Somalia

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Inaugural Public Diplomacy

President Barack Obama, in his first inaugural address in 2009, said “the world has changed, and we must change with it.” The extent of a transformed domestic and international landscape was clear in his second inaugural address this week. Inaugurals are important opportunities for public diplomacy and his message will appeal to international audiences, but it was clearly tempered by four years of real-world experience. Obama talked at length about ongoing need to achieve equality and opportunity here at home, but gone was much of the soaring rhetoric targeted abroad that captivated international audiences four years ago.

Unlike previous second-terms where Presidents have been challenged politically at home and tried to pad their legacies abroad, Obama’s domestic is clearly going to animate his final four years in office. He outlined an ambitious agenda – a grand bargain on the budget that preserves social equality and promotes economic opportunity, enhanced gun regulation and immigration reform. These issues, along with energy and the environment, have important international dimensions as well.

If engagement was the international watchword four years ago, this time it was collaboration and the need to continue to strengthen the capacity of the international community to tackle major global challenges. He reemphasized a commitment to end a decade of war, rejecting the notion that U.S. security requires “perpetual war.” He renewed America’s support for democracy in a dramatically transformed international landscape.

Those pledges will be tested over the next four years in places like Syria, Mali, Iran, Pakistan and Egypt.

Saying “no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation,” President Obama committed to continued emphasis on collective action through formal alliances, major international organizations, regional structures and informal groups of like-minded nations. The past four years revealed the strengths and limitations of such an approach, with decisive international action in Libya but severe constraints in Syria. Patient and determined action with regional partners appears to be paying off in Somalia. That is a potential model for action in and around Mali, but more resources will need to be committed, and quickly.

Obama said four years ago that his national security strategy involved the “prudent use” of American power. The weight of effort against extremist groups shifted from large-scale deployments of U.S. ground forces to the aggressive use of technology, from unmanned drones to a computer worm. This strategy netted important accomplishments, such as the elimination of Osama bin Laden, but has generated international concerns regarding overly secretive actions that may be rewriting the laws of war and setting potentially far-reaching precedents. The administration is said to be codifying its approach within an American “playbook,” but it remains unclear to what degree this involves genuine partnerships with admittedly weak allies like Pakistan or Yemen.

Obama in his inaugural address encouraged resolving “differences with other nations peacefully, not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.” This approach will surely be tested in the coming months regarding the U.S. approach to Iran and whether sufficient time will be devoted to what will undoubtedly be a lengthy and difficult negotiation.

The United States will continue to support democracy “because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom.” But emerging democracies like Egypt will have a much different look and feel. The United States should help guide Egypt regarding vital elements of an enduring democracy – building effective institutions, protecting minorities, including all segments of society including women, tolerating and encouraging political dissent and peacefully transferring power following free and fair elections. But the United States will have to be patient, recognizing that the path forward will not be a straight line. The final construction should be consistent with long-term U.S. objectives, but will not have a stamp that says “made in America.”

A Proposal for Revitalizing International Broadcasting in the Information Age

Co-author: Shawn Powers, Georgia State University

State-funded broadcasters face more competition for publics’ attention.  With the wide proliferation of information sources globally, audiences have the option of accessing a multitude of news outlets while increasing their own engagement through two-way communications technologies.  The growth of other international broadcasters, or state news media aimed at foreign audiences, as well as private news media, is part of increasingly complex informational environments.

For state broadcasters constrained by host governments’ strategic interests and/or lethargic bureaucracy, adapting to the information age is especially challenging.  They are bound by old missions, institutional pressure, declining budgets, and domestic politics, not to mention the presumption of propaganda by many receiving publics.  However, the source of their new challenges—the growth of information and communication technologies—also offers a possible way forward.

These factors along with financial crises and the demise of clear, global geopolitical polarity, has engendered identity crises among many state-run broadcasters already facing the ever-difficult dilemma between being news with instrumental purposes – the pursuit of the host country’s national interests – while not being dismissed as propaganda.

State broadcasters can re-define themselves by focusing on specific information poor and weakly governed societies, often termed failed or non-transitioning states – of which there are still dozens according to Foreign Policy’s Failed State index.

In a newly published paper in a special symposium in the Journal of Public Deliberation, we propose international broadcasters find renewal by fostering deliberative technologies in such societies.  By sponsoring mediated forums for average Somalis, Afghans, Haitians and so on to discuss public matters, international broadcasters can aid development through hosting safe communicative spaces for articulating public concerns, reaching shared expectations of governance, and, advancing norms of citizen participation in public affairs.

To support this policy prescription, we offer two case studies.  The first is Voice of America’s Middle East Voices (MEV) online portal, launched in November 2011.  Its goals are explicitly deliberative.  According to managing director Davin Hutchins, “We wanted to find a place where people could start conversations about the news. There are plenty of sites and organizations that cover the Middle East. What we wanted was a site that enhanced the level of dialogue.”

VOA’s use of deliberation technologies in non-transitioning and authoritarian states facilitated informed dialogue on divisive issues, much of which is based on user-generated content and collaborative journalism.  While MEV has not reached nor involved large audiences, it offers a new model for international broadcasters to encourage the flow of information and political expression where domestic media are under assault.   Such deliberative infrastructure for national and transnational dialogue is valuable as an avenue for circumventing state censors and informational controls.

The second is “Somalia Speaks,” a collaborative project spearheaded by Al Jazeera English that combines several communication technologies to solicit short message service (SMS) texts about Somalia and shares them on its website.  Soud Hyder, an AJE staff member, said the project’s aim is to circulate “the perspective of normal Somali citizens” and let them “tell us how the crisis has affected them.”  It tapped into the growth of mobile phones in Somalia.

Respondents expressed how the famine and decades of conflict impacted them.  For example, one SMS posted on January 1, 2012 read:

“I lost both my parents and the elder brother in the bloodshed that has been going for the last 20 years. In addition, my students and their children all perished in this conflict and there is a lot which I can’t count all here.”

The graphic to the right is from the project’s webpage and it outlines the process.  AJE partnered with Souktel, a cell phone service provider with a development ethos, to provide the local response number to receive the SMS texts and the subscriber lists.  A crowd-sourcing platform, Crowdflower, let 80 volunteers translate 1,000 messages into English.  Using Ushahidi’s mapping application, AJE’s website displayed the messages in both map and catalog formats.  This exemplified the possibilities that arise from an international broadcaster working collaboratively with other technology platforms and organizations.

With adjustments, both the MEV and “Somalia Speaks,” could be used to better facilitate domestic information flows.  For example, AJE could have done more to re-circulate the texts through Somali media. This would be easier, of course, if Al Jazeera goes forward with its planned East Africa news channel.  Similarly, VOA could find ways to expand circulation of user-generated content beyond the Internet, perhaps through its broadcasting functions.  These projects do show how international broadcasters can engage in particular media poor environments to benefit local publics.

Some may argue that deliberation, or institutionalized public exchange, is impossible in authoritarian and failed or failing states.  Lisa Wedeen’s excellent ethnographic study of public engagement in Yemen, Peripheral Visions: Publics, Power, and Performance in Yemen (2008), shows how overly formalistic definitions of deliberation do not capture the vibrancy of public sphere practices in informal, everyday life settings. She examined Qat chews, in which circles of men share the mildly narcotic leaves while discussing public issues and exchanging information.  This is a form of Yemeni citizenship in action even in lieu of a fully functioning state or formal civil society.  Our proposal would mean more mass mediated channels for the spreading of such deliberation among wider audiences.

Broadcasters may protest that this puts their primary audiences in a handful of countries. This proposal complements rather than supplants current broadcasting.  Also, as the case studies show, such projects can generate valuable content for reporting.  For example, AJE reported on a market fire in a region in Somalia where there are no journalists after receiving text messages.  This alone can give state-sponsored news organs something novel to contribute.  Such reporting adds to, rather than replicates or spins, the dominant news stream, and is more interesting than the typical fare showing the host country in a good light.

We recognize that development problems cannot be resolved by talk and the exchange of ideas alone.  Rather than a panacea, this is about a pragmatic use of state resources to benefit foreign publics with the understanding that this is not done selflessly.  There must be mutual benefit.

Building on notions of deliberative development, we argue that international broadcasters can offer positive, incremental improvement of the internal flow of information and expectations, which can fuel growth in civil society and improve informal or quasi-governance structures – potential precursors to more responsive institutions.  By serving as proxies in places with weak media, broadcasters get a new purpose, a developmental one, and this is a step forward for both.

Of course, since they are intervening in foreign information spaces, broadcasting agencies must approach carefully, self-reflexively and in partnership with groups and audience members in receiving countries.

If this proposal interests you, read our full paper, “A New Purpose for International Broadcasting: Subsidizing Deliberative Technologies in Non-transitioning States.”   Feedback is welcome either below in the comments or email us directly at smp [at] gsu [dot] edu. Or find us on Twitter: @shawnpowers and @wyoumans.

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