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.


Another prize-winning comment:

Justin Kraus:


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.

10 thoughts on “The same old canard

  1. Transitionland, one challenge with your approach is that it makes Afghans depend on an internationally funded “NGO industrial complex” indefinitely. How would you manage this issue?

    What does sovereignty mean for a government of a very poor country like Afghanistan? What does sovereignty mean for a government which gets 10 times as much in foreign grants each year than annual tax revenue?

    Let us just take the education system in Afghanistan; Afghanistan spends more on education each year than it collects in annual tax revenue. This is “unsustainable” to say the least. It is similar to America collecting $3 trillion a year in annual tax revenue and spending $5 trillion a year on education.

    Since Afghanistan’s education system is almost completely funded by foreigners, how much influence should foreigners have in running it? We have good data on the “quantity” of education output (1 million boys and few girls in schools in 2001 versus 2.6 million girls and 4.5 million boys in 2009; 1 thousand freshman in 2001 versus 45 thousand freshman in 2009); but do we know about the quality of Afghanistan’s education output? How good of a job is the internationally funded Afghan education system doing in educating Afghan students? Can graduates from Afghan colleges work for Google, Samsung, Infosys, or McKinsey? Can they serve effectively in the Afghan National Army Air Corps or the Afghan National Police?

    Is the international community operating the Afghan education system that they pay for a violation of Afghan sovereignty?

    How can the GIRoA (Gov of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) ever balance its budget if it collects $600 million in revenues but spends a steady state $6,000 million a year? Is dependency the same thing as lack of sovereignty?

    Westerners such as Lure D. Lou and Justin Kraus need to understand that Afghans are not all that different from any other people in many ways. Iranians, Central Asians, Pakistanis, Indians and Bangladeshis want education, private sector employment opportunities, health care, rule of law, and security; so why don’t Afghans want these same things?

    It is paternal pretentious western arrogance to think that Afghans don’t want what the rest of the world wants. Westerners need to stop seeing Afghans through western eyes. Do Afghans really want foreign annual grants to Afghanistan cut off?

    Please don’t insult Japanese democracy either.

    • Transitionland, anan,

      The purpose of my liberal use of quotes was, of course, not to be “snarky” (and certainly not lame) but to try and problematize some of the phrases that we use so often these days.
      In terms of the “international community” the point was to ask if can such an entity, which even you state is often corrupt, can credibly “hold” another entity, which you also state is corrupt (the Afghan government) “to account”?
      My answer would be, only with great difficulty and great hypocrisy.
      Which leds me to start questioning the very concepts through which we are looking at this situation. Why is it so “dangerous” to problematize the idea of corruption and perhaps take a less judgemental look at how other cultures distribute power and resources?

      Second, anan, I find it interesting that you think that I “insulted” Japanese democracy because I stated that it was far from the western ideal. In fact I applaud Japanese democracy precisely because it is Japanese and not Western. They have been able to create a modern governance system that, by and large, meets the needs of its people as well as any other Western country, so I see no compelling reason to “waltz in”. I currently live in South Korea, and I could say the same thing for its quasi-democratic government. Is it perfect? Of course not. Is it as good as New Jersey? Of course. My point was to show the self-serving nature of the “international community’s” interventions across the globe. A point on which most of the developing world, and I suspect the Afghans, need no convincing.

      Third, I believe that I am sufficently cognizant of the fact that Afghans (thanks for the correction Transitionland) want good jobs, good schools, and safe streets like “the rest of the world wants.” I am not at all sure however, that they want to (or even can) arrive at those things by listening to Western “help.” And this need not be depressing. There are many ways to reach “the promised land” of “what everyone in the world wants.”

      Finally Transitionland you pointed to a poll that stated that the Afghans dislike corrupt officials. As any good pollster will tell you, its all in how you frame the question. I would propose that you get a poll on this question instead. Ask Afghans if they think it is wrong for their tribe members to try and bring power, authority, prestige, and resources back to their tribe through involvement in the Western-backed government. I suspect you will get a very different answer.

      Again a more humble, self-reflective, and more sophisticated approach to “development”, where those who dissent aren’t labled as “dangerous,” I think is warranted. The false dichotomy of the “helper” and the “helped” as a useful way to conceptualize development needs to be abandoned. As does the culturally unsophisticated distinction between corrupt and non-corrupt governance.

      • “Finally Transitionland you pointed to a poll that stated that the Afghans dislike corrupt officials. As any good pollster will tell you, its all in how you frame the question. I would propose that you get a poll on this question instead. Ask Afghans if they think it is wrong for their tribe members to try and bring power, authority, prestige, and resources back to their tribe through involvement in the Western-backed government. I suspect you will get a very different answer.”

        1) The AIHRC report provides the questions in the methodology section.

        2) “…bring power, authority, prestige, and resources back to their tribe” is not the same thing as corruption. Also, Afghans don’t elect tribal leaders. Where tribal structures are strong (which is *not* the entire country), those leaders are informal, and unelected. I suggest you do some research on Afghanistan’s government structure and electoral system.

        3) I just went to your blog. I can tell you right now, we’re not going to agree on anything. Diametrically opposed ideological standpoints.

  2. I wouldn’t be so pessimistic. I actually agree with a lot of what you are saying, even though as you correctly point out you are coming to your conclusions from a (perhaps) radically different ideological starting point than my own. Dialogue is a good thing. Particularly with those you disagree with. And so long as we keep in mind the possibility (and in fact the likelihood) that we are wrong, or at least don’t have the whole truth, such dialogue can even be productive (which is not to say that this particular conversation needs to continue). Plus your blog is way better designed than my own. As you saw I just started mine and it needs a lot of work.

  3. My blog isn’t actually well-designed. I just happened to pick a theme that’s very clean looking. It’s cutline, I believe.

    Dialogue is good –but only when both parties want the same end, and the difference of opinion comes down to means.

    Bill Easterly and I may disagree on economics and policy, but I doubt our respective visions of a just world differ very much.

  4. Is that “end” you are talking about so clear? In this wonderfully diverse world are there not only a multitude of means, but also of ends? And consequently cannot discussion over both can be fruitful? And shouldn’t there be space in this world for people who aren’t particularly interested in furthering, or supporting, any single hegemonic worldview, whether that view is coming from the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights (for which I have great sympathy but which is the subject of great controversy amongst many Africans and Asians as overly Eurocentric) or from any other text? Especially because, if the ends aren’t open to discussion, then what are people who disagree suppose to do? Just “get over” that which they find “obnoxious” as you suggested that I do? I think that is unlikely to occur . So it should not be suprising (although of course never condoned) that, when faced with such a rigid position and with such an unwillningness for self-reflection, that they start doing “obnoxious” things in return, such as bombing stuff.
    What makes Bill Easterly so valuable to development discourses is that he is willing to do such self-reflection. His frequent conclusions that we, the West, are not quite who we think we are, and are not quite doing what we think we are doing, and that we don’t have a very good grasp on the future consequences of our actions, are not causes for despair, but simply humility.

    • Japan and South Korea are both amazing free democracies. They have much to teach the rest of the world. We should remember that South Korea was poorer per capita than Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1953. In 1950 many people around the world considered the South Korean military to be grossly incompetent. Today, South Korea is a rich first world country, the 11th largest economy in the world, with one of the highest quality and largest militaries in the world.

      • Anan,

        I could not agree with you more in terms the ability of Japan and South Korea to “teach the rest of the world.” In fact I am currently doing my doctoral studies in Korea exactly along those lines. But as to whether Japan and South Korea both have “amazing free democracies,” I think that depends on what your standard of “free” and “amazing” are. “Corruption,” as defined by Westerners, is still rather rampant both institutionally and otherwise in South Korea (I’m not as up-to-date about Japan). Witness the recent suicide of former president Roh Moo Hyun as a consequence of the corruption scandal surrounding him. And even my own partner’s (she is Korean) uncle bribes his son’s highschool teachers so that he will receive better grades, which is a common practice in Korea.
        And yet despite all of this supposed “corruption”, as you so well point out Anan, Korea is a remarkable success story.
        Which again has led me at least to question the Western obsession with the supposedly devastating effects of “corruption” on developing countries.
        My own studies here suggest that much, though of course not all, of this so-called “corruption” is simply a different way, i.e. the Korean way, of achieving, again as you put it, “what everyone in the world wants.”

  5. Justin,

    I understand the points you are trying to make, but I don’t think you understand mine.

    “So it should not be suprising (although of course never condoned) that, when faced with such a rigid position and with such an unwillningness for self-reflection, that they start doing ‘obnoxious’ things in return, such as bombing stuff.”


    The parties bombing stuff in Afghanistan are the Taliban (which isn’t one group, but a movement composed of many groups), a few non-Taliban insurgent groups, a few warlords, and us. And only the Taliban are deliberately attacking civilian targets for ideological reasons –something they were doing long before we got there.

    • Does “us” in respect to attacks on Afghans mean the pro GIRoA forces, or {ANA + ANP + ISAF + OEF}?

      Have all of you seen the Feb 9, 2009 and June 2009 Afghan public opinion polls? Both these polls showed that the ANA is very popular and respected among Afghans (the ANA’s popularity in most polls almost seems like a typo.) The ANP is somewhat popular among Afghans. By contrast 91% of Afghans have an unfavorable view of the Taliban. Based on the large majority of accounts that I have seen (including from many ANA embedded combat advisors); the ANA is highly motivated and loyal, including the approximately two fifths that are Pashtu.

      So why is the ANA widely perceived to be performing so poorly against the Taliban? Why are attacks against and casualties among the ANA up so sharply? Some have insisted to me that the facts on the ground demonstrate that all the twenty plus opinion polls in Afghanistan since 2001 must be dead wrong, or the ANA wouldn’t keep getting its butt handed to them by the Taliban.

      Are all the public opinion polls from Afghanistan dead wrong? Why is the ANA not performing better against the Taliban? Many very sharp people from around the world are insisting that the ANA is hopeless (even people who want the ANA to win), and that international support for the ANA should be sharply reduced since the ANA is certain to lose anyway. Any thoughts?

      Transitionland, are the ANA and ANP are certain to lose quickly once ISAF draws down; are the Quetta Shura Taliban, Haqqani, Hekmatyur, Lashkar e Taiba, Lashkar e Jhanvi, Sipah a Sahaba, Jaish al Muhammed, Harakat al Mujahadin, Al Qaeda and their allies certain to rule the vast majority of Afghanistan soon? If so, then is the $55 billion in international grants Afghanistan has received since 2001 a waste? What is the point of giving the Afghans large quantities of international grants?

      I am not saying I agree with the above; but I keep hearing thoughts of this kind from so many people.

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