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Death in Ndola

12. September 2019 - 16:19
A new book gives relevant insights into Dag Hammarskjöld’s work as the 2nd UN secretary-general

Henning Melber’s book on Hammarskjöld is not an impartial account. The Swedish-German scholar is the former director of the Uppsala-based Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, and he also belonged to the committee whose work made then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reopen the investigation into the airplane crash near Ndola in today’s Zambia. Melber readily admits that he is personally engaged. (Full disclosure: he has contributed to D+C/E+Z very often and, over the years, has become a friend.)

“Dag Hammarskjöld, the United Nations and the decolonisation of Africa” is a short, but ambitious book. On a mere 180 pages (of which 50 are notes, references and acknowledgments), Melber delves deeply into complex issues that he has been dealing with for much of his professional life. For anyone unfamiliar with the history of the UN and African decolonisation, the reading is likely to prove a rewarding challenge.

The tragic death of the Swedish UN leader is obviously of particular relevance. The background was the Congo crisis of 1960/61. On 30 June 1960, the Belgian colony gained formal independence. Not even two weeks later, its territorial integrity was threatened by the secession of the resource rich Katanga region. Belgium supported the secessionists with troops in violation of its agreement with Congo’s government. In view of military clashes, Congo’s President Joseph Kasavubu and Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba requested the UN to intervene.

Melber gives a detailed account of how Hammarskjöld tried to control the damage and what limitations he faced. The greatest challenge was that the Security Council was split. While western governments basically sided with Belgium, the Soviet Union wanted to reduce the influence of the USA and the former imperial powers. In this setting, decisive UN action was impossible.

Nonetheless, Hammarskjöld managed to bring about a UN resolution. Its wording remained ambiguous however. UN troops were deployed, but since their mission was not clearly defined, they could not act effectively. The mission stayed controversial, with interested parties either stating that the blue helmets were doing too much or doing too little.

Melber recounts how Hammarskjöld handled the matter. To a large extent, he relied on the growing group of non-aligned nations, which were mostly newly independent colonies. To bypass stalemate in the Security Council, he turned to the General Assembly, in which their membership kept increasing.

The leaders of the non-aligned group appreciated Hammarskjöld’s approach. The secretary-general wanted the UN to shield them from undue influence of hegemonic powers. In his eyes, the young nations deserved ample policy space. In today’s parlance, he was endorsing the policy ownership of developing countries. Trying to prevent the spread of the Cold War into Africa, he neither pleased western nor eastern leaders.

Matters became even more complex when Congo’s leaders, Kasavubu and Lumumba, had a falling out. For some time, Lumumba lived under UN protection, but he decided to move on in an attempt to reclaim power. UN troops were present when he was arrested, while another UN contingent later witnessed him being brought to Katanga. They did not intervene in either situation, and Lumumba was tortured and killed on 17 January 1961. The UN was immediately blamed for not protecting him.

According to Melber, Hammarskjöld was not personally in charge of troops and thus not immediately responsible for the failure to save Lumumba. Moreover, it is unclear what difference UN soldiers could have made. President Kasavubu was relying on army leader Mobutu Sésé Seko, who later grabbed power in a military coup and ruled as a ruthless dictator from 1965 to 1997. Lumumba was one of Mobutu’s early victims. The main success of multilateral action was certainly that the Congo conflict did not spread to other African countries.

In Melber’s account, Hammarskjöld felt devastated by diplomatic failures, but nonetheless stayed determined to do his best to prevent further escalation. After UN troops clashed with secessionist forces in Katanga, he arranged a meeting with Moise Tshombe, their leader, in Ndola. Back then, this town belonged to Northern Rhodesia, a part of the British Central African Federation run by a white minority regime. The airplane crashed when approaching Ndola on 18 September 1961.

At the time, the Northern Rhodesian authorities concluded that a pilot error caused the crash. Later research, however, showed that they had not taken all evidence into account. In particular, they neglected black eyewitnesses. Some reported that a second airplane had been in the sky, and others saw Hammarskjöld’s plane in flames before it came down. As Melber further reports, it took officialdom unreasonably long to find the airplane, so Rhodesian security forces probably arrived first, with ample time to manipulate the scene. The author spells out that various parties might have had an interest in killing the assertive UN secretary-general and that they probably had the capacity to do so. They included the Katanga secessionists, southern Africa’s white minority regimes as well as member countries of the Security Council.

The UN believes that the secret services of several countries are likely to still have relevant recordings, for example of the radio communication between the pilot and Ndola airport. In particular, the USA and the UK are thought to possess such evidence, but as Melber writes, they have not followed UN requests to declassify such information.

The individual person matters

Melber’s main intention, however, is not to revisit the tragedy at Ndola. As the title of the book suggests, his main topic is what impact Hammarskjöld and the UN had on decolonisation. Critics have argued that the Swedish policymaker promoted capitalism, served imperialist interests or had racist tendencies. Melber defends him convincingly.
The author grew up as teenager in what is now Namibia. He joined the freedom struggle and is a member of SWAPO, the former liberation movement which is now the ruling party. Melber is just as interested in the topic of decolonisation as he is in Hammarskjöld’s legacy.

The Africa scholar insists that Hammarskjöld was a child of his time. His father was a high-ranking official and diplomat, and many of his ancestors were loyal civil servants and clergymen. The UN leader’s roots in Sweden’s political culture, which shies away from confrontation and is geared to brokering compromises that serve all parties, were deep. He himself was an economist who, as a technocrat, played a crucial role in designing his nation’s welfare state, before becoming a diplomat.

Melber elaborates how this personal background, including his Lutheran faith, shaped Hammarskjöld’s action as UN secretary-general. He emphasised integrity – both his own and that of the UN. H believed that multilateral action could prevent political disasters and mass suffering if the parties involved acted in a spirit of honesty and probity. The book quotes extensively from Hammarskjöld’s writing and public speeches.

Some accuse Hammarskjöld of coming from a white middle-class background. Melber rectifies such criticism. Everybody has a personal background, and what really matters is what we do on this basis. The author further points out that being male and white brings privileges, but that does not mean that every white man endorses those privileges – nor does it mean that every white man exploits and abuses women or people of colour. He also notes that UN staff will always be likely to have a middle-class background. The simple reason is that it is impossible to do UN work unless one has an academic education and speaks at least one world language.

Melber does a fascinating job of showing how personal relations matter within the UN administration itself. Indeed, interaction within the UN team that was handling the Congo crisis was often difficult. Communication problems were probably more important than ideology. The questions of whether Hammarskjöld was sufficiently anti-capitalist and anti-racist probably mattered less than communication problems.

Back then, Nikita Khrushchev, the top Soviet leader, prominently accused Hammarskjöld of promoting capitalism. Others have reiterated that charge. As we know today, the idea that capitalism can easily be replaced with something better, has proved a fallacy in many countries. Melber could make this case, but he takes a different approach. His entirely valid point is that Hammarskjöld focused on shielding newly independent African countries from hegemonic influence.

Under Hammarskjöld, UN diplomacy was a well-considered balancing act, as Melber writes. That is part of Hammarskjöld’s legacy. Successful UN diplomacy has indeed always been – and had to be – a balancing act.

Melber, H., 2019: Dag Hammarskjöld, the United Nations and the decolonisation of Africa. London, Hurst.

Hans Dembowski is editor in chief of D+C Development and Cooperation / E+Z Entwicklung und Zusammenarbeit.

Kategorien: english

Yet another economic tsunami

5. September 2019 - 15:01
Inflation is once again plunging masses of Zimbabweans into poverty

When consumer prices rise so fast, people`s savings lose their value. Poverty is worsening once again. Inflation was actually even worse a decade ago. Back then, money was being devalued at an astronomical rate of more than 200 million per cent. The authorities only got a grip on the problem by entirely abandoning the national currency. Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai adopted the US dollar instead. He was serving an awkward coalition government under then-President Robert Mugabe, the independent leader who recently passed away. He was a an autocratic strongman who had stayed in power for almost four decades.

Zimbabwe has not had the currency of its own since 2009. Nonetheless, problems are increasing again. Two years ago, Mugabe was ousted by the military. The reason was that he had tried to install his wife Grace as his successor. Emerson Mnangagwa, his deputy of many years, and other leading members of ZANU-PF, the ruling partner, disagreed. Mnangagwa is now president.

Earlier this year, the government banned the use of the dollar. The main problem was that it had been becoming scarce quite some time. At the end of Mugabe's reign, the government had introduced dollar-denominated bonds to make up for the shortfall, but as people preferred real greenbacks to those bonds, the latter's black market exchange-rate kept deteriorating. The government later introduced a digitised equivalent called RTGS dollar, with RTGS standing for real-time gross settlement. The exchange-rate problem persisted. The US dollar kept appreciating.

Therefore, the government this year decided that neither the dollar nor other foreign currencies should be used for payments in Zimbabwe. That decision accelerated the crisis, so the country is now engulfed in another economic tsunami, which still seems to be gathering momentum. It is making headlines and repelling potential foreign investors. People are angry, with many struggling to afford even the most basic food. At the same time, the government is showing ever less respect for human rights and desperate attempts to stay in control of things. Violent force has been used to crush protests, with people being killed and wounded. 

One thing that is particularly awkward, is that Zimbabweans do not know what currency they are supposed to be using. Neither the bond notes nor the RTGS dollar are a real currency. The first exist on paper, the second is electronic. The government has announced that they will reintroduce the Zimbabwean dollar, but so far, that has not happened. For the time being, the authorities consider the bond notes and the RTGS dollar Zimbabwe's legal tender.

In spite of the ban, the US dollar and other foreign currencies are still being used in secret. Not only informal traders prefer it to the domestic alternatives. About 90% of employment is in the informal sector, which only allows most people meagre livelihoods, but is largely unsupervised by government agencies. It also matters that many consumer goods are imported, either from neighbouring countries or further beyond. The dollar prices are comparatively stable, so nobody really wants to be stuck with fast depreciating monetary items of merely national relevance.

The government, of course, uses those items, and that means that its workers’ wages have been rendered worthless. Civil servants have heard promises that they will get better pay, but so far that has not happened. The situation is similarly tough for people in formalised private employment.

Back in 2009, the response to hyperinflation was the shift to the US dollar. In a similar setting today, the government is commandeering the public to revert to a so far only improvised local currency. The policy is unconvincing, to put it mildly. As John Robertson, an economist who writes the Zimbabwe Situation blog, has stated: “The value of the currency is supported by its exports and foreign currency reserves which we do not have.” Unless the country shores up its act on both fronts, he warned, “we will not be able to support a currency.” Tendai Biti, a former finance minister, agrees: “There are no fundamentals for a new currency.”

Zimbabwe's economic troubles do not look as though they will be over soon.

Jeffrey Moyo is a journalist based in Harare.


Kategorien: english

Protecting ancestral land

2. September 2019 - 15:23
Indigenous people of Ecuador fight to keep oil companies off their ancestral land

The Waorani have taken the Ministry of Energy, the Secretary of Hydrocarbons and the Ministry of Environment to court for violating their rights. They claimed that the consultation process conducted before putting their territory up for an international oil auction was flawed.

Over the past two decades, Ecuador has divided a large portion of its Amazon forests into blocks to lease the mineral rights, specifically for oil, in international auctions. Oil plays a very important part in Ecuador’s economy. It has contributed to most of the country’s growth between 2006 and 2014, before the oil prices collapsed. On the other hand, the oil-rigging activities negatively affected indigenous communities in the Amazon rainforest: their habitat was contaminated, and communities were displaced.

Both national and international laws state that a free, prior and informed consultation process must be conducted before the planning of any extraction process on or near territories belonging to indigenous groups. In 2012, the consultation process – which never mentioned the expected environmental effects –with several indigenous groups including the Waorani had led to the division of the Amazon rainforest area in Ecuador into 16 different oil blocks for sale purposes.

Nemonte Nenquimo, one of the Waorani plaintiffs and representative of the Coordinating Council of the Waorani Nationality Ecuador Pastaza (CONCONAWEP), says that the consultation process was conducted “for the sake of being conducted” and that it was “tokenistic”. “We fought in court so that no one can enter our territory for petrol. We want to save our territory and our jungles. They are our children’s heritage,” Nenquimo says. 

Due to the recent ruling in favour of the Waorani, 52 mining concessions along the Aguarico river were cancelled. This helps to protect half a million acres of Waorani territory in the Amazon rainforest from being earmarked for oil drilling.

According to the local non-governmental organisation Amazon Frontlines, which had provided legal support to the Waorani, the verdict provides an “invaluable legal precedent for other indigenous nations across the Ecuadorian Amazon”. However, the Ministry of Energy plans to appeal against the decision.

In the meantime, the Waorani people keep on fighting. They have been organising regular protests in Quito, the capital city, and recently launched “Waorani Resistance”, a global campaign to get 500,000 people to sign a declaration to defend the rainforest. That would be one person for every acre that the Waorani are protecting.

Amazon Frontline – Waorani Resistance:

Roli Mahajan is a freelance journalist and photographer. She lives in New Delhi, India, and has recently spent some time in Ecuador as a Rotary Peace Fellow.

Kategorien: english

Dangerous food

2. September 2019 - 14:52
Ghanaians are afraid of poisonous mould in grains and cereals

Aflatoxins are poisons naturally produced by mould. They develop when food is not harvested or stored in the right manner. They are odourless, colourless and flavourless and commonly found in maize and beans, but also in nuts, cereals and derived products, dairy products, poultry, dried fruits, spices, unrefined vegetable oils and cocoa beans. Humans should try to avoid aflatoxins.

Abdullai Bamunu, a trader at the grains market of Tamale in Northern Ghana, is separating bad maize from good one. She explains: “If there are bad grains, customers won’t buy it, because they are not good for our health. So I always have to sort them out first.” Bamunu has been selling grain all her life. Now, she often runs out of it due to mould infection.

Scientists say that grains infested with mould can cause cancer, damage the liver and the immune system. Other known effects include weight loss. Aflatoxins can also cause stunting growth among children, nutritionists say. Richard Oteng-Frimpong, a research scientist with the Savanah Agriculture Research Institute, explains that in the past two to three years, several studies showed that aflatoxins were very widespread in Ghana, including in supermarket products. “We have taken samples from these places and analysed them. We have seen that they contained unacceptable levels of aflatoxins,” he says.

Aflatoxins effect millions of people in developing countries. Ghana is now educating farmers and processors to reduce the menace. The Food and Drug Authority is one of the organisations leading the campaign. Northern Regional director Martin Kusi explains: “When you come to this part of the country, most farmers and traders don’t observe good practices.” A lot of farmers store their harvest in poorly shielded and ventilated barns.

That makes the products susceptible to aflatoxins contamination. “That is why public education is very necessary to make sure that the products are harvested well, transported well, stored well and processed in a way to avoid the emergence of aflatoxins,” Kusi adds. This means, the grains must be protected from moisture, and farmers and producers need an adequate number of silo and dry warehouse facilities.

Madina Issahaku is preparing a meal called Tuo Zaafi or TZ for short. TZ is a popular corn meal for people of northern Ghana. Corn is the main staple crop cultivated by the majority of Ghanaian farmers for decades. But Issahaku, unlike many Ghanaians, knows little about aflatoxins. “But I am worried. So when I buy my cereals, I check them out carefully.”
Eating staples infested with mould is not the only source of health problems, Oteng-Frimpong stresses: “When animals eat contaminated food, they can get infested. And when you eat their meat, you are also at risk to get affected.”

Maxwell Suuk is a journalist in Northern Ghana.


Kategorien: english

Self-pitying majority

2. September 2019 - 11:09
K.S. Komireddi argues stringently that India's current government is driven by a dangerous Hindu-supremacist ideology

The situation in Kashmir remains tense. In early August, India's Hindu supremacist government cancelled the special rights Kashmir, the country's only predominantly Muslim region, had in the past. Parliament fast approved this constitutional change. Kashmir is no longer an Indian state, but has been declared a union territory. Union territories are under the rule of the central government.

Due to decades of troubles, Kashmir is a heavily militarised area. In August, however, even more troops were sent in. So far, the policy change has not triggered militant unrest, but my hunch is that violence will erupt sooner or later. The greatest danger is that Hindu fanatics will then launch pogroms against the Muslim minority in other parts of India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to tell by the experience of the Gujarat riots of 2002 , will neither overtly endorse such action, nor will he disown it. Under his leadership, the government of India is unlikely to deploy security forces to protect minorities.

Not all of my dark fears come true, of course, and I sincerely hope this one will not. The danger is real, however, as I found confirmed in K.S. Komireddi's recently published book “Malevolent republic”. It was written before Modi was reelected in May. With about 45 % of the vote, his party, the BJP, and its allies won more than 50 % of the seats in the national parliament.

Modi's election campaign was marked by aggressive Hindu nationalism. His Kashmir policy fits that pattern.

At the international level, however, Modi has so far managed to cultivate the image of a business-oriented reformer. Even in development circles, western experts tend to expect him to endorse prudent economic policies. They should read Komireddi, who criticises Modi harshly, whilst basing his essay solidly on facts. The book is thoroughly referenced.

The journalist argues convincingly that Modi and his government are not interested in modernisation of either state or economy. They are driven by an aggressive and vindictive ideology. According to their world view, Hindus are now finally striving for world leadership after centuries of humiliation and oppression. That is the core issue, and the Gujarat riots in 2002 proved it early on. They happened when Modi was that state's chief minister.

In that position, he nonetheless earned his reputation as an economic moderniser. He basically did it by simply approving any application made by an industry leader, as Komireddi points out. He facilitated fast investment, but achieved very little in terms of reducing poverty. To judge by the relevant statistics, Gujarat stayed an average Indian state and never became a beacon of human development.

Chaotic demonetisation

At the national level, Modi's economic reform promises have not come true either. The greatest disaster was "demonetisation". Komireddi has dedicated an entire chapter to the annulling of most of India's banknotes on short notice in 2016. The chapter's fitting headline is: “Chaos”. The idea was to thwart corruption and get a grip on black money. Neither goal was achieved. The economy slowed down, and the lives of smallholder farmers, informal entrepreneurs and people who depend on them were disrupted seriously.

Komireddi only mentions in passing that the jobs wonder that Modi promised to bring about by promoting manufacturing never happened. The author does not assess minor achievements such as Modi's reform of the goods and services taxes, which was overly bureaucratic, but nonetheless a step in the right direction. In view of the damage the government is doing, these episodes actually do not deserve all that much attention.

What is far more important is how the Hindu supremacists are undermining the independence of important institutions such as the judiciary, the central bank or the election commission is as accurate as it is scary. Komireddis gives account. He also does an excellent job of explaining how Modi is increasingly politicising the military. Most mainstream media, in the author's eyes, have caved into government propaganda and pressure. He bemoans an empty personality cult that is typical of dictatorial rule. He makes it quite clear that speaking of India as the world's largest democracy only makes sense if one endorses the crudest form of majoritarianism.

The outlook is terrifying. The author sees India turning into “a make-believe land full of fudge and fakery, where savagery against religious minorities is among the therapeutic options available to a self-pitying majority frustrated by Modi's failure to  upgrade their standard of living”. With statements like this, Komireddi confirms Jan-Werner Müller's assessment of populist leaders: unable to fulfil the unrealistic promises they constantly reiterate, they can only thrive by hounding scapegoats once they have risen to power.

Modi, however, is worse than a typical right-wing populist, as Komireddi elaborates. The reason is that he is supported by a vast network of Hindu-supremacist groups. This network has evolved over many decades. At its centre is the RSS, an organisation that was originally inspired by Italy's fascists and Germany's Nazis. Modi himself rose through its ranks.

What facilitated Modi's rise to power

“Malevolent republic” does more than dissect Modi and his government. The first part of the book assesses what made his rise to power possible. It tells the story of how the Congress party, led by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, lost people's trust in decades of bad governance.

Inner-party democracy ended under Indira Gandhi. Her emergency rule was brutal, and the forced sterilisation of masses of men was probably the worst excess. She was later killed by her Sikh bodyguard after her opportunistic support for Sikh extremism had backfired terribly. She had hoped to weaken a regional party, but instead fostered a terrorist outfit. Her son Rajiv Gandhi, who also served one term as prime minister, suffered a similar fate. He was killed by a Tamil suicide bomber after involving India opportunistically in Sri Lanka's civil war.

Komireddi excels at describing the Congress party's decades-long decline and how the RSS and its satellites managed to take advantage of that trend. Massive corruption became ever more obvious, so people had every reason to be angry.

A minor shortcoming of Komireddi's book, however, is that it fails to explain why Manmohan Singh, so far the last Congress prime minister, could be triumphantly reelected after a first term. The most likely reason is that his government had devised a surprisingly effective programme to fight rural poverty. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act was very popular.

Unfortunately, the Congress party entirely failed to introduce anything of similar impact in the years 2009 to 2014. One reason was probably that its majority had become so big that it no longer needed the support of leftist parties that were keen on pro-poor policies. The other reason was perhaps that Sonia Gandhi, Rajiv's widow and the successor as head of the Congress party, was ill. However that may be, Komireddi's judgment that the Congress had gambled away its credibility by 2014 is irrefutable. That is why Modi could become prime minister.

P.S.: I've checked out some Indian reviews of the book on the internet. The disturbing trend is that they tend to only commit rather few sentences or paragraphs to Modi. Their focus is on lambasting the Congress party. The reason is obviously that it has become very risky to discuss the prime minister's shortcomings in public. Piling blame on his predecessors is safer – not least, because Modi loves to do that himself. Sadly, what I read confirms Komireddi's assessment of the media having become docile.



Komireddi, K.S., 2019: Malevolent republic. A short history of the new India. London: Hurst / Delhi: Context.



Kategorien: english

Parliament, shut up!

30. August 2019 - 18:25
Leaders like Boris Johnson make it increasingly difficult to promote democracy

In recent weeks, the British government has been telling China's communist leadership that it must respect citizens' rights in Hong Kong, where pro-democracy protests have been attracting masses of people. Beijing was not impressed, not least because Hong Kong was not a democracy while it was still a British colony.

It now seems ever more likely that the Chinese regime will send in the military. In any case, repression has been intensifying in Hong Kong, so the protest movement cancelled protests planned for this weekend. Leading activists have been arrested. Nonetheless, people rallied yesterday, there were burning barricades and the police clamped down harshly. I am not sure that the British government has responded to this most recent development. What I do know is that it is now in an even weaker position to express criticism than it ever wasr. The Chinese authorities can now simply say: "Why are people demonstrating for democracy in London, Glasgow and even Exeter? And what exactly is democratic about closing down parliament in a period of important political decision-making?"

In strictly formal legal terms, Britain's prime minister is allowed to prorogue parliament. Prorogation means that the parliament is suspended for a brief period of time and all incomplete legislation is cancelled. A new session of parliament then begins with a Queen's speech in which she outlines the prime minister's policies. In normal times, prorogation lasts for one week or so. Fow it is scheduled for five weeks. It normally happens when no urgent decisions are on the agenda. In the next few weeks, important decisions must be made.

Not normal times

The United Kingdom is currently not experiencing normal times. It is about to leave the European Union on 31 October. Johnson's decision is undermining the ability of his people's elected representatives to deliberate precisely at a time when deliberation is needed. Moreover, they will not be able to do oversight of government action as they normally do.

Some British papers have done an excellent job of arguing this case. The Guardian, for example, has written: “The prime minister is fooling no one in claiming that he can do in two months what Theresa May could not do in two years. More plausible is that he’ll press ahead, if necessary, with a no-deal Brexit against the express wishes of the Commons. This is an affront to democracy.”

The Financial Times (paywall) states: “Boris Johnson has detonated a bomb under the constitutional apparatus of the United Kingdom. The prime minister’s request to the Queen to suspend parliament for up to five weeks, ostensibly to prepare a new legislative programme, is without modern precedent. It is an intolerable attempt to silence parliament until it can no longer halt a disastrous crash-out by the UK from the EU on October 31.” 

The Economist (paywall) warns that Johnson's “actions are technically legal, but they stretch the conventions of the constitution to their limits. Because he is too weak to carry Parliament in a vote, he means to silence it. In Britain’s representative democracy, that sets a dangerous precedent.”

As a German observer, I find especially infuriating that Johnson and his team are adopting rhetoric that resembles how the Nazis spoke. The Brexiteers are now arguing that the government must take decisive action because MPs have so far not adopted any clear policy on Brexit. In the early 1930s, the Nazis belittled Germany's parliament as a mere talking shop that did not get things done. Johnson and his supporters are now taking that stance in the UK. According to media reports, Johnson is even preparing an election campaign that would pit “the people” against “the parliament”.

Causes of disarray

It is worth bearing in mind why exactly the British parliament is in disarray over Brexit. Yes, a majority of British citizens voted to leave the EU in the referendum 2016, but it was not defined clearly what leaving the EU would actually mean. It may mean cutting all ties with the EU. It may mean staying in the customs union. It may mean staying in Europe's single market. When the referendum was held in 2016, the Brexiteers promised  “frictionless trade”. Now they argue that sacrifices are justified and may  be needed.

After the referendum, Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May only involved the MPs from her conservative party in the debate on how to define Brexit. They were – and are  – deeply divided. That is why May ultimately failed. The plain truth is that conservative Brexiteers contributed to the dysfunction of parliament that they now bemoan. The democratic way forward would be further debate, now involving all parties and assessing all options.

Johnson knows that he does not enjoy the support of the majority of members of parliament. Even worse, he isn't even supported by all conservative MPs. In this setting, the prorogation of parliament is plainly not normal, no matter what his team says. He claims to hope for a last-minute deal with the EU, gaining concessions the EU will only grant if it fears Britain will actually crash out. He does not deserve much trust. Action speaks louder than words – and so far he has not made any tangible proposals for what a good agreement would look like. He’s been in office for five weeks now,  and spent four of them without even reaching out to his European counterparts.

What makes everything even more bewildering is that one of the Brexiteers' most prominent goals was “to restore parliamentary sovereignty”. It is sometimes necessary to destroy a village to save it, a leading US military officer allegedly said during the Vietnam war. In a similar vein, Johnson's latest approach to empowering sovereign legislators is to shut them up. 


Kategorien: english

A matter of self interest

27. August 2019 - 11:31
The international community should support Afghanistan’s young democracy

When the international troops led by the USA intervened in Afghanistan in 2001, they inspired hope for a democratic future. After devastating civil war and horrible religious fundamentalism, it seemed promising to have the world’s mature democracies on Afghanistan’s side. In 2004, Afghans were able to choose their president in free elections for the first time ever. The price paid for the democratic constitution was high – both in terms of human lives and money.

In spite of the typical problems that haunt post-conflict countries, Afghanistan has made considerable progress. Its people do not want to give up the accomplishments of the past 18 years.

It is easy to question the quality of Afghanistan’s democracy in view of terror attacks, corruption and organised crime. One must remember, however, that democracy does not take root overnight. It is always the result of long struggles and many sacrifices. So while it does make sense to consider to what extent the western model fits a least-developed country, one should not overestimate current norms, structures and conventions. Change is possible, but it takes time.

According to the Asia Foundation, which has been conducting opinion polls in Afghanistan since 2004, support for democracy is strong. The data even reveal an incremental increase in people’s confidence in democracy and elections. Satisfaction with democracy rose from 57 % in 2017 to 61 % in 2018. Even though people have reason to fear insurgents’ violence, moreover, participation in civic affairs, including elections, has been growing.

The transition to democracy is never easy. It was neither easy in Germany, Austria and Italy after World War II, nor in the course of decolonisation, nor in the former Eastern block after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In many cases, international co­operation and support were needed. In this regard, Afghanistan is not exceptional, but actually quite normal.

The 8th round of so-called peace talks between the USA and the Taliban finished recently in Doha, the Qatari capital. These negotiations have caused anxiety and anger in Afghanistan. From the start, they took place behind closed doors. Afghanistan’s elected government was not involved – nor were representatives of civil society. Afghans have the impression that the US administration is only interested in fast withdrawal, while the Taliban want to reimpose the brutal regime they ran from 1996 to 2001. People do not think that their interests are being considered in the talks at all.

Some Afghan leaders support the negotiation process. One of them is Hamid Karzai, the former president. He has suggested that the Doha talks are more important than the presidential elections that are scheduled for October. In this perspective, the talks will usher in a new regime. Karzai is a spent force, however, and does not have a coherent political agenda. In his 14 years in office, he did far too little to build and strengthen institutions.

By contrast, Ashraf Ghani, the incumbent president, emphasises the election.

According to him, the winner of the elections will have a popular mandate to negotiate with the Taliban. Many observers believe that Ghani will win. There are 17 other candidates, but he is the best known. He has, moreover, been accused of using government funds for campaign purposes.

The Taliban have never accepted the legitimacy of Afghanistan’s elected policymakers. They insisted on keeping Ghani away from the peace talks. Whether that will change after the elections remains to be seen. It does not seem likely.

Afghanistan’s budding democracy is therefore in serious danger. Many people fear it will be abandoned by the USA. Nonetheless, the international community has a moral obligation to support Afghanistan. It also should support Afghanistan as a matter of self-interest. After all, the USA and its allies only intervened after the Al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001. The reason was that the Taliban had turned the country into a hub of Islamist terrorism.

Nawid Paigham is a political and economic analyst.

Kategorien: english

Pressure on journalists

26. August 2019 - 15:27
The defamation clause of Indonesia’s internet law is misused to criminalise journalists

The ITE Law was passed in 2008 and amended in 2016. In principle, it is meant to regulate the exchange of information and other electronic transactions. It spells out what is prohibited on the internet. However, its defamation article has been misused to criminalise journalists. It thus has a negative impact on the freedom of the press. Online defamation can be punished with up to four years of prison.

The defamation article prohibits the distribution of electronic information containing insults and/or defamation. However, various parties now accuse online journalists of doing so when they simply do not like coverage, for example, when it deals with corruption and other criminal action. Offended parties argue that the content of the articles is defaming.

Abdul Manan of the Alliance of Independent Journalists, a major journalists’ organisation, sees a trend of journalistic work being criminalised with help of the ITE Law. He is personally affected. As the co-founder of the whistle-blower platform Indonesialeaks, he is facing a defamation trial. The International Federation of Journalists has demanded that the case must be dropped. Manan says that he is confident that his incriminated journalistic work is faultless.

He points out that the situation was always difficult in Indonesia. Physical violence against journalists occurs sometimes, and intimidation is common. In the Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders for 2019, Indonesia ranks 124th among 180 nations.

The defamation clause has an intimidating impact even if no judgement is passed. Last summer, a criminal charge was filed against Zakki Amali, the former editor-in-chief of, an independent website in Central Java. The background was that he had published articles about alleged research plagiarism and stated that one of the chancellors of a state university was involved. Civil-society organisations and journalists have protested, but the legal process is still going on and distracting him from journalistic work. “My time is spent defending myself,” Amali says.

Some of the accused are found guilty however. According to the Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network (SAFEnet), a civil-society organisation, two journalists were sentenced in the past ten years, and 12 cases are pending. The highest number of cases was filed ahead of the general elections last year, when eight journalists were charged. “The ITE Law has been misused to silence the media,” says Damar Juniarto of SAFEnet.

Indonesia only gained press freedom in 1998 after the downfall of the Suharto dictatorship. The new government passed a liberal press law in 1999. Individual journalists and the media thus enjoy some legal protection. Moreover, the national Press Council was made independent. Its members are journalists, media managers and public leaders. Their job is to settle press-related disputes. Only if they prove unable to do so, can legal action be taken. The ITE Law, however, bypasses the Press Council, so its defamation clause can be misused easily.

Digital media are growing fast. According to the Press Council, there were 43,400 online media outlets in Indonesia in 2016.


Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network:

International Federation of Journalists:

Ika Ningtyas is a freelance journalist based in Java, Indonesia.

Kategorien: english

Destructive land-use

21. August 2019 - 12:03
IPCC assesses how climate change and land use patterns are interlinked

Climate change has a bearing on land use, which, in turn, has a bearing on the climate. In August, the IPCC published a special report which assesses the interlinkages. For this purpose, 107 scholars from 52 countries, including a majority of developing countries, reviewed 7,000 scientific research papers.

Today, 70 % of the earth’s ice-free land is affected by human action. Only one percent is used for infrastructure, while 12 % is cropland, 37 % pastures and 22 % commercial forests. The remaining 28 % is basically unused land, including virgin forests, various ecosystems as well as deserts and mountain cliffs.

The share of used land keeps growing. From 1961 to 2017, according to the IPCC, food production increased by 240 %. The drivers of this trend were additional land use as well as higher productivity. Ecosystems are shaped by land use – often in a bad way. Fertile soils are being lost, desertification is progressing, and biodiversity is dwindling. Farms are currently using 70 % of the world’s potable water. It is worrisome, moreover, that soils are losing their capacity to store carbon because, next to the oceans, the ground is earth’s most important carbon sink. Non-sustainable land use is thus exacerbating global warming.

Global warming is happening faster above land then above seas. The international community set itself the goal of not letting the global average temperature rise more than 1.5 degrees above the preindustrial level. On land, that has already happened. The global average temperature, by contrast, has only risen half as much.

Climate change means that extreme weather is becoming more frequent and more intense. In many places, the consequences include faster land degradation and desertification. Food security and entire ecosystems are at risk. As the authors point out, what is happening in different world regions varies considerably, but the general trend is that low income countries are affected worst.

The future impacts of global warming do not only depend on how much temperature rises. Population growth, consumption habits, modes of production and innovative technology all matter as well. It is encouraging that the scientists see several options for land-use systems contributing to climate mitigation and adaptation. In many cases, such change would not imply more competition for land. At the same time, it would deliver co-benefits, the experts state.

A core issue is sustainable land use. Management must be geared to the conservation of resources such as soils, water, plants and animals. The ecological services must continue. The report states: “Reducing and reversing land degradation, at scales from individual farms to entire watersheds, can provide cost effective, immediate, and long-term benefits to communities and support several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).”

The authors are in favour of sustainable agriculture, less fertiliser use and reduced meat production. They point out that 25 % to 30 % of all food either rots before it is marketed or is thrown away later. Reducing that waste would make a huge difference.

To redirect land use, governments must adopt appropriate policies, the IPCC demands. Relevant issues include ensuring that all farmers have access to markets as well as to the land resources they depend on. Moreover, food prices should reflect not only production costs, but environmental damages as well. The authors leave no doubt: action is needed immediately. That is true in every of all sectors with a bearing on the climate.

IPCC special report climate change and land:

Kategorien: english

Why cross-border social protection would be useful

20. August 2019 - 14:59
Argentina and Zimbabwe currently need a kind of international support that the multilateral system does not provide

In both countries, the economy currently seems to be in free fall. In Zimbabwe, a hunger crisis is looming as prices are rising fast. The background is that the government has discontinued the use of the US dollar, and the token money that has replaced the foreign currency has depreciated fast. Argentina similarly is experiencing a dramatic deterioration of the exchange rate of the peso with serious impacts on inflation. The IMF programme that was launched to support Argentina last year is apparently failing.

The historical background is different, but the symptoms are similar. It is striking, of course, that in both countries, policymakers have mismanaged the economy for decades. The big issue now is that the damage cannot easily be repaired. Average people’s lives are being destroyed, and it is not obvious what national policy-making can do to ease their plight.

Anger and dissatisfaction are widespread. Unless the citizens of both countries see some kind of promising new outlook, these national crises will spill over into neighbouring countries. Political unrest and mass migration matter very much.

Unfortunately, humanity lacks mechanisms of international support that might alleviate suffering in situations like this. The challenges to introducing cross-border social protection are huge. I will return to them later in this blog post. First, however, I must explain briefly (and, indeed, superficially) what went wrong with the first attempt to set up such mechanisms.

When the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was established at the Bretton Woods conference at the end of World War II, it was designed to be an instrument of international solidarity. Crisis lending in combination with an adjustment of exchange rates, which at the time were fixed, were supposed to kick start national economies in times of crisis. The idea was to keep unemployment in check and thus prevent the worst hardships. Yes, there would be some short-term pain as imports became more expensive, but people would experience recovery fast.

The system of fixed exchange rates collapsed in the 1970s, and the IMF morphed into an instrument that imposed market orthodox policies on countries that were struggling with debt problems. These debt problems were typically exacerbated by deteriorating exchange rates. As the currencies of indebted nations depreciated, their dollar-denominated debt burdens became ever heavier.

To some extent, IMF lending still helped economies to cope with economic crisis. Some big economies (including India and later Brazil) bounced back fast. In many others, however, poverty and deprivation lingered on for a long time. Making matters worse, many countries became stuck in over-indebtedness. Their economies’ recoveries were not strong enough to enable them to repay all debts, which now included IMF loans. By the turn of the millennium, multilateral debt relief had become inevitable.

What I have just spelled out here is, of course, a rather simplified and schematic assessment of what happened. Details matter, and case studies of different countries will always show some deviations from general patterns. On our platform, we discussed many of these issues last summer, and you’ll find relevant information in the briefing on our website.

It is noteworthy that thinking within the IMF has changed to some extent. In the past decade, its chief economists no longer focused exclusively on austerity, but appreciated the relevance of social-protection systems. They increasingly backed off from free-market ideology, accepting that governments have an important role to play, for instance in building and maintaining infrastructure. They warned that widening social disparities hurt the economy and appreciated prudent regulation.

As a result, IMF conditionalities are not as harsh as they used to be. Nonetheless, as Argentina’s current crisis shows, they cannot prevent hardships. Exchange-rate volatility in particular is beyond IMF control. The fast depreciation of the peso means that Argentina is in a downward spiral. The IMF also involved in Zimbabwe’s policymaking. It recently advised the government, though it did not grant the country a loan.

At this point, I don’t think it helps to try to figure out who exactly is to blame for the current problems in Argentina and Zimbabwe. No relevant players is entirely faultless, neither the governments concerned, nor their predecessors, nor the IMF, nor private financial-sector investors. It is far more important to ponder the following questions:

  • What measures can lead out of the current crisis, preventing mass suffering and triggering a fast recovery?
  • Who can implement such measures?

It is quite obvious that the current governments do not have a grip on the problems. It is equally clear, that any political party or coalition that might eventually replace them, would also be unable to lead their nations out of the malaise. The plain truth is that neither IMF nor any other international financial institutions, as they are currently designed, are up to the task either.

Things would be different if the international community had some kind of cross-border social-protection system which might buffer the worst hardships, and thus give governments some scope for introducing radical reforms. Such a system would also reduce the pain that disasters at the nation-state level causes in other countries.

There are several obvious reasons why we don’t have that kind of system. The most important one is that it would cost a lot of money. In rich nations, many voters already believe that official development assistance (ODA) is excessively expensive. Therefore, governments are reluctant to spend more. Governments of low-income countries would obviously be in an even more awkward position if they had to explain to their citizens why they are contributing any kind of support at all to a suffering middle-income country.

Other reasons that make this issue so difficult include:

  • that there would be concerns of funds being abused and diverted,
  • that new and complex bureaucracies would be needed and
  • that the legitimacy of such a system would depend on a universal understanding of fairness social justice.

All of these issues are very hard to tackle. The recent surge of populist politics, which emphasises the national interest and disparages global cooperation, adds to the difficulties.

Admitting that a problem is difficult, however, does not make it go away. If humankind allows national crises to spin out of control, other nations will be affected too. The motto of the Sustainable Development Goals, which the entire UN have signed up, is to leave no one behind. It implies a notion of solidarity that transcends national borders. To the extent that we allow masses of people to be punished for the failure of successive governments, we are leaving them behind.


Kategorien: english

Getting a grip on dangerous trends

20. August 2019 - 9:10
In the past ten years, dark visons have begun to reduce the euphoria about digital development opportunities

From the mid-90s to the Arab spring of 2011, a sense of euphoria was common. Before the 1990s, however, information technology simply did not seem to be relevant for developing countries. That began to change, when international media became aware of the IT hub that had evolved around Bangalore. Next, internet access spread fast, and, though digital divides persisted, the World Wide Web came ever closer to living up to its name. Then mobile telephony conquered much of Africa. Suddenly, Kenya was pioneering mobile money. Digital technology was making a difference in evermore people’s lives, and masses of them were poor.

Mobile phones became commonly used devices even in remote villages. People got access to more information than ever before and started to interact with others who are far away. In many ways, digitalisation was empowering. For example, social media proved essential in the Arab spring. As dictators fell, journalists spoke of “Facebook revolutions”. That was then. Platforms that seemed to facilitate free communication 10 years ago, are now infested with disinformation and propaganda. The business models of established media houses are being undermined, to the detriment of quality journalism. Instead of living in “knowledge societies” as we were promised, we seem to understand less and less.

As a general trend, both public administrations and private-sector businesses are computerised. Digital disruption is common, and leaders in both spheres are paying increasingly close attention to what is discussed online, with some doing their best to manipulate public discourse. Authoritarian populism is gaining ground, while the respect for democracy seems to be waning in many places. China’s communist regime is leading the trend of monitoring citizens, but other governments seem eager to follow.

At the same time, the corporate powers that dominate the internet today are still largely beyond government control. They are not paying taxes commensurate with their revenues. The top managers cultivate a liberal image, but their lobbyists are really only striving to protect the likes of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple from regulation. The algorithms of Facebook and YouTube, which belong to the Google parent company Alphabet, are driving the radicalisation of angry people by offering users ever more extreme content to keep them on the platforms.

Digitalisation is shaping our species’ future. We need sensible rules. The forces that dominate the web are far more powerful than most nation states. The only three political entities that still seem able to regulate them are the USA, China and the EU. At this point, only the EU shows a preference for protecting citizens’ rights. If other countries want to have an impact, they must forge alliances. That way they can tap technology’s still promising potentials and keep a check on the risks. There is no alternative if we do not want to surrender to overwhelming corporate or state power.

Hans Dembowski is editor in chief of D+C Development and Cooperation / E+Z Entwicklung und Zusammenarbeit.

Kategorien: english

A turning point

16. August 2019 - 11:33
To stem the spread of Ebola, humanitarian agencies must win the trust of local communities in the DRC

When a diseased priest from South Kivu arrived in the city of Goma on 14 July, it marked a turning point in the ongoing Ebola crisis. Ebola has been plaguing the eastern part of the country for more than a year now. More than 2,700 cases have been registered, and over 1,800 had died by mid-August. However, so far, none of these cases had reached a city like Goma with a population of over 1 million.

I first heard about the case through informal contacts. The UN soon confirmed it. Like others in the response community, I was not shocked to hear it. We all had expected this to happen – and sooner than it finally occurred.

In fact, the way the case developed even showed some positive elements. The nurses in the health centre that the priest went to did an excellent job. They immediately identified the case and isolated him. It was just as important that the patient, once he arrived in the city, went straight to the health centre. Like other non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the International Rescue Committee (IRC) has been training health personnel for exactly these situations. The health-centre staff were ready.

Unfortunately, the city then saw its second confirmed case. Moreover, active transmission occurred inside the city. A father of ten children had returned home from working in the Ituri province and began showing signs of Ebola on 22 July. However, he was not transferred to an Ebola treatment centre until 30 July. The time lag between when he started showing symptoms and when he was finally isolated demonstrates the need to further ramp up training of health workers. In the meantime, the man’s wife and daughter have been confirmed as having the disease, signalling the first active cases of transmission in the city. This is a major cause for concern.

People move around, despite being exposed to the virus. Many do not go to health centres even though they are sick. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), too many Ebola deaths are still happening outside of Ebola treatment centres. One reason is a strong lack of trust, which is typical of any region after extended civil strife. The DRC Ebola crisis is a public-health emergency within one of the most complex, chronic and long-standing humanitarian crises in the world. The DRC is a war-torn country which has seen an estimated 5 million people killed since 1994, while 4 million have probably left the country. More than 13 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance in DRC, yet assistance is not reaching all those in need.

In response to the first Ebola case in Goma, the attention of the international media rose. What was more important, though, was the response of the WHO. It declared the Ebola crisis in the DRC to be a “public-health emergency of international concern” (PHEIC) on 17 July.

Strategic reset

PHEICs are only very rarely declared. The WHO does so when things are very bad. Indeed, what is happening in the eastern DRC is now the second biggest Ebola outbreak of all time, surpassed only by the 2014 outbreak in West Africa. To date, there is no sign of it stopping. Many members of the humanitarian community had long called for a strategic reset. We are now seeing it being implemented.

There is a real risk that this outbreak will go beyond the borders of DRC. That would entail serious public health and social consequences. The spillover risk to other countries is high: there are strong trade and family relations with Uganda. Thousands of people living in Rwanda work in Goma and commute back and forth every day, and Rwandan authorities have tightened controls. The outbreak risks are spilling over to other neighbouring countries as well, including South Sudan, Kenya and Burundi.

Ebola cases have indeed been reported in Uganda, but for now they have been contained. As in Goma, such spillovers were expected. Surprisingly, they did not happen sooner.

In this context, the PHEIC declaration basically confirmed what we had already known on the ground. The situation is extremely concerning. On the other hand, the PHEIC does make a difference in terms of media and donor attention. So far, a lot of money has been given, but no one expected the outbreak to last this long. Further funds will be required to sustain the response.

Another important development is the appointment of David Gressly as the UN emergency Ebola response coordinator in June. At that point, the UN spoke of a “level 3 emergency”. “L3” is the highest UN category of emergencies. Currently there are only four “L3” emergencies in the world. The others are Syria, Yemen and the cyclones in Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

Gressly is now the single point of contact for all international agencies involved in the response. His appointment has led to a change of the coordination structure. A broader humanitarian perspective was indeed needed, as the IRC and others had been demanding.

The importance of community engagement

Community engagement is especially important. After decades of war and conflict, people in the eastern DRC do not trust the authorities. Nor do they trust foreigners or any people who belong to social groups that are not their own. Mistrust has to a large extent thwarted the Ebola response. We must take into account the perceptions of communities about a response they perceive as being political, with the decision to cancel the national elections in the Ebola-affected areas confirming their suspicions. The use of the army and police force for protection of the government and UN health workers has further exacerbated this fear. The IRC and many other NGOs have called for this to be stopped, and since the appointment of Gressly, we are seeing a change in this policy.

The depressing truth is that Ebola is still spreading even though many international aid workers and international representatives were sent to the country in the past 12 months.

To tackle the Ebola crisis, we need the cooperation of the communities – and their trust. The way to achieve this is to respond to their feedback.

A core problem is that epidemic responses for highly infectious diseases such as Ebola are in general very vertical and very structured. Unfortunately, communities sometimes resent this verticality and oppose some of the rules. Good community engagement means that we need to adapt to their attitudes, often in very practical ways.

One example is that the IRC is moving away from big “triage” structures, which serve to prioritise the treatment of patients. The most urgent cases are the people who can be saved by immediate action. In Ebola outbreaks, patients get a first screening in health centres. Those who are suspected of being infected are isolated immediately. Communities find this procedure scary. One example is that in rural areas the IRC is moving away from big “triage” structures and replacing them with more informal pre-triage reception areas which reduces the hesitation patients may have of seeking care.

Furthermore, the IRC is trying to shift its response away from an Ebola-only focus. We notice that people are afraid of going to health centres because they think they are just dealing with Ebola, not treating other sicknesses. Beginning next year, we will offer what we call “wrap-around activities”. As a result, our health centres will support additional primary health care beyond Ebola. Ultimately, the key issues are no longer medical when Ebola continues to spread after months of interventions. The issues are community-related. We have innovative and effective new vaccines and treatments, but these have little impact if people are not accepting to use them. We must win the trust of the communities – and then we will be able to tackle the crisis.

Tariq Riebl is the IRC’s emergency field director, experienced in managing large-scale humanitarian responses, including in Yemen, Liberia, the Philippines, Ethiopia, Chad and South Sudan.

Kategorien: english

Fishermen against hotel owners

16. August 2019 - 10:48
Fishermen in Malawi cannot go fishing because of hotels on the shoreline

Investors are buying land along Lake Malawi to build hotels with a lake view. But local fishermen traditionally use the shore as a docking place for their fishing canoes and boats. They complain that they do not have access to the lake anymore and therefore cannot fish. “We are not happy with what these people are doing,” says Ackim Phiri in the city of Salima, which attracts tourists with its nice beach. The 38-year-old fisherman has been fishing in Lake Malawi since he was young. He supports three kids and his wife through fishing.

“We are not against building hotels and lodges, because locals get employment,” Phiri says, “but our livelihood is at stake.” Even the areas where people used to draw water and bathe are no longer accessible because the land is in private hands.

There are similar complaints by fishermen in other parts of the country. In 2015, village chiefs in the district of Mangochi in southern Malawi blocked the construction of a five star hotel. They were not against the hotel in principle, but refused to be relocated to another area. Leaving their native land would deny them their “right to fishing”, they argue – that is their livelihood.  

When the situation was getting out of hand, Malawi’s government set up a pilot project with communities along the lakeshore and installed district peace committees. The objective was to help resolve the differences between the local people on one hand and the hotel and lodge owners on the other over the use of Lake Malawi. The committees comprise of local chiefs, fishermen and other stakeholders at district level.

Maganga, a local chief in Salima district, explains that fishermen were not happy with hotel owners putting up fences to block people from using the lake. Stanly Lemani of Blue Waters Hotel in Salima maintains that hotel owners “understand the complaints by the communities”. However, the fence was erected around the hotel to protect the property against vandalism, he explains. Both sides put their hopes on the peace committees to find a solution.

Raphael Mweninguwe is a freelance journalist based in Malawi.

Kategorien: english

A heartfelt sermon

16. August 2019 - 10:41
Ed Husain’s book “The house of Islam” contains important insights, but it is not the “global history” the subtitle promises

Husain correctly writes that the fundamentalist version of Sunni Islam, which is promoted by Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabis, is a perversion of the faith. It has spawned Salafism as well as the terrorism of Al Qaida and ISIS. The Wahhabi’s focus on strictly literal interpretations of the Scriptures neglects their meaning and moral substance. Dress codes, for example, serve the purpose of fostering a sense of equality and modesty among the faithful, and are not even spelled out in detail in Quran. Husain finds the idea absurd that people today should be required to wear exactly the kind of clothes that the prophet and his followers wore in the 7th century.

While the Quran provides basic guidelines for social life, it leaves ample room for interpretation and adaptation to local contexts and conventions. This adaptability of Islamic law (sharia) is an important reason why this religion became important from Morocco to Indonesia. Throughout history, Islamic law scholars engaged in intense debate on how to apply the religious norms to changing realities. They did their best to make sense of the rules, and rational arguments were not only accepted, but welcomed. The diverging schools did not strive to apply the principles as literally as possible but wanted to serve society well. As Husain insists, an enlightened, modernised interpretation of the faith is indeed possible on this basis.

While Christian Europe historically did not accept Islam as a valid religion, Jewish and Christian minorities were tolerated in North Africa and the Middle East for centuries. Husain is right to point out that Islam is traditionally the less repressive religion. The kind of violence perpetrated by ISIS and other terrorist outfits today is not how Muslim empires were run in the past.

In Husain’s eyes, Wahhabi-inspired extremism has gained far too much influence. Such radicalism thrives on both the indulgence of Muslim communities and the vehement rejection from the Western public. The more Islamist extremists are ostracised by the West, the more attractive they look to frustrated Muslim youth, as the author knows from personal experience. He is a British Muslim who fell for Sunni Islamism in his youth but then went on to study Arabic and theology, developing a more sophisticated and less dogmatic understanding of his faith. He now wants Muslim scholars to take a determined stance against Wahhabism.

At the same time, Husain warns that Western ignorance is dangerous. The failure to understand the basics of Muslim mindsets has repeatedly led to policy failure and resulted in the escalation of crises. In his view, for example, the Muslim Brothers, whose ideas of Islamist politics is not rooted in Wahhabism, have the potential of becoming something akin to Europe’s Christian Democrats. However, the latter are unable to tap this potential as they normally fail to even see it.

Indeed, the Muslim Brother’s Tunisian branch is currently a moderate conservative force. Their party Ennahda has accepted the country’s pluralist constitution and is sharing power in a coalition government. Its leaders state that they are “Muslim Democrats”. Souad Abderrahim, the female mayor of Tunis, is an Ennahda politician. She proves that women can assume roles of leadership in Islamic contexts. It is too early, however, to tell whether Ennahda has truly become the equivalent of European Christian Democrats. Turkey’s AKP, which for a long time seemed to be developing in that direction too, has become a thoroughly authoritarian entity in recent years, which is something Husain should, but does not acknowledge.

Western policy makers, unfortunately, all too often do not know the difference between diverging Islam-inspired political groups. Many of them still fail to see how dysfunctional their alliance with the Gulf monarchies has been. Depending on oil from the Arab Peninsula, they turned a blind eye to the disruptive impact that fundamentalist missionaries had – and have - on the traditionally far more tolerant Muslim societies. Those missionaries depend on money from Saudi Arabia and its neighbours. In a similar vein, it is worth considering what the state of the world might be in today, had the USA invested some $ 2 trillion in promoting democracy and private-sector development in peaceful countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) instead of waging war on Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Husain argues that no other world region is culturally and linguistically as homogenous as the MENA region. But even though the preconditions for pooling sovereignty are thus in place, no other world region is less integrated in political or economic terms. The author states that the region would do well to establish a MENA union according to the EU model. That idea makes sense in principle, but Husain should acknowledge that it is entirely utopian at this point in history. Tunisia is the only democracy in the Arab world. The violence that is tearing apart Syria, results from deep divisions that mark other countries of the region as well.

While Husain spells conveys many important insights, his book is unfortunately not a sober-minded analysis of Muslim history and the current state of MENA affairs. He would have done well to tell readers the sources of the vast socio-economic data he uses. Instead, he basically only indicates sources that refer to theological issues.

To a large extent, Husain is a true believer who is preaching his version of his faith. Wishful thinking blurs his assessment of reality. Muslims are not the coherent community he claims they are – and that is one reason why there is not even an inkling of the MENA union he would like to see established. Yes, he does elaborate on the historical schism between Shias and Sunnis, but he consistently downplays the relevance of Shia Islam. He does a good job of dissecting the shortcomings of Wahhabism, but pays hardly any attention to Shia fundamentalism, which is dangerous too. He consistently refers to the Sunni dominated Ottoman and Mughal as examples of Muslim rule, but does not elaborate the similarly impressive history of Iran’s Shia dynasties.

While Husain’s book provides useful insights into the complexity of Muslim thought, readers will do well to cross-check what he writes with other sources. It is actually not quite clear who his target audience is: to some extent, he seems to be arguing with fellow Muslims about how to deal with Wahhabism, but other parts of the book read as though he intended to write a primer introducing western readers to the history of Islam. In my eyes, he serves the first target group well, but the second would deserve a more neutral assessment.

A good book to complement Husain’s work is Karen Armstrong’s “Islam – a short history”. It was first published in 2000 and offers a coherent overview – from the times of the prophet to the turn of the millennium. Armstrong discusses the schisms that affected this faith and elaborates diligently what empires were ruled by Sunnis as well as Shia leaders. Her assessment of recent fundamentalisms differs from Husain’s because the former Catholic nun puts it into the context of religious fundamentalisms in general.

A shortcoming is certainly that Armstrong does not pay Wahhabism much attention. The reason is certainly that she wrote her book before Al Quaeda attacked New York and Washington in 2001. Al Quaeda and ISIS are rooted in Wahhabi ideology.  



Husain, E., 2018: The house of Islam. A global history. London, Bloomsbury.
Armstrong, K., 2000: Islam – A short history. New York, Modern Library Chronicles.

Kategorien: english

Fragile peace

15. August 2019 - 14:51
Under President Duque, Colombia seems to seesaw between civil war and peace

In 2016, Duque’s predecessor Juan Manuel Santos concluded peace agreements with the leftist FARC-EP militia. The peace accords include provisions relating to:

  • human rights,
  • the protection of community leaders,
  • the demobilisation of combatants,
  • justice and reconciliation,
  • rural reform,
  • the reduction of poverty and inequality in rural areas,
  • political participation of all parties involved in decades of civil war and
  • illicit crops (in particular coca).

Not quite a quarter of provisions have been fully implemented to date, according to a recent assessment by researchers from Notre Dame University in the USA. It is worrisome that the implementation has been slowing down. The double reason is that the Duque government lacks both the capacities and the political will for effective implementation.

Indeed, Duque agitated against the peace agreements during the election campaign. Moreover, he is a right-wing politician whose vision of development is basically industrialisation. By contrast, the peace agreements focused on a local-level, pro-peasant approach. In any case, it is a core challenge that Colombia’s state has never had a meaningful presence in remote rural areas. Any government would struggle to introduce change there.

The Duque administration has further weakened state capacities in rural areas by reducing funding for relevant institutions such as the National Land Agency, the Territorial Renovation Agency and the Rural Development Agency. It prefers to spend money on boosting industrialisation in urban areas.

The peace agreements foresaw that peasants would voluntarily stop the cultivation of illicit crops, but the Duque administration is in favour of a more repressive approach (see my essay in Tribune section of D+C/E+Z e-paper 2019/03). It has also tried to veto or block legislation related to the implementation of transitional justice measures, including the truth commission. While the government still speaks of “demobilisation” and “reintegration”, it generally avoids terms such as “peace accords”, “justice” and “reconciliation”. The implication is that the FARC-EP is not an equal partner in peace building, but a criminal gang that has lost.

Duque’s position is awkward. On the one hand, he depends on a coalition of right-wing forces that either did not support the peace accords or even actively opposed them. On the other hand, he is bound by the law and the agreements his predecessor signed. He cannot by simple decree undo the work Santos did, but he wants to please his base ahead of local elections in October.

Accordingly, the peace is becoming ever more fragile. Since Duque took office, different armed organisations have killed at least 229 community leaders and human-rights activists. Almost a third of them were indigenous activists. All of them were, in one way or another, demanding that the peace agreements be fully implemented. They were thus challenging powerful vested interests at the local level.

A small number of prominent FARC-EP members have gone into hiding. In early September, they released a call to arms. They were meant to participate in the truth commission and other mechanisms of transitional justice. That they have once again opted for a clandestine life provides political capital to the peace agreement’s right-wing opponents that argue this proves the failure of the peace process. It also creates a sense of fear for the peace process and unaccountability for victims. However, most of demobilised guerrillas are complying with the agreements and have rejected the decision of former FARC-EP members to renounce to the peace process.

The forthcoming local elections are very important. They will either consolidate or weaken the power of the government. Armed opponents of the agreements are aware of this fact, and they seem to be stepping up their violent action now. On the other hand, civil-society organisations are campaigning in favour of the peace agreements. The accords are not dead. For Colombians to live in peace, they must be implemented.

Fabio Andrés Díaz Pabón is a research associate at Rhodes University in South Africa and a researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague.

Kategorien: english

No one can opt out

15. August 2019 - 13:56
China introduces points system for rating social behaviour

Haifeng casts a vexed glance at her smartphone. She is sitting in a café sipping a latte, her phone lying at her elbow on the table. Reluctantly, she picks up the device and taps on a bright red icon. The app gives her access to video messages and reams of texts. Haifeng has no interest in reading the texts. But she has to open the app several times a day, she says, because she is a member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Like most Chinese of her generation, 25-year-old Haifeng actually likes using her smartphone. She watches Korean operas on it and has downloaded e-books as well as a lot of games. Mostly, she uses her phone to chat with friends and exchange images and videos.

Now, however, her phone has become a source of annoyance. The leadership of the CCP has instructed all members to download a specific app. It is called “Xue Xi Qiang Guo”, which roughly translates as “Study to make China strong”, and is officially said to be an educational tool. But there is a pun in the Chinese name. The first two syllables can also mean “Learn from Xi”, a reference to Xi Jinping, China’s president and top leader of the CCP. The app contains Xi quotes as well as references to the national constitution, the party charter, new party directives and even old black-and-white propaganda movies such as “The long march”.

For CCP members like Haifeng, it is not enough to install the app. They also have to use it. The time they spend engaged with the app earns them “learning points”. A bonus point is awarded, for example, for a four-minute read of an article. Points are also awarded for sharing an article or a video with friends or family. At certain times of the day, points accumulate faster. They count double when the app is used before 8.30 in the morning, during a lunch-break or after eight in the evening. After all, it is not supposed to interfere with people’s work.

Users who acquire enough points can redeem them for gifts or discounts. Those with low scores face censure in the CCP cell. “If your number of points is small, that shows that you are not an enthusiastic member,” Haifeng says. For a while, Xue Xi Qiang Guo was the most downloaded app in China, outstripping even Tictoc, the latest trending social media app among young people. Haifeng is not surprised. The CCP has more than 90 million members and they have all been told to install the app on their phones.

Social scoring

The app is piloting a kind of comprehensive social scoring that will one day cover the behaviour of every member of Chinese society. Debt defaulters will lose points. Those who dodge public-transport fares will be marked down. Anyone found dumping garbage, parking illegally or letting a child urinate in the street will face similar penalties.

The world was stunned by the Chinese leadership’s proposal to launch the social credit system. So far, it has not yet been rolled out nationwide, but only tested in some regions. Now, Beijing’s municipal government has announced the intention to implement the personal rating system by the end of 2020. It has published the respective assessment catalogue at the beginning of this year. Beijing’s entire population of 22 million people will be registered for the system.

The catalogue lists traffic violations, tax offences, loutish behaviour and even smoking in public places among the actions that will lead to penalties. The internet plays a big role in Chinese life, so people’s social-media behaviour, online-shopping history and even messaging-service use will be monitored. Information sources may include reviews on shopping portals, comments on social-networking sites as well as health and court records. If critical comments about the government are shared in a chat group, that could leave a trace in the social credit system and earn the author a black mark. Denunciation is explicitly encouraged.

The aim is to create model citizens – or what qualifies as such in the Communist leadership’s eyes. Everyone starts with 1,000 points. Anyone who boosts the figure to 1,300 points through good behaviour gets an AAA rating. An AAA rating means free vouchers for rail or air travel, access to cheaper loans and preferential treatment when applying for places in nursery schools or universities. Anyone whose points total falls below 600, however, lands in the worst category, with a D rating, and will find life harder.

Everyone will be able to check their own rating. But government agencies, banks, shopping platforms, tour operators and even airlines will also have access to the information. No one can opt out of the system. Everyone will get an account and will be required to register themselves using their social-insurance number.

The Chinese have already had a foretaste of what impacts massive data collection can have on their lives. China’s Ministry of Tourism recently revealed that more than 20 million people were denied air and rail tickets last year because their social record was not considered good enough. So far, however, the relevant data was only collected and compiled by private businesses. Now the government is taking over.

China’s big internet companies – like Alibaba and Tencent – have diligently prepared the ground. Internet giant Alibaba, which sells more than Amazon through its online retail platforms Taobao and Tmall, has amassed data of nearly 800 million users. Some time ago, it launched its Sesame Credit service, offering a comprehensive credit scoring system that users can opt into. Alibaba does not disclose precisely how Sesame Credit scores individual customers. However, observers have found out that certain product purchases count for more than others. Moreover, it helps to have friends with high credit scores. The management admits that data is made available on request to public authorities and banks. Obviously, the government is planning to make use of this wealth of data for its own social credit system.

The authorities want to get the fullest possible picture of every citizen’s behaviour and do not want to rely on random sampling. Accordingly, they are currently flooding the country with surveillance cameras. There are already around 170 million cameras trained on China’s streets and roads, and 350 million more are to be deployed in the next few years. That will add up to one surveillance camera for every three Chinese. Many installations will be equipped with facial recognition software.

A visit to Megvii in the northwest of Beijing shows what the future holds in store for citizens of the People’s Republic. Megvii is a company specialising in camera software. A camera registers visitors at the entrance. The software recognises a man but is not yet sure of his age. The indicator on the screen oscillates between 35 and 42. Then it settles on 38, which is absolutely accurate. The software scans the face, creates a movement profile and notes special features such as moles, ear shape and eye colour. If the same person appears before the camera again, all the recorded data is immediately retrieved and presented by the software. “If you stand in front of one of our cameras, we know in an instant who you are,” says Megvii worker Ai Jiandan. “Every face has its own unique set of features.”

On social-media sites, images are starting to emerge from pilot cities showing what future surveillance operations might look like. In a local police-control room, hundreds of images captured by surveillance cameras on a Beijing intersection appear on a digital wall. Conspicuous behaviour automatically triggers a zoom. The facial recognition software checks the persons’ features against the database and identifies them within seconds.

There is little resistance to this kind of social surveillance. It is difficult to start protests in China. And most Chinese have only a limited awareness of data privacy anyway – many mistrust fellow Chinese more than they mistrust the state. The programme for “civilising” the Chinese populace by heavy-handed government action is roundly applauded.

But Haifeng is critical of the way things are going: “They have set up too many cameras in recent years,” she says, looking around the café. Only at the end of the interview does she tell us that Haifeng is not her real name. She declines to reveal her identity. What she has told us may cost her points.

Felix Lee was the China correspondent of Die Tageszeitung (taz) until this year and now works in the headquarters in Berlin.

Kategorien: english

Solving the last-mile problem

12. August 2019 - 15:09
How an innovative online retailer is making life easier for underserved rural communities in Kenya

In what sense is Copia making life better for members of Kenya’s underserved rural communities?
Copia brings convenience to rural communities by delivering quality products that customers want at affordable prices. We spare our rural customers the efforts and costs of travelling to the nearest town to look for what they want. The town can be up to 20 to 30 kilometres away, but even if they go there, they have no guarantee of finding what they desire.

What goods are most in demand?
Our customers need household goods, as well as food items, personal care, beauty products and baby products. They also buy electronic applications, construction materials and many other things. We sell lots of rice and maize, and even about one motorcycle per month.

Where do you source the goods?
We procure them from manufacturers, distributors and wholesale markets. We have also begun the process of directly importing products that are not manufactured locally. The majority of our food items are sourced locally from Kenya.

It is unusual for an e-commerce company to rely on agents with a physical presence near the customers. Why does Copia need them?
The key challenge is to serve customers in remote areas where many people do not have formal postal addresses. Despite a 44 % smartphone penetration rate in Kenya, moreover, poor internet access and the cost of data are barriers. Our agents are therefore the solution to accessing our customers today.

Who are they, and what do they do?
They are micro-entrepreneurs who run a hairdressing business or small grocery shop, for example. In the areas, where we operate, we strive to establish a network of agents so that our customers do not have to walk for more than 30 minutes or so to reach one of them. Today, we have a network of over 4,500 agents servicing over 35,000 customers. They can place orders with the agents, and pick up the goods within two to four days. The agents have smartphones with internet access, but they also use paper catalogues which list the products we offer. We know where our agents are, we stay in touch with them via phone and use digital applications to ensure the safe delivery of products to our agents. The agents benefit from Copia as their turnover businesses grow by approximately 40 % on average. They attract additional customers. We take pride in their commercial development and the growth of their businesses. We estimate that Copia has thus contributed the equivalent of an accumulated $ 6 million to the economies of the communities we serve by the end of the second quarter of 2019.

How many end-customers did Copia have two years ago and how many do you reach today?
Two years ago, we served 21,000 customers. Today, we serve approximately 35,000 customers. We are targeting to serve 100,000 customers across Kenya and East Africa in the next two years. Our monthly sales currently amounts to the equivalent of about $ 1 million to $ 1.2 million per month.

Are you operating all over Kenya?
No, we currently operate in Central Kenya. This is where we have spent time ensuring we have a successful business model and supply chain, able to meet our customers’ needs. We recently opened a new depot in Embu which will enable us to expand further north and east in Kenya. Very soon we will be expanding into western Kenya. The plan is to expand operations further west across the border into Uganda. We’ve also been building a network of Copia agents in densely populated, informal urban neighbourhoods, where people actually face similar problems as rural communities do in the sense of not having time to shop around and to travel considerable distances to get access to the range of produces they require.

What kind of public infrastructure does Copia need to be able to serve low-income communities?
Copia relies on mobile-phone penetration and mobile money. Today, mobile money transfer is commonly used all over Kenya and its neighbouring countries. One great advantage of mobile money is the security it offers when customers make payments. It also reduces the money interchange between agents and Copia. Everything is done cashless. The road network is critical too – especially rural feeder roads. Critical to us reaching our agents and customers is the existing road network, especially the interior village roads.

What kind of company-owned infrastructure has Copia built so far?
We have set up a world class distribution and fulfilment centre in Tatu City, Ruiru near Nairobi. It is basically a large computerised warehouse where we have storage facilities to be able to fulfil orders timely. To date, we have fulfilled over 2.5 million customer orders. We also have a fleet of 50 leased trucks that do daily delivery trips to our customers, combined with a workforce of 405 permanent and casual employees.

What difference do micro-finance institutions such as Kenya’s Savings and Credit Cooperatives (SACCOs) make – and do they treat consumer goods (TV sets for example) the same way as they do investment goods (like farm tools)?
The SACCOs are transforming members’ lifestyles by providing access to loans that enable the SACCO members to purchase costly assets such as refrigerators, chaff cutters and washing machines that they may not have been able to afford previously. The loans are repaid in monthly instalments. How much money they can borrow is typically determined by the money they have saved rather than by what they want to use the credit for.

Does Copia have any policy on protecting customers’ personal data?
Copia respects the privacy and personal data protection rights of all our customers. We ensure that customer data is stored safely within our enterprise resource planning (ERP) software. Our ERP system was sourced from Europe and is compliant with all EU regulations including General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Sophia Waweru is a junior sales manager with Copia. The interview was done by e-mail. She first met Hans Dembowski as a member of a group of journalists who were invited by DEG, the German Development Finance Institution, to visit innovative private-sector companies in Kenya in April. DEG has supported Copia with a large loan, appreciating that the company is improving disadvantaged people’s access to affordable goods as well as boosting microenterprises. DEG belongs to KfW banking group.

Kategorien: english

Considerable damage

12. August 2019 - 14:35
Examples of the harm online misinformation is doing in sub-Saharan countries

During Nigeria’s election campaign early this year, a picture triggered broad-based online debate. It showed Abubakar Atiku, the opposition leader, shaking hands with US President Donald Trump. Some read the photo as proof of Atiku’s international acceptability, but others argued it proved he was subservient to foreign interests. Neither position was correct – the picture had been forged, and the two politicians had never met.

In other instances of internet cheating, many Nigerians and South Africans have suffered financial losses. Criminals set up false web accounts claiming to hire new staff for major private-sector corporations or government agencies. They targeted unemployed young people and asked them to transfer money by mobile phone. The promise was that this “registration fee” would be returned should an applicant not be hired, but that was as untrue as the web accounts were fake.

Peter Cunliffe-Jones of the fact-checking organisation Africa Check points out that false information can harm people “in different ways in different contexts”. An optome­trist in Nigeria recently told him that he was treating a patient who had believed in internet hoax. A website had suggested that washing one’s eyes with diluted battery acid could heal conjunctivitis. Cunliffe-Jones summarises that “the patient, who was reduced to trying this sort of cure because he could not afford a medical visit, is now partially blind and that is not going to change.” (as)


Kategorien: english

“A multi-tentacular problem”

12. August 2019 - 14:26
To stem the tide of fake news in Africa, internet giants must do more than cooperate with professional fact-checkers

In Africa, a wide variety of false information is being disseminated online. Sometimes that is done inadvertently, but far too often deliberately. Perpetrators are pursuing financial, ideological, political and other interests. The harmful impacts are real (see box next page). They include loss of money, destroyed reputations and social upheaval. When misinformation stokes religious or tribal hatred, deadly violence can follow.

The political dimensions of fake news tend to attract a lot of attention. The reason is that, in democratic societies, public discourse should be geared to the common good, so disinformation and propaganda undermine good governance.

South Africa and Nigeria, the largest sub-Saharan economies, held elections this year. Before voters were called to the polling stations, Facebook, the social-media giant that also owns WhatsApp, teamed up with several fact-checking agencies. The idea was to get a grip on falsehoods. More­over, Facebook promised to promote digital literacy in cooperation with journalists and civil-society organisations. The background was that Facebook was confronted with serious criticism for its failure to control the spread of disinformation ahead of elections in other countries, especially the USA in 2016.

In the meantime, Facebook’s joint action with fact checkers has been expanded to three other sub-Saharan countries: Kenya, Senegal and Cameroon. One of Facebook’s partners is Africa Check, the continent’s first independent fact-checking agency with offices in South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal (see Focus section of D+C/E+Z e-Paper 2018/05). Other partners include the French news agency AFP (Agence France-Press), the Nigerian firm Dubawa, as well as the Kenyan outfit PesaCheck.

Facebook managers say they are making progress. “These independent groups help us assess the accuracy of news shared on Facebook, and when they determine content is false, we reduce its distribution in news feeds,” states Akua Gyekye, who handles public policy issues for Facebook. “We also show related articles from fact checkers for more context and notify users if the story they have shared is rated as false.”

In principle, the social-media giant thus accepts its duty to clean up its platforms. Gyekye points out, moreover, that Facebook is doing extensive work to:

  • remove fake accounts,
  • reduce incentives to the financially-motivated actors who spread misinformation,
  • promote news literacy and
  • provide more context so users can decide for themselves what to read, trust and share.

The challenges are huge, however. Africa has 55 sovereign nations, and an estimated 400 million African people currently have access to the internet. Fact-checking of the information that is posted on Facebook and WhatsApp has systematically begun in just about 10 % of the countries. Even in those countries, the capacities of fact-checkers are quite limited. They are unlikely to discover every falsehood as soon as it is launched, and before Facebook and Whats­App can delete false entries, they need to be informed of them. The process takes time. The implication is that fact-checking can only reduce the impact of fake news to some extent, but it cannot prevent falsehoods from being communicated in the first place.

Dubious websites and blogs

Google, the internet search giant, has also started cooperating with fact-checking agencies. Its Google News Initiative is geared to giving trustworthy information high rankings in news searches. As anyone who is familiar with Google will know, however, dubious websites and blogs still pop up on users’ screens, and they are often ranked only slightly below – if not above – news sources with strong international reputation like the BBC or Le Monde.

It would be nice if social-media platforms could use artificial intelligence (AI) to detect lies, frauds and inadvertent mistakes, but such algorithms have yet to be developed. That is easier said than done. AIgorithms basically mimic human behaviour. Given that human beings are all too easily deceived, the software programmes that reflect their mental attitudes are potentially vulnerable to similar deception.

Full Fact is a British fact-checking charity. It is a leader in applying AI. Google’s AI Impact Challenge awarded it $ 2 million for the task of building innovative tools to help users to evaluate the quality of information.

Full Fact has declared: “In three years, we hope our project will let individual citizens and internet users place trust with confidence, help internet companies make fair and informed judgments at scale and enable policymakers to better understand how they can respond to misinformation while robustly protecting free speech.” The charity is cooperating with international partners, including Africa Check and the Argentinian agency Chequeado, for example.

For the time being, however, AI solutions are not available. Peter Cunliffe-Jones, the founder and director of Africa Check, warns that misinformation is a multidimensional challenge. Several issues matter. For example, people may fall for false information:

  • because they lack access to correct information,
  • because they cannot tell reliable sources from unreliable ones, or
  • because they have no faith in public institutions.

The demand for fact-checking is growing in Africa. Ever more organisations are setting up fact-checking units. At the same time, the peddlers of false information are becoming more sophisticated.

According to the Africa Check founder, politicians or business leaders who lie should be told in polite, but not uncertain terms why they are wrong. They should also be asked to correct the public record. Journalists of mainstream media should become more vigilant and produce reliable content that discernibly differs from mere web rumours. News consumers, in turn, must know what makes a source trustworthy and how to crosscheck information with other sources. The fight against online untruth must thus be fought on several fronts. In Cunliffe-Jones’ words, “a multi-tentacular problem needs a multi-tentacular solution”.

The media scholar Siguru Wahutu disagrees. He has recently argued that the real issue is poor standards of journalism. In his view, blaming social media or poor media literacy only distracts attention from journalism, turning the audience into a malevolent villain even though, in his view, it really is the victim.

The scholar overlooks three important things, however:

  • Everyone can be a publisher online, so journalists are not the only ones who matter.
  • Social media is a legitimate source of information, and some end-consumers do not use mainstream media at all.
  • Regarding some topics, there is actually no alternative to social media, because mainstream media do not cover everything.

If we only expect journalists’ professionalism and citizens’ media literacy to stem the tide of fake news, this global problem will not go away. Ultimately, digital platforms must bear responsibility for the information they spread, promoting accuracy and free speech, but being careful not to encourage censorship. In Africa, institutions of government are not strong enough to hold internet giants accountable. Even the advanced nations are struggling to do so.

Alphonce Shiundu is the Kenya editor of Africa Check, an independent fact-checking organisation.
twitter: @shiundu

Kategorien: english

Digital mobilisation, analogue protests

12. August 2019 - 13:04
Social-media use in eastern Africa is highly politicised and has changed the way politics is run

According to Nanjala Nyabola, a Kenyan author and internet activist, “social media is an increasingly political sphere.” Her country is a good example. It is a hub for digital development in Africa and pioneered monetary transfers by mobile phone (M-Pesa), for example. What is more important for the political landscape, Nyabola argues, is that Kenya has a large Twitter community. The short-message platform is the space where any political issue is debated hotly.

Nyabola is known for her book “Digital democracy, analogue politics”. It analyses how the internet era is transforming politics. “As censorship rises in traditional media and public spaces decrease, political conversation shifts into online space,” she said in her keynote speech at a recent conference on social media that was hosted by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Kampala, the Ugandan capital.

Citizens demand transparency, justice and accountability. Many are frustrated with how politicians act. Corruption is of great concern. Nyabola points out that “expressions of solidarity” often transcend tribal affiliations. In a nation where poli­ticians tend to pit ethnic groups against one an­other, this is a major achievement. In the past, public institutions tended to ignore citizens’ complaints, but when they are faced with thousands of comments on social media, that is much more difficult, the prominent author points out.

Leading politicians and civil servants are aware of this trend. Accordingly, some political forces are trying to change public discourse, for instance by spreading misinformation and using automated computer programmes (“bots”) for this purpose. Online information is increasingly “weaponised”, as Nyabola warns (see Alphonce Shiundu in D+C/E+Z e-Paper 2018/05, Focus section).

Social media thus definitely has its dark sides. It has also enabled “new forms of situational violence, particularly against women”, according to Nyabola. Her examples include sexual harassment or the publishing of a person’s private information (“doxing”). In Kenya, moreover, xenophobic and anti-Muslim agitation has become frequent online. Typically, the target is the Somali minority, Nyabola says.

In Uganda, politics is not quite as digitalised as in Kenya. Political parties still “mobilise people in an analogue way”, says Michael Katagaye from the Evidence & Methods Lab, a technology oriented civil-society organisation.

Young Ugandans want to have a say in issues that affect them. However, they are “not interested in traditional parties”, but they engage in online activism or follow political personalities on social media, as Katagaye insists.

One of the influential personalities who voice the unrest of the youth is Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine, a musician turned politician and member of parliament. He heads the “People Power” movement. At the Uganda Social Media Conference, his spokesman Joel Ssenyonyi explained that since Bobi Wine and People Power was not allowed to campaign physically, “we throw the topics out on social media.” This virtual forum is extremely relevant, as politicians have realised. In response, the Ugandan government introduced a social-media tax in 2018. The idea was to reduce activists’ outreach on popular platforms (see Edward Ronald Sekyewa in D+C/E+Z e-Paper 2018/10, Focus section). Nonetheless, young people still “mobilise online and then take the protest to the streets”, Ssenyonyi says.

Online activism, however, still bypasses the mass of Africans. The reason is that many people are too poor to afford internet access or live in rural regions where infrastructure is too poor to facilitate web access. As Nyabola, the Kenyan book author, puts it: “How can you have the 4th industrial revolution if people can’t afford data?”


Nyabola, N., 2018: Digital democracy, analogue politics. London, Zed Books.

Uganda Social Media Conference 2019:

Kategorien: english