DRC: Progress but Long Way to Go

On Monday, February 21, Lt. Col. Kibibi Mutware became the first military officer to be convicted and sentenced for war crimes related to sexual violence in the history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the past, only individual soldiers had faced criminal repercussions and officers were protected from any sort of retribution.

Lt. Col. Mutware was charged with ordering the attack on the village of Fizi and telling his soldiers to beat and rape the women. At least 33 women were raped on the attack. The United Nations estimates that over 8,000 women were raped in the DRC in 2009, though some estimates go as high as 15,000.

As a blogger for the Christian Science Monitor points out:

The sentencing of Col. Mutware and his officers is a significant step toward ending impunity for sexual violence. Although close to 50 rape survivors testified in court, many others are presumed to have stayed silent for fear of being shunned by their husbands or communities, or out of concern that the military would retaliate.

The government has promised to pay each woman who testified $10,000 in compensation. This may seem low, but in a village in Eastern DRC that could be about 15-20 years of income.

While this conviction is a major sign of progress for the DRC, and hopefully a step towards putting an end to the violence and mass rapes in the east, other aspects of the country are troubling.

Last night in the Capital city of Kinshasa, an estimated 50 armed gunmen attacked DRC President Joseph Kabila, seriously injuring one of his guards in the attempted coup. Seven of the attackers were left dead.

Government spokesman Lambert Mende said on a national television broadcast, “The gunmen were “enemies of peace” who wanted to disrupt the coming elections.”

The DRC is planning to hold presidential elections this coming November, and tensions are high in regards to how the elections will play out.

A Congolese women who works with us on our project has told me that her husband, a Belgium ex-pat who works for the UN in Kinshasa, and herself are planning to return to Belgium before the elections. They don’t want to be here in case violence breaks out during the lead up to the elections and the aftermath.

I’ll be back in America long before the election process really gets started, but I will be paying attention to how it progresses.



What Three Dollars Will Get You

$3.00 For this Refreshing Beverage

Yesterday I bought one liter of tropical juice, something that I’d been craving for a while. The juice cost me 2700 Congolese Francs, which is exactly equal to $3.00. Now, this doesn’t seem to be that significant, as that’s about what a liter of juice would cost in America, and I knew that it was an imported product as there is nowhere in Kisangani which could manufacture juice.

Today, as I poured a glass to have with my breakfast, it clicked that for the same $3.00 I could have paid a day laborer to hack through and clear 200 square meters of jungle. This work would take him five or six hours, and would be an exhausting endeavor, but he wouldn’t even question or argue about the price. $3.00 is the standard pay for clearing 200 sq. meters.

So, for a day laborer in Kisangani to obtain that small box of juice, he would have to work in the hot, humid jungle, constantly hacking at bushes, branches, vines, and trees for six long hellacious hours.

$3.00 of Hard Labor

The next time you buy a Grande Soy Latte, just try and enjoy it a bit more, because for many people in the world, that’s a damn hard day’s work.

Getting a Haircut in Africa

When you live in a foreign country, simple everyday things can become unique experiences. I remember that in Ukraine, going to the post office was a unique experience on each and every visit! But in Africa, at least in the Congo, one thing that really stands out to me is the Barber Shop experience.

First of all, in case you weren’t aware, pretty much everyone here is Black, which means that the standard barbershop tool of choice is the clippers. In fact, I didn’t even see any scissors on the counter at all. Since I knew they would only use clippers I asked for a #2 on the sides and a #4 on the top, figuring I’d end up with something close to a military cut.

I was seated in a barber chair, they put the standard cover around me and tied it off in the back, and there was a rotating fan mounted above the mirror pointing down at me so I could stay cool during the experience. My barber, who happened to be named “Welcome” (I’m not kidding you. That’s his actual name!), then got to work.

Step 1: Trim everything to #4. I guess he wanted to get rid of my shaggy hair, so he just started working with the #4 trimmer and would go over every part many many many times until he was satisfied.

Step 2: Begin working on the sides with the #2 clippers. Again, he was meticulous, getting every little hair that was too long.

Step 3: Start mixing and matching between #’s 1-4 to create a nice blend from the lowest edges to the top, and he would constantly go over areas he’d already done checking to see if he’d missed a hair. (We’re about 30 mins in at this point.)

Step 4: As usual for most guys, he used the clippers to go around the edges and ears to get them nice and straight, but, thankfully, I knew what was coming next:

Step 5: The Razor Blade – Ok, I’d seen this already when I watched my boss get a haircut. At this point he takes out a brand new razor blade (The double sided sort). He unwraps it and begins to use it to shave the edges of my hair line and physically slice off the hairs to make every edge of my hair line perfectly straight. He also started using it to dry shave my face as well. My friend Dre had previously talked about his experience with this – He said “And then the guy pulls out a razor and start shaving my cheek! I just yelled stop, got up, and got the bloody hell out of there!”

Ok, so, normally when all the edges are done, the haircut is over for a guy. Well, not here.

Step 6: Get out the clippers and Repeat step 3!

Step 7: (We’re about an hour in at this point) Rub some water into my hair and then flatten my bangs. Now, my head has basically been buzzed by clippers, so the odds that I’ll ever flatted out my bangs are low, but he checks and then pulls out that razor and start cutting each little straggler individually to make sure they’re all perfectly straight.

Step 8: He takes out some stuff I think is gel and then starts rubbing it into my hair and it foams up. For a second I think it’s mousse, but then I realized that it’s shampoo. He massages my hair with the shampoo right there in the hair and I’m wondering how he’s going to get it off. Then he goes and rubs it all over my face as well! He walks away and I sit there looking at my bubble covered hair and face and wonder how I’m going to get home.

Step 9: Ok, this is the best step. He comes back with a hot, wet towel and begins to rub it over my hair and face to mop up all the shampoo. This how towel would have been really nice before the razor though. (One time in my life I’ve had a hot towel / straight razor shave and it was the greatest shave I’ve ever had)

Step 10: He then massages my head to get my hair to dry. This was also very relaxing.

Step 11: He grabs some pomade and rubs it through my hair, doing a bit of styling.

Step 12: He begins to brush me off with a powdered brush, covering my neck, face and everything to prevent discomfort from the loose hairs.

Step 13: He grabs a cotton ball, tears it in half and then cleans out my ears to get all the loose hairs out (Ok! This is something I’ve always hated dealing with after a haircut and a reason I usually go home and take a shower.)

Step 14: One hour and twenty minutes later I get up and I pay him $5. He gives me his cell phone number and says to call him anytime and he’ll head over to the barbershop if he’s not there and cut my hair.

So, there you have it, a 14-Step haircut, involving more than an hour of labor and completely meticulous work, and it only cost me $5. (And this is the expensive barbershop!)

I don't know if I can live without the razor cut lines

This edge is perfect without a single stray hair!

Technology and Revolution

With civil unrest taking place in virtually every North African country, along with many countries in the Middle East, it’s interesting to consider how many of these uprisings wouldn’t have been possible without the innovative use of digitally networked technology. While the use of Social Networks is hot on the lips of every news anchor, many of these were quite effectively deployed in the 2008 post-election crisis in Kenya.

In a 2008 paper released by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, Joshua Goldstein and Juliana Rotich examine how network communication technology was used to promote democracy and transparency, but also how it was quite effective in spreading terror and promoting ethnic violence:

On January 1, 2008, Kenyans started to receive frightening text messages that urged readers to express their frustrations with the election outcome by attacking other ethnic groups. One such message reads, “Fellow Kenyans, the Kikuyu’s have stolen our children’s future…we must deal with them in a way they understand…violence.”

It’s easy to think of the good that comes from technology. Nicholas Negropante, the founder of One Laptop per Child (OLPC), in the conclusion of his submission to a Boston Review online forum on technology and poverty stated:

[New technologies] hold both the promise of education and an end to isolation. And they hold the promise of a world in which the excuses of ignorance and misunderstanding are no longer acceptable, of a future generation that is more tolerant, more just, and more peaceful than our own.

It’s important for some people to have this sort of optimistic view, even if I disagree with the OLPC program, but we must not be naïve to the dangers new methods of communication technology present. The more digitally inter-connected a country is, and the more overall knowledge in the usage of social networks and other online services (blogs, forums, twitter) the people have, then there is a greater chance that the sort of uprising we’re seeing will take place.

This Christian Science Monitor article points out reasons why the Democratic Republic of the Congo will not have this sort of uprising, and chief among them is that is the connectedness of the people.

According to the International Telecommunication Union, 21 percent of Egypt’s population has access to the internet and 5 percent are on Facebook; in the Congo, the corresponding figures are 0.5 percent and 0.1 percent.

From my own experience here, those who have had a Facebook account created for them by a westerner hardly understand how to use the system and don’t really see the purpose. And in a place where an internet connection costs a minimum of $250 per month, and the per capita GDP is around $170, it’s not hard to see why only 0.5 percent of the population has access to the internet.

If the civil uprisings did spread into Sub-Saharan Africa, I fear that we would see more ethnic violence in line with what happened in Kenya, or resumption of the brutal civil wars in the DRC. Plus, the police and military are far less trained and organized in countries like the DRC, which could lead to much more acts of violence.

ICT4Dev: Technology is not the Magic Bean

As a self-identified computer geek, I can’t help but be drawn to the field of Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4Dev). The basic premise of which seems to be: Think of all the amazing technologies we have in our everyday life and how just a few of those could drastically change the problems facing the poor and disenfranchised of the world?

One of the ‘star’ programs you may have heard of is the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) program. This mission is as follows:

“To provide each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop. To this end, we have designed hardware, content and software for collaborative, joyful, and self-empowered learning. With access to this type of tool, children are engaged in their own education, and learn, share, and create together.”

Now this sounds like a great idea, especially when the laptops cost only $100.00 each, which seems like nothing compared to the benefits. But, as Kentaro Toyama, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, explains in his lead article of a forum on the role of ICT4Dev, laptops aren’t a panacea:

“OLPC’s target cost of a hundred dollars or less per laptop (in practice, the machines have been more expensive), sounds affordable, but that’s about half of India’s per-student education budget, most of which is currently devoted to teachers’ salaries. Does a hundred dollars for a computer make sense when $0.50 per year, per child for de-worming pills could reduce the incidence of illness-causing parasites and increase school attendance by 25 percent?”

In fact, technology acts much like investment in my previous article: If you are already educated and have means it will multiply your productive capabilities, but if you’re poor, uneducated, and have little means to purchase or maintain technology, there is little improvement.

Mr. Toyama put is brilliantly when he stated that “technology is a magnifier in that its impact is multiplicative, not additive.” Sometimes I wonder how all of us ‘computer people’ can think that simply giving someone a computer will instantly change their lives, magically granting them the same productivity gain we achieved. I mean, haven’t we all given a computer to our mothers and seen how well that’s worked out? I showed my mother how to put photos onto Facebook on three different occasions until it finally took!

But, there you have the answer, once I did put in the effort, once I figured out the best method to teach her based on how she learns as an individual – which, I might add, is quite different from how I learn and thus accounts for the two failed attempts – I was able to instruct her and thus give her the skills needed so that she could benefit from the technology.

This is a problem with the Revolutionary mindset many people have about technology in the developing world. How does, for example, putting a telecenter (like an Internet Café) in villages in India help the people if they:

  1. Don’t know how to use the computer?
  2. Don’t know what information is out there and how to access it?
  3. Don’t even have consistent power to keep the computers turned on?

In Kisangani we gave one of our workers a laptop and have been teaching him how to use spreadsheets and the word processor, but he only has access to the Internet around our house, and he doesn’t even have power at home so he must charge the computer here as well. Imagine giving laptops to all of the kids in Kisangani? How long until the batteries run out?

ICT4Dev sounds like a great idea which could work as a complementary for actual work on the ground, but it is not a replacement for real development work. Without teachers, engineers, doctors, and other specialists actively working in the countries and with the people, technology will do little to change the face of the developing world.

So, for now, let’s just spend the $0.50 for de-worming pills for each kid — Check out DeWorm The World —  and get them into the classroom. Maybe the other $99.50 could go towards teacher training and classroom materials?


A Minor Death

But I did not want to shoot the elephant.”

“Somehow it always seems worse to kill a large animal.”

George Orwell, “Shooting an Elephant

I’ve always loved that essay. Orwell weaved so effortlessly the failures of colonialism, the fears and weaknesses of man, all around the horror of killing a magnificent, living creature. I’ve always wondered if Orwell really killed the elephant. In any case, the killing of this elephant was killed for the shooter “solely to avoid looking the fool.”

My killing was more resolute, and, I hope, just. When discovering the leg of the wounded calf had become infected yesterday, the smell alone told me what I needed to know. Because of this calf’s importance as a symbol to our project, our team made the effort to have a vet check the leg.

I stood over this small doctor, not flinching or gagging as the smell intensified with each bandage removed. I had already made my decision, but the vet confirmed that it had reached the artery and it was only a matter of time.

I immediately told the men to grab a machete and slit its throat. Like Orwell, I also was conscious of what these men around me were thinking of my actions, but I did not act out of fear of them thinking me weak. I acted because it was what needed to be done, no matter how little I wanted to be a part of this death.

Unlike Orwell’s elephant, who “as his hind legs collapsed beneath him he seemed to tower upwards like a huge rock toppling, his trunk reaching skywards like a tree,” this calf laid gaunt and silent, an exhausted child who had given up the struggle.

While I gave her a final scratch under her chin, the soldier quickly sliced across, and she hardly startled. It was as if she simply drifted off to sleep.

The meat which could be salvaged was donated to an elderly home at the end of the day, but the smiles and tearful thanks did little to erase the memory of this young creature needlessly dying in that soldier’s tent. I guess that’s why I thought of Orwell’s elephant, how “down he came, his belly towards me, with a crash that seemed to shake the ground even where I lay.”

Minor Poem

The only response

to a child’s grave is

to lie down before it and play dead.

Bill Knott

Leakage: Increasing Returns from Capital Investment

Today while our project assistant Didier and I were hiking through the marshy wetland we are converting into fishponds he told me how glad he was to have been involved in every stage of the Camp Base Agricultural Initiative. He told me that even though it’s a good project and will hopefully make a difference, what he is truly excited about is to have learned how a project like this is run. In the past year and a half, he’s learned how to construct and manage a farm. He’s also learned everything that goes into the construction of a fishery including things like the proper size, ways to fill it with water from a source, how to cycle the water while preventing fish from escaping, and soon he’ll learn how to harvest the fish. He’s excited that in the future he’ll be able to take these new skills and ideas with him to further his career.

Other locals working on this project have learned comparable skills. Soldiers in the Ag Company will have a better understanding of agriculture when they’re finished with their service and will be much more valuable in the professional world. Our engineer will have taken ideas which he had only seen on paper and transformed them into a series of working fisheries like you’d find in a developed nation. And others will have gained ideas from our work which we can’t possibly quantify.

What is happening is leakage. We are investing capital to teach these people how to complete this project, but the ideas are still in their heads when we leave. Now, none of them would have the funding to just go out and replicate this project, but it’s not impossible for some of them to create a working fishery, or put better agricultural practices into place, or end up working for some company where they in turn train others from their own experience.

In his book The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics, William Easterly explains how leakage causes increasing returns on a capital investment, but the returns are usually now given to the investor, rather to society. As he says:

As a society gets more and more productive ideas, each additional idea contributes more and more additional production. If this investment in knowledge leaks to everyone, then this new knowledge raises the productivity of all existing knowledge and machines throughout the economy.

So, doesn’t this just tell us that we should invest all our development work in education, particularly practical education directed towards skill building? Well, there’s a problem of course:

If at the beginning there is little knowledge, then there is a low rate of return. If this low reate of return falls below the minimum required rate of return, that is, the discount rate, then there will be no investment in new knowledge.

No one is going to spend money training workers if the expected return doesn’t include a profit. In Easterly’s example, he talks about a Korean clothing manufacturer which partnered with a Bangladeshi factory. The Korean company paid to have 120 workers come to work in their factory for six months to be trained to manufacture clothing. This initial capital investment was huge, and it was not something that could have been made in Bangladesh as the return would be low. But the Korean firm also had additional knowledge including how to set up lines of credit and how to create import and export deals around the globe. Because of these things, the Korean firm knew that it would turn a decent profit from the joint venture. Had Bangladesh had to invest enough capital to create all of these things it would have taken many years to turn a profit, so no one would have every invested.

In Easterly’s example, after the initial factory was a major success, many of those 120 workers took their knowledge and opened their own manufacturing centers. Within a few years, Bangladeshi exports of clothing went from $50,000 to over $2 billion. Neither the Koreans nor the Bangladeshi firm benefited to that extent, instead the increasing returns went to the society.

So, what can we hope for in the DRC? Well, it’s not unrealistic to think that a few man-made fish ponds might pop up around Kisangani or in other regions of the DRC from knowledge that leaked during this project. Plus, in a few years there will be many highly trained farmers leaving the military and entering the workforce, so it could help to change the agricultural practices of the people in the area.

It’s not $2 billion in exports, but it’s a start for a place where knowledge is incredibly low so returns on the investment are still low.

There are leaks nonetheless, and those leaks will help things grow.

Here is a link to a very interesting guest blog post Didier Lifenya Kombozi wrote for A Crowing Hen.