Category Archives: Development

Data, Research, and Economics

“Beware the analysis of economists” is pretty much always good advice. It’s advice that I’ve held close whenever I encounter scholarship, especially on the developing world, because I find the reliance on “data” and “numbers” to be somehow more reliable than people to be a farce. Data is, after all, recorded and analyzed and interpreted by people.

That’s why I was intrigued when I saw that Kim Yi Dionne and Laura Seay wrote a short review of Morten Jerven’s new book, Africa: Why Economists Get It Wrong. Here’s an excerpt from their review:

Jerven argues that economists have fundamentally misunderstood the trajectory of economic growth in Africa because they mistakenly emphasized the poor patterns of growth in the 1970s and 1980s and ignored the incredible growth in African economies that took place in the 1950s and 1960s. While economists focused on “a chronic failure of growth,” Jerven notes that this phenomenon is “something that never actually happened.” Furthermore, many economists treated Africa as more-or-less a coherent whole, looking to explain differences between African states and those elsewhere in the world rather than comparing African states to one another, furthering the narrative that “Africa” wasn’t growing while ignoring relative growth among African states.

Out of the desire to explain non-growth (even though it was a faulty premise), economists started to focus on income gaps with other parts of the world, which led to studies of other factors that came along with low income. These findings led to neoliberal economic policies mandated by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in the 1970s and 1980s, which had negative consequences for African economies and people’s livelihoods. In short, poorly done economic research led to devastating policies.

I’ll definitely be taking a look at Jerven’s book, for what looks like worthwhile analysis of how economics has treated the continent. This review also reminded me of my usual go-to-economics-critique, a brilliant book review from Mike McGovern that I first encountered a few years ago. While technically a book review of Paul Collier’s work, McGovern’s “An Anthropologist among the Mandarins” is a thorough look at a genre, or even a field, that includes points such as:

By insisting on the credo of “just the facts, ma’am,” the books introduce many of their key analytical moves on the sly, or via anecdote. What an anthropological approach to these same questions would insist on is the attempt to see the dynamics of bottom billion politics and economics through the actors’ points of view. This attempt has the positivist objective of fact checking both one’s facts and one’s categories of analysis, so as to be sure that there is some semblance of fit between the motives, incentives, and rationales attributed to actors and those they may actually be using. Collier expresses disdain for such attempts as a kind of misplaced humanism that is easily manipulated by greedy dictators in search of “useful idiots.” However, it is precisely the epistemological solipsism of his morality tale that exposes its greatest analytical weaknesses at the same time that it best explains why it appeals to a broad audience that has genuine interest in understanding suffering in poor countries even while it has little interest in having its sense of its own well-merited success questioned. This is one explanation of how he comes to the point of effectively arguing for an international regime that would chastise undemocratic leaders by inviting their armies to oust them—a proposal that overestimates the virtuousness of rich countries (and poor countries’ armies) while it ignores many other potential sources of political change.


The other

is that the self-assuredness of economists such as Collier may be a part of the problem and not, as they suppose, a part of the solution. For an outsider, the strangest thing about the field of economics is the fact that although it appears to be wrong much of the time, rather than becoming chastened and introverted, most of its practitioners seem to become bolder, drawing strength from their failures as the mythological Antaeus did by touching the ground. Though Collier as iconoclast writes as if prior development policies have been mired in preconceived notions and misplaced sympathy, the advocates of those same policies also thought that they were acting on the basis of sound data that did away with the misrecognitions that had mystified their predecessors. Looked at over the fifty-year span since the publication of W. W. Rostow’s The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto, development economics as a field looks far more like literary criticism than like those natural sciences it emulates… The difference between poets and economists, however, is that for poets, as for literary critics, there are rivalries and certainly individual claims to preeminence, but as a general rule, there is an acceptance that there are many ways to write a great poem, just as there are many enlightening ways to read any great poem. Bound as it is to the model of the natural sciences, economics cannot accept that there might be two incommensurable but equally valuable ways of explaining a given group of data points.

Rachel Strohm deserves a hat-tip for finding an open access link to McGovern’s article, the lack of which is the main reason I hadn’t written about it here earlier. In her post, she highlights McGovern’s call to bring ethnography back into policy-writing, another useful argument in the piece.

As economics continues to train its eye on developing countries, it runs the risk of such myopia. And as political science does the same, it has also been taking an increasingly quantitative bent which can encounter the same risks. As Dionne and Seay state, the rise of large data-sets in Africanist political science could require Jerven’s warning that such data is not perfect, and can lead academics astray. This is where I say I’ll try to stick to qualitative research, and when I use numbers, I’ll remember that they’re not guaranteed to be any more right than people’s anecdotes.

Decentralization in Uganda

There’s a new post at the Monkey Cage by Guy Grossman and Janet Lewis about decentralization, based largely on a recent article they’ve published on the subject. The piece is an overview of what happens as states (esp. African ones) decentralize at the regional level, in light of the fact that the DRC’s long-awaited redistricting may happen soon. In particular, they note that:

Creating new provinces creates new provincial leadership positions. As a result, more aspiring local leaders – especially those from previously marginalized areas – can enter politics, widening the talent pool from which local political leaders are drawn. This pattern, in turn, makes national politics more competitive. The larger the pool of governors, the greater the likelihood that at least some of them will use their offices to mount a credible challenge to the president. This greater competition in national politics often forces the incumbent president to rule more responsibly.

But there’s one exception that they mention: Uganda.

Our research in Uganda suggests that extreme fragmentation also can allow the central government to consolidate power vis-à-vis the local governments. Power struggles are common between central and local governments, and when more units are created, the power of localities as a whole diminishes. The larger the number of local governments, the more onerous it is to coordinate with one another to present a united front against the central government. In Uganda, the creation of more and more districts has coincided with less policy and fiscal autonomy for each individual district.

So, what’s the deal with Uganda?

I haven’t read Grossman and Lewis’ scholarly article on decentralization, so I’m not sure how much they go into the Ugandan exception, but it’s worth exploring here just how crazy the decentralization of government is in Uganda. The country is divided into districts, and each district is then divided into counties, sub-counties, etc. When Yoweri Museveni first came to power in 1986, Uganda was divided into 33 districts – today it stands at a whopping 111. Despite being less than 1/10 the size of its Congolese neighbor and holding less than half as many people, Uganda’s government is divided on a whole other level than the Congo’s 11 provinces and the proposed 26.

The proliferation of districts in Uganda far outpaces other countries, and it is a part of Museveni’s effort to simultaneously dispense patronage while also gaining support for elections, undercutting opposition at the local level, and impress the international community. A great source for this is Elliot Green’s 2008 working paper [pdf] on district creation in Uganda (he’s also written articles about it here and here).

The new districts in Uganda create support for Museveni through patronage. District creation accelerated after Uganda’s Movement (no-party/one-party) government opened up to multiparty democracy. Shifting to multipartyism helped Museveni push opposition politicians out of powerful seats, but it also limited his ability to curry favor through local government positions. Each new district created a new representative, a woman MP, local staff, and new district capitals. All of these allowed Museveni to gain favor through job creation, women’s movements, and patronage for new officials. However, while leaders gained new positions of power, the general populace didn’t necessarily benefit – many local leaders told Green that they faced logistical and administrative obstacles with their new district governments that they hadn’t faced before.

In addition, most of the new districts created in Uganda have been in the north and east of the country, regions where Museveni has enjoyed less support than his primary base in the southwest.  By fracturing districts where he had little support, Museveni has been able to render opposition politicians with smaller bases where they have trouble financing campaigns and begin to compete against each other rather than unify against the NRM.

In new districts, the creation of jobs and apparent support for more local governance also served as a boon to Museveni, gaining him support in places where he had little before.  In some elections, he even promised to help certain areas become new districts if they voted for him. This new form of patronage through decentralization proved an effective tactic for Museveni, who increased district creation efforts in the years prior to elections.  Looking at specific election results, Green found that newly created districts supported Museveni more than the average for the rest of the country in 1996, 2001, and especially in 2006.

District creation and decentralization are just one of Museveni’s tools for keeping power in a toolbox that includes many other tactics, including buying votes, military repression, and political bargaining (introducing multipartyism in exchange for removing term limits comes to mind). [See also, another of my posts riffing off of the Monkey Page, this time on durability of dictatorships] Decentralization in Uganda has helped to bolster the regime, something not often seen in other parts of the continent.

Ebola, Cultural Responses, and the Funding Gap

A few weeks ago I linked to a handful of academic works on Ebola outbreaks past and present. This week, as I round out my job as a high school teacher, I ran my sophomores through a couple of days on the virus and ongoing outbreak. In looking for accessible readings that deal with the cultural and political aspects of the West African Ebola outbreak, I’ve found Amy Maxmen’s reportage at National Geographic really interesting. In particular, I assigned excerpts from two of her articles that are worth highlighting here, if only to quote them in contrast to the Hewlett and Amola piece I linked to before about locally-rooted traditional responses in Uganda that contained the 2000 outbreak there effectively.

The first piece is from March and depicts the challenges of contact tracing in towns where people don’t want to be kept in isolation or taken to clinics from which they may not return. The second, from January, gives a thorough overview of how cultural traditions in the affected countries have enabled Ebola to spread, and outlines efforts to find culturally acceptable burial methods in order to help contain the outbreak:

In the three countries hit hardest by Ebola, preparations for burial typically are carried out by community members who handle the dead with bare hands, rather than by doctors, morticians, and funeral home directors. People were unwilling to have those practices casually tossed aside. That worked in Ebola’s favor. As death approaches, virus levels peak. Anyone who touches a droplet of sweat, blood, or saliva from someone about to die or just deceased is at high risk of contracting the disease.

To health authorities, the solution was simple. With so much at stake, science eclipses religion: Risky rituals must end.

“People were expected to go from one end of the spectrum to the other; from washing the bodies by hand, dressing them, and holding elaborate ceremonies, to having a corpse in a body bag and no goodbye,” says Fiona McLysaght, the Sierra Leone country director for a humanitarian organization called Concern Worldwide.

Of particular interest to me was the flexibility of such rituals, to which many who have done fieldwork can attest. As Paul Richards says in the article, “burial rituals were flexible… the spirits are totally practical!” The lede to the article is a story about a family that is trying to bury a pregnant woman who died – they want to remove the fetus according to tradition, but healthcare workers won’t have it. The solution? They found a ritualist who said that a reparation ritual would correct any problems caused by burying the woman without following customary rituals.

The idea of flexibility in ritual has been around for a while. Many rituals were only recent codified, and so many “requirements” and “customs” can be molded to fit what’s needed and what’s available. In my own line of work, Tim Allen’s argument that the traditionalist response to the ICC intervention in northern Uganda essentially invented universal Acholi reconciliation rituals where there hadn’t really been any before comes to mind.

Anyways, digression over. Back to Ebola.

After assigning these articles and discussing them with my students, yesterday I saw another article by Maxmen on the topic of Ebola, this time on the wide gap between money being donated to the cause and money being paid to frontline medical personnel. From Newsweek:

Hundreds, if not thousands, of nurses and other frontline staff fighting Ebola have been underpaid throughout the outbreak – and many remain so today. The lack of pay is not simply a matter of corrupt officials stealing donor money, because so-called “hazard pay” was issued through direct payments to frontline workers starting in November, then electronic payments to bank accounts and mobile phones beginning in December. The problems appear to be twofold: first, Sierra Leone’s national health system has been so underfunded for so long, that it was a monumental challenge to document all of the country’s care workers and set up payment distribution channels to them. Second, it turns out that relatively little money was set aside for local frontline staff within Sierra Leone’s health system in the first place. In fact, less than 2% of €2.9bn ($3.3bn) in donations to fight Ebola in West Africa were earmarked for them. Instead, the vast majority of money, donated from the taxpayers of the UK, the US and two-dozen other countries, went directly to Western agencies, more than 100 non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and to the UN.


When I visited Kenema Hospital in February, graffiti on one wall of the Ebola isolation area read: “Please pay us.” By then, nurse Kabba had cared for more than 420 Ebola patients, and had lost several friends. She had not received most of the €80 ($92) weekly allowance she’d been promised since September. Nurses around the country were in similar positions. “We hear about money pouring in, but it is not getting to us,” Kabba said. “People are eating the money, people who do not come here. We are pleading nationwide, we have sacrificed our lives.”

When I spoke with Kabba’s boss, District Medical Officer Mohamed Vandi, he acknowledged that his health force had been sorely neglected. “I am not hopeful for the future,” he said. As Ebola ebbed, world leaders had begun to make promises about improving fragile African health systems. Vandi looked on sceptically. “If we could not get support when the virus was here, I wonder how we could get it when the virus is gone?”

The whole article is well-worth reading, as it outlines how international agencies tried to implement payment programs isolated from corrupt government officials, but also bypassed numerous nurses. There’s also a strong critique of international NGOs’ tendency to do everything on their own rather than improve the state’s existing (and weak) healthcare infrastructure. For those studying aid, development, and public health, there’s worthwhile stuff here.

The Durability of Museveni’s Uganda

Over at the Monkey Cage, Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz have a post on how democratic institutions increase the durability of authoritarian regimes. It’s an interesting summary of their recent research, which finds that democratic institutions such as elections actually delay true democratization, allowing authoritarian regimes to remain in power longer under the guise of democracy.

While their findings are not exactly surprising to anybody who has worked in such a country, the extent to which they’ve investigated this issue has provided a really thorough survey of regimes:

From 1946 to 1989, the average authoritarian regime lasted 12 years. Since the end of the Cold War, this number has increased to 20 years…

The figure also shows that rising authoritarian durability has tracked closely with the spread of democratic institutions (elections, legislatures, and parties), suggesting authoritarian leaders have learned to leverage these institutions to enhance their staying power. From 1951 to 1989, an autocracy with multiple parties and a legislature lasted about six years longer in office than one without them (11 years versus five years, on average). Incorporating regular elections (at least once every six years) extended a regime’s life by another year (to 12 years). This power prolonging effect has become even more pronounced in the post-Cold War period. Dictatorships with multiple political parties and a legislature now last 14 years longer than those without (19 years versus five years, on average). Regularly holding elections further extends their tenures to 22 years.

Furthermore, they argue that democratic institutions aren’t just a part of semi-authoritarian states, but that it’s actually a means of keeping states authoritarian. The whole post is worth a read, and presumably the article is too (it’s gated, here). Now, pardon the case study:

Reading the post, I was reminded of Yoweri Museveni’s Uganda. When Museveni and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) took power in 1986, they established a no-party government with facets of direct democracy that appealed to peasants across south-central Uganda. Over the years, Museveni has navigated numerous changes to the government and continued to stay in power – part of that strategy has been increasing democratization of the government. (What follows is a real quick summary of a final paper I wrote for a class on political parties a couple of years ago).

The original direct-democracy model of the Resistance Council system sought to provide the people of Uganda with a more democratic and participatory form of government than what they experienced under Amin or Obote. This later became institutionalized as the “Movement” system – a nonpartisan (but in reality one-party) elected government – almost a decade after the NRM came to power.

As calls for multi-party democracy increased, Museveni chose to give in on this issue in 2002, but only in return for the repeal of presidential term limits, allowing the NRM to appear to be opening up the country to multipartyism while simultaneously giving Museveni power in what was supposed to be his last term in office. To make the transition smooth, dissenting voices were bought or dismissed, clearing the path for a new, more “democratic” Uganda. The NRM had complete power leading up to the 2006 elections, in which the opposition faced an uphill battle against a party that controlled the army, the police, the state coffers, and the media.

Museveni also gained support from patronage through a) the military and b) local government. The former he cultivated in the ongoing fight against the Lord’s Resistance Army, and the latter he capitalized on by overseeing the rapid decentralization of government in Uganda. Museveni took the 33 districts that existed when he came in power in 1986 and has since turned them into 111.

Decentralization used the rhetoric of democracy too, giving minority groups within districts the chance to successfully elect a person who truly represented them by giving them their own separate district. Or at least, that was the popular belief. New districts rarely fell along linguistic or ethnic lines, but they did create a whole new tiered system of local government offices that owed allegiance to Museveni.

Another mobilization of democratic ideals for authoritarian gains was the creation of reserved seats in Parliament for women. The Women MP seats helped Museveni harness the women’s rights movements and giving the appearance of a government that was more equitable (regarding gender, at least), but in reality women in the reserved Women MP seats had little power or even a clear mandate (their constituents often overlapped with other MPs’).

Whether its women’s seats in Parliament, the creation of new districts, or the opening up of government to opposition parties, Museveni’s regime in Uganda has been expert at using democratic institutions to remain in power.

(HT Kim Yi Dionne who linked me to (and I think edited) the Monkey Cage post).


Carbone, Giovanni M. “Political Parties in a ‘No-Party Democracy:’ Hegemony and Opposition Under ‘Movement Democracy’ in Uganda.” Party Politics. Vol. 9, No. 4 (2003), p. 485-501.

Goetz, Anne Marie. “No Shortcuts to Power: Constraints on Women’s Political Effectiveness in Uganda.” The Journal of Modern African Studies. Vol. 40, No. 4 (December 2002), p. 549-575.

Green, Elliot. “Patronage, District Creation, and Reform in Uganda.” Studies in Comparative International Development. Vol. 45 (2010), p. 83-103.

Makara, Sabati, Lise Rakner, and Lars Svåsand. “Turnaround: The National Resistance Movement and the Reintroduction of a Multiparty System in Uganda.” International Political Science Review. Vol. 30, No. 2 (2009), p. 185-204.

Mamdani, Mahmood. “Uganda in Transition: Two Years of the NRA/NRM.” Third World Quarterly. Vol. 10, No. 3 (July 1988), p. 1155-1181.

Tripp, Aili Marie. “The Changing Face of Authoritarianism in Africa: The Case of Uganda.” Africa Today. Vol. 50, No. 3 (Spring 2004), p. 3-26.

On Kenya’s Security Act

In the middle of last month, the Kenyan government pushed through a new law that implements huge restrictions on just about everything, including increased securitization, heavier penalties for law-breaking, restrictions on free speech and movement and about every form of expression, with strong repercussions for refugees and other vulnerable populations especially, leading it to be called “Kenya’s PATRIOT Act.” Some of the provisions of the law have been temporarily suspended, but other provisions remain and such obstacles may not hold back the expanding security state.

Dissecting laws is never easy, especially when lawmakers don’t want it to be easy. But Keguro Macharia has produced a lesson in reading and critiquing very harmful laws, and I wanted to link to it for those interested in issues such as this. Macharia says that the law “transforms Kenya into a less free, less possible space” and dedicated numerous blog posts to studying the act. In addition to his notes, he also wrote a map of the laws amended, including amendments that target journalists and refugees, before writing five dedicated pieces about how the law will change the lives of those in Kenya. It’s all worth a read, but here I’ll quote three of his summaries and highlight some of the rest.

On police:

The Security Act vests more power in the president; gives the police more power; and substantially diminishes civilian scrutiny of police actions.

On refugees:

The amendments in the Security Act increase refugee vulnerability. They ignore international legal measures designed to help refugees have livable existences. They are anti-refugee and anti-human rights.

On citizen reporting:

Citizen reporting highlighted police extortion and violence during Operation Sanitization Eastleigh, and was crucial in highlighting the atrocity of #kasaraniconcentrationcamp. Valuable information about state-sponsored and state-facilitated violence and corruption comes to light because of citizen reporting. Restrictions in the Security Act attempt to silence independent media and citizen reporters. Silence has already started to fall.

On how Kenya’s new law constricts the definition of an acceptable “human,” a piece that moves in different directions on how “the human” has been broken apart by ethnicity, by perceived guilt, by complicity to the state, by the state’s security apparatus, and others:

During #kasaraniconcentrationcamp—whose afterlife we still occupy—fractures happened: “I am Kenyan Somali, not ethnic Somali”; “I am Kenyan Somali not Somalia Somali”; “I am a Kenya-loving Somali, not a Kenya-destroying Somali”; “I am a Kenya-building Somali, not a Kenya-undoing Somali”

The chorus of voices pledging loyalty to Kenya drown out much-needed critique. The state cultivates this chorus of voices. Sometimes, it rewards some in the chorus. Most often, it holds out an impossible promise that those who dance to its tune might remain unharmed.


Kenya’s vision of the human becomes smaller—human-recognizing filaments snap

On how Kenya as a space is changing, how the new law will affect everyday life, and how those who accept the new law are already affected by the Kenyan state:

Everyday Kenyan life is heavily securitized. To enter into any public space—a supermarket, a mall, a church, a public gathering, a bookstore—one must undergo a range of security checks. Cars will be inspected, sometimes thoroughly, sometime cursorily; bodies will go through metal detectors; bags will be opened… It is becoming increasingly difficult for Kenyans to remember that it was not always like this. Now, we hesitate to enter places that do not have such security checks. We have learned to expect them, to submit to them, to keep proving our innocence as we are all implicitly criminalized.


Kenyan everyday life is often understood through resilience: Kenyans are “tough,” Kenyans “survive,” Kenyans can “take a lot, and more.”

The repressive state relies on this resilience to increase repression: You can take it. Be proud of how well you can take it.

How to see this resilience as one of the conditions of our undoing? How to see what it licenses? How to distinguish between acts of resilience and everyday violations?

On Sensitization and Safe Reporting Sites in LRA-Affected Regions

A few days ago, I tweeted a flurry of late-night thoughts on sensitization in LRA-affected areas that I’d like to flesh out further here. I should start by stating that, while the topic struck me with great interest while I was in the Congo this summer, I didn’t really get to do in-depth research on it, so this is really just brainstorming, or maybe a call for further research.

My research in Uganda and Congo centers around the use of radio. One such use is that of defection messaging: FM radio stations broadcast messages that encourage LRA rebels to surrender. These radio messages are accompanied by leaflets dropped via airplane and messages played over loudspeaker on helicopters. They are also accompanied by sensitization in LRA-affected communities.

When encouraging rebels to surrender, humanitarians/militaries/civil society actors also have to ensure that surrenders can happen successfully. This means sensitization: making sure that communities know that some LRA will (hopefully) try to surrender, that they will help facilitate that (by directing rebels to reception centers, not attacking rebels trying to surrender, etc.), and that people understand why facilitating surrenders is important.

But LRA fighters who surrender are not brought to justice. Acholi traditional leaders and civil society organizations have long-pushed for forgiveness and amnesty as a way to end the war. They pressured the Ugandan government into passing an amnesty law in 2000, and have worked closely with organizations in DRC and CAR to promote forgiveness for the LRA. This is largely because so many members of the LRA were forcibly conscripted, and are therefore both victims and perpetrators.

That’s where my research leaves off, and where another gap in the literature appears.

A potential starting question is, how effective are these sensitization programs? But this misses that gauging effectiveness in terms of compliance/acceptance might miss the dynamics of the sensitization process in the first place. Another question might be, how do Congolese understand and interpret the message these programs put forward? More fundamentally – what do these programs mean for the victims of the conflict?

It’s a lot to ask a victim of conflict to forgive his or her attacker, even if the perpetrator suffers too. When I was in the Congo, I talked to some people about this, and it was hard to get any real answers. On a long bus ride through Garamba, several people told me they would be willing to forgive the LRA if it meant the war would end. Some others suggested that the LRA should face some kind of justice, even if it wasn’t jail (maybe an acknowledgement of abuses, form of payment, etc.)

One example gets at why it’s so difficult to tease out the answers: one informant told me that he absolutely supported amnesty, citing an end to the suffering as well as Christian tenets of forgiveness. Later, my research assistant, who has known the informant for a long time, said that he thought he was lying to me. He had heard the informant talk about killing the next LRA that came through the town, about making the LRA pay for what they’ve done to the people.

It was tough to determine whether my informant had changed his mind or changed his story. Was he lying to me? And if he was, why? Did he think this was what I wanted to hear? Did he think that I was affiliated with groups performing these programs? Did he think he would get something out of it? I don’t know, but exploring this interaction – and others like it – is something I’ll be working on over the course of the next couple of months.

*   *   *

Many of the sensitization programs are implemented by Invisible Children and its partner organizations (a number of local NGOs and religious organizations have worked with IC in the region). There is definitely some Acholi influence at play as well, in addition to pressure from militaries to establish safe reporting sites to which rebels can go to surrender. These groups carry some weight in these communities, as they are actively working on ending the rebel group that preys on these people. This raises the question of how who says the message can change how the message is perceived.

The topic of safe reporting sites is particularly worth exploring. These communities have been asked to serve as a reception point for LRA who want to defect (blue diamonds on the map below). This does two things first and foremost: it allows the community to play a part in the effort to stop the LRA, and it makes the community a potential target to LRA retaliation. The LRA has a long history of retaliating against civilians for collaboration (real or perceived) with the government (see Branch). It’s a tough position: radio messages identify which communities defecting rebels should go to, helping facilitate surrenders, but they also make it clear which communities are collaborating with counter-LRA forces and should therefore be targeted should the LRA retaliate.

Again, the role of the organizations promoting these sites is important. Given their central position to counter-LRA activities, Invisible Children, the Ugandan military, and U.S. military are primary actors in supporting, implementing, and protecting reporting site communities. They also have a lot of leverage in some of these towns, as they provide either protection or development programs. So, when communities decide to participate, it is difficult to gauge just how supportive these communities are. Do they want to participate? Were they pressured into accepting reporting sites? Or were they simply convinced by the argument for participation?

In a report from Discover the Journey [pdf], a short passage is telling:

Each community said they would be willing to allow their community to become an intentional defection point. Of the research locations, all except Duru, DRC, have received previous sensitization around the defection/safe reporting site principles. (29)

The report takes this as affirmation that the sensitization programs are working. People are being convinced that this is the right way to go. And it very well might be – as I mentioned, not only will defection messaging help shrink the size and fighting capacity of the LRA, but these types of programs allow the local communities to be involved directly in the process. They could be given agency in being a part of the effort to stop the violence.

But they could also be denied agency if they feel pressured to agree. If a community is approached by the military or aid groups to participate – will they say no? Might it be implied that, by saying no to reporting sites, they say no to protection, aid, and rehabilitation? And if that’s the case – is that right or wrong? If it’s for the greater good (ending the LRA, supporting infrastructure, ensuring protection), maybe it’s worth it.

Again, these exploratory questions are based on a very, very small experience in working with these communities. Has anybody studied the defection sites in South Sudan or Central African Republic? Or has anybody worked on sensitization/implementation and want to shed some light on the process? I’d be curious to hear more about how these programs are working, how they were implemented, and local opinion on the matter.

Bad News and Good News from CAR

There has been a lot of bad news coming out of the Central African Republic as violence across the country has spiked. The Red Cross announced that almost 500 people had been killed just in Bangui. The French are already on the ground trying to mitigate violence, the U.S. is airlifting a Burundian force to the area, and the African Union is trying to beef up its presence there as well.

For those interested in understanding or examining the violence more, there are two things worth reading: Louisa Lombard wrote an insightful piece explaining whether or not the violence constitutes a genocide or genocide-in-the-making, as the French have claimed. International Crisis Group also has a report on the situation in CAR, as well as a short post on Bangui. Peter Bouckaert at Human Rights Watch wrote a dispatch detailing just one of the many incidents that have happened there.

With all of this bloodshed going on, it was uplifting to hear news of a large defection of LRA fighters in the east of the country. Separate from the anti-Balaka/ex-Seleka fighting (for the most part), the LRA has been active along the periphery of CAR. On December 6, a group of nineteen LRA fighters went to a small village west of Zemio and surrendered, agreeing to demobilize and return home.

According to Invisible Children, the group decided to surrender after hearing a number of radio programs that promoted surrender and defection. This is a big boost to the defection messaging program, and also a small glimmer of hope in a country that’s going through a pretty rough time right now.

What Invisible Children is Doing Right: Protection and Knowledge

In case you haven’t read my last dozen posts about Invisible Children, we’ve been having a very back-and-forth relationship for the last few years. On Saturday, I joked that, if we were on Facebook, our relationship status would be “it’s complicated.” That’s because, at the time, I was waxing nostalgic about how much of an impact Invisible Children has had, both in my life and in the lives of the Acholi people that benefit from their development programs, while I was simultaneously typing up this recent post on how Invisible Children and Samantha Power both advocated for military intervention that might be making things worse.

This love-hate thing I’ve got going on runs deep, and it’s because Invisible Children does a lot of work. Like, a lot of work. Some of it’s good. Some of it’s bad. And in the past seven years I’ve seen a lot of their work first hand. As you know, my thesis is on radio’s role in the LRA, but while I was in the DRC I also caught a glimpse at some other aspects of IC’s work in LRA-affected areas that I’m still digesting. Here are some roughly hewn thoughts on Invisible Children’s work in the region:

The LRA Crisis Tracker, a joint operation run by Invisible Children and the Resolve LRA Crisis Initiative, tracks LRA incidents and is just one part of a network that includes the radio stations I studied, local military attaches in villages, and aid organizations operating in the area. This network is part of a broad effort to track LRA movements, coordinate military responses to the LRA presence, and facilitate aid to those in need. Whether or not it works is a whole other story, as several aid agencies have closed up their Dungu offices, the FRDC military attaches frequently choose not to engage with LRA forces, but do choose to intimidate, rob from, and attack the civilians they’re supposed to protect, and LRA tactics have rendered some of the advantages of the HF radio network obsolete.

But the effort to better understand the LRA has increased our knowledge of what the rebel group is doing by leaps and bounds. The Resolve’s most recent report [pdf] has included really essential research findings including the existence of intense divisions within the LRA leadership and identifying groups that want to defect. It also includes estimates of current LRA numbers, including composition of combatants versus non-combatants.

Some of my research on the HF radio network included some questions about the defection process. For a member of the LRA trying to surrender and come home, the process has traditionally included a debriefing with the UPDF [pdf, section 3.2]. This served to give the military up-to-date information about LRA activities from those with insider knowledge, but it also served as a tool for the UPDF to hold returnees longer than they were supposed to, sometimes in an attempt to forcibly recruit former LRA.

In the network that Invisible Children has helped create, debriefings have also occurred (although I don’t know how involved the military is, nor the type of support returnees have during their transition from LRA to home). The information gleaned from these interviews with recent returnees has shaped IC’s actions on the ground, directing flier drops and influencing the programming of radio messages. In the coming months IC is planning a large-scale defection messaging effort (funded through their current #ZeroLRA campaign)  including dropping leaflets about defection, flying helicopters with messages on speakers, and broadcasting messages over FM radio, all in targeted areas where LRA are known to be living, along with establishing safe reporting sites for defectors and providing comprehensive rehabilitation for them upon return. A lot of this has the potential to bring more LRA abductees home, and (hopefully) without relying too much on the military, a group historically responsible for more bad than good.

In addition, IC (and Resolve) are pushing for research to help piece together a clearer understanding of the LRA command structure. For a long time, most people only know the LRA leadership as far as the ICC indictments go. For the most part, many hadn’t heard of Caesar Acellam before he was captured. That’s slowly changing as IC supports efforts to find out who is in charge of the various LRA groups and what they are doing. Ledio Cakaj, one of the co-authors of Resolve’s report mentioned above, has written a paper about the LRA command structure that I’m eager to read in the coming months. IC’s staff in DRC and CAR are working on the same thing: building a clear picture of the LRA. This serves a lot of purposes. It will help in shaping radio programming that can target specific individuals with the potential to cause large-scale defections. It will serve as evidence in the event that those responsible for attacks are brought before courts to face justice. And it will help paint a clearer picture of where Kony and his two remaining ICC-indicted commanders are operating, helping direct efforts to bring them specifically to justice.

You can learn more in this interview with Adam Finck, IC’s International Programs Director. He sat down with a couple of IC staff during the Fourt Estate live stream this weekend, and he shed some light on LRA activity and how IC is responding, including several of the things I mentioned above. Broadly speaking, I think many of these efforts are solid steps towards protecting civilians in LRA-affected regions and hopefully an effective way to get us that much closer to ending this conflict.

Caesar Achellam’s Defection Story

This morning former LRA Maj. Gen. Achellam Caesar spoke to a group of Congolese and Central African civil society, government, and religious leaders in Gulu. A Central African asked him whether he defected or was captured, and I’m summarizing what Achellam responded. I recorded the event, and will try to get a full transcript up later. But, according to Achellam:

He was first abducted in 1988 for being an NRM collaborator. He was told that if he tried to escape the LRA would attack his home village, so he decided to stay with the rebels. In July of 2007, Achellam was detained by the LRA on suspicion of encouraging other rebels to defect. He was beaten and placed in solitary confinement. It was around this time that Vincent Otti, Kony’s second in command, was executed. Achellam remained in detention until June of 2009, when continued attacks from the UPDF-led Operation Lightning Thunder forced the LRA to flee. He was detained again in 2011, and escaped in May of 2012. He fled with a few others across into CAR and followed tracks that the UPDF had left behind, surrendering to them when they met.

If this story is true, and who knows if it is, then it seems Achellam’s capture was  more of a defection. This is important in terms of the legal aspects of amnesty – which is granted automatically upon application after escape or defection, but must be approved by the Director of Public Prosecution if the applicant was captured.

Achellam’s status is very, very vague. He lives in the army barracks in Gulu with his family, and many assure that he is a free man. But when he arrived today it was with military personnel in tow, and his freedom is rather questionable. That said, an army spokesman said yesterday that Achellam may be in the process of negotiating a leadership role in the UPDF, which is important to note. We’ll see how this all pans out. I’ll add more later if I get more information about his case.

Another Day in the Ugandan Police State

Kampala can be a tough place to be a dissenter. In the weeks before I arrived, there was quite a dust-up when the government shut down the country’s leading newspaper, The Monitor, along with other media outlets after a news story broke about government plans to ensure that President Museveni’s son succeeded him. You can read good summaries about the shut-down here and here.

The radio stations I’ve been researching up north have largely escaped this type of media crackdown, mostly because the programs I’m studying – come home messaging – helps the military by encouraging rebels to surrender, and the messaging is very pro-UPDF, labeling the campaign against the LRA as “a rescue mission.” But it hasn’t always been good: in the mid-2000s Mega FM faced intimidation after allowing LRA leader Joseph Kony to call in to a weekly debate show to discuss the war with civil society leaders and government officials. Broadly, though, respondents have told me they don’t worry about government interference, mostly because their work is part of the broader government project concerning the LRA.

But when it comes to dissent, the government’s response is more similar to the recent media clash. Yesterday, all hell broke loose in Kiseka Market (I was far away, concerned family and friends) when the leading opposition candidate, Kizza Besigye, waved at people from his car. Seriously. He waved at people, and it led to tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets. According to police, he was planning on holding a rally.

Speaking of rallies, there’s not really anywhere to hold one anymore. There was a recent piece in AP about Kampala’s Constitution Square that’s worth a read. Here are some snippets:

The square’s popularity with opposition activists peaked ahead of presidential elections in 2011, around the same time Cairo’s Tahrir Square was becoming famous around the world as the center of popular protests against Hosni Mubarak. Since then Constitution Square has been closed to the public despite the protests of some lawyers and activists who say such action is illegal as well as unconstitutional.


Uganda’s parliament, which is dominated by lawmakers with the ruling party, is considering a bill that would make it hard for opposition politicians to hold meetings or rallies that the state does not want. The draft legislation -dubbed the Public Order Management Bill – assigns the police chief unprecedented powers to regulate public gatherings. Accordingly, public spaces such as Constitution Square will become officially off-limits to the general public.

“It must not be a place for idlers,” said Andrew Kaweesi, the top police commander for Kampala, referring to Constitution Square. “Why should they go there as a group in the first place? The place must be controlled.”

That last bit is just jaw-dropping. That people need to justify the desire to be in public in groups. Because the police must maintain order. I think that quote is emblematic of the global repression problem we’re having now, and it’s terrible to see up front.

I’ve walked by Constitution Square twice – yesterday and today – and both times it’s been completely closed off. There’s a police tow truck and two big police vans parked along the street. And an armored vehicle was there today. There’s nobody trying to get in, but the police station – across the street – has deployed 20-30 police officers anyways. And on the pristine lawn are about they are all lounging about, chatting and enjoying the sun. A few are standing around in riot gear, one had a half dozen of what looked to be tear gas grenades hanging from his vest, but most are laying in the grass. If you had a picnic party and the theme was blue camo, that’s what I saw. But why should those police officers be there as a group in the first place? The place must be free.