Saturday, July 24, 2010

Blood Minerals in the Congo?

One of the issues currently in the news that is directly related to my previous post on China in Africa is the influence of the mineral trade on the conflict in the Congo (DRC). This is one of the most tragic wars in the past decade, with millions of deaths, rapes, and mutilations. Moreover, it is one of the most complex and horrific, involving land rights, invasions/subversions from Rwanda and Uganda, the leaders of the Rwandan genocide, mini-states, warlords, ethnic conflict, rape, and minerals. Yet this conflict does not define the Congo. As the blogger Texas In Africa regularly explains, there are (surprise!) real people living there who are rebuilding their country. And the mineral trade, which China helps to drive (along with myriad Western companies), is a actually piece of that process, providing thousands with a small but important revenue stream. While various armed groups derive revenue from minerals, there are other sources of revenue to which they can turn if the legislation actually works. The greatest problem in Eastern Congo is the lack of government...the central government simply does not have the capacity and/or will to impose order upon that part of the country. (The blog Texas In Africa is so interesting because it explores the consequences of this lack of governmental control.)

So the law that the US Congress passed the other day that aims to prohibit the trade of conflict minerals will likely not achieve its desired outcome of reducing the conflict. Despite the focus of the Enough Project and other advocates like Nick Kristof on the mineral trade as the economic driver of the war, Texas In Africa insists that these efforts are misguided and give a simplistic view of the conflict:
The argument that cutting off the mineral trade will make any of this possible defies reality. As does the idea that soldiers will stop raping, looting, and burning down villages if one of their sources of revenue is cut.

Just about every local leader in the east will tell you that the mineral trade is not the cause of violence and that ending the trade is very unlikely to end most violence, especially given the absence of functioning political and security institutions. Ending violence is of course a huge priority for the Congolese, but this is the wrong way to go about it. The legislation is unlikely to do harm (until it causes some of the 1 million people who depend on the trade for their livelihood to become unemployed), so it's mostly just been a waste of time and energy. But why the advocates won't listen to the people they purport to help is beyond me. that's too bad. The ultimate measurers for the success of a development program or in any country is always the local people who are supposed to be benefiting. Unfortunately, US foreign policy is not usually characterized as perceptive to local opinion. What's this bill all about then? Is it just a way to make American consumers feel better about themselves? Hmm...As an American who cares deeply about issues of peace and justice around the world, I will try to listen to the voices of those around the world--especially those of the marginalized and oppressed--and try to influence the foreign policy of my country accordingly.

Update: Texas In Africa is writing about this issue all week, so go to her blog for more/better analysis!

Is China actually helping Africa?

Deborah Brautigam’s The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa provides a revealing and comprehensive view of China’s “aid” program in Africa. I label China’s aid program with trepidation because China’s activities in many African nations don’t correspond with Western expectations of an “aid program”. This misunderstanding may be the source for much Western criticism of the “rogue donor.” Accused of exploitation of African workers, environmental degradation, and an insatiable desire for African natural resources among other things, China has come to be viewed as a new imperialist over Africa in some circles.

But as Ms. Brautigam explains, persuasively interweaving anecdotes with economic data, China is blazing a different path in Africa, viewing African countries not simply as bottomless holes in which to dump aid, but as new markets to invest in, profit from, and even partner with. She cites longstanding Chinese aid projects in African countries and numerous joint-ventures between quasi-government-owned Chinese companies and African companies to support her case. Admittedly, the data is limited due to the unavailability of official Chinese aid figures, but she succeeds in debunking the popular myth of China’s new aid program dwarfing those of traditional Western donors. Reports of gargantuan cash transfers to dictatorial and corrupt African regimes are largely overstated.

Rather, the author illustrates China’s different approach to aid. Instead of the vague goals such as the broad and immeasurable Millennium Development Goals decided on by UN experts, Chinese grants are tied to specific proposals submitted by African governments. In contrast to the largely unmet promises of Western donors to double or triple aid to Africa, China has indeed met its goal of increasing the billions it donates in the form of grants or concessional loans. Rather than irresponsible lending to profligate or corrupt African governments (followed by self-congratulation when these impossible loans are forgiven), Chinese loans are structured to ensure long-term repayment, often in unconventional ways.

One of China’s most interesting differences from the West comes in its view of “sunset industries,” which refers to sectors that have become too expensive to maintain in China due to rising labor costs. Instead of trying desperately to keep factories that have become too expensive to remain in China, the government encourages these industries to “go global” and find more economical locales for production. This results in foreign direct investment in African countries, bringing jobs, infrastructure, and technical knowledge. (Too often this also results in the violation of labor and environmental standards in offshore locations…but these violations are not unique to Chinese companies, and we are hypocritical to cast blame only upon them). Going global also pushes Chinese manufacturing towards more high-tech and high-value production, which translates into better wages and skills for its own workforce. Remember, China is also a developing nation. In America, labor unions view outsourcing as unfair, but they also fight to raise wages even though the value of the products may remain stable. Thus the struggle of US automakers. Perhaps the US and its companies could learn how to better equip its workforce for occupational transitions once an industry is no longer viable in the US and encourage the development of more high-tech and green jobs.

Brautigam successfully illuminates the parallels between what happened during China’s own spectacular development and what Chinese actors are trying to accomplish in Africa. After more capitalist-friendly leaders wrested control of the government from Mao, China began to implement reforms which spurred economic growth. This included allowing Japanese and Western firms to invest in China and help it develop its natural resources. For decades, China was an exporter of minerals and gas, and its government successfully utilized this natural wealth to promote development and increase the wealth of millions.

It is widely thought that the Communist Party now justifies its autocratic control over its people by making them richer. I would never encourage any government to suppress its people by denying free speech, freedom of religion, and elections, and I believe that increasing a person’s freedom is an integral part of “development.” In my opinion, today’s China has many problems, including high rates of pollution, growing inequality, corruption and of course human rights violations perpetrated by those in power. Many African countries share these characteristics with China, and I fear that some are choosing to emulate the Chinese model of autocratic capitalism. I am not denying that China’s involvement in Africa can contribute to the corruption, pollution, and oppression that has already been occurring within the continent. But less-widely known are the stories of successful partnership between Chinese and African companies, innovative ways to use natural resources to ensure benefit to the source country, and the benefits of viewing Africans as economic partners instead of aid recipients. The skeptics accuse China of exploitation, and it is true that Chinese companies desire to reap profit from their African investments (so do Western companies). But it is important to recognize the jobs that investment and infrastructure development can bring to African countries. The US can lead the way in adopting some of the more creative measures that aid can be used to encourage business. Further, it’s essential to gain a nuanced view of the moderating influence that China is starting to have on autocratic African governments. The US can continue to engage with China to ensure that it continues this trend.

Is the increase of Chinese activity in Africa ultimately a positive trend? As Brautigam explains, China’s purpose in engaging in Africa is ultimately for China’s benefit (isn’t that how any country is expected to act?), but increasingly, this is accomplished through initiatives that benefit both Chinese and African actors. More often, it is the response of the African government that determines if interaction with China actually benefits actual Africans. But, if any country knows how to quickly increase the economic standing of millions of poor people, it is China.

UPDATE: Deborah Brautigam maintains a blog that reports on the latest happenings between China and Africa:

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Guest Post: Andre's Reflections on Palestine and Israel

Hi everyone- we are honored to have our first guest post! Our friend Andre read my first two posts about Israel and Palestine and had a few thoughts of his own (and I finally got around to posting it). He has studied this issue intensively, and so we really value his perspective. Thanks Andre!
It is an excellent point that by reading Hamas solely through the lens of terrorism, the American public tends to falsely see Hamas as it sees “terrorists” in general—a poorly defined group of violent, reactionary, fundamentalists that act based on timeless religious extremism rather than political motivation grounded in relatively recent events. While this perspective is misleading to say the least, Hamas does have a thoroughly Islamist ideology that has gone way beyond Palestinian nationalism. So to me Hamas bears no resemblance to the French Resistance or any other group motivated solely by human rights. Fundamentalist religious ideology almost by definition makes compromise and negotiation especially difficult, since a religious fundamentalist connection to the land tends to preclude giving up any part of it. So there is no mention of any sort of two state solution from Hamas beyond a long term ceasefire (and we’ve seen how ceasefires work out—if there is no reconciliation and closure, then there will always be some excuse to reignite conflict). This is in contrast to Fatah and most other elements of the PLO, since even the most dogmatic secular nationalists can talk about real compromise without sounding too hypocritical. That’s why Israel funded Hamas in the late 1980s and created the monster that it faces today, so that it could undermine realistic movement towards a two-state compromise. Hamas’ Islamism in this way is an ironic reflection of the ideology of right wing Israelis who will not even consider giving up an inch of the land originally encompassed in the British Mandate. On both sides it is important to keep in mind that religious rhetoric in a political conflict is inextricably tied up with political goals, i.e. to a great extent Hamas’ Islamist rhetoric is an effect as well as a cause of its power aspirations, and same with right wing, fundamentalist Israelis.

I think you’re also right that identity is the linchpin currently holding together and perpetuating the many elements of the conflict. Palestinian and Israeli identities both developed largely in opposition to each other, so as long as they both exist as such the conflict remains intractable. But what fuels the reproduction of polemic identities isn’t unchanging, pre-existing belief —it is personal experience of trauma and loss. If a youth has been displaced and continually harassed by the IDF and seen family members killed, political action they take is based on this, rather than some pre-existing a priori belief in a political or religious ideal. Like they say, all politics is personal. So I hope that if Israelis can finally muster up the political will to rein in their government and military and gradually loosen up their choke hold, there will be gradually less trauma to drive oppositional identities and reconciliation can occur. But obviously that is a big if.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

All up in your business

The other day, my parents asked the New DeLews what we liked about living in the city. We said that we love public transportation and the fact that you can't help but be nominally involved in everyone's business. Whether it's someone asking for money on the El, talking on their cell phone about the most recent vampire movie, or listening to an insanely loud heavy metal song on their ipod, you notice (and sometimes, if we're honest, you judge). But all that to say, I love the raw-ness of it. There's a certain part of it that seems real to me- the city makes thousands of different worlds collide, and at times it can be a huge nuisance because I really don't want to overhear about what your friend's girlfriend said to her cousin's ex-boyfriend. But I'm forced to hear it and recognize this daily world-collision.

Well the day after we talked to my parents about this, the four of us found ourselves on a ridiculously crowded bus where everyone was all up in everyone's grill, and most people were desperately trying to avoid how uncomfortable it was. And of course, at the front of a bus, two babies were screaming at the tops of their lungs and hitting at each other while the tired mom casually swatted away their punches of fury. Most of the people on the bus judged, but everyone was inconvenienced. After about 15 minutes of straight child-screaming, an older man from the back of the bus yelled to the tired mom, 'Hey I've got a belt if you'd like to use it!" The entire bus chuckled. Everyone was thinking the same thing.

Well today, I experienced what I would call a 'She actually just said that!?!' moment. On my morning commute I boarded a very crowded bus that only had a few open seats in the back. So I walked to the back of the bus and noticed that one lady (let's call her Bag Lady) had strategically placed her purse on the seat next to her. And when I walked up to her, she again, strategically, did not acknowledge my presence. Now I realize that this may be appropriate on airplanes, but not on Chicago transportation. You move your damn bag so that a person can have a seat. But all that to say, I just moved to a seat right behind that lady. Unbeknownst to me another woman (let's call her 'Crazy Bold Lady') had noticed the entire 'not moving the bag' incident. Out of the blue, Crazy Bold Lady absolutely exploded and started verbally assaulting the Bag Lady. And the conversation went like this:

Crazy Bold Lady: You know, you should really move your stupid bags so that a human can sit down. It is absolutely rude to just place your bags on a seat in such a busy bus. Who do you think you are!?
Bag Lady: (visibly flustered) Well I didn't notice!!
Crazy Bold Lady: Well you need to stop being so selfish and start noticing people around you!! Why do you think your bags deserve to have a seat more than these people. It's real nice of you to allow everyone to stand so that you don't have to place your bags on your precious lap!
Bag Lady: All right! I said I didn't notice!! Have a NICE TUESDAY!!! (as she angrily puts her bags on her lap and pretends to start reading)
Crazy Bold Lady: Well there ya go, NOW you're actually being courteous! For ONCE!

And an awkward silence rested upon the entire bus. But you know what we were all thinking? I can't believe the Crazy Bold Lady actually said that!! I've thought all of those things, and when I'm really ridiculous, envisioned myself actually saying them. But this lady actually said it! Wowza. And although I was mildly amused by the whole situation, and oddly impressed by Crazy Bold Lady's sudden verbal vomit, I felt bad for the Bag Lady. Yes, she was not being very courteous, but she probably wasn't being malicious with her bag. But regardless, she became the victim of the Crazy Bold Lady's wrath. It was actually a really sad encounter to witness. She was so quick to judge the Bag Lady, without having any real understanding of what's going on. And yet it's so easy to do that, especially when your world is completely colliding with someone else's on the bus. But if I'm going to be a person defined by grace, I know that I must relinquish my desire to judge and be willing to imagine someone's life outside of my brief, annoying encounter. It's absolutely unnatural to me, but I've got to try.

Family Central

It is family central at the Medill. Within a series of 10 days, we've got four families popping in and out of the Medill in Chicago. (Now quick forewarning- because we never take pictures when we should, only the picture of Mark and Trinity is from the past two weeks. The other pictures are random within the past year. But at least there are pics!)

First, the lovely Majorins family of four enjoyed our Guest Room (that we set up with a pack n' play and toddler bed). They trekked from foggy Oakland and landed in steamy Chicago, exhausted and ready for a good Midwest meal. As we prepared dinner, two year old Trinity wandered through our house saying "What's that?", "Let's go upstairs!", and "Why is that door stuck?". It was really fun to watch Trinity explore her new surroundings and try to make sense of it all. Finally we sat down for grilled bbq pork chops, roasted rosemary potatos, corn bread salad, and chocolate stout cake with a Bailey's ganache, and enjoyed a great night of conversation with lovely Sarah and Phil. Ahh, it was great!

Then we had the Main DeLews over for dinner (slight clarification- although we're the New DeLews, we can't really call Mark's parents the Old DeLews because they are quite spry and not old at all. So for this purpose, they will be called the Main DeLews). They made the lovely train ride from Wheaton to Chicago, enduring through the 93 degree heat/humidity, and graciously suffered through the lack of A/C at the Medill. But with a meal of almond-crusted grilled salmon with caramelized onions, garlic potato salad, mediterranean salad, and ice cream with homemade chocolate sauce, I think we all ended up ok. So thanks for coming, Main DeLews!

For the past 5 days, Papa and Mama George have been visiting the New DeLews, doing apartment projects and eating a lot of good food. A few of our feasts included- Mediterranean Chicken Salad, pan-seared tilapia with arugula pesto, lemon parmesan risotto, grilled turkey burgers, sweet potato fries, homemade fresh tuna salad, blueberry muffins, and oh so many other things. We also went out to Ciao pizzeria- a new pizza place in Logan Square. In fact, we loved it so much, that we went twice! It was so fun to have my parents in town, experiencing our Chicago life a bit and also interacting as two couples. It's a cool shift in the parent-child relationship. Some of our activities included- playing pick up stix, Chicago Architecture boat tour, watching a foreign film, tango dancing in the park, shopping, and experiencing the craziness that is July 4th in Chicago. Oh man, it felt like we were in a war zone with all the illegal fireworks going off in our neighborhood.

And tonight, the lovely Carpenters are coming over for dinner! They've been doing a midwest tour, and we are so excited to see them because they have played a really important role in our lives as the New DeLews. Now we may be recycling one of the meals mentioned above, but hey, it was so good, why not?

Being with our family members and other close friends reminds us that the New DeLews are not alone in this world. We are who we are because of our communities. And I am so thankful for who God has placed in our lives. The past few weeks have reminded me of that over and over again.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Reflections on Israel and Palestine, Part 3: Ending the cycle of victimization

If it seems like I direct the bulk of my criticism at Israeli policies and not Hamas or other Palestinian actors, it is because I hold the liberal democracy to a higher standard. I have great respect for the democracy that Israel has been able to carve out in the Middle East. I just wish that it was a democracy that benefited Palestinian Arabs as well as Israeli Jews. Of course, I stand against the violence perpetrated by both Hamas and the Israeli Army--but this post is mainly about Israel, as the US is most likely to be able to influence our strongest ally in the Middle East. The US gives Israel’s military over $2 billion every year (

I feel like I should have a say in how Israel uses my money.

And last, this episode is emblematic of the cycle of victimization. Jews across the world have suffered tremendously throughout the centuries at the hands of Christians, Muslims, Romans, Turks, Europeans, Arabs, and others. It is tragic, although probably inevitable given this history, that the country with a stated desire to retain its “Jewish character” has victimized others in the name of national security. Some victims, in this case, have become oppressors.

Although Israel labels any attacks by Palestinians as terrorism (and some rightly so), these attacks are really part of an ongoing conflict between two identities that have deeply hurt each other—and continue to hurt each other. This conflict has been so pervasive and enduring that some people don’t know any other way of life except through the prism of war. Moreover, millions of people have been personally affected by the violence. It is not an abstract war occurring some miles away. Rather, families have been devastated and wounds have been opened which would take decades to heal—if healing is desired.

But I believe that there is hope for more just policies, the cessation of violence, and ultimately in reconciliation. Understanding this conflict as a longstanding post-modern conflict based upon ethno-centric identities rather than “good vs. bad” will help in defusing it. Then, the Israeli and Palestinian leaders must craft policies that reflect this reality and honestly push towards a peace agreement. Both sides must give up long-held desires.

But simultaneously, the Palestinian and Israeli people must begin to try to forgive each other. It is my hope that giving air to multiple perspectives on the conflict in the Middle East will in some small way help bring about the recognition of humanity in the other and lead to treating the other with dignity. I am a realist with regard to the tremendous obstacles facing the Middle East peace process; however, I refuse to let cynicism dispel hope for reconciliation among the nations.


I think I'll leave this topic alone for now. I'd love to hear your thoughts! I certainly don't claim to know everything, and would love to hear any constructive criticism or other thoughts. Thanks!