Tag Archives: Uganda

The Sachs-Prendergast School of Activism

2 Sep

*The following is a guest post by my brother Timmy Hirschel-Burns.

Development and mass atrocities both interest me, and the articles I read are mostly about these two issues.  A few months ago, I realized that I could go from an article on corn production in Kenya to political conflict in South Sudan, but a major figure would be present in both articles.  Really, this was not one person, but two; Jeffrey Sachs and John Prendergast had melded together in my mind.  While this could be written off as subconscious sloppiness with little relevance to the real world, I think there are important parallels between Sachs and Prendergast.  Development and mass atrocities have much in common, and Sachs and Prendergast are among the leading figures in their respective fields.  Although Sachs’s ‘bookworm on a mission’ persona contrasts with Prendergast’s ‘cool guy out to save the world’ image, their methods are extremely similar.  That these two similar figures both became perhaps the most publicly recognizable person in their field is not a coincidence, but rather can shed light on how we approach developing countries-African ones in particular-, what types of activism gather attention, and how the shortcomings of these two figures can be avoided.  First, I will present some of the similarities between Sachs and Prendergast, and then I will discuss their broader significance.

Moral outrage– A constant theme for Sachs and Prendergast is their moral outrage about the suffering of individuals around the world.  In The Idealist, Nina Munk describes how after seeing how AIDS victims did not receive medicine in Zambia, Sachs was so appalled he decided to dedicate himself to ending poverty.  His shock is again apparent when he visits the Millennium Village in Ruhiira, Uganda, where he spends much of the visit muttering to himself about how outrageous poverty is.  Munk describes how after speaking with a doctor, “Sachs shook his head in disbelief; he was personally offended by the situation.  ‘They can’t go on like this,’ he said.”  Prendergast also puts his moral outrage at the center of his actions.  In Not on Our Watch, co-authored by Prendergast and Don Cheadle, they describe a visit to a visit to a refugee camp for those displaced by violence in Darfur.  They write, “As we listened to the stories of the refugees who fled the genocide, we sensed what it might be like to be hunted as a human being…Enough is ENOUGH.”

Westerners hold the solution– Sachs and Prendergast both frame poverty and mass atrocities, respectively, as something the West allows to happen.  Prendergast focuses on Samantha Power’s idea that we must be ‘upstanders’ to genocide rather than bystanders in The Enough Moment.  Munk also describes how in Ruhiira, Sachs reacts to what he sees by saying, “This is how we allow fellow human beings to die, by doing nothing.”  Of course, when Prendergast and Sachs say “we,” citizens of Darfur or Uganda do not really factor in.  Rather, the “we” they see as key to stopping genocide and poverty are Western citizens and policymakers.  Their policy prescriptions almost always follow this idea.  For Prendergast, the solution tends to come through Western-led diplomacy, peacekeeping forces, or in the case of the DRC, ending the purchase of conflict minerals.  For Sachs, Western-led aid interventions are at the center of his strategy.  Their seminal projects highlight their position at the center of solving mass atrocities and poverty.  Prendergast’s Enough Project and Sachs’s The End of Poverty both hold titles that emphasize finality.  Prendergast has had enough of mass atrocities and his organization will stop them, while Sachs knows how to end poverty and will describe how in his book.

Celebrity affiliations– A major feature of both Sachs and Prendergast’s work is their collaboration with non-expert celebrities in an effort to draw popular appeal.  Bono writes the foreword to The End of Poverty, Sachs starred in the MTV documentary “The Diary of Angelina Jolie & Dr. Jeffrey Sachs in Africa,” and he has worked with Tommy Hilfiger.  Prendergast co-wrote two books with Don Cheadle, co-founded The Darfur Dream Team with basketball star Tracy McGrady, and has worked closely with George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, and Ben Affleck.

Negative reaction to criticism– Both Prendergast and Sachs have a reputation of taking criticism very personally and having relentless faith in their ideas.  Prendergast has had high profile arguments with Mahmood Mamdani and Alex de Waal, while Sachs has long-running feuds with Bill Easterly and Dambisa Moyo.  While all prominent figures will have critics and public debate can be valuable and constructive, in these debates Prendergast and Sachs’s tone is often noticeably defensive and aggressive.  A memorable scene in The Idealist describes Sachs screaming at parisitologist Christian Lengeler on an airplane over their differing views on malaria control.  While they have reacted poorly to criticism, Sachs and Prendergast have also shown unwillingness to examine their ideas.  Sachs failed to have the Millennium Village Project properly evaluated (although to his credit he did give Nina Munk fantastic and seemingly uncensored access).  Prendergast has consistently pushed the idea that Dodd-Frank 1502, the legislation aimed at preventing the purchase of conflict minerals that he lobbied extensively for, led to the demise of M23.  However, Christoph Vogel argues that the only evidence to support this theory is a report commissioned by Prendergast and his colleague Sasha Lezhnev.

While some of these similarities are particular to Sachs and Prendergast, many can be applied to other prominent activists, campaigns and organizations.  Sachs and Prendergast are leading figures in a particular school of activism, and I think this is where the similarities between Sachs and Prendergast have the largest implications.  At the heart of the similarities between Sachs, Prendergast, and similar activists is their theory of change: they need to draw Western attention to problems in developing countries, Westerners will care more about these issues, their moral outrage will lead to more resources and money focused on the problems, and these resources and money will solve the problems.  This theory of change which is so prominent in Sachs and Prendergast also pervades Power, Kristof, Invisible Children, and a major portion of prominent activism, and I think this is where the problem lies.

There is nothing inherently wrong about many components of this theory of change.  The inequality and brutality that is present throughout the world should bring moral outrage, and Westerners can play a meaningful and effective role in producing change in the developing world.  What this theory of change lacks, however, is humility.  It fails to consider that Western popular attention may be able to do little to help, that these activists may not be the missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle, or that their moral outrage may not be enough to solve incredibly complex problems.  Perhaps they don’t know the answer, or the answer they thought they had was wrong.  They often can’t stop to consider power, institutions, history, and local knowledge because they have had enough of genocide, poverty needs to be ended, and they need to do it right now.  We do need to stop mass atrocities and end poverty, but it will be hard, it will take a long time, and it will take more than this type of activism.

How Civilians Protect Themselves Nonviolently During Mass Killings

16 Jul

*This post summarizes my undergraduate thesis.

International interventions in mass killing episodes often fail to adequately protect civilians.

The UNMISS peacekeeping operation in South Sudan is a case in point. Bureaucratic, political, and financial constraints consistently inhibit the deployment of well-staffed interventions, and often prohibit them outright.

Therefore, many civilians must survive without external assistance, but we know surprisingly little about how this occurs.

No scholar has produced a work combining empirical examples of civilian self-protection with a theory of the mechanisms that allow it to function during mass killing or even conflict more broadly. The lack of focus on civilian self-protection is symptomatic of a larger issue of how scholars envision violent conflict.

Check out the rest of the article at the Monkey Cage. You can read the entire thesis here.

One Year Later, Analyzing Kony 2012’s Fatal Flaws

24 Feb

Since the original Kony 2012 video came out on March 5th, it became the most viral video of all time, received tremendous amounts of criticism, and then as quickly as it appeared, the movement faded into relative obscurity.  While the concrete effects of Invisible Children’s campaign on the LRA’s insurgency are fleeting, the video prompted both a public interest in central African conflict and a critical discussion on foreigners’ role in conflict prevention, the LRA’s place in a broader African context, and a history of human rights abuses by the Ugandan army.  While Kony 2012, at the very least, was terribly problematic, it did accomplish a very limited number of its goals.  However, considering the massive following it was able to initially achieve, the campaign was certainly a failure.  Joesph Kony continues to elude pursuing armies, and policy-wise, little has changed in the past year.

Beyond the campaign’s basic inability to successfully prompt the arrest or death of Joseph Kony, Invisible Children ultimately made little headway in producing an approach that was likely to achieve one of those two goals.  In a panel discussion I helped organized last semester, Swarthmore history professor Tim Burke argued that the United States’ past attempts to work with African strongmen had always failed, and would continue to do so.  IC’s campaign could not be a more perfect example.  Kony 2012 threw all of its eggs into the Ugandan military‘s basket, simply ignoring its long history of human rights violations and Musevini’s use of the LRA to justify a large military budget (which is then used to fund meddling in the DRC).  IC also failed to take into account Museveni’s propensity to use hunting the LRA as a bargaining chip with Western donors.  Ultimately, using a military force with foreign advisers to hunt down and eliminate the LRA is a tactic that has been tried over and over, and failed every time.

Invisible Children’s approach to ending the LRA conflict in the Kony 2012 video was essentially based in a flawed, simplistic understanding of the conflict.  Though, to its credit, IC does some really good work on the ground in Northern Uganda, its policy proposals, consisting of more American military advisers, were always destined to fall flat.  The LRA is a symptom, and not a cause, of poor governance, violence, and civilian suffering in the areas in which it exists.  Killing Joesph Kony is highly unlikely to seriously change regional dynamics in DRC, South Sudan, or the Central African Republic.  This analysis seems pretty basic, and so it’s hard to understand why Invisible Children chose to promote such nonsensical policy.

Though Kony 2012 did succeed in taking Invisible Children, and even human rights advocacy, to new heights, it seems that there were small changes IC could have made to promote better policy without damaging the video’s popularity.  In the end, the problem with Kony 2012 was not so much the template they used to draw viewers in, but rather with the solutions the campaign espoused.  Instead of a campaign focused on killing Kony, IC could have produced a similarly sappy video that focused on efforts to coax poor African children who have suffered at the hands of the monster Kony out of the LRA and back into their communities.  It could have even convinced viewers to direct some of their ire toward regional governments who have done little to help the plight of LRA victims.  This alternative video would still have catered to those with a white savior complex and totally simplified the conflict.  It could have portrayed the LRA’s child soldiers as poor souls trapped in between the spiritual delusion of Kony and the neglect of greedy and incompetent regional governments.  A stronger focus on LRA child soldiers as victims would have helped sort out the bizarre moral universe created by IC in the original Kony 2012 video in which child soldiers are victims, but also legitimate targets for a military mission aimed at killing Kony.  This alternative video would still have had many problems, and would have still been rightly subject to mounds of criticism, but at least it could have done some good.  

* For a more in-depth reflection on Kony 2012, check out Daniel Solomon’s in-progress five part series on the campaign. 

Link

Gang Violence and Civilian Protection: Observations on Their Relation (Part I)

29 Sep

*This post is the first in a two part series that will examine how we can conceptualize gang violence in the United States through the framework of civilian protection, mass atrocities, and political violence.  This post will focus on the actual functioning of gangs and militaries that perpetrate violence against civilians, while the second will focus on conflict resolution strategies.

                                                                                                                                                            

“Little Terry got a gun, he got from the store,
He bought it with the money he got from his chores,
He robbed candy shop told her lay down on the floor,
Put the cookies in his bag took the pennies out the drawer.

Little Kalil got a gun he got from the rebels,
To kill the infidels and American devils,
A bomb on his waist,
A mask on his face,
Prays five times a day,
And listens to Heavy Metal.

Little Alex got a gun he took from his dad,
That he snuck into school in his black book bag,
His black nail polish, black boots and black hair,
He’s gonna blow away the bully that just pushed his ass…” 

These are the first few lines from Lupe Fiasco’s “Little Weapon“.  In the song, he makes an explicit link between the culture of youth violence in the United States and violence in foreign countries.  This connection merits further examination.  I spent this summer working in a small city on the east coast where I was exposed to gang violence (I will refrain from naming the city to protect the privacy of the people and organizations I mention).  This city, which I will call Joplin, has a population between thirty and fifty thousands, but all in an urban setting.  It is very economically depressed and majority African-American.  My experiences working with issues of civilian protection prodded me to constantly make connection between the two seemingly very different scenarios.  Though there are certainly very concrete differences from, for example, rebel groups in eastern Congo and gangs on Joplin’s east side, I think it is important to note the similarities while acknowledging the differences.  I will focus on the issues that allow on the structural factors that allow gangs and militant groups to exist and then move to examine the impact of these groups on non-combatants.

In Joplin, gangs are a product of a terrible educational system, a non-existent job market, and a simple lack of activities for youth.  Joplin is not the only the victim of a federal government that feels no need to help low-income communities  but also a terribly inefficient and corrupt local government that wastes most of the funding it does receive.  From my experience, Joplin youth, in general, don’t believe that there is a productive future ahead of them.  Dealing drugs and joining gangs is one way of the few ways to make money.  These structural factors are shared by militant groups.  The military or rebel groups can offer a path for advancement for low-status individuals, and are often made up of disaffected populations.  Similarly, rebel groups, think the Democratic Republic of the Congo, often compete with both the government and rival rebels to control material resources.

Gangs in Joplin, like many rebel groups, do not exist entirely separately from the communities in which they operate.  Individuals move in and out of gangs, and social circles are not divided solely by conditional gang membership.  Several programs in Joplin facilitate mentoring from current/potential gang members and former gangsters.  Franck van Acker notes this same phenomenon in the link above.  In LRA-affected Uganda, individuals routinely experienced the conflict as a civilian, a rebel, and a soldier over the course of their lifetime.

The victims of militant groups and gangs are both disproportionately civilians.  Many more civilians die in armed conflicts than militants, and while I don’t know the statistics for Joplin (and they’d be practically useless anyway, because the line between gangster and civilian is so blurry), civilians are routinely caught in gang crossfire.  Civilians are affected in both cases, but the targets of violence differs significantly.  Militant groups have political objectives, though some of their actions can seem purely designed to inflict terror and suffering on civilians.  Gangs do not share this characteristic.  Therefore, gang violence is committed for personal and business reasons against other community members, while militant violence is committed either against opposing armed forces or civilian populations that are either in support, or imagined to be in support of those forces.

While gang violence is explicitly aimed at individuals for apolitical reasons, government response to gang violence adds a political element.  In “Little Weapon”, Lupe raps, “Government want me dead so I wear my gun.  This is not an unrealistic portrait of gangs in Joplin.  Young black men are suspicious of the police, who are more likely to be white than the rest of Joplin’s population, and have a record of harassment.  Joining a gang is a way to find protection from the police.  Rebel groups comprised of  marginalized and persecuted populations serve this same purpose.  While gangs are an avenue for social and economic advancement, they are also a way for disempowered individuals to protect themselves from an oppressive government.

Stay tuned for Part II.