Kimmie Weeks spent much of the civil war that shook the prospering West African nation of Liberia, beginning in 1989, in a sprawling refugee camp where he contracted severe cholera and nearly died. He was 10 years old at the time. Not long thereafter, Weeks began working to stem poverty, hunger, and the use of child soldiers in Liberia. In 1999 he was forced to seek political asylum in the U.S. after death threats from the government of then dictator Charles Taylor. Now a resident of Philadelphia and a recent graduate of Amherst College, Weeks heads Youth Action International, an aid organization that works in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Uganda, and elsewhere. On November 10 he will appear at SBCC’s Garvin Theatre to deliver the keynote speech at a UN Day celebration sponsored by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and the Santa Barbara Coalition for Global Dialogue. I spoke to him recently about his life and work.
There is a vigorous debate right now about international aid to Africa, with some high-profile critics arguing that it needs to be radically rethought and perhaps pared down. Is there a problem with the way aid is dispersed to struggling or war-torn African countries? A lot of the aid going to Africa does not address the root causes of poverty. What needs to change is that there needs to be a real partnership between the people who are on the ground and the people providing the aid. One of the things we try to promote at Youth Action International is: If we’re in a community and there’s a problem, we first say, Can we fix this problem without throwing money at it? Can we get the community involved? Can we get community ingenuity and innovation involved?
So the level of aid needs to continue to grow, but the way it’s deployed, in some cases, needs to be reconsidered. Exactly. For example, many people ask me, given all of its issues, is the UN defunct? And I ask myself if can I imagine a world without the UN, and I can’t. Millions of people are alive because of the UN [World] Food Programme. In Liberia, the education system is functioning for the most part because of UNICEF. So reform is, in some cases, necessary, but the UN and other aid and development organizations are still absolutely vital.
In light of what has happened in Liberia, Rwanda, Uganda, the Congo, and elsewhere, and what is now happening in Darfur, what do you think is the role of Western nations and organizations in the face of genocide or mass killing in Africa? Is armed response necessary, welcome, intelligent? What needs to happen is that we empower the people themselves to stop these kinds of situations. I think we’ve seen that to some extent in Darfur with the role of the African Union peacekeepers. Peace came about in Liberia because West African countries put together the first ever multinational African peacekeeping force. I think if people really want to help Africa, they need to help Africans help themselves. They need to commit to helping put the resources in the right places.
How would you gauge the current temperature of American attitudes toward failing African states? I think there is a very prevalent feeling in America that if action happens, it has to be taken by the American government. But for such a long time, the large governments have failed the world when it comes to a global consensus on ending poverty. Now, it is in the hands of individuals. Yes, we can bring poverty to a halt in the 21st century, but that is not going to happen unless people in Santa Barbara and people everywhere feel that they can play a role. Every day there are 32,000 children dying from preventable causes. That needs to change. People need to realize that they can be angry about poverty.
Kimmie Weeks will discuss Youth in Peril: From Child Soldiers to Street Gangs at SBCC’s Garvin Theatre on Saturday, November 10, from 9:30am to 1pm, with a networking hour from 8:30-9:30am. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, call 884-7131, or visit unasb.org.