Tag Archives: Sudan

Let’s Ideate Our Way Out of Here

Constructive deconstruction. That is the label placed on an intriguing initiative led by HPG/ODI.  How could I even question the value of disassembling the humanitarian system?  I jumped in. The process is based on design theory, a recently-arrived savior of humanitarian action, in case innovative phone apps and cash don’t live up to their advertizing.

And in that previous sentence lies a clue to design theory’s promise. As a humanitarian no longer in the field, I am drawn to the ills of the sector before those of the people in CAR or Syria.  I am hardly alone in that regard.  To fix that proximity bias: design theory.  Because one doesn’t design a new sofa with the furniture sector in mind. The trick in design theory is to immerse oneself in the user experience; to empathize with them.  The other trick is to prototype, to churn out new ideas, see how they fare, adapt them, see how they fare…

In one exercise, we were asked to ideate. That involves said churning of ideas without the brakes of affordability, feasibility or desirability. I churned. My small group astutely relegated these ideations to the ‘kill’ pile. The beauty of having my own blog site is being able to re-animate them here, for you, even at the risk of generating the ideation equivalent of false news. (This blog not to be confused with a few of my legitimate ideas). In no particular order:

  • Ban innovation. That seemed like a contrarian place to start.  Remember the kid who couldn’t dribble a basketball, couldn’t shoot it, couldn’t play defense, but spent a spectacular amount of time perfecting his alley-oop slam dunk?  That’s the humanitarian system’s relationship to innovation.  As donors dump money into innovation and we all drink the Silicon Valley Kool-Aid of gadgeting our way out of crisis – as the system devotes ever more resources and effort to innovation – it seems further away from getting the basics right.  Here’s an innovation – deliver emergency aid to people in crisis.  Here’s another innovation – engage in protection work as part of your efforts.  And another — ensure that the needs of people determine what you do.  Get those right and maybe we can start celebrating the latest phone apps.
  • Translate it. Mandatory – in the form of contractual obligations to donors, technical agreements (or regulations) with host governments — translation into local language(s) and community-level dissemination of key documents, including project proposals, budgeting and progress reports.
  • Invoice it. More than once at last month’s DRR conference (see previous post) did we hear that governments refused to invest in disaster risk reduction because that was ‘for the internationals’. Yes, that old issue – aid undermining responsibility and building dependency. But it is not just that we perform/replace the work of governments, armed groups and communities. It gets much worse. Take South Sudan, where an MSF hospital might get burned down and looted a few times over the course of a decade. Or where the government has managed to transform international goodwill, billions of dollars and the joy and hope of millions of South Sudanese into violent catastrophe.  That much destruction and squander takes dedication and it takes talent. It takes intent. So why does MSF rebuild its hospitals?  Why do humanitarians continue to provide healthcare when the government didn’t even try, but instead looted the goods? Why do we feed people who were driven into man-made famine?  Well, because that’s often what humanitarians do. That’s our job. But why don’t we do something more?  I mean, something other than shaking our finger and holding press conferences to declare that we are deeply peeved?  How many hundreds of millions has the international community spent in South Sudan due to the gross negligence and wilful misconduct and criminal behaviour of those in power? I say, send them the invoice. Hire some clever lawyers. Get a judgment. Garnish their wages.  Freeze a few bank accounts.  Invoice it even if you never get a cent back. Invoice it out of principle.
  • Context testing. Everyone working in the aid sector in a foreign country (for longer than six months) must pass a test to show that they have grasped the basic history, geography, culture, economics etc. of that country. They must take an induction course run by a local business or university. They must prove that they are capable not just of being neutral (read: completely disconnected), but of being contextual.

[To be continued in a few days]

Keep it Simple, Stupid

Poor George Clooney.  He’s such a busy guy.  What with making blockbusters, Nespresso ads and all those mystery women, it’s a wonder the actor has had time to throw himself into the quagmire of Sudan.

South Sudan isn’t doing too well these days.  Arguably, the mess is George’s fault. If we hadn’t all suffered the delusion of Sudan’s bright future, we might have been busier dealing with its complex faults.  That’s what Daniel Howden insinuates.  He takes Clooney (among others) to task now that the South Sudan house of statehood has collapsed faster than Anthony Weiner’s political career.  Howden writes that “actors were highly effective at communicating a narrative about the new country that borrowed from a simple script.” That narrative (i.e., all problems were caused by the Wicked Witch of the North) was, unfortunately, “part truth, part wilful misunderstanding” and “deeply flawed”.

Let’s give George some credit. He is not a phoney when it comes to playing savior.  He didn’t just show up at a fundraising dinner, or make one self-aggrandizing visit.  The man has invested something of himself.  He even got arrested for the cause.  But there are limits to that credit.

Howden is right to call out the overly simplistic narrative, but let’s not blame actors for the superficial script.  As I’ve blogged (e.g. cleansing conflict from the ‘perfect storm’ of factors causing famine in Somalia in 2011), the entire international community – politicians, aid NGO agencies, UN officials – seems dependent upon simple scripts.  The only time we embrace complexity is in explaining our failures.  (Of course, academics ply a healthy trade in the complexity of places like Sudan, but who really listens to academics besides other academics?).

You can’t sell complexity.  No funding, no donations, and no political support.  It’s even a hard sell within an agency.  Try getting MSF to add some nuance to its analysis of Syria!  And maybe that’s not such a bad thing, given the need for action rather than endless deliberation. Complexity is a cousin of perfection – it can be an enemy of the good.

As for Clooney and the celebrification of the aid business, maybe I’ve been wrong in the past. Maybe it’s wrong to begrudge him the attention he and other celebrities get.  Sure, NGOs across the spectrum have sold out to the celebrity culture in the hope of increasing attention to our causes. But maybe celebrities really do make more effective champions than we activists.  Maybe humans are hardwired to follow the opinions of celebrities. See this article.   Apparently, it has to do with something so academic sounding as the anthropology of prestige.

How about that! Evolution has left us biologically inclined to follow the political analysis of celebs, not to mention their fashion tastes, recipes and personal grooming tips. Can somebody please get Miley Cyrus to say something about CAR?

2013: Goodbye to an Ominous Year

I have posted a rather depressing rumination on 2013.  See the Huffington Post UK site.  Here’s a teaser:

Though certainly depressing, the observation that 2013 was a bad year is fairly unimportant. More worrisome is the prospect that 2013 signals a dangerous trend, even while experts tell us there has never been so much peace in the world. I see 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.

Holiday Jeer

Painlessly short ideas for your holiday pleasure…

1. Development aid is like a kid getting a pair of goldfish for her birthday. In those first days, you can spend hours looking at the tank, watching the fish go about their business. Not much happens.  You can even talk to them, or tap on the glass.  Still, not much happens. Take a pinch of food flakes and toss it onto the surface of the water.  The fish dart to the surface and begin inhaling the flakes from underneath.  Press your forehead against the glass.  That’s better than Jacques Cousteau.

The next day your mother catches you feeding the fish again.  She warns against over feeding. But you can’t quite hold back.  You wait for your mother to disappear and then show friends how it works.  This is the thrill of your hand at work.  This is the reward and psychological satisfaction of causation.  And pretty soon your fish are belly up.

2. Good to see more awareness of the alarming persecution of homosexuality in places like Uganda, South Africa and Jamaica (e.g., here or here).  Typical reaction here is to think of that anti-gay violence as barbaric, as inherent in “their” lack of civilization.  Well, it is barbaric.  But is it something so comfortably foreign? On the news today I learned that the Queen used the Royal Prerogative of Mercy to issue a posthumous pardon for a 1952 conviction for homosexuality. British war hero (codebreaking) and mathematician Alan Turing was punished by chemical castration. Why does such a pardon require an act of mercy?  There is nothing merciful about it.  And why does it require 51 years?  As human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell opines: “I do think it’s very wrong that other men convicted of exactly the same offence are not even being given an apology, let alone a royal pardon.”

3.  Nice piece of journalism in yesterday’s Guardian (some interesting comments as well). Title: The State that Fell Apart in a Week.  Plenty of chatter in the twittersphere on the suddenness of the collapse. My own rather sarky take on it:  If it falls apart in a week, it wasn’t a state.  I’m not sure how to build a state, but you can cross ethically [oops, I meant “ethnically”] fuelled civil war off the list.  Ditto for destroying your oil industry and an outbreak of atrocities.

Without trying to sound either uncaring or self-absorbed, there is something quite telling and terrible about the impact of this emerging catastrophe on the international community.  Lots of international blood, sweat and tears, not to mention dollars, have poured into South Sudan.  It is fine to expect that the humanitarian community must once again muster a Herculean effort to feed the hungry, shelter the displaced, and set up a healthcare system; or that international militaries must enforce peace between the warring parties.  But let’s not begin with the World-has-failed-the-people-of-SouthSudan line of self-flagellation. The South Sudanese have failed themselves. And they’ve laid to waste an awful lot of hard work.

4. And because self-flagellation (or, at least, self-reflection) is often a valuable commodity … The international community constructed South Sudan’s house of cards nationhood through an almost comprehensive “partnership”.  Many will opine that the fickle finger of fault should be pointed in the direction of everyone from the UN to the US Government to all the big NGOs to George Clooney.  Many will opine that we must draw lessons and do it better in the future.  But I would go back to the goldfish story above before jumping onto the bandwagon of building a better South Sudanese state (or Somali, or Afghan, etc).

Happy Holidays

Happy Independence Day South Sudan

You have to admire a Prime Minister whose jobs strategy is, essentially, telling people to go and look for work overseas.  That was Portugal’s PM, refreshing for a politician in his apparent disregard for popularity, not to mention his honesty about not having one shred of a plan.

It reminded me of the recent declaration by Salva Kiir – the leader of the world’s youngest nation and easily the President with the most intriguing taste in hats – that South Sudan would introduce stern austerity measures.  Say what?  That’s like, well, I can’t really think of an analogy.  Victoria Beckham announcing she’s going to start dressing up when she appears in public?

One might have thought the very concept of austerity included limits; theoretical boundaries beyond which the term becomes inapplicable.  Austerityofficial action by a government to reduce the amount of money it spends, or the amount of money that people in a country spend.

See what I mean?  The concept seems to imply that government actually spends money on services, and that people aren’t foraging for bugs and leaves for dinner.  Other definitions suggest a particular inappropriateness:  austerity = reduced availability of luxuries and consumer goods, esp when brought about by government policy.

Well, one country’s healthcare, education and roads are another country’s caviar, Gucci and Maserati.   Happy Birthday South Sudan!

Of course, we must recognize the difference between government budget and spending on services.  South Sudan may be the first place on Earth, and certainly the first democracy, with an absence of functioning services on which to impose austerity measures even though there has been fairly whopping government expenditure.  That’s because $4 billion sent to the various ministries ended up in Swiss bank accounts.  That’s not me being cynical, that’s the President himself, in a May letter promising amnesty and anonymity to his government officials if they would please please return the missing cash.

In fairness, though, it is hard to disagree with the need for some sort of financial austerity, so I should get off my high horse.  I mean, South Sudan has been getting reamed by the mothership of Bashir’s Sudan, so it’s perfectly logical that President Kiir would announce the cessation of all oil shipments for the next few years (the only way for the oil to get to market is through Sudan).  True, that declaration of independence has caused some side effects for the economy, perhaps because oil exports amount to every penny the government owns (98% of state revenue)?  Sort of like collateral damage,  no? Or cutting off your face to spite your nose.

So austerity is the price the government will pay for independence.  Here:  watch this 30 sec clip and sub in the word “austerity” every time you hear the word “probation”.  Makes you wonder if governments don’t have limits to what they are allowed to do in the name of independence.  At what point does one have to accept a little reaming?

You could argue humanitarian organizations should ask themselves the same question every time the principle of independence blocks the provision of aid.  Shouldn’t we swallow a small dose of Marsellus Wallace?  Of course, neither government nor NGO will pay the price at all.  Perhaps our moralizations amount to this: a modern twist on Patrick Henry:  “Give me liberty or give you death”.

Once Again, Wishing I Were George Clooney

George Clooney just got himself arrested, protesting in front of the Sudanese embassy.  I can’t quite put my finger on it, was it his radiant smile as the cop ushered him along, but somehow his arrest didn’t quite remind me of that archetypal image, repeated over and over again in places like 1960s Mississippi, 1980s South Africa, or the Arab streets of last year, of protesters being hauled off to the certainty of beating, torture, rape or disappearance.  I suspect George will not have his face rearranged by interrogators.  I suspect our tax dollars will not pay for his water-boarding.

With a world still excited over the Invisible Children video phenomenon, the last thing the Sudanese government wanted was to become famous like Kony.  They should have paid the WDC police not to arrest the most handsome gray-bearded man on the planet.  And even if there are plenty of similarities between Kony 2012 and the oversimplification of the Save Darfur Campaign, I’m not going to complain much about the useful fact of celebrity catastrophe tourism.  Let’s give Clooney some credit, because like Angelina Jolie, Sean Penn and some others, he has consistently made an effort, not just showed up at a few cocktail parties.

Celebrity altruism is at times comical, at times pitiful, and now firmly established as part of the humanitarian landscape.  As Madonna’s publicist explained to Mother Jones:  “She’s focusing on Malawi. South Africa is Oprah’s territory.”  See MJ’s clickable map of celebrity African do-gooding.     I guess I’m used to the idea of NGOs shamelessly exploiting celebrities, trading souls for search hits.    Celebrityism is just one more stunt, a questionable and yet undoubtedly profitable response to a world where American Idol losers are more famous than Omar Bashir or Joseph Kony or the entire nation of Chad. 

Should we question one children’s agency’s lucrative use of David Beckham, by all accounts a devoted father and footballer, simply because he’s pretty much a poster child for the sort of rampant materialism that’s consuming childhood itself, not to mention the idea of spending more money on a pair of underpants than 2.7 billion people earn in a week? Yes, of course we should, but it’s not such a big deal.

The more interesting story is the celebrifrication of the humanitarian crisis itself.  It is no longer just a question of celebrities shining the light of attention on a particular cause; it has become the interpretation or “reality” of that cause.  We increasingly perceive the disaster itself, be it the suffering of Somali refugees or the war in Nuba, through the eyes of movie stars, as opposed to the eyes of academic experts, humanitarians, or journalists.  Our views still exist, but who sees them?  Now, the story is the celebrity visit itself, not the disaster, and the suffering of others reaches us through the lens of their experience.  Here’s Sex in the City’s Kristin Davis fresh off the plane from Dadaab camp in Ethiopia

This is only partly sour grapes.  We should give some celebrities credit, for rolling up their sleeves and getting far deeper into the issues than many NGO CEOs like myself, who drop into major mediatized crises and demonstrate little timidity around cameras and starving babies. 

So as the celebrity experience of the suffering, catastrophe and crisis overshadows our own, who do we in the disaster cartel resemble?  Why, it’s the Somali, Congolese, or Sudanese people themselves, who we academic experts, humanitarians and journalists have spent decades rendering almost completely invisible.  Hooray for justice.

P.S. If you want to see a gray-bearded humanitarian take a stab at acting, click here.

What Sudan and Who-ville Have in Common

Forget about Linda Polman.  We humanitarians need to listen more to Lt. General Omar el-Bashir.  Of course, we do care about Ms. Polman’s crucifixion of the aid business.  After all, she’s hitting us in the gut and in the wallet.  She’s on the same airwaves as many of our donors, telling everybody that aid doesn’t work.  Ouch.  But Bashir doesn’t mince his words either, and he’s on the same airwaves as the people who control our access.

A little over two years ago I was sitting in Khartoum, helping our teams deal with their non-expulsion after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for the general.  Motivated, I am sure, by nothing other than a desire to shed light on the role of INGOs in Sudan, he let loose with a series of accusations.  He called us thieves, adding that we take “99 percent of the budget for humanitarian work themselves, giving the people of Darfur 1 percent”.  He called us spies in the employ of foreign regimes, interfering well beyond the remit of aid work.  And then there’s the charge that humanitarian NGOs essentially worked for the ICC.  Apparently fed up with the likes of us, Bashir spoke of “Sudanizing” voluntary work in Sudan (both humanitarian and development).  He politely suggested a new and improved model for international cooperation:   “If they want to continue providing aid, they can just leave it at the airport and Sudanese NGOs can distribute the relief.”

Neither NGO nor international community blinked.  Instead, we countered with legions of arm flapping, demanding to be unexpelled.  Then we shielded ourselves from even 10 seconds cogitation on his accusations with the unquestioned logic that he was a mad dictator and war criminal and simply poking back at the West for the ICC having ruined his vacation plans in Las Vegas.

It is rare, and somewhat disconcerting, to find myself possessing an ear not entirely unfavorable to the ideas expressed by President Bashir.   Even if we discount a former girlfriend’s accusation that I’m a self-hating critical bastard, it’s not difficult to suppose that if I can find some good sense in Bashir’s rants, he will have the ear of whole nations of people.

 Thieving?  Strong claim.  We’ve pushed the message that humanitarians saved Darfur.  If you consider fundraising initiatives based on a “help save Darfur” motif, communication/exposure, and just plain old reinforcement of the image of humanitarians as rescuer-champions, it’s easy to see how Darfur saved the humanitarians.  And from all that money that came in on the back of Darfur, how much of it made it past our headquarters, past our expat-driven approaches, past our expensive lifestyle in capitals, past our project teams and directly into the hands of Darfurians? 

ICC mole?  We know that NGOs passed mounds of info to the ICC.  The only question is whether humanitarian NGOs cooperated so directly.  Or maybe this is not even an issue at ground level, because how many armed groups in a place like Darfur could distinguish between the human rights crowd and the humanitarian crowd?  Add to that the impact of our well-publicized “protection” activities, our so-called advocacy reports.  Seems to me “violence”, “attacks”, and “rape”, are words more closely associated to the humanitarian voice emanating from Darfur than “nutrition,” “shelter,” and “healthcare.”   Against this accusation we may be teflon in our own minds, but we’re more like flypaper out there where it counts.

Sudanization?  There is a strong element of Sudanese pride in all of this mess.   We radiated our superiority in Darfur – the virtuous provider of aid to the helpless victims of an evil regime.  You can’t spend years treating Sudanese officialdom as perpetrators of violence and obstruction and still expect them to love us.  There’s equally a major dose of sovereignty.  You can’t humiliate a people without sparking a drive to shake off the yolk of the West, to build Sudanese spirit and independence into the sort of state that does not require the largest exercise of humanitarian charity in the world. 

 In that non-Western mind, to whom Bashir spoke, we humanitarians were not simply the enemies of the state, we were a blight upon its pride.  Do we hear this message? Any of these messages?  My advice to NGOs:  Make like Horton and listen to the citizens of Who-ville, even if they aren’t all fluffy and cute.