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Eritrea: Views and Musings

1. Tourism, power, and privilege

Like many Eritreans, I simply love football. Along with cycling and long-distance running, football is one of my country’s favorite athletic activities. In general, the most popular clubs are Manchester United, Arsenal, and Real Madrid, basically in that order, with Barcelona, Chelsea, and Liverpool not too far behind (of course, this is not based on rigorous empirical analysis). Eritreans regularly watch matches at home or in popular public venues, such as cafes, lounges, theaters.

Sometimes, matches have also been shown on the giant screens at the large public square, Bahti Meskerem. Several days ago, however, as I was watching the highly anticipated Chelsea – Manchester United English Premier League match in the middle of Asmara, my hometown, I observed something that was a little troubling and made me uncomfortable.

Specifically, as everyone was closely following the match, a tourist was snapping pictures. While one could reason that there’s nothing especially strange about that, since that’s one of the things tourists do – take photos – the particular issue was the target of the photos. The tourist was not taking pictures of colorful surroundings, creative artifacts or decorations, unique foods, inspiring natural landscapes, or historic buildings. Rather, the central focus was the people. This is problematic for several reasons.

First, it was quite rude, distracting, and highly annoying. As normal people were trying to relax and enjoy the match, they were confronted with a soundtrack of clicks and flashes. Furthermore, taking pictures of people without their knowledge or permission lacks basic decency and is a bit dehumanizing. These are human beings, not inanimate objects or animals in a zoo.

The situation also starkly revealed large differences in power and privilege. For example, I wonder what the response would be if the particular roles had been reversed, and it was Africans that travelled to the West and obnoxiously began taking pictures of locals going about their daily routines in public place?

While this was only one incident, it does indicative of a larger problem associated with travelers and tourists in many diverse locations around the world. Travelling is wonderful because it offers people the opportunity to experience and explore rare or new things. However, it is also important for guests and visitors, wherever they travel, to remember to respect local people’s basic privacy, humanity, and dignity. In the case I described above, simply engaging in conversation with people and then asking politely to take a photo would have been much more appropriate.

2. UNFPA lauds development gains

Last week, a high level United Nations (UN) delegation met with senior officials of the Eritrean Government during a visit to the country. The visit, led by the UN Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director (Programme), Dereje Wordofa, was focused on “strengthening of partnerships to sustain development gains in Eritrea.”

Some comments made during the visit stood out and caught my eye. Dereje Wordofa, who hails from Ethiopia and was appointed to his position last February by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, described the development gains Eritrea has made on many social and development indicators, especially maternal and neonatal health, in recent decades as impressive and a good example to the rest of the world.

“This country has a lot to tell the rest of the world on achieving the transformative results UNFPA is pursuing – ending preventable maternal death, ending unmet need for family planning, and ending gender-based violence and harmful cultural practices against women and girls,” he declared.

Reading those comments reminded me of similar ones made by Christine Umutoni, the former UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Eritrea, who stated that Eritrea, which at that time had just made considerable progress on the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, “has a lot to share that could help formulate, shape and implement the post-2015 development outlook for the good of humanity.”

The UNFPA, which is the world’s largest multilateral source of funding for population and reproductive health programs, began operations in 1969. Based in New York City, the UNFPA describes itself as, “the lead UN agency for delivering a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe and every young person’s potential is fulfilled.” Since 1993, the UNFPA has worked in Eritrea to help improve access to quality maternal and newborn health, family planning, and HIV and STI prevention services. It has also worked at the policy level to help advance gender equality and reproductive rights.

The significance of reproductive health and rights should not be overlooked or dismissed. First, they represent fundamental moral imperatives. In addition, however, protecting and promoting reproductive health and rights can help break the debilitating cycle of poverty, and help put families, communities, and states on a positive path toward tangible, sustainable progress and development. For example, young women or girls who give birth are far more likely to drop out of school and earn a considerably lower income. A single year of primary school boosts women’s wages later in life by 10 to 20 percent, while the boost from female secondary education is 15 to 25 percent (Psacharopoulos and Patrinos 2002). Furthermore, young women or girls who give birth are also at a much higher risk of suffering various pregnancy-related complications or dying.

Last year, the Eritrean Government, the UNFPA, international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and other regional and international partners worked together to address various health-related challenges and promote population and reproductive health programs. In brief, these programme activities were concentrated within the following areas: integrated sexual and reproductive health services, including maternal, sexual, and reproductive health and family planning; adolescents and youths; gender equality, including ending harmful practices and strengthening systems for protecting rights; organizational effectiveness, including resource management and programme effectiveness; and population dynamics.

3. Compelling critiques of US foreign policy

In a number of previous posts I have discussed how the international sanctions imposed against Eritrea, which were first implemented in 2009, and then broadened in 2011, are less about Eritrea’s alleged support for terrorism or other activities in the region than other factors. One of the several factors contributing to the sanctions being unjustly placed and maintained upon Eritrea has been the country’s long and candid opposition to previous US administrations’ misguided policies in the Horn of Africa (for instance, regional “anchor state” designations or approaches toward Somalia). Rather than positively impacting the Horn of Africa, Eritrea felt that the policies contributed to unnecessary rivalry, tension, conflict, instability, and insecurity.

Interestingly, several books by eminent scholars were recently published with insightful and compelling critiques of general US foreign policy which are not too dissimilar to Eritrea’s. Specifically, The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy, by Stephen M. Walt, and The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities, by John J. Mearsheimer, aim to understand and explain US foreign policy in the post-Cold War era, regarded as largely a series of costly, destructive failures. The US approach during this period, where the country emerged as the world’s only superpower, a rare historical development, has not been “a formula for cooperation and peace, but instability and conflict.” It is contended that it makes far more sense for the US to stop seeking to remake the world in its own image, eschew the use of force to spread democracy or dictate local politics, and instead adopt a more restrained foreign policy, including prioritizing peace and diplomacy.

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