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Do we need white people to save Africa?

Nick Kristof wrote a nice blog piece yesterday about his portrayal of aid in Africa. He had been criticized for consistently placing western protagonists in his stories of humanitarian crises, portraying “black Africans as victims” and “white foreigners as saviors.” He answers by saying that (a) he often also portrays black heroes and (b) that, as much as he feels uncomfortable with it, it is easier to market a story with strong western protagonists.

I can empathize with Kristof on this. It is difficult to market stories on Africa. He mentions a trip made by Anderson Cooper to the Congo, in which I took part – Anderson lost 20-30% of his viewers just by broadcasting from Africa. Also, when I first tried shopping my forthcoming book on the Congo war around publishers the predominant answer was: We need stronger western characters.

Kristof has done strong reporting to bring stories to light that no one else will cover. And yet I would like to disagree with Kristof on one important matter. I am consistently vexed by his reporting, not only because he highlights white protagonists, but because his view of politics is often pretty rudimentary. It’s not so much that he shows only black victims and white saviors, but it’s the kabuki theater of victims and saviors in general that leaves me unsatisfied.

Here is Kristof comparing Congo with Darfur, for example, back in 2007:

Darfur is a case of genocide, while Congo is a tragedy of war and poverty.… Militias slaughter each other, but it’s not about an ethnic group in the government using its military force to kill other groups. And that is what Darfur has been about: An Arab government in Khartoum arming Arab militias to kill members of black African tribes. We all have within us a moral compass, and that is moved partly by the level of human suffering. I grant that the suffering is greater in Congo. But our compass is also moved by human evil, and that is greater in Darfur. There’s no greater crime than genocide, and that is Sudan’s specialty.

“Evil” is greater in Darfur? I’m not sure I know what that means. The level of human suffering is lower in the Congo?

But his writing on the Congo has evolved. He has emphasized that the rapists are not just savages, but that they rape as a strategy to undermine communities, control the population and get their hands on resources. This year, he came up with a four-step solution to solve the rape crisis: (1)Pressure on Rwanda to stop supporting the ex-CNDP, (2) A regime to monitor mineral exports from the Kivus, (3) A push to demobilize the FDLR and (4) A drive to professionalize the Congolese army.

This is pretty much NGO orthodoxy, and is pretty good. And yet, I still have two problems.

First, he does mostly depict suffering without a political context. His columns are usually based on a personal story of suffering intended to pull at our hearts strings. he rarely spends much time explaining why the calamity happened in the first place. This has the unfortunate side effect of making it seem like the war can be reduced to a bunch of rebels raping women in order to control minerals. That is not true.

Soldiers did not take up their weapons yesterday so as to get to mines – some armed groups are nowhere close to mines (e.g. LRA, some Mai-Mai groups), and some of the worst cases of rape have been by the Congolese police, far from conflict zones and mining areas. It is an open question how much rape is used to control populations, or whether it is a tool to socialize new recruits, or even just happens opportunistically.

In general, the origin of the conflict is rooted in the collapse of Zaire, local struggle over land and resources in the East, and genocide in Rwanda.Minerals have exacerbated the problem and prolonged the conflict, but are not the source of violence in the Congo.

The danger with Kristof’s kind of reporting is that as long as we don’t understand the political logic of the Congolese conflict, our solutions will be slapdash and inadequate. If it is just a bunch of savages raping to get minerals, we might conclude that the problem is getting rid of these savages or creating due diligence in mineral supply chains – laudable initiatives, to be sure, but they don’t get to the bottom of the problem. Indeed, the current donor approach seems to be pretty much at sea and is largely focused on addressed humanitarian emergencies rather than promoting institutional change.

The Congolese problem is, unfortunately, complex (which is why no one has found an easy solution). It is rooted in institutional collapse, the logic of patrimonial rule, and competition between national and regional elites. In the Congolese political system, a leader’s survival is based on accumulating resources and using force to co-opt or coerce your rivals. There is no contractual security to guarantee business or political investments, there are few strong institutional checks and balances – courts, audits, parliaments – to rein in excesses of power.

Why does this matter for Kristof?

Well, in this context, creating strong security institutions may be anathema to President Kabila, as it was to President Mobutu, as he fears being constrained by them or even overthrown; demobilizing the ex-CNDP may be anathema to Kigali and the Congolese Tutsi community, as they need muscle to protect their security and other interests; and demobilizing the FDLR – which has been a priority for the past decade – means either forcing Rwanda to negotiate with some of them or using force, neither of which is easy.

So the solutions he proposes may not be so easy.

Yes, it is complex. But so is all politics. Imagine what a wonk like Paul Krugman would sound like writing on the Congo? Please, Mr. Kristof, continue your vivid reporting. But also go the extra mile to understand the politics.

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