Monday, July 30, 2007

On "Saving" Africa

It is fairly commonplace both in academic circles and political polemics to argue over the merit, motivations, and benefits (or consequences) of “Western” involvement and interest in Africa. I just came across a recent incarnation of this debate, with different sides taking aim at the recent “trendy-ness” of humanitarian work in Africa. Attention paid to Africa by celebrities such as Bono and heads of state like Blair have supposedly created a craze on US college campuses over numerous charitable efforts to help the disadvantaged of that continent. “Stop Trying to ‘Save’ Africa” through self-involved and self-interested projects, the Washington-post op-ed asserts. Yet at least one blogger (and more looking at the comments) thinks that more attention paid to the issues facing Africa is better than no attention at all.

From where I stand, it’s a complicated and nuanced question. Personally, I’d like to be able to admit that I’m a passive and objective observer. But it would be useless for me to try to ignore my perspective, one that fits closely with the (recent) college do-gooder profile that the Washington post article critiques. How dare we (I) presume to know anything about anything? And yet, isn’t there something to be said for idealists who hope to work for justice and humanity, even if it means they themselves benefit? I know many college students work on these issues at least in part because of the attention they get from other students, or simply because it makes them feel better about themselves. But self-interested incentives nearly always play a part in motivation to any action, and so why not for a good cause? It’s a dangerous line to be sure, but not one that cannot create beneficial situations.

Given this, it’s all the more important for me to constantly re-evaluate my motivations and goals, especially for the trip I will soon be taking to Africa. Am I cognizant of my role in my environment, or am I ignorant, or worse, unwilling to acknowledge ignorance? I don’t think it’s fair to say that I am doing what I am doing for entirely altruistic purposes- how often is this ever the case- and so understanding what my real motivations are will be vital to avoiding some of the pitfalls of orientalism and Ameri-centrism.

Ultimately, I’m confident that I can have a positive impact on the communities I visit while also gaining valuable experience and knowledge. I’ve studied non-Western colonial history enough to carry a sense of cynicism when it comes to “saving” anyone, and so I don’t pretend to be god’s gift to Africa. Instead, I hope to help as well as receive help, in the hopes that my experience will allow me to increase my impact as a global citizen in the future.

On a somewhat unrelated note, interesting article found through an interesting blog.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Iran: View From Here

Farid just forwarded me a link to the GVO interview with View From Iran's Tori Egherman. Her blog is one of my favorites- an insightful, thought-provoking and accessable blog about Iran from the perspective of an American.

Apparently, she has decided to publish a book based on her experiences in Iran during her stay there with her husband the past three years. I'm ordering a copy today or tomorrow.

I'm glad to see that a good portion of what I said earlier was corroborated by Tori in her interview. In it she comments,

I think that their influence on the political sphere in Iran itself is limited. On the other hand, I think the blogs offer a valuable insight into Iranian life for people living outside of Iran. They humanize Iran.

I agree and I think that this is what struck me most when I began reading Iranian blogs over two years ago. It's truly amazing to be able to "live" a slice of a life so different from your own, yet also in ways similar enough to connect with its humanity. I think I echo her point about the segmentation of Iranian society when I talk about the narrowness generally speaking of the blogger political perspective there. I would only differ slightly in saying that I think the effect of the Internet and blogs in Iran do have political significance, but in more indirect and subtle ways.

Anyway, I'm excited to read the book, and see the pictures (inspiration for my trip)! I'm addicted to the escapism of photography.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Busy busy busy

Wow, time flies. I've been spending much of my free time re-introducting myself to webpage development. I just finished a page about my impending trip around the world and in Africa. It's simple, but I'm happy with it.

I've also been reading Lewis Mumford's Myth of the Machine. While I've been praising to no end the rewards and promise of technology in the developing world, I've forgotten to take into account the intense criticism it has garnished from truly insightful people like Lewis. I think studying such criticism from both Western and non-Western perspectives is key to fully comprehend the dangers of religious adherence to technology. Here is a quote I found interesting from Myth of the Machine:

In the working out of this parallel and in the tracing of the archetypal machine through later Western history, I found that many obscure irrational manifestations in our own highly mechanized and supposedly rational culture became strangely clarified. For in both cases, immense gains in valuable knowledge and usable productivity were cancelled out by equally great increases in ostentatious waste, paranoid hostility, insensate destructiveness, hideous random extermination.

Perfect analysis of the complementary way technology has worked with our consumer culture, where advances in ease and access come hand-in-hand with increased expectation and the creation of "necessity."

Saturday, July 14, 2007


A little over a year ago I posted a PDF link to my thesis on my old blog. That link is no longer active, and anyway the post attached to it no longer exists either. So here it is again (PDF format still). Enjoy.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Lately I've been delving into more academic texts about the status of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in Africa. Most of the stuff I've read so far has been at least a couple of years old, but it's still been very informative and somewhat inspiring. Take this for instance. It talks about setting up a low cost non-profit ISP in rural Uganda. Sounds like a great project, if a little too over my head to think about doing myself. Nonetheless, I admire their drive. I am also trying to get my hands on the entire issue of Telematics and Informatics from February 2004, which is all about ICT in Africa. I found one of the included articles about a blogger survey in Kamapala which I might try to build on when I'm over there.

Finally, I also found some newer stuff going on. I've never heard of the One Laptop Per Child Foundation before, but if their idea for a low-cost, low-impact computer is viable, then it sounds pretty cool!

An update about the project

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Press TV

What to make of the Iranian government's new Press TV? Its a recent 24 hr English tv news channel produced by the Iranian government. I learned of it through an article from the New York Times. Whether it was my server acting up, or something more sinister, I could not visit the new station's website myself, but I did visit a cached link by Google. The results: pretty much what you would expect from the Iranian regime. The stories look pretty blatently pro-Ahmadinejad, anti-American. Still, one wonders what sort of news or footage might be aired here that may not make it on Western channels.

I have yet to watch the channel itself, but I would say that this is a very clear indicator that Ahmadinejad & co. are taking their role as competing regional power very seriously (as if that wasn't clear before). This play moves Iran up in terms of its ability to counter American efforts at media propoganda (a la RadioFree Europe and US-based Persian language stations). I can't imagine what the exact impact will be, or who will tune in. The Iranian regime is learning to become more sophisticated in its geopolitical power-struggle with the West.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Censorship in Iranian Magazines

It's a bit old, but I just ran across this post by a Swedish traveller about censorship in Iran. It has some interesting pictures, as well as some thought-provoking commentary on the role of censorship in various societies today. His point is that Americans are subject to censorship just as the Iranians are, it is simply a more subtle form. In fact, he suggests that in Iran, at least the censorship is transparant (at least in magazines). His point about "colonialist" perspectives of National Geographic and other US magazines struck me as interesting.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Palestinian Children

I saw this recent article in my local paper a few days ago. Apparently this mickey mouse-like character committed suicide on an episode for Palestinian children. I think it goes to show how far the culture of violence and martyrdom have gone in Palestine. It's a shame that neither side can come to terms with the other. How have some groups managed to get over this, while others cannot? No doubt much of this has to do with context. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is about much more than a matter about Palestinian soveriegnty. Its links to political debate in the US, Iran, Europe and the rest of the Middle East make it much more difficult to find a solution. I think its pretty clear however that there is certainly a need for a solution before children brought up watching such rubbish come to perpetuate the conflict. Palestinian children deserve better, and both sides, along with their backers, are responsible for their fate.

On a slightly different note, the usage of such an iconic American figure is pretty ironic given the attitudes of Hamas. Another case of appropriating American culture in the postcolonial world?