Easterly’s pointless echo chamber

Maybe I’m being too harsh on professor Easterly. Wait, no I’m not. He becomes petulant when anyone from a fellow blogger to a large multilateral organization doesn’t immediately respond to his criticisms, yet he often ignores the most knowledgeable and thoughtful of his own critics.

Take his series of posts on the rights-based approach to development (or, you know, what Easterly imagines the rights-based approach to be). The professor didn’t even respond to the human rights professionals who commented on his posts. Matthias, one such commenter, repeatedly tried to engage Easterly (here, here, here and here), but to no avail. Finally, throwing in the towel, he wrote:

Unfortunately, neither Bill nor his supporters in this particular debate seem to adapt at all to contrary arguments: they don’t counter them, they don’t adjust their own arguments to take into consideration the counter-arguments, they just keep on building up straw men, and ripping them apart.

That about sums it up.

Alanna Shaikh’s fantastic writing is the only reason to keep Aid Watch in your RSS, and it deserves a much better showcase.

Afghan Ministry Triage

Spencer, reporting from the Afghanistan hearings, posted this earlier today:

Clinton said in testimony before Senate Armed Services Committee that intelligence-sharing was accelerating throughout the government about Afghan “corruption and major crime.” And then came something new. “We are certifying Afghan ministries,” she said. “There will be some that we believe are functioning well enough now that we can with confidence provide funding, holding their leadership accountable. And there are others, frankly, that we’re not gonna touch. Until they’re cleaned out, they’re not getting any United States civilian assistance.” She did not specify which ministries she meant.

::Shakes fist at Secretary Clinton::

I want specifics. My impression is that we’re going to triage the ministries, which is an interesting idea. We’ll pour assistance into some that show promise but need serious work, leave others mostly alone because they stand on their own as is, and withhold aid from a third, severely dysfunctional and corrupt group.

So, what’s the break-down? I can guess, but I’d like to know.

The same old canard

From the comments section of Aid Watch, emphasis mine:

Lure D. Lou:

Transitionland says that immediately tackling corruption could go far to reversing this. What I would say is that one man’s corruption is another man’s way of life…as long as you have great disparities in wealth, a non-democratic power allocation, and fortunes to be made from drugs and weapons you will get nowhere in tackling corruption. Corruption is endemic to even the most advanced societies…just look at New Jersey politics…what you need are alternative structures that aren’t corrupt that will hopefully draw enough people away and give them enough incentives to stay on the straight and narrow. This is not going to happen any time soon in Afghanistan, Nigeria, or even New Jersey. The focus on corruption is a waste of time…better to use the corrupt system than to try to change it…but goodie-two shoes Americans are unlikely to want to go there…we want to save souls while allowing our contractors to rake in the dough and our NGO legions to pad their ‘conflict zone’ resumes…the Great Game of neo-colonialism continues.

Good governance NGOs in places like Afghanistan make me laugh.

A few things:

1) When I mentioned corruption, I was referring to corruption by aid agencies and their contractors. If corruption in the aid world is, as Lure D. Lou argues, a “way of life,” it is not one I want any part of.  We condemn and punish corruption in the for-profit sector (or should); there’s no reason we should apply a different set of principles to non-profits, including aid agencies.

2) New Jersey is corrupt. Comically so. But its corruption is, for the most part, the non-lethal variety, and it is mitigated (though not always successfully) by strong rule of law. Comparing Afghanistan to New Jersey is absurd. Afghanistan won’t reach New Jersey’s level of governance development for a very, very long time (I’m pretty confident I will be long dead by the time it does), but that doesn’t mean Afghanistan can’t do better, or shouldn’t. Corruption in poor societies steals food from the mouths of the poor, deprives people of basic necessities of life, walks hand in hand with human rights abuse, kills. If you don’t have an ethical problem with that, you’re an asshole.

3) It’s “better to use a corrupt system than try to change it”? Use it for what exactly?

Lou’s muddled argument seems to be that corruption is hardwired into human nature, but some humans (read: people from the developing world) are slightly more prone to corrupt behavior than others.  Lovely.

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Another prize-winning comment:

Justin Kraus:

Transitionland,

I for one wish there were more people like Lure D. Lou in development work, at least he is thinking outside the box a little bit. Your own approach, and that of most development agencies, strikes me as arrogant and patronizing. Talking about how the “international community,” which if it exists at all in any meaningful sense, is surely the most hypocritical entity on this planet, should “hold the Afghan government to its commitments” as if they were somehow freely made in the first place (how many troops do “we” have in that country?), and as if it were completely unproblematic for “us” to be telling them how to run their country. What we call vetting, they call western imperialist encroachment. Why not “allow” them to choose their leaders as they see fit? We don’t go waltzing into Japan which, even with the recent election, doesn’t have a “true” democracy in any western sense of the word?

And then you take this patroninizing protective posture over the Afghan people by stating that Mr. Lure is “dangerous” to the people that you are (supposedly) “helping.” Who is the best judge of what is and what is not help? From the looks of it most Afghanis are rejecting Western “help.”

Perhaps we should be humble enough to take a step back and stop trying to impose our “help” on a people who clearly prefer to manage themselves in ways very different from “our” own.

1) Putting international community in snark quotes is lame. Everyone knows what it means, or should anyway. It’s a convenient shorthand for a collection of governments and IOs working together. In Bosnia, it’s the OSCE, EU, UN, and United States. In Afghanistan, UNAMA, ISAF, donor agencies, NGOs, and foreign governments. No one is going to write all that out. You find international community an obnoxious phrase? Too bad. Get over it already.

2) Holding the Afghan Government to its own constitution and to international law is not disrespectful, but the opposite would be. “You must do better” implies “and we know you can.”

3) As for “telling them how to run their country” — well, this is the crux of the matter, isn’t it? Are we shoving an unsuitable form of government and set of ideals down the throats of unwilling Afghans?

We are, if you count only those  who gain personal benefit from anarchy, corruption, and misgovernment. These are the people who, in every transitional society, are first to invoke “cultural differences” when the existence of said differences would oh-so-conveniently allow them to gain or retain power.

Afghan public opinion on many things  –that is, what ordinary women and men think– matches closely the more principled goals of the international community in Afghanistan. If anything, Afghans have actually expressed stronger desire for good governance, rule of law, and transitional justice than many expats.

4) “What we call vetting, they call imperialist encroachment.” Um, no. That’s just factually untrue.

From page 28 of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission report, A Call for Justice:

Many people who participated in our study forcefully made the point that human rights violations continue in Afghanistan today and that abusers remain in power. The vast majority of respondents who participated in the survey wished to see those who committed human rights abuses removed from their posts. Ninety percent of respondents indicated a desire to see the removal of perpetrators from their posts. The results of the survey were reflected in the sentiments expressed in the focus groups. Most participants wished to see the exclusion of human rights abusers from public office in order to prevent the reoccurrence of injustice. In particular they wanted to prevent perpetrators from gaining political power in the future.

Some “Western encroachment” that is.

5) “Why not ‘allow’ them to choose their leaders as they see fit?” That’s a great idea. Only, slightly difficult in practice at the moment for two reasons: some of those in power will do almost anything, including defraud, intimidate and kill, to hang on to it. And the international community is not doing enough to protect the right of ordinary Afghans to freely and fairly choose their own leaders.

6) Afghans (Afghani is a unit of currency, like dollar or Euro) aren’t “rejecting Western ‘help’” –they are rejecting our hypocrisy, laziness, corruption, insufficient respect for Afghan lives on the military side of things, and unwillingness to listen to Afghans who actually want the best for their country. That’s a different animal entirely.

How can we ever know what Afghans want?

For starters, we can pay attention when they spell it out.

On elections and economic development:

Millions like Mubaruz Khan stayed home on Aug. 20, a sharp contrast to 2004, when Afghans jammed polling stations to give President Hamid Karzai his first term. Ominous warnings from the Taliban suppressed turnout, but some Afghans said they were also discouraged by the government’s failure to halt endemic corruption, spiraling unemployment and crumbling security.

“We want peace. We want security. We want job opportunities,” the 55-year-old Khan said Monday. “Otherwise, the democracy and the elections that they are all shouting about every day mean nothing to us.”

On women’s human rights and political inclusion:

“In the beginning we were a priority, and efforts were made to have the active participation of women in public life. Now we are no longer on the agenda of the government and international community,” said [Meshrano Jirga MP] Shinkai Karokhail. “We are not being consulted on any major decisions. We are not being consulted on talks with the Taliban. There is a fear in our heart that the politicians will compromise our rights.”

Predicting and preventing disaster in Afghanistan

Bill Easterly writes:

Maybe I have a biased selection, but it seems like every sensible economist, political scientist, development worker, and journalist that I know thinks our current course in Afghanistan can have only one outcome — disaster. Disaster for Americans, for our NATO allies, AND for Afghans.

Why is nobody listening?

I would argue that more people in positions to do something are listening now than they were in, say, 2002, when the course could have been corrected far more easily.

So, what needs to be done differently?

The following are literally no more than the first few things that popped into my head. Please do not berate me over all the things I left out:

Continue reading

I love my colleagues

From an ongoing, spirited email exchange about Paul Farmer and the future of our agency overlord:

I can see the rationale being handed down now… “No, no, no…Mr. Farmer, due to his excessive involvement with the citizenry over the past 20 years, knows far too many diverse types of people, indicating a lack of focus.”

The reasons Farmer was nixed are the same reasons he was the right person for the job. Sad.

A few things

Inspired by Devon Whittle’s Arusha guides for ICTR interns, I am working on a guide to living in Sarajevo as an intern, UNV, or just poorly paid NGO staffer. My guide will be a fully revised and blog-ified version of a short document I put together for my successor near the end of my time in Bosnia. I was going to post the guide last night, but I have decided to put more effort into it, polish it up a bit more.

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In offline life, I am writing something about the Democratic Republic of the Congo. When I began the piece, I had only the faintest understanding of the Second Congo War, and I feel like that hasn’t really changed. The sheer number of belligerent parties (more than twenty) and civilian deaths (between 4 and 5 million, including those who have died of disease and starvation as a result of the conflict) make my head spin. The magnitude of human suffering is dizzying. I hate “-ist” titles, but I suppose if you had to assign one to me it would be “Central Asianist” (blech!) or “Eurasianist” (blech!).  What I am definitely not is an “Africanist.”  Sometimes, I think this implies a kind of intellectual wussiness when it comes to conflicts. European and Central Asian conflicts aren’t simple by any stretch, but I get the feeling, reading about the DRC, that my Africa-focused friends at Wronging Rights and other blogs really do have to put more effort in.

And I thought the Afghan civil war was knotty. Crikey.

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Oh. Dear. God.

NBC is coming out with a new reality show called ‘The Wanted’, about pseudo-journalists entrapping accused terrorists and war criminals. I wish I was kidding.

Couldn’t they have gone for another ‘Law and Order’ spin-off  –perhaps ‘Law and Order: War Crimes Investigations’? Fiction would have been better.

Journalists are going ballistic over this, but I think the international justice set has even more reason to worry about unintended consequences.

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I’m going to lay off the haterade as far as Libertarians go for a while solely because Reason published this article.

Opponents of illegal immigration usually do little more than cite andecdotes attempting to link illegal immigration to violent crime. When they do try to use statistics, they come up short. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), for example, has perpetuated the popular myth that illegal immigrants murder 12 Americans per day, and kill another 13 by driving drunk. King says his figures come from a Government Accountability Office study he requested, which found that about 27 percent of inmates in the federal prison system are non-citizens. Colorado Media Matters looked into King’s claim, and found his methodology lacking. King appears to have conjured his talking point by simply multiplying the annual number of murders and DWI fatalities in America by 27 percent. Of course, the GAO report only looked at federal prisons, not the state prisons and local jails where most convicted murderers and DWI offenders are kept. The Bureau of Justice Statistics puts the number of non-citizens (including legal immigrants) in state, local, and federal prisons and jails at about 6.4 percent (pdf). Of course, even that doesn’t mean that non-citizens account for 6.4 percent of murders and DWI fatalities, only 6.4 percent of the overall inmate population.

It’s too bad facts have never mattered to the likes of Lou Dobbs and Michelle Malkin.

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Memorial has ceased its work in Chechnya. This is equal parts sad and chilling. Oleg Orlov explained:

There is state terror in Russia.  We know about murders both inside Chechnya and elsewhere.  Those who are killed have tried to tell the truth and criticise the government.  Ramzan Kadyrov has made it impossible for human rights activists to work in Chechnya.  Natasha Estemirova’s killers wanted to put a stop to the flow of honest information from Chechnya.  Perhaps they have succeeded.

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Afghanistan needs better police, and why police reform has not been better planned and resourced boggles the mind.

“The police would stop people driving on motorcycles, beat them and take their money,” said Mohammad Gul, an elder in the village of Pankela, which British troops have been securing for the past three days after flying in by helicopter.

He pointed to two compounds of neighbors where pre-teen children had been abducted by police to be used for the local practice of “bachabazi,” or sex with pre-pubescent boys.

“If the boys were out in the fields, the police would come and rape them,” he said. “You can go to any police base and you will see these boys. They hold them until they are finished with them and then let the child go.”

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The EU fucked up badly with this, probably more than the Commissioners understand as of yet.  The least worst thing the EU can do now, what it should do, is waive the border control requirements for Bosnia’s inclusion in the visa-free regime.

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Today, while I was walking to the grocery store, the Arcade Fire song ‘Keep the Car Running/Broken Window’ played on my ipod. It seems a fitting soundtrack to the news of late, whether you buy into the “forcibly disappeared dissident” interpretation of the lyrics or the “terrorist on the run” interpretation.

Every night my dream’s the same.
Same old city with a different name.
Men are coming to take me away.
I don’t know why but I know I can’t stay.

There’s a weight that’s pressing down.
Late at night you can hear the sound.
Even the noise you make when you sleep.
Can’t swim across a river so deep.
They know my name ’cause I told it to them,
But they don’t know where And they don’t know
When It’s coming, when It’s coming.

There’s a fear I keep so deep,
Knew it’s name since before I could speak:
Aaaah aaaaaah aaaaah aaaaaah
They know my name ’cause I told it to them,
But they don’t know where And they don’t know
When It’s coming, Oh! when It’s coming

Keep the car running

If some night I don’t come home,
Please don’t think I’ve left you alone.
The same place animals go when they die,
You can’t climb across a mountain so high.
The same city where I go when I sleep,
You can’t swim across a river so deep.
They know my name ’cause I told it to them,
But they don’t know where
And they don’t know
When It’s coming, Oh! when is it coming?

Keep the car running
Keep the car running
Keep the car running

 

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This photo of the Ploče train station is a perfect representation of where my life and frame of mind are at this moment.

This photo of the Ploče train station is a perfect representation of where my life and frame of mind are at this moment.

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I still owe Michael at Humanitarian Relief a post on the crisis in refugee resettlement. I owe a lot of things to a lot of people right now.

My colonial agenda

Bill Easterly writes:

The UN Security Council decides on military intervention (“peacekeepers”) or a Great Power does it on their own. Two of the Council’s permanent members are authoritarian, most of the Great Powers follow their own geo-strategic interests most of the time, and none of them have any democratic rights for Bottom Billion citizens to make Security Council or Great Power foreign policy decisions. (Small caveat: There never has existed or will exist a benevolent and politically neutral international force that will rapidly deploy to surgically solve Bottom Billion problems.) Yet the Great Powers will decide according to Collier’s proposals whether an “area or people” are allowed to have elections, whether the elections are legitimate when allowed, and when to send in the military (which, despite the nice “peacekeepers” label, are in a purely technical sense made up of soldiers carrying guns that are aimed at people.) The dictionary definition of “colonialism” is “Control by one power over a dependent area or people.” I agree that permanent colonies are a thing of the past, but the above description sure sounded a lot like “control” of “a dependent area” by outside powers. Many may indeed think me way out of line to call Collier’s proposals by the inflammatory word “colonialism” just because of the technicality that they actually fit the definition of “colonialism.” But us dissenters will persist anyway because the Bottom Billion deserve better than control by a development expert with an army, they deserve democratic rights just as much as all the other Billions.

I believe in the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). I believe that sometimes –very rarely, and only when a very strict set of criteria are met– military intervention in warranted to stop imminent or ongoing atrocities on a large scale. I believe that peacekeepers and international administration can lessen the suffering of civilians after civil war. As much as I want local leaders everywhere to look out for the wellbeing and reflect the real interests of their people, I know that is not always the case and that local elites  who claim to speak for this group or that group in divided societies often speak for and care about only themselves.

I also know many people who have lived through state failure and civil war, and they have told me very frankly that it’s all well and good to shout from the ivory tower about local ownership and the evils of “neo-imperialism” and the inherent democratic deficit in international administration –and there is truth to those charges, for sure– but refugees, IDPs, war orphans, disabled veterans and former child soldiers, survivors of wartime sexual violence, and preyed on minorities really don’t give a flying crap about any of that. They care about basic things, food, clean water, dignified housing, protection from predation, medical treatment, and an opportunity to pick up the pieces of their lives and rebuild. At an even more basic level, all development, all progress is contingent on people being alive. If local authorities cannot or will not protect the very lives of their citizens, it is not unethical for outside actors to step in — as a last resort, temporarily, and using means that maximize human security.

If believing that makes me a colonialist, so be it.