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Cartoon Views: Conflict in Syria

Political cartoons are an important, but often over-looked, component of the information environment and provide an interesting perspective for analysis of current events. They provide satirical depictions of important issues in an understandable and concise form that is easily digestible for the reader. The cartoons often cross cultural and language barriers, allowing artists to express their opinion to a larger audience than simple text. Additionally, political cartoons show how current events are viewed by individuals that hold a variety of partisan or international viewpoints.

As the conflict in Syria continues, countries in the region and dissidents within Syria are becomingly increasingly concerned about the limited effectiveness of international organizations. Our analysis reveals that the vast majority of political cartoons published in Arab media outlets over the last few weeks have focused on the U.N.’s (and in particular Kofi Annan’s) failure to stop civilian bloodshed.

More specifically these cartoons have focused on three specific issues as seen by the artists:

• International Organizations’ de facto free-pass for Assad to continue suppressing the uprising
• Kofi Annan’s lack of preparation for/comprehension of the situation
• The ineffectiveness of U.N./Arab League observers.

1. Ineffectiveness of international organizations

This category of cartoons focuses on the broadest issue facing the Syrian opposition: the international community is unable to control Assad’s actions (or chooses not to). Many of the cartoons directly label the U.N. or the Arab League; some simply imply “the world.” Very few show the U.S. or a direct U.S. representative (ex. Barack Obama). This demonstrates that the Arab media focus the blame for the inaction not on a failure of U.S. leadership (as many in the U.S. would believe), but rather directly hold the U.N. or Arab League accountable. Emad Hajjaj, a Jordanian artist, takes this idea one step further. His cartoon implies that not only is the U.N. unable to stop Assad, but that the time given him is directly killing Syrians. Assad is (quite literally) using the time to continue his massacres.

2. Satirical depictions of Kofi Annan’s failure.

The caricature of Kofi Annan as a complete failure was widespread across the Arab media space. In one example he is struggling toward Syria under the weight of his peace plan, being told “Out…” by “Murder” and “Violence”. In another he is portrayed cheerful and optimistic entering Syria but dismayed with his hair blown back leaving. It is readily apparent that the initial hope and enthusiasm for the involvement of a distinguished diplomat has faded, replaced with amusement. The situation in Syria has “blown up” in Annan’s face, and the Arab media is quick to make that clear.

3. Disappointment in observers

There is a universal disbelief throughout the Arab media that the observers (either Arab League or U.N.) are missing the bloodshed in Syria. The most common theme of the cartoons is of an observer blatantly looking the wrong way while atrocities are committed around him. The idea of the blind observer was also a recurring one throughout the media space, exemplified by Osama Hajjaj’s cartoon. The obviously blind man (Observers) is reporting back that “The situation is very reassuring!!” even though he his soaked in blood after leaving “Syria.” These cartoons are prevalent throughout the media space, showing a distrust (and disgust) for the inefficacy of the multiple teams of observers sent to Syria. It is important to note that both the Arab League’s observers and the U.N. observers are portrayed in the same light.

Though these cartoons were collected from Arab media outlets, they offer incredibly similar content and messages to many published in the West, mainly the ineffectiveness of the U.N. Whether it is a portrayal of a bumbling Kofi Annan, a blind observer, or Assad under the direct supervision of his “elders,” the message is the same. As traditional media and citizen journalism have played a large role in bringing the story of the Arab revolutions to the fore, English-language cartoons may be attempting to appeal to the international community.  Similarly, Arab revolutionaries have used English in social media and their own protests to broaden their audience.

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Hip Hop Diplomacy

My colleague recently wrote about the five major areas of interest in the State Department’s FY2013 budget request.  In this Strategic Social Exchange entry, he stressed the importance of strengthening partnerships abroad, writing:  “Simply put, investing now in our country’s ability to grow and maintain key, international relationships will help to underwrite the future of stability at home and abroad.”

“Hip Hop Diplomacy: Connecting through Culture,” hosted March 27 by George Washington University, also posited that cultural diplomacy efforts can play a significant role in furthering global relationships and, as my colleague noted, help sustain international stability in the future.

The focus of GWU’s event was how music, sports, arts, and media programs can aid in the empowerment of women worldwide.  By teaching women leadership, technology, and business skills, these types of programs are able to facilitate the elimination of cultural stereotypes against women, the amendment of male-only political systems, and the rise of women in economies that do not allow them to hold land or own businesses. The State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) is an important funder of these types of programs and cultural diplomacy efforts in general.  Indeed, many of the event’s participants had at one time participated in a State Department-aided cultural program. Some of these women were:

  1. Toni Blackmon – The State Department’s first hip-hop artist to be designated as an American Cultural Specialist.  She conducts many workshops and concerts abroad, aiming to connect with other cultures through music.
  2. Soultana: A Moroccan hip-hop artist who participated in a State Department cultural exchange program in 2011. Her songs attempt to bring a greater attention to injustices against women in Morocco.
  3. Tiffany Roberts Sahaydak: Former U.S. Women’s Soccer player who has worked as a State Department Sports Envoy for the past five years. She has provided sports leadership and training programs in many countries, including Brazil, Thailand, the Philippines, Uganda, and Morocco.
  4. Belia Zibowa: A Zimbabwean basketball coach who is currently participating in a State Department cultural exchange program. She will be participating in teambuilding exercises and workshops over the course of the next week, culminating in a trip to the NCAA Women’s Final Four on April 3rd.

What is especially beneficial about cultural diplomacy programs like the ones in which these women participated is that they provide a high return on a low investment. Indeed, the ECA’s $400 million budget is just a drop in the bucket compared to the State Department’s $53.1 billion overall budget.  For this relatively low cost, the ECA can build strategic partnerships to promote mutual understanding, an international exchange of ideas, and leadership development.  Its programs aimed at women specifically act to increase both economic prosperity by giving half of the world’s population a greater role in the business sector and political participation through a larger role for women in government. Thus, all types of cultural diplomacy programs can help reduce areas of economic disparity and sites of possible conflict, increasing stability both for the United States and the international community in general.

In essence, as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the ECA noted at the GWU event, these cultural diplomatic partnerships help “advance national security simply by helping others.”  This seems like a prudent investment in international relationships and the prospect of a more peaceful future.

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