1. The lesson of the traffic jam
The traffic situation in New Orleans tells us a great deal about the current state of the world, with humanitarians at the center. I lived there in the late 90s. The peak hour jams were miserable. The wide cement lanes of I-10 reconstituted themselves as a parking lot full of people full of a demoralized rage. The solution was obvious — build another lane. So the traffic jams were then tripled for a few years as construction of another lane took place. Traffic was eased. Hooray for the new lane. And then it wasn’t: more people started driving, the developers built more homes so more people could move out to those homes . . . A few years after the opening of the new lane? The same miserable jams, now 33 percent wider. This is not my observation. This is science. This is the problem of ‘induced demand’.
The humanitarian system functions as many things, and one is as a new lane. I’m not quite sure of the mechanism. Is it that human society will always tolerate a certain level of excess misery, of people in crisis due to poverty, pestilence and war that escapes our efforts at alleviation? Greater and greater budgets, greater and greater resources, greater and greater effectiveness and yet needs still outstrip supply. Getting on top of it (ending human need), in other words, will always remain at the horizon. Or does the mechanism have more to do with the behavior of governments and armed actors? Those making a mess and those who are supposed to solve the messes (or prevent them in the first place) will not respond, will not take difficult action, and will not end their wars because humanitarianism relieves enough pain to reduce the pressure to act.
We do not like the old idea that humanitarianism prolongs war. But if we admit that powerful/western governments will rarely act until there is a crisis, then the lack of a crisis often means they will not act. But this traffic effect is not a question of prolonging war. This is a question of allowing more war: this is the degree to which the delivery of humanitarian aid becomes not just a palliative or fig-leaf, not just an illusion of or substitute for difficult political action, but the degree to which it produces an effect of putting out fire with gasoline.
Can we learn from the traffic jam? Here is what the research proved. The answer to the paradox of why building more lanes actually makes traffic worse has to do with what roads allow people to do: move around. More roads = more moving around. That raises a question: what does humanitarian action allow people (politicians, soldiers, refugees, donors, aid workers) to do? Even more intriguing, here is another finding of the researcher: if you take away lanes, it doesn’t create a big snarling mess. People adjust and the amount of jam stays about the same. In humanitarian terms, that would be a very good thing.
2. You can’t make this stuff up.
There are some quotes that seem better placed in a Peter Sellers movie. Here is Philip Hammond, UK Foreign Secretary, speaking in the aftermath of the Chilcot Inquiry on whether or not the UK made too hasty a withdrawal from Iraq. “Maybe it was too great an ambition to dismantle quite a sophisticated country with a long-established civilisation, traditions and culture of its own, and to recreate a mid-Atlantic construct of what government should look like, often going against the grain of local culture and tradition.”
The word ‘great’ seems mildly out of place. One could easily sub ‘monumentally misguided’. Does that ambition not seem familiar, though, to anyone in the international aid community?
3. Risk aversion or neurosis?
Has anybody ever measured the cumulative effect on our culture of entire nations singing their children to sleep with Rock-a-Bye Baby? Hundreds of millions of admonitions pouring into the infant brain “When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall, and down will come baby, cradle and all.” Seems like a recipe for creating a nation of neurotics. Evidence of this mass insecurity? The mass hysteria that Ebola provoked in the USA? Our collective overestimation and overreaction to the threat of terrorism? Well, here’s more evidence, in an advert I just saw.
Apparently, we now reside live in a world where living fearless is thought to include that old daredevil pursuit of tasting lettuce at what appears to be a posh street market. Be afraid. Be very afraid. Said the spider to the fly?