Gotta Give Bush Credit

March 29, 2008

I never thought I would utter words of praise for George W. Bush, but I have to give him credit for accomplishing something positive. His support for initiatives to battle HIV/AIDS and malaria in Africa have actually made a difference in the lives of millions of people.

While in Uganda researching Heart of Diamonds, I met a British doctor who ran a small clinic near Bwindi. His facilities were primitive by our standards (a hand-cranked centrifuge!) and he counted the local traditional healer as an ally, but he stated unequivocally that the Bush initiatives were both well-intentioned and well-executed.

Distribution of antiviral drugs and equipping and building new clinics to treat AIDS patients is not only fighting the disease, but laying the groundwork for longer-term positive changes in many societies as well. As fewer children die from AIDS, for example, African families can be induced to have smaller families, which in turn makes it possible to invest more in the education and nutrition of each individual child.

The fight against malaria, though, may actually be more important. Malaria takes a million lives a year in Africa—and debilitates millions more. The simple distribution of insecticide-laden sleeping nets, if continued, can actually eradicate the disease completely! The parasite that causes the infection reproduces in human red blood cells—and gets there only by a bite from a female Anopheles mosquito. Stop the bites, and the parasite can’t reproduce. Stop enough bites, and it may die out.

Nets cost a few dollars, which is still beyond the means of many Africans. That’s where Bush’s support has made a difference. Millions of nets have been distributed at reduced prices (manufactured in Africa, too, which creates jobs), and millions more are slated to be handed out. According to some experts, malaria could be eradicated as early as 2012.
Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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Another Scheme to Exploit Congo Resources

March 24, 2008

One of the scariest news items I saw about the Congo has nothing to do with civil war. It was a Reuters report about a UN economist touting the virtues of biofuel production in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other African countries. This sounds like a case of “we can, therefore we should” with some pretty dire potential consequences.

While it is certainly possible biofuel crops can be grown outside the rain forests, there is no guarantee that’s where it would happen. And, while it is also certainly possible that abandoned arable land could be used to grow new crops, it is entirely more likely that the first biomass that’s used will be the existing vegetation –rainforests– because it is more economical to pluck the low-hanging fruit.

These aren’t just theoretical musings, either. A Chinese company recently signed a billion-dollar contract to develop more than 3 millions hectares of the DRC from oil palm plantations. Those will supposedly not threaten the rainforest, but the Chinese don’t exactly have a stellar record of good citizenship when it comes to economic development in the Third World.

Mostly, though, I question how turning the DRC’s resources into a source of fuel for China, France, or the US will help the Congo any more than the exploitation of any other resource for major country consumption. Job creation? How much good have sugar and palm oil plantations done in that regard?

The economics of biofuels aren’t necessarily positive for the Congo, although I’m sure they would be for the Chinese or whomever. Biomass becomes fuel only in expensive processing plants–sold to the Congo by whom and paid for with what?. They also require surface transportation to the end user (which uses energy, too). To make biofuels economically viable, raw feed stock costs have to be excruciatingly low–and that’s the end of the stick the Congo would be holding. It’s the same economic scenario as any other natural resource exploitation scheme in Africa’s history.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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Embarrassing Myself in Africa

March 23, 2008

One of my most embarrassing moments came after a trip to Zambia, but it started with what I thought was an innocent joke at my own expense.

We had stopped for morning tea during a hike along a dry stream bed that led to the Luangwa river. The ranger with us, Lazarus, asked several questions about life in America. One of the things I said was that I wished he could bring his well-worn rifle to my house and shoot the deer that plague our suburban New York home.

“You have many wild animals?” he said with surprise.

“Oh sure,” I answered, warming to the subject. “Deer, coyotes, raccoons, skunks, fox, turkeys. But the deer are the worst because they eat my garden.”

When we got back to camp, Lazarus asked me if I had an email address, which I obligingly gave him, looking forward to an email pen pal in Zambia. Not long after we returned home, this message from Lazarus popped into my mailbox:

How you. I am interested to visit possible work with you. If you can cover financial trip for me that is great and then preparation of passport I will be ready to get any information from you. Thanks to you both may God be with you all the time.

I hastened to write an explanation and an apology, pausing only long enough to wipe the egg from my face.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

Boy Solider

March 23, 2008

Children aren’t new to the front lines of war. There have been child warriors ever since adults figured out they were cheap, expendable, and made good human shields. With modern weaponry, a four-year-old with an AK-47 is a deadly tool. In the Congo and other distressed regions of the world, children are recruited, kidnapped, and otherwise forced to serve as soldiers, sex slaves, and cannon fodder.

This video from UNICEF tells the story of one such young man. Fortunately for him, it has a happy ending.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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Congo Global Action Conference

March 20, 2008

If you care about the Congo, consider supporting the Congo Global Action Conference. The theme is “CONNECT FOR THE CONGO: WORKING FOR HOPE AND PEACE IN THE DRC” and it’s presented by the Congo Global Action Coalition, a consortium of leading organizations responding to the dire situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Opening Day and Educational Workshops are March 30 and 31, 2008, at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Legislative Advocacy Day is April 1 on Capitol Hill.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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Life In The Congo

March 18, 2008

Just in case you were wondering what it’s like to live in the Congo, here are a few interesting facts from Africare, a leading non-profit specializing in aid to Africa, about the country where Heart of Diamonds takes place:

  • Of every 1,000 babies born alive, 205 will die before their fifth birthday in the DRC, compared to only 8 out of 1,000 in the U.S.
  • Life expectancy in the DRC is just 49 years. In the U.S., the average person lives to be 77.
  • Safe water is available to practically everyone in the U.S., but is accessible to less than half of the people of the DRC.
  • In the DRC, 76% of the men and just 55% of the women are literate. In the U.S., nearly all adults — 97% of both men and women — can read and write.
  • Annual per capita income in the U.S. is $35,750. In the DRC, it’s $650—or less than $2 per day.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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Tribal Rivalry Easy To Blame

March 16, 2008

Every time I read how “tribal rivalries” have sparked another outbreak of violence, my B.S. detector goes off. It’s a sure sign that someone (mainly the reporter) is taking the easy way out.

Ascribing violence in Kenya (or anywhere else in Africa) solely to “tribal rivalries” is little more than a simplistic dismissal of complex reality. It’s also denigrating to individuals whose lives consist of much more than looking for ways to enhance their tribe’s fortunes. Finding a job, educating their children, putting food on the table are important to most of the people I’ve met in my travels to Africa.

When I was researching Heart of Diamonds, I found tribal identity an important but not dominating factor. It was there, it could be exploited, but it didn’t particularly define a person. Family ties were much stronger, for example, than membership in the tribe.

However, when an individual’s economic and social interests are suppressed by another group—be they a tribe, a religious group, or a political party—people complain. When institutions, governmental or otherwise, fail to respond to those complaints for various reasons, individual complaints are channeled into group protests. Tribal membership isn’t the cause of violence, it’s simply a facilitating device exploited by power-hungry leaders.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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