Rotting in the gaps

Tony Judt writes:

The wider the spread between the wealthy few and the impoverished many, the worse the social problems: a statement that appears to be true for rich and poor countries alike. What matters is not how affluent a country is but how unequal it is. Thus Sweden and Finland, two of the world’s wealthiest countries by per capita income or GDP, have a very narrow gap separating their richest from their poorest citizens—and they consistently lead the world in indices of measurable well-being. Conversely, the United States, despite its huge aggregate wealth, always comes low on such measures. We spend vast sums on health care, but life expectancy in the US remains below Bosnia and just above Albania.

Inequality is corrosive. It rots societies from within. The impact of material differences takes a while to show up: but in due course competition for status and goods increases; people feel a growing sense of superiority (or inferiority) based on their possessions; prejudice toward those on the lower rungs of the social ladder hardens; crime spikes and the pathologies of social disadvantage become ever more marked. The legacy of unregulated wealth creation is bitter indeed.

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.

Interesting things

The Migrant Express – Four days through Central Asia on the crowded Dushanbe to Moscow train. This tender, humane seven-part RFE_RL documentary explores the social and economic consequences of Tajiks migrating to Russia for work.

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Via the CPJ Blog – Afghan journalists are finally speaking with one voice, and are calling for a full investigation into the death of New York Times journalist Sultan Munadi and compensation for Munadi’s family.

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Also on the CPJ Blog – An Iraqi journalist finds refuge in Phoenix, Arizona, but struggles to find work. Eventually, his persistence pays off …he gets a job at Red Lobster.

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Kevin Heller blogs about the inevitable attacks on the Goldstone Commission, and the Goldstone-bashers respond in the comments.

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The slow march of justice in the former Yugoslavia continues. Four former members of the Bosnian Army have been arrested on suspicion of participating in war-time crimes against Bosnian Croats in a village in Herzegovina. Meanwhile, the ICTY trial of Radovan Karadzic is set to begin October 19th.

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The author of this article about expat snobbery and ignorance in Bosnia is someone I know personally, and we were part of the same large social circle in Sarajevo. He makes some important, if painful, points about how things work in the international organizations. However, I do think he exaggerates the extent to which young expats isolate themselves and eschew discovering all that is great about Bosnia. (Older, more mercenary expats are a different story.)  Also, the line, “the foreigners lecturing Bosnia have a fair amount of trouble mustering the necessary vocabulary to order a beer at a local bar” is a tad ridiculous. That’s the first phrase every expat learns.

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From the “things that make me ashamed of my country” files or, alternately, “America’s shitty domestic human rights record”: in eight states and the District of Columbia, many insurance companies consider being a victim of domestic violence a “pre-existing condition,” and thus grounds for denying coverage. Jillian Hewitt at Feministe is spot-on when she writes: “This is so ridiculous that it may make my post seem obvious or unnecessary, but I think it makes it all the more essential to talk about. This is not a controversial talking point; it does not even seem like a political one to me—this is about humanity. Or inhumanity, as it were.”

The alterable future

P1080598

We have a strong civil society that could, in theory, overcome the entrenched interests of the armed forces and the military-industrial complex. At this late date, however, it is difficult to imagine how Congress, much like the Roman senate in the last days of the republic, could be brought back to life and cleansed of its endemic corruption. Failing such a reform, Nemesis, the goddess of retribution and vengeance, the punisher of pride and hubris, waits impatiently for her meeting with us.

-Chalmers Johnson in Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic

Blocking new funding for the F-22 was a start –a small and far from bold start, but a start nonetheless. Let’s keep Nemesis waiting.

I read Ezra Klein’s blog and despair

Ezra asks:

DOESN’T ANYONE CARE ABOUT THE CHARITIES?

One other point on the effort to radically defang the estate tax. March saw a sort of strange argument over an Obama administration proposal to fund universal health care by lowering the tax exemption the rich could seek on itemized deductions from 35 percent to 28 percent. Huge furor. Max Baucus and Charlie Rangel quickly disavowed the plan. This, they said, just wasn’t the time to harm charitable giving. Even the small slice of charitable giving that’s really about the tax break.

Repealing the estate tax would alsoharm charitable giving — and in the same way. It would make it less advantageous as a matter of taxation. In fact, it would do it rather more violence than anything the Obama administration was considering. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains:

a meaningful estate tax serves as a strong incentive for giving. If taxable assets are subject to the estate tax at a 45 percent rate, a charitable donation of $100 costs the donor only $55, because the other $45 would otherwise have been paid in estate tax. Under the Lincoln-Kyl proposal to reduce the rate to 35 percent, that donation would cost the donor $65. Brookings economist and noted tax expert William Gale has testified that “reducing the top estate tax rate would have a significantly negative effect” on charitable giving.

The Lincoln-Kyl proposal would also reduce charitable giving through its increase in the estate tax exemption level, which would reduce the already small number of estates that are subject to the tax.

That’s a 10 percent change in the rate, which eagle-eyed readers will recognize as a larger change than the seven percent envisioned by Obama. A Congress which rejected a seven percent change in the tax treatment of charitable deductions so poor people could see the doctor would have to be out of its mind to entertain a 10 percent disincentive so rich people could keep more of their money.

Ugh. Bad times for the US non-profit sector, where, contrary to what certain nasty concern trolls would have you believe, most people are just getting by as it is. Moreover, NGOs, including those involved in humanitarian work, are struggling to provide services to vulnerable populations in this economic climate.

Don’t wear costumes to a protest if you want to be taken seriously

Sigh.

During the seemingly interminable Bush years, I did a little protesting, though I was always a very boring, austere, kind of nerdy protester, and my signs had long slogans on them about upholding the rule of law and stuff like that.

But being a boring, austere protester is a good thing, I think. The demonstration shouldn’t be the cause, and the individual demonstrators shouldn’t overshadow the context and symbolism of the event. Protest should not be street theatre. Puppets and costumes should not be involved.

Alas, that is exactly what is happening in London right now, at the protests around the G20 Summit.

Check out this gallery at the IHT if you want to see; a guy dressed as Jesus dressed as a British police officer (huh?), zombie Mickey Mouse, Darth Vader’s dandy cousin, a giant dead canary (being cremated?), clown Che, and a man carrying a beer can and dressed as a horse with a flower sticking out of its nose.

Oh, and some shots at the end of a grieving crowd dressed in black in front of the Bank of England, mourning the death of a protester killed yesterday. Take note, theatrical protesters, THAT is how you demonstrate with dignity.

As my best friend says, “For. The. Love. Of. Sanity!”

Corruption in Afghanistan

In her latest for Forbes, Ann Marlowe demonstrates how not to write about Afghanistan and Afghans, or, really, any country and its people.

Brace yourself.

The first sentence of the article is, “Afghanistan is a ghetto.” Marlowe argues this in the most appalling, condescending terms imaginable, stopping just shy of using the term “savages” to describe Afghans. She paints all Afghans with the same broad, disapproving brush. It’s stunning, really. So, without further delay, some of the most gobsmackingly offensive excerpts:

By and large, Afghans are relentlessly present-oriented, unable to delay gratification, macho, authoritarian, fatalistic, passive, disorganized and feckless when it comes to responsibilities.

They spend time almost exclusively with relatives, have few affiliations with civil society and mistrust others outside their family groups.

There is little to no privacy in an Afghan family, and little individuation.

The majority of Afghans are illiterate, but even most of those who are educated are oriented to oral rather than written culture.

Religion is practically the only activity that unites Afghans who aren’t blood relatives.

Independent thinking and critical reasoning are not much in evidence.

Very few Afghans seem to have internalized moral codes, even based on religion.

Fewer still are able to stand up to peer pressure and do the right thing when called for.

While Afghans aren’t nearly as violent as Americans on an individual basis, as a group, they have had trouble figuring out ways of working out their differences through discussion rather than warfare.

Let’s see if I can summarize Marlowe: Afghans are impatient, macho, authoritarian, fatalistic, passive, disorganized, feckless, insular, clannish, distrustful, willfully ignorant, ill-suited to literary culture (Hamesha must have been dropped on his head as a baby, I guess), seemingly incapable of critical reasoning and independent thought (I guess Nasim Fekrat isn’t Afghan, that imposter!), fundamentalist in religious beliefs and practice, immoral, unethical (strange, then, that my boyfriend feels guilty about a  math quiz he cheated on ten years ago), cowardly, and warlike.

Whew!

I’m not a cultural relativist. If a cultural practice or tradition infringes on fundamental human rights, restricts the development of the individual, or serves to perpetuate inequality (racial, gender, class, caste or otherwise) or injustice of any kind, I believe it should be changed or abandoned altogether. There are bad cultural practices, and bad traditions. However, to argue that there are bad cultures takes us down a dangerous path. Culture is, and has been for a long time, synonymous with nations, groups of people –rather than mutable pattens of behaviour and symbolic structures (which is roughly the actual definition.) If a culture is bad, it’s bad in its entirety (and not just a part, like political culture), and “bad” labels whole populations, individuals cease to exist.

Afghans are not all the things Marlowe claims they are. Certainly some Afghans are some of those things. Some Afghans are even all of those things. But there are many Afghans to whom NONE of those labels apply.

Dexter Filkins gets that. For a recent IHT article on corruption, Filkins and Afghan collaborators Abdul Waheed Wafa and Sangar Rahimi interviewed everyone from former government ministers to truck drivers to better understand the range of (only male?) opinion on the matter. Filkins, Wafa and Rahimi make the important points that; 1) most Afghans disdain corruption (shocking!), 2) understand who is responsible, and 3) don’t sit by passively or approvingly when they can do something to fight it.

The decay of the Afghan government presents Barack Obama with perhaps his most under-appreciated challenge as he tries to reverse the course of the war here. The president-elect may be required to save the Afghan government, not only from the Taliban insurgency – committing thousands of additional American soldiers to do so – but also from itself.

“This government has lost the capacity to govern because a shadow government has taken over,” said Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister. He quit that job in 2004, he said, because the state had been taken over by drug traffickers. “The narco-mafia state is now completely consolidated.”

On the streets here, tales of corruption are as easy to find as kebab stands. Everything seems to be for sale: public offices, access to government services, even a person’s freedom. The examples above – $25,000 to settle a lawsuit, $6,000 to bribe the police, $100,000 to secure a job as a provincial police chief – were offered by people who experienced them directly or witnessed the transaction.

[...] Governments in developing countries are often riddled with corruption. But Afghans say the corruption they see now has no precedent, in either its brazenness or in its scale. Transparency International, a German organization that gauges honesty in government, ranked Afghanistan 117th out of 180 countries in 2005. This year, it fell to 176th.

“Every man in the government is his own king,” said Abdul Ghafar, a truck driver. Ghafar said he routinely paid bribes to the police who threatened to hinder his passage through Kabul, sometimes several in a single day.

[...] Many Afghans, including Ghani, the former finance minister, place responsibility for the collapse of the state on Karzai, who, they say, has failed repeatedly to confront the powerful figures who are behind much of the corruption. In his stint as finance minister, Ghani said, two moments crystallized his disgust and finally prompted him to quit.

The first, Ghani said, was his attempt to impose order on Kabul’s chaotic system of private property rights. The Afghan government had accumulated vast amounts of land during the period of communist rule in the 1970s and 1980s.

And since 2001, the government has given much of it away – often, Ghani said, to shady developers at extremely low prices.

The corruption may be endemic here, but if there is any hope in the future, it would seem to lie in the revulsion of average Afghans like Farani, who, after seven years, is still refusing to pay.

“I won’t do it,” Farani said outside the courthouse. “It’s a matter of principle. Never.”

“But,” he said, “I don’t have my house, either, and I don’t know that I ever will.”

And that’s how it’s done.

20 June 2007

I’m going back through emails I wrote over the past couple of years, during my travels, and I came across this email I sent to friends back home and elsewhere after spending all week discussing the various atrocity reports coming out of Iraq.

I’m sorry. It’s been a rough week, and, as you well know, the news we get overseas is a hell of a lot more grim that what makes it through the filters at home. I am just tired and sad. Things are falling apart in so many ways. Talking to the other Americans here, it just makes us all crazy. I guess [DELETED], the director of my department, summed it up the best: “These past six years have been an exercise in grieving. I will never go home for more than a visit again.” The Americans in the [DELETED] dept. scare everyone. They’re converting their savings into euros, ahead of what they predict will be a massive economic collapse.

We’re so far into the tunnel now that I fear we’ll have to go all the way through to see the sunshine again.

Ummm.