Archive for the ‘cynical rants’Category

Values and humility in economics

Greg Mankiw is a Harvard economist, former chairman of President Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, and currently an advisor to the Romney presidential campaign. He teaches a large introductory economics course at Harvard and writes both the widely used Principles of Economics and a blog that displays the same crisp, eminently-readable prose as his textbook. In a show of solidarity with the Occupy Boston movement, some of his students walked out of that class earlier this year. Much has been written about the walkout  (Update: here’s the students’ open letter and a response that outlines why walking out of this particular class isn’t the most informed move.) Still I wanted to highlight Mankiw’s column in yesterday’s New York Times, titled  “Know what you’re protesting.” I share some of his reaction:

But my second reaction was sadness at how poorly informed the Harvard protesters seemed to be. As with much of the Occupy movement across the country, their complaints seemed to me to be a grab bag of anti-establishment platitudes without much hard-headed analysis or clear policy prescriptions. Ironically, the topic of the lecture that the protesters chose to boycott was economic inequality, including a discussion of recent trends and their causes.

Fair. But later in the piece Mankiw says something that really rankles (emphasis added):

I don’t claim to be an economist of Paul Samuelson’s stature. (Probably no one alive can.) But like him, I have written a textbook that has introduced millions of students to the mainstream economics of today. If my profession is slanted toward any particular world view, I am as guilty as anyone for perpetuating the problem.

Yet, like most economists, I don’t view the study of economics as laden with ideology. Most of us agree with Keynes, who said: “The theory of economics does not furnish a body of settled conclusions immediately applicable to policy. It is a method rather than a doctrine, an apparatus of the mind, a technique for thinking, which helps the possessor to draw correct conclusions.”

That is not to say that economists understand everything. The recent financial crisis, economic downturn and meager recovery are vivid reminders that we still have much to learn. Widening economic inequality is a real and troubling phenomenon, albeit one without an obvious explanation or easy solution. A prerequisite for being a good economist is an ample dose of humility.

I’ll preface my reaction to this with my own dose of humility: my studies at the Woodrow Wilson School this semester are my first exposure to serious economics, and I’m realizing every day that I have ever more to learn. I think it can be helpful to approach a field with fresh eyes so I hope my thoughts here won’t be entirely discredited by my fresh arrival to the dismal science.

That said, No! This seems like denial, pure and simple. My impression is that one of the areas where economists have most often failed to display humility is when thinking of and talking about the interaction of their values and methodologies.  Yes, economics has epistemological limitations, but these are equaled or surpassed by its axiological limitations, and may be more consequential because — unlike with the more readily acknowledged methodological shortcomings — economists themselves don’t always make clear the values implicit in their worldviews. I think economists and those who are impacted by their views (ie, everyone else) would benefit from clearer statements of how values impact economics.

Mankiw’s textbook does very briefly address the political philosophies underlying views on income redistribution, from utilitarianism to liberalism to libertarianism (pages 442-3 in the 5th edition). But this is halfway through the text and only in the context of the chapter on “income inequality and poverty.” In reality, your views on maximizing utility for all versus (at another extreme) only caring about how policies affect the poorest have an impact on pretty much every piece of welfare economics. Here from what I can tell Mankiw is quite mainstream — when considering the effects of a particular policy using the tools of welfare economics, the underlying philosophical preferences are almost always assumed. The conclusions of those studies are then touted as positive statements (“Policy X is bad for the economy”) when that may or may not be true, depending on whether you share the same fundamental normative roots.

Prof. Mankiw spoke at Princeton on October 20 (you can view the lecture here) and it was a well-presented talk. His remarks were broad and intelligent, though maybe a bit constrained by the fact that he is associated with a presidential campaign and thus can’t rock the boat too much (even with a disclaimer that his remarks were his own). In that talk Mankiw similarly began by emphasizing the need for economists to show greater humility in light of recent failures; he then proceeded to discuss a good number of specific policy recommendations with quite a bit of confidence. My biggest question coming out of the lecture was how to square the Mankiw who calls for greater humility from economists with the Mankiw who makes policy prescriptions. If we don’t know with certainty what the impacts of particular policies will be or how to do more than tweak the performance or recovery of an economy, why not start with the policies least likely to do harm to the most vulnerable members of society? That would generally be my preference, growing out of my own nascent political philosophy.

In his textbook (5th edition page 35) Mankiw evenly explicitly notes that “Economists give conflicting advice sometimes because they have different values.” This is true, and if anything it is under-emphasized. Elsewhere Mankiw has been more direct, contrasting the philosophies of Nozick and Rawls and noting how those might result in very different policy prescriptions on taxation. Mankiw ends up closer to Nozick and so it’s no surprise that his policy prescriptions are for lower corporate taxes (re-emphasized in the Princeton talk as one of the things on which he very strongly agrees with Romney).

How is this anything but a heavy dose of ideology being injected into economics? How can we square this with the Mankiw who says he doesn’t see the study of economics as “laden with ideology”? Part of the problem is that there are figures such as Mankiw who are concurrently serious researchers on scientific questions within economics and proponents of normative preferences in the political sphere. Can the outside observer tell when an economist is being one and not the other? Can economists realize this in themselves? When you couch these preferences in the language of economics without making the underlying values explicit, it’s hard to believe that the field is not laden with ideology. To the extent that he doesn’t even recognize how these value statements pervade the field, Mankiw is — in his own words — as guilty as anyone for perpetuating the problem.

04

12 2011

Machine gun roundup: the story gets worse

Machine Gun Preacher opens widely today. I wrote a piece for Foreign Policy that went up last night titled “Machine Gun Menace.” It’s mostly a summary of what I’ve written before on Childers (here, here, and here) but with some new material — including Childers’ denial to me of ever having sold arms — and some further thoughts on the perils of armed humanitarianism. It starts with my favorite quote from Childers’ book: “The Lord I serve is the living Lord Jesus. And to show you he’s alive, I’m going to send you to meet him right now!” You can read the full article here. Thanks to Joshua Keating at FP for the chance to take the arguments I’ve made here to a broader audience (and to my friend Jesse for editing help).

Dave Gilson brings the story to another audience at Mother Jones and Scott Baldauf at the Christian Science Monitor, who expressed early interest in the story, also writes about it there.

But the biggest new information on Sam Childers comes in this Christianity Today story by Mark Moring (with reporting in South Sudan by Uma Julius and Esther Nakkazi). I’ve been a bit frustrated by this whole Childers story since I first started writing about it, as I don’t have the resources (or time, as a full time grad student) to travel and do the research necessary to address all the doubts raised by Childers’ stories. Since I started writing on him I’ve received several emails from folks who previously or currently work in South Sudan, expressing a range of doubts — but most of them did not want to be quoted by name for various reasons.

It looks like Moring, Julius, and Nakkazi have done the hard work of asking around to people in the community — moving beyond the sort of trip where journalists only see what the charity wants them to see. If even half of the allegations they convey are true then this whole series of events is an absolute travesty: dozens if not hundreds of media outlets have interviewed, written about, or featured Childers. It seems that very, very few asked any critical questions or presented his story with much complexity. Some of this may be about resource constraints, but the questions are beginning to be asked now that the movie is coming out, so it’s hard to say that’s the whole story. I think one lesson for the future is this: when you talk to a supposed humanitarian making outlandish claims, it is not OK to only talk to them. Their actions affect others, and media should be more than megaphone-holding cheerleaders or fundraisers.

Back to the Christianity Today story. It opens:

Witnesses have said that the children at Shekinah Fellowship Children’s Village are malnourished, unhealthy, and unhappy. Several locals—including pastors, government officials, and a high-ranking member of the military—tell Christianity Today that Childers has exaggerated or outright lied about his work in the African nation.

Community leaders want his orphanage in Nimule—near the border with Uganda—to be shut down immediately, and for local ministries to take over. In a September 2 letter to Childers, 14 local leaders—including the man who says he gave 40 acres of land to Childers to build the orphanage—wrote that Chiders has “dishonored our agreement” to take care of orphans, and that they demand “immediate closure of the compound.” Childers told CT he never received that letter.

So it sounds like Childers may not have the community support you’d expect if he was doing good work. Childers predictably blames the allegations all on a disgruntled former employee. (Careful followers of aid scandals will note the almost exact parallel between that and Greg Mortenson’s reaction to allegations against him — Mortenson at first blamed almost everything on a disgruntled and dishonest former employee). If that was the only source of these accusations there would be plenty of reason to doubt them. But here’s more from an American doctor who visited in 2009:

Wilson said no adults—including Childers—were at the orphanage when his team visited in 2009, but that they left medicine and antibiotics with clear instructions how to administer them. But when they returned two days later, none of the medicine had been given to the children.

“I don’t know what to do,” Wilson said, “but I have to do something.” He ended up asking CT to investigate, and several people we spoke with recently confirmed what Wilson and the nurse observed.

They go on to talk about the health problems many of the children were having. Really, read it. There’s also a claim that echoes a criticism someone in South Sudan emailed to me, that Childers often stages photographs and acts differently when media are around:

Okumu and others said they witnessed Childers staging photographs of himself fighting against the LRA in order to make his story sound more compelling and to attract more donors to his ministry. Okumu said Childers used guards and children from the orphanage to stage the photos nearby. “He claimed to be rescuing kidnapped children from the LRA,” Okumu said. “But it was false. He just took pictures of the children in the bush around the compound here.”

Seth Trudeau, who is involved with another orphanage in Nimule, South Sudan, says that Childers’ orphanage was shut down by the local government last month. If that’s true, it raises the question of why and how Childers is still promoting the movie to raise money for his charity (I haven’t read that the orphanage was actually shut down anywhere else). Seth writes this:

Over the course of the last year, Sarah and I knew extended families who were taking their children away from the home, which surprised us. As the LRA’s strength had waned in South Sudan, this children’s home had broadened its focus from rescued child soldiers to all orphans and vulnerable children – which made it all the more shocking to us that families would be taking their children back: by definition, these children had come to the home because the families were so ill equipped to care for the children in the first place. At CCH, we had families who would lie about their circumstances in order to get their children in, so it struck us as strange that the opposite phenomenon was taking place on the other side of town.

Very strange indeed. If the children had extended families that could take care of them but just lacked the resources, it raises the troubling question of whether an orphanage was an appropriate charity model in the first place. Why not just support the families so they can care of the kids themselves? That — along with the stories of Childers being absent for long periods of time and the lack of adults on site — remind me again of criticism of orphanages as an aid model (here and here) at the blog Good Intentions Aren’t Enough. Hopefully the attention from the movie and these first critical reports will lead to more questions being asked and answered.

23

09 2011

How Sam Childers endangers humanitarians everywhere – reax from the web

(For background see my original long post and this update.)

Sam Childers gets back from Somalia (where he’s currently scouting for a humanitarian mission??) on August 10th, and I’ve been asked to contact him. I plan to, as I want to see if he’s willing to answer some of the many questions that potential donors deserve answers to — based on his own prior statements.

In the mean time, several aid/development bloggers have written about the Machine Gun Preacher:

A couple short mentions: Tom Murphy and Ken Opalo both link, while Tom Paulson at Humanosphere calls it all “fascinating and disturbing.”

Tales from the Hood is a long-running blog written by “J.” While the author is anonymous, many aid / development bloggers have met him (including me) or know who he is and what he does — which is how we know that he’s not just talk: he’s a legit humanitarian bad-ass who’s worked in countries your high school geography teacher has never heard of. J’s work is widely respected and his blog is a watering hole for aid and development workers around the globe. He also has a certain flair for description, as you can see in his piece on Childers:

[Childers] has a custom chopper and a movie deal, and when he’s not out busting caps into LRA, Childers pastors a biker-themed church in rural Pennsylvania (but of course). I think my favorite part is where he states that he is after Joseph Kony. Like, to kill him. Like, good old-fashioned cowboys and Africans.

And nothing says, “I worship the Prince of Peace” quite like vowing to kill someone.

While some commenters on this blog have said that Childers’ actions are just “between him and God” — and thus we shouldn’t criticize him — in reality nobody works in a vacuum. Reckless actions today can make future work via more reasonable approaches impossible. This critique, regarding how what Childers does and says can impact humanitarians everywhere, is very important. Here’s J again:

There is already suspicion, in some cases rightly earned, that humanitarian aid workers may not be strictly humanitarian… But thanks to the Machine Gun Preacher, next time I’m stopped and questioned at a checkpoint, it will be even harder for me to make the case that I’m really there (wherever ‘there’ is) for strictly humanitarian purposes. And so that we’re clear, this is true regardless of whether I’m in Killinochi, Erbil, or LAX. His videos and pics (along with those of many others) are up there, out in the open for all to see…

I have colleagues and close personal friends in South Sudan, including exactly the areas where Sam Childers claims to “help where no one else will.” I frequently must make the decision to deploy people who I supervise and for whom I am responsible to places where the ratio of assault rifles to healthy babies in the general population is far higher than it should be…. We very often go into insecure places where our presence and the associated suspicion that we may have ulterior motives puts not only us, but our local colleagues and those we’re trying to help at greater risk, too.

And so every time the inarticulate Machine Gun Preacher packs heat into South Sudan he makes the entire world more dangerous for me and my friends and innumerable real aid worker colleagues. Every time he puts up another video of himself jumping into his white SUV with an AK47 across his lap, he increases the likelihood that I or someone I care about is going to get shot.

Commenter MB adds this:

As someone who spent many years in South Sudan (pre- and post- CPA), who is currently in Iraq (stuck behind T-walls and armored SUVs)… this burns me up!. Any one who portrays us as CIA, military, armed, mercenary, or anything other than trying to help is beyond stupid! And anyone who would do a “reality series” (is that for real??) about them puts all of our lives, the lives of our friend, colleagues and those we are trying to help, in serious danger!…

Later in the thread the same commenter notes:

I think it’s fairly telling that those of us who have worked in South Sudan, over many years and people currently in South Sudan (a friend did an informal poll of people she knows there) knew nothing whatsoever about this guy.

I’ve heard the same sentiment from others, which is telling. I’ve also exchanged emails with two people in Sudan who have raised other concerns about Sam, and I’m hoping that they’ll decide to share those publicly soon. While there are some supporters who will believe Childers is on a mission from God regardless of what I say (or anyone else for that matter), it’s important for anyone who has information or concerns about Childers to share them as the publicity machine for the movie gears up. On that note, it would be great if someone who edits Wikipedia (I won’t because I think I’m too close to the issue) could update his ridiculously one-sided Wikipedia page to have a more objective voice.

Another aid worker who blogs, Erin in Juba, adds some thoughts here. She notes this passage from the Machine Gun Preacher blog:

As we neared Nimule we began to relax but we weren’t out of danger yet.  We rounded a corner and hurtled in a tribal clash between the Dinka and Madi tribes.  4,000 fighters, armed with pangas (machetes), rudimentary bows, spears and clubs, stormed back and forth looking for someone to fight.  In amongst the drunks I saw an elderly man poised for battle and a young woman with a bow in her hand and a baby slung across her back.  As the situation escalated we had no choice but to lock and load.  Shots were fired and we drove through the screaming remnants of the volatile mob.  Luckily, no one was killed.

If that strikes you as outlandish, you may appreciate Erin’s take:

AGGGGHHHHHH.  Tribal violence in South Sudan is a complicated clusterf[***], to say the least. However, most of the violence is in between the tribes. The traditions of violence and cattle raiding go back generations, and are a tragedy for sure, but because of their specific tribal-focused aims, they tend to not focus on targeting humanitarians.  And then this idiot claims he has “no choice” but to go blazing into the middle of a mob? …

Right. She also notes:

It’s also ironic that Sam claims to work with the SPLA to free child soldiers since the army had its very own child soldier branch (the Red Army).

For now the feedback is this: some aid workers who work in Sudan and other dangerous environments think Childers’ stories should be taken with a grain of salt, and say that what he is doing makes this work more dangerous for everyone. All of the supporting statements seem to be coming from people who are associated with his church and don’t seem to question Rev. Childers at all. They shouldn’t expect the same free pass as the movie brings him more attention. Childers has simply said a lot of outrageous things, and if he wants people to trust his judgment and give him money he has his work cut out for him.

09

08 2011

More on Rev. Sam Childers

Earlier this week I wrote five posts (combined into one here) on a scary character named Sam Childers. He goes by the name “Machine Gun Preacher” (website) and I concluded that he was either a self-aggrandizing liar, dangerous, or both. His enthusiastic supporters and a PR rep have commented and contacted me, and I wanted to related the new information below. The short version is that the needle is swinging farther from liar and closer to dangerous.

Regardless of the corrections and additions I’ve noted here, I think it obviously stands that you shouldn’t give Childers your money. Childers has been promoting himself as just the hero the children of South Sudan need, and is finally getting a movie based on his life. For the full list of dubious claims (which were not limited to working with the SPLA) see my prior posts, but it’s worth noting again that he’s stockpiling arms at his orphanage and has admitted to selling weapons to unnamed armed factions in Sudan, Uganda, and Rwanda. He’s apparently fighting with or is friends with the SPLA or some faction of it (details are unclear). His organization doesn’t seem up-front enough about what they have done and will continue to do with your donation to deserve it. And now (according to comments here) he may be poised to start raising money for famine relief in Somalia.

If you just want Kony killed, Childers doesn’t sound like your best shot — and it’s simply not true that the use of child soldiers in the region will end if you kill Kony, as the SPLA has used them too, after all. For reasons why contributing more arms to the conflict is a bad idea, start here. If you want to give to a charity that helps children in South Sudan but is not associated with Childers’ violent tactics, try this organization for starters (rec here) — and I’m sure there are many, many others.

The new information:

1. Whoever moderates the Machine Gun Preacher Reality Series Facebook page (possibly the directors of an upcoming documentary on Childers?) posted this document:

It is dated July 12, 2011, signed by a Lt. Gen Mete, and reads:

This is to certify that Rev. Samuel hee Childers has worked with the SPLA for over 10 year he also RUN an orphanage in Nimule, and travels the out South Sudan he has been granted permission to posses and carry a pistol and rifle for personal security while executing his duties. When seen assist where necessary.

This obviously contradicts the prior press release, apparently from the main SPLA spokesperson denouncing Childers. Assuming this new release is legit, it raises questions about the SPLA’s cohesion and communication. That isn’t too surprising, as one former South Sudan resident said they thought there was considerable struggle over control between the center and other factions.

2. Maria Sliwa, Childers’ (update: former) current publicist, commented on this post noting that she was not yet representing Childers at the time she wrote the article I linked to. Thus, I was in error to say she had failed to disclose that, and I’ve added corrections to the appropriate posts.

3. I evidently goofed in saying Marc Forster was on Oscar-winning director — apparently he’s only directed films that were nominated for Oscars. I could care less about the Academy Awards so this distinction isn’t important to me , but some (including Childers supporters who commented here) evidently think this is a big deal that throws my entire credibility into doubt. Sorry?

While I’m at it, here’s a clip of Childers being interviewed by Pat Robertson on the 700 club. In it he says that many US government officials have contacted him, that he’s also fought the Janjaweed (funny how that didn’t make it into his dramatic report of his trip to Darfur), and that he gets his weapons from the government (presumably of South Sudan?) rather than buying them from “the Russians” as he said elsewhere. Again, I’m not against helping children in South Sudan, but it doesn’t seem giving Childers money is the best way to do so.

04

08 2011

Who is Sam Childers? (conclusion)

This is part 5 of a longer article on Sam Childers, the “Machine Gun Preacher.” Read part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4, or view the whole series as one long article.

In the April 2011 Times of London profile (not online), Childers said this:

“I tell you this – and I believe the day is coming soon – if I had the money, I could have Joseph Kony’s head. I could bring him down. And I will have the money, soon.” […]

… Childers insists the film will be a hit: “It’s going to do unbelievable well.” He hopes it will make him famous, so he can raise more funds for his manhunt and his orphanage.

My hope is that more people will think critically about what the “Machine Gun Preacher” is advocating and doing in Sudan, and choose to give to other organizations instead. There are plenty of reasons to doubt his work:

  1. Violence. By his own claims Childers has personally killed people – in the double digits. He is not a man of peace, and it’s hard to see how his claimed tactics bring the situation closer to that. Even if he were the best option for getting Kony (highly doubtful), it doesn’t seem to me that the use of child soldiers in the region would disappear with Kony’s demise. Also, since many of Kony’s troops are themselves soldiers, how does Childers avoid killing them?
  2. Weapons. Again by his own claims, Childers has sold weapons to armed groups in Sudan, Rwanda, and the Congo. There are no happy-go-lucky bands of nice Christian warriors in the area; every group I’ve read about has been accused of terrible crimes at some point. Feeding more weapons into the conflict will only make things worse, and end up hurting the children Childers purports to help. His solutions are woefully shortsighted.
  3. Lies. Childers claimed to be a “white commander” in the SPLA, but the SPLA has publicly denounced him and called for legal action. This apparent falsehood casts some doubt on whether Childers really does the things he claims – the violence and weapons described above – so we’re left choosing between whether he is dishonest or dangerous. Or both. (Update: see Childers’ letter of support from an SPLA general here — but also note that this isn’t the only of his claims that begs skepticism.)
  4. Disrespect. Much of what Childers’ trafficks in – weapons aside – is poverty porn of the worst sort. By only emphasizing the worst aspects of any situation Childers may drive up his donations, but he demeans those he seeks to serve. He goes even further in his report on South Darfur, prompting a commenter who worked in the region to call him out.
  5. The White Man’s burden. Childers’ story is only the latest in a long history of “Whites in Shining Armour” narratives that emphasize the heroics of white Americans and Europeans while downplaying the agency of the people of Sudan and elsewhere in Africa.
  6. It’s a bad model to begin with. Saundra S of the blog Good Intentions Are Not Enough has written extensively on why donors should be wary of orphanages.

What then shall we do?

I realize some people will find these posts and be discouraged because they were moved by stories of suffering in Sudan and just want to give to someone. Don’t respond to the emotion you’re feeling by supporting Sam Childers, as there are – contrary to his claims – many other organizations working in South Sudan that do good work. If you feel compelled to give to a charity in South Sudan you might consider Oxfam. If you only give to Christian groups, consider World Vision. No group is perfect, but these are both reputable charities. My apologies for not being familiar with smaller charities on the ground, and I would appreciate suggestions from those who are more familiar with the area.

Ironically, I think Sam Childers is best summed up by blogger Chris Baron in this review – where Baron obviously believes in Childers. He asks good rhetorical questions, but obviously I think the evidence points to a different conclusion:

There are only two options, he is either an insatiable liar or there is a God in Heaven who has tasked his angels concerning Sam’s work. And how many liars do you know give up everything in order to save children, build orphanages and fight enemies who are not their own? Liars don’t do that. Liars are self serving.

———————

Notes on Angels of East Africa’s finances: The organization’s income has increased in recent years from $309,166 in 2006 (tax PDF), $578,992 in 2007, $446,294 in 2008, and $877,755 in 2009. Vanity Fair reported that the orphanage has an “annual budget of about $600,000, raised primarily through Childers’s speaking fees and donations from a global network of evangelicals.”

I’m not a Form 990 tax expert, so I will leave more detailed explorations to others. The travel costs ($233,717 in 2008 and $216,809 in 2009) seem high to me. Childers certainly isn’t taking a huge salary: the first year his salary was listed was 2008, at a mere $38,900. It’s hard to tell what all they’ve spent money on – all orphanage expenses are listed under line items such as “Wires to Africa.” Presumably some of this money went to purchase weapons as well?

Miscellaneous notes: here are some additional semi-relevant links that I could not work into this narrative but you may enjoy:

  • The FAA fined Childers $28,000 in 2007 for transporting oil and other hazardous materials by plan.
  • A bunch of photos of Sam Childers in Africa.
  • A video interview in which Childers says he joined SPLA, features sick, crying Africans and naked children, and describes him as a “a rebel turned savior called the bearded white man.”
  • An adaptation of a chapter in Childers’ book.
  • It’s not clear to me where the claims in this PDF come from, but they outline some even more grandiose claims supposedly made by Childers – seems less reputable to me.
  • This video is a short documentary on Childers (or maybe a preview for one?).
  • Childers has a second book titled Living on the Edge coming out in a year or less.
  • This long-ish MSNBC story also features Childers. It’s remarkable how uncritical the coverage of him has been by so many media sources. I also find it hard to imagine that they would take his more extraordinary claims seriously if he were an African rather than an American.

03

08 2011

Disowned

This is part 4 of a longer article on Sam Childers, the “Machine Gun Preacher.” Read part 1, part 2, and part 3, or view the whole series as one long article.

So how do we know that Childers isn’t telling the truth? His SPLA buddies said so. After claiming that he was the only white SPLA commander, that he let them use his house as a radio base, and that he recruited SPLA troops as his own personal child-rescuing mercenary outfit, in October 2010 the SPLA put out a press release (through long-time Sudan hand John Ashworth). It reads:

Sam Childers is not associated with the SPLA

This is to inform all who are concerned that Sam Childers is not associated with the SPLA. Sam is alleged to be busy now collecting money in the USA using the name of the SPLA. He went to the level of alleging that he is “paying  his militia force – a platoon of seasoned fighters recruited from the SPLA – and for his effort, he says, the Government of Southern Sudan has named him an honorary commander, the only white man to achieve that distinction”.

The SPLA does not know Sam Childers. SPLA cannot release its soldiers for militia purposes as that is not allowed by the SPLA Act of 2009. If the allegation is true, then the SPLA is appealing to those who are concerned to take legal measures against Sam for the misusing the name of an organization which is not associated with him.

Thanks. Signed: Lt. Gen. Kuol Deim Kuol, SPLA Spokesman

A rather inconvenient truth. This press release was actually the first I had heard of Childers, as the blogger Roving Bandit (formerly of Sudan) highlighted both Childers’ story and the SPLA’s press release.

Post-press release I believe the most sympathetic possible view of Childers is that he started an orphanage and rescued some children… but maybe he’s prone to exaggerating his feats and the means by which he accomplishes them. Maybe Maria Sliwa got carried away in promoting him writing about him and exaggerated his SPLA claims and violent tactics. But even if those stories originated with her (who can ever know?) (Update: see previous post re: Sliwa’s work as his publicist not beginning at the time of her article) [Now] Childers has now fully claimed them as his own. You can read a few excerpts of his memoir through Google Books. In it he claims:

I had SPLA soldiers with me from the first time I went to Africa. Once they realized I was as committed to helping the people of Sudan as they were, they accepted me as their friend and fellow soldier. When I saw that they didn’t have the equipment and supplied they needed in the field, I started bringing them gifts like binoculars, tents, and sleeping bags.

I started hiring the SPLA for security work, and because we worked so close together, I became an SPLA soldier myself. They saw that my heart was to make a difference in the lives of their people, so they started calling me a commander. I carried truckloads of food, salt, sugar, blankets, and other supplies to the front for soldiers, as well as preaching to them and encouraging them in battle.

In his book Childers also claims to have been present during the negotiation of the CPA (which brought Sudan’s civil war to a close). By his own telling he was the only one at the table concerned with the humanitarian needs of the Sudanese people, which didn’t make people happy: “U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell had some representatives at the talks, and I heard they got upset with me. One of them asked somebody else, ‘Who the hell is this white guy?’”

So who the hell is Sam Childers? He wants you to believe he’s working to resolve South Sudan’s problems, but to me he seems dangerously unstable. Here’s a man with a temper, selling arms to groups he likely doesn’t understand, and promoting himself with dubious claims. I certainly won’t donate. But like it or not, the Machine Gun Preacher movie is coming soon. USA Today has a brief preview, and more is sure to come. In the meantime Childers has been touring the country’s churches in a custom-painted Machine Gun Preacher truck and raising money through the Machine Gun Preacher store.

Those who follow the aid and philanthropy world may find all of this a bit reminiscent of the Greg Mortenson scandal. The Mortenson scandal erupted in part because people who were suspicious about exaggerations in Mortenson’s story kept quiet for much too long. I imagine there are many people who have met Childers throughout the years who feel the same. The United States has thousands of tiny charities – many of them with a religious mission – that never make it big. Mortenson’s claims were finally scrutinized when his books became bestsellers, but by that time his organization had already raised millions of dollars. I’m worried that Sam Childers is about to see the same type of fame: a massive increase in donations driven by his book, and especially by the Machine Gun Preacher movie.

To be fair, I see no indication that Childers has mishandled money as Mortenson apparently did. You can look up the tax records for “Boyers Pond – Shekinah Fellowship – Angels of East Africa Inc” using their tax number, EIN 251841332. (See the note at the end of this series for more on the finances.) But the lack of accountability is troubling. If the organization has a board it’s not listed publicly. The main employees of the charity appear to be Childers, his wife, and their daughter. That may be standard issue for smaller charities, but with revenues approaching $1 million annually – and certain to increase after the movie is released – it should be cause for some concern.

Continue reading part 5 here, or you can read the whole series as one long article.

03

08 2011

To be lowly in spirit

This is part 3 of a longer article on Sam Childers, the “Machine Gun Preacher.” Read part 1 and part 2, or read the whole series as one long article.

Childers has never been a modest man. More from Urbina’s profile of him:

[Childers] compares himself to the biblical figure Ishmael, whose wild spirit, he says, drove women into transports of desire. “It was insane. I would have five girls in a single night. I mean, seriously, I could have had your mother if I had wanted her.” He glares at me, a speck of food stuck in his mustache, as if I don’t believe him. More than the drugs and sex, it was the violence that fed Childers.

That is the image the Reverend Sam chooses to project. He’s a violent man on a mission, and God is on his side. To some that message may be horrifying, but he’s obviously found a niche. Unfortunately there is a strain of American Christianity that eats this up. It’s quite different from the church I grew up in, which was historically pacifist (but has lately strayed towards mainstream Republican militarism). I hope most Christians will recoil in horror when they hear what Childers does in the name of God, but not everyone will. Those groups will latch onto Childers’ violent streak will just pour more money into his work.

The story could end there – with Childers as some bizarre mash-up of Rambo and missionary – except that it gets stranger. Childers claims have grown more grandiose with time, and/or he’s tailored them to fit different audiences to avoid mentioning important parts of his work that might be relevant to donors.

Childers’ organization is now called Angels of East Africa. If you go to their website, www.AngelsofEastAfrica.com, you get redirected to MachineGunPreacher.org. But, if you go to any other page on the website the content is still there, giving you a taste of how the site looked before it got the fancy (and I imagine expensive) Machine Gun Preacher makeover. The original Angels of East Africa “About” page is here. The history page has more. Much of the story is the same, but there are glaring omissions: no mention of being involved with the SPLA. Despite a description of Kony, there’s no indication that Childers was trying to hunt him down. It’s all much simpler — just rescuing orphans and building the orphanage.

Angels of East Africa is also associated with a Christian ministry called Boyers’ Pond / World Missions New Sudan. Their website (www.boyerspond.com) also now redirects to MachineGunPreacher.org. But the original webpages behind the main page are still there, including descriptions of rescue missions January 2007 (including an ambush) and May 2007. Again, there’s no mention of fighting with the SPLA or tracking down Kony. Incredibly, Childers does note in the January 2007 report that as “many times happens, several were not healthy enough to make the trip and we had to leave them behind.”

You shall not swear falsely

All of this made me think: when and where did Childers first claim involvement with the SPLA? As late as 2007 he wasn’t making those claims in material clearly written by him, even in places you’d expect him to do so. After some searching, the earliest instance of his more outrageous claims regarding active involvement in combat and interactions with the SPLA didn’t come from Childers. It came from this 2005 article written by Maria Sliwa (emphasis added):

With a physique like Jean Claude Van Damme, 42-year-old Sam Childers has hunted alligators in the US and has smacked down miscreants in Africa. This titan, who could easily pass for Hulk Hogan’s younger brother, sold hard drugs in the late 70s and early 80s and was a rider with the Outlaws, a motorcycle gang in Florida. He has since put his notorious ways behind him and now uses his muscular prowess to save lives in Sudan and Uganda.

On a recent morning, Sam surveyed the orphanage he built on the 36 acres of bush land he cleared four years ago in Nimule, South Sudan. His orphanage is a safe haven for children who are captured out of, or are lucky enough to escape from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel paramilitary group operating in Uganda and Sudan, which has been designated a terrorist group by the US State Department. Though Sam’s gut is overstocked with intestinal fortitude, the terror that rages around his orphanage is so frightening that just thinking about it can send a cold shiver of electric sparks up and down his sturdy spine.

Sam is a pastor and is the only white commander in the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA), another rebel group, which, like the LRA has troops in Sudan and Uganda.

Maybe Childers has been telling a consistent story all along in private, but this is (as far as I can tell) the first public mention of his work with the SPLA. And this narrative took over the others until it became the hyperbolic Sam we hear from today. So who is Maria Sliwa? Though she didn’t disclose it in writing her article, Sliwa runs a PR firm, and Childers is her client(Updated Correction: Maria Sliwa left a comment on this post saying that she did not begin representing Childers until 2008. I had assumed so because a) the page that has her contact info appeared to be much older, judging by the web design, and b) it reads more like a PR piece than objective journalism. She later clarified that she does not currently represent Childers.) An old page on the Boyers’ Pond site lists her as his press contact. Her website (and an older version) lists media appearances she’s arranged for clients, and her ability to push a story is quite impressive.

Maria Sliwa’s clients include several people connected to modern-day slavery and Sudan (such as Simon Deng) but also many conservative figures. One is Joseph Farah – founder of World Net Daily and one of the leading proponents of Birtherism (the “birther czar”). Farah is known to play fast and loose with the facts, to say the least, so Sliwa’s work promoting him should not inspire us to have confidence in her devotion to the truth.

Continue reading part 4 here, or you can read the whole series as one long article.

03

08 2011

The devil's hunter and his weapons

This is part 2 of a longer article on Sam Childers, the “Machine Gun Preacher.” Part 1 is here, or you can read the whole series as one long article.

Crush the wicked where they stand

Some of Childers’ most outrageous claims are his most recent. An April 2010 Vanity Fair profile, “Get Kony” by Ian Urbina – worth reading in full – focused on Childers’ personal quest to kill Joseph Kony. Kony is, of course, a really bad guy. He’s the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a guerilla group in northern Uganda known for its use of child soldiers. Childers claims to be hunting him. Urbina’s story doesn’t present Childers as particularly good at hunting or much closer to catching Kony than any of the others who are out for his head. But the beginning gives you a taste of Childers’ character:

It’s two a.m., and we’re barreling down a deeply pocked dirt road in Southern Sudan. In the cool of night, the temperature is nearly 100 degrees. Sam Childers, 46, is behind the wheel of a chrome-tinted Mitsubishi truck. Christian rock blares on the speakers. He has a Bible on the dash and a shotgun that he calls his “widow-maker” leaning against his left knee. His top sergeant, Santino Deng, 34, a Dinka tribesman with an anthracite complexion and radiant black eyes, sits in the passenger seat, an AK-47 across his lap.

In time, he liquidated his construction business, sold his pit bulls, auctioned his antique-gun collection, and mortgaged his home to help pay for regular trips to Sudan, where he began spending most of his time. He became obsessed with the fate of the thousands of children who have lost their parents to the fighting. In due course he would set up an orphanage in Sudan. But it was Joseph Kony who grabbed his attention. “I found God in 1992,” Childers says, in what is by now a ritual formulation. “I found Satan in 1998.” He has vowed to track Kony down and, in biblical fashion, to smite him.

From there the story gets more elaborate. According to Vanity Fair, Childers claims to be feeding and supplying the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), a southern Sudanese armed group whose political wing has more recently become a major component of independent South Sudan’s government. Childers said that he “made his home in Uganda available to the rebels for a radio-relay station.” He also claims to have been present when the SPLA captured “an L.R.A. soldier believed to be part of Kony’s inner circle. Childers wanted to sedate the man and surgically implant a transmitter so he could be tracked when he returned to the base camp. An S.P.L.A. commander overruled Childers and dealt with the man the old-fashioned way—he executed him.”

No word on whether Childers reported this to anyone before the interview; executing prisoners is a war crime.

God’s RPG stockpile?

The profile continues, describing how a group of soldiers arrive to discuss the hunt for Kony. They ask to see inside his church:

The building, with a high sheet-metal roof and glassless windows, displays no religious markings. Inside, stacked floor to ceiling, sit hundreds of oblong olive-green crates. They contain rocket-propelled grenade launchers, AK-47s, and thousands of rounds of ammunition. The room is dusty, and birds flutter in the rafters. Childers says he supplies mostly the S.P.L.A., and also stores some of its arms. He adds that he has sold weapons to factions in Rwanda and Congo, but declines to specify which ones.

Childers said he gets his weapons from Russians, but only legally. He eventually got frustrated with Urbina’s questions about his arms dealing, but he already admitted a lot. Childers is stockpiling arms, including heavy weapons like RPGs that seem excessive for the needs of an orphanage’s self-protection. He’s storing these weapons in a church at his orphanage (which presumably might make it a target) and he sells weapons to the SPLA, which is not a squeaky clean group. While better than the LRA, the SPLA also has been known to use child soldiers during the period Childers sold them arms. Worse is Childers’ mention of selling weapons to “factions in Rwanda and Congo,” all of which are involved in a convoluted series of conflicts in which all parties have committed terrible crimes. If Childers is truly trying to bring an end to conflict in the region, he should start by recognizing that pumping more small arms into the area isn’t going to help.

In addition to selling arms, Childers claims that his “rescue missions” have also led to his personal engagement in combat. When asked how many LRA members he personally killed, “[Childers] reluctantly admits to ‘more than 10.’” In another long profile – from April 9, 2011 in The Times of London (which I unfortunately can’t find online) Childers appears to say he’s only killed in self-defense, though it’s hard to deem armed expeditions to find the LRA “self-defense.” That profile also emphasizes the primacy of Childers’ hunt for Kony. It also describes him showing off the guns he keeps in his bedroom at the orphanage:

He hauls an Uzi machine pistol out of one [plastic crate] and clicks in a 32-round magazine. From another comes a longbarrelled Magnum revolver, and from under his narrow metal-framed bed comes a case containing a Mossberg bolt-action sniper rifle and a pump-action shotgun. Another box beneath the bed is full of hand grenades.

If you’re not convinced already that his tactics are shortsighted and part of the problem, rather than a solution, you might be wondering if – just maybe – Childers knows the local situation so well that he was able to pick the “right” side in the conflict. Other stories indicate that Childers is impatient and interacts poorly with the Sudanese people. Urbina’s profile continues (emphasis added):

A little later we pull to the side of the road for firewood to bring back to the orphanage. A woman and her husband stand there with a listless baby who is gravely ill from parasites and malaria. Childers offers to take the woman and child to the hospital in Nimule. The father shyly declines, saying he plans to take her to a different clinic tomorrow. A look of rage flashes in Childers’s eyes. “I ought to beat you right here, you know that?” he yells. “What kind of father are you? You are not serious about your children.” Childers points to a nearby grave, where the family has already buried an infant. “What is wrong with you?” Childers by now is surrounded by several of his soldiers, guns on their shoulders. He steps toward the man. “I should really beat you,” he repeats. Terrified, the father gives in. We take mother and child to the hospital.

The child recovers; Childers almost certainly saved its life. But the bullying lingers in memory long afterward. I remember once asking Childers whether any vil­lagers had ever declined his offer to take their children, or whether he had ever taken any against their will. He erupted angrily: “You know what? I don’t have time to be distracted by this sort of interrogation.”

This is hardly reassuring. While Childers doesn’t answer Urbina’s questions about taking children against their will (or detailed questions about his arms dealing), it’s clear that his own ambitions feed off of media coverage. How else did Urbina come to profile him? Self-aggrandizing is a good word for it. Urbina describes Childers as “droning on about the feature film that he hopes will be made about his life, a proj­ect advanced by a Hollywood agent.” Who does that?

Continue reading part 3 here, or you can read the whole series as one long article.

03

08 2011

Who is Sam Childers?

He goes by many names, Reverend Sam and the “Machine Gun Preacher” amongst them. If you haven’t heard much from Sam Childers, you will soon. To date he’s been featured in a few mainstream publications, but most of his exposure has come from forays into Christian media outlets and cross-country speaking tours of churches. In 2009 he published his memoir, Another Man’s War. But Childers is about to become much better known: his life story is being made into a movie titled Machine Gun Preacher. It hits the big screen this September, starring Gerard Butler (300) and directed by Oscar-winner Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Quantum of Solace).

Why should you care? If you’re concerned about Africa (especially the newly independent South Sudan), neutrality and humanitarianism, or how small charities sometimes make it big on dubious stories, Childers is a scary character. By his own admission Sam Childers is a Christian and a savior to hundreds of children, as well as a small-time arms-dealer and a killer. And, as far as I can tell, he’s a self-aggrandizing liar who chronically exaggerates his own stories and has been denounced by many, including the rebel group of which he claimed to be a commander.

It’s hard to get to the bottom of much of Childers’ story. I first heard of him months ago and have been scouring the web, but the trail is still pretty thin. On the on hand there’s a ton of copy written about him – but almost all of it originates with Childers’ own storytelling. I think there are a number of good reasons we should be skeptical.

The short version of his coming-to-the-big-screen story is this: Childers used to be a drug-dealing gang member who loved motorcycles almost as much as he craved women, drugs, and violence – especially violence. He fell in love with his wife after they met through a drug deal, and she convinced him to turn his life around. Sam found Jesus, got involved with the church, and went to Africa. There he encountered the Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army and it use of child soldiers. He found his calling leading armed rescue missions to free enslaved children in northern Uganda and southern Sudan. Now that his life story is being made into a movie — a goal Childers has long sought — his ministry will only grow stronger and save more children.

His website, MachineGunPreacher.org, makes no apologies about his violent tactics. Here’s one of the banners that adorns the front page:

What you see now is a slickly-polished presentation, but it hasn’t always been that way. Childers’ story has grown over time, apparently aided by a PR firm, sympathetic media, and a quest to be ever more sensational. My gut reaction is that he’s making much of it up – and I’ll present evidence that shows at least some of his claims are likely falsehoods. We can choose to believe that Childers’ claims are true, in which case he is dangerous, or that they’re false and he’s untrustworthy. The reality is probably that he’s a bit of both.

This is part 1 of a longer article on Childers. Continue reading part 2 here, or you can read the whole series as one long article.

03

08 2011

The Onion of Africa advocacy

The Onion of Africa advocacy” is my new nickname for Falling Whistles, the Congo advocacy group that appears to be staffed more by graphic designers than people with policy chops or good taste. On first read it’s hard to tell whether all of their material might actually be a big inside joke designed to mock tasteless, shallow advocacy messaging. Which would be awesome… except that they’re serious.

Their latest email, with the subject line “Announcing the Hamptons Edition Whistle” and a message body composed entirely of an image, is pasted below (click for larger version):

Judge for yourself?

02

08 2011