Saturday, November 13, 2010

Response to Alms Dealer

Just finished Philip Gourevitch’s “Alms Dealer,” in October’s The New Yorker.  One part review of Linda Polman’s “The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid?”, it’s a very powerful and thought provoking article its own right.  The article was posted to my Facebook wall by Lindsay Toler, one of the brightest fellow volunteers I have the pleasure to serve with here in Moldova (and a healthy, which clearly speaks to her good character).  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about international aid – its ethics, its effectiveness, and its unintended consequences.  Until now, my thoughts have been mostly focused on development aid, so this article struck a chord and made me think about development’s humanitarian cousin.  What follows are some unorganized thoughts that originally began as a FB comment but grew too long for that medium.  Not the update friends and family back home were probably hoping for, but it’s the one that got written.  Preemptive forgiveness given if you decide to skip it.

The article starts on the familiar terrain of the greed v. grievance debate within conflict studies.  The whole argument is premised heavily on the greed side of this debate, within the academic camp of liberal rationality.  In short, people are rational, including warlords.

The initial problem then that this article forces is that constructivist bane of all rationalist attempts to remake the world into a better place (realism and liberalism alike): rules are not stable, and as soon as the rules of the game are known, rational actors adjust to manipulate the rules in their favor.  The result is a constantly shifting arms race of changing rules.  Unfortunately, as the tomes of failed humanitarian interventions show, the “bad guys” seem to figure out how to work the old rules in their favor much quicker than the “good guys” can come with new rules to prevent them from doing so.

Very quickly, however, the article leaves behind technical questions of why intervention might fuel conflict, and goes for the moral jugular of humanitarianism, whether there can truly be any neutral or unambiguously good intervention.  The single most prescient sentence: "The scenes of suffering that we tend to call humanitarian crises are almost always symptoms of political circumstances, and there’s no apolitical way of responding to them—no way to act without having a political effect."

Unsurprisingly, the press is not spared implication in these misguided good intentions.  But rather than simply casting blame on an uncritical press, it’s worth asking: How does the press deal with difficult issues in an industry that doesn't want nuance? Do we risk alienating a readership that wants to do good by revealing there are none with clean hands in war?

On the Peace Corps, the author quotes disillusioned humanitarian and former volunteer Michael Maren as referring to the PC as “send[ing] Western kids to tell the elders of ancient agrarian cultures how to feed themselves better.”  I'm not sure what Maren did in the Peace Corps, but my understanding is that’s exactly the opposite of what we are here to do today.  If the PC was founded as an "opportunity to forge a different kind of relationship with the Third the post-Vietnam world," then today, the PC is arguably an alternative to the entire development/humanitarian aid paradigm.  In fact, every PC Training Officer I know would stop us mid-sentence were we to say something about "telling" any local how to do things.  The Health Education Program Manager, Elvira, has explicitly disallowed even the word "help" from our vocabulary.

The quoting of Craig Calhoun arguing “Humanitarianism flourishes as an ethical response to emergencies not just because bad things happen in the world, but also because many people have lost faith in both economic development and political struggle as ways of trying to improve the human lot,” draws the obvious and parallel motivations that are lingering in humanitarianism’s shadows.  Objective social science makes it impossible not to observe that many critiques of economic development assistance also apply to humanitarian aid.  Yet many a would-be development worker has retreated to humanitarianism, somewhat safer behind the powerful moral shield of Max Chevalier’s defensive question, “Yes, but, good grief, should we just do nothing at all then?”

And that is what makes humanitarianism the hard case, because we’re not just considering socio-economic survival, but individual cases of torture and death.  It is the single most pressing ethical question, but as Gourevitch/Polman insinuate, ethics is not served if the question is employed to prevent the issues from even being considered.

Another parallel between humanitarian aid and development aid, a critique that is attracting a growing following today.  “Aid organizations and their workers are entirely self-policing, which means that when it comes to the political consequences of their actions they are simply not policed…‘As far as I’m aware,’ she [Polman] remarks, ‘no aid worker or aid organization has ever been dragged before the courts for failures or mistakes, let alone for complicity in crimes committed by rebels and regimes.’”  It’s a good question most presciently raised on this Speaking of Faith podcast discussion with Binyavanga Wainaina, when it is asked “how does one critique a gift, even if it isn’t a very good gift?”

Gourevitch doesn’t spare Polman from criticism, pointing out her book’s approach is “less that of investigative reporting than the cumulative anecdotalism of travelogue pointed by polemic.”  She does not offer suggestions, and she doesn’t attempt to grapple with the gravity of the question, “how do we stand aside and do nothing?”  Polman is content to problematize our good motives, raising the point that we may ultimately be more concerned with salvaging our own conscience than others’ lives.  Of course, this is not a topic for a single book.  And as both Polman and Gourevitch would no doubt agree, before we can begin to offer suggestions, it is first necessary to grapple with our own morality.  Humanitarianism, they agree, has too long avoided this difficult question.

I’ll leave with a poem quoted in the article:
A man tries hard to help you find your lost camels.
He works more tirelessly than even you,
But in truth he does not want you to find them, ever.
Ali Dhux (Somali poet)

No comments: