What to read on South Sudan

South Sudan is in crisis. What’s going on?

Which sentence best describes your current level of knowledge?

I’m not sure where South Sudan is. Here’s a handy map. Now you do! Start here.

 

 

 

 

 

I follow African politics generally, but don’t know much about South Sudan.
Think Africa Press has a good round-up of experts to get you going.

I’ve been following South Sudan for a while now, and am looking for real-time updates on the current crisis.
Then you probably already know this, but Twitter is likely the best source of up-to-date (if not always fact-checked) news. #SouthSudan is a good starting point. Check out the Sudd Institute news and @SuddInstitute, and this terrific list of tweeps compiled by Lesley Warner.

I’m an expert on South Sudan/I’m based in South Sudan. 
Please send me your recommendations.

When to intervene?

Published online April 24, 2012.

In our interconnected global community how does identity influence one’s actions?

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me– and there was no one left to speak for me.”

This famous quotation comes from public lectures given by protestant pastor Martin Niemöller, a critic of Adolf Hitler who was imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps for seven years. Like many others, he expressed lifelong regret at having failed to act sooner as the Nazis murdered millions. His faith differed from most of those who were persecuted, but the painful lesson he learned was that one’s identity should not dictate one’s actions, or the lack thereof. Unfortunately, this lesson remains relevant today.

Still, questions remain. When do you have a responsibility to help someone? When are other people’s problems also your problems? In the face of obvious wrongdoing or a natural disaster, is it always better to do something than nothing? The answers to these questions are not obvious, even if Niemöller’s words ring true. Injustices, atrocities and accidents occur daily, but as an increasingly interconnected global community, we have not figured out when and how we are supposed to act, either as individuals, organizations, or governments. Many argue that national boundaries should dictate who and what we are responsible for, but upon closer examination, this argument falls apart.

Nationality is one of the most common social categories we use to define our identity, and for good reason. Our nationality, our citizenship, plays a large role in determining where and how we live. We look toward nation-states to dictate the behavior of individuals and governments, and physical boundaries are also those used to assign rights, privileges and obligations. Furthermore, nationalism is not just a facet of our identity, but is deeply embedded in the international system. The norms and rules of sovereignty have for long prevented one country from wandering willy-nilly into the affairs of another (which is not to say that this happens infrequently).

For this reason, human rights advocates, non-governmental organizations, and international organizations like the International Criminal Court, often viewed as proxies for “western” governments, not to mention governments themselves, are often lambasted for meddling in the affairs of countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda. Governments of countries on the receiving end of intervention complain loudly about the imposition on their sovereignty. Citizens too are repulsed by the idea and actions of foreigners who behave as if they know and understand a place or problem better than the people who live there.

But it is not clear why national boundaries alone should dictate our rights and responsibilities. Physical boundaries are becoming increasingly porous, and arguably, irrelevant. What happens halfway around the world is not only visible, but also something in which individuals far and wide can have a stake. Following the tsunami in Indonesia or the earthquake in Haiti, individuals raised hundreds of millions of dollars, channeled not through governments but rather through non-governmental and international organizations.

It is clear that individuals can make a difference, but the question is when should they? It would be silly to suggest that we should only care about things that happen in countries where we hold citizenship. Why? At least in part because the selection of nationalism as the key factor for determining whether or not to act is arbitrary. If we should only care about “people like us” or stay out of “other people’s” affairs, an argument that begins with one’s citizenship as the relevant identity may quickly reduce down to a sub-national identity, or worse, race, religion, ethnicity, gender, or class.

It is surely not the case that we should only care about or attempt to redress injustices if the offended party shares our race, ethnicity, hometown or income level. An argument that lists nationality as the key determinant of whether or not we have a right or responsibility to act is no different and no better than one listing any of our other identities as the deciding factor. Each one of us has many different, and largely socially constructed, identities. For example, I am an American, born in the state of California, in a town called Palo Alto, to a Mexican father and an American mother. I was baptized and confirmed in a Lutheran church. I have light skin. I am a woman. Should any of these categories, any of these identities, limit who or what I care about? Under what conditions should any of these identities dictate how I act?

If identity (of any variety) should not be the determinant that dictates our rights and responsibilities to act, what should be? We do not have an answer to this question. What we do have is the creation of social categories around which it is easy to mobilize but also easy to persecute, the creation of “us” and “them”, “foreigners” and “locals”. Such a framing is neither productive nor sustainable.

Perhaps information, knowledge, or understanding should be a prerequisite for action. Much of the critique about “meddling” in other people’s affairs stems from the fact that the meddling is often poorly informed. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, as the adage goes. First do no harm, says another popular mantra. Unfortunately, the simplicity of these axioms is misleading. We often do not know whether our actions will, on balance, be more helpful or harmful – it is often impossible to measure one’s impact, even years after the fact.

Yet if we fail to act, we are in danger of becoming bystanders to massive atrocities. Many who looked on as the Rwandan genocide unfolded became exactly that – bystanders whose crimes were those of omission. So too were those who looked away as the Nazis summarily wiped out over six million people. More recently, we have faced crises in Libya, Bahrain, Syria, and beyond, as regimes have clobbered and battered their populations into submission. Rebel groups like the LRA continue to terrorize with abandon. The fundamental questions remain. Should we act? When? How?

Kony2012 and the evolving marketplace for ideas

Published online March 19, 2012

After over 70 million views (100 million plus by the time this is published online) and countless tweets, the Kony 2012 video has reminded us of one thing: it is not quality alone that popularizes ideas.

Today, the marketing of your ideas matters as much or more than the content of the ideas themselves. At first blush, this seems a sorry or even scary state of affairs. But consider the evolution of the marketplace for ideas. Ideas have never found the light of day based on their merit alone. Access to bullhorns has long depended on identity – on status and class, on race and gender, on education and religion. Today technology is shaking things up, and democratizing the marketplace for ideas. The identity of the idea-producer is increasingly distanced from the idea itself. The barriers that once favored the voices of the few over those of the many are slowly fading.

Over the past week I have had countless conversations with students, friends, and even strangers about Uganda, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Joseph Kony, and of course, the campaign and video that started these conversations in the first place, “Stop Kony 2012”. This sudden and remarkable outpouring of interest about a rebel group that has been around for decades is the result of the work of a single organization, Invisible Children. There have been spirited debates about the veracity of the film, ethical questions about its content, financial issues, concerns over the stated goals of the organization and film, and a larger debate about the role and motivation of outsiders in “African affairs”. Perhaps the most maddening aspect of the Kony 2012 film is that agency is so consistently placed on the part of the three filmmakers who “discovered” the conflict in 2003. (You have heard this story before. John Hanning Speke too “discovered” the source of the Nile – this is what has been “marketed” to pupils in most schools up to today).  The version of the story told by Invisible Children tends to position the three men and their organization front and center at the expense of all other actors. It does not deal in nuance, and it shies away from complexity.

Critics of the film have struggled to put forth alternative versions of the evolution of the conflict, and the current challenges that the region faces, of which the LRA is only one. But many fear the damage has been done. They fear that Invisible Children has hijacked the conversation, pushing aside or simply ignoring the work that journalists, academics, policymakers, development workers, and ordinary citizens have been conducting for years. IC has proposed their own solutions to ending the terror of the LRA, which include sharing their video, buying an “action kit” (posters and bracelets inclusive), and raising money for the organization. They have virtually blanketed the web, at least for a period of time, with their own propaganda, their own ideas.

The phenomenal success of their campaign, at least as judged by the number of viewers, hinges not on the quality of their ideas and not on the feasibility or sensibility of their proposed solutions, as many experts will attest, but rather on their access to the platforms that get out the word. They are well equipped to execute their campaign  – trained in film production, with a snazzy website and killer social media strategy, they have the all tools to dominate the marketplace for ideas.

Is this not unfair? Wrong? Even dangerous?

If the simplistic, emotive, and well-marketed ideas are the ones that make it to the global stage, should this not give us pause? Some argue that it is the very ideas that play to our underlying prejudices and the stereotypes that we find most moving (i.e. the west must “save” Africa), amplifying rather than dispelling our biases. They argue that the vast and diverse sources of news and information allow us to further distance ourselves from ideas we don’t like and fixate instead on those that support to our prior beliefs.

To the extent that government policy is driven by the masses, whether they take to the streets or to their Twitter accounts, should we be concerned about the quality of ideas that eventually make it to the mainstream? What happens when these ideas are the products of sleek marketing rather than of cool-headed and careful deliberation? These are all important questions.

The process that brings ideas to the center stage of public debate is not fair and does not give everyone equal say. Nor has it ever. But the good news is that the very technologies that have allowed IC to kick-start the conversation on the LRA have also allowed competing voices to fight back and provide an alternative view. In fact, in a departure from days past, social media may differ from the platforms of old in that it cannot easily be controlled to produce dangerous hysteria. You cannot stifle dissenting opinion for long in this day and age of hashtags and viral videos.

Perhaps IC has not hijacked the conversation after all.

Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and other online media have allowed critics to respond to the IC campaign in real time. No sooner had the IC video come out than online posts pointing out its many flaws began to pepper the blogosphere. Within hours, IC had posted a response on their website, and the debate raged on. Journalists and ordinary citizens used online platforms to share their responses and concerns, and millions of people watched and listened. This is remarkable. The platforms that allow the dissemination of ideas are increasingly open for business. The marketplace for ideas, however flawed, is expanding.

Don’t get me wrong. There is a long way to go. The fact that most people living in northern Uganda, even capital cities like Kampala, Kigali, and Kinshasa, were not even aware of the video (not that they missed much) only highlights the disparity in global connectivity, and as such, inequality in access to arenas where their voices can be projected loudly and widely. Those who set the agenda and those who have the first say in the debate are often still the most powerful not because of the quality of their ideas but because they know how to market them. The increase in information of all kinds means that people can seek out that which will confirm their biases and prejudices. But access to the microphone stretches farther than it ever has before. And this is good news. The question is what will we do with it?

Friday rant on good intentions

I hate to harp on this, but the whole LRA/Northern Uganda/Invisible Children issue is still grating on my nerves (is that the phrase?). I just came across an article by Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy in the Huffington Post on Invisible Children’s “Abduct Yourself” event tomorrow. I don’t especially want to get into another debate on IC and the work they do/have done, but I want to say that how you approach and write about an issue or situation matters. For example, someone who did not know anything about Northern Uganda would have every reason to believe that the LRA was still active in this country after reading Wentz’ article.

He writes:

I watched the film Invisible Children: Rough Cut a while back, about kids sleeping in the streets in Northern Uganda — hundreds of them — because they feared being abducted by rebel leader Joseph Kony and forced to fight in his rebel militia, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). They’re kids. Except no one told them they were, so they carry AK-47s, kill their parents and murder, rape and terrorize their own people on command. In the past two decades, 30,000 of them have been abducted. This is a reality neither you nor I could ever begin to understand. It was one of those times in my life where I was given a choice — continue ignoring the issue because it wasn’t in front of me, or forget about myself and do something. I was losing sleep, I had to go to Africa. My band Fall Out Boy traveled to Northern Uganda to film our music video “Me and You” to see it for ourselves and my experiences have forever changed me.

Everyone I met, everywhere I walked, with every step, the hardwiring in my brain began to change. I was quiet. Every time I wanted to complain, I made sure to bite my tongue instead. One day, we were stopped by some local men holding machetes; they wouldn’t let us pass. The fear I felt was paralyzing, but I looked into the eyes of these men and all could see was desperation. A pervasive hopelessness. These men stood at the mercy of a twenty-three year war.

Of course, the LRA are still active and wreaking havoc in the region (namely in Congo). They are continuing to abduct and kill with impunity, there are still many children whom they have taken captive, and whom they have forced to do terrible things. This is unacceptable, outrageous and terrible. It must be stopped. But I am not at all sure that Wentz himself knows that there is no longer a war going on in Northern Uganda.

There are many issues in Northern Uganda that may be publicized, but war is not one of them, and it doesn’t really do anyone any service to suggest that the war is still ongoing there. If anything, it continues to make the country sound like a scary and dangerous place (the whole “heart of darkness” thing, a line I wish had never been written). We are working on recovery and redevelopment, people are returning home and trying to begin their lives afresh.

I am more than happy to pressure government to get on with the promised PRDP already, to demand more from a Prime Minister who had never even been to the north until last year. But I am so sick of hearing self reflections and misrepresentation of the many challenges there actually are in the region, especially from people who come for a week or two and leave thinking they understand the whole of the situation. You had to go to “Africa” because you were losing sleep? Give me a break.

Anyway, I’m glad if this publicity will help people find Uganda on a map. I’m glad lots of young Americans want to make their world a better place. I’m even glad if Mr. Wentz’ trip has made him appreciate his own life a little more, or to think a little less about himself. Nevertheless, what you write and how you present yourself and your “cause”, whatever it may be, matters. Good intentions do not always save the day.

End rant.

Saving Survivors or Surviving the "Saviors"?

There is already a lot of heat surrounding the latest book by Ugandan-born Columbia University professor Mahmood Mamdani, Saviors and Survivors. Those whom have been involved in Save Darfur and similar campaigns have taken offense to Mamdani’s harsh criticism of their involvement in Sudan. I have just gotten my hands on a copy and so cannot make an informed opinion of the book, but I am excited to jump into it.

In the meantime, Alex de Waal, director of Justice Africa and expert on Darfur, has reviewed the book here in the Monthly Review. Howard French of the NYT has reviewed it here. And the blogs are hopping, with Easterly chiming in on Aid Watch and a lively debate taking place at the SSRC blog, among others.

Anyone read it yet who’d like to comment?