Thursday, March 15, 2012

To Combat Future Security Threats, World Leaders Must Prioritize Development

“We can't just stop with a single terrorist or a single terrorist organization; we have to go and root out the whole system. We have to go after poverty.”
-Colin Powell, former U.S. Secretary of State and retired 4-Star General of the U.S. Army

Every week, I teach an English lesson at a vocational school for war-affected youth in Northern Uganda. One day, as most of my students concentrated on answering their writing prompt, a new student asked if he could practice his English with me through conversation.

Otim began by telling me about himself. He shared about how the war in Northern Uganda had affected his family and how he was abducted by the LRA for two years. When he returned to his village, he found his father had been killed by the militia and his family was now too poor to pay his school fees.

When it came time for Otim to ask me questions, he began by inquiring about the Peace Club I lead at the center, a group he heard about from his friends. “What exactly do you do?” he asked. I explained that I aim to empower the youth with tools to help them create peace for themselves and their community, and I gave examples of the kinds of projects we undertake and skills we develop.

“Excuse me, Madame, I understand what you are saying, but you see, for me, I cannot have peace for myself until I know I can have a future. And I cannot know I will have a good future until I find a way to afford an education. Without an education, the children I will someday have will suffer just like I did. So how can you help me find peace?”

His inquiry was profound.

In a war-affected community where the economy was devastated by 20 years of insecurity, education suffers, and without education, the prospects for a productive peaceful, future are bleak.

How could I expect Otim to feel peace if he does not believe he stands a chance at making a livable income to afford his own needs and those of his dependents? If another terrorist militia swept through the North with promises of a better future for Acholis who chose to join, would Otim pick up a weapon?

When I co-founded Kids for Peace in 2006, I was highly influenced by my own upbringing during the period of fear following 9/11 and the wars against terrorism that followed. At 12 years old, I learned something that changed me, and which I still think of often today: many of the terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks were war orphans or living in extreme poverty resulting from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (Bhutta 2002). When war-affected populations—and in particular, children—are left with memories of violence and few chances for improving their circumstances, a culture conducive to terrorism, extremism, and violence can form.

For years, foreign policy leaders have recognized this connection, yet little has changed in the way we approach national security. We continue to spend a relatively minute portion of our federal budget on creating security abroad through development relative to defensive spending. In 2010, the United States federal budget allotted 19% of its total expenditures to the U.S. Department of Defense, while only 0.39% went to poverty-focused development assistance (Borgen Project). According to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, the federal budget for 2012 proposes the greatest spending on defence since World War II (Business Insider).

In the absence of strong government-led development efforts, NGOs have attempted to fill the gap, with many organizations working to empower violence-affected communities. One effort recently featured on Kristof's New York Times blog is led by Jake Harriman, a former US Naval Academy graduate who spent 7 years in the U.S. Marines. After two deployments to the frontlines of the War on Terror, Harriman decided to enroll in Stanford Business School to develop skills to enable him to create an organization aimed at combating terrorism through poverty alleviation.

Harriman’s story is moving and his efforts are worthwhile, but his impact will inevitably be restricted by the same limitations of capacity nearly all NGOs face. With limited time and resources, Harriman's organization, Nuru International, has chosen to focus its current efforts on the Kuria District in Kenya through an ambitious plan to create social change in that community. Other organizations with similar missions are chipping away at the problem of extreme poverty in other regions of the world, but the reality persists that NGOs simply lack the capacity to solve global poverty alone.

Campaigns for ending poverty like ONE and Make Poverty History have lobbied world leaders and created the economic case to demonstrate that the resources exist for improving the futures of the world’s poor if only the international will existed to make necessary changes that would allow them to do so.

Without a fundamental restructuring of the way powerful countries think about national security, poor communities will continue to breed the type of ignorance that serves as a barrier to peace and an incubator for insecurity. Without access to education for young men like Otim, warlords like Joseph Kony will continue to be able to indoctrinate militias in world views based upon irrationality and violence. Organizations like Nuru make an important step in the right direction, but for the kind of widespread change necessary to create cultures conducive to peace, foreign policies of the world's most powerful nations must adapt to offer greater assistance to the world's most poor.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Countering the Headlines: A Response to Kony 2012

By now, Facebook, Twitter, TV and newspapers have been full of reactions to Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 video for almost a week. The video has received 71 million views on YouTube and has been the number one trending topic on Twitter since its release.

Some have heralded the short film for making Joseph Kony a household name, while others have sharply criticized Invisible Children for oversimplifying the conflict, misrepresenting the LRA’s dwindling influence, and offering a flawed strategy by suggesting viewers spend $30 on publicity kits to decorate their neighborhoods in posters and stickers. Some headlines have suggested Ugandans are “outraged” by the video, while others have claimed making Kony famous will harm efforts aimed at his capture.

Amidst all of the confusion and discussion, what are we to believe? Should we click “re-post?” Is our money best spent on a publicity kit?

As many articles have mentioned, the LRA left Uganda six years ago (a fact Kony 2012 points out in minute 15). In the beginning of 2011, the last remaining internally displaced people camp closed, and nearly all northern Ugandans have returned home or relocated, resuming their lives in relative peace. Children no longer trek at night to find safety in Uganda, and they probably don’t in the regions the LRA has relocated to either.

It is estimated that the LRA now consists of only 400 or fewer militants spread throughout a vast region of Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, and Southern Sudan. Their decline does not diminish the heinous nature of their war crimes, with children still returning from “the bush” with horrifying stories of forced violence and abduction, but the magnitude of their continuing threat is overstated in Kony 2012. With juxtaposed images of children sleeping in safe centers with maps of the LRA’s current presence, the video seems to equate the violence and instability which occurred in Uganda in the early 2000’s with ongoing LRA operations elsewhere in Central Africa, a gross overstatement of the LRA’s current capacity.

While this may be misleading, the video does make an important contribution by highlighting the affect roving militias have on several regions of central Africa today by drawing attention to one such group and suggesting that all humans have a responsibility to care about and take action for peace. In over 25 years of terrorizing populations, never before did 70 million people talk about Joseph Kony in one week, and that fact alone means the creators of Kony 2012 are on to something.

Ugandans are also talking about the video. Over the past week, several people—from Directors of NGOs addressing the needs of Kony’s victims to international diplomats—have discussed the video or its contents in my presence. Never once have I heard “outrage,” but rather, a general sentiment of support for any effort aimed at finding Kony, some trepidation about the strategy suggested by Invisible Children, and a general feeling of “a little too late” for Uganda.

The video has resulted in some positive international attention for Ugandan NGOs. Over the last few days, the main community-based organization I work with in Pader has received several inquiries about how donations can be sent for Kony’s victims who continue to be in need of educational assistance and livelihood support.

I do not believe the video will create more harm than good. Even the Ugandan military has acknowledged the video’s overwhelming popularity and has restated its commitment to finding Kony at any cost. Reminding governments that citizens care is almost never harmful and keeps pressure on governments to be accountable to their people.

Raising awareness about the hardship caused by conflict and violence can make a difference. Surely, Congress won’t order the withdrawal of Obama’s 100 advisory forces now that millions of Americans know about Joseph Kony and the LRA.

“Making Kony famous” has now been achieved, and I thank Invisible Children for increasing awareness. A persuasive—if flawed—video has resulted in many more people knowing about the impact of ongoing violence in Central Africa.

This was all accomplished at zero cost to the public thanks to the capacity of the internet to spread ideas rapidly and for free. The video’s popularity likely surpassed what Invisible Children could have imagined, eliminating the need for publicity kits all together. Unintentionally or not, creating a controversial video shot by a controversial NGO has managed to keep the spotlight on Kony and this video well past the initial days of salience from its release.

So go ahead and talk about Kony, tell your congressmen you care, and keep sharing any material you find interesting about the LRA because the Ugandan government has listened to you and responded that it won’t give up. But please, don’t spend $30 on a goal that has already been achieved for free. That money can be much more effectively spent addressing the needs of those living in areas affected by Kony and the LRA to whom $30 can mean nearly a year of education or life sustaining tools for income generation.

About the blogger: After graduating Harvard in 2011, Danielle began working on post-conflict reconstruction projects in Northern Uganda focused on research and service delivery to LRA-affected women and children. During her undergraduate studies, Danielle researched human security and mass violence with a focus on the history of recent conflicts in Central and East Africa.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures: Celebrating Girl Child Education on International Women’s Day

The individual’s name has been changed and her photo is omitted to protect her privacy.

Four years ago, Francine could have never imagined she’d be speaking on International Women’s Day in front of a crowd of hundreds.

In 2008, Francine lay in a coma in a hospital in Nairobi. Doctors rushed to repair a severe fistula wound while Francine fought to stay alive.

At the age of 11, Francine had been abducted from her home in Northern Uganda and forced to become the wife of an LRA commander. After suffering severe complications from pregnancy in an LRA camp in Democratic Republic of Congo, Francine was airlifted for medical treatment in Kenya.

Francine’s story is one of remarkable wisdom, determination, and service. Knowing that medical care was inferior in her home country, she hid her passport in her Kenyan hospital room so that she could remain in the country until fully recovering from her surgical operation.

Reunited with her family back in Uganda, Francine was determined to return to school. After eight transformative years living in the bush where she was forced to give up her childhood for all the duties of a wife, Francine was too old to attend a normal secondary school. At 19, she walked through the gates of Pader Girls Academy for the first time, where she would spend three years catching up on the education she missed.

Francine was a natural leader. Out of 300 students, she was chosen by her peers to lead the girls as Head Girl of the Academy, serving as the primary representative of student interests at the school. With persistent study, she also excelled academically, earning one of the top scores in the District on the country’s academic assessment exams.

Francine’s success was remarkable, and she never took for granted the opportunity she had been given, nor did she forget the thousands of other girls who returned from captivity without access to education. In 2010, Francine traveled to the United Kingdom to speak to the House of Lords as a representative of all of the girls in Uganda suffering as a result of the war.

For her outstanding performance at the Academy, Francine was one of five girls in her class awarded a scholarship for advanced study in Uganda’s capital. For the first time this week, Francine dressed in a new school uniform as she entered A-level (equivalent to 12th grade/1st year of university in the U.S. system), an achievement of a small and proud minority of Ugandans.

Today, I sat beside this outstanding young woman as she prepared to speak at Uganda’s National Women’s Day Celebration in Kampala. Out of all of the charity’s focused on women’s issues in Uganda, the Pader Girls Academy was chosen as the sole beneficiary of the event’s fundraising activities this year. Beneath a banner that read, “Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures,” the theme of Women’s Day 2012, Francine shared her future goal, to become a human rights lawyer and advocate for other girls affected by war.

Amidst an environment that often seems absent of hope, Francine's future is inspiring. With educated women leaders like Francine—strong, determined, wise, and dedicated to serving others—communities really can change, individual lives can change, and the persistence of violence can change.

Happy Women's Day to women everywhere!

Tabling on behalf of the Pader Girls Academy at the International Women's Day celebration

A trailer for a new documentary on providing education to war-affected girls.