Tag Archives: Responsibility

The Bad Colonel

A throng of gunmen haul a 69-year-old man through the dusty street. His chest lays bare, face bloodied. He is beaten and sodomized and shot.

What kind of person does not feel compassion? Well, me, the kind who understood the victim was Saddam Osama Gaddafy.

For an humanitarian, compassion isn’t just a nice thing, like a day without dust in Khartoum or stroopwafels in a care package. Stripped to its essential principles, compassion is humanitarianism’s driver. Not money and not adventurism and not do gooderism or altruism or charity and certainly not the twin devils of winning hearts and minds or building the legitimacy of the state. Compassion is what moves us to address the suffering of others, no matter that they are foreign to your family, village, clan, or nation. They are humans.  Compassion is also that common ground between the Christian ethos of Western missionaries and the humanist ethos of Western INGO staff on mission. Jesus would have felt compassion for the Colonel, no?

Compassion became a second victim of October 20th, Gaddafy’s final bad hair day. Like that sentence’s finish, an ambivalence allows acceptance of the inappropriate (Hillary’s laugh), the uncivil (meat locker visitation hour) and the illegal (his killing). It later struck me that I didn’t feel compassion, my heart too easily counterweighted the final half hour of abuse with his forty years of torture, violence and egomania.

While an individual manages to excuse himself for such an emotional, vengeful reaction, I find the official silence of the humanitarian community rather loud. Maybe not on Gaddafy’s death, because we don’t usually report on such singular events, but on the entire Arab Spring. We portray ourselves as defenders of law and of what is right and of fairness. Yet in these historic times we show the lack of compass so evidently present in our cousins, the human rights organizations. They’ve had this right all along. They’ve steadfastly and no doubt unpopularly and no doubt unlucratively documented and denounced the violations committed by the West’s very champions.  Maybe it is easier for them: their mandates force them look at what the law says and look at what the actors are doing.  For us, compassion and pragmatism often dictate when we exercise that part of our mandates to raise our voice.

Here, our compassion, like our neutrality, follows rather a rather lopsided set of mainstream Western mores.  In Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya we humanitarians have seen victor’s justice; the treatment accorded to those on the side of the dictators by those who have raised their fists for freedom and democracy. We have seen the violent abuse of black Africans trapped inside Libya, condemned by the color of their skin to the accusation of mercenary. We’ve seen doctors not wanting to treat “them”. And we’ve seen those jumpy mobile phone videos of a wretched man dragged out of a drainage ditch. We’ve seen a great deal. We haven’t said much.

The Corporate Responsibility

I came across this blog/forum at Tales from the Hood and thought I’d contribute:

In terms of the for-profit sector – those massive corporate-states we love to demonize – how many are naïve enough to believe that CSR is primarily motivated by a desire to do good, rather than an idea that doing good is useful.  CSR is a tool to build public image, morale and maybe even business itself.  Plenty of blogs and commentary out there testify to the rather cynical regard in which CSR is held. 

That cynicism might be well-earned (and not without its parallels in the government funding to which so many NGOs are addicted).  A corporation with a fiduciary responsibility towards its shareholders to create profit should not lightly engage in activities contrary to the banker’s bottom line.  Of course, CSR can be a way for considerable resources to be placed in the service of humanitarian goals. The world would be a better place if Big Pharma, for instance, would dedicate more resources to developing unprofitable lines of drugs for neglected diseases like kala azar and chagas. 

That said, it would probably be an even better place if Big Pharma wouldn’t spend so much effort in fortifying the protective walls around their products (read: profits) when effective generic drugs could help healthcare providers reach millions more people.  Now that would be an actual exercise in CSR.  In other words, CSR should cease to be a subset of activities/projects within the larger corporate mission, and should become instead a guiding principle of the corporation in the exercise of its mission.   In current practice, then, CSR is a figleaf, providing a get-out-of-unethical-behavior-free card.  What would stop a landmine manufacturer or a torture rendition firm from having CSR?  In short, the SR of CSR should cover the entire C, not just some part of it.

But let’s not stop at the C of CSR.  Why shouldn’t NGOs, especially aid INGOs, be scrutinized with the same level of cynicism?  The big ones are as corporate (though non-profit) as BP.  Well, almost.  Doesn’t our application of CSR to “them” betray an assumption about the motives behind our actions?  That when we do good, it is for the sake of the good itself.  Hence our blindness towards any sense of social responsility as a discrete element of our action, because we equate it with all our activity; we believe the SR ethos permeates the entirety of our organizations.  Of course, within an INGO it’s not the interest in profit driving aid activities, but one cannot deny the extent to which institutional interests drive INGO behavior, in particular the survival of the organization or of the jobs and way of life of its staff.  So what about NGOSR?  To what extent can we think of field activities – the building of a school, distribution of food, vaccination campaign – as SR?  To what extent are those activities a form of SR for the institution of the NGO?  They improve public perception, build morale, and generate the income which pays for offices and salaries and SUVs and an occasional booze up on an exotic beach.

A Fat Tax on HIV+

How many others missed this early April news gem?  Arizona Governor Janet Brewer proposed socking obese Arizonans who are enrolled in Medicaid or Medicare with a $50 surcharge unless they adopt a supervised weight-loss program prescribed by their doctor.  (Smokers will get nailed as well.). 

Congratulations to the Gov for the world’s first “Fat tax”.   

The Gov’s arguments run pretty simple along the surface:  unhealthy lifestyle choices and behavior eat up the healthcare budget, so let’s make these miscreants and self-indulgers pay.  After all, why should the public subsidize bad behavior?  Looked at differently:  If some guy like me wants to bicycle the streets of London without a helmet, running the lights, why take money away from cancer research to pay for his brain surgery? (It’s a slippery slope:  skiers and joggers are always breaking ankles, and that costs a lot of money, but taxing them would bring us right back to the obesity risk of blogging from the couch all day.).

If the Arizona governor sounds confused on the workings of blame here, as if people choose to be obese the same way our guy chooses to cycle recklessly, it’s because any debate on the merits or not of the fat tax as a public health policy is misplaced.  This is about trimming budgets, not waistlines.  Ha ha. From a health policy standpoint, blaming the sick sounds perverted, though I guiltily admit somewhat less so in light of estimates that the cost of obesity is the US range from $150 to $270 billion.  Isn’t that more than the continental budget for healthcare in Africa?  Anyway, from a financial standpoint, the fat tax is the sort of decision that will be increasingly more common as politicians and health officials scramble to save cash.

 Now flip to HIV/AIDS.  I recently visited MSF’s HIV/AIDS project based in Khayelitsha township, on the outskirts of Cape Town.  It’s an impressive programme, one that has led to a great deal of innovation on the treatment/delivery side of things and, more importantly, to a sizeable scaling up of HIV+ people receiving anti-retroviral therapy.  Depressingly, I found the decade of advances in HIV treatment have been unmatched by advances in preventing transmission.  It’s simple:  too many men refuse to wear condoms and they certainly aren’t interested in abstinence. 

During my visit I listened as young outreach and community education workers exhorted others on the need to do education in the taxi stands and drinking places, or called for opening hours in the evening, etc. etc.  Essentially, the same hopeful exhortations I heard 10 years ago.  As if a “new” or “improved” community messaging will actually produce a sufficient enough change of behavior to reign in this epidemic.  Aside from the fact that it doesn’t work well enough or fast enough in a context like South Africa, I’m still a fan of this sort of health education.  But limits need to be recognized.  The problem isn’t solvable through education because it’s not caused by ignorance.  That is a topic, though, for a later blog.

For now, back to Arizona.  How long before the logic of the fat tax will be applied to men and prostitutes in South Africa?  There, masses of people knowingly engage in high risk behaviour – becoming infected and (quite different from obesity) infecting others – and then fall ill.  They then assert a right to treatment.  So how long before the “no condom tax” or a “surcharge on unprotected sex”?  How long before money is switched out of HIV treatment into other health priorities at the ministry level, as is already happening on the global stage?  In the end, the Arizona fat tax heralds the coming day when budgetary pressure on the state forces a false distinction between “good” sick people and “bad” sick people.  After the obese, after the smokers, will come the reckless, be it the helmetless riders or rubberless fuckers.

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.