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

Experiential Peacebuilding: Practicing What We Preach

BY Ashley Nichole Kolaya

“TELL ME, AND I will forget; show me, and I will remember; involve me, and I will understand.”  These are the words of a well-known Chinese proverb.  They are also words that form the foundation of the experiential learning model employed by the Outward Bound Center for Peacebuilding. Ana Cutter Patel, the Center’s executive director, described the model in a talk she gave Sept. 18 as part of NYU Wagner’s ongoing, dynamic “Conflict, Security and Development” speaker series.

“Picture this,” Patel began.  “An unlikely collection of individuals: Palestinian Muslims, Israeli Jews, and Palestinian Christians.  Some religious leaders.  Some secular activists.  All with one thing in common: they had to survive a mountain expedition in cold, wet weather, and they had to do it as a group.

“The Palestinians were not well-equipped to handle the cold weather.  They lacked appropriate clothing and footwear, and their camping gear was rudimentary.  The discrepancy between their equipment and what the Israelis were able to bring with them quickly became a source of tension.  The Palestinians’ frustration grew.  They were cold and tired and wanted to go home.  Then something happened.  One of the Israeli participants brought his backpack out in front of the group and dumped it out in front of the group.  The rest of the team started to follow suit.  By the end of the evening, the gear was redistributed, and the incipient stages of a cooperative spirit had developed among the group.  By the end of the trip, impossibly strong bonds developed between the unlikeliest of individuals.”


Patel’s description of this excursion was more than an opening anecdote – it was an accurate reflection of her day-to-day work.  Outward Bound Peacebuilding  sends emerging leaders from divided societies on intensive excursions that promote learning, respect, teambuilding, and leadership skills.  The dialogue created by participants in these experiences lays the groundwork for peace within and between communities in conflict.

Outward Bound’s model is gaining traction in the field of international relations.  A growing trend in the world of conflict resolution and peacebuilding is a focus on experiential learning—learning by doing.  Patel’s organization, along with many others like it, seeks to develop capacity and build public support for peace through the cyclical experiential education model.   In this model, learning requires four steps: action, reflection, discussion, and application.  Though a learner can enter the process at any stage, each step is essential to the process.

To illustrate her point further, Patel involved the more than 50 audience members to her “lecture” in an activity.

“Get with a partner, and face each other.  Put your palms up in front of your partner’s.  Now, the goal is for you to get your partner’s elbows behind his or her back as many times as you can in one minute.  Go.”

Some listeners stood, frozen and confused. Some stood pushing against each other’s palms with all their might.  Others still excitedly see-sawed their hands back and forth, grinning ear to ear.  As the rest of the room witnessed this frenzied movement, it started to dawn on everyone that the point of the exercise was cooperation.

“I don’t know why, but my first instinct was not to let my partner get my elbows behind my back.  I was so focused on my own goal that I assumed if my partner accomplished her goal, it meant that I wouldn’t achieve mine.  I didn’t even realize I was making it harder on myself,” said one of the participants.

This is precisely the lesson that experiential learning has for us in regard to peacebuilding, according to the Outward Bound model.  Though the challenges are numerous, the benefits are plain to see.  This model is an active exercise in developing the qualities that celebrated educator and Outward Bound founder Kurt Hahn referred to as the foremost concern of all education: “an enterprising curiosity, and undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self-denial and, above all, compassion.”

Perhaps these qualities comprise a solid foundation on which the framework of peacebuilding can firmly stand.

Crisis Mapping in Elections: What Kenya Can Teach Us


BY Ashley Nichole Kolaya

COLETTE MAZZUCELLI, Adjunct Professor at the Center for Global Affairs at the NYU School of Continuing and Professional Studies, contends the lesson we should learn from Kenya’s continuing implementation of crisis-mapping technology is threefold: first, we should not be complacent about the country’s upcoming elections; second, understanding the local context is critical for preventing human rights abuses; and third, technology is no substitute for the value of human networks.

Kicking off the seventh year of the “Conflict, Security and Development” speaker series at NYU Wagner on September 11, 2012, Mazzucelli’s presentation employed a top-down (as well as a grassroots, local community) look at the purpose and use of crisis mapping technology in Kenya, a country mired in historically tumultuous elections.

Crisis mapping is a tool used to collect, visualize, and analyze data for the purpose of preventing human rights abuses where violence is anticipated, in this case, during Kenya’s upcoming elections.  Several challenges arise when questions of cultural context and resource availability are concerned, and Mazzucelli highlighted the significant strides made in the field of crisis mapping to address these challenges.

“We must be clear: technology is no substitute for human networks and community.  It can, however, be a value-add facilitator, a way to enhance the conversation.”

Mazzucelli highlighted two innovators in the field of crisis mapping: FrontlineSMS and DevInfo.  To discuss these technologies, FrontlineSMS CEO Laura Walker Hudson joined the conversation from Kenya via Skype, while DevInfo Aid Effectiveness and Development Technical Advisor John Toner joined us in person.

FrontlineSMS is software that aims to put mobile capabilities in the hands community members through local technology.  In areas where internet capabilities and, sometimes, electricity are scarce, FrontlineSMS uses the lowest common denominator of mobile technology (as Laura puts it, “the oldest Nokia mobile you have in your bottom desk drawer”) to give a voice to those who have been systematically silenced.  Hudson describes three essential functions of FrontlineSMS.  The availability of this technology puts citizens at the heart of the electoral process; it serves as a watchdog over political actors who would abuse the process; and most critically, it facilitates the response to emergencies if and when violations or violence occur.  It’s a way to say to the Kenyan government and citizens, “the world is watching.”

DevInfo takes the work of FrontlineSMS one step further.  It serves as a way to monitor human development by collecting, visualizing, and sharing reported information.  Endorsed by the United Nations, but meant to be accessible to, again, the “lowest common denominator,” John Toner paints a picture of data and statistics that are easily accessible, digestible and sharable to anyone who may want to know or may want others to know.

In concert, Mazzucelli, Hudson and Toner illustrate a situation in Kenya that is both precarious and hopeful.  As countries all over the world embark on new electoral processes, our eyes will be on Kenya and what crisis mapping there can tell us about global efforts to break the “conspiracy of silence” (Zerubavel, 2007) in elections.

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.