Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The First Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review

Since Obama took office, U.S. foreign assistance has been going through some historic changes. A renewed appreciation for the role that development plays in U.S. foreign affairs and a rebuilding of its ranks; the gradual integration of development budget, activities, and goals into U.S. defense and diplomatic strategies (and vice-versa in some cases, the “three D’s”); elevating USAID as the lead in U.S. foreign assistance while at the same time reforming it to be a smarter, more efficient, results-based agency.

The Quadrenniel Diplomacy and Develop Review, inagurated last Thursday encapsulates these changes in a policy that is sure to be a watershed document in U.S. foreign policy history.

Read it here:

Friday, December 3, 2010

Cattle Crossing the Niger River at Diafarabe, Mali

Livestock plays a central role in the Malian economy and livelihoods. It's Mali's 3rd largest export, and 80% of Malians derive some portion of their income from the raising of either of cattle or small ruminants (goat, sheep). For Mali’s nomadic Fulani people, cattle constitute more than just an asset or means of income, but is the centerpiece to their culture. Herding is not just agriculture production and trade, but paces out the seasons and sets the rhythm of daily life. In Mali, one marker of the beginning of the dry season is the herding of cattle from their domicile grazing grounds in the North in search of greener pastures south of the Niger River. Tradition has it that every year the first of these Niger River crossings takes place at Diefarabe.
This year I took a weekend trip to watch this year’s inaugural crossing, an event which seems to usually draw a decent crowd of Fulani herders and family members, Bozo fisherman/ferry-operators, Barriba villagers, local government leaders, and a handful of tourists. Here are some shots from the day.

Monday, November 15, 2010

An Afternoon in the Studio of Malick Sidibé

After some stateside R&R, I am Back in Bamako. I’ve actually been so for about two months, and during this time have had no shortage of activities and thoughts to write about; rather, the bustle of Bamako has made it hard to find a time and calm mind to sit down and think. Notwithstanding, a couple weeks ago I had an opportunity that I can’t pass up blogging about.

Malick Sidibé is probably one of Mali’s most celebrated artists, and surely its most famous photographer. Strictly speaking one would classify Sidibé’s photography as studio and candid portraits, but his work is so refreshingly different from what Africans consider portrait photography, and from Western conceptions about African art and artistic expression. Since the 1960s Malick has made his mark with his ability to intuit and capture the emotions and self-expression of Malians, whether they be on a studio stage or at party, in prepared pose or candid dance. Independence and freedom; energy and movement; cultural tension; self-expression and imagination; joy and affection; authentic portrayal. Such are the motifs that run through Malick’s photographs.

Above: One of Sidibe's most recognizable "on the scene" shots

Below: One characteristic of his Sidibé’s studio work is his tendency to “play” with the expectations of his viewers by capturing more than what should typically be in a studio shot. Often the backdrop will end to expose a bare wall; the platform stops at the bottom of the image and you see the cement floor; often the gazes and attention of the subjects are very obviously fixed on something outside the frame. All this as a gesture to authenticity, and as if to say that you that you can’t put people—above all Malians—in a box.

A couple weeks ago I and some friends were able to get an appointment to have some studio shots taken by Sidibé. Although today Malick is over seventy years old, he still keeps a studio in Bamako: surprisingly inconspicuous and unapologetically “Malian” in appearance and everything else. After waiting a couple hours beyond our rendez-vous time, the vieux Sidibé finally showed up, cane in hand, dressed dapperly in crisp Malian Bazin, wearing the smirk of a playful artist.

Above: Malick in action.

Our photo shoot lasted only about 20 minutes. Although all of us had given some thought as to how we wanted to memorialize ourselves before Sidibé’s camera, once Malick entered his studio he took a natural but unimposing command of his space and subjects, and suggested unique poses for each of his three visiters. How he came up with each is beyond me, but for the man whose work and expertise is so aptly captured by the bambara phrase “i ka nje tan” (“you look good like that”), who would argue?
Above: No, it's not cheesy, nor is it Glamour-shots. Simply sidibe-esque.
Below: Our shots. While waiting for the Sidibé’s arrival, we took advantage of the time and laid back atmosphere of Chez Malik to practice our poses.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Alarming News in America

I cringe a bit to see that it's been over 6 months since I've blogged. I'm stateside at the moment, and there have been some related stories about American-Islam relation that are riling me up enough re-emerge.

Most have probably been following the U.S. news stories about the controversy over the Ground Zero Islamic center; the burned-down Islamic center site in Murfreesboro, TN (the Feds suspect arson); and now this extremist pastor in FL who is leading his congregation in an "International Koran Burning Day" this Saturday, Sept 11.

To the international debate that these events are sparking, I want to add the perspective of an American Christian who has been living abroad in majority Muslim areas for the last three years. In my opinion, this trend of paranoia, intolerance, and violence that is developing in America towards Muslims living here is scary, sad, and truly embarrassing.

This is scary because these events will no doubt trigger equally extreme repercussions in some Muslim countries, perhaps even worst responses, centered against U.S. troops, and other Americans and Christians working and living abroad. This is a very real risk that a few insecure people ocassioning for an entire nation.

This is sad, because I have much empathy for the minority Muslims that are in the States--many of whom have come from poor or unstable countries on the assumption that America is a nation which promises tolerance, religious freedom, and open opportunity to all, and who are instead being marginalized anew by some new form of social tyranny. I personally know many Muslims from Africa who have come to the U.S. to work or study. Both their places of worship and their sacred texts (in fact, "sacred text" does not convey all the meaning and importance that the Koran holds for a a Muslim) are being publicly targeted for destruction, and at the apex of Ramadan, one of Islam's most important religious holidays. That Christians and Americans are also targeted in other parts of the world--while true, sad, and unjustified--is beside the point here. Responding in kind, in fact, will only aggravate this violence.

Finally, this is embarrassing--because a small number of Americans are bringing disrepute to an entire nation, and so-called Christians are horribly misrepresenting the Christ-like love on which the our faith is centered. With this last comment, my frustration is brought back most ardently on this FL pastor Terry Jones. I hope that he is stopped, repents, and finds--maybe for the first time--the true Christian faith.

Monday, March 1, 2010

What Finance & Law Have to Say About Economic Development

I just finished reading two books which are very helpful about thinking about the "development problem" in a new light: The Mystery of Capital, by Peruvian economist Hernando DeSoto (, and Dead Aid by Zambian economist Damibas Moyo ( More important than the fact that these books are written by someone other than your stock western development economist (no ad hominen argument commited here), these thinkers write from novel perspectives (financing and law) which give us refreshing, market-oriented approaches to economic development.

Ultimately the problem with economic development is not its goals or activities, but the way its financed. Aid money-- particularly government-to-government transactions-- isn't just ineffective to achieve development goals, but is positively harmful, says Moyo. Aid encourages corruption, hampers good citizenry and government accountability, and can be economically harmful to an economy (as it tends to reduce savings and investment, encourages inflation, and chokes off the export sector, among other things).

Moyo proposes a "menu" of financing options to replace aid and enable states raise their own funds for development. The participation in international bond markets and the development of local ones. More Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in infrastructure and institutions from companies and governments (like China) who see opportunities in Africa. More trade, which brings a country foreign earnings, and makes an economy more productive. Better banking services for the poor should expand micro-financing opportunities, lower the costs of remitances and other money transfer services, and enable the poor to more easily turn their assets into usable savings.

DeSoto's book--again, written from the same market-driven development perspective--is all about this last point: turning the poor's assets into capital. While Moyo writes from a broad finance perspective (among other things she spent 8 years as a strategist with Goldman Sachs), DeSoto focuses on the legal reform that is necessary to enable the poor to begin leveraging their savings and fund their own development.

The problem is that many developing countries have property legal systems that do not reflect the informal or extralegal sector, which often is the world in which most of the population lives and works. The consequence is not only that these extralegal property owners can't physically secure their assets, but that they also can't leverage these assets as capital to improve and develop their livelihoods. Consider, for example, how important mortgages are as a loan source for many Americans, or the important role that a residential address plays in allowing someone to access credit or making them "accountable" enought to enact a business transaction.

The solution, says DeSoto, is hidden in the histories of many western nations, all of which at some point in had to begin recognizing and absorbing the extralegal sector into their formal legal system. This happens by reform, which requires the vision and initiation of political leaders.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Recent Ramblings

This month I had the opportunity to meet up with some PC volunteers from Benin to do some traveling in Mali and Senegal. Here are some snapshots and highlights.

Segou Music Festival

This year the Malian town of Segou held it's 6th annual Festival Sur le Niger, which is probably the single most important event for showcasing Mali's rich music culture and world-class artists. The festival took place over almost an entire week, each day ending with a headlining concert whose stage was actually a float on the Niger river. (For those of you from Chatty, it kind of reminded me of Riverbend.)

Dakar, Senegal

After Segou and a short sejour in Bamako we headed to Senegal. It's capital, Dakar, blew me away with its urban development, tall builings, cliffside seascapes, and great restaurants. Dakar has an interesting culture all its own: worldly and sophisticated residents, an African language (Woloff) quite unlike others I've heard before, lively sub-cultures, and the capital West Africa's longest-standing democracy (modern Senegal has never seen a coup d'etat), to point out a few facets of this city.

Goree Island, Senegal
Goree Island is just off Dakar, and was one of the main slave ports in the 17th and 18th centuries. Today the island is filled with Malian artisans, museums, and winding paths that take you past old colonial buildings, baobab trees, and friendly residents.
Saint Louis, Senegal
Saint Louis is all the way up the Senegal coastline, just shy of the Mauratanian border. Historically it was the French administrative center for all of Francophone West Africa, and the island part of the town contains block after block of interesting architecture.

Toubab Dialo, Senegal
Senegal has some nice beaches--somehow much more picturesque and swimmer-friendly than the kind you'd find on the underside of West Africa in Gulf of Benin.Toubob Dialo was one of these "beach towns." Yes, that's me sweeping the beach.

All my photos from these trips are posted on my Picassa Account Enjoy.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Religious Conflict in Africa's Middle Belt

Nigeria has recently been getting some negative press as the U.S. looks into the personal history of the Christmas Day suicide bomber. This last week Hillary Clinton suggested the country breeds radicalism.

But few people likey caught another headline coming out of Nigeria, also having to do with religious based violence. Last week Jos, Nigeria erupted in violence between the town's Christian and Muslim populations. This rioting razed property all over the town, left over a 200 Christians and Muslims dead, and thousands displaced.

While the story doesn't have any direct connection with international terrorism, it's significant b/c these riots were a reprisal to predecessors taking place in 2001 and 2008, and also symptomatic of other similar Muslim-Christian outbursts that frequently erupt in this part of middle Nigeria, where the Christian populations (mostly in the South) meet the mostly-Hausa Muslim populations from the North. This religious fault line--in general, where Sub-Saharan's Northern Mulsim populations mix with Southern Christians--is sometimes called the "middle belt," and can be said to stretch horizontally across all of Africa.

The Atlantic Monthly published a very interesting expose of this issue last year called "God's Country." Also, last year an Anthropologist Barbara Cooper published a book called Evangelical Christians in the Muslim Sahel which essentially examines a very similar type of religious tension, but this time in southern Niger.

Of course, not the entire middle belt is marred by such thick religious tension. My former post in Northern Benin and my present one in Southern Mali, for example, see the peaceful coexistence of Christians and Muslims. Also, labels like middle belt run the risk of oversimplifiying certain conflicts that also have political competition and resource-control as root causes (i.e. Sudan).

Neverthless, the middle zone is an important area to watch, not least because this trully is one of the world's most impoverished regions. And, as we see more and more, it's also in the interest of international security to identify these kind of hotbeds where poverty thrives, and political-religious radicalism and violence seem to breed. Ultimately the best defense strategy is to address the systematic poverty and to help make these regions thrive.