Tag Archives: Identity

Development vs. Independence

When a pseudonymous filmmaker put out the laughable, execrable Innocence of the Muslims, did anybody foresee a KFC getting torched?  Not to mention a Hardees.  (Which begs the question:  When was the last time anybody outside of Tennessee even noticed a Hardees?).   Apparently, these heart disease outlets are symbols of the USA, a nation that is being held responsible for Sam Bacile’s vile film.  Just yesterday on BBC, a British military expert referred to it as “the U.S. film,” as if it were an official product of the State Department.  Funny that sort of attribution.  Seems unfair.  Like holding the entire Muslim world responsible for 9/11.

There is no link from bad fast food to American foreign policy (let’s not quibble about U.S. Govt efforts to help U.S. corporations establish overseas markets).  Yet the perceived link is as real to rioters on Lebanon’s “Arab Street” as salt in a Big Mac, isn’t it?

That’s the lesson for independence in humanitarian circles:  we NGOs can’t fully control perceptions; we can only improve our chances.  Independence is factual:  being able to make decisions and then implement programs in such a way as to ensure impartiality trumps political opportunism (i.e., that aid goes to those most in need).  And independence is about what people think.  What does KFC have to do with the American government?  And what does the American government have to do with Bacile’s film (“Sam Bacile” and “Imbecile”:  curiously close!)?  Sometimes, it doesn’t matter.

ALNAP’s recently released State of the Humanitarian System report raises the concern of a growing split between “traditionalist” actors, like MSF and the ICRC, and multi-mandate organizations, like Oxfam or World Vision. (Scroll down on ALNAP’s site if you want to see a video of yours truly in action).  Tellingly, it concludes that “many humanitarian organizations have themselves also willingly compromised a principled approach in their own conduct through close alignment with political and military actors” (SOHS p. 79). Bingo.  That’s your first step to a burned down chicken shack.   But what does this compromise look like up close?

There is the obvious acceptance of funding for programs, especially for work in war zones, from Western governments that are one of the belligerents.  Most international NGOs really struggle with those decisions, attempting an impossible calculation between benefits of the program versus negative consequences for the NGO.  Will “they” shoot at us if we take U.S. Govt money?  Will “they” give us access?

Less obvious for some reason are the ways in which agencies go further than accept government funding.  Responding to the recent Cabinet shuffle in the UK, here’s what Christian Aid had to say about the departing head of Department for International Development (DFID):  “Andrew Mitchell can leave [DFID] with his head held high. He has been a passionate defender of the need for the UK to help people living in poverty around the world.”   That sort of asskissing is so commonplace many NGOs no longer even register its existence.  Here’s Save the Children’s UK CEO, saying that he “completely” trusted David Cameron’s Conservative government on aid and development.

In an astute blog, Jonathan Glennie casually concludes that “Pandering to power is an inevitable part of being a large international charity or research organisation these days; it’s where much of the money comes from.”  Say what?  Inevitable?  Like death and taxes?

The issue goes beyond money.  It goes to achieving organization objectives.  And the relationships go much deeper than offering public praise (which, btw, DFID strongly “encourages” for NGOs receiving funding).   This is not self-promotion, this is partnership.  Many large NGOs must actively cultivate a public, political relationship with a government.  In 2009, Save UK hosted the Conservative Party’s launch of its aid policy.  Right now, Save is preparing to host the Labour Party’s annual conference on int’l development.   Another example:  Islamic Relief co-hosted a Ramadan dinner with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (that’s not the aid bunch, that’s the politicos).

Beyond partnership, there is the co-mingling of staff.  Lots of NGOs hire directors from the ranks of the political world.  This is a matter of hiring skilled, connected leaders.  Positive impact?  Loads.  Negative impact?  Hard to measure, but a full 30 years after Bernard Kouchner left MSF, the organization still had to issue press releases to distance itself from his actions as French foreign minister.

Let’s get something straight.  I’m not being critical.  Really.  Well, sort of.  This “partnering” has become a policy, not just a practice.  In other words, one NGO’s pandering is another NGO’s advocacy strategy.  Check out journo Peter Gill in his excellent Famine and Foreigners: ‘The intimacy between Oxfam and the Labour government was defended on both sides […] An impressive national consensus was built in Britain around the merits of aid which after decades of [Conservative party] scepticism was endorsed by […]David Cameron.”  (pp. 179 – 180).  Gill was critical of the relationships, but he’s right to realize that they proved an effective vehicle for change.  And lest the sanctimonious pretend they are different, here’s MSF showing some love for none other than the heavyweight champ of drone missile diplomacy, pushing the agenda for HIV/AIDS funding.

The problem lies in the multi-mandate status of most large humanitarian NGOs.  When it comes to development programs and policy campaign objectives, creating a close and public relationship with key governments is crucial to ensuring success (e.g., adequate aid flows, effective policy).  The cosier the better – politics makes for mundane bedfellows as well – even if their new best friends also happen to be shooting up a few war zones.  Put simply, there is little imperative for a development organization to safeguard the perception of independence. The oops factor comes from the fact that development is only half the story of some NGOs.

In the end, the difficulty for big charities to demarcate and safeguard their independence from government blots out the NG in NGO.  In the UK, carrying the Minister’s bag means carrying the bag of the man who said “Using the UK’s aid budget to secure progress in Afghanistan will be my number one priority … Well-spent aid is in our national interest. Nowhere in the world is this case clearer than in Afghanistan.” (UK Minister for Int’l Development Andrew Mitchell, July 2010).

That sort of co-mingling has an effect.  Look, not even people in the same country will trust your motives.  When Save recently highlighted the problem of hunger in Britain, people uncomfortable with that message undermined it by suggesting there was a rat loose.  As reported in the illustrious Daily Mail, “Conservative MP Brian Binley told civilsociety.co.uk he had general concerns as Justin Forsyth […] had worked for the last Labour government”, and suggesting that the report’s alarm over hunger in the UK was part of a “political agenda”.   Turn now to people in foreign lands.  With guns.  Or a sick child.  As I have written before, in the midst of humanitarian crisis, independence goes to the heart of aid, to its integrity.

Which brings us back to KFC.  Bad enough that independent Western NGOs may be targeted as a way of venting anti-American or anti-Western suspicions and anger.  What happens when it turns out that these NGOs actually helped fry the fowl?

Where is Development’s Dawn?

“Being disabled is in the mind, if you don’t accept it, then you can do anything you want.”  That is Ghanaian wheelchair racer Raphael Botsyo Nkegbe.  If you’ve followed the Paralympics, you’ve no doubt heard similar statements. One thing for sure, it is definitely in the mind.  But whose?

Now hundreds of great sporting performances later, many pundits have announced the dawn of a new age for the disabled.  Mainstream media and public sentiment seem to have embraced the plot of sport and competition and achievement over spectacle and pity.  Could it be that we have truly turned a corner in our treatment of people who do not look like the people in magazine ads, even if none of us really look like the people in magazine ads except in so far as limb count?

Or could it be something else, such as the conspicuous, slightly uncomfortable invasion of the ranks of the disabled by strapping veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?  These are people we cannot fault for their disability (i.e., not wheelchaired in a gang shooting or drunk driving accident or stupid diving board stunt).  They grew up with us, not ghettoed by disability, not shunned from sight to the same mental closet as those with Down’s syndrome or cerebral palsy.

No, methinks we are not callous enough to place the vet in that closet.  Even opponents of war cannot escape the sense that Paralympic rower Nick Beighton, his two legs blown off by an al Queda IED, is heroic.  Is a normal guy.  Is a casualty of a democracy in which we the people have sent him to that blast.  (For the link to the aid biz, see my blog on how we market to the public a victim who is worthy of their donations, because innocent of his or her suffering.).

There is an idea in Nkegbe’s and Beighton’s and Pistorius’ determined self-definition – wresting control of one’s identity from the judgment of others – that appeals to me on an intuitive level.  Yet I struggle not to see disability.  I get it that Patrick Anderson is a wheelchair basketball scoring machine who could probably knock down 8 out of 10 from the foul line.  Translation:  he possesses a degree of hand-eye coordination that is, in comparison to my own, roughly equivalent to the relative difference (advantage mine) in our mobility.

Yet I don’t feel disabled.  And nobody perceives me as disabled.  Nor do I risk being defined or limited as a person because of what I cannot do as a result of my mediocre athletic coordination.  Ditto for speed or strength or any other physical traits – they define much about me, certainly how successful I might be in sport (or, for that matter, dance) – and yet the skills I don’t have don’t stand out as holes.  My coordination is not missing.  It’s not made of metal.  When I look at Beighton, when I think about his lost legs and what that must mean for his life, I still come to this dreadful word:  disabled.

As a subject of study, the depths of identity are far better plumbed by others.  We all get it that the world creates these categories of dysfunction or “abnormality” by making, at an almost pre-conscious level, judgments against the backdrop of a “normal”.  This normal becomes a standard, and is of course heavily weighted by our common, contemporary set of capacities. In contrast:  the synonym for people like sprinters Oscar Pistorius and Jonnie Peacock:  they are invalids.  Not valid.

Switch now from the fields of sporting endeavours to the fields of sorghum in Burkina Faso.  Switch now to poverty, to the “have nots”.  Switch to the third world, developing countries, lesser developed countries, and the global south.  What makes these labels?  What makes these countries so disabled?  Well, let’s avoid that debate and just agree that it’s something like per capita GNP.  In other words, wealth.  So who decided on that?  Who decided that societies should not be ranked according to the rate of marriage failures, or the number of unwanted teen pregnancies, or levels of drug addiction, or the percentage of old people who spend most of their life separated from family, or the number of adults who follow Rihanna on Twitter?

The real question, though, isn’t who decided the rating system by which nations are placed into the category of disabled.  The real question is this:  how do we launch the dawn of a new age in which these nations, and the billions of people in them, do not define themselves as disabled? How do we arrive at a world where huge chunks of humans do not think of HD TV or paved roads the way we think of Beighton’s missing legs?

I have no idea whatsoever.  But I have a feeling it is that very internalization of the identity of being disabled which is the true disabler.  And I have a feeling that this is the overarching challenge to development.  It slaps a giant “PART OF THE PROBLEM” sticker on the back of the aid industry. There, it is a matter of mind, a matter of definition that the Third World should see disabled when they look in the mirror.

Baby Helmets for the World

Yummy!  There’s a Whole Foods Market in Stoke Newington.  That consumed an hour yesterday afternoon.  And about 50 quid.  The excitement mounted as I meandered through that bastion of American food and health branding.  Dare I admit to titillation at the prospect of real pretzels and something besides mayo-based sauce to put on a salad?  Or Mexican style salsas that aren’t made by Old El Paso, which seems to be the only brand sold in Britain, which is like having 65 million people who think the Ford Fiesta is the only car in the world.

Part of the WFM experience involved discovering Kallo Low Fat Rice Cakes.  Think about that for a moment.  Low fat rice cake.  That’s not exactly the same thing as a low fat English breakfast.  The label boasted 0.2g of fat.  What do you figure, that’s down from 0.3 grams?  Maybe 0.4g?  (Just for comparison sake, a rather basic version of a Full English boasts about 400 times more fat).  Oh, and a pack of Kallo’s Low Fat Rice Cakes costs £7.64, which is only slightly less than the price of platinum on the basis of weight.  People are willing to pay for health.

Our visit to Whole Foods Market came just after getting lost in Abney Park Cemetery, a hidden gem that’s part graveyard and part medieval forest.  Reading the 19th C gravestones there, it’s hard not to remark the ordinariness of children or young adults dying.  Cut to 20 years ago:  walking through Lafayette Cemetery in New Orleans, digesting the significance of family headstones with three or four children perished within a stretch of three weeks.  Makes you realize how far removed many of us have become from the reality of the human condition being nasty, brutish and short.

In the chasm between “haves” and “have nots”, we can conjure many dividing lines:  The digital divide, the education divide, the life expectancy divide.  Yet I find it hard to imagine a deeper division than the one in which the “haves” side includes a chunk of people suffering panic attacks over the fat content of a rice cake.  The luxury of that effort, the obsessive nature of that fear, the idiosyncrasy of that market all point to a rarefied environment, to say the least.

So we must ask:  How many of us shoppers at Whole Foods think of ourselves as rarefied (read: nutters) as opposed to normal arbiters of healthy living?  How close is that luxury/obsession/idiosyncrasy to those who hold power in the humanitarian business?  And how far removed is it from the world of the beneficiary?  What does this gap say about the values underlying aid programs dealing with health?  We must ask these questions because the removal – the distance – is not so easily contained to the many absurd disparities between a society in which hunger is a permanent and defining ache and one in which people study the labels of organic yoghurt as if reading the instructions to defuse a bomb.

No, the distance here is generated by the value assigned to health and, perhaps, to life itself.  It is that value – the hyperinflation of health – which underpins our worrying about the fat content of aerated rice flour.  We come from societies “evolving” to the point where the minute risk of ill health or injury prompts such overly protective behaviour as the baby helmet or the craze for umbilical cord banking.  Here lies a fundamental disjunction between medical humanitarian and beneficiary, one largely invisible to us.  How else to describe our obsession with their health; with our overweening valuation of their health more than their own valuation of it?

OK.  We live in a different world. I guess my question is the degree to which we unwittingly export our world, or impose it; to which we remain blind to our way not being the only way.

When Somali elders prefer a cataract surgery clinic to primary healthcare for their community, do we listen to their request or overrule their unenlightened undervaluation of the health of a two-year-old?  When a Sudanese woman runs a risk by not bringing her child to the clinic, what is our reaction?  Do we question our own alarm at that minimal risk?  Or do we construct an entire narrative of victimhood, where she is forced to make such a “bad” choice in order to collect firewood or care for her other children?  Or do we construct a narrative of her ignorance, where she doesn’t understand the consequences of her own actions?  We export, in other words, our valuation of risk.  Will the humanitarians of the future insist she walk three hours to pick up her baby helmet?

When a Zimbabwean man refuses to wear condoms or stop visiting prostitutes, what is our reaction to his running the risk of catching/spreading AIDS?  Do we accept his choice or, again, construct an idea of his ignorance?  More importantly, do we even register our imposition and increasingly commercial marketing of biological longevity as some sort of universal right?  Do we recognize in ourselves the front men of a pharmaceutical industry whose wet dream is a world population sucking down as many pills as we do?  What of his response to our attempts at steering him on the right path; at our incessant moral hectoring and ever-so-repetitive educational demand that he change his behaviour?  Some days, I think we miss his response altogether:  “Hey, you, loosen up.  Chill out.  Eat some deep-fried food.  Live a little!”

Secret Agent Man

Anyone out there remember James Bond’s funeral?  Yes, Bond died.  Sort of.

The burial at sea of MI6 ace spy comes early in “You Only Live Twice”.  Seems the cloak of having died was necessary for 007 to foil SPECTRE’s capturing of US and USSR spaceships, which threatens British high tea with the unsavoury effects of nuclear war.  Key to the plot is Bond going undercover, becoming a Japanese fisherman in a small island village (near the fake volcano island being used by Blofeld as a secret rocket launch station and underground base).  He marries a Japanese secret agent (named, as they are, Kissy Suzuki) and settles into village life with neither fanfare nor, apparently, the notice of any of the other villagers.

Are you following this picture?  Sean Connery circa-1967 disguises himself as a Japanese fisherman after a wee bit of surgery to make his eyes look slanted.  In fact, it looked like somebody put scotch tape on his eyebrows.  That’s the same Connery who emerged bare-chested from the surf in “Dr. No” and looked no less unlike a Japanese villager than Lassie.  That stretch of the imagination is called Hollywood.  See also, John Wayne playing Genghis Kahn.

Out here in the real world, though, spies probably don’t stick out quite so sore thumbly, as it’s bad for business; worse for health.  Spies in the real world probably look like people on TV, even reality shows.  They probably look like well, you or me (even if we would never agree to be on a reality show).  That means they probably look like NGO workers.  Recent news suggests that they may in fact be NGO workers.

First it was the Norwegian government admitting that its secret service had agents inside Pakistan, which was widely understood to mean NGO workers.  Then, last week, the Dutch government saying that it used journalists to spy on the Chinese.  Ouch!  Those are the good governments; the ones with actual moral scruples.

Well, that news fits the times.  I blogged on the CIA’s recent use of a fake vaccination campaign to identify and kill OBL.  Here’s how that myopic action is playing out right now, in Northwest Pakistan, where military commander Hafiz Gul Bahadur refuses to permit polio vaccination, because “spies could enter the region under the cover of vaccination teams to get information”.

Add on top of that the way we here in the West usually view NGOs as organizations where the NG means something, but NGOs in many parts of the world are very G, amply and expressly tied to the interests of the rulers or the State itself.  So it would be perfectly normal for people in the countries where we work to be suspicious of our self-proclaimed neutrality and independence to begin with.

What now?  It’s not like humanitarian agencies have policies on what to do with spies in the house.  Presumably, we’d strap them to a table with a laser beam inching its way towards their groin.  In the absence of a laser, we could terminate their contracts, although that’s not really the same thing as having a policy on the issue.  (Interestingly, we sometimes “know” that one of our national staff is a spy for the host country.  And what do we do?  Nothing.  It’s not a bad thing – helps create transparency (i.e., the security goons in the government can see what we’re up to)).

Do NGOs have responsibility to do a better job of protecting their integrity and neutrality against infiltration?  Do we have a duty to vet more robustly our employees?  NGOs typically perform a criminal records check, but I’m relatively certain there’s no website to verify if somebody isn’t a CIA assassin.  Random lie detector tests?  Push governments to publicly disavow this abuse?  Make it a criminal offense for a government to do this?  Ignore the issue until it becomes “common knowledge” that there are spies in the house?  Ignore it until our beneficiaries have suspicions about us?  Until they fear talking to us?  Until people warn them against talking to us?

Kind of makes you wonder, doesn’t it?  Why would anybody with my background and training do this job for so little pay?  Well, I’m exposing this issue in a blog, so it couldn’t possibly be me.

The Narrative Divide

Check out this trenchant writing from Kenyan author/journo Binyavanga Wainaina on the perception bias infecting western media (and here’s another take on that topic).   He rather hilariously bull’s-eyes a spear in the gut of Western journalism, their spouses and their tennis partners, we do-gooders at the big aid agencies.

Coincidentally, his rant covers some of the same territory as my recent post on Chinese model of “charity”.  Glad to see he doesn’t get sucked into a romanticization of Chinese exploitation.  Rather, his point seems simpler:  many Africans would prefer to get screwed by Chinese businesses than patronized or sanctimonyized by the proverbial whites in shining armor of Big Aid.

Wainaina rages and we humanitarians seem high on the hit list.  That can’t be good.   It is easier to counter the pampered elites of the Western intellectual critocracy than someone born and raised in one of the nations we’ve been so diligently saving these past forty years.

Moreover, his view of aid seems reinforced in many of the 199 comments on his piece.  Here’s Cornhil on June 4:  “You would have thought that after the disaster that is and was the post-earthquake agency bonanza in Haiti, a little humility would be appropriate from the Aid Industry, but apparently not.”

Damningly, even some who take umbrage with his “stereotyped” or “sneering” diatribe remark that he is of course spot on about the aid workers of this world, almost as if it were to be taken as a given.  Ouch!  Defending the West but leaving the aid industry out in the cold.  Where’s the love?  Where’s the understanding?  Where’s our money going to come from?

(A digression: “In 1991, Africa ceased to exist. The world was safe, and the winners could now concentrate on being caring, speaking in aid language bullet points.”  That’s an almost perfect summation of the intermingling of politics and aid — the establishment of governance through the imposition of a world welfare state.].

Wainaina is at his sharpest showing our collective Western understanding of Africa to be based upon the most preposterously stereotyped terms.  Hold that thought and flash back to the fit of humanitarian arm flapping at Kony 2012’s volcanic success.  As I blogged, the criticism of Invisible Children’s vanity video went pretty viral itself.  In that outburst of backlash I failed to grasp the significance and weight of Ugandan voices criticising a Western organization in the Western media.  What gives?  Weren’t Ugandans supposed to be invisible?

Recently, I heard digital media expert Paul Conneally challenge us humanitarians to avoid becoming an analogue enterprise in a digital age (see his speech here).  The entire humanitarian arena is abuzz with the potential of digital technology to improve its work.  From SMS health messages to patients (“Please remember to take your ARVs now”) to real-time satellite mapping of epidemics to a fundraising blitz of mobile phone chuggers, we are fast imagining a new golden age.  But Conneally’s core message wasn’t about technological advances of NGOs  – a reform in how we do our work – but in the transformation driven by the digital empowerment of the beggar/victim/beneficiary/target population.

People who will want to talk about our work are going to have access not only to information, but to the means of producing it.  They will have access not only to our opinions, but to our opinion platforms.  In other words, the helpless victims of Africa, like the Ugandans who outed Kony 2012’s disdain for accuracy in depicting the reality of Uganda today, are going to take away our western monopoly over the narratives defining their societies.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, white ears and eyes will consume the stories of brown people as told by brown people themselves, not white visitors to brown places.  In the process, these browns may have something to say about all those starving baby fundraising appeals.  They may even have something to say about all the appeals, letters, articles and interviews from the agencies whose guidelines prohibit the use of starving baby images and so sleep well in the self-evidence of their enlightenment, beneficence and narrative integrity.

Changing of the Guard

Last Monday I flew home from a family visit to Philadelphia.  As a recovering TVholic, defined by not having lived with a television for several decades because I’d lose my job (or, now, my new wife) over an inability to wrest my eyes from the likes of Gilligan’s Island, the first thing I do upon boarding a long haul is check out the movie catalogue.

US Airways has two film libraries:  new releases and classics.  I opted for classics.  I had a strange craving for a western, an old classic like Red River, or maybe something newer like Unforgiven.  For months now I’ve also had a hankering for The Misfits, but didn’t hold out much hope of finding that gem.  Even after deliberately adjusting my expectations downward (it’s not like I was hoping to find Fellini on a bargain flight out of Philly), the selection caught me by surprise.  Here’s one of the films:  Night at the Museum:  Battle of the Smithsonian.   Seems I needed to adjust my understanding of classic.  Honestly, I could feel the very tectonic plates of beauty, reason and truth grind and crack at the idea of a Ben Stiller sequel nudging up next to Casablanca, The Big Lebowski, or even Rocky (the first one).

That earthquake came directly on the heels of a wonderful party hosted by my parents, to celebrate my recent marriage.  There, two generations of guests came repeatedly and without collusion to the same exact conclusion – I got extremely lucky and my wife must have a hidden impairment.

Anyway, as we milled around the garden on a sunny afternoon, I couldn’t help noticing the deep gray of my folks’ octogenarian crowd seemed to have gone viral among my gang of college buddies.   The moment struck me as deeply, starkly revelatory.  There they were, a mirror of life’s next stage and hence a window on the delusions of the present.  In vernacular:  a reality check.  When was the last time you saw an aid worker who doddered?

Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ flashed to mind.  That is an understatement when my own understanding of what is classic turns out to be about three decades and a whole lot of classicalness out of touch with reality.  It raises the question of whether or not we recognize the changing of the guard.  Whether there are signals in place to let us know that the world has shifted, gone in a different direction or left us in the dust.  Maybe we are hardwired to be the last to know.  Of course, the guard isn’t changing at all.  We’re changing.  And at the same time we’re the guard, standing still, left behind by an evolving world.

For humanitarians, I can only say this.  One of the other classic movies on offer?  Rise of the Planet of the Apes, starring James Franco.  Does anybody even remember the pathos etched on Charlton Heston’s face as he rode up the beach, only to find the Statue of Liberty buried in the sand?  Or to paraphrase digital humanitarianism guru Paul Conneally:  How long before we know if we’ve become an analogue organization in a digital world?

The Rest of the Story

When I get nostalgic for folksy American journalism, I think of Paul Harvey’s “The Rest of the Story” broadcasts.  In his rather unique delivery, Harvey would tell some story, hiding until the end the identity of its protagonist.  That was the surprise that transformed the rest.  Like a story about a kid who was so scared of heights, he was afraid to get on a playground swing.  The poor lad would have been mercilessly teased and abused a child, crying to his mama on a daily basis.  And then (after the commercial break!) Harvey would reveal that child to have grown up to become somebody like Orville Wright or Yuri Gagarin.

Now Saturday’s Observer brings us similar broadcast.  A fading superpower rides the high and mighty humanitarian horse of generosity, compassion and moral imperative into crisis. The good nation sends heavyweight envoys to demonstrate commitment.  They make thoughtful, pained pronouncements on the terrible suffering of the innocents.  The good nation scolds other actors into stepping up the response.   The good nation even organizes a conference to help stabilize the country, because it’s a very messy place.  Then, lo and behold, it turns out there is oil to be found underneath that mess; a failed state whose failure doesn’t bode well for extraction industries based in the good nation.  The countries?  The UK and Somalia.  “And now you know the rest of the story.  Paul Harvey.  Good day.

I doubt very much that The Rest of the Story broadcasts would have lasted over thirty years if they contained such an anti-climactic finish as that one.  Sorry, you probably saw in coming.  And I have no doubt there will never be a self-contained “rest” of the story for Somalia. 

Appearing on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, Andrew Mitchell, the UK’s International Development Secretary, strenuous denied the accusation, awarding the Observer’s journalist “the prize for the most cynical piece of journalism this century”. 

Unfortunately, sexy accusastions resonate a lot better than predictable denials.  (Odd, isn’t it, that the one thing retractions don’t have is traction?). Somalis will be repeating for two generations that we humanitarians were sent to their country because of the oil. Here’s Bashir Goth’s take on it:  “No politician and especially a British for that matter flaunt naked objectives. They have to be sugar coated with diplomacy and altruism.”  So billions of dollars of work is reduced to the colorful exterior of an M&M.

Apologies for repeating the message of the previous blog.  But humanitarian don’t need more nails in the coffin of our perceived integrity.  As if the good doctor were not enough.  A government like the UK working to advance its military, economic and security interests is, well, what a government like the UK is supposed to do.  

What is maybe more interesting is the rest of the story.  We humanitarians are often in search of our own oil, in search of the donations we are able to extract from our (marketing claims of an effective) presence in the Horn crisis.  Humanitarianism is increasingly constructed on this basis of extraction and exploitation.  Using misery to mine gold.  That doesn’t mean it fails to deliver good.  Ditto for the UK government in Somalia.  But we need to make sure Somalis like Goth aren’t writing the same thing about us.

The Good Doctor Calls

“Dr. Shakeel Afridi is the unsung hero of the war on terror.”  So sings U.S. Congressional Representative Dana Rohrabacher in nominating Afridi for the Congressional Gold Medal.  (You can read his full speech here).   Humanitarians are well familiar with Dr. Afridi’s exploits, though perhaps somewhat less likely to heap praise:  Afridi is and will continue to be the unsung cause of a lot of deaths.

 Who is Afridi?  He’s the medical doctor who engineered a fake vaccination campaign in a certain part of Pakistan, allowing him to enter the house of Planet Earth’s #1 most wanted bearded man.  It was the good doctor’s intelligence that supported the U.S. commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden.  In essence, Afridi did for the widely held (and wildly exaggerated) belief that we humanitarians are spies or soldiers what Monica Lewinsky did for rumors of Bill Clinton’s philandering.  So when the al-Shabaab militia group in Somalia accuses UN agencies and NGOs of being the enemy, using that as an excuse to expel vital aid organizations from famine-stricken areas of Somalia, it is easy to label the Shabaab callous or insensitive or even murderous, but you can’t label them nutters.

 Afridi’s exploits create a shot heard round the world, the well-hyped example which transforms an obscure event into common knowledge.  I have a feeling it will live on.  For anybody with a sense of skepticism or suspicion, for people who need to trust their doctor, it’s a simple confirmation  that humanitarians aren’t what they appear to be.  Confirmation that the conspiracy theorists, gossipers, rumor mongers, and anybody else with a interest in stopping aid work aren’t just people with a loose screw. 

 About the only upside is this:  if people only suspect that we are secretly working for the CIA, maybe they won’t notice all the other ways in which we humanitarians do the bidding of others, be it a specific government, institutional donor, or that amorphous bogeyman, Global Power.  Thanks, Dr. Afridi, for improving our street cred as spies.

The New Black

Apologies for the long delay between posts.  I’ve been busy taking care of a few little matters, like getting married and going on a honeymoon…

Returning to Heathrow yesterday, tired, I finished the 18-mile trek from the gate to the passport control hall.  Picture that cavernous space, vacant on the right (some unmanned desks) and largely empty on the left, where my wife was heading with her British passport.  In the middle, a dense block of humanity, switchbacked through the maze of ropes guiding non-EU citizens to their inquisitors. 

The block was not only dense, it was dark.  Suddenly it clicked.  The gates next to our Alitalia flight (we were returning from the Puglia region of Italy – the heel of the boot – which I can enthusiastically recommend) were filled by two planes from Jet Airways, another two from Kingfisher and Air India, along with Arik Air, which a Google search confirmed is a Nigeria based airline.  There was also an Etihad plane.  That’s not the same thing as a mix of passengers from Delta, Qantas and Air Canada.  That dark block would move slowwwwwwly.  It looked like 90 minutes of frustration. 

These aren’t the sort (read: color/nationality) of people who get waved through after a perfunctory passport check.  Sad but true:  years of experience in queuing for passport control all across Europe and North America informs me to pick the line with the fewest dark faces.  Also to be avoided:  turbans, skull caps and headscarves of any kind (save yarmulkes), and (increasingly) Chinese faces.  (Assuming the oh-so-wrong idea that there is such a thing as a Chinese face).

[At this point, I need to make a disclosure.  I asked an attendant if I could be put in the Fast-Track lane, usually reserved for the doddering and doolally or the 9-month pregnant, in order to catch up with my wife.  I was then surprised to learn that if we were travelling together, I could join her in the queue for EU citizens.  Yes, an official benefit of being married! I sailed through with her, 5 minutes max.  Another disclosure:  in my youth, I may have felt guilty, or even stood as a matter of principle with the downtrodden.  But I am no longer young.]

Back to humanitarian action.  Administrative delay already impairs aid work in some countries, including outlandish difficulties to obtain the necessary visas and work permits for entry.  Long gone (mostly) are the cowboy days of driving around Country X without first getting a few signatures.  The trend strikes me as interesting.  Will the growth of non-Western humanitarian NGOs allow aid recipient nations to institute a two-track system, with us inching forward in a snaking line of uncertainty, enviously watching others whizz through? (Much as exists today though in our favour, for example, in obtaining UN or institutional funding.).   What happens when our identity, our identification as White/Western/European/Northern agencies, increasingly acts as a steroid pump up for the iron fist of administration gripping our collective throats?  Will queuing sap our drive and verve and effectiveness?  Will we grow to resent our hosts as they don’t appear to welcome out gifts? 

Those are relatively pragmatic questions.  More importantly:  will we learn to accept the indignity of second-class citizenship?  It boils down to this: in humanitarian action, white is becoming the new black.  And how will we manage being black?  Here’s my guess: not very well at all.

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.