Thursday, April 30, 2015

Police Violence and How to Lie with Statistics (or just ignore the whole point that people are trying to make)

It's been really interesting being outside the US and watching the growing debate on race/racism/police violence from afar. Especially interesting while filtering it through my current context of post-colonial southern Africa. In neighboring South Africa, there have recently been protests over the presence of a statue of Cecil Rhodes, a colonizer, at a university in Cape Town, and deadly attacks happening on immigrants from other African countries including Mozambique.

While this is happening here, I start reading about the riots happening in Baltimore and the inevitable reactions of people that fall along the lines of, "Stealing big-screen TVs isn't the right way to express your outrage. [Stupid, poor, black people.]" I feel like that misses the bigger picture in a big way.

I couldn't agree more that breaking into a store and taking luxury items is not as effective a method of protesting as the Montgomery bus boycott. But it's not that simple and not everyone is Martin Luther King, Jr. or Rosa Parks. Some people are responding to built-up feelings of disenfranchisement without logic or reason or calmly-thought-out plans. Dr. King had some words of wisdom regarding riots:
It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.
To me, condemning the rioters without examining the circumstances of their acts misses a chance to understand our society, and our fellow Americans, better. People don't take to the streets en masse and start destroying their neighborhoods without pretty strong feelings about something. Interestingly, ran a story that collects up pictures of looters in Baltimore where these law-breakers are carrying bags stuffed with toilet paper and tampons. While others may have been stealing iPhones and TVs, let's not let our outrage blind us to what is underlying the unrest: poverty and disenfranchisement.

From "Would you break the law for toilet paper and Tampax?"
But some people seem unable to accept nuances in this debate. They look at criminal behavior and condemn a whole people instead of individual acts. They refuse to accept the systemic problems that lead to these acts. (Maybe because that would imply having a responsibility to do something about it.) One image that I saw repeatedly in the last couple of days shows "data" that "proves" that black people are just whiners when they complain about the number of unarmed black men who are murdered by police officers entrusted to protect and serve their communities:
What's wrong with this? Two things, the first is just straight mathematical, coming from how to read statistics. The second has to do with context and the importance of not relying on statistics without examining the circumstances.

#1: The chart shows a total of 1,111 deaths by police shootings in 2014, with 233 victims identified as African-American compared to 414 White victims, 138 Hispanic and 311 unidentified. Ignoring that 28% of the victims are of unidentified race and the complications arising from considering "Hispanic" a racial category when many Hispanics consider themselves either Black or White, let's take a closer look at the numbers:

  • 233 African-American victims represent 21% of the total victims for the year, while according to the 2010 US census, 12.2% of the population identify as non-Hispanic Black.
  • 414 White victims represent 37.3% of the total, while the 2010 census reported that 63.7% of the population identifies as non-Hispanic White (72.4% of the population identifies as White, when "non-Hispanic" isn't separated.)
This is to say, the percentage of Black victims of police shootings is much higher than the percentage of African-Americans in the general population, while White victims make up a smaller percentage of victims than they do the whole population of the US. 

#2: These statistics taken as numbers without context ignore the whole point. People are not upset only because of the number of deaths, but because of the circumstances: the circumstances of poverty and lack of opportunity that lead to more confrontations with the police, the number of unarmed Black citizens who are shot or assaulted by police, the lack of follow-up investigation or the cover-up of these incidents, the way that Black victims are represented in the press, all the other aspects of systemic racism and classism that that can't be captured in one single statistic. 

The irony of that screenshot is that, cited as the source of the numbers, includes the following statement in its "About" page:
This site is founded upon the premise that Americans should have the ability to track [the most significant act police can do in the line of duty: take a life]. This idea was conceived in the wake of the Oct. 6, 2012, killing of a naked, unarmed college student, Gil Collar, at the University of South Alabama. Media reports contained no context: How many people are killed by police in Alabama every year? How many in the United States?
Then the numbers collected from the site are pulled out with zero context. 

The first clue that the numbers shown in that chart miss something is the simple fact that White people are not more outraged about police violence. Either the majority of African-Americans are living under a delusional persecution complex, or there is something systemic going on that affects African-Americans more than White people. If rioting is indeed the language of the unheard, we need to start listening if we want to promote peaceful solutions. 

Also, let's not ignore the good deeds being done in Baltimore. Although the focus is on the destruction, there are reports, too, of various neighborhood clean-up campaigns and people trying to stop conflicts before they start.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Framing Your Stories

From "Deadliest Country for Kids" photo credit Nicholas Kristof
Please look closely at the picture above. It comes from a New York Times piece by Nicholas Kristof titled, "Deadliest Country for Kids." The caption in the original piece reads, "Yalua Ndama with her son, Namana Chanhamba, suffering from malaria and malnutrition, in a Lubango health clinic."
It is the second picture that comes in the original piece, the first being a close shot of an emaciated infant with protruding ribs and bulging eyes being fed with an eye-dropper.

What do you see in the image above? Probably the young mother dressed in brightly-patterned traditional clothing with an apparently naked child loosely wrapped in a brightly-patterned traditional cloth. Why? Because photographer/author has chosen to put them front and center. What about the three women in the background? The one wearing jeans and flip-flops or the one in a button-down shirt and sneakers? The one with her hair tied back in a scrunchy apparently talking to her little girl as she reaches up to touch her mother's face?

If you are looking closely, you may catch that three-quarters of the moms in this picture would look pretty normal sitting in a waiting room in New York City or Atlanta or Los Angeles. But this would be despite the composition of the picture, not because of it.

No, this image was quite explicitly composed to emphasize the "other-ness" of "The Deadliest Country for Kids," also known as Angola. The rest of the article alternates between descriptions of the (very corrupt) president and the unimaginable suffering of apparently everyone else in the country. Highlights include:
“Children die because there is no medicine,” lamented Alfred Nambua, a village chief in a thatch-roof village on a rutted dirt road near the northern city of Malanje. The village has no school, no latrine, no bed nets. The only drinking water is a contaminated creek an hour’s hike away. “Now there’s nothing,” said Nambua, 73, adding that life was better before independence in 1975. 
“Death in this country is normal,” said Dr. Bimjimba Norberto, who runs a clinic in a slum outside the capital. A few doors down, a funeral was beginning for Denize Angweta, a 10-month-old baby who had just died of malaria. 
Also described are three more children on the edge of death, a poor woman so uneducated that she doesn't know mosquitoes cause malaria, and the "wailing... background chorus" of Angolan mothers losing children.

It is true that Angola is a country of staggering inequality. It's capital is one of the most expensive cities in the world, but it has one of the highest child mortality rates. It's president is famously corrupt. I have never visited there. So, why does this article upset me enough to blog about it?

Having spent the last two+ years living in Mozambique, I have become much more tuned to how African countries/cultures/people are portrayed in the Western media. Much can be summed up in the opening sentence of this article: "LUBANGO, Angola — This is a country laden with oil, diamonds, Porsche-driving millionaires and toddlers starving to death."

There is an amazing satirical piece titled, "How to Write about Africa" by Binyavanga Wainaina, a Kenyan writer, that touches on this points brilliantly. I am tempted just to copy the whole thing here, but I will restrain myself to a few selected paragraphs:
Your African characters may include naked warriors, loyal servants, diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in hermitic splendour. Or corrupt politicians, inept polygamous travel-guides, and prostitutes you have slept with... The Modern African is a fat man who steals and works in the visa office, refusing to give work permits to qualified Westerners who really care about Africa. He is an enemy of development, always using his government job to make it difficult for pragmatic and good-hearted expats to set up NGOs or Legal Conservation Areas. 
Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good.  
Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.
Broad brushstrokes throughout are good. Avoid having the African characters laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances. Have them illuminate something about Europe or America in Africa. African characters should be colourful, exotic, larger than life—but empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause. 
How often do we get to read about good things coming from Africa? Or even more rarely, normal things? It's nearly always crushing poverty, disease and death on one end, and rampant corruption and its associated shameless opulence on the other. If there is something good, it's frequently an idealized "there's this tribe in Africa that doesn't have singular pronouns in their language because they believe so strongly in community," type of story.

Why is this? Maybe because, like the Kristof piece in the NYT, the objective of many stories published in the West about Africa is to get people to donate money to alleviate the suffering of the poor. It may be because corrupt leaders need to be held accountable. It may because Westerns are addicted to bad news and stories of tragedy, whether they happen in Africa or any other part of the world.

And in the end, if people just want to help people in need, what's wrong with this?

First, it's manipulative: it is using real people's real suffering to tug at the heartstrings of potential donors in order to reach a financial end.

It's dehumanizing: while there are people of all kinds on the enormous continent that is Africa, focusing on the "otherness" that many people associate with it only perpetuates a huge gap between "us" and "them," frequently with the implication that "we" are better/more advanced/more capable/etc.

It's dis-empowering: by focusing on what is wrong - corrupt, inept leaders; ignorant, uneducated village-dwellers; dirty slums - without also telling the stories of those working to solve the problems, it perpetuates the so-called "white savior complex" that Westerners frequently develop, that overwhelming need to sweep in and "fix" things or "save" people in Africa.

This applies to many situations, not just portraying Africa. Think about the movie "The Blind Side." When it came out, many people loved it, but many complained that it also had an element of this "White Savior Complex," to it's portrayal of a rich white family adopting a young black football player. It's an interesting example because it's a true story, which might make you think that it can't fall into this category of stereotype-reinforcing narratives. However, there were dozens-to-hundreds of decisions made regarding how to tell the story.

The biggest such decision was to frame the story mostly from the perspective of the rich, white wife who used her influence to get the poor, black kid into her biological kids' private school. It easily could have been told as the story of Michael Ohr, a kid born into difficult circumstances who, through his toughness, ability and hard work, was able to make a better life for himself with the support of a wealthy family that believed in him. The same story would have left us with a different hero.

Over the last two years, I have become much more sensitive to the choices people make in how they portray others, both in written word and image. Who is the protagonist? Who is able to influence the outcome of a situation? Who is given backstory and depth? Who is in the center of the frame and who is in the background? Because these are all choices and they affect how people are led to see others.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Ferguson and today's racism

I grew up sustained on the delightful layer cake of privilege that is life as a white, middle class American. As I have grown older, through a variety of experiences, I have come to recognize more and more what that means: all the things that are made easier for me, all the things I don't have to worry about, all the places of influence I can find people who look like me.

Now I sit here stewing over the Ferguson grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson for shooting Michael Brown. I have so many things to say about it, but instead of just using the hashtags #blacklivesmatter and #blackvoicesmatter, I want to honor the intention of these statements and share the voices of some people of color who are beautifully expressing what this moment represents to them about race/racism in America today.

First, from friend and soon-to-be fellow Peace Corps Volunteer, Geoff Hutchinson:
A scenario runs through my mind from time to time, where I'm having a bad day. I'm in a bad mood and something happens that makes me visibly, audibly, and publicly angry. In this scenario, my frustration makes someone with a gun uneasy and I get shot and killed for it, without ever having the chance to defend my character. 24, almost 25 years ended over the course of a few minutes, with so many potential years ahead. I wish I could laugh it off, but then I think about the statistics and remember that this is a realistic scenario for me in the US, and I don't have the luxury of being able to shrug it off and say "I don't like politics or debates", because it concerns me, and truthfully, it concerns all of us.
What bothers me most about my scenario is that when similar scenarios happen in real life, they are only challenged on case-by-case basis. Sometimes the result is justice and other times it's not, but rarely does anyone address the nature of the disease. Cyclical and systemic in nature, the problems are too big to be answered by media and politicians in a few months, so when the immediate reactions subside, so too does the attention to the problem. Our society is missing the forest for the trees.
As a society, we shouldn't be asking "what happened?". What we should be asking is "why did this happen?" and "how can we fix it?". No scenario is as simple as Black & White, but can we at least agree that their is some underlying problem that needs to be addressed that reaches beyond any one young man? I don't know about everyone else, but I'm getting tired of reading the news about teenagers being killed because of something that happened over the course of a few minutes, without any concern given to the long-term causes of the circumstances. It doesn't make me angry. It doesn't make me want to break anything or hurt anyone. It just makes me sad, worried, and a little scared for the effects and implications of the society.

 Next from civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander:
As we await the grand jury's decision, I want to take this opportunity to say thank you -- a deep, heart-wrenching thank you -- to all the organizers and activists who took to the streets following Michael Brown's killing and who refused to stop marching, raising their voices, and crying out for justice. It is because of them -- their courage, boldness, vision and stamina -- that the world is paying attention to what is happening in a suburb called Ferguson. The world is not watching because an unarmed black man was killed by the police. That's not news. What made this police killing different was that the people in Ferguson -- particularly the young people -- rose up and said We Will Not Take It Any More. Our Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter. And their cry has been heard around the world. No matter what the grand jury does, let us remember that true justice will come only when our criminal injustice system is radically transformed: when we no longer have militarized police forces, wars on our communities, a school-to-prison pipeline, and police departments that shoot first and ask questions later. True justice will be rendered not when when a single "guilty" verdict is rendered in one man's case, but when the system as a whole has been found guilty and we, as a nation, have committed ourselves to repairing, as best we can, the immeasurable harm that has been done.
And lastly, I am excerpting from a long piece from my friend Epi Arias about Mike Brown and other RMPKs or "racially motivated killings by police." In the full piece he offers a detailed discussion of whether or not these racially motivated killings are reactionary or intentional and where racism comes from. I strongly urge you to go read the whole thing here.
So was it racially motivated? Is anything? The many unarmed black persons gunned down by police this year alone should tell you something. It’s a disgusting pattern that implies one of two things: either there is a racist problem in America, or black people are just simply dangerous. Ask the question now: Was it racially motivated?
I think we can see that both answers imply racial motivations. Here’s why: If a police officer guns down, say, an unarmed black man, and it’s not racially motivated, then it is presumably because that person posed a legitimate threat. And if an unarmed person posed a legitimate threat, one has to consider what kind of threat this might’ve been, given that a police officer has a gun while an unarmed person—well, an unarmed person is unarmed. There is no gun, no knife, no wrench, no candlestick, no rope—I think you can see where I’m going with this...
The problem is that we’re not asking the right questions. We already know that these killings are racially motivated regardless of who wants to split hairs. The two questions we should actually be asking are: Is the racially motivated murder of unarmed black persons intentional or reactionary? Second—and perhaps most importantly—what is racism? Although it might seem like an elementary question, our situation warrants the indulgence. I want to start this dialogue afresh, right now... The sad truth is many people do consider black people dangerous. It is actually such an established fact that we make light of it in movies, TV shows, and comedy skits. In proximity to a black person, many of you clutch your purse, lock your car door, increase your pace, tense up, and assume that there are drugs and/or weapons in the car. It’s ugly, but it’s reality—our reality.
We all know the story about the black guy shot by police after pulling a dark object from his pocket (i.e., wallet, candy bar, cellphone, hand). We know this happens all the time. And though it’s common knowledge, it keeps on happening due to the reactionary impulse that so often informs our decision-making: the good ole “Shit, he’s drawing a gun!” routine. We assume a threat from a black person with much more rapidity than we would otherwise; conditioned, as we are, to do so. And no, this does not excuse anyone from his or her actions, whether intentional or reactionary...
Police officers who kill/have killed/will kill unarmed black persons have a large ready-made network of apologists—civilians and law enforcement personnel alike—who are ready to defend them in the name of some unpronounced “principle,” whether or not said police officers may be guilty. This tells us that it is not about justice, that it is not about morality, and that—shockingly—it is almost only incidentally about race in the traditionally defined sense. It is mostly about a shameless pandering for validation, recognition, and acceptance. And this doesn’t make it any more excusable. It makes it worse, because if you identify with any conceptualization that is based on the disparaging or aversion of anyone because of race, you are not only ignorant, but also mindless. You are cult material. And should you ever find yourself, at any point, thinking for yourself, I guarantee that you will find your racist ideas completely ridiculous, empty, and devastatingly unfounded. You will be forced to change, to actually become human and think for yourself. And the next time an RMKP takes place (and it will, sadly, it will), you’ll be in a better position to reconsider the question: Was it racially motivated?
You’ll soon find that we’re all in this together, haunted by these names: Washington, Jones, Ashley, Allen, Carey, Brown, Gray, Garner, McDade, Russell, Diallo, Jefferson, Wilson, Zongo, Dorismond, Stansbury, Williams, Francis, Campbell, Bell, Davis, Edwards, Boyd, Miller, Barlow, Steen, Madison, Brissette, McGill, Smith, Grant, and Graham…to name enough.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Quick Election Update #2

Here is another very quick update on how the elections seem to have gone.

In the days immediately following the election, many observing bodies reported a free and fair process, including the African Union, European Union, and the Southern African Development Community.

However, it may turn out that the declaration was made prematurely. There were a few irregularities reported the day of the elections, but apparently not enough for the observers to call foul. Since election day, however, more and more fishy information has been coming out. Or information has not been coming out when it should.

One of the biggest complains has been a loooooong delay in results being released. In a country where there is a lot of suspicion of corruption, when the results aren't released in a timely manner, it makes people trust the results even less when they are finally made available. District counts should have been finished last Friday, October 17 and provincial by the 21st, but many of these deadlines aren't being met. The EU mission released a statement expressing "its concerns with the delays in the tabulation of results at district and provincial levels in some provinces, and considers that such mishaps in the tabulation process, added to the absence of official public explanations about these difficulties, hinders what has been an orderly start on election day," and stating that it "regrets the obstacles posed to the access of EU observers to information on the provincial tabulation in Cabo Delgado and Zambezia, when transparency and integrity should preside over the entire electoral process according to the law."

There have been a number of incidents that point to extreme disorganization in a best case scenario, if not serious fraud. For example, from the Mozambique Political Process Bulletin Published by the Center for Public Integrity:
On Sunday (Bulletin 65) we reported that the Tete city count stopped because there were 234 editais [official document stating the voting result from a polling station] and only 178 polling stations. The official STAE explanation yesterday was that some polling stations had more than one register book. Even if a polling station has two books, it is supposed to issue a single edital. But STAE says that in Tete staff erroneously wrote separate editais for each book.

We are now receiving reports of some polling stations, in Maputo and elsewhere, that had extra register books, sometimes called a “transfer list” (Lista de Transferidos) or simply an “extra voters list" (lista dos agregado). We are also seeing reports of polling stations where the number of voters is more than double the number of people on the register book as published in the lists of polling stations before the elections, which suggests they had an extra register book.
Or reports of unusually (nearly impossibly) high turnout in some areas that point to a high likelihood of ballot-box stuffing.

Reports of impossibly high turnouts are providing more evidence of ballot box stuffing. Turnouts of more than 80% of registered voters are highly unlikely in Mozambique, especially in rural areas where people have to walk long distances. It is much more likely that there has been ballot box stuffing, either putting unused ballot papers into the ballot box, or simply changing the results sheet (edital) at the end of the day. This occurs more easily in polling station where opposition parties have not been able to place delegates or polling station staff to watch the process.

Most extreme is Gaza, where five districts report very high turnouts: Chicualacuala 89%, Chigubo 82%, Mabalane 80%, Massangena 96% and Massingir 92%. These results are especially suspect when compared to equally loyal Frelimo areas of Gaza, such as Mandlakazi where the turnout was a more average 56%.

These five are small rural districts, but they have probably added 20,000 false votes for Frelimo candidate Filipe Nyussi.

The Electoral Observatory (EO) also points to suspiciously high turnouts in Guija, Gaza, where we do not have a district result yet.

Another suspect district is Ka Nanyaka in Maputo city, which reported a turnout of 79% compared to a city-wide turnout of 60%. Again the EO finds suspiciously high turnouts in the sample polling stations in that district.

Mabote district, Inhambane, with 81% turnout, was also reported by EO observers to have an impossibly high turnout.

EO data also point to ballot box stuffing in these districts:
Cabo Delgado: Muidumbe
Inhambane: Inhassoro, and Panda
Nampula: Ilha de Mocambique and Nacala-a-Velha
Niassa: Mecula
Tete: Cahora Bassa, Changara, and Zumbo

Most of these districts are strongly pro-Frelimo. The Tete districts are majority Frelimo with a significant Renamo vote. The Nampula districts are divided and hard fought. Ilha de Mocambique and Changara have a long history of ballot box stuffing in favour of Frelimo.

Historically, nearly all ballot box stuffing has been in favour of Frelimo and its presidential candidate.
The results that have been released indicate a victory by the incumbent party, with 57% of the vote. Although the Center for Public Integrity estimates that ballot-box stuffing increased votes for Filipe Nyusi by 100,000 votes. Using the Electoral Observatory sample count, we also estimate that there were problems such as very late opening or changed location for about 130 polling stations. Observers and party delegates reported cases of polling stations having an additional register book which was not on the official list of polling stations and register books. We suggest this happened in up to 250 polling stations. The full report and analysis is in the attached pdf version of this bulletin. However, the opposition parties are not prepared to accept this result. Afonso Dhlakama, the presidential candidate of the oldest, most established opposition party, responded to early results indicating a FRELIMO victory by asking for negotiations that could lead to a sharing of power by the two parties. He claimed that he did not want to negotiate because he wants to be president, but because he wants democracy in Mozambique. He has cited the unity governments in Kenya and Zimbabwe as examples.I am no fan of the violent tactics RENAMO has taken over the last year+, but this man does sometimes make sense when he talks. From Joseph Hanlon:
He is stressing that this is not about winning or losing elections. He says this was not a real election, and that diplomats should not accept in Africa an election which would not be acceptable in Europe. Thus he wants support for a unity government that would finally bring democracy to Mozambique.
I  was a little surprised that observers were so quick to declare the elections "free and fair" when there had been a number of irregularities. In fact, on October 21, the US Department of State finally issued a press release stating "important concerns about unequal access to the media, abuse of state resources, missing materials and registration books in polling stations, and the late opening of some polling stations. There were failures in the electoral administration, particularly with respect to the timely accreditation of national observers and party delegates."(Quoted here in English, or the original here in Portuguese). Interestingly, these problems of unequal access and abuse of state resources were happening all through the campaign process, but the statement didn't come until this delay in the release of results.

I will keep posting some updates as the post-election process continues.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The social and economic costs of fear

I wrote a post a few days ago in reaction to a line in a New York Times editorial on the US response to the Ebola outbreak that categorized many West African officials and workers as "incompetent and in some cases unable to use the temperature devices they have been given." This didn't sit well with me for many reasons and I find myself reacting similarly to much of the coverage of the Ebola epidemic. The tone is (understandably) fearful, but touching on xenophobic, including the many calls to stop all flights coming from affected countries. While this might seem reasonable at first glance, it ignores the effect it would have on those countries, both economically and in terms of stopping the travel of very necessary health workers.

But in response to my blog post, a friend sent along an article about Nigeria's successful containment of Ebola. The government devised a "war-like approach" to dealing with the disease when it appeared, putting in place a command center with the Nigerian Government in charge, but in cooperation with international organizations from the World Health Organization to the US CDC: "Together with these organizations, we sit in one place, co-location in a designated facility, and we do joint planning, agree on strategies to be used, and implement these strategies based on a clear understanding that people are comfortable to deliver on specific tasks." They put four teams into action to inform the population, screen people crossing borders, manage potential cases and to hunt down anyone who may have had contact with an infected person in "a way that ensured ruthless efficiency."

The doctor in charge of the effort is Faisal Shuaib, a Nigerian physician who completed his medical training in Nigeria and a doctorate in Public Health from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He stepped away from his position heading the Nigerian Health Ministry's Polio eradication program to oversee the response to Ebola. He has been managing a team of over 500 public health workers and volunteers to monitor and contain the disease. As of October 9, more than a month had passed since the last Nigerian case had been discharged. 

I loved reading this story for a couple of reasons. First, as the person sending the link commented, "no incompetence noted..." It is a great example of the good work being done by affected nations to protect their people. But it also shows why the isolation response of "Quick, cancel all the flights!!" is so dangerous. Nigeria was so successful because of the competence of the doctor leading the charge, but also because of the coordination and cooperation among various international organizations and governments in the effort to stop the disease. 

Nigeria is wealthier than other West African countries and ranked higher on the UN's Human Development Index, so it may have been better positioned to respond to Ebola. But even so, they didn't respond alone. The government oversaw the campaign in cooperation with organizations that could supply expertise and with the funding support of the Gates Foundation that shifted $50 million to fighting Ebola. When asked what more must be done to protect people, Dr. Shuaib responded, "One thing that can change the outbreak is for nations to come together and deploy resources... Wealthier countries have to mobilize resources in a concerted manner, and they need to act now.

Although it is mainly three countries that are being hit the hardest by Ebola, the response needs to come from the whole world. This is a humanitarian crisis that will have lasting economic and social effects, and it's not a Scylla-and-Charybdis rock-and-a-hard-place situation like Syria or the Ukraine. This is a tragedy killing thousands of people and gutting economies that were struggling to develop. The World Bank recently released a forecast that projects a loss of $1.6 billion in West Africa region if Ebola is contained but up to $25.2 billion if it continues to spread. I can't even begin to imagine what kind of long-term damage this would do to lives there even once the disease has been contained.

I don't live in a country affected by Ebola, but there is real fear that the outbreak will cause an economic contagion that spread beyond where the virus appears. As not everyone knows exactly how large and diverse Africa is, or how the disease spreads, there have been various panic responses. Planes have been quarantined because they were carrying passenger who got airsick and had been to "Africa," even if it was nowhere near the affected region. A friend who runs a non-profit selling crafts made in Uganda recently had a customer try to cancel an order for fear she could catch Ebola from the beaded necklaces. This kind of irrational fear could damage all African economies and create more prejudice against the continent as a whole, which does affect Mozambique. Addressing this possibility, the New York Times' recently quoted IMF managing director Christine Lagarde as saying, “We should be very careful not to terrify the planet in respect of the whole of Africa.”

So while it is very important for every country to screen very carefully anyone traveling from an affected area - Dr. Shuaib also emphasized this as a crucial step in stopping the spread of the disease - responding to the crisis by trying to pull away will have serious long term effects and won't help stop the disease, only coming together to fight it can do that. 

First very quick election update

Wednesday was the big day here in Mozambique: national elections. After last year's municipal elections, yesterday was the day to vote for a new president, as well as members of the Assembleia da Republica and provincial assemblies. Following a year and half of political unrest that finally cooled with the signing of a new Peace Deal between the ruling FRELIMO party and the main opposition party RENAMO, no one knew how the elections would go.

And it is still hard to say. It appears that although the days leading up to the election were calmer than the final days of last year's campaign, the election itself had more incidents. All online sources that tracked information supplied by citizens reported numerous instances of attempted fraud, problems encountered by election observers and officials coming from opposition parties, some violence and irregularities in the lists of registered voters. From J. Hanlon's election news bulletin:

There are a growing number of reports of the discovery of ballot papers already marked for Frelimo and which involve polling station staff or other officials.

In Angonia,
Tete, Jeremias Atanasio, the president of a polling station in Domue primary school, was arrested when he was found with ballot papers already marked for Frelimo.

In Chidenguele,
Gaza, observers caught a new form of ballot box stuffing. They saw a member of an unknown observer group pick up ballot papers from the main table (with the obvious agreement of the polling station staff), and put them into a slot under the booth where voters mark their ballot paper. When an observer went there and took out the ballot papers, he found them marked for Frelimo (see photos in the attached pdf). The idea appears to be that when a Frelimo member who had been warned in advance went to that booth and marked and folded up their ballot papers, they would take extra ballot papers from the slot and fold in extra ones as well, thus putting more than one ballot paper in each box.

In Beira spare ballot boxes have been found.

Meanwhile, there have been several other reports of pre-marked ballot papers being found. In Dondo a reporter for the newspaper Zambeze was attacked and had his camera confiscated after he took pictures showing polling station staff marking ballot papers for Frelimo, and of a teacher putting the extra votes in the ballot boxes. He also filmed a discussion between polling station staff and party members, but has now had his pictures taken away. This was at Eduardo Mondlane primary school.

In Coalane in Quelimane an observer caught a person with 17 pre-marked ballot papers.

And the Youth Parliament (Parlamento Juvenil, PJ), community radios (o Forum das Radios Comunitarias de Mocambique, FORCOM), the Human Rights League (a Liga Mocambicana dos Direitos Humanos, LDH), the Women's Forum (o Forum Mulher) and the Public Integrity Centre (o Centro de Integridade Publica, CIP) have issued a joint statement in which they say that that "in Quelimane city 4 clandestine ballot boxes were found in a police car registration PRM 00313. Local people say that the ballot boxes were given to two people who left in cars with registrations ACU 173 MC e ADJ 481 MC".
Based on supporters during the campaign and initial results, it appears that RENAMO made a better showing than some expected and MDM, the newer, up-and-coming opposition party that saw a fair amount of success in last year's mayoral elections, may have struggled. It will be very interesting to see the official results and how people respond to them. As of this morning, RENAMO is not accepting the initial projections of a FRELIMO victory.

Many are seeing a FRELIMO victory as a foregone conclusion, but people are also upset about the widespread fraud. The fraud appears in so many different flavors, beyond the ballot box stuffing cited above. O Partido can stack the polling station staff with party sympathizers, since they run the Election Commission. Supposedly, here in Chimoio, all of the voting table presidents were called in for a meeting with FRELIMO the night before elections. This is after the commission went against the recommendations of trainers for who to place as president, presumably in order to have their own people in charge. During the campaign, they repeatedly used state resources - from cars and trucks to police and military - to support their cause. Never mind the fact that they run all the major news outlets and could slant coverage to favor their own party. Even Mcel (Moçambique Celular the cell provider with government backing) was sending "news" items via text such as, "Nyusi's campaign is running strong!"or "MDM backers in Nampula leave campaign to back Nyusi." (Nyusi being the FRELIMO candidate).

On the other side, some men from RENAMO attacked a polling station and burned ballot boxes they believed to contain fraudulent ballots. There were reports of other violent acts perpetrated by RENAMO leading up to the election, too. Hear in Manica, I heard about MDM appointed polling staff being shut out of training sessions either because of terrible disorganization on the part of the party, or because their spots had been sold. No one came out of these elections looking squeaky clean.

My only hope is that any post-election conflicts are resolved peacefully and Mozambique is left in a better position to continue along its path to a better life for all citizens. I will continue to post quick updates as the news comes in.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Choose Your Words Carefully

I finally wrote my first Letter to the Editor (finally showing that I am my father's daughter!) It hasn’t been published, but it felt good. It was in response to an editorial I read on the New York Times' website, "Stopping Ebola in America, " about steps the US needs to take to keep Ebola in check. I had no problem with most of the points made in the piece, but then I came to a line that just made me cringe: "There is room to improve the screening in West Africa, where government officials and workers are often incompetent and in some cases unable to use the temperature devices they have been given." I had to respond.
It has been interesting following the coverage of the Ebola epidemic from here in Mozambique. This part of Africa is far from the outbreak and I would guess there is less transit between the affected area and Mozambique than there is with the US. The Mozambican government put plenty of preventative measures in place: checking passengers traveling from affected areas, setting up a unit in the Maputo hospital to deal with any potential cases, but I wasn't surprised to hear that the infection appeared in the US before here. Despite being on the same continent as the outbreak, Mozambique is very far from Liberia and travel between the countries is difficult. So where I live, we aren't directly affected by Ebola, but the coverage in the news has touched on many things that feel relevant to me, particularly because "Africa" is often treated as a single entity in US and Western media.
It may not be surprising to hear that living in Africa for two years has changed the way I read news and commentary about the continent; how the people and cultures here are portrayed feels much more personal when applied to my friends, colleagues, students and neighbors. I can't say that I have anything particularly original to say on the subject; most of these things have been said repeatedly by all sorts of commentators, but here goes anyways. If nothing else, I need the catharsis of getting my feelings on the page.  
Africa isn't homogeneous. Which is not just to say that it is up of different countries, cultures and ethnicities with varied histories, traditions, and current ways of life. It also means that it is home to millions of individuals with personalities and stories and temperaments. And feelings. Feelings which can get hurt when people say insensitive things about them. Many of these individuals are not poor, incompetent people living in the bush, as the statement in the Times piece seems to want to portray. Some are intelligent, motivated, educated, and engaged. And this population knows how Western media talks about Africa as a whole. I will never forget the acute embarrassment at the beginning of my second semester teaching English here.
I like to start out my first class with a new group by opening the floor to questions. They are allowed to ask whatever they want, as long as it is in English. The vast majority are similar: "How old are you?" "Are you married?" "How long have you been in Mozambique?" "What do you think of Mozambique?" But one of my students threw out: "What do people in America think of Africa?" Caught off guard,  I stumbled over a response that basically amounted to: "Well, different people think different things, depending on their experience and knowledge, some people don't know a lot, but others have been here..." He listened to my awkward rambling and then hit me with, "It's just that I saw this American movie once and there was a kid who was being bad and his mom told him, 'If you don't stop, I'm going to send you to Africa!' So, people must think it's a bad place to be, right?"
How to respond to this?! I took a deep breath and tried to explain that Americans tend to focus on bad news in general, not just about Africa, and since there are places with wars and hunger and negative things, sometimes this gets in the news more than the good things and that shapes people's ideas. Partly wanting to save a little face, partly just not wanting him to think that all Americans believe Africa is where you get sent when you misbehave.
When the New York Times makes the statement that government officials and workers in West Africa are "often incompetent," it does damage in so many ways.
  • It bunches together an entire region consisting of many countries (17, according to the UN) as though they are one. Nigeria is not Mali, and Mauritania is not Sierra Leone. There may be cultural similarities among some of the countries, but to make a sweeping statement about their governments and capacities as though they can all be equated is like making a statement about the management of American companies as though Walmart is the same as a Manhattan bodega is the same as LL Bean.
  • It reinforces a damaging stereotype regarding the abilities of Africans to take care of themselves, which supports the idea that they need us to come in and save them. The editorial was signed by the New York Times’ editorial board. I am very curious to know who on that board is an expert in West African governance. On what are they basing their assertion? Their own extensive personal experience? Long-term study of the region? Or is anecdotal and based on prejudice? We have no way of knowing. The fact that an anonymous group can dismiss the abilities of an entire region without any claim to expertise is unfair; but Western intellectuals rarely hesitate to opine on what’s wrong in Africa and propose solutions without necessarily having a lot of experience living in the region and we accept it. "Experts" who have studied one country can be called on to solve problems on the other side of the continent.
  • It oversimplifies a complex problem. It stands to reason that an outbreak like the one happening now is exacerbated by inadequately trained medical personnel who don’t have access to decent equipment and facilities. Look at the whole statement: "There is room to improve the screening in West Africa, where government officials and workers are often incompetent and in some cases unable to use the temperature devices they have been given." It starts out okay: sure, there is room to improve screening. Then comes that word, “incompetent.” I have already made clear my feelings on that. But it is followed by, “…in some cases unable to use the temperature devices they have been given." So, if someone gives medical workers a new piece of technology without the proper training on how to use it, who is incompetent? 
To me, if someone wants to get involved in development work, they need to be committed to first understanding the context of the problem they are addressing. Next, they need to work with local actors to identify possible solutions. But most importantly, that solution can’t be new equipment or technology without the necessary training. There needs to be real capacity building in order for any difference to be made. The classic example is the use of mosquito nets in the fight against malaria. American organizations collect money, buy bed-nets and ship them to rural Mozambique. Then they are surprised to find that people, never having seen a bed net before and receiving no instruction on how to use one, use them to fish or o protect their crops from bugs.
All this is to say, the statement made by the Times’ editorial board is only one instance in a pattern of how West Africa, Africa as a whole, and African people are portrayed in Western media: as homogeneously incompetent. The fact that it is okay for this statement to be made by an anonymous group not claiming to have any expertise in the region reflects the attitude that most Americans are well-educated and competent enough to give advice regarding development (a problem I have with my own presence here). It also shows the laziness of people wanting to solve complex social issues with technological interventions alone, not a long-term commitment to building the capacity of the local populations. This is bad on its own, but made worse by the fact that the subjects of such a statement can read it and this will inform all of their interactions with Westerners.
As I concluded my letter to the editor: In summary, such a casual assertion of ineptitude that paints an entire region as "less than," only serves to reinforce a simplistic version of a historically fraught power relationship between Africa and the West. It sells short everyone involved.