Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Silence of the Billionaires

Buffett makes a point
So about that Buffett Foundation report that's so critical of the UN Group of Experts? Neither the Foundation nor the groups it contracted to write up the report are willing to take questions about it.[1] I've been trying to gin up some expression of regret about their reluctance to stand behind their work--you know, in a tone more of Seurat than of Ingres--but really, is anyone remotely surprised?

The basic argument of the report is: The GoE's mandate was to work with the governments of the region to identify the root causes of the violence in eastern Congo. For reasons not ours to determine (says the report), cooperation between the GoE and the Rwandan government broke down. The GoE therefore failed to do what was required of it--work with the GoR--violating its mandate and thus casting doubt on its findings. QED.[2]

Well, that's just ridiculous. First, there's zero doubt about who broke off the relationship between the GoE and the Rwandan government. The Rwandans did. They have a history of assassinating internal dissidents and PNG'ing Western critics. See this article by Reyntjens for a lengthy chronicle of these attacks. By contrast, the GoE never stopped trying to contact the Rwandans. Second, it introduces an  aneurysm-inducing premise: that a government can undermine the findings of a human rights group simply by refusing to cooperate with it. If that were so, the sound you'd be hearing is dictators everywhere slapping their palms into their foreheads and exclaiming, "Why didn't I think of that?" Ça fait rêver.

Buffett's second line of criticism is to paint the GoE and its findings as outliers. Would that this were true. In fact, Rwanda's record of plunder and atrocity in eastern Congo is perhaps the most exhaustively detailed human rights crime of our age. The latest report is not even particularly damning in that respect. Previous GoE reports have reached similar conclusions. And there's the mapping report, and literally dozens of reports from the usual suspects: Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the International Crisis Group, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the ICTR, the State Department HR bureau, not to mention Stephen Smith and Howard French and Rene Lemarchand and Jason Stearns and Gerard Prunier and above all the late and terribly missed Alison Desforges. Yet Rwanda always reacts as if the latest criticism were some new and terrible affront. For instance:
  • HRW's May 2001 report ‘Uprooting the rural poor in Rwanda’ was said to be ‘baseless and full of lies’, and HRW stood accused of disseminating ‘a propaganda that undermines human rights by promoting ethnic division among Rwandans’. 
  • A report by AI on the human toll of the Rwandan occupation of eastern DRC was characterized as ‘outright bias, lack of objectivity and outright lies’. Amnesty's observations were ‘clearly unsubstantiated’ and ‘a reflection of the longstanding antipathy that AI has demonstrated towards Rwanda’. 
  • The 2005 US Department of State's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices was said to be ‘riddled with inaccuracies and inconsistencies’, and most of its observations were simply denied.
  • When a report discussed in the Security Council documented Rwanda's continuing support for the DRC rebel group CNDP, the government denounced ‘the dangerous inaccuracies and outright lies’ contained in the report, whose objectives were ‘malicious’ and which was replete with accusations ‘resulting from hearsay, perceptions and stereotypes’.
Given this history, it's no surprise that Rwanda reacted vociferously to the latest UN GoE report. The question is, why in this case have Kagame's Western supporters followed suit? Why have Buffett and Blair, among others, tried so hard to discredit this one particular report--out of the eighty or so that have come out in the past decade? Again, we don't know for sure, because they're not talking. But I think what's changed is that an entire generation of Western policymakers have come of age without having incurred the guilt of standing by during the genocide. They are, therefore, less cowed by Rwanda's indignation machinery, less willing to put up with its nonsense. The GoE report came on the heels of reports from AI and HRW that also alleged Rwandan complicity in fomenting the rebellion in eastern Congo, and in the shadow of the Mapping Report, with its mountain of evidence of mass killings in the region. The GoE report is--or is feared to be--the straw on the camel's back, the tipping point, the nudge that finally turns opinion against Kagame. And for that it has to be furiously resisted.

The ironic thing is that Buffett et Tony have a valid point to make: Cutting aid is far from the optimum policy response to Rwanda's transgressions. Aid works comparatively well in Rwanda, and it benefits a lot of people who are in no way responsible for what their government is doing. What the policy alternatives might be is a topic I'm working on now.

[1] It's not exactly clear from the text what role these two groups played in the authorship of the report, and of course, they're not taking questions. One bills itself as "strategy consultants," whose approach is to "get the right answer," and the other--well, its web site is a single almost blank page. Which makes sense, because it's owned and run by an ex-CIA agent

[2] Lest you find that synopsis too absurd to be credible, here is how the report summarizes its own key findings: "The UN’s search for the sources of instability in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is both timely and commendable. However, throughout 2012, cooperation and diplomacy between the Group of Experts (GoE) and the Governments of Rwanda (GoR) and Uganda (GoU), elements required by the GoE’s UN mandate, broke down. This fatally undermines the value of the GoE’s important work and increases risk in the region. It is not significant who was first to withdraw cooperation. The failure in process undermines the credibility of the findings, limiting potential policy prescriptions that could reduce violence in the Great Lakes region."

In the meantime, here for your enjoyment is the totality of my interaction with the Buffett Foundation.

From: David Aronson
Sent: Tuesday, April 02, 2013 1:45 PM
To: Contact
Subject: HGBF Contact - Report on GoE findings
To whom at the Foundation can I direct questions about the GoE report you’ve just published?
Many thanks,
David Aronson

From: Ann Kelly 
To: David Aronson
Sent: Tuesday, April 2, 2013 7:21 PM
Subject: FW: HGBF Contact - Report on GoE findings

Hi David,
We don’t have a press person and Howard and I are currently traveling in the region. I did see your questions that you sent Lake. We are letting the report – and our work in the region – speak for itself so we can continue to see through the efforts we have underway.
Thank you in advance for reaching out.

From: David Aronson
Sent: Tuesday, April 02, 2013 09:10 PM
To: Ann Kelly
Subject: Re: HGBF Contact - Report on GoE findings 

I understand. The report's kind of like a Miles Davis performance. It stands for itself; questions are supernumerary. 

Actually, that's rather astonishing.

Your report criticizes the GoE for failing to engage or cooperate with the GoR. To refuse to engage with any readers or critics of your own--well, that seems odd.

I urge you to reconsider. 


David Aronson

From: Ann Kelly
To: David Aronson
Sent: Wednesday, April 3, 2013 6:04 AM
Subject: Re: HGBF Contact - Report on GoE findings

Dear David,

We have a very small foundation with a handful of staff trying to invest $120 million this year, with a substantial annual budget in eastern DRC. We will be in 8 countries in 9 days meeting with grantees and potential grantees. While I would love to spend time addressing your questions, given we would respectfully disagree with even the characterization of the report as you've written below, I do not see how that would be a productive use of either of our time or what I'm guessing we both care about most, which is helping to solve the kinds of problems that keep people entrenched in poverty.



From: David Aronson
To: Ann Kelly
Sent: Wednesday, April 3, 2013 9:22 AM
Subject: Re: HGBF Contact - Report on GoE findings

Dear Ann,

I appreciate how difficult it must be to be in charge of dispensing so much money. But the Foundation commissioned and published a report with the express purpose of seeking to undermine the findings of a human rights group. It has, in addition, repeatedly defended a regime accused by virtually every credible human rights group, as well as nearly every regional scholar, of having committed massive atrocities in eastern Congo--atrocities that may well amount to acts of genocide.

Now there is a perfectly good argument to be made that the solution some governments have resorted to--of cutting their aid budget to the GoR--is not the way to respond. In fact, it's an argument I'm sympathetic to. But that's not the sole or even the main response the Buffett Foundation has issued. Instead, it has used its vast wealth to attempt to muddy the waters, to deny Rwanda's culpability, and to impeach with dubious arguments the integrity of one of the multitude of groups that have issued findings that embarrass the GoR.

I obviously can't force you to answer questions about why the Buffett Foundation has chosen to invest its money that way. I can tell you that refusing to engage with critics of the report will only further undermine its credibility and diminish the Foundation's reputation. 


David Aronson


  1. Extraordinary, almost unbelievable exchange: the Foundation's Ann Kelly sounds like a mole planted there to discredit her own organization.

  2. Thanks David,

    You are speaking for millions of Congolese trapped in this crazy world of senseless PR and psychotic behaviour consisting of shielding GoR.

    GoR is nothing more than an ex-abused child who grew old to become an abuser on its own right and the Buffett Foundation et al., are falling into the trap of keep on defending the ex-abused child who is now busy abusing vulnerable in the DRC.