(I've changed the name from "Rants" given that I can't really rant about many things that frustrate me here, at least not without getting into some sort of trouble. As such, you'll have to wait for the book.)

Monday, May 24, 2010

In the Margins

I confess that I've spent the last five months working. As much as I'd like to keep this blog somewhat entertaining, I was perusing my photos for 2010 and realized how little I've done that might thrill or excite. The only travel I've done is work related and even many of the social functions I've attended were, I'm afraid, connected to my job. Alas, it's probably best I don't keep readership statistics.

I do have vacation coming so don't give up hope that I might say or post something interesting.

World Economic Forum
And so it continues. A week and a half ago I attended an event of the World Economic Forum (Africa). It was an event targeting partnerships of non-governmental organizations, government and private sector. The WEF in general is a pretty big deal with lots of suits and important people talking about how important they are. I sipped cocktails with a few of them and had some nice snacks. While we have connections with the government, the private sector doesn't have a lot of reason to do business with us. There are a lot of cool ways that business is getting involved with development around the world but refugees in this country don't have a lot of freedoms that are necessary to connect aid organizations with the private sector. Nonetheless, it's fascinating to hear about what is being done and new models for lifting up the economic "bottom billion".

Europe Day
I also attended a Europe Day function hosted by the European Delegation here in Dar. I met the Head of Delegation (ambassador) a few weeks ago and he said he'd make sure I got invited even though I'm not a card-carrying European (though more than ten years in Europe and two years with the European Commission should at least get me a free drink). He and I chatted about the theme "Living on the Margins" in which he's been looking into what he can do for some of these disenfranchised people groups in this society (disabled, albinos, etc.). I told him that we work with disabled refugees and are exploring ways of ramping up what we do. He seemed interested and said I should meet some of the people he's been meeting with. He really wants to use his position to make a difference and I have to say, this is not a bad way to do it. He said, "It's going to be great. My place (his huge official residence) is going to be teeming with disabled people – a big change from the usually snobbery." It was pretty cool, I have to say.

The event was connected to a number of other events to bring attention to these people who live on the margins of this society. As he said, normally these are rather dull affairs in which, like the event above, important people stand around talking about their importance. Or people discuss who they saw at the yacht club the past weekend. Or they recount the events of their last holiday abroad. This was a bit different. Albinos, poor people, disabled in wheel chairs, orphans and so forth were in abundance. Though many of the usual suits sequestered themselves to discuss whatever, others seemed to be mixing it up with the representatives from the marginalized groups. The message, as he stated in his speech, is not that we should collectively feel sorry for the marginalized. It's that we should stop marginalizing them. Hire them. Buy their products. Greet them on the street. Treat them as equals.

Isolated events often contribute little to sustainable change. However it's hopeful that the relationships established will go a long ways to making a difference. As we work with the marginalized with the refugee population (sort of a marginalization within a marginalization), it gave me a bit of a boost. Good to see that people are out there making things happen. We have some significant struggles to get support for such things in a refugee camp but maybe there is some interest out there.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Refugee Update

It's been a while since I've provided an update as to what is going on with the refugee situation, in part because little has changed recently. Nonetheless, I feel that it is my duty to provide a meagre attempt at keeping the topic on the table lest you all get too distracted by other nasty things going on in the world.

Now you may or may not care about the plight of thousands of people whom you don't know. Or maybe you're thinking "I too would like to be publicly critical about events in a far away land that I've never visited, and perhaps make snide remarks at cocktail parties about other peoples' activism efforts, but I just don't feel confident enough in my background knowledge." Maybe I can help.

Starting with the 36,000 Burundians, they are in a camp that consists of refugees from what were seven Burundian refugee camps just a couple of years ago. They are in a challenging situation where the patience of the local government in hosting these people (since 1993) has worn rather thin. A ceasefire was signed in 2006 and people on this side of the border have sort of said enough already – the guests that are invited to dinner but for various reasons decide not to leave. Many hints have been dropped that the welcome has been overstayed (services provided to them are limited to the bare minimum), but the guests won't budge. They're looking for other options than going home, or hopefully, waiting for the right time to go home.

Speaking of home, one interesting statistic is that just over 20,000 of these refugees are under 18. This means that most in the camp have never even lived in Burundi and they are trying to come to grips with the idea that they need to leave the only place they've ever known to go to a place everyone is referring to as their "home". It's healthy to try to wrap your brain around that one.

Next month is the Burundian presidential election. There are many people watching, including us, to see if all goes well. Elections are always considered to be a good time to go to that closet and dust off the machete. Though there is some tension in the air, all indication so far is that the election will go smoothly. If so, we might start to see some refugees boarding trucks and heading "back" across the border. For now patience is being exercised on the part of all the main stakeholders – the people who are funding this operation, the people that are carrying out the humanitarian work needed to support them and, more importantly, the people that are hosting them. In this case, no news is good news.

In the Congolese camp, things are a bit different. This group of nearly 60,000 people, mostly from South Kivu in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), are still fully aware of the dangers that currently exist in their home country. Though they are generally less interested in staying in Tanzania than their Burundian counterparts, they also are keenly aware of the atrocities that are rampant in their home country. The well-documented raping of women by both rebels and soldiers so far doesn't seem to have abated. Children, rather than learning where the "backspace" key is on a laptop are learning proper care and maintenance of an AK-47. The fighting continues and the underlying economic incentives that are fueling the attacks, though often portrayed as ideological, have not changed.

The hope is that the government in the DRC is able to bring some stability to this region which is so remote from the nation's power center. It's difficult to see how that will happen. Their current plans are to rid themselves of the much-criticized international military support (MONUC) and fully run the show themselves (with the help of international resources rather than soldiers). A colleague of mine once said that the only thing worse than having MONUC in the DRC is not having them there. We may soon find out.

Can the situation get worse? Many say that it can. It's a sobering thought. Since the arrival of the white man in the 1870's, the Congo has been in various states of turmoil. It's due for a break.