy to engage citizens to take action on alleviating poverty inColombia. We started designing info graphic pieces, clearly stating the problem, why it was important to solve it, what the government and other organizations were doing, and what a citizen could do to collaborate.
Although our approach to poverty alleviation had been a comprehensive strategy, we decided to focus our project on housing. It seemed feasible that we could gather people to donate their time on a weekend to help improve the home of a poor family.
To begin, we selected one of our constituent families who was in need of a home improvement intervention. This particular household had dirt floors, a roof threatening to fall down, no private space for children, and very poor sanitation services.
We expected between 15 and 30 volunteers. After two weeks of campaigning, however, we had a startling 120 citizens sign up on the website and 70 actually showed up to volunteer. The project was funded by the government as well as private donations, which were used to supply labor, construction materials, and bedding for the children. Private and non-profit organizations also lent their time and technical expertise, including Architecture for Humanity Bogotá, OrganiZmo and Somos más.
After the intervention, living conditions for this Colombian family were so improved that they were no longer considered poor according to the Colombian standards (which are higher than World Bank measures). The Colombian government recognized our initiative as the best “E-Government Solution” in 2011.
At the Presidential Agency, we knew we had figured out a way to use technology for development, despite limited access among poor families. And this was just the beginning. After this successful intervention, several organizations in different cities expressed their interest in implementing a similar initiative. As citizens committed to public service, we have to know technology is one of our biggest allies.
Here you can find the entire fall edition of The Wagner Planner.
This is the actual platform the article talks about: www.colombiaenaccion.gov.co
*The Wagner Planner is an independent student newsletter of the Urban Planning Students Association (UPSA) at NYU Wagner. It is published and circulated via Adobe PDF format in the Fall and Spring semesters.