Algeria, Mali and the West: Joining the Dots in the Sahara

Minarets, Burkina Faso

‘We need to be absolutely clear whose fault this is. It is the terrorists who are responsible for this attack and for the loss of life.’ (David Cameron, House of Commons, 18 January)

‘The responsibility for the tragic events of the last two days squarely rests with terrorists.’ (William Hague, Sky News, 18 January)

In the light of the weekend’s tragic events in Algeria, the British government has been firm in its condemnation of the terrorists who carried out the kidnappings. This reaction is understandable. The attacks were conducted by bad, deluded men taking murderous decisions in support of a bad, deluded ideology.

But it is also only a partially correct interpretation. Yes, the immediate event in question can be blamed on a small group of terrorists, but these terrorists did not emerge in a vacuum, and once the dust has settled it is to be hoped that the British and other Western governments will develop a more considered, more nuanced analysis.

You do not have to go too far back down the trail that led to the kidnappings to discover Western actions that made them more likely. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the mastermind behind the attacks, is probably a fanatic, definitely a murderer. But he rose to prominence in Algeria’s civil war in the 1990s, which had been triggered by the annulling of an election won by Islamists. The French government supported the illegitimate Algerian leadership in that conflict, thereby helping to nurture the generation of violent radicals from which Belmokhtar and other Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) leaders sprung.

Nor can Belmokhtar carry out attacks alone. He needs men and arms, and to acquire these he needs money. He and his AQIM cohorts have had two major funding sources. The first is drug trafficking across the Sahara, a trade which would not exist if Europe, instead of deflecting its law and order problems onto Africa, legalised drugs. The second is kidnapping – tens of millions of dollars have been paid to AQIM by European governments in return for the release of hostages. (A third revenue stream is human trafficking, whose extent is unknown but which is rendered possible by Europe’s restrictions on legal migration from Africa).

With the funds from these activities, Belmokhtar can buy arms, including those that scattered across the Sahara after the fall of Gaddafi in Libya. Gaddafi’s demise was hastened by Western military involvement in the conflict, yet Western forces failed to stop large quantities of weapons falling into the hands of AQIM and of the Tuareg fighters who instigated the troubles in Mali to which the Algeria attack was a response. Some of those arms, moreover, are likely to have been sold to Libya by the UK, France and other European powers.

Belmokhtar can also buy men. West Africa is full of unemployed, frustrated young men who see no prospect of achieving their goals through peaceful means. Their governments have been hollowed out, first by Western colonialism (a former British foreign secretary in 1943 likened the granting of independence to ‘giving a child of ten a latch-key, a bank account and a shotgun’), and more recently by corruption. Mali’s pre-coup government is itself widely thought to have been involved in the drug trade, and the corruption this engendered left it ill placed both to invest in the country’s youth and to fend off revolt (it was eventually toppled by a ragtag bunch of junior soldiers). In nearby Nigeria, whose own fundamentalist terror mutation Boko Haram has supplied fighters to the Mali rebels, corruption abetted by Western oil companies has exacerbated northern discontent and made it easier for young northerners to persuade themselves that violence is justified.

This hollowing out of governments leaves young people marooned in the face of greater challenges. The population boom has combined with climate change to render it ever more difficult for them to find work and set up families. Rainfall in the Sahel region has declined by one quarter since 1950, and it is not Africans who have caused the environment to heat up. The population boom was assisted by Western medical advances, but was not accompanied by efforts by the colonial powers to educate their people. Europe enjoyed the same medical and public health advances as West Africa, but the population boom in the former was much less dramatic, and one of the reasons for this is that European women were better educated and therefore better able and more inclined to keep fertility to manageable levels. When Guinea-Bissau gained independence from Portugal in 1975, only one in fifty Guineans could read and write – again, the roots of current events can be traced back to Western actions. West Africa’s burgeoning generation of young men, meanwhile, has become a fertile recruiting pool for Belmokhtar and other jihadis.

I could go on, to discuss how other events with which Western countries had been involved – the colonial powers’ division of the Tuareg homeland, the Mali government’s historic failure to help the Tuareg cope with the effects of climate change, this month’s French intervention in Mali, etc – were all directly or indirectly linked to the disaster in Algeria. But Western policy-makers should be getting the picture by now (if not, they can look to this excellent Observer editorial for an even broader view). Cameron and Hague’s response to the kidnappings is understandable, but in the long-term unhelpful. If the West is to help stop these events happening in the future, a more constructive approach, in a globalising world where repercussions quickly cross borders, would be to examine its own role in making their occurrence more likely.

Discordant Development – Can Progress Increase Instability?

Discordant development, imbalanced development, unequal development

Samuel Huntington argued in his 1968 classic Political Order in Changing Societies that rapid development could be highly destabilizing:

Social and economic change—urbanization, increase in literacy and education, industrialization, mass media expansion—extend political consciousness, multiply political demands, broaden political participation. These changes undermine traditional sources of political authority and traditional political institutions; they enormously complicate the problems of creating new bases of political association and new political institutions combining legitimacy and effectiveness. The rates of social mobilization and the expansion of political organization are high; the rates of political organization and institutionalization are low. The result is political instability and disorder. The primary problem of politics is the lag in the development of political institutions behind social and economic change.

Richard Joseph, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and a Professor at Northwestern University, discusses a similar point in a recent article on Africa. In it, he introduces the very useful phrase “discordant development,” defining it as:

More than just “unequal development,” but rather how deepening inequalities and rapid progress juxtaposed with group distress can generate uncertainty and violent conflict.

This is a common problem in fragile states. One area moves forward while another area does not — or worse. And because countries are weakly unified, such development is highly discordant, increasing instability by how it increases the exclusion — and feelings of exclusion — of certain groups. Continue reading

Where it all went wrong on US climate policy

Remember back in 2006 and 2007 when it looked as though the US was about to get really serious on climate policy? You know, when not only Hillary Clinton and John Edwards and Barack Obama but even John McCain supported legislation on cap and trade? Well, Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol has just published a 140 page report (pdf) about what happened next and where it all went wrong, commissioned by the Rockefeller Family Fund. It’s very very good. David Roberts at Grist has the best summary I’ve seen if you’re too busy or lazy to read the whole thing: here are the key messages that he picks out from the report:

Enviros vastly overstated Obama’s agency throughout the process and his responsibility for the outcome. Skocpol exaggerates enviro cluelessness a bit here — I doubt all that many really think they would have won if Obama had just made a few more speeches — but she’s definitely on to something. An amazing amount of the commentary around the bill was devoted to criticizing Obama, or saying what Obama should do, or questioning Obama’s heart. Enviros were constantly “calling on” Obama to say or do this thing or the other. But Obama was not at the center of the action. The dynamics that mattered took place in Congress. Obama did not exactly distinguish himself as a climate champion, but he was a sideshow — he could not have changed the outcome.

On public opinion, cap-and-trade supporters were too concerned with breadth and too little concerned with intensity. An enormous amount of time and money went into national polls and national advertising. National polls tell enviros what they want to hear: In the abstract, majorities always support clean air and clean energy. Enviros mistook these poll results for constituencies. But poll results do not attend town halls or write members of Congress or exhort their fellow citizens through ideological media. Constituencies do that.

Failure to fight back in the summer of 2009 was a fateful mistake. Just after the Waxman-Markey bill passed the House, summer arrived, legislators went home, and enviros cracked a beer and put their feet up. Meanwhile, a well-funded, well-organized Tea Party invaded town halls, dominated talk radio and Fox News, and generally scared the bejesus out of Republican legislators. They bashed on “cap-and-tax” for months, with very little pushback. By the time the Senate returned to consider the bill, members had learned their lesson.

Most of all:

Enviros were slow to perceive and understand the accelerating radicalization of the Republican Party. The USCAP strategy was based on securing the support — or at least defusing the opposition — of key business constituencies. The presumption was that the GOP is the party of business and would follow the lead of key corporate constituents. It was further based on securing the support of key “maverick” Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham. The presumption there was that their support would provide cover for other moderate Republicans to cross the line. Both presumptions were based on an outdated model of the Republican Party.

Continue reading

Lots of lovely numbers

A New Year present for data geeks.  In case any of you are bored with twitter and facebook as ways of wasting your time, have a look at this.  ‘Worldometers’ offers real time data on all kinds of things – population, government spending, emails sent, bicycles produced, carbon emitted…based on data from UN, OECD etc.  Of course it’s all guesswork and extrapolation, like most statistics, but very interesting and quite astounding to see some of the counters whizzing round (I’m posting this at 12.55 and there have already been more than 229,000,000,000 emails sent today, apparently!).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to do facipulation

In plenary and group feedback time, use the “there’s just so much participation going on I can’t capture it all!” trick to ignore or skip over what you don’t want to deal with or what doesn’t fit with where you need the workshop to go. After a few ignores, most people will give up and start grumbling, but that makes them look bad, not you. When this happens, give a pep talk about how important everyone’s participation is, admonish the group for not participating, ask if they are tired, and have the day’s volunteer animator lead an embarrassing (singing/dancing) ice breaker to motivate them.

Just one of a range of ‘facipulation‘ strategies brought to you by the achingly funny blog Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like.

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