Final thoughts on Vice

Not that I mean to dwell on this, because it’s not worth indulging their sense of grandeur, but the “Vice Guide to Liberia” received a couple more responses that I think are worth sharing here.

First is Myles Estey’s response – he was the co-producer/fixer/field producer for the documentary. He blogs over at Esteyonage – check out his latest post and his reaction.

Second is Sean’s hilarious “letter of admiration” on his blog Journey without Maps. I’m loving the snark and utter sarcasm – really, a perfectly crafted response to Shane Smith and his Vice-rs.

A lot of people commented on my previous post – an open letter to Shane Smith – and the only negative comments were those of people who are very clearly Vice fans and who claim that my childlike reaction proved that I didn’t “get the point”. Well, fair enough. Perhaps this isn’t meant to be a serious investigative documentary about Liberia, and perhaps all of us who care about Liberia overreacted. But when you work day in and day out with people who are trying to shed years of violence and war and move forward, it feels like a huge set back when a widely-viewed documentary portrays the worst aspects, the most vile of situations and attempts to frame it as “reality”. Anyway — enough disgruntlement. Moving right along….

Open letter to Shane Smith

(Shane Smith is the co-founder of Vice Magazine, a publication which, until recently, I enjoyed reading for their snark and incisive commentary on modern life)

Shane,

You recently traveled to Liberia to produce a “Vice Travel Guide to Liberia.” What a great idea, I thought at first. In spite of a difficult post-conflict phase and of the many challenges it has faced in recent years, Liberia is on the move. Its lush tropical rainforest, its incredible beaches and its growing service sector are all assets that make the country an increasingly attractive one for tourism. I know you worked with Myles Estey, a Canadian journalist who works for Journalists for Human Rights and writes an interesting blog about his time in Liberia. Myles has written for Vice before, and I’m sure he gave you a good primer on Monrovia and Liberia. Why, then, Shane, must you produce a video where you portray Liberia as full of heroin addicts, blood-thirsty ex combatants, whores and criminals? What kind of drugs were YOU on? Did you even open your eyes between the times you were in a heroin den and when you went to visit General Buttnaked at the church where he officiates?

Shane, I’m trying to understand how exactly your video is a “travel guide”. If it were an actual travel guide, perhaps you would have wanted to include actual places to visit – I wouldn’t have held it against you if you wrote about Liberia’s surf culture, like 90% of foreign journalists who come to Liberia and think they’ve stumbled upon an untold story. I might have rolled my eyes a bit if you recommended the Kendeja, the new multi-million dollar resort that caters to rich expats, as “the” place to stay. I wouldn’t have been surprised if you had chosen to visit the Ducor Palace, a former luxury hotel in the capital, which was completely destroyed and looted during the war, and offers stunning views of downtown Monrovia*. But, as Liberia expert Shelby Grossman wrote on her blog about your travel guide, “it perpetuates the idea that Liberia is violent and dirty and squalid.   It feels like a modern version of a colonial travel diary.”

View from the Ducor Palace

What kind of editorial choice was it to only show images of people getting high, cemetaries and church services held by former warlords? You must realize how completely off-base this is. Did you not meet any friendly, funny (and peace loving??) Liberians? And by the way, Shane, which hotel did you stay in when you were in country? Please don’t tell me you stayed at the Mamba Point, the Cape Hotel or the Royal Hotel – otherwise I’m going to be really pissed that you failed to mention their sushi bars, well stocked bars and wi-fi! I suppose you did not have a chance to meet Seanan Denizot or Menipakei Dumoe, who created WOW Liberia, a tour company that offers custom trips in different parts of Liberia. Did you not pick up a copy of Liberia Travel + Life Magazine? Maybe next time you come to Liberia, instead of hanging out in the slums, you could pick up a copy when you go to one of the three or four high-end supermarkets in the capital – it’s the same spot you most likely purchased overpriced Doritos.

Your video stirred a lot of debate among people who care about Liberia. The consensus, it seems, among people who know Liberia, is that your sensationalist, naive and utterly narrow take is not only misguided, but also really doesn’t help improve the country’s reputation. I’m sure a lot of viewers of the Vice travel guide will end up thinking that Liberia is a crazy place with crazy people, and only crazy freaks like Shane Smith would ever dare visit! Shane Smith is such a badass! (Yawn, Shane, yawn.)

I wasn’t going to join the “let’s-criticize-Vice-for-their-idiotic-travel-guide” bandwagon, as many eloquent, well spoken Liberiaphiles already responded to your absurd video. However, this morning I woke up to an email with a link to your interview in the Huffington Post. And what was originally mild contempt became indignation. Dude. Where do you get off talking about Liberia in the way you do? Excerpts:

Q: “The situation in Liberia, whether it be the violence or the poverty or the mounds of rotting garbage that are everywhere, appears pretty bleak. What surprised you most about the country during your time there?”

A:”Cannibalism was a big deal. How many people talked about it, how it was sort of prevalent. During the war, people would eat human flesh for necessity, but also for ritual. And it still continues. People would point at the old Masonic Lodge and say, ‘Oh, there was a lot of cannibalism there.’ Some of it is probably rumor and some of it is urban myth, but every single person you talk to is like ‘oh, yeah, yeah.’ And cannibalism is just something you never experience, or talk about over dinner; it’s never a discussion you’re used to having. And when you talk about it all day with everyone you meet, it starts to get a little bit unsettling. I’d say 90 percent of my conversations had some sort of cannibalism in them.”

Excuse me, Shane, but who are you speaking with that your 90% of your conversations involve cannibalism? I don’t think I discussed cannibalism a single time during my two months in Liberia – and maybe a handful of times in the three years that I’ve been working with Liberians. With everything that’s going on in Liberia, especially in lively Monrovia, the “most surprising thing” to you was talk about cannibalism…. That’s incredible. Literally.

Shane Smith: At any time, anywhere you would go, you’d be surrounded by 30, 40, 50 kids, and young people and whomever, and they all wanted money, they’re all starving. And if we didn’t have generals with us we would have been totally fucked up and if we hadn’t quite frankly lucked out a couple of times we would have been fucked up.

Q: You mean they would have just jumped you?

A: Oh, for sure. The crime rate in Monrovia is astronomical. The crime rate in West Point [a notorious slum] is even higher. If you have 80 percent unemployment, you can do the math: 80 percent of the population is doing something criminal then just to survive. And there’s not a lot of opportunity to get cash, so if some guy comes in with a car and a camera and a fucking nice pair of shoes, it’s more money than they’ve ever seen. So that part was scary.

Shane – really?? Are you really saying that 80% of the population are criminals? What’s absolutely baffling to me is that Myles – who helped you produce this video – is responsible for writing a series of well-researched, interesting and insightful blog posts entitled “Gettin’ By“, where he challenges the 85% unemployment rate figure (at least get your facts straight.) In this series, he talks about the t-shirt sellers, water vendors, or cell phone card vendors and other various occupations which are not taken into account when official statistics are produced. What he shows, in his series, is exactly the opposite of what you say. Not only are these 85% not criminals, they are courageous entrepreneurs who attempt to make a decent living for themselves, for their families, in the face of adversity. Oh yeah – and don’t forget to leave your “nice fucking shoes” in your fucking fancy hotel room if you don’t want people to eye them with envy, ok?

Hard working farmers in Bong County

You really miss the point, Shane. I guess this is a vanity project, and you probably feel so cool that you came back alive from West Point and your adventures with General Buttnaked. I can’t wait for you to visit Vladivostock, where they, as you say, “make this huge mountain out of garbage and then just shove it into the sea.” Sounds like you know your stuff! I’m sure I’ll know everything there is (not) to know about Vladivostock after you visit it.

Beautiful Liberia

I wish you had met the Liberians who are working so hard every day to improve their country. Those are the Liberians I know. I, like many others who reacted to your video with disgust, have the privilege of working with a lot of truly inspiring people in Liberia. Maybe you could meet the parents of the little boy with permanent brain damage from a vicious attack during the war (no doubt, that would interest you) who created the first center for children with disabilities. Maybe you could meet some of the women who work with Robertsport Community Works, and who are picking themselves up by the boot straps to improve their lives. Maybe you could get in touch with the locals who write for CeaseFire Liberia or pick up one (or even two!) of the many newspapers to see what’s actually happening in the country (hint: it very rarely involves incidents of cannibalism). Maybe, Shane, you can just open your eyes and your mind. Drop your prejudice and your romanticized notions of what you’d like Liberia to be. Maybe, then, you could actually produce something that is more than an appallingly substandard “travel guide”.

Del Johnson, founder of the first center for children with disabilities in Liberia, and his son Andre

* my bad – Smith goes to the Ducor in part 4 of the series. But, of course, fails to mention it by name or discuss any part of its history. Sigh.

Wait… Who’s African?

A few friends who share articles on Google Reader landed on a photo campaign, produced by BHF magazine, entitled “I am African.”

From African Digital Arts:

I Am African is a project developed by BHF Magazine. This project is devoted to photographic work by various African photographers. Photographs are displayed in a gallery that documents and celebrates diversity through the lenses of African people worldwide. The photographs are selected based on originality, creativity, professional or semi-professional quality and of course, their power in reflecting the African diversity.

 

Picture-41
copyright BNF
Picture-211
copyright BNF

This immediately reminded me of an ad campaign you (fortunately) might have missed if you weren’t in NYC towards the end of 2006. I remember having heated conversations about the “Africans” below….

 

I-Am-African-Sarah-Jessica-Parker
Oh yeah.... right...!

I-Am-African-Elijah-Wood
I-Am-African-Tyson-Beckford

And, yes, the campaign was raising funds for a good cause, but it’s problematic to me that people who are probably comfortable dropping $10,000 on clothes for fancy parties have the balls to call themselves “African”. I don’t think it’s appropriate for non-African celebrities — no matter how big their heart is or how genuine their feeling of  “sharing a common bond” with Africans (…what about the rest of humanity?…) is — to call themselves African. What does that have to do with anything? Why is that even necessary to raise funds? Awareness? I’m still baffled.

I’d so much rather see initiatives like BHF Magazine’s series, where the individuals portrayed are – actually – Africans, and have something to share about their heritage.

 

 

A video interlude..

This is Medecins Sans Frontieres‘ (MSF) new fundraising video. While this is not so much advocacy as it is straight up fundraising, seems like MSF (one of the best NGOs out there, in my opinion) is following the advice imparted by Bill Easterly and Laura Freschi over at Aid Watch.

I find this 1 minute clip sober and powerful – definitely makes me want to give to MSF. What do you think? (h/t @jdlippi )

Dead Aid Bandwagon

If you are a development nerd, you have probably read ad nauseam about Dambisa Moyo’s new book, Dead Aid. In the last few months, there has been an interesting debate happening between different schools of thought. Essentially, Moyo argues that foreign aid to African countries is one of the preeminent root causes of Africa’s underdevelopment (for lack of a better word), and that instead of throwing billions of (wasted) dollars into the hands of dicators, African governments should instead be given access to more private finance. 


Having worked at the World Bank and Goldman Sachs, Moyo – who hails from Zambia – offers a refreshing perspective on the aid debate (which is typically dominated by white males… no surprises there, right?)


Her book unleashed an outpouring of commentary – some condemning her views, others wholeheartedly agreeing, and everything in between. I have been tempted to throw in my two cents, but the more I read about it, the more convinced I am that a) everything that could be said, has been said and, b) the debate over whether aid should be stopped or not is such a macro discussion that, ultimately, we’re getting stuck at the “50,000 foot” view – and that doesn’t really help move the debate forward constructively. Because, as we all know, foreign aid will NOT end – even if you were able to show by a+b=c that aid caused most of Africa’s problems, Official Development Aid (ODA) is still a critical foreign policy tool, and to call for its halt is unrealistic.

Anyway.  

Most recently, Francis Fukuyama voiced his opinion on the matter in Slate. He compares Moyo’s argument with another prominent African scholar’s views, Wangari Maatai. His piece, I thought, actually touches on a couple of really key issues, which most commentary on “Dead Aid” have failed to focus on. Excerpt:

Both women see sub-Saharan Africa’s fundamental problem not as one of resources, human or natural, or as a matter of geography, but, rather, as one of bad government. Far too many regimes in Africa have become patronage machines in which political power is sought by “big men” for the sole purpose of acquiring resources—resources that are funneled either back to the networks of supporters who helped a particular leader come to power or else into the proverbial Swiss bank account. There is no concept of public good; politics has devolved instead into a zero-sum struggle to appropriate the state and whatever assets it can control.

This view actually echoes what one of the most prominent French African scholars, Jean Francois Bayart, writes in his book “L’Etat en Afrique: La politique du ventre“. In this book, he writes that the “politics of the belly” – which is to say the political culture that is prevalent in Africa whereby rulers seek to accumulate power and possessions –  is not only the fundamental issue that has been plaguing the continent, but also a product of its very particular social, political and economic history. In his book (which I unfortunately don’t think has been translated into English), he describes how complex social and political networks arose in the context of colonial and post colonial sub-Saharan Africa, and how the polity that emerged is defined by an intricate interplay between foreign dependency, reliance on local (and often socially constructed) tribal or ethnic identities and leaders’ destructive desire to selfishly accumulate resources. 

Of course, given that we’re talking about a whole continent, generalizations are very hard to make – so while one can certainly find counter points to Bayart and Fukuyama’s argument, there is an element of truth to it, which to me captures the most powerful criticism of Moyo’s book: it’s not aid per se that’s the problem – it’s what’s being done with it, and how it’s being managed. And of course, Moyo knows this. But, as Owen Barder notes:

It seems to me that Dambisa Moyo has set up a false dichotomy between aid and entrepreneurship. Many of the things Moyo would like to see – better access to financial services, a better business environment, lower tariffs – can be (and are) supported by aid. 

It’s been frustrating to read Bono’s response to Moyo, as well as the reactions from a lot of people “shocked” that Moyo would call for an end to foreign aid. But, if (like me…) you subscribe to the Easterly school of thought that holds that most ODA ends up being horribly wasted and that an entirely new ODA regime needs to come about, then her argument, while virulent and, frankly, aggressive, makes sense. 

Just recently, from (of all places) USA Today:

Two United Nations agencies spent millions in U.S. money on substandard Afghanistan construction projects, including a central bank without electricity and a bridge at risk of “life threatening” collapse. 

In the current context, I think it’s great to debate the virtues (or lack thereof) of ODA – however, focusing on that macro question shouldn’t be a reason to turn our focus away from the real issue: today, there are millions of aid dollars at work – how do we actually make them work, with a view to incrementally decrease countries’ dependence on foreign assistance? 

Oh, aid effectiveness… You are hella elusive.