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.”

Election day in Kandahar

What I’m reading right now.

The young woman from Kandahar sat with me in the office of an independent monitoring group two days before Afghanistan’s August 20th presidential election. Halima had defied her family and threats from neighbors in the tumultuous southern region to work as an election observer and to vote. “It’s in our destiny to take our rights,” she said. “We should not be scared of anything.”

There was, unfortunately, a lot to be scared of on election day in Afghanistan’s south, as the rest of this HRW article details.

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.”

Siding with tyrants

I found the following a thoroughly compelling distillation of Mahmood Mamdani’s views:

For Mamdani, colonialism seems to be just a matter of one continent involving itself too heavily in the affairs of another continent–a jurisdictional abuse. But what was it that made colonialism so vile, so repugnant? Surely the essence of colonialism was the denial of freedom. The provenance matters less than the crime. If you read accounts of the savageries that attended European ventures into Africa, and then read accounts of what has taken place these past few years in Darfur, you will be struck by the similarities between them. It is no coincidence that the historian M.W. Daly has described postindependence governments in Khartoum as governing Darfur by “internal colonialism.” And this phenomenon is not unique to Sudan. Today many African tyrants treat their people with the same contempt Europeans once did. Is it a consolation for the victims that their oppression does not come from the West?

To side with Mamdani’s notion of anti-imperialism is to side with these tyrants. And to side with tyrants is to side with something that very much resembles colonialism. This is the contradiction within Mamdani’s worldview. It is also, in the end, the reason that the left’s great disputation between anti-imperialism and human rights presents a false choice. There is no need to pick sides. To be for human rights always and everywhere is to be against the ugliness of colonialism. And Mamdani’s anti-colonialism? It is, paradoxically, an apology for the closest thing our world now has to the colonialism of old.

It is altogether too bad that was written by Richard Just, managing editor of The New Republic, a publication I and many others have still not forgiven for its shameful cheerleading in the run up to the invasion of Iraq.

Miscellanea

Some perspective, via Penelopeinparis on Twitter.

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Last week, the blogosphere and Twitterverse couldn’t stop debating the new MSF UK ad titled ‘The Boy.’ While exploring the ads of MSF UK through the years on YouTube, I stumbled across more ads by British humanitarian and human rights NGOs. It didn’t take me long to realize how much more provocative –and creative–  these were than ads produced by similar or even sister organizations in the United States. Take the following Amnesty UK ads, neither of which I can imagine ever running on television in the United States, as but two examples.

Amnesty UK anti-torture ad.

Amnesty UK anti-extremism, pro-human rights ad.

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I have recently been thinking of the 2006 Economist editorial in which the publication took a shockingly bold stance against torture, and with a twist. Instead of arguing against torture based on torture’s ineffectiveness  as an intelligence-gathering tool –the line of argument adopted by many torture opponents in the American media– the Economist assumed torture to be very effective, and argued against it anyway. Maintaining a society in which people are free from state repression comes at a price, it stated, and in our era that price may well be thousands of innocent lives lost to terrorism.

When liberals put the case for civil liberties, they sometimes claim that obnoxious measures do not help the fight against terrorism anyway. The Economist is liberal but disagrees. We accept that letting secret policemen spy on citizens, detain them without trial and use torture to extract information makes it easier to foil terrorist plots.

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To eschew such tools is to fight terrorism with one hand tied behind your back. But that –- with one hand tied behind their back –- is precisely how democracies ought to fight terrorism.

[…]

Human rights are part of what it means to be civilized. Locking up suspected terrorists –- and why not potential murderers, rapists and paedophiles, too? –- before they commit crimes would probably make society safer. Dozens of plots may have been foiled and thousands of lives saved as a result of some of the unsavoury practices now being employed in the name of fighting terrorism. Dropping such practices in order to preserve freedom may cost many lives. So be it.

This is the liberal meaning of “freedom isn’t free.”

So be it.

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The Refugee Recertification Network is up and running on Ning.

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Safrang on the Afghanistan mission at a critical juncture.

The debate and the buzz is likely to continue and to build to a feverish pitch as the US administration considers its options in Afghanistan. With Iraq largely off many radars, the loud noise, mud-slinging, and endless debate that we saw occupy TV screens, opinion pages and most political conversations between 2003 and 2008 is now focused on Afghanistan. The real side of all of this debate, however, plays out in Afghanistan and not in the American op-ed wars of the left, the right and the middle. Any policy preferences bear life and death consequences for the people of Afghanistan.

Pervez Kambakhsh freed

It’s wonderful when one of these stories ends happily –or even bittersweetly, anything but tragically– once in a while.

From the Independent (UK):

The fate of the 24-year-old trainee journalist became an international cause célèbre after his plight was revealed by this newspaper. A petition to secure justice gathered more than 100,000 signatures and the Afghan government came under intense pressure from the international community to release him.

Mr Kambakhsh was moved from his cell in Kabul’s main prison a fortnight ago and kept at a secure location for a few days before being flown out of the country. Prior to his departure, he spoke of how his relief was mixed with deep regret at knowing he was unlikely to see his family or country again.

Wherever Pervez Kambakhsh is now, I hope he is receiving the support he needs. Not seeing one’s family or country again is a high price to pay for freedom, but maybe it will one day be safe enough for Kambakshsh’s brother and parents to visit him. Kambakhsh is a very young man, and he has plenty of life ahead of him.

I eagerly await reading the book.

Good night, travel well

Tanya Lokshina drives a knife through your heart:

Natasha takes a last sip of tea: “Yes, it would be good to leave – for a year, say. I so want to write a book. But there is always so much to do and no time left for anything. But if I did go somewhere… Not now, of course, I just can’t at the moment…” She gets up from the kitchen sofa, and staggering from tiredness, heads for the bedroom.

“Come on, do it now!” I laugh as she leaves. “Just think how awful it’ll be if you get bumped off, and haven’t even written the book which your friends and colleagues can bring out with great fanfare after your death. You’re not going to have a book, like proper people, just a pathetic posthumous collection of articles. The shame of it! Those posthumous collections of articles are the pits. If you’ve got a shred of conscience and self-respect left, you’ll get out of here and not come back ‘til you’ve written the book!” I move the mouse to wake the sleeping computer, and hear Natasha chuckling sleepily as she pulls the blanket over herself.

She was killed two days later, on 15 July.

She was pushed into a car while running to catch a shuttle taxi early in the morning. They took her from Chechnya into Ingushetia, and shot her by the forest.

At the funeral Lana tagged at my sleeve: “You will publish a collection of Mum’s articles now, won’t you? Mum didn’t write a book… You said that if a person is killed and hasn’t written a book, then they publish a collection of articles…” We like to think that children sleep at night, but they listen to our midnight conversations with great attention.

New York –somewhere below Kenya, Guatemala, Brazil and Bulgaria

…in transparency, when it comes to juvenile prisons.

Mie Lewis gives an account of her struggle to obtain information on girls in juvenile prisons that reads like something from the undemocratic world:

Back in the winter of 2005, I was a novice researcher at Human Rights Watch, trying to find out what life was like for girls held in youth prisons in upstate New York. Getting information was almost impossible. The New York juvenile justice agency — called the Office of Children and Family Services, or OCFS — was one of the most secretive and defensive that Human Rights Watch had ever encountered, even compared with agencies in places like Bulgaria, Guatemala, Kenya, and Brazil.

Because OCFS refused to let human rights monitors into its facilities, we scraped together information from every place we could, tracking down girls who had recently been released, finding sources inside the agency and even lurking in prison parking lots in mid-winter to talk to the parents of incarcerated girls.

This week, the Department of Justice released a scathing report on inhumane conditions in juvenile prisons in upstate New York. What the New York Times describes in its article on the report is inexcusable:

Excessive physical force was routinely used to discipline children at several juvenile prisons in New York, resulting in broken bones, shattered teeth, concussions and dozens of other serious injuries over a period of less than two years, a federal investigation has found.

Lewis continues:

First, the Justice Department’s report shows us that these four youth prisons, at a minimum, are corrupt beyond repair. They should be closed. Now. More effective, cheaper and safer alternatives to incarceration have worked elsewhere, are working in New York, and need to be expanded.

Second, in the coming legislative session, the New York state senate must pass the bill, which has been introduced several times, creating an Office of the Child Advocate, separate from OCFS. The abuses in youth prisons thrive in darkness. An independent child advocate means transparency and accountability, which are the only way to keep these abuses from happening over and over.

There have been more than enough damning reports, broken bones, and abandoned children. We know where the problems lie, and how to solve them. It will take genuine political will and public pressure that goes on far longer than a news cycle to make sure that two years from now we don’t hear the same heartbreaking revelations again.

According to the DoJ report, a federal takeover of New York State’s juvenile prisons is being considered. It says a great deal about the New York State Government that its incarcerated children were forced to endure so much, for so long, while officials actively sought to prevent human rights advocates like Lewis from uncovering abuses.

America leading by example, yet again.

File this under “things that make me ashamed of my country”

It would have been nice of  the judge who sentenced sixteen year old Sara Kruzan  to life without parole for the crime of killing her pimp (the man who raped Kruzan and forced her into prostitution when she was just a middleschooler) to have weighed seriously not only Kruzan’s young age, but also the fact that she was also, very obviously, a victim of human trafficking.

Mindboggling.