Saturday, July 7, 2012

Responding to Emergencies with Cash not Goods

Have you seen those AllState ads about the fires in Colorado? They say "We didn't just show up with cold water and checks..." and then continues about how they brought teddy bears to help children get back to normal. Good child protection practice, hopefully they're doing more for kids, but beside the point. Your house burns down and someone helps you access clean water and money to help you get back on your feet. That makes sense. That's what I'd want. So why isn't that what we do in other countries? Why can't we give people cash when their homes are destroyed by war or disaster? Why do we feel the need to give them the things we think they need? 

If I experience hardship, I know better than you do what I need. Maybe my home has been washed away in a flood, but I don't want you to build me a new home, because I was going to move anyway, or my family is growing, or you build crappy houses. Maybe my family does need food to eat, but I need cash to buy medicine for my baby, and you're just bringing me food from your country that I don't know how to cook, nor will my children eat. Maybe you think my children need recreational activities, but I need them in the field to replant after the crops were destroyed, but I can't replant until I buy new seeds. People are resilient, but they are only able to employ their resiliency when allowed to make their own decisions. 

My first response to this AllState ad was that we must not trust poor people. People in Colorado will obviously use the checks you give them to repair their homes (yes I know they are home insurance checks, but it occurs to me that we have home insurance in case of disasters, whereas countries in the global South often rely on humanitarian aid for similar support) but for some reason, people in other countries won't know how to spend the money? Are we worried they will spend it improperly? That happens where we live too, corruption and misuse of government funds is often connected to disaster. Is it because we feel the need to help, and writing a check isn't as exciting? 

In many places, especially in urban settings, cash is sometimes being used, so that both the economy and the population can start to rebuild. I won't argue that the only answer is cash grants. Sometimes the needed supplies aren't available during or after a complex emergency. Steps have already been made toward ensuring that food and supplies are well used by (often) giving them to women to ensure that the goods go to support children and to be sure that female headed households receive goods.. But giving food and tent supplies to people in refugee camps doesn't restart lies, it simply sustains them during an emergency. Helping people rebuild and recover takes more than that, and if your world got turned upside down, wouldn't you hope that people trying to help would trust you to identify your own needs?

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Charles Taylor: Punishment vs. Justice

The International Criminal Court (ICC) handed down Charles Taylor's sentence today, 50 years in prison. Mr. Taylor was convicted of multiple charges of aiding and abetting fighters in Sierra Leone during the war there. While the prosecution was unable to prove that Charles Taylor gave direct orders for the atrocities committed, nor did he personally commit violent crimes in Sierra Leone, his funding and participation in the leadership structure did contribute to the violence and atrocities committed.

So now Charles Taylor is going to spend the rest of his life in prison in the UK, barring an appeal (said to be forthcoming) and the overturning of his conviction. So imagine it, Charles Taylor suffering through beans and toast for breakfast and bangers and mash for dinner. Okay fine maybe that's not what they give you in prison in the UK. But it just doesn't seem fair. Mind you this is entirely speculative, but I imagine that the prisons in the UK are quite nice compared to those in Sierra Leone. Charles Taylor will probably get more square meals per day while imprisoned than the average citizen of either country. He will have electricity, occasional access to telephone and television, and I imagine he might even be segregated from the general population, sparing him some of the worst things that can happen to a person in prison.

So why, despite the fact that this is a landmark conviction, it is the first time a former head of state has been convicted by the ICC while still living, do I feel so dissatisfied? Charles Taylor has been imprisoned, his physical freedom has been taken away, but where does that leave us? True, it avoids the possibility that he will return to West Africa, run for president of Liberia (as was predicted) and return the nation and region to turmoil. But what else? Charles Taylor sitting in jail munching  on marmite sandwiches doesn't help the people in Sierra Leone who lost limbs or parents or children or homes. It doesn't help the children forcibly associated with fighting forces, some of whom have recovered, many of whom continue to struggle, with few skills other than waging war and using drugs, they are a generation who were most powerful and successful during the war, which is dangerous. Unemployed, angry, psychologically scarred young men with access to former leaders of fighting forces, and potentially to arms, are one of the most volatile groups, with the capacity to return country to conflict when they get tired of driving moto-taxis and being looked down upon. Or how does Charles Taylor in jail help the people who were physically disabled during the war, who lost limbs or were blinded? How does it help the girls and women raped by fighting forced? What about those who got pregnant and now are young mothers with no one to support them and children who are products of war and terror.

Punishment is not the same thing as justice. Charles Taylor has been punished, but other than possibly sparing the people of Sierra Leone and Liberia the consequences of his return, there has been no justice. It is common knowledge in Liberia that all those responsible for crimes during the wars cannot face the judicial system, because there would be no one left in government to run the country. Sierra Leone has felt the satisfaction of the acknowledgement of Charles Taylor's role in the conflict, but this was accompanied by the fact that he wasn't in the country. The people who committed crimes against civilians on a day to day basis were not on trial at the ICC.

To quote a friend of mine, there needs to be restitution, not just punishment. How about we take some of Charles Taylor's millions and create scholarships for those affected by the war? What if he funds prostheses for victims of amputation? Money, even to good causes, doesn't fix what happened, but in addition to condoning and perpetuating violence, Charles Taylor stole millions. Since we're punishing him already, and what's he going to do with all that money while in prison anyway, let's redistribute it to some of the people he hurt. Personally, I'd rather he spent his days doing the work to help those people himself, but since that's not possible, I'll settle for his money.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

De anochecer a la alba

It was our last night in the town, where we had been for five days now, getting to know people and collecting data. I came across a boy on the porch of the house where I was staying, he was about 14. During the focus group discussion he had participated in, he emphasized that children living with adults other than their biological parents often are treated unfairly. I sat down on the porch next to him to relax and enjoy the dusk, as the temperature finally started to cool. I asked him what he was doing this evening, and didn't he have any homework? (Encouraging kids to study is pretty much my go-to casual chat.) It was Thursday evening and he said he needed to be back in his hometown by Friday morning. He was walking there with two of his friends.

Me: Is it far? Will it be a long way?
Him: Yes it is about five hours all through the bush.
Me: Ah, for this you have a cutlass? But how will you reach by tomorrow?
Him: We will leave soon when my friends come.
Me: You will walk in the dark? All night?
Him: Yes. I must dig and burn (farming) in the morning, so we walk tonight.
Me: Do you have any food or water to bring with you?
Him: No. 

I go to the room I am sharing with a colleague and find a used plastic water bottle. I fill it with water we have drawn from the hand pump in town. The house I'm staying in drinks water from a nearby creek. I give him the bottle. He smiles and nods. He then asks if I still want to learn some of the local language. He starts naming words, which I struggle to jot down phonetically, along with their definitions. He teaches me the words for animals, body parts, and foods. More children join and help him, laughing at my pronunciation, but encouraging me to continue. 

My female colleague, with whom I am sharing a room, asks if I want dinner. Dinner is leftover lunch, which was dry rice: white rice, oil, onion, chilies, and canned sardines. As we eat, the three teenage boys who will spend the night walking through thick jungle sit and chat, actively not watching us spoon the rice out of one pot into our mouths. It starts to rain. My colleague tells me that she has told the boys (in local language) not to leave until the rain has stopped. The snakes come out when it rains and if one bites them they could die. This is a very real and legitimate fear from what I have heard. During the FGD these boys also told us about men in the bush who can prey on young people or people walking alone, hurting them or killing them to steal body parts for ritual sacrifice. She teases them, asking if they aren't afraid? I ask too, hoping we can scare them into waiting until morning. I stop eating, knowing that these boys will get whatever we don't eat. They take the pot and our used spoons and dig in hungrily, their spoons making loud scraping sounds as they make sure to get every grain of rice and drop of oil.

Two of the boys want to ask me questions, but are shy, worried I won't understand their English, as they often don't understand mine. The boy I was chatting with earlier asks "Why you so light and I so dark?", I don't understand at first, but my colleague repeats in formal English, I shake my head not sure how to answer. "Why you so fine (this just means nice in Liberia) and I so ugly?" I shake my head again, contradicting his assumption. This boy has never left this small region of Liberia. It is likely that I am among the first white people he has ever spoken to; he doesn't have television or access to visual media. So where did he get the idea that being white is good and attractive and black is bad and ugly?

Then this same boy starts to study. I ask him what he is reading and he shows me the book, he is learning about the war here, World Wars 1, 2 and 3 in local speak. I ask him if he will read it to me, so I can learn too. I have forgotten to ask what grade he is in (at 14). He is in third grade, shaking his head, saying he doesn't want to read. Then he asks my colleague to ask me if I will read it. I start, reading slowly and enunciating, there are still many words he doesn't understand. "She must be white! Girl can read!" I read, showing him the book, pausing at words I suspect he may not know (like faction or dissolve), asking if he knows, explaining what they mean. We finish the chapter and start the review questions, he knows none of the answers. I suggest we go back through the chapter, with him reading so he can find them. Rather than skim for key words as I might do, he flips to the beginning of the chapter and begins to read again. He stumbles over words regularly. The vocabulary is far beyond his reading skills, and is not appropriate for his grade, causing him frustration. When he hits a word he doesn't know, he says the letters aloud: fierce - F-I-E-R-C-E. Sometimes he recognizes the sound of the letters in order and identifies the word, but when he doesn't he stops, looking at me. I try to go slowly, covering up parts of words and asking him what sounds the letters make. He and the boys watching are amazed, no one has ever taught them how to sound out words before. I can't imagine learning to read, and only ever being able to read the words someone has taught you, not being able to learn new ones on your own by sounding them out and identifying parts of words you know, can you?

Eventually I go to bed, leaving the boys on their own, laughing among themselves at my reading skills and teasing each other for being dumb. In the morning I hear from my colleagues that the boys left for home late in the night, when the rain let up, but still in the pitch dark. They are all living with relatives in order to attend school, because there is no school where they are from. But, there is no one to plant their fields at home, so they must go home and burn and plant before the season passes. This food goes to feed the family members still in their original villages, and along with their daily labor, pays the families they stay with for their rooms and school supplies.

I wasn't sure what to conclude from this. Is it a lesson in the potentially negative aspects of sending children away from home to live with alternative caregivers? Is it the burden placed on the shoulders of children when a parent has died? Is it the consequences of a lack of access to education? Is it that this boy has been taught, and internalized, that he is inferior to others? Is the lack of transportation? Lack of access to clean water or even a bottle to hold dirty water during a walk that will take hours? Is it that this boy, still a child, is fluent in his own language, but is only taught in a language he doesn't understand, so he is teased? Is it that there is a 14 year-old in 3rd grade, or that a third grader can't read? Or that, at 14 and in 3rd grade, the likelihood he will study for more than another year or two is unlikely? Or is it that he is surely more educated than his parents, which is an accomplishment? 

I'm not sure. But what I can say is that there are people who argue that development doesn't work, that we're getting no where and that it's a waste of money. But I think that (among other things) what those people miss is the impact on individual lives. Every step is an accomplishment, from this boy's desire to study, to his insistence on maintaining his family farm, to his being able to safely move about a county that was once the heart of the war. You can look at the story and feel sad, or you can look at it and see potential and progress. Progress towards education (there is a school where there wasn't one ten years ago), clean water (there is a hand pump in the community, although too far to walk to), he is functionally literate, he has access to land and income, and he wants to learn. 

Additionally, when this research went through an ethics review board, I was asked what the benefit for those participating was, weren't we just taking from them and giving nothing in return? I explained that there are people that no one ever asks for their opinion, and no one ever listens to; child protection concerns (abuse, exploitation, violence, and neglect) aren't the issue of the day, and when children experience them, they often bear them in silence, believing it is their lot in life. Sitting together and discussing the things that make them feel unsafe or insecure and hearing that other children face them too, is beneficial, even if it only lasts for an hour or two. This boy was heard, and then later someone encouraged him to change his actions in order to keep himself safe, because he is important, and he did change, even if only a little, even if only for that day.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Why This Matters

Don't you hate when you get scooped by NPR?


Granted I suppose I could have been live tweeting throughout the reading of the Charles Taylor verdict on Thursday, letting you all know exactly what the reactions were around me in Liberia. Maybe next time I'm in a country where the former president is on trial for crimes against humanity.


Charles Taylor was on trial for five years, at the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The trial was held at the Hague rather than in Sierra Leone because there was a fear that the trial and verdict could cause instability, among other reasons. After hearing the verdict, a friend and I were discussing the case over lunch, imagining what it would be like if the trial had been held in Freetown, Sierra Leone. And we both decided it would have been chaos. Even with the trial a continent away, people in Monrovia were decorating the road from the airport and getting ready for Taylor's return. Someone I work with told me that that morning, before the verdict, someone was wearing a shirt proclaiming Taylor's guilt, and a crowd chases him until the police had to escort him away for his own safety.


I have been doing my own casual research here to get a sense of how people here felt about the coming verdict, before it was handed down. One person told me that there were lots of supporters still, which after being in Nimba county, which didn't surprise me. I asked him why, and he explained that some of the people are too young to really remember what happened during the war. They remember leaving their homes, they remember how chaotic things were, and they remember Taylor coming out victorious. They don't know or remember what he actually did, and still see him as a powerful leader who represents the best of Liberia. Another person told me that he hoped Taylor would come back, because there is no strong authority in Liberia today. He said that if Charles Taylor came back he could say "Everyone stop robbing cars on highways, and if you don't I will find you" and everyone would obey him. There is no one today who can control and lead the Liberian people.


From my personal perspective, I think that part of it also has to do with the pace of development, and what people expected versus what has materialized. Democracy is often promoted and pursued as though it is a solution, rather than a path. With democracy people have a voice, if they choose to use it, and are allowed to do so freely. However participatory government doesn't actually speed up the development process from what I can see. People in Monrovia may see roads being built, or Ma Ellen (Sirleaf Johnson) passing down Tubman Blvd on her way home from work, but tangible differences in the lives of most Liberians are small. The war is over, but food is more expensive, most people still don't have access to power, pump their water from wells if they're lucky, use hand dug latrines, and if they send their children to school, it's a gamble as to whether there will be enough books and their teachers will be present. So when looking back on the war, things were unstable, but someone was obviously in charge who was promising to make it better. Now someone says Liberians should work together, pay their taxes to contribute to growing Mama Liberia. No one is promising quick fixes, and if you believe that those exist, maybe Charles Taylor, who was apparently extraordinary charismatic, sounded like he promised a better future. When your leader only promises what the country can actually do or slightly more, the future does not seem quite so bright perhaps, and leaves you longing for the days of big hopes and grand gestures, when the government was changing and drastic improvements seemed like a possibility. Maybe when you've grown up in constant instability, calm seems too boring, and change seems too slow. Or maybe Charles Taylor (papay – what older men are called in Liberia), who won an election with the slogan "I killed your ma, I killed you pa, but you still love me," (or something to that effect), is simply a hero to many Liberians, and a kind of hero whose star doesn't dim simply because another country is try to use his as a scapegoat for the violence they perpetrated against themselves. Or so I've heard.

But I think most important is that Charles Taylor would have come back to Liberia if he hadn't been convicted. His ex-wife is a senator, and I highly doubt he would have been able to stay away from politics; he would have been elected. And from there who can say what would happen, whether he would have reached the presidency (whether the UN Mission In Liberia would have allowed him to). Whether the growing economy would have taken a hit, for fear that conflict would begin again; whether some NGOs would have left for the same reason. Whether old resentments would have felt more fresh with him in the country. It's impossible to know the potentially destabilizing effect his return could have cause. But this verdict matters because it means that even with money and power and the love of your people, another country can hold you accountable for your crimes. This verdict matters because it allows Liberia to stay the course, however slow it may appear to some, towards development. No one has ever been punished for the crimes committed during the war in Liberia, referred to locally as World War 1, World War 2, and World War 3. No one has been punished, because those in charge of punishment are also the ones who would be punished. But this verdict matters because, while the risk of future conflict has not disappeared, at least it will not occur at the hands of Charles Taylor, at least not any time soon.

P.S. I'm home! But have no phone because my luggage got lost.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Stories from the Interior

I spent last week in the interior of Liberia, in Nimba county, which is on the border of Ivory Coast and Guinea. Nimba has a long history, especially associated with the war here, as Charles Taylor entered Liberia from Ivory Coast, into Nimba, and then traveled on to Monrovia. I have lots of stories to tell you all and I'll start moving through them now that I have internet again, but here's one to get us started. This story might be a bit hard to hear, so feel free to skip and if you just follow this because you want to know where I am, I'll be back in the States on Sunday!

It's 6:45 am and I walk out of my hotel after a breakfast of buttered white toast, scrambled eggs with sliced hot dogs, and Nescafe with powdered milk. We have spent the night in one of the cities in Nimba after spending a week in a very rural area. We are driving back in an agency vehicle and the driver asks if we can take someone he knows along with us if she signs the liability waiver. I figure he knows the rules better than me, and say it's fine as long as the Country Director would be okay with it. A woman in her mid-20s climbs into the back of the car, explaining that she needs to get back to Monrovia in order to attend her classes that day.

Our driver was talking about his experiences during the war (no one says conflict here), he drove for everyone from the BBC during the active conflict to a number of organizations during the disarmament process. He mentions a tribunal that was convened by Charles Taylor during the war to try military crimes. The girl says that it was this tribunal that killed her father, it was when she was three years old. The driver asks who her father was, a general in the army, and the driver says he didn't know that was her father, but would she like to hear about what really happened to him?

According to him: her father was the commander of many troops, most of whom were relatively young and poorly trained. These troops massacred villagers in the interior (not in Nimba), and the international community found out about it. Her father stood trial for these crimes, although he was not involved and the troops actually disobeyed his orders by doing what they did. Despite the fact that Charles Taylor really liked her father, and her father was a great man, it was the  pressure of the international community that pushed them to punish someone for the crimes. And so her father was sentenced to death.

Girl: When I graduate from university and get a job, I have always said that with my first paycheck will go to finding where my father is buried, and building him a gravestone.
Driver: I know where your father is buried, not today, but some other time I can take you there, if you want.
Girl: Yes! I have always wanted to see this place where they killed him.

Then later in the conversation (this was a five hour drive after all):
Girl: It makes me feel too bad to see these people I go to school with, they call their father and he can help them pay their school fees and other things. Since I was a young girl I have been selling cold water (in bags) to people to earn enough money to buy notebooks and a uniform. My mother cannot help me and my father was killed. It makes me feel too angry when I see the people who I know participated in that [massacre] or who helped kill my father and now they are there, they are having families and they are happy. My father wanted to help Liberia and he was only killed and I am alone.
Driver: You see, this is a problem here, people are still very angry about the war. Every day you can see someone who you know helped kill your father or your brother or you burned down your house. You see these people and they have big money and big cars and they are very powerful. It makes people angry.
Me: Do you think there will ever be any kind of reconciliation or justice process?
Driver: How can there be? Everyone is guilty. There would be no one left in government. The wife of Charles Taylor is a senator, Prince Johnson [leader of a 2nd faction during the war] is a senator in Nimba, even Ellen [Johnson Sirleaf, the president] is guilty. She has admitted that she gave money to support Charles Taylor during the fighting. She claims it was for humanitarian purposes, but there was a war going on, if you wanted to be a humanitarian, why wouldn't you give the money to an NGO?
Me: So many of the people in power and in government currently were involved in the war?
Driver: Oh yes! And there is no justice because it is the people in power who are the very guilty ones. If we started to prosecute all the people who committed crimes during the war, there would be no one left in government.

And then a large SUV (one of the marks of wealth in Liberia) drives past, the license plate read DD1.
Driver: There. You see? This is Prince Johnson coming. 
Me: Wait, what?! That's Prince Johnson in that car?
Driver: Yes, yes. He is the one who killed Samuel Doe [who killed President William Tolbert to take power of the country]. Have you seen the photos?
Me: Hmm.... oh yes! He is the one who was wearing the hat and drinking the beer?! 
Driver: Yes. Everyone watched Prince Johnson humiliate Samuel Doe, and even though he begged for his life Samuel Doe killed him anyway. Doe would not tell Johnson where all the money he had stolen was hidden outside of the country. Even today no one knows where that money is.
Me: Oh wow, so it is somewhere else and it was never found?
Driver: Yes. And to see these pictures and the video then, everyone in the world could see it because it was videotaped. [Google it!] But the Congos [Americo-Liberians] here, Doe was killing all of them, so it is them who helped finance Johnson to come kill him.
Ah and there is his car of security men. You see it is a ways behind him because if someone attacks him, then this car of men with guns, all paid by Prince Johnson himself, not by the government even though he is a Senator, they will come and kill that person. There must be ten men in that car, youth who fought for him during the war, and they will surely all have guns. 
Me: So people here like Prince Johnson still?
Driver: Yes yes, they believe he defended Nimba, and you know most of the people who fought for him were from here, he is even senior in government. Did you see that license plate? He is on the national defense committee.

If people know a bit about the war here, they know about Charles Taylor, but Samuel Doe and Prince Johnson and two of the other very big participants in it. Here is the video, but be forewarned, it's someone torturing someone else, not exactly fun to watch, but amazing to think about the role of media in politics and persecution. (they will make you sign in because of the violent content)
And just remember that the man on the right drinking the beer is now a senior Senator. 

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Review of The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil

The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil

by Phillip Zimbardo, copyright Random House 2007

Each month, Reckoning with Wanderlust, presents a review of a book or film that relates to topics discussed here, such as international affairs, conflict, disaster, humanitarian work, vulnerable groups, or anything else tangentially connected. Please send suggestions for books or films to review to

In The Lucifer Effect, Phillip Zimbardo explores the question of why seemingly ‘good’ or ‘normal’ people do ‘evil’ things, how environmental factors contribute to that behavior. To use Zimbardo’s metaphor, when we speak of a ‘bad apple’ (one person doing bad things among many people doing good things can make all the apples bad), is it that one apple was in fact bad, or was the barrel itself (the environment) at least partially responsible?

First, Zimbardo presents The Stanford Prison Experiment in great detail, from his conception of it, as the Principal Investigator, to its implementation. Allow me to briefly summarize: the Stanford Prison Experiment was carried out at Stanford University, in California, in the 1970s. Zimbardo recruited students over the summer to participate in an experiment, although they were not told many details about it.  These participants were randomly assigned as either guards or prisoners, slated to play out these roles in a fabricated prison on Stanford’s campus. Members of each group soon come to display characteristics that one might describe as typical of prisoners or guards, obedience or cruelty respectively. As Zimbardo relays the exercise in great detail, the audience sees changes in the students, as some of the prisoners are forced to withdraw from the experiment due to physical and situational stress, while some of the guards thrive on the power. Zimbardo eventually terminates the experiment ahead of the planned end date after a colleague sees the guards marching prisoners down a school hallway (during summer vacation) with paper bags on their heads, chained together. It was only this outside observer who was able to see the outrageous nature of the scene, as Zimbardo himself had been engulfed by the circumstances.

Zimbardo follows this with a discussion of the ways in which situational forces influence our behavior, and how we are prone to make fundamental attribution errors, where we believe a person’s innate or learned characteristics are responsible for their behavior, when in fact, situational forces play at least as much of a role. Lastly, Zimbardo relates the Stanford Prison Experiment, and evidence supporting the power of situational forces, to examine the abuses that occurred at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

When reading books of this nature, we often begin with a question, something we see but do not understand, hoping that knowledge can help us make sense of it. For me the question was related to children associated with fighting forces. I understand that when kidnapped, people and children especially eventually identify with their captors in order to survive and to mentally negotiate what they believe is their complicity in the situation. But it is one thing to identify or sympathize with a captor, it is another to do so to the extent that you are willing to kill and torture members of your clan, community, or even your family, as has occurred in cases of children associated with fighting forces during conflict.

One point that struck me as particularly applicable to this case was Zimbardo’s explanation of the role of anonymity and deindividuation supporting people’s slip into the grasp of situational forces. This involves the use of uniforms, costumes, “all disguises of one’s usual appearance that promote anonymity and reduce personal accountability.” (267) If we think of involvement in group conflict and violence, if at all organized, it rarely happens when one of the above conditions is not met. Everyone from militaries of government’s, to non-state fighting forces use uniforms, not only to demand obedience from those wearing them, but also to justify their tactics as part of “the system” as well as to get their subordinates to think of themselves firstly as part of the fighting force and secondly as individuals. Zimabardo continues “When people feel anonymous in a situation... they can more easily be induced behave in antisocial ways. This is especially so if the setting grants permission to enact one’s impulses or to follow order or implied guidelines that one would usually disdain.” Using disguises or uniforms obscure’s one’s sense of personal moral identity, and with its disappearance, it becomes easier to simply act on impulse or follow a crowd without questioning, since slipping into some guide has tucked away the individual’s sense of responsibility. This is true both for people in roles of authority, as well as those whose uniforms place them in a subordinate position; it makes them more inclined to obey order and conform with their peers, whether the result is, for example, better behavior from students in uniforms, or similarly dressed youth committing acts that were previously anathema to each of them individually, but are acceptable in the group setting.

Zimbardo contrasts the common thought that people are solely responsible for their individual actions, with his findings from involvement in the Stanford Prison Experiment and the trials of one soldier implicated in abuses at Abu Ghraib, “Traditional analyses by most people, including those in legal, religious, and medical institutions, focus on the actor as the sole causal agent. Consequently, they minimize or disregard the impact of situational variable and systemic determinants that shape behavioral outcomes and transform actors.” This is not to take away to power people have to make their own decisions, nor to take away to necessity of emphasizing individual responsibility to maintain social and moral standards in society at large. However, if we pay more attention to the circumstances, we may see that, in some cases, addressing negative situational influences can achieve more progress, than addressing or condemning the actions of an individual.

Let’s think, for example, or what are called briefcase NGOs here, those organizations that are, in fact, wholly contained in the briefcase of the member before you, as the ‘organization’ itself is nothing more than a front for collecting money, which will then be eaten (to use a local expression). Imagine this happened, we are free to point at the person who stole money and broke trust, calling him a thief, but let us also examine the situational forces at play. He sees people in power, from policemen to politicians accepting bribes or otherwise disguised payment with no negative consequences, informing his development of morality. Imagine he is unemployed, with radio or television or newspapers telling him that he is poor because others are rich. So this man believes that taking money from those who can afford to give, those who would donate to his briefcase NGO, is simply accessing what is due to him. He dons the attire of the NGO set, with an organization’s t-shirt, brochure in hand, and he becomes someone else. Imagine that he is part of a group of people doing this, such that he becomes part of a group. None of this undermines his personal responsibility in this case, he has still stolen from donors and can and should still be punished. But unless the situational influences at play are identified, by prosecuting this man we are merely slapping at a mosquito, instead of identifying their breeding source and working to eliminate it.

Zimbardo’s book is thought provoking and an interesting read for its content. However, just to warn you, the writing style leaves something to be desired, as Zimbardo practically stumbles over himself between mentioning Stanford’s accolades repeatedly, and self-praising for his own roles in parts of the book. This does not overwhelm the intriguing content of the book, but a good editor could have ensured that the style and prose rose to the quality demanded by the topic.

For more detailed information about the experiment, visit

Radio Silence

Hi Everyone!

So sorry I haven't been posting, the internet here isn't fast enough to access the blogger website! However after paying too much for some mediocre food at a place with fast internet, I think I've got it set up so that I can email in posts so you all can see them!

I've been back in Liberia for three weeks now and am having a lovely time again. I've got all sorts of posts coming for you, but just wanted to start by saying hello! Easter here in Monrovia start on Friday with church services. I was at a training held in a church so we got to hear the choir and part of the service, since most businesses here are closed on Good Friday. This morning the road near the churches were packed with cars and you could hear the singing down the street. I ate my mandatory chocolate (my family's version of Easter celebration) and then headed to the beach. Not too bad of a day if I do say so myself. This Friday is also a holiday here in Liberia, Fast and Prayer Day. I asked a colleague what we would be fasting and praying for, and apparently it's for the future of Liberia. Chances Americans would not eat for one day in the hopes of uplifting the country?

I'm excited to be able to post again and can't wait to share all of the ideas I've been having with you. 

Hoppy Easter and Passover
gypsy rose

Friday, March 16, 2012

Rhino Camp

*Just a note that I've been having a bit of trouble with my distribution list, please sign up to follow the blog or get an email each time I post at

Here is a conversation I had the other day that just boggled my mind.

Researcher 1: I like the name of Rhino Camp [a small city/large town] in Uganda. It is easy for both Ugandas and foreigners to say.

Me: Very true, they would not say it wrongly. Are there rhinos in Rhino Camp?

Researcher 2: There used to be, it was a game preserve. But then Idi Amin's soldiers ate them all.

Me: What? They ate all the rhinos?

Researcher 2: Yes, the government was cutting off their food, so many of the soldiers ran there and they ate all the white rhinos, so there are none there.

Me: All like [researcher 3] said he likes to eat hippo? I wonder if rhino is delicious...

                                            (a hippo in a swampy place next to the Nile)

Researcher 2: I'm not sure, I've never tried.

Researcher 1: But they call it camp, because after they turned it into a refugee camp.

Researcher 2: yes, yes, for people from South Sudan

Researcher 1: And Congo [DRC] too.

Me: So it was a game preserve, but then the rhinos got eaten by soldiers, then they turned it into a refugee camp, but now it is just a town?

Researcher 2: Yes, now they love love to eat cassava there, they love to eat cassava too much [very much]!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Child Sacrifice and Organ Trafficking in Uganda

As always, I often related things I hear to you. This does not mean they are necessarily true, although they may be, but by simply telling the story I think part of the thinking and state of current affairs in a particular place can be demonstrated.

Until a couple of days ago (read Kony Is Not in Uganda (and other complicated things) before you get all #Kony2012 on me) when you googles Uganda, you were likely to come across articles about LBGT rights infringement, probably followed by articles on child sacrifice. It's a juicy topic, no wonder it's getting international attention. If you look at the comments below some of these articles you'll read things like "I thought this was a Christian country, how could this happen?!" or some disparaging comments about Africa that I don't care to reprint. To summarize: children have been identified as either kidnapped or sold, and then end up in the hands of 'witchdoctors', or practitioners of traditional religion here. Those children are then ritually sacrificed, most often in order for the person who pays for the sacrifice to gain wealth or prosperity, or to counteract some bad luck they have experienced.

The idea that this ever happens in this day and age is appalling, I agree, all children have the right to live in safety and child sacrifice flies in the face of every international convention guaranteeing that right. However, let's not jump to conclusions here. First we must consider that the practice of traditional religion was banned in Uganda, and so 'witchdoctors' make awfully convenient scapegoats, given they they are already associated with ideas about backwards traditions, despite what has been described to be as relatively wide practice and worship, often in conjunction with participation in major religions like Christianity or Islam.

So next let's think about what the proliferation of child sacrifice means. The question is whether we are just discovering how prevalent child sacrifice is, or whether its practice is on the rise. This is not a practice that one would expect to expand, given that it is connected to particular traditional religious practices, which don't spread easily, and are not uniform across Uganda. It is unlikely, although not impossible, that people would adopt child sacrifice easily and without giving it some thought. One explanation I've heard is that there are movies coming from Nigeria where child sacrifice is portrayed as a way to access wealth and power, and some people think that this may be influencing the practice. However, I'm disinclined to believe that people will start selling or sacrificing their children simply because they see it in a film, but the influence of films and tv is definitely a commonly expressed concern in it's relation to the 'destruction of culture', so both are viewed as powerful and capable of changing behavior.

So let's think outside the box for a minute, is there any other explanation for the bodies of children that have been found with evidence of traditional sacrifice? Maybe. Most of this information comes from a friend of mine here who used to work with an NGO, working to raise awareness about child sacrifice. However, as he started to work with 'witchdoctors' to gain their participation in the campaign, they told him that child sacrifice isn't part of their religious beliefs. That they do not practice it and that those who do are misinterpreting the religion. They additionally told him about all the times they've been blamed for things they weren't responsible for. So what is a plausible alternative explanation? Unfortunately, it's no less tragic or horrendous than child sacrifice; these children could have been kidnapped, and their organs trafficked to other places for transplant. Transplants for children are notoriously hard to find and draw and extremely high price, and some parents are willing to do anything to save the life of a child, simply paying an extraordinary price without considering (or caring) where the donor organ originates. So a child is kidnapped, his or her valuable organs are removed, and then the perpetrators disguise their involvement by the leaving the child with marks indicating child sacrifice, which seem to be relatively common knowledge among people I spoke to. This theory is supported by the fact that some children are found with organs missing, sometimes those not related to traditional sacrifice. The anti-human trafficking task force in the Uganda Government and the US State Department have also identified this link.

So now you've got parents piercing children's ears or making sure to circumcise boys, as the rumor is that those children are not pure, and therefore the 'witchdoctors' cannot use them for sacrifice. The government has a committee to address child sacrifice and many NGOs are working to address it. When I was up-country a girl was kidnapped and the driver was heading towards the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo, but the girl made such a commotion that she was able to escape. When people heard this, they guessed that she was going to be taken for sacrifice. Or there are many different reasons that girls are kidnapped, especially on the border of the DRC, but, as I have seen in a number of places where abuse and exploitation of children abound, it is always easiest to point outside your community and look for a perpetrator who is different than you, a role that 'witchdoctors' fill easily. However, if this is, in fact, human trafficking rather than ritual sacrifice, traditional religion is again the subject of unwarranted persecution, and traffickers will continue to operate with impunity if the actual issue is not identified, acknowledged, and addressed.

Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures

This year I am participating in Blog for International Women’s Day.

One of the questions that bloggers have been asked to address is:

How can we, as a culture and as members of the global community, involve, educate, and inspire girls in a positive way?

For those of you who follow my blog regularly, you may have noticed by now that rather than coming straight to the point, I prefer to walk my way around it with a story...

I was in up-country Uganda for about two weeks recently, working with local researchers to help train them in ethnographic and qualitative data collection. Many of you know that when I travel for work I have almost a completely different wardrobe from what I wear at home. For one it’s super hot generally speaking, so loosely flowly things are key. And secondly, in most of the places I travel there’s more of a dress code, whether explicit or implicit, than in the United States. For instance, the other day a Ugandan friend of mine asked me if it really happened that in the US, like in Europe where he had visited, that when it gets even a little hot people are next to naked almost instantly. I laughed. The idea that when it’s hot you need to be wearing as little as possible would seem strange if you come from a hot place where that doesn’t happen.

So here I am in Uganda, so most of my outfits consist of loose pants and a short or long sleeve shirt, or a skirt that is at least past my knees. So essentially no shoulders and no knees, which is a lot like the dress code in a lot of offices in the US. I feel professional but also appropriate, I throw on some local flipflops when I walk into town and think I’m doing a pretty good job, considering how totally impossible it is to blend. But then I come to breakfast one morning and one of the researchers says “You’ve chosen your outfit well today”. When I ask him what he means, he explains that we’re going to a school today, and neither women nor girls are allowed to wear pants at school. He then says “Yes, I would give your outfit an A-.” Ever competitive, I ask why I don’t receive an A. He tells me that I would have to close the cardigan I am wearing over my (very modest) short sleeve shirt. Awesome.

Something I’ve realized through my travels is that while in America, I perceive wearing pants to be more casual, and wearing skirts I connect to ‘dressing up’, which probably comes from childhood I imagine, that isn’t the case around the world. In fact when you talk to members of communities about how we can prevent abuse and exploitation of girls, one of the answers is often that they should stop wearing short skirts or pants and tempting men. Yes, ladies, little did you know that wearing pants means you were asking for it.

So how do we, as a culture and members of a global community, involve, educate and inspire girls in a positive way? Let’s start in our own and others' communities by treating girls like people who deserve to be involved and educated and inspired. Let’s show girls (and women) that boys and men who think they are too appealing to resist in pants are in the wrong, that, in fact, they have the right to be safe in their own communities, without the fear that they are tempting or corrupting someone. Let’s help girls grow up to be proud of being female and understand that they can be strong and smart and powerful if they choose to be. Let’s raise them to demand and expect inclusion and education and inspiration, and stop telling them that they are the cause of their own problems, simply for being born female.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Boy Who Cried Wizard


Walking speed is common topic of conversation between the researchers I am helping to train and me. Two of them enjoy that I walk quickly, so when a researcher asked if I’d like to go walking after lunch, I was game. He said his cousin’s sister lived down one of the roads nearby, and we could go visit her. Given that it was Sunday, our only day off this week, I figured a brisk walk would do me good. 2.15 miles later I was hot but happy after the number of waves and shouts from kids far outnumbered the strange and questioning glances I got.

Henrietta, his cousin’s sister, came out to the road to greet us, with one baby on her back, and a young boy, about four and a half, running along beside her. We settled into her living room, for what might have been called a social call in the Old South. We simply took our seats and chatted about everything from the weather to local politics to U.S. politics (they’ve got their fingers crossed we re-elect Obama) to culture in Uganda and in America, with them asking if America has any culture. I explain some of the things that currently form part of the American culture, while emphasizing that many people also continue traditions from the culture of the place their families are from.

She then set out a meal for us, white rice, chopped greens, and meat in soup (unidentified... I’ve got my money on liver). While my colleague and I ate, she sat to the side, but continued the conversation. She is an assistant district attorney, and began to share some of the stories of what she had seen pass through the courtroom.

In one story, there was a boy who ‘hacked’ his grandfather to death, in front of his mother (the daughter-in-law of the man killed) and his grandmother (the wife of the man killed). This boy was immediately arrested and kept in jail for two years, pending his hearing. The evidence was overwhelming, but the testimony of the eyewitnesses was key to a conviction.  However, as the mother came up to testify, Henrietta could tell that the mother was having great difficulty testifying against her own son, who had killed his grandfather. The wife of the deceased was asked what she wanted the outcome of the trial to be. She responded that since the incident, her daughter-in-law and grandson had barely seen her, nor had they every apologized for the incident. She said that what she really wanted was an apology, and enough money to start a business, since the breadwinner of her household had been killed.  She asked for 300,000 Ugandan Shillings, or $136 USD. The parties left to try to mediate the case. They returned the next day, the mother of the boy who had killed his grandfather bringing the money, and the two parties reconciled, as the grandmother was glad to be able to start a business and the mother was glad her son would be released from jail. This is an interesting instance of pursuing reconciliation in the name of peace and harmony in a community, rather than pursuing punishment in the name of justice. What if you were one of the people in this scenario? What would you prefer? What would usually happen in a case like this where you live?

“And what caused this boy to ‘hack’ his grandfather to death?” was my first question at the end of the story. The boy’s father was sick and in the hospital, and had a very high fever. When the boy went to visit him in the hospital he heard his father crying out “My own father is killing me, he is doing this to me!” The boy interpreted this to mean that the grandfather was a wizard, or someone with special powers, often believed to be conferred by the devil, and had put a curse on the father in order to make him suffer and die. Following this line of reasoning, the boy encountered his grandfather with the intention of killing him, in order to release his own father from the spell, thinking he was saving his life.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Welcome to the new home of Reckoning with Wanderlust []

Please explore the new site, there are more updates to come as soon as I get back to the land of fast internet. For now here's another post!


People often ask me what I eat when I’m away. To be honest it depends upon what is available. When I am in the city I usually eat a mix of local and other foods, but when I am in areas outside the main city, and particularly if I am with a research team, I eat whatever they eat.
As a side, note, I called Arua rural in an earlier post, and I just want to be rephrase a bit. Arua is a densely populated urban area, with over 400,000 in the urban area, and over 800,000 in the district (also called Arua). If you look at a population density map of Uganda (because I know you all love demographics like I do) you’ll see that the most densely populated areas are around Kampala and Entebbe, and then there’s a bit of very dense population at the intersection of Uganda, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. That’s where I am, wave!
So back to important things like eating: I’m in a training now so there’s lots of more eating than normal, just think about when you attend a conference and they’re feeding you all the time. So here’s what I’ve had, basically the last two days, and I what it looks like I’ll be having daily for the next 9 days or so.

Breakfast: 8:30 am
-          A bit of omelet (less than 1 egg) , yolks here aren’t very yellow, so in my mind I’m eating egg whites.
-          White bread with Blue Band (fake margarine that doesn’t melt at room temperature) and very sugary jelly from a tin
-           Chapati – similar to the Indian Chapati, it’s very popular in Uganda and is sort of like and dense, savory, chewy pancake.
-          Tea or coffee (Nescafe)

Tea Break 11 am
-          Boiled eggs and peanuts
-          Chapati with a bit of omelet and white bread with Blue Band and jelly
-          Tea or coffee

Lunch – 1 pm
-          Goat or beef or chicken
-          Posho (cornmeal mash I think?), calo (millet and sorgum mash) matoke (steamed and mashed plantains), white rice. All of the ‘mash’ is sticky and thick and needs to be cut with a knife to be served, kind of like the polenta you get in a tube, but stickier.
-          Greens – chopped with onions and oil
-          Soda (maybe)
-          Bananas or watermelon for dessert
Tea Break – 3:30 pm
-          Peanuts
-          White bread with Blue Band and Jelly
-          Tea or coffee

Dinner – this is on my own, and can be eaten with other team members at the hotel or outside, but it’s a bit of a walk. Let me give you tonight’s scenario:
Me (8:00 pm): Hello, do you have anything for eating?
Staff: What are you liking to eat?
Me: What do you have to eat? (This is crucial, the likelihood they have more than 2 or 3 things is low, so listing what you want is a futile exercise)
Staff: We have snacks. Some goat meat? Some chicken?
Me: Okay, how about chicken. Do you have some chapatti?
Staff: It is possible.
Me: Okay, one chapatti please. I’ll be up on the deck.
Staff: [Raises eyebrows, looks confused]
Me: Up there, [Pointing to an outdoor deck with a large screen on it. I watch ‘Whip It’ with the girl from Juno, shown via projector which is attached to a television sitting on the floor. The channel is later changed to a dubbed soap opera, and then to the news.]
15 minutes later
Waitress: You will take some chicken? Steeooo?
Me: Pardon? Chicken? Yes chicken, and chapatti?
Waitress: You will take steeoo?
Me: (No idea what she’s saying) Okay, yes yes with chicken
Researcher who joins me: You want the chicken in stew?
Me: Ah yes, okay, chicken stew
15 minutes later
Waitress: You still want chicken?
Me: Yes please, with chapatti
Waitress: Okay I will bring in 5 minutes
The food comes, she asks if she should bring water to wash so I can eat with my hands, or if I will use ‘that’ (fork and knife). I go with the fork and knife to avoid her making the extra trip with water.
The researcher eats a chapatti and tea for dinner.
I’ve got a chapatti and a bowl with a quarter chicken in it, skin, cartilage and other unidentifiables included. The chicken is in an oily broth, which I dip my chapatti in, as I fight, with what must have been a small chicken, to get anything to eat off of it. Also, I’m doing this in the dark, so I pull items off the bones and pop them in my mouth, fingers crossed I get more than fat and cartilage, which I try to spit out onto my fork subtlety.  I eventually give up on the chicken and just go with the chapatti dipped in soup. Not exactly what I’d eat for dinner at home, but when the options are goat or chicken with chapatti or chips (French fries, ahem freedom fries) , you’ve got a pretty good chance it’s going to tasty, if not totally healthy.

Friday, February 17, 2012

LGBT Rights (or lack thereof) in Uganda

(Just a little note: every time you see a word underlined or in blue on this blog, there is a link to a related article, if you'd like more background information)

Uganda has been in the news lately. Granted, if you don't follow East African news, perhaps it hasn't crossed your desk or screen yet. Uganda currently has a bill in Parliament which proscribes the death penalty for anyone convicted of 'aggravated homosexuality'. Alternatively, if one is convicted of 'the offense of homosexuality', you are merely sentenced to life in prison. So what falls under 'aggravated homosexuality' that merits the death penalty? To summarize: if: the person is HIV positive, is a parent or authority figure, administers intoxicating substances, or engages with a minor or someone with disabilities, or is a repeat offender of 'the offense of homosexuality'. But wait, there's more. Ugandans can be extradited back to the country for engaging in homosexual acts outside of the country, and the bill includes punishment for individuals, companies, media organizations or non-governmental organizations who know gay people, or support them.

The bill has, expectedly, drawn a lot of criticism from the West as well as from human and civil rights organizations. I won't begin to get into why killing people for their sexual preference or HIV status is wrong. Granted, you get 'merely' life in prison for your first offense. But punishing people for those qualities isn't in line with any sort of respect for people's rights either. So we're clear that I am not in support of this bill in anyway, and am hopeful that it either won't make it through Parliament, or will be amended before it does. However, the proposal on the table at the moment for amending it is to remove the death penalty, but leave the rest.

But. Let me show you a headline from BBC online: 'Uganda Man Jailed for Killing Gay Activist David Kato'. If you read the article you will find that a Ugandan newspaper published a list of homosexuals, with the headline, 'Hang Them' above it. Mr. Kato's name was on this list. You will also find that apparently the man defended himself in court by saying that Mr. Kato made sexual advances towards him, which made him outraged, and so be bludgeoned him to death with a hammer. The perpetrator received 30 years in prison for the murder, following what was called 'an usually speedy trial'. Seems like a hate crime from this story, no doubt.

But then, let's talk to someone Ugandan who lives in Kampala, where the crime took place. Now we hear a different story. We hear that while most of the above is true, some of it is not. Yes, Mr. Kato was gay, yes he was a gay teacher (which some people in Uganda take to mean he was 'recruiting' children' or abusing them). But apparently, the West took the story that Mr. Kato was a gay rights activist and ran with it. According to the man I talked to, Mr. Kato was gay, but so was his killer. They were long term partners. This was a case of domestic violence between two gay men. The man who was convicted simply used Mr. Kato's 'sexual advances' as a defense because he thought it would garner sympathy from the jury, and to avoid the consequences of being openly gay and serving time in prison. Additionally, the police issued a statement saying that Kato's death was in no way connected to his role as an LGBT advocate, and in fact called the murder a consequence of an attempted robbery.

Reading this summary of the summaries, I have an initial urge to believe one over the other, I am inclined to believe that Uganda wanted to cover up a hate crime. But why? Why would the state cover up a crime that they themselves are trying to essentially turn into law, that someone who is openly gay deserves to be killed. They might cover it up to avoid international criticism. Or alternatively, the Western media might hear that a gay rights activist had been murdered, and assume that it was a hate crime, because it demonstrates the intolerance of the country, that they have seen examples of in the past. This death occurred during the time when the bill to increase penalties for being convicted of homosexuality was already in Parliament, so perhaps we should ask ourselves, who could stand to benefit from Mr. Kato's death. It brought international attention to the harsh persecution of members of the LGBT community in the country, but alternatively justifies such killing, as the man who murdered Mr. Kato was convicted of second degree murder rather than first, as he had 'had no choice but to act in self defense' to protect himself from the advances of a gay man. Either way the LGBT rights movement in Uganda lost a vocal advocate. Whether he was targeted because of his activism, because of his sexual identity and forwardness, or was a victim of domestic violence cannot be known with absolute certainty. Unless of course evidence exists as to the motive or premeditation of the murder that has not yet come to light. For now we rely on the statement of the man who murdered Mr. Kato, and a legal system in a country where homosexuality is condemned.

What do you think? What was the real motivation behind the murder, the defense, and the sentencing? What should and will happen with the bill currently being reviewed in the Parliament?

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Humanitarian Assistance and Religion

(I’ve arrived in Kampala and am safe and sound!)
I am currently en route to Uganda and contemplating where tostart this new round of blog entries. First let me tell you that I’ll be inUganda through mid-March and then will travel to Liberia until the end ofApril. More details to come on the work and all sorts of other exciting things.But, given that I’m on an airplane, let’s talk about one ofthe things that often occur to me when traveling, which is that it seems likeI’m surrounded by people on missions or church trips on every flight. It’sreally incredible how many people go to and from these countries regularly,whether to provide aid and development assistance, or to spread the gospel andassist local churches. There are also school and volunteer trips and the like,generally short term things working with particular communities.

Let’s focus on religiously based groups that engage in thissort of work. Everywhere I have worked I have encountered members of religiousorganizations. There were Mormon missionaries on my daily bus in Ecuador,Seventh Day Adventist missionaries on bicycles in the Dominican Republic,people who left Liberia during the conflict and returned to work with localchurches, and religious groups from the Middle East supporting work inIndonesia.

I think it’s easy to make a snap judgment about whether ornot development work should be tied to religion, but as with much of this sortof work, it usually depends on the organization. On the positive side, religionhas the potential to unite groups of people who might otherwise not interact.People are often willing to work for groups associated with their religion, asthey view it as a way to give back as well as a way to support and spread theirfaith. Alternatively, religion can be divisive; for example if two religionsco-exist in a particular area and an outside organization only providesservices to the members of one group this can lead to everything from angerfrom those not receiving support, ostracization among groups that may have beenfriendly in the past. Which of these outcomes occurs has much to do with theorganization and its goals, both explicit and implicit, and their inclusivityor marginalization of those with different backgrounds.

I believe it is important to look at ethical guidelines whenevaluating any emergency response or development program, and those sponsoredor led by religious organizations should be no different. The first element ofsuch work is “Do No Harm”; all programs must be considered for both theirpotential positive and negative outcomes, and must be evaluated to ensure thatparticipants do not experienced unanticipated negative consequences from theirparticipation. In addition to this, the issue of coercion must be addressed,because how coercion is defined is context specific. For example: if I tell youthat I’ll give you a flu shot for free in return for answering myquestionnaire, and you have health insurance, so you can access the flushot without me, then that is not a coercive incentive for participation in anygiven program. However, if you’re uninsured and your only means for protectionagainst the flu is to participate in my research or program, then the practicemay be coercive, as there are potential negative consequences for you notparticipating, ie you get the flu.
Let’s translate this to Uganda for example: if a religiousorganization offers free education to all children at a local school, withoutdemanding that they worship at this school or adhere to those beliefs, thenthey are simply supplementing the public education system. However, if thisreligious school is of superior quality to the public school, and the only wayto enroll is to subscribe to adhere to a particular belief system, bothchildren and parents may be coerced into subverting their own personal beliefsfor their children’s education.

An actual example is where I was in an island country andwhile there were public schools (one public high school in the country) thehigh school that was widely regarded as the best was private and Mormon run (mymemory might be failing me, it could be Seventh Day Adventist). If you attendedthe church associated with the school, your children attended school for free,however if you were a member of a different church (regardless if it was alsoChristian) your children had to pay fees to enroll. So, for access to qualityeducation for their children, parents changed (or pretended to change) theirreligious beliefs. In my book this is coercion, worship my god or pay money youdon’t have to educate your children?

And so, as you may have noticed with my blog entries, therereally is no clear cut answer here. I think what is important is that we holdall development organizations, religious or not, to the same ethical standards.Religious organizations should not be allowed to discriminate based on race,creed, ethnicity, ability, religion, or anything else. Religious organizationsdo not get a pass on equal promotion of human rights simply because they aretargeting a particular population. 
There have been a variety of instances where theintervention of religious organizations in conflict zones, South Sudan duringthe conflict for instance, has actually fueled the conflict itself. In aneffort to assist South Sudan (viewed as the ‘Christian’ side of the North/Southwar, but that’s a little simplistic in truth), foreign Christian organizationsprovided funding to the SPLA, or Southern Sudanese liberation group, which isnow officially in power in the country. Without the funding (and access to weaponsaccording to some sources) provided by these external sources, the war mighthave ended long before it did.

There are religious groups that do great work, and there arethose that miss the mark, as can be said about humanitarian and developmentgroups in general. But let’s hold everyone to the same standard, because nomatter whether you’re doing the work for your God or your conscience, thepotential for unintended negative consequences for those you want to help hasthe potential to be equally devastating.

What do you think about intertwining religion and humanitarian assistance? Is it a good way to tap into commitment to a cause and funding, or is it similar to government and religion (according to my Western background) and the two should be separated lest they corrupt one another?

Friday, January 27, 2012

Humanitarian Space

Humanitarian space "is  often used to denote areas to which humanitarian agencies have safe and protected access, in order to provide urgent relief assistance. This is generally dependent on the consent and cooperation of the controlling authorities," according to

One of the goals of this blog, in addition to sharing personal experiences and keeping me from tearing my hair out, is to share the work I do, and to give people a better understanding of what the humanitarian sector is, and what it means to be a part of it. One of the questions I am often asked is how I choose where I will work. While I am not at a point in my career where I get to choose explicitly where I will work, I can turn down any assignment I like. It occurred to me the other day that the places I wouldn't consider working all have something in common, the humanitarian space in those countries (or some cross-border conflicts) is shrinking or practically non-existent, which in turn would make it difficult to accomplish whatever my task was, but it would also have the potentially to considerably increase the personal danger of the assignment.

Some argue that humanitarian work can be traced back to the Red Cross, workers could run onto battlefields, after the fighting was over, to aid those who were injured on either side of the fight. That is an excellent example of protected humanitarian space, you aren't associated with fighting forces on either side for offering medical and other aid. However the lines between fighting forces and humanitarian groups have continued to be blurred, especially over the past two decades, to the point where humanitarian workers may be in just as much danger as members of the military, except they don't get bullet proof vests or guns. You've heard about humanitarian workers being kidnapped or killed in conflicts where they were working, this is the ultimate violation of humanitarian space, where, for whatever reason, one armed group believes that a humanitarian group is aiding the other side, and is therefore classifiable as an enemy combatant. 

There are overt and covert ways that humanitarian space can be compromised. The most recent overt example is where individuals identifying themselves as employees of USAID (the US Agency for International Development - intended to be a state run humanitarian organization) were later identified as spies in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. USAID is not only an organization that does work of its own, but also funds a litany of organizations all over the world. With the connection now confirmed between the CIA and USAID, the ability of USAID and anyone funded by them to claim neutrality in a conflict in which the US has an interest is diminished.

Above is an example of when partisan influences work their way into the humanitarian sphere, but another important way that humanitarian space is compromised is when members of fighting forces participate in humanitarian work. If the US military is in Afghanistan handing out food or blankets or stoves or what have you, they are are generally doing it to build goodwill and help gain the support of the local population. But then suppose I work for the Norwegian Refugee Council and the next day I'm giving out out blankets and stoves; there can be confusion in the minds of local people where the line between the military and the humanitarian spheres lies. What this can lead to is that humanitarian workers are assumed to be partisan, rather than the opposite.

Humanitarian organizations that expect to be granted humanitarian space in which to provide assistance are expected to abide by the principles of impartiality, neutrality, and independence. This means that they should provide assistance to both sides of the conflict, should not do anything to support or diminish the capabilities of either side, and should not be susceptible to outside influences. Many organizations do not take grants or donations from large organizations or governments as it could compromise their impartiality in the eyes of others, as well as their independence as they may be beholden to this funding their activities.

It is in places where humanitarian space has diminished the most: Somalia, Iraq, or Pakistan among others, where humanitarian workers are most at risk, and where you are most likely to hear of them being kidnapped or killed (in my experience, I do not have data on this, but this article addresses related research). One last element that has contributed to greater compromises in humanitarian space is the nature of war. Humanitarian space finds its jurisdiction in international law and the Geneva conventions. But today more wars are between non-state actors, or non-state actors and the state, and these groups are less likely to be held accountable for upholding the Geneva conventions, as they technically are not a party to them. 

We all have our limits, and realizing that mine are based in reality, rather than simply in fear, is comforting to me. In most places I have worked humanitarian workers are viewed as a nuisance (another survey!) at worst, and with gratitude at best. I think humanitarian workers themselves absolutely have a role to play in maintaining their neutrality, but governments must also realize that they put hundreds of thousands of people at risk when they blur the lines by having the military engage in humanitarian work, or ask humanitarian workers to engage in non-neutral activities. There are conflicts where all outsiders are seen as the enemy, as is shown clearly in In the Land of Blood and Honey (please see my post of January 9, 2012 for my review of the film), where Serbian forces attack UN peacekeepers, associating them with outside forces attempting to end the conflict. It is only through ongoing respect of and persistent maintenance of humanitarian space that those employing that space can do their jobs safely. 

However, an important question is that given that the nature of war is changing, and non-state actors often decline to abide by international law, how can this space be protected? The International Red Cross wrote an article addressing this question in Afghanistan. Also the Forced Migration Review dedicated an entire issue to non-state actors and displacement. I have much to learn about the subject, but for the time being will continue to avoid locations where being an American means being associated with the military. And as an aside, this is in no way a judgement of humanitarian workers living in working in places where humanitarian space is diminishing as we speak. You are brave; you are doing good work; and just because the military is active in a particular place does not mean people there are any less deserving or in need of support. Stay safe. 

Monday, January 9, 2012

Review: In the Land of Blood and Honey

The Global Fund for Women invited members of its mailing list to attend a screening of In the Land of Blood and Honey at the Metreon. At first I was a bit reluctant, despite Angelina Jolie's work with refugees I'm not her biggest fan and this is the first movie that she has written and directed. But, unable to turn down a bargain (the New Englander in me) and trying to meet my goal of seeing several movies a month in the theatre, I RSVP'd for two. A fellow public healther who also made her way to the left coast said she would come with me. I've been to screening put on by NGOs before, usually there's 20 or 30 people, if you're lucky. When I arrive at about 5:45 with the movie starting at 6:30, there were at least 100 people in the VIP line (those of us with reserved tickets) and several hundred people waiting in line to try to secure unreserved seats. I was astonished. Did this many people want to see a film about genocide on a Thursday night? Did they like free movies? Or was it Angelina Jolie's star power and willingness to rent out an entire AMC screen? Either way the room was packed, with two entire rows filled with press. Little did I know we were attending the West coast premiere of the film!

I can't tell you to go see this film. It's not that it wasn't good, but it portrays war and its accompanying atrocities in such a vivid way that I would recommend you think long and hard before you go see it. Neither my friend nor I got much sleep the night after seeing it, and she jokingly emailed me that she has a little PTSD with loud noises after the fact. But also note that I am particularly affected by films, I don't sit back and assess what is unrealistic about them, but rather believe it all and let myself by drawn in. So with that said, here's what I thought without many spoilers just in case some of you do choose to see the film after it's February 12 general release date.

In an effort to keep this short and sweet, here are three initial thoughts after seeing the film:
1. The setting and elements of the film outside of the main story are incredibly well done. The entire film is in Serbian and Bosnian with sub-titles. The film was shot on location. All the actors are of the ethnic backgrounds they represent. Additionally, scenes meant to convey what it feels like to live inside of a war zone do just that (from what I've heard and read). The constant, the arbitrary nature of punishment, and feeling of powerlessness. If you have ever wondered what it would be like to live in the middle of a war where a slew of war crimes are taking place, I think this film will give you an idea.

2. I'm glad this film wasn't set in Africa. Now hear me out. Angelina could just as well have chosen to document a different war where genocide occurred and rape was used as a weapon, this war was not unique in that. However, I think that the portrayal of Europeans committing such acts against one another, solely because of politics and religious differences makes the horrific nature of the crimes more difficult for some people to dismiss. I have heard many people say things about genocide or rape or war 'over in Africa'. There is a view that 'those things happen there'. But those things happen in many places, and I think that having perpetrators of crimes against humanity who look like me or many of you has a different impact. This doesn't lessen the importance or inhumanity of such acts in Africa, but I think that once people see how horrific such a conflict is in a culture to which they can relate, perhaps they are more likely to realize it is equally horrific among people with whom they have more difficulty identifying.

3. The main plot. I am a bit conflicted about how I feel about the main plot of the movie, essentially Danjiel, a Serb, and Ajla, a Muslim, go on a date before the war and hit it off. Then the war begins, but they end up meeting again. The main conflict in much of the movie is how they choose to and are forced to interact given that they are technically enemies, but in fact have romantic feelings for one another. I think the plot itself is a stretch, but I also feel like it provides a glimpse of humanity in the midst of atrocity. There is rarely purely good and purely evil during conflict, and many people are 'assigned' to a side which they may not wholly support. The plot is absolutely a stretch at times, I could imagine a skeptic watching it and finding it unbelievable. But finding a love story in the midst of tragedy is also difficult, and just watching one war crime after another would quickly go from engaging to nauseating without breaks where the humanity of people is shown. There is an adage in the humanitarian community that it is easier to make someone care about one child in danger than a country full of children in danger. So it goes with this film, seeing one person struggle with choices, engage in and be tortured, change due to the things they do and witness is easier to understand than watching populations go through the very same circumstances. While it may not be entirely believable, I think Angelina succeeded in making perpetrators and victims of war crimes personable, which is a quite a feat.

As a final note, I know far less about this conflict than others that were taking place around the same time, Rwanda for instance. I cannot attest to the accuracy of the portrayal of the actions of the various factions. However, I can say that the perspective was not entirely unbalanced and I think learning about a war, where ethnic cleansing was occurring, in which the US avoided intervening for years because they said 'we don't have a dog in that fight', is useful, whether through this film or other means.