A response to a comment.

A person called Alamanach recently made  a long comment about an older post, the one about a moral claim. It seemed worth making a substantial response, so here it is. The original comment is here: Moral Claim. Scroll down to see it.

1. “You’re poor and marginalized already, you just don’t know it. You haven’t seen the kind of wealth commanded by the average man of 500 years from now, but when his day comes, he’s going to look back at you and wonder how people ever survived living in such shocking poverty. You and everyone on this planet today is desperately poor, poorer than you can probably imagine.”

Well, I deal in the here and now and the immediate years ahead, not some fictive future 500 years from now. Who knows what things might be like by then, and I am 100% sure that any Afghan would not find any succour in the idea that he and I were comparative equals from a far future standpoint. I am also not sure what metric you are using to say we are all poor on this planet. That just doesn’t make sense, not by commonly held understandings.

2. “…we very quickly end up taking on a worldview in which we’re the elites, which by implication means that everybody else isn’t. The resulting impulse is to help the downtrodden, which is admirable so far as it goes, but when it’s done from a notion of “I’m better off than he is,” then with it comes the unconscious notion of “he’s less than me.” “

If you have read any or some of my posts, you will see that this is a view I do not hold, and I think most people are capable of more nuanced understandings than that. I do not think it wrongheaded to understand my own privilege. That does not mean I am better than any one else, and many of my posts are in fact about my own failings. But more broadly, one is a statement of wealth or power, the other a moral statement. I do not confuse the two. I would challenge you also to find too many Afghans who sees their livies as more enviable than mine. Or put it this way: will you trade your nationality for an Afghan one? I would guess not.

3. “You work in aid and development in Afghanistan, and so do I. Virtually all of our aid programs are built on the premise that the Afghans are poor and weak, and need our help in order to stand up. Like I say, that idea quickly gets taken way too far, and billions of dollars in debilitating handouts have been the result. After a decade of working here, this country is a mess precisely because we see ourselves as more advantaged then they are, and therefore obligated to help. We are wrong in that view, which is why so many aid programs here have been utter disasters.”

Actually, the aid and development programs I work in are premised on the idea that Afghans are resourceful, clever and industrious. That they are busy solving their problems long before we come along, and will be long after we go. As I said, I do see myself as more advantaged, and yes, that obligates me and the rest of the privileged world to help. ‘Help’ does not connote ‘poor miserable Afghan’. It connotes ‘get in there and get useful’. Finally, many of our projects have been somewhat successful. Not utter disasters. Not full successes. But not bad.

4. “What if their poverty is really not so different from ours? What if there’s only a hair’s breadth of difference between an Afghan’s wealth and mine? Compared to the average man of 500 years from now, that’s the state of things– my Afghan housekeeper and I are on almost equal footing. But if that’s the case, then why give things away? Why take on airs of being elites? Why not treat these guys as essentially equals, and try negotiating and bargaining with them, instead of giving them things?”

I don’t really know what you mean by ‘our poverty’. You need to be more specific in that. Again, I defy to you find any Afghan who equates, at a living standard level, your wealth and his. And again, this fictive 500 years from now? Go 500 years back, and you will see that enormous differentials exists in wealth, life expectancy, access, rights, etc etc, in common society. Why should now or the future be any different? Next sentence: I do not take on an ‘air of being an elite’. I am capable of more discernment than that, as are most people. I can recognise what I am, but not take on an air about it. Can’t you? And for your information, a tenant of our work is ‘never give anything for free’. You can see it in our operating principles.

Finally, I am not sure what you mean by ‘an objective moral order to the universe’. That sounds, sorry to say it, a bit like psycho-babble to me. Try placating an Afghan with that, or a Liberian, or someone whose family have just been butchered by the Janjaweed. Well, Alamanach, that’s my response. Feel welcome to continue the discussion, but I would challenge you to get a bit more hardheaded about some of your reasoning.

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3 thoughts on “A response to a comment.

  1. “And for your information, a tenant of our work is ‘never give anything for free’. You can see it in our operating principles.”

    I’m very heartened to hear that. Seriously. That’s a step in the right direction.

    “Finally, many of our projects have been somewhat successful. Not utter disasters. Not full successes. But not bad.”
    and
    “I am not sure what you mean by ‘an objective moral order to the universe’… I would challenge you to get a bit more hardheaded about some of your reasoning.”

    I have seen full success– and not up north, where things are relatively stable: here in the south, in Kandahar Province. I did it through a reasoned (even hard-headed) application of concepts of freedom, justice, and property rights. It can be done: http://alamanach.com/2011/11/25/aid-for-labor/.

    You’re right that I wouldn’t want to trade places with an Afghan. What I want is for him to abandon the Taliban, and side with GIRoA. So far as our work in this country goes, that’s the only thing I care about. I don’t care that compared to me, he’s poor, uneducated, and lacks opportunities. For all that, he still has things that I want, and I’m going to bargain with him to try to get those things. If the rest of the aid community were to come at it that way, I’m convinced we could do a world of good for this place.

    The trouble is (and since you’ve invited me to continue the discussion, I’ll get into this), we (the aid community) confuse justice and charity. The things you talked about in your Moral Claim post are, as I say, commendable so far as they go. But what you are describing is the charitable impulse to help others. Charity is based on love, and love requires knowledge of the beloved. There are times when it is good to give away something for free, but it requires personal knowledge of the recipient. So many of the aid programs run by USAID, DFID, and the rest give things out basically blindly, or based on nothing more than demographics. There’s no knowledge of the beloved in that– the recipients are just statistics. And without knowledge there’s no love, without love no charity, and without charity, the handout becomes an injustice. The person who gets hurt most by the injustice, in this case, is the Afghan recipient.

    What Afghanistan needs is not love, but justice. Justice demands that we get something in return for the aid we give. And they have stuff to give– political allegiance, for one thing. For us to have the gumption to demand something in return, though, we are going to have to stay away from ideas about us being here to help Afghans with their problems. That’s not why we showed up in the first place, and ironically, the more we try to help them, the worse we make things. We will do more good for them and for ourselves if we stop worrying about how different their lives are from ours, and start treating them as trading partners.

    I don’t care that they’re poor. You shouldn’t either.

  2. Hi Alamanach. I read the post about your work in Dand. Interesting, and on the whole, looks well done. I fully agree that the central planners approach is pretty hopeless. I would have a number of questions though about the work – equality of access, the usefulness of the vocational training, the durability of the work/ the stability it created, etc.
    Re your reply above. I would say that love and justice, seeing as you raise the issue of love, are inseparable. Love that does not seek justice is not love. And the way I understand charity is the free giving of assistance, without criteria. I’m not referring to that when I talk about the moral claim. I reiterate that there is a moral claim to help others, at a cost to yourself. That is justice: not that you give stuff to poor people but change nothing in your own life, but that your own life is changed, is subject to scrutiny, is called to account. Justice is about balance and fairness, and it can scarcely be just if as an aid worker, I remain in my elevated position. That is why I and my colleagues are here long term, years now, why we speak the local languages, why we live simply and unpretentiously, why we keep a low profile, why our projects are all long term (years long, not months), why we run a very lean administration, why we are all unsalaried.
    A final comment: I feel pretty ripe asking Afghans to give their loyalty to the Government of Afghanistan, not matter what I have to offer in exchange (and can you do that, anyway? You don’t represent the Government, so what right do you have to demand loyalty to it??). A Government needs to be worthy of loyalty before I could commend it to the people I work with…
    Phil.

    • “You don’t represent the Government, so what right do you have to demand loyalty to it??”

      That’s simple– I have a war to win.

      “I would have a number of questions though about the work – equality of access, the usefulness of the vocational training, the durability of the work/ the stability it created, etc.”

      If you have questions, then please ask– my comments section feels very lonely. Personally, I was also unsure of the usefulness of the vocational training, but I was tasked with implementing it, so I did. The Afghans flocked to it, though, so they must have seen value in it, and theirs is the opinion that counts.

      “That is justice: not that you give stuff to poor people but change nothing in your own life, but that your own life is changed, is subject to scrutiny, is called to account. Justice is about balance and fairness, and it can scarcely be just if as an aid worker, I remain in my elevated position.”

      It is absurd that somebody else’s poverty requires that you make changes to your life. You’re not responsible for Afghanistan being the wasteland it is any more than the Afghans are responsible for conditions in Australia. It’s good that you want to help them, but that’s not a matter of justice. I gave the definition of justice in my post, but here it is again: “Justice is the act of giving someone that which is due him. We know a thing is due a person if, by taking it from him, we do more harm to ourselves than we do to him.” In my post I showed how that definition translates into practice, and I showed the results: 100% success with all initiatives in all villages, zero security incidents, a booming local economy, and two Taliban villages brought over to the GIRoA side. My definition works.

      You mention fairness, but at the scale of operations you and I are talking about, I don’t know what fairness is even supposed to mean. Was it fair that the Romans conquered Gaul? If not, then was it fair that they didn’t conquer the east? And in either case, is it fair that western Europe reaped advantages that persist to this day? From whence fairness? http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/229100/fallacy-fairness/thomas-sowell

      As for operational techniques, low profile is definitely the way to go. When properly dressed up, Afghans think I’m one of them. I’ve done it that way, and I’ve also been the bunkered expat, and there’s no question which methodology is more effective.

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