Somewhere, somebody should start a blog on how to make yourself unpopular in humanitarian NGO circles. Here’s one sure-fire formula: praise the UN. Or don’t even praise them, just defend the UN. Or don’t even go that far. Just mention the UN without also blaming them for everything that’s wrong in humanitarian action (there is an exception to UN-bashing if, at the time, blame is being heaped on government donors in an effort to obtain funding). So I am wary of violating the NGO ethic of cool, as well as damaging my self-image promotion, by saying what could be construed in some quarters as a sycophantic devotion to the aid world’s paragon of bureaucratic inertia.
Yesterday I came across this posting on the cholera situation in Haiti. Voilà the House of Representatives of the United States of America, that tireless defender of the downtrodden, harvesting political hay from the fact that UN peacekeepers introduced the cholera bug into the water system of Haiti (or did they?). Haiti was, of course, a country that effortlessly fit into one of those overused “perfect storm” analogies looking at factors conducive to cholera killing a shitload of people (estimates are 4500 – 7000). Low population awareness? Check. Zero natural immunity? Check. Poor to zero emergency healthcare capacity? Check. Widespread mingling of drinking water with bodily effluent? Double check. Voodoo. Check.
America’s top politicians have made their bold call: because UN troops introduced cholera into Haiti, they are the “proximate cause” of the epidemic. Read the letter. Strong stuff! You’d think they were condemning North Korea or one of those single-named dictators like Mugabe, Gadddafy, or the newly anointed (to the single-name club) Assad. Congress continues: “As cholera was brought to Haiti due to the actions of the UN, we believe that it is imperative” for the UN to deal with it. Put simply: you are the cause of this mess, so you have clean it up.
Is there one person paid to run the US possessing even a small appreciation of irony? Let’s look at that accusation on causality for two secs. OK. One sec. Because it is quite remarkable, isn’t it, when the US government endorses the idea that a powerful global actor has to clean up the messes it makes on foreign soil. Forget Iraq. Forget Afghanistan. Forget Viet Nam, Cambodia or Laos. Forget the Arctic ice pack melting away like all those pledges to build a better Haiti. Forget, even, a drone missile or two being an uninvited guest at a Pakistani wedding. Forget all the messes where the US govt wears the label of proximate cause like Gilligan wears a cap.
Forget them and focus on Haiti. After four decades or so of propping up a series of Olympic medalists in the decathlon of brutal, corrupt, incompetent, venal (but anti-communist!) political leadership – not to mention that sordid little CIA relationship with local paramilitary butchers and other political interference – you would think the USG might shy away from the promoting an idea that proximate cause engenders political and moral responsibility in the poorest place in the Western hemisphere.
In the end, though, perhaps the bigger danger comes not from the US’s lack of introspection, but from peddling the idea that bacteria can be the cause of so much destruction. (More on that next post). The cholera disaster in Haiti is caused by the interaction of vibrio cholera with a dysfunctional sanitation system, with paradigmatic urban slums, with an almost unprecedented level of abject poverty.
And on the proximate causes of that mess, both US and Haitian politicians seem unsurprisingly silent. Ditto for the Center for Disease Control, who managed to predict that the risk of cholera introduction into Haiti was low, presumably because they naively assumed the thousands and thousands of people making up the relief armada were well-wiped westerners who did their business in the plush Hotel Karibe. Ditto for most of the relief effort, who seem uninterested in answerability for Haiti’s mess despite its longstanding moniker as the “Republic of NGOs”.
Special kudos, though, for the lawyers suing the UN over cholera. Such a nice example of the little guy taking a pop at power. But if you want to introduce some accountability for the woes of Haiti, maybe the brave lawyers should leave blue-helmeted Nepalese peasants alone and go after those champions of justice on Capitol Hill.