Theory Teacher's Blog

Japan, the World, and the Question of What To Do

I have to admit something. I am completely overwhelmed by all the events of the past couple months: the democratic protests in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, the subsequent conflict in Libya, the attempt by Wisconsin’s governor to remove the collective bargaining rights of public employees, the attempt by Michigan’s governor to give himself emergency powers against unions, massive cuts to public education (especially public universities) across the country, the proposal in Congress to eliminate funding for public broadcasting (no more Sesame Street?), another proposal to make it illegal for private insurance to be used for abortions, still another proposal by a legislator in Missouri to bring back child labor… and of course the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Because some of these events have received a lot of attention from the mainstream media and others haven’t, and because so many of them are connected to each other in surprising ways, I have felt some obligation to write and to try to make sense of these things. And because the mainstream media so often misrepresents what it talks about,  I have in the past usually been compelled to respond critically to the media’s misrepresentations. The way such events are mediated become, for me, occasions for the usefulness of theory.

But lately, I find myself avoiding the news. It makes me sad, angry, and frustrated. Though I know the TV and radio news is usually a bit incorrect (and sometimes even really wrong), I can’t bring myself to do the hard work to respond to it. And please believe me, I’ve started numerous blog posts about all of the above topics, but I quickly become afraid of my own ignorance, and my writing never gets very far. The responsibility to be correct, in the context of so many incorrect statements, has felt too heavy. And I don’t want to watch and read the horrible stuff I’d have to watch and read in order to write something good. Anyway, I want to return to the subject of my writer’s block in a moment, but before I do, I want to overcome it for a brief moment and say something about how to help Japan.

I guess the reason why I’m overcoming my writer’s block on this subject is simple. I lived in Tokyo for two years (1997-1999), and am still in touch with a few of the friends I made during that time. I took a group of students there a couple years ago (2009) and blogged a lot about it [here]; I have a Japanese exchange student in my class right now; my school has a program there every fall; and a former student whose honors thesis I advised is working there now. I’ve thankfully heard from all of my friends and my former student since the earthquake, and they are all fine. And probably because of my history there and my connections, a few people in the United States have asked me what they should do. More specifically, they have asked what organization might be the best to donate to? And I forwarded their question on to my Japanese friends and got some answers. It is more difficult question than it might seem, and I’ve blogged before on the difficulty of the question of aid with regards to Haiti’s earthquake last year [here] and [here], aid to Kenya [here], and aid to Ethiopia [here]. So, for the past week, I’ve tried to think of a good answer, but my writer’s block and other things keep getting in the way — my own ego too, perhaps… my hesitation is maybe just silly.

To get right to the point, there is a simple answer and a complex answer. The simple answer is this. I was advised by my Japanese friends to donate to Japan’s Red Cross [here] or a special fund set up by Japanese banks [here]. This is what the Japanese television is saying, apparently. One of my friends in Japan alerted me to the fact that there are some bogus websites out there, so be careful — for example, see [here] about a bogus website pretending to be Japan’s Red Cross. However, the Japanese Red Cross’s English website also suggests that foreigners check to see if their own national Red Cross is supporting Japan’s endeavors. And the American Red Cross announced that it is [here]. (Note, the different Red Crosses are independent of each other, not just one big organization.)

There are a number of reasons why the relationship between organizations matters. First, sometimes large multinational organizations act as if they know everything, try to take over when they arrive in a foreign country, and just get in the way or are insensitive to local issues. It’s actually more efficient to make use of already existing institutions that have been there, so it’s better if the American Red Cross simply gives some money to the Japanese Red Cross than if it descends upon the country en masse. Second, multinational organizations and the American Red Cross have been criticized in the past for making use of a natural disaster to re-engineer a smaller country’s economy and political structure, which is why I am sometimes suspicious of them (as I wrote about at length in my blogs about Haiti’s earthquake), but in this case, Japan is obviously not a small country, and it has one of the best national infrastructures on the planet, so it seems the relationship between Japan’s Red Cross and America’s is reasonable. Third, the most challenging aspect of disaster relief is supply chains — how to get stuff like water, food, and blankets from one place to another. And this is always a problem, but especially a problem in the case of a tsunami like this one which has destroyed many of the means of transportation. Hence, too many organizations on the ground will get in each other’s way unless there is some coordination. The national government is almost always able to respond more quickly and more effectively than private charities for this reason. And considering the challenge of supply chains, it should be obviously stupid for us to send truckloads of stuff or even truckloads of people to Japan at this time. How would it get there? Doesn’t it make more sense to trust the Japanese organizations to handle this?

So, the best way to help Japan is by donating to organizations that will support Japan’s own organizations with money, not with stuff. That’s the simple answer. But there is a more complex answer too, and this more complex answer has something to do with why I was afraid to write about this, why I avoided watching the media’s representations, and the very strange psychology of international aid. The American media’s response has been frustratingly stupid and even offensive to some Japanese people. The news stories are often unclear about the specifics of location and time (looping the same image over and over without identifying which city it’s from). Annoyingly, it emphasizes how America is helping rather than how Japan is helping itself. It will even make racist generalizations about the Japanese character; words I’ve heard a lot are stoic and traditional; I’ve even heard the word tribal; none of these adjectives make the least bit of sense to me. At the same time, the danger at the nuclear power plant has prompted endless debate about the safety of nuclear power and what America needs to do to help Japan, as if TEPCO (Japan’s energy company) and the Japanese government haven’t already been planning for this kind of thing for years. There is almost no discussion of the important role of Japan’s Self Defense Force, which has one of the largest budgets of any military in the world. Since Japan’s Constitution, written after World War II with significant input from the United States, prohibited Japan from having a traditional military that could invade other countries, its SDF was often used as a disaster-response force. (This of course changed somewhat recently after George W. Bush and Junichiro Koizumi found a legal loophole so as to let Japan participate in the “war on terror”, especially in Afghanistan.) In sum, the history of Japan’s political relationship to the rest of the world is often absent from the characterizations (including the fact that Japan has been for years one of the largest givers of aid to other countries, as I had to chance to witness first hand when I was there in 2009 — see my blog post about that [here].)

My point here is not that the mainstream American media is doing a poor job innocently. Rather my point is that it is not innocent at all — that there is a strange self-serving psychology motivating the way it represents Japan and all other countries. There is a wonderful analysis of the contradictory and protean history of American representations of Japan by the cultural theorist Masao Miyoshi in his introduction to the book Japan in the World. My personal experience in Japan agrees with Miyoshi, and I first became aware of this kind of thing back in 1997 when my American friends would send me stories from the New York Times and Newsweek that were presumably about Japanese society, but were bizarrely untrue. In 1997 and 1998, it was obvious what motivated the American media’s symbolic denigration of Japanese society — the United States’s president Bill Clinton was in the middle of renegotiating a trade relationship and was hoping to open up Japan’s financial sector to American banks. That was over a decade ago; what motivates the American media now is something I don’t understand. Maybe it’s just habit.

A second issue is something that we are almost not supposed to talk about out loud. One of my students wrote a great paper about this for my class a couple years ago, so I’m relying on her research. All aid organizations such as the Red Cross, Oxfam, etc., know that they function best when they are proactive and prepared and when they perform preventative measures. Waiting for an emotionally distraught public to send money after disaster has struck will do no good at all. But it never occurs to the public to support institutions (both governmental and non-governmental) and to engage in preventative measures that are efficient and that work. The public’s emotions are only mobilized reactively not proactively, and this is a huge problem that everyone in the “relief” business is well aware of. Hence, usually, a relief organization will save the money they raise during any given disaster for the next disaster that hasn’t happened yet. In other words, the money you gave to non-governmental organizations during Hait’s earthquake or Pakistan’s flood might now be used for Japan’s tsunami, and the money you give now for Japan’s tsunami might be used for some future disaster somewhere else in the world. This makes good sense, and non-governmental organizations have long figured out how to use the irrational and generally ignorant emotionalism of the general public to good effect. To raise money, organizations hype the personal connection between the giver and the receiver, no matter how inefficient or ineffective that personal connection might actually be in practice.

But — and this is a big but — the risk is that such hype and sentiments might symbolically and psychologically undermine the institutions that are actually more effective (e.g., the national governments), since when people expect such a personal connection, they come to expect the wrong things from their investment and distrust the organizations that actually are most effective. It puts the government and the non-governmental organization in the habit of managing public emotions, and television becomes a necessary tool for this management, and sometimes it becomes difficult to find the right set of symbols to appeal to the public’s emotions (as was the case during Pakistan’s flood, which received relatively less support, as many aid workers lamented)… and thus… all the misrepresentations of other cultures proliferate.

Possibly I’m wrong about all this. I have been avoiding most media about this topic, precisely because it makes me so upset, and so my sense of the media and the reality on the ground is by no means thorough…. And so… thus… hence… therefore… my writer’s block about so many issues.

So now back to my writer’s block. A friend recently reminded me of something the philosopher Jacques Derrida said in an interview done for a documentary about him (entitled Derrida.) Here’s what he said:

Derrida says that when he is half asleep he will have a moment of panic and second-guess himself. Thus, in a classic deconstructive move, Derrida reverses how we usually think of things. We usually think of the panic about writing happening when we are very conscious — perhaps even overly conscious — not when we are unconscious. But Derrida suggests it is our unconscious that is the more vigilant.

But I’m not so sure Derrida is right. Most people (since most people don’t have Derrida’s ability to write book after book after book) feel that anxiety before they write, not after they write. Most people feel overwhelmed by the amount of information and the challenge of making sense, which is why they feel unable to say things unless they are empowered by some larger movement. (Whether that movement is sensible or not is another story.) When Derrida says he is compelled to write by some feeling of necessity or some force outside himself, this is an unusual mystification on his part of the complex social relations that empower him — specifically the relation he and everone else have to certain kinds of information and the affective conditions that give us a feeling we have a right to speak even when we are largely ignorant of the facts.

In a funny way, democracy as a form of government depends upon an incredibly ignorant public believing they have a right to speak about everything. And this is important. What frightens me most about the overload of information and recent crises around the world is that it might cause us (or maybe just me) to want to hide. The question of what to do is too big a question.

Thomas Jefferson once suggested that democracy required an informed public, and it is common to think of fascist dictatorial regimes, in contrast, as controlling and limiting access to information (Orwell’s famous book 1984, for instance, but also the actions of Libya and Egypt’s governments.) But there is also the possibility that too much information might stymie the public. In other words, perhaps too much information and a constant feeling that we are in the middle of a crisis is the new postmodern form of fascism that causes people either to stammer and yell or to hide and retreat rather than come together and reasonably discuss. (And this is, by the way, one of the insights of the philosopher Agamben’s recent books, State of Exception.) Maybe writing is a form of exceptionalism — we must temporarily become the exception when we write. What a strange idea!!!


March 20, 2011 Posted by | international aid | Leave a comment

Finfinne Diaries 6: The Ethics of Aid in Ethiopia

me with GTF staff and Karayu in front of grain store

Following up on my last blog post, with all my photographs of Hararge, this post will have some more photographs from my trip to Oromia. This time I will focus on the day I spent in Fentale with members of the Gudina Tumsa Foundation (GTF) who showed me the work they do with the pastoralist Karayu tribe. I meant to blog about this a week ago, but I kept procrastinating, and I think the reason for my procrastination is that the subject is so important, complicated, and difficult. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say or how to go about saying it, and I wanted to read a book about Gudina Tumsa first. The subject of aid is something I blogged about before [here] after my trip to Kenya last summer, and my title “the ethics of aid” comes from the title of an episode of NPR’s Speaking of Faith in December, 2008, in which the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina shocked the host of the program by saying that Europe and the United States should stop trying help Africa. No aid was better than misguided aid. Similarly, just a few weeks ago, Newsweek published an article arguing that some forms of humanitarian aid to Ethiopia are actually bad for democracy and human rights.  In my opinion, both Wainaina and Newsweek are overstating their case (Wainaina for rhetorical effect, and Newsweek to sell magazines), but they raise valid concerns.

road from Metahara to the GTF elementary school

Honestly, I don’t know what to think, and I’m not even sure as I type this what I’m going to say. I guess what would be simplest is for me to first describe what I did in the Fentale district and show some of my photographs. (By the way, you can click on the pictures to make them bigger.) And then I’ll get to the hard questions after that. Please keep in mind that you are getting an abbreviated account of my day in Fentale. It could be a book.  

So, as you can see from my photographs below, the Karayu are quite poor, and where they live is hot and dry. In my previous blog post about the ideology behind some kinds of representation, I pointed out that most Americans think of Ethiopians as starving people in the desert who desperately need our help, and I demystified these stereotypes. But Fentale is a different story altogether. Different, and not at all what you might expect, as I’ll try to explain.  

Karayu man in the hot and dry Fentale district of Oromia

village and cattle

The Karayu are an Oromo tribe, and traditionally they are pastorlists and move from place to place with their cattle. They govern themselves through the democratic Gadaa system; their religion traditionally has been Waqeffata, though today many are Muslim and some Christian. For the past half century, their culture and their economy has been severely disrupted by Ethiopia’s economic development, which I discussed earlier in my blog [here] and [here]. The good land is taken by large industrial plantations, and here is the troubling reality that the American media and many American humanitarian organizations often neglect to mention — the poverty in Ethiopia is neither simply a natural disaster caused by drought nor simply the fault of bad governance. It is those things too, but it is also in part a man-made crisis produced by the modern capitalist world system. Take a look at my photograph below. On the left side of the image is a lush and green sugar plantation started by Dutch investors in the 1960s and irrigated by the large Awash river. On the right side is the arid land where the Karayu live. Not only do the Karayu no longer have access to water, but their cattle and goats often have to drink the run-off water from the plantations that contains pesticides and chemical fertilizers.  

boundary of Metahara sugar plantation

The stark contrast between the lush, fertile plantation and the almost-desert environment was so painful to look at that it brought tears to my eyes. How could these two environments exist just inches away from each other?  

conversations at small shop

And it gets worse. One of the effects of the land and water scarcity is ethnic conflict, as the various tribes fight with each other for what little remains. The other effect is deforestation. Hence, one of the things many humanitarian organizations try to do in Africa is encourage indigenous groups and local governments to plant trees and invest in more environmentally sustainable social organization. The most famous example is Kenya’s greenbelt movement started by Wangari Maathai who won the Nobel peace prize in 2004. The Gudina Tumsa Foundation also does this, and plus it also works with the Karayu to promote a more residential economy by building permanent homes, constructing facilities for storing grain, and setting aside land for re-forestation. In addition, they teach the basics of microfinance, helping them start up local shops. Such microfinancing goes hand in hand with the empowerment of women, since it’s women who usually run the shops.

elementary school

girl, GTF staff, and me in front of dorm

Probably one of the most important projects that GTF did is build schools. Even if the Ethiopian government pays the peasants and pastoralists some money when it forces them off their land, the people have trouble adapting to their new circumstances because they lack education. The worst case scenarios are death from starvation or migration to city slums. GTF built the only schools and libraries in the area. In addition, since pastoralists tend to move around a lot, GTF also operates dormitories for the students — and this is especially beneficial for girls who otherwise might never get an education.  

after (not during) class at high school

There’s a lot more to say about the Karayu culture, the economics of their displacement, and the work of GTF, but you can read more about that elsewhere by following the hyperlinks I’ve included in this blog post. Now I want to return to the question about the ethics of aid.  

loving the algebra

There are a lot of problems with foreign aid to Africa, but I’ll focus on two. First, sometimes the donors think they know what’s best and build projects that aren’t locally sustainable or useful to the people there. They might build a water pump or a school, but then not train enough staff there to maintain it. This kind of aid tends to emphasize building things, so it employes American engineers and uses American products. Ironically, this kind of aid might be better for the donor’s economy than for the recipient’s economy. Years ago, I made some extra money editing documents for an aid organization, and the shocking discovery I made was that the donor government consciously and deliberately required that much of the funding return to the donor country by using its contractors, technology, and labor. The result is hundreds of defunct projects all over Africa. As Kelly Kraemer wisely argues in her article Solidarity in Action, “good intentions matter, but by themselves are not sufficient to determine whether or not a particular course of action is appropriate.” Instead, she argues, we must be conscious of our own position of privilege and acknowledge that that privileged position is supported by the same socio-economic structures that might oppress or disempower the very group of people we intend to help. This requires that we be willing to learn from the people we aim to help and take the time to gain their trust.  

shop for animal medicines

Second, the effects of foreign aid on local politics can be very strange. An organization might accidentally (or sometimes intentionally) promote the interests of one ethnicity or religion at the expense of another. Often the aid given is driven by ideological biases, so for instance work done by various Christian organizations to prevent the spread of HIV-AIDS is limited by the moral prejudices that religion. As Ron Pagnucco and David Cortright rightly argue in their essay Limits to Transnationalism, two of the difficult challenges to the solidarity of a transnational social movement (i.e., a coalition of people across national boundaries) are the ideological differences and the divergent commitments of their national governments. Likewise, although the intentions of the officers whom I met in Ethiopia from the U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command were certainly noble and good, their work also is meant to promote America’s foreign policy and the interests of Wall Street, which may not always be in the best long-term interests of the people living there.  In addition, it’s easier for global organizations and multinational corporations to operate in countries with an authoritarian government. A real, functioning democracy might interrupt such aid projects or investments of capital, because voters and/or local governments might actually oppose them.  

Karayu woman (yes, she has beautiful local-style dreadlocks) dressed up for funeral with her son (wearing an Obama t-shirt)

I think the advantages of lesser-known organizations such as GTF compared to the more famous, global organizations is that GTF is local and has the trust of the local communities. In the past, the Karayu refused to work with most development and aid organizations because they didn’t trust them. But GTF was started in Oromia by Oromos, and some of its staff members are themselves Karayu from the Fentale district. To put it bluntly, organizations such as GTF are simply better than global organizations. However, at the same time GTF relies on its relationship to communities and organizations around the globe.  Most GFT projects are funded by donations from charities in Canada, United States, Japan, Germany, etc. And therein lies the paradox.

And this local-global paradox leads me to Gudina Tumsa’s theology. Gudina Tumsa, by the way, was assassinated by Ethiopia’s Derg regime in 1979, probably because as the Protestant Church’s leading minister, he argued that the role of the church was not to legitimate the ideology of the government but to engage in sincere, productive dialogue and critique. I don’t have time to summarize all of his theology, but I will focus on two main concepts that the GTF (started by two of his daughters) have put into effective practice.  

The first is the concept of “integral human development,” which basically argues that the church can not simply worry about the saving of souls and their afterlife. It must also work to better the everyday lives of all people. In this theory, things as different from each other as the environment, women’s empowerment, ethnic-cultural identity, education, religious ethics, spirituality, and the economics of global capitalism are all related. As I hope my blog post has indicated, GFT carefully and deliberately engages all of these aspects together. A local organization will, naturally, be able to do that better than a global organization because it has a more acute and a more holistic understanding of the people it serves.  

women building a house

The second concept is “interdependence.” Gudina Tumsa argued that the protestant church in Ethiopia should not be dependent on the European missionaries because the missionaries didn’t always understand the reality on the ground in Ethiopia. But at the same time, he did not believe in a complete independence because no church could survive the vicissitudes of power politics within a nation state unless it maintained a positive, transnational relationship with people around the world. His theology encouraged an international perspective that I think resembles the international perspective that the socialist postcolonial theorist Timothy Brennen argued for in his essay Cosmopolitanism and Internationalism. Brennen demystifies the cosmopolitan ideologies of universality that underpins claims to global solidarity. Such claims are often made by Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim leaders. Instead, the international perspective (formulated centuries ago in Immanuel Kant’s essay on world peace) recognizes the necessary role of independent nation states and the divergent political and economic needs of local communities. In an internationalist theology, rather than a globalist theology, the important and useful differences remain in clear view so that the church in Ethiopia is not problematically an expression of European ideologies instead of an expression of the people on whose behalf it advocates. Hence, Gudina Tumsa’s concept of “interdependence” recognizes not only the integrity and autonomy of local communities but also their relationship to the world community. 

neighborhood soccer goal (only about 200 yards from the sugar plantation)

One point of this blog post (if it isn’t clear already) has been to answer the challenge about the ethics of aid posed by Wainaina and Newsweek, and my answer has been to demonstrate why donating money to small organizations like GTF might be better than donating money to large, ideologically driven organizations. My reasoning behind this view is  based on GTF’s integrity, its roots in the local community, and its successful track record and long term goals. I suspect, however, that two challenges remain for GTF. First, GTF’s need to attract the interest of charitable organizations worldwide might lead them in directions that they might not actually want to go. This is always a problem as there are always many constituencies involved within Ethiopia who have divergent interests, and at the same time, local Ethiopian organizations such as GTF must appeal to the hearts and minds of foreign charities who may have little understanding of the reality of the situation. Second, it is also true that GTF has its own missionary agenda and its own prejudices. No organization is immune from them. And in the case of Fantale, although GTF is widely respected among the Karayu community, I think it will lose that respect if it too aggressively pushes its Christianity onto a community whose members mostly subscribe to Islam or Waqeffata. What GTF has done well is work with the communities by helping them achieve their own goals while at the same time fostering “critical engagement” and open dialogue that lead to positive social transformation.

July 25, 2010 Posted by | global, international aid, Oromia | 5 Comments

What Should I Do for Haiti, Addendum

Last Friday, I tried to give some advice for how best to donate money to Haiti. One of my points then was that we should talk and think before acting. The purpose of my addendum here is to continue that line of thinking and talking. Since last Friday, several people have e-mailed me some feedback and more has happened. First, several people e-mailed me confirmation that the organization Partners in Health is one of the most highly ranked charities worldwide for its integrity and efficiency. In other words, if you donate to them, the money actually goes to the right places. The very same evening that I wrote my post, Rachel Maddow [here] covered some of the same stuff that I did and interviewed Tracy Kidder about Partners in Health.

And similarly, on the same day, Naomi Klein on the public TV/radio program Democracy Now [here] also warned about the tendency of corporate-driven disaster relief efforts to re-engineer societies in sinister ways. So, basically, at the very moment I was citing her book The Shock Doctrine to make an argument about disaster relief in Haiti, she was herself on television saying the same thing (as I should have expected her to do.) But later this week (yesterday, here in the Huffington Post), she reported some good news that, because of public pressure, the IMF might be backing away from its tendency to use disasters to force countries to adopt neoliberal, market-fundamentalist economic policies. One example of such public pressure is The Nation article Klein mentions, and another is the “No Shock Doctrine for Haiti” FaceBook group.

I haven’t yet seen anyone make the same point that I made about the philosopher Agamben, so perhaps I can at least claim some originality on that one.

On another note, on a list-serve for literature professors that I’m on, some are talking about donating money to Education International, a federation of teachers unions, which plans to support teachers and professors in Haiti. This seems to me to be a praiseworthy expression of global solidarity. I wonder if other international unions and professional associations have thought of such solidarity.

The support for Haiti has been astounding. Many corporations have donated quite a lot, as you can see here, and the cell-phone donating that I mentioned before has raised quite a lot of money, though it’s not always clear if the money is being used in the best way or if the effort is being coordinated as well as it should. It’s obviously a difficult situation, and I am quite ignorant about how it all works. On the one hand, I am impressed and pleased that people want to help. On the other hand, I am still worried that the American, corporate involvement in the relief effort has the potential to become a neo-colonial take-over of Haiti. But I say “potential” because I don’t think it has to be that way so long as the multinational corporations, U.S. government, the IMF, and American Red Cross don’t try to forcefully control the relief effort. (By the way, in my earlier post, I forgot to distinguish between the American Red Cross and the International Red Cross — the International is, in my opinion, the better organization.) I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater here, since these organizations do a lot of good work. But down the road, as the relief effort moves from the current state of emergency to the rebuilding stage, I think this is precisely why it might be good for university professors such as myself to support teachers in Haiti and likewise for international labor unions and professional associations to partner with their sibling Haitian civil society organizations. And the reason I think that is because such labor-orientated rebuilding will be necessary to counterbalance the corporate-orientated rebuilding we can expect to be the focus of the U.S. government, etc.

January 22, 2010 Posted by | international aid | 1 Comment

The Tragedy of Haiti’s Earthquake: What Should I Do?

One of the questions I’ve noticed a lot of people raising on FaceBook and various list-seves is where to donate money to help people in Haiti who have suffered so terribly from the recent earthquate. OxfamRed Cross… Doctors without BordersPartners in HealthMadreHaiti Action??? It’s a hard decision, and although the urgency of the situation seems to demand that one act quickly, I think it is also wise to pause and act thoughtfully. As the theorist Slavoj Zizek famously and cleverly remarked about the global financial crisis in the October 10, 2008 issue of the London Review of Books, “don’t just do something — talk!”

For instance, the new fad in the age of iPhones and Twitter is to donate money by cell phone, and this would seem to be fast, but apparently, cell phone donations have to go through one’s cell phone provider, and hence the money takes almost 90 days to get to its destination. For large organizations, such as the Red Cross, the timing of donations actually doesn’t matter that much, because of the way their annual budgets work. They use their financial reserves to respond immediately to disasters, and any donations given at the time might actually be put in savings in preparation for a future disaster or simply used to settle accounts at the end of the fiscal year. (This, of course, frustrates people who only want to donate to specific causes and want to know exactly what their money is going to.) So, for large organizations, while it is important for them to act quickly to address the problems on the ground as soon as possible, it is not so important that we the donors act quite so quickly. So, we have time to time to heed Zizek’s words and talk this out before acting.

Most organizations would prefer to devote money to minimize the effects of disasters before they happen by building good infrastructure rather than responding to the disasters after they happen. Thanks to one of my students who wrote a wonderful research paper about the psychology of philanthropy, I learned that relief organizations are painfully aware that preventative efforts do not raise much money compared to response efforts. They want to behave one way, but the psychology of their donors directs them another way. Hence, the history and circumstances of a particular location can leave certain populations especially vulnerable. I won’t dwell on Haiti’s long and complicated history here, but in yesterday’s NY Times [here], the Pulitzer-prize-winning author of Mountains beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidder intelligently alerts us to why Haiti has been so vulnerable and which disaster relief organizations have been more helpful than others.

He makes a point that I’ve also heard made elsewhere — that organizations that are already on the ground in Haiti and have been for a long time will probably be able to do a better job than a foreign organization coming in. They already know the people there and their circumstances. One such organization is Partners in Health, which has been actively working with communities and governtal agencies in Haiti for a long time and has an excellent reputation.

That said, I must admit that I do not know much about disaster relief organizations or the ethics of aid. I hope anyone reading this blog will volunteer some information and insight. But I do know that aid doesn’t always do what it purports to do.

In fact, sometimes relief organizations don’t always act in the best interests of the local people. Many people criticized George W. Bush for not responding fast enough or strongly enough to the Katrina hurricane or the Asian tsunami,  but his lack of haste and effort was not the only problem. Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine (published in 2007) has revealed that the U.S. government (both Democrats and Republicans) has used natural disasters and relief efforts as tools for re-engineering entire communities to make them more accessible to American venture capital and corporate interests. One might argue against Klein that such development projects and private investment are ultimately good for the people of that location, but often such projects benefit only the wealthy minority of that community. In any case, one hopes that aid and relief will be knowledgeable and considerate of all the stakeholders there. And considering that the United States’s historical relationship to Haiti has been one of hostility, invasion, and constant meddling that has undermined the Haitian people’s own political will, it is probably worth keeping our eyes open to whether the United States will now finally do the right thing by Haiti.

In light of these concerns, I appreciated that Barack Obama said [here] that he plans to “partner” with not just with the Haitian people but also with the Haitian government (since whenever politicians say they only will “help” “the people” what they often really mean is a specific political faction that is friendly to their own interests.) The word “partner” is significant, for sure, and gives me some hope, but I am sceptical, as I always am.

So, what to do? I suspect I will donate to Partners in Health, but  before I do that, as Zizek says, first we should talk. And I would also add to Zizek’s recommendation, we should keep our eyes open. As the philosopher Giorgio Agamben argues in his book State of Exception (published in Italian in 2003 and translated into English in 2005) and as Klein demonstrates in Shock Doctrine, emergencies have a way of blinding people to ethical action. The emergency situation might lead us to believe that a less ethical option is so expedient, necessary, and/or urgent that it can’t even be discussed.

January 15, 2010 Posted by | international aid | Leave a comment

Nairobi Diaries 9: the Ethics of Aid and the Catholic Church

Two obvious understatements: (1) Kenya has been seriously affected by HIV, and the Catholic Church does quite a lot of AIDS relief work there; (2) the Catholic church is officially against the use of condoms and many of the other things that social workers in Africa think need to be done to address HIV properly. Contradiction? Problem? A valid disagreement about what works best? Or maybe just an effective division of labor?

I ask this question (and don’t expect me to answer it) in light of Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina’s provocative statement on a segment of NPR’s Speaking of Faith in December 2008 entitled “The Ethics of Aid.” His host Krista Tippet was surprised and baffled that he’d rather white people in Europe and the United States stop giving aid to Africa — that no aid was better than misguided aid. He compares the 21st-century desire to help Africa to the 19th-century desire to colonize it. His biggest criticism is directed at those Westerners who seem to want to save their own souls and alleviate their guilt by donating something — something that ends up being temporary and soon forgotten by the donor. Such ineffective programs help the Westerner imagine themselves as saviors of the poor Africans who — in this imagination — can’t save themselves. However, as far as I know, Wainaina hasn’t said anything specifically about the Catholic Church or any of the programs I witnessed, and I am curious about what he would say. CRS’s programs aren’t temporary fly-by-night, feel-good charities, and the staff of CRS are mostly Africans themselves working with local organizations and culture. After all, about 33% of Kenyans are Catholics.

As several of my earlier Nairobi Diaries mentioned before, much of my trip was about this situation. Whether in the background or in the foreground, both HIV and the Catholic church were very much present. Catholic Relief Services (CRS) is one of the largest non-governmental organizations doing AIDS relief there. Most of CRS’s budget for AIDS relief comes not from the church itself but from the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR) set up by President George Bush in 2003 — which is to say, it comes from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). PEPFAR has been much praised for the widespread distribution of antiretroviral therapy (ART) medications free of charge to the poor and needy around the world. Many non-governmental organizations, both religious such as CRS and non-religious, have collaborated effectively with international agencies and national governments all over the world to make this happen. However, what has been controversial for a long time about both PEPFAR and the Catholic Church’s involvement in AIDS relief  is the conservative “family values” agenda that severely hampers aid workers in their efforts to do what they think they should to address the real roots of the problem. See [here], for just one example of this criticism. Some worry that such efforts may just prolong the problem. I personally wonder whether PEPFAR creates a dependency in Africa on ART so that the corporations that manufacture it can continue to rake in money from the American taxpayer (though admittedly I have no idea if these companies are making a profit off it or not.) I also couldn’t help but wonder if the evangelical presence of the Catholic and protestant churches in Kenya were not being deliberately strengthened by PEPFAR dollars, and I wondered what would happen if the U.S. government allowed such aid to support HIV programs organized by socialist or Muslim organizations. (And I think I need to emphasize something about USAID, because a friend of mine doubted me — I saw USAID signs all over rural Kenya,  including at the Day of the African Child events that I attended.)

In any case, the biggest criticism of PEPFAR and USAID is that the money comes with strings attached. In the case of CRS, the money seems to be tied to identity politics; for example, when I asked one CRS worker about the difficulty of fighting AIDS within the limits of U.S. government and papal policy, she implied that their identity as a Catholic institution was part of what made them effective and ought not be compromised.

In particular, Pope Benedict XVI is somewhat notorious for stating during his first visit to Africa that (against all evidence to the contrary) “the problem [of AIDS] cannot be overcome by the distribution of prophylactics: on the contrary, they increase it.” For the full text of that statement see [here], and for just a couple of reactions, see [here] and [here]. Naturally, the African Bishops fully endorse the Pope’s position as you can see [here]; what else could they do? While I was in Kenya, I wondered whether this policy was adhered to by those who had to work with HIV cases everyday. And I wondered this several times out loud. Do the CRS social workers strictly follow papal decrees? It’s impossible to know for sure what the answer to that question is… but… when we were interviewing a poor farmer with HIV who received assistance from CRS, and he proudly told both us and his case worker that he now used condoms. (I was afraid to ask how he was able to afford them, considering that he couldn’t even afford a tin roof for his mud home without CRS assistance.)

Interestingly, the Pope’s comment about condoms was said in passing during an interview, not during an official speech. His speeches given in Africa never made any recommendations about sexual practice. Catholic TV’s coverage of the Pope’s visit focused entirely on the ethics of reconciliation in the context of violent civil conflict.

I think liberal media such as the Huffington Post  have made too much of the condom comment and done so in a rather unsophisticated way, when you consider the issue in the context of regional violence, systemic poverty, government corruption, human trafficking, child labor, etc.  And of course, this is exactly the context that the Pope was addressing, so if we are to evauate the Pope’s overall mission, we need to think more broadly about the his emphasis on personal and religious ethics as a solution to the various problems in Africa — problems that everyone living in Africa recognizes to be extremely complex, in part because Africa is far, far, far more diverse than the average politician in America or Europe seems to realize.

So, for instance, in his first speech ever delivered in Africa, after detailing the horrors of regional violence and human trafficking, the Pope said,

At a time of global food shortages, financial turmoil, and disturbing patterns of climate change, Africa suffers disproportionately: more and more of her people are falling prey to hunger, poverty, and disease. They cry out for reconciliation, justice and peace, and that is what the Church offers them. Not new forms of economic or political oppression, but the glorious freedom of the children of God (cf. Rom 8:21). Not the imposition of cultural models that ignore the rights of the unborn, but the pure healing water of the Gospel of life. Not bitter interethnic or interreligious rivalry, but the righteousness, peace and joy of God’s kingdom, so aptly described by Pope Paul VI as the civilization of love.

Obviously he is not giving technocratic solutions but searching for guiding principles… but hold on a second…. Am I reading this incorrectly or is the Pope’s solution to child slavery and ethnic violence really that we ban abortions? And exactly how are “righteousness” and the “Gospel of life” going to address the global problems he lists? My knee-jerk reaction is to critique the Pope via another theologian, Reinhold Neihbur, whose famous book Moral Man and Immoral Society argues in a Marxist sort of way that individual morality (such as the Pope seems to be speaking of) cannot solve systemic, social problems.

But the Pope’s thinking might be a bit more complex. Later, right after I came back from Kenya a little over a month ago, he delivered his third Encyclical “Charity in Truth” that focuses on the ethics of global capitalism and suggests that the logic of the market only works if there is a moral consensus guiding it, and of course there isn’t any such consensus, and in a “fallen world” such as ours, there never will be, implying that regulations and global governance is perhaps necessary. I would agree with him there, except that he also seems to me to be implying that the Vatican might be a good candidate for governing the globe. [Here] is a somewhat incoherent response to that encyclical by People for Peace in Africa whom we met on my trip and whom I mentioned in Nairbi Dairies 2. And [here] and [here] are a couple other summaries because I definitely don’t have time to read the whole thing — yo, it’s 144 pages!

One of the theoretically interesting upshots seems to be his notion that capitalism may be moving into a new phase beyond the simple profit motive, beyond simple commercial value, and towards a realization that social welfare and ethical human relations are increasingly a part of the way the economic system measures value. This almost sounds like Negri and Hardt’s Marxist manifesto for the 21st century in their books Empire and Multitude, except without the many social antagonisms (race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.) that Hardt and Negri and countless other theorists of globalization recognize as basic to the capitalist world system. Their books argue that an economy increasingly based on information systems, human services, and social capital (and not just financial capital and commodities) will transform itself — a sort of “democracy from below” — almost (but not quite) the way the Pope seems to imagine because of the ethical relations immanent in social capital. So, maybe the Pope and Bush are right that, when thinking of aid (i.e., charity) and solutions to HIV, ethics should come first…. But then that begs the question of what kind of ethics are we talking about here?

Kenya 564

At the end of the day, however, what concerns me can be summed up in these two photographs that I took. The first photograph on the left is of a Bishop’s house in a small diocese. We had lunch with the Bishop in the house. It was the largest and most opulent structure I saw my entire three days driving all around that diocese. Kenya 398The second photograph is a street corner of a nearby town. The motorcycles are basically taxis, which have become popular all over Africa because they are fuel efficient and oil is too expensive. It’s clear that the Catholic church is powerful in Kenya, since it owns a lot of the most expensive land…. And so I repeat, what are the ethics of aid here?

In addition to that kind of disparity, I can’t help but remain sceptical of a church that requires Africans to adopt European names in order to be baptised and that still officially and adamantly promotes an image of Jesus as a white man — yes, I asked about that while I was there, and no, Jesus obviously wasn’t a white European — and still seems to be waging an ideological battle against protestantism, Islam, and secularism not only at the level of the Vatican but also precisely at the grassroots level of CRS itself.

In conclusion, I have no conclusion, only questions, but for a really good novel about ethical ambiguity, family, and the Catholic Church in Nigeria that I just finished yesterday, check out Chimananda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Purple Hibiscus.

August 12, 2009 Posted by | global, international aid, Kenya | 4 Comments