Last night I became the 57,733,541 person to go to YouTube and watch Kony 2012, a video for a campaign launched to stop Joseph Kony, leader of the criminal group Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The premise of this simplistic video is that by creating awareness about who Kony is and the atrocities he committed with the LRA in Uganda there will be enough public pressure on American politicians to intervene and somehow put a stop to the massacres.
The well-edited video went viral in less than a week of its release, getting the attention of tens of millions of students and a handful of celebrities, not to mention every type of social media out there. The organization behind it, Invisible Children, promises to mobilize the youth of several rich countries to continue the movement until the end of this year, when hopefully the steam will make capturing Kony possible.
It sounds pretty naive considering the complexities of the conflict, but in any case, mobilizing and inspiring young students to pay attention to conflicts and become politically active (by making demands on their governments) is a good thing. Besides, no one in their right mind would defend Kony, a true lunatic, or be against an effort to capture him.
So maybe this will be useless, but it can do harm. Right?
Wrong. There is potential harm, as thousands of critics pointed out in the last few days. I wish I could be a more original voice here and applaud Invisible Children. But I can’t.
First, the oversimplified video deviates attention from other issues inside and outside of Uganda, where money and effort could actually make a difference. Inside, for example, it seems that land disputes and unemployment are much more important to Ugandans right now than the last spasms of the LRA.
Second, Kony 2012 educates thousands of young people in rich nations on how to be superficial, arrogant, and imperialistic about a cause. “If only we tried harder”, it seems to say, “we could save these poor helpless/incompetent people”.
It defends the theory that governments (particularly the White House) should interfere abroad when it is “right”, and not only when their national security is at risk. We could have another blog post about concepts like Responsibility to Protect, but here I will simply ask two questions: one, who should define what is right and what to do about it? And two, do we want a cry for more US intervention in Africa right now?
I’ll leave the answer to my favorite blog post on the topic so far, by writer Simon Allison. In a text aptly named “Lord help us, because this campaign won’t help anyone”, he says: “Ultimately, the Kony 2012 campaign is based on a false premise: that increased American involvement in the issue will solve it. This might sound completely reasonable to starry-eyed Americans, but here in the real world we know that increased American involvement almost never leads to increased peace and stability.” Or, if you want more seriousness, the Crisis Group released a report last year about the conflict. It asked of the White House support for an African Union initiative and pressure on african governments to commit to the initiative.
The video is just misleading. It does not show what Uganda is like; It does not portray the support neighboring countries and corrupt polititians have given the LRA; it does not target the LRA for what it is today (a dying, but still lethal, force of scattered fighters); it suggests the White House is about to pull out the 100 military advisors it sent in October for the hunt, when there is no indication of that; it vainly claims that the fact those advisors were sent can be attributed to the work of Invisible Children alone; it neglects to mention atrocities committed by some of those on the other side of the conflict – namely the Ugandan Army; and it spreads the false idea that capturing a war criminal is just a matter of caring. Remember Osama bin Laden? Getting him took over a decade. And I believe the US cared very much about it.
Lastly, Kony 2012 is irritating. The language and the story are made shallow so that they could be understood by a five year old – in fact, the five year old son of the filmmaker, a lovely creature named Gavin, is shown debating the issue with his dad. If I were a college student and a target for this campaign, I would be a little insulted.
By the way, guess who is becoming just as famous as Kony, or even more so? Gavin’s dad, Jason Russell, the founder of Invisible Children. He tries to fight the instant fame: “I am not a celebrity”, Russell said during an interview with E!News Online (do note the irony of him being in that show).
But the video is almost as much about his work as it is about Kony, to the point that critics argue he is selling himself, not a cause.
To Russell’s credit, I will say that two things. One, he does ask people to do their research, dig deeper and not just trust the video. It would be difficult – not impossible, but difficult – to make a 30 minutes video for young students as compelling as Kony2012 if it was filled with layers of facts and political struggles, so there is some sense in trying to make it simple. He says that is the gateway – not the answer. “This is a complex war. It’s [been] 26 years”, he acknowledges. “The movie, we tried to make it simple, but it is not simple”. Two, I will give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he means well.
And no can deny the man is capable.
On YouTube, Kony 2012 has just reached 60,364,287 views.
This Sunday, 43 people, at least 16 of which are Americans, will be put to trial in Egypt for allegedly operating democracy programs without a license and transferring foreign funds to opposition groups.
The funny thing is that the groups these people work for, including DC-based IRI, NDI and Freedom House, were largely left alone during the Mubarak regime. Only now, after the dictator was ousted, are they under siege _ “a very disturbing sign”, in the words of Thomas Friedman, that “tells you how incomplete the ‘revolution’ in Egypt has been and how vigorously the counter-revolutionary forces are fighting back”.
Many say that it is the US-Egypt relationship that will be on trial. The situation has certainly strained their ties. A delegation of politicians, headed by senator John McCain, will arrive in Cairo on Monday to put some pressure on Egypt.
Although from most accounts it seems that the push for the trial comes from a handful of old Mubarak cronies, from the outside it appears that the government as a whole is adamant on pursuing the workers. According to Bloomberg, “Egyptian officials have increasingly gone public with their accusations, garnering particular praise from the Islamist parties that control Parliament [Muslim Brotherhood included] and the state-owned media. An editorial in one such publication, Al-Gomhuria , opined that now is the right time ‘to correct the course of Egyptian-American relations so that they are based on parity, a respect for sovereignty and the achievement of joint interests’”.
Other newspapers in the region are joining in that opinion, for example in Kuwait.
Some disagree. In a different Egyptian newspaper, columnist Amro az-Zanat, aiming at the Muslim Brotherhood, wondered “from where did the groups operating in the area of political Islam get their money” and why weren’t these funds, presumably supplied by foreign countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, subject to similar ‘NGO’ investigations.”
Meanwhile, some surveys offer interesting perspectives on the impact this discussion might have on the public of both countries. One such survey conducted by Zogby in Egypt last September shows that when asked about their political priorities, Egyptians ranked first employment, education, health care, and ending corruption at the top tier; democracy- related concerns appeared lower on the list. That is not surprising at all, given that most people in any country are primarily worried about bread-and-butter issues, but it is worth mentioning that the list of priorities is the same as it was before the revolution.
Another survey was conducted by ZRS last summer and showed that only 5 percent of Egyptians held a favorable view of the U.S., while with 89 percent said that American policies do not “contribute to peace and stability in the Arab World.” Americans are then an easy prey.
The last survey I wanted to mention was conducted in the US this January by jzanalytics for NYU Abu Dhabi. It shows a dramatic turn for the worse in American views of Egypt. “Now only 32 percent of Americans have a favorable attitude toward Egypt, with 34 percent holding a negative view (and 33 percent saying they are ‘not sure’)”, notes James Zogby at the Huffington Post.
I shall want to see what happens to those numbers if the American democracy workers are convicted.
Even if that happens, I will be surprised if Washington really freezes the US$ 1.3 billion in aid per year to Egypt. Assured by the Camp David Accord, Cairo is betting that it won’t. But it will not come as a shock if all of this leads to a rebalancing of the ties between the two countries. Perhaps that was inevitable anyway.
Weary about bringing the Taliban to the table? If you were a humanitarian worker in Afghanistan, perhaps you would be more worried about not bringing the Taliban to the table. While many discuss what a reduced American presence will mean for Afghanistan’s security from 2014 on, it seems aid workers are already finding it increasingly hard to move around the country and provide their services.
Humanitarian personnel have been talking to the Taliban and other parties in conflict in order to gain access to certain regions of Afghanistan for quite a while. It is interesting -in a bad way- to notice that humanitarian negotiations with armed groups are getting more difficult lately, to the point of making the job impossible.
Elizabeth Ferris, co-director of the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement, has been warning that in the past year UN workers are facing growing limitations on the areas they can deliver assistance. Certain parts of the country that were previously accessible are now off limits. Two years ago they could travel around provinces; six months ago it was only possible to move around a city; now they are lucky to reach some neighborhoods.
This affects not only service delivery but also data collection in Afghanistan.
For Reto Stocker, ICRC head of delegation in Afghanistan, one of the problems is that “armed groups and other parties to conflict seem to be proliferating”. “In our experience, it is easier to reach people in a given place when you have only two or three distinct parties to negotiate access with than when you have a different armed group for each region, district or even village”, said Stocker in an interview a little over a year ago. At the time, however, he believed that a great part of the problem of access for humanitarian agencies was tied to impartiality. When they adopted an approach that integrated humanitarian activities into the overall military and political strategy of stabilization and reconstruction, they were no longer viewed as neutral and lost the trust of the population. The roads closed down.
Whatever the reason for lack of access, humanitarian assistance is ever more needed. Ferris points out to increasing civilian casualties (the UN and NATO disagree on the data collection here) and displacement since last year. The number of refugees returning is declining; from the 6 million who did come back from exile since 2002, the vast majority never went back to their communities and became internally displaced people, adding to problems in larger cities.
“If the signs aren’t good with all this international assistance, what does the future look like when the troops are withdrawn and the Afghan government is faced with its fundamentally responsibility of protecting and assisting its own people? [It is] actually quite troubling when you look at the humanitarian dimension of what’s happening in Afghanistan”, Ferris said in a Brookings panel last week.
The UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) does not hide their fears for the country either, saying loud and clear that “the planned withdrawal of ISAF from Afghanistan over the next three years risks disrupting local economies and adversely affecting humanitarian and development action”.
Afghans do not have many alternatives. Unlike insurgent groups in other countries, the Taliban was never in the business of providing basic services –on the contrary, they let public services deteriorate. Maybe from the outside Afghanistan looks like a black hole for foreign resources, and it probably is. But for now help has to come from the government or from international assistance, and this topic has not been given the attention it deserves so far.
It is a sad day when we hope the Taliban will come for dinner.
Amidst rising tension, Egyptian leaders seemed to have changed their minds about the presidential elections, advancing it a month to the end of may, but are still stubbornly set on prosecuting american and other foreign democracy workers in the country, in spite of all sorts of pressure coming from Washington.
Anyone still think it is a bluff? Recent news stories tell a different tale, and the frantic activity in the DC offices of the organizations involved – IRI, NDI and Freedom House – show how serious the situation is. Other democracy organizations, meanwhile, are following developments closely, trying to figure out how to help and what this means for the safety of their own activities. However, with the exception of the targeted programs, thankfully nobody seems to be putting anything on hold.
The IRI just released a fact sheet about their work in Egypt that I think it is worth sharing:
Facts on IRI’s Work in Egypt and the Crackdown on NGOs
The International Republican Institute’s (IRI) offices in Alexandria, Cairo and Luxor were raided on December 29, 2011, by Egyptian authorities. The raids were conducted as part of an investigation opened by the Ministry of Justice at the urging of the Ministry of International Cooperation. The raids were an aggressive action that ironically was never taken against IRI under the former regime of Hosni Mubarak. The actions taken by the Egyptian government following the raids against IRI and other organizations have intensified.
The Ministry of Justice has conducted 20 interrogations of 17 IRI staff since December 2011. The grounds for the overall investigation were politically motivated and instigated by a Mubarak-era holdover attempting to stifle the voices of civil society organizations in post-revolution Egypt. During interrogations, staff were asked to respond to assertions made by the Minister of International Cooperation that the IRI had conducted political activity in Egypt in violation of the Egyptian law.
During the raids, the government of Egypt took hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of cash, equipment and documentation from offices in Alexandria, Cairo and Luxor, none of which has been returned to IRI. The Cairo offices have remained sealed since December 29. Much of the cash was for an official election observation mission that the Egyptian government invited IRI to undertake in support of the country’s people’s assembly elections.
IRI’s Country Director, Sam LaHood, was prevented leaving the country on January 21, 2012. LaHood was not notified that he was on a no exit list until he attempted to leave the country on a routine trip. IRI has learned that the government of Egypt has officially barred nine IRI staff from leaving the country. The government has also issued detention warrants upon arrival for five expatriate staff currently outside of Egypt.
The raids have been followed by rumors and statements from the Ministry of Justice that 43 staff from IRI, the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House, the International Center for Journalists and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation will face trial as a result of the findings of the investigations.
The rumored charges against IRI:
IRI was not legally registered to work in Egypt. IRI applied for official registration in 2006 with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to which the government of Egypt never responded. At the request of Egyptian authorities, IRI resubmitted registration paperwork in 2011 and is awaiting a decision from the ministry. IRI was not asked to close it offices and Egyptian authorities were thoroughly briefed on IRI’s work.
IRI gave money to political parties. In accordance with U.S. law, IRI does not give
money to political parties in Egypt, nor does it show any bias to any single political
entity. IRI training activities were conducted with a spectrum of political parties,
regardless of faith or party ideology. IRI has held workshops on candidate preparation
and registration, Election Day poll-watching and on the use of survey research in election
IRI conducts polling in violation of Egyptian law. IRI has conducted several public
opinion polls in Egypt in 2011 to gauge citizen perspectives on the political, social and
economic environment since the revolution. Poll results have been shared with the public
and with political parties to inform their party platforms and election campaign strategies.
Data for IRI’s public opinion polls was collected by a licensed Egypt-based marketing
firm. IRI has shared poll results with Egyptian officials.
IRI staff receive funds illegally from abroad. As is standard practice, IRI’s Washington
headquarters procures all funding for its programs abroad. IRI’s Egyptian and expatriate
Egypt-based staff did not sign any grant agreements in Egypt on IRI’s behalf.
IRI had a map in its Cairo office that showed it wanted to divide Egypt. IRI used
Internet-generated maps that displayed Egypt’s four natural geographic regions: Greater
Cairo, Upper Egypt, the Canals and the Delta. The maps were used to prepare for IRI’s
international election observation of the people’s assembly elections to show where IRI
would be deploying observers. Egypt’s Higher Elections Commission officially invited
IRI to witness the elections and gave official accreditations to all foreign witnesses.
Regarding the general situation in post-revolution Egypt:
IRI and other organizations believe that Egypt’s repressive law number 84 on
nongovernmental organizations seeks to control and repress civil society. The Egyptian
government continues to instill fear among Egyptian civic groups that carry out activities
or take funding not specifically authorized by the government. In the U.S., registered
nongovernmental organizations do not have to seek approval for funding or activities
from the federal government if they remain within their mandated mission, and they can
accept foreign funding, including funding from foreign governments.
The investigations carried out by the Ministry of Justice mirror politically-motivated
detentions and/or charges brought against Egyptian activists who have criticized the
Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in recent months. This suggests that there is a
well-coordinated plan to limit the space for political and civic activism in Egypt.
In accordance with the annual State and Foreign Operation Appropriation Bill, U.S.
democracy and human rights programming “shall not be subject to the prior approval by
the government of any foreign country.”
Although dependent on it, people in the development field are always discussing the problems of aid and how it generally fails in lifting communities out of poverty. Countering that disseminated notion, there is a recent story on the Huffington Post about the success of international aid in Rwanda.
According to Hugh Evans, who wrote the story (and of course is interested in it since he is Co-Founder and CEO of the Global Poverty Project), “Rwanda may be on track to become one of the most compelling case studies in favor of foreign aid since South Korea emerged as an economic powerhouse late last century”. He mentions data such as 12% decrease in the population classified as poor (to 45%) and a drop from 6.1 to 4.6 in the national fertility rate between 2006 and 2011.
The Rwandan president himself can be seen thanking partners like the World Bank and the EU and had his Finance minister write about it for in the Wall Street Journal. “We have been heartened, to say the least, by the courage displayed by our partners in their unwavering commitment to our country and continent during a period of great fiscal constraint”, he says.
I do not know enough of the particulars here to explore these numbers, nor do I know how much money was spent in Rwanda specifically on these issues. I hear from friends who have been there that Rwanda nowadays is organized and has notably functioning institutions compared to the rest of the region. That foundation is crucial if aid is to get anywhere. But one thing is certain: Evans was on the right track when he said that “where the political will exists, (…) results are achievable for all developing nations”.
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