Procrustean Policing in South Sudan

African cultures have remarkable myths about how the mortals and immortals of ancient eras begat today’s nations. Take the story of South Sudan: one day a family of many-headed divine beings (called the United Nations and the Troika) said “Let there be South Sudan!” There was a clap of thunder, a sudden downpour of rain, a rumbling of earth, and suddenly a people came to life. The “breadbasket”. The “world’s youngest nation”.

Rubbish, you say? Maybe. But then why do so many Policy Makers act as if the land and people of South Sudan first came into being in 2009 or 2011 — or as if the current destruction of lives and property is a war that began only in 2013? Why do people talk as though the ongoing conflict starts and ends with Dr. Machar and President Kiir?

[The International Community fails to understand] that violence does not emerge out of nowhere […that] the context of 2013 is anchored on decades of violence, inter and intra-ethnic communal clashes, and the proliferation of small arms, all against the background of three civil wars within half a century […that] the memories of many citizens goes way beyond 2013 and digs deep into the annals of history of their grandfathers and mothers[…]that leaders around a table do not represent citizens…
Ferdinand von Habsburg-Lothringen, The complex history of violence in South Sudan”

Habsburg-Lothringen nails it in his excellent post: the governments of the USA and U.N. member nations have a flawed understanding of who the South Sudanese are and what they want, not just in the current SPLM/SPLM-IO conflict but in the South Sudanese enterprise of creating South Sudan.

This is more than a failure to start development with the people who are the true intended beneficiaries. It’s more than a failure listen to the voices of the poor — the poor in material wealth, in economic opportunity and in political power.


This is a violent disenfranchisement, simultaneously recognizing the creation of a country while denying that country’s people control over their own lives.

Like Procrustes who mutilated his guests so they would fit in his tiny bed, the International Community is the Procrustean Policeman cutting South Sudanese out of their own country.

[We] have filled the spaces with our frameworks…The UN, the NGOs, the diplomatic community and donors over the past decade showed little or no interest in local and national dialogue processes, treating them as side shows of their own programmes that place technical support, economic deals and domestic policy in the forefront.
– Ibid

An International Community-abetted imbalance of power — not a planned “kleptocracy”, contrary to the claims of Op-Ed Development Gurus like John Prendergast — is responsible for the current destruction of lives and property in South Sudan.

Before 2011 the South Sudanese government (from the national level down) was an unbalanced structure built on an unstable foundation: whatever local governance and social cohesion the Ottoman, Egyptian and Sudanese did not deliberately destroy, the British Empire accidentally undermined.

This situation was not helped by the “technical language” and framing of International Community engagement with South Sudan. It favored Elite-controlled interests (war, oil revenue distribution, national government allocation of services and materials, etcetera). Money and power flow according to those lines, while the IC denies oxygen and legitimacy to local efforts at peace, commerce and governance.

This imbalanced South Sudan tipped into upheaval in 2013, in the aftermath of the Global Recession and the combined shocks of falling oil prices and climate change.

Apparently the U.N. and Troika can generate peace talks and investment conferences, but not peace and investment.

Source: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013)

“So what do we do?” That’s a good question if you embrace the idea that South Sudan’s story is a collection of complex and nuanced phenomena, and you actually care about helping South Sudanese improve their quality of life (thus improving yours).

I think a good start is shifting the locus of control from the Dr. Machars and President Kiirs firmly into the hands of those with the most at stake and the most incentive to halt the destruction of lives and property.

To borrow language from the What Went Wrong Foundation, this means “helping locals influence how aid affects their lives, becoming agents of change in their own communities.”

One idea is to look at the tradition of conflict resolution among South Sudanese. This is not the “political marketplace” described by de Waal but what happens at the community level to resolve disputes over cattle raids, territory, brides, etc.

A step up from that is to look at those named in the article: “the South Sudan Council of Churches, the Committee for National Healing, Peace and Reconciliation and other local and national processes […] key to underpinning peace and reconciliation long into the future.”

Another idea is for members of the International Community to put more money behind more local business initiatives.

For example, South Sudanese beekeepers made 4+ tons of honey their country’s first export sale to the USA in 2015 and Honey Care has been a reliable buyer for South Sudan’s honey since before 2013.

USAID’s planned 3 year $3.18 million investment in South Sudan’s coffee industry is a good start. But one can imagine the difficulties facing South Sudan’s coffee startups if more established African coffee growers (producing almost 25% of coffee worldwide) already struggle with challenges from climate changes, farmer access to finance, under-fertilized soil, working with many small farmers rather than larger plantations, etc. (For more on that, check the International Coffee Council’s 2015 report).

With the imminent formation of yet another precarious Kiir-Machar government (the underlying conditions haven’t changed), perhaps the USA and others should build off of what the local communities really want.

Otherwise there seems little to deter more South Sudanese from again taking violent action against a system that is neither theirs nor looking after their interests.

Source: Daily Mail/AP

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?

Pope Francis, Adam Smith and Eve, and God’s Invisible Hand

Finally getting around to reading Pope Francis’ speech in Bolivia. Maybe I just hear what I want to hear, but I’m not seeing this as anti-West or anti-free market (unless one reads Adam Smith as having the same prejudices).

Personally I think he is trying to speak ethics to the political-economy. If he is using language that sounds familiar to followers of the Left and Right political movements, it may be because that’s his primary audience. That is the population most prone to violent abuse by one side and demagoguery by the other. (See also: the history of Communist and Fascist regimes in Latin/South America, Africa, Europe and Asia).

The points criticizing “profit at any price” “capital [becoming] an idol] are right on. Capitalism is just a system; what really matters is creation and trade. Capitalism is only useful and morally justified when it facilitates more creation and trade, more markets, and more people’s access to goods/services. Otherwise you are indeed making Capital a fetish.

“Profit at any price” works another way. It’s not just externalities — those extra costs that aren’t explicit. I buy gas from Citgo and it funds the Venezuelan government’s crackdown on human rights activists. I buy a cell phone and support the exploitation of child miners.

It’s also losing sight of the real profits, the way more people would benefit in more ways. That’s called economic growth. The real kind. Not just when you bump up your GDP because you reclassified digital Whatsits as real Widgets.

I hear Francis apply the same criticism to aid when he says that “Welfare programs geared to certain emergencies can only be considered temporary responses [that] will never able able to replace true inclusion, an inclusion which provides worthy, free [non-compulsory], creative, participatory and solidary work.”

I.e. there’s something wrong if the international system that creates refugee camps but can’t stop the wars that make refugees, that profits from exporting food to hungry populations but not helping those populations grow their own food.

And how to you change the system? Francis has a suggestion: “Let us say NO to forms of colonialism old and new.”

Colonialism in Francis’ eyes is not just exploiting people, but denying them respect as human beings. It’s as wrong to physically enslave someone as it is to treat one family like they’re just consumers of your products, another like they’re just nameless faces for your fundraising campaign.

Not to mention justifying all sorts of heinous abuse in the name of “austerity”, “the war on terror”, “wealth inequality” or whatever banner the State wants to wave over yet another pile of corpses.

Don’t let someone tell you that safety, happiness and prosperity come when you grant a Government or Company more control over your life and property.

But what about a religious institution? Personally I worry that the Church is part of the same system of “great leaders, the great powers and the elites” that so tightly control humanity. It is likewise vulnerable to the abuses of power.

What’s the alternative? Francis says “Let us say YES to the encounter between peoples and cultures. Blessed are the peacemakers.”

That is what’s at the heart of the real human economy, the real civilization. It’s only in more person-to-person, community-to-community engagement that we can have a more just and efficient “administration of our common home.”

I agree with the Pope that this is possible. We have the natural resources, the intellectual capacity, and the technology. We have generations ahead of us to figure this out.

Of course there’s still the problem of “heart”. Obviously Francis sees the Church at the core of this turn towards a better world. He’d be a terrible Pope if he didn’t.

Corrupting the Anti-Corruption Movement

With respect to John Prendergast, Africa’s biggest challenge is not “the nexus between massive corruption and violent conflict” and we have got to get out of the paradigm that defines Africa as especially violent, corrupt and helpless.

Why do some still call for a more military- and intelligence-based U.S. engagement with African countries? Did U.S. surveillance drones “bring back their girls” in Nigeria? Did U.S. arms and training given to South Sudan’s army prevent the current civil war? Did U.S. support for the ouster of Qaddafi “fix” Libya?

We keep looking for Africa’s emergencies instead of looking at the emergence of African countries. African countries whose populations are getting richer, healthier and more educated while their governments evolve in a more democratic and more capable direction. African countries whose main killers are diseases like malaria and HIV/AIDS — not militias.

We mustn’t turn this into another crisis that makes African countries look helpless and weak. That inevitably leads to giving money to contractors and consultants who “know how to fix it” and putting more resources and credibility into the hands of elites.

That’s the opposite of what the Obama Administration should do, if the goal is to curb corruption by strengthening the citizens’ control over their own government.

Instead, we should put the money directly into local businesses and local organizations. Don’t route it through the government. Set up a matching investment/grant fund with the African Union and other pan-African institutions. Help African customers and producers move out of the informal sector — where they are most vulnerable to abuses of power.

We should promote what’s already working: African solutions to African problems in an African context. Last year a Nigerian police officer was filmed on a cell phone camera asking for a bribe — why not support the development of mobile-web services to report and document corruption? Keep the tools to fight corruption in the hands of those most affected by the consequences.

And for more ideas, host a forum where Africa’s watchdog groups discuss what U.S. companies and agencies can do. Not the other way around.

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.