Tag Archives: East Timor

When a Country Goes Dark

image

Ministers’ homes at the new capital, Pyinmana

Burma has shown us that we’re not as clever, or free, as we thought we are.

It’s a sign of how the Burmese generals don’t really understand things that it took them so long to cut off the Internet:

Reporters without Borders and the Burma Media Association reported that the government cut off all Internet access in the country on Friday morning and they said that all Internet cafes in the country also have been closed. The Web site of the Myanmar Post & Telecommunications, the government-run telecommunications provider, appears to be down.

The Internet was something we didn’t have to help us back in 1988 in covering the uprising. Actually we didn’t have very much: a total of about eight international telephone lines into the country, the official radio which would broadcast once or twice a day, and which we’d monitor courtesy of a weird contraption in a special room that also spewed out garbled copies of the official news agency reports.

We’d spend most of the day in the Bangkok office trying to get a line in, cajoling and sweet-talking the female or male (we knew no shame) operators into trying again, and again, to get a line. When we got a connection we’d ask the person who picked up as many questions as we could, whether it was Aung San Suu Kyi or just some guy who happened to have a telephone. Once a day we’d pick up the monitoring by the U.S. embassy of other official radio broadcasts and pore over them as if they were the Dead Sea Scrolls. Occasionally we’d interview someone who managed to get out; my first ever wire service story was the Dutch ambassador going on the record at Don Muang airport about some of the horrors he’d seen. When we did get into Burma all we had in the office was an ancient telex machine.

Nowadays, 19 years on, there’s more technology out there than we could dream of back then. Not just the Internet: camera phones, mobile phones, satellites, GPS. But I’m also surprised at how little these really help. Burmese have bravely organized demonstrations via cellphone, and sent out information by Internet, but those channels are largely closed now, leaving us to join a Facebook group, wear red, or turn to satellite to try to glean information.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science has analyzed satellite photos which it says “pinpoints evidence consistent with village destruction, forced relocations, and a growing military presence at 25 sites across eastern Burma where eyewitnesses have reported human rights violations.” This is more about the continuing (and long-running) war against insurgents and populations in border areas caught up in those wars. But it’s instructive to see their before and after satellite photos, like these ones:

[PHOTOGRAPH]

Before-and-after satellite images show the site of an apparent military encampment in Burma on 11 November 2000, (top), and again on 13 December 2006 (bottom), when new bamboo fencing can be seen. The human rights group, Free Burma Rangers, reported a major expansion of this camp in 2006, corroborated by the AAAS analysis of images. (Lat: 18.42 N Long: 97.23 E.)

Credit: Top image: © GeoEye, Inc. Bottom image: © 2007 DigitalGlobe.

The AAAS has a Google Earth layer here to illustrate the before and after. The full report (PDF, big file) is here.

The AAAS is currently collecting satellite images of urban areas to see what it can glean; it reminds me of 1999 in East Timor when satellite imagery showed up some of the destruction cause by the retreating Indonesian army. But such images can do little more than illustrate something that has happened, and not bring to life the actual suffering and abuses on the ground.

Indeed, I’m surprised and a bit disappointed that technology can do so little to pry open a country if its government decides to close it off. We talk about information wanting to be free, but we tend to forget how that information still requires power and a channel in order to escape. Shut off the power, shut off the channel and the information is as much a prisoner as the Burmese people presently are.

AAAS – AAAS News Release

Helping the World, Ripple by Ripple

Ripple-logoGod, I love simple ideas. This is great one (tip of hat to Lifehack) because it’s already working. By doing your search through Melbourne-based ripple, and looking at an ad, you direct the cents your eyeballs earn to charity. A few hours after launch the difference is already being felt:

In our first 48 hours we received enough visitors to provide:

* 2 people with access to clean water and sanitation FOR LIFE! and;
* Seven years of education to 2 children in East Timor; and
* Maintain more than $334,800 in micro-finance loans for a day. That’s around 800 loans to allow people in the Phillipines and elsewhere to start their own business; and
* Set up 15 market gardens in Cambodia to provide nutritious food to a village

I’ve done a more extensive write-up at tenminut.es.

An Unlikely Blogger Expelled

Although it’s not good for Sudan, I think it’s good for blogging: CNN reports that 

The government of Sudan on Sunday gave the top U.N. official in the country three days to leave, marking the latest hurdle in international efforts to bring peace to the nation torn apart by civil war.

Sudan expelled Jan Pronk, the top U.N. envoy to Sudan, who has openly criticized Khartoum as well as rebel groups on his Web log.

Pronk has been running a blog for nearly a year and while it doesn’t look like your average blog (really long posts, no external links, no comments, blogs numbered as if they were official UN documents) it’s an impressively direct account of the Sudanese conflict. His third post started as follows: 

This week the seventh round of the Abuja talks between the Government of Sudan and the rebel movements will start. Will it be the last one, producing a peace agreement before the end of the year? The chances are diminishing.

Not the sort of mealy-mouthed stuff we’re used to from senior UN officials. And it’s probably upset the UN as much as it’s upset the Sudanese government. But if so why had the UN not closed him down earlier? Pronk, according to UPI, did not offer any disclaimers, but the UN has since made clear he was writing in a personal capacity. The UN has “no rules barring blogging specifically, though employees face restrictions when publishing articles and participating in interviews.” It seems Pronk was probably senior enough, and his comments uncontroversial enough, for no one to mind too much. Until last week.

What I like about it is that reporters tend to meet these kind of people in the field, and it’s great to hear them sounding off about the situation, but rarely are their words captured in sufficient quantity for their great background knowledge and high level involvement in such diplomatic processes to be read by a wider audience. I’ve not followed the tragedy in Darfur much beyond what I read in the papers, but Pronk’s year-long posts are a diary of immense and satisfying detail about the process, peppered by great photos, that are worthy of more than the word blog. 

Take this one, for example, from June 28

There is a significant risk that the Darfur Peace Agreement will collapse. The agreement does not resonate with the people of Darfur. On the contrary, on the ground, especially amongst the displaced persons, it meets more and more resistance. In my view it is a good text, an honest compromise between the extreme positions taken by the parties during the negotiations in Abuja. That is why the UN, like all international partners, has endorsed the agreement. However, in politics objective rational calculations will always be confuted by subjective emotional perceptions and aspirations. And those perceptions are that the agreement does not meet the expectations of the people in Darfur, has been forced upon them and, rather than meeting the interests of all parties somewhere halfway, only strengthens the position of the government and a minority tribe, the Zaghawa.

That too me is very clear writing, reflecting his knowledge of the situation on many levels. Not every situation could allow a senior figure involved deeply in the political process to write so frankly and openly, but wouldn’t it be great if they could? This to me is the real potential of blogs and citizen reporting. Someone who really knows what is going on telling us about it.

PS: Jan Pronk has a reputation of sorts in Indonesia, my current abode. He earned the lasting enmity of then president Suharto by

Continue reading

The Consultant Scam

This is nothing to do with technology but it’s something close to my heart: the waste of money that are many aid projects. British charity organisation ActionAid UK has issued a report which reveals the high cost of consultants:

Aid provided by rich governments needs to target poverty. Instead, one quarter of their aid – $20bn a year – funds expensive and often ineffective western consultants, research and training.

This is no truer than in Indonesia and East Timor, where huge amounts of money are spent on projects that go on for years. All these are led by foreigners. The East Timorese government recently collapsed in an orgy of violence, effectively taking the country back to when it first liberated itself from Indonesia in 1999. How much money had been spent in the interim on building up those institutions, and how much of that money went to foreign consultants? As the report says:

A typical cost of an expatriate consultant will be in the region of $200,000 a year. According to the OECD, in typical cases more than one third of this is spent on school fees and child allowances – spending which would not be needed if local consultants were used.

Findings show that in Cambodia, consultants’ fees were $17,000 a month while government salaries were only $40. In Ghana, even relatively inexperienced consultants earned per day what government officials earned in a month. In Sierra Leone, according to one former UK-funded consultant, daily take-home pay was the same as the Auditor General’s monthly salary.

It’s not as if all these consultants actually help:

In Tanzania, Japanese consultants on an irrigation project introduced the use of diesel pumps that have become too expensive for local farmers. A massive increase in fuel costs have made them three times more expensive than other alternatives. The pumps now lie idle and farmers are worse off than before.

This is not a one off. I’ve heard dozens of these kinds of stories.

It has to be said that some projects are excellent and the consultants doing great work. To attract these people so they are willing to commit to a career in this field the rewards need to be attractive; it’s OK to do some voluntary work for a year or two, but not many are going to dedicate a life to it. But too often the money is silly money, and much of it is wasted on mediocre work. And the priorities are skewed: Usually the consultant’s goal primarily to extend the contract, or use his or her final report to argue for extending or furthering the project (which of course means the further hiring of that consultant or his/her organisation.) Rarely does one see a consultant arguing for less projects, less money spent, or simply acknowledgement that their work is not cost-effective and should be canned.

Internet Darkness Over Timor

Timor-Leste is, sadly, again exploding into violence as disgruntled former soldiers have turned on their former bosses. Australian and New Zealand troops have been deployed in the country in a sad echo of what happened in 1999. This after billions of dollars of aid from the West to rebuild a nation that survived a quarter century of Indonesian occupation and a brutish withdrawal that left most of the Indonesian-built infrastructure in ruins or flames.

But there’s another sad aspect to this story: Millions of dollars from governments and multilateral organisations have been invested in the East Timorese media but nowhere can you find an active East Timor-based web site shedding light on the situation. All 1,500+ news reports that one can find on Google are all from foreign news sources. The web site of Suara Timor Lorasae, formerly Suara Timor Timor and one of three newspapers in Dili, is down with its bandwidth exceeded, presumably due to excessive reader interest. Timor Post, another newspaper, has not been updated since June 2005 [sic]. The third, Diario, does not seem to have a web site. The website of RTTL – Radio-Televisão Timor Leste, the government body responsible for Radio Timor Leste, the state radio station, and its TV counterpart TVTL — is still under construction (the website was registered in 2003.) Another, East Timor Press, hasn’t been updated since, er, 2004. (Here’s the Wikipedia entry on Timor, which was updated yesterday to include the deployment of Australian, New Zealand, Malaysian and Portuguese troops.)

I can find no East Timor site working out of East Timor that has any information about this uprising, the most important development in the country’s recent history. OK, so not many Timorese have access to the Internet but this is a vital link with the outside world, a chance for Timorese to convey what is going on to governments, exiled Timorese, interested readers and others. Now, in the midst of terrible violence and the humiliation of seeking outside military intervention, there is again no domestic media getting the story to the world’s most important medium.

RSSpam, And The End Of A Medium’s Innocence

Will spam kill off RSS?

I’m a bit late spotting this, but I noticed today that Moreover’s RSS feeds contain a lot of ads. 2RSS.com noticed the same thing about a month ago. In fact there’s already been quite a discussion about the phenomenon, since not only Moreover does it. Indeed, there’s some talk that Blogger is actually inserting ads into the news feeds of its users.

What’s worrying is that all this is going on without much thought towards — or the consent of — the end-user. Moreover’s feeds, for example, not only include no AD: prefix that may help the user get a sense of what is actually part of the feed and what is RSSpam, but they also configure the spam so that every time you update your feed — or your RSS reader does it for you — the same piece of spam will pop up. This means, as this example from the Jason Murphy Show illustrates, large quantities of spam per valid item.

All this shows a lack of thought and consideration for what is still a very new medium. If you want to kill off RSS, Moreover has the answer. Of course, there’s also the need for these guys to make money. But this is not the way to do it. Ads are better served within the content, so that, for example, if you click on the item itself so that the full content loads, the ad itself will appear along with the content.

Another point: Folk argue whether ads included in RSS feeds are spam or not. I say anything that’s sent to you without you agreeing to it is spam. (I don’t recall agreeing to it when I included the Moreover RSS feed in my reader, although I’m willing to stand corrected. The only time I’ve had to click on something to acknowledge the existence of a user agreement was with the Telegraph feeds.) Folks need to be consulted before they sign up for a feed that it includes spam.

The bottom line here is that this grapeshot approach to ads in RSS feeds endangers the medium before it’s taken off. Apple are including RSS in a very interesting and imaginative way in their new OS but there aren’t going to be many takers if feeds are polluted by too many ads that aren’t even contextual (I noticed ads for free golf clubs and microdermabrasion, whatever that is, in my Moreover feed on East Timor news). Keep pulling that stunt, Moreover, and you’ll lose everyone’s interest very quickly. RSS was supposed to be the answer to mailboxes full of rubbish, not an alternative means of delivering that rubbish.