Muddy Notebook

February 9, 2009

Another chance in Somalia

Here’s a report worth reading from the genocide-prevention group, Enough, a project of the Center for American Progress, on the window of opportunity for stabilizing Somalia and its region now that the Ethiopian troops have withdrawn. The United States botched its handling of the Islamic Courts party’s rise to power, treating everyone in the conservative Muslim group as if they were the same as the Taliban. Rather than wooing the more centrist leaders of the group, the U.S. encouraged Ethiopia to invade in 2006 and install an interim government that never, ever had popular support. More than two years later, Ethiopian troops have withdrawn, the interim government has (not surprisingly) failed, and the Islamic Courts is in charge again. Oh, and of course in these events, civilians once again were caught in extreme violence and a leadership vacuum, with the turmoil spilling over into neighboring countries. Enough’s John Prendergast predicted this from the start, so it’s worth hearing what the organization he co-founded has to say about how Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can do to try to stabilize Somalia, rather than make matters worse.


January 22, 2009

New tone with new administration

I listened this morning to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speak to State Department staffers on the first day of her new job. She hit all of the right notes to a civil-service staff of diplomatic professionals who had every right to feel beleaguered by the infighting and the disrespect for dipliomacy that marked so much of the Bush administration. She made clear that US foreign and national security policy had three legs — diplomacy, development and defense — and that the first two were thebest ways to keep America safe and promote its values and leadership around the world.  A visit to the State Depatrment by President Obama today will also be powerful proof of the new attitude in Washington toward what’s called ‘soft power.’  How I have longed to see this switch. You can’t take military options off the table, but war should be the last option when vigorous attempts to use the others have failed. 

Considering the well-publicized bickering between Donald Rumsfeld’s Defense Department and Secretary of State Colin Powell in the first bush term (with Rumsfeld usually the winner), State Department staffers – and world leaders – needed to hear from Clinton and President Obama that the diplomats in his administration are equals, not junior partners, in this White House.

July 9, 2008

A TV must-see on modern slavery

I’m reprinting this note, which I got today from Ben Skinner, who wrote the new book, “A Crime So Monstrous,” about human trafficking around the world. It’s a vital issues that gets far too little attention – and this is one of those issues that could truly be helped by public pressure. If Kenya can outlaw smoking in public places, surely human trafficking can be curtailed.

Ignore what may come across as a sales-pitch tone of the note below. Ben is right that a bump in sales of his book, as well as strong viewership of the Nightline episode, send a strong message to media decisionmakers and puts more attention on this issue: 

Tonight [Tuesday, July 8, 2008] at 11:30PM EST, ABC Nightline will air an episode inspired by the first chapter of A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery. I am writing to encourage you to watch the show, and to forward this email liberally to encourage others to do the same.

Early reviews are that the piece is devastating. Good Morning America broadcast a teaser, which you can view here: .

Finally, if you have not already done so, please visit There you can read about the book and the cause. Then please consider buying a copy today: a spike in sales will bring attention to the cause, and a portion of the proceeds will go to Free The Slaves and Anti-Slavery International, the American and British wings of the oldest human rights organization.

Thank you all. There are more slaves today than ever before. But, by working together, we can end human bondage and finally complete the “unfinished work” that Lincoln spoke of on that Thursday afternoon in Gettysburg.


June 27, 2008

Media stereotypes

These notes are the outline of a presentation I made at the University of Pennsylvania’s 2008 Summer Institute for Middle & High School Teachers:

“Demystifying Stereotypes and Understanding Contemporary Cultures in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East”

June 26, 2008


I’ve seen humanitarian issues from both sides of the fence: as a journalist and as a humanitarian worker.

I’ll be focusing on Africa, but media stereotyping is true of impoverished countries around the world, especially when a crisis occurs.

There are levels or layers of stereotyping: Stereotyping countries, stereotyping poverty, stereotyping man-made disasters, including war, and, most of all, stereotyping people caught in disadvantaged circumstances.

I learned intimately about the stereotypes, not as a reporter, but when I worked outside the field:

For my master’s thesis, I followed children who daily scavenged in the Phnom Penh, Cambodia garbage dump for recyclable materials they could sell. I went to the dump every morning before work. One day, a reporter came. I took enormous pride in the fact that I tromped through the piles of garbage right alongside the children, while the journalists stayed on this path that cut through the middle of the dump. I never saw their story, but I’d bet a week’s paycheck it was a predictable story line that followed the stereotypes of poor, miserable children who needed garbage to live. But did the stories reflect the children’s strategies they had cleverly developed for getting the best recyclables, for figuring out how to set aside a safe play area near the dump. Did the story note the children and their parents had rules to try to be as hygienic as possible at the dump, including not eating food they found in it?

In Macedonia, I managed a refugee camp for ethnic Albanian Kosovars who fled from the former Yugoslavian province of Kosovo. What are the stereotypes of refugees?

The Kosovars had their own stereotypes of refugees. They were poor Africans, dressed in rags, who lived in lean-to’s with blue plastic roofs. NATO helped reinforce a genuine class difference – raising the question of when are stereotypes truths created by other forces or reasons – by building the refugee camps for Kosovars because of NATO’s involvement in fighting Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic. Also inherent in this example is racism – these camps, built for white Eastern Europeans were nicer than any refugee camp I’ve seen in Africa or Southeast Asia. Why did NATO intervene in this crisis? Why did NATO nations help in emergency relief in a way they don’t for other crises?

The camp I managed had sturdy tents instead of lean-to’s, many with wooden floors rather than mud, and stoves with a chimney to keep people warm. They demanded, and got, fresh baked bread every morning. There was a Spanish nongovernmental organization providing free cell phone service anywhere in the world.

A few journalists came to my camp. They talked to camp residents and undoubtedly got stories about how they had fled the oppression of Milosevic. But they didn’t stay around long enough to get to know the Graincafamily, whose mother strove everyday to make the camp and their tent feel like home to her four children. They didn’t learn about the elderly mother who didn’t have the means to care for her grown, severely disabled son, so she just left him in an empty tent one day. They didn’t know about the refugees who preyed on other refugees – you’re not a pure, innocent and good just because you’ve been a victim of violence. There were those in the camp who victimized others, who stole, who assaulted, leaders who were corrupt. A camp is like a city with all that.

The camp I worked with in Rwandadidn’t get treated nearly so royally. The Rwandan government wanted to move some refugees away from the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the Interahamwe still operated, to deeper inside Rwanda. Fine, but the camp wasn’t ready. Refugees ended up having to build their own housing and dig latrines even as their families already were living there.

This brings us back to Africa, and media stereotypes of it. I’ve passed around a couple of essays on the topic written by Africans that are good synopses of problems in media coverage.

I also did a very quick, unscientific content survey of African news headlines from Google news searches.

I searched for “Ghana,” one of Africa’s success stories, and go about 10,000 hits. The top topic was 12 stories on Ghanaian politics, all written by Ghanaian newspapers. Nothing in the American press, even though the United Statesis supposed to be all about democratization around the world. Too inside-poitics? Maybe, but the U.S. media has consistently had a problem with figuring out how to report and write international topics in a way that is interesting to Americans.

My search for “Nigeria” drew 33,935 hits overall. There were 1,336 articles on Nigerian government army clashes with militants in the oil-rich Niger Delta. It’s on economics, which busts one stereotype that African countries don’t have economic successes or strengths, but reinforces another that coverage and concern (they go together) often are driven by oil. Most of those 1,336 stories incidentally, were in foreign or business-specific publications or shows. There was one story in a Lagos newspaper on a nationwide teachers’ strike – something that easily could have been of interest to Americans and told the story about education in another land. There also was one story, in the Christian Science Monitor, on Nigeria’s writes gaining a worldwide audience.

The hottest African news these days is about the political crisis in Zimbabwe. There were 4,976 stories on African nations pressuring Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe to postpone the runoff election tomorrow that the opposition is shunning after government-led violence against it.

Those stories bust another stereotype: showing other African leaders condemning one of their own and urging him to shape up, which connects to a point made in one of the articles I gave you, “Africa’s Road to Better Media Image” by Salim Lone, in which the point was made that Africa needs to “put its own house in order” to help improve the continent’s image in western media. But it reinforces the stereotype of African nations all being a mess.

Let me leave you with these thoughts: You can’t stereotype stereotyping. It’s not purely bad covering humanitarian catastrophes. Coverage informs people about dire situations in isolated pockets of the world, and builds public pressure and public aid to help. We have seen what happens, in Rwanda or in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, when the media is not there to shine an international spotlight on atrocities. Some stereotypes are borne of real situations and biases that help maintain imbalances or bad circumstances.

What’s needed when reporting on or teaching about foreign locales and people is a fuller knowledge and context, and a desire to look behind the sexiest news, information-gathering that the Internet makes much easier these days, and to figure out how to make the mundane interesting and vital – because it is.

May 6, 2008

Update on the cyclone in Myanmar

Filed under: humanitarian,Myanmar — carolynthewriter @ 6:14 am
Tags: , ,

Not surprisingly, the estimate of the dead and missing has gone up dramatically since the cyclone hit over the weekend. Here’s an update from Bloomberg news. Also, check out the comment/link left on my previous post by a blogger at Global Voices Online. Here’s Bloomberg.

 May 6 (Bloomberg) — The death toll from the tropical cyclone that slammed into Myanmar three days ago rose to 10,000, according to the military government, making the storm Southeast Asia’s deadliest natural disaster since the 2004 tsunami.

About 3,000 people are missing in the Irrawaddy delta region alone, Myanmar government ministers told international diplomats yesterday, the United Nations news agency IRIN said.

Power was knocked out in the former capital, Yangon, and drinking water was contaminated in the city of 5 million people. “At least eight townships are completely or mostly destroyed,” said Pamela Sitko, a worker with the U.S.-based Christian relief group World Vision, who has spoken with colleagues in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

The U.S. yesterday offered an initial $250,000 in aid to the country, which is among the world’s least-developed, while castigating its military leadership for failing to alert citizens to the approaching cyclone.

“Although they were aware of the threat, Burma’s state-run media failed to issue a timely warning to citizens in the storm’s path,” First Lady Laura Bush said from the White House.

Death Toll

The death toll would be the worst since a 9.1 magnitude earthquake offshore from Aceh on Indonesia’s Sumatra in December 2004 caused a tsunami that swept across the Indian Ocean, devastating coastal communities and leaving more than 220,000 people dead or missing in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and other countries.

“The UN will do whatever it can to provide urgent humanitarian assistance,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in New York. “Because of the lack of communications, we are not quite sure what will be the total extent of damages and casualties. I am very much alarmed by incoming views that casualties have risen to more than 10,000, according to Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry.”

Cyclone Nargis packed winds of 120 miles (190 kilometers) per hour when it struck the coast May 3, sending the sea surging as much 12 feet (3.5 meters).

State of Emergency

The government declared a state of emergency in five low- lying provinces, mostly in the rice-growing Irrawaddy delta, where villages were flattened by winds and rain, the UN said. Myanmar has a population of 47.8 million.

“The water supply is unfit to drink in the aftermath of the destruction, raising fears of water-borne diseases” in Yangon, IRIN reported.

A UN disaster-assessment team was dispatched to Bangkok, and the world body is prepared to provide a grant from the $500 million Central Emergency Response Fund, created to rush aid to nations in need, spokesman Farhan Haq said.

The UN Children’s Fund and its Development Program, which have offices in Myanmar, stockpiled food, water and medicine before the storm. They will distribute water-purification tablets, plastic sheeting, food and cooking sets in Yangon and the delta region.

Flooding, blocked roads and disrupted communications are hampering efforts to assess the extent of the damage, according to the world body.

International Assistance

The junta has requested international assistance and UN officials are engaged in talks with Myanmar authorities on how best to help, IRIN cited Richard Horsey of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs as saying.

“Discussions are taking place in New York and on the ground about what is needed,” he said.

The price of food surged after the cyclone struck, according to the Irrawaddy newspaper, which is published by Myanmar dissidents in neighboring Thailand. An egg now costs between 200 and 250 kyat (20 cents) in Yangon versus 50-70 kyat before the storm, while one viss (1.6 kilograms) of pork is between 8,000 and 8,500 kyat, compared with 4,500 to 5,000.

Myanmar is regularly hit by cyclones that form in the Bay of Bengal between April and November. Nargis struck as Myanmar, which has been ruled by the military since 1962, prepares to hold a referendum on May 10 for a new constitution before elections scheduled for 2010.

The junta vowed to press ahead with the referendum after the storm, Agence France-Presse reported, citing a state-run newspaper. The U.S. State Department said April 11 the referendum is an attempt by the military to retain power. New York-based Human Rights Watch said the vote is being held in a climate of repression and called the referendum “a sham.”

“They’ve orchestrated this vote to give false legitimacy to their continued rule,” Laura Bush said at a press conference in Washington.

President George W. Bush has instructed the Treasury Department to freeze assets of Burmese state-owned companies that are held in U.S. banks, she added. The move would expand sanctions imposed last year.

May 5, 2008

The cyclone in Burma/Myanmar

Filed under: humanitarian,Myanmar — carolynthewriter @ 3:40 am
Tags: , ,

Any cyclone is a tragedy. But here’s betting the impact of the cyclone that struck Myanmar over the weekend will be worsened thanks to the isolation imposed by the repressive military regime that has ruled the Southeast Asian country once known as Burma for 46 years. Myanmar generally only makes the news when the regime further jails opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, or beats up and arrests pro-democracy Buddhist monks.

This time it’s a natural disaster – Cyclone Nagris, which tore through Yangon and the Irrawaddy Delta with winds hitting 120 miles per hour. At least 350 people were killed, with that number likely to grow. Watch to see whether the military junta’s policies of allowing few international aid groups in and restricting the access of those who are there, cripples the humanitarian mission that the cylcone requires. According to Reuters, Therje Skavdal, a regional official of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said it will “take a few days before we get an overview of the damage.”  Let’s see if junta officials will give international relief workers the access they will need to reach victims. Let’s see if U.N. agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross, which wisely stocked up on food and other supplies ahead of the storm, will be allowed to hire the personnel and other organizations they may need to distribute the aid, whether there are enough vehicles available for transport and whether roads, phone systems and other infrastructure slow down any operation. The junta’s secretiveness and wariness of outsiders may take an even bigger toll on the Burmese people.   

April 22, 2008

My absence

Filed under: About the author,Africa,humanitarian,Myanmar — carolynthewriter @ 7:53 am
Tags: , , ,

My mother, Ann. M. Davis, died April 15, 2008, in Cleveland, OhioPlease excuse me for not having posted an entry in so long. My mother, who has been ill since I was in Uganda last June (I cut that trip short to race to the hospital in Cleveland where she was in intensive care) passed away last week. It all seems so unreal to me, that this person who I’ve known and turned to all my life is not around. My brain is flitting all over the place, including thinking about the deaths of mothers in places, including Uganda. It is so easy for Americans to pay little or no attention to mass deaths that occur in faraway locales from war, disease or malnutrition. “We”  tend to dehumanize “them.” At the best, we turn those who suffer in countries such as Myanmar or the Democratic Republic of Congo into an abstract lump of victims — it’s much neater that way.

But I am thinking now about how much children in those settings must hurt from the deaths of their mother – the same as any child around the world. They often lose parents at far younger ages than we do here in the United States. Even as I acutely feel my own grief, I cannot imagine the sorrow of  children who lose their mother – wherever they happen to live.

March 23, 2008

A good idea from Northwestern competes for funding

Filed under: Africa,humanitarian,northern Uganda — carolynthewriter @ 7:07 am

I fear I’ve passed a funding competition deadline for mentioning this project, but I still think its approach is worth noting. Nathaniel Whittemore, director of the Center for Global Engagement at Northwestern University, left a comment on my previous post about the center’s efforts to teach undergraduates how best to help communities-in-need around the global. One of its programs sends 20 students to Uganda each year. 

The project that is entered in Netsquared’s Mashup Challenge is called

Its aim is to aggregate “information about where development projects happen, what they focus on, and who’s involved so that all of us concerned with supporting community-led efforts to rebuild northern Ugandan civil society can better share best practices, direct support, and collaborate for greater impact,” Whittemore wrote.

That might seem like a no-brainer. Who wouldn’t think information-sharing and collaboration can improve a project and its results? Yet anyone who has worked in international development relief and development know just how little collaboration there can be. Time constraints, and competition for funding, publicity and reputation can steamroll collaboration. So, too, can obliviousness by people on the ground who may have gotten their jobs because they were in the right place at the right time, rather than because they are development or relief professionals who know best practices. Even some of those professionals don’t always act as effectively as they could. Gasp! 

At the same time, Americans or U.S. organizations wanting to donate money or supplies to emergencies don’t always seek out information to make their contributions as effective as possible. When I was the manager of a Macedonian refugee camp for ethnic Albanians who had fled Kosovo in the late 1990s, I received a huge shipment of canned pork and beans from an overseas group. Did I mention the ethnic Albanians were Muslims who eat no pork? We regifted the shipment.

As northern Uganda moves from war to a tenuous peace, development groups are sure to flood into the region to take over from the emergency relief folks. There will be rampant duplication of efforts and donations made that relate to lower priorities. If can use students’ wit and Web prowess to improve development aid, they will themselves have made a tremendous contribution.      

March 17, 2008

Online tools to help you understand humanitarian crises

Filed under: humanitarian — carolynthewriter @ 9:09 pm

Reuters Alertnet is a great source of news for humanitarian crises – mandmade and natural – around the world. But I didn’t realize until this morning that it also has at least one tool that helps put these situations in clearer focus. I just discovered an interactive map that has categories including conflict, health, etc. You can click on the categories you’re interested in and the map becomes shaded in the color that goes with the topic. It’s fascinating, but you probably will get a better idea of how it works if you visit the site yourself. Its URL is:

I’ll post Web sites that have other useful online features as I come across them. 

March 14, 2008

“One Book, One Philadelphia: War’s Youngest Victims

Filed under: Africa,humanitarian — carolynthewriter @ 10:16 pm

Another program with excellent panelists will be held this Wednesday, March 19, from 6:30 p.m.-8 p.m. at the National Constitution Center. The Constitution Center has done a terrific job of periodically presenting forums and panels on humanitarian issues, and they’ve got a great lineup again this time. To talk about “War’s Youngest Victims,” the guests are:

  • Alyaa, born in Baghdad, Iraq and who earned a degree from the University of Baghdad’s College of Language. In 2003, she began working as an interpreter for Capt. Patrick Murphy – who, of course, is now Congressman Patrick Murphy. Because of her work with the United States, it became dangerous for her to stay in Iraq, and so last November she was granted asylum status in the U.S. She is now teaching Arabic language and applying to college. 
  • Jennifer Sime is grants and contracts unit director for the International Rescue Committee, a global nongovernmental organization based in New York that does relief work. (Full disclosure time: I worked for the IRC in 1999, as the manager of a refugee camp during the Kosovo crisis.) Sime has 13 years experience working for several international nonprofits in senior field positions.
  • Andrew Sisson joined the National War College faculty at the National Defense University in July 2007. He is a senior Foreign Service Officer on loan from the U.S. Agency for International Development. His work for the State Department included establishing the Office of the Director of foreign Assistance and serving as the senior coordinator for Africa.
  • Me, moderator.

This is a darn good panel to explore the issues surrounding war’s youngest victims, including how to prevent these conflicts in the first place, what role American intervention has had, the impact of war on children, and what can be done to help them during conflicts and after they have ended. For more information on attending, call 215-409-6700. You know, the more people who come to programs such as this one, the more the people who have the ability to put together programs such as this one have proof that there is great interest in humanitarian issues. So, don’t just complain you aren’t seeing and hearing enough on these issues. Come to this panel. Write in to editors of newspapers when you see stories on humanitarian crises. Learn something new and help encourage more coverage on these badly underreported situations around the world. 

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