Opportunities within Growth: Tanzania’s Future Energy Mix

by Sarah Grace

Tanzania, home of Kilimanjaro, the Serengeti and the source of the Nile River, is increasingly becoming best known for the multiplicity and depths of its energy potential. With such world-renowned environments and a high growth potential at stake, Tanzania is an especially significant emerging producer whose successful or unsuccessful balance of its internal priorities will be a test case for the region at large.

In late February 2016, the most recent in a string of possible natural gas deposits was discovered offshore in Tanzania. That single discovery added an additional 2.17 trillion cubic feet onto existing estimates of over 57 trillion cubic feet of potential deposits.1 These are only projections, but last year the country ranked only 88th in the world for proven natural gas reserves at 6.513 billion cubic meters,2 a tiny fraction of its projected reserves. These discoveries have greatly excited the international energy community.

As thrilling as these projected deposits are for energy companies, they mean far more to the Tanzanian government and the people it will negotiate on behalf of. Currently, many Tanzanians live below the World Bank’s poverty line.3 In Tanzania in 2014, the 2014 gross national income per capita was $920 and the life expectancy was 64.9. In 2015, they had a population of 53.47 million people and a GDP of 45.628 billion US dollars.4 There is a tremendous amount that can be done for the people of this country to improve their length and quality of their life, from raising the standard of living and further investment in education to connecting rural communities.

Tanzania’s potential revenues for exporting its energy reserves or renewables output are high, but strategically tapping this density of domestic energy could make significant positive changes to its population beyond raising them out of poverty. The majority of Tanzanians are either underserved in energy or not served at all, with only 36% of households having access to electricity.5 In 2013, Tanzania emitted .214 metric tons of CO2 per capita (WB), and produced 889 Petajoules of primary energy. The actual energy supply per capita however was only 20 Gigajoules.6 Energy efficiency can make a big difference here as well. Increasing wealth in the country through energy investment and also increasing energy access would mean that Tanzanians would be able to get the internet and also mobile phones, changing the efficacy and depth of their educational resources, the level of globalization, and the role Tanzania as a state can play in the world. As of 2014, 62.8% of people in Tanzania had mobile phone subscriptions, and only 4.9% used the internet.6 These figures may have improved in the past three years, but as Tanzania’s energy investment escalates, so will these numbers, along with the quality of life for its people.

As coal declines and the demand for natural gas rises around the world,7 the price of natural gas continues to climb. Between 2016 and 2017, the EIA projects there to be a 41.4% increase in price.8 Russia currently has a loosening stranglehold on much of the European Union as its principal (sometimes only) supplier9 which is good news for potential competitors, and the massive energy demands of highly developed countries with few natural resources like Japan are urgent and well-funded. Tanzania’s massive reserves would find a welcome home in this market. It is not the only country in Africa with big energy finds, but Tanzania’s comparatively stable history and high poverty rate3 mean that there is motivation to develop quickly, and that investors can proceed without the level of risk associated with many of its neighbors. Proper management of its energy resources could utterly transform the country into a stable and prosperous exporter. Though it would be difficult to get extracted or liquified natural gas (LNG) to major markets like Asia or the the EU the journey is not as far as from the United States, and pipelines are not out of the question. China has already constructed one in Tanzania that transports natural gas from Mtwara, the southern part of the country, to Dar es Salaam, its commercial capital.10

As deep as its natural gas reserves seem to go, Tanzania also represents an extremely exciting source for renewable energy. More than 10% of the country’s surface offers the potential for high wind power, and some of these areas overlap with high solar irradiation zones, where solar panels could be placed. This is relatively rare, and could mean round the clock power generation for the people of Tanzania or the surrounding nations. According to energy studies cited by the world bank, Tanzania surpasses Spain for solar resources and California for wind. There is a lot of potential here which the government seems interested in aggressively exploring.11 The recent studies which found this information come at a time when renewable energy technology is cheaper than ever before. China, already a partner in several Tanzanian ventures, is largely responsible for this drop in prices and has become the major power behind solar power,12 as well as the country responsible for implementing Tanzania’s existing solar power technology;13 this infrastructure could and should be expanded further. While perhaps most of the companies rushing to do business with Tanzania are interested in its natural gas, renewable energy is a robust, expanding market, and this country needs to take further advantage of that.

Many shared energy concerns and tradeoffs play out in Tanzania, but there are also unique circumstances within this country that will dictate the energy development course it can pursue. Environmental protection is an especially significant concern for Tanzania, for several interrelated reasons. While the legendary beauty, health and significance of their environment may be a source of pride to the people and vital to their well-being, environmental tourism is a huge business here. Tourism represented 17% of Tanzania’s GDP in 2014, around 25% of the country’s foreign exchange earnings, and is expected to continue to make healthy annual growth. Tanzania’s tourism industry employs between 600,000 and 2 million people. The tallest mountain in Africa, the world’s largest intact volcanic crater (Ngorongoro), and the Serengeti plains, which witness the largest terrestrial migration in the world, are all in this country14 and are central to its identity. These natural wonders are why film crews and tourists alike flock to Tanzania. However, all of them are jeopardized by the potential mishandling of Tanzania’s energy development. As an example, putting massive wind turbines in the Serengeti would disrupt its unique and endangered wildlife.

A final complicating environmental factor is that Tanzania forms the southern base of Lake Victoria, the primary source of the Nile River. This river flows from south to north, so if there were an accident here, whether from a future pipeline or from gas extraction, it could have grave implications not only for Tanzanians, but also downriver for a not inconsiderable percentage of the 160 million people15 that depend on the Nile for their livelihood, along with the many others in the 10 countries it passes through that depend on it for their lives.

As with most resource-rich developing countries, there is a controversial trade-off between badly needed development for an impoverished population and the environmental impact of that fast-paced and often haphazard development. For a developing country, Tanzania has a relatively high (26.1) percentage of protected areas,6 but as development continues, these efforts will be increasingly urgent. The urgency of Tanzania’s poverty means that it cannot afford to wait to be able to pay for an entirely renewable energy infrastructure. It must take some of the natural gas contracts, but it should do so with the goal of using as large a part of the revenues from these as it can spare from alleviating poverty to focus its own domestic energy production on renewable energy. Renewables will have a less detrimental effect on its environment,16 and this will bring domestic employment and a more self-sufficient future.

Whether Tanzania focuses on renewables or natural gas, it must plan strategically so as to balance its responsibilities to the well-being of its assets and its people. This can be best met through the strategic short term diversification of its energy resources, so that Tanzania can empower itself in the long-run to take an environmentally-conscious place in the sun.


  1. http://www.reuters.com/article/tanzania-gas-idUSL8N16427G
  2. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2253rank.html
  3. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-14095776
  4. http://data.worldbank.org/country/tanzania
  5. http://www.worldbank.org/en/results/2016/12/06/increasing-electricity-access-in-tanzania-to-reduce-poverty
  6. http://data.un.org/CountryProfile.aspx?crName=United%20Republic%20of%20Tanzania
  7. https://www.forbes.com/sites/thebakersinstitute/2016/05/17/whos-winning-the-battle-to-replace-coal/#571d5b76765d
  8. https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=29632
  9. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/13/business/eu-russia-gazprom.html
  10. http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2015-10/12/c_134703333.htm
  11. http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2015/06/09/tanzania-solar-and-wind-potential-could-help-meet-future-power-generation-goals
  12. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-china-is-dominating-the-solar-industry/
  13. http://allafrica.com/stories/201004150971.html
  14. http://www.tanzaniainvest.com/tourism/tanzania-tourism-sector-report
  15. https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/NavigatingPeaceIssuePKM.pdf
  16. http://www.ucsusa.org/clean-energy/renewable-energy/public-benefits-of-renewable-power

Afghanistan’s Future Nationhood


by Sarah Grace

While there are many similarities between the United States’ wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam, the inherent differences between these countries mean that their trajectories after a US departure could not be more different. Many factors inhibit the building of an effectively governed, peaceful and secure Afghanistan, but for the United States to remove itself from the conflict would be devastating for this country and its people, the surrounding region, and likely the world at large. Instead of abandonment by the United States, the path to success for Afghanistan requires a concerted and thoughtful military resurgence to motivate a peaceful settlement; this can then be solidified with culturally-competent restructuring and partial decentralization of the Afghan government so that it has the legitimacy it needs to operate unchallenged by further insurgencies.

During his presidency, Barack Obama rejected the comparison between the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. There are indeed many heavily significant distinctions between the conflicts, combatants, cultures, and contexts of Afghanistan and Vietnam. However, the specific trajectories of the two wars are unique in American history, especially since the nation’s emergence as a superpower in the 20th century. Both do represent a commitment of lives and resources to a conflict fought on a highly strategic and highly visible stage. Neither have shone a flattering light on the United States and its ability to adapt to other forms of warfare; or to protect civilians. These are ultimately very distinct conflicts, and there are many reasons why what proved best for Vietnam’s future (America’s withdrawal) can not be implemented in Afghanistan. However, the comparisons between these two wars must be made so as to understand what is best for Afghanistan’s future, and for future conflicts the US may have to fight. Through this comparison, the US can learn that taking the time to understand one’s enemy can and does win out over superior resources.

The war in Afghanistan does closely mirror the Vietnam War’s political and military situation. Demographically, both Afghanistan and Vietnam were fought by rurally-based insurgencies, in countries with an 80% rural population. They share a historical divide between a minority of modernizing elites in cities, and this majority (religiously conservative, in Afghanistan’s case) rural population. The insurgencies that emerged from this second group have both been ethnically cohesive and exclusive. The United States’ efforts have been hampered by the fact that in both Afghanistan and Vietnam, bases were deeply infiltrated and native interpreters forced to inform the enemy of every move and thought. Often this was because they or their families were not protected by American forces and were held captive by the enemy. Finally, the reprehensible behavior of US troops massively compromised civilian trust, and often served to recruit for the other side (Johnson and Mason, 2009).

Turbulent, somewhat parallel histories shaped an adept class of insurgent fighters in both Vietnam and Afghanistan. These countries have been the subjects of European imperial ambitions and aggression, and subsequently fought off the invaders. More contemporary to their conflicts with the Unite States, these countries were similarly wracked by over a decade of civil war, both of which were fought north against south. Because of this Vietnam and Afghanistan already possessed multiple generations of highly experienced and skilled fighters, ready, willing and able to take on the American forces. The insurgencies were led by combat commanders who had already had to deal with the strategic consequences of the challenging terrain of their home soil (Ibid). The home advantage was, and remains, extremely profound.

While Afghanistan’s mountains and desert exist in sharp contrast to Vietnam’s tropical jungle, both terrains are out of the comfort zone of the United States military. These landscapes have proven essentially impassable in many case, and therefore vastly complicate land maneuvers and military strategy. Vietnam and Afghanistan are also far from the US, each half a world and an ocean away. The US has therefore been forced to rely on airpower for transport and firepower as the principal method of combat, resulting in considerable expense and massive logistical difficulties. Because of their respective geographies, these countries have unseal-able borders. This has complicated the United States’ efforts in Vietnam and Afghanistan because it is impossible to contain or trap the insurgents or prevent outside aid from being given to their causes (Ibid). In Vietnam this is because of the extremely long, heavily rain-forested borders the country shares with China to the north, Laos for the bulk of its western length, and Cambodia to its southern and lower western border. The entire eastern side of the country is coastline. In turn, Afghanistan shares a border with seven countries: Iran to the west, Pakistan to the east and south, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to the north, and it also briefly borders China and India (though this border is in Kashmir, occupied by Pakistan). At various points in these conflicts, aid has been funneled through these border states, and sanctuary has been offered. (Dobbins & Malkasian, 2015)

The format of both these wars has been the world superpower against poorly-equipped guerrilla forces: insurgencies that were recruited from, and hid among, the common people in spite of their unpopularity. However, the traditional American war of attrition is in no way an effective counterinsurgency strategy (Johnson and Mason, 2009), and this has been proved in both Afghanistan and Vietnam. The United States’ involvement in Afghanistan’s government especially could have made a much greater impact. According to El Salvador former defense minister General Rene Emilio Ponce, counterinsurgency should be composed of 90% political, social, economic and ideological efforts and just 10% military effort (Quoted in Benjamin C. Schwarz, 1991). Combat power is less useful than legitimacy in some respects because if a government is seen as legitimate by 85 to 90% of the population, success is essentially guaranteed against an insurgency. It is important to note that this legitimate government does not have to be popular; popularity is not at all the same thing as legitimacy (Johnson and Mason, 2009). Legitimacy is culturally and historically dependent, and requires some sort of entitlement: a right to rule. This points to the difficulty in one power attempting to shape another without properly understanding it. Unlike the deliberately secular, democratic United States, in Afghanistan, legitimacy is derived from religion, dynastic inheritance, or both. Therefore, an elected government in Afghanistan will not be seen as legitimate precisely because it was democratically chosen. In Vietnam, the people found their own legitimacy, and in Afghanistan they have desperately been trying to find a compromise with the United States’ often misguided help.

In both of these wars, the United States misread the conflict they were participating in (Ibid). While plenty of preparation was done, critically the people in power have not understood the motivations of their combatants. Strategically this is always important, but it is especially difficult, if not impossible, to defeat an insurgent enemy that is not properly understood. Johnson and Mason argue that in Vietnam the US was fighting against communism while the Vietnamese were not fighting for it. Instead, the Vietcong fought out of the nationalist desire to self-determine and reunify their country. This greatly impacted their resolve and their ability to recruit. Afghanistan’s conflict has always been a religious war from the perspective of the Taliban and Al Qaida, regardless of the purely secular campaign the Americans think they have been waging against terrorism. Jihad is their narrative, and as Johnson and Mason argue, to the jihadists there is no negotiating with God’s will (Ibid).

Further beyond the structural similarities of these conflicts, they have had a similar effect on American self-perception, and perception by the international community. Interventionism on the part of the United States has been a determining factor in world affairs for over a century, starting with the Spanish-American War in the 19th Century (Warner, Margaret, and Smith). However, American interference in the Middle East has had a spotty history, and has been increasingly unpopular domestically (Blake, 2017) as in many countries not directly involved in the region. In an age of growing nationalism around the world, and now many decades removed from a ubiquitous imperialism, self-determination has been the trend and desire for most emerging states, who want United States capital and aid, but not necessarily involvement that is not economic. The events of September 11th shocked the world, but invading two countries and remaining there for over a decade has stressed the connection between the initial motivation and what came out of it. It has also strained even further the already negative perceptions of the United States. Similarly, American involvement in Vietnam became unpopular internationally, as well as domestically (Ibid).

Besides their respective unpopularity, another of the central parallels between the wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam is simply that the United States did not decisively win the conflict. There are Vietnam revisionists who assert that the United States would have been victorious if they had held out a few months or years longer than the two decades the war went on (Horwood, 2009), but these voices are few and far between. Generally, both wars are regarded as failures. However, it has been nearly forty years since the United States signed the Paris Accords and pulled out of Vietnam, so it is far easier to assess the damage sustained to the United States in terms of lives, resources and international reputation. The war in Afghanistan is not over however, so measuring long term implications of U.S. involvement is more difficult. Still, in both cases, the damage was significant and public.

As much as they may look alike, Johnson and Mason assert that there are important atmospheric and structural distinctions between Vietnam and Afghanistan that contribute to why these conflicts are not strategically interchangeable. Most significantly, Vietnam represented a monolithic enemy composed of a nearly homogenous ethnic population fought by a single superpower: the United States in its heyday. In contrast, Afghanistan was and continues to be a widely decentralized state (practically, if not in name) that is incredibly ethnically and religiously diverse, whose war was fought by coalition (Johnson and Mason, 2009). This coalition includes NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization), a network of Western states with the United States driving many of the decisions, especially now that most NATO troops have been removed. As of 2015, Georgia, Germany, Turkey, Romania, Italy, the UK, and Australia still had troops in Afghanistan, as did the United States with a heavy majority (BBC, 2015).

The fears behind Afghanistan were not ideological, but more concrete ones from recent memory. One of the primary motivations which has dictated American strategy in Afghanistan has been to avoid a repeat of Yugoslavia, not just Vietnam (Barfield, 2011). In the early 2000’s, this conflict from the 1990’s was very fresh in the minds of American military strategists, and not entirely without reason. Historically Afghanistan has not had the conventional mindset of a nation-state, partially because whenever it has been conquered there has been a tendency to largely leave the remote regions (which, as a credit to the United States, have proved a challenge to invading forces for literally millennia) alone with a minimum of required tribute or interference because of the difficulty of governing them (Ibid). There are many, many ethnic groups in Afghanistan. These range from the Pashtuns, who claim to be the national majority but only make up less than half of the population (40-45%), to the Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Aimaqs, Turkmens, Ghilzai, Durrani, Qizilbash, and many, many more (Blood, 2001).  The thought of facing another region’s balkanization and the ensuing chaos and bloodshed inspired the ill-informed push toward a heavily centralized government (Barfield, 2011). However, while here has only been true cohesion in Afghanistan when prompted to unify against an outside force, Barfield asserts that no one in Afghanistan was worried about the county splitting up in the wake of the regime collapse of the Taliban. Afghanistan has always been a multi-ethnic region, and that has not been seen as a problem by people within the country the way it is in many other multi-ethnic states because it has always been the norm. This is also because there has not been a history of the harsh brand of exclusive control that is perhaps the norm. Instead tribes have a very long-sighted struggle for a particular kind of dominance over other groups, without seeking to eliminate or convert them. According to Johnson and Mason, it is ideology (which has been opposed to the establishment) and not ethnic conflict that has brought down regimes and ignited wars. They argue that ethnic conflict only rears its head in the power vacuum after a state collapse. What appears to be ethnic conflict in many cases is actually control over resources (Barfield, 2011), from transportation to guns to oil… but most of all, in a landlocked desert country, water. More recently, the fear has instead been that the highly dysfunctional central government that the United States has empowered, if not installed, will accomplish what the initial regime collapse did not.

The war in Afghanistan has been a massive drain on resources (fiscal, energy, human and otherwise), so the argument to remove the United States’ presence is fairly straightforward. The United States has not (and seemingly will not) succeed in its objectives in Afghanistan, and has gotten little out of its war there. Maintaining a presence risks American lives every day. However this war has perhaps always been more about terrorism than it has been about Afghanistan’s insurgency, or even Afghanistan itself. Counterinsurgency is not the same thing as counterterrorism, but in Afghanistan the United States has been blending these objectives since the beginning.

Terrorism threatens American lives whether they’re on Afghan soil or not. Afghanistan is the localized seat of more than 20 international terrorist groups and functions as a theater which spotlights the difficulty in fighting globalized non-state actors (Collins, 2017). Leaving the stage early would be a humiliation in many ways, but far more importantly, it would be a failure to recognize the drama the United States has helped write through its destabilizing actions in the past. After all, it was the United States that introduced the Taliban into the country in the first place, and the CIA that trained them. Afghanistan could become a formal seat for terrorism and religious extremism if the United States leaves, or does not adapt its strategy. ISIS is already in Afghanistan, though not in high numbers and it does not seem to be a priority for them at the moment (Johnson and Mason, 2009). For the good of the Afghan people and countless others beyond the ranges of the Hindu-Kush, Palaiman and Sulaiman, and the reaches of the Registan Desert, the United States must find a way to prioritize their goals in Afghanistan, and achieve them through empowering the Afghan people themselves.

If the United States must not pull out of Afghanistan at the risk of destabilizing the country and region even further, then the focal question becomes what the United States can do instead that it has not already done. Over the 15 years since the United States invaded, many strategies have already been tried, ranging from efforts to win the hearts and minds of the people to harsh offensives. The Obama administration’s strategy was to clear, hold, and transfer or build, which enjoyed very little success (Fair, 2010). Further investments of troops have been proposed by Collins and the Trump administration seems to see this as the solution (Rowlatt 2017) but throwing more firepower at the problem will not solve the complex web of problems that stand between contemporary Afghanistan and a stable United States ally and very necessary force for peace in the region. As Johnson and Mason assert, elections do not make democracies, democracies make elections. Even legitimate (non-democratic) Afghan rulers of the past have not fared well. Every single one of them for over a century (1901 to 2001) either died a violent death or in exile; central governance has always been a struggle in Afghanistan (Barfield, 2011), which means adapting unconventional solutions.

The best option is the proposal by Johnson and Mason (2009) to create a concentric ring structure of command, with Afghan leadership at the center, closely bolstered by American money and firepower, letting the Afghan military take the lead with proper training, and emphasizing local tribal leadership by elders. This takes into account the quintessential regional diversity of the country, and also mollifies and leverages the expectation for self-rule among the many groups. Barfield sees these two problems as totally central to the issues the country faces in any attempt to restructure, so incorporating them into the strategy instead of fighting them is the best option. In Afghanistan, legitimate governance is also very localized, which can be a challenge for US strategists who pay attention to provincial boundaries and don’t think outside the Westphalian box. It is worth considering the fact of alternately-governed spaces when projecting future strategy for Afghanistan. One route to success in Afghanistan could be giving Afghanistan it’s head, by rebuilding local leadership in the form of village elders through culturally adept policy. These various tribal leaders should be incentivized by the Americans and also the Afghan government so they are not forced, but willing to collaborate with a larger state structure (Johnson and Mason, 2009). There is a lot to offer them, from schools and natural resources to healthcare and jobs. In return, they could enable something which the United States is not equipped to bring about: spaces to deal with insurgents whose concerns are not global, but local (Barfield, 2011).

This kind of ability to resolve disputes and address concerns could really change the war, not only by opening up meaningful lines of communication, but also by circumventing the motivations many recruits have for joining. This will not be relevant to all insurgents however, so these locally-led areas could potentially participate as bases against any of the other twenty-odd international terrorist groups which exist in Afghanistan. The employment this would bring could massively change Afghanistan’s low standard of living and also restrict the pool of highly recruitable dissatisfied youths, along with changing many people’s perception of the United States. Barfield argues that an Afghanistan with this kind of culturally integrated and adept governmental structure could even find a place for a Taliban faction in the government, which would potentially remove their motivation for insurgencies in the first place (Johnson and Mason, 2009).

It is a somewhat unorthodox solution, but almost all the conventional options have been exhausted. It is time for a culturally competent strategy to help Afghanistan craft a stable and secure government and infrastructure that fits its national identity in the 21st Century, which will necessarily depend on the military to set the stage.

The prevailing American military strategy in Afghanistan has been sequential and linear, and this has been its failing. Town by town, even province by province, American and to a limited extent Afghan forces have attempted to clear out the Taliban (or other terrorist groups) from the area, hold onto the area and make sure that the Taliban does not retake it, and then build infrastructure, schools, and resources for the people to help cement the change (Fair, 2010).

Given the level of firepower the United States military has access to, clearing has not been a problem of resources. However, it has been challenging because of the difficulty in discerning civilians from insurgents. Here it is sometimes not unlike Vietnam, where people were farmers by day and guerillas by night, but more often the two populations are distinct (Barfield, 2011). Unfortunately, the United States has made numerous mistakes in telling one from the other, with disastrous consequences. With few exceptions, American military personnel in Afghanistan do not speak the language, and do not understand the culture of the people they are trying to save and serve. A further complicating factor is a failure to recognize these callings as a core component (if not the priority) of their mission: a foreign military hunting terrorists is a very different kind of presence, with significantly less regard for the people they hide among. In 2015 and 2016, there were over 15,000 civilian casualties (Collins, 2017). Some of these mistakes have been very dramatic and very public, but others have been the subjects of cover-ups which were then exposed. This has not done anything to win allies among the Afghan people.

Once cleared of terrorists or Taliban, holding onto areas in Afghanistan has also presented significant difficulties. An area may seem cleared, but Afghanistan’s aforementioned geography provides a seemingly infinite number of hiding places for people who know the terrain. After an area has been deemed to be secure, and the bulk of American forces have left to continue their work elsewhere, those who were not shot or captured can emerge from mountain caves (or sometimes cross the border) and retake the territory from a substantially smaller force. They can then tear down whatever schools for girls or other resources were being constructed, and resume total control over the area (Fair, 2010). In 2016, only 57% of Afghan districts were under government control, a steep 15% decline from the year before. Moreover, of the remaining percentage, 40% are under Taliban control or “contested” (Collins, 2017). Holding onto areas cleared in this linear fashion has been a significant challenge. Because of the difficulties in truly clearing and holding onto Afghan districts, the ability to build anything to last (physical or ideological) has been very limited (Fair, 2010).

Democracy is no different in some ways. Since the United States invaded, Afghanistan government has indeed held elections, and two presidents have been voted into office, though massive election rigging has occurred at least once. Hamid Karzai was the first democratically elected leader of Afghanistan, and Ashraf Ghani was the second (BBC, 2017). Karzai was not accepted by the Afghan people as a legitimate ruler, and also got in the way of the United States’ efforts in the country to rebuild and make peace (Dobbins and Malkasian, 2015).

The new structure of the governments under these leaders has been, as Barfield put it, not a love match, so much as an arranged marriage. Barfield accounts that achieving any kind of settlement for the new government was a miracle, and all those involved knew it. None of the parties wanted to pick a fight, but no one involved left satisfied because they were not able to properly contribute to the discussions. Apart from the fears of Balkanization and an implicit desire to make Afghanistan in the image of the modern West, international advisors also found the form that emerged (a fairly conventional centralized government) far easier to deal with and coordinate (Barfield, 2011). The parallel structures realistically meant that no one internationally had to adjust their way of doing things in a major way, whereas coordinating with any number of local leaders who actually have the power to change things would require reinventing infrastructure and expectations on both sides. What is right for Afghanistan does not seem like it is going to be what is easy for the coalition forces or the United States in particular, but the potential ends far outweigh the adjustment period which may be associated with the means. This theme of projection instead of research or cultural sensitivity has been vastly detrimental to efforts in Afghanistan, but as the United States has proven in other arenas, it can change.

Success in Afghanistan requires either peace with the Taliban, or their utter defeat. Only 16% of civil wars and insurgencies end mutually, through a negotiated peace settlement of some kind. These are not good odds for Afghanistan. However, for the reasons outline above, truly clearing the Taliban from the country is impossible, especially with Pakistan aiding them at nearly every turn. The Taliban have been fighting even longer than the United States however, and many are tired of the war. There have been several attempts at peace, beginning well before 2006 when their major offensives began.  However, at that point the United States had still thought it would be an assured if not easy victory so they did not move forward. Pakistan has interfered several times to prevent them from making a deal, especially with Karzai or the Indians and to the exclusion of their primary backers. However, in 2010, United States diplomats met with the Taliban in Germany. There have been many stops and starts on this train, for reasons ranging from the Taliban not wanting to negotiate with the US backed government in Kabul, to 3rd party miscommunications in Qatar, to the US not being willing to forsake equal power sharing among the diverse ethnic groups of Afghanistan. The United States and the Taliban have taken turns initiating the talks, but there are outside players involved beyond Pakistan, including India and China. China has investments in Afghanistan which include the largest copper mine in the world, and its shared border with the country is a strong motivator to carefully stabilize the extremist elements within it so they do not spread into Xinjiang’s large Muslim population. Because of its deep investments and very close relationship with Pakistan, its staunchly pro-peace opinion carries a lot of weight there (Dobbins and Malkasian, 2015).

However, there are issues within the Taliban itself, which is not a unitary organization. Its many divided factions have prevented the Taliban from getting to the negotiating table in the past, or from staying there long enough to achieve anything (Ibid). Until they are unified enough to be in a position to work for peace, the United States’ presence will be vital. As the expression goes, peace begins on the battlefield. If the Taliban continues to win territories and make substantial gains like the ones they have made in the past two years, there will be substantially less motivation for them to want a peaceful compromise (Collins, 2017). With the help of the Afghan military, American military forces must keep the Taliban on their toes, tired, and hurting, even as they themselves feel that way.

From a military standpoint, strategy needs to be new, thorough and thoughtful. All of these objectives have proved difficult in the past. The United States has largely fought this as a traditional war of attrition, much as they tried to fight Vietnam.+ It has not had any more success here+. As Collins recounts, the Obama administration started strong with multiple surges. However, a part of the Obama campaign was pulling out of Afghanistan, and so the declaration afterwards to withdraw United States troops along a fixed schedule seemed to open the field for the enemy, who fought harder than ever in a war it seemed like they would stand a better chance of winning (Collins, 2017). Senator John McCain’s increasingly infamous quote that the American objective in Afghanistan has not been winning and achieving its goals so much as it has been “trying not to lose,” accurately assessed the effect that a phobia of Vietnam has had on the United States’ ability to operate effectively and think outside of the history book. As Collins says, the United States had an exit strategy “that placed the emphasis on the exit and not the strategy.” The United States should always be thinking of its exit from Afghanistan because that should mean that Afghanistan has been stabilized and empowered; not to save its own face.

Collins proposes a five-part path to success for efforts in Afghanistan. He is correct when he advises the United States to strengthen its commitments to Afghanistan. However, beyond asserting that Afghanistan will not be summarily abandoned, the United States must do this publicly in such a way that it portends not only a military commitment, but also empowerment of Afghanistan as a sovereign state and meaningful ally, and finally a new, more culturally competent approach to the United States’ efforts there. Collins also advises forcing a change in Pakistan’s “frenemy” status, which will be a core part of extracting outside support from the insurgents. He also proposes increasing military forces, but of advisers, not just of troops, and also emphasizes the necessity of improving the Afghan air force. Beyond this, as has been previously mentioned, improving the Afghan army training, numbers, and accurate assessments will be vital to crafting a self-sufficient and effective military (Collins, 2017). Providing further humanitarian aid for Afghanistan is also on Collins’ list, but while this is absolutely a necessity for the United States, NATO and the UN, it should be thoughtfully distributed so as to also further Afghan development through creating jobs and infrastructure. Collins concludes that Trump needs to pay more attention to Afghanistan, and that has already begun to happen. Hopefully the results of this acquired attention will be positive.

While settling the war in Afghanistan is a truly massive task, the greater challenge may be to find a government that can be legitimate without any traditionally viable candidates, and effective while also respecting the extremely varied input of the many tribal leaders that determine the actions of the majority rural populations. It is conceivable that some sort of arrangement could be reached for the purposes of negotiating peace, but there may be no way to prevent Afghanistan’s historical pattern from reasserting itself: that, upon a threat’s dissolution, the motivated unity between the various factions frays apart. If this happens again, there could be nothing to stop another insurgent or terrorist group from doing exactly as the Taliban has done. Here, however, is where the United States can make a difference. Through investment and infrastructure, and education, Afghanistan can take advantage of the natural resources it has to better the lives of all its people, regardless of what ethnic group they belong to. Infighting for these resources can be expected, but this is not a new challenge for development groups. If Afghanistan can attain stability long enough for these forces for economic empowerment to really take root, it could entirely reconceptualize the country, and remove many of the motivations for insurgencies. But the path to this future is extremely complex, and its endurance should it be achieved is not guaranteed. These factors need to be taken into account now, and considered with the gravity they are due.

For Afghanistan to be the kind of success story that Vietnam has become, the United States must help it achieve peace with its insurgencies and create a government that can make that peace last. “Trying not to lose” is not going to win anyone anything, especially the Afghan people; the United States must not be afraid to re conceptualize its approach to conflict and resolution. Learning these selective lessons from Vietnam have the power to not only realign Afghanistan’s uncertain future towards the kind of independence and increasing stability Vietnam enjoys, but also to change the world’s perceptions of the United States, and its ability to be the global force for good it sees itself as.



  1. Barfield, Thomas, “Afghanistan’s Ethnic Puzzle: Decentralizing Power Before the U.S. Withdrawal,” Foreign Affairs, vol. 90, no. 5, September/October, 2011, 54-65
  2. Blake, Aaron. “Afghanistan war more unpopular than Vietnam.” The Washington Post. December 30, 2013. Accessed April 12, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2013/12/30/afghanistan-war-more-unpopular-than-vietnam/?utm_term=.d5c3da1420a1.
  3. “Afghanistan country profile.” BBC News. March 08, 2017. Accessed April 12, 2017. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-south-asia-12011352.
  4. “How many foreign troops are in Afghanistan?” BBC News. October 15, 2015. Accessed April 10, 2017. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-south-asia-11371138.
  5. Collins, Joseph J., Ret. Col. “5 ways the US can recover lost ground in Afghanistan.” TheHill. February 10, 2017. Accessed March 15, 2017. http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/defense/319039-5-ways-the-us-can-recover-lost-ground-in-afghanistan.
  6. Dobbins & Malkasian, “Time to Negotiate in Afghanistan: How to Talk to the Taliban,” Foreign Affairs, vol. 94, no. 4, July-August 2015, 53-64
  7. Fair, Christine, “‘Clear, Build, Hold, Transfer’: Can Obama’s Afghan Strategy Work?” Asian Affairs: An American Review, vol. 37, iss. 3, July 2010, 113-131.
  8. International Crisis Group, Afghanistan’s Insurgency after the Transition, Asia Report no. 256, May 12, 2014
  9. Rowlatt, Justin. “What will Trump do about Afghanistan?” BBC News. January 25, 2017. Accessed April 05, 2017. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-38730061.
  10. Quoted in Benjamin C. Schwarz, American Counterinsurgency Doctrine and El Salvador: The Frustrations of Reform and the Illusions of Nation Building (Santa Monica, Calif.: The RAND Corporation, R-4042-USDP, 1991), p. 22.
  11. Thomas, Johnson, & Chris Mason, “Refighting the Last War: Afghanistan and the Vietnam Template,” Military Review, November/December, 2009
  12. Warren et al., eds., Afghanistan in 2016: Survey of the Afghan People, The Asia Foundation, December 2016

Humans of Syria: A New Introduction

by Sarah Grace

In the photo, a grandmother in white sits beside a small boy in a striped sweater that matches his socks and his father’s t-shirt. The man cradles his son’s head with his hand. All three sit a bit too close on a bed covered in bright but worn lavender velvet.

Their proximity might have been a choice by the photographer, Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York fame. But below the beautiful photo, the old woman is given the opportunity to explain it herself:

“…No one wants to leave home at my age. But I left because I have six sons, and I knew one day the soldiers would come for them. My sons weren’t political. They wanted nothing to do with killing, but that didn’t matter. Good people and bad people were all being treated the same way. I watched soldiers take away the neighbors’ boys with my own eyes. They were good boys. I’d known them their whole lives. But they were led away like sheep. They didn’t even speak up because if they opened their mouths they’d be shot. I knew it was only a matter of time before they came to our house. We left everything behind, but now my family is safe. So I am happy.” (Humans of New York; Amman, Jordan; December 2nd, 2015)

Still, in the second part of her interview (this time accompanied by a shot of just her and her son) she continues:

“The word ‘family’ is a painful word for me now. The war scattered my children all over the world. They are in Syria, Lebanon, Germany, and Jordan. I love all my children, but this one here is my soul. He’s always taken care of me.­ – I don’t know what I will do without him.” (Humans of New York; Amman, Jordan; December 2nd, 2015)

All three of the people in the photographs (shown below) are Syrian refugees. The man and his son are headed for a new home in Memphis, Tennessee. The old woman’s fate has not been decided.

Humans and Brandon Stanton

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Stanton began ‘Humans of New York’ in 2010 as a one-man operation. He talked to strangers on the streets of New York and took their portrait, then posted the results on social media. He stayed local for several years, building a strong fan base, and spawning several copycats, such as ‘Humans of Boston’.

However, these photographs and the accompanying interview comprise a small part of the work that Stanton has done over the past several years to give a voice to the millions of displaced Syrians.

Stanton’s audience numbers in the millions on both the Facebook page (over 16.3 million likes) and the Tumblr-based site itself. He also has a growing presence on Twitter with approximately 373,000 followers.

This impressive online audience apparently includes President Barack Obama, who commented Thursday on another man’s story from this collection on Syrian refugees coming to America. He called the man’s story “an inspiration”:

“As a husband and a father, I cannot even begin to imagine the loss you’ve endured. You and your family are an inspiration. I know that the great people of Michigan will embrace you with the compassion and support you deserve. Yes, you can still make a difference in the world, and we’re proud that you’ll pursue your dreams here. Welcome to your new home. You’re part of what makes America great.”

Numbers and Narratives

Josef Stalin famously said, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

‘Humans of New York’ still covers the single tragedies of the situation, and there are other classic news sources which do the same.

However, the Syrian refugee crisis reached a scale digestible only through statistics several years ago. More recently, the situation has been crowned with superlatives like:

  • “Largest refugee displacement since WWII” (International Medical Corps)
  • “One of the worst humanitarian crises of the 21st Century” (Economist).
  • “Biggest humanitarian emergency of our era” (U.N. via NPR)

The last title was actually part of a headline. These statistics, impressive as they are, have obscured coverage of the individual tragedies that comprise them in meaningful ways.

Many websites or news articles which offer figures as to the exact number of displaced Syrians have not been updated in several months. Numbers are important for informing policy and aid. However, when titles like the ones above get applied to a situation, solutions matter more than statistics.

Despite the first major waves of Syrian refugees being accepted to Canada and the U.S., according to the U.N. Refugee Agency, there is “no end in sight to the crisis.”

The immediate cause of the Syrian refugee crisis is somewhat easy to isolate, and fairly incontestable: the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011. However, the war itself is not so simple for many reasons, including the involvement of I.S.I.S. According to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, the war “continues to worsen and bleed beyond its borders.”

Even 2014 figures estimate that there are over 9 million displaced Syrian refugees, some still within the country itself. Solutions to the war may result in the restoration of a stable homeland to which these people could return. However, the refugees must survive in order for that to happen. The magnitude and inherent chaos of the problem of that survival beyond Syrian borders is part of what has generated all those superlatives.

Empathy and Economy

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Image via Google

One of the core components of the Syrian refugee crisis is the lack of resources for refugees. A huge portion of these resources come from donations.

A March article from The Guardian outlines scientific research into motivations behind philanthropy. The research they cite found that “facts and figures are less attractive than narratives.” Altruism therefore has stronger links to social instincts than to rational ones.

Despite awareness that high impact causes should receive their donations, people are “much more responsive to charitable pleas that feature a single, identifiable beneficiary, than they are to statistical information about the scale of the problem being faced.”

Stalin’s quote aligns itself well with these findings.

If the Syrian refugee crisis is “the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era,” it is also the highest possible impact cause. It should be receiving corresponding donations from around the world.

However, many charities cite, and have for several years, that the aid received does not come close to meeting the need.

Representation of Syrian refugees will continue to inform and shape the public’s perception of them. This in turn, determines the course of action taken by individuals and the elected officials they choose in European and North American countries. Changing the response means changing the representation.

A Story Worth 1,000 Statistics

For ‘Humans of New York,’ Stanton never inserts himself into into the frame, and rarely into the interviews. Each post is a portrait of a person, composed of a picture and the subject’s story in their own words.

This streamlined format demonstrates Stanton’s faith in his subject. It allows exceptional stories to stand on their own feet, like that of the Syrian man who inspired the President.

Stanton’s masthead has the word ‘humans’ in it for good reason. No matter whom he talks to, that person comes across as a dimensional human being. Where in a conventional news source readers would meet refugees, in the ‘Humans of New York’ coverage, they find people. They find people and their families… all of whom happen to be in unimaginable situations, and all of whom happen to be Syrian. All of these people can also be helped.

Hopefully the science is right that listening to individuals will mean caring for the cause. Stanton has already demonstrated that the format he uses can powerfully and meaningfully transmit stories. These narratives have had the power to inspire the most powerful man in the Western world.

Still, ‘Humans of New York’ is not journalism. Stanton does not tell a story, or frame an issue through extensive thought and research.

He finds sources, and lets them speak.

All images are the property of their listed sources.

Google Lays Groundwork for Ugandan Wi-fi

Google’s Project Link brings quality internet infrastructure to Ugandan capital, Kampala.


IICD from The Hague, The Netherlands [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

December 8, 2015

Google launched their internet initiative Project Link in Uganda on Friday, bringing increased internet capacity to the capital city, Kampala. The internet access takes the form of a broadband, wireless network, according to the BBC.

This new network is now functioning in 12o strategic locations throughout Kampala.

What it does (and does not) do

Google has not brought free wireless (or even cable) internet to Uganda. It has not even brought free wi-fi to Kampala.

What Google has done is improve internet capacity in the city. They have done this through Project Link by building a “metro fiber network” in Kampala. This network includes over 800 kilometers of fiber optic cables laid in the city and its suburbs.

According to the BBC, these cables will help introduce 3G and 4G technology in the city.

They will offer the network to local ISP’s (Internet service providers), who will determine the prices they charge for access.

Google estimates place these rates at around 0.30 USD for a day’s unlimited browsing access; this rate is significantly less than current prices. However, Google is ultimately leaving service charge decisions up to the local providers it is giving the new network to.

Existing Internet in Uganda

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By United States Central Intelligence Agency [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Kampala is the urban heart of the Uganda, and the largest city in the country. The capital is not only Uganda’s administrative center, but also houses the bulk of its communications, economic, and transportation networks as well.

Internet already exists in the developed city.

According to the BBC, African media giant MTN currently provides internet access to most of the city. Google’s initiative will allow users in the city the opportunity to choose an alternate provider.

Currently, Uganda has approximately 8.5 million internet users, which represents 23% of its total population. In 2010, it had only 3.2 million internet users, which represented 9.6% of that year’s population. In 2007, only 1 million Ugandans had internet access.

Its internet use has been growing steadily, but also but slowly because of:

  • High access costs
  • Poor infrastructure, especially in rural areas
  • High cost of internet-enabled devices
  • Poor internet quality and consistency

Cybercafes provide internet access to many Ugandans, as do schools, work, and many libraries.

Smart phone usage is also on the rise in the country. Uganda ranks in the top ten African countries for its smart phone usage. In 2011, it had more than 14 million mobile phone subscribers.

Internet initiatives in Africa

Internet initiatives in developing countries (especially African ones) seem to be trending. Google’s project closely follows other net giants like Facebook, which announced in early October that it plans to use a satellite to provide internet to remote areas in Africa.

Plans like Google’s Project Link and Facebook’s satellite are necessary because internet usually requires complex networks of underground cables. These cables provide broadband internet, and the basis for wireless internet as well.

Most of Uganda, like much of Africa, does not have this underground technological infrastructure. Therefore, accessing the internet at all in rural areas is usually extremely difficult, and often impossible. According to Freedom House, in 2008, only 3% of rural areas in Uganda had internet access.

Previous initiatives have targeted rural areas in Uganda. One such project took place a decade ago. It built telecenters with computer and internet access to provide agricultural information to farmers. However, this project failed because of language barriers, and the competing speed and reliability of radio.

Global internet jargon

According to 2015  Internet World Stats, 851.6 million users of the internet speak English. For at least the last five years, English has dominated the internet.

Screen Shot 2015-12-12 at 2.03.06 PM

By Eshleyy (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikipedia Commons

According to Freedom House Neither English nor Chinese are commonly spoken in Uganda, which means that a huge portion of internet content is unavailable to most users, especially in rural areas. This is also the case throughout much of Africa.

Low literacy rates in rural areas represent a further complication for internet usage.

Linking to the future

Kampala is the first city in which Project Link has gone live.

However, Google has recently expanded Project Link to Ghana, where they will “build over 1,000 kilometers of fiber in Accra, Tema, and Kumasi.”

Facebook’s satellite is due to start beaming internet to rural parts of Africa in 2016.

While critics fear potential commercial implications of letting a single massive corporation like Google or Facebook essentially control internet access for an entire country, long-term, widespread positive effects of internet access on education and economic development may ultimately outweigh the risks.

Japan Approves Third Nuclear Reactor Restart Amidst Long-term Fukushima Concerns

Image via Wikipedia Commons

Oct. 26, 2015

A week after the first confirmed case of cancer linked to Fukushima radiation exposure, Japan announced today that it plans to restart another of the nuclear reactors shut down following 2011’s unprecedented nuclear disaster. The Ikata prefecture power plant will conform to rigorous new safety rules inspired by Fukushima when it restarts next year. It joins two other Japanese reactors in the southern prefecture of Kagoshima which have already been restarted amidst intense ongoing protests against atomic power. According to Bloomberg Business, all three of these reactors and their corresponding plants passed Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority’s inspections and new safety standards. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said today today that these standards are “at the highest level in the world.” The first plant to reopen spent over 100 million dollars on new safety systems. Two more reactors in a station north of Kyoto also received approval to restart but legal issues have impeded their reactivation.

While the Fukushima disaster did not contribute to the death toll of over 19,000 people killed by the earthquake and tsunami which caused it, long term effects and implications are still hotly debated. The Fukushima worker recently diagnosed with Leukemia did not get cancer during the disaster itself, but while he was part of the effort to clean up the plant and heavily contaminated surrounding areas. Nuclear material of varying degrees of radioactivity has been leaking into the Pacific Ocean continuously since 2011 and estimates say the cleanup will take decades. The country of Japan sits on a major fault line and is highly prone to earthquakes. While an earthquake of the same extreme severity that caused Fukushima is rare, it is not impossible that it could happen again, especially since another Japanese nuclear plant sits directly on a known, active fault line. Fukushima displaced tens of thousands of people, and the unprecedented challenges of the cleanup effort have contributed to the public’s concerns about a return to nuclear power.

Polls show that most Japanese people do not approve of the restarts and there have been widespread protests each time a new reactor gets permission to be restarted. In spite the damage to his popularity, Prime Minister Abe’s administration strongly advocates the use of nuclear power, which has been a confirmed national strategic priority since 1973. Need, far more than concern for clean energy, drives this position in Japan, as Japan has few natural resources and imports more than four-fifths of its considerable energy needs. Nuclear power has the potential to massively cut Japan’s energy costs and dependence on foreign resources, as it had before Fukushima. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, prior to the disaster Japan depended on nuclear power for 30% of its energy.

According to the World Nuclear Association, Japan currently has 43 operable nuclear reactors, all of which had been shut down by September 2013 because of Fukushima. Aside from the three already approved, permission to restart proceedings has begun for 24 more reactors. According to the BBC, such a mass restart of dormant reactors is unprecedented. However, the legal issues which delayed the restart of two approved reactors present a common problem. Because of this, according to Parisian independent energy consulting firm Mycle Schneider, “The outlook for restarts is as cloudy as ever.” Reuters estimates that only seven reactors are likely to be turned back on in the next few years.

Japan’s traumatic history with nuclear power started with the atomic bombs detonated in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and later in the Bikini atoll, but its first nuclear disaster of the 21st Century came on different terms and with different implications for its future. Four and a half years later, Japan can only now begin to get an idea of Fukushima’s long-term repercussions for both its policies and its people.

-Sarah Grace

Review of Literature to Examine Representations of Mental Illness in the Media

The following is a literature review completed for Research for Strategic Communication at American University’s School of Communication. The report was compiled for a fictional production company, by a fictional research company.


  1. Background

  2. Executive Summary

  3. Depictions of Mental Illness in the Media

  4. From the Media to the Masses

  5. Potential for the Media

  6. Preliminary Proposals for the Structure of the Program

  7. Summary of Literature Review

  8. Sources Cited


Starting in 2015, Komorebi Productions began preliminary work on a large scale television series about mental illness in American society and the issues facing those affected by it. This purpose of this multi-disciplinary series will be to explain the topic systematically, ethically, and compassionately, using lessons from popular science journalism and media to effectively communicate the causes and effects of mental illness, paired with discussions with people who experience mental disorders. The series will also address the issue historically, tracing the roots of modern treatments, perceptions, and stigma to their sources and working to respectively alter and reduce the latter two.

In late September of 2015, Komorebi Productions selected Bottlegreen & Lowe, a Washington D.C.-based communications firm which specializes in media research and outreach to create a report on the current status of representation for, and public perception of, mental illness within the media. The development team at Komorebi Productions gives equal weight to the goal of developing a program which can educate and engage the public on this issue, and also the imperative of proving that popular media is capable of interacting dynamically and sensitively with the topic of mental illness without indulging in the sensationalism, stereotype or infantilization around which most contemporary depictions are based. This report will provide the producer and writers of the series with the requisite background for their endeavors.

To that end, Bottlegreen & Lowe compiled a review of the literature surrounding portrayals of mental illness in the media, the stigma related to, and often caused by these portrayals, and the effects on the public and those suffering from mental illness. The firm also generated a few extremely preliminary structural proposals for the development team at Komorebi Productions, to be expanded on at a later date. Overall, this report will:

  • Examine key cases of popular media (film and television) which portray mental illness,

  • Look at the accuracy of these portrayals,

  • Study the impact these depictions have on Americans with and without mental illness,

  • Suggest whether or not popular media can be used as a platform for positive change with regard to the way mental illness is shown,

  • And if so, what strategies Komorebi Productions should implement in order for them to meet their goals for the series.

The sources examined were compiled or written within the last ten years, and the report examines media that was created since the millennium exclusively because for the purposes of Komorebi Productions, contemporary research was paramount.

The Komorebi Productions team indicated that while the two subjects are closely related and often grouped together, for the purposes of this report, suicide and mental illness should be considered separate topics.


In an era of increasing political correctness and unparalleled advocacy for historically marginalized or maligned minorities, the words ‘crazy’ and ‘insane’ are still used casually and denigratingly in common speech (PPA, 2004), discrimination toward the mentally ill is commonplace, and the depictions of those suffering from mental illness have hardly moved beyond 19th century caricatures. Smith (2015) cites Link, Phelan, Bresnahan, Stueve, & Pescosolido (1999) that while awareness of mental illness is higher than ever before, stigmatized attitudes toward the mentally ill have also significantly increased. She points to representations of the mentally ill in the media as a key contributing factor in this rise, and every other source concurs. These negative portrayals “often include the idea that they are violent, incompetent, and at fault for their illness” (Smith, 2015).

Komorebi Productions’ upcoming television series is intended to be a part of the movement to change this stigma and the media representations which propagates and reinforces it. However, in choosing to work within the same platform responsible which has had such a negative effect on the experiences of those affected by mental illness, the production company acknowledges the potential to repeat or reinforce the same stereotypes they desire to undo. In order to accomplish their goal of ethically yet engagingly representing mental illness, Komorebi Productions commissioned research into the current state of media portrayal of mental illness, and how the public has come to understand mental illness through the media.

Literature suggests that mental illness is not only portrayed inaccurately by popular, mainstream media, but also that these depictions focus mostly on violence, reinforce and augment stigma and discrimination toward mental illness. These depictions have extreme negative effects on people affected by mental illness, both on a personal level, but also in the realm of policy, and their ability to become a productive member of society (Stuart, 2006). The public is also negatively impacted because they internalize these false perceptions of the mentally ill, which may eventually prevent them from acknowledging, or seeking help for a problem related to mental health. Smith (2015) cites the World Health Organization’s 2001 report that 20% of the population will suffer from a mental illness each year. The stigma surrounding mental illness, fed by negative portrayals in the media, has kept many, many Americans from obtaining the treatment they need (Smith, 2015). Potential examples of the ramifications of this appear far too frequently in the news.


While there is no shortage of news stories involving the mentally ill, fictional television and film gives mental illness a significant amount of coverage as well. Wikipedia offers a far from comprehensive list of over 400 films that heavily feature various varieties of mental illness, ranging from schizophrenia and depression to the full spectrum of personality disorders and PTSD. Within these films, varying degrees of weight are placed on the disorders, with some being of the utmost importance, such as Lars Von Trier’s self-explanatory 2014 film, Nymphomaniac. Television is no different. The last decade has seen shows ranging from “Monk”, which literally bore the tagline of “Obsessive. Compulsive. Detective,” and 2014’s quickly-cancelled “Black Box” about a famous neurologist coping disastrously with manic depressive disorder, to 2011’s “United States of Tara” which examined the life of a artist/housewife with dissociative identity disorder, formerly known as multiple personality disorder.

Primetime shows like these draw their central conflicts and entertainment value from the mental illnesses themselves; these disorders are vividly present in each episode and often form core plot points, both for the seasons or series on the whole, but also within each episode. Many other recent shows use diagnoses as core themes, even if they are not as central to the program. An example of this variation is the BBC’s contemporary update “Sherlock”, in which the title character is repeatedly (self- or otherwise) diagnosed conflictingly as either a ‘psychopath’ or a high-functioning sociopath.

Non-primetime television also features a high incidence of portrayals of mental illness. Brawley (2003) cites Fruth and Padderud (1985) that:

“A systematic analysis of daytime serials on television found that half of them included a character who was mentally ill; 75 percent of the characters who were ill were women; 75 percent were involved in criminal activity of one type or another; and those male characters who were mentally ill were portrayed as dangerous”

In the Wikipedia ‘List of Films Featuring Mental Disorders’ there are almost 100 films alone which feature Antisocial Personality Disorder, which is most often associated with violent behavior. ‘Dexter’ is a particularly well-known example of this, in which the main plot of the show is the title character going about an extremely normal daily life, while using his bloodlust for the good of society as a slightly-tamed serial killer by night. The series does a good job of building sympathy for this character, but the fact remains that America’s fascination with ‘insane,’ emotionless serial killers does a great deal of harm for the mentally ill.

Television and film are almost exclusively for-profit entities, and by their definition necessitate entertainment; these sensational and frightening versions of mental illness are as riveting as they are misleading. Citing numerous crime studies, Smith (2015) explains that “mentally ill individuals are no more likely to commit a crime than another person.” Therefore while in reality there is very little correlation between mental illness and violent crime, 70 percent of mentally ill characters in prime time drama were depicted as violent, and more than 20 percent committed murder (Brawley, 2003). Therefore, if a person with mental illness is shown in the media, they are probably being depicted as a violent, unpredictable source of fear, or as a criminal. This has important and devastating consequences for people living with mental illness. As Oostdyk (2005) notes, “sensationalized stories result in misinformation” which cause “the public to react with fear and anger when faced with making decisions about mental illness in their community.”

Smith (2003) investigates another stereotype in media depictions of the mentally ill which negatively impacts their real life equivalents: that of the societally-irrelevant, isolated loner. She cites a study by Rose (1998) which found that mentally ill characters are filmed in such a way as to emphasize their isolation (using disconcertingly close shots, or ones in which they are always alone) which “creates the stigma that mentally ill individuals are solely defined by their illness” and that “individuals with mental illness are inferior and not important.” Oostdyk (2005) examines a study that found that the more television programming depicting the mentally ill was watched, the more superior people without mental illness felt toward those affected by it. Smith (2015) then links this to a view of the mentally ill within the media as failures, which is extremely disheartening for people struggling to get better in the real world as they deal with these disorders. She ultimately suggests, and finds research to support, the idea that this stereotype propagates a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy “in which those with mental illness think they are supposed to be a failure, and thus give up on themselves and their goals” (Smith, 2015). This self-defeating behavior may be inspired by fictional scenarios, but it has extremely real consequences for the success or failure of a treatment, and therefore quality of life.

However, it is not only the visual and narrative portrayals of the mentally ill that do damage to them and increase stigma, but also the language within the media used to describe them. The PPA’s 2004 report on the portrayal of suicide and mental illness inventories a wide variety of language used to describe mental disorders and those affected by them on television. These words or phrases range from comparatively sensitive, like ‘suffering’, ‘victim’, and ‘afflicted’ to ‘unstable madman’, ‘psychotic killers’ and ‘wacko standoff’ (PPA, 2004). The majority of phrases and words like these are extremely charged and often highly offensive to people with mental illness, and hearing them in the media makes it more likely that the people around them will use such language towards them in real life.

As the range of this language indicates, Western society has a long, fraught history of stigma against the mentally ill, which only in the last fifty years has truly, if not completely, departed from the long tradition of institutionalization in horrific or abusive conditions. Even this aspect of mental illness has filmic interpretations, from 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, to 2011’s sadistic Sucker Punch, in which the main character, unjustly institutionalized, slips into ever more fantastical dreams to escape the reality of her impending lobotomy and the near-continuous rape she is subjected to by the guards before the procedure, and, presumably, after. It is worth noting that in these films, as in 2010’s Shutter Island, and many other films that actually take place inside asylums, the main character almost always is sent there by mistake, as a visitor or unjustifiably, but by the end receives the same treatment and hopeless life sentence as everyone else.

Violent, dangerous forms of mental illness do exist, and institutionalization is the best option for some people, yet these films propagate a fear of institutions and the people within them that verges on a phobia of the unclean from caste systems: to touch them, and live among them, is to become them. People who have never experienced mental illness fear it, and therefore the people who are affected by it. This persistent trope of otherness exists in society, and as Brawley (2003) notes, the mass media cannot be held “totally or even primarily responsible” for the crippling discrimination and stigma facing people with mental illness. Still, depictions like these reflect and magnify to a stage of millions that deep-seated fear and mistrust.

Stuart (2006) points out that this leads to stigma and discrimination that “limits help-seeking behavior, medication adherence and illness recovery.” This stigma is also not limited to people without mental illness. Many depictions of the mentally ill in the media convey the idea that “they are not supposed to be a member of society” (Smith, 2015). While this has obvious implications for how people without mental illness treat those who are affected by it, Smith (2015) also examines a kind of self-stigma that can develop among the mentally ill, making them feel that they really are the outcasts they are depicted as. Again, this has disastrous consequences for the success of treatment.


It is possible to trivialize the depictions of mental illness outlined above as restricted to the realm of fantasy, and therefore having little to do with the concrete reality of real people suffering from mental illness’s experience, or the policies that determine the funding (or lack thereof) for their care and treatment. However, Brawley (2003) notes,

“There can be little doubt that public misconceptions, fueled by distorted media messages, have caused the unnecessary hospitalization of significant numbers of mentally ill people and that others have been added to the growing homeless population nationwide because of a lack of suitable community residences and treatment facilities. The stigmatizing effect of mental illness, which is exacerbated by media images, also results in discrimination in access to employment…”

The media introduces the public to topics which they have not personally encountered in their daily lives, and shapes the way they view those issues that they have witnessed firsthand. Whether people receive their initial encounter with the mentally ill on television, in a movie, or in person, the media’s messages about the experiences matter, and seem to stick. How mass media frames an issue will impact the public discourse around that topic, change community engagement with it, and in turn policy decisions in relation to it (Brawley, 2003).

As Friedman’s 2008 article notes, another serious issue with media representation of mental illness is the perception of the disorders themselves. The media often presents mental illness as “unremitting and untreatable” when many major mental disorders are in fact treatable, with better response rates to treatments than common non-psychiatric medical illnesses (Friedman, 2008).

Finally, non-fiction (news) media also focuses on violence when depicting the mentally ill. News has not been the primary focus of this review of the literature, but it does contribute to the stigma and discrimination people affected by mental illness face. Even when mental health professionals and other experts are involved, as Friendman (2008) notes,

“Media coverage of mental health has relied too heavily on a small cadre of experts, like psychiatrists, psychologists, and policy-makers. The virtual exclusion of the voices of mental-health consumers in the press gives the public the misleading impression that the mentally ill are too disturbed and dysfunctional to speak for themselves”

Therefore another significant change that needs to be made when attempting to depict mental disorders is the involvement of people who have had firsthand experience with those disorders. This has applications not only within the field of news, but should also be considered for fictional programs and films as well, in which people who have faced a particular mental illness work as an expert and consultant on whatever project wants to depict their disorder. From giving the actors a more accurate source to draw from, to inspiring the show-runners or filmmakers to show more respect for the subject, involving people with mental illness in media productions could have long-reaching positive effect, for the success of the project, and also for the success or continuing success of the consultant’s recovery.


As outlined above, the image of mental illness and those affected by it in the media is almost overwhelmingly negative, for both the public or for those it pretends to accurately represent. For this reason, many people with mental illness and mental health professionals have their doubts about using the same platform which has done so much damage to try and repair that harm.

“Whether or not the mass media can perform public service and public health functions is a matter of some debate among media scholars” (Brawley, 2003)

However, Brawley (2003) explains that the media is too important an asset to the potential solution of the problems that they contribute to to be ignored, and too essential a component to the world in which we live and devour information to be put aside. There is no alternative. He also notes that there is a strong desire among broadcasters and media professionals to work with mental health professionals to improve the depictions and characterizations of the mentally ill, both for moral reasons, and also for legal and financial ones as well. Fine (2009) discusses the increased use of such mental health professionals as consultants on fictional television series like “United States of Tara”, even though sometimes the show-runners choose entertainment value over commitment to reality.

Brawley (2003) also touches on the success of utilizing the prestige of public figures to promote more accurate depictions of mental illness, such as the work of President Jimmy Carter and his wife on behalf of Emory University’s Rosalyn Carter Center. There are also institutions like Mediascope, which promotes constructive media depictions of health and social issues (Brawley, 2003). Also as Fine (2009) notes, there are now many watchdog organizations which focus exclusively and attentively on media portrayals of mental illness, and “don’t hesitate to complain when a depiction veers toward stereotypical or is overly negative.”

However, fictional television and film do have the capacity to act as their own hair of the dog, and correct many of the stereotypes they propagate. Even some of the programs and films outlined above work at building sympathy through understanding, and as Stuart (2003) notes, in the hands of mental health professionals, films like 2001’s A Beautiful Mind can engender positive public discussion “designed to promote greater understanding of mental illness and greater compassion for the mentally ill.”

Moreover, as Stuart (2003) also observes, the time is right to shift

“…Attention away from any further cataloging of media representations of mental illness to the more challenging prospect of how to use the media to improve the life chances and recovery possibilities for the one in four people who live with a mental disorder”

There is no shortage of films or television that interact (usually badly) with mental illness, but there is also no shortage of academics and academic papers trying to further inventory that ever-growing list. Resisting the urge to catalogue these atrocities, great and small, is a difficult task, as this review of the literature proves. However, it can be hoped that the other list, of contemporary media which treats mental illness with sensitivity and respect, and has the capacity to impart this perspective to viewers, will grow as well. This list, brief though it may be, does exist, and Komorebi Productions’ new project can certainly find a prominent place on it.


Bottlegreen & Lowe

A. Collaboration with mental health professionals

B. Letting the mentally ill speak for themselves

C. Endorsing and propagating positive representations

D. Not depicting the mentally ill as incurable, hopeless, or as alienated from society

E. Utilizing prestige from key public figures


  • Literature suggests that mental illnesses are frequently used by the media as plot devices, sensationalism, or shock value.

  • The majority of these representations of mental illness depict people suffering from mental illness as violent, unstable, dangerous or murderous.

  • While documented stigma and discrimination toward mental illness has existed for a very long time (if not always) within Western civilization, and therefore American society, the media has propagated these and more deeply entrenched them in viewers.

  • These depictions of mental illness have a direct, negative impact on the real people dealing with mental illness, mental health professionals, and the families of the mentally ill.

  • The stigma produced by media representations also have crippling effects on people affected by mental illness because they impact people’s willingness to seek or complete treatment, and also contribute to the discrimination they face.

  • This stigma also impacts policy makers, both in their personal priorities and perceptions, and also because of the comparatively small advocacy surrounding improved rights, conditions and access to insurance or life insurance for the mentally ill

  • There is potential for the media to work as a positive platform for change if mental health professionals and people with mental disorders are used as consultants, and the producers of the media treat their subject with respect and work to gain an understanding of the history of the topic.



  1. Brawley, E.A. & Brawley, E.E.M. (2003). The Media Role in Marginalizing the Mentally Ill: Taking Corrective Action. Portularia, 3, 285-297.

  2. Fine Maron, D. (2009, January 25). Can Hollywood Get Mental Illness Portrayals Right? Retrieved September 15, 2015, from http://www.newsweek.com/can-hollywood-get-mental-illness-portrayals-right-78421 

  1. Friedman, R. (2008, June 20). Media and Madness. Retrieved September 15, 2015, from http://prospect.org/article/media-and-madness 

  1. List of films featuring mental disorders. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved September 15, 2015, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_films_featuring_mental_disorders.

  1. Oostdyk, A.M. (2005). Portrayal of Mental Illness on Television: A Review of the Literature (Master’s thesis). University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. 1-42.

  1. The Prevention Promotion and Advocacy (PPA) Network Committee and Anti-Stigma/Discrimination Working Group. (2004). Technical Report of a Province-Wide Survey Into the Portrayal of Suicide and Mental Illness. Retrieved September 15, 2015, from http://www.novascotia.ca/dhw/mental-health/documents/media_guidelines_report_ns_jan04.pdf

  1. Smith, B. (2015). Mental Illness Stigma in the Media. Undergraduate Review: A Journal of Undergraduate Student Research, 16(10), 1-14.

  1. Stuart, H. (2006). Media Portrayal of Mental Illness and its Treatments: What Effect Does it Have on People with Mental Illness?. CNS Drugs, 20(2), 99-106.