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?

2012: the raw and promising new year

Best wishes to you and yours as we bring 2011 to a close and ring in the new year. Thanks for reading and sharing, and I look forward to another year with you in 2012.

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An excerpt from my final column of 2011 for The Independent (Rwanda Edition):

Shuffling through memories of the past twelve months, one is reminded of the heaving, tumultuous and heady days that made up the molding of global and local politics, innovation, and society. Almost every year feels exceptional at its end, and this one is no different. Exceptional for the unexpected uprisings, reassuring surprises, and most of all, the untimely, or perhaps just sobering, deaths.

A remarkable feature of the human brain is that emotion triggers extraordinary powers of memory – emotional events, traumatic or ecstatic, are captured in a different way from ordinary occurrences. I have many such memories this year. I can recall vividly the walls and tables of a classroom at the moment I heard that Tunisia’s Ben Ali stepped down, the living room and footage on Al Jazeera of Mubarak’s fall, the computer screen announcing Bin Laden’s death, and the Twitter feed of my phone as I scrolled through news of Gaddafi’s brutal demise early one morning, all in 140 characters or less. I also recall the unusually grey and rainy Palo Alto morning marking the first day in 57 years of a world without Steve Jobs, just a few days after the passing of Wangari Maathai. I see clearly the words of Christopher Hitchen’s last column staring back at me, in stark and final relief.

There are of course many other memories, moments captured with friends and family, as well as moments alone, preserved not as events in their entirety, but as a series of snapshots. At the end of every year, as now, there is more time to sit and shuffle through them. It feels like an exceptional year, and the past ten have felt like an exceptional decade.

The pace of progress, innovation, and change makes each decade, and increasingly, each year, feel remarkably different from the previous. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, we experienced tremendous economic growth worldwide, a sharp break from the previous several decades. By the mid-2000s, nearly every single country in the world experienced positive economic growth. The number of new infections of HIV is falling by the year, and deaths due to HIV peaked in sub-Saharan Africa and worldwide in 2004/5. Around the same time, Google went public, and together with Facebook, is now a household name in the global village. Mobile phone use has increased exponentially worldwide. In 2000, there were 12 mobile phone users for every 100 people. Today, there are around 69 mobile phone subscribers for every 100 individuals around the globe.

Change, therefore, is brazenly constant. Anyone who suggests otherwise is either deluding themselves or not paying attention. This is as true in Africa as in the rest of the world, although many both in and outside of the continent have been slow to recognize that the former has not, in fact, been standing in place while the latter dashes on.

The churning and surging marketplace for ideas is open. The stepping-stones placed by yesterday’s innovators serve as a launching pads for vaulting into the next year and decade. Even in the destruction strewn by mad and ordinary men lie the pieces that will build society anew. One can pick them up, or stargaze at glittering towers and soaring skylines far from home.

Entering the new year, we are without many of those who began 2011 with us just one year ago. The most memorable deaths on the news circuit were violent, painful, or both, untimely or just-in-time. The world is short a few tyrants, but short a good many great and beautiful minds too. Their exit is a reminder of the inexorable march forward that spares no one. There is no standing still, but there are choices, and our own expectations.

Here is to the raw and promising new year.

welcome, again!

Dear friends,

This summer has been a time for reflection and celebration, and for welcoming new beginnings. As some of you may know, my best friend and partner, Angelo Izama and I got married…twice! And along with the name change has come a blog change – I am happy to announce the arrival of http://platas-izama.com!

There are many exciting goings on at the moment, from a health journalism conference sponsored by the Health Journalists Network in Uganda, to the upcoming Young Achievers Awards, and of course, (for me) the ever-looming teenage poetry.

In Uganda, we are encountering the Mabira forest saga afresh and the continuing blossoming of districts, but also some fresh faces in new places that are already encountering resistance from the powers that be. Walk to work protests in April showed the more brutal side of a regime that should have been riding high on the tails of a landslide election win, inflation has hit an 18-year high of 21.4%, and the Uganda shilling is the worst performing currency of 2011.

And the world around us is changing fast too, for better or for worse. Just a year ago I attended the African Union summit meeting in Kampala, during which Gaddafi set up his own personal tent on the compounds of a resort hotel and his guards clashed with Ugandan security forces. Today the same man is on the run and reporters are touring his jet. What a difference a year can make.

With the relaunch of this blog/website I look forward to a lively discussion with you on all of this and much more — politics, development, research, and other tid bits. My hope is to be able to make this space more useful and informative for you (and me!), and to have some fun while doing so. I look forward to your comments, feedback, questions, and opinions. Thanks for reading!

Melina

Leeza in Libya


I wonder how uncomfortable Condoleeza Rice felt during her recent visit with Col. Muammar Gaddafi or what either gained from the interaction. Well, we know she gained a locket engraved with his picture, according to the New York Times. And we know Gaddafi gained an intimate one-on-one (plus translators and note-takers) with the woman whom he strangely referred to as “my darling black African woman,” and of whom he said, “Leeza, Leeza, Leeza…I love her very much,” according to another Times article.

Why shower the woman with such affection? Perhaps in hopes that it would continue the mending of the US-Libya relationship? I get the sneaking suspicion however, that he doesn’t take her fully seriously as a professional. In the public spotlight Ms. Rice must of course graciously receive Gaddafi’s rather narcissistic gifts. But all the while she must be thinking, who does this guy think he is? I know I would.

I have seen his motorcade and entourage take on Kampala, posters of his face plastered all over the city. He came and belittled the Bible and mocked Christianity, in a country where the majority of people are Christian. The guy has one of the biggest egos around, and let me tell you, that is saying something. It would have been the cause of a clash with Museveni….but of course there is nothing that a little (ok, a lot) of money and investments can’t smooth over. Oh yeah, and he also suggested to Museveni that he should never leave power…