Painting by Cheri Samba

Lokuta eyaka na ascenseur, kasi vérité eyei na escalier mpe ekomi. Lies come up in the elevator; the truth takes the stairs but gets here eventually. - Koffi Olomide

Ésthetique eboma vélo. Aesthetics will kill a bicycle. - Felix Wazekwa

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Do we need white people to save Africa?

Nick Kristof wrote a nice blog piece yesterday about his portrayal of aid in Africa. He had been criticized for consistently placing western protagonists in his stories of humanitarian crises, portraying "black Africans as victims" and "white foreigners as saviors." He answers by saying that (a) he often also portrays black heroes and (b) that, as much as he feels uncomfortable with it, it is easier to market a story with strong western protagonists.

I can empathize with Kristof on this. It is difficult to market stories on Africa. He mentions a trip made by Anderson Cooper to the Congo, in which I took part - Anderson lost 20-30% of his viewers just by broadcasting from Africa. Also, when I first tried shopping my forthcoming book on the Congo war around publishers the predominant answer was: We need stronger western characters.

Kristof has done strong reporting to bring stories to light that no one else will cover. And yet I would like to disagree with Kristof on one important matter. I am consistently vexed by his reporting, not only because he highlights white protagonists, but because his view of politics is often pretty rudimentary. It's not so much that he shows only black victims and white saviors, but it's the kabuki theater of victims and saviors in general that leaves me unsatisfied.

Here is Kristof comparing Congo with Darfur, for example, back in 2007:
Darfur is a case of genocide, while Congo is a tragedy of war and poverty.… Militias slaughter each other, but it’s not about an ethnic group in the government using its military force to kill other groups. And that is what Darfur has been about: An Arab government in Khartoum arming Arab militias to kill members of black African tribes. We all have within us a moral compass, and that is moved partly by the level of human suffering. I grant that the suffering is greater in Congo. But our compass is also moved by human evil, and that is greater in Darfur. There’s no greater crime than genocide, and that is Sudan’s specialty.
"Evil" is greater in Darfur? I'm not sure I know what that means. The level of human suffering is lower in the Congo?

But his writing on the Congo has evolved. He has emphasized that the rapists are not just savages, but that they rape as a strategy to undermine communities, control the population and get their hands on resources. This year, he came up with a four-step solution to solve the rape crisis: (1)Pressure on Rwanda to stop supporting the ex-CNDP, (2) A regime to monitor mineral exports from the Kivus, (3) A push to demobilize the FDLR and (4) A drive to professionalize the Congolese army.

This is pretty much NGO orthodoxy, and is pretty good. And yet, I still have two problems.

First, he does mostly depict suffering without a political context. His columns are usually based on a personal story of suffering intended to pull at our hearts strings. he rarely spends much time explaining why the calamity happened in the first place. This has the unfortunate side effect of making it seem like the war can be reduced to a bunch of rebels raping women in order to control minerals. That is not true.

Soldiers did not take up their weapons yesterday so as to get to mines - some armed groups are nowhere close to mines (e.g. LRA, some Mai-Mai groups), and some of the worst cases of rape have been by the Congolese police, far from conflict zones and mining areas. It is an open question how much rape is used to control populations, or whether it is a tool to socialize new recruits, or even just happens opportunistically.

In general, the origin of the conflict is rooted in the collapse of Zaire, local struggle over land and resources in the East, and genocide in Rwanda.Minerals have exacerbated the problem and prolonged the conflict, but are not the source of violence in the Congo.

The danger with Kristof's kind of reporting is that as long as we don't understand the political logic of the Congolese conflict, our solutions will be slapdash and inadequate. If it is just a bunch of savages raping to get minerals, we might conclude that the problem is getting rid of these savages or creating due diligence in mineral supply chains - laudable initiatives, to be sure, but they don't get to the bottom of the problem. Indeed, the current donor approach seems to be pretty much at sea and is largely focused on addressed humanitarian emergencies rather than promoting institutional change.

The Congolese problem is, unfortunately, complex (which is why no one has found an easy solution). It is rooted in institutional collapse, the logic of patrimonial rule, and competition between national and regional elites. In the Congolese political system, a leader's survival is based on accumulating resources and using force to co-opt or coerce your rivals. There is no contractual security to guarantee business or political investments, there are few strong institutional checks and balances - courts, audits, parliaments - to rein in excesses of power.

Why does this matter for Kristof?

Well, in this context, creating strong security institutions may be anathema to President Kabila, as it was to President Mobutu, as he fears being constrained by them or even overthrown; demobilizing the ex-CNDP may be anathema to Kigali and the Congolese Tutsi community, as they need muscle to protect their security and other interests; and demobilizing the FDLR - which has been a priority for the past decade - means either forcing Rwanda to negotiate with some of them or using force, neither of which is easy.

So the solutions he proposes may not be so easy.

Yes, it is complex. But so is all politics. Imagine what a wonk like Paul Krugman would sound like writing on the Congo? Please, Mr. Kristof, continue your vivid reporting. But also go the extra mile to understand the politics.

12 comments:

致念致念 said...

HELLO~幫你推個文^^..................................................................

BenRymer said...

When is the book out Jason?

姿柯瑩柯dgdd憶曾g智曾 said...

生活總是起起伏伏,心情要保持快樂才好哦!!..................................................................

Tutafika Africa said...

I am completely in agreement with you about reporting on Congo and Kristof's style of writing. Why is it so important to please Western viewers? why must we feed them unsophisticated stories about Congo/africa even if that is what they want? We need to tell the truth. The truth is not that Africans are savages and love to kill each other for no good reason. As you said it is more complex than that and frankly not dissimilar to French and American revolution, WWI, WWII, Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan..i could go on..

goliathjustin said...

I can understand and agree with these criticisms. You and Texas in Africa have similar positions on this issue. However, I think that the point about the difficulty of selling a story to a Western audience needs to get emphasized more than it currently is. The group that needs to read about the Congo is not in Asia or South America. It is the West. The West contains the only countries with the power to positively influence the situation. It is up to Westerners to educate ourselves about what is going on, and what our best response can be. Tell me everything you want about the empowered Africans out there (of which there are many great leaders), but the current state of affairs is too dramatically stacked against them. They do need help right now, whether it is politically correct to say it or not.

Dan said...

Part 1 of comment:

This topic introduces a reflection that I had on how some African leaders are using "white"'s good feelings to push their Agenda and benefit from and promote the simplistic western view to stay in power.
Rwanda Tutsi led government has mastered that art. It successfully succeed to white wash itself riding the world wave of guiltiness over the Genocide while wrecking havoc in Congo and being directly and indirectly responsible of more than 4 millions of dead people in explaining to the world that "we just dont want another genocide"
An important fact to remember is that Kagame's tutsi community is only 15% of the population and that hutu 85% is largely marginalized from power and economy. In this setting any "democratic" election will mean the doom of his power. Therefore kagame's regime has to give the world the impression that he is not looking over races while covertly maintaining the domination of his own true tutsi constituent which is the source of his power. His regime is based on ideology of the genocide and that tutsi's are the victims and as such can do whatever they need to defend themselves and protect themselves, non tutsi dont have that right.
Taking that view, the congolese crisis is a fallout of that racial crisis between Hutu against tutsi that has spiraled out of control because the west casted a blind eye and looked in the other side. Tutsis have been killed during the genocide, the west feeling guilty has supported them and Kagame accomplished in 4 months what he could not do in 4 years!!!! What has changed in these 4 months? 800 000 people dead and until now there is a reasonable doubt on what triggered this massacres - but that is another debate.

Dan said...

part 2 of comment:



Once in power, and distilling the "never that anymore" excuse to shield himself from criticizing. Kagame backed by tutsis from Congo, Uganda, east Africa, and west disapora pursued a genocidal campaign of its own against hutu in Congo. And for some tutsis, Congolese bantu are just hutu's brothers who looked down on their cousin Banyamulenge during Mobutu's era, so they are no better than hutu and in fact are hutu and therefore congolese bantu's life is not as important as tutsi's life.
That concept is abundantly used by Kagame and all his mignons, Nataganda, Mutebusi, Ruberwa Nkunda,etc..All of them at one moment or another have claimed "to protect menaced tutsi population" and in doing so they did more than the genocide they have suffered from.
The reaction in that is that for the main part of the congolese people it has become a war of survival against tutsi. When in congo people complain against rwandese in fact they complain against tutsi government. when they complain agaisnt ouganda, they complain against the Tutsi Museveni who has helped is tutsi brother Kagame.

The main problem Joseph Kabila has in Congo, it is that for many people he is seen as a tutsi leading congolese and maintaining them in position of weakness. kabila will never favor a strong army or strong economy because that will put his brothers' countries at risk.
And that is extremely dangerous as generations of people are growing with the spirit of revenge, “it will take the time that it will take but these tutsis will pay for all our deaths, they brought us in a cycle of war that we were not involved in" that is the message that is heard more and more amongst the congolese people.
Now, the west in all of that. It is only now that the westerners are realizing the true nature and the level of damages that their "sweet heart" had caused and are trying to reign on him. The sweet heart is still trying to play is victim card but is more and more unmaintainable as the suffering in DRC is increasingly more broad castedand analyzed from the world .
So Rwanda changed strategy, it has theoretically withdrawn from DRC but ex-Nkunda soldiers versed in congolese army under their own chain of commandment receiving orders straight from Kigali, as a 5th column, and the movement of tutsi "refugees" returning in the “country of their youth”, even when most of them dont speak french or swahili the local languages of “their youths”, is just maintaining the feeling on congolese's mind that this war is in fact a war of domination of the tutsis over the hutus and their affiliate's bantus cousin, and this war is done in complicity with the westerners who are used as pawn by Rwanda's tutsi and a simplistic and nice image of the “tutsi victim”.
What is going on Great lakes is a new version of Israel-palestine conflict. And to really start to look at solution the racial aspect has to be addressed. 65 millions of Congolese do not accept to be treated as valuing less than 5 millions tutsis Rwandeses.
Fairness and balance must be at crux of any solution.This is a very politically incorrect reading of the situation, but I realized that the elephant in the room of the congolese conflict is race. Understanding that will help to understand why many solutions are not succeeding.

Dan said...

part 2 of the comment:



Once in power, and distilling the "never that anymore" excuse to shield himself from criticizing. Kagame backed by tutsis from Congo, Uganda, east Africa, and west disapora pursued a genocidal campaign of its own against hutu in Congo. And for some tutsis, Congolese bantu are just hutu's brothers who looked down on their cousin Banyamulenge during Mobutu's era, so they are no better than hutu and in fact are hutu and therefore congolese bantu's life is not as important as tutsi's life.
That concept is abundantly used by Kagame and all his mignons, Nataganda, Mutebusi, Ruberwa Nkunda,etc..All of them at one moment or another have claimed "to protect menaced tutsi population" and in doing so they did more than the genocide they have suffered from.
The reaction in that is that for the main part of the congolese people it has become a war of survival against tutsi. When in congo people complain against rwandese in fact they complain against tutsi government. when they complain agaisnt ouganda, they complain against the Tutsi Museveni who has helped is tutsi brother Kagame.

The main problem Joseph Kabila has in Congo, it is that for many people he is seen as a tutsi leading congolese and maintaining them in position of weakness. kabila will never favor a strong army or strong economy because that will put his brothers' countries at risk.
And that is extremely dangerous as generations of people are growing with the spirit of revenge, “it will take the time that it will take but these tutsis will pay for all our deaths, they brought us in a cycle of war that we were not involved in" that is the message that is heard more and more amongst the congolese people.
Now, the west in all of that. It is only now that the westerners are realizing the true nature and the level of damages that their "sweet heart" had caused and are trying to reign on him. The sweet heart is still trying to play is victim card but is more and more unmaintainable as the suffering in DRC is increasingly more broad castedand analyzed from the world .
So Rwanda changed strategy, it has theoretically withdrawn from DRC but ex-Nkunda soldiers versed in congolese army under their own chain of commandment receiving orders straight from Kigali, as a 5th column, and the movement of tutsi "refugees" returning in the “country of their youth”, even when most of them dont speak french or swahili the local languages of “their youths”, is just maintaining the feeling on congolese's mind that this war is in fact a war of domination of the tutsis over the hutus and their affiliate's bantus cousin, and this war is done in complicity with the westerners who are used as pawn by Rwanda's tutsi and a simplistic and nice image of the “tutsi victim”.
What is going on Great lakes is a new version of Israel-palestine conflict. And to really start to look at solution the racial aspect has to be addressed. 65 millions of Congolese do not accept to be treated as valuing less than 5 millions tutsis Rwandeses.
Fairness and balance must be at crux of any solution.This is a very politically incorrect reading of the situation, but I realized that the elephant in the room of the congolese conflict is race. Understanding that will help to understand why many solutions are not succeeding.

佳皓佳皓 said...

要繼續發好文喔^^加油!............................................................

莊雅和莊雅和莊雅和 said...

真是感人肺腑的文章~~......................................................

Vanessa Carmichael said...

Tutafika Africa: 1) Why is it so important to please Western viewers?

Because western viewers are needed to put pressure on their governments to change their trade and foreign policies in Africa so that the continent has a real chance to prosper...??

Ultimately, it is up to Africans to save Africa.

黃文群 said...

教育的目的,不在應該思考什麼,而是教吾人怎樣思考............................................................

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