Tuesday, July 11

Interpreting Africa news: neither sing nor cry

Africa usually makes it into US headlines on the strength of bad news so Pundita yearns to leap for joy when a ray of good news on Africa escapes to the front page. But after a few years of Africa watching, one learns: Africa is Africa. Drought, blights, tribal wars, vast wealth up for grabs, a rigid pecking order, ruthless contempt for those at the bottom of the rung. Yet if all that provides the warp of Africa's weave the irrepressible creativity, entrepreneurship, and pluck of Africa’s people is the woof.

I thought of the weave while reading this week's Sunday Washington Post's front page (early edition, I think) story In War-Torn Congo, Going Wireless to Reach Home -- For Poor, Cellphones Bridge Digital Divide by Kevin Sullivan. The article is quite long but because I am reluctant to inflict the Post's registration process on Pundita readers I republish the entire report in a Pundita post all its own.

If you are interested in bringing democracy to rural areas of the world, the impact of cell phone technology on the lives of the poorest, or just hungry for good news about Congo during their post-war era, you will be riveted by Sullivan's well-written article.

But there is a problem with the report: Sullivan's description of the World Bank-led $200 million program to buy back guns and retrain the Congolese warriors who laid down arms. It is too hopeful and in stark contrast to the UK Guardian Observer’s July 2 on-site report, Congo's jungle terrorists disband by Rony Carroll. The report is a typical mixture of good and bad news from Africa: The brutal mayi-mayi militia has disbanded but now faces the wrath of the civilian population they ravaged for a decade. Carroll passes along short words for the vaunted Bank-led program that Kevin Sullivan found hopeful:
In recent weeks other [former mayi-mayi] commanders have led barefoot bands to demobilisation centres which are supposed to distribute clothes, blankets, a radio and $110 (£60) to each combatant, the prelude to vocational training and transition to civilian life. Despite $200m of World Bank funding, the demobilisation is a shambles, say UN officials. Kits and cash are being delivered late or not at all and few of the promised courses in baking, tailoring, farming and mechanics have materialised. Many of those who surrendered, in effect, have been abandoned.
I think the truth of the situation is somewhere in between a shambles and a positive development, but I present the other side to underscore the care needed while interpreting news from Africa. Here is part of Kevin Sullivan’s account about the same program::
. . .[cell phone] technology is also being used to create peace, as with a program to disarm more than 150,000 men and women who fought in Congo's gruesome war.

One recent morning in downtown Kinshasa, Fiston Disundi walked up to a little white Celpay cash point booth and handed over his government ID.

The woman in the booth entered his ID number into her cellphone and sent a text message to Celpay's computer database. Ten seconds later the response came back. Disundi, 27, was a former soldier who had turned in his AK-47 rifle in January. That meant he was entitled to a monthly $25 cash payment, which she promptly handed over to him.

The World Bank, Britain, France and other big donors have put up $200 million for the year-old program, designed to turn Congo's warriors into wage earners. So far more than 75,000 people have handed over their guns in exchange for job training and a cash incentive: an initial $110 payment, followed by monthly $25 payments for a year.

Initially, clerks using thick account books with handwritten entries were having trouble making the thousands of payments efficiently. So, in February the program contracted with Celpay to modernize the process.

Disundi said when he received his first two $25 payments, he waited nearly six hours in long lines while clerks dug through record books to find his details. But when he went to the Celpay booth recently, the transaction took less than a minute. The system also confirmed that Disundi was where he was supposed to be: Ex-combatants must agree to stay in their home regions rather than gathering with others in hotspots. [. . .]
So it would seem that at least the buyback portion of the program is having success in areas where ex-combatants have access to Celpay (Sullivan describes the company in the article). This leaves the job training aspect of the program up in the air.

The warp is not so easy to spot in a report that Dymphna at Gates of Vienna blog found a few weeks back at the Acton Institute’s Power Blog. She sent the article with the careful observation that the news looked “interesting.” On the surface, the report seems good news:
Ecumenical News International (ENI) relates the launch last month of a new initiative in Africa, designed to “to mobilise a strong African voice in development.” The effort is called African Monitor and is led by the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, Njongonkulu Ndungane.

Anyone who spends much time at all looking at the economic development situation in Africa quickly realizes the lack of independent, nongovernmental, native voices. As African Monitor states, “This African civil society voice can thus be seen as the too often missing ‘fourth piece of the jigsaw’ alongside existing stakeholders of donor governments and institutions; their African counterparts; and donor-based NGOs and civil society.”

African Monitor’s mission is to begin to fill this need: “African Monitor is an independent body, acting as a catalyst within Africa’s civil society, to bring a strong African voice to the development debate, and to raise key questions from an African perspective.” The initiative represents a truly unique and much needed enterprise, since before the creation of African Monitor “there was no existing pan-African network that can provide such a catalyst across the sub-Saharan region, and taking a perspective across aid, trade, development and financial flows.”

In his address before the opening of the group, titled, “Let African Voices speak out for effective action on Africa’s development,” Archbishop Ndungane emphasized the need for accountability and true follow-through on the part of donors and developed nations: “We saw that Africa’s grassroots voices, currently marginalised and fragmented, could be harnessed to pursue these ends, and that faith communities, the most extensive civil society bodies on the continent, could provide the backbone of networks to bring these voices into the public arena.” [. . .]
All very hopeful, to be sure, but there is a slightly different cast to the Africa Monitor’s reason for existence when we turn the keynote speech at the May launch of the first African Monitor workshop. From the wording, it sure doesn’t look like they’re trying for independence. It looks to Pundita as if the African Monitor was set up to monitor programs that the United Nations has approved as part of their Millennium Development goals.

In other words Pundita suspects the African Monitor is another front for the scoundrels at the United Nations. Of course that is prejudging but through bitter experience Pundita has learned to assign guilt at the beginning so she can be pleasantly surprised if a minor miracle occurs.

I will be happy to apologize profusely if I'm wrong on this one. But burned in my memory is a photograph of a plump, richly dressed African regional official beaming and accepting a UN-related award for a village development project. Behind her stood a group of unsmiling, skeletal-looking village women wrapped in rags.

This is a good time to remind Pundita readers of the Africa blogs by the courageous and hard-working Ingrid Jones. Ingrid is one of the 2005 winners of the prestigious Pundita Weblog Awards, which was given for her Sudan Watch blog (see sidebar). But Ingrid covers more than the situation in Sudan. If you also want to keep abreast of human rights-related events in Congo, Ethopia, Niger, and Uganda, stop first at Ingrid's blog by that country's name, which I will be listing on the sidebar when I snatch a moment.

Congo Watch
Ethopia Watch
Niger Watch
Uganda Watch

Why don’t we end on a hopeful note by taking a gander at pictures of the first working model of the $100 laptop for the “One Laptop Per Child” program, which Ingrid posted at her Niger blog here.

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