WTF Friday, 1/24/2014

What do you get when you combine an uninformed TV actress on her first trip to Africa, a Christian relief organization whose PR department are all asleep on the job, and a reporter who apparently thinks foreign aid is for chumps?

The WTF Friday that keeps on giving.

We’ll have a more detailed piece out next week about Elizabeth McGovern’s magical trip to Sierra Leone as a “charity ambassador” for World Vision, but for now, the highlight reel:

Elizabeth McGovern didn’t know that World Vision was a Christian charity, but she did know that it paid her £28,000:

“I was stupid not to realise it … I think the people at World Vision assumed it would be obvious.” McGovern has not withdrawn from World Vision, as “on balance, it is an organisation that does a lot of good for many people.” In addition, World Vision has paid her band £28,000 to fund the recording of their latest album and a UK tour, in return for which they have agreed to promote the charity. Without this money, McGovern says, her band would “never survive”. She recently turned to a crowdfunding website for donations towards her next album, with a portion of the money going to World Vision.

Elizabeth McGovern sure seemed to have a lot of questions about how hard it would be to take her “sponsored” child, Jestina, home with her:

The conversation then turns to Jestina. “Is there a problem that some celebrities and rich people try to take one of the children home?” asks McGovern. “I imagine some big-time celebrities can be more of a hindrance than a help.”

“It’s not so easy to take a child across borders,” says Wilson. “And World Vision is very big on child protection.”

“Do Jestina’s parents live together?”

Elizabeth McGovern on Sex:

“I get the impression that in Africa people have sex far more freely than we do back home,” reflects McGovern. “You see certain cultures where there’s just endemic cruelty to women. I wonder if World Vision would take on the problem of women wearing the burka? And that clitoris thing is awful.”

World Vision, on being super good about not proselytizing:

I ask the driver, a Sierra Leonean who has worked for World Vision for more than 10 years, about the extent to which Christianity drives the charity’s actions. Does World Vision ever try to convert people?

“Christianity is our goal,” he says. “In some Muslim areas they are suspicious of us. So we put our effort into setting up clinics, permanent schools, and establish a society. Gradually they see we are good people. Then we pay professional pastors to preach to them. That is our final goal.”

“But you don’t try to convert non-Christians,” interrupts Wilson from the back. “World Vision never tries to proselytise.” The man laughs wryly and shrugs. McGovern says nothing.

World Vision, on aid efficiency:

“Before I do interviews, I need to know what distinguishes World Vision from its competitors,” McGovern says. “Is it less well-known because it spends less on promotion?”

“I don’t know about that,” says Wilson. “World Vision paid for this trip, and that’s not cheap.”

Elizabeth McGovern, on the lasting tragedy she experienced in Sierra Leone:

On the final morning, in a guesthouse in a very poor area, McGovern emerges from her room as white as a sheet.

“My iPhone,” she says. “I dropped it in the toilet.” Somebody cites the urban myth that the phone should be covered with rice. McGovern asks our hostess if that would be possible. She nods and brings a sack of rice out of her storeroom. McGovern places her iPhone in a plastic bag and pours a generous helping of rice on top of it. It stays like this all the way home, but the iPhone never recovers.

WTF Friday, 12/13/2013

Um, Scary Spice is going to Rwanda for Christmas?

There are so many reasons to WTF this, but I’m going to focus on just one: Mel B apparently expects to see tigers on her trip. Explaining her plan to the Daily Mirror, she said “I said to the kids do you want to go to Africa and see lions, tigers and bears, or stay at home and watch TV all day? It was a no brainer.”

Sorry dude, but bears and tigers don’t live in Africa, and lions are extinct in Rwanda. (Although I hear they might be bringing some new ones in from South Africa.) Maybe try Kenya?

Time for a Bechdel Test for African Characters? Some Thoughts on the Newsroom’s Very Special Africa Episode

The Newsroom went to Africa. It was not good.

In Sunday’s episode, “Unintended Consequences,” ACN sent a reporter named Maggie and a cameraman named Gary Cooper to Uganda to do a segment on the U.S. army building an orphanage there, because apparently that is news.

When she was done interviewing soldiers, Maggie relaxed with a visit to the orphanage’s classroom, in which children of all ages were having a “geography lesson” that consisted of reciting the names of continents when their teacher pointed to them on a map. Seems like geography to me! Then Gary Cooper came in with the camera and all the children screamed and hid under their desks, because they thought it was a gun. (could this be…FORESHADOWING?) See, cattle raiders were roaming them there hills, and the children were afeared.

A particularly adorable afeared child named Daniel – who, the show takes pains to tell us, has parents but has been sent to the orphanage temporarily to avoid cattle raider attacks, and so wasn’t even supposed to be there that day (IRONY) – bonded with Maggie by demanding that she read him him Lyle, Lyle Crocodile over and over again, and petting her hair. The teacher says that Daniel is fascinated by Maggie’s hair because he’s never seen a blonde person before, and that “blondes are trouble.” (OMG MORE FORESHADOWING.)

Through a series of mishaps that include Maggie not knowing where Djibouti is and not understanding that it is not light during nighttime, the ACN team was forced to spend the night at the orphanage. (Thanks again for those strong female characters, Aaron Sorkin.)

That night, obviously, cattle raiders attacked. At first everyone was like “hey, weird, this is an orphanage so we do not have any cattle.” But then it turned out that they were actually CAMERA raiders who wanted the ACN camera. Maggie didn’t know that because the raiders were yelling in a language that her fixer did not understand, and apparently none of the other people at the orphanage thought to bring it up. (Perhaps they were embarrassed to, because camera raiders are not a thing.)

So then everyone hustled to load the children onto what I assume was an AK-47-proof bus, but Daniel was missing! No one saw that coming at all. Daniel was hiding under a bed, with the Lyle book. OMG. Who will save him? The orphanage staff apparently hadn’t even noticed that they were short a Daniel, but never fear, American people are here! Maggie and Gary heroically tore the bed off the floor and dragged Daniel out from under it, then ran for the bus. Except that the raiders shot Daniel while Maggie was carrying him to the bus on her back, so he died from the bullet that was meant for her. MORE OF WHAT I ASSUME WAS INTENDED TO BE IRONY.

All of this is told through the framing device of a deposition, because, you see, the truly important thing about Daniel’s death was how it affected Maggie, and apparently in Sorkin world a deposition is a thing you use to evaluate someone’s emotional state after a traumatic event. We can tell that Maggie is totes messed up about what happened because she came home and gave herself a terrible haircut and tomato-red dye job. (Remember, blondes are trouble.) But she bravely soldiers on through the deposition with barely a wring of her hands because she is BRAVE (if rather bad at her job).

Africa has changed Maggie – changed her forever. You can tell by her hair.

Over at Slate, Willa Paskin suggests that we introduce the term “Lyle-ing” as an equivalent to “fridging” for storylines in which a black child’s death, instead of a woman’s, is used to instigate anguish and personal growth in a white main character. I think that’s a fine idea, but would suggest another addition: a Bechdel test for African characters.

The Bechdel test is a feminist movie evaluation tool introduced by cartoonist Alison Bechdel. To pass the test, a movie must (1) have two or more female characters, (2) who talk to each other, (3) about a topic other than a man. If a movie doesn’t pass the test, that’s a sign that it’s lacking in female characters, and/or just using them as emotional MacGuffins for the males around them. (Many, many movies do not pass this test.)

I think it’s about time for us to introduce an equivalent test for African characters: if a movie or TV show is set in Africa, then it should (1) have at least two African characters, (2) who talk to each other, (3) about a topic other than poverty, disease, or violent conflict.

“But, Amanda!” you say, “how would that even work? Everyone knows that on TV, Africa exists so that white people can go there thinking they will change things, but end up having Africa change them more than they ever imagined it could. What would Africans even talk about with each other? And where will the white characters get their life-changing epiphanies if they’re no longer allowed to save helpless innocents from some sort of horror or tragedy?”

I agree that it’s a tough challenge. Western audiences, trained on years of Carter-goes-to-Congo storylines, may be surprised to discover that people in “Africa” have problems other than those that ride in with one of the horsemen of the apocalypse. And screenwriters, long trained to think of Africa as a continent-sized arena for the battle of White Person vs. White Person’s Inner Demons, may initially have difficulty finding other uses for it. So, to get everyone started, here are some storylines that are guaranteed entertainment gold:

  1. Any Wedding Reality Show Ever: Nigeria Edition. After seeing Glenna Gordon’s amazing photo essay on Nigerian weddings, I feel legitimately betrayed by the reality TV industry’s failure to bring me any wedding shows involving mommy lace, little brides, or cash “spray.” Seriously, someone has to get on this.
  2. Arrested Development in Addis Ababa. According to NPR, Ethiopia is currently undergoing a construction boom so powerful that women are leaving traditional work as maids and nannies to join construction crews. Perhaps it’s time for the Bluth family to partner with a development firm run by a family of quirky Ethiopians to blow the McMansion market there wide open.
  3. Scandal: The Kigali Initiative. Olivia Pope & Associates get new client: a Rwandan diplomat who has been in secret talks about joining the opposition, and is afraid that the Kagame regime is about to have him killed. The gladiators in suits get to work, but it turns out that the plot runs deeper than anyone could have imagined, so they have to join with a team of Rwandan fixers to get to the bottom of it before it’s too late.
  4. Untitled Liberian Surfing Project. A ragtag group of Liberian surfing entrepreneurs decide that it’s time for Robertsport to host a major international surfing competition. Hijinks ensue.

Come on, entertainment industry: make it happen!

Africa, Land of Rape OR Lions?

Is this the result of the lion lobby getting wind of our popular post tag, and making an effort distance “lions” from “rape”?

From the AP, the story of an adolescent girl being saved from rape and forced marriage by three Ethiopian lions:

“A 12-year-old girl who was abducted and beaten by men trying to force her into a marriage was found being guarded by three lions who apparently had chased off her captors, a policeman said Tuesday.

The girl, missing for a week, had been taken by seven men who wanted to force her to marry one of them, said Sgt. Wondimu Wedajo, speaking by telephone from the provincial capital of Bita Genet, about 350 miles southwest of Addis Ababa.

She was beaten repeatedly before she was found June 9 by police and relatives on the outskirts of Bita Genet, Wondimu said. She had been guarded by the lions for about half a day, he said.

“They stood guard until we found her and then they just left her like a gift and went back into the forest,” Wondimu said.
“If the lions had not come to her rescue, then it could have been much worse. Often these young girls are raped and severely beaten to force them to accept the marriage,” he said.”

You heard it here first, folks. In the battle against sexual violence, lions are the new camcorders.

(H/T Melinda.)

On Luvungi, and the Problem of Evidence in Advocacy

Amanda and I spent the second half of last week at a World Peace Foundation seminar on “Western Advocacy in Conflict.” It was lots of fun. (If your idea of fun involves assorted cheese cubes and extremely detailed discussions of human rights crises. Mine certainly does.)

One of the themes that we hit on repeatedly was the relationship of advocacy to evidence. Because we were discussing Kony 2012 and conflict minerals activism on Congo, this came up primarily in terms of advocacy campaigns that seminar participants felt had distorted or paid insufficient attention to evidence. But it’s a much bigger issue, and one I have been thinking about for a while.

In contexts where the source of human rights abuses is complicated or unclear, advocates must use evidence to demonstrate that their analysis of the cause of the violations is correct, and thereby justify their proposed policy recommendations. As I note in the post linked above, that’s a very different task from the one advocates confront when the source of human rights abuses is clear. In those cases, they collect evidence to document that violations have occurred, and marshal it in support of demands that the violative behavior stop.

The challenge advocates face in situations where it’s not obvious who is responsible for human rights abuses or what would be necessary to halt them is exacerbated by the fact that these are often also situations in which it is difficult to collect information. This problem is highlighted by a controversy about the 2010 mass rape incident in Luvungi currently playing out in the (virtual) pages of Foreign Policy.

In her article “What Happened in Luvungi? On rape and truth in Congo”, reporter Laura Heaton delves into the events at “ground zero of Congo’s rape epidemic.” The August 2010 rebel assault on villages near Luvungi in North Kivu became front page news of the UN’s failure to protect Congolese civilians. The International Medical Corps (IMC) team that arrived on August 6 reported a shocking number of rape victims among the survivors. Ultimately, the UN concluded that 387 women and girls had been raped over the course of the 4 day attack.

In her trips to the area to follow up on the recovery process, however, Laura found reasons to doubt the official account. Speaking with survivors, she had the uncomfortable feeling that “a psychological element seemed to be missing” and thought perhaps the women had been coached. A local healthcare provider told her he had only treated 6 rape victims in the immediate aftermath of the rebel incursion. He said that most of the people seen at the local clinic at the time were treated for disease or for injuries incurred fleeing the rebels, but their records were altered after IMC arrived.

Laura was unable to reconcile what she was being told with what the UN and humanitarian aid workers had reported. She wondered if the numbers had been intentionally inflated, either to draw attention and funds to Luvungi, or, potentially, to protect the identities of the true rape victims.

Responding to Laura’s article, two aid workers who were part of IMC’s team in Luvungi in August 2010 vigorously contest the allegation that IMC misrepresented these events. I spoke with one of the authors, Will Cragin, who said that when he arrived in Luvungi, “there had essentially been no patients seen since the beginning of the attacks” because of the distance to the clinic and insecurity in the area. He added that once there, IMC neither retroactively revised past patient logs, nor classified incoming patients who did not report rape as sexual violence victims.

Will also thought it unlikely that the community colluded in deceiving the humanitarian workers and UN investigators in order to net media attention and aid money. He noted that ICRC and Heal Africa continue to provide psychosocial services in the community and that it’s “hard to believe that [these] women would carry on this story for so long.”

I am in no position to assess the truth of what happened in Luvungi, but the alternate narratives, each supported by eyewitness accounts, underscore what is so difficult about advocacy in complex conflict situations.

If we accept the evidence that the Luvungi numbers were inflated, we’re likely to classify this episode as emblematic of the negative effects of characterizing Congo as a place primarily defined by rape. I’ve written about this before, and share the concerns Laura identifies about the incentive structure created by a disproportionate focus on sexual violence.

But as Will and his coauthor, Micah Williams, point out, rape is a vastly underreported crime in Congo (as it is elsewhere), and “current funding remains woefully inadequate.” If we take the official Luvungi numbers at face value, we might think instead that this is one more piece of evidence that eastern Congo is in the throes of a rape epidemic in desperate need of increased international attention.

The policy prescriptions indicated by these competing interpretations of evidence are starkly different: less focus on sexual violence initiatives or more. Reason enough to be careful about what we think we know, and how we know it.

 

 

Blast from the (Recent) Past: “Kony 2012: Lessons for the Congo” Podcast

Happy New Year, internets.

In case you’re nostalgic for 2012 already (The royal wedding! Unseasonably warm temparatures! RomneyBot3000!), good news: The podcast for the Congo in Harlem “Kony 2012: Lessons for the Congo” panel that Amanda and I participated in is now available:

Each panelist focused his or her remarks on a different aspect of the Kony 2012 campaign and subsequent kerfuffle. I chose to highlight Invisible Children’s emphasis on ICC prosecution for Joseph Kony as the ultimate goal of their advocacy, and explained why I found this strategy an awkward fit for the LRA crisis.

A point I had hoped to discuss further, but didn’t have time for, is that Kony 2012 demonstrates some of the problems that can arise when complex political situations are treated as problems for criminal justice to solve.

The idea behind the existence of the International Criminal Court is a laudable commitment not to allow criminal behavior that is also political behavior to go unpunished; to have a legal mechanism that will punish those guilty of mass atrocities that is to some extent insulated from the operation of politics. But this insulation comes at a price: Once the legal mechanism gets going, you can’t reintroduce politics, even if it might produce better peace and justice outcomes. Consequently, Uganda was not able to offer the suspension of the ICC warrants during peace negotiations with the LRA.

A number of critics (me included) have made the point that Invisible Children’s approach takes a long-standing political crisis, and reduces it to the criminality of one man. And the reaction from those who feel this criticism is unfair has been: “Why do we care? This guy has committed egregious crimes, does it really matter if we’re over-simplifying the conflict as long as he’s punished?” But it does matter, because when you choose legal solutions you are foreclosing political options.

Being aware of this tradeoff is particularly important with regard to Congo, where we see a similar move being made with the conflict minerals campaign, which tells us that the violence in the Kivus is the consequence of individual greed and criminality, not complicated political dynamics. And it’s clear why this narrative is appealing– a lot of confusing complexity washes out, and law enforcement solutions are a comparatively simple policy ask. But if the story that conflict mineral activists are telling isn’t correct, then law enforcement solutions will not address the root causes of the violence.

All of which leads me to wonder: The international criminal justice system was set up to deal with the political that is also criminal – to ensure that human rights abusers don’t get away with murder because they happen to occupy positions of political power. But is it equally well-suited to dealing with the criminal that is also political?

It’s Books! Hooray Books!

After reading Chris Blattman’s post about it a little while back, I grabbed a copy of G. Pascal Zachary’s new book Hotel Africa: The Politics of Escape. It’s a collection of essays and reporting on contemporary Africa by a journalist known for skipping the heart of darkness and poverty porn cliches in favor of a nuanced, compassionate view of his subjects. (But fair warning: the Kindle edition is distractingly full of scanning errors.)

I found food for thought in many of the essays in Hotel Africa, but one called “In Malawi, Charity Is Not Enough” stayed with me. In it, Zachary, interviewing a farming family struggling to survive amidst a drought and an AIDS epidemic, begins to cry, and then just as quickly begins to question the validity of his own emotional response. “What’s wrong with me?” he asks, before launching into a list of his hardened-foreign-correspondent-in-depressing-lands bona fides.

The episode highlights the difficulty of situating one’s own emotions in the context of a narrative (or advocacy) about other people’s pain. This issue is frequently raised in criticism of Western journalism on Africa, and motivated much of the backlash to the Kony 2012 video, which focused on the white filmmakers’ discovery of African suffering. Zachary, clearly both embarrassed and sensitive to the risks of making his reaction the center of the story, nevertheless owns his feelings, but uses the moment to discuss the perverse effects of emotion-driven charity and to call for principled, sustained engagement with sub-Saharan Africa.

Reading Mark Weston’s The Ringtone and the Drum: Travels in the World’s Poorest Countries shortly after Hotel Africa, I was struck by the echoes of this dilemma. Weston and his wife set out on an ambitious journey through West Africa, but somewhere in Burkina Faso, his mental state begins to deterioriate.

For a journalist or a human rights advocate, the consequent loss of objectivity might be disastrous, but the travelogue format gives Weston the leeway to engage his breakdown directly. Instead of minimizing it, or alternately, presenting West Africa as the monolithic “thing that drove him crazy,” he uses it to shrink the distance between himself and his subjects, generating real insight into the emotional lives of the individuals with whom he interacts.

The book is full of rich detail and interesting historical anecdotes (as well as a surprising amount of political economy shout-outs) about a part of the world that most readers will never see, but its real value lies in Weston’s success at communicating exactly what he set out to discover: “a better idea of how the world’s poorest people make it through the day.” Worth a read.

 

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.”

WTF Friday, 5/18/2012

This week’s winner: Belgian Congo Pale Ale, apparently an actual thing. The brewer describes it as “[a] blend of old world traditions.” Right, a “secret Belgian yeast strain” and delicious old world traditions like forced labor and mass amputations. Yum. (h/t: @texasinafrica)

And the runner-up: More than 50% of the police officers in Greece voted for the neo-Nazi party in the May 6th elections. Always a good sign when most of your security sector is fascists…