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August 12, 2009

Camcorders for Congo: Not the worst U.S. initiative for Africa

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to war-ravaged eastern Congo yesterday was unprecedented for a top American official, heartening to activists and -- by Clinton's own reckoning -- extremely emotional. Yet the blogosphere is seizing on one detail of her $17 million plan to fight Congo's shocking epidemic of rape. See if you can guess which item in this New York Times recap has some Congo-watchers pulling out their hair:

[Clinton] announced that the American government would train doctors, supply rape victims with video cameras to document violence, send American military engineers to help build facilities and train Congolese police officers, especially female police officers, to crack down on rapists.

Yes, Camcorders-for-Congo has some detractors.

Texas in Africa wonders how U.S. officials who surveyed the human and emotional carnage of Congo decided that rape victims needed to be videotaped: "Many of them need to tell their stories, although I doubt most want to do so on YouTube."

More to the point, perhaps Wronging Rights points out the terrible irony that the camcorders may contain coltan, which is one of the minerals that the Enough Project says is at the heart of the Congo conflict. Clinton herself pointed out the direct connection between these "conflict minerals" and the violence that's believed to have killed millions over the past decade.

I understand the outrage, but I can't say that I share it. Rape already carries a crippling stigma in Congo, as in the rest of the world, and one of the reasons doctors and aid workers find it so difficult to fight is that people are afraid to come forward. Some are even laughed at. No amount of money can kill that stigma, but maybe information, deployed responsibly, can.

We know how empowering a simple technology like the cell phone can be. I'm no medical expert, but I can imagine how cameras, in the right hands, could help. Doctors would have visual records of certain cases. Victims might slowly come to feel that speaking out about their injuries isn't a shameful thing. Sure, electricity is in short supply in Congo but I don't imagine that victims will be taking the cameras home to their villages to gather dust, nor do I expect that the responsible people who care for these folks would videotape people without their permission. And let's be honest: in the scheme of $17 million, cameras really aren't a big deal.

Besides, on a day where one Somali website is reporting that U.S.-bought weapons may be ending up in the hands of Islamist insurgents (I haven't been able to confirm this, and at least one reliable intelligence source believes it could be Islamist propaganda) Camcorders for Congo hardly seems like a candidate for Worst American Idea for Africa.


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Texas in Africa

Good points all. But I still think the opportunity cost outweighs arguments that camcorders might help with documentation, especially since there isn't really a documentation problem in the first place. Records for women who report their rapes are kept in excruciating detail; there are special forms at the hospitals to detail the incidents. You're talking about people who don't have enough food to eat, whose children are malnourished, and who often sleep on their dirt floors because they don't have foam mattresses. I just really doubt that most of them are interested in making video cameras a high priority. But we await details of the project.


How do they propose that people film the violence? Ask the soldiers to powder their noses before doing a scene? We all agree that impunity should end and testimony is difficult to solicit and then use in a court of law, especially in eastern DRC. But I think providing women with a valuable object that can also be used to implicate people in a crime could be even more dangerous for these women. If the violence wasn't channeled before, it surely will be now, and a lot more soldiers will end up with pillaged cameras.

Let's be honest. Cameras ARE a big deal, both from a protection perspective and from the perspective of serving the most urgent need. Was any community or women's group consulted on this decision, or is it merely a way to serve the desire of the current administration to technologize their efforts to save the world?


The International Rescue Committee has been working on such a project for some time now. It sounds like it is empowering women.


I'm not sure Clinton should be the Secretary of State with her assanine comments. I don't believe she is doing anything to really support the current Pres. I'm willing to bet she'll be running against the Pres in 2012 stating she also had experienced as a Secretary of State during the Obama Admin.


Once the word gets out that America is giving away video cameras to rape victims, expect a rise in reported rape cases by enterprising wannabe filmmakers!

howell clark

i'm going to take congo girls statement one step further into the pessimistic realm. i know that the intent is good and getting these women to eventually face the facts and outside pressure might go a long way to stop this crime. the problem to date is lack of prosecution or even getting any officials invovled as way to many times its the soldiers or militias doing the deed. if at first you succeed in getting victims to film their condition for future evidence do not be surprised to see a higher percentage of the victims killed as perpetrators cover their tracts to avoid prosecution. horrible to have to think that but it would be a reality to face for awhile.

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Somewhere in Africa was written by McClatchy correspondent Shashank Bengali, who covered sub-Saharan Africa from 2005 to 2009. He's now based in Washington, D.C., as a national correspondent.

Read Shashank's stories at news.mcclatchy.com or send him a story idea.


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