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.

A smugness of bloggers

Aid Thoughts is brilliant.

We don’t have any really good collective nouns, do we? There’s nothing like a “pride” of lions, or an “annoyance” of mimes. I humbly suggest the following:

  • A sympathy of charities
  • A  contradiction of economists
  • A frustration of bureaucrats
  • A complexity of anthropologists
  • A confusion of NGOs
  • A quagmire of donors
  • An infestation of politicians
  • A detail of immigration officials
  • An excellence of bloggers (I suspect others may wish to change this to ‘A smugness of bloggers’. I’ll let you decide. I vote for excellence, as a totally unbiased observer, of course).

I’d add:

  • A conviction of  international criminal lawyers
  • A compliance of human rights officers
  • A delay of IGOs
  • A creep of IFIs
  • A consternation of think tanks
  • A bluster of pundits
  • A vigilance of monitors

On the Marc Garlasco thing…

UPDATE 09/15/2009: Garlasco has been suspended by HRW.

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Do I think Marc Garlasco is guilty of the things he is being accused of? Absolutely not, and his vociferous right-wing critics have a long history of attacking HRW for having the nerve to treat Israel as what Israel is — a state like any other, with a military beholden to international law.

HRW isn’t going to fire Garlasco, and it shouldn’t*, but that doesn’t mean Garlasco should stay on at the organization in his current capacity or any other. The unfair, obnoxious reality is that the Israeli right and its American allies have turned Garlasco’s private hobby into a publicity nightmare for one of the world’s leading human rights organizations –an organization that needs its reports on the conduct of the Israeli military to be taken seriously, most of all by the Israeli Government, which will use any excuse it can to ignore evidence that its soldiers harm Palestinian civilians.

If Garlasco stays, he will undermine all future HRW work on the Middle East. That work is bigger and more important than Marc Garlasco the military analyst, and Garlasco should do the honorable thing now –resign. He should do so not for the likes of David Bernstein and the people at NGO Monitor, but for the welfare of the grievously wronged civilians he has interviewed and advocated on behalf of over the years.

*I wrote the opposite to a friend two days ago in a pissy mood, but I’ve since realized that was a dumb, knee-jerk reaction on my part, and I regret putting it in writing.

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.

[...]

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.

MSF ads to haunt Twitter (and your dreams) for weeks to come

The aid/development Twitterverse engaged in a rollicking debate over the appropriateness of the new MSF UK ad today. Here’s the ad:

Some, like Bill Easterly and Laura Freschi, argued that the ad played to stereotypes of Africa as a wasteland of civil wars, rape and murder –even though the ad itself is not set on a specific continent and no actors are ever shown. On Aid Watch, Freschi wrote:

After watching this ad several times (I don’t recommend you try this), I feel 1) deranged and 2) hopeless, as though nothing I could ever do, much less donate a few dollars to MSF, could possibly have any effect on the vast, incomprehensible suffering in the world.

For my part, I argued that MSF does emergency medical relief, and it is entirely appropriate for MSF ads to highlight that. MSF is not CARE or even the IRC. MSF employees literally work with blood and guts and human goo all day, treating badly injured, ill, malnourished and displaced people in what are surely among the most desperate moments of their patients’ lives.  Therefore, a campaign featuring nothing but resilient, empowered beneficiaries ( a la “I Am Powerful”) doesn’t make sense, while a disturbing one that shocks the viewer’s conscience does.

As the debate progressed (or devolved, depending on how you see it), more MSF ads came to my attention.

The feel-good:

The Peter Singer:

The PTSD mashup / cry into your mom’s lap:

The “human ball”:

The recruitment poster:

The too-literal:

The lame one:

The kiddles:

Below the jump, two non-MSF ads that will sound your WTF? alarms for two very different reasons.

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