March 2010 Archives

Worth rereading

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tayeb_salih.jpgI have read Tayeb Salih's novel, Season of Migration to the North, more times than any other non-children's book - four or five times by my last count.  I first read it in college (it may constitute my only academic take-away from those years), and my ardor was instantaneous.  

In a sense, my devotion to Season of Migration to the North is odd because, even now, my understanding of the story is limited.  But from the beginning, I grasped that Season of Migration to the North was a book to be read when resiliency was needed, and that its author, Tayeb Salih, was a person of immense wisdom and deep understanding of human behavior and society.  That I never met him (he died last year) is one of the few regrets of my life.

Season of Migration to the North recounts the story of a young man (unnamed) who returns from studying in London to his native Sudan, where he takes a job as a civil servant in the newly-independent country's Ministry of Education.  On a trip to the remote village in which he was raised, he meets a newcomer to the village - Mustafa Sa'eed - who has a mysterious past.

Like the young narrator, Mustafa Sa'eed also studied in London and lived there for 30 years, a sojourn that culminated in tragedy and imprisonment.  After his release from prison, Mustafa Sa'eed returns to Sudan, where he settles down to the life of a farmer and marries a local woman, Hosna.  Confiding part of his backstory to the young narrator when they first meet, Mustafa Sa'eed soon dies and entrusts guardianship of his wife and sons to the young narrator.

Some years later an elderly man, Wad Rayyes, in the village decides that he wants to marry Hosna.  The young narrator is called upon to act - by Wad Rayyes, who wants the narrator to convince Hosna to marry him; by Hosna, who wants the narrator to marry her so that she can be protected from suitors; by the narrator himself, who is in love with Hosna.

Only after unearthing a more comprehensive version of Mustafa Sa'eed backstory than had been originally disclosed is the young narrator able to act.  The choice he makes is simultaneously inadequate to the demands of the situation and momentous, a polarity that Salih urges us to accept and embrace as implicit in the human condition.

Season of Migration to the North unfolds non-chronologically and impressionistically, allowing its story to emerge through juxtaposition of memories, conversations and scribbles.  From Salih's expert (and concise - the novel is a mere 169 pages) use of this technique, a kind of magic results.  The book is a page-turner and a prose poem, an analysis of all the major power dynamics of modern times (East/West, male/female, black/white, Christian/Muslim), as well as an affirmation of the human capacity to reduce such dynamics to irrelevancies.  Symbolically reenacting the confrontation of cultures wrought by colonialism, Season also contains stunning depictions of the destructive potential in sexual passion between individuals.  The novel additionally features some of the most haunting descriptions and quotable phrases I have read (in Denys Johnson-Davies' superb translation).

To this list of achievements, add another: Season's power is so visceral that it compels action.  "[H]alfway between north and south . . . . unable to continue, unable to return," the novel's narrator rejects paralysis and embraces volition.  (p. 167.)  This reader has never been able to read the book without doing the same.  

For this reason, Season of Migration to the North is indispensable.  I have  a copy with me anywhere I live, and I am confident that - given the life span - I will yet read it many more times.

(Image of Tayeb Salih from NPR)
Peter_Singer.jpgThomas Nagel's recent review in The New York Review of Books of Peter Singer's book, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty, does a fine job of demonstrating why moral philosophy in its academic form has always baffled me: the blasted hypotheticals.

You walk past a drowning kid.  You can save the child, but you will have to wade into a shallow pond and muddy your trousers and ruin your shoes.  Is it immoral to keep walking and leave the kid to die?
From this hypothetical and variations thereon, Singer distills a principle: "'If it is in your power to prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing anything nearly as important, it is wrong not to do so.'" (p. 24.)  Building on this principle, Singer develops the general rule that "those who are financially comfortable" should donate 5% of their annual earnings (or more, if they are rich) to aid organizations that alleviate poverty.  (p. 25.)

While I agree with Singer that individuals have a moral responsibility for others less well off than themselves, and further that we should all be developing means of discharging that responsibility, I think the hypotheticals have led Singer astray.  As economists have learned, abstract models that work in theory tend not to operate so cleanly in the real world.  All of those "externalities" that economists - and moral philosophers - have ignored for the sake of elegant conceptualizing have a way of refusing to be ignored once the conceptual gets concrete.

One major externality in Singer's hypothetical is the response of the drowning kid.  Singer treats the drowning kid as a prop that serves to highlight the moral decision-making of the affluent actor.  But the needy, no less than those whose needs are met, are moral agents with responsibilities that they may choose to discharge or disregard.  "Internalizing" this externality in Singer's hypothetical might look like the following:

You walk past a drowning kid.  You can save the child, but the child will be ungrateful and, moreover, will steal your wallet while you are saving him or her.  Is it immoral to keep walking and leave the kid to die?

You walk past a drowning kid.  You can save the child, but the child will accuse you of implementing a non-sustainable intervention and of thereby preventing him or her from being able to survive without your assistance, a charge that will lead to your public humiliation and condemnation.  Is it immoral to keep walking and leave the kid to die?

You walk past a drowning kid.  You can save the child, but the child's brother will be furious at what he perceives to be foreign interference with his family and will subsequently blow up a bakery that foreigners in town frequent, with the result that several local youths die and several more people (including foreigners) are injured.  Is it immoral to keep walking and leave the kid to die?
In posing these hypotheticals, my point is not to suggest that aid recipients are immoral, but to illustrate the over-simplistic nature of Singer's unilateral model for assessing moral responsibility and crafting general rules based thereupon.  The financially well-off may have a moral responsibility to help those in need, even if they prove to be ungrateful, cheat them of small sums, accuse them of acting injudiciously, humiliate them, or use them as an excuse for outrageous crimes; but the affluent also have a moral responsibility to discharge their obligations in a way that will have the most positive possible outcome.  

With his 1975 book, Animal Liberation, Singer launched the animal rights movement, an impressive achievement that - despite its already numerous accomplishments - will continue to reverberate for generations to come.  As between humans and non-human animals, of course, humans are the only moral agents, a situation in which Singer's conceptual model has much greater emotional and logical force.  As between rich humans and poor humans, however, Singer's one-sided general rule both fails to persuade (the rich) and demeans (the poor).  What is necessary, instead, is a general rule that takes into account the moral responsibilities of both the donor and the aid recipient.  Only such an approach will have any chance of resulting in "the most positive possible outcome."

Such a rule cannot help but be more radical that Singer's current proposal.  Any general rule designed to promote optimal discharge of moral responsibilities on both sides of the wealth-redistribution equation must involve the affluent in more direct engagement with poverty than mere check writing.  

And while nobody today thinks that people who won't give 5% of their salary to charity are going face poverty more directly - by, for example, sharing the burdens of power outages and sub-par sanitation that result from volunteering in a developing country slum - nobody thought that the indiscriminate and cruel slaughter of animals was noteworthy in 1975 either.

(Image of Peter Singer from The Guardian)   


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Sade.jpgIn his recent New Yorker review of Sade's new album, "Soldier of Love," Sasha Frere-Jones asks, but doesn't satisfactorily answer, "What is the formula for [Sade's] success?" 

The reason is the unrivaled suitability of Sade's music as a soundtrack for love-making.  As Frere-Jones notes, "no matter what musicians intend, music can often be a background element in a moment," and Sade's songs signal - like no other music - that the foreground element is sex. 

This phenomenon explains the spectacular sales of Sade's albums.  In a world where consumers download hit songs and ignore the remainder of the album, nobody wants just one Sade song: the longer the music plays, the more prolonged the pleasure.

(Image of Sade from The Guardian)
santosh_desai.jpgIn the last month, I've spoken with Tanzanians about their frustration with the rate of economic growth in Tanzania relative to Kenya (typically traced back to Julius Nyerere's collectivization experiments), and I've also talked with Indians about India's pace of development relative to China (typically attributed to China's embrace of foreign direct investment, which India has strictly limited).  In both instances, I have felt that focusing on the economic indicators was too short-sighted.

More important than quarterly earnings reports and stock market performance, in my view, are indicators like the ability to change leaders without killing people and the degree of social tolerance for different groups.  These indicators necessarily signal a positive and deep-seated assimilation of modern governance and social norms; and these norms, in turn, lay the institutional foundation for modern economies.  Economic prosperity, on the other hand, can readily be achieved (but not sustained) without any such foundation and, as we have seen even in the U.S., can be the result, not of productivity, but of chicanery.

From this perspective, the good news is that "late bloomers" like Tanzania and India may actually be better off in the long run; the bad news, of course, is that they're poor(er) now, with all the ramifications (lack of international respect, shorter life spans, etc.) that poverty entails. 

Personally, I believe that these costs are worth the benefits.  Modernization is a slow process, and developing countries that allow it time are (in my opinion) better off than those that rush the process.  That said, I'm not from a developing country, and obviously perspectives can differ.  Therefore, I was interested to read, in Santosh Desai's recently published - and excellent book - Mother Pious Lady, an affirmation of my perspective.

Mother Pious Lady is a collection of essays about India's middle class.  In a selection called "The Power of the Imperfect Solution," Desai argues that:

India understands time.  It understands the transience of all things, including solutions.  It understands that there are no final solutions to problems [hear that "End of History" wallas?]; at best there is a temporary equilibrium that must eventually get destabilized and give way to a new equilibrium. . . . The desire for lasting solutions is nothing but a desire to freeze time.
(p. 135.)  This understanding leads Desai to advocate as follows:

[While] Western analysis operates by reducing a problem to its components and freezing it in time . . . [t]hings are classified, labelled, put in boxes . . . . Perhaps a good place to start would be to stop labelling situations and conditions indiscriminately as problems.  Moving beyond the simplistic problem/solution mode into the process/time mode will allow for a much more realistic understanding of how things change and how little they do.  That we [Indians] understand this is a huge advantage; let us not take to the flashy shallowness of other modes of thinking in our quest to be seen as successful in the short run.
(p. 139.)

At the risk of being accused of "flashy shallowness" for praising a commentator with whom I agree, I think Desai's perspective is immensely valuable.  All countries - the so-called "developed," as much as the "developing" - are currently trying to strike the right balance between communal and individual, traditional and modern, indigenous and foreign.  Desai's explication of value in India's communal, traditional, indigenous views has done a great service to Indians . . . and to anyone interested in achieving balance in their own lives and countries.

(Image of Santosh Desai from Times of India)    

The India price for books

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Having lived in the States, China and Kenya, and having shopped for books in other countries, like the UK, South Africa and Sri Lanka, as well as those notorious netherland spaces, like Online and in Airports, I thought I knew what books basically cost.  In all the foregoing place, prices for English-language books occupy roughly the same - high - price range (typically between $11-20 for a paperback).

So I was very surprised to find books selling at well below the US price for ebooks in India.  Whereas average book prices in the US exceed the Kindle $9.99 loss leader, the average price for the same book in India is $5-$7. 

This dramatic pricing difference confused me.  A $5-$7 retail price suggests costs of production of something less than $2, which means that the US publishing industry is either making a 500-1000% profit on books (not the case to my knowledge), or that, by failing to explore international production and shipping options, it's printing books at a vastly higher cost than necessary (entirely possible, but I don't know).

That India can sell books for so cheaply also casts fresh light on the ebook pricing dispute, since whatever the marginal cost of producing another ebook, it cannot possibly exceed the price of producing a corporeal book.  All of which is to suggest that Kindle's $9.99 price shouldn't have been a loss leader, and that the current push to raise ebook prices to the $12.99-$14.99 range is sheer industry greed.

In terms of delivering books to consumers at fair prices, India exposes failures that the US publishing industry should work to rectify.  For my own part, India delivered a mandate as well: buy books.

The seven books pictured averaged $6.95 a piece.  On Amazon, the same selection would have cost $10.31 apiece, plus shipping. 

The future may find me in India just to buy books.

Way too modern

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Handwashing.jpgAt a recent humanitarian training on hygiene promotion in emergencies, I had the opportunity to reflect on the extent to which modern thinking can impair learning. 

The training involved one Power Point presentation after another, most of which entailed some stultifying combination of semantics, theory and complicated visual depictions of behavior models.  The training materials looked like they'd been held hostage in some business management consulting firm that demanded ransom in the form of adherence to its enthusiasm for inane diagrams supposedly representing conceptual analysis of real world phenomenon.

Earnestly attempting to stave off sleep by focusing on the slides, I recalled Walter Ong's explanation in his masterful book, Orality & Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, that abstraction is a characteristic of thinking in literate (that is, modern) societies.  Pre-modern, oral societies think more situationally:

Illiterate subjects [in one experiment] consistently though of the group [of drawings of a hammer, saw, log and hatchet] not in categorical terms (three tools, the log not a tool) but in terms of practical situations - "situational thinking" - without adverting at all to the classification "tool" as applying to all but the log. . . . A 25-year-old illiterate peasant: "They're all alike.  The saw will saw the log and the hatchet will chop it into small pieces.  If one of these has to go, I'd throw out the hatchet.  It doesn't do as good a job as a saw." . . . Asked why another person had rejected one item in another series of four that he felt all belonged together, he replied, "probably that kind of thinking runs in his blood."
(p. 51 (citations omitted).)

Of course, situational thinking isn't bad or less intelligent than abstract, categorical thinking.  It's a different way of organizing information that, in certain contexts, is appropriate or even superior to abstract, categorical thinking.

One such situation, I have discovered, is during a training for hygiene promotion in emergencies.

Hygiene promotion involves persuading and cajoling people into washing their hands after using the toilet.  Safe water and food handling, safe disposal of excreta and solid waste, and safe management of "vectors" (rats, flies, mosquitoes, etc.) is also part of the job.

The job can be difficult and anxiety-provoking because the subject matter can be embarrassing, and people are often unwilling to discuss or change intimate habits, especially with or at the behest of strangers or foreigners.  In learning how to do the job, case studies, simulations and opportunities to work directly with relevant populations are helpful.  But as any parent who has toilet trained a child can affirm, diagrams of models of behavior change don't offer much assistance in getting a kid to use a toilet.

This retreat into business-consulting-speak may be a simple result of hiring too many engineers to do water and sanitation-related work in emergencies.  Engineers are notoriously poor communicators. 

But this silly and ineffective abstraction about hygiene promotion may also have another cause: anxiety about discussing embarrassing and, potentially, demeaning issues.  Making a behavior model about hand washing may seem, to some, more important work than actually communicating with others about hand washing; certainly, there's less risk of personal exposure and humiliation. 

Sadly, such a perspective simply leads to wasted efforts.  No matter how advanced the society in which we live, we are all practitioners of primitive functions, like defecating.  Modern thinking is powerless to change ancient facts.

(Image courtesy of the Global WASH Cluster website) 
Migrant_Mother.jpgThe Code of Conduct of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies decrees, in its tenth and final point, that, "In our information, publicity and advertising activities, we shall recognise disaster victims as dignified human beings, not hopeless objects.

The principle distills general anxiety about interactions between powerful storytellers and powerless subjects.  Such anxiety is neither new nor unjustified.  In an article in The New York Review of Books, Jonathan Raban describes the Farm Security Administration's (FSA) photographic propaganda work as follows:

the owner of the camera was rich beyond the dreams of the people in the viewfinder, whose images were used by the government both to justify its Keynesian economic policy and to raise private funds for the relief of dispossessed flood victims, sharecroppers, and migrant farm workers.
Obviously, storytellers engaging in such interactions should act with a consciousness of the risks and an acceptance of responsibility for the outcome.  Nonetheless, despite the risks, such interactions are not merely worth undertaking, but critical.

Without such interactions, of course, fund-raising for relief efforts is much harder.  But that explanation does not make such interactions critical.  Rather, such interactions are critical because engagement with the world, and everything in it, is a moral responsibility.  Yet a paradox exists: engagement with any "other" or "unknown" is difficult to achieve without doing more harm than good. 

If war and enslavement is on the negative end of the spectrum of engagements with "others," and colonialism is somewhat more towards the center of the spectrum but still on the negative side of the balance, then photographing the dispossessed for humanitarian purposes (or engaging in any type of storytelling about disadvantaged peoples) must be on the positive end (although, again, not without its risks).  Indeed, undertaking the empathetic leap to tell the story of an "other" (in whatever medium) is possibly our safest and most promising tool for engagement. 

Sunita.jpg Full disclosure:  I take photos for humanitarian purposes (examples right and below).  I have found the experience uniformly rewarding.  Usually I am able to ask permission before I take photos, and where possible I know the subject's name and rudiments of his or her life.  Very often, the subjects request that I take the photo, either verbally or by appearing before the camera and posing.

Although I cannot speak for the subjects of my photos, what feedback I have received has been positive.  In my experience taking such pictures, I have typically been photographing individuals who have either never been photographed before, or who have been photographed only rarely.  Some have indicated to me that being photographed gives them a sense of importance as well as excitement to join that part of humanity that has appeared in photographs.  Many smile or laugh upon seeing their photos.  I have felt the satisfaction of having made a contribution to my subjects' enjoyment of their lives. 

Maharashtra_boys.jpgIn the case of photos I have taken, the subjects have only rarely seen the end products in which their pictures appear (brochures, online stories, etc.).  In the instances in which they have seen themselves in fund raising and knowledge awareness materials, they have been pleased.

That said, I have never taken a photograph that has been worth any amount of money or garnered any fame.  Such events tend to change the calculus.  Florence Thompson, depicted in Dorothea Lange's photograph "Migrant Mother" (first photograph above), ultimately objected to circulation of the photograph for reasons that appear to have to do with the class disparity between herself and Lange (although Lange didn't own the copyright to the photo and made no money off its reprints).

Kevin_Carter_photo_vulture_and_starving_child.jpg And although the female subject of Kevin Carter's photograph of a starving Sudanese child and a hovering vulture (right) never complained, Carter was harshly condemned for snapping pictures instead of helping the little girl more directly.  After winning the Pulitzer in 1994 for the photograph, Carter committed suicide.

But iconic imagery is a bad baseline for the vast majority of interactions involving powerful storytellers and powerless subjects.  When images become iconic, they represent concepts greater than either the subject or the photographer, and control of the image transitions from model and photographer to the public. 

Although the fallout of that shift in power may usually be worse for the less empowered subject (e.g., Florence Thompson) than for the more empowered photographer (e.g., Dorothea Lange), the fundamental problem is not that the photographer somehow exploited the subject at the time of the photograph, but that exposure (through fame or otherwise) is terrible to bear.  Few have the capacity for it: Florence Thompson didn't; but neither did Kevin Carter.

Blaming the photographer for this outcome is neither productive nor fair.  A photographer (or any storyteller) has a very limited tool at his or her disposal.  A means of telling a story may be our safest and most promising means of engagement, but it does not include protection from the aftermath of that story's circulation, nor does it include a guarantee of reward should the story prove profitable. 

Even a storyteller's responsibility for the outcome of the interaction with the "other" cannot extend beyond circumstances in the storyteller's personal control.  When an image becomes iconic, the photographer has lost whatever control he or she had over the image's use and message and cannot be accountable for the actions of unrelated third parties or the public at large.   

We can condemn the storyteller for not doing enough (e.g., snapping pictures instead of feeding the child).  But ultimately such criticisms are hypocritical.  The storyteller, after all, was (among other tasks) fulfilling a moral obligation to engage the world, while most often the critic was doing substantially less.  

Moreover, the storyteller's engagement produced a lasting contribution to our collective imagination and awareness.  We are richer for the storyteller's efforts. 

Rather than criticizing the storyteller, then, perhaps efforts should be directed to compensating (or feeding) the subject of the story.  Or critics should get off their asses and try engaging the world themselves.

(Dorothea Lange's photo "Migrant Mother" from Wikimedia Commons; Kevin Carter's photo of a collapsed Sudanese girl and a waiting vulture from the Pulitzer Prize website)

"Pole pole": the Tao of Mount Kilimanjaro

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At_Uhuru.jpgThe first five days of March found me on the slopes, and at the summit and peak, of Mount Kilimanjaro.  (In the picture at left, taken at Uhuru Peak, I am the person sitting center, wearing the white hat and green balaclava.) 

I climbed the mountain because the grand finale of the novel that I'm currently writing, The Celebration Husband, takes place at a WWI German military camp at the base of the mountain.  Technically, the research didn't require me to go all the way up the mountain.  But I figured, while I was there . . . .

Kibo_above_Horrombo.jpgAs it turned out, however, Kilimanjaro was an incredibly useful addition to my writing process.  In order to ascend the mountain, a climber must acclimate to the altitude.  Every step up decreases the amount of available oxygen, until by the end, the climber has to make do with something like 50% of the oxygen found at sea level.  To the unacclimated, this state of oxygen deprivation can result in sleepiness, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and - in extreme cases - cerebral or pulmonary edema.

Mawenzi.jpgTherefore, in order to acclimate, a climber must go slowly.  "Pole pole" is Swahili for "slowly slowly," and it's the unofficial slogan of the mountain.  Any competition in terms of a climber's pace up the mountain can only entail being the very last to arrive at each day's camp.  Climbing Kili demands creeping one's way to success, an approach antithetical to the vroom-to-the-top methodology admired elsewhere in the world.

By temperament and aptitude, I'm a vroom-er.  Left to my own devices, I zip around at a pace that, I gather, most people find to be out of step with their own.  The speed characterizes my writing, as much as my thinking, temper and rate at which I change jobs, abodes and continents.  (The fast pace, by the way, is innate, not induced; though I've never tried cocaine, I've had enough exposure to people who have used it to conclude that it would only slow me down.)

But as my life progresses, I'm finding that I'm a born sprinter being made to run an endurance race.  The life trajectory that I'd mapped out for myself at a more youthful age didn't involve years of struggle to get published.

View_from_Horrombo.jpgAnd, although I recognize that my expectations of fast work leading to fast reward have never once been met, I still default to them.  The Celebration Husband was going to be a sprint for me.  I was going to finish the book in four months; the book would be shopped to publishers by the second half of 2010. 

Now I know that those expectations are unlikely to be fulfilled.  The reasons are best explained by saying that, while some Christians have had their lives custom crafted by an intelligent designer, my life seems to have been hewn by a notably thoughtless sculptor with a sense of humor that I've yet to appreciate. 

Nonetheless, even such maladapted creatures as sprinters in marathons can learn to endure and even thrive, and climbing Mount Kilmanjaro provided this maladapted creature with valuable lessons in success through submission to a hostile (if gorgeous) environment.  No one can fight oxygen deprivation; a climber who hopes to avoid being crushed by altitude sickness can only accept the thin air and acclimate.

Mzee_Emanueli.jpgFor those who surrender to the mountain and acclimate to its demands, the returns are immeasurable.  Of our fifteen guides, four were brothers.  Their father was also our guide.  His name was Mzee Emmanueli (pictured left), and he has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro more than 3,500 times.  He is 80.  

After descending the mountain, I read this excerpt from Ralph Waldo Emerson's journal in an article in The New York Review of Books:

Chaucer, Milton and Shakespeare have seen mountains, if they speak of them.  The young writers seem to have seen pictures of mountains.
(John Banville, "Emerson: 'A Few Inches from Calamity'," The New York Review of Books 35 n.4 (Dec. 3-16, 2009).)

I am unlikely ever to be known as a young writer.  But I have seen mountains.

(The second picture was taken just outside Horombo, a camp at 12,000 feet.  Kibo, the crater peak of Mount Kilimanjaro, rises in the distance.  The third picture is of Mawenzi, a second peak on Mount Kilimanjaro.  The fourth picture is of a subsidiary crater below Horombo.)

Resiliency, not rights

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SPHERE_handbook.pngAt a recent training on hygiene promotion in emergencies, we reviewed the SPHERE standards that set baselines for conditions in refugee and internally displaced persons (IDP) camps.  In particular, we focused on SPHERE's choice of a rights-based approach to humanitarian relief.  The first principle of humanitarian relief is the right to life with dignity.

In general, I am not a supporter of rights-based approaches to any aspect of existence if the right does not have a reliable enforcement mechanism.  If rights cannot be enforced, then they are empty gestures. 

In addition, rights are rigid.  By casting certain problems in terms of rights, the potential for negotiated, flexible solutions are reduced.  Rights cannot be compromised; but, of course, comprise is the only reasonable solution to many intractable problems.

Moreover, having a right with no means of enforcement doesn't improve the life of the rights holder.  On the contrary, it may reduce the right holder's resiliency.  Fixating on rights can make a rights holder as rigid and inflexible as the right itself.  But a resilient person is not inflexible: he or she is able to get his or her needs met, irrespective of rights or the unfairness of their denial.

These general objections seem particularly forceful in the specific situation of humanitarian relief.  According to the SPHERE standards, for example, in order to enable a person to realize his or her right to life with dignity, humanitarian responses must provide 15 liters of water per person, per day, for cleaning, washing and cooking, as well as 250g of bathing soap, per person, per month.  People must have access to toilets, and no more than 20 people must be sharing a particular toilet.

Without question, these minimum provisions are necessary to prevent the epidemic spread of disease in camps, a situation that not only visits tragedy on an already-traumatized population, but that also places the wider society at risk.  In my view, such a rationale is sufficient - and better - than a rights based approach for the same activities.

Under the rights based approach, humanitarian work is hamstrung.  In order for rights to be realized, and to embody an existence beyond rhetoric, an enforcement mechanism must exist.  But the SPHERE standards are voluntary, and an enforcement mechanism would be profoundly detrimental.  Liability for failure to follow the SPHERE standards would create too high a disincentive for humanitarian agencies. 

Similarly, rights cannot be compromised.  But the SPHERE standards must often be compromised because conditions in refugee and IDP camps are variable and typically dismal.  Supply lines, for example, may be so severely impaired that soap or other necessaries cannot be transported to the camp.  In that event, have humanitarians violated the right to life with dignity of the camp's occupants?

Finally, a rights based approach seems likely to undermine the resiliency of the afflicted population.  As this briefest sampling of the SPHERE standards shows, the vast majority of the world's people would be better off inside camps than outside.  Under such conditions, what motivation does a camp occupant have to recover from trauma and return to everyday life?

Rights, in my view, are beside the point.  Resiliency is what allows emergency-stricken individuals to rejuvenate and return to a state in which they are contributing to their communities and to society.  A humanitarian response that supports the resiliency of the members of the afflicted community by reducing the incidence of disease in camps is one that needs no further justification.

Certainly, a right to life with dignity is a beautiful concept.  But that none of us is safe while any of us is in danger is an unavoidable fact.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from March 2010 listed from newest to oldest.

February 2010 is the previous archive.

April 2010 is the next archive.



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