Time for a Narrative Hackathon

Last year I felt that something like a nationwide “Public Testimonies about the Others Who Hurt Them” was coming.


It hasn’t happened on a grassroots level, so instead it is coming from Washington DC — straight from the swamp to your drinking water, so to speak.

On the one side is President @RealDonaldTrump’s “Victims Of Immigration Crime Engagement office, or VOICE.”

http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/28/politics/donald-trump-voice-victim-reporting

On the other side is the “Saved by American Immigrants National Taskforce” or “SAINT”, proposed by Rep. Jared Polis.

http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/28/politics/donald-trump-voice-victim-reporting

I think there is a better way to do this. The D.C. approach will dramatize the pain already packaged in political agenda — basically just providing ammo to every opportunist and sociopath hunting prey in the political and personal environment.

This isn’t just about pain even though pain definitely matters — the pain people feel and the pain people feel played a *huge* role in the election choice between Sanders, Clinton and Trump.

But what is constructive about sharing pain is what *story* we fit the pain into. That’s how we fight the evils inside us and in our society: what makes you feel pain and what makes others feel pain.

One approach I really like is inspired by the Remembering the Ones We Lost movement in South Sudan. People post (anonymously or not) the names of those killed by the ongoing civil war or its consequences (hunger, disease, etc.) This website and the surrounding movement has accomplished what millions of foreign intervention has not — catalyzed a powerful non-partisan peace movement. That movement has created space for a real national identity to fight the deadly “tribe against tribe” idea that has killed so many over the past 50+ years.

http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/28/politics/donald-trump-voice-victim-reporting

Well if it works in South Sudan, you can be *damn* sure that something like it will work in the USA. Our “tribe against tribe” takes a different form but it kills and maims just the same, and with the same consequences: lives lost and wealth destroyed.

Another thing I want to experiment with is a “Narrative Hackathon”: a collaborative contest to rewrite the current narrative, the current paradigm (as the excellent Donella Meadows points out, this is one of the most powerful leverage points: https://www.thesolutionsjournal.com/article/leverage-points-places-to-intervene-in-a-system/).

In some ways this is what is already happening organically with Social Media, and the rest with Nature (environmental changes moving us and our wealth around the globe, a very physical feedback mechanism). That’s why we have a confluence of some very populist presidencies alongside some very dramatic increases in demographic change and communications technology — more friction, more reactions, and more ways to describe both.

But I think we can do it in a Contest/Hackathon format as well. Get the right participants from a diverse range of backgrounds and political alignments, give them the right incentive (cash? prestige?), give it the right sponsors and structure…and bam.

Or we can just let the “best worst choice” factory up in Washington D.C. keep doing what it’s doing.

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.

“CONFORM TO MY FRAMEWORK!”

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

What NPR Won’t Let You Say About South Sudan

South Sudanese are “warring tribes of superstitious yahoos”. We need to send more American Peace Corps volunteers to “teach them about such things as public sanitation, proper nutrition…and birth control.” South Sudan’s problems are a result of “Muslim hegemony.”

These are the NPR-allowed comments underneath the article “Nothing Is Going Right In The World’s Newest Nation”.

Just don’t say anything about the pitying-patronizing tone of Western journalism towards South Sudan or its addiction to “conflict and poverty” porn.

Just like Mad Max at the Oscars, Right?

Don’t challenge the article’s assertion that “South Sudan needs a definitive end to its civil conflict before it can solve any of its other problems.” Certainly don’t mention that trade between communities could help create peace.

Don’t bring up the successes of South Sudanese challenging this “helpless victim” narrative — such as the farming cooperative that sent South Sudan’s first export to the USA, the cooperative that built the country’s first maize-grinding mill, or the women who showcase their art at fashion shows in LA and New York.

Don’t mention that South Sudan’s conflict has “start” and “end” points outside the cramped boundaries drawn by foreign observers. So don’t mention a hostile geography and climate (good for diseases, hard on mammals), violent collisions with other civilizations (neighboring tribes, the Egyptian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, then the British Empire), or the mixed results of post-colonial foreign intervention of aid, armed forces and diplomacy.

And whatever you do, don’t try to change this status quo.

The Cruel Emptiness of “Peace by Proxy” in South Sudan

[Note: This post has been modified for tone and accuracy.]

There’s is quite a lot more to the domestic realpolitik South Sudan and the spirit of the South Sudanese people than the author and other journalists seem aware of.

Author Austin Bay at Townhall.com demonstrates this critical misunderstanding when he calls President Kiir’s reformation of South Sudan’s 10 states into 28 “another example of a leader and his elite cadre undermining a political agreement that would have halted an impoverishing war”. (Source: South Sudan’s President Undermines Peace Deal, http://townhall.com/columnists/austinbay/2016/01/27/south-sudans-president-undermines-peace-deal-n2110499)

Mr. Bay is wrong, at least about the viability of the agreement, and possibly naïve if he thinks South Sudanese rebel leader Riek Machar would not violate (or let be violated) a peace agreement if it would give his faction an advantage over that of his rival President Kiir.

In fact the failure of the United Nations, USA, U.K., et al. to see the reality of South Sudan has directly led to the country’s current level of violence. A similar misunderstanding tainted the 2014 peace agreement so wholly disconnected from the facts — it would certainly not have halted the war, since it ignored the needs of South Sudan’s communities while neglecting both the war’s real causes and the means of negotiating a real peace.

— –

Before South Sudan became a nation in 2011, “South Sudan” was an identity ascribed to a confederation of sub-Saharan ethnic groups. What mainly united that confederation was the response to an exogenous threat: South Sudanese opposition to the depredations of the northern Sudanese (enslavement, deliberate economic underdevelopment, etc.)

The title of “nation” followed independence and the South Sudanese have in them the promise of great things. But the reality — the confederation — was pulled apart by endogenous conflicts of interest.

On one side of those conflicts, elites were maneuvering to monopolize control of land, natural resources (mainly oil) and other commercial interests. On the other side were communities mobilizing for what they had fought for at such great loss: economic opportunity, public services (medical care, education), political representation, and peace most of all.

Both elites and these agitated communities knew the use of violence (or the threat thereof) to succeed where bargaining failed to deliver results. It’s not just human nature but also a strategy that had just won the South Sudanese their independence.

The playing out of these conflicting interests (especially elite maneuvering) hampered the already complex challenge of fulfilling South Sudan’s obligations to its communities a difficult environment: scarcely any physical infrastructure (roads, telephone, electricity, sanitation) or economic investment. Sudan’s government (as had their predecessors the Egyptians and Ottomans) succeeded at keeping South Sudan as deprived and isolated as possible.

Greed and need forcing an irreversible escalation of violence, resulting in another civil war: this was the greatest threat facing the young nation of South Sudan. Working against this return to war was — together with the indomitable will of the South Sudanese people and what oil revenue remained after Sudan’s predatory pipeline transit fees — a massive program of foreign aid, loans, and charities.

For a while it seemed this combined effort would keep the nascent South Sudanese nation moving forward. South Sudanese communities were finding peaceful solutions to local conflicts (e.g. over land and cattle). Landmines were being removed so farmers could work their land. A new generation full of hope was taking advantage of the peace by going to school, finding work and starting their own businesses.

— –

Perhaps too many bad things happened at once, or not enough good things happened in time. Investors were slow to put money into a newly formed African country. The global price of oil continued to fall. Neither the South Sudanese government nor local organizations nor international aid groups could meet demands for basic services. Tensions rose between the two leading political factions, who were also the two largest armed ethnic groups.

The fighting began in Juba and then moved to the northern states. Like Europe during the Thirty Years War, there was massive destruction of lives and property by the two main armies and quasi-aligned militias driven by opportunism (using the war as a pretense to seize property) and legitimate grievances (retaliation or defense). Communities drawn into the conflict would form new militias, attack one another, link up with a larger army, disband or switch factions.

The violence spawned further violence even as it deprived the war of oxygen. Eventually the main armies depleted their own financial resources, the fighting totally disrupted oil production and the international community imposed sanctions (of debatable effect) against leaders on both sides of the conflict. The lack of funds was hampering each faction’s ability to pay (let alone equip and feed) their regular forces. Militias aligned with one side or the other were frequently switching sides in pursuit of money or the promise of political favors.

What brought the warring parties to sign a deal in 2014 wasn’t a mutual commitment to peace or that the agreement seemed viable. It was a mutual expectation of funding and support from the International Community.

President Kiir needs both in order to keep the support of his army and deliver at least a minimum of government services to the people of South Sudan. Likewise with Dr. Machar; though he would just as willingly ride into office on a tank, a ballot blessed by the International Community is a more comfortable way to travel (and he wants to inherit the country intact).

— –

If an earlier lack of money stopped the worst of the fighting in South Sudan, a continuing lack of money will start the fighting again.

No matter how loudly the USA, the United Nations and the U.K. call attention to the signed 2014 agreement, the only way the heads of South Sudan’s leading groups can cement a new confederation for peace is a negotiated distribution of political offices and money. President Kiir’s and Dr. Machar’s factions see each other as mortal threats to themselves and the nation of South Sudan — for now, anything less than a balance of power with room to maneuver an unacceptable alternative to the battlefield.

That is the only alternative to a resumption of organized violence, since an Iraq-style regime change by U.S. Marine Corps is out of the question. “Plata O Plomo” (silver or lead, i.e. the bullet or the cash) — this is what researcher Alex De Waal calls Africa’s “Political Marketplace”.

Yet there is little money coming from the West even though it was promised as a “carrot” for signing the 2014 peace deal, because the condition for the “carrot” — i.e. the formation of a government — is unmet. In any case the West’s promised carrots rarely materialize in the Sudans — ask a South Sudanese about American private sector investment or a Khartoum official about reduced economic sanctions and removal from the “State Sponsors of Terrorism” list.

Money from South Sudan’s petroleum industry is likewise insufficient, since the international oil market is still tanked (and Sudan still takes the majority of South Sudan’s oil revenue as transit fees). Even China and the United Arab Emirates have stopped writing checks.

This is the real context of President Kiir’s ordering the redesign of South Sudan’s 10 states into 28. It adds more bargaining chips to the table (and replaces a previous configuration that was insufficient to prevent the last war). Kiir’s government has also unpegged the South Sudanese Pound from the US Dollar in order to restore Dollar reserves. An added bonus for President Kiir: these measures don’t just put more on the bargaining table — they also provide money for his faction’s war chest.

Still, even this negotiating ammunition cannot achieve peace in South Sudan. As long as the parties lack sufficient money and political offices the negotiation will remain stalled, the peace agreement will remain unimplemented and the threat of a return to largescale fighting will come closer to fruition.

As long as the parties lack sufficient money and political offices the negotiation will remain stalled, the peace agreement will remain unimplemented and the threat of a return to largescale fighting will come closer to fruition. There is no “Peace by Proxy” and reality will not bend to a document signed out of convenience rather than conviction.

— –

Peace among South Sudan’s warring parties must be bought with money and political power. Only in that purchased peace would the parties have opportunity to try trusting one another in the game of political Give and Take.

Perhaps too in the breathing room afforded by that peace, the communities of South Sudan could create something better than their current government. They certainly have the right to do so — along with the natural resources, character, imagination and spirit.

Previewing “We Come as Friends”

I’m looking forward to seeing — rather, getting provoked by — We Come As Friends when the local Film Society screens it in September.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E0MgQLk2OCQ

Art is art. But I already see the film as an artwork of “narrative colonialism”, where the dominant story about South Sudan is still the story told by the West.

That’s how it appears from the trailer: the music that triggers a feeling of tension or drama, the West’s “confrontation” with China, the exotic dress and architecture of South Sudanese people, the Western stereotypes like the heavily accented American evangelist.

Oil companies, multinational institutions and Jesus freaks aren’t the real story in South Sudan. It’s like if you made a movie about democracy and business in the USA, and you focused on Donald Trump. He’s loud. He’s controversial. And he’s largely irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.

There is much more going on South Sudan besides oil and USA-China geopolitics. South Sudanese know this. As the National Geographic points out, we’re all dead if we can’t find a way to inclusively and sustainably develop the natural resources of countries like South Sudan. Especially food resources.

The West needs to stop pretending like South Sudanese aren’t real people who want the same thing as them — a mediocre but minimally financially sufficient job that leaves enough time for leisure.

The movie seems to cast sensationalist tint over South Sudan. It fits in with popular Clooney/Prendergast initiatives like Satellite Sentinel and the newly announced Sentry, which watch and itemize the destruction of lives and property in South Sudan without any mechanism for actually stopping the violence.

What does such a movie accomplish? Watch! Get excited! Get angry!
And then…what?

Will this sort of story build bridges between ordinary Americans/Europeans and South Sudanese? Help them see one another as peers?

Will it make it easier for ordinary South Sudanese to run their farms or businesses, by getting them cash or tools or mentors?

Will it help the audience’s break out of this image African countries as unchangeably dangerous, exotic, alien landscapes full of strange characters?

Will it treat the South Sudanese like real people who want to live their lives, rather than figments of the narrator’s imagination?

Why the US Government Won’t Stop Arming South Sudan

A recent FP article asks, “Why had Susan Rice been blocking [an arms embargo against South Sudan]?” 

What the FP article doesn’t touch on is what has become lost in the South Sudan Narrative: that one of the main reasons the Bush Administration pushed for South Sudanese independence was to retard military support for American enemies. It’s not unlike why the Reagan Administration helped the South Sudanese rebels in the 1980’s – they didn’t want South Sudan’s rebels going Soviet like the Ethiopians. Moral considerations *do* play a role in both instances, as far as opposing the wretched treatment of Black Christian South Sudanese, but States think like States, and States don’t believe in God.

In this case Sudan/Khartoum had supported Osama Bin Laden (that’s why we bombed a factory in Sudan) and Muslim Brotherhood activity against U.S. ally Mubarak in Egypt. Now Sudan/Khartoum is happy to trade in arms, intelligence, etc. with the Iranian government, militants in Libya, and other groups Washington D.C. sees as opposed to U.S. interests.

South Sudan has an overt and a covert role in this situation. Overtly, an independent South Sudan keeps Sudan very busy. Sudan/Khartoum has toned down their “bad guy” behavior towards the USA since South Sudan’s independence because (a) the USA promised to take them off of the “supporter of terrorism” list and open up U.S.-Sudan trade, and (b) South Sudan has all of Sudan/Khartoum’s oil.

Remember that just two years ago South Sudan *invaded* one of the oilfields in Sudan, and South Sudan’s government is supporting anti-Sudan militants in areas like South Kordofan (and even in Darfur).

So I imagine it’s a very difficult situation for whatever portion of the U.S. Government’s brain is looking at South Sudan. They can’t support a civil war, and South Sudan certainly has that on some level. But Big Issues get priority and the War on Terror is still a bigger issue to Washington D.C., and they don’t want South Sudan completely shifting over to the Chinese.

They also don’t want South Sudan’s government to fall to a rebel military takeover, because there are too many “baddies” that want to nibble at South Sudan’s fringe: the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda/Central African Republic, Janjaweed militias in Darfur, militants in in the Central African Republic, and even some honest-to-goodness Islamist militants coming up from the Congo/Uganda area.

Of course, this kind of crisis is why people like me burn all their brain cells trying to get more attention/investment/support for the rural communities. If people are growing food and can participate in economic growth (i.e. not just see their country’s GDP grow with oil revenue while they sit out in the cold), they don’t support militias and criminal organizations.

With that in mind, it is especially irritating that the U.S. Government can’t block South Sudan from getting weapons as easily as it could drop South Sudan from AGOA (when there is no U.S.-South Sudan trade, and when AGOA trade could actually directly engage rural communities with constructive benefits for everyone).