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IMF, international aid: screwed

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DSK.jpgDominique Strauss-Kahn is an economist, not a lawyer, but I nonetheless feel that he would have done well to have held himself to the lawyer's standard of avoiding even the appearance of impropriety

Without weighing in on his guilt or innocence, I feel compelled to condemn the apparent impropriety in which he engaged.  I do not refer merely to the sexual assault charge, but more broadly to the situation of the head of the IMF being accused of coercing sex from a Guinean refugee granted asylum in the U.S. and working as a hotel housekeeper.  The symbolism is unmistakable: the IMF rapes Africa.

Regardless of the outcome of the legal inquiry now underway, DSK has sunk the credibility of his organization and its mission.  The IMF is now an organization that overpays horny white men so they can fly first class and wear $7,000 suits and, when they get out of those suits, rape hard-working, devout, socially-disadvantaged people of color. 

And by extension, the same applies to the World Bank, the UN or, for that matter, USAID.  They are no different.

One's opinion of the IMF (or any of the other foregoing named institutions) - whether for good or for ill - is no matter.  The IMF is a public institution, and one that exerts control over much of the global economy and its wealth.  As such, the ethics of its institutional behavior, and the actions of its representatives, must be impeccable.  Public institutions owe the public guarantees that their operations are ethical; otherwise they are illegitimate and have no claim to public funds. 

To have betrayed this obligation to the public so flamboyantly and vulgarly is unforgivable.  No verdict of innocence can expunge this breach.  Whatever else DSK may have done, he has set back the cause of international development.

(Image of DSK from The Telegraph)

In memoriam: Father Ignatius Ikunza, S.J.

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Fr_Ignatius_Ikunza.jpgA year and a half ago, I consulted on communications issues for the Jesuit Hakimani Centre, a social justice organization in Nairobi, Kenya.  This job was the occasion of the first - and possibly the last - time I stayed in a monastery.  The priests who were also in residence were very gentle, curious and kind.

The most engaging of the priests I met was Father Ignatius Ikunza, the man responsible for hiring me at the Hakimani Centre, and my boss.  Ignatius, as he insisted on being called, had a marvelous sense of humor, an ingrained instinct for justice and an implacable insistence on tolerance for other views and other people. 

Under his guidance, the Hakimani Centre had embarked on an ambitious program of peace-building, with the goal of a violence-free 2012 national election.  (New York Times coverage of the 2007 election violence here.)  He brought in external consultants to advise about transforming the Hakimani Centre's organizational structure and function, and he fired corrupt staff members.

Ignatius was a visionary.  He'd been raised in rural Western Kenya, tending goats, and he grew up to attend Harvard for theology and Georgetown for his LLM in International Law.  He clerked on the International Criminal Court trying war crimes from the Rwanda genocide.  (Blogger profile of Ignatius here.)  A man who could have gone anywhere and devoted himself to any cause, he returned to the capital of his home country and committed himself to promoting peaceful coexistence among Kenya's many tribes.

I am merely one of thousands of people whose lives have been enriched by Ignatius' insights, guidance and friendship.  For the experience, I am extremely grateful; for the loss, words (as usual) fail to convey my sadness.

Father Ignatius died on 25 September 2010 of liver cancer.  He was 39.

(Picture of Father Ignatius Ikunza taken by Maya Alexandri)  
In a previous blog post, I discussed the issue of power imbalances between (a) photographers who document people in humanitarian disasters, and (b) the subjects of those photos.  I myself am a photographer and videographer who engages in such work, and at the time of that last blog post, I had the pleasure (and luck) to be able to report that, "I have found the experience [of photographing people receiving humanitarian aid] uniformly rewarding."

In the intervening months, however, I had a negative experience making a short documentary about a Kenyan NGO, and my experience provoked a good deal of additional thought about engagement with disadvantaged and marginalized groups. 

The root of the trouble arose from the fact that, after photographing, videotaping and interviewing people participating in and administering the NGO's programming, I took almost a year to finish editing the video. 

My overriding reason for the delay was that I needed about a week of free time to focus on the video in order to finish it, and I didn't find the time until I was about to leave Kenya, almost a year after I began the project.  For six months of the year in question, I had a full time job and was researching a book on my weekends; and for the other six months I was writing a book. 

Multiple times, I told one or another people from the NGO that the delay was simply because of my work schedule, and that I'd finish the documentary as soon as I had the time.  My expectation was that, since I was volunteering, I could complete the video at my convenience.

My expectation did not accord with those of the NGO's founder.  In a series of increasingly unpleasant phone calls, he told me that, in the past, people (foreign whites) who had worked with the NGO had not delivered on their promises, and he made clear that he expected me similarly to fail the NGO. 

He also claimed to be under pressure to deliver the video from the parents of the children who participate in the NGO's programming, and he said he was going to subject me to the "same same" pressure that he experienced.  He also made some statements that I considered extreme: he suggested that I should be giving him money for the opportunity to do volunteer work with his NGO, and he told me that his mother's life would be jeopardized if I didn't finish the video immediately.

Each of these calls with the NGO's founder made me feel appalled and miserable, and they eroded my motivation to finish the documentary.  Indeed, I regretted that I'd ever become involved with the NGO. 

Then, ten months after I'd initially begun the project, the founder told me that he didn't want my documentary, and I felt extraordinary relief.  A month later, I completed the documentary and delivered it to another of the NGO's administrators.

I finished the documentary first, and foremost, because I'd committed to do so, regardless of the intervening unpleasantness with the NGO's founder.  Also, the NGO's end beneficiaries were children, who were receiving drawing and painting instruction from the NGO, and I felt obligated to finish the project for them.  In addition, I felt that I bore a big part of the responsibility for the breakdown in relations with the NGO's founder, and I didn't believe that my mistakes in communicating with the founder were an excuse for not finishing the work I'd undertaken.

I probably shouldn't have started this project if I couldn't finish it quickly (although I didn't initially realize how difficult it would be for me to finish it rapidly), but once time began elapsing I badly miscalculated how the NGO's founder would view the situation.  When (as has happened) someone tells me that work is eating up their time for a volunteer project on my behalf, I nod understandingly.  I might try to cajole them into a schedule for completing the work, but I'm friendly about it; I try to support them; I take opportunities to express my gratitude; I don't doubt that they'll do the work.  And, if I do eventually conclude that the work might never get finished, I may grumble, but eventually I shrug my shoulders: I don't feel entitled to free work, and I don't feel like I can force someone to do work for free.

But this NGO's founder didn't seem to share that perspective.  He acted like, if the project wasn't completed quickly, I would never do it.  I don't know if he's ever had a full time job (his work with this NGO is on a volunteer basis), but he didn't seem to relate to my objection that I had paying work to do in the time he wanted me to be editing the documentary.

Possibly, he was inclined to disbelieve me because I'm white, and he's black.  Certainly, he acted like he expected me to follow his commands because I'm a woman, and that my failure to comply with his orders was a blow to his ego.

Moreover, my status as a middle-class white American volunteering my time in a Kenyan slum didn't seem to earn me any goodwill.  My status didn't seem to cause the founder to assume that someone in my position would be acting with good intentions.  On the contrary, he appeared to think that anyone with resources owed him a share.

I had not anticipated his sense of entitlement, nor his willingness to make my life unpleasant.  Also, I discovered experientially what I'd known intellectually: that, while he may be a marginalized or disadvantaged person, he is not without power.  Moreover, his code for exercising that power diverged widely from mine.  I felt a responsibility to act in a morally justifiable way in respect of him and his NGO; but he used tactics of coercion and manipulation against me.
I did not expect gratitude or accolades from him, but I believe I deserved to be treated with the same basic respect and courtesy that colleagues and friends have a right to expect.  (Possibly I received the same treatment he shows others in his orbit; maybe I couldn't have done anything that would have made the situation easier.)  Nonetheless, I think I should have acted differently:

  • I should have been more wary of volunteering as an individual without an association with an established NGO or other organization;
  • I should have managed expectations better, perhaps by giving the NGO a timetable of my projected delivery date;
  • I should have liaised with other members of the NGO when communication with the founder became difficult; and
  • I should have put aside everything and finished the video immediately before the breakdown in relations became hostile. 
In writing this blog post, I am not trying to badmouth the NGO or its founder; nor am I indulging in any guilty white liberal confessional.  My desire is to offer a fair account of a difficult exchange that probably could have and should have been less fraught, as well as to extract the lessons learned from that interaction and offer them for the benefit of others committed to engaging across divides (be they of culture, class, nationality, language, race, gender, etc.). 

On the positive side, this uncomfortable experience hasn't dulled my desire to work in this sector.  Rather, it has sharpened my sense of both the perils and necessity of continuing to engage. 

(Photo of children participating in a drawing class given by the NGO taken by Maya Alexandri)

Modernity's metaphor: the displaced person

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UNHCR_papers.pngMy parallel careers - novelist and communications specialist for humanitarian and aid organizations - have only one significant point of overlap: displaced people.  Whether they are outside their home countries (refugees), or within their countries but unable to live in their homes (internally displaced people - IDPs), whether their dislocation is literal or metaphoric, displaced people claim my deepest reservoirs of empathy.

I think the reason for this is that displacement is the touchstone of the current historical moment.  Modern trends - urbanization, gender equality, psychologizing (to name three almost at random) - usually displace people.  The tendency in contemporary life is to create greater distance from tradition - by moving people from rural to urban settings, by introducing women into non-traditional roles, by inducing people to question their motives and understand themselves critically.  (Even fundamentalism, which in its many varieties is typically a reaction to modernity, displaces people with its severity and extremity, despite its claims to reestablish "traditions.")  Modern trends also increase the pace of change, requiring people to endure frequent displacement, followed by even-more frequent displacement.

My own life is a case study of the potential for displacement wrought by modern living.  Professionally, I've had four professions in sixteen years.  Geographically, during the same period, I've lived in five states in the U.S. and four countries.  I've gone from being a misfit at home to a "foreigner" abroad.  My identity is coalescing into that of a wanderer, a person whose country is her body and who can be said to belong fully only to the planet.

Although opportunities for humanitarian and aid work with displaced people are sadly common, my experience trying to sell my fiction to mainstream publishing houses suggests little interest in displaced people (who, in my fiction, are often expatriates).  Given my view that displacement is a central concern in modernity's most sweeping, global trends, the lack of interest among commercial publishers disappoints as much as it seems to highlight a disconnect between the world of publishing and, well, the world. 

So I was delighted to find a contradictory suggestion in Pankaj Mishra's recent The New Yorker review of Ayaan Hirsi Ali's second memoir, Nomad.  Mishra wrote:

The fate of the truly modern nomad is . . . a ceaseless inner conflict between ways of life and value systems; this very quality has made the nomad an emblematic figure of the contemporary age.
I couldn't agree more.  If only Mishra were in charge of publishing decisions instead of whoever it is who's promoting vampires (and now angels) as the emblematic figures of contemporary literature!

(Image of refugee holding UNHCR papers from New Proposals website)
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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