Blackface For Good: Only With the Right Foundation?

Is there ever a “right way” for someone to make themselves up in Blackface? Nope.

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But is there a difference between (a) the inherently exploitative act of Blackfacing and (b) experimenting with cultural and cosmetic aspects of identity in an equitable, inclusive, constructive, and respectful way? I think the answer to that one is “Maybe“, but I’m a European/American White guy. Continue reading “Blackface For Good: Only With the Right Foundation?”

Save the White People

The irony of “White Saviors” in Africa is that if anyone needs saving, it’s White people.

That’s my reaction to TMS Ruge’s wonderfully provocative “Your White Savior Complex is detrimental to my development”.

Tiny Violin for the White American male

I say this as a member of the world’s Most Persecuted Minority — the White American male gun-owning registered Republican descendant of a Confederate war veteran — whose first African aid experience was a textbook “land grab”.

I say this as someone currently investing most of his time and money in African country startups.

I also say this as someone who thinks his children (or realistically, his friends’ children) will have a worse life if we don’t correct the “geopolitical imbalance” TMS talks about.

***

Forget human dignity and “we are the world” ditties. White people need saving because of what drives the unstoppable American and European interventions in African countries, and what makes African countries so vulnerable to those interventions.

What I’m talking about is a ruthless universe that would implacably watch humans reduced to dust by an asteroid, suffocated by ozone degradation, frozen by an absence of sun, or entirely consumed by organisms (likely tiny bacteria rather than massive reptiles).

You can call it Mother Nature. You can call it God’s judgement. You can call it Michael Bay’s next movie. TMS calls it the “geopolitical imbalance”, something that started geographically and continues politically.

Human migration since the African genesis (Source: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0603/feature2/map.html)

The first humans in Eurasia and Africa started off with the same intelligence, fitness and biological impulses — heck, the first humans in Eurasia *came* from Africa. Temperature and terrain just helped the former get further, faster, then helped them exploit that advantage over the latter. Nations sent armies and administrators to secure the natural resources, slaves and strategic positions to enrich themselves and fight one another.

Some things have changed and some haven’t. Nations (sometimes even United Nations) still invade one another with soldiers and bureaucrats towards the goals of commerce and competition. Some of the intervention takes the form of aid. Arguably even with “aid” it’s Americans and Europeans, especially those with White skin, who reap most of the benefits of this system.

Left: European-held Africa before World War I. Right: The Roman Empire’s holdings in north Africa (Source: Google)

Left: Where the UN is or has been deploying troops (Source: Telegraph) Right: Where the OECD provides assistance as of 2005 (Source: Google)

***

You might ask why White people need saving if they’re benefiting from this system that excludes and handicaps everyone else. This is where “reciprocity” comes into play — what America/Europe are getting from African countries and vice versa. At best White Americans/Europeans aren’t benefiting as much as they would if this were a less imbalanced system, and at worst they’re facing extinction.

The “best case” argument is a matter of principle. We all benefit when more people are more able to make and trade things — art, scientific advances, food, goods, services, etc. If air conditioning and vaccines aren’t argument enough, then take computers. You can imagine a world where someone besides Jobs and Gates “invented” the computer, but where would we be now if we didn’t have computers at all?

The “worst case” argument is an even worse off world than one without Twitter and Xbox. When the next Ebola or strain of untreatable flesh-devouring MRSA comes, do you want more scientists with more technology…or fewer?

Do you want to see more wars and refugees…or fewer?

When the next Global Financial Crisis comes, you want an economy that’s more diversified and resilient…or less?

When another would-be Al Qaeda or Daesh/ISIS or Boko Haram or Al Shabab starts advertising, do you want them finding more recruits and more opportunities to carry out attacks worldwide…or fewer?

When the next Qaddafi or Kim Jong (or Trump) clone makes a bid for power, do you want them challenging a stronger liberal democracy and a more economically well off citizenry…or not?

***

Changing this “geopolitical imbalance” and making it work more towards everyone’s advantage is a “kind of change” that matters, to borrow again from TMS. As part of the nascent Austin, Texas social enterprise scene (6,000 nonprofits and counting, God help us), I think it’s a “kind of change” worth paying attention to.

Filmmaker Cassandra Herman and others are looking at the inefficiencies of the aid narrative: the ideas that “Africa is a country”, that poor Africans need someone to “give them a voice”, that Africa should be the first destination for an idealistic young American, etc.

My starting point is acknowledging this: that my being able to invest time and money in another country is indeed a privilege, and that this privilege is a result of what my parents did and what country I live in and where my genetic ancestors did some thousands of years ago.

If I was going to be reductionist, my simplification would be that “trade” is more important than “aid” because “aid” is itself a business and an exchange of goods and services. It’s all part of the same international market as oil and salmon and iPods. That market is very inefficient and distorted and it needs improving.

If time and money are things everyone has available to trade — and if White Americans/Europeans have a competitive advantage there — let’s make ways to invest and trade those things for better outcomes.

A few other notes:

  • The halo around “nonprofits” and devil horns on “for profits” are bogus. This framework incentivizes people to launch nonprofits that should be for profit ventures, and launch nonprofits that are harmful, poorly planned and/or unhelpfully redundant.
  • It shouldn’t be easier for me to get a $10,000 grant for printing Bibles than to raise $5,000 to invest in a good African startup. The United Nations, USAID et al. shouldn’t be spending millions on aid programs that subsidize the worst habits of bad governments. I shouldn’t be able to fly 8,000+ miles and get a job teaching children in a country where trained local teachers are unemployed. A bright college educated Ugandan shouldn’t depend on a foreign NGO for employment.
  • “Patient capital” and “social impact investment” sound good, but if you tell people their options are to do something good or make money, you’re building an unhelpful bias into your system. We need a more inclusive and descriptive definition of “social impact”. There are good businesses in African countries whose social impact is providing quality goods/services and steady employment (and “steady” means without dependence on donors or grants).
  • Empowerment sounds nice, but we need to distinguish between “here’s a goat and a micro-loan” power and “here’s making your vote actually affect the country’s financial system and here’s a local bank that you can actually afford to borrow money from” power. Micro-lending and micro-enterprises are nice, but unless you’re talking about semiconductors and nanobots, is anyone really getting rich or even less poor at the “micro” level?
  • Look at how much money gets spent on “buy one give one” products like Tom’s Shoes, projects like Jeffery Sachs’ Millennium Villages, misguided products like the Play Pump or Socket, and the Fair Trade premium paid for goods like coffee. What if we took the same privileges and motivations that make those investments possible, and gave people an option to directly invest in a shoemaker’s company in Zambia or a solar generator mechanic in Mali?
  • How do we make this privilege of being able to invest more of a “norm” — i.e. more common rather than the prerogative of White Americans/Europeans?

America’s new African Power Grab?

It’s easy to joke about the USA’s new Power Africa/Electrify Africa initiatives being a reboot of the Milton Friedman/Jeff Sachs “Shock Therapy”. The one that did such damage…I mean wonders…in Russia and other emerging economies.

Here’s why it might not be so funny: the USA is about to make control of African oil/gas and military operations the core of its new Africa policy, and that oil/gas is coming from the same countries whose resources China wants to monopolize.

A Powerful Headache

With nearly 600 million Africans without electricity, this legislation, originally offered in the 113th Congress, will leverage public and private sector resources to extend electricity access throughout Africa, to help 50 million Africans with first-time access to electricity and to add 20,000 megawatts of electricity to the grid by 2020. Source: Corker, Cardin Reintroduce Electrify Africa Bill

The Power Africa initiative has the goal of creating 10,000–30,000 Megawatts of electrical capacity by 2020 (yes, five years from now). Presumably any effort to meet that 20k MW goal will involve some combination of nuclear, oil and gas. (To put things in perspective, the largest nuclear plant in the USA has a capacity of 3,937 Megawatts).

It’s ludicrous that the U.S. is going to mastermind the generation of 10–30k MW using primarily green/renewable energy (unless you count nuclear). American companies do *not* lead in green/renewable energy. That’s not our forte.

Neither is successfully handling African economic and foreign policy.

America’s only significant import from Africa countries is oil and the USA has been divesting itself of African oil/gas for years. There has *never* been a strong U.S. position in African countries unless you count religious missionaries and the Aid Industry. The economic, political and military involvement never mattered much outside of North Africa, which has always been grouped together with the Middle East as far as policy makers are concerned.

Perhaps that’s why U.S. government interventions in Africa are rarely successful, aside from humanitarian aid (an astonishing mix of helping and harming at the same time) and anti-AIDS/HIV programs like PEPFAR.

Recent examples:
* Backing the ouster of Qaddafi leading into the current Libyan civil war and the attempted overthrow of the Malian government
* Backing the South Sudanese secession from Sudan, leading into the current South Sudanese civil war
* Failing to capture Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony

Costs and Benefits

Not to fear though, because the primary U.S. private sector partner in Partner Africa is General Electric. They’re going to get a lot of U.S. government money, on and off the books.

General Electric will be perhaps the biggest beneficiary of that $7 billion in U.S. taxpayer funds that Obama says will underwrite Power Africa[…] G.E. CEO Jeffrey Immelt, who until early this year chaired the president’s Council on Jobs and Effectiveness, is accompanying Obama on his Africa trade mission. Immelt will clearly appreciate a financial backstop from Uncle Sam.”
Source: Obama’s ‘Power Africa’ Plan Greases Billions In Deals For General Electric

One can be certain that G.E. is taking the lead on this incredibly sensitive political-economic issue because of their unshakable ethics. Never mind that whole “oil for food” deal they made with Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq.

The infrastructure needed to construct and feed those plants is huge. Not to mention the extraction and processing of the fuel. We’re talking huge companies. A casual estimate is $300 billion, and since the estimates for massive projects are virtually always low-balled, one can only imagine what the real costs will be.

The ostensible beneficiaries — the citizens of African countries partnered with Power Africa — certainly can’t foot the bill. Perhaps their governments will take our more million dollar loans from the IMF or the World Bank, and then use that money to pay U.S. companies for their services.

High Tension Wires

Huge contracts. Huge government involvement. Not to mention huge security operations. Those are three “Huges” that make me nervous when we’re talking about massive U.S. government intervention in African countries.

The track record isn’t great. The major conflicts underway in African countries are almost entirely driven by political/military elites fighting over resource wealth (gold, petroleum, et al.).

Yet USAID and the Obama Administration describes Power Africa as an initiative to “build local capacity”. Sounds about as “local” as the U.S. Department of Africa defines “organic”, i.e. “it means whatever the hell the policy makers want it to mean.”

Where is the fuel going to come from? It’s not like the USA going to export its own oil/gas to the African continent. The suppliers will be resource-rich African countries like Libya, Nigeria, Angola and South Sudan. All of those places have either oligarchic-authoritarian governments, militant insurgencies, or both.

Now combine all that with the ongoing U.S. military buildup on the African continent as detailed by journalists like Nick Turse and plenty of local observers in African countries.

Oh and this is all on the continent upon which rests the newly announced American “pivot to Asia”. China imports 23% of its oil from African countries. Minerals make up about 80% of China’s annual $166 billion trade with African countries.

What you get is a U.S. Africa policy that is based on extractive resources, authoritarian governments and military force in competition with the USA’s main military rival, on a continent where the USA has weak strategic footing.

What could possibly go wrong?

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