Thursday, April 10, 2008

Assault on dystopia

I'm spending this month visiting a clutch of countries in East Africa defined, in part, by their history of armed conflict and failed governance. This is a causal relation, not just collective misfortune: conflicts ignite and humanitarian crises ensue because of poor governance. Felonious states, murderous regimes and the eternal recurrence of la politique du ventre.

Somalia being the sole exception, the rest of this neighborhood is entering an 'early recovery' phase now that peace was bought on the cheap. That means no justice for victims; impunity greases all palms. Rebel leaders lay down arms in exchange for posts in the national army, government, or some other enticement. No sticks, just carrots--presto, it's donkey heaven. The international community who funds these charades can only pray the juice is worth the squeeze.

Lower on the rungs of power, paramilitary thugs and drooling militiamen get their reward too: a poorly run DDR program and the chance to return to village life without trial or sanction for all the bloodshed and rape in their wake. La politique du ventre started these wars; in turn it offers an incentive to end them. I recall Goethe saying that however complex man's psyche may seem, the 'circle of his states is soon run through'. Or in this case: 'me want you got', as they say in Sierra Leone.

So besides an Empedoclean dance of love and strife, what drives this dynamic of power and suffering, of 'grievance and greed'? I see a perfectly balanced Pavlovian equation stuck on infinite repeat: Oppression, rebellion, reward. Oppression rebellion, reward. Hunger for power starts wars as easily as it ends them. Keep justice and culpability out of any peace negotiation and the powerful can remain atop the dung heap for generations to come. Laundry detergent dreams for evermore! Even Pavlov's dogs could have smelled the rot of this seamlessly conditioned feedback loop--a mile high stench totally lost on the big brains at the UN Security Council.

But what about the African Union--are they not capable of some form of leverage, an anchor of reason in this ocean of impunity? Alas, the AU still worships the 'brotherhood of African leaders'. In practice this means Mugabe gets a winking tisk-tisk from Mbeki; Obasanjo offers exile to Charles Taylor. The AU says nothing, which is consent. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of ZANU-PF supporters continue believing the absurdity that to vote for Mugabe is their only hope against 'imminent British invasion'. A successful politics of the belly thus appears to confer mass hypnotic powers to the demagogue over the hoi polloi. If the AU ever awakes from its hypnotic state of genuflection, maybe it will stop facilitating the dingdongs at Africa's helm and roundly condemn them.

Taking Tiger Mountain

So who's taking tiger mountain by storm? Here comes a warm jest. Given the colossal scale of human suffering this madness entails, this post-conflict neighborhood is swarming with massive UN operations, hundreds of NGOs doing relief and development, philanthropists, human rights activists and do-gooders of every stripe. It's easy to dismiss the humanitarian circus as futile or naively quixotic; it is a most imperfect enterprise, full of disappointment and disillusion. Nor can it fix any of the political dysfunction and self-serving governance at the heart of Africa's problems. Still, I find hope in the humanitarian movement because it is the only full-fledged assault on dystopia going in this part of the world. Everyone else is either getting crushed under a boot, or donning boots to do some crushing.

I'm in Rwanda right now, and havent been here since 1994 just after the genocide. It offers a significant exception to my rant above. An amazing transformation of the country has occurred; it stands in complete opposition to its immediate neighbors, particularly DRC and Burundi. Under Kagame rule, it is not exactly a democratic place, and there is no independent media or much civil society to speak of. But security and the foundations for economic development are clearly here, and Rwanda has prospered as a result.

One thing I agree with Kagame on is his ambition to wean the country off of international charity as quickly as possible. I too want a world where there are only workers, no expatriate labor force or foreign donors at the top of the food chain in developing countries. International financial assistance to private and public sectors will be needed, but the vast machine of intermediary entities--international NGOs, UN agencies, the World Bank country offices--should disappear, the sooner the better. Direct support to indigenous efforts, providing human capital and capacity are sufficient, will get everyone off the ground and into the air. Hence my visit: our little initiative (called 'PRISM Partnerships') aims to connect local NGOs with financial backers elsewhere.

I'm surprised how many positive reactions I've gotten from people across the board: locals, internationals, cynics and dreamers. From the bottom of the well at night, one can only dream--not of utopia but of resistance strategies, of the infinite possibilities for effective assault on dystopia.

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