Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Fun and games with human misery

Here’s a fun game to play with friends, particularly friends who work on social ventures or other world-changing projects. Ask each person what issues they’d work on if they were given $500 million, $50 million or $5 million dollars to spend. With thoughtful friends, you’ll get different answers for different funding levels. It’s not realistic to tackle huge global problems – curing malaria, building sewage and fresh water systems for villages worldwide – at the $5m level, but you often learn about fascinating problems that might be solvable with a small amount of concerted effort.

My $5 million answer is usually “natural-gas flaring“, a practice that’s so environmentally irresponsible and dangerous for communities that it should be a no-brainer to guilt global petroleum companies with $5 million of focused bad publicity. (Part of the fun of the game is that you can argue with your friends about how much money is realistic to tackle any of these problems.)

The best $50 million answer I heard lately came from my friend Colin McCormick, a physics and policy wonk in DC, who wonders whether you could destroy the small arms trade that enables violent insurrection around the world with $50 million worth of research on ceramics. His idea was to create a ceramic that could be placed within 7.62 shells, the ammunition used in AK-47s and other inexpensive assault rifles. When detonated, the shell would trigger a chemical change in the ceramic, causing it to expand and bond to the rifled barrel. Guns fired using these rounds would become unusable. The idea would be to mix small numbers of compromised rounds into ammo released through the global arms trade, in the hopes of making it increasingly dangerous to buy illegal ammo without risking destruction of weapons.

I have no idea whether such an idea is realistic, but it’s one of the few ideas I’ve heard that might have an impact on the global small arms trade. While controls exist to prevent the sale of ammunition to anyone other than legitimate government entities, these controls are routinely skirted, and a dealer with a small number of the right connections is able to make millions very quickly selling ammunition to forces who aren’t able to legally purchase weaponry.

Picture 1

The fine folks at the Small Arms Survey produce countless publications on the arms trade. But very few are as entertaining and easy to read as an 8-page cartoon they published by Robert Butler. Titled “Adventures of a Would-Be Arms Dealer“, it tells the story of an arms control inspector who flies to Rwanda, bribes an old friend to produce an end-user certificate (specifying that arms are to be sold to the Rwandan army), and then arranges a deal to purchase and transport 2 million rounds of 7.62 shells to rural Somalia. He concludes that, with an upfront investment of $500,000, he could turn a million dollar profit with little more than a trip to Kigali and a couple of phonecalls.

As I read the story, I realized I knew most of the terminology used, not from a close study of the issue, but from Frederick Forsyth’s classic novel, “The Dogs of War“. In the novel, Forsyth outlines in extremely specific detail the machinations necessary to mount a coup in a nation that sounds a whole lot like Equatorial Guinea. At least two failed coups in Equatorial Guinea – one in 1973 and the more recent Wonga Coup - have been linked to Forsyth’s novel. (Some have linked Forsyth to the 1973 coup, which he admits knowing about and researching, though won’t admit to charges he helped finance it.) The methods his characters used to obtain end-user certificates and buy ammunition in Eastern Europe are almost identical to those that Butler outlines almost 35 years later.

For me, either the suspiciously accurate novel or the eminently readable comic go a long way in turning a distant – though critical – concern into a real, tangible problem. It makes me wish that more journalists and activists would look for creative ways to tell these stories and make them more real to readers.

Along that line, I have to offer a shout-out to Wired’s recent coverage of Somali piracy. I think this is a stupid story to be following – it’s more spectacle than substance and doesn’t do much to help people understand why the situation in Somalia is so desperate – but a recent set of Wired stories does an excellent job of turning a distant story into a tangible one.

Noah Schactman and Scott Carney offer an interview with a Somali pirate that helps explain the economics of the trade. It’s illustrated with a video made by pirates aboard a ship they’d recently captured. The video is pretty remarkable – it’s the sort of braggadochio you and your friends might engage in had you just seized a multi-million dollar ship with the reasonable expectation that you’d be able to ransom it for millions of dollars.

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But the piece de resistance is Cutthroat Capitalism, a flash game that invites you to man a small boat out of Eyl, pick likely looking targets in the Gulf of Aden, board them and negotiate ransom. I quickly picked up a cruise ship, fed my hostages, acted erraticly while on the satphone to the negotiator and collected a $4 million ransom. With buttons that let you beat or kill hostages, it’s one of the more cold-blooded simulations I’ve ever seen, but does an effective job of making it clear that piracy is deeply profitable for those involved.

One Response to “Fun and games with human misery”

  1. Don Marti says:

    Didn’t the old South African security services try handloading some 7.62×39 rounds with steel ball bearings a little larger than the caliber behind the bullet, then letting them fall into the hands of the ANC? How did that work out?

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