The Men in the Boat

Posted by Frank va Steenbergen and Martin van Beusekom
June 26, 2013

This is a man in a boat on the Marib Lake in Yemen. The man is a researcher in aquaponics. His name is Dr Emad al-Sakkaf. Aquaponics is the science of using closed water systems for the production of food and fish. Aquaponics systems use only a fraction of other food water systems. Although  they are age-old, modern aquaponic systems hold enormous promise for local food supply in water-short regions, including Yemen.

Dr. Emad ventures on the Lake to take water samples with a rubber boat, finding out what fish species could work to accelerate the closed food systems.  Now Marib Lake is in the heart of one of Yemen’s troublesome tribal regions. Lo and behold his water sampling is picked by a spy drone and, as the local story goes, the live images are transmitted to a central control room in the US. 

Shoot down this man in the boat? This question by the control room transmitted to the surveillance centre in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital. Frantic telephone queries are made to the Marib tribe and the credentials of the men in the boat are established – this is just a person doing some research.

Happy ending – no Dr Emad Emad Al-Sakkaf is shot down that day.

So here is the ridiculous world in which we have come to live courtesy of, among others, the current ‘we want change’ Obama Administration. Someone taking water samples is under vigilance from the world’s self-appointed super power and its enormous security industry. He risks being shot merely for doing research in an unusual place. All our resources are misdirected.

Thanks to the brave acts of Ed Snowden, the PRISM and Tempora programs are being unearthed and the enormous size of the US and UK security industry is becoming clear as well. All showing that there is not even a thin line between state security agencies and private companies doing their business – with all accountability gone overboard as individuals can job-hop between agency and company, all under the guise of secrecy. 

It is Blackwater repeated. Booz Allen Hamilton- the private spy contractor and Edward Snowden’s last employer- has 25,000 staff and a turn-over of USD 6 Billion. This is phenomenal. They undertake all types of weird activities – “transforming cyber security in the Middle East” (check their website!). Who asked for this?

Then in another article in the Guardian it was revealed that 850,000 staff members of the National Security Agency and the private contractors in the US have access to Tempora. 850,000: absolutely mind-boggling!

Here is an economy gone totally out of control. The amount of resources devoted to the senseless business of providing unsought protection and vigilance is beyond belief. We are brain-washed about terrorism threats, but there is ample evidence that the security industry masterminds some of the incidents and media amplifies them. This is what it takes to sustain their business model.

We have a world where Big Brother has come to live with us. In fact, one wonders to what extent our friendly social media are not part of the security industry and their revenue models and algoritmic prowess depends on a combined Orwellian pact  (Recommended reading: The New Digital Age by Google CEOs Schmidt and Cohen) quite mum on internet spying and email snooping even if we all know it is going on.

What all this makes me wonder – and this is not a rhetoric question but a genuine plea:

Why do we set aside so much public money in a senseless business sector as the security industry – that adds nothing to our well-being and contributes zero towards meeting the world’s biggest challenges of extreme poverty and overstretched resources? Why can’t we channel similar amounts of energy, talent and financial resources towards things that are global public goods – such as better water management, climate smart agriculture or even aquaponics? Or education, combating poor people’s diseases or providing safe drinking water systems? Why do we end up with the small crumbs and are the millennium development goals just a sideshow to the dirty business of Booz Allen Hamilton and the like? Can we not direct all this unsought surveillance towards tailoring better education, or controlling pollution, or preventing the degradation of land and water resources? Can we not have algorithms for this and generate jobs and green business?  Can anybody answer: Kerry, Cameron, Schmidt, Cohen?

Lets spare a wish for the ‘men in the boat’ – risking their lives for a better world, be they Dr Emad Emad Al-Sakkaf or Edward Snowden– equally lost at sea. Let us hope we can collectively change the odds.

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June 26, 2013  
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