All posts by Stuart Meney

Moving Pictures

Sat in a seminar in late 2009, discussion was put on hold so the class could watch a short film about the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. Ten years previous, during an account of a particularly ghastly gassing incident described by Wilfred Owen in a First World War poetry class, we powered our way through the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan. I vaguely remember the teacher suggest that we could learn how creativity can blossom  in the most dire of circumstance (or something like that), as she sat in the back of the class reading the paper.

Both films were to act as a supplement helping us to visualise what normally we only get to read, on paper or on our computer screen.

And so to ‘Diary’, an incredible short film (worth 20 minutes of your life) made over a 10-year period by war reporter Tim Hetherington. He calls it “a kaleidoscope of images that link our western reality to the seemingly distant worlds we see in the media”.

Diary (2010) from Tim Hetherington.

The images he captures are haunting, funny, distressful, beautiful and above all, incredibly real. Part of the film follows the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebel group. As the boy smiles  and clasps his weapon (1 minute 45 seconds in) before returning to his game face, Wilfred Owen’s words – written almost a century earlier – speak volumes:

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (How sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country).

The powerful nature of visuals provide a snippet of the happenings in our world and make us question our preconceptions. TIME magazine writer Peter Van Agtmael sums up why it is necessary, suggesting that Hetherington was able to make “a distant and abstract conflict become personal and relatable, and the great complexity of our troubled species is laid bare without judgement or pretence”.

Tim Hetherington was killed in Libya last week striving to lay bare the complexities of our troubled species so people like me can supplement written words with moving pictures.

Ambassador’s Reception

Last week I spent time with the organisation I work with, Football United, at a project we run in Granville, one of the mostunderprivileged communities in one of the world’s most affluent cities, Sydney. It is Football United’s fourth year in Granville, running programs that engage Indigenous, refugee and migrant youth through football, whilst promoting leadership and development opportunities and facilitating relationships with community organisations, partners and mentors.

At this particular project, we were joined by  Monique Coleman, star of High School Musical and numerous other American TV Series that are aimed at a youthful audience. Thanks Wikipedia. The reasons for her attendance were two-fold (or possibly one-fold parts i and ii): promoting “Dialogue and Mutual Understanding”, topic of discussion in the United Nations International Year of Youth 2011 and promoting her own website “dedicated to empowering today’s youth”. She was a great communicator, friendly and, for the most part, aware of a set of appropriate issues that concern youth today: bullying, homelessness, multicultural society and so on.

It’s easy to bemoan the presence of an ambassador by implying that they undermine the efforts of those on the ground – whether local or not – spending each day doing what they do: medicine, teach, advocate, build. Billy Celebrity jets in for a day with his camera troupe, hugs a kid, conducts interview and photoshoot, probably wearing a pair of jeans that cost him more than any of his co-stars will see in a lifetime and probably made around the corner by a factory that exploits the community with sub-standard pay and no bathroom breaks. Everyone’s in on it. I remember seeing a list of sports stars employed as ambassadors. If you’d ever ran, kicked a ball or danced on ice, you were good to go. It was all too easy, the market was saturated. Hollywood too, spearheaded recently by George Clooney and friends, who are monitoring troops along the North/South Sudanese border to much criticism from “the international humanitarian blogosphere’s snark brigade“. “Bono-basher-in-chief William Easterly” is concerned about celebrity wonks getting too cosy with the policy-makers when they could use their powers to challenge the leaders, like John Lennon and Mark Twain did in the good old days.

So what? If UNICEF want attention and if Billy Celebrity can direct attention then that’s cool. What they drawing attention to, I suppose is relevant. To advocate for children and support UNICEF’s mission to “ensure every child’s right to health, education, equality and protection”. Maybe. Or maybe it’s to promote a new haircut. I’m inclined to be cynical like the afore mentioned snark brigade, in a world where video and sound-bites rule, these ambassadorial visits could be nothing but effective celebrity brand management.

I’d like to think, however, that I’ve developed my perceptions and opinion from, among other things, experience. I don’t have much, but what experience I do have of UN ambassadors, it’s hugely positive. I have nothing but gratitude for the minor celebrity that graced our project in Western Sydney. Her message was relevant, albeit a tad standardised. The big gains though, were for our project, and consequently – hopefully – the youth in the Granville community. Students who were previously unaware became aware of leadership and education opportunities, networks were expanded, ideas exchanged and influential policy makers turned up. Some even listened. All in all, last Monday was a positive experience for community-based, community-driven development.

Photojournal: South Africa

I wrote an article back in May that considered the impact of a football World Cup on the African continent. June arrived not long after. Balls were kicked, the world tuned in and the fortunate few who travelled to South Africa were treated to a truly memorable sporting festival. I spoke to one of the fortunate few – photographer, designer and Australia supporter Patrick Lloyd – who showcases some of his photography and lends his view on how the event impacted the people of South Africa.

During a brief stint away from the festival atmosphere of the cities, Patrick ventured into Swaziland to explore the country almost entirely surrounded by South Africa. A population of just over a million, Swaziland has the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the world. The pandemic is one issue that has affected the availability of teachers in primary schools, one of which Patrick visited, and seized the opportunity to partake in a game of football himself.

“They were excitable, as most children their age are, especially with a ball to kick. After being given the run-around, I took a breath and asked if I could take a photograph of them. Without hesitation, they lined up as a football team might before a big game.”

South Africa’s two-tiered economy contributes to the huge disparity of income in the country.  The informal economy’s contribution to employment, no doubt including the giraffe seller, was estimated at 23% a couple of years ago.

“There were hundreds of roadside salespeople selling their wares. It seemed that city after city, market after market, the same ornamental animals were lined up.”

It comes as no surprise that Southern Africa’s rural backdrop is not conducive to sanitation or waste management. The Swaziland Environmental Action Plan reviews the situation of littering rather bluntly, surmising that the problem occurs because there is a “shortage of disposal facilities and of anti-littering incentive“. And, a whole host of imported goods that weren’t there before, perhaps?

“This shot was taken in Swaziland. I’m not sure how long it had been since the tip had been managed, if at all. Children darted between the mountains of waste, often clambering over the top to take a short-cut or hide from their playmates.”

A 2009 infrastructure report studied the intercity road network. Of the 55,000 kilometres of paved roads, a measly 2,500 km met ‘freeway standards’. The report also claimed that 70% of South Africa’s roads were “in need of urgent repair“.

“I shot this out of a moving truck as it ambled by. We were many miles from any sort of village or town. I’m not sure where he was coming from or going to.”

Almost 35,000 supports filed in to the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg to watch this game. The stadium now sits under the ownership of the Bafokeng people, who have drawn up Vision 2020, that utilises the stadium as the jewel of their sustainable crown, as they strive to become a “self-sufficient community by the end of the second decade of the 21st century”.

“On the whole, the people of South Africa displayed such excitement, pride and optimism, both of their home nation but also of other African teams that were competing. This evening it happened to be Ghana. I can’t think of anything that could engage such a large group of individuals, as football did in South Africa.”

Great Power and Great Responsibility

I watched a film last week about the Special Relationship between Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. The film – and the relationship – bobbed and weaved through a number of high profile incidents: Blair’s 1997 landslide victory in the UK election, the troubles in Northern Ireland and Monica Lewinsky’s dress, amongst others. For me, however, Blair’s interest in Kosovo, and the subsequent NATO incursion, described by the New York Times as the “first humanitarian war”, provided the most interesting, revealing and poignant moments in the film.

In a speech in Chicago in 1999, Prime Minister Blair proposed that nations have a responsibility to intervene in the affairs of other independent sovereign states and even overthrow regimes that were either failing to protect their population, or perpetrating atrocities against their own people. His doctrine of “international community” challenged the already dwindling concept of state sovereignty and brought into mainstream thought the notion of just and legitimate use of pre-emptive force against the territorial integrity or political independence of another state.

“This is a just war, based not on any territorial ambitions but on values” declared Tony, referring to Kosovo, “awful crimes that we never thought we would see again have reappeared – ethnic cleansing, systematic rape, mass murder.”  Of course, this was not the first time atrocities on this scale had happened and events in Rwanda five years earlier had not provoked such an international response. Perhaps it was Kosovo’s proximity to European capitals with their 24 hour rolling news, or a lingering sense of shame following the Srebrenica Massacre four years previously, or simply that a burgeoning notion of global interdependence found its focus, whatever the reason, Blair’s call to arms resonated around the world and prompted the international community to mobilise. Intentionally or not, Blair had begun to fashion his prime ministerial legacy.

Thus it was that in 2001 the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) published The Responsibility to Protect, and proposed a change in the way we view state sovereignty “from sovereignty as control to sovereignty as responsibility” (Para 2.14). Henceforth, state authorities should bear a duty of internal responsibility to protect their citizens and promote their welfare, as well as an external duty to govern in accordance with international standards. The report adds that this implication is strengthened “by the ever-increasing impact of international human rights norms” (Para 2.15).

Thus, when a state’s sovereignty is ferociously abused internally, manifested in Yugoslavia by President Milošević’s crimes and human rights abuses – and diplomacy is ineffective externally – it is the duty of the international community, to protect that nation’s population. Congruently, Blair acknowledged that “oppression produces massive flows of refugees which unsettle neighbouring countries” and therefore it is also in the self-interest of the international community to solve the problem. No war can be exclusively internal, and the inability to protect one’s own citizens “can properly be described as a threat to international peace and security”. In such ways pre-emptive military action may be sanctioned.

The Responsibility to Protect doctrine altered the way state sovereignty is viewed and begs the question: How useful are other facets of state sovereignty today? The internal face of sovereignty, usually a hierarchical system of state governance, is waning. Multi-national corporations are able to dominate economies and manipulate governments. The international movement of trade, finance, people and knowledge similarly undermines the nature of state sovereignty and presents the need for new solutions for global and local governance. Maybe that’s a topic for another post.

A Worldwide Web

It wasn’t so long ago that the World Wide Web was an interesting and fun procrastination station for the masses. We could watch dancing hamsters and ask Jeeves anything. Then it blew up. This week, Australians awoke to the news that the federal government wants free access to individual’s web browser data. A court in Pakistan ordered a ban on Facebook, YouTube and Wikipedia over blasphemous content. Barack Obama tweets about how he plans to fight in the Gulf. Influential individuals take this web thing seriously.

In a 2009 press release, the White House noted that telecommunications and information technology should be regarded as strategic national infrastructure. Word choice is not taken lightly in such a release, and describing information technology as a ‘backbone that underpins a prosperous economy and a strong military’ speaks volumes. If the great world power of our time can put such an emphasis on information technology, surely it must be time for the lesser developed countries to follow suit.

Africa is still way behind the ‘digital divide’. Less than 5% of the internet users in the world are from Africa and less than 10% of Africans use the internet. These figures are comparable to Latin American figures in recent years, and it is Latin America growth that is expected to gain momentum this year. Cellular phones in Africa are often cited as a blueprint for technology diffusion to the continent. While the innovators and early adopters in North America, Asia and Europe develop, test and subsequently roll out successful technology developments to market, the African population are spared the testing phase. Cell phones in the continent vastly outnumber landlines. Similarly, mobile broadband users vastly outnumber fixed broadband users.

How does this relate to development? We can look at two components of development: education and commerce.

Ethiopia, Uganda, Zambia and Senegal participated in a survey during the mid 1990s that considered the impact of electronic communications technology in their tertiary education system. Results showed that “academic and research institutions have been able to conduct joint projects effectively, improve resource mobilisation, and carry out research between distant sites inexpensively” (NRC, 1996).  Today, innovative technology use in the education sector continues.

One interesting organisation, One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), has set a goal of one connected laptop for every child in the world. It is the foundation of a global network for the younger members of our communities. The laptops should be a purpose-built educational tool that is rugged, low-cost, low-power and connected. The connected principle is vital because, in their words, “there’s neat stuff to learn on the internet”. OLPC is threatening to change our vision of a school; an “expanded school” grows well beyond the walls of the classroom, encompassing varying generations, languages and cultures. It is hoped that a sustained investment in such technical and human resources in developing countries would lessen ties of dependency so that developing countries would not be kept economically subservient by the need for western equipment and expertise.

Looking past education, the importance of being commercially connected to customers, suppliers and employees is almost taken for granted in organisations today. Virtually every company uses a website as a low-cost marketing tool. Many increase their customer base by selling goods and services online. The cost of doing so has slashed dramatically and will continue to do so. The first undersea fibre-optic cable reached East Africa in a $700m project that was largely funded by African investors and is expected to ‘reduce business costs, create an e-commerce sector and open up the region to foreign direct investment’. Even the material costs are crashing, with standard fibre-optic cable prices falling by 90% from a decade ago. Is this the sort of tipping-point that will see foreign investment flourish on the African continent?

Madon (2000) considers such technological transfer as a vital contribution to development, so long as the technology result is appropriate for the local context. Information technology, in this sense, is malleable. In mid-May, Facebook launched a zero cost mobile platform (appropriately named; it is limited – you can’t play Farmville) in partnership with a whole host of mobile operators around the world.

MTN is one of these operators, boasting a significant market share across the African continent. With this partnership, web users from Sudan, Swaziland or Benin with access to a MTN mobile phone can access Facebook for free. Madon isn’t suggesting that a Facebook poke or status update is going to solve poverty issues. He is suggesting, though, that a new stage of development ‘centred on the production, diffusion, acquisition and usage of information and communication technologies throughout society’ could be of assistance. Certainly, the positive correlation between the number of Internet hosts in a country and the UNDP Human Development Index is more than just a coincidence.


NRC (1996) Bridge builders: African experience with information and communication technology, National Research Council, National Academy Press

Madon, S (2000) The Internet and Socio-economic development: Exploring the interaction, Information Technology and People, 13(2): 85-101

Beyond 2010: South Africa post-World Cup

Way back in May 2004 the seeds of a soon to be abandoned FIFA World Cup host rotation policy selected the African continent to welcome the tournament in 2010. As the continent’s wealthiest state, South Africa was clear favourite to play host at the quadrennial circus, and duly outlasted competing bids from Morocco and Egypt. After initial celebrations passed, the South African government and the FIFA executive committee figured they should put some money into a collective pot. Six years later, after turning out all of their pockets, the pot had spent massively, to the tune of $6.1 billion, $5 billion of which was from the South African government.

Among the media covering the 2010 World Cup, there are two general camps: those who believe the World Cup will contribute to development in South Africa, and potentially the African continent as a whole; and those who believe the injection of cash for a couple of football matches is ill-spent and South Africa will be counting the cost for years to come. The second camp has a substantial basis for their argument, largely founded on a recent history of ineffective investment in Africa, either through aid or from the little foreign direct investment the continent has seen. To invest billions of dollars on football stadia in a country where a third of the population live on less than $2 dollars a day seems like an outrageous proposition. Stadiums, even in developed countries, are notoriously poor investments.

“You’re not necessarily building something with a symbiotic relationship with other kinds of economic activities” suggests Rob Baade, president of the International Association of Sports Economists. “That’s due to the fact that stadiums are infrequently used, so there’s a lot of dead time”. ESPN football writer Leander Schaerlaeckens similarly questions the South African government’s use of finances, particularly in a country rife with AIDS and crime. He suggests numerous alternatives to investing in a World Cup. For example, how far would $5 billion go if it were to be spent building and improving hospitals or schools? It’s a safe argument. Investment in education and health are sure fire ways to get the thumbs up from development professionals: the sustainable framework, costs spread over relatively large areas and tangible benefits for the vast majority of citizens.

Can a month long football party promote development in such a way? Schaerlaeckens suggests such a perspective is “lavishly optimistic, bordering perhaps on the delusional”. The other camp, however, are more buoyant. Education and health are important development indicators. Investment in infrastructure and telecommunications are increasingly relevant, particularly in a country of South Africa’s standing. Sibusiso Ndebele, South Africa’s Transport Minister, sees investment in his sector as fundamental to structural development within the country. “The 2010 FIFA World Cup”, he hopes, “will leave a lasting transport legacy, way beyond 2010”. President, Jacob Zuma, breaks this legacy down numerically. He expects 85 percent of any South African city’s population to be living within a kilometre of an integrated rapid public transport network feeder or corridor by 2020. Transport, clearly, is inextricably linked to other facets of development.

One facet is jobs. With rail, roads and airports requiring skilled labour and continued maintenance, it is expected that, discounting the abnormal surge during the World Cup, employment levels will increase from previous levels. Another development facet is IT and communications, clearly evident in the new National Transport Command Centre and a live, interactive website. Telecommunications companies, including Schaerlaeckens’ very own ESPN, demand the latest communication infrastructure to meet demand on a global scale. In mid July when the majority have left, infrastructure, and a core of skilled workers, will remain. Are their skills transferable? Can they make use of the infrastructure to benefit other sectors, education for example?

South Africa had 6 years of definite preparation. They have had the world’s media on tender hooks and FIFA’s crosshairs centred on their chest every step of the way. They’ve had development professionals squabbling over the morality of it all and economists predicting cataclysmic ruin. They’ve redeveloped stadiums, laid roads and built airports. FIFA are using South Africa for their game. Time will tell if South Africa can use FIFA for their gain.