Tuesday, May 20, 2003

I've come to truly believe in the adage "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing." It seems like some of the worst ideas come not from those people who are totally ignorant about what's going on. Rather they come from those who know a little more than the ordinary person but far less than what is necessary to make a coherent analysis and remedial proposition (ie: solution to fix the problem).

I've already expounded on my critiques of the anti-war movement. I didn't criticize them as much as the pro-warriors for the simple reason that I believe the justifications given for war were not only disingenuous but insufficient even if they were taken at face value. Nevertheless, if you've been reading this FOD, you know I've called both sides on their intellectual shortcomings, oversimplifications and hypocrisy. I call it as I see it.

Most of the anti-war activists were a little more aware of some of the more sordid aspects of American foreign policy history than the average person. A caveat: I am speaking exclusively of those in my area that I know personally (although I suspect it applies to the movement in general). As a result, they used these nuggets of information in their opposition to the war. They felt more informed than the "ignoramuses" on the other side and made sure their smugness did not go unnoticed.

We supported Saddam, after all. After all, there was that infamous picture of Donald Rumsfeld shaking Saddam's hand in the early 80s. Somehow, this "proved" that the war was a bad idea. I really didn't follow the logic. Geopolitical alliances change all the time.

We supported this, that or the other bad guy during the Cold War, my anti-war friends often pointed out. These are legitimate points in response to specific assertions. For example, if someone said "We're getting rid of Saddam because America always supports liberty and freedom," it would be fair to ask how exactly Pinochet, the Shah, Mobutu and apartheid South Africa fit into that scheme. Nevertheless, what happened during the Cold War did not prove or disprove the perceived need to invade Iraq.

While these events may cast doubt on America's credibility as the guardian of paragon and virtue, the question of invading Iraq should be examined on its own merits. Would a unilateral invasion of Iraq be bad if done by the US but ok if done by Iran or Russia or China? The justness of the invasion failed on its own merits because its sole real purpose was one country arbitrarily deciding on "regime change" in and conquest of another that had done nothing to it or any of its allies (Kuwait was not our ally when Saddam invaded and Iran was our enemy). Even the alleged reason of weapons of mass destruction has yet to be vindicated by events.

But this essay is more about the "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing" principle.

During the Iraq war, when they were all supposedly angered about the effect of the invasion on Iraqi civilians, I circulated several emails/essays about the Democratic Republic of the Congo (aka: DRC or Congo-Kinshasa) amongst my progressive/environmentalist friends. I did this to point out that Iraq was not the only place in the world where civilians were suffering but it was the only place in the world where my activist friends were pissed off (supposedly) about civilian suffering.

I often told them, "If you're concerned about the effect of the Iraq war on civilians, then also be concerned about the effect of the Congolese war on civilians there too. Or the Liberian war or the Sri Lankan war." I did this to gently underline out the hypocrisy of their position. Mainly though, it was to point out that in reality, they were protesting not against the impact of the war on civilians, but against the Bush government. The US isn't involved in the DRC war so they didn't seem too upset about civilians there and it annoyed me. Sure, they said the DRC situation was "unfortunate," but they weren't screaming about it on the streets or in letters to the editor. If I couldn't make them care about the fate of civilians in central Africa, I wanted them at least to be honest about what they were protesting.

Apparently I got through to at least one person. At the last meeting of our local Green Party, our chairman had invited the husband of a friend to speak. He was a refugee from the Republic of the Congo (aka: Congo-Brazzaville); it borders Congo-Kinshasa but suffered through its own civil war (for oil) in the late 90s. Our chairman wasn't sure the speaker was going to be able to make it due to scheduling reasons. But we budgeted a spot for him just in case.

One of our members is EXTREMELY far left and bitches about EVERYTHING. Because he knows some of the more sordid aspects of American foreign policy history, he therefore thinks he's superior to the "ignorant idiots" who populate this town (of which he speaks disparagingly all the time, much to my agitation).

This is the definition of "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing." Because he (we'll call him Morally Superior Guy) knows 1/3 of the story, he thinks he's a genius because most other people know 1/5 or less. He's 23, which is not surprising since it's often people that young who have such a large superiority complex.

Bearing in mind that our group is entirely white, the conversation went something like this...

CHAIRMAN: Unfortunately, it looks our invited speaker was not able to make it today.

MORALLY SUPERIOR GUY: If I were him, I know I'd be afraid of a bunch of white guys too given what they did to his country.

ME: Perhaps, but the Congolese have a pretty fair job of killing themselves.

MORALLY SUPERIOR GUY: Yeah, but they're doing so for western oil companies.

Bear in mind that Morally Superior Guy probably couldn't tell Congo-Brazzaville from Congo-Kinshasa from Ethiopia on a map. Morally Superior Guy also probably couldn't tell you the name of most prominent oil company in Congo-Brazzaville is, even though he invoked oil in his argument and even though that company is implicated in what is likely the biggest corruption trial currently going on in the world today. Morally Superior Guy probably couldn't even tell you what country that oil company is from. Morally Superior Guy certainly couldn't tell you who is the Congo-Brazzaville head of state or when it became independent or anything about its history. But Morally Superior Guy doesn't need to be bothered with such details that might trouble his pre-conceived notions. He's an angry young man and something like ambiguity might only complicate his fury.

I guess it's because I've actually been to and lived in Africa that I don't see things in such comfortingly black and white terms. The place is neither an irredeemible hell hole nor an Eden trampled only by the evil westerners. Of course, reality has a way of interfering with comfortable generalizations. Morally Superior Guy doesn't understand this yet. Hopefully he will someday.

-Congo-Brazzaville is in central Africa, separated from Congo-Kinshasa by the Congo River. It is on the west bank of the end of the river.
-The main oil company in Congo-Brazzaville is Elf, presently implicated in a huge corruption trial in France. (I'll refrain from ranting about the evils of Elf)
-Congo-Brazzaville's dictator is Denis Sassou-Ngeusso, who was in power from 1979 until, I believe 1991, when he was succeeded by Pascal Lissouba in democratic elections. Although an elected civilian president, Lissouba's most famous remark on his concept of democracy was, "You don't organize elections in order to lose them." Lissouba was also hostile to Elf and wanted more national control of the oil industry, which did not endear him to Paris. A civil war between the two erupted in 1997 which was eventually won by Sassou's forces.
-The country has been legally independent since 1960, when it ceased being a (formal) French colony.

Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Today, I read an article in The East African*. The paper is run by the same group that publishes Kenya's prestigious Daily Nation. The piece opened, "Japan and the United States, the two countries providing the largest sums of development aid, rank last in the actual helpfulness of their aid policies, according to a new index+ measuring rich nations’ generosity toward Africa and other poor parts of the world." This fascinated me because it considered not only how much aid countries were spending, but also the impact of other policies on development.

Anti-aid campaigners argue that aid is ineffective because governments receiving it are corrupt. There is certainly an element of truth to this charge and it would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise. Those campaigning for more transparency from recepient governments are correct to do so. Everyone agrees on the importance that aid actually benefit the people it's intended to help. Some of the continent's more enlightened leaders have realized that fundamental change can not take place without improved self-governance. That is why three leaders (Abdolaye Wade of Senegal, Olesegun Obasanjo of Nigeria and South Africa's Thabo Mbeki) are pushing the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) plan which envisions a new relationship between Africa and the west, along with continental self-policing on issues of transparency and good governance.

However, it's equally disingenuous to argue that corruption and bad governance are the ONLY factors in Africa's underdevelopment (and let's be frank: even an Africophile like myself has to concede that the continent's problems dwarf those of any other region).

Botswana, for example, is almost universally acknowledged as a political and development model student in Africa. It has a decent economic system. A free and fair political system where the losers gracefully concede defeat, an achievement quite rare on the continent. And it has been that way since independence in the 1960s Yet in the UN's Human Development Index, Botswana ranks only 126th. Just ahead of rogue state Myanmar (Burma). Behind states that not long ago suffered devastating civil wars like Guatemala and El Salvador.

The bottom 27 states on the index are all African. Several of those bottom 27 have democratized (to varying degrees), as pressured by the west, and scrupulously followed the International Monetary Fund's economic fiats. Such countries include Mozambique, Senegal, Zambia and Uganda. They've done what they're told but they're not seeing much in the way results. Sure, it's easy from a macro-economic perspective to say "be patient." It's even easier if you're well-fed and work in a nice air-conditioned office in Washington, New York or London. Macro-economics is not an edible commodity, nor will it protect you from the weather.

The article points out some of the hurdles that even the relatively well-governed states have to face. And it also shows that while increasing foreign development (non-military) is a good idea, it will achieve very little progress without systematic reform to the outside structural obstacles faced by even well-intentioned leaders of developing countries. Specifically, the biggest one being the imposition of homogenized fundamentalist free trade policies (with loopholes only for Europe and North America).

More aid money would help. But if given the choice, I think most developing countries would rather have the same amount of aid (or even less) with much fairer trade policies.

+-"In addition to the amounts of foreign aid they provide, countries are evaluated in terms of their trade, environmental, investment, migration and peacekeeping policies. The index rewards hospitable immigration policies, generous contributions to peacekeeping operations, and sizable direct investments in poor countries.The index penalises financial assistance to corrupt regimes, prohibitive barriers to imports from developing countries, and policies harmful to the global environment."

*-If the link has expired by the time you read this, go to the paper's archives, go to 5 May '03, click on the features' section and look for the article, "Japan, US ranked 'least helpful' to poor countries.