Who loses when foreign aid is slashed

Among the details of the 2018 budget proposal presented this week by the Trump administration were plans to slash nearly 30% of the combined State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) budget, with most of the cuts going to foreign aid and assistance.

Climate change work, unsurprisingly, was targeted for elimination or heavy cuts, but other programs included wide-ranging issues and departments such as the Bureau for Food Security, numerous global health programs, the ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, the Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues, the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, and general development assistance.  

There are many justifiable criticisms of international aid and the bureaucracy of institutions and most people would admit these agencies could be made more efficient. But foreign aid can also clearly save lives and improve living conditions, and many economists have pointed out what a tiny percent it constitutes of the U.S.’s overall federal budget (1.3 percent) and how, despite being the world’s biggest donor, how little we pay relative to GDP in comparison to the world’s other rich countries (.17 percent compared to .7 percent by the UK for example).  The Council on Foreign Relations has a good run down of these issues here.

There are so many other numerous pressing issues commanding our attention these days in terms of petitions to sign, marches to attend, and collective action to be planned. Restoring the Bureau for Food Security may not be the easiest cause to galvanize such acts.  So I’ll make it very simple, here are some places you can support with your wallet to attempt to cover some of the gaps should these cuts be made:


Global Health

Miraculously, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) has avoided the chopping block. But numerous other programs in multiple countries will likely be effected. Besides the major intergovernmental and multilateral agencies,  Doctors Without Borders is a perennial favorite. But here are aggregations of other possible groups at the global ( here, here, here, here,) regional and local  here, here,  here, here, here and  here ) levels.

Food Security

The major intergovernmental and multilateral agencies play a big role here but other global and local groups also significantly contribute. See aggregations here, here, here and  here.

Women’s issues

The broad category of women’s issues of course can intersect with global health, development, civil liberties and numerous other issues. But here are some places to start:

Global groups  here , here and here. And an overview of a selection of regional groups herehere,  here and here .


This provides only the tip of the iceberg of groups working on these issues and, by virtue of necessity, skews heavily towards bigger organizations with a more global scope. Ideally, we would choose the issues that most matter to us and research local groups whose crucial and informed work provides the most sustained commitment.


Posted in All

What can happen to your electronics at the US border?

The politics and policies tied to U.S. borders have perhaps never been so fraught and new data released last week by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection showed that turmoil has reached the electronic devices we all increasingly carry in our pockets and suitcases. Searches of electronic devices by Customs officials at borders and airports have nearly doubled in the past six months, according to the latest information released by the agency. In a press release the agency stressed that the 14,993 searches–up from 8,383 in the same period tin 2016 and 8,503 in 2015still only represented 0.008 percent of the approximately 189.6 million travelers arriving to the United States. Nonetheless, the report confirmed the fears of civil liberty and privacy groups who say they have seen a steady uptick in the number of searches being reported.

FY2016 FY2017
OCTOBER 31,239,053 32,248,121
NOVEMBER 30,350,596 30,430,424
DECEMBER 32,717,813 33,009,690
JANUARY 31,215,009 31,593,522
FEBRUARY 28,209,735* 28,209,602
MARCH 32,643,912 34,103,063**
TOTAL 186,376,118 189,594,422
FY2016 FY2017
OCTOBER 857 2,560
NOVEMBER 1,208 2,379
DECEMBER 1,486 2,404
JANUARY 1,653 2,756
FEBRUARY 1,470 2,299
MARCH 1,709 2,595
TOTAL 8,383 14,993
*February 2016 was a leap year.
**March international arrivals are approximate.walk through new study and make some graph of the data

Source and images CBP

Also this week, the prominent documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras finally received the results of a Freedom of Information Act request she had made in 2015 regarding the approximately 40 border searches and interrogations she underwent between 2006 and 2012. This was before she became internationally famous for her role in the Edward Snowden leaks and revelations, which she chronicled for her Academy Award-winning documentary CITIZENFOUR. “When it first started happening, I was naive and thought as soon as they realize I am a journalist and filmmaker I’ll stop being detained at the border,” Poitras told me in a 2014 interview. “And then it didn’t end.”

According to the information she received this week, Poitras had been singled out for extra attention and caution because of allegations regarding her involvement with an ambush of U.S. soldiers in Iraq in 2004. (Some soldiers alleged they had seen her on a roof filming the ambush and suggested she had prior notice of the attack. Poitras has vehemently denied the allegations and the army said in 2006 that it did not have sufficient evidence to bring any charges). While Poitras’s example is a unique one, it does shed light on the increasing likelihood that one’s electronic devices may be searched while in transit and the very limited recourse one has to fight back.

So what gives?

Why are Customs officials allowed to search your belongings without a warrant? Doesn’t that violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against “unreasonable searches and seizures”? 

Depends who you ask. The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the rights of border officials to conduct warrantless searches of people and their belongings as part of upholding immigration and customs law (thinks searches of luggage for contraband). Civil liberty groups and privacy experts argue these rulings are anachronistic and that the breadth of information available on electronic devices in the 21st century vastly exceeds whatever kind of material was previously available. The CBP last updated its procedures in 2009 in which they give agents wide leeway to conduct searches.

Multiple lawsuits have been filed but the results so far have not provided an overwhelming precedent to change the existing procedures. Nonetheless, privacy groups have been heartened by recent decisions such as a 2013 federal court ruling by the Ninth District of the west coast that extensive forensic searches of laptops at borders can’t be totally indiscriminate and require “reasonable suspicion.” A  2014 decision by the Supreme Court to extend greater protection against the search of electronic devices during arrests was also heralded as important progress that could be used as a basis for future border cases.

How long has this been going on?

Electronic searches at borders unsurprisingly became an issue as both electronic devices and terrorism concerns became more prevalent under the George W. Bush administration, but they really revved up in the last years of Obama’s presidency. At that time, journalists in particular sounded the alarm that they feared they were being targeted by officials eager for information about their reporting and sources; information they otherwise were unlikely to get without a subpoena and long legal fight.

Why is it getting worse?

As shown above, most of the laws and guidelines to govern these searches are outdated and without any clear legal precedent to change the border search exemptions from the Fourth Amendment, agents have vast discretion to apply the regulations as they see fit. The political rhetoric around border protection and general confusion and chaos sowed by the executive order travels bans have created a kind of “anything goes” atmosphere that often comes down to the decision making of individual agents. “The shackles are off,” an ACLU lawyer told NBC news. Despite a number of highly publicized electronic search incidents, the tone of last week’s CBP press release doesn’t suggest the practice will be reined in anytime soon. Even worse, some fear that requiring searches of social media accounts now may become routine.

Crucially, non U.S. citizens have very little legal protection from interrogations and searches at the border, something that is likely to get even worse.

Well this is pretty grim. Is there any way forward?  

Legal challenges are ongoing and unlikely to end anytime soon. There are rumblings in Washington to revise or at least review existing procedures. On April 4, a bipartisan, bicameral group lead by Senator Ron Wyden introduced the Protecting Data at the Border Act to “ensure Americans are not forced to endure indiscriminate and suspicionless searches of their phones, laptops and other digital devices just to cross the border.”

U.S. citizens may not be legally required to unlock their devices (again, it’s murky), but border agents have wide powers to try to compel them to do so (holding passengers until they miss their flight, copying data from devices or seizing them for up to five days). Requiring access to social media accounts has also been contested, though if they are able to open your phone and you are signed in to your social media accounts it’s a moot point.

To that end, most privacy experts recommend taking measures to protect your devices before travelling. The simplest option is leaving them at home and bringing temporary devices, but numerous organizations and media outlets have published guides to encryption and digital security practices to protect them should that not be possible.

The ACLU also has a general guide to knowing your rights at airports here.


Posted in All

Understanding the International Criminal Court


Like many intergovernmental agencies or entities, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague is, generally speaking, little understood and even less valued in the United States. In the international community, the court is often either hailed as a remarkable development in international justice or starkly criticized as remote and ineffectual. Recent more damning criticisms dismiss the whole enterprise as Neocolonialist. But what actually can the court do and what has it done? This is a story that could be told in many ways involving deep historical and legal analysis. But it has also been a numbers game where location is deeply relevant and so I attempted to tell a very simple version of that story using maps made with Datawrapper. I am indebted to former ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo and Harvard Kennedy School professor Kathryn Sikkink, whose January term HKS class “Preventing Mass Atrocities: Preventing Mass Atrocities: The Security Council and the International Criminal Court,” provided much of the background information.


In the more than half century since the Nuremberg Trials, there have been a number of one-off experiments with international and local transitional justice (the international tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, Timor-Leste, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, Argentina, Guatemala etc.). But proponents of international justice dreamed of establishing a single court that would have jurisdiction to try grave cases of human rights abuses around the world and whose moral and legal authority would hopefully prevent such crimes from occurring in the future. After years of wrangling, the ICC was established by the Rome Statute, which was adopted at an international diplomatic conference in 1998 and came into force in 2002.

There was of course a catch (several in fact) and limits on its authority and powers. The most significant being the court only has jurisdiction over those States that are parties to the statute (or committed crimes in territories that are parties). The exception to this rule is cases that have referred to the court by the United Nations Security Council.

The above map and numbers of countries that have signed looks pretty impressive, until you realize who is missing – namely the United States, Russia, China and most of the countries of the Middle East. That’s more than half the UN Security Council and the countries where many of the worst conflicts of the 21st century are occurring. To some degree, the court merely holds a mirror to existing international power dynamics that govern our world. The ICC’s defenders would say it is unfair to expect the court to surpass these realities. But for an entity whose stated mission includes preventing future atrocities from happening, the fact that no one responsible for the horrific crimes occurring in Syria is likely to step foot in its chambers–unless there is a dramatic geopolitical shift–is a brutal blow.

Beyond jurisdiction, the court’s mandate only allows it to try cases that meet the threshold of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity or the less-tested crime of aggression.  A case can only be prosecuted if it has been established that the appropriate State is unwilling or unable to genuinely do so itself.


Preliminary Investigations

Some of the cases that have undergone preliminary investigation test the third-party territorial jurisdiction clause (ie the United Kingdom for crimes committed in Iraq, the registered vessels of Comoros, Greece and Cambodia for the flotilla incident with Israel)

These are cases that are deemed not to meet the statutory requirements of the court.

These are cases that are ruled to meet the requirements for further investigation.  This is where the geographic concentration of cases begins to become apparent.





The collapse of the court’s case in Kenya has been a source of much concern and seen as a bad omen for the court’s future.


This includes noteworthy cases such as the Gadaffs in Libya (the case against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi for crimes committed during the Libyan revolution was dropped with his death, there is an arrest warrant out for his son Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, but he is being held by a militia in Libya),  Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir (his arrest warrant, the first against an active head of State, has been routinely flouted by African and Middle Eastern countries to which he he has travelled freely), and Joseph Kony in Uganda (the online video “Kony2012” may have been a viral sensation but has had no visible impact on securing his capture).



These last maps should make apparent the main criticisms lodged against the court – that convictions have been few, that without a tool to enforce arrest warrants it will remain impotent and, most recently, that the pronounced focus on African countries is a sign of its colonialist intentions (and have resulted in the threat of the withdrawal of several African nations from the Rome Statute).

Proponents of the ICC mostly acknowledge that the court has its flaws that could be improved, but defend the cost and pace of the convictions by explaining the complexity, scope and ambition of what it trying to be achieved. They look to recent developments in Latin America as a sign that the court’s preventative potential may be working. The enforcement dilemma, they say,  is ultimately one of political will that must be worked out through advocacy and diplomatic channels. And the charges of neocolonialism have been vehemently denied by the current Gambian and former Argentine prosecutors of the court, who argue that those criticisms betray a lack of understanding of the court’s statutory limitations and are an excuse for brutal dictators to evade justice.

Ultimately, the ICC may be the best tool we have in an imperfect world. After all without it, former ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo has asked, “who else will fight for the victims?”

Posted in All

Taking a pause from his day job to look at the future of data journalism

Photo courtesy of the Nieman Foundation 

After spending much of the past decade reporting on politics and science in his home state of North Carolina, Tyler Dukes became concerned about a glaring gap in the skill sets being taught to the next generation of reporters in journalism schools. As an investigative reporter on the state politics team for the local television station WRAL in Raleigh, Dukes has focused on using data and public records to uncover and tell stories of the problems plaguing mental health care in state prisons and the implementation of protection orders for victims of domestic violence. Yet in his experience teaching at UNC-Chapel Hill’s journalism school and as a researcher at Duke University’s Reporters’ Lab, he saw that data journalism was being addressed in only the most superficial ways, if at all.

“Very few courses are offered,” Dukes said in an interview, speaking of journalism schools across the country, “and when they are, they are far outstripped by courses like how to make pretty graphs and how to do data visualization.  It is not data analysis first. It is not using data as  a source first.  It is not acquiring data through public records and things like that. So it skips this really important step, which is data literacy.”

Hoping to address this problem, Dukes and his wife moved to Cambridge in the fall where Dukes would spend an academic year as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University studying best practices for college journalism programs and newsrooms looking to democratize data-driven reporting for underserved communities. Now more than half way through his fellowship, Dukes acknowledges he is far from discovering a solution to those challenges. Much of the fall semester was spent taking advantage of Harvard’s offerings to address gaps in his own knowledge in areas like statistics, machine learning and artificial intelligence.  These classes, he said, helped to both demystify certain concepts but also offer pedagogical lessons on how to teach things like statistics from a practical, applied perspective to policy makers or journalists who may have limited math backgrounds.

In his remaining months in Cambridge, Dukes plans to continue conversations he began in the fall with students and reporters about how best to move ahead with his idea of creating an extracurricular independent study resource about the various facets of data journalism. He says he envisions some kind of platform, perhaps recorded Google hangouts or Skype calls with experts, that students who do not feel served by their journalism schools could easily access.  While many similar online modules and resources for journalists exist in an ad hoc fashion, he says that dedicated organizations have had difficulties incorporating these models into universities and colleges.

“If we are pretending we are equipping them to be journalists in modern times they have to have basic data literacy,” Dukes said. “And if journalism school aren’t going to do it, someone is going to have to force their hand.”

In the meantime, Dukes and his fellow Niemans are also using their time in Cambridge to reflect on the deeper questions about their role in the journalism ecosystem that have emerged in the politically volatile past few months. He admits he is starting to feel the pull to return back to his newsroom which, despite widespread consternation about the future of local news, is still relatively robust.  While the overall economic climate for journalism is shaky and shifting quickly, Dukes thinks people are too quick to generalize about an industry that is hardly monolithic and varies widely based on platform and location. Though increased coverage and competition from other outlets would be welcome, Dukes has the luxury of returning to a healthy newsroom in a fairly well covered media market that is continuing to aggressively report on post-election dynamics in his absence.

Though he concedes a twinge of regret at not being in the thick of things, he says that “the impact of elections are felt for years…the story is not going away.” And at a moment in which the role of the press in covering politics is being hotly debated, there is a certain “perspective that comes from being forced not to do your job for several months. Hopefully it is going to make our work that much better when we get back.”

Posted in All

Sara’s 4 hour assignment: Modernism at the MFA

In the spirit of doing the assignment in a medium outside my wheelhouse, I attempted to create a multimedia storytelling account of a lecture I attended at the MFA. The end result is ok though since I was confined to the free version of the platform Atavist I had to make due without most of the bells and whistles and stick to relatively basic functions. I wonder if ultimately the final product is anything more than a glorified powerpoint, which leads me to question whether traditional journalistic reportage is sometimes still the best option. The time constraint was also an issue as I sought to master this new platform. A major error is that I had hoped to upload audio of a bilingual portion of the event but I had recorded in m4a and  atavist only accepted mp3 format and I didn’t have time to do a conversion. Thus for the time-being the audio is a placeholder of birds chirping…

You can see my story here

Posted in All

Sara’s media diary

I used Rescue Watch to track my media consumption but was not completely satisfied with the detail of reporting I received at the end of the week. I would have liked more in-depth information about the sites I was visiting (rather than the top three per category), as well as how the program chooses what to classify as “news and opinion” vs. “references and learning” etc. Another problem with this program is I have a very dangerous tab habit in which I average about 40 tabs open in a browser at at time and they may stay open for weeks…so I think the time analysis per page was somewhat skewed,  Nonetheless, the snapshot view provided by the platform as well as some additional reporting and recording on my part provided me with a few takeaways:

  • Like most people, scheduling and communication, primarily on email and calendars, was the single greatest individual category of media consumption. According to Rescue Watch, it was 36% of my time and a total of 8 and a half hours over the course of the week. That actually seems pretty low to me and I wondered about the nature of the tracking. This did not include emailing and messaging on my phone. .
  • The rest of my top 5 was pretty expected – numerous course readings,  the New York Times and Amazon (streaming TV shows). I also spent 4 hours actually going to the movies (the perks and joys of a long weekend).
  • Digging a bit deeper into my browser history, while a significant number of the sites I visited were news and opinion sites, I spent far shorter periods of time on each page, meaning I am either a faster or more superficial reader than I thought.
  • My news consumption started daily with a broader reading across international, local, national news and arts sections (though perhaps limited in ideological perspective) and then became increasingly more narrow in scope and theme as the day progressed. This was because most of my clicks either came from social media where like-minded friends were posting on the issues that I care about or through the various thematic email newsletters I subscribe to (Latin American politics and human rights, media industry, freedom of expression and press freedom etc.). Besides the Times, my reading was very piecemeal with never more than one or two articles a day from the same news source. I realized through this exercise that while my daily news consumption may include a variety of sources, aside from the day’s top stories, the subject matter was generally more or less always the same.
  • The big surprise and rude awakening was the fact that shopping came in as the third ranked category on my rescue watch list. I am not a big online shopper so did a little more digging and realized the program was reading my Amazon time as shopping, rather than streaming content. Nonetheless, I did attempt to buy a couch online this week and this program laid bare all the wasted hours on this failed enterprise.
  • Main conclusions: unsurprisingly, I spend a lot of time writing and responding to emails, reading the news and going to the movies. My indecision means I should not be allowed to online shop for furniture.
Posted in All

NewsCheck: Verifying the endless information stream

The endless stream of information and content provided by social media is the worlds’s greatest gift to a reporter or researcher and also his or her worst nightmare. As helpful and empowering as crowdsourcing this kind of newsgathering or research can be, if your job is to corroborate that information it can present a minefield. How to verify the overwhelming flow of information, particularly in a breaking news, high volume context such as violence during massive demonstrations or in a conflict zone? We’ve all seen (and perhaps disparaged) people who have shared images from one conflict zone incorrectly labeled as another, whether by honest mistake or as part of a concerted propaganda campaign. But it’s all too easy to be duped by such material, particularly if shared widely in a high pressure, deadline-looming situation.

A number of people and organizations have sought to tackle this problem by creating various kinds of verification tools. A recent one is NewsCheck, a Chrome extension launched by First Draft, a coalition of organizations and places like the Google News Lab working on tools to improve skills and standards in online reporting.

The extension is a web-friendly version of a previously published guide to verification for photos and videos and essentially works by presenting the user with a checklist of considerations to run through: Are you looking at the original version? Do you know who captured the image? Do you know where the image was captured? Do you know when the image was captured? The app scores the user based on the answers and these results can be published alongside the embedded image on the intended website so that other users can see for themselves to what extent it has been possible to authenticate the information. This isn’t a perfect fix obviously and I would love to see this tool expanded to automatically feed into to some of the best and most vetted online authentication tools available, as sometimes the number of tools can be as overwhelming as the amount of content and further curation is always helpful. But it’s a nice step to attempt to systematize basic verification into workflows for anyone sharing this kind of content and to increase transparency on these efforts to readers/viewers.


Posted in All

Sara’s bio

Sara picture

I’m a first year graduate student in Comparative Media Studies and a Research Assistant at MIT’s Open Documentary Lab. Before coming to MIT, I was the Researcher on Central America at Amnesty International, based in Mexico City.  There I covered human rights issues in the region and led a year-long project on Central American migrants fleeing (and being deported back to) unrelenting violence. Before that I was the the Americas Program Researcher at the Committee to Protect Journalists, based in New York, where I covered press freedom issues in Latin America and the United States. I’ve also worked as a freelance journalist and with a number of international NGOs and foundations throughout Latin America, predominantly in Argentina and Colombia, as well as in my home town of New York City. I’m a journalism junkie and film buff and am interested in looking at how to apply new narrative and storytelling techniques to the human rights issues I’ve been working on for the past several years, particularly in the area of freedom of expression.

Posted in All