Thoughts on The Sentry Project

Richman to the rescue! (Credit: Jeff Nitzberg)

Call me skeptical but did I miss the scientific report that personal egos can stop bullets?

The Sentry, founded by Clooney and John Prendergast from the advocacy group the Enough Project, will investigate the financing of conflicts in South Sudan, Sudan, the Central African Republic (CAR) and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Enough Project said on Monday.

Never mind that malaria, HIV/AIDS and other preventable diseases are the number one killers in African countries: not militias and conflicts.
(The Obama Administration certainly doesn’t mind it, since it’s cutting medical aid to Africa).

The money flows that really drives these “small wars” in Africa aren’t part of some underground NASDAQ of mustache-twirling villains. Africa isn’t run by FIFA, after all.

Rather, the money driving African conflicts is the money that *doesn’t* get invested and doesn’t take the continent’s grassroots industries “on line” with the global economy.

The money driving African conflicts is the money Western companies, Western governments and the international Aid Industry put into bad projects and bad governments. Most of that is because of institutional ignorance rather than malice.

The warmongering “Bad Guys” like Sudan’s Bashir, the Democratic Republic of Congo militias, Nigeria’s Boko Haram and Al Shabab aren’t getting their money from the local cash machine (unless you count North Korea’s counterfeiting industry). They have their own illicit networks or the amoral oil, gas and mineral industry.

Then there’s the uncomfortable fact that governments in the West, the Middle East, China and Russia are arming, training and funding the parties in these conflicts. Observers like Nick Turse are watching America cut foreign aid to African countries while it increases military spending (military advisers, barracks, airstrips, drone facilities).

What good is The Sentry if Africa is the chosen battleground for a U.S.-China-Islamist throw down?

It’s really great that Prendergast and Clooney are so passionate about this. But money and attention generated by this project can be put to so many better uses.

For example, if you want to interrupt illegal wildlife poaching, mining and logging, then you support local initiatives and watchdog groups. Help a community or cooperative build a business around sustainable logging, mining and wildlife conservation.

Other concerns:

  • How do we measure the effectiveness? When The Sentry identifies a corrupt politician or illicit money flow, what are the consequences? It’s the same question people have about the Clooney/Prendergast Satellite Sentinel mapping initiative. Do they count on the local law enforcement,? Does The Enough Project have its own paramilitary force? Do they hack the offenders Twitter account?
  • What can The Sentry do to track illicit financing that national intelligence agencies and “Hacktivist” groups like Anonymous/WikiLeaks can’t?
  • It’s another “White celebrities save Africa” project. That hurts an African citizen’s own sense of agency, the feeling that *they* could make a difference.
  • It amplifies the story of “Africa” as a uniform entity full of war, corruption and disease. That’s patronizing and it makes it hard for any viable social enterprise looking for investment, which leaves communities more vulnerable.
  • Clooney is kinda hypocritical, after shilling for Nestle whose land- and water-grabs have made life miserable for thousands of communities in developing countries

We’re in the Stone Age of African Development Economics

Great interview with economist Morten Jerven about what’s screwy about how world powers and major institutions measure, invest in and define policy responses for African countries.

You wouldn’t know it from the “starvation — war — disease” news cycle but people in African countries are enjoying the same progress as the rest of us: more goods, more services, more access to education and health care, more opportunities for a better quality of life, etc.

We’re might even be getting better at measuring this.

Unsurprising to anyone who knows the East African origin of human tool-making for use and trade (i.e. the first capital assets and exchanges), African countries are actually really good at creating wealth: making and trading goods and services.

The rest of the world is really good at interfering in ways that disrupt/distort that creation or destroy that wealth. Bad decisions piled on top of one another. Enslavement. Crushing local industries. Colonial rule. Anticompetitive trade policies. Crippling national debt. Proxy wars. Supporting bad governments.

Never mind the policies that both help and hurt at the same time. If you send that bad government billions of dollars in aid, you might see schools, infrastructure, and economic growth. You will definitely see more political and economic power centralized in an exclusive group that enforces its will through violence.

That might give you Singapore in one situation. Somalia in another. Even economically successful African countries like Nigeria, South Africa, Ethiopia and Kenya seem perpetually at that Singapore/Somalia fork in the road.

We in the rest of the world *need* African countries to create wealth. Physical wealth — more stuff — as well as human wealth — ideas, art, science, technology.

Without that happening, the world isn’t only poorer but more vulnerable. The major threats to Africa’s populations are the same that affect us all: an unstoppable disease, a natural disaster of genocidal proportions, global nuclear war.

So just as humanity emerged from the Stone Age when tools and the knowledge of how to make them flowed from the African continent to the rest of the world., our 21st century civilization can only advance through free trade with African innovators and entrepreneurs.

Seed and Desist

“Activists in Seattle and London held demonstrations on Monday to protest efforts by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and others to privatize seeds as part of a push to industrialize farming in Africa.”
From: Activists protest Gates Foundation plan for African farmers

Source: The always excellent Humanosphere blog

I get the activists’ concerns and I’m not a fan of Big Boss Organization Saves the World. But most communities in African countries depend on rural subsistence/smallholder farming, and there is no way to stop the disruption of that system.

Nor should anyone want to. Subsistence agriculture is horribly inefficient: it takes a lot of time, is very labor intensive, and it’s very dependent on things the farmers can’t control.

Governments need people to be fed, people want to live well, and companies want to make money. That’s what’s happening. It isn’t “colonialism” — doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about Monsanto and Beijing.

What’s going on is bad business. Monoculture and heavy chemical inputs aren’t smart even when they fill an immediate need for farmers, governments and companies (profit, boosted food yields, signs of economic growth). Shoving people off of their land is a good way to create political unrest; revolutions and coups are pretty bad for business.

The international aid industry is as much a part of this bad system as the for-profit sector: e.g. donated food and goods disrupting local suppliers. Never mind the bullsh*t messaging like what’s in the photograph.

I mean look at the signs in the picture. The “Corporate Takeover of Africa’s Food”? As if “Africa” was this magical cornucopia that can produce resources in abundance without any serious coordinated economic and social organization or technology.

After all it’s not really about food. Food is just one thing — one super important thing, but just one thing. More creation and exchange of goods and services is the real goal. More opportunities. More innovation.

Sh*t costs money, folks. Development means tools, capital, control of the narrative, and a whole mess of other things. That means markets, and structures to operate within those markets. Some of those structures are called companies and corporations, and African entrepreneurs are building them on their own.

That’s good. You want companies that are *grounded* in the community. That’s more likely to be stable, more transparent, more responsive to local conditions. Smart investors should want that too, since it’s less likely their money will go up in a blaze of PR disasters, accidents, armed uprisings or just stupid decisions.

That’s what it’s about: smart vs. stupid, good business vs. bad. Not James Bond Villains trying to take over the food supply.

(Background Image from original article: Activists protest Gates Foundation plan for African farmers)