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.
On Saturday morning, I was driving on a well-travelled road outside of Nairobi to Naivasha, a play ground for Nairobians looking to get out of town for the weekend. It’s where you go for walking safaris with giraffes, camping, and hanging out on the lake. We were four adults and four kids–all four sitting in the back, having fun and looking out the back window.
About five minutes outside of Naivasha town, on the highway, our jeep was banged into by a massive lorry (truck) that was free wheeling down the hill. As we swerved off the road to the ditch, we hit a smaller truck which rolled out of view. In a state of shock, we panicked as we noticed that another white lorry was heading directly our way. By some miracle, he missed us. My first impulse when we turned was to check on the kids. Save some glass in the face and arms, they were ok. A lesson for parents out there: Car seats matter!! The baby was fast asleep in his car seat and only opened his eyes to our screaming.
A crowd of around fifty people from town gathered to help us out of the car and attend to the screaming kids. Standing around in a state of shock, we were just trying to figure out what to do with the child who ended up with some cuts. How would we get to the hospital. As we pondered this question.. a scene out of a freak movie occurred. A blue truck lost control of his vehicle and swerved directly into the crowd, right where we were standing. Another miracle occurred, all of us ran out of the way. But we were the only lucky ones. I witnessed several people run in the wrong direction and we were soon surrounded by death and injury. By my best estimation, 5-10 must have died on the spot. My most vivid memory is of a man with his head split open, being carried away to safety.
The gentlemen who offered us a ride to the hospital were freaked out and shoved us into the car to get away from the “black spot”. We got to the hospital only to find that it was empty… no doctors, no nurses, just plenty of waiting patients. We were lucky enough to have our guardian angels drive us back to Nairobi for medical care, but there were far too many who wouldn’t get that chance.
As we drove past the scene of the accident, I was in shock. Our jeep was finished, it was truly bizarre that we all got away scott free. About forty minutes had passed and there was no sign of any police (despite the fact that the station was a mere fifteen minutes away, and the accident had been reported both in-person and by phone). I had no idea how any injured person would get to the empty hospital. By matatu (bus)? The same matatus whose reckless driving is one of the leading cause of death in Kenya?
I also wonder about all of us, my closest friends and kids who I couldn’t love more if they were my family. If any of us incurred a head injury, we’d have to drive two hours to the nearest facility with equipment to treat us. Only three hospitals in Kenya are equipped to deal with head trauma. And the whole country only has 5000 registered doctors. But you can only be treated if you can get there in time and if they are there.
I think about how I spent my entire life in the Developing World, Pakistan, China, Oman … and am so blessed I never had to experience that. Even with all my privilege, what would I do if I were caught in a similar situation, away from a hospital?
Pakistani law states that accident cases can only be taken to Jinnah Hospital.. So in a city of over 20 million people, only one hospital is authorized to treat trauma.
Driving past the scene, I was reminded of how privileged and lucky I am. The question is, what do we do with this privilege we’ve been given? I have never thought much about health issues in the developing world, that is until I took Karen Grepin’s Health Econ class. But to live out the findings of endless reports on healthcare and doctor abesenteeism felt surreal.
I am still in shock from the whole experience and also a bit loopy from the muscle relaxants for my whip lash! But I know that this experience has changed me and refocused my energies on the issues that are so important in development.
It has taken exactly two seconds for me to get back into my Third World mode, or as I like to call it, 3D. I’ve adjusted to the fact that things just move a little slower and that while something may seem “urgent” at work, even urgent has a different connotation. This is a world I can totally roll with. But there have been other challenges that I almost just forgot about. Two days ago, we lost power at work and our generator blew up. So we spent the entire day with no power. We had deadlines on proposals, projects, and even a documentary that needed finishing. But we all just had to let go since it was beyond our control. Today, our driver fell ill and called sick to work. This meant that those of us who rely on his transportation to get to work, were not able to come. Instead, I’m spending my day “working” at a wireless cafe.
And things like this keep happening. Things that are out of our control but have a lot to do with systems and infrastructure. It has been making me think a lot about what we mean when we say we want to support “building civil society”. Do we want to build visionaries, like the Ashoka fellow I work for who has a dream (and a plan) of creating a just society in Kenya. Or do we also want to build up the supports and infrastructure that enable visionaries to do their work? To help CREAW, we need to have institutions in place that will take care of electrical issues, or have safer public transportation options for the millions of workers in this country who spend far too much time finding ways to get to work.
But I have also experienced something in Kenya that I have never experienced elsewhere. I am treated like a superior class of person, and it is extremely difficult to get my brain around or to understand how to cope with it. I’ll give you some broad strokes of how this has showed up. If I go to a black Kenyan’s house, I’m told that it’s an “honor” for them to host me, even if I’m there to get work from them! I’ve been complimented on my beautiful skin color (a weird compliment for a Paki) and repeatedly called beautiful. It reminds me of the way that we treat foreigners in Pakistan. Any party attended by the British High Commissioner, or a rep from Shell, is the BEST. Teachers from the American School are treated like royalty and it actually makes me sad to think about how many proud men have made fools of themselves just to please the foreigner.
Is this a remnant of colonialism and neo-colonialism? And how am I, as a hybrid North/South student to react to this? Questions to ponder for the week!
On my long journey to Nairobi, I picked up two fictional books based on real-life events in Nigeria. The first, Little Bee, is about a Nigerian girl who escaped the Oil Wars in her country and became an asylee in England. Written by journalist Chris Cleave, it paints a story that many of us have read in various permutations on the tragedies of Africa. While it certainly brings light to an issue that many of us have not been aware of, it tells a familiar tale of African victims who are mistreated by a foreign other and then abused by the Western powers that be. In an unsurprising turn of events, this young black woman befriends a white woman who learns so much and finds that they share more than they could ever know.
I found myself once again enjoying what I can only describe as a “real page-turner”, yet questioning the assumptions and simplicities with which it described a complex situation. Like so many books that came before it, it portrays the main African character as the wise old soul; saying the perfect thing at the perfect moment, often at the bewilderment of her English friends.
I was forced to compare this book to my other travel companion (I had a 14-hour layover in Heathrow) Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie, one of the books featured in IPSA’s Summer Book Club. I know that the books cover two completely different topics, the latter focusing on the Nigeria-Biafra War, but I couldn’t help but be struck by the differences with which the authors profiled characters and described events. Each of Chimamanda’s central characters is deep and complex, often horrificly flawed. She takes time and care to go beyond the surface and portray all sides and psychologies not only of her characters, but of the contexts in which they acted.
Now that I’m in Nairobi, I’m left wondering whether these books represent the attitudes and tones with which people view Africa and the “African Problem”?
As an Ashoka Africa Summer Associate, I am working with the Center for Rights Education and Awareness, a local NGO that promotes a free and just society for all men and women. In addition to supporting its core operations, I will be exploring economic and livelihood development opportunities for women survivors of gender based violence, which means that I will be interacting with businesses, development partners, microfinance institutions, and faith based organizations. While each organization carries a unique mission, I wonder if each also ascribes to one of the general views on Africa. These views undoubtedly shape development efforts. This question will be a theme of my posts and I hope to unpack at least a little bit of this complex question while I’m here. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Just 15 years after the Rwandan Genocide, which left an estimated 800,000 dead, the social fiber of the country torn and the world skeptical that the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RFP) guerilla army that stopped the genocide could begin to govern, Rwanda has seen a complete transformation. It is now called the “Switzerland of Africa”. Much of this transformation owes its thanks to Paul Kagame, the former RFP commander who assumed office in 2000 and became the first
democratically elected leader of the country a few years later.
Recognizing his country’s geographical disadvantage, land-locked and surrounded by other poor countries, Kagame has opted to make Rwanda the service hub of the region, what he calls, the “Knowledge Center”. Broadband Internet is widespread in urban areas and there have been major investments in capacitating the local population. This is where Kagame admits that foreign support does more than simply patronize and debilitate African people. He welcomes technical support and business training programs what would strengthen the locally based business sector. Of course, this is not to say that he’s shied away from foreign direct investment.
He has even made his appreciation of Chinese investment clear. A recent This is Africa report cites Kagame as saying “What questions should China, or any country in the West be asking [when they invest]? The number one question they should be asking is: does it bring good returns for the investments that they are making? Now, if there are issues about governance and politics, they are free to ask these questions. But tying everything to these questions that have been asked for the last 50 years I think borders on, or even goes beyond, hypocrisy and double standards.” According to the World Bank’s 2010 “Doing Business” report, a publication tracking private sector regulation, Rwanda has lowered more barriers to investment than any other country.
Kagame’s unique efforts in a region of notoriously egregious leaders seem to have paid off. The “Doing Business” report also moved Rwanda from 143rd place in 2009 to 67th in 2010, making Rwanda the “World’s Top Reformer”. Indeed, Rwanda is a veritable success story. It experienced impressive growth rates (GDP per capita has tripled since the genocide despite overall population growth). Furthermore, Rwanda has strengthened environmental protections (plastic bags are against the law), and now has more women in parliament than anywhere in the world.
Perhaps most astonishing to a global community helpless in the face of the genocide and without post-conflict solutions, Kagame has found a successful resolution. By presidential decree the Rwandan people have undertaken thousands of reconciliation gacaca trials meant to reward confession, and suddenly murderers are living alongside their victims in a careful balance he holds in his hands. A combination of forcing cohabitation, addressing publically the issues of genocide, and giving wide economic and political strength to the Tutsi victims (Kagame is himself a Tutsi) have gone a long way to reconciling hatred, or at least holding it in check. Whether this ethic balance will last remains a concern, but as new generations are born the history moves farther into the past.
Though clearly a darling of the West, it will remain to be seen whether or not his charismatic and largely successful leadership will win him re-election in August. Kagame has been criticized for resisting opposition and maintaining perhaps an overly- authoritarian rule. This has led Victore Ingabire, a Hutu who was abroad during the genocide, to return to Rwanda in December 2009 and begin his candidacy against Kagame. Other opposition parties are also considering joining forces against Kagame and violence is on the rise.
In late February there were three unclaimed grenade attacks in Kigali injuring 30 and killing at least one person.
Despite unequivocal improvements and impressive leadership the future of Rwanda is uncertain. Whether chronic poverty, disruptive neighborly relations with Congo and ethnic tensions so recently slackened and an upcoming election will ignite another downward cycle rests on Kagame’s leadership. It appears that Paul Kagame is an example of African leadership at its best. But will this be enough for Rwanda?
By Sierra Visher
Just over two years ago, I awoke to the news of Benazir Bhutto’s death. My immediate reaction, like the rest of the international community, was shock. But after the initial shock passed, I was overcome by grief. That day, I wept for her, for her family, for Pakistan, and also for those of us who had lost a great role model.
In November 2002, I attended a special lecture of Bhutto’s at Middle Tennessee State University. I was a junior in high school, and had decided to attend the lecture because of the promise of extra credit for history class. At my parents’ encouragement, I was told not only to attend her lecture because it may improve my grade, but to really listen to what she had to say. And I did.
I sat close to the back of the large auditorium in which she spoke, but over seven years later, I still remember her face. Dressed in royal blue and her trademark loose-fitting hijab, she was gracious, well-spoken, and often just downright funny. She told the audience of her days growing up in Pakistan as the privileged child of a wealthy political family, her studies at Harvard and Oxford, her avid belief in democracy and its impact on her rule as Pakistan’s first female prime minister, her struggles against gender discrimination, her travels across the world, her imperfections, and most importantly her ultimate mission in life – to return to Pakistan and improve the lives her people.
To say that Benazir Bhutto left an impression on me that autumn evening would be an understatement. She inspired me. My home country, Sierra Leone, was barely out of a brutal decade-long civil war, and though I was young, I too knew I wanted to improve the condition of my land and my people. I wanted to follow in Bhutto’s footsteps. In many ways, I did. In the years that followed, I spent an ample amount of time traveling and studying world cultures and religion. I went on to study comparative government at Harvard, and wrote my senior thesis on democracy-building in Sierra Leone. As time passed and as the memory of that November evening became increasingly distant, I never forgot how Bhutto motivated me to pursue a career in public service.
So in early 2007 when Bhutto reappeared onto the international scene, ready to return to Pakistan from exile and to run again for political office, I could not help but to take notice and to see what next she would achieve. For the last few months of her life, I followed her every interview, every rally, every political move. And though the threat of violence was imminent, I never imagined it would ultimately claim the life of the woman who I admired so much.
It has been two years since Benazir Bhutto was assassinated after leaving a political rally in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. The memories of that day are still fresh in my mind – the last image of her waving toward a crowd of supporters, her entry into the vehicle which moments later would be attacked, the shots and blast that took her life, the rioting in the days afterward… For her life to come to such a violent end, for her to never see Pakistan fulfill its potential, one may sadly conclude that Bhutto lived her life in vain. I know that this is not the case. To me, Benazir Bhutto exemplified strength and grace in the face of opposition and illustrated to the world the profound impact that a life of public service can have. It is for these reasons I thank her and will always remember her.
Effie O. Johnson
Master of Public Administration (MPA) Candidate, May 2011
International Public and Nonprofit Management and Policy
Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service, New York University
A.B. Harvard University, 2008