Thursday, March 22, 2012

Northern Uganda, Invisible Children, and Humanitarian Arrogance

Returnee Village near Gulu in 2006

I posted something on Facebook the other day about phenomenon of the "Invisible Children" viral video that is trying to raise the profile of the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) Josephy Kony and advocate for US military action in Northern Uganda to bring him to justice to the ICC. I have a few opinions about the conflict in Northern Uganda as I visited the region three times, twice in 2006 to do advocacy on the return of the IDPs and the reintegration of child combatants and once in 2007 to assess MSF's work on sexual violence there. While I am by no means an expert, having sat in the despicable super crowded sad IDP camps and trekked out to the areas of return (as well as having memorably spent Thanksgiving in Juba with the Acholi delegation to the LRA peace talks) I have some idea of the issue. I happened to be ziplining through the jungles of Northern Laos when the video came out and was alerted to it by my friend C and her kids who had asked her about it and wanted to know if they should donate. So I started watching all the back and forth on Facebook and the news once i got back to civilization. In general, I agreed with most of the criticism and since I was a bit late to the game, I didn't get too involved. I met the Invisible Children group back in 2006 and I just remember hearing a lot of complaints about their naivety as well as seeing this iconic photo of them which rubbed a bunch of us the wrong way (for the uninitiated, humanitarians do NOT pose with guns. We are adamantly anti-gun because we're neutral and we;re trying to remain that way. There are WAY too many rumors that we are CIA, US spies, gun runners already so we actively try to dissuade that).

Anyway, the article I posted was about the UN's SRSG for Children and Armed Conflict (Special Representative of the Secretary General) commenting that instead of pushing for a military solution to the LRA (which has failed for years), they would be better off investing that money in services for the former child combatants. This was an excellent and very timely point. The SRSG is tasked with advocating and independently investigating crimes against children in conflict zones for the UN. I'm highly critical of the UN (even more so after having worked for them for a year) but one thing I always felt was that the SRSGs who work on thematic issues take their jobs very seriously and are strong advocates for their causes. These are not just political appointments - these are people who are well known for working in these fields. They are independent and report back to the Security Council with their findings. What they don't have, usually, is much power. While appointed by the Secretary-General, all they can do is report and use their "good offices" to encourage the member states of the UN to take action. Of course, this rarely happens. There are too many vested interests at play for the UN to be able actually address most of the atrocities out there.

 I spent four years in Washington DC advocating with the US government and the UN to do more to address displacement in places like Darfur, Northern Uganda, Sri Lanka, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Haiti, and South Sudan. I left the advocacy position that I had because I was tired of banging my head against the wall with a predominantly Republican administration and congress who were monomaniacally interested in the Global War on Terror only. But along the way, I met some amazing advocates. And amazing people who put their neck out to do the right thing for people. In the strangest of places, I would find people who were very interested in ending trafficking of children, stopping women from being raped outside the IDP camps of Darfur, stopping UN Peacekeepers from raping women, and in doing the best that they could with the resources they had. Many of them worked for NGOs, some worked for the UN, some worked for US Congress, some worked for memberstates in the UN. In general, the lessons I learned is that we're all in it together and you have to keep your mind open when you are agitating for change. You don't know what argument will sway what powerful person and get them to make the small change you want.

Then I went to work for MSF, Medecins Sans Frontieres, one of the pre-eminent humanitarian organizations in the world. It was my dream job. I wanted to be one of the people who craft the "voice of outrage". I felt that my strengths were in helping add my American citizenship and language skills to the voices of the least powerful and most oppressed in the world to try to bring change to their world. It was a decision that I was thrilled with when I took it but one that I learned to regret in the years after. While I worked for the branch of MSF most known for taking a "human rights" position, it turned out that the organization really didn't care much any more about speaking out on behalf of the oppressed. The much vaunted "temoignage" that most people associate with MSF is dying. The in-fighting between the sections and the way decisions are made (usually only about operational access - never what the people in the country might want) really got under my skin.

So back to Facebook. I posted my little link on facebook where I have many friends form my time in Washington DC, my time at MSF, my time in the UN, and from my home in South Carolina. I like to post links because it might enlighten someone who doesn't read the same articles, websites, magazines, and newspapers as I do. I also love to read other people's links. I know Facebook is not really a venue for well-thought out argument and decent discourse but I have had good arguments on it in the past that I have enjoyed and even learned something from. But the interchange I had with a former colleague made me realize what bothered me about working at MSF was the anti-intellectualism in charge there often. Some of the people that I met there were proud to be ignorant of how the UN works, how international politics works, and how MSF might fit into it. They always played down the role that MSF might have in providing information and taking a stance on behalf of the people who we are supposed to serve. I don't mean to say that my colleague I had the debate with is not an intellectual. He would probably say that he does not strive to be. He's a smart man though - moved from business to humanitarianism, has a quick wit, a smart brain, and really likes an argument. he's open to suggestions and seems to always be seeking more information. However, the debate with him triggered something in me.

His argument boiled down to "its better to DO SOMETHING rather than to advocate or talk about the problem". This irritated me because its the same sad refrain that I learned about in graduate school in the 90s. It smacks of Edward Said's Orientalism, of "the White Man's Burden", and the belief that because you want to do charity, the recipients should be eternally grateful innocent recipients without any thoughts of their own. It also reminded me of the tyranny of the "operational" - do something mentality that predominates in the leadership of MSF. They are critical of those who speak out. The common refrain was that Oxfam had sacrificed quality of operations in the field to focusing on advocacy (a point that people at Oxfam would not agree with). So my colleague has moved into management at MSF and now says "how can a publically funded talk shop criticize someone doing operations?" I heard this refrain all the time when I proposed doing advocacy at MSF. There was so much disdain for the people who spend a lot of time trying to move governments and human rights abusers to the peace talk tables or trying to get agreements to end violence. Its so easy to criticize anyone who is not "operational" but by being operational, you don't necessarily inhabit the high ground. I've seen plenty of useless MSF (and other) projects that don't either add to sustainability, address the real needs of the most vulnerable and helpless in the population, or actually cause more harm by putting local orgs out of work. I've seen the casual colonial like atmosphere of (predominantly white) expats from Northern Europe and the Americas making decisions that impact the populations of desperately poverty stricken communities without once consulting them or setting up a proper way to make sure that the programs were handed over to someone who could actually run them. There is an argument to be made that malicious governments allow "do-gooder" aid agencies to do their work for them so they can invest in other more interesting things that insuring their citizens have healthcare and education and other human rights. (Oddly enough, a comedy novel I just read called "Worst Date Ever" made this argument about Northern Uganda beautifully!) Pure operations that don't consult the population or respond with any form of accountability to them can be harmful. The AID blogosphere is filled with examples of "noble do-gooders" out to save the African continent by "just doing something." I think there is even a twitter hashtag called #SWEDOW (Stuff We Don't Want) that is exactly about this phenomenon. People smarter and more on top of things than me have written about this often.

Despite my criticism of MSF in this post, I still support a lot of the work that they do. But increasingly I am disappointed in the (lack of) stances that they take- no longer taking opportunities to speak to the Security Council to bring the voices of the most powerless to the most powerful, refusing to speak out (even if the population begs them to) in order to maintain programs that may not even be reaching the most vulnerable, and my favorite example - making everything in their communications about them - "MSF DENIED ACCESS TO POPULATION" rather than focusing on the community losing life saving healthcare assistance. It's become a rather navel-gazing organization and not the place I thought it was until I went to work there.

PLEASE NOTE: This is a rant. My friends working at MSF may or may not read this. This is not to denigrate the hard work that they do but to participate in the time -honored criticism of the organization that we all worked and sweated and slaved over. In MSF, I earned the right to criticize them.

My point is that I still believe strongly in advocacy. There is a complimentary role for advocacy and operations. You do not have to sacrifice one for the other. And being a "doer" and not a "thinker" does not make one superior to others. The UN is an easy target for MSF snobbery. It is a talk shop. People there know that. But they also know that the only thing that has ever stopped wars and brought about peace is talk talk talk. So they have their role to play. MSF and other operational agencies have their role to play. And the independent SRSG's have their role to play in pointing out that governments could make a difference but don't. And Refugees International and Human Rights Watch have their role to play in pointing out that the UN is inherently conservative and doesn't like to rock the boat and needs to be kicked in the ass often. But sometimes, the organizations who like to criticize should sometimes look inside their own houses too and see whether or not they are doing everything they can too before they get on their high horses.

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