Wednesday, February 22, 2012

I am no longer blogging on this page. Please visit or

See you there!
gypsy rose

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

I'm in Arua, Uganda at the moment at an internet cafe so no big updates right now, but coming soon. Just a funny little story for you in the meantime.

Me: What do you think these bites are? (showing two small bug bites on my arm)

CoWorker: Could it be a mosquito (pronounced mo-skwee-toe)

Me: No, this is a mosquito bite (showing him a different one)

CW: It looks like a rash, could it be the sunshine did it?

Me: No... wait... I'm not allergic to sunshine...

Realization of the day: Oh you get red when you go in the sun? Thus it makes sense that you're allergic to sunshine. It actually kind of does!

Friday, February 17, 2012

LGBT Rights (or lack thereof) in Uganda

(Just a little note: every time you see a word underlined or in blue on this blog, there is a link to a related article, if you'd like more background information)

Uganda has been in the news lately. Granted, if you don't follow East African news, perhaps it hasn't crossed your desk or screen yet. Uganda currently has a bill in Parliament which proscribes the death penalty for anyone convicted of 'aggravated homosexuality'. Alternatively, if one is convicted of 'the offense of homosexuality', you are merely sentenced to life in prison. So what falls under 'aggravated homosexuality' that merits the death penalty? To summarize: if: the person is HIV positive, is a parent or authority figure, administers intoxicating substances, or engages with a minor or someone with disabilities, or is a repeat offender of 'the offense of homosexuality'. But wait, there's more. Ugandans can be extradited back to the country for engaging in homosexual acts outside of the country, and the bill includes punishment for individuals, companies, media organizations or non-governmental organizations who know gay people, or support them.

The bill has, expectedly, drawn a lot of criticism from the West as well as from human and civil rights organizations. I won't begin to get into why killing people for their sexual preference or HIV status is wrong. Granted, you get 'merely' life in prison for your first offense. But punishing people for those qualities isn't in line with any sort of respect for people's rights either. So we're clear that I am not in support of this bill in anyway, and am hopeful that it either won't make it through Parliament, or will be amended before it does. However, the proposal on the table at the moment for amending it is to remove the death penalty, but leave the rest.

But. Let me show you a headline from BBC online: 'Uganda Man Jailed for Killing Gay Activist David Kato'. If you read the article you will find that a Ugandan newspaper published a list of homosexuals, with the headline, 'Hang Them' above it. Mr. Kato's name was on this list. You will also find that apparently the man defended himself in court by saying that Mr. Kato made sexual advances towards him, which made him outraged, and so be bludgeoned him to death with a hammer. The perpetrator received 30 years in prison for the murder, following what was called 'an usually speedy trial'. Seems like a hate crime from this story, no doubt.

But then, let's talk to someone Ugandan who lives in Kampala, where the crime took place. Now we hear a different story. We hear that while most of the above is true, some of it is not. Yes, Mr. Kato was gay, yes he was a gay teacher (which some people in Uganda take to mean he was 'recruiting' children' or abusing them). But apparently, the West took the story that Mr. Kato was a gay rights activist and ran with it. According to the man I talked to, Mr. Kato was gay, but so was his killer. They were long term partners. This was a case of domestic violence between two gay men. The man who was convicted simply used Mr. Kato's 'sexual advances' as a defense because he thought it would garner sympathy from the jury, and to avoid the consequences of being openly gay and serving time in prison. Additionally, the police issued a statement saying that Kato's death was in no way connected to his role as an LGBT advocate, and in fact called the murder a consequence of an attempted robbery.

Reading this summary of the summaries, I have an initial urge to believe one over the other, I am inclined to believe that Uganda wanted to cover up a hate crime. But why? Why would the state cover up a crime that they themselves are trying to essentially turn into law, that someone who is openly gay deserves to be killed. They might cover it up to avoid international criticism. Or alternatively, the Western media might hear that a gay rights activist had been murdered, and assume that it was a hate crime, because it demonstrates the intolerance of the country, that they have seen examples of in the past. This death occurred during the time when the bill to increase penalties for being convicted of homosexuality was already in Parliament, so perhaps we should ask ourselves, who could stand to benefit from Mr. Kato's death. It brought international attention to the harsh persecution of members of the LGBT community in the country, but alternatively justifies such killing, as the man who murdered Mr. Kato was convicted of second degree murder rather than first, as he had 'had no choice but to act in self defense' to protect himself from the advances of a gay man. Either way the LGBT rights movement in Uganda lost a vocal advocate. Whether he was targeted because of his activism, because of his sexual identity and forwardness, or was a victim of domestic violence cannot be known with absolute certainty. Unless of course evidence exists as to the motive or premeditation of the murder that has not yet come to light. For now we rely on the statement of the man who murdered Mr. Kato, and a legal system in a country where homosexuality is condemned.

What do you think? What was the real motivation behind the murder, the defense, and the sentencing? What should and will happen with the bill currently being reviewed in the Parliament?

Friday, February 10, 2012

Humanitarian Assistance and Religion

(I’ve arrived in Kampala and am safe and sound!)
I am currently en route to Uganda and contemplating where to start this new round of blog entries. First let me tell you that I’ll be in Uganda through mid-March and then will travel to Liberia until the end of April. More details to come on the work and all sorts of other exciting things.But, given that I’m on an airplane, let’s talk about one of the things that often occur to me when traveling, which is that it seems like I’m surrounded by people on missions or church trips on every flight. It’s really incredible how many people go to and from these countries regularly, whether to provide aid and development assistance, or to spread the gospel and assist local churches. There are also school and volunteer trips and the like, generally short term things working with particular communities.

Let’s focus on religiously based groups that engage in this sort of work. Everywhere I have worked I have encountered members of religious organizations. There were Mormon missionaries on my daily bus in Ecuador, Seventh Day Adventist missionaries on bicycles in the Dominican Republic, people who left Liberia during the conflict and returned to work with local churches, and religious groups from the Middle East supporting work in Indonesia.

I think it’s easy to make a snap judgment about whether or not development work should be tied to religion, but as with much of this sort of work, it usually depends on the organization. On the positive side, religion has the potential to unite groups of people who might otherwise not interact. People are often willing to work for groups associated with their religion, as they view it as a way to give back as well as a way to support and spread their faith. Alternatively, religion can be divisive; for example if two religions co-exist in a particular area and an outside organization only provides services to the members of one group this can lead to everything from anger from those not receiving support, ostracization among groups that may have been friendly in the past. Which of these outcomes occurs has much to do with the organization and its goals, both explicit and implicit, and their inclusivity or marginalization of those with different backgrounds.

I believe it is important to look at ethical guidelines when evaluating any emergency response or development program, and those sponsored or led by religious organizations should be no different. The first element of such work is “Do No Harm”; all programs must be considered for both their potential positive and negative outcomes, and must be evaluated to ensure that participants do not experienced unanticipated negative consequences from their participation. In addition to this, the issue of coercion must be addressed, because how coercion is defined is context specific. For example: if I tell you that I’ll give you a flu shot for free in return for answering my questionnaire, and you have health insurance, so you can access the flu shot without me, then that is not a coercive incentive for participation in any given program. However, if you’re uninsured and your only means for protection against the flu is to participate in my research or program, then the practice may be coercive, as there are potential negative consequences for you not participating, ie you get the flu.
Let’s translate this to Uganda for example: if a religious organization offers free education to all children at a local school, without demanding that they worship at this school or adhere to those beliefs, then they are simply supplementing the public education system. However, if this religious school is of superior quality to the public school, and the only way to enroll is to subscribe to adhere to a particular belief system, both children and parents may be coerced into subverting their own personal beliefs for their children’s education.

An actual example is where I was in an island country and while there were public schools (one public high school in the country) the high school that was widely regarded as the best was private and Mormon run (my memory might be failing me, it could be Seventh Day Adventist). If you attended the church associated with the school, your children attended school for free, however if you were a member of a different church (regardless if it was also Christian) your children had to pay fees to enroll. So, for access to quality education for their children, parents changed (or pretended to change) their religious beliefs. In my book this is coercion, worship my god or pay money you don’t have to educate your children?

And so, as you may have noticed with my blog entries, there really is no clear cut answer here. I think what is important is that we hold all development organizations, religious or not, to the same ethical standards. Religious organizations should not be allowed to discriminate based on race, creed, ethnicity, ability, religion, or anything else. Religious organizations do not get a pass on equal promotion of human rights simply because they are targeting a particular population. 
There have been a variety of instances where the intervention of religious organizations in conflict zones, South Sudan during the conflict for instance, has actually fueled the conflict itself. In an effort to assist South Sudan (viewed as the ‘Christian’ side of the North/South war, but that’s a little simplistic in truth), foreign Christian organizations provided funding to the SPLA, or Southern Sudanese liberation group, which is now officially in power in the country. Without the funding (and access to weapons according to some sources) provided by these external sources, the war might have ended long before it did.

There are religious groups that do great work, and there are those that miss the mark, as can be said about humanitarian and development groups in general. But let’s hold everyone to the same standard, because no matter whether you’re doing the work for your God or your conscience, the potential for unintended negative consequences for those you want to help has the potential to be equally devastating.

What do you think about intertwining religion and humanitarian assistance? Is it a good way to tap into commitment to a cause and funding, or is it similar to government and religion (according to my Western background) and the two should be separated lest they corrupt one another?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Humanitarian Space

Humanitarian space "is  often used to denote areas to which humanitarian agencies have safe and protected access, in order to provide urgent relief assistance. This is generally dependent on the consent and cooperation of the controlling authorities," according to

One of the goals of this blog, in addition to sharing personal experiences and keeping me from tearing my hair out, is to share the work I do, and to give people a better understanding of what the humanitarian sector is, and what it means to be a part of it. One of the questions I am often asked is how I choose where I will work. While I am not at a point in my career where I get to choose explicitly where I will work, I can turn down any assignment I like. It occurred to me the other day that the places I wouldn't consider working all have something in common, the humanitarian space in those countries (or some cross-border conflicts) is shrinking or practically non-existent, which in turn would make it difficult to accomplish whatever my task was, but it would also have the potentially to considerably increase the personal danger of the assignment.

Some argue that humanitarian work can be traced back to the Red Cross, workers could run onto battlefields, after the fighting was over, to aid those who were injured on either side of the fight. That is an excellent example of protected humanitarian space, you aren't associated with fighting forces on either side for offering medical and other aid. However the lines between fighting forces and humanitarian groups have continued to be blurred, especially over the past two decades, to the point where humanitarian workers may be in just as much danger as members of the military, except they don't get bullet proof vests or guns. You've heard about humanitarian workers being kidnapped or killed in conflicts where they were working, this is the ultimate violation of humanitarian space, where, for whatever reason, one armed group believes that a humanitarian group is aiding the other side, and is therefore classifiable as an enemy combatant. 

There are overt and covert ways that humanitarian space can be compromised. The most recent overt example is where individuals identifying themselves as employees of USAID (the US Agency for International Development - intended to be a state run humanitarian organization) were later identified as spies in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. USAID is not only an organization that does work of its own, but also funds a litany of organizations all over the world. With the connection now confirmed between the CIA and USAID, the ability of USAID and anyone funded by them to claim neutrality in a conflict in which the US has an interest is diminished.

Above is an example of when partisan influences work their way into the humanitarian sphere, but another important way that humanitarian space is compromised is when members of fighting forces participate in humanitarian work. If the US military is in Afghanistan handing out food or blankets or stoves or what have you, they are are generally doing it to build goodwill and help gain the support of the local population. But then suppose I work for the Norwegian Refugee Council and the next day I'm giving out out blankets and stoves; there can be confusion in the minds of local people where the line between the military and the humanitarian spheres lies. What this can lead to is that humanitarian workers are assumed to be partisan, rather than the opposite.

Humanitarian organizations that expect to be granted humanitarian space in which to provide assistance are expected to abide by the principles of impartiality, neutrality, and independence. This means that they should provide assistance to both sides of the conflict, should not do anything to support or diminish the capabilities of either side, and should not be susceptible to outside influences. Many organizations do not take grants or donations from large organizations or governments as it could compromise their impartiality in the eyes of others, as well as their independence as they may be beholden to this funding their activities.

It is in places where humanitarian space has diminished the most: Somalia, Iraq, or Pakistan among others, where humanitarian workers are most at risk, and where you are most likely to hear of them being kidnapped or killed (in my experience, I do not have data on this, but this article addresses related research). One last element that has contributed to greater compromises in humanitarian space is the nature of war. Humanitarian space finds its jurisdiction in international law and the Geneva conventions. But today more wars are between non-state actors, or non-state actors and the state, and these groups are less likely to be held accountable for upholding the Geneva conventions, as they technically are not a party to them. 

We all have our limits, and realizing that mine are based in reality, rather than simply in fear, is comforting to me. In most places I have worked humanitarian workers are viewed as a nuisance (another survey!) at worst, and with gratitude at best. I think humanitarian workers themselves absolutely have a role to play in maintaining their neutrality, but governments must also realize that they put hundreds of thousands of people at risk when they blur the lines by having the military engage in humanitarian work, or ask humanitarian workers to engage in non-neutral activities. There are conflicts where all outsiders are seen as the enemy, as is shown clearly in In the Land of Blood and Honey (please see my post of January 9, 2012 for my review of the film), where Serbian forces attack UN peacekeepers, associating them with outside forces attempting to end the conflict. It is only through ongoing respect of and persistent maintenance of humanitarian space that those employing that space can do their jobs safely. 

However, an important question is that given that the nature of war is changing, and non-state actors often decline to abide by international law, how can this space be protected? The International Red Cross wrote an article addressing this question in Afghanistan. Also the Forced Migration Review dedicated an entire issue to non-state actors and displacement. I have much to learn about the subject, but for the time being will continue to avoid locations where being an American means being associated with the military. And as an aside, this is in no way a judgement of humanitarian workers living in working in places where humanitarian space is diminishing as we speak. You are brave; you are doing good work; and just because the military is active in a particular place does not mean people there are any less deserving or in need of support. Stay safe.