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
In a recent NY Times article, Andrew Rice digs in to a meaty issue: agro-imperialism. He tells us about American Botanist Robert Zeigler who flies to Saudi Arabia to lend his expertise regarding food security to come face to face with the intense reality that the problem is being confronted by some countries with aggressive "land grabs", or "purchases", or "investments", depending on how you see the issue. The fact that countries like Saudi Arabia are increasing their holdings in other countries for food production highlights the deep fear food insecurity poses and perhaps the beginning of a land rush.
The buying or leasing of land at crazy low prices on the one hand seems unfair. It doesn’t belong to them! Its exploitative of a poor country! But its also creating jobs, that pay a whole 75 cents a day. And it wasn’t being used before (if you close your eyes tight enough, you might not see all the people that live there). In Ethiopia every farmer leases land from the government, including, quite legally, the Saudis. Given this, and the fact that despite action to the contrary, development organizations and local governments have been saying for years that Africa needs agricultural investment, is it really a "land grab"? Rice asks us "Is there such a thing as agro-imperialism?"
Well, in Ethiopia, 10 percent of the population suffer from food shortages, so to me, it does seem a bit disgusting to be leasing land to foreign governments. Rice makes an excellent point when he says "it looks bad politically for countries like Kenya and Ethiopia to be letting foreign investors use their land at a time when their people face the specter of mass starvation". The countries leasing the land justify their argument, claiming they are doing it legally, creating jobs, exploiting the land more efficiently. These arguments are all too familiar. Remember the last time foreign countries came to Africa to use the land better? Heck- they managed to find rubber, oil and diamonds! And think of all the "jobs" that were produced!
Rice doesn’t go so far, but for me despite my inability to really pick apart the problem with the whole thing, just feel that its wrong. I’d love to be more specific but I can’t even figure out if food security is a production problem or a distribution problem. I’m hoping to learn more at IPSA’s upcoming Spring Conference on food security.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Is there such a thing as agro-imperialism?
Equatorial Guinea (E.G.) is a small country in Western Africa, not even the size of Maryland. Gaining their independence in 1968 from the Spanish, the new government inherited similar challenges that were faced by other African states. In the mid 1990′s, this all changed with the discovery of huge oil reserves along E.G’s coastline. Since this discovery, western oil companies have done further exploration and concluded that 10% of the world oil reserves could be under E.G.
When it comes to dictators, it is hard to top E.G.’s president, Teodoro Obiang, who has been in power since 1979. Obiang has been on the shortlist of dictators, often compared to the likes of Libya’s Gadaffi, Congo’s Mobutu, and Zimbabwe’s Mugabe. The reason why the west has not heard much about the brutality of Obiang is the United States has close ties with Obiang. Since the discovery of oil, the United States has been an integral part of funding and supporting Obiang. It has not always been this way though. In 1995 (before the discovery of oil) the Clinton administration closed the embassy and seized funding to the dictatorship, but since the oil has been found, a rosier picture has been painted by the United States of E.G.
With an estimated $4 billion dollars in revenue coming in annually from oil, little development has been made to help the locals. Family members and cousins hold top public offices. Obiang himself trusts nobody in his country to protect him so he hires bodyguards from Morocco. On the streets of Malabo, E.G.’s capital or any other city for that matter, there are no ATM’s, not a single bookstore or newspaper stand (foreign journalists were banned), and only 8,000 lucky residents are fortunate enough to have the internet (censored and monitored). In sum, $4 billion dollars does not leave the hands of Obiang and his close family and friends.
So what is Obiang doing with these billions of dollars? Presently, Chinese laborers are building what is known locally as Malabo II, a futuristic new capital that is rising from the jungle, stretching for miles. Obiang’s pet project, includes a louvered-glass headquarters for the state-owned radio and TV station, a gleaming oval home for the state-owned oil company, and an ostentatious blue-topped building set to house the prime minister’s office. But there are no signs yet of hospitals, schools, and other services likely to help the average Equatoguinean. The project does call for 10,000 moderate-income housing units, but critics still insist that the whole thing is a misguided use of megafunds in a country that desperately needs a health-care system, housing, education, rural roads, and a reliable power supply — not to mention an oil refinery that could keep the price of gas low for the locals.
With emerging superpower China entering the oil arena, the United States is stepping up its effort to show E.G.’s dictator just how much they appreciate him. Recently, a private U.S. security firm won a contract last year — approved by the Pentagon — to train E.G.’s army and Presidential Guard. With so much U.S. investment on the ground, keeping Obiang well protected is apparently essential.
Those that have been following the whole China-United States-Equatorial Guinea debacle from the beginning have pointed out some similarities of today’s situation compared to the cold war. This time, instead of facing the Soviets for political influence, the United States is facing the Chinese, both struggling to secure energy to secure future economic growth. Nobody is more aware of this than president Obiang himself. In late 2005, he visited China and, on his return, announced, “From now on, China will be our principal partner for the development of Equatorial Guinea.” Then, expertly playing the two sides against each other, Obiang visited Washington in early 2006, where Condoleezza Rice welcomed him as “a good friend” of the United States. Within months of that visit — despite its annual reports portraying E.G. as a land of corruption, arbitrary arrests, scant human rights, and freedoms denied — the State Department installed its first resident ambassador in E.G. in 12 years. It even gave the okay to open a consulate stateside, in Houston.
With the gloomy world economic outlook and unemployment figures snatching up most of the worlds press, the well-known humanitarian issues, Darfur, Congo, and Burma have been pushed to the back pages of the papers and turned into quick sound bites on local news. To find out where Equatorial Guinea fits in, it might get about as much press as the size of the country, very little.
The other night i attended “Exposing the Green Revolution,” presented by NYU Wagner Health Program, World Hunger Year, Food & Water Watch, US Working Group on the Food Crisis, and IPSA.
The conversation was moderated by Brother David Andrews, recent Senior Advisor to the President of the UN General Assembly, a member of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, and a senior representative for Food and Water Watch.
Josphat Ngonyo of the Kenyan Biodiversity Network spoke in broad but convincing terms of the need to challenge the aid community’s emphasis on GMOs in Africa. He condemned the practice of instituting GMO programs that end up forcing low income farmers to buy seeds and fertilizers from multinational companies, fostering helpless dependency. GMOs, he said, clash with farmers’ lifestyles by forcing them towards monocropping, destroy the environment through overuse of land, runoff, and chemical pollution, and affect neighborhing crops through cross pollination. He also condemned food aid for making people lazy and dependent.
In order to avoid a second “green revolution,” like the one that enhanced productivity but led to destitution in India, he called for more on the ground involvement of communities, especially from AGRA, the organization in charge of bringing biotech to Africa. Furthermore, he recommended investments in commercial infrastructure; roads, warehouses, and stores, as well as increased access to credit for small farmers. Finally, he advocated work on land tenure and gender rights, as 80% of african farmers are women.
Bronx community gardener and food justice leader Karen Washington then spoke dynamically and convincingly about the disconnect between american urban food consumers and their food. she heralded the 11 community run farmers markets in New York City, and spoke of the need to educate children about where their food comes from. She also spoke of the importance of improving access and food security in low income areas of the city, changing the variety of products offered in neighborhood bodegas. Health, she said, was only one of the many reasons to create a more “enlightened” food policy. “We are sick and tired,” she said, “of being sick and tired.”
Various proposals and potential solutions were then discussed. One of the most salient was when someone asked about farmers who were comfortable, and had been for multiple generations, with enhanced crops and fertilizers and other unsustainable agricultural practices. Reprimanding farmer doesn’t make any sense, everyone agreed: Education is the key. Showing farmers how bad the products they use really are, for their health and the environment and their land, is really the key to creating change.
Though I’ve been working in the food world for the past three years, in various capacities, my experiences are almost all domestic, and since I’m at Wagner in part to throw myself into the international food world, this event was perfect for me.
In addition to learning a few new things, I ran into people I knew from the US food movement: a man who I had met at a kellogg Foundation food conference in Arizona two years ago, now an organizer for Slow Food, and a woman who I had known in New Orleans who runs community gardens.
By: Mischa Byruck
Unlike many of my Wagner colleagues, I have been in New York all summer – but no less focused on the field of international relief development! I dropped out of the water capstone when I was offered a full-time job at the International Rescue Committee, an organization that works to provide emergency relief and development assistance after a disaster. The IRC is primarily active in post-conflict and post-natural disaster areas, and focuses its efforts on assisting refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs).
I work from the NY headquarters office, primarily with the South Sudan, Syria, and Myanmar country programs (though all the others to some extent as well), and do work related to the logistics and operations of these complex country programs.
My main project at the moment is the new logistics manual that will be used by staff on the ground in each of our 28 country programs. Much of this involves turning the complex processes required by U.S. government and donor regulations into a manual that will actually be used and read, and be a helpful tool enabling field staff to carry out the basic operations and logistics of their humanitarian work efficiently and transparently!
Although the topic can be dry at times, this has been one of my favorite projects in the last few months, and it’s actually been surprisingly interesting learning the intricate inner workings of an organization as amazing as the International Rescue Committee. The IRC is highly regarded as a reputable, transparent, well-run organization, one that uses donor funds efficiently and carries out truly groundbreaking work, so I’m enjoying being a part of this in whatever small ways I can!