Tag Archives: Corruption

Ebola: Three Ideas (continued)

Ebola 3. A Time To Point Fingers? Yes.

We can’t dawdle on this one”. That is Barack Obama on September 16, inaugurating a litany of Very Important People sounding clarion calls that the world must act to curtail the scourge of Ebola. David Cameron followed suit. Ban Ki Moon jumped up and down, calling for urgent action, also for nations to give lots of money to the UN and for Bono to organize some sort of Live Aid rerun. To date, the action of calling has greatly dwarfed the action of acting.

There is an undeniable truth to the urgent call for action. But having dawdled for so long – allowing this outbreak to infect and kill so many more people than should have been the case – there is a fundamental deceit in the call as well. In terms of preempting the exponential spread of this disease, the time to act passed four, five, maybe six months ago. Now we must talk of action – action on the ground in West Africa (not to be confused with airport screenings, conferences full of petits fours or throwing money at the problem) – and we must talk of accountability for its opposite.

Ellen Sirleaf Johnson in her recent letter to the world: It is time to stop talking and “send a message that we will not leave millions of West Africans to fend for themselves.” With all due respect, Madam President, that ship sailed. The nations of the world long ago decided that they would do exactly that. They decided to act only when it became a matter of self interest. And I note here that this self interest seems largely electoral, a question of curtailing political damage at home rather than a virus overseas.

Rather than save lives, the response of nations like the US or UK seems designed to save political ass. Through months of inaction, these governments are contributors to Ebola’s explosive spread. And yet they are the best the world has to offer right in terms of response.  We need their boots on ground.  The lone exception to self-interest seems to be Cuba, neither threatened by Ebola nor under pressure to respond, who has pledged hundreds of additional medical doctors on the ground.

Let me be very clear: the urgency of accountability exists because at the nation-state level this is not primarily a question of charity or even humanitarianism. This is not a question of choice or option. This is a question of human rights. This is a question of nations violating their obligation to provide international cooperation and assistance to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. See for example Physicians for Human Rights or Amnesty International. (Whose voices remain curiously muted. Where is a more strident defense of the human right to health? Where are creative R2P-inspired arguments that there is an international responsibility to protect citizens against a massive violation of their human rights when, as in West Africa, the states themselves are unable to do so?).

And then this is also a question of international security in the form of global outbreak response, which has been entrusted to the most powerful nations on Earth and the UN, who had the money, know-how and responsibility to act much earlier. Finally, there is the question of humanity. These nations, in pursuit of national interest and in a rather self-congratulatory fashion, do such a good job of talking the humanitarian talk; of talking the talk of caring and aiding and helping. But when it came to Ebola, they decided against doing the walk.

Another reason to act right now on accountability is to stop its perversion. We are in danger of accepting a simple story that the World Health Organization is to blame. Well, that is true. But there is a difference between blame for WHO shortcomings and exploiting the WHO as a scapegoat. For starters, there is the impact of WHO funding cuts by governments like Obama’s USA. Or even better, as Dr. Anne Sparrow writes in The Nation, world powers have ensured that the WHO has shifted emphasis to the diseases of the Western World. But more importantly, the WHO was only one of he firemen who sat and watched while this flame spread to a fire and then a blaze and then an outright conflagration.

Will heads roll in the governments of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone? It is a simply wrong to believe that the “basketcase” state of their health systems were either natural or inevitable, like a typhoon. They should have been in a better position to deal with this outbreak. It is true that the scale of the outbreak today, or even back in July, would have swamped all but a well-developed nation. But we must assess matters earlier in time, when the basics of good case management and information flow could have prevented the outbreak from escaping control. What shocked me the most is that so many of their own citizens so distrusted these governments that Ebola was first seen as a ploy to attract and embezzle aid. The abundant health education message of EBOLA IS REAL makes me want to cry. How to stop an outbreak if that is where you begin?

And yet I heard Sirleaf Johnson blame the miserable state of her country’s healthcare system on a war that ended eleven years ago. Perhaps I missed her explanation of what happened to the considerable aid sent to Liberia to rebuild. Ditto for Sierra Leone or Guinea. As Human Rights Watch notes: Endemic corruption, including in health services, has long plagued the governments of all three countries and contributed to years of unrest and lack of development. It is in the first instance not the rich governments of the world who decided to leave millions of West Africans without adequate healthcare or basic outbreak response.

Governmental failure is a matter foremost for civil society. West African voices can already be heard. See, for example, this blog post, questioning poverty in the face of mineral riches and offering judgment on governance: It is not good enough for the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sierra Leone Ebun Strasser – King to note that Ebola “took us by surprise and met us when we were ill prepared for it”. Or Abdul Tejan-Cole, speaking eloquently on seeing “civil society step up when government institutions have crumbled or not addressed the crisis”, not because of poverty but because of poor management.

Beyond governments, will heads roll in any aid NGO or agency aside from (presumably) WHO? What of those agencies who have spent years claiming to develop health capacity in West Africa? What of those who have raised money by declaring themselves leaders in global humanitarian emergency health? Where are their beds and nurses and doctors? And where were they when the epidemic could have been controlled? The WHO was silent and even downplayed the gravity of the situation. Did they own the only working phone in West Africa? Aside from MSF, where were the alarm bells from other agencies with health teams already on the ground? Are board members going to resign in disgust? Or is everybody too busy ramping up activities to respond to Ebola the cash cow in addition to Ebola the virus?

There are those who argue that now is the time for action, not recrimination. That is the pragmatic voice of the aid establishment. And that is sweet music for those responsible, who do not in any way fear the hand wringing and promises to do better in the future which have long served to excuse failure and defuse calls for change. To delay accountability now is to reinforce this entrenched pattern of inertia tomorrow.

As did the global political elite know and ignore brewing famine in south central Somalia a few years ago, as did they know and ignore the mounting crisis in Syria, so did they know and ignore the burgeoning Ebola crisis in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. This is the new world order, in which the most powerful are either unwilling to meet their international obligations, or incapable of doing what is right and what is human until direct self-interest and fear muster the political capacity to act.

Secret Agent Man, Redux

They won’t start talking until we put all our phones in the refrigerator. Dennis McNamara, of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, talking about sensitive negotiations.

A year or so ago I posted a blog about the risks of being infiltrated by spies.  I seem to have missed the point.  True enough, we humanitarians should do more about stopping NGO penetration by the Felix Leiters and Carrie Mathisons of the world. If we want to safeguard trust in our intentions, trust in our essential harmlessness, then we need to keep the spies out.

But that misses the point driven home, driven right into my breast pocket, by Edward Snowden.  The revelations about NSA spying make it clear, the spy is I.  It is no longer a question of keeping spooks-people out, it is a question of the degree to which they have  transformed us into spooks-people in.  The unwittingness of our role is of no relevance. Ditto for our pure hearts.  It is no longer about deliberately passing information back to spy agencies, it is about their routine extraction of sensitive information from our everyday work.

What to do given the lack of convenient refrigerators?  Negotiating access requires daily contact with armed groups, many of whom have so-called terrorist or similar status.  We must talk to them.  We must phone them to ask if it is safe to travel, safe to deliver care, safe to transport a wounded child.  Who needs a mole when our Nokias and Thurayas provide such an effective set of eyes and ears?

Decades ago I thought (briefly, very briefly) about working for the CIA.  I never thought I would be doing it for free.

The Myth of Impartiality

Some time over the holidays, perhaps even on the 25th as I groaned at the thought of not being able to find room for a fourth helping of turkey, it struck me that Christmas is a moment when the pillar of humanitarianism magically appears, like presents under the tree.  Yes, out from the chimneys of our subconscious comes the experience of thinking about humanity.  Christmas (rule:  OK to write about it as long as the tree is still dropping needles in the living room) is a time of indulgence for many, but the bonhomie of the season also triggers a reflex to think about others, and plenty of sermons remind us to do so.

Humanity — the principle that our compassion for those who suffer should stretch beyond kin, clan, tribe, or nation and stir us to action even for strangers living on the far side of the globe – is a radical enough idea.  (See my earlier blog on the topic).  The principle turns on that other humanitarian pillar, impartiality.  Impartiality, essentially, is a non-discrimination clause.  If we humanitarian agencies aren’t allowed to use religion or race or gender to determine who gets our aid, it leaves us with an obligation to base our decisions – to apportion our assistance – according to needs alone.  As I’ve blogged, there are challenges to that within the way humanitarians think, and in the obstacles kicked up by life in the real world (who will Pakistani militants shoot this week?).  But I’ve never considered the idea that impartiality itself may be undesirable; or that it may be impossible.  Say what?

In a piece that reminded me why I didn’t’ become a philosopher (answer: not smart enough), Stephen Asma argues that people aren’t emotionally designed to achieve “an equal and impartial concern for all human beings”.  Read the article.  He takes on the theories of Peter Singer and Jeremy Rifkin (thankfully, I won’t attempt a summary) – and makes a very strong case that “all people are not equally entitled to my time, affection, resources or moral duties”.

Asma would see it as both normal and positive that we care about kin or tribe first.  It is an act of the mind, a thought process, which convinces us to do otherwise.  Emotionally and morally, though, we are beholden to the gravitational pull of close relations rather than being free to embrace “cosmic love”.   If faced with the ultimatum, why shouldn’t I kick both humanity and utilitarianism in the teeth and choose saving my mother over saving ten mothers in Bolivia?  As many Brits now say about the international aid budget:  “What about us first!”

Asma further argues that empathy (the compassion at the root of our precious “humanity”) “is not a concept, but a natural biological event —an activity, a process.”  So it has limits that are physical, like doing chin-ups. Impartiality, then, is not what you might call a sustainable technology.

It’s also not really an appropriate technology.  About 25 years ago I wrote a paper (oh my, just the sound of that is frightening) proposing that corruption in the “Third World”, seen as a massive obstacle to development, was really the result of our Western way of doing things making a mess there, in the developing world (see also my post on anti-corruption fanaticism).  My youthful writing wasn’t about tools or machines or approaches. My focus was on civil service and the structure of government, perhaps the West’s least-questioned exports.

Looked at with a fairly open mind, the problem with corruption isn’t a problem with the moral fibre of, say, politicians.  On the contrary, a minister building a hospital in his ethnic home area is an act that conforms to the dominant ethical system of the context.  Saying no to a clansman might entail more of a wrong.  The problem is the imposition of a technology – government administrative process – that is wholly dependent on a cold, disconnected unbiased civil service.  The cherished fairness of Western administration is dependent on the reduction of our set of social bonds and obligations to the nuclear family.  (Disclosure:  As a bartender I passed more than a few free beers to my friends, but it’s not like I would hire any of them to construct a dam.).

The bedrock of the Western state:  (almost) everybody not living in your house is a stranger and can be told no (or even screwed) without remorse.  So development becomes the process by which societies develop an increasingly self-centred populace, well capable for example of stuffing its aging parents into dank and distant nursing homes, but who will free state functions from clan affiliation, religious favouritism and ethnic bias (good old fashioned bribes, of course, will remain).

In a place where kin and clan run prominently through the social, cultural and moral fibre of the nation and of individuals, why base the state on such a stunningly inhuman idea as impartiality?  Why not design systems that depend on nepotism, rather than are damaged by it?  Why not build a civil service and government bureaucracy through the existing clan/tribe/religious structure?  So much for my old ideas.

Now, what about humanitarian action?  Should we redesign humanitarianism around Cicero (quoted by Asma), who said, “society and human fellowship will be best served if we confer the most kindness on those with whom we are most closely associated.”  To some extent, compromises on impartiality are common, such as Turkish Red Crescent’s 2011 response to Somali famine being thought of as coming to the aid of “our Muslim brothers”.  And let’s be clear, it’s not like impartiality is a story that plays well.  Would you trust somebody – a foreigner no less – who knocked on your door and said he wanted to clean the kitchen floor for free?  What?  No political affiliation?  No hidden agenda?  Not a religious duty and no proselytizing? Zero financial gain?  Do you take me for an idiot?

If Asma is right, then humanity cannot be our family.  So is the act of jumping humanitarian action through the hoop of impartiality a lost cause?  Maybe there is a better question.  If we are designed to care more about those close to us, and if our body fatigues at fighting the heart (telling us to care more about strangers is like telling us not to have the double chocolate brownie with whipped cream), what is it that actually motivates and guides humanitarians?  What fills in for the pureness of empathy?  Thrill seeking?  Exoticism?  Escape? Cynicism? Feeling good about ourselves?  All of the above.

Maybe, then, Asma isn’t relevant.  We humanitarians are capable of maintaining impartiality not because it is a nice idea that captures our imagination, not because we all hold a hidden Ghandi within, but because impartiality is Santa Claus.  The niceness of the idea allows us to hide the truth of our gift, which in the case of impartiality is the selfishness of our compassion for humanity.  Humanitarianism is saved!  Because our limbic system may tire from our caring for the plight of strangers, but we’ll never get tired of caring for ourselves.

Corruption in Aid: Meat or Poison?

Somewhere in the early 80s, hence more or less at the fringes of memory, I was sitting in Benjamin Couilbaly’s dusty courtyard, sharing a meal and some laughs.  His wife served a delicious meat and sauce dish, which we scooped with handfuls of tô, the millet-based paste eaten throughout much of Burkina Faso.  When I asked, he said the meat was “chat sauvage”.  Wild cat.  Fascinating. Some sort of local lynx or bobcat?  I’d figured all manner of wild cats had long been displaced or hunted out.  Then he explained.  A wild cat refers to your neighbor’s cat, when it wanders into your back yard.  Love that logic:  In a community where hunter-gatherer behaviour is still threaded through the cultural norm, it makes little sense to heap as much adulation on domesticated animals as we Westerners do.

Some interesting cyberdiscussion on the issue of corruption.  The big question being asked:  Does corruption undercut development/growth to the extent of warranting such a broken record of Westerners banging on about it?  The provocative Chris Blattman even asks if corruption isn’t an “Anglo-American fetish” (see also some of his posts this week).  ODI research jumps into the analytical fray – What are the effects of corruption, and what are the “inconvenient truths”?

The authors seem to miss an important boat as to why “Third World” corruption sparks such inflamed feelings.  Is it really only a belief that corruption is crippling poor economies?  Or the concerns of a politician like David Cameron, who worries about public backlash against the entire aid budget?

Now, allow me to bang on a bit.  Isn’t it also about the heroic myth we’ve created around aid itself – that it is formed in equal parts out of the virtue and action of us (Western) saviours, delivering the agencyless victims from certain doom?  Hence, theft of aid becomes murder of sorts, with children dying at the hand of the thief; and it becomes an act which blocks aid givers from reaping the rewards of their charitable action (on that, see my previous blog on the selfishness of giving, or in this first person account of overlooking corruption in order to preserve that reward).  Corruption is wrong, but it gets bucked up to the level of immorality incarnate.  And underneath all of that, corruption becomes a convenient, powerful, facile enabler of our own feelings of superiority.

To underline the Us/Them divide, corruption must also become deceptively unambiguous from a moral perspective.  There are probably lots of ways in which the term “corruption” is problematic.  But even thoughtful commentators seem to suggest that “theft is theft”.  Is it?   Is there any reader who doesn’t anger upon reading that some African politician accepted a boatload of cash to grant a political favour?  That’s corruption, right?  Theft.  Clear as day.

In much of the West, of course, being more developed nations, a certain sophistication leads to obfuscation.  Essentially, we’ve created legal or normalized channels to replace many forms of corruption, stripping away the ugliness to allow theft under a different name.  For instance, the web of election contribution rules which transform the immoral/illegal/corrupt purchase of a politician into a perfectly mundane act of election funding, or even free speech.

And in humanitarian circles?   Is theft always theft?  I think we’re back to the cat:  As the saying goes, “One man’s meat is another man’s poison.”  As I’ve posted earlier, an expat using the agency’s white SUV to buy Danone yogurt at the swanky suburban mall is no less an act of aid diversion than when a member of the national staff pinches a bottle of paracetamol.  Guess who gets fired for it?  Guess who returns home to proud parents?

What about when a supersized chunk of the $5.2 billion donated for the Haitian earthquake ends up nowhere near Haitians themselves?  When it disappears into the maw of the saviours?  You know, all that housing, flights, conferences, consultancies and, of course, yogurt?  Into what black hole did that aid money disappear?  Mugabe’s Swiss bank accounts?  Or my British one?

Yes, I do think we have a fetish with the corruption of others.  But that’s really a fetish with self-preservation, because with less biased analysis, humanitarian scrutiny of corruption may not travel so far afield.

[Wanted to react on this topic.  Back to the analysis of humanitarian principles in the next blog]

No Mo’ Waste

Just returned to work from two weeks of holiday.  Did the staycation in London, including a trip to the Olympics to watch the USA basketball team annihilate a surprisingly good Nigerian team, and then a few days in the charming English countryside of Devon, which was full of last-minute deals on cottages because the predicted tourist hordes frightened so many people away.

So you’ll have to excuse this rather quick post, as my inbox appears to have been consuming too much product from proud Games sponsors like McD’s, Coke and Cadbury (two thumbs up to sleb chef Jamie Oliver for calling out God, in the earthly form of David Beckham, for endorsing the junk food industry).

Sure am glad Mitch Romney didn’t pick Mo Farah for veep.  He could run for prime minister and win about now.  Taking gold in both the 5K and 10K had to be a top-3 highlight of this Olympics.  Heart.  It reminded me of Lasse Virén, one of those pieces of trivia that has stuck in my head for an inexplicably long time.  He did the same thing in 1972.  And then again in ’76.

Anyway, the issue here is Mo.  He’s from Somalia.  He moved to the UK and managed to clock one of the great sporting accomplishments of this young century.  The question:  what if he hadn’t left Somalia?  The answer is pretty clear.  Remember “A mind is a terrible thing to waste”?  Remember those ads?  I think they somehow played a role in my choosing this career.

Is “terrible” enough of a term to describe the waste of human potential in places like Somalia?  What is the world missing?  What are the equivalent achievements in the sciences to Mo Farah’s double gold?  A vaccine for TB?  Maybe even we could dream bigger, like a formula for cold fusion, or an end to Jersey Shore (and Geordie Shore, because somebody over here thought the original was simply too good not to spin off)?   Don’t we undermine the very idea of human dignity when the leaders in places like Somalia or Congo are thought of as nothing more than ineffective, tribal or corrupt?

To answer that question, I’ll quote from a recent essay on Congo posted by a buddy of mine, Ed  Rackley:  The loss of human lives and potential in the Congos, Haitis and Afghanistans of the world amount to much more than the personal and political failings of national leaders; they are calculated criminal acts. Crimes against humanity of a lesser degree than genocide, yes, but surely the act of trapping entire populations in cages of illiteracy, hunger and constant insecurity for decades, even generations, should be punishable.

Bugged Out Over Haiti Cholera

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.

Happy Independence Day South Sudan

You have to admire a Prime Minister whose jobs strategy is, essentially, telling people to go and look for work overseas.  That was Portugal’s PM, refreshing for a politician in his apparent disregard for popularity, not to mention his honesty about not having one shred of a plan.

It reminded me of the recent declaration by Salva Kiir – the leader of the world’s youngest nation and easily the President with the most intriguing taste in hats – that South Sudan would introduce stern austerity measures.  Say what?  That’s like, well, I can’t really think of an analogy.  Victoria Beckham announcing she’s going to start dressing up when she appears in public?

One might have thought the very concept of austerity included limits; theoretical boundaries beyond which the term becomes inapplicable.  Austerityofficial action by a government to reduce the amount of money it spends, or the amount of money that people in a country spend.

See what I mean?  The concept seems to imply that government actually spends money on services, and that people aren’t foraging for bugs and leaves for dinner.  Other definitions suggest a particular inappropriateness:  austerity = reduced availability of luxuries and consumer goods, esp when brought about by government policy.

Well, one country’s healthcare, education and roads are another country’s caviar, Gucci and Maserati.   Happy Birthday South Sudan!

Of course, we must recognize the difference between government budget and spending on services.  South Sudan may be the first place on Earth, and certainly the first democracy, with an absence of functioning services on which to impose austerity measures even though there has been fairly whopping government expenditure.  That’s because $4 billion sent to the various ministries ended up in Swiss bank accounts.  That’s not me being cynical, that’s the President himself, in a May letter promising amnesty and anonymity to his government officials if they would please please return the missing cash.

In fairness, though, it is hard to disagree with the need for some sort of financial austerity, so I should get off my high horse.  I mean, South Sudan has been getting reamed by the mothership of Bashir’s Sudan, so it’s perfectly logical that President Kiir would announce the cessation of all oil shipments for the next few years (the only way for the oil to get to market is through Sudan).  True, that declaration of independence has caused some side effects for the economy, perhaps because oil exports amount to every penny the government owns (98% of state revenue)?  Sort of like collateral damage,  no? Or cutting off your face to spite your nose.

So austerity is the price the government will pay for independence.  Here:  watch this 30 sec clip and sub in the word “austerity” every time you hear the word “probation”.  Makes you wonder if governments don’t have limits to what they are allowed to do in the name of independence.  At what point does one have to accept a little reaming?

You could argue humanitarian organizations should ask themselves the same question every time the principle of independence blocks the provision of aid.  Shouldn’t we swallow a small dose of Marsellus Wallace?  Of course, neither government nor NGO will pay the price at all.  Perhaps our moralizations amount to this: a modern twist on Patrick Henry:  “Give me liberty or give you death”.

A Taste of Our Own Medicine

As a former lawyer fighting housing discrimination in New Orleans, I still get a wave of satisfaction when I see white people raise their voice in anger against the perceived injustices of affirmative action.  What!?  They hired an unqualified black guy instead of your Uncle Cracker? Almost magically, discrimination based on one’s skin color is transformed, from liberal bleating (more usually damned as political correctness) into a self-evident violation of fundamental human rights.

Tasting our own medicine may not appeal to our sense of a genteel enlightenment – after all, Two wrongs don’t make a right – but you can’t deny its effectiveness.  Getting shafted (i.e., “hoisted by one’s own retard”, to quote Lionel Shriver) makes for a pretty good teacher.  So how will we ever see the errors of our neo-colonial ways, let alone even recognize them, if we aren’t forced to wear the shoes?

Shoe switching to the other foot

Well, it’s starting to happen.  A friend forwarded me this story knowing that I worked in Angola.  Its former owner Portugal, having drag-netted the assets from the colony upon its precipitous 1975 departure, is now holding out the begging bowl.  There’s more:  look at the Eurozone’s desperation for China to pull a superman act with billions of bailout cash?  How delicious to see the self-anointed saviors of the world trading in their expensive loafers for a pair of sandals made out of recycled car tire.

But it hasn’t gone far enough.  It’s time for the tables of self-righteousness and superiority to be turned as well.  Why doesn’t Angola lecture Portugal on the bankruptcy of consumer spending beyond its means?  Why don’t they demand reform, and tie any loans or investment to a timetable of fiscal belt-tightening to be taken?  Why doesn’t China tell Sarkozy and Merkel that loans to help shore up the euro will be linked to improvements in the way France and Germany treat minorities? Or preconditioned on the dismantling of Fortress Europe? Or timed with the ending of agricultural subsidies that harm China’s allies in Africa? Now that would be interesting!  You can bet Western politicians will ring a few bells on the global hypocrisy meter.  I can almost hear the indignant, fist-pounding denunciations of the breach of sovereignty.  How dare China tell us…

A turn in the humanitarian tide

Warning!  We humanitarians need to watch our glee, lest we find ourselves staring at the same other side of the coin routine.  Will it not be long before an expat’s using the white SUV to buy Danone yogurt at the swanky suburban mall is branded no less an act of aid diversion than when the national staff stock manager pinches a bottle of paracetamol (and is fired)?  Or when an NGO using its hard won donations for the huddling masses is deemed no less corrupt for renting a luxurious multi-story compound than is the Deputy Minister of Health for redirecting a chunk of the healthcare budget towards the construction of a mansion in his home village?

Will you forgive me one last adage?  What goes around comes around.

Stop blaming aid for the failures of aid

Lots has been written about aid over the past few weeks, and the public commentary can be vitriolic in response.  Some people seem to be absolute nutters, believing that letting Somalis die is a solution to their underlying problems.  Hmmm, I’m not quite sure about the logic there.  But more common are people who seem furious that more money should be sent to a place like the Horn of Africa when aid has been such a failure.  As you may have noted, I’m skeptical about the capacity of development aid to meet its objectives; to transform societies.  But isn’t the public  wrong to judge the potential success of humanitarian relief by the failures of development?  Assuming that people can get to a proper medical center or feeding program, it’s relatively easy to save that child’s life.  Of course that doesn’t solve issues of corruption, desertification, and decades of brutal conflict.  But that’s not the goal.  In other words, not all aid is created equal.

In my professional alter ego, I’ve tried to take this up on in response to an editorial in today’s Guardian (see here).  But this negative discourse links into wider issues of public perception of aid, and in particular a failure to grasp the unavoidable complexity and need for a certain level of capacity to mount a successful response to poverty or crisis.  J at the Tales from the Hood takes on this issue. I’ve put an opinion there, again differentiating between humanitarian and development. 

I’m curious to hear other opinions.  I don’t believe for a minute that you can look at a given context and say X is a development situation, while XX is an emergency situation.  The world isn’t so tidy.  And what of all that other stuff, like post conflict and transition and pre conflict and early recovery etc etc?  But aren’t there clear or even irreconcilable distinctions in theory, in the ideas behind development and humanitarian action?

Another Perfect Storm

Western aid agencies, especially those here in the UK, have spent the last two weeks fanning the media flames of a fundraising campaign for the Horn of Africa.  Merlin even went so far as to call it a “global food crisis” but seems to have recoiled to the idea of an East Africa Food Crisis.  Let’s start by stating the obvious.  The situation in parts of Somalia, Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia seems desperate, and humanitarian aid is needed to save lives right now.  To question whether or not this is the Drought of the Century is not to deny the gravity of the situation and the need for emergency aid. 

But I don’t really want to debate whether or not aid agencies are hyping drought in order to stuff their pockets.  Of course there is hyping.  Of course agencies use weasel words, at the same time painting a picture of saving stick-legged children from starving right now while being clever enough to avoid claiming that it is already a famine or mass starvation.  Nope, those things could happen.  Writing in The Times, John Clayton makes his opinion clear:  “By hyping up a localised “drought” and playing down the real causes of the turmoil in Eastern Africa, the aid agencies are crying wolf. What happens when there’s a real emergency? Will we believe them?”

On one point, it is easy to agree with John.  It’s a sad reflection of public attitudes towards aid, but people like the idea of giving to the innocent victims of El Nino rather than to the not-as-innocent victims of clan violence, war, and greed-fueled bad governance.  It’s amazing how even somebody purporting to set forth a list of factors somehow miss out:  “High food prices, fluctuating rainfall, a rising population and ever dwindling natural resources have created the perfect storm,” said Leigh Daynes, director of communications for Plan, in the UK.   Oops.  Forgot to mention conflict in Somalia.  Oops.  Forgot to mention corruption in Kenya.  About like forgetting to mention Ghaddafy in an analysis of the situation in Libya. 

But let’s not be too hard on these agencies for omitting the ways in which locals themselves could be blamed for their own suffering.  By definition, humanitarian aid is based on need, not worthiness, because being a human being possesses inalienable worth enough.  Besides, the entire point of the media campaign is to raise money to pay for the relief effort and save lives.  So let’s not moralize about painting a picture that is skewed towards being effective rather than depressing to the average punter.

That said, let’s moralize anyway.  Let’s moralize not about the fact that the perfect storm of factors missed conflict, missed corruption (kudos to UK AID for suspending bi-lateral aid to Kenya on account of the lack of integrity), or missed the way in which drought has some very local and human causes (on this point, check out Paul Theroux during his Africa overland odyssey ten years ago, quoting a diplomat on the situation in northern Kenya: “Right, it hasn’t rained in the north for three years.  Whose fault is that?  They cut down the trees for fuel, they sold them to loggers, they destroyed the watershed.  And they’re still doing it.”).  No, let’s moralize about the fact that the aid agencies’ perfect storm of factors forgot one key factor:  aid agencies. 

Inside Somalia is a different story, because aid agencies have little access there.  But the rest of the Horn?  Kenya?  Ethiopia?  Uganda?  For decades, aid agencies (and the Kenyan government!) have been all over these places, practicing what they call development.  They collect a lot of money for this work and they have been pumping out glossy reports describing their glorious success in helping communities become sustainable, in helping to protect the environment, in building the capacity of people to cope. Etc etc.  So where is it?  Where is this development we keep hearing about?   Surely people have been helped.  But as the current disaster in the area would seem to suggest, at the big picture level all this development work didn’t amount to squat. 

What we have, then, is a perfect storm of irony.  Aid agencies are asking us to fund humanitarian relief work (and I admit this is also an assumption, because we don’t really know what sort of program will receive their money).  We should do that.  People need it.  Lift the veil, though, and what they are also asking the public to do is to fund their own failed development policies.