Thursday, September 20, 2007

Do Something (Else)

Americans -- right and left -- have, from the day the Puritans landed at Plymouth Rock, been uniquely afflicted by this weirdly zealous missionary belief that, whatever's going on with non-Americans anywhere in the world, we have a God-given mandate to step in and Do Something.

We feel good about World War II because that was one of the (rare, if we're honest about it) occasions in which we Did Something that actually turned out well (with a couple of notable exceptions involving Japanese in camps here, and Japanese and nuclear bombs there). Every one of the dozens of excuses given for our presence in Iraq has also proceed from this prime assumption that it's both our duty and our right to Do Something -- restore freedom, establish democracy, save the world from terrorism, disarm a rogue nation, establish our own almighty presence among the heathen, whatever. From Manifest Destiny to San Juan Hill to the Global War on Terror, we see ourselves as somehow required, mandated, obligated to get out there and foist the blessings of American-style liberty (and, lest we forget -- though our victims seldom do -- our superior Protestant morality and our own economic interests) on the whole world...whether they want them or not.

This pious need to meddle with people For Their Own Good is, in fact, the thing that the rest of the world finds most annoying (and occasionally, terrifying) about us. They don't hate us for our freedoms. They hate us because we just can't seem to let them the fuck alone.

Jesse's post below, compassionate as it is, strikes me as coming out of this rather dubious tradition. The disaster in Africa exists in the first place because a bunch of European colonial powers felt that same impulse to Do Something -- in this case, convert the heathen to Christianity; move them down off the disease-free hilltops into the malarial swamps (Africans preferred to haul water for miles in pots rather than move closer to the source because living away from the river meant not dying); enslave them in plantations and mines; export their wealth, break up their traditional governments (some of which were powerful empires in their own right); and extend faux invitations to the global power party, eliding the fact that the club rules stated clearly that no black or brown people would actually ever be admitted.

We're now 50 years into the post-colonial era -- but Westerners, public and private, are still all over Africa, doggedly trying to Do Something. And it's past time to admit the truth of the matter, which is: not one whit of anything they've ever done has worked worth a damn.

UN and NGO observers in Africa have been locked in a 20+-year chicken-and-egg debate over whether it's the poverty or the corruption that keeps the continent mired in disaster. Everybody agrees that those are the ubiquitous twin evils at the core of every other problem; the debate is over which one you tackle first, and how. But the intractable truth of Africa's trouble is that the corruption causes the poverty; and the poverty enfeebles people to the point where they can't fight the corruption. Together, the two are locked into a system that runs so tightly there are absolutely no cracks in it to exploit, no way to stick a crowbar in the works and pry the sucker apart.

Much better people than us have tried -- over and over again -- and only made themselves crazy and broke. The system itself just sucked up all their money and energy, using it to fuel another turn of the vicious cycle that ultimately made things worse than ever. The irony is that, in almost every instance, the poverty and the corruption got started in the first place because of Western do-good policies gone awry. And now both are so pervasive that even the best-planned, best-funded, smartest attempts to Do Something end up utterly swamped by them.

The sheer overwhelming head-spinning massiveness of this swamp leads to equally massive acts of forgetting. One of Bill Gates' current Bright Ideas is to bring the Green Revolution back to Africa. He's evidently forgotten -- or nobody bothered to tell him -- that the original Green Revolution of the 1960s was the source of much of the current trouble. It gave the men of Africa tractors and irrigation and big-scale farming and chemical fertilizers and high-yield seed. Which, in turn, stripped the topsoil and overwhelmed local aquifers and disrupted traditional farming methods and put the farmers (and, ultimately, their little countries) in hock to the fertilizer and seed people and the World Bank -- and also, for good measure, completely disregarded the fact that most of the old-style farming had been done by women in the first place, which added reverberating social dislocations on top of the ecological ruin, backbreaking debt, and famine. Bill Gates thinks this is a miracle worth repeating. Only people who don't know any better -- or those in the corrupt elites both here and there who stand to profit from this grand idea -- could possibly agree.

The only coherent lesson I've drawn from my long reading about our endless attempts to Do Something in Africa is that we've Done Enough Now. We've done so much, in fact, that the best thing we can do at this point -- the only thing, in fact, that we haven't ever tried -- is to leave these people alone.

I mean it. We've been piss-poor Bringers of Light to the Dark Continent. The place is worse off, by every measure you can think of, than it was before we showed up. I think real progress starts when we deeply, sincerely look that fact in the face and own it. Corruption persists because Western money makes it possible. Poverty persists because Western companies profit from African serfdom. If we disappeared, those two core factors wouldn't vanish overnight; but at least the Africans themselves would have a fighting chance to restore a truly African social and political order, and build an economy that profited more of them as well.

There are things we can do, but none of them will help overnight. Oprah's taken a lot of criticism for her very la-di-da girls' school; but she's turning out 100 exceptional young women a year who will be qualified to attend the world's top universities, and eventually represent the continent among the world's intellectual elite. Twenty years from now, Africa will be blessed with a sisterhood of a thousand brilliant women whose strong native voices will shape policy for their countries, and who will form the basis for a new African-bred meritocracy. Their personalities and their education will give them the power to advocate for Africa's true needs in the face of overpowering Western interests. That's a gift that will keep on giving. If we're going to do something, let's build 20 more schools like it to ensure that the continent's own brightest lights can shine in ways that will bring some real, long-lasting change.

And then, let's encourage the UN to build a world-class university in central Africa for this rising intellectual elite to teach in, and for the next generation to be trained in. Educating the first generation in Europe and the US is necessary; but we should use the time to build excellent African institutions in which the continent's own culture, agriculture, economics, policy, and priorities are preserved and taught to future generations. All that money wasted on tractors and seed -- just a fraction of it might have endowed such an institution, which would have empowered Africans to Do For Themselves. The fact that the post-colonial meddlers didn't take this basic and obvious step back around, say, 1964 tells you all you need to know about how they tacitly viewed Africa's role as a permanent dependent on Western largess. They never planned for Africa to be able to fend for itself. If they had, the continent would have had its own Harvard and Stanford by now.

Another idea is former World Bank president Joe Stieglitz' proposal that the countries of the world should be ranked in terms of overall prosperity (he suggests specific data points to be used in this reckoning) -- and then held to a rule that no country can export goods to a country with a lower ranking than its own. This rule would allow poor countries to develop local and export markets for would-be manufacturers, which would in turn create jobs, capital, and real national economies. At the same time, it would prevent multinationals from coming in and undercutting local markets and producers, which eliminates jobs, stifles local economies, and perpetuates the cycle of poverty. Nike and Coke would have to give up their places in the Lesotho market -- but there are some sacrifices worth making for the overall peace and stability of the globe.

If the Africans want help, let them ask for it -- through legitimate governments and NGOs that they themselves run. (We can help a lot by simply refusing to deal with non-elected dictators and suspect governments.) We can give them microloans for the new businesses, shelter their budding markets, provide faculty for their schools and engineers for their wells and roads. We know a few things that do work. But it's important that we not do them unless and until they're asked for.

But, before any of that happens, let's start by admitting that the days when Western do-gooders can or should just rush in and Do Something are now Over. Over a century of attempts to help/improve/convert/exploit, we've heaped as much calamity on these people as any group of humans can possibly stand.

Chaos, panic, disorder: Our work in Africa is done.