Thursday, July 13, 2017

Dictates of Conscience and the Humanitarian System


From my forthcoming review essay for Humanity of two recent books on humanitarian action, Hugo Slim's Humanitarian Ethics and Liisa Malkki's The Need to Help:

"Like its charitable precursors in previous eras, today’s humanitarianism is born of a privileged asymmetry of resources. Then as now, the compassionate own the terms of assistance: they determine who deserves what, when and how. Program design, financial accountability and ownership are all largely extrinsic to the disasters where humanitarians intervene. While aid agencies may not explicitly pursue political empire or capitalist expansion, the self-justifying rationale that compassion and solidarity are universal goods is born neither of consent nor dialog with afflicted populations.

Researchers across the spectrum—political scientists to anthropologists—have in the last thirty years begun scrutinizing humanitarian action as an expression of the West’s moral universalism, revealing its asymmetries, Eurocentric projections, and neo-colonial qualities. This field of critique includes many aid veterans and current practitioners, and is in no way a purely scholastic exercise. Yet defenders of humanitarianism appear in print less often than critics because as field practitioners their performance metrics do not involve the peer-review publications common to academia."




Reclaiming Adventure in the Kenai Fjords


From my forthcoming article for Ocean Paddler -- Britain's best glossy mag devoted to sea kayaking. 

"Rising early for our put-in at Seward, I checked the forecast for 30-knot winds and 6-foot swells. Frothy whitecaps and promising winds were building. Yes, the real Alaska was on its way. But only hours later, pulling on drysuits and ferrying loaded boats to the waterline, the throbbing seas had gone flat, the wind-blasted treetops motionless. It was rejection, the rebuke of a lover, and my mind scrambled in denial. I didn’t come for this. Calm seas and postcard-perfect scenery would get boring fast. 


One pristine, clear day led to the next. Where was my Alaskan adventure? While I ruminated, moody and petulant, Kenai’s incandescent beauty surpassed itself daily. Caves, rock arches and pour-overs were common at the base of high cliffs, and riding incoming swell as it fired into narrow slots required total absorption in body, boat and blade. On open water and in rocky coves, surprise encounters with marine life were frequent. Sea lions, seals and otters, each with bright personalities reminiscent of Archie BunkerSanford and Son; the gambit of 70s sitcoms."

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Diffa Region quietly piloting a Boko Haram amnesty policy



In mid-December 2016, in rural Diffa region on Niger’s southern border with Nigeria, fourteen men gave themselves up to authorities. The group said that they were former fighters of Boko Haram and that they had abandoned their weapons in the bush.

News of this impromptu surrender from the Islamist militant group responsible for tens of thousands of deaths and millions of displacements came as a surprise to most in the area. But not to regional authorities.

Since late last year, they had been quietly testing a tactic of asking families whose children have joined Boko Haram to spread word of an amnesty. If they surrendered, fighters were told, they would be pardoned and assisted in rejoining their communities.



Read the rest of my analysis for African Arguments

Friday, March 31, 2017

Cameroon's Far North: Responding to Boko Haram

“With Boko Haram, we joined your club,” mused Mdjiyawa Bakari, the governor of Cameroon’s Far North Region (Extrême-Nord), when we met at his home in Kousseri. The ‘club’ consists of liberal democracies bound by a common dilemma: defeating terrorist insurgencies at home while respecting the laws of war, including civic and human rights. From his veranda we gazed across the Logone River at the dusty skyline of N’djamena, capital of Chad. I was visiting to understand exactly how civilians were coping with the threat—forced displacement, pervasive suspicion of strangers, neighbours, even friends, and a near collapsed economy – posed by this West African affiliate of the Islamic State to this most peripheral region of Cameroon. “Asymmetric war means an invisible enemy playing by other rules,” he continued. “It’s turned our lives upside down.”


Read the rest of my analysis for Oxford Policy Group here

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Greenland and the End of Exploration


The roving celestial beasts of Lascaux’s Paleolithic hunting scenes and the scurvy-ridden, snow-blinding odyssey of Shackleton’s Antarctic survival may be distant in time and space, but the events and their retelling share a coeval impulse. Remote exploration and extreme risk are palpable vestiges of our intrepid and predatory ways, but that these acts inform our oldest tales about our place in the world seems almost unrecognized today. 

Among the "uses of adventure" in traditional societies--from Greek mythology, the Upanishads and ecstatic shamanism in Siberia to creation myths across the Americas--individual heroism and group survival often recur, followed by revelations of nature's secrets, the cosmos, and our own origins. Adventure is possibly the oldest, most persistent subject matter we share through our stories. This historical pairing of legendary feats and their retelling appears so intrinsic to our being that we're numb to its remarkable peculiarity.

In today's literary marketplace, daunting feats in wild nature hold little appeal. How did this reversal come about? We remain fascinated by secrets, yet contemporary writing (fact and fiction) revels in individual experience, where the inner lives of characters are explored as exotic landscapes, conjured or real. Besides this turn toward inner landscapes, narrative style is emphasized equally if not more than the tale recounted--Salinger, Hemingway, DF Wallace are pioneers of this mannered approach. 

A surfeit of grandiose Everest accounts surely helped dig this grave, but the bulk of adventure writing today is low-brow, unartful or vain, approaching kitsch. Few adventure writers escape the scorn of the high-brow critic--Thesiger, Mathiessen and Gretel Ehrlich are prominent exceptions. A random pick from my Africa shelves reveals Facing the Congo: A Modern-Day Journey into the Heart of Darkness by acclaimed travel writer Jeffrey Tayler. A literary expatriate attempts Conrad's famous voyage, this time in a dugout canoe. Instead he collides with Congo's surreal poverty and extreme destitution, recoils, then finds himself grander for the experience. Self-glorification and the voyeurism of disaster tourism disguised as adventure lit? Little surprise then that the genre feels spent of originality and nuance, resorting instead to spectacle, gimmick or humor. 

I've started a short survey of expedition writing in Greenland, beginning with Knud Rasmussen's canonical Across Arctic America (1924) through to Gretel Ehrlich's lyrical This Cold Heaven (2001). The series comprises an array of accounts that track the genre's high points in the post-Heroic Age of exploration. Epic exploration effectively died in Greenland, which had long served as a staging ground for attempts on the North Pole and elusive Northwest Passage. Once these prizes were claimed, their sponsors and celebrity explorers feted, exploration's Heroic Age ended with Peary's 1909 contested claim to the pole.

Undervalued and invisible to the prize seekers of the former era, in Greenland arose a new vision of exploration and the writing it produced. The new crop of adventurers was void of fame seekers, wealthy patrons seeking new lands in their name, nations stalking glory by funding high-risk/high-return expeditions.

Rasmussen was the first figure to break the lull of this hiatus, famously testing his hypothesis of the continuity of Inuit peoples from Greenland to Siberia over five years of dogsledding, inaugurating a new mode of inquiry and exploration into human origins. Thor Heyerdahl would try a similar approach in the South Pacific (Kon Tiki, 1947), sailing a balsa raft from Peru to Easter Island and demonstrating, he believed, that the culture behind the island's famous monoliths originated not in Polynesia but with Amerindians of South America.

Subsequent Greenland explorers like Jean Malaurie deepened this appreciation of indigenous peoples as terra nova, inspiring similar approaches in the Amazon (Levi-Strauss) and Congo (Colin Turnbull). Other notable Greenland travelers arrived by accident; their nearly fatal encounters with the island rewrote their artistic careers and legacy entirely (Rockwell Kent). More recent adventurers such as TM Kpomassie (An African in Greenland, 1977and Gretel Ehrlich are more lyrical and romantic than outright expeditionary, but chronicle the deep power of remote and hostile locales to ignite our imagination by testing our physical and psychological limits. In Greenland, art and the trials of endurance have a long synergy. The literature around these efforts avoids the clunky kitsch seen elsewhere, Congo and Everest being the two most obvious examples. 

I'll be shopping this one around, so stay tuned for the full article. 

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Inside Ebola

(c) P Casaer
Last year's media coverage of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa riveted me on two fronts: seeing how western society reacted to the threat of a highly mobile, lethal virus and how the affected nations themselves (Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea) managed the trauma, on the heels of decades of conflict and instability.

If you work in this business, you have friends who worked there inside one relief effort or another. Their stories are illuminating, for no man-made conflict presents so starkly the moral dilemma of Ebola: the patient you are treating is a vector of lethal contagion. In war, by contrast, we work primarily with victims of conflict, less the combattants themselves. Lethality is once removed. Ebola means handling live hand grenades, their safety pin already pulled; the infected are landmines we knowingly tread upon. 

The bravery of those who choose to do this work is astounding--particularly national staff who have nowhere to run, no voluntary exit as expats do. Ebola, the great divider: gone are the disaster tourists, the adventure-seekers, the self-glorifiers among us.

And yet where in the media did we see anything that gave us reason for empathetic pause, an unblinking gaze sufficient to register the shared humanity of this apocalyptic visitation? It was nowhere to be seen. This past weekend in Brussels I was fortunate to see Affliction, Peter Casaer's new film from inside MSF treatment centers in the affected countries. Populated by care-givers, patients and their families, the film captures the human impact of this epidemic in ways we know are essential, yet were curiously absent as the crisis unfolded and global panic spiked.

Check out the trailer -- the film has been submitted to the Toronto International Film Festival


Friday, May 15, 2015

Jon Turk profile in summer edition of Adventure Kayak

Happy to see my profile of kayak explorer Jon Turk finally out, quite a while in the making. Thanks to Adventure Kayak for appreciating the importance of Jon's message.

An excerpt: "The real distinguishing factor for Turk, the core of his wonderful anachronism, is that small-craft exploration is not an end in itself, but a means to develop and test explanations for unanswered questions in human history. How do Arctic peoples relate to their Asian forebears? How did the earliest migrations to North America happen, what beliefs motivated them and what tools or vessels helped them traverse incredible distances?

“It’s boring to just recite details from the trip,” says Turk. “I’m more interested in what grand journeys like Ellesmere, and the massive migrations undertaken by our ancestors—what do these teach us? What wisdom do they impart, and why have humans undertaken such journeys throughout history?”

Against the current tide of photogenic free climbers, big wave surfers and kayakers dropping over 200-foot waterfalls, Turk echoes an older tradition of scholar-explorers who sought answers in the wild, beyond the reach of laboratories and scientific debate."

Full article here. Longer Q&A with Turk here

Friday, May 08, 2015

Magical drinking in Congo

Like alcohol anywhere, palm wine is a formidable social lubricant but its undercurrent of magical thinking sets it apart. Amos Tutuola, Nigeria’s answer to H.P. Lovecraft, first chronicled the ritualistic, surreal excesses of palm wine in his 1952 novel. I first tasted palm wine ‘in the bush of ghosts’, and rightly so—the phrase figures in the title of Tutuola’s follow-on experimental work.

Read the entirety of this little rumination on palm wine over at Roads & Kingdoms, a newish site I'm quite infatuated with. 

Monday, April 27, 2015

Commemoration and critique -- Tim Hetherington four years on

Memorable for their fleeting dignity and searing panic of private moments in battle, serendipitous snaps of civilians and combatants with poignant acumen, his early photos miraculously wove the social, political and economic threads of a conflict into a single image--a West African Breughel sans folly or satire. This was the young Hetherington: still mystified by the paroxysms of humanity in the throes of war. 

Not a bad start, but embedding in warzones is not hard to do--anyone can become cannon fodder, and journalists have been accessing armies and frontlines for over a century. Yet to the casual observer conflict imagery from Liberia proved little had changed since Conrad's 'heart of darkness'. Tim saw the perverse effects of the 'new savagery': visually exciting but reinforcing our dismissive misanthropy all the same.  
With the award-winning Restrepo, Hetherington's lens came full circle. Too well known to recount here, the film unpacks the mystery of why young men are drawn to the combat experience. It's an attraction shared in degrees by aid workers and war journalists. War is the only opportunity we have in society to love each other unconditionally, to die for each other. 

Instead we get Che Guevara's face on a T-shirt: what greater insult to minority political struggle can there be? 

See the full article over at 3Quarksdaily.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The other Lonestar state

While writing a commemorative piece on Tim Hetherington recently, Liberia was fresh again in my mind. I pulled up a short rumination on post-conflict Monrovia from a few years ago--it's still got some kick so I repost it here. With the Ebola catastrophe the country seems condemned to cyclical bouts of rebirth and dread. Amazing people, our Liberian brethren, too bad about the phantom institutions and navel-gazing leadership: nothing Gates money or the WHO can fix.

                             ***

After a couple of rain-soaked days and nights in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital and on record as one of the world’s wettest cities, it was time to venture out for a quick run.

There is no green space in Monrovia, only piles of human waste and decades of accumulated debris from buildings rocked by fourteen years of civil conflict. The decline is accelerated by the pounding rainy seasons and years of neglect. Utterly evaporated is the Monrovia described in Graham Greene’s Journey without Maps: "a life so gay, with dancing and the cafés on the beach." From my lodgings in a dilapidated convent near the beach, I thought I might head in that direction. I’ve always associated coastlines with escape and was needing one now. 


Read the rest of this travelogue over at 3Quarksdaily...  (image: Chris Hondros, RIP)

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Cold Remains in Greenland

There's a lot of Cold War wreckage scattered around Greenland. This 'parallel life' of the eighth continent is rarely associated with the country's more famous Inuit and Norse cultural heritage, its sealskin kayaks and narwahls.

A lovely photo essay of the ultra-remote icecap, along with several abandoned listening posts from this lost era, appears in this month's National Geographic. Murray Fredericks stands tall behind the camera.

My own article on this fascinating but little known dimension of 20th century Greenland is now out on Warscapes, a site devoted to writing on life and culture in places of extreme conflict, insecurity or marginalization.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Upcoming publications on Greenland and Jon Turk

This site seems quiet but I've been busy with a couple of articles that will appear shortly. I'll post the links here.

One is a profile and interview with Jon Turk, award-winning endurance sea kayaker and scholar-explorer. We talk about the state of extreme adventure today, the current preference for stunts over long-term expeditions to test scientific or sociological hypotheses, such as early human maritime migration, as Turk has done. This profile will appear in the May issue of Adventure Kayak, successor to the beloved Sea Kayaker magazine, recently discontinued after a thirty year career.

The other article on Greenland, following my visit there in 2013, will appear on the excellent travel site Roads and Kingdoms as part of a series on breakfasts in obscure locales. We ate a lot of fresh Arctic char on our late morning breaks while paddling Greenland's fjords.

I'm also working on a survey of expedition writing staged in Greenland, beginning with Knud Rasmussen's canonical Across Arctic America (1924) through to Gretel Ehrlich's lyrical This Cold Heaven (2001).

Still shopping this one around so stay tuned. 

The state of Françafrique and French privilege for Africa’s most venal

In the 1960s, post-colonial Africa was the most hopeful place on the planet. Post-partum exuberance in Europe’s former colonies was infectious and abundant. Yet fate has not been kind to sub-Saharan Africa. From Namibia to Guinea to Somalia, the path of most sub-Saharan nations has traced an arc of intimate complicity with the predatory appetites of their former colonial masters. Nowhere has this neo-colonial continuation of anti-development and enrichment by and for the few been more evident than in France’s former colonies.


The nature of governance in these ex-colonies attests to the abiding power of the self-serving instinct and immediate gain, over and against the long-term goal of national progress. Such is the confounding irony of Africa’s entire post-colonial era in nations previously occupied by France, Britain, Portugal and Belgium alike: why is the colonial, predatory model of governance so faithfully re-enacted by ruling African elites? It’s as if all that negative conditioning only succeeded in instilling a predatory instinct in the new ruling class. Why are Mandela-style visions for collective prosperity not more common, given the shared experience of subjugation and occupation across the continent?

Read the rest of this analysis of Françafrique over at 3Quarksdaily.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

The miracle of new primates in Congo: another major discovery

Introduced to modern science in 2012 by John and Terese Hart (and reported here), the Lesula is the second of two major African primate discoveries over the last quarter century. With exponential population growth, armed conflict, demand for bushmeat and lucrative poaching markets across Central Africa’s forests, the discovery is remarkable.

Identified only last month, a third one—‘Inoko’ in local dialects—still seems miraculous. John and Terese offer an amusing account of the surrounding events on their blog. Scientific confirmation is pending, and photographic studies of the animal are still being completed.

Read more on this welcome surprise and the amazing conservationists behind it over at Medium.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Seeing without a State -- Why James Scott matters to foreign aid



International development is social engineering, yes, but with a social justice lens. Its success hangs on its ability to translate intention into action, the offer of foreign assistance into local appropriation, application and transformation. Redundancy should be its metric of success, yet international development has become a steady career track for young westerners, many plied with advanced degrees in its theories and operational models. None of this--the academic programs, the career tracks--existed twenty years ago.  The simple vocational appeal of 'working oneself out of a job' is long gone.

In the increasing professionalization and careerism of foreign aid (development & disaster relief), what is sacrificed are the years of fieldwork needed to cultivate a hands-on appreciation of destitution itself, the human suffering and loss of potential that ensues, and their causal origins in failed public institutions and cynical leadership. Academic degrees now matter more in development than field experience; the truism that local immersion is the best—many would say only—teacher is no longer followed. In my travels and teachings, I notice among students and young development professionals an unspoken disregard for living at the village level or heart of an urban slum for any period of time. There one is bereft of social media, most modern technology and infrastructure. Life must be experienced purely on local terms. Discomfort with vulnerability and perceived risk may be part of this rejection, but personal security is almost always a question of local networks.

Read the rest of this short analysis over at Medium...






Thursday, June 12, 2014

Security Sector as Cause and Solution to DR Congo's Sexual Violence Crisis

Like any deep malaise, Congo’s rape crisis is but one expression of entrenched, systemic problems. Local witnesses, security analysts and medical professionals who treat survivors present overwhelming evidence that the primary perpetrators are uniformed Congolese security actors. A weak justice system may be responsible for the failure to discipline or punish perpetrators, but the sources of this behavior lie within the security sector itself. Accessing the security elite, Congo’s infamous ‘black box’, is notoriously difficult. As a result, very little analysis exists of the problem from the perpetrators’ perspective: analysis and evidence that deciphers the institutional culture and internal organization of the security sector, or that maps relations between senior officers, politicians and economic actors. By design, opacity reigns supreme.

More on how sexual violence is being abated through Security Sector Reform at Sustainable Security

Monday, December 23, 2013

DR Congo launches its National Investment Plan for Agriculture. Is anyone listening?


At around 2.5 per cent of the national budget, DR Congo spends the least on agriculture of all its neighbors, a figure made more minuscule given the great untapped potential of its vast arable lands. For comparison, the Republic of Congo spends close to 14%, Zambia 10% and Ethiopia over 20%.

Following the 2009 Maputo Accords, NEPAD initiated the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (or CAADP), a continent-wide compact to reduce poverty and hunger by increasing state investment in agriculture over a ten-year period, with two basic metrics: raise public ag spending to 10% of GDP and raise ag growth rates to 6% by 2020. Participating countries were encouraged to tailor their growth strategies and investment plans accordingly, and solicit the views of farmers' associations, civil society and the private sector for an inclusive national approach with popular support.

DR Congo announced its National Investment Plan for Agriculture (PNIA) last month in Kinshasa, with great fanfare and expense. A total of $5,730m is budgeted, but only $857m had been committed (93% from donors, 7% from GDRC) by the closing ceremony. So where were the investors? In interviews and public pronouncements, government officials are confident that their chosen path, the PNIA, will attract foreign investment and will modernize and monetize Congo’s vast agricultural potential, thus transforming the lives of the country's rural poor, nearly all of whom are isolated, subsistence farmers.

Outside of government, skepticism regarding the PNIA is high. The primary criticism from donors and the Congolese private sector accuses the GDRC of failing to commit to sweeping infrastructural renovation (communications, transport, electricity, etc) as the foundation of national economic growth, and instead shifting that burden onto the international firms it assumes are lining up to invest. Yet no foreign firm would consent to such a capital outlay given the country’s dismal business environment. Serious investors would expect to see government planning and budgets to this end, yet beyond the PNIA the GDRC has no comprehensive plan to address the country’s deeply eroded infrastructure (piecemeal donor projects are the norm), or resolve its regulatory morass and lack of legal protection for private enterprise.

An even greater deterrent, the current Code Agricole stipulates that any private enterprise would require a 51% ownership stake by the GDRC. These terms are currently being revisited, but the compromise under discussion is 20% national ownership -- still untenable for obvious reasons, particularly given the country's long history of nationalization (viz., Zairianisation), expropriating private businesses, stripping assets and triggering massive capital flight. This legacy is still felt today among potential investors who see Congo as too risky (unpredictable and unstable), and in the Kabila administration's patrimonial, anti-entrepreneurial policies. 

The other main deterrent for foreign investors is the cost of commerce itself which, after the endless hoops and ladders of business registration, is so high that local produce cannot compete with cheap imports. In the country’s urban centers, imported versions of Congo’s basic foodstuffs (palm oil, maize, beans, sugar, rice, and wheat flour) outnumber local varieties, except for cassava.  

This wave of imported commodities began with a policy enacted in Mobutu's final years (1992-96, known as ‘Plan Mobutu’) as colonial infrastructure finally and irretrievably collapsed, interrupting the regular flow of local produce into Kinshasa and causing food prices to soar. Allowing cheap foodstuffs from outside to saturate the market was initially intended as a stopgap measure, but the challenge of infrastructure rehabilitation proved overwhelming and was postponed indefinitely. Now as then, local produce is uncompetitive because high transport costs and extortion rackets deter trade, production and investment. Specific to local farming, the impact of systematic rent-seeking on agricultural production and trade is another crippling deterrent to rural agricultural production and commerce. Detailed studies of these organized rackets abound, but have had no policy impact.


Ambitious in vision and consistent with COMESA and AU policy frameworks, operationally the PNIA is unlikely to succeed. It is hostage to the government's general inability to address the country’s primary obstacles to economic growth—a chaotic business environment (legal protection, banking systems, transparent procedures/absence of corruption, and credit) and a very thin, highly unreliable infrastructure (power, transport, communications, etc). If in fact l'argent n'aime pas le bruit, then Congo's leaders need to concentrate on creating a law-abiding and responsive administration capable of reassuring investors that their entrepreneurism is welcome and respected.