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Palaima: Quieting the cacophony spawned by conflicts

Austin American-Statesman Friday, March 09, 2007

Spain is not a wealthy country even by European standards, so the story that 360 tons (or over $12 billion dollars) of cold hard cash had been shipped to Iraq between March 2003 and April 2004 and distributed who knows where by Paul Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority was big news. This was authorized by an administration that has made accountability the eighth cardinal virtue.

This story may already have been pushed aside in the United States by other stories, such as the unpardonable neglect of wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which Spanish journalists see as the ultimate result of the mania for down-sizing government and outsourcing; or reports from Afghanistan of American soldiers under too much stress and under attack shooting randomly at civilians. Spanish newspapers took note of Condoleezza Rice's promise to European countries that the United States would increase its forces in Afghanistan by extending the tours of duty of our already overly fatigued soldiers in the field.

But thoughts about the tons of money have stayed with me for two good reasons.

First, and most personally, my good friend and former student, Col. Ted Westhusing, a West Point professor, died in Iraq in June 2005. In the months before his death, Ted reported evidence of contractor corruption and infiltration of the Iraqi security forces by insurgents. Ted was a man of unswerving allegiance to the high moral principles of military service. His reports were not heeded at the time.

You can read about Ted in "Blood Money," T. Christian Miller's exposť of waste in Iraq, and in the Texas Observer. As Miller aptly puts it, an officer is trained to command troops whose sworn duty it is to carry out his commands. When an officer tells his soldiers to jump, they say, "Yes, sir. How high?" When an officer tells contractors to jump, they say, "How much?"

We now know that even insurgents did not have to jump for their money. They just picked it up shrink-wrapped in duffel bags and walked away.

Second, I was corresponding with Bill Siemering about the work his organization, Developing Radio Partners (DRP), does to promote peace and social good. Bill and I met at a MacArthur Fellows reunion in November.

Bill's organization works at the grass-roots level with other organizations to set up radio stations in areas where free and open communication can have a tremendous effect on people's lives. Radio Zibonele in Khayelitsha, South Africa, serves 700,000 people. It brings them basic health, educational and cultural information they would not otherwise have - everything from how to care for children to issues health workers encounter in their home visits. The station's monthly operating costs are $14,000; it's self-supporting because of advertising and sponsors.

In Sierra Leone, whose bloody civil war was the basis for the Oscar-nominated movie "Blood Diamond," radio has been a major tool for political change, building bridges between former rebels and the community. The local DRP-built radio station, Radio Gbafth, is identified as "The Voice of the People." A painting on the facility's perimeter preaches the important message of the country's national Truth and Reconciliation Commission: "Let us not cut hands, let us join hands."

DRP works with Search for Common Ground (SCG), which likewise seeks to change how "the world deals with conflict, away from adversarial approaches, toward cooperative solutions." In Liberia, SCG's broadcasts were instrumental in achieving high voter turnout. One man, who had lost his legs in the civil violence in Liberia, "walked" to the polling place on his hands. There he told reporters, "My country is born today."

DRP's station in Sierra Leone has focused on helping women combat gender-based violence, educate themselves about their legal rights and work toward equal political representation. One program, "Women in the House," has publicized specific rape cases and helped bring the rapists to justice. It has also helped men to understand the important roles women play in agriculture and helped young women to take control of their bodies and their lives.

DRP is working in Mongolia with the World Bank's Civic Engagement Strategy. Mongolia has six community radio stations that offer the only independent radio news in the country. DRP has projects pending in rural China, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. It needs about $250,00 per year to get these going. It receives no federal support, and private entities such as the MacArthur Foundation have said that the DRP does not fit their institutional priorities.

Rep. Henry Waxman of California, chairman of the House oversight committee, asked, "Who in their right minds would send 360 tons of cash into a war zone?" Instead I wonder what could have been done with the conservative 4 percent yearly interest payout of a $12 billion endowment. I bet Bill Siemering does, too.

Palaima is a University of Texas classics professor. This is the third in a series of columns from Spain.

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