Africa: It's Big!

by Dennis Barlow, Director, MAIC

The great opera commentator, John Culshaw was once asked to describe the monumental Wagnerian “Ring Cycle” using only one word. After pondering the question for a moment he responded by characterizing it as, “long.” At first, this obvious answer seemed more flippant than serious, but a little thought leads one to conclude that Culshaw was on to something. Many words could describe the Ring: monumental, bombastic, fantastic, convoluted, stirring, mythological, but each limits the scope or makes a judgment which may not be ultimately true. The truth is that someone who wants to tackle the Ring must be prepared to undergo quite a long journey—an investment in both time and emotion—to discover the many treasures, which may reward the patient and skilled listener.

The Challenge of African “Bigness”

The challenge, as Africa itself, may be described as simply “Big.” We might be daunted by the fact that the landmine threat there could be described as complex, multi-dimensional, problematic, or difficult. On the other hand, we might be tempted to see the promise of a dream fulfilled and describe the situation as hopeful, coordinated, focused, or promising. But we would be well cautioned to approach the challenge of landmine remediation in Africa, much as the Wagnerites do; with patience and diligence—and the clear recognition that the landmine problem in Africa is a multi-faceted puzzle which can, only with the most energetic and dedicated of outlooks, yield dramatic and inspiring results.

So in dealing with Africa, let us first accept that it is BIG and diverse. There are long distances to and from landmine-affected areas; there are vast and dramatic topographical environments ranging from desert to tropical forest, from lush and verdant fields to barren alkaline plateaus. Threatened people live in cities and in tribes, and are nomadic or sedentary, often dislocated or in refugee status. Almost every conceivable kind of landmine has been planted in Africa over the past sixty years. African countries represent varying kinds of political outlooks and competencies, just as they are homes to peoples of different races and differing and often conflicting, philosophies, tribal outlooks, and religions. The size and scope of the space and the people that are Africa do not lend themselves to a “one-size-fits-all” landmine remediation scheme. Therefore several approaches are suggested to maximize the chances for success in planning and conducting mine action campaigns in Africa.

Synchronize Your Watches—And Your Plans

The first observation is that since Africa is too big and too diverse to treat uniformly, no one organization or mine action methodology will work everywhere. The key to comprehensive results is the synchronization of complementary efforts made possible by the best possible integration, cooperation and communication of involved organizations. This recognition and its implied interaction with different groups’ activities extend beyond mine action to other families of humanitarian action.

Very often mine action projects can be accomplished best in conjunction with activities such as civic action projects, feeding programs, public health missions, agriculture and land reclamation, or post-conflict support. Any organization hoping to maximize or insure the lasting effects of its mine action mission would be well advised to link its activities to other relief or humanitarian efforts.

Light One Candle

A second consideration is to attempt to win small and achievable victories. I am reminded of the profound slogan, which advises us to “Think globally, act locally.” Any one organization’s attempt to try to unilaterally take the lead in trying to solve Africa’s landmine problems will be as frustrating as it is undoable, and has every likelihood of becoming counterproductive. The trick is to find an activity, which is feasible, logistically supportable, focusing on realistic tasks, and politically expedient. The project should have as its goal an end state, which is measurable (even if subjectively) and meaningful to the community, and which will be part of an even greater national tapestry.

This kind of approach is what non-governmental organizations (NGO) have done so remarkably well in the area of mine action over the last ten years; they merely try “to do good” and develop a program around that simple concept. If kept in perspective, and with resource support, the hundreds of NGOs at work on landmine remediation in Africa can steadily and relentlessly achieve cumulative results, which can demonstrably advance the pan-African solution to the landmine threat.

Consider Every Available Tool

The third suggestion is to use every advantage, every tool, which can help each organization maximize its efficiencies and effectiveness. Wanting to do the right thing is indeed the key motivator, but it, in itself does not ensure efficient or successful accomplishment of the project. Twenty years ago a well-meaning NGO would go to Africa and pretty much had to rely on applying the resources donated by a certain church or donor. Today most organizations involved in mine action (or humanitarian demining) can multiply their outreach by utilizing “smart” support services and products being developed and offered by various organizations globally—often free of charge.

The list of tools available to most mine action practitioners in the past three years alone is quite considerable. It is literally impossible to mention here all the help available to organizations involved in mine action, but a short list would include the following services. Up to date country information is provided in the International Campaign to Ban Landmines Landmine Monitor Report. Geographical support is rendered by the Geneva International Center for Humanitarian Demining and the Mine Action Information Center (MAIC) at James Madison University. Information support has been spearheaded by the Information Mine Action System (IMAS) developed by the GICHD. Mine action management courses are available at Cranfield University. International mine action standards, developed under the auspices of the UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS), the GICHD and the MAIC are posted on the UNMAS E-mine web page. Training support is available from a number of countries such as Denmark and France. Reporting mechanisms and forms have been designed and offered by Handicap International. Survey (impact) reports are available from the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. Landmine identification CD’s are available from the US government. Information on access to these and many other valuable services and products are regularly posted on such helpful and user friendly websites as the UNMAS E-Mine, the JMU MAIC and the GICHD websites.

In spite of the daunting nature of the landmine threat in Africa, mine action groups can do three things to prepare them to help tame the beast. One is to provide their organizations with the best mine action goods and services available; today that includes a panoply of information, systems, computer aids and training to help plan and conduct a well-coordinated and thought out campaign. The second is to plan an operation small enough to control and to ensure local success, but still tied to a goal which can be measured and aggregated to the effort in the whole country or region. Thirdly, multiply the effectiveness of the project and ensure its sustainability by integrating it with capacity-building techniques and other humanitarian activities underway or planned in the area.

Soldiers are fond of talking about additional efforts, which increase the effectiveness of an operation; they call such complementary efforts, “force multipliers.” While landmines are not the most dangerous threat facing Africa, the mine action approach to solving that problem may bring needed cooperation, application and focus to the overall thrust of relief and humanitarian operations there and thus become a major “development multiplier” and make Africa a little less “big.”

Contact Information

Dennis Barlow, Director

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  Publisher: MAIC
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