Last week’s conference Critical Investigations into Humanitarianism in Africa, hosted by UC Irvine’s Center for Global Peace and Conflict Studies (CGPACS) began in a rather unconventional way, CGPACS Director Cecelia Lynch revealed as she welcomed participants Friday morning.
Although Lynch, who also serves as a professor of political science at UCI, had long hoped to gather academics for a conference on Africa, it wasn’t until last winter after she spoke with Chancellor [Drake] during the intermission of a play and found him enthusiastic about the idea that the event really took off.
In an interview before the event, Lynch spoke about the need for more critical academic scholarship on Africa.
“In political science and other fields, Africa was marginalized,” Lynch said. “Now it’s trendy, but conferences on Africa tend to look at how to improve things technically.”
In contrast, this conference is focused more on the larger picture and on the reaction the people who are being served, according to Lynch.
Andrew Apter, Lynch’s counterpart at UC Los Angeles’ James S. Coleman African Studies Center, also expressed a hope that the conference, coming right before President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration, marked a new phase for academia.
“Critique,” he said, “has been an endangered practice in the last eight years.” He explained the mix of NGOs, social scientists and health scientists in the room by saying, “The spirit of critique is a dialectic between theory and practice.”
Over the next two days, scholars and practitioners from many disciplines participated in panels on humanitarianism in Africa. Topics covered included the role of NGOs, aid as a tool of neoliberalism, the phenomenon of celebrity adoption, the role of religious organizations, medical interventions and law.
The conference included a discussion of humanitarianism in literature, art and film. Panelists Laura J. Mitchell, assistant professor of history at UCI discussed early European humanitarian gestures while Ngugi wa Thiong’o, distinguished professor of comparative literature and director of the International Center for Writing and Translation read from his book “Wizard of the Crow,” a fable and satire of African despotism and politics.
Rounding out the panel was Adam Finck representing the youth-oriented Invisible Children, Inc. Finck showed several film clips from the organization’s Web site chronicling the original trip by Southern California residents Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey and Lauren Poole to Uganda that resulted in “Invisible Children: Rough Cut,” their documentary film about the night commuting that around 52,000 Ugandan children were forced to endure as to avoid abduction by the Lord’s Resistance Army.
Further clips documented the creation of Invisible Children, Inc. and its efforts to raise awareness of the plight of Ugandan children, now nearly liberated from LRA abduction, but without even basic school equipment or buildings. Invisible Children, Inc. shifted its aims to raise money through direct donations with a project titled “Schools For Schools.”
The non-profit group is notable for engaging youth as its primary demographic, raising awareness through liberal use of multimedia on its Web site.
“Our media stays away from a message of guilt and emphasizes a message of hope,” Finck said.
During a question-and-answer session following the panel, an audience member criticized Invisible Children, Inc.’s message as infantilizing Africa as needing to be saved by the white middle-class kids portrayed in their video clips. Another audience member critiqued the lack of ethnic diversity apparent in Invisible Children, Inc.’s videos.
“We see it as creating camaraderie among peers,” Finck said, emphasizing the group’s intentions for international friendship.
Finck took the harsh audience reactions in stride.
“The criticism and dialogue is appreciated … I’m concerned with people’s reactions to this but most concerned with the reactions of the millennial generation that is having a sustainable impact on Central Uganda,” Finck said.
“Who was in here – academics, NGO workers, experts … [there was] a population that was missing,” Finck said. “I think the student population would’ve reacted differently. I would’ve loved to see this kind of conference with a significant student population.”
Other speakers included Daudi Kaliisa of San Luis Obispo-based Lifewater.org, Kristen Irving of Causecast and Célestin Monga, who represented the World Bank. Although the World Bank does not do charity, Monga maintained that “most of the loans that we give to very poor countries are interest-free.”
Kallisa laid out a substantial criticism of NGO efforts and their biggest setbacks. The problem starts with poor resource management, which prevents hiring the best experts and manpower in the field.
Local panelists Debra Antista-Bianchi and Allison Hart from Irvine represented The Africa Project, a grassroots NGO that Bianchi helped found in 2003 when inspired by the BBC documentary “Orphans of Nkandla.” The organization collects donations to sponsor school lunches for impoverished children in Nkandla and additionally to raises money for uniforms and school supplies. The all-volunteer organization includes a Youth Board of around 46 young people from around Orange County, including a small number from UCI.
Crystal Murphy, a graduate student in Planning, Policy and Design, presented her paper on the complexities of microfinance in northern Uganda and southern Sudan. As someone who wants “to be an activist but … also want[s] to be an academic,” Murphy found the debate between the academics and the practitioners “really useful” and unlike anything she had heard in the field.
“The struggle,” Murphy went on to say, “is that we realize there is no perfect intervention. We realize that being an academic is not going to help anybody if we just sit there and criticize. There’s got to be some sort of tug and pull.”
Lauren Segal, the founder of NextAid, a Los Angeles based non-profit that works with AIDS orphans in southern Africa, agreed.
“This conversation is so important,” she said. “There are many people like myself, who have founded a non-profit organization, who have African partners, who need to learn so much.”
Segal said she understands the concerns of scholars about the true efficacy of international aid but believes that practitioners have something very important to offer academics working on humanitarianism in Africa.
“The danger is that all that stuff can go right over people’s heads.” Some NGOs do more harm than good, she acknowledges, but academics need non-profits like her “to incorporate [these theories] into practice,” to implement the “macro-changes they [academics] demand.” She hopes that this conference is the beginning of a closer relationship between the two groups, the beginning “of a marriage between academia and the people who are doing the work on the ground.”
“This conference was incredibly worthwhile to me,” Lynch said after the last panel. “There’s so much you need to do … I learned a lot from it. This isn’t the end of the conversation. It’s just the beginning.”
Lynch added that the first legacy of this conference will be an ongoing blog, available in the future at www.cgpacs.uci.edu.