Hypocrisy and Public Works: Local Perceptions of MONUSCO

The first time I visited Congo, I was talking with a new friend, a local leader in a small community north of Dungu, under his paillote. I had finished interviewing the radio operator there earlier in the day, and we passed some time under the thatched roof, just chatting. Amid casual conversation, joking around, and taking a photo together, one of his entourage who had been sitting with us complained about MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping stabilization mission in Congo.

As a driver for another organization, this man had witnessed the UN helping the LRA in 2010, dropping off rebels and sending them back into the bush. He described this amidst a litany of accusations, from the UN arming the rebels to refusing to let them surrender. I struggled to understand this then, and it received only a small discussion of rumor and violence in my MA thesis at the time. I’ve tinkered around with writing more about it as I continue to work through making sense of how people make sense of MONUSCO’s presence and the LRA’s ongoing activities.

In 2017, I heard a story in the village of Dungumai about a time a few years prior, when the local population there cut down trees and blocked the road in protest of the UN’s complicity in LRA violence. This story was also something I fell into—I had been visiting RTK, a radio station in Dungumai that played “come home” radio messages (the subject of my previous research), and talking with the director there about people’s complaints about such programs. An older couple had stopped by to speak with him, and as we wrapped up our conversation it turned to accusations against MONUSCO. He mentioned this to his visitors, and I ended up hearing a story from a woman as she recalled the protests there. People blocked the road, attempting to stop MONUSCO’s work and hold the mission accountable. “We had heard, but that day we saw,” the director translated for me, pointing emphatically at his eye, “that the UN was helping the rebels.”

This fieldwork trip, I’ve placed questions of MONUSCO at the center of much of my research, because one of my key research questions concerns who people turn to for security and to whom people attribute insecurity. The answer is filled with gray areas as basically everyone that is supposed to protect civilians is also accused of abusing them or abandoning them. Even the one consistent positive answer regarding who effectively protects communities—self defense groups, both ad hoc and organized—have had a history of abuse further south in the Kivus. Attributing security and insecurity to certain actors isn’t an easy task.

The MONUSCO offices in Dungu town, where protests have also occurred.

I’m still working through the transcripts of various short trips I’ve made during this stint of research so far, but during two days back in Dungumai this month I heard the word “hypocrites” used to describe MONUSCO multiple times. “Ils jouent un double jeu,” one person said—MONUSCO plays a double game. Someone else called the peacekeeping force “two-faced” for its declarations of combatting the LRA while it actually helped them. In Niangara town, rather than describe MONUSCO as responding to existing violence, several people associated the arrival of MONUSCO troops with impending violence to come (something Kristof Titeca has pointed out in explaining how people in this region make sense of increasing violence in their midsts as multiple armed actors arrived in short order).

And yet, when I put to these respondents the question of whether MONUSCO should stay or go, an overwhelming number of people in Dungumai said that they should stay, but do better. A few in other communities said they were glad MONUSCO had closed some bases in the region, and a couple said they hoped the peacekeepers would leave altogether. But a vast majority attributed some benefits to having MONUSCO around even as they criticized what they saw as not only complete failure to protect them but a betrayal of this commitment. For many, this ambivalence was attributable to the infrastructure projects that MONUSCO has engaged in, especially maintaining roads and rehabilitating bridges. A few buildings at schools had been constructed by MONUSCO, and some young men had found work with the peacekeeping force as well. Many others pointed to training the FARDC as an important practice carried out by MONUSCO. In short, there were benefits to having MONUSCO in the region, even if those benefits weren’t security.

A playground built by the Moroccan Battalion of MONUSCO in Dungumai.

The main bridge in Niangara, rehabilitated by MONUSCO’s Indonesian Garuda Contingent.

One hears news of MONUSCO packing up in Haut Uele altogether, though recent LRA incidents near and far may push this timeline further back. I should note, however, that such incidents are more than mere coincidence for some of my interlocutors, who wondered aloud why LRA attacks were increasing just as the peacekeepers’ mandate was winding down and now might have to be renewed. “No Kony, no job,” one person said in English, and I’ve heard similar phrases uttered on previous trips here. Allegations of MONUSCO complicity run far and they run deep. For over ten years the LRA has been preying on the population, and for much of that time UN peacekeepers have been performing poorly in countering the violence, in the opinions of people I’ve talked to.

Thus, while the peacekeeping force was under almost universal critique for failing at its primary objective of protecting the population and combatting the LRA, people mostly stopped short of calling for its departure, partially due to the other benefits of MONUSCO’s presence separate from security. To what extent might we think of the UN peacekeeping force as a development enterprise? Especially since several forward bases have closed and the remaining Moroccan Battalion only occasionally conducts patrols these days, the main encounter with MONUSCO seems to be through its infrastructure projects and maybe also its human rights monitoring. Most international NGOs have left the Uele region, and several people lamented being “forgotten” by NGOs and unable to get the attention of the government. But MONUSCO remains (for now), and just a few weeks ago a team of Indonesian peacekeepers smoothed out some of the major dirt roads here in town. How might we understand the public works projects of MONUSCO in the broader context of their mandate and effectiveness?

Advertisements

The High Costs of Microcredit

I’m in two seminars this semester – Anthropology of Development, and Capitalism and Neoliberalism – which often overlap in, as you can imagine, some pretty depressing and enraging ways. From the complicity of NGOs in reinforcing the social networks in Rwanda that were mobilized in the genocide to the ways that U.S. bases employ migrant workers in slave-like conditions [pdf], development and neoliberalism have their share of horror stories on their own, and it’s no surprise that the neoliberal mindset makes its way into the development apparatus.

In my class on development, one of the ethnographies we read was Aminur Rahman’s Women and Microcredit in Rural Bangladesh, which outlines how microcredit programs such as the Grameen Bank actually send their clients into cycles of ever-increasing debt as interest mounts. In typical microcredit schemes, peer pressure acts as collateral as peers in microcredit groups ensure debt repayment in order to continue qualifying for loans. Other forms of pressure, from women of higher status trying to form lending circles or from husbands who want access to capital, also force women into the system and into debt in the first place. Rahman outlines how a program seeking to empower women by providing them with loans actually uses patriarchal mechanisms to enroll them and then ensure debt repayment at all costs.

One of many aspects of neoliberalism has been how people increasingly view things in neoliberal, economic terms that had previously been outside of the market. My class touched on a variety of these issues, one of which was the growing black market for kidneys, where the world’s poor are turning to sell organs in exchange for meager amounts of money and poor health while the wealthy jump over everyone waiting on a donor list, and Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ work to try to document and stop it. As this trade continues, the poor who are scammed into selling a kidney (or who do so out of desperation) wind up with poor health, little money to show for their troubles, and sometimes the stigma of having sold a kidney.

These two specific topics came together in a recent episode of Vice. Featuring anthropologists Scott Carney and Monir Monirauzzaman, the second half of the episode focuses on the kidney trade in Bangladesh, where there are many towns or even families where numerous people have sold kidneys to get by (the first segment, on LBGT rights in Uganda, is also worth watching). The segment, titled “Kidneyville,” features interviews with some the residents of the town of Kalai who have sold kidneys out of desperation. And here’s the connection:

We weren’t surprised to find out that people regretted giving up their kidneys, but we were shocked to hear many say it was to pay off serious debts from microfinance loans which were given to them by local non-profit organizations.

“I took one loan,” one man says, “but that loan wasn’t fully repaid so I took another loan. I became deep in debt.” Another man describes how a non-profit literally took the roof from over his house since he was behind on payments. He then sold his kidney and then bought his roof back from the NGO. One woman describes how the NGO came after her when her husband killed himself because of his indebtedness.

Development programs that send people into debt in the name of helping them get out of poverty, instead committing them to debt cycles that lead them into another incredibly asymmetrical exchange. And selling a kidney still doesn’t get people out of debt to the microcredit groups, but it could cause health problems, making it harder for the poor to then find work and pay off what’s left of their debts.

Why Norway is Great

Today, Norway suffered a terrible attack. An explosion tore through central Oslo, killing seven and hospitalizing almost a hundred more, and a shooting rocked a Labor Party youth camp in Utoya where over 80 young activists lost their lives. I have always thought that Norway was a great country, and it pains me to see this happen anywhere – but especially Norway. Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said that Norway’s answer to the attack would be “more democracy, more openness” and said to terrorists, “you will not destroy us.” Championing democracy instead of war in the face of terror is one way to win my heart.

In addition, Mark Goldberg added to why we love Norway so much:

I have never been to Norway, but I still love the place — and I am not alone. Norway is among the most beloved nations in the international community and for good reason.

Norway has a population about the size of the state of Kentucky. It is the 47th largest economy in the world, putting it between Chile and Romania.Yet, for a country as small as Norway, it is arguably the most generous country in the world.  It allocates a full 1.1% of its Gross National Incometo international development activities. This puts Norway on top of all developed world countries in its relative contributions to global poverty reduction. (By comparison, the United States contributes about 0.2% of its GNI to official development assistance–roughly the same percentage as Greece.)

Beyond its official development assistance, Norway is among the most generous countries in the world when it comes to responding to natural and man-made disasters. When tragedy strikes somewhere in the world, the Norwegian government steps up. Last year, it gave $832,585,693 for crises like Haiti, Burma, and Sudan.  Earlier this month, when UN agencies began to warn of a hunger crisis in Somalia, Norway stepped up with a big relief package.

My thoughts are with Norway, like a lot of people tonight.

The Next Chapter of TOMS Reads Like the Last One

So, this week TOMS made a huge announcement with a coordinated, nation-wide reveal: their expanding beyond shoes. The idea is to expand the One for One model to fit everyone’s needs – not everyone is in need of shoes, but some need eyeglasses, for instance. And, as one might guess, with TOMS revealing a new campaign I thought about revealing a new blog post about it.

The One for One model has spread around, despite TOMS having trademarked the phrase. There are many companies that match purchases through giving, but TOMS still feels like a rock in my Converse. While others have contacted partners in developing areas to work with, TOMS continues the shoe-drop model. As before, my main gripe about TOMS is the lack of sustainability involved in handing out shoes to tons of people who need them. It does nothing to buttress the economy or to help recipients improve their livelihoods – save adding shoes to their wardrobe.

If the next chapter for TOMS included opening manufacturing centers in developing countries and employing people to build and sell the shoes instead of handing them out, that’d be an improvement. Training local people to become business leaders allows them to rise up by their own bootstraps and it provides a new service to the community (if there is a gap in that sector, which there isn’t always). If you decide to add finance training, micro-loans, and other services you’d really be in business.

But the next chapter of TOMS included eyewear. The One for One model shifted slightly with this expansion. Instead of just glasses-for-glasses, it’s eyesight-for-eyesight. You buy a pair of shades and TOMS will either give out glasses, provide prescription medication, or perform eye surgery on those in need. Pretty sweet, right? Well, only kind of. I see some improvement in providing health services, but TOMS isn’t building anything sustainable here. They say that giving people sight will improve education, health, and economy but really, it’s only improving eye sight. The members of these communities will only be impacted in that they can see better and that they will depend more on the next development NGO to roll into town.

Back to that paragraph about sustainability: if you want to buy glasses that do something more than help you see better, try Warby Parker. It’s a company I only recently heard about, so I am not endorsing it, mostly because in some instances they give glasses at the conclusion of a free eye exam, which isn’t really sustainable. But their partner is. VisionSpring does more than provide the glasses – they also train low-income women to sell glasses to people in their communities for $4, even providing them with a eye-care-business-in-a-bag.

The co-founder of Warby Parker used to direct VisionSpring, where he first put together the idea that you can avoid aid dependence if A. the recipient makes the decision to get glasses, and doesn’t just have them given to him or her, and B. the recipient gains ownership over the glasses literally by paying for them. On top of all of that, they help train and employ women who are in need of income. Win, win!

Warby Parker partners with VisionSpring, which is an amazing group – so if you feel like making an impact with your glasses that seems like a better option. If you’re feeling good you can even donate directly to VisionSpring! And – as usual – if you’re going to try to make a difference in others’ lives, make sure it’s a positive difference.

For-Profit or Not-For-Profit?

So, there are two or three things in the Africa/philanthropy/activism field I’ve been meaning to rant about.  This is one, and at least another will follow sometime.   Since they are rants, I apologize for any rambling or over-impassioned writing. Now, onward to companies I refuse to support.

In the philanthropic world, there are a couple of things that are all the rage.  One, is Toms Shoes. A lesser one is Ethos Water, a sub-group from the giant Starbucks Foundation. I have grievances about these two companies.

Toms Shoes is a for-profit company that’s selling point is this: If you buy a pair of $40-90 shoes, we’ll donate a pair to a needy child in South America or Africa. One for one. It’s that simple, and it sells like hotcakes to hipsters wanting to help.

My beef with Toms Shoes has several dimensions to it. When I first  heard about Toms Shoes, it was because my friend Mike was explaining his grievances to an Invisible Children roadie. Since then, I’ve looked more and more into the company and have come to pretty much the same conclusions as Mike.

  • First of all, giving shoes to kids is just not sustainable. When that pair of shoes wears out, they’ll just be waiting for the next trip Blake Mycoskie makes with free shoes. It’s be much better if community development helped empower people with jobs and maybe they could buy their children shoes themselves.
  • But the company is giving away shoes! That’s so genuinely kind of them! NO.  Since it’s a for-profit company, they don’t release credible numbers. But we do know that they outsource production, meaning these $40-90 shoes probably cost a fistful of dollars. The positive press they get for giving cheap shoes away more than makes up for the loss.
  • Want to make this a better model? Make the shoes fair trade. Employ locally here so that American parents can buy their children shoes; or  even better, employ on-site, so that  the local residents get jobs and their children get shoes. Maybe give them some personal finance lessons so that now they’re kids can wear those donated shoes to school. There are so many roads to improvement, but they cost this altruistic for-profit too much money to consider.
  • Youngsters wanting to be a part of something truly good volunteer to work for Toms or to promote the company in places like college campuses. As my friend Mike put it, it’s like Nike having volunteers. A company uses its “good deed” which doesn’t really cost it anything and it gets free promotions and even some free labor out of it, so giving shoes away in Argentina actually saves them a lot of cash.
  • Also, the shoes look okay, but those boots are hella freaky.

Ethos Water is that bottle that you see in Starbucks stores that boasts, right on the bottle in blue letters, “helping children get clean water.” For every bottle sold, the company donates $0.05 to a water-related aid agency that is helping some of the billion people without clean water get clean water.

My gripe with Ethos Water is probably even greater than with Toms. It is also multi-faceted, and I was introduced to my problems when standing in a Starbucks one day waiting to meet a friend. I picked up the bottle, read the label, saw the price, and just about kicked somebody (maybe Peter Thum).

  • For starters, each bottle ranges from $2-4. For one bottle of purified water. I could buy a 24-pack of bottled water at Fry’s for about $3.50. The equivalent in Ethos would be about $100, of which $1.20 would go towards real change-makers. Or I could buy said carton of bottled water and donate $96 directly to programs.
  • With all this eco-friendly craziness going on, you’d think they would at least be good in that regard. Even though it’s made by Pepsi Co, who uses recycled plastic in all their bottles – Ethos Water doesn’t. They introduce new plastics into the world.
  • Starbucks bought Ethos Water for $8,000,000. To date, Ethos Water has donated $6,000,000. That’s just a fun fact.
  • Another fun fact: one could donate $100 to Charity Water and do some good. To get $100 to affiliated groups through Ethos Water, you’d have to buy 2000 bottles, or spend $4000-8000 dollars. And you would be creating all that  plastic waste in your wake.

Now, I don’t mind for-profits that send a little to a charity, like when Yoplait collects yogurt-tops for Breast Cancer awareness (my grievances with the Breast Cancer awareness cause [re: industry] aside) or others. These are companies choosing to send a portion  to a cause. I don’t support companies founded on pathos and espouse this cause and misuse the disadvantaged to get your cash. My favorite, of course, is the non-profit sector. These non-governmental organizations actually do work, and many are transparent about how their money is spent. Not all are ethical, many have too much overhead (but that’s a blogpost for another day) but they  at least have a mission statement and are  restricted by NGO requirements.  So, if you feel like giving shoes to kids or building a well in a rural village, do it in a better way please. Or just don’t tell me about it.

EDIT: All links should be fixed. Sorry, I’m forgetful about HTML rules.