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.
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
This week’s Economist has three articles about democracy in three different countries. They form an interesting set. Going from east to west:
Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai will remain president without a run-off election. The second-place candidate from the first round, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, bowed out rather than face the massive fraud that was expected in the second round. The twist: Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) declared Karzai the winner despite significant doubt on legality of the move, and whether the IEC has the authority to make that decision. Obama and other Western leaders endorsed the outcome. Best line: "The Taliban gleefully claimed that the election had been decided in Washington and London. Most independent observers would concur." And then: "It is hoped that the legitimacy absent from the electoral process can be ‘earned’ through good behaviour."
Next door, protesters in Iran have made a habit of turning up to officially sponsored celebrations. Thousands took to the streets in Tehran and smaller cities on November 4th, the thirtieth anniversary of the day Iranian students took 52 American hostages at the embassy in Tehran. These protests are clearly continuations of the ones that followed June’s disputed election. Key line: "The protests are unlikely to bring the government down, but its legitimacy is being questioned in a way that was once unthinkable."
And finally, many see positive signs in the political maneuvering leading up to Iraq’s January elections. The main electoral blocks are increasingly cross-sectarian. For example, Iyad Allawi (a Shia and former prime minister) and Saleh al-Mutlaq (a Sunni member of parliament) have formed the Iraqi National Movement. Their main rival: Unity, a group led by Jawad al-Bolani (a Shia and current interior minister) and Ahmed abu Risha (a Sunni leader of the Awakening movement). This is unquestionably progress — though whether it will last remains to be seen.
Blogging best practice requires somehow connecting these three stories. Forget the geographic proximity; that’s too easy. Let’s also ignore the fact that they are all Muslim countries. Here is there interesting thread: Accountability to the people. Afghanistan’s recent election debacle reinforces the public perception (and the reality) that the Afghan government answers to foreign governments rather than to its own people. That undermines every security and development effort. No amount of "good behavior" will counter it. In Iran, ongoing protests damage the regime’s legitimacy, giving moral support and political wiggle room to advocates for change within the regime. Iraq is the most interesting case: accountability to their bases can often drive politicians apart (witness the way US politicians in gerrymandered districts play to their parties’ extremes), but it may be that the need for a parliamentary coalition and the larger demand for national unity are having a positive effect.
By: Dave Algoso
By Nhu Truong
Why have women been counted out of the equation for development? Why is it important that foreign aid should direct more focus to educate and empower women in ways that can allow and create opportunities for greater female involvement in society and the economy? And, finally, how do we identify the invisible pressures of culture and tradition that are visibly tied to prevalent perceptions of women’s place in the family, society, and a country’s development as a whole?
Joined by the Wagner Women’s Caucus and Professor John Gershman, students participated in IPSA’s Reading & Discussion Group on October 15, 2009 for a discussion on these important questions about the effect of development on women. The discussion was grounded on a reading of two articles: “The Women’s Crusade,” and “Rights Versus Rites.”
The “Off the Record” discussion with Gwen Neely was a great way for current students to meet a Wagner alumna who has taken her experiences here and turned them into a fulfilling career with DAI in Afghanistan.
Gwen was extremely candid about the pros and cons of working in Afghanistan and for government contractors versus NGOs. She also offered herself as a resource for future questions about jobs in developing countries.
Shortly after our discussion, Gwen was leaving New York to return to Afghanistan. We wish her well and hope to see her upon her return.
Sept 29th Reading & Discussion Group – Iran: What Does Engagement Mean? What Can We Hope to Achieve?
On Tuesday, September 29th, a group of 10 students joined Professor Gershman for IPSA’s first Reading & Discussion Group of the semester. Both first and second years came to discuss “Iran: What Does Engagement Mean? What Can We Hope to Achieve?” They brought their unique perspectives on the situation as well as a bit of background reading to facilitate an interesting and thought-provoking conversation.
During the hour-long discussion, the group raised such issues as: sanctions and their effectiveness, nuclear proliferation and what results negotation could have. The need to recognize Iran as a regional power was also discussed and was agreed upon by many. Using trade and the potential for economic growth as an incentive for nuclear transparency was proposed as a potential common ground solution during negotiations.
Stay tuned for the next Reading & Discussion Group on October 15th at 5PM! All are welcome to join IPSA & Professor Gershman for an interesting conversation about women in development.
IPSA Member & Reading/Discussion Group Coordinator