Archive for February, 2013

The Shoehorn

February 11, 2013

Here’s another in an occasional series about a remarkable London journalism-plus-agitprop magazine, for which I once wrote. This time: the United Nations, or: how to shoehorn a pretty good article into the editorial agenda and mangle the result in the process. 


If you are a small and poorly-resourced country, you can still wield influence at the United Nations, provided you are focused, united and diligent.

Indeed. I can cite the example of my own country of origin, The Netherlands, tiny but certainly not poorly resourced. Over the past 20-odd years, though, it has substantially dropped the ball on international issues, a perfect reflection of the nation’s newfound obsession with its own navel. It got so bad that one major international magazine (and I think it was The Economist) famously described the Lowlands as “small, pink and irrelevant”. Mind you: that was before the rise of Geert Wilders’ dog and pony show messed up the country’s reputation even further…

The simple truth quoted above was taught by experience and brought home by representatives to the UN from Kenya, Gabon and emerging African heavyweight Angola. But they appear in a story about the UN in this month’s New African, which leads a crusade against a selected few large international organisations. Is there something terribly wrong with the UN?

From the magazine

From the magazine

Where to begin?

It has sclerotic bureaucracies, to start with one of its minor ailments. It is prone to cynical political horse-trading, for instance for the much-hyped Millennium Development Goals. Nobody believed in them and the whole shebang has been quietly dropped since. You can also take a look at the behaviour of various “UN Families” in countries in and around Africa, behaving like wasteful parallel governments that thrive on foreign resources.

And what about the out-of-date Security Council, which is dominated by two powers that still matter (China and the USA) and three ageing former empires (Great Britain, France and Russia)? Can we get rid of The Obsolete Three and replace them with Nigeria, Brazil and India? Thank you.

Early on, the author of the story zooms in on Kofi Annan, the former head of the large Department of Peacekeeping Operations. He went on to become one of the UN’s “most charismatic Secretary Generals, ever.” Fine. But why does she not mention the momentous event that Annan and his Department watched from the sidelines – the Rwanda genocide? There is no shortage of material about it (Samantha Power’s Bystanders to Genocide springs to mind) and it would have told us quite a lot about what is wrong with the UN.

But none of the above qualifies. I can imagine the editor poring over the story and thinking: but why does she not write about…what I asked her to cover? Because, you guessed it, the UN has a major flaw. It is…wait for it…racist. One diplomat – and the only anonymous one in the entire story – pontificates that Africans at the UN are not taken seriously and the only African countries that matter have stuff that the West needs.

AHA! The West! Home to those racist, colonial, slave trading….er, Not Very Nice People. Somehow, this meme had to be woven into the piece. I think the author, having done a decent job, was either sent back to find that quote – or it was made up. Why would this diplomat not want to be named? You don’t put your career on the line with such a quote – not in an organisation where there is a daily shower of all the politically correct buzzings: race, gender,climate change and tolerance, nay: acceptance of the manifold isms in the world. So if he said what was quoted, he has chosen to remain anonymous…out of sheer, ocean-deep embarrassment.


This one is rather mild. I am working on a more spectacular one, relating to New African’s hostility to the International Criminal Court. A year ago, that hostility spawned an absolute trainwreck of an article. Coming up at some point in time! 


February 3, 2013

The Malian captain who staged a coup d’état last year (and handed two-thirds of his country on a silver plate to the bands of criminals that are currently being removed) had been trained…in the United States. Nothing new here. Most of the worst human rights abusers in uniform who in the past visited their reign of terror on the citizens of various countries in Latin America had received training…in the United States.

But this piece is not about how the USA is the wellspring of all evils in the world. For that we have The Guardian, an eternal kindergarten playground for self-appointed progressives whose lives, these days, revolve mainly around their own navels.

No, this is about training. Training! Workshops! Meetings! But most of all: training! Today, this constitutes, without any doubt, the prime activity of the development set.

Old style: development worker arrives in village, digs wells, builds schools, designs irrigation scheme – and leaves. The villagers, whose priorities lie elsewhere, use the new facilities for a while, until they fall into disrepair. Exceptions duly noted. On a more spectacular scale, entire factories worth billions have been thusly erected and never used.

But then it was decided that is was a most inefficient way of spending development funds. A better method was found.

New style. A caravan of Four Wheel Drives arrives at an expensive hotel. Invitations have been emailed to a selected group of individuals, who duly show up – expenses paid – and gather in several rooms to receive training. Four days later the caravan departs (someone having picked up the tab) and splits: one part goes to the airport; another to the nicer parts of town. Notes and minutes are emailed, perused and forgotten.

The reverse also happens. Groups of locals are hauled through the excruciatingly humiliating process of obtaining visas for rich countries that have developed a quivering fear of “foreigners”. They arrive in said rich countries and are transported to an expensive hotel. They gather in several rooms to receive…you know the drill.

For hotel, you can also read “military base”, “radio station” or even “company”. Usually, the people thus trained have priorities that are not necessarily reflected in the training program. Practical priorities, or political ones. Priorities of which the training organisers are, in the main, blissfully unaware.

Training can of course be useful. Say, someone wants to be a radio broadcaster, like me. Stands to reason that receiving training to become one is a perfectly rational course of action. However…the use of that new expertise is another thing altogether. Will it be used for fair and balanced reporting? That depends on factors that are outside the remit of trainer and trainee alike.

And the same can reasonably be said for others. Say, someone wants to be an army captain, unlike me. Receiving military training is, once again, highly logical. Captain Sanogo, the Malian putschist, received such, in the USA. He must have been told a thousand times that the army takes its orders from politicians, not the other way around. But practical and political priorities compelled him to forget those expensive lessons – and those factors were clearly outside the remit of trainers and trainees alike.

And here lies, I think, the problem with the development set’s newfound activity. Like the village projects before it, all those training sessions are based, implicitly, on the notion that the natives must first be studied and then improved, irrespective of their own priorities. In one word: hubris. The same hubris that compelled one development bureaucrat to inform me, years ago, that implicating the recipients of aid projects in the design of such projects was, of course, complete nonsense.

Indeed. On the other hand, the context-free training of people makes perfect sense…to the hospitality industry. I’m off to training!