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.

Pinching a ghost

As Max and I walk home, a child beggar follows us, whispering in plaintive, monotone Dari.

I never know what to do when I encounter beggars. I am embarrassed for them, embarrassed for myself, embarrassed by what separates us. I’m angry that their lives are so desperate, and angry that they remind me of my unearned privilege. A woman in a burqa approached me earlier. I cringed and handed her some bills. Her tashakor made me cringe again.

The little boy continues trailing Max and me. Max tells him to go away, but can’t say it without smiling.

The child turns to me.

“Go away, kid,” I say.

The boy matches my pace, walking sideways.

“Go away.”

He doesn’t go away. He’s determined.

I reach out and muss the little boy’s dirty hair. He grins.

“Get going, kid. I mean it.”

I’m laughing now. This is what kids do to me.

Max slaps his forehead. Shit. The kid is going to follow us all the way home.

I reach out and pinch the boy’s freckled nose between my middle and forefinger. He stops for a moment. His face is indignant, shocked. I know what he’s thinking: this crazy khariji pinched me!

As compensation, I fork over 100 afs.

“You knew I would do that, didn’t you?”

The boy flashes his white baby teeth and runs off into the dust and twilight, leaving Max and me alone.

Later, at home, I open a book I received at a civil society coalition event a few weeks before, a book dedicated to remembrance of Afghanistan’s civilian war victims of the past thirty years. The text is in Dari, so I just look at the pictures. One is a photo of the beggar boy from my walk –or rather a boy who looked exactly like him.

The freckled child in the photograph stares back with soft murder victim eyes.

Afghanistan is a country of lost children, of small ghosts chasing a few afs through clouds of dust.

Rich, foreign jerk

Work refunds my airline tickets to Afghanistan. I ask for small bills, and all Afghan currency. N gives me a wad of American hundred dollar bills.

It’s dark by the time I get back to the house, so I ask Max to walk with me to the grocery store. As we pass the vendors chatting and roasting nuts and families strolling to the mosque together, I feel extremely foolish. What am I afraid of? Why did I drag my housemate away from his movie to babysit me while I shop for canned soup?

Because you don’t want to to be kidnapped, I tell myself.  Because walking with a man at least ensures you will have a witness the courts in this country will take seriously. Because you don’t want to be alone.

I throw my groceries into the red plastic basket and bring them to the register. The  teenage cashier rings them up and I reach into my bag. The hundred dollar bills. I hesitate and grimace as I hand one of them over. The boy gives a little sigh and pulls out his calculator. I bite my lip.

To the Afghans watching, I know what this must look like: another rich, foreign jerk, lavishly salaried for easy work, rubbing her dirty money in the faces of people who will work themselves into early graves without ever handling such sums.

“Don’t worry about it, ” Max tells me as we leave the store.

Beggar children gather. I don’t have change for them.

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.

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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You can’t take from people who have nothing, right?

Last December, Alanna began a post with this:

Bad development work is based on the idea that poor people have nothing. Something is better than nothing, right? So anything you give these poor people will be better than what they had before. Even if it’s your old clothes, technology they can’t use, or a school building with no teacher.

But poor people don’t have nothing. They have families, friends – social ties. They have responsibilities. They have possessions, however meager. They have lives, no matter what those lives look like to Westerners.

I was reminded of that post when I read the following on the Roma Rights blog, even though it isn’t about the kind of development Alanna was referring to:

Three months before the opening of the Universiade, Belgrade’s City Secretariat for Inspections decided to destroy the Roma slum settlement located right next to the athlete’s village “Belleville”. On April the 3rd 2009 all of a sudden a couple of bulldozers showed up at the settlement and demolished 40 houses. As the demolition was carried out without any prior notice to the residents, the people did not even have time to save their belongings from being buried under the ruins. A few of them were practically rescued from their houses in the very moment when the bulldozers were demolishing them.

It’s the assumption that underlies virtually everything governments in Eastern Europe do in regard to Roma housing: Roma lives are so bad, so intolerable, so filthy and hopeless that anything, even homelessness –or, as is the case for untold thousands of Roma in the former Yugoslavia, statelessness— is better than life in informal settlements like the one demolished in Belgrade. Thus, there is really no need to work with Roma communities to create housing alternatives. No, that demands too much effort on the part of busy, mid-level municipal officials, and requires actually sitting down with Roma as peers.  Forget it. Just send in the bulldozers and scatter the Gypsies. After all, you can’t take from people who have nothing, right?

No good options, lots of greys

A few days ago, Hamesha wrote about the ordinary people of Uruzgan:

[..] by looking at these ordinary people, i know deep down that they have reasons, and maybe good reasons, and that all that they think and do is not simply because of wanton rage and indiscriminate and blind passion –they are simple farmers and loving fathers and confused brothers and not always sociopaths and talibs and ideologically hardened insurgents. we have failed to reach out to them and to connect to them. we have foisted the most corrupt and dastardly upon them to represent us and somehow expect that they behave well while they do not even have a say in their own destiny. and we have come to see them as the enemy -and in doing so, have turned them into the enemy. and all along we have resorted to the power of violence and money to change their minds. we have commoditized development and fetishized security. we have come to perceive these people, otherwise ordinary humans, as either ‘elements’, or statistics, or swathes of public opinion, or insurgents, or supporters of insurgents, or a faceless mass of tools that know no reason and logic.

I thought of that passage when I read the following IWPR story today:

The Occasional Taleban

Dari Pashto

Impoverished young men struggling to find work hired by insurgents as part-time fighters.

By Fetrat Zerak in Farah (ARR No. 319, 23-Apr-09)

Abdullah Jan and Abdul Khaleq are both from the Pushtrod district of Farah province in western Afghanistan. Both are young, unemployed, and seek work as day laborers, for which they get about 200 afghani (4 US dollars) per job.

There is one big difference between them though: while Abdul Khaleq earns his money by digging ditches, painting houses, and other manual labour, Abdullah Jan, not his real name, does so by attacking police checkpoints. He is a Taleban part-timer.

“I am the only breadwinner in our family of eight,” said Abdullah Jan, a 22-year-old from a small village. “I went to Iran three times to try to find work, but I was expelled. I was in debt, and my father told me to go to the city. I looked for a job for three weeks, but then my brother got sick and needed medical treatment. He later died. Two of my friends then suggested that I go to the local Taleban.”

His mother was against it, said Abdullah Jan, and tried repeatedly to dissuade him. His father, however, kept silent.

“My first assignment was to attack the police checkpoint in Guakhan district,” recalled Abdullah Jan. “We killed four policemen, and we lost two of our own. Another one was injured. The fight lasted for two hours, with the real Taleban encouraging us from behind the lines, saying ‘go on, further, move, move, move.’

“When it ended, I was paid 400 afghani by the local commander. He said that if I performed better in the future, I would get more money. Since then, I have participated in five more attacks, and I make about 1,000 afghani per week.”

Under this ad hoc arrangement, Abdullah Jan is a Taleban for only a few hours per week. Other than that, he goes about his business like any other citizen. He has no gun or any other equipment that marks him as an insurgent, and he does not consider himself to be one.

“I am just fighting for the money,” he said. “If I find another job, I’ll leave this one as soon as possible.”

By some estimates, up to 70 per cent of the Taleban are unemployed young men just looking for a way to make a living. In Farah, Helmand, Uruzgan, Zabul, and other southern provinces, the majority of insurgents are fighting for money, not ideology.

But they are caught in a vicious circle: as long as their provinces are unstable, there is little investment that could generate employment opportunities. However, in the absence of jobs, they join the insurgents, prolonging the violence and guaranteeing that security and development, remain but a distant dream.

Too often, the Taliban are portrayed as a uniform group of ideologues who cannot be reasoned with and can only be stopped with bombs and bullets. There are, surely, some Taliban like that. Though, I am inclined to believe Fetrat Zerak and Hamesha, who tell a more complex story, one that speaks more to universal human desires and frailties than to unadulterated evil.

What would I do in the place of someone like Abdullah Jan? From my place of privilege, it is hard for me to put myself in his shoes.  I do not know his poverty or his obligations. What would I do if I alone was responsible for filling eight empty bellies? How heavy would that weigh on me, and madly gnaw at me? What might it drive me to do?

Then again, undoubtedly the civil servants Abdullah Jan and others like him kill are also ordinary people doing what they can to make it from one to the next and to provide for those in their care.

Perhaps that is the greatest tragedy and irony of all; those holding power  have pitted the poor and desperate against each other and by doing so have ensured that they remain poor and desperate and easy to manipulate to cynical ends.

Hope, development, injustice and inequality

Hamesha  just wrote about his recent trip to Bamyan.

to see that amid all that goes wrong -which the media never misses on- so much is going right, and that it is to the credit of the people, the ordinary folks, who in most cases barely have enough to get by but at the same time put up to 70% of the costs of development projects and invest in their and their children’s future. people who have a humble rural folk wisdom that can touch you unlike anything you have heard or read or discussed.

people who -in the case of bamyan- have no idea why a government that they accept and back and support ignores them while they inhabit a province so secure you could backpack through it and hitch rides from the locals and stay in their homes for the night, while they are so deeply mired in poverty that by barney rubin’s reasoning they should cultivate the highest harvest of afghanistan’s opium -but still don’t; these people have not the slightest idea why they are being neglected in development and are relegated to carving a living for themselves out of the forbidding cliffs and the rocky valleys to which geography and history have conspired together to imprison them in, and why after so many years and so many billions of development dollars, they have yet to experience a paved road, or a hospital birth.

A lovely, sad, apt choice of words.

still they persevere and salute the government cars and un vehicles driving through and covering them up all in dust, and they share the cream and quroot and sheep milk that they have. and on occasion, when it gets really frustrating, they take up not arms and ammunitions, but working tools and in what is an unprecedented example of civic action and silent protest in this country, mud-asphalt their roads to try to call attention to their miserable lot.

We really don’t hear enough about Bamyan and other areas  [like Ghor, as Marianne added in the comments] –precisely because they are not hotbeds of insurgency and political machinations. On the contrary, they are peaceful, pro-government, and comparatively progressive on gender. They are also edge-of-catastrophe poor. But without the threat of violence, reducing poverty lacks the kind of urgency that opens fat wallets and gets things done.

I am certain the irony of being neglected for doing all the right things has not escaped the people of Bamyan.

A defense of fairytales

While I am waiting for a necessary email to come in, I thought I’d ramble about  this Alternet criticismof Slumdog Millionaire by Mitu Sengupta.

Sengupta’s main points are:

  • The movie uses unrealistic plot devices like “fate” to deliver fairytale endings to its impoverished and abused characters.
  • The deus ex machina is an imported quiz show, and thus a love letter to top-down globalization and cultural imperialism.

She writes:

Corruption is certainly rampant among the police, and many will gladly use torture, though none is probably dim enough to target an articulate, English-speaking man who is already a rising media phenomenon. Beggar-makers do round-up abandoned children and mutilate them in order to make them more sympathetic, though it is highly improbable that any such child will ever chance upon a $100 bill, much less be capable of identifying it by touch and scent alone.

Indeed, if anything, Boyle’s magical tale, with its unconvincing one-dimensional characters and absurd plot devices, greatly understates the depth of suffering among India’s poor. It is near-impossible, for example, that Jamal would emerge from his ravaged life with a dewy complexion and an upper-class accent.

I tire of this criticism, which these days seems to be flung at every work of fiction that involves poor people and is not unrelentingly grim and depressing. I remember that when Juno came out, there were lots of people (on the Left, and with whom I am normally in complete agreement), who argued that Juno was a shallow, unrealistic, bourgeois,  and even anti-feminist portrayal of teen pregnancy, and that Diablo Cody should have made the American 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days instead.

Or how Khaled Hosseini was criticized for allowing Laila to not only live, but reunite with and marry her long-lost childhood love in A Thousand Splendid Suns.  Because, apparently, stories involving Afghan women must always end with everyone  dead or miserable.

And I could give numerous other examples.

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Bread and privilege

The other day, I was giving my boyfriend a summary of the weird, funny expat stories I’d recently heard out of Afghanistan. One involved expat NGO employees finding an old round bread at their guest house. The bread was as stiff and hard as wood, so they decided the best thing to do was use it as a frisbee and play for a while.

My boyfriend, who is Afghan himself, lowered his eyebrows and gave me an annoyed look. Then, he sighed, “They should have just given that bread to a poor person. There are a lot of starving people in Afghanistan, and it wasn’t nice for them to play with bread, even old bread. You can’t understand that, and this is why I worry about where the [development] money is going.”

It’s uncomfortable but nonetheless necessary to be reminded, every so often, of how easily privilege can blind you to the truth of things.