Justice for Syrians?

For nearly a year now, Syrians have been suffering through a living hell. The regime in Damas is clinging on to power, and the repression has been horrifying. In the last few weeks, violence has been escalating, and it’s been absolutely heartbreaking to watch the news out of Syria. Today, the “Friends of Syria” conference – hosted by the government of Tunisia – is expected to call for an immediate end to the military campaign against civilians, and the creation of humanitarian corridors for aid delivery. This follows the miserable failure of the UN Security Council to pass any kind of meaningful resolution. More than just an important step towards international action on Syria, the “Friends of Syria” conference highlights the obsolescence of the Security Council has an institution to preserve global peace and security. The UN has been side-stepped on the Syria issue – even with Kofi Annan being appointed as mediator, the limits of the international organization’s ability to implement its own mandate are, once again, laid bare.

Military intervention in Syria is not an easy proposition. Unlike Libya, Syria is more densely populated, so air strikes will likely cause more “collateral damage” (i.e. civilian deaths). Furthermore, the presence of anti-aircraft missiles means that war planes would have to drop bombs from a higher altitude, again decreasing the precision of air strikes. Recent history shows that there is very little support in the West to either send ground troops or finance such an operation – with Europe in crisis, and a U.S. election on the horizon, that possibility is essentially non-existent. That’s not to say that small contingents of “military advisers” or covert special forces cannot be sent to Syria, but it seems unlikely that these strategies would be game-changing. Sanctions on Syria are starving the regime for cash, and some analysts argue that the government will be broke soon – but I don’t have any doubts that the Al-Assad regime has access to all kinds of shadowy networks that will continue to finance his campaign.

Unless the international community is able to bring the Syrian National Council and the regime to a negotiating table, I don’t see how this conflict gets resolved. I hope that this happens, because I don’t know how many more videos such as this one we can tolerate before we decide that, as a global community, we are unable to protect our most vulnerable, that we are powerless in the face of injustice and oppression.

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Below is a post I wrote on the same topic for UN Dispatch on February 22nd:

This morning, a harrowing video of French journalist Edith Bouvier calling for help was published on YouTube. Bouvier was injured yesterday in the bombing that killed American journalist Marie Colvin and French photographer Rémi Ochlik, and she is currently in a precarious medical condition. In the video, she describes how her left leg has an open fracture, and a Syrian doctor explains how she needs immediate medical attention and surgery which they are unable to provide. Bouvier asks the French authorities to please provide adequate transportation for her to be able to go to Lebanon and receive treatment.

Another journalist colleague, French photographer William Daniels, emphasizes the need for Bouvier to be evacuated – as he speaks, you can hear bombs in the background. The doctor and Daniels talk about the lack of food, water and medical equipment, an assessment echoed in an interview with a French surgeon, Jacques Bérès, who has been on the ground in Homs for nearly three weeks. Dr. Bérès discusses the difficulty of working in an environment where there are constant attacks and bombardments, and notes that there has been no humanitarian evacuation of the most vulnerable. In his makeshift hospital, he sees wounded combatants but also women, children and civilians caught in the cross-fire.

Bouvier’s distressing video is yet another indication of how dire the situation is in Homs (for a chilling account of what’s happening in the besieged city, check out Marie Colvin’s last dispatch from Homs.) Indiscriminate bombings and attacks from government forces are in direct contravention of the laws of war. And while the regime in Damascus has long ago swept aside humanitarian and international law considerations, the international community has yet to respond in a meaningful manner. What will it take? According to analysts, the sanctions imposed on Syria will mean that the government will run out of foreign exchange in the next “three to five months”, and that, once starved for cash, the regime will not be able to pursue its deadly campaign. But what happens in the intervening months? The international community – and in particular the UN Security Council, which has so far has been stymied by two of its members – has a responsibility to uphold fundamental principles of global peace and security. Right now, Syrian lives are being sacrificed because of high-level political disagreements and posturing.

The targeting of foreign journalists is only one of the many crimes committed by the regime. I am sure that the recently killed reporters – Colvin, Ochlik and Shadid – would not want us to dwell on their individual stories, yet their deaths serve to highlight the insanity of the situation in Syria and will hopefully lead their respective governments to take real action.

French president Sarkozy called the deaths of the journalists “murders”, and said that “those responsible will have to be accountable.” French foreign minister Alain Juppé was even more direct, saying that the Bashar Al-Assad regime was “responsible”, and that the “regime in Damascus owes [France] an answer” and that France will be “seeking accountability for these acts”. (Whether or not these statements translate into action, particularly as France prepares for a contentious presidential election in April, remains to be seen.)

Bouvier’s video is one of many, many videos depicting the horror of what is happening in Syria. Will she be rescued by her government? More importantly, will her plight and the deaths of her colleagues at least not be in vain? Will the plight of Syrians – attacked, held hostage and targeted by their own government – continue to elicit lukewarm actions, or will the international community organize meaningful, collective action to help end the bloodbath in Syria?

The Truth About Foreign Aid

…That could be the title of a new 3-part BBC podcast, “The Truth About NGOs“. This documentary explores whether and how should NGOs be politically involved, as well as the consequences of having a large international NGO sector in a developing country. The first episode begins with a focus on Malawi, and how the LGBT rights movement has been buoyed by NGOs and their foreign donors. It’s an interesting piece, though this is not about “NGOs”, per se – it is also about the powerful influence of donors on their grantees, and even in this podcast, the politics of state-level aid are discussed. NGOs, the actors on the ground, are only one part of the puzzle.

The podcast is probably nothing new for NGO policy wonks – the discussion of whether organizations are influenced by or beholden to their funders and donors is an age old discussion. Same goes for failed, poorly designed and implemented development projects that never see the light of day and/or disappoint and anger communities. Or the notion that some NGOs only pay lip service to the notion of “participation” (the podcast actually defines “dragonfly skimming” and “helicopter consultancy.”)

In spite of going down some already well trodden paths, the podcast raises some interesting points concerning the role of NGOs in perpetuating the poverty they seek to alleviate. (I can already hear my aid/development colleagues’ feathers getting ruffled, but bear with me.) While this probably merits much more than a few sentences on this blog or a few minutes in a podcast, one of the more interesting notions explored by the podcast is the idea that international NGOs are “depoliticizing” poverty. ” I thought this line, by Firoze Manji, editor in chief of Pambazuka News, was spot on: “If the NGOs participate in the process of alleviating the nasty parts of becoming poor, they are actually colluding. It comes back to saying being brave enough to take on the “politics of impoverishement”. Either you fight that, or you’re part of the problem.”

The question posed at the end of the podcast is whether NGOs should focus on “on advocacy, on leverage, rather than delivery of aid.” What do you think? There are obviously circumstances where this might not make sense, in particular in emergency situations where NGOs provide life-saving aid. But beyond that, is advocacy, rather than aid delivery, the future of NGOs?

Listen to the podcast here.

PSA: An unmissable seminar on Côte d’Ivoire

I just received an email advertising a seminar that is truly unmissable if you’re interested in Côte d’Ivoire (or West Africa more broadly) and humanitarian law. Next Thursday, May 12th at 9:30 am, the Harvard Humanitarian Law and Policy Forum is hosting a live (online) seminar entitled Côte d’Ivoire: Assessing the International Response. Speakers include some of the brightest minds on West African affairs – Mike McGovern from Yale, Corinne Dufka from Human Rights Watch, for instance – and will look at the following questions:

This Live Seminar will examine the international community’s response to the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire. Though the widespread violence is generally subsiding with the arrest of former President Laurent Gbagbo, the situation in Côte d’Ivoire continues to raise a number of concerns in terms of protecting civilians and adequately addressing their needs. This Seminar will address the following questions:
–What legal frameworks apply to the situation, and what forms of protection do they provide to civilian populations?
–What political, normative, and operational dilemmas arise for (elements of) the international community in responding to the ongoing crisis?
–What is the role of relief and development efforts in the current context?
–Has the response of the international community been appropriate and effective?

Register here

I’ll probably post some kind of summary of this either here or for UN Dispatch. If you have a chance to tune in, I’d love to know your thoughts/reactions afterward.

on entrepreneurship and NGOs

This post is in response to – or rather, a disgression on – Tom’s post a couple of weeks ago on his blog A View from the Cave. These are my thoughts, unadulterated, on the topic of whether “one person can create change.” I’m sure there are plenty of contradicting, conflicting ideas you’ll read below. This is a topic I care about and think about a lot, and my thoughts are still evolving. Please, please do comment and challenge me where you think I’m wrong.

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Tom, over at A View From The Cave, recently wrote a post pondering why it seems (and sometimes is) so easy for aid industry outsiders to enter the aid world. This is part of a broader discussion which has been unfolding for a few months on Twitter (and elsewhere since forever), about the role of volunteers and non-professionals in humanitarian aid and development.

I generally agree with J. from Tales from the Hood that development and aid should be left to professionally trained and capable people. I also agree with nearly 100% of what is written on the superb “Good Intentions are Not Enough” blog. In Tom’s post, he wonders why it keeps happening – why do well-intentioned but untrained people think they can create change successfully?

It’s an excellent question, one worth asking in the age of E-Z charity. One thing that I find striking, though, when I peruse the reactions of aid professionals, is the general unwillingness to believe in the capacity of individuals to have not just good intentions, but also a valid framework for taking action.

As far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out on whether small-scale, grassroots initiatives and NGO entrepreneurs are qualified or able to make a positive impact. I’m always taken aback by how aid professionals so easily write off these efforts. Particularly given the huge diversity that this field represents, and given that they are often the same people who are the most powerful critics of their own industry. If change is so slow to occur within the industry itself, what’s so wrong with working on the periphery of it?

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There is a paradoxical aspect to aid workers criticizing outsiders, since they often are the first ones to pick apart faulty projects and obsolete mindsets in their own industry. Recent, select thoughts from industry insiders:

“INGOs may do many good things, but they are basically not structured to deliver effective aid to the poor. They are structured achieve and maintain their own existence. And while it is easy to want to point at the large household charities as examples, it is no less true of the smaller ones.”

“I don’t know of a major disaster where, six months later, commitments had been fulfilled and serious progress made. That alone should make it obvious that this is not a bug in the system, but a feature – and that feature is the persistent exclusion of affected communities even while the language of inclusion is spoken.”

Aid shares features with pretty much any other professional field of activity:

  • A powerful, resource-rich industrial complex exists at the center. It includes state actors (donor governments and development agencies) and non-state actors (large INGOs; the UN and its agencies). Together, they form the “establishment.”
  • The existence of a well-established industry inevitably give rise to reactionaries; people for who innovation and risk-taking outside the boundaries of their world are heresy because they threaten the status-quo.
  • People both within and outside the establishment are seeing cracks in the system’s architecture: whether it be ill-conceived projects, lack of transparency, mis-allocation of funds or outdated operating procedures. As a result, innovation (good and bad) occurs at the margins.
  • Interestingly, it is often the same people who are the harshest critics of their own industry who are also the ones who dismiss outsiders’ efforts to break free from the prevailing M.O.

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I should be clear that I do not – at all, ever – condone amateurish work. Whether it be in aid or any other field, it’s difficult to think of instances where dilettantes are better equipped than trained professionals. I think we need large, well-established professional NGOs with the resources (financial, human, institutional and otherwise) to do things that no single person or entrepreneur can accomplish on their own. So, with this caveat, let’s talk about why I think entrepreneurship in aid is important and why efforts in that space should be encouraged.

Sure, no single person can create long-lasting change, and successfully developing an aid project or organization takes a special kind of person and a real commitment. But if we stifle the creativity and wherewithal of entrepreneurs before they even have the opportunity to try – and potentially fail – then change isn’t going to happen, at all.

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I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that when a bunch of crazy French doctors decided to create Doctors without Borders during the Biafra war, everyone around them must have thought they were absolutely off their rockers.

What about Henri Dunant, the idealistic businessman whose disgust with the horrors of Napoleonic wars lead to the creation of the Red Cross? (Did you catch that? Henry Dunant was a businessman with no experience in anything remotely connected to humanitarian aid)

There are several types of aid entrepreneurs; a fact that sometimes seems to get lost on critics and supporters of NGO entrepreneurs alike. Not everyone is an Henri Dunant, Bernard Kouchner or Greg Mortenson, obviously – there are also the Jasons of this world, the soles4souls and and one of my personal favorites, little pillow dresses. These are the types of initiative that are, essentially, purely fueled with good intentions. No research or real thought has gone into creating these initiatives. I have yet to see an aid professional be involved with one of these initiatives, and whenever they do chime in, aid workers are scolded for being elitist and belittling the pure motives of said initiative.

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But then there are also many brilliant, creative, intelligent people who hail from various backgrounds and industries who have jumped into the fray. To name a few organizations who emerged from the efforts of non-aid workers but who distinguish themselves from the aforementioned amateurs by their quality:

  • Solar Sister: Founder Katherine Lucey was an investment banker for 20 years before starting to work on how to empower women through market based solutions
  • The GO Campaign: Founder Scott Fifer was a Hollywood TV and film screenwriter and former Wall Street attorney and U.S. Senate aide. The GO Campaign funds local, grassroots projects in Africa that have a direct impact in communities.
  • Forge: Founder Kjerstin Erickson started this NGO when she was a junior in Stanford. FORGE has implemented over 60 community development projects that have served more than 70,000 refugees in the four refugee camps in Zambia & Botwana. An official Operating Partner of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), FORGE works in Zambia, hand-in-hand with refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Rwanda, Burundi and Sudan.

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This question of the value of NGO/non-profit entrepreneurs is something I think about every day and affects me personally. About three and half years ago, towards the end of my masters program, I spent two months volunteering in a refugee camp in Ghana (gasp! horror! are you still going to read the rest of this blog, or have I been catalogued as a poser?)

In spite of the fact that I had no training in community health, I was asked to create a health education curriculum for children ages 5 through 18 who were students at the Carolyn A. Miller school, the only tuition-free school in a refugee settlement of 40,000. I remember feeling ill equipped to handle the task I had been assigned, and that’s a real understatement, trust me. Thankfully, by relying on the expertise of local doctors, nurses, health workers and community members, I was able to develop a basic health curriculum that the school I was assigned to was able to implement. After two months living and working with this community, when I left, I felt compelled to continue being engaged with them.

The Niapele office in Liberia

I never set out to create an NGO; it wasn’t part of my plans. I wanted to find a way to continue working with a community that really touched me and I felt close to. I didn’t want to just give money and hand-outs; I wanted to avoid creating the situations of dependency which I kept coming across, over and over again, during my time there. Along with my friend Celina Guich, we set out to develop a model that would allow us to work with the community we had grown close to.

Fast forward three years, and I’m the director of a small international NGO, The Niapele Project. We partner with community-based organizations and local leaders in Liberia to help them implement programs that seek to improve the livelihoods of war-affected youth. You can learn more about our work here, here or here.

[It’s always interesting to see how people react to Niapele. A majority of regular civilians (read: non-aid/development crowd) are very supportive, and generally “impressed.” This is something which has been written about in Tales from the Hood before, but this feeling makes me a bit uncomfortable: I don’t feel like I’m a saint or really all that amazing or creative for doing this. There are tons of other people out there whose creativity, passion and talent exceed my own and are involved in some truly impressive projects on the periphery of the aid/humanitarian industrial complex (see the few examples mentioned above).]

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What I’m asking for is that we, as the aid/development community, recognize that innovation outside or on the periphery of the established industry is a good thing. For every successful initiative, there will be ten really crappy ones. But that’s how it works – entrepreneurship is inherently risky, and it’s not because one thinks they have are a good entrepreneur that they actually are one. But we have to accept these negative dimensions to reap the benefits of change brought about by the entrepreneurs who know what they’re doing.

What’s the alternative?  Let it be known that even though the aid industry has profound flaws and is fundamentally unsustainable, innovation on the outside is discouraged?

Not every new idea is going to be a good idea, of course. There are plenty of duds out there, and stupid people with bad ideas aren’t going away any time soon. What’s apparent to me is that social entrepreneurship is a reflection of people’s desire to DO something, and do something more than write a check or send old shoes/blankets/books/etc. It’s also a product of (sometimes legitimate, but not always) frustration both within and outside the aid system. This is why we see ideas like 1 million shirts crop up. Well-intentioned people, but without the practical or theoretical knowledge needed to drive a successful initiative, will give it a go. This is inevitable.

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The real question, for me, is how do we support the kind of innovation that does create positive change, all the while weeding out all the useless and potentially harmful amateurish initiatives?

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I completely understand why aid amateurs irk the professionals. I’m lucky to have a vantage point at both the micro level, outside the humanitarian/aid/development industrial complex, and within it. I’m constantly surprised by how often I come across seriously flawed ideas, shoddy implementation and pure self-interest and aggrandizement. And let it be known that all this happens with large, established NGOs and the smallest initiatives.

This & that

– On Monday March 1st, reports surfaced about violent incidents occurring in Liberia near the border with Guinea, allegedly pitting Mandingo (primarily Muslim) against Loma (primarily Christian) people. It’s absolutely impossible to understand what actually happened, as every single news story contradicts the other, and often are peppered with inaccuracies (as a side note, this speaks to the importance of strengthening local media organizations there, because their job is crucial, and people cannot possibly be well-informed when headlines read things like “Lofa Explodes – Religious and Tribal Tensions Burst in Flames and Death“). Shelby Grossman attempts to piece it together here. Sadly, the international media coverage simplifies the issue as Christians against Muslims – while this is obviously part of the story, it’s only one dimension of a very complex pattern of conflict and cohabitation between these groups in northern Liberia. Don’t be fooled by oversimplifications and intellectual shortcuts…
Continue reading “This & that”