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From Michael Busch and Foreign Policy in Focus:

As part of the sweeping financial reform bill signed into law this past week by President Barack Obama, a surprising legislative rider took effect seeking an end to the internal conflict plaguing Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).  The provision, which resulted largely from intensive lobbying efforts by the Enough Project to stop genocide, is designed to prevent destabilizing elements within the DRC from feeding off the country’s lucrative trade in precious metals.  The DRC boasts rich deposits of tungsten, tantalum, and tin—metals commonly found in cell phones, laptops, video game consoles and other electronic devices—profits from which have long been seen to fuel the activities of non-state combatants there.

Supporters of the provision applaud its potential to help curb the hideous violence that has ravaged DRC for better part of the last fifteen years. Writing in the Huffington Post on Friday, Representative Howard Berman (D-CA)—Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs—championed the law’s commitment to limiting the profit opportunities that conflict minerals offer to armed groups within the country.  The new law requires “that companies doing business in the Congo and adjoining countries disclose both the provenance of the minerals they use and the efforts they have taken to ensure that their dollars do not directly or indirectly support armed groups that employ rape as a tool of war and otherwise perpetuate the conflict…An important step,” Berman argues, “in changing the situation in that beleaguered country.”

But the unfortunate reality is that no matter how well-intentioned, the law will have little positive impact on the ground in Congo.

For starters, it presupposes a Congolese state capable of enforcing the law’s provisions.  Under the regulations imposed by the legislation, electronics manufacturers must certify the origin of all minerals used in their products with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and comply with an order to produce yearly reports detailing their efforts to avoid purchase of so-called “conflict minerals.” Yet it is precisely an absence of the state in mineral-rich regions that allows the illegal trade in precious metals to flourish.

The view down a mine shaft in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Miners, including small children, must work in precarious conditions like this to obtain gold, tungsten, and other conflict minerals.

The vast majority of mineral wealth in DRC falls under the control of regional militias, directly and indirectly, rendering the state’s ability to regulate the flow of minerals into and out of the country practically nonexistent.  According to reports detailing the mineral trade in DRC, rebels mine the metals and sell them to traders who then smuggle them across the border into neighboring countries.  From there, the goods make their way along a complex string of exchange largely outside state purview culminating in their sale to transnational corporations.  By the time the minerals have been converted into electronic gadgets, any attempts to trace their origin become Sisyphean.

Even if DRC possessed the state capacity to properly monitor the minerals and prevent warring factions from profiting off them, however, it’s far from clear that this would significantly reduce violence throughout the affected provinces.  Mineral exploitation is a means of fueling conflict, not an end in itself.  Until the broader issues wracking DRC—the continued presence of Hutu interahawame in Kivu, the incessant meddling of Rwanda in Congolese affairs, and land rights disputes, to name but three—are resolved, unabated violence in affected areas should be expected.  Unfortunately, the United States has thus far demonstrated little interest in directly addressing these underlying causes of conflict in DRC.

Congolese people are often forced to work in slave-like conditions in service to regional militias who control the flow of costly minerals using gruesome force.

And then there’s the larger problem of unintended consequences.  Opponents of the measure argue that the hassles and uncertainty of verification will scare off potential investors, effectively saddling the country with a de facto trade embargo.  If businesses do pull out of DRC, warns John Kanyoni—the head of the Association of Mineral Exporters in Congo—“thousands of Congolese will be jobless and might most probably (be) joining the armed groups.” Thus, the law could have the perverse effect of generating the very problems it seeks prevent.

These considerations aside, the new law constitutes a good faith effort to bring violence in the DRC to an end and force transnational corporations to reorient business practices that privilege the bottom line over human rights. It could be that, in the best case scenario, the law economically cripples warring militias in DRC, allowing local Congolese to enjoy a measure of safety that they currently are without.

Child exploitation is a widespread problem throughout the region.  Children are easy to control and more vulnerable to factors like poverty, hunger, and disease.

But DRC needs much more than good intentions if it’s to emerge successfully from the ruins of state collapse.  Above all, the country demands security.  As we have discovered, unfortunately, assisting countries in this regard proves exceedingly difficult and politically fraught. Yet it’s of the essence.  Until DRC is capable of performing the basic function of the Weberian state—monopolization of the use of force for the protection of civilians—the country will continue suffering under the heavy weight of social disorder. And any attempts by Washington in the meantime to bring the conflict in DRC to a close will do more to alleviate troubled consciences on Capitol Hill than actually bring about the meaningful change they purportedly affect.

A humorous look at conflict minerals?  The Enough Project‘s call to action:

For more check out Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times column

Images by The Grassroots Reconciliation Group (GRG), which provides opportunities for former child soldiers in war-torn northern Uganda to reclaim their future through locally designed reconciliation projects.  Photos are from the DRC.

Deborah Amos met Abeer in the bathroom of a Damascus nightclub, surrounded by chattering women who touched up their makeup and told stories about their children.  It was a feminine gathering like those in bathrooms all over the world.  Only here, there was another dimension that gave the scene an added kick:

Lingering together in this comfortable female place, homesick, they were preparing to live off their bodies.

Amos, a foreign correspondent for NPR, excerpted part of her new book, Eclipse of the Sunnis: Power, Exile, and Upheaval in the Middle East, in Foreign Policy.  She explores the darker corners of the underground economy that has sprung up around the displacement of Iraqis in the war, and the destination for many of them is Damascus.

Iraqi refugees are not allowed to hold jobs under Syrian law, and the economic stress of this is compounded by the fact that many refugee households are headed by women, often widows, whose financial options are already limited:

As resources dwindled, many were led into the underground economy.  Female-headed households accounted for almost a quarter of the refugees with the U.N. refugee agency.  Widowed, divorced, or separated from husbands by the war, many women had children or elderly parents to support.  Sex was often their only marketable asset.

Abeer was a journalist in Baghdad until she was warned by a letter thrown into her back garden to leave Iraq, or else be killed.  At that time, fleeing to Syria was the only option.  Her husband tried to smuggle their children into Sweden but was caught.  Now her children are back in Baghdad, and she works the Damascus night market to send money back to them.

Survival sex is not new to the Iraqi people, whose experience under the U.S. embargo after the Gulf War led to immense suffering for many, Amos points out.  She quotes a friend from this period, saying:

You cannot overestimate the damage those sanctions did to the society.  It was a casual thing for an Iraqi brother to help his sister, escorting her to a paying customer because it was improper for her to go alone.  University students engaged in prostitution because they needed the cash for food.  The administrative staff at the universities would take the role of pimps.

But Amos also points to Saddam Hussein’s backlash against such practices in 2000 and 2001, when a Fedayeen was unleashed to punish an immoral population:

Women accused of prostitution were rounded up and publicly beheaded in Baghdad and other cities.  The executioners carried out their work with swords.  The severed heads of the condemned women were left on the doorsteps of their homes.

The dramatic tone of such policies was designed to play upon the innate sense of honor that the regime expected Iraqis to cling to.  In Damascus, the punishment is less dramatic, though perhaps no less damaging to the psyches and spirits of women and their families in the long run.  “In the moral landscape of exile,” Amos writes, “honor was abandoned in the struggle to survive.”

People, as everywhere, will do what they have to to survive.  Which is why, Amos muses, she shouldn’t have been that surprised to find out that Um Nour, her own Iraqi nightclub guide, was hawking photos of young girls to nightclub patrons, offering them for sale.

Um Nour, who is probably a good person, was selling girls to appraising patrons.  Um Nour, who took pride in the fact that her own children were still in school, was offering up those of others for sex.

Which leaves, it seems, Amos shaking her head with disturbed perplexity as much as it does her readers — mystified by the moral landscape of poverty.  The moral landscape of need.  The moral landscape of war.  Somehow, it gets into your soul and your skin.  Somehow, it transfigures.

It is perhaps too easy to assign blame to traffickers and “bad people,” those who reap profits off the bodies of others.  Certainly, it’s inexcusable.  Evil, even.  But is that all there is to it?

Perhaps blaming people in black and white terms serves to mask the schemas and systems of power that are always lurking, hidden, beneath the trade in human beings.

For more on survival sex among young Iraqi refugees, check out the video below.

This weekend, we Americans will spend an estimated $2.6 billion on flowers to honor and thank our mothers. That’s in addition to $1.53 billion for luxuries like spa treatments, and $68 million on greeting cards.

Of course, mothers undeniably deserve recognition. Save the Children this week recognized the plight of mothers around the world in its annual State of the World’s Mothers report.

They found that every year, 8.8 million children die before reaching the age of five, 41 percent of whom are newborns in their first month of life.  Ninety-nine percent of child and maternal deaths occur in developing countries where mothers and children lack access to basic health care. That leaves just one percent between us, in the “developed world,” to go around.  Just one!

Disease, when coupled with poverty, can be one of the most devastating and gruesome afflictions that women and children face.  And on top of it, these twin perils often create vulnerability to other evils, like human trafficking.

So how does it happen, and what does it look like?  And most importantly, what can be done about it?

I’m taking advantage of the Mother’s Day fervor this year to plug an organization I’ve supported for years, which serves women in this very predicament.

Here’s Scott Hillstrom and HealthStore on a day in the lives of millions of mothers today:


Picture a mother with several children living in Africa, Asia, or South America.  She lost her husband to malaria a couple of years ago, she cannot work due to a disabling injury, and she usually hasn’t enough food to protect her children from the ravages of malnutrition.  Each day she rises early to gather food to eat, water to drink, and fuel to cook.  The food does not furnish a balanced diet so her children become more susceptible to disease and mental retardation.  The water is drawn from a pond or muddy stream and contains dangerous diseases and parasites.  And the fuel consists of sticks gathered into a heavy bundle that she must carry home on her back to cook the food and boil the water.  Until night falls, she will busy herself collecting the bare essentials that she hopes will keep starvation and disease at bay.  But she knows there is nothing she can do to protect her children from malaria.  She lives in a region where malaria is endemic, continuously killing many of her neighbors and their children year-in and year-out.  She and her children sleep in their hut of sticks and mud with no protection from the mosquitoes that transmit the deadly disease.  Eventually, she knows, they will all be infected.  The only question is whether they will get the medicine they will need.  If they don’t, she knows some of her children will likely die.  She may have already lost a child and half-expects to lose another.  She believes it is the way of her life.

Then, her youngest child contracts malaria.  So she puts a sling over her back and puts in the child, too weak to walk, and sets out for a clinic that might be a full day’s walk or more.  She must leave the other children at home, alone.  The child’s disease progresses in its body as she progresses on her journey.  When she gets there, she is seen by a nurse who diagnose s malaria and gives her a prescription—there are no doctors.   Her child has worsened during the journey and cannot walk or talk as it slowly descends into a coma.  The medicine will cost $2, but she has only fifty cents; that would be enough at the usual clinic price, but they are out and she must pay more in the private market.  So she sets out to return home hoping to find enough money to pay.

The child grows sicker by the hour.  When she arrives home, she discovers that one of the children she had left behind is gradually lapsing into a coma.  It, too, has malaria.  She desperately seeks money to buy medicine and help to get both children the drugs they need. But by the time she returns to the clinic to buy the medicine, both children are too sick to be treated will the usual pills; they need intravenous medication at a hospital.

The nurse refers them to the only available hospital 25 miles away where the only doctor serves a population of 150,000.  She has no transportation because she lacks $2 or $3 to pay for a spot in the overcrowded van that passes for a bus in her village.  So she puts the children in a wheelbarrow and begins the journey on foot.  The children will die if she doesn’t get to the hospital soon enough.  And even if she gets there soon enough, they will die if the hospital doesn’t have medicine available and she lacks the price charged by a private pharmacy—a few dollars per child.  And even if the children do get the treatment they need, they can only be saved if the disease has not advanced too far; and, even if saved, they may suffer permanent debilitating effects.

Now, multiply the elements of this picture a few hundred thousand times and you will get a picture of what is happening in the developing world as you hear this message.   The medicine that would spare these kids from needless suffering, or even death, can be bought in bulk quantities in Europe for as little as ten cents.  It can be made available in remote parts of the developing world at a retail price of fifty cents, well within what most families can afford to spend from time to time to help their child.  Yet, more than a million children die each year because they don’t have it.

70 – 90 percent of the illness and death in communities in the developing world are caused by a short list of infectious diseases that can be treated with affordable generic drugs.  HealthStore is committed to increasing supplies of these drugs to children and their families in the developing world.  As we accomplish this mission, not only do kids and their families get the medicine they need, but

  • scarce resources of existing healthcare services are freed up to help others who cannot be so easily treated
  • development of disease resistant microbes is curtailed by ensuring that drugs are appropriate and properly used
  • population growth slows down as parents have fewer children knowing that the ones they have will survive
  • better conditions are established for economic development by reducing rates of infectious disease

We achieve these goals using the CFWshops™ franchise business system that enables owner/operators of drug shops and medical clinics to earn a living by providing basic healthcare services and essential drugs to their communities.  By simplifying and standardizing all aspects of operations, and by exploiting economies of scale, the CFWshops franchise business system makes it possible to reach large populations through low-cost franchise networks; for a cost of $1,000,000 spread over five years, a self sustaining network can be developed that will serve more than 1,000,000 patients per year.


Fore more information, visit HealthStore’s site, and to support their work you can make a donation this Mother’s Day in honor of your own mom, here.  Also check out Save the Children’s report.

Photographs courtesy of the HealthStore Foundation.

Dharavi slum, Mumbai, India

From Jeremy Seabrook in Share the World’s Resources:

The word slum has come in for much criticism recently, and rightly so. It is a concept borrowed from the streets of 19th century Britain; the word assumes that the same serene improvement to urban landscapes witnessed in this country will eventually extend to the places of savage destitution which are to be found all over the ‘developing world’. (This is another foolish term – all societies are developing; we should beware of the determinist implications of the word ‘developed’).

Poverty, like the sites in which it is to be found, is not static. Constantly mutating, evolving, new privations are created out of the very ways in which old ones are supposed to have been answered. Indeed, it is the dynamic, protean nature of urban poverty that makes it difficult to capture. This leads many observers, when they confront the world’s spreading cities, into apocalyptic denunciations of terminal and lawless urban ruin. Mike Davis’s splendid polemic, Planet of Slums, is perhaps the best known – and by far the best written – of these prophets of the evils of an incontinent urbanization. This is part of a long tradition, which goes back at least to the sulphurous evocations of Engels. Much of the United Nations’ work on urbanization falls into this pattern, although naturally, it is couched in more prudent and diplomatic terms than the denunciations of Engels. The UN has, for at least thirty years, consistently overestimated projections of urban populations; in the 1980s it foresaw cities of 25 million or more inhabitants, while its recent Challenge of Slums report anticipated a doubling of slum populations within a couple of decades.

Bangkok, Thailand (image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wordcat/ / CC BY 2.0)

On the other hand – and they have plenty of examples to show for it – there are those who see the development of communities out of what, a mere 20 years ago, looked like the most despairing of human settlements; whereby the peaceable and ambitious urban poor reconstruct their huts and shanties out of their own resources, both material and human, and their labour as cycle-rickshaw drivers, maidservants, artisans, labourers and recyclers of city garbage. In the early 1990s, Dhaka in Bangladesh consisted of hundreds of thousands of self-built huts clustered around polluted ponds. These have mostly been eradicated, the ponds filled in, and the self-built huts of bamboo are being replaced by high-rise buildings, many of them for the expanding middle class. But the poor have not diminished in number, neither has the flow of migrants to Dhaka decreased, nor has there been a decline in the rate of increase from within the existing population.

So what has happened in those cities where ‘improvements’ are highly conspicuous, and what is likely to happen in cities where informal housing appears to be growing beyond the control of government and state agencies, where the only response of authority still lies in the bulldozer and paramilitary forces to clear those they see as encroachers and trespassers?

The most obvious consequence of globalization for the urban poor has been the emergence of a significant middle class – often cited as one of the surest indicators of ‘development’ – who demand more and more space for their accommodation, particularly in capital and large provincial cities. One result of this has been a real-estate boom in most cities with land being taken over, not only for government servants but by a wealthy private sector which builds hotels, airports, roads and amenities for tourists and transnational business, along with the delights which such wealthy transients demand for their sojourn in the capital – such as parks, golf-courses, shopping malls, bars and night-clubs, and all the economic activities which these summon into existence.

Almost everywhere in the world, then, evictions on a vast scale are being conducted. Wherever people had set up their fragile settlements, often in precarious sites – on hillsides liable to landslips, on low-lying land prone to flooding, close to polluting industries, rubbish-dumps and the terrain vague beneath flyovers, bridges and canals – these are required by a busy and all-encompassing market in land for more urgent purposes. This means that the urban poor are everywhere being constricted. As land is colonized they are removed from the insecure sites where they had gained a brief lodging. There is, in most cities, not only legal appropriation of space, but even within poor communities there are enormous networks of unauthorised construction, the replacement of single-storey huts by jerry-built, chaotic and unplanned brick or concrete buildings, four or five-storeys high, out of which local politicians, illegal promoters and builders and slum mafias and gangs each make a considerable profit, contributing yet further to an expanding middle class, which will rush to cleanse its money in high rise apartments with names like Lave View, Mayfair or Berkeley Towers.

Lakeview Complex near Kolkata, India

(image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/85296574@N00/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A further result of this process is that the urban poor, whose numbers appear to be diminishing by virtue of the decreasing proportion of land they occupy, are being absorbed into new, often illegal tenements. This has the advantage not only of making them vanish, but also of driving them deeper into the arms of the market economy, since they are now no longer able to build their own homes but must instead pay rent to proprietors of doubtful ownership: slumlords and strongmen manipulated by ruling parties and dominant interests.

The facts are well known. In Mumbai, 60 percent of the population is now squeezed onto about six percent of the city land; in Kolkata, a latecomer to the building boom, over half the people live on less than 20 percent of the city area, about the same as the figures for Dhaka.

Mumbai, India

(image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lecercle/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

This is how ‘world-class’ cities are made. Economic growth places more and more pressure on the urban poor, and these make their way into buildings which are often less than a metre apart on all four sides, where electricity has to be burned all day long, fans and coolers work overtime to keep down the heat magnified by the concrete, while on the ground floor, factories and manufacturing units, metal workshops, garment factories, garages and repair-shops produce infernal noise, dust and pollution. Since the buildings are not legal, their occupants enjoy no greater security than when they lived in the sprawling huts and hovels created out of bamboo, industrial detritus, cement bags, corrugated metal and polythene. But the city has been ‘landscaped’. High-rises and roads, malls and monuments now dominate the scene and poor people have been rendered invisible, which lends even greater credibility to government statistics that poverty has been reduced to a residual problem in the country.

The compression of the poor makes those areas excluded from development – usually in contaminated land or in low-lying areas – even more wretched than they were when they were unimpeded from extending their habitations horizontally across government-owned but unused land, on private wasteland or land whose ownership was disputed.

Sao Paolo, Brazil

(image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/7607113@N03/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In Kolkata, I have recently been working in poor neighbourhoods that have become almost exclusively Muslim as a result of the growing communal separation in the country. The area of Tospia in Kolkata was, until recently, portrayed on city maps as a blank space, marked only by the words ‘liable to inundation‘. Poor people’s habitations, trackless and impermanent, have no geography.

They have no history either. They exist for a brief moment, a fugitive humanity; in city spaces, people come from nowhere and subsequently vanish into thin air. Either the site gains official recognition by the city authorities and turns – often slowly and painfully – into a community, or it is razed unceremoniously by police and municipal officials and it’s people disperse to the four winds.

Kolkata, India (image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dey/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Part of Topsia consists of a narrow island, about a kilometre in length, between two canals of waste water. Two parallel rows of huts, each overlooking a polluted waterway, are pervaded by a smell so strong that you can taste it. The water rushes through a concrete sluice-gate, a toxic waterfall of industrial effluent and sewage. The huts vary in size, some rising to about 1.5 metres, bamboo and wood frames, walls of woven bamboo, tin, polythene and industrial detritus. Some are tiled, others weighted down against the wind by bricks, old cycle tyres and stones. Most are devoid of amenity and ornament. A large wooden bed provides the only refuge against floodwater, a tin trunk, some folding chairs, plastic water-cans, a few basic utensils, a change of shabby clothing – these amount to the total possessions of a majority of the people.

Here, people are used-up by malnutrition, untreated sickness, exploitative labour, violence and drugs. A young woman wheels a cart bearing a few specked apples; another is selling rotted oranges and blackened bananas. Small stores conspicuously offer biscuits, sweets and cigarettes. There are at least five drug dens.

This is, literally, what they are: a dingy curtain at the door, and inside, on concrete floors, or on a wooden platform built out onto the turbulent water, small groups of mainly young men are sitting. Most are chasing the dragon: they place a pellet of heroin on silver foil, melt it into a brownish liquid by a match held underneath, and inhale the fumes with a cylinder of paper. The quality of the drug cannot be high: each portion costs 40 rupees (less than US $1).

Others are inhaling adhesive or ‘solution’: a tube of the substance is emptied into a transparent plastic bag, which fills and empties like a lung as they inhale through their mouth, the inside of the bag silvered with their breath. The men are oblivious to everything. The dealer moves in and out of the huts, clutching a growing wad of notes. One young man with a bandaged hand, forefinger in a splint, was injured by one of the druglord’s employees when he consumed drugs on credit. Drugs are a pitiless business: youth and energy are wasted in these places, evaporating as swiftly as the fumes of the intoxicants that consume them. After dark the area springs to life, since this is the destination for addicts from all over Kolkata: another world of shadow-people, some of them the sons of wealth, pursues its own particular path of self-destruction.

Topsia offers scenes of degradation reminiscent of descriptions of the foulest places in the cities of early nineteenth-century Britain. People weakened by fever lie on hard wooden bedsteads or thin bedrolls on hard concrete, eyes yellow with jaundice or glittering with fever: malaria is widespread, immune-systems destroyed, tuberculosis is common.

Many carry with them, wrapped for protection in a transparent polythene folder, prescriptions from doctors which they cannot afford, X-rays and scans, images of the growth within, the untreated injury, damaged organs. The mother of one man shows an X-ray of his blind eye: not a visitation of nature, but the consequence of an attack while he was driving a rickshaw. He is now in the same hospital to which his daughter, suffering from rickets, has been admitted. His mother is suffering from malaria, and a son lies on rough bedding, prostrate with jaundice. An elderly man, his spine crushed by a metal pole as he was driving his rickshaw, is dependent upon his elderly wife who buys half-consumed coal from restaurants, cleans it and sells it again for fuel. She earns 20 Rupees a day – about US 40 cents.

Topsia exists in a state of official unknowing. It is not that nobody is aware of what takes place here. The hut-owners who rent their premises for the ruin of youth must pay their dues to the police. Dealers are indebted to their social and political protectors. When a woman informed the local councillor of what was occurring, she was told to mind her own business. When she turned to the police, she was told: ‘You have a daughter. If you value her safety you will not interfere.’ The misery of the people is a business opportunity to those whose function it is to make and uphold the law.

Nairobi, Kenya (image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kioko/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

There are more serious dangers in the neglect of the urban poor. It is not necessarily those who are victims of oppression and despair who will turn into the fundamentalists, terrorists, Maoists or criminals. The danger lies in those who witness their suffering, who observe the pain and grief, and go on to formulate their own doctrines of vengeful salvation, both religious and secular. Do not let it be said that the origin of terror is unknown, even though its perpetrators may not be among the despairing of the world.

There are good reasons why these scenes of desolation should be swept from the map. For here, economic processes are made highly visible, tangible even – processes which remain opaque in more decorous parts of global society. You can see the real economic miracle of globalization, which is that wealth trickles uphill from poor to rich; the cash-flow which lodges so briefly in the skinny hands of poor people and wings its way back to its rightful owners. In Topsia, the suppliers of drugs, the mafias and dealers in black money, the bureaucrats, politicians and owners of the huts remain serene amidst the amoral supremacy of economic laws which prevail over all others, and to which people are, as in the most allegedly primitive societies, the daily human sacrifice.


To go deeper, check out Mike Davis’ highly acclaimed Planet of Slums, and watch the following beautifully shot video that was produced to complement the book, Megaslumming.  The book, published by Share the World’s Resources, explores Kenya’s notorious Kibera slum, examining the forces that create such settlements as well as what it really means to live in them.

(Header image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lecercle/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The moment porn truly stopped being fun came in a remote Ghanaian village — mud huts, barefoot kids, no electricity.

That’s filmmaker Tim Samuels in a 2009 essay in The Guardian.    Samuels, whose experience working for the “lads-mag” GQ normalized porn and presented it as harmless, was piqued by the prevalence and intensity of the genre’s presence in Western culture.  But his investigation of the industry led him somewhere unexpected, through a largely unexplored dimension of globalization– the distribution of American porn in the developing world.

Last year, while working in India, I went on an urban safari through the booming glitz of Delhi’s billboards.  Poles stretch up through the smoggy sky hawking the ambitious and airbrushed fantasies of the Land of the Free.  Skin lighteners and plasma tv’s, touch screen phones with the trendiest apps– all of it smugly touting the dream of “more” with advertising’s characteristic vigor.  Having just left the fear and confusion of brand-spanking-new economic collapse in the U.S., the skein of artificial images imported to India was eerie, especially when physically embedded in the reality of wrenching poverty.

But this globalization of a mediated dream has taken an even darker spin in Africa.  Samuels’ BBC documentary, Hardcore Profits, reveals how the export of American-produced pornography to Ghana is propelling the spread of both sexual violence and HIV.  Areas lacking adequate sex education apparently have plenty of access to black market American porn, which depicts hardcore and often violent sex and almost never demonstrates the use of condoms.  Village-wide screenings of hardcore films have reportedly incited explosive episodes of sexual violence, supposedly aroused (and seemingly condoned) by the films.  Samuels writes,

The village has no electricity, but that doesn’t stop a generator from being wheeled in, turning a mud hut into an impromptu porn cinema — and turning some young men into rapists, with villagers relating chilling stories of assaults taking place straight after the film’s end.  In the nearest city, other young men are buying bootlegs copies of the almost always condom-free LA-made porn — copying directly what they see and contracting HIV.  The head of the country’s AIDS commission says porn risks destroying all the achievements they’ve made.  It’s a timebomb, he says.

(watch an excerpt from Hardcore Profits)

Now I have, I believe, a fairly high threshold for understanding horrible things– slavery and genocide and all manner of abuses.  But hardcore pornography is especially hard to stomach, and it has to do with its overwhelming presence among us– the widespread participation in the arousal sparked by domination.  Control of the weak, flirtation with perversion.  Of course, we often renounce it, or at least find it ‘harmless.’  But the enormous economic clout of the hardcore industry is testimony enough to our general endorsement.  We like it.  It excites us.  We are thrilled by power.  And the commercialization of bodies in the image-world as salacious products to be consumed is perhaps an expression of a deeper impulse to degrade and control– from the isolated bedroom to the geopolitical stage.

What Samuels suggests is an innovation to existing corporate accountability efforts in the porn industry (which, AIDS activists argue, could be much more effective at curbing transmission even within the industry itself), calling for production companies to take responsibility for the behavior they are propagating and ideas about sex being disseminated throughout an ever-increasingly globalized world, by depicting safer sex.

The porn industry, while certainly not a monolithic unit, is known to involve trafficked women and children in films, images, and on the web.  Anti-porn activists suggest boycotting mainstream distributors of porn, such as major hotel chains and mobile phone companies, which provide essential support to the industry.

For more on the film, check out an interview with Samuels on PRI’s The World.

To further explore the damaging consequences of hardcore pornography, check out the preview for The Price of Pleasure (video contains graphic and disturbing content and images of sexual aggression).

(Header Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/neilhester/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

(image:http://www.flickr.com/photos/hippie/ / CC BY-NC 2.0)

When God created man he wasn’t concentrating on it properly,

Julianna, an escaped victim of sex trafficking, wrote in a diary that was recently published in The Independent (U.K)

It comes from a series of remarkable journal entries that mark more sinister growing pains than those of the average teenager becoming acquainted with the ways of the world.

The Seneca-quoting 19-year-old Hungarian, who imagined a job something like Julia Roberts’ in Pretty Woman when she answered an advertisement for three weeks of “erotic work” in the U.K., thought it would be a bearable (though not ideal) way to earn money for tuition and a motorbike.  Like so many trafficked women before her, she found herself locked in an apartment with other women, deprived of her full wages, and forced to sleep with men who abused and degraded her. To keep he spirit alive, she kept a hidden diary:

To write, or not to write … I had my first guest. I cannot put my feelings into words. I only know that I am hurting. And I am feeling sick. Now, immediately, I would get on the first plane to go home. I would forget the whole thing. Just one bad dream…  When the phone starts ringing it means the client is coming. I am ageing fast with these minutes and my hair is turning grey. I hate men more as every minute passes …

The clients are coming and going.  I am totally drunk all the time. I don’t eat, but drink, yes! Let me introduce you to my new best friends: Ouzo, Rosé (or any wine), Palinka, Vodka. I can’t sleep. I cry every morning like someone fearing they would be beaten up. It has become so usual now I don’t even notice it. I really miss Mum, Dad and Nan. I cry and beg for them every morning.

Julianna and the other women were eventually able to escape, and police are now using her diary as evidence against their traffickers.  Read the full version here.

Last night I attended a Passover ceremony for the first time, and while sharing the bread and communion of the Seder table, the head of the ceremony brought up the question of the duality of freedom– the twin liberties of “freedom to” versus “freedom from.”  Meditating on the flight of the Jews from the slavery of Egypt, I couldn’t help being reminded of Julianna’s diary entry, where she reflected with everyday straightforwardness from the pit of her sexual imprisonment:

According to Seneca, freedom is not when you do what you want. Freedom is when you don’t do things you don’t want. And he is right.

Surely it’s far more nuanced than that, but it leaves me wondering how disentangled these distinctions ever really become in the confusing and oppressive mire of slavery, where the freedom to fully live up to the potential of our humanity is inextricable from the freedom from living in captivity, fear, and degradation.