On his blog, Aid Watch, Bill Easterly spends an inordinate amount of time lambasting others for how they portray Africa. The targets of his ire include fellow bloggers and academics, writers and journalists, huge multilateral organizations, aid agencies, the US military, and even teenage celebrities on Twitter. (I’m not kidding on that last one. He really wants Selena Gomez to know what an awful person she is.) He rails against those who write about specific African countries with what he views as shallow knowledge of those countries. He shrieks at writers who oversimplify complicated issues, or reinforce stereotypes.
Some of Easterly’s critiques are justified and well-reasoned, but most are cheap shots. Nevertheless, when it comes to Africa and macro-economics, it’s hard to disagree that Easterly knows his stuff.
However, Easterly has recently taken to writing about Afghanistan –a country he very obviously knows close to nothing about.
The good professor apparently believes it’s an offense worthy of relentless e-shaming for someone who isn’t an Africa expert (or, more precisely, an Africa expert who shares his economic views) to write about Africa, yet can’t understand why anyone would criticize him for posting his own deeply ignorant opinions about Afghanistan’s conflict and humanitarian response.
His most recent Afghanistan post is a good example of this hypocrisy in action. It consists of the sarcastic title “What’s So Hard About Nation-Building?” and a New York Times graphic Josh Foust of Registan described as “so wrong it’s almost mendaciously misleading.”
The Times graphic purports to show “The Five Rungs of Afghanistan’s Traditional Tribal System,” and Easterly’s title is clearly intended to imply that “nation-building” in such a confusing tribal society is pointless and idiotic.
(Geewillakers that frame seems familiar!)
The problem is, as Josh pointed out in a post he linked to in Aid Watch’s comments, the graphic is flat-out wrong. Josh’s post de-bunking it is worth reading in its entirety, but here’s just a taste of what Easterly was too lazy and smug to spend 15 minutes researching.
It’s difficult to know where to begin, so we’ll start at the top. The first point the NYT makes—that Pashtuns make up only 38% or so of the population—is correct, but this graphic misses that the other 62% of the population is non tribal. So when they discuss “traditional Afghan tribes,” they are really discussing Pashtun tribes. The distinction matters, since in that same point they correctly point out that ethnic distinctions carry weight—if only about a third of the population is tribal, and the ethnicity of those tribal people is at the “top” of the rung, then you’re not really discussing Afghanistan, you’re discussing those tribal people. So from the start, the Times is misleading its readership in labeling this a discussion of “Afghanistan’s traditional tribal structure.”
Then there’s the problem of calling Pashtuns tribal. No one—not one anthropologist who’s studied Afghanistan (yes, there are many, and their work goes back decades) has described the “Traditional Afghan tribal system” of having five rungs. It’s more detail than we need here, but discussing a Pashtun’s salient identity requires moving beyond “levels” of identity—discussed in detail here, as well as in a detailed paper by the researchers at the Human Terrain System.
In fact, those researchers say it explicitly:
Pashtuns’ motivations for choosing how to identify and organize politically—including whether or not to support the Afghan government or the insurgency—are flexible and pragmatic. “Tribe” is only one potential choice among many, and not necessarily the one that guides people’s decision-making.
The report goes on at length—dozens of pages—about how viewing things only as “tribe” even amongst supposedly “tribal” Pashtuns is a misleading way to view their social structures.
Did you finish reading? Congratulations, you’re now better informed than Bill Easterly!