Tag Archives: Corruption

Let’s Ideate … Part II

This is Part II (apologies, but sequels never live up to the original thing). If you have no idea what I am talking about, please read the previous blog for an explanation. If after that you still have no idea, join the club.

  • Ask Angola. Repeat after me: You’re not poor, we’re not rich. You’re not poor, we’re not rich.  You’re not poor, we’re not rich.  What to do about the (self-fulfilling) belief that certain nations are rich and should therefore fund international aid while others are too poor to worry about crises beyond their borders?  Perhaps so-called poor nations should take note of poor people, who routinely prove themselves extraordinarily generous when crisis strikes. Leaving aside all the questions of economic self-interest and geo-political soft power, why did one group of nations evolve with the belief that it should take care of others who are far away? It is a good question, and I suspect the answers lie as wrapped up in our superiority complex, graduate student surplus, “white man’s burden” and (neo) colonial guilt as they do in generosity or compassion.  The better question is why places like Ireland or Portugal have foreign aid budgets while places like Angola and Uzbekistan do not.  I say, every time there is an emergency somewhere, let’s go to the Angolan government and ask them to fund humanitarian operations.  Let’s keep doing it until they take some of that oil money and put it into a foreign aid budget.
  • Yes/No vote. An NGO finishes a year of working in a community on a project.  The NGO writes a progress report to the donor. (See Translate It, in Part I). The donor offers another year of funding.  And then comes then comes the opening of the seventh seal. Not so fast!  Accountability (power) to the people. Not some complicated mechanism of consultation – who has time for that? How about a simple yes/no vote?  A bit brutal, but then referendums and self-determination do not have to be pretty.  Majority decision.  Yes and the NGO gets the money.  No, and another organization gets a chance to do a better job. (Or, better yet, the community gets the money and they can hire themselves an NGO, but that was somebody elses idea.).
  • The smiley face / frowny face vote button thingamajig. Want customer feedback? Are you ready to admit that placing suggestion boxes in an IDP camp full of peasant IDPs may not be the most effective way to seek out customer feedback (and, judging from the emptiness of those boxes, may actually be designed to fill a different box, the one you tick so your donor will be satisfied that feedback mechanisms have been put in place)? How about one of these?

And my best (a relative term, to be sure) idea? Perhaps it is this one:

  • Corruption-buster. At the Design Theory workshop, the facilitators covered the walls with the stories of actual aid recipients, prompting our empathy. I was struck by how many of these stories contained complaints of corruption. Poverty wears you down. Injustice eats you alive. The one that boiled my blood was this story of humiliation, as aid agency staff forced refugees to sign receipts for $20, when in fact they were given only $2. You see? So on my side I will be forced to accept. So you are ripped off in front of your eyes and there is nothing you can do about it. These are things that are happening. The aid workers forge numbers. I was not born a refugee, I have to come out of this kind of life.

Take a place like New Orleans, where nothing works.  Take any city where nothing works.  What is the one exception to this golden rule of incompetence and inefficiency? Ticketing for parking violations. That works. That always works. Spend two extra minutes in the shop and there it is, fluttering under your wiper blade. Those parking meter bastards work harder than any ten civil servants because they aren’t civil servants, they work for private companies that collect a percentage of the fines collected, and each of those bastards gets to smile at the ka-ching of personal gain every time he or she slips a ticket under the wiper.  So why not do the same in the aid world? Forget some sort of hyper-bureaucratized ombudsmanship. We need unannounced visits of a private firm that is paid nothing. They get a cut (20%?) of any corruption uncovered.  Ditto for fat rewards for any refugees whose tip leads to a bust.

So, are you now feeling ready to ideate?

Let’s Ideate Our Way Out of Here

Constructive deconstruction. That is the label placed on an intriguing initiative led by HPG/ODI.  How could I even question the value of disassembling the humanitarian system?  I jumped in. The process is based on design theory, a recently-arrived savior of humanitarian action, in case innovative phone apps and cash don’t live up to their advertizing.

And in that previous sentence lies a clue to design theory’s promise. As a humanitarian no longer in the field, I am drawn to the ills of the sector before those of the people in CAR or Syria.  I am hardly alone in that regard.  To fix that proximity bias: design theory.  Because one doesn’t design a new sofa with the furniture sector in mind. The trick in design theory is to immerse oneself in the user experience; to empathize with them.  The other trick is to prototype, to churn out new ideas, see how they fare, adapt them, see how they fare…

In one exercise, we were asked to ideate. That involves said churning of ideas without the brakes of affordability, feasibility or desirability. I churned. My small group astutely relegated these ideations to the ‘kill’ pile. The beauty of having my own blog site is being able to re-animate them here, for you, even at the risk of generating the ideation equivalent of false news. (This blog not to be confused with a few of my legitimate ideas). In no particular order:

  • Ban innovation. That seemed like a contrarian place to start.  Remember the kid who couldn’t dribble a basketball, couldn’t shoot it, couldn’t play defense, but spent a spectacular amount of time perfecting his alley-oop slam dunk?  That’s the humanitarian system’s relationship to innovation.  As donors dump money into innovation and we all drink the Silicon Valley Kool-Aid of gadgeting our way out of crisis – as the system devotes ever more resources and effort to innovation – it seems further away from getting the basics right.  Here’s an innovation – deliver emergency aid to people in crisis.  Here’s another innovation – engage in protection work as part of your efforts.  And another — ensure that the needs of people determine what you do.  Get those right and maybe we can start celebrating the latest phone apps.
  • Translate it. Mandatory – in the form of contractual obligations to donors, technical agreements (or regulations) with host governments — translation into local language(s) and community-level dissemination of key documents, including project proposals, budgeting and progress reports.
  • Invoice it. More than once at last month’s DRR conference (see previous post) did we hear that governments refused to invest in disaster risk reduction because that was ‘for the internationals’. Yes, that old issue – aid undermining responsibility and building dependency. But it is not just that we perform/replace the work of governments, armed groups and communities. It gets much worse. Take South Sudan, where an MSF hospital might get burned down and looted a few times over the course of a decade. Or where the government has managed to transform international goodwill, billions of dollars and the joy and hope of millions of South Sudanese into violent catastrophe.  That much destruction and squander takes dedication and it takes talent. It takes intent. So why does MSF rebuild its hospitals?  Why do humanitarians continue to provide healthcare when the government didn’t even try, but instead looted the goods? Why do we feed people who were driven into man-made famine?  Well, because that’s often what humanitarians do. That’s our job. But why don’t we do something more?  I mean, something other than shaking our finger and holding press conferences to declare that we are deeply peeved?  How many hundreds of millions has the international community spent in South Sudan due to the gross negligence and wilful misconduct and criminal behaviour of those in power? I say, send them the invoice. Hire some clever lawyers. Get a judgment. Garnish their wages.  Freeze a few bank accounts.  Invoice it even if you never get a cent back. Invoice it out of principle.
  • Context testing. Everyone working in the aid sector in a foreign country (for longer than six months) must pass a test to show that they have grasped the basic history, geography, culture, economics etc. of that country. They must take an induction course run by a local business or university. They must prove that they are capable not just of being neutral (read: completely disconnected), but of being contextual.

[To be continued in a few days]

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.