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Darfur, Congo, Burma: is ‘good will’ enough?

The plights in Darfur, Congo and Burma are different on many aspects but the initiatives launched by organizations (human rights, humanitarian, etc) all have the same goal: help the people living in danger and provide them assistance when needed. As you may already know, I truly think Tall oaks from little acorns grow, nevertheless I am not naive and I know the hard work and the perseverance of people of good will offer a glimmer of hope, although the changes take at least years, decades or even centuries to be seen. On the other hand, like I said in Darfur: a World Wide Role Playing Game, willing to do the good is not always paying. It seems like without having to spell things out, activists, aid workers and volunteers are sometimes overtaken by the events and they hardly hide their growing weariness and tiredness for the situation behind their facade of optimism. They hope and pray for the conflict to end (like in Darfur, Congo, Guinea…). Not very reassuring when those organizations are supposed to be the powerhouse. A long-term perspective is maybe what our view of the situation lacks, because only a global approach taking into consideration economic, ethnic and historical contradictions of the concerned region is a key prerequisite for a balanced and durable peace. This is not new, one may say this is obviously an evidence. It sure is, but then how do we get there? That is when we can ask ourselves: is good will enough? And honestly, the answer is maybe not…

I was aware of the situation in Darfur in late 2004, and I was surprised we couldn’t find any information about it at this time, excepted on very specific websites and newspapers, clearly not aimed to be read by a wide audience. Most of the people I know only discovered the crisis in Darfur in late 2006 early 2007 when George Clooney came back from Sudan; Darfur finally came under the spotlight, everybody heard about the atrocities soon to be qualified as genocide. The same happened for environment: many people really got scared about environmental issues only after they watched Al Gore‘s documentary: ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. So here we are, aware. While some organizations are already working in the field, the goal of some others is to bring attention and raise awareness among the public opinion about these situations. I think it is important we do not think because a war or a genocide or a catastrophic event is not on the front page anymore, it is because everything is back to normal. On the contrary I may say. In News cycle turnover, our today’s worst enemy? I questioned the fact that every day seems to be bringing a new round of bad news, punctuated by good news getting quickly lost within a continuous flow of information. Selecting and prioritizing the information has become an arduous task and because of the law of supply and demand, it complicates our relationship with the important events and issues for which are often missing the necessary details. News are now consumer goods, with an expiration date and this can give the events a misleading twist because we can’t simplify a given situation the same way we leave out parameters to simplify the form of an equation in mathematics.

Back to ‘good will’. There is an expression: ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions’ and even if I don’t use it very often, it is a true fact that willing to help doesn’t necessarily get to the initial goal. I explain. You may have already heard people saying: “What did sending money really change?” or “We are clearly losing our time helping them…” There is some desperation sometimes, both from people working within organizations (I had the chance to know many) and people donating money. Does that mean we shouldn’t donate money anymore? Or maybe we should consider using this money differently. Oxfam in its report: Causing Hunger: An overview of the food crisis in Africa published in July 2006 indicates: “A major investment in tackling the root causes could work and it will cost the world far less – in money and human life – than continuing the cycle of too little, too late that has been the reality of famine relief in Africa for nearly half a century“. The previous year, Kenyan economics expert James Shikwati even declared to Der Spiegel (read full article) that aid to Africa “does more harm than good” and begged: “For God’s sake, please stop the aid!” This is baffling, isn’t it? And it is not the first time I hear that from renowned organizations and experts. So we shouldn’t have any doubt about keeping our good will efforts (People of goodwill against the rest of the world? Maybe…) but maybe we should adjust the way money is used to answer the evolution of a given situation. What was needed three months earlier by the people in need, can be of no use three months later. We have to adapt.

On a global point of view, investment in the countries at war, under dictatorships or repressive regimes is a big issue (Burma: Aung San Suu Kyi and a thousand monks. Again.). In 2001, John Jackson, Director of the Burma Campaign UK said: “Premier Oil might be a relatively small company but they are up there in the big league when it comes to brutal business partners […] They are helping to fuel one of the world’s most brutal and oppressive regimes […] Investments like Premier’s pump millions of dollars into a junta that continues to expand its army while its people are pushed further into poverty.” Almost nine years later, the problem is still the same. Foreign companies (French company Total alongside American company Chevron and many, many others) are being implanted in Burma and we know that doing business in Burma only fuels the Burmese junta in power, none of this money goes to the Burmese people. Money is obviously the sinew of war and all the good intentions will never be enough to get ride of shameful businesses such as arms trade; money has no smell and sadly, this is the world we live in. It is happening in Burma but also in many other countries having natural resources like Sudan, for example. I remember an article from the Save Darfur Coalition mentioning the Sudan Divestment Task Force with a very interesting interview of executive director Adam Sterling: “The following companies appear on this list and, as of September 2007, maintained contracts with the federal government: Alstom (France), Lahmeyer International (Germany), Mott Macdonald (UK). All companies renewing or pursuing new contracts with the federal government must now certify that they do not support the Sudanese government…” Is that ‘good will’ initiative being too naive? Apparently things are changing now with the controversial U.S. Special Envoy General Scott Gration saying: “We must work to mediate and work with all stakeholders—Khartoum, Juba, rebel groups, Chad, civil society, and the international community. It is important to recognize the stated position of the US government on President Al-Bashir“. I guess a peace process can’t really work without a process of working out compromises… What was true three months earlier, can be false three months later. We apparently have to adapt.

Today, all eyes are looking toward the situation in Congo (and Guinea) for a good reason. I recently read an article posted on CNN: humanitarian organizations have been unable to meet the “massive needs” of civilians facing brutal attacks in northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. This situation is described by Luis Encinas, coordinator of Medecins Sans Frontieres operations in Central Africa: “The local population is the target of violence: murder, kidnapping and sexual abuse […] We are talking about tactics of violence aimed at instilling fear in the people. Our patients have told us the most brutal stories — about children who are forced to kill their parents and people burnt alive inside their homes.” Horrifying, that is. But once again, actions meant to help can produce a contrary effect. Marcel Stoessel of Oxfam adds: “The human rights and humanitarian consequences of the current military operation are simply disastrous […] U.N. peacekeepers, who have a mandate to protect civilians, urgently need to work with government forces to make sure civilians get the protection they need, or discontinue their support.” Brutal and unexpected. Especially from someone who knows what he is talking about. What was good three months earlier for the people in need, can be bad three months later. We definitely have to adapt.

We currently undergo a crisis in our industrialized societies and we have to deeply change what some experts call the ‘speculative capitalism’ (although banks and investors were prompt to return to the same speculative behavior that almost crashed the entire system last year…); I think we also have to think globally when it comes to the help (money, on field aid, support…) we provide to any country. I know I may state the obvious but obviously, I don’t see a lot of things changing globally. Maybe only concerning the environmental consciousness issues since climate change is having worldwide and widespread effects (despite a growing environmental skepticism), but in our everyday living, do we really care about where the gas we put in our car is coming from? Do the deaths and rapes of hundred or thousand of women and children in Darfur, Congo, Guinea or in any other places in the world have changed anything for us? Do you know what is the real price paid for you to have this beautiful engagement ring some women had always dreamed of (Hotel Rwanda, Syriana, Blood Diamond… Not only entertainment)? Unless you work for an organization in the field or actually live in the country, we (as part of the public opinion) at best have no idea of the fear and danger these people are facing everyday, and at worst we don’t care, safely and securely living in our comfy homes. Feeling guilty and ashamed of everything we do or do not, is not the point here. I think it is time to take matters into our own hands and go forward. We should stop undergoing everything and we should not be afraid to move on. This is how I believe civil society should work more. Most people I know want a change, a real change in their life because they know every life on this planet is intertwined with each other (Will the Sama Water Tank save the world?). Whether we invest our time and/or money in our own country or in countries abroad, we absolutely have to take into consideration the fact that we must always first know the root causes of every problem to be able to find a long-term solution. It is also important to develop citizen initiatives, civil society and help people to stay free, independent and provide knowledge and education. Because what we learned three months earlier, may have changed three months later.

This is an evidence from the discussions I have had with people coming from different countries, different circles and with diverse outlooks on life and politics. We desperately need people of good will capable of doing things most of us are not. It is time to stop ‘passing the buck’ to some other people or countries waiting for a miracle or for one man only to change the world (Will the World of Obama ever become a reality? and Martin Luther King Jr. and Obama’s election: Free at last?), but instead take our responsibilities as citizens of the world. Sure we have to acknowledge failure in the efforts that were made to influence Burma’s and Sudan’s military leaders (and Iran, and Korea, and so on…) to make a change but maybe it is because we have got the wrong end of the stick on many subjects for so many years, just because we ‘don’t care’ and we let our governments and big companies decide for us. I am not a revolutionary, I just try to see the events with a global approach instead of a biased one. I humbly think a lot more can be done and bettered if we first think about us as human beings living on the same planet instead of our short term, self centered egotistic interest. Of course things are not going to occur overnight and it needs a lot of motivation from everyone to get involved, each one their own way. But it is not impossible. Two Americans share Nobel prize for economics this year: Oliver Williamson developed a theory in which business firms could serve as structures to resolve conflicts and Elinor Ostrom‘s work demonstrated how common property could be managed by groups using it. The work done by CIVICUS is a great example of what is possible to achieve together. It is an international alliance established in 1993 to nurture the foundation, growth and protection of citizen action throughout the world, especially in areas where participatory democracy and citizens’ freedom of association are threatened. Experienced and highly respected people at The Elders are also doing a lot. The Elders are an independent group of eminent global leaders, brought together by Nelson Mandela, who offer their collective influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity. And so many other smaller and bigger organizations are working in the same direction, with the same level of commitment. A great inspiration and this is why I decided to launch the ’60 Signers for the 60th Anniversary Initiative’ in 2008.

So is ‘good will’ only enough? I would say no because good will without consciousness will never be enough to deeply change anything. The same way we have (partly) realized we live on the same planet when it comes to environmental issues, we also have to be conscious that what is happening anywhere in the world also has an impact on our daily lives. Not directly for most of us, but we have to fight this frustrating feeling we can’t do anything against unethical businesses and harmful behaviors. We have to be committed, one way or another although we also have to listen and adapt. Compromises and forgiveness can also be part of the equation only if we stay firmly resolved to find durable solutions and if we remain consistent to our initial approach. Public anger is reaching a boiling point in many countries, and the global ecological and social crisis being caused by unbridled globalization has many consequences on many different levels. I don’t think we are able to set the world right only because we want to but again, it is only by working together we can obtain concrete and tangible results.

I hope we will better organize ourselves and that we will have enough energy to work all together, in spite of our (often supposedly) differences. Some of my ‘well aware’ friends on the subject are already doing all they can. I often feel so powerless I think it is important to keep our heads up and stay focused (Will 2009 be better or only ‘less worse’ than 2008?). It is what I wanted to share with you in these difficult and troubled times. I am more a listener than a talker, and also clearly more a writer than a talker. I guess I was inspired by the subject. And I hope you will also feel concerned. And motivated, as well ^_^

Note: Comments for this post are open on the Sama Gazette Website.

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