IPSA Reading Group Tackles International Intervention

When it comes to humanitarian crises, is all awareness good awareness? Does responsibility ever trump sovereignty, and if so, when? NYU Wagner students gathered to discuss these questions, among others, at an International Public Service Association (ISPA)-sponsored reading group with Professor John Gershman on March 21, 2012.

The thought-provoking and animated discussion began with a look at the controversial Kony 2012 video,  a production of Invisible Children, Inc.  that has gone viral, especially among young people in the United States. The video tugs at viewers’ heartstrings, encouraging them to join an international movement that is calling for the arrest of Ugandan Joseph Kony, a leader in the Lord’s Resistance Army, on charges of war crimes and child abuse. The video has generated substantial support for the campaign against Kony. However, it has also drawn criticism from those who say it misrepresents and oversimplifies the conflict.

Reading-group participants noted the video’s lack of information about what Ugandans have done to fight Kony, and the limited airtime for African perspectives. The video ignores the potential costs of military intervention and many other issues affecting Ugandans and other countries involved in the crisis, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic, where Kony is believed to be living. Does the IC production constitute “badvocacy”? What do we make of all the college students who might not have otherwise known the name Kony, and now wear wristbands for the cause?

This led to a broader conversation about U.S. intervention in international affairs. Too often, sound bites about conflicts in Syria, Libya, Egypt and Uganda, among other nations, leave out the history of U.S. actions that exacerbated the problems giving rise to these conflicts. Domestic politics and dependence on oil also play a role in whether and how the U.S. chooses to respond to conflicts across the globe.

It is often easier to criticize than to propose solutions. But the IPSA group did have some ideas:

  1. Consider the appropriate size and scale of U.S. military budget and action. While the costs and benefits of social programs has been a hot topic in U.S. politics in recent years, there has been relatively little talk of this nature with regard to the military and international interventions.
  2. Prepare for peace, not just for war. Support culturally competent peace-building efforts to try to avoid the need for international interventions in the first place.
  3. Tell the truth about complicated conflicts. Sometimes quick summaries are necessary, but public awareness campaigns must eventually translate into nuanced, contextualized understanding and action.
  4. When considering international intervention, think critically about questions such as: What is the history of this conflict? Who is telling the story and how does that affect the way it is told? What is the source of legitimacy for the intervening parties? What is their relationship to local actors? Who is best served by their actions?
  5. Make eye-catching movies about ways to address inequality in our own neighborhoods. Where is the shiny video encouraging people in the U.S. to occupy bank-foreclosed homes?

The IPSA Reading Group, organized by NYU Wagner students in coordination with Professor John Gershman, meets regularly to discuss issues related to international development and policy. This conversation will be continued at IPSA’s 2012 conference on Friday, April 13, 2012.

The Politics of Truth, Justice and Reconciliation

How can societies achieve political reconciliation in the wake of repression, civil conflict and human rights violations? In the final event of the Conflict, Security and Development Series (March 6, 2012), Dr. Vilma “Nina” Balmaceda, Director of the Center for Scholarship and Global Engagement at Nyack College, took up this question. Her talk thoughtfully connected theory with experience, drawing important lessons about the power and the challenges of historical truth-telling.

After periods of intense political violence under repressive regimes in Argentina(1976-1983), Chile(1973-1990) and Uruguay(1973-1985), and during the Shining Path conflict in Peru(1980-2000), each nation began a path toward political reconciliation. Dr. Balmaceda emphasized three main components of this process: building a shared history, seeking truth and justice, and establishing reparations programs. All three present major challenges.

First of all, the story of a conflict often depends on who tells it. In Argentina, Peruand Uruguay, for instance, political leanings continue to predict whether people attribute human rights abuses to a pattern of systematic repression by a powerful regime or to individuals overstepping their bounds. While a truth commission report offers an in-depth explanation of what happened, this does not necessarily generate a shared history either. The findings are available online, but they are not included in school curricula, and many people are unfamiliar with the reports.

Lack of evidence presents another challenge. Victims often “disappeared” without a trace, and witnesses were terrorized. Later, when suspects are brought to trial, a rigorous burden of proof can mean perpetrators go free; a less rigorous standard can mean trials are seen as politically motivated. Due to their differential political power, low-level soldiers often face prosecution while leaders do not.

While no amount of money can make up for the atrocities that occurred, reparations can make a difference in the lives of victims’ families. Here, too, the story is important. Dr. Balmaceda emphasized that reparations should be given with the message that they are a right of those who suffered abuse and injustice, not a result of the generosity of current political leaders.

After extensive research in Argentina, Chile, PeruandUruguay, Dr. Balmaceda concluded that none of these countries has yet achieved political reconciliation. What could help advance the process? She suggests incorporating truth commission findings into public school curricula. Currently, students learn about the military victories of centuries past, but recent repression and peace-building efforts rarely make the history books. In addition, media should publicize not just incidents of violence but also communities’ efforts to remember and to heal. Telling these stories could help decrease polarization and create a shared narrative.

As Dr. Balmaceda remarked, across political lines and individual differences, the dignity and rights of human beings should be the easiest thing to agree on. Still, it seems we have a long way to go.

The Conflict, Security and Development Series at NYU Wagner will pick up these themes again next fall.

Moving Toward Greater Accountability in Humanitarian Aid

In the late 1990s, the international humanitarian community started several initiatives to improve accountability to international refugees and other beneficiaries of humanitarian aid.

How’s it going?

Dr. Mark Foran ( M.D., M.P.H. ), an assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the NYU School of Medicine, visited NYU Wagner to speak to that question — and how he and others have been moving it along with research.

He was the guest presenter in this second to last installment for the semester of “The Conflict, Security, and Development Series.” This series at NYU Wagner has attracted top-notch, cutting-edge researchers, policy makers, and practitioners who’ve discussed creative and effective approaches to helping refugees in conflict and post conflict arenas. The final installment will be Tuesday, March 6 with Dr. Vilma Balmaceda. The series will pick up again come the fall.

The Feb. 28 forum with Dr. Foran provided 40-plus listeners with a chance to appreciate the complexity and nuances involved in designing a research-based process by which the quality of humanitarian relief — from the standpoint of the recipients, principally – can be assessed and, where necessary, improved.

Dr. Foran’s research seeks to move the humanitarian aid community toward accountability standards, performance indicators, and data gathering procedures around NGO’s common aims. He is developing them for the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership, a voluntary association of many of these organizations, and many large and influential ones.

What’s ultimately needed, he believes, are methods for surveying recipients of humanitarian assistance about their sense of security, sense of hope for the future, empowerment and understanding of who has helped them and whom they can turn to. It’s not enough, he said, for evaluators to conduct site visits at NGO offices abroad and ask questions of staffers. They must go into the field and survey refugees themselves. This, he said, may be the only truly solid way to assess an NGO’s impact beyond fundamental first questions of refugee mortality , morbidity, and nutrition.

In his more hopeful moments, no doubt, Dr. Foran envisions the creation of an accountability index for humanitarian relief organizations , one that could be easily read by world leaders and the general public, based in large part on such carefully designed surveys of the people the NGO’s seek to help. The funding will materialize if and when more NGO’s realize the value – to them and their beneficiaries – of devoting more than “00.1percent” of their annual budget to accountability programs.