Friday, December 14, 2007

The Ongoing Saga of South Sudan

Between northern Uganda and now Southern Sudan, heavily armed Nilotic pastoralists have been much on my plate these last two months. I wrote about Karamoja in November, a remote and volatile region of Uganda where life revolves around livestock, primarily the bovine variety. Tending and stealing cattle is how most Karamojong spend their time. I’m now in Southern Sudan where related Nilotic tribes live the same way, but in the context of a long civil war. Bullets fly and cattle reigns supreme.

Read the rest of this missive here.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Karamoja's Militant Pastoralism

Under colonial rule and since independence, the Ugandan state flag has rarely flown over Karamoja, the remote and semi-arid northeastern region bordering Kenya and Sudan. Armed violence was first documented there among resident pastoralist tribes in the early 1900s. Muskets and rifles gradually replaced spears, bows and arrows. Violence spiked to new levels when automatic weapons flooded the area after Idi Amin’s local armories were abandoned in his 1979 flight from power. At the same time a regional arms market encompassing seven local nations saw escalating armament and munitions stockpiling among Karamoja’s disparate clans.

Read the rest of this article over at 3 Quarks Daily.

This curious inscription was found on the door of a hut behind the local bishop's house in Kotido.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Karamoja's amazing bird life

I've been in Uganda's remote and arid Karamoja region for the last few weeks looking at abuses against children by local warriors and in the government's forcible disarmament program. A fascinating context, but the real attraction has been the bird life!

Clockwise: African Hoopoe, Go-away Bird, Secretary Bird, Lilac-breasted Roller, and the Crowned Crane, Uganda's national symbol. These arent my photos but I have seen all these during my visit, plus many others. Birds dont scatter from gunfire, it seems.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Independent Media in Sri Lanka

“These days, we have a saying among journalists,” a radio features reporter in Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province told me. “Don’t open your mouth—except to eat.” Disappearances and killings of journalists are on the increase. Diplomats and aid officials characterize the Lankan media as “one of the most closed in the world.” Little wonder that the country’s ongoing civil war rarely makes the international news wires. For those with a vested interest in waging war by any means, a carefully cultivated information blackout is key to sustaining the pugilistic Lebensraum.

Read the rest of this piece here.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Reluctant Swami

Leaving Zimbabwe in 1991 for my first visit to India, I traveled directly to the Sivananda Vedanta Ashram in the wooded hills above Thiruvananthapuram, capital of Kerala.
Through a friend I knew the Ashram would be holding a five-week intensive training for aspiring yoga teachers, which I was not. I knew nothing of yoga besides its sequence of warm-up of postures, the so-called “sun salutation.” The training would force me to dive deeply into yoga, well over my head—exactly how I like learning experiences to be.

Read the rest of this post about the absurdities and rewards of seeking spiritual insight in a foreign place, at 3 Quarks Daily.

Friday, August 24, 2007

India Turns Sixty

Over at 3 Quarks Daily, find this travelogue account of the Indian subcontinent as it celebrates its sixtieth anniversary since independence.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Monrovia mural

For the rest of my article on current conditions in Liberia and the region, please click here.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Congolese Pygmies in a master/slave dynamic with local Bantu

I just returned from a trip to assess access to basic services (health, education, etc) of Congolese Pygmies in the province of Equateur. They are largely sedentary but have little access to their own land, and work as day laborers in the fields of the Bantu families who 'own' them. An article on the experience can be found here on 3 quarks daily.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Could France’s new odd couple—Sarkozy and Kouchner—spell the end of 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 article, posted at 3quarksdaily, here.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Evaluating hurricane recovery in the US

Hurricane Katrina struck the New Orleans area early morning August 29, 2005. The storm surge breached the city's levees at multiple points, leaving 80 percent of the city submerged, tens of thousands of victims clinging to rooftops, and hundreds of thousands scattered to shelters around the country. Three weeks later, Hurricane Rita re-flooded much of the area.

As someone who works on disaster relief programs worldwide, I was invited to come for a month and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of various projects in New Orleans and Biloxi, two centers of urban devastation. The experience thus far has been surprisingly positive and inspiring, an unexpected antidote to my entrenched cynicism regarding relief efforts in places like Darfur or Congo, where I typically work.

[...] I've pondered over some perhaps facile but nonetheless empirical truths about the dynamic of human response to extreme disasters.

Read the rest of this post at 3 Quarks Daily...

Monday, April 23, 2007

The ICC and the war in northern Uganda

'By today’s measures of geopolitical relevance, Uganda would seem an insignificant country. Its name may trigger a few neuron firings among those who’ve read Giles Foden’s The Last King of Scotland, or seen its recent film adaptation starring Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin.

Ugandans who’ve seen the film are less than delighted. Amin’s son allegedly complained to reporters, “He [Whitaker] doesn’t even look like my father.” More clueful viewers writing in local newspapers claim the film relies on the tired reference of African dysfunction to tell and sell a story to an international audience. Much agreed—although I appreciated the film’s portrayal of complicity with evil as a creeping, dimly conscious evolution, capable of crippling the purest intentions.'
Read more from my April article for 3 Quarks Daily on the war with the LRA and how the ICC indictments and the UN Security Council are affecting change here.

The ICC: ‘A giant without arms or legs’

'A gripping and maddening slow-motion spectacle, last week’s Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing on the Situation in Afghanistan (available on C-Span), drifted predictably to Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan as senators and experts grappled over why Afghans, like Iraqis, could not ‘get it together after all we’ve done for them’. Another exasperated senator demanded, uncomprehending of why the hunt for Osama Bin Laden was still inconclusive: ‘Why not raise the price on Osama’s head by a million USD a week?’ It is currently valued at $25 million. Surely more millions would do the trick.'

Read more of a piece I wrote in early March 07 for 3 quarks daily on international justice for war crimes and the ICC experiment here.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Evangelical aid agencies finally under scrutiny

Often operating below the radar and marching to their own drum, humanitarian relief efforts funded and implemented by evangelical Christians are a common feature in many of the world's emergencies.

An AP report from Uganda addresses the professionalism and qualifications of one such organization, Samaritan's Purse, led by Franklin Graham, Reverend Billy Graham's son. Billy Graham was described by Time magazine as an American 'hero and icon' of the twentieth century.

The AP story begins:
"Telephone to Jesus. Hello?" the children of Aler refugee camp in northern Uganda sing, their bare feet thumping the ground as they dance wildly in their concrete chapel. Most camp residents have never used a phone, but they are learning about Jesus. The Rev. Franklin Graham, son of famed evangelist Billy Graham, smiled as he watched the children — members of a club run by Samaritan's Purse, the Christian missionary organization he leads.

Critics accuse them of taking advantage of vulnerable communities — forcing people to abandon traditional beliefs in exchange for desperately needed goods and medicine. Graham, though, says his group is meeting spiritual as well as physical needs, and he's proud of what has been accomplished.

Read the rest of the story here.

In 2003, Slate reported on Franklin's global vision as informed by his faith. It is worth a read, and starts thus:

"Franklin Graham is the son of Billy Graham and a far more influential figure in the evangelical Christian community than Jerry Falwell or even Pat Robertson. Graham is viewed as the torch-carrier for his father, who is still among the most beloved figures in American Christianity. Moreover, the Graham family is close to Bush. Billy Graham led Bush to Christianity in the 1980s; Franklin Graham delivered the invocation at his presidential inauguration.

In addition to being publicly allied with the Bush administration, Graham also happens to be stridently anti-Islam. His list of anti-Islam comments is long; his most succinct was that Islam is a "very evil and wicked religion."

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Guinea: Arising after two decades of civic slumber

From ICG's new report: "Guinea has been dominated for nearly 23 years by the unique figure of General Conté, corrupt and desperate to hold onto his privileges. The opposition to the Conté regime, begun during the general strike at the beginning of the year, has taken a bloody turn and has mutated into an unprecedented popular uprising.

Guinea now faces two possible scenarios. There is still a chance, though a diminishing one, for a negotiated solution involving key Guinean, regional and wider international actors. Alternatively, if the Conté regime continues to rely on military repression, it could rapidly bring Guinea to a dramatic spiral of violence: full popular insurgency, with increasing chaos that is likely to stimulate a military take-over in a blood-bath, leading in turn to a possible civil war comparable to those that have torn apart its neighbours in the past decade and with uncontrollable consequences.

Western governments as well as multinational firms that benefit from the country’s natural resources value political quiet but they would be making a serious mistake if this led them to support, even by passivity, an effort to retain the Conté system (with or without its creator)."

Read more from the new Crisis Group Report on recent events, called "Guinea: Change or Chaos"

BBC is doing some good reporting as well here.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Paris: New proscriptions against use of child soldiers

From the Unicef website:

"Fifty-eight countries represented at a high-level conference in Paris today committed themselves to stopping the unlawful recruitment and use of children in
armed conflicts.

[Former child soldier Ishmael Beah holds up the Paris Commitments at the end of the historic ‘Free Children from War’ conference in Paris.]

The Paris Commitments, as they are now known, lay out detailed guidelines for protecting children from recruitment and for providing assistance to those already involved with armed groups or forces. They will complement the political and legal mechanisms already in place at the UN Security Council, the International Criminal Court and other bodies trying to protect children from exploitation and violence.

The conference, which was jointly organized by the French Government and UNICEF, attracted dozens of government ministers, donors, the heads of several UN agencies – including UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman – and many non-governmental organizations."

Read more about the Paris conference here.

And read the recent NYT article on Ishmael Beah and his forthcoming memoir called “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier,” babout life as a child soldier here.

Monday, February 05, 2007

UN Reform: "Death by 1,000 meetings"

So stands the threat of fillibuster by poor nation member states, who oppose the UN reform agenda that new Secretary General Ban Ki-moon inherited from Kofi Annan.

"Developing nations withheld approval on Monday of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's reorganization plans, supported by the United States and Europeans, who warned of death by 1,000 meetings.

The secretary-general, in an effort to balance posts between major contributors and poor nations, urged 192 member states in the General Assembly to back his proposals to split the peacekeeping department in two and downgrade disarmament affairs but attach it to his own office."
The new SG is finding out that "when you want to change anything at the United Nations, the first question is, who moved my cheese?" (Israeli ambassador to the UN, Dan Gillerman)
Read more from the Reuters text here.

My Life in the Bush of ... 3 Quarks Daily

If I'm not here clicking and typing away for this blog, I'm probably at 3 Quarks Daily where I write longer pieces as a guest columnist every fourth Monday.

3 Quarks is a happy place, and comes highly recommended from notable big brains Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, even David Byrne.

Editor and friend S. Abbas Raza describes the aim and structure of the site:
On this website, my guest authors and editors and I hope to present interesting items from around the web on a daily basis, in the areas of science, design, literature, current affairs, art, and anything else we deem inherently fascinating. We want to provide you with a one-stop intellectual surfing experience by culling good stuff from all over and putting it in one place. In other words, we are what has come to be known as a "filter blog." And we try not to be afraid of challenging material. Though we are a filter blog on all other days, on Mondays we have only original writing by our editors and guest columnists.

Hope you will drop by for a visit...

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

NGOs to UN: 'Stop Playing Donor!'

Research released today by Save the Children UK says that the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), which was created almost a year ago to accelerate funding for agencies addressing rapid-onset emergencies, is inefficient and actually reduces the amount of money going directly to work on the ground.

The fundamental flaw of the CERF mechanism is that non-UN aid agencies, like Save the Children, are not allowed to receive direct funding from international donors, despite the fact they are usually first on the ground and deliver more than half of all emergency relief.

Basically, where NGOs like Save the Children traditionally get their money directly from donor governments to implement aid programs on the ground, the creation of large funding pools like the CERF mean the introduction of two new 'middle men' into the equation: the CERF itself (located in Geneva) and the UN agency dispensing the cash in country to the receiving NGO. I recently evaluated a similar fund called the Rapid Response Mechanism and found more positive results in terms of impact for beneficiaries. Donors tend to like the CERF and other UN-created funds because it fits with donor governments' desires to see a more robust, accountable UN. NGOs are divided on whether the new middle men are an added value, and Save is clearly opposed.

Their points about overheads are valid. Both UN agencies and the aid agencies carrying out project work are entitled to take a 7% cut of donor funding to pay for overheads and support. Save the Children’s research finds that, if both the UN agency and the implementing aid agency take overheads, only 86p per pound reaches the beneficiaries compared to 93p if non-UN agencies were given funding directly.

Save the Children is calling on the UN, and specifically the CERF board members, to cut out the middle-man and change the rules to allow aid agencies to access the fund directly in the same way as UN agencies.

Read the SC-UK report here: Exclusion of NGOs: The Fundamental Flaw of the CERF

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

'Third World': Expect spacejunk from Davos

Davos luminaries will soon be launching laptops to Africa's poorest, or so runs the current saviour complex of today's tech gurus. An article from yesterday's NY Times offered a revealing glimpse into the type of utopian fantasies circulating at this year's Davos World Econcomic Forum.
"How to Wire the Third World" describes how today's technology CEOs dream of global relevance via the salvation of the world's poor. Their debates over how to solve the global 'digital divide' bear the mark of all starry-eyed social engineering endeavors, with the world's digitally illiterate providing a conveniently captive set of guinea pigs. Lack of food, water, education and safety for many in the developing world apparently matter little when you can throw a $100 laptop at the problem.

[An MIT rep demonstrates the $100 laptop]

I'm not one to call the kettle black, for the international development and disaster relief business is rife with fantasies and funding dedicated to a 'better world' for the most destitute of the planet. But at Davos, where so many rich people and self-proclaimed visionaries mingle annually, one would expect their underlings to have researched what prior forms of literacy, infrastructure and knowledge are required if a computer is to mean anything other than spacejunk to an subsistence farmer, a former child soldier, or the third wife of a man with 27 children to feed.

I'm soon headed to northern Uganda to research violations against children by the Lord's Resistance Army and the Ugandan National Army. I'll keep one eye skyward for any falling laptops--although such spacejunk is already common in rural Africa. I used to work with Dinka pastoralists in Southern Sudan who decorated their cattle by hanging discarded CDs from their horns. The CDs were recovered from the trash pits of international NGOs working to improve the lives of southerners during the war with Khartoum. Of course they had no idea what the CDs were, other than round reflective disks once used by foreigners. What would the Dinka do with laptops? Maybe trap wild game in the mighty jaws of the hinge mechanism connecting keyboard and screen.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Sudan, Chad and CAR: a cauldron for civilians

 The nexus of conflict and refugee flows between Darfur, Eastern Chad and the Central African Republic continues to boil over, with tragic impact on civilian lives. The Council on Foreign Relations just released this concise summary of the dynamic and its humanitarian consequences.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Rwanda mediates between DRC govt and Nkunda

Rwanda is mediating in talks between a government delegation from neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo and renegade Congolese General Laurent Nkunda, a Rwandan military spokesman said Wednesday. "This shows the confidence the Congolese government has in the government of Rwanda," he said.

Nkunda launched attacks on Congolese army positions near North Kivu's provincial capital Goma in late November, sparking on-off fighting.

Read the Reuters article here.