Stop Kony 2012: Debating the fight, or fighting the debate?

I am still organizing my thoughts for a response to the Stop Kony 2012 campaign and the video that has gone viral over the past few days. My initial reactions are now being subsumed by those that have come in response to the online debate (in some cases more accurately described as a virtual fist-fight) between Invisible Children supporters and IC’s critics. I am outraged by some of the accusations leveled by IC supporters at critics of the campaign — “you must not care or know as much as we do” — which would be hilarious if it weren’t so deeply offensive. I’m alarmed that such an important debate is frequently getting personal.

For now, some links:

A rant on good intentions — same debate, different campaign. My blog, April 2009

Invisible Children, the Next Chapter — Glenna Gordon

My response to Invisible Children’s campaign — Rosebell Kagumire

Invisible Children’s campaign of infamy — Angelo Izama

Joseph Kony is not in Uganda — Michael Wilkerson

Visible children — Chris Blattman

The definitive ‘Kony 2012’ drinking game — Wronging Rights

Invisible Children addresses critiques — Invisible Children

Kony 2012, viewed critically — Visible Children

On Kony 2012 — The Daily What

Viral video puts spotlight on Ugandan warlord — CNN blog

Analyzing Africa: The Audacity of Despair

A new, defiant image

Published online at The Independent, Rwanda Edition, December 17, 2011

In 2000, the cover of The Economist pictured a boy wielding an AK47 inside the outline of the African continent, surrounded by black. “The hopeless continent,” the cover ominously read. At the time a combination of factors led the magazine and a whole host of bystanders to throw up their hands in despair, and mentally close the door to hope for the future of “Africa.” A decade later, The Economist, whose cover this week reads, “Africa rising” and many others, are waking up, wide-eyed, to realize the tremendous growth and progress that has been taking place on the continent all along. Progress has not been even, or without crushing reversals along the way. But given the history of development across the globe, it is entirely unclear why we should have anticipated linear progress, or lament its absence. Political, social, and economic development will carry on with or without handwringing at one extreme, or ululations at the other.

There have been at least two common mistakes in assessing progress (or the lack thereof) in “Africa,” which together have made for some rather wrongheaded analyses. First, there is a danger in conflating levels of development with development itself. It is obvious to all that levels of per capita income, education, and mortality, for example are lower on average in Africa than anywhere else. The issue of levels, however, is entirely different from change over time. Contrary to popular belief, improvement in both human and economic development was occurring in Africa before the dawn of the new millennium, just not everywhere. This leads me to the second analytic pitfall – the “Africa is a country” problem.

It is obvious to all that Africa is not a country but a continent, but analysis nonetheless often treats Africa as if it were one political, economic, or social unit. It is not. There is tremendous variation across the continent in both levels of development and rates of improvement over time. A failure to acknowledge the divergent paths countries have taken leads to the kind of essentialisation one tends to regret.

It is all too easy to essentialize. The mind recalls the most extreme cases, and remembers those that support prior beliefs. So in 2000, near the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, with flooding, drought, the Second Congo War, political crisis in Sierra Leone and a waffling UN Security Council, it was easy to create an image of Africa that was tearing itself to pieces. “Africa was weak before the Europeans touched its coasts. Nature is not kind to it,” wrote The Economist. “This may be the birthplace of mankind, but it is hardly surprising that humans sought other continents to live in.” Ouch.

As noted, it is true that levels of development, that is, income per capita, literacy, infant mortality, and many other measures of development, are comparatively far lower in sub-Saharan Africa, but all of this ignores the changes that have been taking place. In the 1990s, for instance, despite much pessimism, a number of countries held multi-party elections, a wave that started with Benin in 1991. While these countries would not become flourishing liberal democracies overnight, the 1990s would mark the beginning of the end of dictatorship as we know it.

There was also an effort to improve access to education, and the percentage of children completing primary school grew in a number of countries, including Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, The Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Malawi, Togo, and Uganda, albeit occasionally starting at very low levels. Gains in education were not achieved everywhere, and schooling declined in some countries, but this fact only further demonstrates the variation in performance across African countries.

The best news is that although improvement in education varied, improvements in health over the past several decades have been nearly universal. Since 1960, child mortality has fallen in every single African country for which there is data, with the possible exception of Somalia. Even in a country like the Central African Republic (CAR), notorious for its poor governance, under-5 mortality fell by half over the past fifty years, from 300 to just over 150 deaths per 1000 births. In 1960, just over one in three children born in CAR would not live to see their fifth birthday; today six out of seven will survive childhood. Moreover, in spite of the devastating HIV/AIDS pandemic, which has claimed millions of lives, the hardest hit African countries are rebounding, and child and maternal mortality rates are again declining in countries like Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.

Economically, the performance of African countries has been diverse for decades, with some countries consistently growing and others wallowing in economic misery. A number of African countries experienced periods of negative economic growth throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and into the 1990s, which, along with population growth throughout, meant that several had the same or even lower levels of per capita income in the 1990s than they had at independence.

Still, many countries began to see positive economic growth in the 1990s or earlier, including countries as diverse as Angola, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Congo (Brazzaville), Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Mozambique, Rwanda, Senegal, Uganda, and Zambia. Some of these economies are reliant on commodities such as oil and minerals, but service and other sectors comprise an increasing share of the economy in many countries, and regional trade has grown as well.

Average levels of development give Africa a bad name, but initial conditions were different from most of the rest of the world, and rates of improvement have often equaled or exceeded those in the developed world. As interest in Africa is piqued by double-digit economic growth figures and opportunities for investment, we will continue to see discussion of a part of the world most people inadvertently essentialize. Fortunately, I think the audacity of despair that has pervaded western thinking on Africa has left little in its wake other than egg on some faces. The audacity of hope has now come to the fore.

Uganda in my local Starbucks

Confession: when I am not drinking the “Arabian spiced” 1000 Cups coffee carried from Kampala (or the Stanford polisci brew – thanks Judy!), I sometimes stop by my neighborhood Starbucks on the way to the office. Today I found Uganda in my local Starbucks – not in the beans, but on the wall. And in the paper.

First, there is a huge map of East Africa on the wall, with “Kenya”, “Uganda”, “Rwanda”, and “Tanzania” labeled (I should have taken a photo…will do that next time). I have only ever seen Kenyan and Rwandan coffee marketed in Starbucks, although I suppose Ugandan beans make it into the (STARBUCKS)RED East Africa blend. Some proceeds, of course, go “back to our communities”. That is, to the Global Fund.

Second, I found the image below splashed on the front page of the New York Times, prominently displayed in line.

Original caption: "Ugandans cleaned spare parts in Kiseka, a market that reflects a protest movement's anger over the economy and graft."

Source here. Photos by Michele Sibiloni.

The full photo series can be found here. It took me a minute to get my head around the angle of the photo, since at first it seemed as if the man pictured were falling in a ditch (which could obviously not be the case – who would work that way?). In print it looks even greyer and gloomier than online, a sort of Mordor-like underworld. It is an image that stays with you, for better or for worse.

And so today, as usual when Uganda turns up in the NYT, I find myself struggling between fighting the doom and gloom stereotypical portrayal of Uganda (leaving aside for a moment the fair-trade feel-good world-peace one), and acknowledging the need for urban poverty to be brought to the forefront of public discussion. It is a critical issue, in Kampala and elsewhere, that deserves far more attention than it has received – at least domestically.

It is an important story – of the sputtering economy and its effect on ordinary people – and the photos share what text never could. And I am thrilled there is a “Kampala Journal” in the New York Times. But somehow photos like these still make me cringe a little. Maybe because they represent the only image that many people see (especially Starbucks going Americans), even on the brightest of days.

But I like to hope that is changing.

Happy Independence Day, Uganda

The game yesterday didn’t go well, but it’s Uganda’s Independence Day today, so let’s celebrate anyway. Happy 49th.

I want to devote some upcoming posts to discussing where Uganda has come since 1962, and what lies ahead. Many today hold a dreary outlook for the country both politically and economically, especially in light of where they imagined Uganda might be nearly 50 years after Independence. While I am confident there will be major bumps in the road ahead (I think it is safe to say we are in smack in the middle of one at the moment), unmitigated pessimism is unwarranted, and ultimately, self-defeating.

Between disappointments, mistakes, and even despicable actions by some of those who shall remain nameless for now, there are equally many hopes, dreams, innovations, and breakthroughs made by ordinary citizens, entrepreneurs, and leaders alike. Perhaps the most amazing is seeing people come together to demand policies that serve the interests of the public, or whose support of a team converts them, however briefly, from individuals into a nation. Occasionally the goal is missed, but the spirit remains. It is this spirit, for lack of a better word, that will make the difference — little by little, day by day.

And so, today we celebrate another such day. One where disappoints are squarely and painfully faced, but also where millions of small steps are made, many in the right direction.

Happy Independence Day, Uganda.

be inspired

There’s not much new I can say here, but I will try. I feel great sadness for the loss of a truly inspirational man, who has changed the world forever. I wish he could see the outpouring of love, support, and gratitude from tens of millions of people all over the world. I wish for peace and comfort for his family in this most difficult time.

I have passed by his home countless times, which is a short distance from my own, but I never met Steve Jobs. Growing up in Palo Alto, I remember as a child I took a field trip to an Apple office in the early 1990s, where we got stickers in the shape of the company’s trademark logo. My first computer was a clunky Macintosh desktop, which I loved.

Today it is hard to quantify the way in which Jobs’ ideas have changed the way we work and the way we live, across the globe. I think the most important thing we can learn from his life has nothing to do with the products he helped create, but the way in which he created them. In his 2005 Stanford commencement speech, he urged us to dream big, and to follow our hearts, even when it leads us off the well-worn path. That will make all the difference.

“…the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

To a man who continues to inspire and change the world, thank you.

Touring Uganda: Chobe Safari Lodge

A few weeks ago I took a trip with my family to Murchison Falls National Park, in northern Uganda. We stayed at Paraa Safari Lodge for two days before heading to the newly renovated Chobe Safari Lodge, both managed by Marasa, of the Madhvani family.

Murchison Falls, by boat

The two lodges provided a very interesting contrast (while keeping ownership constant! errr…). Of course, there is far more to do around Paraa, including game drives and boat trips up to the foot of Murchison falls (do falls have feet?), and the lodge at Paraa is much more antiquated than the sparkling new Chobe. But the clientele is different as well. During the two days we spent at Paraa, the guests were almost exclusively European (many German, in fact). At Chobe, by contrast, a majority (by my eyeballed count) were Ugandan.

Pool at Chobe Lodge, overlooking the Nile

Why? There isn’t much in the way of a domestic tourism culture in Uganda, though park fees for East African citizens are a fraction of the cost for non-East Africans (though not explored here, developing domestic tourism is a topic that deserves a post of its own). So, my guess is that, since Paraa is quite far from any towns, it is not so cushy that one would go out of one’s way just for the ambiance of the lodge.  It is mainly a comfortable, rustic place to sleep and eat between game drives and boating.

By contrast, it seems that many guests of Chobe are visiting from Gulu or other nearby urban centers, and are visiting for conferences and meetings, not to see sight-see — although there are some lovely sights to see (just not many animals). You can never get tired, for example, of the breathtaking view of the Nile. The hotel grounds and dining areas are also quite beautiful, and the rooms are much more elegant than Paraa (bed firmness notwithstanding). In short, the newly renovated lodge is a very comfortable place for those with the cash (politicians and NGOs alike) to get away for a weekend retreat. Chobe today could be considered the “Serena of Gulu”, for those of you familiar with the patrons of the Kampala branch of that hotel (h/t Angelo).

Plush bar, Chobe Lodge

The ambiance and clientele of Chobe may change as time goes on, and as the lodge develops more activities (a golf course has been proposed, for example). But for now it is a peaceful, if pricey, place to recharge for a few days. And the staff are fantastic.

Chobe is a short distance from Karuma falls, and is about 4 hours from Kampala, on good roads almost all the way. I’m happy to provide more details or a more extensive review to anyone interested in visiting.

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

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