Feeding Africa in The Face of Neo-Colonialism and Land Grab

On the one hand, it is reassuring to see the state of women farmers in Africa get some attention:

Is it time to discuss the obscene agricultural subsidies in the United States and the EU countries? Or we can bypass some of the chemical solutions and try something else:

This would be nice but this ignores the fact that we live in a world dominated by transnational corporations and Big Food has some ethanol to grow and cattle to raise for meat and dairy production:

China and the Gulf States are among the major buyers:

Of course, it is easy to see why African governments would consent to these sales: it is foreign investment and exchange for them. But one can already anticipate the consequences of this land rush:

SocProf Goes To Kenya

That’s right! I am almost done packing and will catch an early morning flight tomorrow to London then to Nairobi. I will be spending most of my time in Kenya, then to Zambia.

I will be offline (literally, no computer, no cellphone, no TV) for about two weeks. See you then! I will have tons of photos to share.

Victims of New Wars

Since I just reviewed Dave Donelson’s Heart of Diamonds, it is an appropriate time to discuss three stories out of African countries that have experienced new wars and that share common traits: resource curse (diamonds or other), corrupt leaders, militia or private armies making use of child soldiers.

First, out of the Congo (DRC):

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the Lord’s Resistance Army is one of the most barbaric armed organizations in the world and its leader, Joseph Kony, deserves to have his behind dragged to the International Criminal Court for his crimes, which are numerous, varied but always horrific, all in the name cleansing the Acholi people based on biblical references. The LRA has made a specialty of using children as easily disposable and easily replaced cannon fodder (that’s for boy… girls usually get sexual slavery).

The conflict in the DRC is actually a regional conflict that includes the lingering of the genocide in Rwanda, and obviously, an overflow of the Ugandan rebellion in addition to conflict internal to the DRC. The social consequences have been devastating with no end in sight.

But that’s not all for the DRC:

And in addition to rape, malnutrition is an enormous problem as well. The children are fed, well, whenever. Children eat if charity organizations or their family bring food to the prison. In a system ridden with corruption, parents do not dare appeal their children’s incarcerations and do not appear in court when their children are arraigned.

The news is not entirely bad though, sometimes, a bad guy seems to be getting his comeuppance:

I hope he gets it. Some more background on Charles Taylor here. My own writing on new wars here.

Book Review – Heart of Diamonds

HoD [Disclaimer 1: I suck at reviewing fiction]

[Disclaimer 2: my only criterion when it comes to reading fiction is "is the story any good?" as in "does it keep me interested?"]

Ok, now that that’s out of the way: I LOVED Heart of Diamonds (HofD). Gosh, I lost valuable hours or sleep, work and blogging because I could not put the thing down.

Considering the fact that I very rarely read fiction (mostly sci-fi or specific friends’ recommendations and Stephen King… yeah, Stephen King… bite me… oh and Stephen King can write stories and very good feminine characters… here’s a guy who "gets" women, so there), how did I ever discover the book in the first place?

Those of you who know me or have read this blog since its inception know that I have a soft spot for Africa and have travelled to Zambia (I hope to go back in Spring 09… fingers crossed), so, I read a lot about it and bumped into Dave Donelson’s blog, saw that he had this book coming out and pre-ordered it months ago.

The one thing I liked about the book was the narrative: it’s all story – story – story. Donelson does not waste space with – what tends to turn me off in fiction – endless descriptions. He goes straight to the point. It does not mean that characters are not defined or that the context is irrelevant (quite the opposite, actually), but simply, that, again, it’s straight to the point and straight to what makes the story move forward.

The context itself is essential. The story takes place against the background of the mess that is the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). In HofD, the Congo itself is the thread that runs throughout the book, brings the characters together, develops and changes their relationships. In this book, the DRC is not just a prop to the characters, it makes the characters (or destroys them).

The novel itself is rich in characters. They are multiple and fairly well-defined but for anyone who has ever read or researched the African post-colonial conflicts, they are familiar: the corrupt dictator, the ruthless and cruel warlord / militia leader, the hypocritical evangelist and his cronies, the greedy investors, the shadowy military contractor, the indifferent Western media figures, the dedicated (and yet sometimes naive) relief workers, the resilient locals, the strong African women, the traumatized children. They’re all there, along with others and their stories are woven together seamlessly.

And any novel that exposes the hypocrisy of American fundamentalist evangelicals is guaranteed to have my vote! (Of course, I could not stop thinking of another fundie televangelist who got himself financially involved in Rwanda, around the time of the genocide)… And it is rather easy to "identify" certain characters and their possible real-life equivalents.

And then, there are diamonds… a perfect example of resource curse. The DRC has the diamonds, and a whole bunch of characters, both African and American, want them, out of greed. That is a simple motivation but a powerful one that has made African conflicts brutal, bloody and never-ending.

Nkisi And the Minkisi dolls which are also an intrinsic part of the story (the ones in the book don’t really look like the one of the right but it’s just to give an idea of the things).

But most of all, HofD is a thriller. There is a mystery to be solved, relating to the dolls, and Valerie Grey, the American journalist and main character (Dave Donelson also "gets" women, BTW), drags her assistant Nancy (I want Frances McDormand to play her if there is a movie based on the book) and cameraman between the US and the DRC to figure out why the dolls are being shipped from a diamond mine (recently acquired by a very wealthy televangelist – aren’t they all? – and managed by a phony fundie (who manages the mine in a way that King Leopold would not have disavowed) with the help of the government army, translation: the militia of the latest winner in the never-ending conflict) to the US, especially to a government official.

And things become a mess from there. The book is fast-paced and does not let up especially in the last third of the novel. As a result, I got a yawn out of the romantic dilemma Valerie Grey faces… I mean, seriously, who cares? Especially in the context of what is happening in the DRC… but then again, romantic stuff always bores the heck out of me and there really wasn’t too much of it.

Like I said, I hope that book becomes a movie… except I’m afraid they might ruin it. Trailer below. Just buy the book or get your library to buy it.

The President of Zambia Dies in France


As I may have mentioned in previous posts, I have a soft spot for Zambia, having been there two years ago and hoping to return next Spring (photos here). Zambia is one of the poorest countries in the world and a typical case of World Bank / IMF-induced impoverishment. It is one of the only African countries not to have experienced a civil war since its independence from England in the 1960s. It is a democracy and President Mwanawasa is only its third president. He was always known to be of ill-health.

Zambia has mineral resources (especially in the region called the Copper Belt) as well as natural beauty, wildlife (10% of Zambia’s territory is dedicated to national parks) and Victoria Falls. Its touristic industry has benefited from the downward spiral in Zimbabwe.

After its independence, most of its wealth was based on mineral extraction. However, with the oil crisis, the oil bill for Zambia increased tremendously at the same time as the price of copper on the global market fell brutally. Faced with crushing debt, Zambia turned to multilateral institutions for loans. Along came structural adjustments programs that required the privatization of mines and most of the extraction sectors, as well as the schools and health care services. The effects were devastating.

Under the euphemism of "cost sharing", people now had to pay for schools and health care. Many therefore went without either… Right when AIDS exploded in Africa (Zambia has an appalling HIV infection rate). So, the government re-nationalized these somewhat. Villages and communities started organizing "community schools" to at least provide some education… When I visited one of the poorest slums in Lusaka, one of the social workers I was with told me that the kids go to school in rotation, one group goes from 8 to 11, another from 11 to 2, and then another group goes from 2 to 5.

Also, as a result of structural adjustments, subsistence agriculture became insufficient for people to survive, so, they flocked to Lusaka and live in the slums with no jobs, since a lot of foreign investors bought extraction-related factories, only to sell their assets and close them down. And for those still open, most are owned by foreign corporations who replaced all the management staff with non-Zambian, thereby hurting the middle-class as well.

Actually, walking through Lusaka feels like walking in a global city where every international agency and every international charity has an office there.

Wen I was there in 2006, I heard first President Kaunda describe the state of the economy as "terrifying." And when I discussed the debt crisis with Professor and former Minister Mutumba Bull (a remarkable woman), she had a few choice words for multilateral institutions.

As mentioned in the article, President Mwanawasa was especially known for having created an anti-corruption commission operating all over the country (when I was there, anti-corruption billboards were all over the place, but, as my guide told me, the police were the most corrupt of all, although hacing a white person in the car was the best protection against being stopped for nothing and only allowed to drive on after having paid a bribe… even corrupt officers don’t want to mess with tourists).

The last presidential elections, in 2006, were already a chaotic affair as Mwanawasa was already quite ill (albeit still popular). Let’s hope his death will not destabilize the country.

Sexism in All Shapes and Forms – A Global Review

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these posts on reports – most of the time by IRIN – on the deplorable conditions under which women and girls live in many parts of the world. However, the articles have been piling up in my Newsreader, so, it’s time for one. So here we go:

First stop, Liberia with the always painful topic of fistula.

WOLPNET "Of 600 rape victims recently interviewed by a Liberian non-governmental organisation, 90 percent of the women were found to be suffering from fistulas – a vaginal tear which results in loss of bladder control and social stigmatisation.

Aid workers say the statistic, provided by the Women of Liberia Peace Network (WOLPNET) from surveys conducted in April 2008, shows the horrifying prevalence of rape and of a phenomenon which Liberian medical officials say they are ill-equipped to respond to."

There are two types of fistulas that are prevalent in parts of Africa:

  • Obstetric fistula , which is a vaginal tear resulting from prolonged obstructed labor. This form of fistulas is responsible for the appalling numbers of maternal death (deaths while in labor) in this area because of the increased risk of vaginal bleeding right after childbirth. And since a lot of women give birth at home, attended by a midwife, if they are lucky, they just bleed to death. Liberia has a particularly high rate of such deaths and this rate has been going up since the end of the war in 2003 as a result of the poor state of the health care system. With only 300 midwives when the country needs around 1,400, it is not surprising:

Maternal mortality has gone up by about 71 percent with 994 women dying for every 100,000 who give birth, compared to 580 out of every 100,000 women in the previous survey."

The situation is so bad that the Liberian government has put in place different programs to recruit health workers and re-train the existing ones to include more obstetrics and gynecology in their skills as well as get health workers and midwives to emphasize family planning with their patients.

  • The other type of fistula is "traumatic gynaecologic fistula that is a vaginal injury resulting from violent sexual assault or when objects are forcibly inserted into the vagina." (Just typing that makes my skin crawl)

Continue reading

Development Aid – Does it Hurt More than it Helps?

It is detrimental, says Thilo Thielke in Der Spiegel , because it creates unfairness and dependency in many different ways. First, using the case of Kenya, Thielke invokes a classical concept of formal organizational behavior: self-perpetuation.

"The roads are in horrid disrepair, and they’ll stay that way for a while. As a result, it would take days or even weeks to get the corn from the west to the northern parts of the country. But why would they need it there anyway? There’s a shortage in the north because the World Food Program is usually there to hand out food for free. The UN’s employees are paid to fight hunger, and that’s why they usually write reports in which they dramatically portray the situation in Africa and which they usually end with appeals demanding more donated food.

These developmental aid workers, whose reports largely shape our image of Africa, behave this way to a certain extent out of an instinct for self-preservation that they believe the Africans don’t have. Without help, they say, all the Africans will starve. And, indeed, without aid, all the helpers would also be out of a job."

A first problem then is that the persistent handing out of free food (largely surplus from Western countries) eliminates any incentives to be locally self-sufficient. And there is also the idea that the WFP needs people to be hungry in order to justify its existence and work (and some well-paying jobs for UN consultants). Even if some adventurous local entrepreneur tried to start local food production in an area with a numerous malnourished or under-nourished population, the results would likely be disastrous:

Continue reading

Conflicts Without End and Regionalization

The story that attracted my attention was from the Guardian :

"A 90-year-old Rwandan genocide survivor has been stabbed and burned to death by a gang that included four assailants who had confessed to taking part in the 1994 slaughter.

Generosa Mukanyonga, a widow who lost her husband and children during the 1994 killings, was murdered because of her petition for compensation, said Benoit Kaboyi, the executive secretary of Ibuka, a body representing genocide survivors.

She had sought compensation from her attackers for damage to her property during the genocide, in which 800,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed within the space of 100 days."

Ms Mukanyonga is not the first victim of such attacks. Since January, 12 such survivors have been murdered, the same number as last year. It seems like small number but murder is the most extreme action taken against genocide survivors seeking compensation. Fourteen years after the genocide, a lot of survivors have to live alongside the "genocidaires", as they are called and many survivors have been victims of attacks.

Large numbers of survivors have lived in abject poverty since the genocide, especially widows with children (surprise, surprise, that women with children would be the most affected).

This conflict is, in a sense, not over precisely because a lot of the genocidaires ended up much better off than the genocide survivors. Towards the end of the genocide, as it became clear that the Rwandan Patriotic Front (the Tutsi rebel army, led by Paul Kagame) would win and control the country, a lot of Hutus who had actively contributed to the genocide fled to neighboring DRC, into refugee camps where they were fed three times a day by international aid, and would conduct raids into Rwanda.

Continue reading

Blog and Movie Recommendation on African Issues


First, I want to recommend the blog Crossed Crocodiles. In addition to having a logo that makes me jealous because it is so amazing, this blog has great content on African issues that we should all care about. And it brings great information that, of course, the MSM would never cover in a million years, because they don’t have enough time for that between the latest missing blonde and Britney Spears’ most recent meltdown.

Sweet CrudeCase in point: how many of you have ever heard of AFRICOM? Exactly, So head on over there and read the latest posts on the subject here and here. Also, if it weren’t for this blog, I would have missed the documentary Sweet Crude on the plight of indigenous peoples living in the Niger Delta in Nigeria at the hands of the government, military and oil company. The movie has a great website with videos of the film. Apparently, they have a hard time finding a distributor. I hope that if they can’t have the movie distributed in theaters, they’ll get it on HBO (which has done a great job with docs on Africa lately) or on DVDs, because this is really something I’d like to show to my global problems class.

Anyway, update your bookmarks, newsreaders, etc.

Elizabeth Pisani: People Doing Stupid Things = AIDS

This interview made me cringe quite a few times but it gives food for thought. Elizabeth Pisani is an epidemiologist specialized in HIV/AIDS. She has worked for the World Bank, the WHO, UNAIDS, the CDC, and other organizations. She certainly has claims to the title of expert on HIV/AIDS. She has recently published a new book with a provocative title: The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels and the Business of Aids (someone knows how to make alliterations!). I have not read it (yet) but the interview she gave to the Guardian certainly raised my interest.

The premise of the interview (and, I assume, the book) is that there is a hefty amount of delusional thinking when it comes to the way the international community deals with HIV/AIDS. We spend enormous amounts of money but in the wrong places with the wrong targets.

“Ten years ago, the developing world received roughly $300m a year from the west. By 2007, the figure was $10bn. This year the US alone has budgeted $5bn for HIV in developing countries – and last month the US Congress voted to commit a further $50bn over the next five years. The President’s Emergency Plan For Aids Relief (Pepfar), personally initiated by George W Bush, has been described in Washington as the most successful foreign aid programme since the Marshall Plan”

And yet, what do we have to show for these spending levels? According to Pisani, there is now a whole industry dedicated to HIV/AIDS and spending these amounts, an “AIDS Mafia” as she calls it. But the programs that money pays for are not adapted and may end up costing lives, rather than treating AIDS and saving them. As she states, and this is the first controversial statement:

“”HIV is mostly about people doing stupid things in the pursuit of pleasure or money,” declares the cover on a proof copy of the book. “We’re just not allowed to say so.” She suspects she will never work in the Aids industry again for saying so.”

The major problem is that, in Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe, the virus spreads mostly through drugs injectors (IV users), gay men, and through the sex trade. These are the population that should be targeted for preventive public health policies. It also means that HIV/AIDS is not going to affect billions of people throughout these areas, hundreds of millions, yes, billions, no. But these categories of people are not exactly the most popular in society. Quite the opposite, when a category of people defined as deviants is affected by something bad, we tend to not care (Ronald Reagan, anyone?).

So, the health community then decided to shift its public strategy away from the deviants (no funding to be had there for research and prevention) towards “innocent” victims: women and children. As Pisani puts it, again, controversially (I think when she was a kid, she enjoyed kicking sand castles)

“”Aids couldn’t be about sex and drugs,” she explains. “So suddenly it had to be about development, and gender, and blah blah blah.””

Ok, I get it. I am not a complete idiot, but I think the dismissive attitude is misplaced here. I think this is not an “either/or” situation. It is obvious that the fact that people seen as socially deviant affected how governments dealt with HIV/AIDS but development and gender, I think, have a lot to do with dealing with structural conditions. Don’t tell me the sex trade has nothing to do with gender and prostitution. Don’t tell me patriarchy has nothing to do with the treatment of homosexuals. So, she’s right. Enough with hypocrisy: HIV/AIDS prevention policies should be directed at drug users, gay men and sex workers. Like right now. But I also think background structural policies to improve gender equality can’t hurt either.

What is clear is that precisely, in the short term, it hurt:

“The strategy was more successful than she could ever have imagined. “All these obsessively politically correct things started getting introduced.” HIV publications and conferences began devoting more time and attention to issues such as poverty, gender, development, vulnerability, leadership – what Pisani calls “sacred cows” – than to condoms and clean needles.”

Early in the 1980s, one of my sisters, who’s a physician was part of the physician’s union. When the first cases of HIV/AIDS appeared in France, the young physicians in the union decided to do something. At the time, there were no treatment. The only thing to do was to try to prevent the spread of the virus: clean needles and condoms. No other choice. And I remember what a battle it was with the older generation. Yeah, who wants to treat deviants. And I also remember my sister’s waiting room with old ladies from the neighborhood here for general medicine sitting next to the young drug users, obviously already marginalized or on their way. And we heard the same stupid discourse: providing needles would only encourage further drug use; providing condoms would only encourage promiscuity (no more evidence of that then, than now). Better take the moral high ground than be pragmatic and actually do what public health is supposed to be about: stem the epidemic.

And here is another issue I have here, although I agree with the premise:

“There are two distinctly separate Aids epidemics, she says – one in Africa, and one in the rest of the world. In Africa, people are contracting the virus through heterosexual, non-commercial sex. But in most of the world, Pisani claims, the data clearly indicates that the risk is confined to drug users, sex workers and gay men – the very groups that Aids organisations have worked so hard to distance from the problem.”

So, then, doesn’t this contradict the above? Don’t tell me gender and development would not help dealing with HIV/AIDS in Africa (although, when I was in Zambia, ads and billboards encouraging condom uses were omnipresent). The needles and condoms approach seems the appropriate response for the Asian problem (See this segment of the great PBS Series, Rx For Survival on the Condom King in Thailand… you have to scroll down a bit). But what of the African problem? It’s not drugs or the sex trade. Prostitution is very much involved, to be sure. But that again relates to the status of women.

And what of Pepfar?

“”The problem, Pisani says, is that 80% of the Pepfar budget goes on treatment. “Pepfar says great, we’ve got 1.8 million people in treatment. And next year it will be another 1.8 million! That will mean 3.6 million people. It’s exponential – and that’s the biggest question mark over the entire approach to Africa. The more treatment you have, the more infection you get.””

Huh? According to Pisani, the treatments keep people alive and healthy enough (if they follow the regiment) so that they keep on having sex. The treatments also reduce the viral load, so patients and their sexual partners feel less need for safe sex. And with the treatment, the level of fear of infection (especially in Western countries) is less. That made me cringe, but ok. If she has the data to back that up, then, I can live with the cringe-inducing formulation. Her point, of course, is that treatment is great but we need aggressive prevention. And prevention means to stop being prudish.

“Even the 20 cents in every US dollar allowed to be spent on prevention is wasted, Pisani argues. A third of the prevention budget has to be allocated to faith-based organisations, which refuse to distribute condoms and will promote only abstinence before marriage. The failure rate of “virginity pledge” programmes among young Americans in the US is about 75%; condoms’ failure rate is roughly 2%. Yet Pepfar, Pisani laughs, “claims its policy decisions are ‘evidence based'”.”

Is anyone surprised that the Bush administration could mess up on that front too? That religious idiocy would prevail over evidence? I’m always happy to see the mixing of religion with public policy exposed for the sham that it is. But Pisani does not spare the liberal side of things here either: the fact that we do not acknowledge that HIV/AIDS transmission comes from risky, and stupid as she puts it, behavior.

“”I don’t think it’s evil to have anal sex with 16 people in a weekend without condoms. I just think if you do that there’s a high likelihood you’re going to get infected. That’s all. It’s cause and effect. And I think if we can prevent a fatal disease, we should. I don’t get how it’s OK to keep someone alive once they’re sick – but not OK to stop them getting sick. I just don’t get that.””

See what I mean? Cringe-inducing. I see her point but I find the formulation unfortunate. My issue here is who is her target with this book. Is the right-wing going to latch on to the “stupid behavior” part of it and argue for a moralizing view (as they’ve never stopped doing since the beginnings of HIV/AIDS)?

Anyhoo, I’ve ordered the book, so, expect a full book review in the near future. The book also has a website. And she was kind enough to link to me when I rejoiced at the death of an arch-conservative Archbishop. I am glad to return the favor. I would really like to have a chat with her on all this stuff. I would especially love her opinion on the work of someone like Paul Farmer.

Parents and Witch Doctors can be Deadly


buttonApril 25th 2008 is World Malaria Day. So, to mark the occasion, we have this little gem from the Independent:

“The treasures hidden deep in the jungles of Sierra Leone are powerful. Potions cooked up from bits of bark in bubbling vats genuinely have healing properties. But they can also kill, and this is why medical charities are going into battle with the witch doctors of the west African country. Take malaria, which kills more than a million people every year – more than 90 per cent of them in Africa. Today, World Malaria Day, nearly 3,000 children will die. On average, the impact of the illness slows economic growth rates by more than a percentage point: another thing that Sierra Leone, the world’s least-developed country, could do without.”

The problem is that malaria medications can be expensive and sometimes useless (because of drug resistance) and that health clinics in Africa are few and far between. So what do you do when you or your children get it? My new age colleagues (as in “people used to be able to cure everything with natural remedies before the pharmaceutical industry ruined everything” kind of people) notwithstanding, these herbal bush remedies can be deadly.

“MSF is training villagers to give speedy, free malaria tests and treatment in 200 villages across the south of the country. Even in the hot, hilly capital Freetown, there are painted sheets stretched across roadsides depicting a range of illnesses that native doctors can “treat”– from malaria to being attacked by a winged gremlin. Their pharmacies include potions, leaves, bits of bark and tree. “We have so many of these quacks and they don’t know the job properly,” said one villager volunteering with the MSF scheme.”

How about everybody coughs up some money for bed nets to poor people? That would be a good idea. It is cheap and it eliminates 90% of cases of malaria when used properly.

Ok, we’re done with quacks, now, let me get to the deadly stupidity of parents, this time, via the BBC,

“A new vaccine for girls to prevent cervical cancer was rejected by 20% of parents during a trial, a study says. The jab, being rolled out in the UK this year, has proved controversial as it works by making girls immune to a sexually transmitted infection. Most parents did not give reasons for refusing, although a tiny number cited fears about promoting sexual behaviour. The Manchester University researchers said increased publicity about the benefits would allay fears.”

And here I thought that kind of stupidity was limited to religious nuts and conservatives here. At least we were spared the anti-vaccination argument, that’s something. When hundreds of lives could be saved every year, there is no discussion. Vaccination should be mandatory, no discussion, no exceptions.

Children With Faces Eaten Away Because of Poverty in Benin

This is really disturbing. This item comes from IRIN,

Noma“In just four months the face of this child in northern Benin was eaten away by the disease known as Noma. And yet it could have easily been prevented. The disease is not communicable, experts say. The cause is simply poor nutrition and oral hygiene. Noma starts in the mouth as a oral lesion that then becomes gangrenous, rapidly destroying soft and hard tissues of the mouth and face. Over 100,000 children suffer from it each year, according to the Winds of Hope Foundation which provides support, most of them in Africa.If detected early, it can be treated easily with vitamins, mouthwash and common antibiotics. If treated late – as with this child – major surgery is required and only 50 percent of patients survive.”

Basically, Noma is a form of gangrene that destroys the tissues of the mouth and it is more likely to occur in children who are malnourished and have developed some of the common chidlhood disease but the lack of hygiene has allowed a fungus to develop in their mouths. If untreated, 90% of the children who contract it will die. It is, of course, even worse for children who are HIV-positive. Benin’s problem is the same as that of any poor country: lack of funding for systematic prevention and reliance on donors, but that is not enough.

In the meantime, a horrible yet easily preventable and treatable disease continues to disfigure and kill very young children.

But another disturbing thing is the common tendency to depict medical conditions as caused by ignorance (an individual factor) rather than poverty and lack of access to medical services (a social factor). The original title of the article used the term “ignorance”, in this post, I substituted “poverty.”

Photo source: Godefroy Chabi/IRIN

US Private Military Contractors Recruit in Africa


“Namibia’s independence war ended nearly 20 years ago, but the experience gained by many soldiers during the conflict has made the country a fertile hunting ground for private security companies seeking recruits for the world’s 21st century wars.”

Like many African countries that have experienced civil wars since their independence, Namibia found itself with an oversupply of men whose only marketable skills were tied to guerilla warfare. So, when an American private military company came to recruit, it was a golden opportunities for many of them, especially considering Namibia’s 35% unemployment rate.

Private military companies are facing recruitment issues in the United States so, they have now turned their attention to recruiting Third-Country Nationals (TCNs) to staff their missions in Afghanistan and Iraq (sometimes without telling their recruits that that’s where they will be going). Currently, there are about 155,000 private military contractors in Iraq, and about 30% of them are TCNs. We already know that their presence there is controversial, as illustrated by multiples incidents and practices (See Blackwater). But of course, TCNs have several attractive qualities:

“The growth of the private security industry is increasingly targetting developing countries where many TCNs have valuable conflict experience, said Doug Brooks, president of the International Peace Operations Association, a Washington DC-based trading group for private security companies.

“They have some knowledge about risk mitigation, and about what is risky in a war zone. Most people in the world don’t know what this is. People in Africa do. I mean a lot of people have been in these areas and they have this amazing amount of experience they bring to their jobs,” Brooks said.

Hiring personnel from Africa also has another attraction. “They tend to be much cheaper than Americans or Westerners – maybe by a factor of 5 or 6,” Brooks told IRIN. “Should the US government only hire Americans to do these jobs, the costs would be just insane.” What is inexpensive by Western standards can be a pay bonanza in Africa and other developing countries. In Namibia, word of mouth spread that the security jobs in Iraq and Afghanistan would pay about US$550 per month, or about 10 times the monthly wage of a local security guard.”

So, TCNs can be used to take more risks, they might have gained their experience with warlords of more or less dubious reputation, and they are cheap. I also love the name of that lobbying group of private military companies; the reference to peace is quite touching. But, if you listen to the industry, it is all good for such countries and can contribute to their development. It’s a win-win situation.

These recruitments have of course been controversial, especially for local human rights groups. As mentioned, recruits may not have access to the media and know what is going on in Afghanistan and Iraq and may not be told that these will be the terrains of their missions. Moreover,

“”We’ve seen a lot of third country nationals where their passports are taken, or where they were delivered to a place to work which was different to what they were promised,” said Erica Razook, legal fellow at Amnesty International USA’s Business and Human Rights Unit. Rights groups told IRIN that some TCNs effectively work in conditions of “indentured servitude,” in which they sign employment contracts that last for three to five years, “but spend their first year just paying off travel expenses,” Razook said.”

And then, there is the general issue of oversight and legal training. The recruits may have come from militia, paramilitary groups, insurgency groups. They probably do not have any sense of Geneva convention and other legal frameworks that apply to combat zone and the treatment of prisoners and civilians. We already know it is a major issue with military contractors, even when they come from Western countries and are supposed to know better. And the question is raised as to whether these recruiting practices violate the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries

Of course, private military companies do NOT like to be likened or compared to mercenaries. They want a more professional standing and reputation. But in the case of Namibia, the government fought back:

“In terms of Article 4 (8) (b) of the Constitution, Namibians are not allowed to get involved in the military or security forces of other countries without the written permission of the Namibian government. The Defence Act of 2002 criminalises the involvement of Namibians in the military, reserve or any auxiliary force of any country without the written permission of the defence minister as an offence punishable with a fine, prison service or both.”

What is the Namibian government afraid of? That when these men are dismissed from their PMC contracts, they will come back home, maybe with more money, but not exactly different skills than what they had when they left. They might still present a security risk to their own countries.

Suggested readings:

Human Trafficking – A Global Tour

IRIN has done a tremendous job reporting on the global nature of child trafficking… in general media indifference. First stop, Mozambique:

Mozambique“A truck packed with 40 children was intercepted in the central Mozambican province of Manica this week, sparking concern over increased child trafficking and the urgent need for effective legislation to address the problem.”

These children were not kidnapped. Their parents had given them voluntarily to the truck driver to drive them to schools in the cities. Mozambique has no law against human trafficking (even though the practice is illegal according to international law), so no trafficker has ever been prosecuted there. The only way to get traffickers prosecuted is to get them charged with kidnapping, corruption of minors or hijacking, but those carry only light sentences. The parliament there is considering a law specifically to protect against trafficking, and it is about time:

“Although there are no recent figures on human trafficking in Mozambique the practice is believed to be growing. A 2003 study on trafficking in the region by the International Organisation on Migration (IOM) estimated that 1,000 Mozambican woman and children were being trafficked to South Africa every year, mainly for sexual exploitation. (…) Amnesty International stated in a 2005 report that trafficking in the former Portuguese colony was also thought to be linked to the extraction of human organs for ritual and witchcraft purposes, with allegations that the practice was taking place in the northern provinces of Nampula and Niassa.”

Next stop: Nepal.
Continue reading

Free Press is Essential to Development

In a January article on Niger, IRIN reports that

“Press freedom groups agree that an increase in arrests, intimidation and harassment of journalists in Niger is impeding development in one of the poorest countries in the world.”

The current crackdown on journalists seem to be related to government’s dealing with a rebellion in the Northern part of the country, according to Transparency International. The Media Foundation for Western Africa (MFWA) listed Niger as one of the worst offending African countries when it comes to press harassment (the report notes that Reporters Without Borders – RSF – disagrees with that assessment).

What is interesting about this report is the connection it emphasizes between freedom of the press and development. A free press can exercise a watchdog function over government and keep corruption in check by putting governance practices on the frontpage. In Western Africa, at least, there is a strong correlation between development and freedom of the press. Of course, as good sociologists, we all know that correlation does not mean causation but a functioning press can lead to open governance, a better-informed citizenry and ultimately better governance.

“The link between democracy, press freedom and development has been well articulated by several studies, including from the World Bank and United Nations, which have shown that the more freedom journalists have the greater the control over corruption, and the greater focus of resources on priority development issues.”

As I have written someplace else, based on my reading of Jeffrey Sachs‘s The End of Poverty, the corruption argument is often used to throw our hands in the air when it comes to aid. The argument goes like this: aid money is wasted money because there is so much corruption that it will line the pockets of petty dictators; nothing can be done because of corruption.

This argument gets the causality wrong: Africa is not poor because it is corrupt; it is corrupt because it is poor. It is higher incomes in a country that improve governance for two major reasons: (1) a more affluent society is also more educated. People are able to be informed about government’s doing and can exercise oversight. Media and telecommunication technology support such a role (as illustrated by the role of bloggers in American elections; (2) a richer society also can afford better governance. A richer population generates more money through taxes. Civil servants are better educated so that public administrations are managed more competently and openly. Most African countries are too poor to afford high-quality governance but they are no more corrupt than other countries at the same income level.