Friday, October 28, 2016

The Origins of AIDS

This is a draft of the first part of an abandoned two-part book review I wrote a while back about three books about the origins and spread of the HIV virus. They were Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It, by Craig Timberg and Daniel Halperin; The Origins of AIDS, by Jacques Pepin; and The Chimp and the River: How AIDS Emerged from an African Forest, by David Quammen.

Early in the 20th century, in the southeastern corner of Cameroon in central Africa, a hunter killed and butchered a chimpanzee for meat, nicking himself in the process. That event, as trivial as a papercut, set in motion one of the greatest catastrophes in human history: The global AIDS pandemic, which has killed 30 million people to date and continues to infect two million more each year. (The only disasters that exceed it in scale are the Black Death of the 14th century, the 1918 Spanish flu, and World War II.) At each step in the spread of the disease entirely contingent circumstances came into play, many the result of well-intentioned humanitarian initiatives, that amplified the pandemic when it might have burned itself out. These books tell two stories: One is the story of the origin and global spread of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV); the second is the story of the dedication, ingenuity and sheer good luck of the scientists who figured it all out.
AIDS, like the flu or smallpox, is zoonotic, that is, it passes from animals to humans. Variants of the Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV), from which HIV derives, have circulated for millennia among the primates inhabiting the tropical rainforests of west and central Africa. In fact, on at least at least eight separate occasions in the 20th century a far less transmissible strain of the virus, the HIV-2, passed to humans from a species of monkey called the sooty mangabey. The mangabey, memorably described by science writer David Quammen as looking like an “elderly chimney sweep of dapper tonsorial habits,” inhabits the canopies of coastal west Africa, some two thousand kilometers from where the vastly more dangerous strain of the virus, HIV-1, emerged.
HIV-1 has also infected humans on multiple occasions—at least four that we know of, three times via chimpanzee and once via gorilla. By far the most lethal variant is known as HIV-1 Group M--with “M” as in main. This is the strain responsible for 99 percent of AIDS deaths worldwide, and because its simian counterpart is concentrated among the chimpanzees of southeastern Cameroon, scientists believe it almost certainly originated there. Figuring that out took intrepid work. Chimpanzees are an endangered species: Killing or even tranquilizing them to secure blood samples is unacceptable. Scientists had to develop new ways of testing urine and faeces to determine if they contained SIV antibodies. Early on, a distinguished AIDS researcher wounded himself in the forest chasing down the animals’ excrement and died of malaria after he was medivac’ed to England.  (Incidentally, it was once thought that chimpanzees had evolved a tolerance for the virus, as the mangabeys have. In fact, research at Jane Goodall’s Gombe ape preserve would later show they sicken and die from the virus as humans do.)
HIV-1M in turn has spawned an array of subtypes that have become endemic to different regions of the world. That there are so many global variants of HIV is a function of the speed with which the virus reproduces and the frequency with which it errs in doing so. The virus evolves a million times faster than animals, meaning that in a mere decade it recapitulates the ten million years since humans, chimpanzees and gorillas last had a common ancestor.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Price of Bad Governance

How much does the legacy of Mobutu and Kabila cost the people of DR Congo? One way is to compare the infant mortality rate to other neighboring countries. Here is a chart, drawn from UN statistics:

Click for full-size

You can see right away that the Congo is an outlier: It started the 1970s with roughly the same mortality rate as sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, but gradually lost ground. The Congo loses 109 children per 1000 live births, compared to only 64 for Africa as a whole.

But what do those numbers translate to in terms of real human beings? About 2,660,000 babies are born every year in the DRC. If some 116 out of every 1000 of them die[1] , that means roughly 309,000 perish each year. If DRC's infant mortality rates were the same as SSA, it would lose only 194,000--or roughly 114,000 less. Compared to Kenya, DRC loses roughly 149,000 infants. And if the DRC performed no better than Nigeria, it would still lose 70,000 fewer babies each year.

[1] I am using 2005 statistics rather than 2010, which are projected, not actual.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Quote of the Day

 From remarks John Kerry gave at the LiveAtState virtual press conference:

“What is the U.S.’s interest in South Sudan? And what’s the way forward for peace to prevail?”
We also feel deeply committed, given past lessons, to try to prevent the chaos and the genocide that too often comes of the violence that can occur if things break down. We all have an interest – and everybody has an interest – in not letting that happen.

So here we have this new nation that is already in extremis, and we helped give birth to it. We feel this is the part of our responsibility. And we don’t want this to cascade into a more violent repetition of the past. So that’s why we’re committed. We believe this is part of the defining of the future of Africa, and we will remain deeply committed and personally engaged in an effort to try to help the people of South Sudan define their own future in peace and prosperity, hopefully.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Exclusive: Global Witness Outed as Sleeper Cell for the Chamber of Commerce*

In a dramatic turn of events,  one of the leading advocacy groups for the conflict minerals campaign has outed itself as a mole for the US Chamber of Commerce. Global Witness, a British NGO, published a report last week detailing the massive failure of Dodd-Frank 1502 to achieve any of its intended goals. The report documents how the conflicts have worsened since passage of the law and the SEC's promulgation of the implementing regulations. And it reveals how, by driving the trade underground, the law has benefited the very worst elements in the Kivus: rogue military groups and armed militia. (Other NGOs, including the Open Society**, had already revealed their fealty to the Chamber by publishing reports highly critical of Dodd Frank 1502, but none had previously positioned itself as a leader in the campaign.)

Here are some of the report's highlights:
The Man with the Golden Touch: General Gabriel Amisi
  • Up to 10 tonnes of gold from South Kivu is being laundered each year through Burundi and exported to Dubai--with an "almost complete absence of checks" on the trade;
  • FARDC forces redeployed to fight M23 rebels left a security void filled by armed groups moving in on the mineral trade;
  • General Gabriel Amisi, who was fired last year as the army chief of staff for selling arms to the M23 rebels, controls one of the richest gold mines in South North Kivu;
  • Changes in security dynamics in the past year have provided rebels and FARDC with opportunities to take control of mining sites previously considered candidates for conflict-free sourcing;
  • Formal exports of the three Ts--tin, tantalum, and tungsten--are low in South Kivu and virtually non-existent in North Kivu. The majority of these minerals are smuggled out of eastern Congo, laundered through Rwandan tagging system, and exported as domestic Rwandan product.
  • The financial incentives to smuggle Congolese tin ore across the border outweigh the risks of getting caught, since "tagged" tin sells for $9/kilo, compared to a mere $3 or $4/kilo for untagged ore.
  • The government-led initiative to certify mining sites initiated in 2011 is already out of date and defunct;
  • The conflict-free tin initiative at Kalimbi in Nyabibwe, widely viewed as a test case for responsible sourcing, is being exploited by a military-led smuggling racket.
To be sure, the report concludes with the standard advocacy-based recommendations, to wit: that companies implement OECD due diligence procedures in full; that the Congolese government enforce domestic due diligence law, remove and prosecute army officers involved in the mineral trade, and formalize the gold trade; and that the donor governments support capacity building for mining authorities.

But the report convincingly demonstrates that the government has neither the will nor the capacity to bring the illicit trade to heel, and provides overwhelming evidence that Dodd-Frank has exacerbated the very problems it was meant to resolve. The sparse recommendations tacked on to the conclusion of the report tacitly acknowledge the nature of the problem: A government capable of making the recommended reforms would not need to be told to undertake them in the first place. To put it another way: A government that is unable and unwilling to govern its territory or protect its people is not a likely candidate to administer a complex and dynamic mineral trade regime.

With the publication last month of the Pole Institute's highly critical No Kivu, No Conflict report, which concluded that the Kivus are "being asphyxiated" economically by Dodd-Frank 1502, this leaves The Enough Project as the law's sole remaining cheerleader. In late February, Enough's co-founder and public face,  John Prendergast, wrote this about the mineral campaign:
For decades all of the benefits of eastern Congo's vast mineral resource wealth have gone to those with the biggest guns -- the Congolese army, local militias or neighboring countries. These minerals include, among others, gold, cobalt, copper, tin, industrial diamonds and coltan, used in cell phones, laptops and other electronic devices.

But U.S. and European consumer demands for a conflict-free minerals trade, congressional legislation, International Monetary Fund aid suspensions, U.N. experts' reports, responsible investors and other influential voices are making it harder to profit violently and illegally from mineral smuggling.
*I am, of course, being ironic.
**See *. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

Monday, May 6, 2013

Quotes of the Day, from Mary Robinson

Statement by Mary RobinsonUnited Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on April 20, 1998:
Today's decision by the Secretary-General to withdraw his Investigative Team (SGIT) from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was the inevitable result of a series of obstacles which have prevented the Team fulfilling its mandate.
I see this development in the overall context of the international community's commitment to fight impunity which is one of the major factors in the recurrent violence in the Great Lakes Region and elsewhere.
The withdrawal is a grave setback in this battle against impunity and underscores the need for an International Criminal Court with the political backing and resources to bring to justice the perpetrators of the worst violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. . . .
The people of the DRC, and of the broader region, are entitled to a future free from the violence and abuse of the past decades. An essential step in realising such changes lies in ending the cycle of impunity which has only encouraged inter-ethnic and other violence"
From an interview with Mary Robinson in The Spectator, on September 21, 2012:
Could you describe your visit to Rwanda after the genocide in 1994?
Even though it was a couple of months after the actual genocidal killing, you could smell the blood, and see it everywhere: you could see the little children’s shoes in every building you went into. There was also a huge prison population, and I talked to a number of widows who had been raped. It was devastating. I was determined the following year, when I was invited by Ireland to represent the country at the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations, that I would bring Rwanda to the table of the UN if you like.
But you had difficulty with the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame at a later stage?
That was when I went back to Rwanda as UN High Commissioner in 1998. At that stage I thought, they know me, but when I arrived, I was a UN official, and there was that coldness and distance, because the UN had betrayed Rwanda, and they were hurting.
I was caught up in that, and didn’t fully appreciate the extent of it. But I was also getting briefed about what Rwanda was doing in the Democratic Republic of Congo - understandably trying to catch those who had been responsible for the genocide - but subsequently killing civilians in the process. So I had to try and raise that issue at various levels.
Did you regret the press conference you gave that year as UN High Commissioner when you condemned the actions of the Rwandan Government?
I sounded at the press conference like a western person who was giving out to Rwanda, not like somebody who had been deeply supportive, sympathetic and engaged. That’s why when I was leaving Rwanda on that visit I was so upset with myself. I think I am regarded as someone who has had a lot of success in life, and I want young people who are reading this book to know, that there are going to be times when you are not going to be proud of what you did, but you go on.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Conflict Minerals: A Devastating Analysis from the Pole Institute

On conflict minerals, a devastating new analysis from the Pole Institute:
Thus, a pattern is emerging in which Kivu's mining sector is being asphyxiated in the name of reform. Before 2010, Kivu's mineral traders had willingly participated in moves to strengthen formal and legal channels and to safeguard Kivu livelihoods by creating “conflict-free” production and trading chains within Eastern Congo. The mining ban killed this off, and today the focus has moved to Katanga and Maniema, increasingly apparently favouring a nexus of mining firms closely linked to the power-holders in Kinshasa. Because they do not finance armed groups, these firms are seen as “conflict‐free,” but no criteria exists to judge the wider political ramifications of their activities, their benefits for local development and the possible exacerbation of local conflict caused by favouring certain firms in collusion with international partners to the detriment of others. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Coming Anarchy?

The Congolese state seems to me be teetering on the edge of collapse, about to forfeit even the appearance of control over the country. Consider: Outbreaks of localized violence in the east are increasing; an inadequately manned UN intervention brigade is on a collision course against a determined, Rwandan-supported rebel movement; Katanga is openly defying orders from the capital while dealing with its own rebellion; and Kabila's power base in Kinshasa is coming unglued. It's possible that Kabila's regime will continue to muddle through, absent an effective challenger. But the state's hold on power appears as fragile as it's been since the 1996-97 war, and I would not be surprised if there were a coup or some sort of temporary state collapse within the next Friedman unit or so.

Bukavu Online reports that 57 Congolese soldiers died fighting the Union des Forces révolutionnaires du Congo (UFRC), in a battle for control of Chisadu, in Walungu, a mere 60 kms from Bukavu on April 24. Civil society groups are warning that the Mouvement pour la restauration de la démocratie au Congo (MRDC), controlled by General autoproclamé Hilaire Kombi, is threatening to take Beni even as the town's mayor appeals for calm. Walikali has become a free-for-all in the mineral trade, says Christophe Rigaud with Afrikarabia, relaying a report from Prince Kihangi Kyamwami of the NGO, Le Bureau d’Etudes, d’observation et de coordination pour le Développement du territoire de Walikale (BEDEWA).

Meanwhile, negotiations in Kampala between the M23 and the Congolese government appear to have broken down, amid demands from the M23 for a blanket amnesty and reincorporation on its own terms into the Congolese army. Civil society groups are warning that M23 is reinforcing its positions in Rutshuru and Beni in preparation for battle against the UN's intervention brigade. And Congo365 wonders if a military confrontation inevitable.

If a confrontation does take place, it may not end well for the UN. Nadine Gordimer is among many South Africans voicing doubts about the wisdom of their country's participation in the brigade. Thirteen South African troops were killed in the Central African Republic in late March, and questions continue to swirl about whether they were there to protect South Africa's national interests or Jacob Zuma's family's personal investments with ousted president Francois Bozize. Major General Patrick Cammaert, a former UN Force Divisional Commander for MONUC in the DRC, raises a host of troubling questions about the brigade in an analysis authored by Fiona Blythe:
“No one has conducted an analysis of why, over the last five years or so, MONUSCO has been unable or unwilling to fulfill its mandate of protecting civilians, and until we have the outcome of this analysis we cannot determine if the solution is an intervention brigade.”

“The issue is not that proactive operations are not already authorized, but that troop contributors are risk averse, and show time and again a lack of political will to employ a full reading of the mandate, leading to accusations that it lacks robustness.” In the end, “the mandate is only as strong as the will of the leadership and the TCCs to implement it.”

“Is one brigade to be responsible for enforcing peace through the use of force and the other not? Is one set of rules of engagement to differ from the other, and if not, why deploy a new brigade with the same rules of engagement and force posture as the existing one?”
Reviewing the litany of potential pitfalls analysts worry may be facing the brigade, Christophe Rigaud concludes with one of his own: If the brigade focuses its energies on M23, the 20 or so other rebel groups operating in the Kivus may paradoxically end with greater room and freedom to maneuver.

And Jason Stearns raises the possibility of a re-internationalization of the Congo wars, this time featuring overt conflict between two African military heavyweights: South Africa  and Rwanda. The humanitarian consequences would be appalling.

Quote of the Day

I have written before about Congo being policy shorthand for "hopeless situation the cognoscenti know we're not going to do anything serious about," but with the clamor growing for us to intervene in Syria, I think it's worth pointing out that we could save far more lives and put far fewer US troops in danger--and at much lower geopolitical risk--if we were to make a determined effort to help the DRC. I do wish someone would buttonhole people like Anne-Marie Slaughter and ask her to seriously answer this question from Obama. (Not, for that matter, that I think he intended the question seriously.) How is it, exactly, that Arab lives have now risen to our level of consciousness--as they did for example when we decided to intervene in Libya--but Congolese lives still don't? Why doesn't the situation in Congo  raise the specter of our moral failure in Rwanda? Why the all-but complete silence from the internationalist humanitarian crowd about the DRC?
In a situation like Syria, I have to ask, can we make a difference in that situation? Would a military intervention have an impact? How would it affect our ability to support troops who are still in Afghanistan? What would be the aftermath of our involvement on the ground? Could it trigger even worse violence or the use of chemical weapons? What offers the best prospect of a stable post-Assad regime? And how do I weigh tens of thousands who've been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands* who are currently being killed in the Congo?
*And by tens of thousands, he of course means millions.

Had Enough of Enough?

Alex de Waal at the World Peace Foundation takes one hell of a whack at the Enough Project:

Reclaiming Activism
For most of my adult life I introduced myself as an “activist” first and a writer, researcher, or practitioner of humanitarian action or peacemaking second. Then, about seven or eight years ago, I became rather uncomfortable with the word. Not because I had diluted my personal commitment to working in solidarity with suffering and oppressed people, but because a group of people, in whose company I didn’t want to be, were claiming not only to be activists but to define “activism” itself. I am speaking of course about the policy lobbyists in Washington DC, also known as “designer activists,” who took on the role of promoting certain causes related to Africa, and who arrogated to themselves the privilege of defining these problems and identifying and pursuing ostensible solutions. It was no accident that those purported solutions placed the “activists” themselves at the center of the narrative, because many of them were Hollywood actors—or their hangers on—for whom the only possible role is as the protagonist-savior. The actions they promoted all had one thing in common: using more U.S. power around the world.

I was not the only one to find this arrogation of “activism” offensive, demeaning and counter-productive. One of the most refreshing aspects of our recent seminar at the World Peace Foundation was finding out just how much the consensus among national civil society activists from Uganda and Congo, as well as Sudan, has coalesced around the view that the basic narratives and policy prescriptions of the Enough Project and its ilk are not only simplified and simplistic, but actually pernicious. Theirs isn’t activism: it’s insider lobbying within the Washington establishment using celebrity hype as leverage. They are not just a benign variant of advocacy, perhaps somewhat simplified: they are wrong.
The disquiet about Enough's style of activism and agenda-driven policy recommendations seems to me to be reaching a tipping point. The conflict minerals debate, for example, is all-but over among serious Congo researchers: Just about every serious independent researcher and NGO to have studied the issue reached similar conclusions: DF-1502 has done nothing to end the conflicts, harmed the people it was meant to help and helped the people it was meant to harm. The question is: Are Enough's funders listening?

To be clear, I probably have fewer misgivings about Enough's style of advocacy than some other scholars and activists. I don't mind them promoting simplistic narratives or enlisting celebrity spokespeople, for example, just as I don't mind anti-poverty groups that pull on heartstrings or environmental groups featuring polar bears desperately swimming toward ice floes. I don't even mind Prendergast's self-promotional style, or at any rate, not that much. I find it in poor taste, but I appreciate that it's incredibly hard to enlist Americans in causes far from home and about which they have no first-hand experience.  My quarrel with Enough is much simpler: The policy they promoted to help end the conflicts in the Congo--the conflict minerals campaign--caused irremediable damage to the million or so people who depend on the trade for their livelihood, while doing nothing to help end the conflicts. And what's worse: They were warned of the dangers their campaign would cause by knowledgeable, local experts, yet went ahead with it anyway.