What Our Technoutopia Turned Into

I’m old enough to remember when the internet looked like this. It was 1994, I was a first year college student, and the buzz in the dorms was about the amazing democratizing potential of this crazy new gizmo that politicians were still describing as “the information superhighway.”

The Web, we realized, would radically disintermediate information flows. Rather than a handful of information gatekeepers hoarding prestigious jobs in a few institution, everyone would be at the same time reader, writer and editor: leading to a radical decentralization and an explosion in information, engagement and understanding. As a 19-year old, I was genuinely excited about this looming, radical democratization of information; we all were.

Fast forward 20 years, and survey the state of reporting on, for instance, Africa:

Congo is the scene of one of the greatest man-made disasters of our lifetimes. Two successive wars have killed more than five million people since 1996.

Yet this great event in human history has produced no sustained reporting. No journalist is stationed consistently on the front lines of the war telling us its stories. As a student in America, where I was considering a Ph.D. in mathematics and a job in finance, I would read 200-word stories buried in the back pages of newspapers. With so few words, speaking of events so large, there was a powerful sense of dissonance. I traveled to Congo, at age 22, on a one-way ticket, without a job or any promise of publication, with only a little money in my pocket and a conviction that what I would witness should be news.

When I arrived, there were only three other foreign reporters in Congo.

Our technoutopia’s gone a bit pear-shaped, hasn’t it?

The wars in Congo – and the enormous journalistic crack they fell through – lay bare the strange, skewed ways attention flows in the internet age. The web has turned out to be a weapon of mass distraction, subtly undermining our ability to engage with the worst outrages of our time.

The problem isn’t that the web hasn’t fulfilled its democratic promise. It’s that it has, and only too well. Give people a choice between endless servings of ice cream and endless servings of broccoli and it turns out they’ll go for the ice cream, every time. The internet’s eroded the institutional pressures that we used to come under in place to pass on the informational sweets once in a while, opting for the kinds of journalistic vegetables that will nourish you but won’t give you a sugar rush.

I think it was Clay Shirky who explained the mechanism most clearly: the great 20th Century Newspaper was basically an elaborate mechanism to get the guy down the street who needed to sell a used washing machine to pay the salary for the Cairo Bureau Chief. The internet destroyed that model of subsidization: the guy down the street who needs to sell a used washing machine has no reason to kick any money down to Cairo anymore.

That’s a pretty old insight by now. Even the shock of grasping that nothing magical is going to come along to replace it is old hat. What we’re left with, in 2014, is the fall-out: that dystopian realization that what’s replaced the well-coiffed gate-keepers isn’t some radical hippie communicational democracy but photos of everybody’s cat.

These are the new rules of the game. You can love them or hate them but you probably can’t change them, so best to do what you can to work with them.

As an advocate facing radical indifference to an outrage whose “non-newsness” I can neither understand nor accept, it’s all rather upsetting. People will not share stories about starving refugees, and because they won’t editors won’t commission those stories, and because they won’t politicians won’t fund an even minimally adequate response.

I don’t know how, exactly, you go about explaining to a refugee mom in Eastern Chad that her child has to be stunted and anemic because there’s a little blue button on a screen with a thumbs-up logo that people in the West can’t bring themselves to affix to her suffering. But that seems to me about the size of it.

Strong demand for things poor people sell somehow bad for poor people

Zainab Mudallal’s story on Quartz on expanding demand for the “next” Quinoas (Teff, Fonio, Amaranth) is a neat example of a growing genre of reporting about these products: cataclysmically over-written and based on a first-semester-first-year’s economic student-style blunder on the distributional impact of growing demand.

You know the stories I’m talking about: stories about how rising demand for Quinoa are “pricing people out of foods they’ve eaten for generations.”

What’s odd about these stories is the way they treat Peruvians (or Ethiopians, or Whereverians) exclusively as consumers who suffer the negative impact of price rises. What’s jarring is that they do this in the context of honouring local people for maintaining ancient grains in production.

It never seems to register that these things can’t both be true. The reality is that in many places, ancient grains are mainstays of smallholder agriculture, and smallholder farmers are almost always the poorest people in poor countries.

Other thing being equal, growth in farm-gate prices for the products of smallholder farmers are some of the most unambiguously good news for poverty reduction in any poor country: raising incomes and expanding opportunities in a way no first-world funded aid project ever could.

The Quinoa Boom, for instance, has generated previously unheard of opportunities for Bolivian farmers and agro-entrepreneurs, even generating a class of very well off indigenous people now building themselves the deliriously over-the-top mansions pictured above. These are people whose grandparents lived on the edge of starvation, Zainab: put that in your pipe and smoke it.

None of this registers with the disasterist school of Quinoa reporting. We’re just meant to feel bad that our “gorging” on “their” food is somehow hurting the people whom we’re paying for our dinner.

People in rich countries who think of themselves as socially responsible have built a bizarre network of justifications to explain to themselves why it’s good to purchase their food from people just like them who drive nice cars and eat three meals a day (c.f., “eat local”) and bad to buy their food from the poorest farmers in the world. It’s painful.

How enormous stories go unreported all the time

Anjan Sundaram’s OpEd in the New York Times this weekend was beautifully written and clarified a lot of things for me. I really urge you to go read it if you haven’t already.

For the past month I’ve been genuinely shocked and confused that a story as big and “important” as the slow starvation of hundreds of  thousands of people under the increasingly ironically-tinged label of “international protection” could warrant essentially no media coverage in the West.

But, of course, a moment’s reflection reveals that this sort of thing happens all the time, including with stories that are a lot “bigger” than the Refugee Food Crisis. The wars in Eastern Congo, for instance, are one or two order of magnitude newsier than the refugee food crisis, and yet…nothing. Or, well, virtually nothing.

Sundaram paints a picture of a Western news gathering system that’s just about thrown in the towel on Africa. Unless white people or oil are involved somehow, they’re just not going there, and how “big” the non-oil/non-white-people story might be won’t budge them from that bedrock commitment.

It really is shocking.

Shouldn’t Humanitarian Aid Come First?

Last year, the world spent $135 billion on International Development Aid. It also spent $22 billion on Humanitarian Aid.

Is this the right balance?

Let’s see: development aid is controversial, its effectiveness is contested and its impact ambiguous.

Humanitarian aid enjoys consensus, its effectiveness is beyond the slightest doubt, and its impact visible to the naked eye.

An army of econometricians have been out trying to measure the contribution of development aid for a generation, and agreement seems farther than ever. Second-order impacts on macroeconomics and on the politics of both donor and recipient countries are intractable. In some cases, the impact is actively negative, in many more, merely wasteful.

Some of the best minds in the business – by no means just the usual right wing  suspects – have concluded development aid is trapped in a paradox: countries that need it most don’t benefit from it, and countries able to benefit from it don’t really need it. Even some long-time campaigners for the developing world favor a gradual tapering off of development aid.

At the same time, the world is seeing an explosion in demand for humanitarian assistance, with climate change threatening to make it all much worse in the near future. While emergency aid spending is rising, it’s not rising anywhere near fast enough to keep up with the growth in demand. Events that used to be once-in-a-century, like the monstrous typhoon that devastated parts of the Philippines in November 2013, could start happening once a decade.

And chaotic weather patterns have already started to fuel conflicts in Central Africa, generating a series of crises international agencies can’t seem to cope with.

In this context, the EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid tells us we should “get used to it” when it comes to not enough resources for Emergency Response. People starving inside UN facilities is, we’re told, “the new normal.”

This situation strikes me as perverse. The rich countries spend plenty in the developing world, it’s just that 6 out of 7 aid dollars are directed to programs where it’s hard to tell if they’re doing any good.

What’s clear is that the macro-trends driving demand for humanitarian response are not abating. Just the opposite. And demand is already outstripping supply to wild, unacceptable degrees (…or, well, degrees we would recognize as wildly unacceptable if we could find editors who cared about hundreds of thousands of starving people as much as they care about one asshole planting a flag in the middle of the desert.)

What’s so strange about this situation is that while “Foreign Aid” is highly unpopular with first world voters everywhere, Humanitarian Aid is popular enough that people give substantial sums voluntarily: of the $22 billion spent on humanitarian aid last year, $5.6 billion was given by private entities, not governments.

In the last 12 months, the world’s seen what happens when three “Level-3 emergencies” (a.k.a., big-time humanitarian crises) hit at once. The Humanitarian Infrastructure buckled under the weight of Syria, the Philippines and Central Africa. The system can’t cope. People starve.

And the people who should be out there agitating for more money to face up to the simultaneous crises instead turn to us and tell us to get used to it.

Invisible People

Howard French once noted that,  “as a matter of convention, we constantly say and write things about Africa that would be unimaginable with any other continent.”

Just imagine the scale of the international media storm that would’ve ensued if the UN Refugee Agency had put out a press release warning that:

…funding difficulties, compounded by security and logistical problems, have forced cuts in food rations for nearly 800,000 refugees in Europe, threatening to worsen unacceptable levels of acute malnutrition, stunting and anaemia, particularly in children.

But, of course, this UNHCR/WFP Urgent Appeal wasn’t for refugees in Europe.

It was for Africa.

And so newspaper editors near and far felt perfectly at ease passing over the story or picking out 65 words of it to run in World Briefs section on page B17.

The story barely made a ripple.

We’re not dealing with anonymous people starving out in the bush. We’re dealing with people whose names have been registered by the United Nations, people living in camps donors set up and run. Camps we set up and run.

I guess people who’ve been around the Humanitarian enterprise longer than me will roll their eyes at my surprise. But I’ve been genuinely shocked at the total news void that the UNHCR’s July 1st Urgent Appeal fell into.

I tended to just assume that there were structures in place to prevent large numbers of people already under UN protection from just slowly starving. I had a vague sense that large, professional bureaucracies were in charge of these matters and someone somewhere would do something before you got to the stage of cutting off additional food deliveries to pregnant women and breastfeeding moms. I just took it for granted that the right alarm bells would go off in the right switchboard and find the right official response.

Obviously, I’m pretty green on these issues.

Still, the monstrous conundrum remains: how can something like this happen?

William Vollmann writes beautifully about “invisibility” as one of the defining features of poverty. Poor people can go missing or die without anyone noticing. That’s part of what it means to be poor.

Combine that with French’s insight up top and you start to grasp why an almost complete cloak of invisibility has fallen over African refugees.

It doesn’t seem to matter at all that we’re talking about people living under “international protection”. It doesn’t shift the needle that the refugee camps where they live were designed by bureaucrats in Geneva and paid for by donor countries. None of that seems to help.

And I suppose that’s the part that’s really shaken me about this story.

I can just about understand how a story about a famine in Africa gets tuned out of first world opinion. Famines are usually set off by wars together with droughts, they affect people who are widely dispersed, hard to reach, anonymous, remote. I’m not happy that so many people see famine as “one of those things that can’t be helped”, but I can understand it: the entire question is remote and vexing and depressing and it’s not entirely obvious how worrying about it would make anything better.

But what’s happening in Central Africa right now isn’t nothing like that.

We’re not dealing with anonymous people starving out in the bush. We’re dealing with people whose names have been registered by the United Nations, people living in camps donors set up and run. Camps we set up and run.

We’re dealing with enormous suffering generated not by war or drought but by Donor Fatigue, that ghastly euphemism for the international community’s inability to find relatively small sums of money to make good on its clear obligation to protect victims of conflict.

In Central Africa, the world is facing something I’ve never even heard of before: a kind of slow-burn famine inside U.N. facilities.

And nobody cares.

Listen, if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years it’s that development questions are hard. The processes involved are complicated and slow and subject to reversals and there’s a decent argument to be made that outsiders can’t understand how they happen and end up hindering them as often as they help.

Some humanitarian questions, on the other hand, are easy. And this is one of them. There isn’t any great conceptual difficulty here. There’s just a question of willingness and moral clarity and determination. You can’t allow 450,000 people under your care to starve in camps you built for them. It’s really pretty simple.

Darfur Chart 2.005Anyway, I don’t feel able to just ignore this issue. It feels indecent to do one post and move on. There’s a time for analysis, and there’s a time for advocacy. This is a time for advocacy. 

Launching the 850 Calorie Challenge

Earlier this month, the UNHCR announced it was running out of money for refugees in Africa.

The solution?

Cut refugee camp food rations, in some cases, to just 850 calories per day.

Think about what that means.

I guess every advocacy person has one: that one news item that was just…intolerable.

This one was mine.

It’s simply shocking how little play this story is getting in the press. Intolerable.

So today I’m launching The 850 Calorie Challenge.

The site does what it says on the tin: it challenges you to live on African refugee rations. Even just for one day. Or three.

Or a week.

And then write about it. Tweet about it. Facebook it. Spread the word.

There are hard questions in the development world. This isn’t one of them.

A violent ecosystem capable of generating endless new things to fight about without ever shedding any of the old ones

The British-Sudanese writer Jamal al-Mahjoub once said that to understand the Sudan you need a layered map like one of those cellophane diagrams of the human body that used to be in encyclopedias. As you peeled away the top piece of cellophane labelled “Sudan”, you would find a succession of maps lying underneath. A map of languages, for example, and under that a map of ethnic groups, and under that a map of ancient kingdoms, until, as Mahjoub wrote, “it becomes clear the country is not really a country at all, but many. A composite of layers, like a genetic fingerprint of memories that were once fluid but have since crystallized out from the crucible of possibility, encouraged by the catalyst of the European colonial adventure.” I have often thought that you need a similar kind of layered map to understand Sudan’s civil war. A surface map of political conflict, for example – the northern government versus the southern rebels; and under that a layer of religious conflict – Muslims versus Christian and pagan; and under that a map of all the sectarian divisions within those categories; and under that a layer of ethnic divisions – Arab and Arabized versus Nilotic and Equatorian – all of them containing a multitude of clan and tribal subdivisions; and under that a layer of linguistic conflicts; and under that a layer of economic divisions; and under that a layer of colonial divisions; and under that a layer of racial divisions related to slavery. And so on and so on until it would become clear that the war, like the country, was not one but many: a violent ecosystem capable of generating endless new things to fight about without ever shedding any of the old ones.’

From Deborah Scroggins’s 2004 book Emma’s War, a biography of Riek Machar’s English wife, Emma McCune, which turns out to be a cracking read. 

The Bitterest Date

Heart-ache is the near permanent fate of the South Sudan watcher, but never is the pain more bitter than on July 9th. On this day three years ago today, South Sudan declared its independence after half a century of war with the North. Things were supposed to get better. Instead, the country has faced catastrophe on a scale that beggars belief.

The International Crisis Group’s latest update is sobering, as is nearly anything you can find these days about the civil war. The country looks to be on the verge of outright state collapse, with the army failing to pay its soldiers even as hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on arms-deals that end up fattening up the off-shore bank accounts of SPLA insiders.

Alongside these major insanities there are the minor ones, like the government announcing shoot-to-kill orders to enforce a curfew in Juba. On the eve of independence day. On the night of a World Cup semi-final. 

Soccer may have been the last thing South Sudanese people had to look forward to. Now even that’s been taken away.

As for the future, well, it does not bear thinking about. Already, the window of opportunity for planting crops in Greater Upper Nile has closed. With so many displaced and so much insecurity, seeds didn’t go into the ground, so there’ll be nothing to harvest. And the humanitarian agencies that represent the last line of defense against famine don’t have the money to respond. 

Now, the “Conflict + Drought = Famine” formula is sadly familiar in Central Africa. But what South Sudan faces in 2015 is something different: a major famine somewhere where the rains didn’t fail. The country is on the verge of an entirely man-made famine.

Some independence day…