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Africa: land of wildebeest and child soldiers

UPDATE: response to criticisms at end of this post.

(Apologies to the great blog Wronging Rights for stealing one of their headline templates.)

Big attention grabber in the NYT with this picture splashed all over the front page.

The usual mixed emotions: (1) compassion and sorrow for these and other children caught up in horrific wars, (2) alarm at exploitation of the child soldier stereotype for Africa.

Very crude data that I checked a while ago suggested that about 0.2 percent of African teenage boys were child soldiers.

UPDATE: Response to critical comments below: thanks for pointing out where I was too terse or unclear on this post. I did not mean to say the NYT should NOT do a story about US taxpayers financing child soldiers in Somalia, of course that is big news and should lead to a backlash correcting the problem.

I was worried more about the emotional buttons that are pushed by the large picture dominating the front page. These pictures obviously provoke a visceral response: how horrific to see a child with a gun. For this reason, they are used awfully often by the media (see new pictures inserted into this update). A Google images search for “child soldiers Africa” returned 2 million hits. The frequency of repetition of these photos perpetuate the stereotype of Africa as a barbaric place awash in child soldiers. Newspapers would be more likely to be sensitive in other areas, especially domestic ones, like say not frequently showing scary pictures of young black males toting guns in US cities.

The statistic I gave was not meant to imply “hey it doesn’t matter because the number is small,” just like it would be of no comfort to someone paralyzed by a gunshot to be told that the incidence of gunshot-paralysis is low. The statistic was meant to correct the perception that child soldiers are more widespread than they really are in Africa, I think most people would have guessed a higher number.

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  1. The issue of child soldiers in Africa is a very emotional issue that has grabbed a lot of attention. It is a serious issue that must be addressed by human rights groups and international justice organizations. However, there are organizations that are using this sensitive subject to mislead people and enrich their bank accounts.

    “How Invisible Children Falsely Marketed The LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act”

    Posted June 14, 2010 at 3:38 pm | Permalink
  2. Matt Richmond wrote:

    I mean, I’m not going to really defend the exploitation of a relatively small problem to the entire continent of Africa to elicit an emotional and inappropriate perception of the entire land mass…

    … but .2 percent is 2 in every 1000 male children who were child soldiers. 1 in 500.

    That is not by any stretch of the imagination insignificant and when you consider that that average stretches across all of Africa, including relatively peaceful areas, then the affect on those war torn areas becomes obviously more significant. What are the numbers for Somalia, I wonder? The piece, I felt, was slanted more to point out that one of our allies is using child soldiers more so than saying “Africa is so horrible.”

    Are we going to attack journalists now who focus on a specific area? What exactly are journalists supposed to do, qualify all of their statements as “I am talking about a Somali problem right now, not a Sudanese, or Côte d’Ivoire, or Ethiopian, or…”?

    This article seemed reasonable. The US SHOULD be more vigilant in making sure that militaries we fund are not employing child soldiers. I don’t approve of the “porn” you often times point out, but an article about child soldiers featuring children carrying guns is not outrageous, and the number .2% is probably very far off in reference to the Somali region.

    Even if it wasn’t and 1/500 male teenagers in the region were employed as soldiers, then it’s still a major issue because we’re funding that abuse. That’s unacceptable.

    Posted June 14, 2010 at 4:06 pm | Permalink
  3. Chops wrote:

    Bill –
    I agree with most of your critiques of the way that Africa is caricatured in the West. But news is news, and U.S. funding of child soldiers is compelling and applicable, not to mention that it sells newspapers. That would be true in Kosovo or Korea or Colombia. Asking them not to report this vividly would be asking for special treatment for Africa! That’s not what you want.

    You should applaud these journalists: they’re calling attention to a poorly targeted “aid” program funded by the topmost of all top-down aid-givers, the U.S. government.

    Save your anger for truly misplaced stories, or for media neglect of newsworthy African successes.

    Posted June 14, 2010 at 4:29 pm | Permalink
  4. Matt wrote:

    Matt Richmond is right. It’s wrong to imply that 0.2% is a small number, when describing a characteristic of societies that has such a disproportionate impact on those societies. It’s a well-established fact in European countries, where crime statistics are (mostly) reasonable, that a relatively small number of offenders usually accounts for a disproportionately high number of crimes. Add to this the fact that the 0.2% is concentrated in hotspots where the proportion will be much higher… and you have a very justifiable story.

    Posted June 14, 2010 at 5:11 pm | Permalink
  5. This is the current President of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, in a video from 1985 advocating the use of child soldiers. I know this is an old video, but it exposes the thoughts and beliefs of many powerful leaders on the continent. There is substantiated proof that the national army of Uganda still recruits child soldiers. Uganda is a key ally of America in East Africa. This country supports dictators like Museveni. We compromise our principles by choosing the lesser of two evils and protecting American interests abroad at any cost.

    Child Soldiers | Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni

    Posted June 14, 2010 at 9:29 pm | Permalink
  6. Michael Roberts wrote:

    For perspective, consider that about 4.9 per 1000 of our population is active in the military. So child soldiers in Africa are (only?) a little less than half as common as adult soldiers in the U.S.

    Posted June 14, 2010 at 9:50 pm | Permalink
  7. Mill wrote:

    I’m actually disappointed in you, Bill, not the NYT.

    Consider: the word “Africa” was used once in that entire article and was to describe the geographic location of a counter-terrorism organization. The article was explicitly about child soldiers in SOMALIA (not Africa) and how the United States is directly involved. I did not find any language that seemed to even suggest that this was an “Africa” problem. It came across as a Somalia and a US problem.

    In fact, major kuddos to the author, Jeffrey Gettleman, for NOT taking the (easy) opportunity to drag other African nations in to the article and lump all African countries in to one general stereotype (like you did). The only other countries mentioned (Uganda and Yemen) were mentioned in the context of the article and the boy’s story. I never thought to assimilate Somalia’s problem with child soldiers with any other country in Africa. However, you made terrible error by attacking a journalist who (in my opinion) must have been intentional about NOT generalizing Africa’s child soldier problem.

    Shame, shame.

    Posted June 14, 2010 at 11:23 pm | Permalink
  8. William Easterly wrote:

    I have now updated the post responding to criticisms above.

    Posted June 15, 2010 at 9:39 am | Permalink
  9. Mill wrote:

    Bill, you did not respond to charge that you took a “Somalia” problem and made it an “Africa” problem.

    From your update: “The frequency of repetition of these photos perpetuate the stereotype of Africa (SOMALIA) as a barbaric place awash in child soldiers.” and “The statistic was meant to correct the perception that child soldiers are more widespread than they really are in Africa, I think most people would have guessed a higher number.” NOT AFRICA…SOMALIA…the journalist was explicit about this.

    The article did not generalize. Nor did any captions or photos. The stereotypes that are had and the generalizations you are slamming are actually being perpetuated by people like yourself. Cut it out.

    Posted June 15, 2010 at 3:17 pm | Permalink
  10. I find it amazing that people are debating the accuracy of statistics and semantics. This is exactly why global challenges don’t get solved. Bill made a valid point about the exploitation of the extremely emotional subject of child soldiers. He is in no way minimizing the seriousness of the subject. All this academic mental masturbation is enough to drive a person crazy!

    Posted June 15, 2010 at 6:03 pm | Permalink
  11. capsiplex wrote:

    Great insights presented here. Keep the writings up.

    Posted June 16, 2010 at 3:00 am | Permalink
  12. Even it says that 0.2 percent of African teenage boys were child soldiers, that’s also an awful situation over there!

    Posted June 16, 2010 at 3:31 am | Permalink
  13. I thought the Gettleman did a good job of highlighting the complexity of the problem – that the federal government is relatively weak and indiscriminate in recruitment, a lack of economic opportunities has created an environment where children can be brainwashed and manipulated, and also showing how young and child-like these children are, despite the circumstances (“His commanders say he has already proven himself fighting against the Shabab, who used to bully him in the market.”). And at the end of the day, when most of the news about Somalia has to do with pirates, which actually unfairly makes Africa out to be barbaric, it is good to read a nuanced and measured per perspective on a complicated issue there.

    Posted June 16, 2010 at 4:32 am | Permalink
  14. diseño web wrote:

    Nice post and your site is very cool, I like it very much.

    Posted June 21, 2010 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by William Easterly and Maneno, N.L.Nara. N.L.Nara said: @maneno not good for africa….-> via @maneno […]

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