In Defense of Universal Empathy: Thoughts on Ukraine War (& Reactions to it)

Picture shows  populations at risk of mass atrocities around the world. Does not include Ukraine yet, or other countries where human rights are under threat (e.g. Belarus)

War sucks.

I’ve been trying to articulate my thoughts on the war in Ukraine and the reactions to it. My thoughts are scattered, go in many different directions, and are full of feelings and emotions. 

So, I thought I’d start in an unprofessional but compelling way. War sucks. Death sucks. Violations of human rights, suck. And they should all suck. Equally. 

That Russian actions in Ukraine are rightly deplored is a truism. At the same time, for days I couldn’t escape the anger, frustration, that there seems to be a hierarchy of empathy. It’s obvious that the “international community” can act swiftly. That our hearts can stop pumping blood in the face of violence. We can feel the heaviness thousands of kilometers away. But only sometimes. The accounts of racism at the border, unsurprising as they are, only made it worse.

But I wanted to interrogate the situation. Besides the actors involved (“the West”, Russia) and the color of most of the victims, what other components distinguish this particular conflict from others? The pain inflicted by conflicts on loved ones is universal, the contours of specific situations, differ.

I believe there are two elements that are specific to this particular case: nuclear threat + crime of aggression.

Nuclear threat.

Russia has nuclear weapons. The US has nuclear weapons. The UK has nuclear weapons.

MAD is the military doctrine that stands for “mutually assured destruction.” The use of nuclear weapons would cause the annihilation of both the attacker and the defender. This is pretty self-explanatory. In the case of Russia, the use of nuclear weapons cannot be discarded. The taking of nuclear power plants in Ukraine is only a small and probably unnecessary reminder.

When any of these states is involved, the whole world is at risk. 

Crime of aggression

After the defeat of Nazi Germany, international justice developed significantly. During the Nuremberg trials the crime against peace was defined, which later became the crime of aggression. 

For the past few decades, most wars and conflicts we have seen have been either civil wars (Ethiopia, Colombia), internal conflict in parts of the territory (parts of Nigeria, Myanmar), involved a terrorist organization (ISIS, Boko Haram), an international interreference in a limited space (Crimea), or the targeting of a specific population (China with the Uyghur, a situation that seems the clearest example of genocide as defined in the convention that doesn’t seem to be gathering much attention).

According to the ICC statute, a crime of aggression means “the planning, preparation, initiation or execution […] of an act of aggression which, by its character, gravity, and scale constitutes a manifest violation of the Charter of the United Nations. […] means the use of armed force by a State against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of another State.” 

For long, we have not seen a crime of aggression at this scale (the case of Israel and Palestine has significant differences with the Russian invasion). Its occurrence, then, naturally feels notorious. 

While I understand that the common way of analyzing conflicts– and inevitably, the security/ military approach – centers the state and governments as the main actors and lens of analysis, I think this diverts us from a more universal and empathetic approach. I am not advocating for replacing this lens of analysis, but rather an additive approach more generally, and a human-oriented lens when considering a conflict as a private individual.

From a legal and human rights perspective, it is states that are legally obliged to guarantee human rights. In this sense, states and governments do matter. An attack against the political independence of a state means that the guarantor of those rights disappears (and it would be naïve to believe that the occupier is going to be mindful of the rights of the population, as war crimes seem to abound). 

But from a state centric perspective, it means that we give more preponderance to national sovereignty as a principle than to the respect to life and fundamental rights and freedoms. 

This responds to the current logic of nation states as the most important unit in international relations and respect for national sovereignty as the anchor of our system (hence why China, who holds this principle in high regard, is keeping quiet). As military strategists, as governments, this approach will remain, it makes sense, it is the one embedded in our international system. 

From a public opinion and individual perspective, I’d rather approach it predominately from a human perspective. Or a civil society perspective, one that is not married to nation state calculations but more general principles. Solely because it is the most universalist approach. What hurts is that innocent people are dying, not who are the actors involved. Following this logic, we should care equally when there is a conflict, crime of aggression or none, be it Ukraine, Ethiopia, Yemen, and so forth. That the sovereignty of a state is not under threat shouldn’t mean that we can turn a blind eye, as we so often do.

Another small note: Listening and reading some of the American and European coverage the “international” and “universal” condemnation of the war that is so invoked is not such. It is not such if we consider government declarations as the measure of condemnation. 

Screenshot from Adam Tooze’s newsletter. 

From a citizen and civil society perspective, however, I want to believe that we are, indeed, closer to that international and universal opprobrium. 

PS: I want to clarify that this is in response to the reactions I am observing in the Global North and the actions of international institutions.

An attempt to write a balanced account of what is happening in Catalonia

Photo via

There are multiple accounts of what is happening in Catalonia. While Spanish media and politicians spread different versions of what is occurring, international media report the events with more or less accuracy.

We live in a dystopian world. The Catalan case evinces this reality. While some in the Spanish government claim that no referendum is taking place and Catalans are attacking the police (?), some on the secessionist side cling onto the idea that this referendum has validity and if the result comes positive independence can be declared in 48h (I say some on both cases because I really really really want to believe that there are sensible people – if perhaps hidden – on all sides).

In game theory this would be a case of no-win or a lose-lose situation. It needen’t be, but all parties have brought this situation on us. It is undeniable that the Spanish government had the law on its side, if perhaps not the legitimacy. We operate within a predetermined legal framework that – let’s remember – can and should be adapted as societies evolve. There is no denying that the Catalan government went beyond that legal framework.

The Catalan government had the moral high ground. They wanted first to negotiate (2012) and when the Spanish government refused to dialogue, to vote, and have always – without exceptions – rejected the use of force.

When the Catalan government decided to more than questionably bypass Spanish laws and Catalan rulings in the Catalan government, and when the Catalan side thwarts the voices of those who dare question the guarantees of the referendum, it loses the moral high ground.

The Spanish government, however, has taken it several steps further and led us to a completely Orwellian world. While representatives of the Spanish government deny the existence of the referendum, the government has called for force to be used against those that try to cast a vote. I repeat, violence for voting.

That Spanish institutions have been deteriorating at an incredible pace is unquestionable (if they were very solid and legit in the first place, that is another issue that I am more than willing to discuss another day) but what we have witnessed in the past ten days –arrests of political opponents, violence for voting, and chants that bring back memories of the worst years of the dictatorship – is  devastating, if not surprising or unheard of.

Mr. Rajoy had a unique opportunity. He did not want to negotiate years ago, he did not want to hear any talk about secession or a referendum. In Spain we all expected the current response. He thus had the ability to surprise us: to remain within the scope of the law by refraining to engage in certain practices and allowing a vote that would have probably come out negative and would have been null (as it is extra-legal). He would have surprised lots of us and reinforced an international community that is finally looking with concern. Unfortunately, he chose not to surprises us. The best thing he could do is to resign and call for general elections. Nothing, not even the violation of a referendum law enshrined in the constitution, calls for violence.

I don’t know where this will lead. What I do know is that we have embarked on a dangerous journey that we might not be able to undo. Perhaps this is for the best. Perhaps this will mark the beginning of the undoing of a fragile democracy to build a stronger one. Perhaps this will remind us that political problems need political solutions. That the judiciary should not meddle in politics and separation of powers was a great idea (it was). Perhaps this will open a dialogue that allows for the Constitution to be redrawn and laws to serve their ultimate purpose – to advance an ideal type of society, not to constrain dissidence. These are lots of perhaps, and while we wait for answers, my heart is crying in the face of pictures of police officers attacking innocent civilians.

At least one thing that will keep us united – Spanish or Catalan, we all have a good sense of humor. Some things can only be branded as #madeinspain (okay, maybe Italy and Macondo as well). This is were the extra police that was deployed in Catalonia has been staying.


That’s all, folks!




Ghana Politics 101 – Elections Contextualized

On Wednesday, December 7th, Ghana will once again celebrate democratic elections.  Ghana is usually hailed as the star of Africa or Africa’s most peaceful and stable country. Since 1992, the country has enjoyed substantial levels of political peace and stability. Yet as elections approach, tensions arise and there is a sense of uncertainty in the air.

There is no dearth of skeptical Ghanaians. On many occasions, I have been told something along the lines of “Ghana is hot,”  “this time, the stakes are even higher,” or “tensions are really high.” Incidentally, often these sentences do not come from “ordinary” citizens but from people who work in the NGO, policy, or peacebuilding space. Incendiary language abounds, pundits usually cite the role of the media as concerning, and amidst accusations of stolen policies (for example, here, NPP accused NDC of stealing its policies) or electoral rigging, it is hard to discern what the actual policies are. Even international media is painting a grim picture (see this article from The Economist).

Why this skepticism? In order to understand Ghana’s current political and economic environment, one needs to contextualize it. A broader historical frame helps to avoid overestimating the strength of Ghana’s democracy but also to value the institutions, mechanisms, and people that have allowed for peace to prevail. An understanding of the political economy of the country, helps elucidate how the electoral campaign has unfolded.

Ghana’s political history

In 1957, under the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah and the Convention People’s Party (CPP), Ghana was the first sub-Saharan African country to attain independence. Unlike the surrounding countries in the region, Ghana has not suffered widespread violence, yet the country’s political history has also been convoluted (for those interested, though, I recommend to delve even deeper; the history of the Gold Coast at large is fascinating).

Nkrumah’s rule can be divided in two periods. From 1957 to 1960 and from 1960 to February 1966. The first period was characterized by a more laissez-faire policy in the economic domain (including vis-à-vis the expatriates that dominated the economy), and a series of political measures that promoted peace and stability but also aimed at strengthening Nkrumah’s position as well as that of the CPP. Notable among these measures were the “Avoidance of Discrimination Act” that banned organizations, parties, and societies which were confined only to “particular tribal, racial, religious groups, which were used for political purposes” and the “Preventive Detention Act.” During the first period, however, these acts were not excessively used. Nkrumah, throughout his life, was also one of the main proponents of an African Union and worked actively to promote Pan-Africanism. In 1960, Nkrumah’s position shifted more toward socialism (he had always been a socialist but had not promoted it once in government) and he became increasingly more authoritative. In 1966, he was overthrown in a coup d’état that marked the beginning of two decades of alternating military and civilian rule.

Ghana experienced four successful coups d’état in a period of fifteen years. Each of the coups – 1966, 1972, 1979, and 1992 – was followed by a period of military rule that ultimately led to a peaceful transition to a Civilian Republic (there was one last failed coup in 1983).

The 1979 coup was led by a group of young officers, including Flight Lt. Jerry John Rawlings. That same year, elections were called and Ghana returned to Constitutional rule. Yet in 1981, once again, Rawlings led another successful coup; the military was not satisfied with the way in which the country was being ruled. Under his mandate, the Constitution of Ghana was suspended and political parties were banned. In 1992, Rawlings funded the NDC, the party currently in power,  the fourth republic was proclaimed, and Ghana celebrated presidential elections. Rawlings himself was elected. He was reelected again in 1996.

This history of coups d’état coexists with the presence of unresolved regional conflicts that are at times exacerbated by political parties. Conflicts are of different nature: chieftaincy, natural resources, land, borders, religious, ethnic, or a combination of any of these, yet chieftaincy-related conflicts, in which the stool is contested, are probably the most prominent ones. Additionally, chiefs are not supposed to align with any party (as law mandates) yet in many instances, they are taking sides. Political parties are sometimes tied to factions that dispute chieftaincy rights. While political parties can gain support by spurring the feuds, it seems that the quarreling groups can also use the parties to settle old disputes.

It is against this historical background that elections take place in Ghana. Elections in Ghana are also strongly influenced by the country’s demographics and its political economy.

Ghana’s Political Economy

Ghana is a middle-income country of about 28 million inhabitants. Highly heterogeneous in ethnolinguistic terms, Ghana’s growth strategy was partially based in the primary-export-led model[1] (currently, the top exports of Ghana are Crude Petroleum, Gold, Cocoa Beans, Cocoa Paste  and Cocoa Butter).[2] Its top imports are Refined Petroleum, Crude Petroleum, Gold, Rice, and Packaged Medicaments and the most recent exports are led by crude petroleum which represent 26 percent of the total exports of Ghana.[3]

Ghana’s economy grows steadily although according to Bloomberg markets, growth has slowed. Inequality levels remain extremely high, with an estimated Gini coefficient of 42,77 that keeps rising. So does unemployment. Precise data on unemployment does not exist due to the size of the informal economy, albeit it is uncontested that large swathes of youth remain unemployed (even regardless of educational achievements).

[More on Ghana’s political economy here.]

Ghana’s Contemporary Politics

Ghana is a multiparty democracy but there are two main parties that can realistically win the elections. The National Democratic Council is currently in power, with John Mahama Dramani as president. Nana Akuffo-Ado, of the National Patriotic Front, is his main opponent.

The NPP was in power from 2001 to 2008. Nana Akufo-Addo was the NPP’s runner up in the 2008 election and he run again in 2012. John Dramani Mahama took office in July 2012 following the death of his predecessor and he was elected to office shortly after, in the December 2012 elections. The NPP contested the results of the 2012 election before the Supreme Court. The appeal created tensions but in the end Nana Akkufo-Ado made a statement accepting the Court’s ruling in favor of Mahama and congratulated the president.

Now, in 2016, the same two men contest the election. Looming over this election is a sense of “a president’s right to a second term.” Over the course of the fourth republic, all presidents have been reelected and it appears that Mahama feels entitled to the same. That notion is strongly influencing this election as well, but people are also tired of the pervasive corruption and the palpable inequality.

How different are both parties and their policies? Reality is that they are both center-right parties with rather vague and sometimes unrealistic policies. One of the parties has promised “one district, one dam.” The manifestos include provisions such as “manage the economy competently” and they are rife of attacks against the other major political party and the respective leaders.

The elections are very tight and so far it is impossible to predict who will win. In the next few days, we will know the results. The conduct of the elections is relevant first and foremost to Ghanaians, but also to the rest of the continent and the world. In light of the events in Gabon, expectation over results in Ghana is even higher. Fortunately, the most recent election in the continent, that of Gambia, resulted in the incumbent admitting defeat and conceding the election. Whatever occurs in Ghana, the country has the advantage of having strong institutions and devoted citizens who are committing themselves to a peaceful election. The National Peace Council, the West African Network for Peace, the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Center, among others, are just a few examples.


[1] Attah K. Boame, “Primary-Export-Led Growth: The Evidence of Ghana,” Journal of Economic Development (1998), 175.

[2] The discovery of oil in commercial quantitites, however, did not take place until 2007. For more on Ghana’s oil management see Ransford Edward Van Gyampo, “Saving Ghana from Its Oil: A Critical Assessment of Preparations Made so Far,” Africa Today 57 (2011), 49-69 and Kwamina Panford, “The Academy and The Successful Management of Ghana’s Petroleum Resources,” Africa Today 61 (2014), 79-107.

[3] Ibid.

Other readings:

Clementina Amankwaah. “Election-Related Violence: The Case of Ghana.” Current African Issues 56 (2013).


Africa is a Country. “All you need to know about Ghana’s December 7, 2016 elections.”

Report of the Commonwealth Observer Group. “Ghana Presidential and Parliamentary Elecitions.” (2012).

Anything by historians Adu Boahene and Naomi Chazan

How We Process Information: Why Politicians Can Overtly Lie and People Still Believe Them

Why do people still believe him if there is so much evidence that proves he is lying?

Over the past few months I heard this sentence (or different iterations of it) on multiple occasions. Whether applied to Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, Nigel Farage, Álvaro Uribe, Nana Akufo-Ado or John Dramani Mahama, the outrage was always the same. Behavioral economics can actually help in answering this question. By learning how we process information and what we do with it, we can better understand how the media gets to play the role it does and why sometimes it doesn’t help in disproving overtly false statements.

It is commonly believed that the vast amounts of information nowadays available and the way people share information should make it easier to separate falsehood from facts, yet as we saw in the latest American elections, this is usually not the case. Instead of identifying falsehoods, the multiplicity of opinions simply created a cacophony of errors that only after the elections started to be dispelled. Why does this happen?

In the era of internet and information, errors can be propagated and amplified. Combined with belief polarization and one’s likelihood to question news that contradict our prior beliefs (defined below), the likelihood of “liars” being discredited is extremely reduced.

As data consumers, generally, we do not collect dispersed information, contrast (or better yet, triangulate it) and reach a conclusion as to what is the “truth.” On the contrary, we usually fall into information cocoons or information segregation. Basically, we tend to just receive information that aligns or is biased in favor of our previous beliefs. As data consumers, we do not tend to read or watch the news in media outlets that follow a different editorial line. In other words, we are ideologically segregated (this phenomenon can also help explain why we can be convinced that there is a majority when there isn’t, we interact only with those who think like us).

In a surprising 2011 study, Gentzkown and Shapiro found that ideological segregation is even higher in face-to-face interactions than in online interactions. This makes sense insofar, at the end of the day, our friends tend to be somewhat similar to us (people we like). What about Facebook? Our Facebook feed might be representative of our face-to-face interactions, thus being highly segregated as well. The posts we see will not tend to discredit our opinions or the posts that we share ourselves.

As a direct consequence, we obtain one-sided views and enter – as professor Cass Sunstein says – into information cocoons and echo chambers which are, on the first place, a real problem for any democracy, but also a place where amplification of errors, hidden profiles, cascade effects and polarization are inevitable.

The situation becomes a bit more complicated if we add what is called belief polarization into the mix. We have what behavioral economist call “priors”, our beliefs without any information. The “posterior” is our updated belief once we have received information. We tend to think that when presented with the same information, our beliefs will converge. In many instances, this is not the case. We care directly about our beliefs (we are attached to them, we don’t want to relinquish them!) and thus we try to maintain them. Put simply, there are things we want to believe thus we do – we also discard the information that contradicts these beliefs (this is known as motivated belief bias and confirmatory bias).

If a media outlet reports that a certain politician that I dislike in my country is allegedly corrupt, I will probably believe it. But, if it comes out that Emma Watson was involved in the Panama papers scandal, I will probably question it or try to justify it (not that this happened…).

In a famous 1979 study, Lord, Ross, and Lepper conducted an experiment that demonstrated how people examine relevant empirical evidence in a biased manner. In the study, people holding different beliefs on the capital punishment were presented with two studies, one that seemingly confirmed their prior and one that seemingly contradicted it. The subjects rated the study that contradicted their prior beliefs as less reliable and became more convinced of the veracity of their prior opinions, that is, the subjects, instead of converging into a shared position (or closer position), became more extreme. In other words, belief polarization ensued.

Hypothetically, if I were a Trump supporter and a media outlet presents me with information about the feasibility of building a wall (and Mexicans paying for it) and another media outlet proves that this is almost impossible, I will take the former at face value and discard the latter. In reality though, due to ideological segregation and information cocoons, it is possible that I will not even consume the information that contradicts my prior.

In sum, people believe that they are unbiased information processors, but the reality is that we tend to be recipients of one-sided information, we process information in a biased manner, and even when we receive contradictory information, we become more polarized instead of converge towards one position.

This way of processing data has a direct impact on how media outlets can operate.  If we are not going to discredit media outlets for reporting dubious information, they can care less about their reputation or the veracity of the news they publish (and can rush into publishing without conducting a thorough fact-check first). If they report false news, people who want to believe them will still believe them because they want to do so. Reporting quality, despite the availability of vast information, is then much lower. In fact, as we have seen, some studies suggest that an outlet will be perceived as more truthful if it confirms our priors.


Sources for this article and reading recommendations:

Gentzkow, Mathew and Jesse M. Shapiro. “Competition and Truth in the Market for News.Journal of Economic Perspectives 22 (2008): 133 – 154.

Lord, Charles G., Lee Ross, and Mark R. Lepper. “Biased Assimilation and Attitude Polarization: The Effects of Prior Theories on Subsequantly Considered Evidence.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 37 (1979): 2098 – 21-9.

Sunstein, Cass. Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006)


[Disclaimer: for this article, I drew heavily from what I studied in my Behavioral Economics class at the Yale School of Management with Prof. Florian Ederer and Prof. Shane Frederick ]


In the past six months, political decisions in several countries have stunned pundits and progressists alike, defied all political expectations, and set social justice and civil rights a few years back.  In England, after a reductionist and disinformation campaign, old white males from peripheral areas proved decisive in the Brexit referendum. In Spain, corruption on corruption scandal was not enough for the president to not be reelected. Not even a terrifying episode involving the minister of interior and the head of the anticorruption office in Catalonia in a fact-fabricating case against political opponents was sufficient to change the political landscape. In Colombia, after a lengthy and complex peace process, the country voted against the peace agreement. Now, in the U.S., Americans have elected a racist, misogynistic, accused-of-sexual-abuse, discriminatory male as President. The worst is that the most likely to be negatively affected by these outcomes are precisely the people who voted for the unpredicted result (with the exception of Colombia, where people affected by the conflict overwhelmingly voted in favor of concluding the peace agreement with the FARC-EP).

It’s time to come to terms with the reality that the social justice values that I and many people in my surroundings espouse are not shared by the majority of the population – in no continent in the world. “Traditional thinking” that is anathema to gender and racial equality, marriage equality and LGTBI rights, environmental justice, and respect and opportunities for people of all abilities is very much alive and influencing the results we are seeing. The fact of the matter is that we are not one percenters but we are certainly part of an intellectual elite who was too blinded by the idea that progress is linear. It is not, it has never been, and it can go in both directions. This American election is the last in a series of political events that demonstrate it.

The easiest reaction to this situation is to despair. Yes, voter dissatisfaction is evident and completely justified. We are doomed, there is nothing we can do against the will of the majority if we want to maintain democracy. But, is it so? During the civil rights movement, public opinion was also divided. In 1965 only 25 percent of Americans cited civil rights as a problem facing the nation. The Voting Rights Act was passed that year. According to Pew Research Center data, “in February 1965 that, when asked about the Civil Rights Act specifically, 42% overall believed the federal government was moving too fast in guaranteeing “Negro” voting rights and the right of “Negroes” (the term used in the question) to be served in public places such as restaurants, hotels and theaters, while just 25% thought it was not moving fast enough.” In England, during the suffragette movement, many women and men became actively involved in the anti-suffragette movement.

For years, as a result of these struggles that defied the status quo and the majority, we saw almost unremitting progress and as a result, we became too complacent. Now, we are left with Donald Trump, Mariano Rajoy, Brexit (and Boris Johnson), and an unstable peace in Colombia. Yet whether these politicians can set us back decades is up to us, the citizens. We need to stop thinking that things will sort out themselves, that “they” (vs. us) won’t actually vote like that. We need to stop complaining over twitter and facebook while we remain seated on our chairs. Clicktivism is not enough. Social media and online petitions are absolutely necessary; they can serve as catalyzers and have a multiplier effect, but in and of themselves they will not trigger change.

We have to deal with the Brexit, with a widely and openly corrupt Spanish government, with a Colombian peace process in tatters, and with a Trump era. But as citizens, we have the power to act as bulwarks against state abuse. We can influence policy. We can act to ensure that new detrimental policies are not implemented. You don’t believe me? Look at what women and men – feminists – managed to achieve both in Spain and Poland. In Spain, a government with a sizable majority tried to pass legislation on abortion that would have severely curtailed women’s ability to decide over their bodies. In Poland, there was a call for such legislation as well (albeit not promoted by government, it almost passed). Regardless, the Spanish minister of Justice championing the legislation at the time (who infamously said in Parliament “what makes a woman be a woman is becoming a mother”) had to resign as a result of the pressures. Thanks to women’s mobilizations in Poland, the fate of the initiative calling for an almost completely ban of abortion was not any better.

This political landscape, if anything, also demonstrates that social justice issues are global. The Brexit, the turn European politics are taking, the electoral campaign in the U.S., and the Colombian referendum had a decisive international dimension. If we want progressive causes to advance – anywhere – we need to globalize our thinking about each one of these issues. We need to be actively involved not only in the matters affecting our “passport nation” (as I like to call it) but in what is affecting social justice causes around the world. Borders are porous and the butterfly effect is very much a reality (the crisis in the Mediterranean or the 2008 financial crisis speak for themselves, no need to elaborate more on that).

Let 2016 be a call to action. This is not the beginning of the end, but the start of a new beginning. Oh, and by the way, looking at demographics, the future of social justice lies on the youth and the feminists (both women and men).