Chauncey, End Poverty!

This is Jefferson Mok‘s awesome Burundi dog, Chauncey:

Disco Chauncey

He moved to New York about a year ago, and apparently his prodigious skills have been going to waste ever since. Jefferson asked for our help coming up with some new tricks for Chauncey to learn.

Naturally, this is where our minds went:

  1. Chauncey, raise awareness!: Chauncey chases his tail.
  2. Chauncey, mainstream gender!: Chauncey stares at you without moving until you give him something else to do.
  3. Chauncey, SWEDOW!: Chauncey fetches his oldest, most slobbery toy and places it in your lap.
  4. Chauncey, consult stakeholders!: Chauncey lies down on the floor and covers his ears with his paws.
  5. Chauncey, apply for funding!: Chauncey jumps through a series of unnecessary hoops.
  6. Chauncey, review best practices!: Chauncey sniffs his own butt.
  7. Chauncey, report to donors!: Chauncey sniffs another dog’s butt.
  8. Chauncey, issue report!: Chauncey barks for 30 seconds even though no one is listening to him.
  9. Chauncey, protect civilians!: Chauncey stays close by and watches carefully as Jefferson is savaged by a labradoodle.
  10. Chauncey, achieve MDGs!: Chauncey rolls over on his back and puts his paws in the air.

Please leave your suggestions in the comments.

Saving the World Makes Chauncey Very Tired

Photos courtesy of the aforementioned Jefferson Mok. Thanks Jefferson!

Somalia Making Play for Lucrative Men’s Rights Activist Tourism Market?

Remember that time Somalia decided to arrest and imprison a woman who accused members of the police force of raping her? Sure you do. And remember when they also arrested the freelance journalist to whom she’d told her story, along with her husband, and the two people who had supposedly introduced her to the journalist?

Well, today she was convicted of the crime of “insulting a government body,” and sentenced to a one-year prison term. Abdiaziz Abdinur Ibrahim, the journalist (who, mind you, never actually published any details of their conversation), was given the same sentence. Her husband and the two intermediaries were acquitted.

You might be thinking that Somalia, faced with the daunting requirements of establishing itself as a functional state, has decided to start small by learning to protect itself from rape victims and unpublished freelance journalism before moving on to, say, evicting violent terrorist groups from its territory.

But we figure Somalia is actually pursuing a more sophisticated strategy, and attempting to position itself not only as a for-reals-we-mean-it-this-time-actual-state, but also as the first official destination for men’s rights tourism. We can see the ad copy now:

Stable, prosperous tourism economy, here we come.

(Fake Somalia tourism ad adapted from image by Flickr user nadim2.)

WTF Friday, 2/1/2013, OMG Seriously WTF Edition

Somali journalists protest the imprisonment of their colleague. Photo credit: Badri Media

From the six month old Federal Government of Somalia, a step-by-step primer on how to undermine your fledgling regime’s “please help us have a country” PR tour:

  1. Hire rapists into your police force.
  2. In the event that a citizen accuses your police force of rape, refuse to investigate the alleged crime, and throw her in prison for good measure.
  3. Subject her to a two-day interrogation without assistance of counsel until she recants the accusation.
  4. Chuck her husband in prison, too.
  5. Track down any journalists who have interviewed the alleged rape victim, and imprison them.
  6. Charge everyone with “insulting the government” and various other made up sounding crimes.
  7. Rinse, repeat.

All in all, a process guaranteed to make donor countries look at your security forces and think “State capacity is the best. Let’s send these guys some more money!”

Point/Counterpoint on Samahope: Leila Janah’s Response

We asked Samahope founder Leila Janah to share her reaction to our criticisms of the organization’s approach, and explain the importance of the work Samahope is doing. We very much appreciate her thoughtful response, and her willingness to acknowledge the difficulty of getting this sort of work right. For more on this debate, check out the Quora discussion on Samahope. Here are Leila’s thoughts:

I founded Samahope after running into a surgeon named Dr. Maggi, a retired Texan OB/GYN, on a trip to Sierra Leone with the State Department last year. I’d visited hoping to find a site for Samasource, but realized quickly that our model wouldn’t work in a country where 70% of the population is illiterate and there is almost no infrastructure. I also learned that one in eight women in Sierra Leone die in childbirth — the worst rate anywhere in the world. There is almost no acute care for mothers in Sierra Leone, and there are 50 surgeons in the entire country.

I realized I could apply my tech background to fixing another problem: raising money for clinics in poor places offering life-saving care to people beyond the reach of public hospitals. My friends at Kiva encouraged me to do this, and I set up samahope.org with two volunteers, Shawn Graft (a web developer) and Shivani Patel (a former McKinsey consultant and product manager).

The aim of the site is to fund life-changing medical treatments for people who can’t afford them.

On your first point, I hear you — we’d love to paint a fuller picture of each person, but we have very little time to gather the patient’s story in the field. If we spent more time doing this, our overhead costs would increase and donors would be less interested in funding surgeries. In the future, we’d love to create a way for patients to share their own stories through a more direct connection to the site, but right now, this is very difficult. Most patients do not have cell phones or speak English, and many do not speak the lingua franca of their country, so an in-person visit with multiple levels of translation is required to capture their stories.

With regard to the issue of possible coerced disclosure: Samahope actually works as a reimbursement method for partners who perform surgeries. Most partners offering these types of surgeries require any patient who receives a procedure to allow use of his or her photo and bio — this is true for the best-rated organization in this field, ReSurge (formerly Interplast; here’s a review on GiveWell). In an ideal world, surgeries would be funded through public health systems and no one would have to disclose personal information. In the real world, disclosure is necessary to both prevent fraud and prove that the operation was completed, and to raise money.

Exceptions are made if disclosure would compromise the safety of a patient.

Two other points are worth noting here: (1) Most patients who suffer from fistula or the most common conditions requiring reconstructive surgery are already stigmatized; and (2) When I interviewed 14 patients personally in August 2012, I found that most women wanted to share their condition to raise awareness and ensure that other women with fistulas would come forward.

As for your concern that the setup forces the potential recipients into competition, this is true, and it sucks. We don’t know how to solve for the fact that every person on the site is in need, and there is not a good way to distinguish each patient. One idea we had is to introduce a button to allow users to let Samahope allocate their donation (most likely we will choose the profile that has been on the site the longest, or to complete funding for a patient with a small amount remaining).

As we add more treatments or surgery types (for example, burn or cleft palate repair), this problem will get worse: how to choose among so many people with so much need? That said, this is a problem that every donor faces every time he or she gives, as there are billions of needy people who could all benefit from a gift. So in the worst case Samahope is transferring an existing problem that already exists in the field of giving to the web, but I don’t think we’re creating new problems.

Finally, I’ve heard arguments both for and against representing younger people on the site. I use the term “younger people” and not “underage” because there is little consensus as to what constitutes underage globally. Another complicating factor is that many of the young women on Samahope do not know their own ages or have any public record of their birth (I witnessed this personally in my recent visit to Sierra Leone).

For:

  • Treating someone younger results in more benefit, as more years of his or her life will be lived in better health. Public health experts and economists think in terms of “Quality-Adjusted Life-Years” — in other words, the number of years of life a person lives times the quality of that life (with a discount for medical conditions that make a person live sub-optimally). In QALYs, a young person receives more benefit than an older person from a given surgery, since she has more life to live.
  • Young people heal faster, and may be more likely to receive a positive result from surgery.
  • Young people are disproportionately affected by certain conditions for which reconstructive surgery is effective, such as burns and cleft palate. According to the World Health Organization, the vast majority (95%) of burn victims are in developing countries, and burns are in the top 15 causes of death for people aged 5-29.

Against:

  • Young people are more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse if their information is made public without adequate protection.
  • Young people may not fully understand the implications of publicizing their patient information, and may not be able to provide legal, informed consent.
  • Child safety laws in some countries prohibit the display or collection of children’s information below a certain age (in the US, this is 13).

Bottom line: this is a very tough issue. I’ve had knee-jerk reactions to sites like Samahope in the past whenever they portray poor people as helpless victims and somehow different from you and me. But after spending ten years going back and forth to Africa and Asia and meeting a lot more people who can’t afford the basic necessities of life, I’ve found that the people portrayed on those sites don’t mind sharing their stories if that gives them access to the things they need. The magnitude of this problem is so great, and the amount of money spent to fix it so comparatively tiny, that the right thing to do is to try to raise more funds and direct them to the right clinics, even if our methods aren’t perfect.

Point/Counterpoint on Samahope: Our Two Cents

As promised, here are our thoughts on Samahope’s use of patient profiles to raise money for fistula repair in Sierra Leone:

Although we’re kind of in love with the idea of a Kickstarter for poor women’s vaginas, we’re concerned about the fact that these women are presented primarily in terms of their injury. The key information provided for potential donors browsing through the photographs of possible recipients is “name, age, nature of fistula.” Some of the profiles list a few of the women’s hobbies or interests (“gardening” is a popular choice), but the bulk of the information is fistula-related.

We’re also troubled by the coercive dynamic implicit in the offer of assistance in exchange for public admission of a stigmatizing injury. Even in the best-case scenario, in which the women have no shame about their injuries and aren’t worried about stigma, Samahope is asking women to publicly reveal private information in exchange for help. Leila points out that she has personally spoken with fourteen of the women, and they were all willing to share their stories, but we suspect we’d also be “willing” to publicize our gynecological issues if it meant we would get otherwise unaffordable much-needed treatment. If ladies who aren’t willing to disclose their condition to the global public aren’t eligible for funded surgeries (as Leila’s comments suggest that they’re aren’t), this whole process starts to seem pretty coercive.

Here in the U.S., we don’t think it’s acceptable to force women to publicly describe their vaginas in exchange for vagina-related assistance: We’d never accept it if, say, Medicaid were to require women to post their names, photos, and description of their gynecological problems on a website in order to visit an OB/GYN.  That policy might find a fan in Rush Limbaugh, who famously said that he should be allowed to view the sex acts of young women who received government-subsidized birth control, but that’s hardly indicative of mainstream morality; his comments were (rightly) greeted with horror by the general public.

Both of these concerns (the reduction of a person to an injury, and the potentially coercive nature of the requirement to reveal private medical info) are heightened in the case of the underage girls on the site. We propose that when the question is: “hey, should i post this photo of a 14 year old girl, along with her name, and a description of her broken vagina?” the answer should always be “no.”

Finally, we worry that the setup of the appeal for help – presenting the women and girls almost as if they’re in competition for funding – sets up a disturbing decision process for the potential donor who must choose the most “worthy” (damaged? youngest? prettiest?) recipient for their funds. This mirrors a broader trend that disturbs us, in which NGOs compete for funding and attention by jostling to show the most pathetic victims possible. (Not just a starving woman, but a starving woman who has been raped.  Not just a starving woman who has been raped, but a starving child who has been raped. Not just a starving child who has been raped, but a starving child who has been trafficked into sexual slavery…)  This not only sets up a weird competition for who is “most deserving” or “most in need,” it also contributes to a culture in which no information is too private, and no depiction too demeaning, to demand of victims.

We are not cool with an NGO culture that focuses more on gratifying the egos of donors than on preserving the dignity of recipients. Campaigns like this one contribute to that culture, regardless of their intentions.

None of this is to say that we don’t think Samahope should raise money for fistula repair in Sierra Leone. We’re fully on board with soliciting wealthy Americans for money for poor African women’s vaginas. And actually, we think this has a lot of potential as the next great hipster cause. Think about it: hipsters LOVE to say the word “vagina.” (Look at us, for instance.) And West Africa Fistula Foundation, which performs the Samahope-funded surgeries, seems like a worthy beneficiary. Their focus on recruiting and training local staff is particularly encouraging.

We think there are some pretty easy fixes for the problems we’ve identified above. Nixing the photos of the underage girls would be a great start. We also challenge Samasource to consider whether they could raise money effectively for fistula repair without running photos of pre-operative patients at all. We understand the urge to present real people in need of immediate help – we’ve all seen the research showing that individuals are much more inclined to give when they have a particular person with whom to associate the need for donations. But we think creatively presented profiles (yes, and photos too) of post-op patients would be a more ethical way to establish this connection. Although it would definitely forego some of the urgency of the appeal, showing women who are able to live full, healthy lives as a result of fistula repair would be a moving testament to the value of Samahope’s work, and would clearly underscore the need to fund help for similarly situated women.

Stay tuned for Samahope founder Leila Janah’s response later on…

Let’s Get Ready to Rumble

Our initial reaction when we first saw Samahope was: Man, what brilliant satire. It so perfectly skewers the particular sort of poverty porn-y, competitive victimhood-encouraging NGO that we’re always ranting about. But as we clicked through the site, which posts pictures of Sierra Leonean women and girls suffering from fistula and asks for donations to pay for surgical intervention, we began to get that uncomfortable tingling that accompanies the realization that something you thought was a hilarious send-up of a disturbing phenomenon is actually just one more example of the disturbing phenomenon itself. (What? It’s a real feeling. We get it all the time.)

We didn’t want to jump to any conclusions, though, because Samahope is backed by Leila Janah, the founder of Samasource, which is “an innovative social business that connects women and youth living in poverty to dignified work via the internet” that we’ve been fans of for years. But when we reached out to Leila on Twitter, she told us that Samahope is totally for reals. We mentioned that we were having a lot of uncomfortable, squicked-out feelings about the whole “repair a broken vagina for just $3 a day” approach and that we were going to blog about them (because that’s why people have blogs), and offered Leila the chance to share her perspective as well.

So tomorrow Wednesday we’re going to have an Onion-style Point/Counterpoint in which we’ll explain why this hurts our brains, and Leila will explain why Samahope is doing important and necessary work. Hopefully we’ll all learn and grow.

WTF Friday, 6/29/2012

If you’re ever in need of some good, hot WTF action, here’s a pro tip: Head on over to Kickstarter, and type the name of any African country into the search bar. We tried “Congo” yesterday, and uncovered these gems:

  • The crew over at 1 Million Bones raised more than $25,000 to create “a 2-minute time-lapse video shout-out to the entire country to tell them about One Million Bones.” They promised that supporters who pledged $15 or more would be entitled to “have a bone made in your name.”

    We don’t even know which way to joke about this. On the one hand, the reality of this is so strange that it almost transcends humor: Is the idea that these supporters are being pre-memorialized now in case they are genocided at a later date? Is it a way to get an authentic “victim of mass murder” experience without having to go to the trouble and expense of being brutally killed first? A statement that the memory of a genocide victim should carry roughly the same weight as that of an individual who donated approximately two Chipotle burritos’ worth of money?

    But on the other hand, there is a whole range of “I’ve got a big bone with your name on it” jokes available to us here, and we’re reluctant to just let them go.

  • These modern-day Dr. Livingstones raised nearly $29,000 to go exploring in the Republic of Congo to see if they could find living dinosaurs. They helpfully point out that “the The Congo Basin is a region of Central Africa larger than the state of Florida, more than 80% of which has been totally unexplored.” (We assume they are using the standard “photographed and posted to Facebook by white people” definition of “explored.”) Their rewards were pricier than 1 Million Bones,’ but how could anyone resist “a handcarved Spear made by the Baka Pygmy people along with a picture of the person who carved it holding YOUR spear” for the low, low price of $100? Or corporate naming rights to one of the many new species the group plans to discover, for only $1500? (First 5 pledgers also receive free Pygmy crossbow!)

    For an extra dose of WTF, please refer to this Huffington Post article on the project, which refers to the research destination as “the African Congo.” Look, we know the search for a modifier with which to identify which Congo you’re talking about is time-consuming and tedious for all of us. Congo-K, Congo-B; Heart-of-Darkness-Congo, Heart-of-Darkness-Adjacent Congo; etc. Why don’t we all just agree to call them “Rape Congo” and “Dinosaur Congo” from here on out? Sound good to everybody?

And, some late-breaking WTF news from Peter Doerrie’s always-interesting Twitter feed: Apparently, Zimbabwe suspended all weddings this April in order to “curb fraud.” Marriage officers have been warned that if they perform marriages in spite of the ban, “jail is waiting for you.” According to The Scotsman, “The authorities complain foreigners, mostly from Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo, are paying Zimbabwean women to enter into marriages of convenience so that they can obtain residence permits. In a case that recently came to light, a desperate local street vendor agreed to marry a Nigerian man for just £6 in 2006.”

New Piece at The Atlantic

We have a piece up at The Atlantic today!

It’s about the four ICC staff members who have been detained by the Zintani militia in Libya, and why this is a super-duper-big-deal-for-serious-we-mean-it for the court. (We don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s possible that the phrase “Black Hawk Down” gets used.)

In short, the violation of the staff’s diplomatic immunity complicates an already tense interaction between Libya and the ICC, and potentially undermines the court’s ability to work in unstable contexts.

Some important issues raised by this crisis that we didn’t have space to discuss in the article:

  • Reuters’ bizarre quote from outgoing ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo that “the Zintan authorities claim they have the right to investigate the case against the ICC pair,” but ”It’s not what we would expect from the court…from the defense.” Really, dude? How about “they have full immunity from investigation, detention, and prosecution, so this is categorically unacceptable and they must be released immediately.” Couldn’t he have started at FIFA last week?
  • The fact that you can bet LMO would have given an unambiguous statement of support for any Office of the Prosecutor or Registry staff members in similar circumstances. Defense counsel have always had a bit of a struggle at the international tribunals (enthusiasm for international justice is limited to prosecuting the architects of mass atrocity, not so much defending them); should we take the absence of international outcry regarding Taylor et al.’s detention as one more indication of their second class status?
  • Traditionally, a large part of immunity’s force within international law has been based on reciprocity; states respect foreign officials’ immunity because they didn’t want to put their own diplomats at risk. That dynamic isn’t present for international institutions, which “take” more immunity than they “give.” The ICC is a particularly strong example of this, given that it asserts the right to try heads of state and other officials who would otherwise be immune. Does the Court’s inability to reciprocate make its claim to immunity for its staff members less compelling?
  • Unlike domestic courts, the ICC can’t try crimes that have been committed against itself. In light of recent events, that seems like a serious weakness.

Thoughts?

This Week in Advocacy Videos We’re Kind of Wigged out by

A tipster just sent us this link to the Enough Project’s latest SPLA propaganda video George-Clooney-in-Sudan video (embedded below). For those unable to watch, highlights include:

  • Graphic images of two maimed children, including a young boy whose hands had been blown off “less than an hour ago”
  • The line “for the first time since the Stone Age, people are living in caves”
  • The reduction of the conflict to “blacks who have been on this land since creation” vs. “invading Arabs who want to take their land.”
  • Hagiographic descriptions of the SPLA – er, sorry, we mean “brave Nuba rebels fighting for freedom.”

We don’t have the energy to go through this yet again, so if you’re wondering why we’re horrified by this, please refer to this excellent Dart Center tip sheet on working with victims and survivors.

New Post on Kony Over at The Atlantic

Kate and I have a follow-up to our drinking game post (more analysis, but fewer cocktails) over at The Atlantic.  Excerpt:

Invisible Children has turned the myopic worldview of the adolescent — “if I don’t know about it, then it doesn’t exist, but if I care about it, then it is the most important thing in the world” — into a foreign policy prescription. The “invisible children” of the group’s name were the children of northern Uganda forcibly recruited by the LRA. In the group’s narrative, these children were “invisible” until American students took notice of them.
 
Awareness of their plight achieved, child soldiers are now visible to the naked American eye. And in fact, several months ago, President Obama sent 100 military advisors to Uganda to assist in the effort to track down Kony. But according to Invisible Children, these troops may be recalled unless the college students of America raise yet more awareness. The new video instructs its audience to put up posters, slap on stickers, and court celebrities’ favor until Kony is “as famous as George Clooney.” At that moment, sufficient awareness will have been achieved, and Kony will be magically shipped off to the International Criminal Court to await trial.

For more, head over to The Atlantic’s website. Enjoy!