Tag Archives: Neo-colonial

Feeding the Fire

[Apologies for the absence.  Just back from two fascinating weeks — our anniversary! — in Egypt.]

Just last week I was climbing the seriously magnificent Temple of Hatshepsut with my wife.  Its sheer beauty absorbs one’s attention.  Even my peripatetic gaze.  At least until a discordant note in the form of a young Polish woman in a micro sleeveless dress descended the stairs from the first courtyard.  Her dress was day-glo orange.  All of it. And fully radioactive in the noon sun.  In my entire life, I don’t think I’d ever seen clothing that color, save for road crew vests. Not even Dennis Rodman in his lunatic prime.

In the late morning of November 17, 1997 a different sort of scene unfolded on the terrace of that very same temple.  Armed with automatic weapons, six Islamic militants aligned with Al-Gama’a al-Islamyya massacred 62 people, mostly Western tourists.  They unleashed a Breivik-esque melee, for example hacking and dismembering a few honeymooning Japanese couples.  (Tangent alert: Doesn’t it seem less than coincidental that the attack took place at the temple of the first woman pharaoh?).

Those militants understood the enormous value of tourism to Egypt.  It seems they also despised the equally enormous Westernizing impact of tourism on the predominantly Muslim country.  Today, even with an elected President from the Muslim Brotherhood, more stringent Islamic groups in Egypt still take aim at tourism.  The people earning filoos kateer (gobs of money) from Egypt’s tourism, not to mention the people scraping by on its leftovers, simply curse this kind of thinking.  The government, for its part, have put in place greater security.  The question for me:  Why the hell was day glo orange slinking down those steps in the first place?

The point is not at all that women wearing mini-skirts are legit targets for attack.  The point is not to suggest an actual justification for their actions (i.e., women who dress provocatively aren’t “asking for it”).   The point is that some behaviour – disrespectful, abusive, neo-colonial, whatever – creates a justification in their minds.  Gimme a reason! You got one.

The message was consistent in all the tourist books, and in the advice we received:  show respect.  To do that in Egypt, dress and behave conservatively: women and men should cover flesh, don’t walk around the streets snogging, boozing, etc etc.  (In one café that served beer, they asked us not to sit near the door – essentially a tactic of not rubbing the public’s nose in alcohol).  But those with the most to lose in the long run seem the least concerned in the here and now.

The Red Sea resort tour companies offering blitzkriegs of Luxor or the Pyramids seem to be the worst offenders if measured by the sheer volume of people being disgorged from their buses who don’t give a shit.  The scene:  sunburn-glowing Poles, Germans and Brits, dressed for an appearance on Baywatch, mobbing past Egyptian families dressed in galabiyahs.  In close second place were the fat Nile cruise boats, moored along Aswan’s corniche, gleaming white hulls matching the jellified flesh prancing around the pool deck.  In third place, as a matter of unscientific impression, were the French, cloaked as always in the self-assurance of being French.

The point is that Little Miss Day Glo wasn’t just an insensitive tourist. She became a recruitment poster, fiery sermon topic and a rallying cry all rolled into one.  To anybody with an anti-Western agenda, she’s ammo.  So if I were those tour operators, I’d be making sure people who got on the bus weren’t dressed to insult.  Not because it will matter to the militant.  You can’t stop the militant.  But you can stop ordinary people from listening to the militant.  You can stop people from joining the militant, or having sympathy for his cause.  You can stop making the militant’s job easy.  In the end, there is something fundamentally wrong with the everyday Egyptian left cringing, clutching the family closer, one hand across their children’s eyes.

But I’m not a tour operator.  I work for a humanitarian organization.  And yet I ask the same questions and reach the same answer:  What about our behaviour as aid workers?  We need to stop wearing the day glo orange.  We need to stop making it easy.

Battle of the Models

Can we all agree that my last post set forth definitive proof of the fundamental superiority of the aid industry’s business model?  Eat your heart out $600-per-share Apple!  Aid NGOs will be around long after the I-Phone’s fashion accessory status pulls a Milli Vanilli.  My mortgage is safe.

Or is it?  Like cassette tapes being vanquished by CDs, and CDs by MP3 format, even the most perfect business model can be destroyed by a paradigm shift, such as by the appearance of a new model.

There are plenty of threats to the aid model.  But we will survive our collective Whites in Shining Armour tendencies.  We will survive the continued politicization of aid.   We will survive the Somali Spring’s challenges to the humanitarian cartel.   We will survive because these problems don’t touch the business model.  The givers will still give.  What we will not survive is this ancient Chinese proverb:  “Forget the favours you have given; remember those received.”

When I first heard a different version of it – “If you help somebody, they should never forget; but if you help somebody, you should never remember” – Professor Li Anshan (a Chinese academic) was explaining the difference between charity and the transactional (mutual interest) aid proffered by China.  We humanitarians scoff at the idea of beneficiaries paying for charity.  Professor Li scoffs (though, I must say, much more politely) at the idea of philanthropy-based aid.  He writes: “China has never used the term ‘donor-recipient’ (a philanthropic idea) to describe China-African relations, using “partner” instead. China believes that assistance is not unilateral, but mutual.”

Back to favours.  Take your Uncle Ken, who goes on and on about the time he gave you his prize bass fishing lure because you forgot your tackle box.  Twenty years ago.  That’s the first thing about favours:  your Uncle Ken will never shut up.  Even after he passes away, his kids will remind you of the time he gave you that lure.  Favours are open-ended, indestructible, immortal.

Favours lesson #2:  the giving of the favour is worth far more than the thing itself.  What would a bass lure cost?  Five bucks?  If you’d paid Uncle Ken a fiver, a year later he’d never even remember the transaction.   That’s because the favour isn’t about the thing, it’s about the thing at a given time.  How much would you pay for a glass of water if you’re stuck in the desert?  So it might cost $1M to build a hospital in Sierra Leone, but that’s $1M Salone doesn’t have.  Enter, stage right, the aid industry, Johnny on the spot with a favour.  Voilà.  The hospital Salone will be hearing about for the next twenty years.

And then there is the Trojan horse effect of favours, of charity, because the thing you get is never yours.  If Apple sells you an I-Phone, Stephen Jobs (RIP!) couldn’t care less if you download porn with it.  Not so with charity – just try converting that hospital into a police post, or a pub.  Daily Mail: “Ungrateful government turns British Taxpayer millions into a brothel.”  Ditto for those tirades against poor people who use welfare payments to drink beer, bet on horses or eat Big Macs.  Favours:  they never go away and you never own them.  What does that sound like?  Power.

The thrust of Professor Li’s critique places Western aid at the center of philanthropic elitism.  I’d say it goes further: philanthropic subjugation.  Debt and power:  we know aid comes with strings attached.  But because it’s charity, because it’s a favour, this debt comes concealed in the form of a vague expectation, to be exploited in perpetuity.  As the proverb says:  Sierra Leone should never forget. That’s a pretty damned good return on investment. Better even than usury.  Like usury, though, it only works if the poor don’t have a choice.  Transactional aid constitutes a second option.

Building a hospital in Guinea in return for access for Chinese state capitalists to bauxite mines is an exchange.  It presents poor/powerless governments with the opportunity to “pay” for services rendered.  The debt is fixed in time and kind; the hospital is Guinea’s to use as Guinea sees fit.  There is no principle of humanity or compassion through which the giver then morphs into the self-anointed judge, loudly denouncing the human rights violations or the fragility of the government while reminding us all of the favours that have been delivered.

Isn’t it strange how the span of the favour receiver seems to become the business of the favour giver, as if privacy itself had been overcome.  Rather impudently, I once told a Sudanese official that if they didn’t like noisy NGOs cranking on about “sovereign” matters, they only had to make good on their sovereign responsibility to ensure their own people weren’t starving to death or being attacked.  With favour-givers like that, who needs enemies?

Let’s not romanticize China’s approach.  We all understand the underlying imbalance of the bargaining power.  The beauty of the Chinese model, however, isn’t in the equality of the practical arrangements.  The beauty of the model is in the origins of the proverb:  human dignity.

The charity model, the creation of a scheme of favours, installs human hierarchy:  giver/receiver, success/failure, superior/inferior, saviour/beggar, hero/victim, upright/genuflected.  Uncle Ken didn’t just do me a favour, he engaged in philanthropic subjugation. Next time I need a lure, I’ll buy one from Uncle Wu.

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.

The New Young Turks

Having finally trudged through the post-holiday backlog of email, I ignored the pile of freshly printed reading to surf the crisis in the Horn of Africa.  I found an Al Jazeera story which I would call interesting on two counts.  First, for the fact of it.  And second, for the invisibility of that fact (i.e., that even people following the aid biz didn’t seem to notice).

The story is a fairly simple one, and I recommend reading the author’s full analysis. In August, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited a camp for starving IDPs in Mogadishu.  Can you imagine being equally unaware of a Sarkozy or Cameron visit to Somalia?  Or a UN ambassador like Angelina Jolie?  I mean, there’s more coverage of Obama eating a hotdog (actually, a chilidog, which is definitely more macho).   The visit was the move of a true world leader.  Not only the first non-African head of state to see Somalia in over 20 years, Erdogan took his wife and daughter, a clear statement that the war-torn capital of Somalia is not necessarily the Call of Duty shooting gallery we make it out to be.

The fact of this visit, though, is more interesting than the media non-coverage.  Here is the new direction not just of Turkey, but of the next wave of world players.  Countries like India, China, Qatar, Brazil and South Africa.  Countries that are heading to Africa for profit, influence, minerals and for the prestige long accorded to powerful Western nations/leaders doing the philanthropic waddle.  Erdogan’s visit was accompanied (already some weeks ago) by roughly $250M in Turkish donations to the crisis, mostly from the Turkish public.  I think (too late for dinner to research it) that’s more than UK public donations.

That fact alone speaks of a world that is changing faster than we imagine or plan.  I think of non-Western governments increasing their humanitarian spend, but actual public compassion and donation?  That’s supposed to be our Western genome, a unique manifestation of our goodness and superiority.  Apparently, there are even Turkish celebrities who play the humanitarian ambassador role, meaning you can see non-terrorist Omar Sharif looking guys visiting camps as well.  (Please don’t comment, I know Sharif wasn’t Turkish or a terrorist and I don’t really believe that all guys with thick black mustaches look alike).

To me, our Western thinking on aid still hasn’t grasped the sheer acceleration of the entry of other actors – governmental donors, aid organizations, and concerned publics – to the global arena of humanitarian action.   These actors don’t have colonial histories, don’t suffer the white man’s burden, don’t seek to moralize about human rights violations, and don’t necessarily subscribe to a model of aid based on charity.  All good news.  I’m thinking there could even be a job in this after MSF, working for one of the new global humanitarian leaders.

Opening Salvo: Ask the poorest for funding

How does one inaugurate a blog?  If I wait for that deep inspiration, some 3 paragraph reflection that cuts to the bone of the humanitarian aid industry … Well, now you understand why I didn’t get this going last year.  The other strategy is to opt for a more simple debut by just starting.  

Forget DFID (oops: UKaid).  Forget USAID.  Forget even CIDA and SIDA.  Humanitarian aid agencies should start seeking funds from the foreign offices in the countries where they work.  Need money for a cholera treatment centre in Zimbabwe?  Why not ask Botswana, Congo and Ivory Coast for funding?  Need to mount a measles vaccination campaign in Nigeria?  Why not ask the government in Sudan for funding. 

Well, one rather obvious answer would be the unlikelihood of actually getting any money.  And we all know it’s all about the money.   One can only imagine the confused faces of Zambian bureaucrats when a billion per year INGO rep asks for money to run its projects in Bangladesh.   But one other answer, and the answer you’ll likely receive from these governments and INGO HQs themselves, is fundamentally wrong.   The poorest in the world will have turned an important corner when we all get rid of the answer:  “Because we are poor.”

Did anyone notice the news last week that South Africa will launch its own development aid agency?  (See the IRIN article here:   http://www.irinnews.org/report.aspx?ReportID=91651).  South Africa joins emerging powerhouses such as India, China and Brazil as recipients of aid who are now entering the hallowed ranks of the aid business.  Whether a ploy to boost the standing of the country, part of a strategic investment in foreign relations, or, contrary to that rash of cynicism, the governmental embodiment of compassion for those in need, I think it deserves a couple of thumbs up.

In other blogs, I’d like to examine this as part of salutary trend towards ending the Western hegemony of what we refer to as aid.  The Western donor-INGO duet could use a little competition.  But I’d like to focus on something else.  The act of standing up.  In the IRIN article, Ivor Jenkins, of the non-profit Democracy for Africa (IDASA), has this to say about the SA announcement:  “I do think it’s important for us as a country to start to have a sense of responsibility, and giving and not only receiving as we have for many years.’”  

Sense of responsibility.  That just about nails it on the head.  Western aid agencies have been taking increasingly damaging and certainly well-earned straight rights to the chin on their neo-colonial and/or neo-imperial attitude.  {I’ll be writing about that in future blogs).  We swagger through other people’s homelands, delivering the aid to the victims of the state’s own failure towards its people.  States don’t mind the aid, but aren’t quite as keen on the swagger.  Imagine that.  But some governments have had an easy time of playing it both ways, finger-pointing at neo-colonialism while hiding too easily behind neo-colonyism, the international relations equivalent of a Stepin Fetchit routine.  Poor countries as beggars who must shuffle through the corridors of the rich nations, whose economic and historic superiority impose an expectation of  moral duty to ship their money South.

The stereotype creates an existential split.  Not between wealthy countries and poor countries, as if those categories determined who should and should not give aid.  Certainly not between nations actually capable of sending aid to other nations and those incapable (Should Ireland be sending its cash anywhere?).  No, this is a split between those nations assuming the role of beggars or victims and those who assume the position of lord and savior.  More than acknowledging a sense of responsibility, SA’s move is a declaration that poverty is no excuse for the incapacity to help nations, just as wealth is hardly a guarantee for either compassion or generosity.

So future kudos to the first aid agencies that stop reinforcing the existential victimhood of governments in the developing world.  Let’s treat every government as sharing in the responsibility to come to the aid of people in crisis, both within and without their territory.  Let’s stop acting neo-colonial and ask governments to stop acting like neo-colonies. 

And kudos to the government of South Africa for embracing a lesson already being taught by poor people the world over.  If you look closely in places like Haiti, Darfur and Eastern DRC, you’ll find not places where the Western aid enterprise has saved helpless masses of people, but where the WFP convoy-sized gap in aid (2200 kcals per day!) is filled by the countless invisible acts of kindness between families, neighbours and strangers, all part of the same community of the abject poor.