Tag Archives: Digital media

Cyber Warfare: Think about who might be next

International cyber warfare did not begin with somebody stealing the launch codes to the nuclear arsenal on a U.S. Navy Triton submarine. It did not begin with a cabal of MIT geeksquad eco-terrorists shutting down oil production in the Arctic Circle. No, those are Hollywood story lines. In the end, international cyber warfare began with the revelation that Angelina Jolie is a “spoiled brat.” It began, funnily enough, with Hollywood itself; with a powerful movie studio pulling the release of its $42 million movie, shamed by outings of internal secrets, hurt by stolen scripts, threatened with violence. So much for The Interview.

Have you followed this story (e.g., here, here or here)? Did you feel a bit catty early on, as I did, a little too elated to see Tinseltown’s top brass squirm as their personal emails became Gawker headlines? Be careful. Here’s a test. Aside from a Hollywood studio about to poke fun at the oddball ruler of a pariah country, can you think of another Western entity, or body of entities, who might occasionally humiliate the leaders of relatively powerless countries? Who might ritually indulge in the arrogance of airing someone else’s dirty underwear? Who might just irritate some nation enough, or threaten enough reputational damage, that the allure of socking one of these self-appointed voices of global conscience in the gut might appear both justified and quite delicious?

On the surface, the Sony saga has some appeal to those of us who root for the underdog: marginalized basketcase government jumps corporate behemoth and beats them into surrender. There is glory in that. And power. We NGOs in particular should understand the apparatus at play. The North Korean government (allegedly) has rode the vehicle of celebrity to guarantee viral coverage for its story, in the process shaming the would-be shamers. I can think of a few other governments who might be interested in that kind of power, and instead of a second rate comedy being canned it might be a documentary about rape in Darfur, or a report on the deliberate destruction of health facilities in Syria.

Let’s face it, in terms of our cyber security large Western NGOs have erected far less of a fortress than a company like Sony Pictures. We are exposed. Crucially, we are easily more vulnerable than the movie biz to blackmail when public perception and trust are at stake. It wasn’t pretty, but those Sony emails certainly didn’t say anything we didn’t already think about Scott Rudin, Amy Pascal or that entire industry. The public is titillated, not abhorred, by their sneering. In contrast, what do aid execs write when nobody is looking? I’m guessing that donors contributing a million a year would not appreciate email musings refering to them as, say, egomaniacal , dandruffy pains in the ass. Not to mention direct orders to strengthen the facade that the agency is working through local partners, or the truth about bloated HQ staff travel budgets and long-running projects with little impact.

Ebola: Three Ideas You (hopefully) Haven’t Read

[Originally posted September 26 and lost due to website issues. Apologies to those whose comments have been lost as well.]

Part 1. The Ebola crisis is in part the self-fulfilling prophesy of the way we think about Africa.

The Ebola crisis in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea consumes no shortage of attention in mainstream Western media. Other African crises like CAR, Libya or Sudan, let alone success stories, should be so lucky. Then again, maybe attention isn’t such a good thing after all. Some of it quite responsible, much of it still trades in outworn stereotypes of a continent awash in warlords, loin cloths and killer microbes.

Hooray for resistance to sloppy Ebola storytelling, for example Dionne and Seay’s nailing Newsweek‘s sensationalist cover story. Or earlier this week Sierra Leonean Ishmael Beah skewering the way lopsided Ebola reporting reinforces the role of Africa as a foil, as a continent whose dismal failure reaffirms our superior Western civilization.

But why dump all the blame on the media? NGOs and the UN – the foreign aid establishment – surely merit some credit for perpetuating the popular notion that Africa is a cauldron of tribal brutality, a crucible of scary diseases and a reservoir of primitivism, all rolled into one waiting-for-a-savior basket. (Not to mention the rather stock idea that Africa is a country. On that geographical malapropism, see this great blog.). The point is firstly one of principle: NGOs should be truthful in their communications. Easier said than done. They appear locked into an audience (the home society public) that demands such a stereotype in order to feel compelled to donate (see e.g., my previous blog on this).

We’ve heard criticism of this stereotyping before, often from within the aid and Western media communities. Is there hope? Importantly, Beah published in the Washington Post, bringing his views to Western eyes. If only for a moment, his piece shakes our monopoly over the narrative. As I’ve written before, these stereotypes will come under increasing pressure as internet media expand access to Western debate and discussion. The question: Is the aid industry simply (!) a promoter of the distortion, or an addict as well? But that is for another blog.

The main point here is that the degree to which the monotonous, stereotyped portrayal of Africa gives rise to the conditions in which Ebola outbreaks occur. Persistent underdevelopment, bureaucratic inertia, low foreign investment, unresponsive government, the cycle of waiting for crisis rather than building systems, dependence on the foreign aid community, etc. These ills are all either caused and/or reinforced by the inaccurate portrait of a continent, in this latest episode with a virus as the star in a long line of unabated indigenous catastrophes. NGO action may be vital in combating Ebola, but aid agencies themselves helped weave the very “basketcase” to which they would nowadays respond.

World Update: It’s Big and Small

[Originally posted September 12 and lost due to website issues. Apologies to those whose comments have been lost as well.]

Monday marked six months since I stopped working in the humanitarian field – I left the insulation and employ of MSF and headed off to parts unknown. Actually, I headed off to parts known, the USA, and spent most of the half year with my wife, immersed in the day to day. Road trip. Chilling out. Taking a break. I recommend it.

We passed through spectacular natural scenery, ate sublime meals at diners whose steady disappearance is as tragic as DRC, and interrupted my 15 years living abroad to spend a full month with my aging parents. Even without its day to day excitement, the trip would have been wonderful simply for the fact of spending so many months off the grid. The phone didn’t ring. The email didn’t stack up. Stress seeped into the ether and sleep came in deep doses.

Did I find myself? Discover the meaning of life? Nope and nope. I did manage to attain nirvana in the tiny town of Webb, Mississippi. This perfection came in the unlikely form of neckbone stew at Vera’s café, with sides of cornbread, mac & cheese, and okra. That’s it? The secret of life is high-cholesterol Southern cooking? It may well be. Beyond that, this is the most I can say. First, the world is a really big place. Second, the world is a really small place.

The world got bigger the moment I left MSF. The adrenaline rush of emergency aid causes a narrowing of vision. Aid agencies churn limited ground. Outside, the world is full of joys and marvels and realities like the miserable, inexplicable poverty of many Native American communities. Or take Syria. At the time of my departure it was a daily point of focus. During my first few months in the States I never once heard somebody mention it in conversation.

The fact of the world seeming suddenly so much larger says something about the worlds in which we live. The world became quite small as well, at one point not much larger than our campervan. That is partly a function of snugness, the age old feeling of comfort or refuge in our own world. In one way, I had replaced MSF’s porthole with another, but at least stress did not fix my gaze. It felt easy at first to join the big world again.

But beyond my road-tripping, the smallness of the world is partly a new phenomenon, as internet information and social networking shrink rather than expand our understanding of issues, and solidify polarized points of view. See this fascinating piece on data visualization of Twitter action during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “We’re most likely to only talk to people like us”.

Since coming back on the grid, the news portrays a world in even worse shape than only a short time before. 2013 was bad enough (see my New Year’s Day send off in Huffington Post). Now add Putin’s Ukraine invasion, Ebola, the atrocities of the Islamic State, Israel’s recent attempt to rubble-ize Gaza, Libyan strife, etc.

The twinned trends of a world getting larger and a world getting smaller are not unrelated to this horrific state of affairs. For example, the more misery that piles up in the world, the more (for example) Sudan, CAR and Haiti gather into a white noise of faceless crisis, meaning these specific realities are rendered invisible from our small worlds. Or this phenomenon: in the face of all that bigness – in the face of seemingly inexorable economic and cultural massification on a global scale — there is a retreat into the local. Self-determination at the atomic level, whether it be the selfie, the slow food movement, or Scottish desire for independence. The discourse of nationalism is on the rise. That can be a good thing – ethnic pride. And that can be the success of the Islamic State or Boko Haram.

This self-determination is not only a longing for freedom or power. It is not only political in nature. It is also the self-determination of right and wrong itself. Reversing 500 years of trending enlightenment, “truth” in the form of political conviction is becoming more localized; naked self-interest more shielded as opposing views no longer enter the fortresses of small world opinion. The internet promised the globe and has in many ways delivered the (isolated) village. Safe in those narrow confines, POW slaughter is justified by religious edict and drone assassinations by self-defense.

Contrary to my hopes, 2014 suggests that 2013 was no aberration (again, see link). Of specific concern to humanitarians should be international law, human rights, and humanitarian action. These have all formed part of the world getting bigger – a concerted effort to globalize respect for certain norms and standards. Now, their meaning and hence their potency has been drained by the steady erosive forces of self-interest, exceptionalism, and realpolitik of the flag bearers.

In the aforementioned Huffington Post piece I wrote there were a “mounting number of places that have reached a critical mass of disrespect for international law and universal ideals, or their outright rejection; and where rudimentary compliance is no longer deemed useful.” My primary concern is not the upsurge of bad actors – there will always be bad actors – it’s the very public destruction of these laws and standards by the good actors, or at least of those who typically advertise themselves as good. In the long game of establishing rules against summary executions or slavery, the act of a jihadi beheading a journalist is a call for strengthening international law; the act of the US government torturing prisoners in Abu Ghraib is a knee-capping of it. What is good for the goose is good (easily justified by) for the gander.

(Diversion alert) The US government should take a lesson from Charles Barkley, who understood there are insidious consequences when the public anchors their beliefs and aspirations in the wrong place (see clip): “I am not a role model”. Sadly, such public self-awareness is not the stuff of nations. Here is Samantha Power a few days ago, banging the drum of international order against Mr. Putin’s Ukraine transgressions: “These rules and principles that have taken generations to build, with unparalleled investment – countless lives have been lost to establish and defend these principles.” Ouch. There falls another brick in the house of international law, crumbled as the world’s biggest pot calls Putin’s (pretty big) kettle black. (Diversion ended)

I do not know what happens to humanitarianism in the face of the world getting bigger and the world getting smaller. Aside from shrill press releases, what course of action to take if we believe that our access to people in crisis (Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Congo…) depends in part upon a strong respect for international law and norms? Where it concerns us, I know that we aid agencies have trumpeted ourselves as flag bearers in the international order. We are the goose too. So I know that we who define the humanitarian project must break from our own growing trends of self-interest and living in too small a world.

The Narrative Divide

Check out this trenchant writing from Kenyan author/journo Binyavanga Wainaina on the perception bias infecting western media (and here’s another take on that topic).   He rather hilariously bull’s-eyes a spear in the gut of Western journalism, their spouses and their tennis partners, we do-gooders at the big aid agencies.

Coincidentally, his rant covers some of the same territory as my recent post on Chinese model of “charity”.  Glad to see he doesn’t get sucked into a romanticization of Chinese exploitation.  Rather, his point seems simpler:  many Africans would prefer to get screwed by Chinese businesses than patronized or sanctimonyized by the proverbial whites in shining armor of Big Aid.

Wainaina rages and we humanitarians seem high on the hit list.  That can’t be good.   It is easier to counter the pampered elites of the Western intellectual critocracy than someone born and raised in one of the nations we’ve been so diligently saving these past forty years.

Moreover, his view of aid seems reinforced in many of the 199 comments on his piece.  Here’s Cornhil on June 4:  “You would have thought that after the disaster that is and was the post-earthquake agency bonanza in Haiti, a little humility would be appropriate from the Aid Industry, but apparently not.”

Damningly, even some who take umbrage with his “stereotyped” or “sneering” diatribe remark that he is of course spot on about the aid workers of this world, almost as if it were to be taken as a given.  Ouch!  Defending the West but leaving the aid industry out in the cold.  Where’s the love?  Where’s the understanding?  Where’s our money going to come from?

(A digression: “In 1991, Africa ceased to exist. The world was safe, and the winners could now concentrate on being caring, speaking in aid language bullet points.”  That’s an almost perfect summation of the intermingling of politics and aid — the establishment of governance through the imposition of a world welfare state.].

Wainaina is at his sharpest showing our collective Western understanding of Africa to be based upon the most preposterously stereotyped terms.  Hold that thought and flash back to the fit of humanitarian arm flapping at Kony 2012’s volcanic success.  As I blogged, the criticism of Invisible Children’s vanity video went pretty viral itself.  In that outburst of backlash I failed to grasp the significance and weight of Ugandan voices criticising a Western organization in the Western media.  What gives?  Weren’t Ugandans supposed to be invisible?

Recently, I heard digital media expert Paul Conneally challenge us humanitarians to avoid becoming an analogue enterprise in a digital age (see his speech here).  The entire humanitarian arena is abuzz with the potential of digital technology to improve its work.  From SMS health messages to patients (“Please remember to take your ARVs now”) to real-time satellite mapping of epidemics to a fundraising blitz of mobile phone chuggers, we are fast imagining a new golden age.  But Conneally’s core message wasn’t about technological advances of NGOs  – a reform in how we do our work – but in the transformation driven by the digital empowerment of the beggar/victim/beneficiary/target population.

People who will want to talk about our work are going to have access not only to information, but to the means of producing it.  They will have access not only to our opinions, but to our opinion platforms.  In other words, the helpless victims of Africa, like the Ugandans who outed Kony 2012’s disdain for accuracy in depicting the reality of Uganda today, are going to take away our western monopoly over the narratives defining their societies.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, white ears and eyes will consume the stories of brown people as told by brown people themselves, not white visitors to brown places.  In the process, these browns may have something to say about all those starving baby fundraising appeals.  They may even have something to say about all the appeals, letters, articles and interviews from the agencies whose guidelines prohibit the use of starving baby images and so sleep well in the self-evidence of their enlightenment, beneficence and narrative integrity.