Humanitarian Assistance and Refugees

MANY OF US know that conflict displaces people.

Most of us know that Iraq has been a conflict ridden area for quite some time.

Many of us know that violent leaders commit atrocities in certain parts of the world.

And most of us, by now, have heard of Joseph Kony.

So why bother spending your Tuesday lunch hour at the Puck Building listening to experts in the field of refugee humanitarian assistance and African news coverage discuss these topics?

Consider that even these well-publicized topics have hidden sides that don’t often make the headlines. As the number of displaced people from post-conflict areas rises, new refugee populations begin to change the landscape of the places they inhabit. Some wish to return home. Some wish to start fresh and build a new version of home. Each individual contributes to the shifting needs of a new population.

Adam Sirois, director of Global Development and adjunct faculty for the NYU College of Nursing, has spent years studying refugee populations in the Middle East. As an October presenter in NYU Wagner’s “Conflict, Security, and Development” lunchtime speaker series, Adam brought his on-the-ground experience interviewing Iraqi refugees in Jordan to the table. He spoke candidly about what the UN and NGOs in Jordan are doing effectively (targeting the neediest individuals, focusing on comprehensive wellbeing-healthcare that includes attention to mental health and directing resources toward psychosocial community development programs that build community in the long term), and what they’re not (communicating available resources to populations that need them and hiring competent workers in local offices to implement programs).

Then, in another October speaker event, the Conflict Series traveled 2,000 miles south with Blackstar News editor-in-chief Milton Allimadi, who discussed the evolution of African news coverage that brought us to the age of KONY2012. Referring to the internet sensation as “the most brilliant propaganda strategy we’ve seen in years,” Allimadi took us through the nooks and crannies of the most important game-changing stories that don’t get picked up by the major news outlets. He offered insights on the role of both the US government and Invisible Children in the 2008 Garamba Offensive (codenamed “Operation Lightning Thunder”), carried out by Uganda’s government against the LRA. “How do I know about this? I was there; I didn’t hear. No one talked about it. I know because of the revelation from Wikileaks!”

Allimadi’s perspective on the strategy behind KONY2012 paints a picture of a brilliantly-executed manipulation with many puppet masters. “For it [the video campaign] to have been effective, it means many people had to go along with it—with the falseness of it.”

Though many of us believe that social media has ushered in the dawn of a new “Citizen Media,” both objective and transparent, Allimadi facilitated a dialogue that calls into question our most basic assumptions about this notion. “This video is not a mere video,” says Allimadi, “it’s a part of US foreign policy, paving the way for a new White Man’s Burden.”

Pick up with the Conflict Series again on Tuesday, October 23 , the final installment of the Fall semester. Joey Ansorge, consultant, Security Sector Governance) and Andrew Michels, senior civilian advisory, Pakistan Afghanistan Coordination Cell, Joint Chiefs of Staff, will lead a discussion entitled, “Liberia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan: Case Studies in Security Coordination.”

When: Tuesday, Oct 23 12:30pm
Where: The Rudin Forum for Civic Dialogue, Puck Building, 2nd Floor

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.