Archive for the ‘Foreign Policy’ Category

Why I’m not changing my profile photo

In Foreign Policy, Humanitarian Response, International Development, Politics on July 5, 2016 at 1:37 pm

Some thoughts on perspective and solidarity…

I’ve been on Facebook WAY too much in the last couple of months. It’s a self-perpetuating loop, where I post links mostly to whatever I’m reading, which is generally work-related, or just channeling whatever my little bubble is angry about. Today I was annoyed with the Scottish actress who wrote a stupid book about her gap-year in Zambia.

Once I post something, I feel compelled to check in and see if anyone’s commented or whatever – you know, curating my presence. Then I get sucked into whatever is trending. The last several weeks have been filled with gun violence, terrorist attacks, Brexit, and of course the presidential election, which permeates and distills all news. All of this contributes to an ice-cube in my stomach that never seems to go away. I’m already the insufferable humanitarian guy among my FB friends – always bringing attention to some new disaster. And I’m not the worst offender in my circle, either.

When there is a new attack, such as the Istanbul airport attack, or the car-bombing in Iraq, etc., I see new posts or comments to the effect of, “why isn’t there a FB photo filter for my profile photo for Turkey, so I could show my solidarity in the same way I did for France or Orlando?” The source of this is, of course, a sincere attempt to show solidarity with communities affected by violence.

At the risk of sounding like a cynical codgy old man – these acts of violence around the world are a drop in an ocean of misery – violence, disaster, and tragedy – that go on across the globe every single day.

I receive multiple daily alerts from ReliefWeb, these include situation reports, usually from UN agencies but also press releases related to specific ongoing and new emergencies and disaster responses around the world. Since I’m not working directly on humanitarian response any more I usually delete these messages – I know where to find them if I want to know more. But I choose to receive them because it gives me a sense of the industry and how the aid community is responding to various disasters, both man-made and natural.

 A sampling of countries with reports in the last 2-3 days alone include: Ecuador (Earthquake), Palestine (consistent unrest), Burundi (unstable government), India (Floods), Central African Republic (civil strife), Iraq (complex emergency), Pakistan (floods), Ethiopia (drought), Tajikistan (Floods), South Sudan (civil war), Chad (Boko Haram, drought) – and that’s all just over the July 4 weekend.

 In each of these countries, there are thousands and thousands of people being served by the humanitarian community. Each of these households served has either been displaced or had their livelihoods destroyed by a natural or man-made disaster. The man made disasters in almost all cases involve terrible atrocities – with regular peaceful people enduring the worst experiences imaginable. Seeing their neighbors killed. Losing children to starvation. Being homeless, stateless, without dignity or hope. This is and has been the status quo for the last several years, especially since the Syrian War escalated and ISIS metastasized across the world.

I believe we are all the same. Everywhere I’ve been – and I’ve been in over 35 countries across Africa, Europe, and the Middle East – people just want to live in peace with dignity. People just want to raise their families in a safe place and hope their kids have a better life than they did. People want to work and enjoy life, just like anyone else. Every human being matters.

When I see a photo of a child who lost her parents to Boko Haram in Niger, I think of my kids and how they would feel. Yes, when the Sandy Hook mass-murder happened, I was more affected, since I grew up in New Jersey in a similar kind of town, and the kids that were shot were the same grade as one of my daughters – so that naturally affects me more viscerally. If you have family or other roots in a disaster-affected community, it’s completely natural to want to show solidarity and work hard to help those in need. Solidarity can be a powerful catalyst for action.

However – there are a lot of people killed, through either mass murder, forced starvation, or other terrible tragedies every single day – that never make the news, barely even a wire-reported blip on the outskirts of the NY Times, let alone a banner headline on CNN. I’ve been so immersed in tragedies these last several years that you’ll have to pardon me if I don’t change my profile photo for France or Turkey or whatever. If I were being egalitarian about it my profile photo would be a constant kaleidoscope of various flags and community colors.

Better to work for a world where we help stop these tragedies from taking place and we can practice consistent solidarity with all people. Bring attention to injustice and suffering so that others will know it’s there, make sure you’re clear about why it’s going on and that you learn how to really help. Channel your outrage into making positive change.

I’ll just get back to Facebook now.


Skittishness and homecoming

In Foreign Policy, Home Life, International Development, Kids, Peace Corps, Tchad on February 16, 2011 at 7:51 pm

I’ve been home from Chad since Friday evening.* The flight out of Chad was fine, my flight from Paris to DC was delayed, but otherwise fine.

Spent my last evening in Chad drinking, basically. I got to hang out at a very cool Ethiopian restaurant, the food was great, and I got to have a couple of beers under the stars with my feet in the sand, so to speak. The problem was my sudden anxiety when I got to the restaurant.

A few weeks ago, two young Frenchmen were kidnapped by Al Qaida from a busy restaurant in the middle of Niamey, Niger. The restaurant was a regular expat hangout, in the middle of the neighborhood where all the NGO’s are, including the Peace Corps and their hostel. The poor guys were killed before their kidnappers were subsequently attacked in a failed rescue attempt.

This kidnapping had ripple effects; the Peace Corps program in Niger was suspended indefinitely, and travel is generally going to be more difficult in the region. Personally though, this whole thing had me freaked out from the second it happened.

Call me a defeatist or weak, but terrorism scares the crap out of me. I do not want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, very far from home, and be kidnapped or killed because of this whole amorphous and hard to understand global war on terror.

I took a calculated career risk in 2009, working with Iraq programs, thinking that might earn me the chance to work on projects in more peacefully, chronically poor countries in West Africa. This chance ended up panning out for me, but now this kidnapping has really messed things up.

So there I was on my last night in Chad, arriving at the restaurant in N’Djamena, in the middle of a quiet neighborhood where other NGO’s and expats live. It was my very last night at the end of a long trip that I couldn’t wait to finish. Wouldn’t it have been just my luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time…

But after two grand Galas and a satisfying plate of tef bread and spicy meat, plus some informed words from my new friend, who is a young US Foreign Service Officer (and Mauritania RPCV) on his first tour, and I felt a little less stressed.

Being home has been great. A few weeks more, and my third child – a son – will be born. Who knows what my next trip will be, but I know I’ll put myself through another wringer emotionally, balancing uninformed fears and calculated risks.

* I’ve actually been home for about four weeks, but sat on this blog post until I had the time to look it over before posting. I know that isn’t saying much but thanks for reading this far! Ah life with full time work and always-on family.

Monterey Institute Alumni Interview

In Career Development, Foreign Policy, International Development, Organizational Development, Video on May 27, 2009 at 11:39 pm

A group of students and staff at the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS) interviewed me last month for a series on reconnecting and networking with Alumni.

Peace Corps being pushed on Indonesia

In Foreign Policy, International Development, Peace Corps, Sustainable Development on February 19, 2009 at 6:06 pm

Just read this article in the LA Times, came across it through a NPCA Twitter post –

Indonesia still touchy about Peace Corps – Los Angeles Times

Apparently Secretary of State Clinton is pushing Indonesia to accept Peace Corps Volunteers, as a way to improve relations. This is the exact opposite way a Peace Corps program should be started. We work at the invitation of host country governments.

Starting a Peace Corps program in Indonesia under these circumstances would undermine the years and years of goodwill towards Peace Corps that has been built up since the 1970’s, when PC was more notoriously used and discredited by the Nixon and ford administrations. If you read Confessions of an Economic Hitman, and if you believe what John Perkins is saying, you understand what I’m talking about. I was approached by a couple of other embittered old-timer RPCV’s when I was a PC recruiter idealistically pushing PC as apolitical. It was a particular concern when I was recruiting at San Francisco State and UC Santa Cruz, and I know my Berkeley and Humboldt State colleagues were battered by those concerns as well.

We’ve got to set Clinton and the Obama administration straight – Peace Corps is apolitical.

I think Peace Corps just needs a big, fat change – they need to be modernized, basically. PC was created for the Cold War, and Clinton is still thinking in that mindset, that hearts and minds are there for us to ‘win’. PC should really stress the collaboration angle, making ourselves available for helping people build their own capacities that they decide they want help improving.

Obama and Foreign Aid

In Foreign Policy, International Development on October 30, 2008 at 3:14 pm

One of my co-workers was worried, she saw something that spooked her about Obama cutting USAID funding. So, in order to preserve her vote and lower her stress level, I put this together, below. It’s a series of quotes from the Obama Website:

If you are worried about Obama cutting foreign aid, here are his promises on the subject. Of course, as with any administration changing – US foreign assistance priorities will shift. But with an Obama presidency we are unlikely to roll up the drawbridges and focus all funds inward. On the contrary, Obama promises to double foreign aid by the end of his presidency. See below:

“Fight Poverty: Obama and Joe Biden will double our annual investment in foreign assistance from $25 billion in 2008 to $50 billion by the end of his first term and make the Millennium Development Goals, which aim to cut extreme poverty in half by 2015, America’s goals. They will fully fund debt cancellation for Heavily Indebted Poor Countries in order to provide sustainable debt relief and invest at least $50 billion by 2013 for the global fight against HIV/AIDS, including our fair share of the Global Fund.”

“For the last twenty years, U.S. foreign aid funding has done little more than keep pace with inflation. Doubling our foreign assistance spending by 2012 will help meet the challenge laid out by Tony Blair at the 2005 G-8 conference at Gleneagles, and it will help push the rest of the developed world to invest in security and opportunity. As we have seen recently with large increases in funding for our AIDS programs, we have the capacity to make sure this funding makes a real difference.

Part of this new funding will also establish a two billion dollar Global Education Fund that calls on the world to join together in eliminating the global education deficit, similar to what the 9/11 commission proposed. Because we cannot hope to shape a world where opportunity outweighs danger unless we ensure that every child, everywhere, is taught to build and not to destroy.

I know that many Americans are skeptical about the value of foreign aid today. But as the U.S. military made clear in Camp Lemonier, a relatively small investment in these fragile states up front can be one of the most effective ways to prevent the terror and strife that is far more costly – both in lives and treasure – down the road. In this way, $50 billion a year in foreign aid – which is less than one-half of one percent of our GDP – doesn’t sound as costly when you consider that last year, the Pentagon spent nearly double that amount in Iraq alone.”

“Moreover, lasting security will only come if we heed Marshall’s lesson, and help Afghans grow their economy from the bottom up. That’s why I’ve proposed an additional $1 billion in non-military assistance each year, with meaningful safeguards to prevent corruption and to make sure investments are made – not just in Kabul – but out in Afghanistan’s provinces. As a part of this program, we’ll invest in alternative livelihoods to poppy-growing for Afghan farmers, just as we crack down on heroin trafficking. We cannot lose Afghanistan to a future of narco-terrorism. The Afghan people must know that our commitment to their future is enduring, because the security of Afghanistan and the United States is shared.”

Later in the Same Speech:
“We will have to provide meaningful resources to meet critical priorities. I know development assistance is not the most popular program, but as President, I will make the case to the American people that it can be our best investment in increasing the common security of the entire world. That was true with the Marshall Plan, and that must be true today. That’s why I’ll double our foreign assistance to $50 billion by 2012, and use it to support a stable future in failing states, and sustainable growth in Africa; to halve global poverty and to roll back disease. To send once more a message to those yearning faces beyond our shores that says, “You matter to us. Your future is our future. And our moment is now.”

CARE Turns Down Federal Funds for Food Aid

In Foreign Policy, International Development, Philanthropy, Sustainable Development on August 27, 2007 at 4:05 am

I know I’m a little behind the pack in blogging, but I had to give some due respect to CARE’s decision, as highlighted in this article in the NY Times recently:
CARE Turns Down Federal Funds for Food Aid – New York Times

I’ve been thinking about this since I was in Peace Corps and saw this first hand. The short of it is, the US Government buys surplus grain or other mostly raw commodities from American farmers and then distributes it to various NGO’s and aid organizations working abroad, mostly in Africa. These NGO’s then sell the grain locally and fund their projects with the proceeds. I’ve never agreed with this practice, for two reasons, economical and environmental:

Economically speaking: It provides no new foreign exchange reserves for the host country. Let’s say you are running an NGO in a country and you’ve got several projects going on, to a budget of $1 Million. If your funds come from America or Europe where the headquarters are located, then all of that $1 million enters the country as valuable foreign exchange, which then has the potential, in a country with a functioning banking system, to create more value by being loaned out again and again. In essence, you’re adding totally new money to the country that didn’t exist before. With the Food for Peace program that CARE is rejecting, the money that the NGO is using to operate comes entirely from within the country, and you have not expanded the country’s money supply at all. Even $1 million is a significant amount to countries with smaller GDP’s than a mid-cap American corporation.
This also distorts the market of the country, essentially allowing the US Government to dump our excess agricultural capacity onto the poorest countries in the world, which, I believe, is against WTO regulations. It also depresses the price of locally grown commodities, as local farmers are forced to compete with the American grain.

I personally struggle with this – since I believe that it’s more important to save people from starving, if that is the situation. So, giving grain where there was none is a good idea, and allowing people to pay for it in some way, whether through trading their services or with a food for work program, gives them a sense of pride. However, these programs have reached the status quo and should not be as regular a part of NGO funding as they are.

Environmentally speaking: It perpetuates a consumptive and predatory system which enriches the Agribusiness industrial complex. Corporations like Dow, Monsanto, and ADM, make millions selling genetically modified seeds and fertilizer to farmers who then grow way more food than Americans can consume. This totally inefficient system distorts the market. The Food for Peace system is a way for the US Government to subsidize big agribusiness. This perpetuates non-natural, non-organic, highly genetically modified and fertilized crops throughout the Midwest, especially in the Missouri and Mississippi river basins. All the runoff from these fields eventually finds it’s way into the Gulf Coast, where we are seeing huge “dead zones” where all the fertilizer and chemicals kill off the ecologically sensitive organisms that support the food chain.

There are better ways for NGO’s to be funded. I completely understand the idea that there are always trade-offs; these aid organizations are in a competitive industry where funds are scarce – they will take anything they can get. But there are new, more efficient and effective ways to bring about a positive change in the human condition, and not just solely advance the interests of corporate America.

Notably, the article talks about aid programs making themselves profitable – there is a ton more evidence and literature on this, and hopefully I’ll have more to write about this as I get back into school for my final semester at MIIS.

The Soft Belly of Africa

In Foreign Policy, International Development on December 12, 2006 at 6:07 am

I wrote about this last summer – about the Darfur crisis in Sudan spreading instability throughout the region. The International Herald Tribune posted this article, with one of the most disturbing pictures I have seen in a long time – especially since my kids are this poor girls age…

What can be done in this region?

Central African Republic has basically been a failed state without an outrageous crisis, so it has languished in desperate obscurity for the last few decades. The only thing I really know about it is those in the know call it the C-A-R and their main 1970’s era “big-man” leader is rumored to have cannibalized his people. Sudan is what it is, in some ways a booming, successful country (see Glittering Towers in a War Zone) but in other ways a total hell for its people. Chad is teetering on the edge of being a true failed state, but seems to be holding itself together better than CAR or Sudan.

How can we find the political will to help get central Africa in order? I don’t mean in western or American order – not in an imperialist sense. I mean really helping the people out in a truly sustainable way.

This is so much more challenging than helping a country like Niger, which for all its statistics still has a functioning government and a country that is relatively easy to get around. What do you do for an even more foreign, inaccessible, and extremely complicated place like Central Africa? I wish I had the answer.

There’s just no international cavalry any more, if there ever was. I get sad thinking about the fact that – and I would bet anyone this is true – that there are probably millions of people in these regions who think, “If only Americans would notice, they would be able to fix this. Americans have so much, they can surely spare enough for us…” I really sincerely wish there was some kind of win-win scenario where a little extra effort on my country’s part would help untangle the region.

My guess is that a lot of people see only the problem and not the system that perpetuates the problems. The problems stem from ingrained corruption (so throw the bums out – hold a diplomatic effort to create elections in CAR & Chad), and especially from poverty and scarce resources (so spend just a few extra million in aid money in CAR and Chad especially to bolster institutions and infrastructure and America’s image.)

To paraphrase James Baker, we really do have a dog in this hunt.