Tuesday, May 21, 2013

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Monday, May 20, 2013

Debt "Forgiveness" and Food for Crocodiles

Here's a good reason to cancel the debts of impoverished countries: in many cases, their populations never chose to borrow the money in the first place.
This is a supposedly radical notion.  Lots of institutions and global actors, from the World Bank and IMF to western politicians to non-profit organizations, talk about “debt relief,” but very few talk about the legitimacy of the debt to begin with.  Debt relief or forgiveness is packaged as a sympathetic bit of charity from the West to the world’s poor, an act of kindness that is usually attached to demands made of the recipient government.  Those demands range from the hypocritical (“stop subsidizing your farmers…only we get to do that”) to the patronizing (“demonstrateto us in writing how you will properly spend your own money that we are allowing you to keep”) to the counter-productive (“commit to austerity…”).    
Even those actors sympathetic to the cause of debt relief because of the impact it could have, including increased spending on health, education, and infrastructure and the accompanying decline in preventable mortality, often shy away from making the claim that debt relief should be a right and not a privilege.  This not only lets numerous people off the hook who should not be let off the hook, it is a complete distortion of history.  And history matters.
In Africa, the vast majority of debt was accrued in the 1970’s and 1980’s under dictatorships, many of which were tossed from power in the 1990’s.  The lending that created this debt financed many things, but was almost universally processed through un-democratic channels.  In many cases, it financed the dictator’s personal consumption habits.  In many cases, it financed the repressive organs of the state, which in turn suppressed dissent and preserved the dictator’s power.  In many cases, it was used to dispense patronage to internal actors who might otherwise have challenged the status quo.  In the end, this lending helped perpetuate the rule of tyrants while doing significantly more harm than good for the populations subjected to that rule.  It funded weapons that killed children, “development” projects that destroyed communities, and further enriched some of the richest people on earth at the expense of some of the poorest.  This is the debt that developing nations are being asked to pay back today.
In fact, the story of debt in Africa is so uniform across so many countries as to allow for the discernment of a system at work.  Foreign nations help a dictator take power for political reasons, and then fund his regime to ensure it can repel any attempt at a change in government.  Lending funds the security services, the patronage network, and the dictator’s personal spending habits, which become very lavish, very quickly.  Resource extraction is streamlined at the expense of the domestic economy and to the benefit of multi-national corporations while structural adjustment programs imposed as part of debt restructuring agreements crater the middle class and the civil service.  With the economy in free fall, money starts to flow outward in the form of capital flight, further draining the economy and obliterating the tax base.  Protests are squashed with external support.  Banks lend money knowing full well it will be stolen because they make money off the lending anyway.  Governments send arms and soldiers to assist brutal tyrants.  And then, when it’s finally all over and the nightmare of dictatorship is somehow broken by the will of the people, the banks and the rich governments and the multi-lateral institutions cough loudly and ask to be paid back.
Speaking of Africa as if it is a single place is, of course, absurd; this is a massive continent of enormous ethnic, religious, racial, social, and cultural diversity.  And yet this same scenario played out over and over again.  It happened in South Africa, where western institutions now demand that the ANC repay the debts of its Apartheid predecessors.  It happened in Rwanda, where France systematically armed and supported the genocidal regime around President Juvenal Habyarimana; today, Rwanda’s government, whatever its faults, continues to pay off the debts of its murderous predecessor.  It happened in Somalia, where a brutal dictatorship armed alternatively by the Americans and the Soviets was replaced by two decades of famine and anarchy, and where the newly emerging government is being lectured by the IMF to pay back what “it” “owes” to the West. 
And, on an unimaginable scale, it happened in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where America’s favorite “anti-communist” dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, looted his country for more than thirty years, leaving it in ruins.  Mobutu stole billions during his time in office, funneling money from kickbacks, loans, fraudulent development projects, and even straight from the country’s budget into his own pocket.  He spent state money to take his inner circle to Disneyworld and to ferry, on multiple occasions, a number of sheep from Venezuela to his personal farm in the DRC.  When asked if it was true, despite the suffering of his people, that he was the fourth richest person in the world, Mobutu became indignant and proclaimed, “no, no, no! I am the third richest man in the world!”  When the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front began to advance on his good friend Habyarimana and his genocidal Hutu Power clique, Mobutu lectured him by saying “I told you not to build any roads…building roads never did any good…I’ve been in power in Zaire for thirty years and I never built one road.  Now they are driving down them to get you.”  This is the man George H. W. Bush invited to the White House before any other African leader (he had at least 45 other options).  This is the man Ronald Reagan declared was a “consistent voice of good sense and good will.”   
When Mobutu was forced from power, the DRC was more than $12 billion in debt, while the former dictator was rumored to have as much as $8 billion in personal wealth stashed abroad.  The new Congolese government set about to recover this wealth, claiming correctly that it belonged to the Congolese people, but Swiss banks were sadly unable to recover much of it.  In Malawi, a similar situation unfolded after the death of autocrat Hastings Banda.  The banks told the Malawian government that they would be happy to investigate Banda’s riches if the government could simply produce a death certificate.  Sadly, this certificate went “missing.”  None of this should be surprising.  After all, if Swiss banks just handed over their clients’ money simply because it was stolen from orphans and teachers and farmers, they wouldn’t be Swiss banks. 
The creditors (banks, governments, multi-laterals) bear much of the responsibility for this system, of course, a fact I covered in more detail here.  But if we are keeping up the charade that these debts are owed to somebody, then the people who need to pay them back are the Mobutus and Bandas of the world.  Their money is somewhere, and somebody is profiting from it.  To claim that these debts are somehow legitimately tied to the people of Malawi or the DRC is nonsensical.  To say that these dictators represented their people in any way that carries any validity in the real world is equivalent to suggesting that Stalin was the legitimate representative of post-war Poland.  When you conquer a country and subjugate its people, does it really matter whether you live there yourself or not?
Jubilee USA is one organization that gets it.  While advocating for the one-time cancellation of all debts, a concept with biblical precedence, Jubilee also argues consistently that much of the debt owed by developing nations is illegitimate, a fact that puts phrases like “debt relief” and “debt forgiveness” into a very different light.  The fact that Jubilee is an incredibly effective organization run on a tiny budget lends additional moral credibility to its calls for change.  Donations are helpful, of course, but there are lots of ways to get involved with Jubilee’s work.  
Hastings Banda once called his political opponents “food for crocodiles.”  Margaret Thatcher once called Banda’s government “one of our closest friends.”  In short, the West helped feed Africa’s people to the crocodiles, then peered inside the belly of the beast and yelled “don’t forget to pay us back for all the money we spent raising crocodiles!”  In fairness to the creditors, they are owed quite a bit of money.  After all, as Mobutu taught the world so vividly, one can spend an absolute fortune flying sheep around the world on private jets.   

Thursday, May 9, 2013

How Westerners Can Help Africa Without a Helicopter

Recently a friend of mine asked me my opinion on whether or not donating aid to Africa is actually helpful for Africans.  He is involved in a church project that donates supplies to Swaziland, he said, but he didn't know if his help was doing any good and he figured he would ask around for perspectives.  I told him that I had no idea, of course, exactly what the impact was of donating goods to Swaziland, but I did know that Swaziland is ruled by a corrupt King who suppresses democratic rights, owns a hugely disproportionate share of his country's wealth and, for what it's worth, occasionally marries teenage girls against the wishes of their parents.

If you want to help Swaziland, I argued, the best way might be to pressure Coca Cola, the largest multi-national invested in the country, to pressure King Mswati to open up the government.  Until that happens, there is little hope for economic reforms that will benefit the population as a whole and that would negate the need for donations from people living ten thousand miles away.
My friend said he understood that, but there was a problem.  "I want to help," he said "and that's not really the way I envision helping.  If I'm completely honest with myself, I envision flying into the jungle on a helicopter and saving people."

While my friend deserves credit for being honest about this, his admission that this urge is potentially self-serving is entirely accurate.  He's also not alone.  From Kony 2012 to "Save the Children" to the adoption craze rising and then crashing and burning in country after country, it is evident that many in the West see their role vis a vis Africans as one of spiritual, physical, and societal salvation.  For those in the West wanting to help Africans living in poverty, understanding this dynamic and its implications has to be the first step.

To be clear, wanting to help people is obviously a good thing, and people who want to help should be commended, not condemned.  The old saying about the road to hell being paved with good intentions was clearly not coined by somebody familiar with Africa's post-colonial history; Africa's road to poverty and conflict has been paved by people with decidedly bad intentions, from Joseph Kony to CIA operatives, from the executives at Shell Oil to the architects of Hutu Power. 
But good intentions are not enough.  Donated goods can undercut local economies, enrich warlords, and even exacerbate the very problems such donations are intended to solve.  On a macro-level, millions of dollars of aid from western countries to African nations doesn't seem to have demonstrably improved the lives of Africa's people.  All of which is very frustrating to the person in the West who just wants to help.

So how can Westerners help?

Answering that question begins by asking a different question: why do some people in Africa need help in the first place?

To the World Bank, and other major practitioners of "development," Africans need help because they are lacking technical expertise and resources.  In Lesotho, for instance, anthropologist James Ferguson described how the World Bank undertook an enormous project aimed at connecting a rural area to the rest of the country in an effort to improve local herders' ability to sell their livestock at the market.  Clearly, if only these Africans knew how to better leverage their resources and if only they had the money to build a road, their lives would dramatically improve!

Well, as it turns out, the men of the area didn't want to sell their livestock because the disposable income would then be turned over to their wives while the men were away working in South Africa as seasonal laborers.  They very much preferred to use the livestock to barter within their own community.  As for the road, the major change it seems to have accomplished is the extension of state power over an area that otherwise had been spared the day-to-day manifestations of the machinations of a corrupt party apparatus running the country.

This is what happens when you assume that people are poor because they are stupid, ignorant, or lacking, say, the right farming implement.  "Development," as Ferguson argues, consistently seems to perpetuate itself in a world in which political explanations for poverty are ignored and replaced with "technical" ones.  People are poor, in this logic, because they lack the right farming equipment, not because they lack the ability to influence how their government distributes the right farming equipment.  And it is highly unpopular to question this logic.  After all, in the words of Brazilian Archbishop Helder Camara, "when I give food to the poor, they call me a saint.  When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist."  

The same goes for disaster relief, which can save lives, but which never seems to be accompanied by the question of why Africans are perpetually faced with famine and starvation and thus in need of help, except occasionally by the racist, ignorant segment of the population that demands to know why we in the West are wasting our money on "those people."  One major reason for famines in Africa is IMF policy; loans are often attached to conditions that include the reduction or elimination of government intervention in the economy, often with disastrous results for food security

The hypocrisy of this is stunning: US agribusiness is heavily subsidized by the American government, but if Malawi wants to pay its people to grow food, the IMF will punish it by demanding harsh repayment on debts that were mostly incurred when institutions like the IMF loaned money knowingly to dictators who spent the funds on alcohol and Parisian shopping trips.  In multiple African countries, the IMF has demanded an increase in exports, meaning farmers are told to grow cash crops for sale in the West rather than staple foods for sale domestically.  So, much like during the potato famine in Ireland, when food was actually leaving Ireland and being shipped to England even as people in Ireland starved to death, famine in Africa is usually concurrent with food being shipped from the starving country to countries where people are largely not starving.  It's just that the food is too expensive for the starving people to buy.

So you're sitting at home, watching news clips of people starving in Africa (assuming there isn't something more important going on in the news that day to push a famine off the newscast).  You want to help.  What can you do?  My advice is to follow these rules:

1. First do no harm.  Many types of aid are helpful (more on that later), but many types are not.  Donating goods can often undercut local businesses and economies and put people out of work.  Imagine if aliens dropped five million pizzas on Oakland tomorrow.  How would local pizza store owners and employees feel about that?  Giving to organizations that are involved in political situations is also very dangerous unless you trust that organization to properly understand the context in which it is working.  Invisible Children, producers of the "Kony 2012" video, is a perfect example of this. In their (obviously accurate) push to denounce Joseph Kony, they have essentially promoted the Ugandan government and the Sudan People's Liberation Army as "good guys," which is not so obviously accurate.  If you don't want your donated funds to go to warlords or to put people out of work, do your homework first.

2. Change your government.  There are five concrete things the United States government can do right now to dramatically change the lives of millions of Africans.  Stop supporting dictators.  Forgive odious debts.  Change farm policy.  Demilitarize on the continent.  Support renewable energy to prevent climate change.  Nothing we as individuals can do compares to the impact of those five actions, and it's not even close.  We have a democracy in this country, albeit a flawed one, and even if you don't have your own Superpac, you can still lobby your government to make change.  If that seems daunting and you just want to write a check, there are organizations working on those very issues that could put those funds to good use.  Jubilee USA works on the debt issue in a highly effective and economically efficient manner.  350.org works on climate policy.  It's not as fun as flying into the jungle on a helicopter loaded with food supplies, but it's a lot more effective.

3. Give in sustainable ways.  There are some methods of giving that are more effective than others.  I am on the board of directors at Bridges of Promise, a non-profit that helps to fund school fees for kids in rural Tanzania, and one problem our students face is that they don't have enough school supplies.  Rather than donate 100 boxes of pencils, Bridges of Promise gave money in the form of a small business grant to a Tanzanian entrepreneur to open a stationary store.  The end result is that families don't have to travel five hours by bus to buy supplies, local people gain employment, and if any kids still can't afford to buy pencils, donated funds can be used to subsidize their purchases.  When giving, ask yourself: how would this donation impact a community as a whole?  Why is this giving needed?  If I were poor, would I want this type of giving done in my community here at home?

In the end, it's never a guarantee that anything we do to help will in the end actually be helpful.  But transforming the world in which we live is impossible unless we act with both an open heart and an open mind.  Whether or not dropping food on people from helicopters is a good idea probably depends on the circumstances. What is constant, however, is the fact that if we worked to change American policy toward Africa, we could stop debating how to feed and clothe people who would not need our help being fed or clothed, if only our government stopped funding their dictators, ruining their climate, and demanding they pay back money they never borrowed in the first place.  Essentially, people in the west are donating money to Africa in a desperate attempt to paper over the vast destruction done to the continent by western institutions. 

It's not working. 
It's better than nothing. 
For the most part. 

Saturday, April 27, 2013

UN Peacekeeping in the DRC: A Band-Aid on a Gaping Wound

The United Nations announcement that it is sending an "intervention force" to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is sparking debate once again about the role of the UN and its peacekeeping missions in conflict zones.  This force will have a mandate to attack rebel groups rather than just defend civilians, an aggressive step aimed at preventing further war crimes in what is now the deadliest conflict since World War Two.  Many people might read this news and ask whether or not the UN should get involved in a situation like this and whether or not a UN peacekeeping force is capable of doing any good.  These are good questions to ask

At the same time, this announcement raises a much more fundamental question about the United Nations and its role in the world; while the UN sends troops to quell the violence in the Congo, after all, some of its most powerful member states continue to support the countries responsible for the violence in the first place.  And so we are left to wonder: if the United Nations is not the collective voice of its member states, then what purpose exactly does it serve?
To answer that question as it pertains to the DRC, we must first take a step back. The conflict in the DRC is the product of both malicious and inept foreign intervention.  French support for Rwanda's genocidal government in the early 1990's helped spark a killing spree in that country that was more ruthlessly efficient than the Nazi concentration camps.  American, French, and British inaction on the UN Security Council ensured that UN peacekeepers stationed in Rwanda would be unable to stop the killing.  The American government was so desperate to avoid sending troops to Rwanda because of the public relations nightmare that had occurred when US troops were killed in Somalia just months earlier (i.e. Black Hawk Down) that it refused to call the genocide a "genocide:"
Elsner (Reuters): How would you describe the events taking place in Rwanda?

Shelly (State Department Spokeswoman)
: Based on the evidence we have seen from observations on the ground, we have every reason to believe that acts of genocide have occurred in Rwanda.
Elsner: What's the difference between "acts of genocide" and "genocide"?

: Well, I think the—as you know, there's a legal definition of this ... clearly not all of the killings that have taken place in Rwanda are killings to which you might apply that label ... But as to the distinctions between the words, we're trying to call what we have seen so far as best as we can; and based, again, on the evidence, we have every reason to believe that acts of genocide have occurred.

: How many acts of genocide does it take to make genocide?

: Alan, that's just not a question that I'm in a position to answer.
The Rwandan genocide then directly led to the beginning of the Congo conflict.  A French intervention aimed at saving Paris' genocidal allies allowed massive numbers of refugees and armed militias to flee into what is now the DRC, all at the invitation of the West's favorite kleptocratic dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko.  Rwanda's new government then invaded in an effort to wipe out the genocidal armies arrayed against it and funded a Congolese rebel army that marched thousands of miles to Kinshasa and toppled Mobutu.  This is known as the First Congo War.

But it is the Second Congo War, beginning in the late 1990's, that still rages today.  Rwanda and Uganda, capitalizing on the weak government in the DRC and the geographic distance between its capital on Africa's western coast and the resource-rich hinterland in the East, began attacking the DRC again, ostensibly to fight the remnants of the genocidal militias, but with a far more sinister motive in mind: resource extraction.  Rwandan and Ugandan backed rebels massacred civilians, looted valuable minerals, employed slave labor and child soldiers, and even in one instance took apart an entire factory and moved it across the border into Rwanda.

All the while, Rwanda and Uganda have continued to be the darlings of Western governments and corporations.  Foreign companies have profited from the conflict in the Congo, in some cases even doing business directly with murderous rebel groups.  Rwanda and its clean streets, female-heavy legislature, and environmentally conscious leadership is supported heavily by Western countries and wooed, often patronizingly so ("a functioning African state! Oh my!) by Western companies and religious groups.

Every reputable independent report on the conflict has concluded that Rwanda and Uganda are largely responsible for the millions of deaths in the Eastern DRC.  In December, independent organizations called on the US to sanction Rwanda and suspend all military aid to the country, arguing that "US efforts at 'quiet diplomacy to address Rwandan involvement in eastern Congo have failed to deter Rwanda's continued incursions and use of proxy armed groups."   If the United States and the UK put pressure on their allies, they could influence the situation in the Congo.  Instead, the United States is supporting the creation of the UN "intervention" force designed to stop the bloodshed that its own allies are perpetrating.

If this doesn't make much sense, it's because in one fundamental way, the United Nations itself doesn't make much sense: if the UN is the collective voice of its members, why does it so often intervene in ways that conflict with the actions of those members?  It is not clear what level of success the UN will have in the DRC, though it's easy to be pessimistic about its chances.  It is also not clear whether the deployment of peacekeeping forces in general is the best method for protecting innocent people and bringing an end to conflicts.  What is certainly clear is that supporting UN peacekeeping missions gives powerful countries a means for appearing to proactively support a peace process without actually having to take the difficult step of interrupting the business of capitalism and resource extraction.

And so the UN force arrives as a band-aid on a gaping wound.  If the UN fails, as it has so often in the past, it will certainly be roundly criticized by those who consider it weak and inept.  But perhaps that is not fair to the UN.  International institutions are, after all, only as good (in any sense of that word) as the countries that run them.  The irony is, then, that what would make the UN a force for good in the world is if its member states were forces for good.  But if the conflict in the DRC teaches us anything, it's this: if the UN member states were forces for good, we wouldn't need a United Nations at all.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Boston Bombings and the Real Enemy

The bombing last week in Boston is a tragic reminder of the pointlessness of violence.  Whatever political agenda the alleged bombers had, it is difficult to see how it could be advanced in any meaningful way by killing an 8-year old boy.  If the motive was indeed related to America's conflict with segments of the Islamic world, the bombing is yet another example of the failed strategy of killing innocent civilians in retribution for western government policies; the response to such killings is usually just an intensification of those very same policies.  Just ask a Palestinian.

At the same time, beneath the dominant blanket of media coverage focused on the attack, there are Americans asking questions about the manner in which the Boston bombings have been treated in American society.  Why is it that the three tragic deaths in Boston received such a disproportionate amount of media attention relative to the fourteen tragic deaths at the site of the fertilizer plant explosion in Texas?  If the answer to that question involves the distinction between murder and natural disaster, then why do routine triple-homicides in America's inner cities not receive similar outpourings of grief?  And how would the media be covering the Boston attacks if the perpetrators had been native-born Americans protesting U.S. tax policy rather than immigrants protesting U.S. foreign policy?

At the heart of these questions is a very simple perspective: our media's obsession with this case and with the Muslim, Foreign, Chechnyan, Immigrant, Jihadist brothers at its epicenter demonstrates a very skewed perspective on the value of human life and on the unity of the human race.  The enemy is defined as anti-American terrorists.  If "we" is defined as Americans, then this makes sense.  But if "we" is defined as humanity, then a very different enemy needs to be identified.

That enemy is violence.  Violence, in all of its forms, leaves a path of hatred and destruction in its wake.  A path of dead children and grieving mothers and broken lives.  This notion isn't merely the expression of a particular political, religious, or even spiritual ideology, but rather the acknowledgement of a central truth: for every instance in which violence has allegedly made life better in some way, there are literally thousands of instances in which violence intended to do good has destroyed lives.  This is a practical argument.  Violence, as an ideology, as a tool, has failed.

So if we as Americans can identify violence and all of its manifestations (Sandy Hook, Boston, the streets of Chicago) as the real enemy, then we are faced with a very simple proposition:  Either we believe a dead Congolese child is just as important as a dead American child, or we don't.  Either we believe that the families of dead children in our inner cities suffer a grief just as powerful as that of the families of the suburban victims in Aurora, Colorado, or we don't.  Either we believe that Palestinian lives are as valuable as Israeli lives, that Afghan lives are as valuable as French lives, or we don't.  And either we believe that children in Mozambique do adorable things and have nicknames and spend nights looking up at the stars and wondering about the nature of the universe and when they are taken from their families way too soon the loss their parents feel is as debilitating and crushing as it would be if our children were taken from us, or we don't.   

If we believe that, then our actions need to reflect it.  Our media coverage needs to reflect it.  Our government's policies need to reflect it.  If we as Americans believe so highly in the value of human life, we should urge our government to stop supporting dictators, to stop using drones to attack funeral parties, to stop exporting weapons.  We should pass gun control measures that are supported by more than 90% of NRA members and could curb gun violence.  We should support economic policies that decrease food insecurity in areas of the world vulnerable to famine.  Caring about human life has to mean more than just wearing a "Boston Strong" shirt and shaking our fists at the terrorists.

There are some cynical reflections on Boston floating around cyber space that in essence imply that given the discrepancy in media interest between the loss of white/American life and the loss of black/brown/foreign life, perhaps we should all just care less about what happened at the marathon. 
No.  We should care more. 

Every child's death should matter as much as 8-year old Martin Richard's.  In a photo released to the Boston Globe, Martin, who was killed in the bombing attack, is shown holding a sign that says "No more hurting people.  Peace."  Maybe that's partly what makes the death of children so painful: in some sense, they are better than we are, because they know so much less and yet they know so much more.  They get it.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

"IMF Recognizes Somalia": A Headline That Says It All

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced Friday that it will recognize Somalia's government for the first time in twenty-two years, a sign that the country is starting to emerge from the anarchic hell it has known since the fall of the Siad Barre dictatorship in the early 1990's.  (Barre's rule was nominally preferable to the anarchy: he once imprisoned medical students for building a hospital because it interfered with his corrupt business practices.)  This headline ("IMF Recognizes Somalia"), however, says a lot more about Somalia's past than it does about its future.  While foreign institutions have spent the past twenty years botching Somalia's nation-building and worse, the northern province of Somaliland has forged an enduring climate of peace and stability without any formal international recognition.  All of which should lead us to question the dominant western narrative regarding Somalia, that of a nation in chaos desperate for international salvation.

The fact is, international intervention, beginning with the U.S.-led fiasco Operation Restore Hope in 1992-1993, made famous through the "Black Hawk Down" incident, has brought increased ruin for Somalia and its people.  While numerous peace conferences failed to bring about a legitimate government that could represent the Somali people, U.S. counter-terrorism policies radicalized the Somali population and at one point led to the ouster of one of the few stabilizing forces in Mogadishu: the Union of Islamic Courts (ICU).  After the ICU freed Mogadishu from the stranglehold of mafia-style Somali warlords, the CIA turned around and funded those very same warlords to kidnap suspected militants and hand them over to American authorities.  Some of those so-called militants were nothing more than peaceful Islamic scholars, but as the Americans paid the warlords bounties regardless, the kidnappings continued.  

A disastrous Ethiopian invasion, backed by the United States, the blow-back emergence of Al-Shabaab, and an entirely preventable famine followed.  The ICU, whatever its faults, had cleaned up Mogadishu, re-opened its airport, and evicted the warlords.  After the Ethiopians invaded, and then promptly left, Al-Shabaab took over large swaths of the country, further exacerbating the ensuing famine by denying access to relief agencies and even holding Somalis hostage in famine areas, preventing them from reaching refugee camps across the border in Kenya.  All of this followed several decades of alternating U.S. and Soviet support for the brutal dictatorship of Siad Barre, support aimed at winning cold war allegiance regardless of the cost to the Somali people.

Today, as Somalia's government begins to finally establish the formal trappings of a functioning state, western institutions are lining up to offer their endorsement of its existence, in essence asserting that Somalia is finally ready to be a mature and functioning member of the community of nations.  This paternalistic attitude would be insulting enough even without a recounting of the history of foreign intervention in Somalia.  And such endorsements always come with self-interested motives in tow.    

As the IMF re-engages with the Somali government, for instance, it does so with the understanding that the Somalis will be paying back the hundreds of millions of dollars they supposedly owe the IMF, money that was borrowed during the Barre dictatorship.  Those loans were almost certainly spent either to enhance the security system that repressed the individual liberties of the Somali people or to fund the corrupt patronage system that kept Barre in power, or both.  The prospect of fresh IMF loans will undoubtedly be attractive to Somalia's new leaders, who will inevitably benefit from the influx of foreign cash in any number of ways.  That the Somali people, impoverished from half a century of dictatorship and anarchy, will pay this ransom speaks volumes about the international system of finance that the IMF embodies. 

Meanwhile, in the north of the country, numerous Somali clans sat down together almost two decades ago and worked out a peace agreement that led to the formation of the Somaliland Republic.  Somaliland has democratic elections and is at peace, but is unrecognized by the rest of the world.  No UN peacekeepers were needed to bridge the supposedly tribal and atavistic differences between its various clans.  No IMF loans fund its economic development.  Nobody really talks about it, either.  Grassroots democratic peacemaking doesn't attract readers the way an article about, say, Madonna's spat with the Malawi government does. 

The IMF "recognizes" Somalia.  To paraphrase James Ferguson, institutions like the IMF cannot imagine how things can ever get better except through their own expertise.  Somalia is a country that sadly needs many things.  The IMF is not one of them.   

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Kenya's Elections: Tribalism? Really?

As opposition candidate Raila Odinga's challenge to Kenya's recent presidential election results proceeds in the Kenyan court system, the international media continues to dance around the issue of ethnicity or "tribalism," at times trying desperately to avoid the "T" word and at times sinking into the depths of racist stereotypes, intentioned or not.  Michaela Wrong writes in the New York Times, for instance, of the difficulty of writing about Kenya's elections without talking about tribalism given the apparent ethnic divide between the two major electoral coalitions.  Mukoma wa Ngugi criticizes Wrong in the UK Guardian, accusing her of defending a "discredited analytic framework," and challenges western media outlets to accurately cover African issues in a meaningful way or risk being completely ignored by Africans generally.  The general critique seems to be that the Western media seems to focusing intently on the so-called "tribal" divisions within the Kenyan electorate while breathlessly awaiting a repeat of the 2007 election violence, despite the fact that it seems unlikely to materialize.  For the vast majority of Americans, who likely know little about Kenya beyond the "tribal warfare" narrative of the tragic 2007 elections that was forwarded by the mainstream American media, the images of Kenyans hacking each other to death over an election speak for themselves: "tribal" or not, these are inexplicable events happening in an inexplicable place that is beyond the realm of what is "normal."

All of this serves to further alienate human beings from one another through the time-honored method of ignorance.  To the extent that journalists should know better and report better, it is their fault.  Wrong notes in a dispatch for the New York Times, for instance, that she is constantly told that "we Kenyans are totally tribal."  She correctly notes that this "tribalism" is not "irrational" but fails, in her defense of the term as it applies to this election, to ask why Kenyans might vote along ethnic lines.  If it is not irrational, then what is the rationale?  Is it because they hate members of other tribes?  Or is there a better explanation that the media might need to convey to the world and in particular to the west?  Kenya's electoral violence stems not from primitive tribal blood feuds but rather from a system of governance created by Kenyan elites and western institutions and made possible by arbitrary colonial boundaries.  Or, as Wrong herself writes quite accurately, "What Kenya desperately needs is an end to a political culture that treats state resources as a winner’s preserve rather than national assets benefiting all citizens equally."

In many post-colonial African countries, a system of governance labeled "The Politics of the Belly" by famed academic Jean Francois Bayart developed in which state resources became the personal reward of those in power rather than the assets of a society at large.  This is not so different, of course, from the corruption that suffuses government across the globe, but is unique in the historical context in which it developed.  African dictators, armed, funded, and defended by either the Soviets or the West during the heart of the cold war, came to view external resources (loans, grants, aid) as their cash cow.  Developing a domestic economy and encouraging the creation of a middle class would spread the wealth and encourage the growth of rival actors who might challenge the throne.  And so in Mobutu's Zaire, Bongo's Gabon, Mugabe's Zimbabwe and, yes, Moi's Kenya, those at the top learned to keep the West happy and to use the funding that followed to buy off enough politicians, generals, and businessmen to maintain power. 

When many of those dictatorships transitioned to multiparty democracies, largely in the 1990's, these systems of patronage remained in tact but altered their form.  Instead of buying fealty, elites began to buy votes, and to create a spoils system that might hold together a coalition of voters.  These coalitions became, not surprisingly, largely based on ethnicity, not simply because ethnicity is a cheap method of coalition building, but also because a prisoner's dilemma quickly emerged: what happens if I don't appeal to ethnicity and my opponent does?  To ask whether the Luo truly hate the Kikuyu or the Kalenjin is akin to asking whether the French really hate the Germans or vice versa.  It sure seemed like it in 1942, and it sure doesn't seem like it today.  Which means something else is going on.  The would-be winner of this year's election, Uhuru Kenyatta, is a Kikuyu and his running mate, William Ruto, is a Kalenjin.  After the 2007 election, it was Kikuyus and Kalenjins who were fighting each other; Kenyatta is under ICC indictment for allegedly organizing the killing of Kalenjin women and children.  Ruto is under ICC-indictment for allegedly organizing the killing of Kikuyu civilians.  Now they are running together.  Most of the violence in 2007 was far from spontaneous and was planned by politicians in conference rooms.  Tribalism?  Really?

If Kenyans do indeed vote along ethnic lines, it is not mysterious, nor is it "tribal."  Kenyan UC Irvine Professor Ngugi Wa Thiong'O notes that the real winner in an election in which two politicians who have been indicted for war crimes won more than 50% of the vote is former dictator Daniel Arap Moi.  Moi, writes Thiong'O, who wrote his first novel on toilet paper from inside one of Moi's prisons in 1978, destroyed Kenya's institutions and created a corrupt one-party state.  When multiparty democracy was instituted, Moi used violence to intimidate the opposition and retain power for another decade, setting the stage for the corrupt ethnicity-based coalition system we see today.  Moi's regime was underwritten by years of western support in exchange for his loyalty to the capitalist cause, just as today's Kenyan government, despite ill-advised admonitions from American officials, will receive American support for its war against Somali militants, regardless of its own violence and corruption.

This is not as easy to write about as is "tribalism."  Those Africans are cutting each other up with machetes again...all because one tribe got more votes than another tribe, can you believe it?  In the United States, of course, we are far more civilized.  Our presidential elections have no racial element to themOur citizens do not kill each other over religion or race or sexual orientation.  And when an American citizen decides tragically to slaughter innocent women and children, he does not stoop to the primitive use of a machete: that's what semi-automatic weapons are for.  If there's one story the media should further in explaining Kenya's elections to the West, other than explaining why such "tribal violence" happens in the first place, it's the story of the sad side to universal humanity.  The sad trait that we all share: our willingness to seek power by any means necessary.  When people kill each other because of their differences, there's almost always something else going on.  This is as true of Kenyans as it is of any other people, no more, no less.