08 September 2014

Falling the way you lean

Returning to our earlier conversation about violence, the GBAV suggested that food insecurity was not a significant contributor to violent conflict, positing that, “while there is an association between lethal violence and hunger (as measure by the prevalence of underweight children under five), it is not statistically robust”. But I think that might miss the boat a bit; historically, food insecurity has been the straw that broke the camel’s back in many a volatile situation. When you then layer climate change and demographic shifts over a topic that’s already intricately linked to politics and conflict, really fascinating things happen. Moreover, at some level, it’s just fun to talk about. I mean, this topic has everything: resource wars! Sugar wars! Miracle fruits! Land grabs! Anoxic dead zones! Conflict chocolate! Bread intifadas! Agflation (it’s that thing where agricultural price increases drive up core inflation rates)! And DRC is smack dab in the middle of it.

But first, let’s get a bit of context about food security generally. Globally, nearly 100 million people do not have enough to eat. This is not an evenly distributed burden; 65 per cent of world’s food insecure people live in India, China, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, Ethiopia, and, yes, DRC (it’s always a little weird to me that several of these are troop contributors to the UN). Each year, more people die due to hunger and malnutrition than to AIDS, TB, and malaria combined.

Given how tremendously inventive people are when it comes to killing each other, it really shouldn’t be surprising that food has routinely been leveraged in war. Most immediately, we’re seeing this technique employed with devastating efficiency in Syria, though in Sudan the government has also been known to purposefully bomb rebel areas at harvest time, while for their part, the rebels tend to raid humanitarian convoys for food aid targeted at IDPs. Indeed, the use of food as a strategic weapon has a proud martial history. Texts as venerable as Sun Tzu’s Art of War and Vegetius’s De Re Militari advocate denying the enemy food. What else is siege warfare by man-made famine by another name?

Now that we’ve established food insecurity as an agent of violence, let’s turn our focus to how it also engenders conflict. Equal parts unfortunate and unsurprising, we have a wealth of precedent to work with here, too. Most often, though, here it goes the other way. Food insecurity as a result of conflict tends to be imposed by a conquering force or despot. Food insecurity as a driver of conflict instead seems to spark populist outrage.

Take the so-called bread intifada of 1977. It stemmed from an attempt, begun three years earlier, by Anwar El Sadat to open Egypt’s economy to outside investment. The full set of reforms, or Infitah, called for de-nationalising a variety of sectors and ultimately cancelling roughly 30 million USD worth of subsidies, especially on food. Only a day after the roll-back on subsidies was announced, demonstrations erupted in the streets. There were factory walk-outs, clashes with police, acts of sabotage including the cutting of railway lines, looting of hotels and other institutes associated with wealth. Within just two days, rioting had broken out in most major cities across Egypt. “Shocked by the intensity and rapid spread of the protests, the government cancelled its economic decrees …after only forty-eight hours. In an attempt to contain unrest, it ordered a military crackdown and deployed army units in to the streets who responded to unrest ferociously. Fighting continued until the next morning.” Between the rioters and the viciousness of the police response, some 800 people were killed and hundreds more injured.

The bread intifada was just one instance of violence from the period, which actually saw as many as 200 riots in 40 countries, most of which were blamed on the IMF (it and donor countries demanded budget cuts to ensure continued support, and food subsidies were among the first things to go). What became known as the ‘IMF riots’ were actually a diversity of events that included demonstrations, looting, and in at least two instances (Sudan and Peru), regime change.

Craving more history (go ahead and procrastinate)? How about the French Revolution and one of the most infamous (if apocryphal) food security faux pas of all time? “Throughout most of the pre-industrial era, French peasants existed at the subsistence level.” The aristocracy, like many modern dictatorships, strictly regulated the grain market in order to ensure that it was affordable, thus ensuring a pliant peasantry. Even so, grain and bread riots were “extremely common in this period. Though often limited in size and scope, these riots sometimes spilled out across an entire region, sparking uprisings in different towns and villages.” It was a bread riot that resulted in the fall of the Bastille on 14 July 1789 and fear of further rioting that forced the fledgling regime to deal harshly with those suspected of hoarding bread. Turing to a History Chanel stand-by, a desire to secure greater food resources for the home country also played a role in both the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the German incursions into Poland (1939) and the USSR (1941). Why someone would bother to invade Russia in the winter in search of food is quite beyond me, but there you have it. Reportedly, both the ancient Mayan and Anasazi peoples experienced higher levels of conflict due to food shortages.

In the majority of these examples, food insecurity was not the lone driver of conflict. Rather, it was gasoline on burning embers of resentment. I say resentment because significant violence very rarely comes from those who are truly starving – those people literally do not have the energy to fight back. Rather, populist riots more often come from perceived inequalities (relative deprivation rather than absolute). In fact, most instances of food-related instability occur after ‘agflation’, or a sudden rise in a given agricultural product independent of other economic factors, usually as a result of subsidies being dropped or tariffs imposed. It doesn’t really matter whether or not Marie Antoinette said ‘let them eat cake’. What is important was that people felt the leadership was out of touch. Consistently when it comes to food, perceptions trump reality. When food – or similar consumables like water or fuel – become abruptly more expensive without a comparable increase in wages, the regime is blamed (deserved or no) and bedlam follows.

If you want to predict where political instability, revolution, coups d’etat, or interstate warfare will occur, the best factor to keep an eye on is not GDP, the HDI, or energy prices,” but the price of grain (I think I already linked to that article, but it’s still a keeper). A sudden deprivation of food has a way of throwing other injustices and abuses – corruption, repression, ethnic tensions, etc. – into stark relief. To paraphrase Cervantes, it seems that without sufficient bread, all sorrows are worse. Such was the case in the recent anti-government protests in Venezuela and Thailand. On a grander scale, 2007 and 2008 saw a rather dramatic rise in the cost of staple food items including rice, wheat, and corn. “Between 2005 and 2011, world prices for rice, wheat, and maize rose 102, 115, and 204 per cent, respectively, according to the FAO.” In response, there were riots in countries ranging from Haiti to Bangladesh, from Mozambique to Italy.

Relative food insecurity has also been pegged as a precipitating factor in the Arab Spring (so, food shortages sparked a conflict that ultimately has resulted in the use of famine as a weapon of war. Life is funny like that), as the first demonstrations occurred in response to food price hikes in Algeria and Tunisia. In Egypt, of bread intifada fame, “by 2011 food and fuel subsidies accounted for a staggering 8 per cent of Egypt’s GDP. Hosni Mubarak’s government could no longer afford to feed his population into submission. Even with subsidies, grain prices jumped 30 per cent in Egypt between 2010 and 2011.” States that were able tried to head off their own instability by increase food allocations. Kuwait, for example, announced that it would celebrate the anniversary of its liberation from Iraq by granting every citizen more than 3,000USD and free food for 13 months. This is a pretty extreme, and terrifically literal, example of the bread and circuses paradigm in action and woe be to the autocratic government that can’t do the same (they could, of course, try to liberalise a bit and let the humanitarians come in and take the edge off. Call it the Myanmar principal).

If we take as a given that resource shortages – especially abrupt scarcities among essential commodities – can lead to social unrest, what does that mean for the future (stars, but I’m really into rhetorical questions of late)? For most political theorists, the answer is nothing good, especially in the face of two seemingly inescapable trends: demographic and climate changes.

Sometime in the near future, we’ll have a more in-depth discussion of global demographic patterns, especially shifting gender imbalances. For the moment, however, let us content ourselves to these three observations: (1) global population is increasing; (2) it is growing more affluent; (3) it is urbanizing. Put another way, the global middle class is expanding – it could as much as triple in the next 40 some odd years – and it is, as the middle class always has, claiming as a right what has traditionally been a luxury, like meat and dairy in every meal. In half that time, the demand for food and fuel is expected to double. This is not a criticism – having access to affordable health care, decent living conditions, sufficient food, etc., are all good things (though it is creating the very strange effect of obesity epidemics in food-insecure states. Is anyone else sensing the perfectly manicured hand of Dr. Raven Sable and his CHOWTM?). Unfortunately, the amount of arable land or water resources are not expanding in time with the size and taste profile of population (quite the opposite) and, thanks to that wildly thorough history lesson we just had, we know what happens when people are abruptly deprived of a commodity to which they feel entitled.

Water is perhaps the best illustration of this. On an annual basis, the supply of drinking water as provided by natural precipitation remains more or less constant: about 40,000 cubic kilometres or…a lot of gallons. Unfortunately, most of this precipitation lands on largely uninhabited areas – think Greenland, Antarctica, Siberia, and inner Amazonia – so the supply available to the rest of us is often surprisingly limited. Even were it accessible, the consistency of the supply of drinking water runs afoul of a population with ever-mounting demands for both personal and industrial uses, resulting in a situation of relative scarcity. The same is true of food, since that’s been the topic of the day. Corn yields in the US and rice yields in China have ‘flat-lined’ in recent years, suggesting that we might have topped out the amount of food that can be grown on the land currently in use even as the global demand for the same continues to increase. Danger, Will Robinson!

But these demographics are honestly nothing (at least to my mind) when compared to climate change. It is not an exaggeration to state that all aspects of food security are potentially affected by climate change. In fact, can we pause for a moment and consider just how horrifying climate change has the potential to be? A recent IPCC report on the subject (the UN: not always worthless) paints a pretty dire scene, illustrating how climate change is projected to decrease potable water (basically, even rain water will be too toxic to treat into drinkability), breathable air (as increased tree mortality and forest dieback result in anoxic dead zones posing risks for carbon storage, biodiversity, wood production, water quality, amenity, and economic activity. Seriously – how traumatic is that sentence?), arable land (and other kinds, what with most of the world’s coasts soon to go the way of Atlantis), food (with toxic rain, anoxic dead zones, and sea-bead farmland, is that even surprising?), energy, and numerous, numerous other critical consumables. It’s 100+ pages of voices crying out in a wilderness that soon will no long exist (and my PMs think I’m bananas to request that we start thinking about how to ‘green’ our projects for future proposals…pft).

Generally, when one discusses climate change and violence, it has to do with the more structural aspects. What are often referred to in development work as the ‘most vulnerable’, that is, the impoverished, refugees and IDPs, the disabled and infirm, the elderly, often women and children, etc., are also the most vulnerable to climate change. Per the UN report, people who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally, or otherwise marginalised are especially vulnerable to climate change and also to some adaption and mitigation responses. They will not have the resources or capacities to absorb the shocks of climate change, like the loss of agricultural livelihoods, reduced access to potable water, or increase of certain, climate-sensitive illnesses (cholera and malaria come right to mind).

But there are some outcomes of this issue – basically, that there isn’t enough food/water/oil to go around – that are a lot more immediate in terms of conflict. I think it’s easy to get hyperbolic about these things sometimes, but as a particularly vivid writer at The Nation warns us:

          Two nightmare scenarios – a global scarcity of vital resources and the onset of extreme climate                      change – are already beginning to converge and in the coming decades are likely to produce a tidal                wave of unrest, rebellion, competition, and conflict…experts warn of ‘water wars’ over contested                river systems, global food riots sparked by soaring prices for life’s basics, mass migrations of climate            refugees (with resulting anti-migrant violence), and the breakdown of social order or the collapse of              states. At first, such mayhem is likely to arise largely in Africa, Central Asia, and other areas of the                underdeveloped South, but in time, all regions of the planet will be affected.

I keep waiting for there to be a Chicken Little joke in this article, but no, it was presented in earnest. Even so, it does point out that scarcity in one area can lead to conflict in another. A timely example can been found by taking a peak at the fraught world of land grabs.

Land grabs, for those not in the know, are instances of land acquisition that, to some extent, cause displacement, dispossession, and disenfranchisement, or pass purchase of agricultural land by external entities. Put another way, land grabs occur when an entity that does not live on/work a given parcel of land – say the national government – sells that land to another external actor – like another country or a transnational corporation – without consulting the local population or reimbursing them for their losses or resettlement. For clarity’s sake, let me make explicit that, in these cases, there is NO BENEFIT to the local population, who are almost uniformly impoverished (their lack of political power makes their rights less important to the state and thus more easily violated – what ho, structural violence!) and women (I think I already said something about lacking political power and structural violence?).

The perpetrators of land grabs are varied but, as you might expect, include comparatively wealthy, food-importing countries (Saudia Arabia and China) and transnational corporations from even more affluent states (Europe and the US, mostly). The former tends to purchase land so that they might more cheaply meet demand back home, while the latter tends to use the parcels to source biofuels. This might have a wiff of neo-colonialism about it, and with good reason. It’s frequently lumped in with other forms of ‘commercial colonialism’ and can have extensive negative consequences beyond creating food insecurity and economic IDPs, allowing external actors to co-opt the entire supply-chain. Water security is compromised for locals, in competition as they suddenly are with massive agricultural needs. Further, farming on this scale often creates pollution and chemical run-off which can contaminate additional water sources. In order to clear large tracts of land for industrial farming, hundreds of square miles of forests might be burnt or swamps drained, all of which reduces biodiversity. It has occurred predominately, though not exclusively (Chinese firms previously purchased a plot of land the size of Luxembourg in Argentina, as well as about giver per cent of the total territory in Ukraine. Russia should take some lessons in acquisitions), in Africa, where over 40 million hectares of land have been purchased in Sudan, Ethiopia, and Sierra Leone, to name but a few.

To bring into stark(er) relief just how problematic land grabs are, let’s look at those latter cases a bit closer. In 2010 Ethiopia was home to 2.8 million people in need of emergency food aid, yet this country had concurrently sold more than 600,000 hectares of agricultural land to transnational companies that export the majority of their produce. A separate deal inked with Saudi Arabia and worth 100 million USD offered centennial leases to grow and export rice, wheat, and barley. Meanwhile, the WFP has spent 116 million over 5 years in emergency food aid. Apparently, no one in the Ethiopian government has taken an economics course. Like, ever. Upwards of 30 countries and companies have leased land within Ethiopia. Meanwhile, in Sierra Leone, the EU firm Addax Bioenergy promised that, in exchange for 40,000 hectares on which to grow crops for use as biofuels, they would employ 2,000 persons they had displaced and promised that the swamps included in their purchase would be protected. Instead, the swamps were drained and only 50 jobs created.

For our purposes, though, the most interesting attempt at a land grab can be found in Madagascar. There, in 2009, Daewoo Logistics, a South Korean agriculture firm, leased half the island’s arable land. The details of the agreement were astounding – the land would be rent-free, all of the food grown would be exported, and the displaced farmers were not to be compensated. The people rioted, ultimately resulting in a coup.

Even the US intelligence community is starting to take notice. In March of last year, the Director of National Intelligence identified ‘competition and scarcity involving natural resources’ (his specific use of the term ‘resource shocks’ had definite notes of agflation) as potential national security threats on a par with global terrorism, cyberwar, and nuclear proliferation. For what it’s worth, though, it will most likely be some time before the US feels the pinch of food scarcity (with the exception of foodie staples like limes and avocados). One in that slew of articles linked to referred to it as the Saudi Arabia of grain (Iowa alone grows more grain than all of Canada!), which is both nicely evocative and suggests a future in which we focus on feeding ourselves and leave the rest of the world to burn.

27 August 2014

From my inbox

I'm still preoccupied by trends in violence and will return to that soon enough, but this appeared in my inbox this morning and I can't help but share:

No touching of dead antelope or snogging of live gorillas - check!

You do have to admit to being a bit impressed - within a day or so of two confirmed cases 1000km away, the local MoH is already papering the town in preventative literature. If you had to pick a massively underdeveloped and conflict-torn country in which to sit out an Ebola outbreak, Congo would be a pretty solid choice. After all, they've been dealing with it since the 1970s. As our staff doctor noted in a 'let's not panic, people' presentation to the staff this morning, Ebola was discovered in Equateur Province (that's where the confirmed cases are). It was even named for a local river. I did think he was getting a bit cheeky when he suggested it would be stranger if there weren't a handful of active cases there, but his point was well taken.

Even so, the staff has mostly opted to cease greeting one another with a hand shake or head tap (have I mentioned how the Congolese tap temples - left, right, left - as a particularly affectionate greeting? It's rather like a very aggressive bis). Instead, we've been tapping our feet. I'm unconvinced about the efficacy of this as a preventative measure, especially after we'd all been sitting shoulder to shoulder and singing in one another's faces, but it seems to amuse the staff, so what the hell. Foot taps for everyone!

25 August 2014

Storm chasers

We were talking about violence – let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

The world is not going to hell in a hand basket, at least not immediately and despite considerable evidence to the contrary. Most measures of violence, including conflict and homicide, are exhibiting positive trends on negative trajectories. But this might be because we’re looking at the wrong horizon; we could well be missing the storm gathering in front of us as we’re too busy looking back, congratulating ourselves on what we just survived. It doesn’t necessarily follow that violent acts will continue to diminish, and even if they do, there will still likely be blips and backsliding and periods of man’s inhumanity to man that will need to be addressed by the international community (one hopes. The stunning failure of R2P has really left me disheartened, as did this suggestion. HAS HISTORY TAUGHT US NOTHING ABOUT PARTERNING WITH MONSTERS?! DO NOT ACCEPT THE PRINCE AS YOUR IR DOCTRINE, OBAMA). We can (again, hopefully) anticipate these same blips and plan out our reactions accordingly by analysing current trends in violence. So what are these trends, and how do we use them to forecast what awaits in the clouds before us?

Let us start with the excellently thorough Global Burden of Armed Violence from the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development. This sucker is the gold standard in discussing violence, along with the Small Arms Survey, and it deserves a much closer read than I gave it. The discussion that follows is, in the interests of full disclosure, mostly taken from the 2011 report, but some stuff from 2008 might have snuck in here.

Where the findings from the HSR were mostly rosy – things have gotten so much better over the past 10,000 years! – the GBoAV strikes a more measured tone, informing us that “at least 526,000 people have died directly or indirectly from armed violence – both conflict and criminal violence – every year in recent years (for what it’s worth, this was down by some 200,000 from 2008). One in every ten of all reported violent deaths around the world occurs in so-called conflict settings or during terrorist activities.”

Two quick notes about their data – first, they only use direct conflict deaths, though they do acknowledge that indirect conflict deaths (like those from conflict-related malnutrition and hunger, cholera, measles, and other preventable causes of morbidity and mortality) are “certainly the largest portion of the burden of conflict deaths.” A conservative estimate of the indirect/direct ratio is 4:1. And the case study for this? Our own fair Congo (though the next time around, it will probably be Syria), where at the turn of the century the International Rescue Committee “launched a major effort to better understand the human costs of armed conflict in the DRC.” Based on some six surveys that stretched from 1998 to 2007, IRC estimates that 5.4 million people died as a result of conflict. That is a staggering number of people in a very short timeframe; possibly without precedent in a nation that is no stranger to death on a grand scale (here is where I again suggest the excellent King Leopold’s Ghost, which explains that during its stint as the personal fiefdom of King Leopold and immediate aftermath – a period that stretches roughly from 1880 to 1920, the population of the territory was reduced by at least half. Half of what, you rightly wonder? “Only in the 1920s were the first attempts made at a territory-wide census. In 1924 the population was reckoned at ten million, a figured confirmed by later counts. This would mean that during the Leopold period and its immediate aftermath the population of the territory dropped by approximately ten million people,” most of whom died from ‘indirect’ causes including disease, exhaustion, and malnourishment). The primary approach IRC utilised to determine its death toll was a ‘verbal autopsy’ – a randomized household survey (it cost a heroic amount of money and gets our Health Advisor riled up whenever OCHA demands to know why we don’t have more specific M&M data). A number of folks – including our friends at the HSR Project – have challenged this figure and the use of survey-based approaches to calculating mortality rates, claiming that IRC overestimated ‘excess deaths’ by almost 60%. Without getting too much into the nitty gritty (too late now!), it boils down to an argument over baseline crude mortality rates (CMR). For what it’s worth, the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters calculated a CMR in line with what the IRC was using, though they did note that “the overall CMR in all provinces in the DRC has decreased or remained stable over the past decade”, which only makes sense, as the lion’s share of the high-intensity conflicts have abated.

It’s a bit hypocritical of me to point the above out, considering I was so blithely dismissive of structural violence last week, but it is what it is.

Second, the report is necessary limited to recoded conflict deaths. They have a fascinating case study of Yemen in this regard – basically explaining that their own statistics for Yemen are profoundly undercounting violent deaths. I frequently bemoan how difficult it is to get people to care about Congo, but yikes, is Yemen even a profoundly forgotten conflict (you should probably go read about it. I’ll wait).

So, steadfast in the knowledge that the numbers we’re working with actually rather dramatically downplay the costs of conflict in human lives, let us move forward. Though the global average of violent deaths is about 7.9 per 100,000, at least 58 countries “exhibit violent death rates above 10” and account for almost two-thirds of all violent deaths. “Of the top 14 states most affected by armed violence (with violent death rates exceeding 30 per 100,000 population), only five have more than 1,000 conflict deaths in an average year (Colombia, DRC, Iraq, Sri Lanka, and Sudan).” Put another way, the majority of violent deaths (90 per cent!) do not occur as a direct result of conflict or in a conflict setting. Even so, one-third of the most violent states were either actively experiencing an armed conflict or had recently emerged from one and both kinds of violence (conflict and non-conflict, as if that was all that mattered) disproportionately impact the developing world, especially Africa (both) and Central and South America (non-conflict, in this case homicidal violence).

Yet another note about methodology (I’m super into semantics for some unknown reason): as you observant readers might have noticed, the report makes a distinction between conflict deaths and ‘intentional homicides’ that occur in a non-conflict environment. So…what is it when you have a homicide in an IDP camp, for example? In reading the GBoAV, I was reminded of an incident in Kabul when a series of shootings near our based sparked security warnings out the wazoo, but ultimately turned out to be more of a Hatfield/McCoy thing than insurgent action. “It is often difficult in fragile and post-conflict contexts to determine whether a death can be attributed exclusively to organized or interpersonal violence, or to political or economic motivations. Killings that are believed to be motivated by political or economic objectives may be the result of both or neither. In countries ranging from Afghanistan and Yemen to Mexico and Nigeria, the merging of organized criminal violence with armed conflicts of varying intensity renders a simple binary distinction between ‘conflict’ and ‘non-conflict’ meaningless.” How illuminating.

What are a few of the somewhat more concrete trends that the report teases out? Most violent deaths (as many as 60 per cent of all homicides) are the result of firearms. Most victims of violent deaths are men, though that varies dramatically by region. “In ‘high-violence’ countries, women generally account for about 10 per cent of the victims, while they represent up to 30 per cent in ‘low-violence’ countries. This suggests that intimate partner violence does not necessarily rise and fall with other forms of armed violence, and may not decline as other forms of armed violence are reduced.” Isn’t that peachy? Kidnap-for-ransom is a growing phenomenon, with approximately 1425 cases reported in 2007 in Latin America Asia, Africa, and the Middle East (this is a bit the problem with this field. I look at 2007 and say to myself, sweet fancy pants, this data is ancient! How can I possibly blog about it? Which is both somewhat valid and completely ridiculous, as the report was only published in 2011 – so, not ancient – and is intended to be cumulative. It’s rather like that time in grad school that I was dinged by a prof. for not updating a paper to include an analysis of events that had occurred the morning said paper was due).

One development that enjoyed quite a bit of print space in both the GBoAV and the HSR before it is the upswing in non-state violence. In fact, this is one of the few trends that is not decreasing in either comparative or absolute terms and most conflicts today involved at least one non-state actor (depending on how you define it, this category can include such a profoundly diverse group of characters as the army formerly known as Blackwater, Los Zetas, ISIS, and, for good measure, the LRA. No wonder it’s so sexy). Oddly, it seems that non-state conflicts are also becoming some of the most intense. Per the HSR – “battle deaths from non-state armed conflicts increased more than threefold from 2007 to 2011.” I think this one captures so much attention in the academic realm because of its implications for the state system; there’s a lot of speculation that we’re witnessing the dissolution of the state’s monopoly of the legitimate use of violence. Harkening back to the last post, were this trend both real and sustained, it would undermine Pinker’s first critical explanation for our march toward utopia. But it’s not just Pinker – this goes back to Weber as a necessary condition for the modern state-centric system. This reading is perhaps a touch hyperbolic – I don’t think that our use of the state as the foundation of the international system will end any time soon, but I do think it explains why so many states stagnate.

On the flip side of the coin, we have a goodly number of states non-legitimately using their monopoly on violence (in the coming years, I think it will be absolutely fascinating to read about how the militarisation of American police plays into this narrative). “In some regions, the state (or state agents) commit or are implicated in acts of armed violence. At least 30 states register more than 50 reported extrajudicial killings per year (at the time, that list did not include the US). Forced disappearances occur ‘frequently’ in more than a dozen countries and ‘occasionally’ in 20 others (from what I could tell, the US was also not included in these totals, despite our heinous and profoundly illegal tendency to render people and their families).

The HSR reminded us that, though state-sanctioned violence might well be waning, “governments often are the greatest threats to human security when the turn against their own citizens.” This alone forces me to remain sceptical of their entire ‘better angels’ argument; as long as the international community is willing to allow a despot to starve literally hundreds of thousands of his own people to death with little more than an tut-tut and artificial lines in the sand about how all of those people are killed, there are no angels. It’s not even putting a Band-Aid on a lost limb – it’s walking past someone who was just hit by a car and murmuring that someone should really call 911, and you would, but you just can’t use your minutes for just anything.

In a finding that is not altogether surprising, but does sometimes require reinforcement, GBoAV notes that “the aftermath of war does not necessarily bring a dramatic reduction in armed violence. In certain circumstances, post-conflict societies have experienced rates of armed violence that exceed those of the conflicts that preceded them.” This ties back into the link between violence and development. In what is a depressingly well-established cycle, conflict undermines development which can lead to rises in criminality and inter-personal violence which in turn tend to coalesce into formal conflict. Indeed, post-conflict states run a 20-25 per cent risk of relapsing into war. “So long as such countries must contend with high youth bulges (exceeding 60 per cent of the total population), soaring rates of unemployment, and protracted displacement, the risks of renewed armed conflict remain high.” (And we’re going to look at some of these aggravating factors soon, mostly ‘cause I’m a little bored and find conflict drivers fascinating). The report goes so far as to caution us that, when one observes a drop in violent deaths in a very recently post-conflict society, it might well be that the conflict in question demolished the surveillance mechanisms which would allow for an accurate tally of homicides and other violent deaths.

Let’s dig into this recidivism a bit more (I baked some brownies this weekend, so I’m well-provisioned to approach bleak topics). We’ve already talked about the conflict cycle somewhat, if I remember right, but it’s still really interesting. For one thing, it’s not a given for many people that the conflict cycle is, in fact, circular at all: many analysts see it as a linear movement from conflict to underdevelopment. “In almost all cases, armed violence generates negative consequences for people’s quality of life and the achievement of the MDGs” across pretty much all the indicators, including HIV/AIDS prevalence, while drops in violence are reflected in improved MDG performance. Moreover, the more intense the violence (generally measured in numbers of deaths), the larger its development gap. “Repeated cycles of violence over the past decades are linked to high poverty rates; in countries experiencing ‘major’ violence at any point during the period 1981 to 2005, poverty rates are, on average, 20 per cent higher than in countries that were minimally or not affected by violence.”

But does it go both ways? “At the micro level, there is mounting evidence that individuals, households, and communities affected by certain forms of armed violence – especially war – tend to underperform in social and economic terms. Similarly, a number of macro-level assessments demonstrate how states plagued with underdevelopment are particularly susceptible to disproportionately high rates of violence.” That would be a yes, then. It’s also worth noting the absolutely staggering economic costs of conflict, which fly a bit in the face of that old chestnut that war is good business. “The annual economic cost of armed violence in non-conflict settings, in terms of lost productivity due to violent deaths…could reach as high as USD 163 billion – 0.14 per cent of the annual global GDP.”

The conflict cycle isn’t exactly rocket science and its whys and wherefores are quite logical: states with epidemic levels of violence spend lavishly on armed/police forces rather than social or economic programming; the aforementioned loss in worker productivity due to death and displacement; actual physical damage to infrastructure; loss of FDI... “In proportional terms, countries that register lower levels of human development exhibit more violence….taken together, approximately one-fifth (19 per cent) of the world’s population resides in lower- and medium-income countries experiencing high and very high levels of lethal violence.”

Elaborating on this theme is the knowledge that “when examined in the aggregate, it is obvious that the global burden of armed violence is weighted unfavourable against the poor. The large majority of the estimated 526,000 people directly killed each year as the result of armed violence reside in low and medium-income settings.” This is especially true with regard to non-conflict armed violence, as high homicide rates are often tagged to extreme poverty and hunger, lower primary education enrolment, and high infant and child mortality. Taken together, the data suggests that violence is not simply correlated to absolute poverty, but to inequality. “Indeed, the higher the concentration of income among the rich, the higher the total levels of homicidal violence (US, I’m looking at you).”

That’s quite a bit of information to digest, and it really only scratches the surface of the scholarship out there. So how is a humble if forward-thinking humanitarian supposed to plan for the next global hotspot? I think the simple answer is that you really can’t. As with so much of social science, the topic of trends in violence is something of a kaleidoscope: ten scholars look at the same set of situations or statistics, and somehow managed to generate 18 theories on the major factor underpinning it and double that number of forecasts or recommendations. We’re all hammers in search of a specific kind of nail.

I didn’t even bother to wade into the discussions surrounding the ‘democracy recession’, conflict minerals, political inequality, internationalisation of intrastate conflicts, etc. etc. All of these are worthy topics deserving of deep reflection and analysis, and I’m not going to do that at all. Instead, we’ll next explore some of my preoccupations – climate change and demographics (I like food and am a chick). In the meantime, have a brownie on me and try not to think too much about conflict chocolate.

15 August 2014

The winding road to utopia

Beware – rhetorical questions, ahoy!

Let’s talk about violence. A friend was lamenting recently that we seem to live in the worst of times, and one can see where he was coming from: Gaza is a broken record (just to recap, Israel shelled a UN school that was sheltering IDPs, Netanyahu uttered the following regarding Hamas: “they use telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause.” Not that it’s untrue, but damn, is that ever tone deaf. As is the fact that Israelis were watching the bombing of the strip while eating popcorn and cheering. As yet another, though related, aside, while I’m wildly in favour of a Madame President, I’m not so sure I’m sold on the idea of this Madame President), Syria is just getting worse, tragedies are piling up in Nigeria and now Cameroon, ISIS is staging mountaintop genocides, the US has its own horrific war zone curtesy of our latent racism becoming appallingly manifest (Jesus, America), the deteriorating Ukrainian situation in particular freaked him out, and of course we’re living in almost the textbook definition of a perpetual crisis. And that’s just what comes immediately to mind. There is also the Ebola crisis, of course, but as that strikes me more as a structural violence issue than a direct conflict thing, we’ll defer any discussion to a later date. Our modern multipolar system is practically Mearsheimerian in its dysfunction.

Or, rather, so it seems. But I have never really been much for realism, and I see no reason to fall off the wagon now. Thus, I am here and happy to report that it’s possible we aren’t all headed for hell in a hand basket (at least, not as the human race, and not just yet. I can’t speak for you, personally). Statistically, we’re actually living in one of the most peaceful periods of history. This does not, of course, undermine the depths of human suffering that are ongoing. I just sometimes feel that it’s important to dispel this end times perception.

Why am I so confident that humanity is not caught in an entropic skid? As it turns out, this is actually a fairly strong stance to take, with a wealth of histori-stastical support behind it. It even has its own ism – declinism. Fancy, no? One of the most vocal proponents of the declinist theory is the Human Security Report Project, which explored it extensively in their most recent Human Security Report. The report takes as it’s jumping-off point a recap of 2011’s The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker (which I have not read, so know that everything that follows is in essence two degrees removed from the source document). The book contends (“over some 700 densely argued pages of text, supported by 70 pages of footnotes” the report is quick to inform us) that “there has been an extraordinary but little-recognized, long-term worldwide reduction in all forms of violence – one that stretches back to at least 10,000 BCE.”

12K years?! Sweet fancy pants that is some claim. The HSR devotes not inconsiderable print space to unpacking it, especially as: (a) data going back that far is dubious at best; and (b) WWII is, by most every measure, the deadliest war in history. I’m not going to get too much into the ancient history – it’s fascinating, yes, but I’m much more concerned with more recent trends.

Supporting Pinker’s argument, at least as it pertains to WWII, is that, though it accounted for the most absolute deaths of any conflict ever, it was not the most deadly in context of war deaths relative to the size of the population (here I should note that this isn’t the standard metric for measuring conflict intensity - that would be direct war deaths per 100,000 per year, and WWII still wins). But, apparently – like I said, I haven’t read it – in pre-historic societies, war deaths accounted for about 15 per cent of all fatalities. This is BANANAS. In the 20th century – the one with all three world wars (I, II, and the African), remember? – it was still just three per cent. Similarly, “in the 17th century, Europe’s wars of religion had killed some two per cent of the populations of the warring states” while the same statistic for the 1900s was only 0.7 per cent. Beyond any sort of semantic ‘how do we measure how terrible a conflict is debate’ (which is important, don’t get me wrong – these sorts of evaluations have tremendous real-world impacts), Pinker argues that WWII, and the Rwandan genocide, for that matter, for all its misery, was essentially an anomaly on what has been an admittedly rocky path to a more peaceful world.

Even if you have some reservations about the heroic longitudinality of Pinker’s work (and you would not be alone in this), the good people behind the HSR would like to assure you that “the most encouraging data from the modern ear come from the post-World War II years”. This period includes a dramatic decline in the number and deadliness of international wars since the end of WWII (the ‘Long Peace’ for Pinker) and, more recently, the reversal of the decades-long increase in civil conflicts that followed the end of the Cold War (the ‘New Peace’). These rather optimistically-monikered eras likewise seen a decline in violent acts short of war and genocide, including homicide, terrorist attack, lynching, hate crime, rape, and assault.

This Pinker character lays out “five political, social, and cultural changes that he sees as key drivers of the decline in violence: (1) a consolidation of a monopoly of the legitimate use of force controlled by the state and the judiciary; (2) the growing importance of commerce, leading to more interdependence between people and states and hence greater incentives to cooperate rather than use violence (which, until very recently, was somewhat backfiring in Ukraine, but what the hell); (3) feminization, i.e., the process in which societies increasingly respect the interests and values of women; (4) cosmopolitanism, i.e., advances towards universal literacy, mobility, and information sharing that can prompt people to take the perspective of people unlike themselves and expand their circle of sympathy to embrace them; (5) the escalator of reason, by which is meant ‘an intensifying application of knowledge and rationality to human affairs.’ This change was associated, among other things, with a reduction in the superstitions that both drove and legitimized cruel and violent practices common throughout most of human history – from human sacrifice, witch hunts, and slavery, to torturing animals for pleasure.”

Basically, reading this report you get the sense that we’re normatively evolving into a conflict-free world. How lovely and utopian! But, seriously, there are positive trends, including increasing national incomes (the linked article also gets into the depressing subject of increasing global income equality, but does make the point that overall poverty is on the wane), and the system of global security governance.

The former trend is important in that there exists really comprehensive econometric research establishing a casual connection between national incomes and the risk of conflict. I had a professor once who referred to this as the Soros effect: if you throw a sufficient amount of money at a country, they will somewhat manage to govern/find a measure of stability in spite of themselves. The latter trend is, I think, the more likely to encounter resistance, especially within the humanitarian sector. So just what, precisely, is this system of global security governance? It includes the UN, yes, but also other international institutions, “donor and other governments, informal clusters of like-minded states, think-tanks, and large number of national and international NGOs.” The HSR is hilariously backhanded in endorsing it: “this system is inefficient, poorly coordinated, disputatious, underfunded, and prone to tragic error, but it has nevertheless played a critically important role in the reduction of conflicts, particularly civil wars, since the end of the Cold War. There is no indication that the international community’s commitment to peacemaking and peacebuilding is likely to wane. Indeed, it is continuing to increase both in terms of resources committed and new initiatives launched. But much of this increase has passed unnoticed. It is a safe bet, for example, that very few people today realise that more than 50 new peace operations have been launched in Africa since 2000, 10 of them since 2011.” I might well add paternalistic, subject to corruption, bureaucratically hamstrung, and overly risk-adverse to that complementary list of adjectives, as well as acknowledge that the central norm of the system – thou shalt not attack another state except in self-defence – is working SO WELL in Ukraine right now. Moreover, R2P has of late been exposed to be little more than a dark punchline. Even so, I agree with the finding that the system is remarkably effective, notwithstanding its damndest efforts to get in its own way, and that is why I continue to be a closet believer in the UN system, with this blog basically functioning as my Lone Gunman.

I do have still have my doubts about Mr. Pinker, book un-read. But his overall argument is good enough for the fine people of HSRP, and who am I to quibble? Indeed, increasingly, scholars seem to agree that armed violence has been on a dramatic – if wildly uneven – decline since 1946. The ‘declinist’ theory is becoming mainstream. So why does it feel that the world is growing ever darker, if the opposite is true? Is 2014 a blip – one of those tragic anomalies? Or something worse; the beginning of an upswing in violence?

Per our man Pinker, we perceive the present as quite so nasty and brutish because of what he rather charmingly calls ‘historical myopia’ – basically, we more readily recall the horror of recent wars than the much more intense violence of older ones. As with most any kind of pain, the further away we get from an incident, the less the clarity with which we recall it. Meanwhile, we have also managed to instil a greater awareness of or sympathy for human suffering. In effect, having more respect for human rights makes you feel it more acutely when they are violated in much the same way as, after concerned harassment trainings, often there will be an increase in reports of assault and rape. It doesn’t mean (necessarily) that there are more rapes; rather that people (women) feel more empowered to report them. Awareness and sensitivity don’t necessarily mean that things are worse – just that we actually bother to pay attention to bad things when they occur and can demand that action be taken. It’s also worth bringing up (for roughly the 100th time) the CNN effect, which might well be re-named the blogosphere effect. For what it’s worth, Pinker refers to this as ‘availability bias’ – we don’t think historical wars were so bad, simply because we lack information about them.

Researchers at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) recently found that, if current conflict drivers remain constant, “the structural determinants of peace are likely to lead to further reductions in armed conflict around the world.” Their model projects that, from 2009 to 2050, we’re likely to witness a 15 per cent decline in violent conflict. Such a finding, of course, begs the question of what happens if conflict drivers do change. Even those staunch declinists at the HSRP are a bit concerned, observing that there exist several potential game-changers on the horizon, including “outbreaks of nuclear terrorism, a huge cross-national upsurge of Islamist violence, or wars triggered by the massive disruptions caused by climate change,” and this was all before one of the major nuclear powers began giving in to their imperialist itch. Essentially, though humanity appears to have been collectively heeding the angel on its shoulder, don’t count the little devil out just yet.

And that was a hugely long introduction to what I actually wanted to talk about, which was trends in violence (remember Alice? The song’s about Alice). So in the next few posts, I’ll be looking, in totally arbitrary fashion, at some potential stumbling blocks on our long walk back to Eden and making generally unfounded prognostications for the future. Join me –good times should be had by all!

24 July 2014

The View from the Cape

There’s quite a bit to report from Bunia (futbol matches with special appearances by goats! Officials requesting bribes! Continuing experiments in cheese making!), but that will all come in due time. For the moment, I would rather wax poetic about my most recent R&R, in which my sister and I met in up Cape Town (my job is so difficult, no? I live in a tropical paradise and then they give me money to run around Uganda and Paris and South Africa. Pity the poor aid worker)

In the true fashion of our family, we went for more active and engaged than restful and relaxing, the Sister’s jetlag be damned. This was especially true during the first stretch that we spent in Cape Town itself (including one memorable day when we got up at 0600 to climb a mountain and didn’t stop moving until we arrived back from after dinner outing after midnight). Rather than languish at the tourist-trap Waterfront (basically a clean, large shopping centre with nicest mall restaurants I have ever seen. It felt nice and safe and sanitised and was probably chalk-a-bloc with pick-pockets.), we wasted little time in throwing ourselves at the city and all it had to offer. It was during this time that we discovered, somewhat to our irritation, that the denizens of Cape Town have a very loose understanding of what incorporates their city. The best example of this occurred when we planned the aforementioned fancy dinner at a lovely restaurant that it turns out was hell and gone from Cartagena. It was rather like how the Inn at Little Washington is considered in DC or The Fort is in Denver (for those of you who don’t get either of those references…I’m sorry. I’ve got nothin’). The cabbie got mad lost on the way and we took a super long, very scenic drive over Chapman’s Peak. Sadly, it was less arresting in the dark.
We spent much of our time running amok along the beach and through the town and climbing nearly every hill we could find, be it Lion’s Head or Cape Point, the very tip of the Cape of Good Hope. Our trek up Lion’s Head began early on that particularly long day I mentioned, and it was as unnerving as you would expect, given that we opted to take challenge ourselves and take the ‘unadvised’ route up (sometimes, I worry that we will push our boundaries right off a cliff). It was prettier, certainly, but also involved nothing short of bouldering, though they thoughtfully provided chains, staples, and ladders slippery with dew. But the view was awfully lovely. We also managed to make our way to the top of Table Mountain, though in that instance we elected innovation over exertion. The Swiss-constructed funicular was possibly the spiffiest gondola in which I have ever ridden – it is water-stabilised for the high winds and boasts a rotating floor so that you might enjoy the full 360 view without ever having to move yourself. From the top of the mountain, you have the most incredible views – Lion’s Head out to Robben Island, the full expanse of the 12 Apostles, the sun-kissed city stretching out from your feet. It was easy to imagine that you were gazing all the way out to Cape Point. The following day, we realised what we had only glimpsed the day before and explored the Cape of Good Hope all the way out to its terminus, the southernmost point in Africa.

During our many sojourns, we saw an impressive array of local wildlife, including ostriches and eland, the world’s largest antelope. We sailed around Seal Island (which apparently populated almost exclusively by young males. So…we visited a seal frat) in Hout Bay. We were also promised pescetarian baboon troops, though they didn’t materialise. The Sister especially enjoyed the colony of endangered African Penguins, where recently hatched ‘baby blues’ (so-called because of their dark as-yet-unwater proof down) were equal parts adorable and awkward. My personal favourite were dassies, which look rather like a marmot but are in fact more closely related to elephants. Perhaps it is the knowledge of this rather lofty kinship that make them so hilariously belligerent. Every dassie (rock hyrax, the Sister would probably and rightly correct me – she’s a biologist) we encountered stared us down as if to ask us to go ahead and make his day.
Per the locals, however, the real treat of the Cape Town outdoors is not fauna but the flora. At nearly every site we visited, we were encouraged – berated, coerced – into admiring the glory of the fynbos, a family of some 7,000 plants that are unique to the Western Cape region. Indeed, the magnificent Kirstenbosch botanical garden was in established in 1913 and is the only such garden in the world devoted to promoting and conserving a country’s indigenous plant life (it even had a very sad grave yard for extinct plants). I am in no way trying to disparage their efforts (the continual emphasis on the plants even led me to declare that the protea subset of fynbos are my new favourite flower group, so well done, pro-protea propaganda machine!), but I think we were both surprised by the zealousness with which SA approaches conservation.

Not all of our adventures were outside, of course. Cape Town is a terrifically cosmopolitan city (I kept claiming we weren’t really in Africa) and we visited museums and stately gardens and storied breweries. I loved the sense of living history there. Take Robben Island, for example. The Island, most recently the off-shore prison where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years, has played a role in the development of Cape Town from the very beginning, serving variously as a prison, leper colony, whaling camp, etc., and sometimes all of these things at once, but was not closed until 20 years ago. In fact, our tour was given by a former inmate! It was a powerful, deeply moving experience, but also a profoundly odd one, which seemed to sum up our historical experience of Cape Town writ large.
I came away from our numerous museum excursions with the sense that the immediacy of the subject matter impacts how it was presented. I don’t think I appreciated before how much a good museum exhibit depends on reflection and dispassion. By which I don’t mean to suggest that a good curator can’t care about their subject matter. But by and large, even the best museums we visited seemed to devolve at some point into an art installation of long-repressed rage and pain and, in many cases, shame. We did manage to learn a huge amount – like the fact that slaves were actually imported to Cape Town from East Africa and South Asia. But it was not always easy to glean that information. The Slave Lodge – which started out really promisingly, in terms of high quality museums – included a room of (beautiful, fascinating) anatomy-themed origami (it was somewhat topical – the pages were inscribed with the names of slaves who had been imprisoned and/or executed and the often dubious charges against them) and then had us pass through another room in which a undulating rainbow wall of record covers encased a grand piano (no idea whatsoever what this had to do with the slave trade or apartheid). The museum finished with an exhibition of Egyptian art.

Upon further reflection, it might just be that the South Africans are terrible at museums. The one we went to about the French Huguenots – to whom the Dutch offered asylum from religious persecution in France, but only if they would truck down to Cape Town to make wine – should have passed all the benchmarks for time and distance and lack of emotional trauma. After all, happened a few hundred years ago and created an industry in which the country is justifiably proud, but the museum itself was a hodgepodge of old furniture and discursions on religious wars and piracy in a bizarre mix of Afrikaans, English, what looked to be Portuguese, and ‘French’ with a suspicious amount of umlauts. To its credit, the brewery gave a great tour – we learned our preference for ales over lagers likely stems from being cold-weather women. If only their beer had lived up to it…

On the subject of good and bad alcohols, though, our adventure was not confined to Cape Town, and we soon found ourselves in the wine country, which was as lovely as could be expected and filled with some truly delicious wines (as well as some that were less delicious and woefully under-bodied, but I’m choosing to forget those. Tia claimed it was because South African wines don’t really suffer. The soil is too rich, the weather too mild, and the viticulturisits and vintners insufficiently verbally abusive. To be Truly Great, apparently, a grape must have known hardship and pain. It should have character and depth and probably write angsty poetry or smoke like chimneys with pained French ennui. The grapes that make the Truly Great wine must go to their dark, squishy fates with clear eyes and brave hearts, enduring their suffering with noble stoicism. These grapes must have lived. This does not, in any way, describe South African grapes. It might get a nit bippy (Butterfield family-ism for chilly) in the wine country, but on the whole, these grapes are lekker, brü, which makes for a laid-back, totally drinkable wine, but nothing unforgettable. I was fine with that). There was also a ginger husky puppy and some of the best feta cheese I have ever eaten. If ever I have a destination wedding, it will be with the sole purpose of dragging my friends and family to the South African wine country.
The Sister could probably address our wine country experience with a great deal more colour and deftness than I can (I think my reflections during these few days boiled down to Pretty vistas! Good wine! I love cheese!). The woman is wine-wise. In other things, as well, but we’re focusing on this particular skill set. She also probably thinks that I’m insane. All of my tasting notes (I did not bother to take any at all, so I should probably be more gracious that she even condescended to write mine down) were bracketed with increasingly skeptical quotations and other indications of incredulity. If I remember correctly, she at one point even set down her glass emphatically and hit me with a tremendously Spock-ian fascinating. I am now worried that my taste buds are broken. Case in point:

The Sister                                                                            Me

Dark chocolate, red fruit, balance,                              –strawberry picking and watermelon ice cream-
smoke, tongue coating

Currant black cherry dry red plum                              -“meditation in a room w/ green sashes through

good ruby colour, light body not a ton of minerality,           the windows”-
tobacco comes in late

Lemongrass cement crisp apple peaches tangerine        -Swimming in a lake – BUG.
better balance good mouthfeel                                  (As though she wouldn’t know which of us that came                                                                                                 from)
At any rate, the wine tour eventually gave way to the final leg of our trip, which was spent at the eastern coast of False Bay. During the rambling drive down, our terrifically lovely guide gave us lessons in scandalous South African slang (babbelas is a hangover, lekker is cool or good, shame means pretty much whatever they want it to, independent of its actual definition, skelm is doing something on the sly. None of these are pronounced the way you think they should be) as we made many a stop for photos and even stumbled upon a troop of those fishing baboons (at which point we rolled up all the windows and locked the car doors, because they are apparently shameless kleptos). We ended the day with a decedent dinner at a totally empty restaurant with wine that tasted like star-gazing. It was equal parts delicious and eerie, and who doesn’t like their fine dining experiences to veer toward the creepy?

We did a number of things while in Gansbaai – tasted a few more wines, explored coastal cliffs, wandered amok in a lighthouse that was technically closed for repairs after flirting shamelessly with the lighthouse keeper who may or may not have been the long-lost member of ZZ-Top, chased a coy pod of Southern Right Whales (they would have been framed by the sunset and it would have been amazing, but it was not to be. They would pop out of the water and vanish as soon as I pulled my camera. This happened time and time again. Cheeky, cheeky buggers). The undisputed highlight of this last leg of the trip, though, was the sharks. That’s right – Great White Sharks.
There were whales! It would have been glorious
The shack in which we had a pre-dive breakfast (this was not a Congo shack. This was a beach shack. So think Scooby Doo, not National Geographic) had a sign about the ocean being salty because it was filled with the tears of misunderstood sharks. I laughed, until the skipper gave a nearly incomprehensible security briefing, in which the only phrase I understood fully was “it’s very important you follow these instructions, because we’ve had a few close calls with the sharks already”. Fabulous. The crew seemed to get a kick out of pointing out that, statistically, we were apparently more likely to be bitten by Luis Suárez than by a shark.

Our group loaded on to the Apex Predator (ha) and set out over some enormous swells. It was thrilling, in the way a poorly maintained rollercoaster is thrilling, and we definitely got wet (protected from the spray indeed). Tia and I harboured a suspicion that they were a more aggressive in taking on the swells than, say, a whale-watching expedition would be; a side-perk of adventure tourism, perhaps? The crew was also feeding some sort of very large, clearly predatory seabird for our amusement. We eventually pulled up to the infamous Shark Alley (thank you, Discovery Chanel!), centred between Geyser Rocks (another seal frat house) and Dyer Island, a penguin colony. You could easily see why the sharks like it here – it’s a veritable smorgasbord of blubbery delights. It’s actually a bit of a wonder that they condescend to pay attention to the tourist baits at all. At any rate, the skipper maneuvered to the other side of the seal colony, releasing the chum bucket (yummy!), and dropped anchor. There was another boat in the distance, this one without the distinctive diving cage. One of the crew pointed out that there were already fins circling.
The dive master called for the first set of people to prep for the Cage. I was more than happy to let others pave the way (a trepidation that was apparently shared throughout the boat – no one volunteered), but the Sister was not (bless her) and so we began stuffing ourselves into the provided wet suits. We even beat in the gung-ho dude with the spiffy underwater camera. With rough bonhomie, crew members pulled our hoods overhead and secured a weight belt around our hips. We eased ourselves into the water and shuffle right for the next person. There are up to eight in the cage at a time. As the swells move the boat – and the cage – we tried not get swallow a mouthful of chummy water. This turned out to be trickier as the day wore on.

There were definite benefits to going first – first and foremost, the sharks weren’t yet bored (read into that what you will). Almost as soon as we got in the water, we were shouted at to dive and look left, right, down, at the bait, at the bait! There is no snorkelling gear, so you simply take a big, rapid breath and vanish into the quiet stillness, hopefully in time to watch a massive silvery presence glide by, passing through streams of sunlight in the water, like shy performers flirting on the edge of a spotlight – sometimes two or three, teeth casually bared. They only seemed to have the vaguest awareness of those of us in the cage, uninterested in the interlopers so close that we could touch them (which would get you kicked out of the cage – nobody wants blood in the water!). The sharks took no more notice of us than of the school of fish pecking at the bait – less so, actually. We weren’t nibbling on their entrée. In addition to seeing more active sharks than any other group, we first brave few also got to spend quality time with the largest shark of the day – a watery diva some 2.6 meters long. She didn’t too interested in the bait at all; unlike like the younger, smaller, friskier sharks that seemed to try and sneak up on it before furiously pouncing. She made several deliberate passes – silent, huge, awesome in the most biblical sense of the word – until she apparently decided she had had enough of being teased. We lost the bait several times throughout the day, but for me, this was the most impressive for its speed and decisiveness. There was no drama; she never fought with the line, didn’t sink her teeth into the massive hunk of tuna and drag it and the boat or crash into the cage (unlike one of the other sharks in a thrilling episode for those in the cage, which we were not. I was glad for this. The Sister expressed regret. Be careful what you wish for, Dude). She came around from the right, as she had time and time before, but then darted up faster than I think anyone one of us was prepared for and snatched the bait in full. It was clean and utterly without mercy.
When out of the Cage, we were regaled with shark facts by the crew. SA apparently has a few other indigenous species of sharks, but they are found farther out to sea because the water was warmer there. Which seemed…counter-intuitive. The Whites can tolerate the cooler temperatures it because they actually regulate their body temperateure to 14 degrees above ambient sea water temperature. Other fun shark facts for you? GWS can reach speeds of 60km/h and detect the electromagnetic field of other animals in the water column through a tiny gel filled pored located on their snout known as ampullae of lorenzini. They are believed to assist in the sharks’ long distance migrations by detecting the earth’s magnetic field.

After everyone had gotten a chance (at least all those who weren’t too scared or sea sick), they offered those who wanted it seconds. The Sister was all over it, and you know that I couldn’t sit back (despite feeling a little green myself – just sitting in a rocking boat is both soothing and…gastro intestinally fraught). Being back in the water actually helped, though I felt much colder the second time around. There were also fewer sharks, prompting the dive master asked us who scared them all away. One of handful that remained happened to be a particularly food-motivated youngster. It was small and quick. So small and so quick that the shark baiter (clearly, his official title) barely got the tuna out of its way before it crashed into the Cage. Which it did, open-mawed, right into the Sister. The cage did its job and then some, effectively brindling the shark, but it was a kind of awesome moment – wow, look at that – gah! Teeth – holy cats this is amazing – God! The Sister’s hand! And wow…I didn’t know you could plaster yourself that far back in the cage. That’s right – the Sister was snogged by a Great White Shark, right in the ampualle of lorenzini. I was just impressed that she managed not to curse underwater and inadvertently half-drown herself.
We ended the day – our last full one in South Africa – with a traditional braai (barbeque) at our guide’s brother’s. There were toasties and springbok sausage and steaks cooked over a eucalyptus fire, complemented by Namibian beer and finished with melktert (which our guide memorably described as a dessert that tastes like nothing, but in a really good way!). I also enjoyed spending quality time with his precocious daughter, discovering along the way that doing a farm puzzle over and over and over again starts to have a sort of performance art air about it.

Our hosts had also invited another family to join us, the patriarch of which oversaw breeding (growth operations? I can’t recall how we referred to it. I’m thinking of him as a mollusc pimp) at a local abalone farm. He very kindly offered (I’m using the term loosely. Pressured/bribed by Jamie and family would be more accurate) to take us on a clandestine tour at 11p (you couldn’t take tours during normal working hours, because their techniques were subject to corporate espionage. That made the whole experience so much better). Aided in no small part by the late hour and generous consumption of Namibian exports, the abalone farm was like something out of the X-Files. There were long rows of bags growing gelatinous creatures that would skitter away as soon as you shown your flashlight on them, watery crates that stretched out into the night full of precious cargo destined for Japan… Upon our return to the guesthouse, we discovered we were locked out an almost had to break in. It was a weird day. Fabulous – that goes without saying – but odd.

Finally, it was time to go back to the airport and make my tearful farewells. Within a day, I was in Uganda, where there was a terrorist threat against the airport. My hotel would only turn on the wifi when I asked, and then only for an hour. I went to church for the posted 11am English service, only to find out that that the 9am Lauganda service hasn’t even made it out of the sermon. The offering also included a banana bunch it took two men to carry and a live chicken. I lay in my weekend provisions at Edith’s Glossary God be Merciful Store and the teller referred to me as muzungu. Welcome back to Africa!

19 June 2014

Very béni Beni

Back in Beni, I had reason to question Didier’s assertion that his home town is a bureaucratic machine when OCHA projected their PowerPoint onto sheet, just like us on movie night. As I think I’ve mentioned, the humanitarian complex is not nearly as developed here as in Bunia. It’s about the only area where they’re lagging behind us. The cluster meeting room was furnished with couches but no cushions. We started almost a half hour late, and Medair was the only INGO on-time (mostly because we’re new and eager). Even the chair was late. One of the national NGO reps shrugged – the INGOs don’t come because they have actual work to do. Once it did get underway, the meeting was more…Congolese than I’m used to. It was going into the third hour that they doled out a round of Djinos. It lasted long enough for an industrious spider to construct a web between the co-chair’s pant leg and the desk. On the upside, the UNDSS guy related an update on some protests against the péage route (residents claimed that it was an illegal tax, as they were paying but the roads never seemed to get better) with relish, as though it was some great oral tradition epic. He was the only reason to stay awake in hour two.

Like the team, the Beni base is full of items both new and those recycled from previous project. The scanner from the recently closed base in Mambasa puts a rose-tint on everything. The chairs from Dungu are somehow all uneven and upholstered in pink flowers mixed with tiger print. All of the Thurayas are broken. Even these, though, have their place. We cannibalised the base station of one to repair the others and by combining several sets of chairs, managed to come up with a set for the table that was only moderately wobbly (you just can’t really look at it straight on without all of the clashing patterns making you dizzy). We did order a new cover for the hideously ugly couch, and after taking measurements the seamstress set up her portable machine in an empty flower bed in the shade of a tree. We worked to the metronome of her clacking pedals for the better part of an afternoon.

The highlight of house set-up, by far, had to be the positioning of the connex. We had sent a shipping container down from Bunia chalk full of stuff – motos, furniture, records, the works. Trying to move it to an out-of-the-way corner of the compound – where it will act as a depot – was not easy. At first, we solicited the UN for assistance, as they have a decent-sized crane that would have done the job nicely, but they couldn’t be bothered (not surprising, considering that they apparently also huddled behind their camp walls when a village less than five clicks away was being sacked). Instead we hired out a local forklift that promptly got stuck in the soft sand of the compound’s back lot for close to three hours and did little aside from rip up the terrain. Even the land cruiser couldn’t drag it out; the driver had to call for a bigger truck from his company to come and save him. Finally, Didier suggested that we just hire some locals. Judith and I were a bit sceptical, but 20 guys and a couple of long beams later and job was done. Apparently, all they needed was some work songs in Lingala and elbow grease. It took less than a half an hour. One of the watching supervisors turned to me and observed that la force est forte dans ces - the force was strong in these ones. They had just more or less levitated a 2,500lb shipping container. I laughed, and he laughed, though possibly for different reasons.
I had my doubts about this, and suspect that they did, too

But it worked, complete with Jedi-style levitation
 Lest it seem like this trip was all work and no play, I did spent a fair amount of time exploring Beni together with Judith. Despite the affluence of the town (and it is affluent – there are money changers everywhere, their stalls painted with aggrieved-looking Ben Franklins, with inched faces and swollen jowls and bulging eyes), people here are not shy about asking for money, but they do like to be a little sly about it. Instead of just holding out their hand (à la Bukavu), they always seem to ask for café. At the park where we went running, the guards ask for café. On the street, people stop and ask you to buy them some café. It’s the preferred code word. One of our guards popped in one night and also asked for café, but I took him at face value and gave him a cup of Nescafe.

You did read that correctly, by the way – Beni has two, real-live, honest-to-goodness, proper parks (or as close as I have seen to parks anywhere yet in Congo, including Kinshasa). One is an abandoned industrial park where, if you pass the old timber mill, there is a defunct airstrip that makes for a perfect running track. The other is a somewhat more mysterious compound that houses a handful of beautiful, abandoned manors and a covered pool. There is a tennis court and small but serviceable loop for runs. It’s beautiful and peaceful and absolutely teaming with bats. Just as evening falls, it also fills with squads of young men armed with air rifles and sling shots, hunting for supper. Their fist-full of bats don’t look like much meat, dinner-wise, and after the ebola outbreak, it wouldn’t be my first choice, but what do I know?

Somehow, both of the parks still seem to have guards and groundskeepers, though I cannot fathom who might be paying them. There is precedent in Congo that, even after your income has dried up, you still dress in uniform and go to work. It’s the perception of having a job that is important, more so than the job itself. All of the stations along the now defunct railways are, by rumour, almost fully staffed, even some four decades after the trains stopped running. Even today, a significant number of the civil servants don’t received regular pay checks but continue to do their jobs. Of course, that’s also why so very many people here are always thirsty for more café.
So very beautiful

So very creepy

As a part of our social outreach experiment, Judith and I also tried to insinuate herself with the (tiny, as far as we knew) expat community. She had warned me that they were nice enough, but not terribly welcoming, so we pulled out all of the stops. The gas shortage was still on-going at that point, so we had the guard light the charcoal braiser for us. He used a plastic bag (inventive and effective, sure, but it smelled terrible. We tried the same method the next night and failed miserably. We tried again, this time using the heating unit from an old MRE Judith dug out of her stock. God only knows how it got there. While it, too, worked, it smelled even worse and chased us back inside for nearly an hour). We managed to turn out a pretty good spread, if I do say so myself – a kicky salsa, guacamole with notes of tequila, creamy black beans, all topped off some homemade tortillas. In some ways, it’s really easy to cook here – everything is so fresh, the flavours are amazing. We even made some lightly spicy brownies for dessert, though the electric oven is so ancient that all of the markings on each of the seven (!) dials have been rubbed off and we had no idea what the temperature was. I strongly suspect that we were actually roasting the brownies for a while there.
The guests started arriving (this is not as grand an affair as it sounds – only about four people showed), and one on one they were really lovely. They readily spoke English or slow French, made gentle fun of the quirky glory house, praised the food, and were altogether charming. Though one did observe that the beans looked rather like those severed at the local prisons (he was working on reforming the corrections system – the corrector of the corrections system!). He followed it up with a sheepish assurance that they were delicious. Food jokes aside, the comment kicked off a really fascinating discussion of prison maintenance, the World Cup, spiders and other venomous things, strangulation and avoidance thereof, and how easy it is to fall asleep to heavy metal music. Rather, our guests discussed it. I understood most of every topic, I thought, but I somehow missed the transitions.

Generally, the default language at parties is that of the hosts, at least in Bunia. This is not so in Beni. As Judith had warned, as a group, much of the individual warmth evaporated and over the course of the evening our guests began to project that hard veneer of in-crowds everywhere, when they’re not quite sure that you have what it takes to be a member of the group. The kind of people who wear cool like a shield. As the night progressed and more wine flowed, they spoke increasingly quickly, leaving my colleague and I struggling to simply follow the plot of the conversation. In such situations, my boss will simply interject in English, but I haven’t quite worked up the guts to do so. They did make a joke about how quiet we’d grown, but didn’t alter the speed of their conversation.

And for this, I missed a toga party in Bunia.
At least I could drown my sorrows with Communal wine
Originally, the plan was for me to fly back, but our carrier abruptly canceled all their flights for the week (the one drawback of flying for free with donor-sponsored airlines is that they don’t really have to worry about keeping the customer happy). Though it nearly doubled the length of my stay, I felt it was worth it. The flight to Bunia is no longer direct, but rather more like getting on an airbus. The route starts in Beni (with an airport showtime of 0600!) and then sets off for Goma, then possibly passing through Bukavu before going back north. It can take upwards of six hours for what should be a 30 minute flight. I would rather take the road any day. It’s actually shorter, construction allowing, and infinitely more visually arresting. I ended up hitching a ride with the medical programme manager, one Dr. Olivier, who arrived a few days prior from Bunia to go over the results of the evaluation (remember the medical evaluation, so very many pages ago?) with the team.

It rained heavily the night before we left. When we again abandoned North Kivu’s pavement for Orientale’s dirt roads, Dr. Olivier noted that we were now leaving Congo. He formally welcomed me back to Zaire. We passed a gut of those massive trucks lumbering under their oversized loads, rending huge gashes in wet ground out of which water bled. I kept waiting for the road to cry out in protest with each new wound, but it never happened – roads are, as a rule, pretty stoic – and the sun gradually hardened them into scars.

By this time, the construction on the bridge had been completed and the site was completely deserted. Whatever my earlier reservations about the caliber of construction, it certainly did make the other bridges we eased our way over look a bit shoddy by comparison. A sign, clearly purloined from Uganda, remained. I hadn’t even noticed it the first time through, what with all of the hullabaloo. It read, in black, hand-painted letters: Caution/Go Slow/Men at Work/Be Aware/Falling Debs. The letters appeared to be fleeing, as though they dried in motion. I knew that it intended to refer to falling debris, and was necessarily cut back (that’s a lot of wording for one sign, after all), but the mental image of 1950s society girls falling lightly, puffy tulle skirts inflating around them and holding them aloft like Mary Poppins’ umbrella has stuck with me.

At one of the clinics we dropped in on, collecting data and more or less shooting the breeze with the staff, the head nurse informed us that, only a few hours before, the village we had just passed through had been under attack from a rebel faction. We hadn’t noticed anything out of place when we has passed through, not thirty minutes before. But, Dr. Olivier sighed, this is Congo, where such things are not out of place. After that, he began pointing out to me how to recognize abandoned homes from empty ones, reading the signs of displacement all along the road. The story of fear it told was rendered more explicit by the numerous military patrols walking along the road, driving along the road in convoys, manning new and existing roadblocks. For the most part, just gave us flat stares as we pass by. Motos got a full shake-down, as they are apparently the preferred means for militias to transport arms and people (and for everyone else to transport everything. The road blocks were slow going).

Happily, we made a few pit stops for road trip food – roasted corn, five cent pineapples, bags and bags of mangoes. The team very kindly offered me some corn – I think as a joke more than anything. Makey ate his corn methodically as he drove, chin thrust out and nose oddly hawkish under surprisingly spiffy aviators. When Jean Mawa, the lead supervisor, and Makey decamped to purchase mangoes, Dr. Olivier and I had an interesting discussion about eating habits in the West versus the developing world. I’m not certain that I bought his argument that genetically modified corn is worse for you that buckets of ‘natural’ palm oil, but he is the doctor.

As he segued into lambasting the mango sellers for their laziness, I watched Jean Mawa haggle. He bought fruit as might a politician on the stump, flirting with the sellers and tickling the palms of their babies. Makey trailed after him, the big man walking with a graceful, almost feminine sway in his ample hips. It’s a jarring contrast from his brusque driving. I wasn’t trying to ignore Dr. Olivier, per se, though his assessments did strike me as unduly harsh. Dr. Olivier is so fantastically motivated and accomplished (the man is a delight, lest it seem that I’m throwing him under the bus), and I suppose that’s a standard inclination of people everywhere – I pulled myself up by my bootstraps through whatever levels of shit, so why can’t you do the same? No one wants to admit that the truth of the American Dream is really self-righteous schadenfreude.

With every new addition of produce, the bouquet in the car developed and evolved in not unpleasant ways. It was even better once a light rain started again. I hope this is how Congo always smells in my memory – like earth and sweet fruit and popcorn and the wind in my hair.