Tag Archives: al shabab

A Tribute to My Friend, Ravi Ramrattan

Me, Sue, and Ravi

This weekend has been difficult. I found out yesterday that a friend was killed in the senseless, horrible attack in Nairobi. He was a great person and meant a lot to many people. He had a profound impact on so many people’s lives that I would not even begin to understand how to chronicle it all. So I will settle for talking about the time I knew him.

I met Ravi early on in my time in Nairobi. I was grabbing a drink at a bar called Sierra Brewery with another guy named Ravi (Ravi Bungoma, after the town he hailed from in Western Kenya) who was applying for a job at my company, and he brought along Ravi Ramrattan (also known as Ravi Mumias). He worked for an organization called Innovations for Poverty Action at the time, and was stationed at a sugar factory in a town called Mumias a few hours outside of Nairobi.  I remember thinking that this guy was exceptionally smart. Subsequently, I found out he had bachelors degree in mathematics from the University of Cambridge, a masters degree in financial economics from Oxford, and another masters in econometrics and mathematical economics from the London School of Economics. After teaching statistics to graduate students at the London Business School for a year – at the tender age of 26 – he decided to move to Kenya to commit himself to the cause of poverty alleviation.

After six years in London, Ravi moved to Mumias, a rural town of 33,000 people in Western Kenya, where he spent a year and a half implementing an academic study at the Mumias Sugar Factory. Ravi ran a study evaluating the impact of a conditional cash advance and a cell phone based extension system on sugar cane farmers. Using a randomized controlled trial – the methodology used by pharmaceutical companies to determine the efficacy of a drug – Ravi tried to determine whether this particular development intervention generated additional income for the recipients. After picking up three degrees from some of the most prestigious universities in the world, he moved from London to a rural town in Western Kenya to help people he’d never met.

A few months after I met him, he moved from Mumias to the big city to take a job as an economist with an organization called Financial Sector Deepening, which, despite having one of the worst names imaginable, had the noble goal of “supporting the development of financial markets in Kenya as a means to stimulate wealth creation and reduce poverty.”As part of his role at FSD, he worked to develop the capacity of financial institutions in the country in order to make them more inclusive. When I found out he worked with microfinance institutions, I took every opportunity I could to goad him into an argument about whether microfinance worked. This is something I did whenever I met people from Innovations for Poverty Action. But with Ravi, I always left with my ego bruised from the intellectual drubbing he would deal me.

Ravi with his many academic distinctions

Ravi with his many academic distinctions

As a wannabe economist myself, I took every opportunity I could to take advantage of his incredible wealth of knowledge. During one trip down to Diani Beach on the Kenyan Coast, four of us sat on the terrace of our rented house and waxed philosophical deep into the night about income inequality in America (as we did).  My friend Dylan and I argued one side, while Sean, Ravi’s roommate at the time, argued the other. Ravi sat quietly, and, whenever we would reach an impasse, which happened often, Ravi came in to break the tie. After all, he knew way more than we did and was probably amused at how badly we skewed the facts to our favor.

Another funny thing to me about Ravi was that, somehow, he was a phenomenal dancer. I could never figure out how it was possible that he was able to bust so many incredible moves on the dance floor. I remember one night a big crew of us went out to a club in Nairobi called Gallileo Lounge, which, other than having a star in the logo, had nothing to do with astronomy. I was standing on the dance floor, not dancing, because I’m a terrible and highly self-conscious dancer, watching Ravi dance with our friend Woubie, and thinking to myself “My God – this is amazing.” In a somewhat legendary story, he was supposed to have a dance-off with one of the cab drivers who had been told of his prowess. It never came to fruition, I’m told, but everyone knows who would have won.

Ravi and Woubie getting down with a few of our friends

Ravi and Woubie getting down with a few of our friends

When I heard the news, I was crushed. I was with my friend Sharon, who lived with Ravi for a few months in Nairobi. For two days, we felt helpless, having to watch from afar. Being together made it easier to deal with the news. We decided to get dinner at an Indian restaurant to honor his memory, and spent the dinner sharing stories. Like his plan to start a hot sauce company, or his nickname, “The Lion of Mumias”, after a halloween costume from years prior, or the fact that he blasted the same Bollywood song all of the time. Even among the crew we’d assembled in Nairobi, which contained some of the more unique people I’ve ever met, he was in a league of his own.

I find it deeply ironic that Ravi would end up having his life taken by the people he most wanted to help. He spent a good part of his life studying economics, training himself to not only understand, but quantify the impact of development interventions on poverty alleviation. If you implement a project – whether it is microfinance, clean water, or education – it might work, and it might not. But, more importantly, if you don’t understand the results, you are destined to potentially throw money and people at the wrong solution. Ravi’s work, in particular, uncovered the true impact of these interventions, providing the academic foundation to replicate them around the world.

On this blog, I have spent many posts pontificating about the links between poverty and terrorism. I thought a lot about why this work is important, and what broader impacts it would have beyond just improving lives.  For people living hand-to-mouth, life is a series of struggles often ending in tragedy.  Anger, resentment, and despair are a volatile combination in the minds of young men and women who see little hope for escaping their situation.  For Al-Shabab, these young minds can be manipulated to pick up arms.  By stoking latent frustrations at the injustice of poverty and promising a sense of a community, brotherhood, and commitment to a higher cause, a recruiter can more easily convince a young man to become a cold-blooded mass murderer.

Unlike incomes or educational attainment, likelihood of radicalization is not something you can quantify. But I do believe that its real. And, though I never talked to Ravi about it, I’m sure he’d agree. He committed himself to serving the poor, and made the choice to move to Kenya for years to help the less fortunate. He moved to a small town in Western Kenya to study the roots of poverty, and returned to Nairobi to work for an organization whose mandate was to promote financial inclusion across the country. I have no doubt that Ravi would have continued this journey, taking it to the highest levels and influencing global development policy in one way or another.

But his life was cut short by evil men. Whether they’d been manipulated or radicalized doesn’t matter much to me. They took from the world a great person who wanted to make the world a better, more inclusive and equitable place for the most downtrodden and marginalized people. He could have done anything, but he chose this life. He chose to help people he’d never met to attain something better for themselves and their families. A nobler cause, I do not know.

Over the last few days, the outpouring of support has been overwhelming.  While the good works he did will remain, the community that has rallied around him over the last few days perhaps reflect his greatest legacy.  As the people who knew him – from his youth in Trinidad and Tobago, his college and grad school in London, or his years in Nairobi, when I came to know him – have moved to different parts of the world, they have kept him in their memories.  And this week, the diaspora of people whose lives were touched by Ravi are getting together all over the world to remember him.  That, to me, is a source of comfort.

Impromptu gatherings to remember him have popped up in Boston, New York, and Washington DC. When I tried to organize one in San Francisco, I was worried Sharon and I would be the only ones around.  Within a few minutes, I was added to an email chain of 10 people who had already begun to plan one. Right now the count stands at 25.

So, if you are in San Francisco this Friday, we are going to celebrate his life over dinner, and then go dancing at Little Baobab – a fitting tribute for such a great guy.

My deepest condolences go out to his family and the friends who loved him.


ravi in the fields


ravi and woubie2







Rest in peace, my friend.

Rest in peace, my friend.


The Obama Doctrine and Smart Power, Pt. 2

This is part two of a two-part post about the Obama administration’s approach to foreign policy and military intervention in Africa and the Middle East.

The other day I discussed the first four points of Obama’s approach to military intervention – be effective, follow international law, put no American troops on the ground, and multilateralism.  Today I will talk about the last one: having a clearly-defined goal.

This is the most important tenet of all.  In Iraq, the U.S. overthrew Saddam and remarkably never planned for phase two.   In Libya, all possible post-Gaddafi scenarios were taken into account to understand exactly what we were getting ourselves into.  Not too far from where I live in Kenya, Obama just deployed 100 special forces “advisers” to hunt for Joseph Kony, the terrible leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a Ugandan paramilitary organization that has killed 30,000 people throughout Central Africa over the last two years.  The objective is simple: find and kill Joseph Kony and eliminate the LRA forever.  Unlike Islamic extremists, they have little support from the local population, and most of the world agrees that the world will be a much better place with Joseph Kony no longer among the living.

Some argue that deploying more troops in yet another war with little strategic interest to the United States is a bad idea.  In one sense, these people are right – Joseph Kony and the LRA pose no direct threat to the United States.  They may have a nightmarish record of human rights violations, but their wrath is confined to the unfortunate villages that happen to reside between point A and point B on the LRA’s marching path.  But these detractors don’t really see the big picture.

Ugandan peacekeepers in Somalia

Al Shabab, unlike the LRA, and Somalia in general are potentially very big problems for the United States.  It is the most failed state in the world and is a stone’s throw from Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula – a hotbed of terrorist activity.  The only thing preventing Somalia from completely collapsing (as opposed to almost completely collapsing, which is where it is now) and falling entirely into the hands of Al Shabab is the Ugandan peacekeeping force fighting in Mogadishu (with significant help from the U.S. and Europe).  Ingratiating ourselves to the Ugandan people by helping to eradicate the group that has caused so much suffering, and eliminating a destructive force – the LRA – will help stabilize the region, helping to prevent the turmoil in Somalia from spilling into other nations.  So, at the end of the day, destroying the LRA is probably as much about fighting terrorism as it is a humanitarian mission.

This is smart power.  In the chess match of foreign policy, Obama thinks several steps ahead of his opponents, recognizing the link between Joseph Kony terrorizing Uganda and Somalia becoming the new Waziristan.  He assesses the potential sacrifices, in blood and treasure, and carefully considers the outcomes.  In an op-ed titled “Stop Searching for an Obama Doctrine,” Fareed Zakaria explains why pragmatism trumps blind ideology in the way Obama views the world:

God bless the President

So what is the Obama Doctrine?

In fact, the search itself is misguided. The doctrinal approach to foreign policy doesn’t make much sense anymore. Every American foreign policy “doctrine” but one was formulated during the Cold War, for a bipolar world, when American policy toward one country — the Soviet Union — dominated all U.S. strategy and was the defining aspect of global affairs. (The Monroe Doctrine is the exception.) In today’s multipolar, multilayered world, there is no central hinge upon which all American foreign policy rests. Policymaking looks more varied, and inconsistent, as regions require approaches that don’t necessarily apply elsewhere.

Obama does, however, have a worldview, a well-considered approach to international affairs. His views have been straightforward and consistent. From the earliest days of his presidential campaign he said that he sees the basic argument in American foreign policy as “between ideology and realism” and placed himself squarely on one side.

What marks administration policy is a careful calculation of costs and benefits. The great temptation of modern American foreign policy, from Versailles to Vietnam to Iraq, has been to make grand declarations — enunciate doctrines — that then produce huge commitments and costs. We are coming off a decade of such rhetoric and interventions and are still paying the price: more than $2?trillion, not to mention the massive cost in human lives. In that context, a foreign policy that emphasizes strategic restraint is appropriate and wise.

I agree with Fareed on all of his points except one (which makes me nervous, since I agree with 100% of what he usually says, which means that, if history is a guide, I am wrong).  I think that the five points above collectively comprise the Obama doctrine, or at least something close to it.  Just because the Bush Doctrine was particularly jingoistic doesn’t mean a doctrine based on “strategic restraint” – one marked by define goals, multilateralism, limited U.S. involvement, etc. – isn’t a doctrine.   In fact, Obama received a lot of criticism for “leading from behind.”  But not only is a strategy – contrary to what some believe – it is an effective one.  Back to theRolling Stone article:

“It isn’t leading from behind,” says Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former head of policy planning at the State Department, rejecting a quote in The New Yorker by an unnamed Obama adviser that came to dominate the debate over Libya. “We created the conditions for others to step up. That exemplifies Obama’s leadership at its best. The world is not going to get there without us – and we did it in a way where we’re not stuck, or bearing all the costs.”

If Obama gets another four years – Insha’allah – I would expect that all future military interventions stand up to the test of these five points – a retroactive rubric, of sorts.   And that, I think, is what a doctrine is all about.


How to Deal with Al-Shabab and a Failed State in Somalia

One of Somalia's many problems. (AFP Photo/Mohamed Dahir)

I’ve been reading a lot of opinions lately about the decline of the empire of the United States, where experts try to pinpoint the exact moment where we planted our flag atop the hill of global dominance and then began our descent down the other side (somewhere around the early 1990’s, according to the consensus).  In every calculation, the war in Afghanistan is either emblematic of a state in decline (they don’t call it the “graveyard of empires” for nothing) or something that actually precipitated the fall.  We defeated the communists at the end of the 1980’s – the high-water mark in our global position.  And one of the great ironies of that victory is that we secretly funded the mujahedeen in Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union and, in doing so, kept the Russians mired in the same position we have found ourselves over the last ten years.  One of those mujahedeen was Osama Bin Laden, son of a Saudi billionaire who, with the help of the CIA, bankrolled the insurgency against the Soviets.  Bin Laden quickly turned against the United States (not that he was ever with the U.S.) and became the figurehead of the global jihadist movement until a few months ago when Barack Obama killed him.

People love to point out the fact that we funded the very people who have tried to kill us over the last two decades.  How could we do that, they ask?  The answer is relatively simple.  When a country doesn’t seem like a threat, no one really pays cares if we are potentially nurturing our future enemies, so long as we are able to channel them in support of our cause at the time.  And then, when the snake is all grown up, he bites.  And, in an ironic twist that would make George Santyana roll over in his grave we are doing it again.  Only this time, we are doing it in Somalia, the last truly failed state.

Ever-present Somalia.

It makes sense at this point to give some context about Somalia.  With a score of 113.6, it is consistently ranked number one on Foreign Policy magazine’s Failed States Index year after year.  Here is how it is described in the most recent ranking:

Relatively speaking, the first months of 2011 have been full of good news for Somalia, the world’s closest approximation of anarchy. For two full decades, the majority of the territory in this crescent-shaped country on the Horn of Africa has gone essentially ungoverned; an internationally recognized transitional government is fighting tooth and nail to control the capital. Yet after months of stalemate with Islamist insurgents, the momentum finally seems to be turning. Block by block, the national troops — with the considerable help of an African Union-U.N. joint peacekeeping mission — have made significant territorial gains in Mogadishu.

Yet Somalia is still in tatters. Out of a population of nearly 10 million, as many as 3 million are thought to need humanitarian assistance. Another 2 million have been uprooted in the conflict, and political infighting has paralyzed the nascent government. Neighboring Uganda has warned that the fractures stand to make matters worse, offering Islamist insurgent groups a chance to reorganize.

Perhaps the greatest fear looming over Somalia today is that it will become the next haven for al Qaeda fleeing Afghanistan. Somalia’s Islamist rebels, who call themselves al-Shabab, have already pledged their allegiance to the global terrorist network.

Here, demonstrators in Mogadishu denounce the United Nations mission in the country, accusing it of spending too much on flying diplomats in and out of Nairobi and not enough on fixing what’s broken in Somalia.

This was written prior to the recent famine, which has left over 30,000 children dead and is the localized food crisis in 20 years.  How to deal with the “basketcase” of Somalia has eluded successive U.S. governments for the last several decades.  Now, as the U.S. is faced with the prospect of Somalia becoming the next Afghanistan – a hub for global jihadist groups like Al-Qaeda – the issue has suddenly become much more pressing.  Jeffrey Gettlemen, the failed-state beat reporter for the New York Times, reports on the latest use of military contractors to fight Al-Shabab, the Islamic Fundamentalist group that only a mother could love:

The Pentagon has recently told Congress that it plans to send nearly $45 million worth of military equipment to bolster the Ugandan and Burundian troops. The arms package includes transport trucks, body armor, night vision goggles and even four small drone aircraft that the African troops can use to spy on Shabab positions.

Unlike regular Somali government troops, the C.I.A.-trained Somali commandos are outfitted with new weapons and flak jackets, and are given sunglasses and ski masks to conceal their identities. They are part of the Somali National Security Agency — an intelligence organization financed largely by the C.I.A. — which answers to Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government. Many in Mogadishu, though, believe that the Somali intelligence service is building a power base independent of the weak government.

One Somali official, speaking only on the condition of anonymity, said that the spy service was becoming a “government within a government.”

“No one, not even the president, knows what the N.S.A. is doing,” he said. “The Americans are creating a monster.”

The future of global jihad.

I have a great respect for the complexities of foreign policy, containment, defense, and dealing with a king cobra like Somalia.  But the African Union should be dealing with Somalia and taking responsibility of policing its own region.  Having a major presence there creates resentment in the same way that it has done Afghanistan.  It is a dangerous country and to allow it to effectively fall apart is not really an option either.  So I understand why these measures might need to be taken.  Still, I suppose this is how it starts.

Towards the end of the article there is another nugget of insight into the different ways of approaching a failed state with an Islamic fundamentalist problem:

In Washington, American officials said debates were under way about just how much the United States should rely on clandestine militia training and armed drone strikes to fight the Shabab. Over the past year, the American Embassy in Nairobi, according to one American official, has  become a hive of military and intelligence operatives who are “chomping at the bit” to escalate operations in Somalia. But Mr. Carson, the State Department official, has opposed the drone strikes because of the risk of turning more Somalis toward the Shabab, according to several officials.

Johnnie Carson is the highest state department official in Africa.  He is a career foreign service officer, and has cut his diplomatic teeth dealing with African governments since the 1970s.   By all accounts, he understands the cultural nuances that affect diplomacy in sub-Saharan Africa.  Reading this, I appreciate that someone like Carson is running the show.

I think that this sort of measured approach to dealing with a volatile and complex situation is reflective of Obama’s deliberative foreign policy.  Brute military force that rains collateral damage on civilians makes for fertile recruiting grounds for Jihadist groups.  It needs to be smartly applied, in combination with diplomacy and development.  But, as I wrote the other day, the latter two could end up on the receiving end of cuts at the end of 2012.  If that happens, the counterforce pushing back on the military operatives itching to put boots on the ground in Somalia will be marginalized. And history may be free to repeat itself.