The Covid pandemic is raising many challenges besides the first among them, our own physical survival. The UN Security Council P5 members (the US, Russia, China, the UK and France), the most powerful countries in the world and totalling among them 74% of global arms exports, count among the worst affected countries, not due to a lack of resources (they are among the richest countries in the world and they have a very sophisticated and efficient state apparatus) but due to problematic decision-making process and wrong definition of priorities. Their populations feel they were let down, their fleets are incapacitated (what happened to nuclear deterrence?) and the SC failed to take any action. The virus acts like a lie detector, the emperor is naked. In the same way as WWII showed Europe’s vulnerability to the thousands of soldiers from the colonies who joined the fight – and contributed to trigger decolonisation struggles – will the Covid pandemics lead to a real decolonisation, the decolonisation of the minds?
When France’s Macron declared a situation of war, did he realise all the consequences? In reality, in the post-cold war era, most wars are not won by military victories but through a negotiated settlement. Napoleonic times are over; belligerents do not win by aligning divisions but by showing political savviness, good command of Comms, negotiation skills and a lot of patience. Even the US super-power was not able to win in Afghanistan (or anywhere else) and resorted to negotiate with the once-abhorred Taliban. What does that tell us in times of Coronavirus and what does cooperation mean when confronting a faceless adversary?
According to the parable of the Long Spoons, one day God showed a human being the difference between heaven and hell. God opened the first door. In the middle of the room there was a large table covered with mountains of delicious, fragrant and mouth-watering food. But the people sitting around the table looked skinny, miserable and sickly. They had, tied to their arm, wooden spoons with very long handles and each found it possible to reach into the pots but because the handles were longer than their arms, they could not get the spoons back into their mouths. They appeared to be famished. God said, “You have seen Hell.” Behind the second door, the room was exactly the same. Around the large table with the large pots of wonderful food, people had the same long-handled spoons. But these ones were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking. They looked healthy and happy. They were using their spoons to feed one another.
(Photo by Maria TAN / AFP)
These days a few leaders have decided to send their populations to hell by putting their greed before their people’s needs. The US-China tensions provide a good illustration of competition over cooperation, doubt over confidence, aggressivity over solidarity The styles differ, with China more talented at using soft power and making a lot of publicity for their donations while the US is becoming more and more irrelevant as a global leader, but in the end each side is accusing the other and tries to keep the spoon for themselves. The lack of recognition of Taiwan by the WHO under Chinese pressure has proved detrimental to understanding and fighting the disease. Within the US, the states were forced to compete against each other in a bid to get equipment. In Sweden, the leading light of social democracy and the birthplace of the Nobel prize, the choice was made to let the less productive segments in the population die. From West Africa to the Philippines, governments who have wasted public money on other agendas than public health are requesting security forces to shoot “lockdown violators”, often daily-wage workers who are hesitating between being exposed to Covid-19 or dying of hunger (Tunisia on the other hand, offers a mix of deploying the troops and providing economic support for low and no-income households). The Israeli government is more concerned with asserting its narrative over the occupied territories rather than controlling the epidemic.
For several governments who have failed to protect their population, the temptation is big to resort to the blame game. Sanctions against China are mentioned. While it was never proven that sanctions are useful, it has been demonstrated that they are harmful for the vast majority of the population, and especially their effects on public health are detrimental. It is also far from being an established practice: no sanctions were imposed on the USSR over the Chernobyl disaster which was caused by an accident in a context of insufficient legislation and maintenance. What would happen if we imposed sanctions on the US (who are careful to not join the Rome statute creating the ICC for fear of legal proceedings against their troops’ misbehaviour) for their intentional campaigns which have provoked millions of deaths, from the war in Afghanistan to the invasion of Iraq under a false pretext, the killings by drones in Yemen and so many other tragedies? An eye for an eye and the whole planet will be blind. What we need now is not more sanctions but more cooperation; not aggression but joint forces; not punishment but compassion.
(Photo: Medea Benjamin)
This much needed new paradigm “cooperate or die” is brilliantly illustrated by countries like Vietnam and Taiwan – – the latter not recognised as a State by the UN SC or the WHO. They belong to the very small list of countries currently not involved directly or indirectly in any war – and which can be counted on the fingers of one hand – in spite of China’s aggressiveness, and they are also those who have managed best during the Covid crisis. What does that tell us? Maybe we should change our lenses and look at things based on intuition, reality check and by learning from others, rather than by applying the very rigid, dogmatic frame that has proved so unhelpful. The role of female leadership has been established and hailed as well, in several publications and on this site.
What are the initiatives that can help consolidate this constructive mindset and extend it globally? There are not many. The UN SG’s bold initiative warrants support. “The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war”, declared Mr Guterres on 23 March 2020. “That is why today, I am calling for an immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world. It is time to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives.” The Carnegie group assesses that the impact will be severe in conflict-affected countries, where pandemic responses will struggle with fragmented authority, political violence, low state capacity, high levels of civilian displacement, and low citizen trust in leadership. The danger ranges from militias and legal authorities competing over very limited resources; entire off-limits sectors not being cared for, leaving on their own an already vulnerable population often made of displaced and physically, economically and socially wounded people; to warlords trying to gain legitimacy by offering financial or humanitarian support (the Mafia in southern Italy, the drug Cartels in Mexico) or even increasing forced recruitment (the Houthis in Yemen or Al-Shabab in Somalia) over the argument that dying for the cause is more dignifying than dying at home from the virus.
Yet, around the world, a few belligerents have joined their voices to the SG’s appeal and the Pope’s call for dialogue, in Cameroon, Central African Republic, Colombia, Libya, Myanmar, Philippines, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen. There are huge challenges and most of these declarations are very fragile, especially in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, or Yemen, where violence has even at times escalated and the sincerity of the parties has to be demonstrated; and because the US and Russia are not playing a very helpful role. In other theatres, there are more promising signs. In Anglophone Cameroon, the Southern Cameroons Defense Force (SOCADEF) one of the leading armed groups, has declared a unilateral ceasefire as of 29 March, which it has since extended in spite of an armed encounter with government troops (which are yet to join the call for ceasefire) on 10 April. Such moves of goodwill must be strengthened and supported. We have a unique opportunity to turn the millions wasted on killing, to development and proper governance of many countries around the world.
How can we do that? Internationally, by giving credit and space to those showing such good will. But this is not enough. Governments, civil society groups, donors, can create “Groups of Friends” in support of peace processes. Such formulas have been tested, from El Salvador (Friends of the Secretary-General) to Mindanao (International Contact group). The experience exists, it can be adapted to the local contexts. These groups of friends can provide advice, support, encouragements and invite more forces to join into this dynamics. Everywhere, it is urgent to use the window of opportunity offered by the pandemic and join the peace efforts in the various hotspots around the world where peace is possible and necessary.
(photo: peace talks on Mindanao with the ICG members)
On the domestic scene, where many governments will be tempted to develop authoritarian regimes on the pretext of keeping the virus at bay while at the same time far-right and far-left groups will proliferate to challenge the monopoly of force by the State (which has proved incompetent to protect the population), non-violent methods can be imagined as well. As reported by the Guardian, women’s groups have launched a feminist emergency plan in Chile against gender-based violence; in Spain, more than 15,000 people have coordinated a rent strike without leaving their homes. In Israel, thousands protestors demonstrated against the erosion of democracy under Netanyahu while observing physical distancing. Globally, many youth activists are moving their weekly global climate strikes online, conducting tweetstorms, developing toolkits for civic action, organising teach-ins and developing accessible websites about climate change.
(photo: Photo: Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)
The times are challenging. But they also offer an opportunity. Let us stop inflicting more suffering and unite to stop the pandemic. Maybe you consider this a dream? Without dreams we are not humane. We can act now to turn the dream into reality.
In his book Collapse (Viking Press, 2004), Jared Diamond analyses how societies choose to succeed or fail. Why did the Easter Islanders disappear while Iceland, also faced with a challenging nature, is thriving? He compares how different regions evolved, based on five factors : climate change, hostile neighbours, collapse of essential trading partners, environmental problems, and the society’s response to the foregoing four factors. In his study, no society has disappeared only because of natural causes only. Everywhere, human reaction was key.
The terrible pandemics we are going through (the author of this post is wriitng from one of the affected countries where she is on lockdown) is proving us a large-scale, real time exercise on leadership, public health systems, societies reactions and opportunities. We have been stupid enough to come unprepared for the crisis. Let not be more stupid by not drawing lessons from it. Next time we will fail better.
This first post will be looking, based on open sources, into features that have favoured or not the spread of the pandemics from a governance point of view. Not so much what measures were taken (there’s a lot of literature on that, and I am not a public health specialist), but how and why they were taken. This is by no means an assessment of political nature or a judgment of the countries or government.
A. Among the factors that have favoured the spread of the epidemics, I identify:
– Populist policies (Bolsonaro, Trump, Duterte), anti-science movements (Northern Italy hosts a large anti-vaxx community), trust in religious predicate against scientific advice and government instructions (religious meetings in Malaysia, South Korea, Israel, East of France have contributed to spread the virus)
– Political instability (Spain, Italy), political bickering and divided political class (US, Spain), lack of trust towards the government (Spain, France)
– Greed (Trump favouring the economy over protecting the population, Teresa May and trade secretary Liam Fox visiting Wuhan and successfully lobbying Beijing to lower its meat safety standards to allow UK exports)
– Regional autonomy (Italy, Spain) which has delayed implementation of government response. However, regional autonomy can be compensated for by other factors (leadership, state capacities, compliance of population) as demonstrated by Germany, a federal state
– Lack of cooperation from the population (France)
– Wrong priorities: for obvious reasons, most of us do not know if the intel services did not warn on the Covid risk, or if they did but were not listened to. I am wondering if the Western intel services, prompted by both US militaristic adventurism and the prospect to sell weapons, might have focused vast resources on tracking Islamic militants in Afghanistan and the Sahel but have under-estimated threats on the national territory? Equally, could the UK administration (and the EU) have prepared better if they had not been fully engaged in the Brexit debate and arrangements?
B. Among the factors that have allowed to slow or stop the disease, I identify:
– Leadership: transparency (South Korea, Germany, Taiwan, New Zealand, Ghana), ability to listen to experts and advisers, decision-making (Greece shut down before the first death)
– State capacities including of the medical system (Singapore, South Korea, Germany)
– Stability (Germany’s stable government under Merkel has allowed for sufficient preparedness: they are the only ones in Europe who had the tests and masks from Day 1)
– Gender equality: the vast majority of countries who have been able to protect their citizens are ran by women (Korea, Germany, Taiwan, New Zealand, Norway, Finland) or a mixed team where women are listened to (all of Trudeau’s top health advsiers are women)
– Population’s attitude and compliance with government instructions (Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, Germany)
C. Among all these factors, what matters most?
1. Leadership is key: state capacities is not enough when leadership fails (Japan, France), while limited state capacities (Greece weakened by economic crises and refugees influx) were largely compensated for with agility to react
2. Form of state (autocratic or democratic regimes) does not really matter, but generally autocratic states have done slightly poorer (apart from Singapore, who benefits on the other hand from good state capacities, high income, highly compliant population and experience with SRAS/H1N1). The inevitable calls for strong governments that will follow the crisis will be making an error, because this would not help in any way being better prepared for the next crisis.
3. Those who have failed most to protect their populations (US, UK, France, Egypt, Philippines) are led by gang-ho type of male-only decision-makers surrounded by like-minded advisers. This is in contrast with popular belief which, according to information shared in a recent report
is that men always make better political leaders
4. Ethics: protect the population (“My job is to protect our people. We know how to bring back to life our economy. We don’t know how to bring back to life people” for Ghana’s Akufo-Addo, or “Our public is very demanding and expects the highest standards from government services” for South Korea’s Kan Kyun-wa), vs “herd immunity” concept (Netherlands today, UK formerly) or militarisation of the response (Duterte orders troops to shoot quarantine violators in the Philippines).
What can we learn form this?
The crisis is giving us an opportunity to improve what was unsatisfactory with our societies and our planet, to increase our cooperation instead of competition, to focus our attention (and our public expenditure) on what matters most. In this regard, the UN SG’s call for a global ceasefire is a wonderful invitation to drop the guns and take up better tools to build our societies. We have to take this extended hand and work together for a safer, healthier and more just planet.
When I arrived in Cameroon in August 2018, women, as in many African countries, were very visible at work, in the shops, in the families, keeping together a country plagued by corruption, violence, weak governance and outdated patriarchal institutions. But they were invisible from the political arena. Even at the Ministry for Women’s empowerment, my interlocutor was a man. At the UN Women where I worked, the discourse was about protecting “women and children”, pushing women in the same category as children, into one group of victims deprived of any form of agency, objects of our assistance. I felt that the objective was not to transform the outdated, patriarchal and corrupt institutions; but to please the government and seduce the donors. Merely talking about the anglophone crisis was taboo.
The causes of the anglophone crisis include discrimination, perceived lack of opportunities but also the arrogance from the Centre. The initial, non-violent claims by anglophone lawyers and teachers was met with contempt and repression. At the UN, we organised our meetings with civil society in Yaounde, not in the conflict-affected Northwest and Southwest regions. How were we to know who is doing a real job on the ground? I wanted to show respect and go and listen to the anglophone women in their turf and in their own terms. In spite of warnings from the top UN peace adviser (“You can be kicked out of the country; there’s not much to see/do in Buea anyway; if I was you I wouldn’t go”), I travelled to Buea with the support of my boss.
On my way, I stopped in Douala where I met with Cardinal Tumi, the Lead Convenor of the Anglophone conference, the only peace initiative on the table. We had a long discussion. He spoke of the upcoming Conference. I asked him: “Should only men represent the anglophone point of view?” He marked a pause. After a few minutes he admitted: “It never came up; we never thought of it”. During that initial meeting, he accepted to include women and put me in touch with Conference organiser Dr Simon Munzu. “You have great women”, was my line. “They are not coming to clap. They will have something to say. If you accept this, we will do our share; we will prepare them”. They accepted. I travelled to Buea with these good news in my pocket.
There, I met wonderful, skilful, courageous and articulate women. All women present were civil society leaders, and most of them had elected to join their efforts under a new umbrella organisation, the South West/North West Women’s Task Force -SNWOT. I was impressed by all of them, particularly the SNWOT leader Esther Njomo Omam Njomo. This was the week preceding the pre-electoral shutdown announced by the armed groups. And here, these women, most of whom were hosting IDPs and had to organise reserves for the coming days, had braved the security situation, had put aside their very real daily worries, and came to the meeting I had called for. That meant high commitment, and it also meant respect for the international institutions. Oh God! I hoped we wouldn’t fail them.
With the women in Buea on 19 September 2018.
They gave me a very good briefing on what was going on in the conflict-affected area. I realised that they were the women who can change the paradigm in Cameroon. They had the energy, the deep understanding of the crisis and the courage. When I told them that they were going to participate in the Anglophone Conference, they were thrilled. “We didn’t know we could join” they said. I was appalled to see once more that very capable women didn’t feel they were authorised to contribute. We agreed to work together to prepare their participation.
My intention (and my mission with the UN Women) was to make women count in peace and security issues in Cameroon, beyond this conference. My approach was three-pronged:
- advocate for their participation in any decision concerning the country (with the authorities, the Convenors of the anglophone conference, the diplomats in Yaounde, the UN etc). Bring to Cameroon women with high visibility like Nobel Prize winner Leymah Gbowee or negotiators from the Northern Ireland conflict, to showcase the added-value of women’s contributions.
- provide them with technical skills (on peace processes, mediation, agenda-drafting, comparative learning) so they could make more effective contributions to these fora
- give them visibility (bring them along to high level meetings, have them invited to regional or international fora)
A lot of good energy and sharing during the Douala workshop in November 2018. Experts Agus Wandi and Webster Zambara joined me to co-facilitate. It was a very successful event.
This plan worked brilliantly because:
– These women were competent and dedicated and they had a true leader who helped us organise complicated events in a difficult political environment
– They had their own disagreements, but unlike most of their male counterparts who were obsessed with power and personal gains, they were happy to discuss the core issues and look for solutions to the crisis
– They just needed someone to believe in them and that was my role. My status of a consultant protected me in a way, because I could take risks
– I had by then built a solid network of contacts and many allies and friends helped me. We also benefited from a context where most donors and diplomats lacked ideas and initiatives about this crisis and we filled the vacuum. SNWOT became the only show in town. They supported us.
The Anglophone Conference was not authorised by the government. But Esther and her group did not need anymore an invitation. During a workshop I organised for them, they established a plan of action and they started running their own activities. In a very daring move, they successfully organised a press Conference in Yaounde, the Centre of power. They articulated their own agenda.
Today, 14 May, Esther Njomo the Reach Out Director and SNWOT leader gave a briefing to the UN Security Council on the humanitarian situation in the Northwest and Southwest regions of Cameroon (to watch the briefing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2gkBht8pWSU)
True to her own self, she did not make it a personal victory. “I am here to talk on behalf of those women, mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters who have lost it all to the crisis. Those who are trapped in the bushes, in the forests because they lost everything they could hold onto”, she said.
At the end of her very precise and compelling speech, she launched an appeal for the cessation of hostilities and for dialogue.
“ It is time for us to silencing the guns
It is time for us to start talking”
What are the lessons from this story?
Lesson #1: If you believe in women and give them a chance, you won’t be disappointed.
Lesson #2: you only risk a career move, they are risking their lives daily. Be courageous!
Lesson #3: We need to improve the protection of women human rights defenders.
The first meeting in Buea, where it all began
From June 19 to 23, Cynthia Petrigh from Beyond peace is directing the 94th Refugee law Course in French at the International Institute of Humanitarian Law in San remo. 45 Officials from 16 countries debate on refugee status determination procedures, cooperation among States, individual arrivals versus mass influx and security concerns for governments. The course opening featured a testimony by a cultural mediator on the Aquarius. On June 20, participants and organisers celebrated World Refugee Day while UNHCR Filipo Grandi is visiting Niger.
On behalf of NGO Concern Worldwide, Beyond peace Cynthia Petrigh and Arsène Gassi conducted a field research in 3 provinces of the Central African Republic (CAR) in february 2018, in order to better understand conflict and gender dynamics in these regions as well as how communities cope with disaster.
After surveying the 3 sous-Préfectures in Ombella M’poko and Lobaye, we ran a strategic workshop for the NGO expatriate and national staff and produced a contextual analysis, a strategy document and programmatic recommendations in view of integrating Gender, Peacebuilding and DRR.
Unsurprisingly, in the surveyed provinces as in other parts of the conflict affected country, poverty, sever gender inequalities, conflict, poor access to education as well as the inconducive mining environment were found to be hampering communities’ development. At the same time, these communities experience a relative level of calm, or negative peace. While this is mainly due to the current control by one armed group only, it can provide the space for a transformative intervention. The question of the return of the Muslims inhabitants is still pending, as are the prospects for women’s participation.
We wish Concern team full success in their 5-year programme aiming at enhancing communities resilience to disasters and conflict and fighting gender-based violence. This ambitious project complements other interventions in the region (WASH, Food for work, etc). The agency is well-placed to successfully implement this project, which could become a model for other regions in CAR.