New York Times Nicholas Kristof has always been a hero of mine and partially why I have continued this blog, despite poor writing skills and a lack of good ideas (thank you for continuing to read… all 10 of you).
A fantasy of mine would be to go on one of Mr. Kristof’s “Win A Trip” trips, where he takes one student and one teacher to some of the most troubled places on earth. Unfortunately, I was disqualified from this contest about 2 years ago, when I stepped onto the tarmac of Chileka Airport in Blantyre, Malawi, an event which would forever change my life (like all life changing events).
In “The Reporter,” Kristof travels to the DRC, a anarchic hellhole of warfare, systematic rape and violence to show the winners of his “Win a Trip” contest the horrifying effects of of civil war on the civilian populace. Most, notably, he interviews and subsequently has dinner with warlord and war criminal Laurent Nkunda, a charismatic, university educated sociopath who has managed to assemble one of the largest and best equipped military rebellions in Africa (he has since been arrested).
To me, the most important revelations from Kristof’s journey is a chance meeting with a dying woman, Yohanita Nyiahabimama. Once a school teacher, she now weighed 60 pounds, having eaten nothing but bananas for the past 6 months. Yohanita’s death is not notable. Thousands of people like Yohanita die all over the world in a similar manner every single day. The conditions which lead to an individual like Yohanita dying from starvation in one of the most fertile areas on the planet, however, are quite notable.
Paul Farmer, a physician/anthropologist from Harvard, wrote a magnificent book “Pathologies of Power” in which he explored the idea of “structural violence,” a term originally coined by peace advocate John Galtung. Farmer posits that poor health outcomes and the suffering of the poor are not natural nor inherent states of being for humanity, but rather the result of designed structural factors which deny access to services and benefits which may empower them. Basically, the factors which generate affluence are the same factors which create conditions of poverty.
The DRC is one of the most resource rich areas of the world. The DRC is, by no accident, one of the poorest countries on the planet. A combination of a miserable colonial past, US support of the despot Mobuto (due to his resistance to communism), resource exploitation, systematic indifference and unwillingness to intervene have kept the DRC in a perpetual state of warfare and anarchy.
Yohanita dies because the peculiarities of US electoral politics prevent it from getting involved. Sending troops and sacrificing lives to root out a small group of stateless terrorists continually for nearly a decade is an acceptable response to the killing of 3000 people in NYC, but the loss of even a few troops to halt the killing of more than 5,000,000 black people in poor Africa is unacceptable to the American voter.
Connecting the dots between the plight of the poor in the DRC and affluent countries such as the United States is a difficult leap for many, and reasonably so. The connections between localized wealth and global poverty are insidious and often invisible and vastly complex, yet very, very real.
US/European/East Asian demand for cheap resources keeps rebel groups in business, by creating sources of income with which to buy arms, notably a source of vast profit for Israel, whose extensive weapons industry maintains close ties to the United States. Keeping resources cheap and unhindered by export taxes benefits producers of American consumer goods and discourages efforts to create stable, functioning governments. Most importantly, American consumers demand cheap goods and very rarely question where they come from. Essential in this dynamic and fluid network of affluence and poverty, is the role of indifference in creating the conditions of structural violence which kill millions and the systematic manner. Everything about life in affluent countries, through politics, media, education and cultural mores, work together to cover them up.
Kristof clearly hesitates intervene in Yohanita’s plight. The student member of his group also appears conflicted in her role as whether to be a physician or an observer/reporter, yet the clear and present suffering of an individual and the ability to assist demand that they do something to help Yohanita. In the same way, we as members of some of the most wealthiest societies on earth are naturally obligated to act. By not acting, or acting in a manner which merely throws crumbs at the poor in order to placate the complaints of others in the international community, we are all complicit in the suffering of the poor.