Category Archives: NGOs

NGOs Drive Negative Reporting

The March/April 2011 issue of Columbia Journalism Review has a long-overdue article by former Peace Corps volunteer Karen Rothmyer under the provocative headline, Hiding the Real Africa: Why NGOs prefer bad news. Here’s how it begins.

And now for some good news out of Africa. Poverty rates throughout the continent have been falling steadily and much faster than previously thought, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. The death rate of children under five years of age is dropping, with “clear evidence of accelerating rates of decline,” according to The Lancet. Perhaps most encouragingly, Africa is “among the world’s most rapidly growing economic regions,” according to the McKinsey Quarterly.

Yet US journalism continues to portray a continent of unending horrors. Last June, for example, Time magazine published graphic pictures of a naked woman from Sierra Leone dying in childbirth. Not long after, CNN did a story about two young Kenyan boys whose family is so poor they are forced to work delivering goats to a slaughterhouse for less than a penny per goat. Reinforcing the sense of economic misery, between May and September 2010 the ten most-read US newspapers and magazines carried 245 articles mentioning poverty in Africa, but only five mentioning gross domestic product growth.

Reporters’ attraction to certain kinds of Africa stories has a lot to do with the frames of reference they arrive with. Nineteenth century New York Herald correspondent Henry M. Stanley wrote that he was prepared to find Zanzibar “populated by ignorant blacks, with great thick lips, whose general appearance might be compared to Du Chaillu’s gorillas.” Since the Biafran War, a cause célèbre in the West, helped give rise in the late 1960s to the new field of human rights, Western reporters have closely tracked issues like traditional female circumcision. In the 1980s, a famine in Ethiopia that, in fact, had as much to do with politics as with drought, set a pattern of stories about “starving Africans” that not only hasn’t been abandoned, but continues to grow: according to a 2004 study done by Steven S. Ross, then a Columbia journalism professor, between 1998 and 2002 the number of stories about famine in Africa tripled. In Kenya, where I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 1960s and where I returned to live four years ago, The New York Times description of post-election violence in 2007 as a manifestation of “atavistic” tribalism carried echoes of Stanley and other early Western visitors.

But the main reason for the continued dominance of such negative stereotypes, I have come to believe, may well be the influence of Western-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international aid groups like United Nations agencies. These organizations understandably tend to focus not on what has been accomplished but on convincing people how much remains to be done. As a practical matter, they also need to attract funding. Together, these pressures create incentives to present as gloomy a picture of Africa as possible in order to keep attention and money flowing, and to enlist journalists in disseminating that picture.

Africans themselves readily concede that there continues to be terrible conflict and human suffering on the continent. But what’s lacking, say media observers like Sunny Bindra, a Kenyan management consultant, is context and breadth of coverage so that outsiders can see the continent whole—its potential and successes along with its very real challenges. “There are famines; they’re not made up,” Bindra says. “There are arrogant leaders. But most of the journalism that’s done doesn’t challenge anyone’s thinking.”

Over the past thirty years, NGOs have come to play an increasingly important role in aid to Africa. A major reason is that Western donors, worried about government corruption, have channelled more funds through them. In the mid-1970s, less than half a dozen NGOs (like the Red Cross or CARE) might operate in a typical African country, according to Nicolas van de Walle, a professor of government at Cornell, but now the same country will likely have 250.

This explosive NGO growth means increasing competition for funds. And according to the head of a large US-based NGO in Nairobi, “When you’re fundraising you have to prove there is a need. Children starving, mothers dying. If you’re not negative enough, you won’t get funding.” So fierce is the competition that many NGOs don’t want to hear good news. An official of an organization that provides data on Somalia’s food situation says that after reporting a bumper harvest last year, “I was told by several NGOs and UN agencies that the report was too positive.”

Fundraising organizations, whether NGOs or GOs, prefer narratives of impending doom or ongoing catastrophe.

via Black Star Journal


Filed under Africa, NGOs, publishing, U.N.

Benevolent Colonialism of NGOs in the Balkans

One of the people who most helped put my impressions of Ceauşescu‘s Romania in 1983-84 into coherent wider perspective was Steve Sampson, an American anthropologist from (at that time) the University of Copenhagen (now at Lund University) who had done a lot of fieldwork in Romania during the 1970s and come back for more just as we were finishing our Fulbright year there. He was the one who introduced me to the term “actually existing socialism,” which Western socialists employed to distinguish their visions of ideal socialism from the actual implementation of socialist projects in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, where nearly every ostensible good intention had paved the road to ruin. When I recently googled his name, I came up with an interesting article he had published about attempts by NGOs to help failed societies in the Balkans pick themselves up and get fresh starts. I’ll quote just the introduction from his preprint published in Anthrobase under the title Weak States, Uncivil Societies and Thousands of NGOs: Western Democracy Export as Benevolent Colonialism in the Balkans.

In 1997, as part of a EU program to help build civil society in Bosnia, I was assigned to participate in the “mapping” of civil society in the country. We found nearly 400 various voluntary groups and civil society organizations. There were community groups, environmental groups, women’s groups, youth, refugee/returnee groups, human rights groups, psychosocial assistance groups, associations for reconstruction, culture, legal aid etc. Even in the eastern Republika Srbska, which was considered to be home to some of the most uncivil tendencies in Bosnia, we found various local initiatives and activities which we certainly could call “civil society”. This was surprising to the international aid organizations operating in Bosnia, who saw themselves as operating virtually alone, or needing to “build up the NGO sector”. But it also surprised ordinary Bosnians working in civil society who also felt tremendously isolated. During a meeting, one of them even declared, “If we had had 400 NGOs in our country before the war, there would have been no war.”

As part of this same study, we also commissioned a study of the history of the Bosnian voluntary sector. We found that a hundred years ago and up to the Titoist period, Bosnia was full of voluntary charities known as Vakuf, civic organizations, community groups, intellectual clubs and other organizations and activities which we would today call “civil society” or non-government organizations. It turns out that Bosnia was not so Balkan as it may seem, and that the real problematic was not the absence of civil society and the need to implant NGO organizations, but the fact that a vibrant civil society had in some ways declined or dissolved due to specific historical and political factors. Similar tendencies have prevailed in most other Balkan countries: there were community groups centered on neighborhood, occupation, or common interest which existed together with or supplemented the primary family groups; moreover, family groups often fulfilled what we today would call civic functions, providing security, welfare, etc. Kosovo’s (pre-1999) parallel institutions are the most recent example. The problem of civil society is not necessarily its absence but its decline under specific conditions of economic chaos or political repression.

I point out this example because over the last few years in trying to export Western democracy to the Balkans, we continually interpret our difficulties in terms of the barriers posed by stubborn Balkan traditions. A Western democracy assistance program has stalled or not been implemented, and this is explained by the fact that local Balkan organizations or government offices lack initiative, are not serious, are just thinking about the money, are hypocritical, lazy or corrupt. NGOs are accused of being unable to cooperate, of hoarding information; staff are accused of not having enough initiative; intellectuals of being unable to write clearly; officials of promising to do something and then changing their minds or catering to their political patrons.

These explanations for inadequately executed programs come from the donors and their representatives. They are often not written down in reports but are the stuff of ethnographic interviews or café chatter when “the internationals” gather. But the critique is also complemented by the locals. In Albania, Bosnia, Romania, and Kosovo, the locals make similar complaints about donors: the donors do not listen to their suggestions; they come in and out as if they know everything; they impose bureaucratic barriers on obtaining funds; they are keeping secrets from us; they are maintaining their positions to earn high salaries, otherwise they would have to go home; they are wasting aid money meant for us; they are carrying out unnecessary appraisals, evaluations, and control visits using uninformed foreign consultants. In short, the donors are “not being transparent with us”, they say. This activity, “donor bashing”, is almost de rigeur at conferences on the Balkans and in recent locally produced analyses (Deacon and Stubbs 1998, Papiè 2001). Criticism of donors in Eastern Europe, particularly of American programs, comes also from Western specialists (see esp. Wedel 2001, Carothers 1999, Carothers and Ottaway 2001).

Now it would be easy, much too easy, to call all this an Orientalist discourse, yet another indication that we stupid Westerners don’t know what’s going on. I myself, having worked on such projects, have been accused of all these things. Analyzing the local laments, it would also be easy to see a kind of Balkan externalization in which all problems are attributed to the machinations of outside actors beginning with the Turks, later on the Communists, and now the West, represented by their agents at the local EU office or USAID mission. It would be easy to conclude that the donors are stupid, naive or corrupt, and that the local staff are unthankful or manipulative.

Yet things are not so simple. In fact, most of the actors on both sides of the Western aid system are intelligent, diligent and well-intentioned. Moreover, many of the most anti-Balkan statements come not from the foreigners, who in fact have a sympathy for the trials and tribulations of these countries, but from local citizens frustrated at their own countrymen for squandering opportunities or not being able to cooperate. The most negative remarks about the Albanians, Kosovars, Bosnians and Romanians with whom I have worked have come from other Albanians, Kosovars, Bosnians and Romanians.

The discursive turn in Balkan studies (Wolff 1994, Todorova 1997), in which societies are purely constructive and therefore artificial, has blinded us to the concrete problems which cause some organizations and projects, despite good intentions and declarations, to falter. Measuring project success is always problematic. Often we tend to compare the ideal of our own society (our own myths of efficiency, transparency and cooperation) with the harsh reality of getting things accomplished in the Balkans. There are in fact some concrete factors connected with Balkan history and society which do indeed give democracy projects a particular colour in these places south and east of the Alps. In one particular sector, civil society/NGO development, activists and project coordinators conclude that of the thousands of registered NGOs, no more than 10% are truly active. The rest exist only on paper, or have been formed only to obtain funds, or are a cover for a single person’s activity, or simply a cover for tax free business, or even worse. Civil society is accused of being secretive, manipulative, ineffective, nepotistic, of being an “NGO mafia” who reward each other with trips, computers, and other benefits. The conflicts can even be more dramatic. In Albania, for example, I was working with a head of a youth organization who explained to me that he was unable to work with another youth activist because of a family feud: He explained to me, “Do you know what it’s like to be angry at somebody for five generations?”(Sampson 1996).

Let me try to summarize, at the risk of putting all the Balkan societies under a single category (something we do every day when we talk about “the West”). What makes the Balkans both interesting, and exasperating is the presence of alternative social arrangements for achieving one’s own strategies and for preventing others from achieving theirs. Kinship, clans, family relations, social networks, social circles, intrigues, ties of loyalty, informal linkages, and a host of social obligations somehow inhibit people from fulfilling their official duties to formal institutions, or prevent organizations from operating in an efficient, transparent way. In one sense, these are the famous “parallel structures” which played such a prominent role throughout the Balkans both before and during communism, and in Kosovo during the 1990s. In another sense, these parallel structures are the true civil society, the social self organization to fulfill grass roots needs in a hostile political environment.

The paradox, of course, is that these same informal relations which inhibit institutions from functioning are those which have enabled Balkan peoples to survive subjugation by foreign powers, authoritarian politicians, and countless wars and betrayals. Moreover, if we examine the many successful civil society initiatives in the Balkans, we find that many of these activities are based on the utilization of kinship, friendship and neighborhood ties and strong social linkages of obligations. Members of NGOs are not simply independent individuals with a common interest; they have often grown up together, gone to school together, served in the military or spent time in prison together, been in exile together, or are close friends or cousins. They “know each other”. Let us call this relationship one of “trust”. Trust, and the moral obligations associated with these, enable people to get a meeting together at a moment’s notice, or put together an application, or locate a plane ticket when everything is sold out. Trust is what the members of an Albanian grant-giving foundation with whom I worked, when reviewing applications for grants from other activist groups, could throw the project proposal aside and conclude, “I know him. He’s good.” And it is these same importance of social relations which also causes them to question another project proposal, no matter how well written, by saying, “I don’t know her.” or “Her father was a communist”.

The strength of these ties is well known to Balkan ethnographers. Extended families, friendship, godparenthood, village ties, and conversely, relations of enmity and feud are the very stuff of Balkan ethnography, especially out in the villages and up in the mountains. It is these ties which enable communities to hold together while also tearing them apart in the most violent fashion. In fact, the stronger the kin and family ties, the more violent the feuds and more fragmented the society. Highland Montenegro and Northern Albania are examples (Boehm 1984).

Seen from a Western democratic point of view, the problem of the Balkans is what to do about these traditional institutions. Up to now, the idea has been the replace them or go around them by establishing new institutions: NGOs, community organizations, parliaments, ombudsmand, and other kinds of formal organizations. Even in politics, the idea has been to turn the personalistic, clientilistic political parties into transparent, accountable organizations. Much of the activity of Western development projects is about implanting these new forms onto preexisting communities. It is about replacing loyalty to persons with a Western model of loyalty to an institution and its principles. Sometimes these efforts have been successful, though the presence of so many façade or nonfunctioning organizations seems to belie the success.

The ability to actually utilize these traditional networks has been limited to a very few projects: one of the most interesting are the Danish government-financed projects for conflict resolution in Albania, in which traditional leaders and peacemakers are given training in modern techniques of conflict resolution, which they then use to arbitrate family disputes, village conflicts or long-standing blood feuds. Generally, however, the effort by Western democracy and civil society programs is to transplant our models so that local cultural traditions remain unused.

Most Westerners’ observations about complications in civil society development speak of the stubbornness of Balkan cultural traditions. The adaptability and flexibility of these traditions tends to be forgotten, as it tends to conflict with the dynamics of the Western foreign aid system as it operates in local communities and social interventions. It is what I call the “social life of projects”, a specific set of resources, people and practices which ultimately creates embedded interests (Sampson 1996). One of these interests is to make itself irreplaceable, i.e., to construct a local Balkan reality in which local problems persist and make project personnel and project thinking a necessity. At its best, the project system begins with foreign staff and their organization, who are then gradually replaced by local staff, what in Kosovo has been called “kosovarisation” by the OSCE.

Project society has its own dynamics, and it is misleading to see Western aid projects as an insidious plot. The donors and their personnel are by and large well-intentioned, and the most suitable term for Western intervention in the Balkans would be benevolent colonialism. Here the accent should be on the benevolent aspects. Traditional European colonialism was violent, repressive and exploitative, but we also know that even the most brutal colonial regimes in Africa had civilizing missions, priests, doctors and humanitarians who truly sought to help. They built roads, sewage systems and railroads. Today’s Western benevolent colonialism seeks to provide a climate of security and stability in the Balkans, and while their may be untapped consumer markets for cellular phones and household goods, the economic benefits of Western investment in the Balkans are questionable.

We need to understand the nature of this Western good will, the mechanisms behind “funding virtue” (Ottaway and Carothers 2001). Balkan critiques of the West focus on Western self interest and manipulation, hence the conspiracy aspect. They fail to understand that from an economic point of view, the Balkans is more a burden than a benefit. Hence my focus on benevolent colonialism. This kind of colonialism has its own dynamics, whereby the Balkans are a Western project. Let me therefore use the rest of this paper to detail the nature of project society in the Balkans.

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Filed under Balkans, democracy, economics, nationalism, NGOs, scholarship, U.N.

The Making of “Uncle Goat”

From: Comfort All Who Mourn: The Life Story of Herbert and Madeline Nicholson, by Herbert V. Nicholson and Margaret Wilke (Bookmates International, 1982), pp. 137-140:

We sailed for Japan on the Flying Scud with two hundred fifty goats. Dick Clark, an expert photographer, was on board with color movie film to record the trip. When it was over he edited some two thousand feet of film into “Ambaassadors of Peace,” the record of our trip with the emphasis on “baa.” Besides Dick and his camera there was Al Brower, a ventriloquist with his doll Bill, Les Yoder, a Mennonite young man who came along to help, and Ty Nagano, a Nisei.

We arrived in May, which happened to be kidding time. We started with two hundred fifty goats and landed with two hundred sixty five! Just before we reached Yokohama, I was called from bed in the middle of the night. There was trouble in the maternity ward. I found “Temperance,” given by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, in agony. She was having a breech delivery. Everyone was standing around not knowing what to do, so I rolled up my sleeves to help. I managed to get hold of the kid’s legs and pulled while Temperance pushed, and out came a beautiful large doe. We named her Kiyoko, which means “pure.”

When we landed in Yokohama, there was a welcome meeting for us. On that occasion, I told the story of a young Nisei girl, Satomi Yasui, and her family in America who had raised four goats for our project. The Japanese Vice-Minister for Agriculture who was present at the meeting told me afterward that I should tell the story over the radio for the children’s hour. So I went to the NHK (Japanese Broadcasting Company) office in Tokyo, but I was told that getting clearance for me to speak on the air would take six months.

Instead, I told the story to a newsman, a reporter for the women’s hour, and to a young man for the children’s hour. The young man elaborated on my story in his talk over the air. Another man heard the program and wrote it down for a large children’s magazine, adding even more changes. Finally, with more additions, the story was put into a fifth grade reader, and I became known as “Uncle Goat.”

In the reader, the story was no longer about Satomi, but about a boy named Harry whose father had been killed in the war with Japan. It was a very touching story about the sympathetic love of a lad who sacrificed to send a goat to the children of the man who had killed his father. In later years the printing of that story in the reader opened the way for me to speak in many schools all over Japan where I might otherwise never have had the opportunity….

At Honolulu [on the way back home to the States] I was “bumped off” the flight for someone of higher priority. It was four days before I could get another flight, so I used the time to tell the people in Hawaii about the goat project. The Okinawans living in Hawaii sent me a total of $35,000 for goats as a result of that visit. With the money, Heifers for Relief was able to send over five thousand goats to both Japan and Okinawa. After four wonderful days I made it back to San Francisco just in time to help send off the next load of goats.

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The Heifer Project’s First Goats for Okinawa

From: Comfort All Who Mourn: The Life Story of Herbert and Madeline Nicholson, by Herbert V. Nicholson and Margaret Wilke (Bookmates International, 1982), pp. 127-129:

An organization called Heifers for Relief, sponsored by the Church of the Brethren, decided to accept my offer to raise money and take goats to war-torn Japan.

Milk was in desperately short supply overseas and the Japanese children were being severely affected by the shortage. Ordinarily the Heifer project sent only bred heifers to ravaged areas. In this case, goats answered the need more readily, so goats were sent for the first time in its history. Later they sent all sorts of farm animals to many countries and aided poor farmers in the United States as well.*

When I received approval of the goat project I went to work. I raised a good part of the money and bought most of the goats myself. Then I gathered a little group of men to accompany me on the first trip. Sim Togasaki, a Nisei from San Francisco, wanted to come because he needed to make contacts in Japan for his importing business. Although he knew nothing about goats, he was a hard worker and a great help because he spoke fluent Japanese. Ted Roberts, a dairyman who had always been interested in the Japanese, and Paul McCracken, a goat expert, also came with us. Paul was a Quaker, too, so I was glad to have him along. My son Samuel also came. He took color slides everywhere which later were a great help in raising money for more goats.

In October, 1947, we arrived in San Francisco ready to load up for a trip when we found, to our great disappointment, that the Army had decided to send us to Okinawa rather than Japan! The following load would be scheduled for Japan. That disappointment was to become God’s surprise for us. What lay ahead was a wonderful adventure.

The Army had built pens for our two hundred goats on the rear deck of the Simon Benson, a small liberty ship which was not in good shape. We had a rough trip across the Pacific and were very relieved when we reached Okinawa safely. Later we learned that on its next trip the ship had split open! It was easy to believe.

Our arrival in Okinawa was an unforgettable experience. The harbor at Naha was full of sunken ships. The city had been completely destroyed. We could only stare in shock and pity.

We received a warm welcome and were greeted by the governor and other dignitaries. It was a delight to discover that Mr. Shikiya, the governor, was a Christian. After the ceremonies, in which we presented a goat to the community, we milked the remainder of our goats and took the milk to an orphanage.

We discovered that we were to be housed at the Military Government Headquarters across the island from Naha. Our escort there was a former missionary to Japan, Everett Thompson, who was in charge of LARA (Licensed Agencies for Relief in Asia). The occupation forces did not want to work with a lot of separate relief organizations, so they formed this agency to coordinate all relief efforts. The Heifer project joined LARA, as did the Church World Service, the Friends’ Service Committee, and many others.

At the Military Government Headquarters we were taken to the officers’ quarters. What a surprise to discover that we goatherds were classed as colonels.

* Nicholson seems to have been unaware that the Heifer project had already been sending horses and chickens as well as cattle to war-torn Europe in 1946.

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Practical Problems of Genocide Tribunals

From After the Killing Fields: Lessons from the Cambodian Genocide, by Craig Etcheson (Texas Tech U. Press, 2006), pp. 183-187 (footnote references omitted):

When one examines the details of how tribunals are structured, it becomes clear that no solution can yield a completely satisfactory outcome on all the competing values at stake. We see, for example, a range of approaches to the question of personal jurisdiction, that is, who should be prosecuted in a genocide tribunal. Though the approaches vary widely, each of them has both advantages and disadvantages with respect to the question of impunity. Cambodia’s 1979 People’s Revolutionary Tribunal prosecuted only two people, leaving many other culpable senior leaders untouched, along with the thousands of people who carried out the actual killing. The ICTR has indicted and/or prosecuted more than seventy people, but this is totally unsatisfactory to many Rwandans, who find tens of thousands of genocide perpetrators living among them. The ICTY has indicted some 150 individuals, creating a large and time-consuming caseload but still leaving many perpetrators harmless in the former Yugoslavia. The Ethiopian courts are prosecuting more than 5,000 suspects, though that process has been criticized for violating the rights of the accused, and in any case it still leaves low-level perpetrators beyond the reach of the law. In Rwanda, more than 100,000 persons suspected of involvement in the genocide have languished in detention for years with no prospect that they will ever receive fair trials in a court of law, solely due to the fact that the sheer numbers of accused overwhelm the capacity of the Rwandan justice system. As a practical matter, then, there may be no ideal solution to the problem of personal jurisdiction for the crime of genocide….

Another challenge in achieving justice for the Cambodian genocide has to do with the question of temporal jurisdiction, or the span of time during which applicable crimes may be prosecuted. The proposed Khmer Rouge tribunal would limit its temporal jurisdiction to the period between April 17, 1975, and January 7, 1979. Thus, only criminal acts that were committed in that time frame could be prosecuted by the Khmer Rouge tribunal. This makes sense, insofar as that was the period during which the Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia ‘s capital and also the period of the most intense killing by the Khmer Rouge, but it is also true that the Khmer Rouge executed and otherwise abused many innocent people prior to April 17, 1975, and they also continued to carry out atrocities long after they were driven from power on January 7, 1979. By limiting temporal jurisdiction to this period, people who were victimized by the Khmer Rouge at any time outside of that tightly constricted time frame might feel as if they have been denied justice for the crimes committed against them and therefore that impunity continues to reign….

A similar set of questions could be raised with respect to the subject matter jurisdiction, or what crimes will be prosecuted. For example, a growing body of evidence suggests that rape was common at the lower levels of the Khmer Rouge security organization, particularly the rape of female prisoners who were slated for execution. Recent precedents established by the ad hoc international criminal tribunals mean that when rape is assessed as having been systematic or widespread, this could constitute a war crime or a crime against humanity. Rape in war is always a war crime, but what is new under these recent precedents, where widespread or systematic, is that it can now trigger the doctrine of “command responsibility,” putting senior leaders at risk for the crimes of their subordinates. In the Cambodian case, however, the available evidence suggests that whenever the top leadership of the Khmer Rouge uncovered such “moral” infractions by their cadre, those accused of such acts faced summary execution. Consequently, the top Khmer Rouge leaders can argue that they did everything possible to suppress such crimes, and therefore they cannot be held responsible. If, due to the limited definition of personal jurisdiction, only top leaders are prosecuted, but they are absolved of responsibility for rapes, then any woman who was raped by a lower-level Khmer Rouge cadre or soldier may feel that she has not received justice and that impunity continues. Again, it would seem that there is no universally satisfactory way to address the problem of impunity for crimes on the scale of those carried out under the Khmer Rouge.

Another set of questions has to do with the extent of international involvement in a tribunal. The ICTY, the ICTR, and the ICC are in the nature of international experiments in combating impunity. As such, these judicial institutions have been fraught with start-up difficulties. They are also enormously expensive undertakings—which is one reason that several members of the UN Security Council were reluctant to see a similar model implemented in the case of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge. A major advantage of the ad hoc international tribunals is that they tend to provide the highest legal standards of international justice, but in so doing, they also require a great deal of time and money in order to render justice to only a small minority of the perpetrators. Moreover, with the ICTY seated in the Netherlands, and the ICTR in Arusha, Tanzania—both at some distance from the territories where the crimes were actually committed—the surviving victims who have the greatest right and need to see justice done in most cases are simply too far from the court to see any justice being done at all. On the other hand, in the Rwandan domestic prosecutions, in a country where the legal profession and the courts were totally destroyed during the genocide, the relative lack of international involvement can be seen as a factor contributing to the procedural shortcomings of the process and the long delays in rendering justice for the victims and the accused alike. The same might be said of the Ethiopian prosecutions.

Thus, there seems to be no optimum level of international involvement in tribunals designed to combat impunity. If the tribunal is entirely internationalized and seated outside the territory where the crimes were committed, there is a danger that those most in need of seeing justice done will not perceive any effective impact on impunity. Those few perpetrators who find themselves before the court will be prosecuted under alien laws and in an unfamiliar language, all far away from the scene of the crime. On the other hand, when tribunals are conducted strictly as a national affair in the immediate aftermath of terrible devastation, local judicial and political conditions may not be strong enough to deliver fair and impartial justice, as we saw with the People’s Revolutionary Tribunal in 1979. However, it may turn out that the proposed mixed model for Cambodia—with internationals on the court and with the proceedings conducted where the crimes occurred—could be a good compromise to balance these competing values.

On balance, then, when we look under the hood of international tribunals at their internal workings, it is clear that there is no ideal, one-size-fits-all solution. When weighed against the enormity of the crimes at issue, questions of personal, temporal, and subject matter jurisdiction, along with the degree of international involvement, generally tip the scales of justice toward an unsatisfying outcome.

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Filed under Cambodia, Ethiopia, NGOs, Rwanda, U.N., Yugoslavia

Assessing the UN’s Role in Cambodia

From After the Killing Fields: Lessons from the Cambodian Genocide, by Craig Etcheson (Texas Tech U. Press, 2006), pp. 40-42 (footnote references omitted):

The Paris Peace Accords on Cambodia adopted in October 1991 committed the UN to what was at that point the largest, most expensive, and most interventionist peacekeeping operation in its history. Idealists argued that the goal of the accords was to bring peace to a land that had suffered two decades of war and genocide. Realists argue the primary purpose was to remove the “Cambodia Problem”—the long, stalemated, and increasingly pointless Cambodian war supported by most of the states of the region and powers of the world—from the international agenda. In either case, the Agreements on a Comprehensive Political Settlement of the Cambodian Conflict were being touted as a model for collective security in the post-Cold War world order. Consequently, it is essential that we have a clear understanding of exactly what these agreements did—and did not—accomplish.

The peace process did achieve numerous significant objectives. The Cambodian conflict was decoupled from superpower geopolitical conflict, and Chinese military aid to the Khmer Rouge was terminated. Cambodia’s two decades of international isolation ended. 362,000 refugees left the camps in Thailand and returned to Cambodia. The three-faction rebel coalition challenging the Cambodian government was reduced to a single recalcitrant faction—the Khmer Rouge. The fragile beginnings of political pluralism were put in place. A free press began flowering in Cambodia as never before. Indigenous human rights groups were founded and growing rapidly. Ninety percent of eligible Cambodians registered to vote, and 89 percent of those voted in 1993’s free and fair elections, despite Khmer Rouge threats to kill anyone who participated. A liberal constitutional monarchy was promulgated, and a coalition government began functioning, more or less. These were huge accomplishments, a tribute to the skill and dedication of the international civil servants who risked and in some cases sacrificed their lives in Cambodia. It was $3 billion well spent.

At the same time, one must be clear-headed in assessing the impact of the UN in Cambodia. The Comprehensive Settlement laid out numerous central objectives above and beyond the elections. First, a cease-fire was to be implemented and maintained among the combatants. Second, all outside assistance to the warring factions was to be terminated. Third, the several contending armies were to be returned to their barracks, disarmed, and demobilized. Fourth, the utterly destroyed Cambodian economy was to be rehabilitated. Fifth, the demobilized soldiers, internally displaced persons, and repatriated refugees were to be reintegrated into civil society. Sixth—and crucially—a “neutral political environment” was to be established; that is, state institutions were to be decoupled from the organs of the theretofore ruling party. Not a single one of these central objectives of the UN peace plan in Cambodia was achieved.

These requirements were defined in the Comprehensive Settlement as integral elements of the peace process and necessary precursors to the conduct of the elections. When they failed to materialize, the UN deftly redefined its mandate on the fly from peacekeeping—since there was precious little peace to keep—to election-holding. The elections were indeed held, and a new government was established, though that process turned out to be rather messy, with the defeated ruling party tenaciously maintaining its grip on power despite the verdict of the electorate. The UN then declared victory and somewhat precipitously withdrew, leaving the Cambodians to their own devices.

Thus, Secretary Christopher’s assertion that the elections were “the triumph of democracy” was hyperbolic, to say the least. One UN-administered election does not make a democracy, particularly when the results of the election are implemented in as desultory a fashion as happened in Cambodia. The transitions to stable, liberal democratic systems in Western Europe, in Latin America, and in the emerging democracies of East Asia all make clear that the development of democracy is a long process. It depends upon a variety of social and economic conditions, such as strong labor movements and a powerful middle class, capable of bargaining with the landed and capital-holding sectors of society. These conditions did not remotely exist in Cambodia, and thus one could confidently conclude that it was quite premature to predict the consolidation of democratic rule in Cambodia. To be completely fair, critics of the UN operation in Cambodia should not have ascribed such a goal to the operation. Partisans of the UN operation should have avoided claiming to have achieved that goal.

So, with what was at best a protodemocracy stumbling ahead, the war in Cambodia raged on. Cambodian battlefields saw their heaviest fighting since 1989, and the new Royal Army was not necessarily getting the best of the fighting. Poorly planned assaults and temporary seizures of the main Khmer Rouge bases at Anlong Veng in the north and Pailin in the west dissolved into disasters for the government, as the insurgents transformed the Royal Army’s pyrrhic victories into death traps. After these initial fiascoes at Anlong Veng and Pailin, one might have thought the government would have been chastened, but it was not. The Royal Government immediately began to plan the retaking of the Khmer Rouge stronghold at Pailin, this time without waiting for the dry season. Thus, the UN intervention in Cambodia had not terminated the war, despite what Secretary Tornsen termed the UN’s “stunning peacekeeping success.”

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Mistrust All the Way Up in PNG

From Village on the Edge: Changing Times in Papua New Guinea, by Michael French Smith (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2002), pp. 65-66:

Many Papua New Guineans probably were easily convinced that the World Bank was up to no good because they had no faith in their own government, which had sought help from the bank. In fact, many private citizens I spoke with in 1995 distrusted the Papua New Guinea government even more than the World Bank. They mistrusted not just the current government but the government as an institution. The staff of local-level government organizations expressed deep distrust of every level of government above their own, and some village representatives to these local bodies did not trust the staff. People in provincial towns spoke with disdain of the “people in Moresby” the capital, who were “living in a different world” as one activist put it. Activists in rural areas sometimes made the same complaint about those in the provincial towns. As a representative of a rural women’s organization in the East Sepik Province told me, “the bigshots in Wewak” [pop. 25,000!] did not understand what life was like still farther afield.

Such criticisms might sound familiar almost anywhere, but mistrust of government has a special flavor in Papua New Guinea, and this distinctive and pungent mistrust provided fertile ground for the reaction to the bank’s ERP [= Economic Recovery Program] policy prescriptions. In light of conditions in 1995, many Papua New Guineans felt that the government—not just the sitting government, but every government since independence—simply had not proven itself. Many also felt that the elite Papua New Guineans who ran the government treated the citizens of the country unfairly and unequally. Europeans working in Papua New Guinea or reporting on events there often complained of corruption in the higher circles, but they were no more vocal on this issue than rank-and-file Papua New Guineans themselves.

Many Papua New Guineans probably also distrusted the government because they still saw it as a foreign entity. Papua New Guineans had taken the tiller at independence, but the boat itself was built on the European model. The electoral and parliamentary political system was nothing like precolonial political systems, and these differing systems were only awkwardly coordinated.

Above all, the idea that the people of Papua New Guinea were all members of a single nation and that this identity transcended narrower affiliations—with family, kinship group, village, and speakers of the same language—had not taken hold. There had been no prolonged, popular struggle for independence in which disparate groups throughout the country might have forged a sense of unity or acquired a stake in new national institutions. The nation, too, was an unfamiliar concept to many. Indeed, some Papua New Guinea peoples did not regard themselves as having ceded their autonomy and accepted subordination to the greater power of the state. In fact, to some the state appeared positively menacing. In the 1990s, Papua New Guineans caught up in Christian revival movements in parts of the country associated the state with the Antichrist.

Doesn’t sound that different from everywhere else on earth these days.

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Why Darfur and Not …?

Black Star Journal recently linked to a long and thought-provoking post back in July by Ethan Zuckerman at My Heart’s in Accra about why the West seems much more concerned about Darfur than about a number of even more horrible conflicts in Africa.

Because you may or may not be an Africa-based journalist, let me unpack the question for a moment. There are a number of international conflicts that have claimed more lives and displaced more people than the conflict in Darfur. The Second Congo War and its ongoing aftermath is believed to have killed more than 5.4 million people, mostly due to “excess mortality” connected to disease and starvation. Other conflicts compare to Darfur in terms of brutality and displacement, but have received far less attention. War between Ugandan forces and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda has displaced more than a million people from their homes, and one in three boys in the region have been abducted, for periods of time or permanently, by LRA forces. The war between Ethiopia and Islamist forces in Somalia – supported by the US military – has created 1 million internally displaced persons and 450,000 international refugees.

It’s admirable that activists have been able to draw so much attention to Darfur. I’m interested in the phenomenon not to criticize focus on Darfur over other conflicts, but because I’d like to help people working on other conflicts gather attention and resources. I see Darfur as a rare example of an international crisis that’s gotten huge attention in the US despite the fact that most Americans have no direct, personal connection to the region. (I’m not the only one trying to do this – John Prendergrast, who’s focused on Darfur for the International Crisis Group, is one of several Africanists who’s started a new organization, Enough, designed to harness some of the attention around Darfur and call attention to situations in DRC, Uganda, Somalia and elsewhere.)

Agreeing with the analysis that attention paid to Darfur is unprecedented, my friend offers a two-part analysis, which I’ve modified to a three part analysis:

– The time was right. Guilt over the failure to intervene in Rwanda, especially on the part of North American and European nations, offered an opportunity to demand intervention in another African conflict.

– In the US, there was already close attention paid to Sudan by human rights and by evangelical Christian communities, based on a perception of the Sudanese civil war as a religious conflict between the Muslim north and Christian (and animist) south. (My contribution to the analysis, based on my experience talking to evangelical friends about their anti-Khartoum activism as early as 2000.)

– The conflict in Darfur has been reducible to a fairly simple media narrative, with good guys and bad guys… even thought this narrative doesn’t accurately reflect the reality on the ground.

It’s this last point my friend and I focused most of our discussion on. The process of covering the conflict in Darfur has convinced my friend that a narrative centered on a merciless proxy army raping, chasing and killing innovent civilians in an attempt to ethnically cleanse a region isn’t wholly accurate. “This isn’t good guys versus bad guys. This is bad guys versus bad guys.”

The rest of the post then provides supporting examples, and faults aid agencies like Save Darfur and reporters like Nicholas Kristof for sacrificing accuracy for advocacy.

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The Vatican as UN/NGO in World War Two

From: Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics, From the Great War to the War on Terror, by Michael Burleigh (HarperCollins, 2007), pp. 218, 220-221:

As an international institution, the Catholic Church had to negotiate every political context, protecting the rights of Catholics in all belligerent countries through the mechanism of concordats; rendering assistance to a much wider range of humanity; and balancing its diplomatic cum spiritual objectives with the role of moral prophecy. Perhaps no one could have performed the multiple roles of pope to universal satisfaction in such circumstances, and the legacy of Pius XII, who faced these challenges, is still disputed, as was that of Benedict XV during and after the First World War.

Nazi racial exterminism has become so dominant in the historiography of the last two decades that it has eclipsed every other aspect of the war, including attempts to prevent, contain or mitigate it. That downgrades most of the activities that were of paramount concern to all Europe’s Churches in the two years before the ‘Final Solution’ started under cover of a war that had raged since September 1939. One of the chief activities of the papacy was to prevent war at all, an activity that sometimes had the support of Mussolini, as well as the European democracies and the US. This papal diplomatic activity is relatively straightforward to understand, while in its sheer unassuming scale the relief and rescue work is difficult to get a purchase on despite the abundance of documentation….

The pope, informed of the invasion of Poland, retreated to his chapel to pray. The war immediately raised urgent humanitarian problems…. He established the Pontifical Relief Commission, whose remit was to provide war refugees with food, clothing and shelter. To take one example, the US Catholic dioceses collected US$750,000 which the bishop of Detroit sent to the pope for distribution among Poles in Poland and scattered throughout Europe. He also revived the Vatican Information Bureau, its aim being to reunite people separated by warfare, including prisoners of war – about whom the families everywhere were desperately anxious. The Bureau received a thousand items of correspondence per day, requiring a staff of six hundred to process it and conduct the ensuing inquiries. Its card index contains the names of over two million prisoners of war whom it helped locate and support. Like the parallel work of the International Red Cross, such labour involved a certain suspension of open moral judgement if it was to be at all effective. Vatican Radio also broadcast nearly thirty thousand messages a month in the search for missing persons.

Vatican documents are quietly eloquent on the papacy’s variegated interventions on behalf of so many victims of the Second World War, whether the despatch of food to Greeks starving because the Italians had made off with all the available food and the British were blocking ships bringing grain; exchanges of sick or wounded British prisoners in Italian captivity in North Africa; or, when the war had reached the Pacific theatre, having nuncio Morella in Tokyo organise medical supplies from Hong Kong for British prisoners of the Japanese. The Greek famine, in which one hundred thousand people starved to death, is instructive. The Germans handed over control of Greece to the Italians in the summer of 1941. Bulgaria had occupied some of the main grain-producing areas, while the Italians had commandeered much of the food stored. The 1941 harvest was poor. The British blockaded Greece, stopping grain shipments from Australia and preventing the arrival of 320,000 tons of grain that the Greeks had bought. Into this extremely complicated set of circumstances, where enemy nations were passing the buck on to their opponents while Greeks died, came monsignor Roncalli, the apostolic delegate to Greece and Turkey who was based in Istanbul. He visited senior German commanders, celebrating a mass for wounded German troops and visiting British POWs, so as to win the confidence of his interlocutors. Simultaneously he urged the Holy See to intervene with the US and British to bring about a temporary lift of the blockade. This persuaded the Germans to allow food to go to Greece via neutral Turkey; they also promised that any future food shipments would go exclusively to the civilian population. The British finally allowed a one-off shipment of eight thousand tons of wheat and flour. Meanwhile, in Athens, Roncalli organised soup kitchens that served twelve thousand meals a day, with supplies purchased by the Holy See in Hungary. Because of these measures fewer people died. It was complicated, undramatic work, in which each side blamed the other for the plight of the Greeks, and it resulted in an agreement between the belligerent powers to put in place mechanisms to ensure that the famine was not repeated.

It seems to me that today’s UN and NGOs, whether secular or religious, are caught in the same moral bind as the Vatican and the Red Cross during World War Two, sanctioning moral ambiguity and complicity in return for whatever good they think they can salvage from absolutely horrific local circumstances over which they have little or no control. After a while, absolutely everything becomes subject to terms of trade.

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Red Cross Inspector Shibai, Nagasaki, 1944

From First into Nagasaki: The Censored Eyewitness Dispatches on Post-Atomic Japan and Its Prisoners of War, by George Weller (1907-2002), ed. by Anthony Weller (Three Rivers, 2006), pp. 63-67:

Underground in the mine you could always tell when the B-29s were making a visit overhead. The main power plant on the surface closed down, the weaker auxiliary pumps went into action, and the air grew gluey and hard to breathe. In a slightly different way you could tell, while underground, when the Red Cross man was making a visit. From every section gang the strongest American was told off and ordered to take the mine train to the surface. He had ceased being a miner; he was now an actor. He had a role in a play that the mine authorities were going to put on for the benefit of the audience of one: the Red Cross inspector.

Two or three days before the Red Cross man—usually a Swiss or Swede—actually arrived, secret rehearsals had already been begun by what might be called the leads: the Japanese authorities of the camp. But for the real fibre of the performance the Japanese counted on their unrehearsed extras, the Americans.

Show day comes. A one-shot performance can be as good as its scenery, rarely any better. What is this extraordinary change that has overtaken the filthy little clinic, where operations without anesthesia have often taken place? It is transformed. Not only ether and morphine, but other medicines have appeared, the very medicines that were unobtainable 24 hours ago…. And look at the notice board! What are those neatly typewritten sheets fluttering from its black surface, now suddenly innocent of punishment records? It is the Daily News Bulletin, no less. (“We do what we can, Mr. Inspector, to satisfy the extraordinary American curiosity about current events.”)

And here comes the Red Cross visitor, walking like a prisoner himself in a phalanx of potbellied Japanese colonels and majors. Has he been underground? He has not. Will he get a view of the barracks? Well, a quick one, maybe. But first he is shown documents for three hours, till his eyes ache. Then the place for him to go is to the hospital. After all, a hospital is the great index of humanity. If the hospital in a prison camp is all right, everything else must be all right, too.

And everything in the little hospital is right, as superlatively right as the last canto of Scrooge’s Christmas. Just the entrance alone is beautiful. On each side of the door, Red Cross boxes are piled tastefully in twin pyramids—medicines, food, a cornucopia of abundance. The military interpreter opens the door and the inspector enters. Order and cleanliness, a lovely sight. The faces of the men on their cots are turned toward him. Sick? If these men are the sick, confined to the hospital under medical treatment, then it is hardly necessary to see the healthy, now working down in the mine. For these men, as prison standards go, are not badly off at all. Their faces—though wearing a peculiar quizzical, stolid expression—are round and full. Their eyes are clear. A Japanese doctor would call them robust.

The visitor, stroking his moustache, turns to the Japanese nurse, one of several chubby little starched creatures who have been placed at even intervals the length of the ward, like markings on a clinical thermometer. “How are the prisoners doing?” he inquires through the interpreter. “Oh, very well, very very well,” she says, with a shining nursely smile.

The inspector observes there are white sheets on the mattresses. Really not bad, altogether. Each man has a can of salmon or of pears at the same geometrical point near his bed. Not quite within reach, perhaps, but nearby.

Gently Captain Fukuhara suggests that perhaps the official party had better not delay too long in the hospital. Luncheon is already waiting. Would the inspector like to see what the prisoners are eating? The party passes rapidly through the kitchen to the mess hall, where the prisoners are lined up, waiting to be seen. Their faces still bear looks of unmistakable pleasure and anticipation, in which a sharp eye might detect strong traces of astonishment. There is no doubt that this is a happy camp. Look at the faces of the prisoners as they scan the miracle that lies waiting for them in their wooden mess gear: three camp rolls with a dab of margarine, bean soup with a bit of pork, a spoonful of Japanese red caviar, and a baked apple.

(It is the baked apple, though the visitor does not know this, which has really bewitched them. This baked apple is more than remarkable; it is historical. It is the only baked apple ever seen at Camp #17 in two years.)

The inspector has now seen the camp. But he must not go away without talking to one or two individual prisoners. So he is led to the Japanese headquarters, he is settled in the comfortable chair of the commandant, and several handpicked Americans are brought to him. The room is full of Japanese military and police; the only non-Japanese are the prisoner and the Red Cross man.

“We were selected for health, first,” Sergeant Joe Lawson of Klamath Falls explains it. “Then, when they knew the inspector was at the railroad station, they double-timed us to a bath, clean clothes and a shave. We went in that room and only needed to look around at the familiar faces to know what we were up against. We’d had plenty of stickwork done on us already. We knew that to get plenty more, all we needed to do was open our mouths.”

Now the last monosyllabic prisoner has walked out. The inspector rises. It is all over. Everybody is smiling. Nobody has said or heard anything disagreeable or discordant. Even the prisoners back in their quarters are happy in a way, for their fears that the visitor would ask penetrating questions and make it impossible for them to conceal the truth have been dispelled. The lie is still intact. How cheerful everyone is! Captain Fukuhara—on whose hands is the blood of five Americans beaten and starved to death in the aeso, the guardhouse—is geniality itself. He suggests a photograph to perpetuate the occasion. His lieutenants take up the proposal with an acclaim like bacchantes. A picture, a photograph of everybody! We must have it!

A table is decorated with cigarettes, cookies and fruit from the mess of the kempeitai, the military police. A Japanese Cecil Beaton runs around, all dithery excitement until he finds what he wants to put on the table with the edibles: a trumpet, a harmonica and a guitar. A suggestion is made that some of the irreproachable prisoners might be summoned back to get in the picture, but the picture is too crowded already, and the suggestion falls flat…. “All smile, prease!” (It is a little joke, for the fussy photographer to use the language of the prisoners, and all smile at it.) “Sank you! All finish!”

The military motorcar is waiting for the Red Cross man. Perhaps, in this last moment of shaking hands, he may be troubled by some inner doubts. But there is no time to sift them. He must hurry off, for he is to catch the train for Moji, connecting with the express for Tokyo. See you next year!

If he had seen the prisoners the next day, instead, the inspector would have learned more. If his officer escort would allow him to get off at the first station, turn around and go back to the camp, the inspector might see how the pageant of his welcome, as insubstantial as Prospero’s, faded into nothingness as soon as he left.

What has happened in the camp? The pyramids of Red Cross packages are demolished. The boxes are in Captain Fukuhara’ s closet, and the key is in his pocket. The cans of fish and pears have disappeared. Gone, too, are the white sheets from the hospital beds; where, nobody knows. The little nurses are climbing into their truck to be taken back to the local hospital in Omuta, swans never seen before in camp, unlikely to be seen again. The Daily News Bulletin is gone without a trace from the notice board, and a kempeitai is frowningly nailing back the punishment schedule. In the kitchen the Navy cook, Woodie Whitworth of Bourne, Texas, is preparing supper. The menu is the same as usual: one-half bowlful of plain rice, laced with millet to make it cheaper.

A column of prisoners dressed for work, with cap-lamps and sweat rags, is marching past the god of the mine (a giant, greenish-black statue of an idealized Mitsui miner, towering in the prison yard above the buildings). As their guards command them, they all bow to his exalted, unsmiling image. These miners are the extras of the benefit performance, who were patients in the hospital until a few minutes ago.

Having arrived at the entrance shaft they adjust their lamps for the last time, hug their mess-gear full of cold rice, climb into the roller coaster-like iron train and hold on. The cable starts moving. The train slides down the slanting chute into the sooty, echoing tunnel. For a while its roar is loud, but soon it dies away. After five minutes or so a bell rings. The cable slows, tightens, and finally stops. The patients from the hospital have reached their normal level of operation, 1,440 feet below ground. The sideshow is over. The Mitsui show is on once more.

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