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The Truth Ain’t Pretty for an Aid-Worker With a Conscience

December 4, 2009

The emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence; … it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought. Accordingly, with admirable though misdirected intentions, [people] very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.  

They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor.  

But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible. And the altruistic virtues have really prevented the carrying out of this aim. Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of things … the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good; … charity degrades and demoralises.  

There is also this to be said. It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property. It is both immoral and unfair.  

"oh hey you..."

People of the world, readers of ewz, allow me to become (even more) self-important for a second – these words, taken from Oscar Wilde in his essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism, are elegant, insightful and about me (and maybe also people like me). Ok, perhaps I can concede that he didn’t have me specifically in mind when writing them, but deep down I honestly kind of believe that my blog posts can retro-actively re-posit history (a bit like the Bible). To be more precise, these words outline an antagonism that shapes my life: the idealistic urge to be among those people that “set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see”, and yet the fear that in this I am doing little more than buttressing the very system that does so much harm.    

My name is…well, to you its Snugglebus…and I am for want of a better phrase an ‘aid worker’.  

I can’t get no satisfaction  

For better or worse I have made a choice to work for the betterment of others in a particular way (well kind of…I’m also kind of in it for the lulz), which as most people in this line of work will tell you usually gets one of two reactions.  For me the preferred one is the albeit very occasional experience of thinly-veiled hostility, that somehow you must consider yourself superior either to them or to the people you puport to ‘help’; I don’t mind this at all because I do indeed get an immediate feeling of superiority to the person bringing the hostility, though perhaps not for the reasons they had in mind. No by far the most unsettling reaction is a more common one.  Most people react with a vague sort of admiration, saying something along the lines of ‘oh that’s great, it must be so satisfying’ etc (ewz’s very own sysh’s wrote a nice piece on this same issue here).  

Once my initial reaction of ‘I don’t care what else you think I am, as long as you think I’m thin’ subsides, a deeper sense of unease sets in. The dirty little secret that I think a lot of aid workers have is that though we couldn’t really see ourselves doing anything else, in actual fact deep down we often find it hard to really take the satisfaction from what we do that people seem to expect we should (well, that is assuming most of them actually mean it and are not photoshopping our face onto a picture of a wanking monkey when our backs are turned).   

"Touch those again and I swear I'll buy your country and burn it to the ground..."

Ok, sure you could point to a few superficial reasons for this. First, yes because Bono has ruined it for the rest of us by being a massive dick. And that aside of course we also struggle with the things for which we are rightly criticised, for example the fact that aid is an industry and an interest group like any other, or that we exist in a world of neo-colonial lifestyles and asymmetries of power, asymmetries that we both create and sustain.  

These are truths, but to be frank they are limited truths. Yes the world would be a better place without Bono, but it would not be a better place without programmes to combat preventable disease, assistance for people fleeing conflict, or funding to address hunger and child malnutrition.  

No, I think the fact of the matter is that most people who work in the development-humanitarian complex (if this phrase doesn’t exist it so should) are well aware that most of the time what we are doing is ultimately a question of dressing the wounds of what might be called systemic violence. Contrary to the simplistic mainstream view, we are not brave souls battling away at the frontiers of backward pre-modernity trying to reverse a county’s exclusion from the world economy or deal with that exclusion’s brutal consequences, but rather what posits the ‘need’ for people like us is the particular way in which a particular place has been included in the world system. Problems of poverty, war, and hunger are not problems at the margins of the world economy but instead visible effects of a deeper traumatic truth exluded from our ideological universe.  

There I said it.  

The invisible fist  

The way to read these visible effects is in much the same way as a symptom in the psychoanalytical context, which can only be pieced together through its effects, its indirect intrusion into the subject’s life (causing panic attacks, hiding in strange dreams and so on). Just as for the analyst Jaques Lacan a person should not be understood as a well functioning subject with a few creases (symptoms, neuroses) around the edges that can be ironed out allowing them to function even better (exactly the role of ‘international development’ in the world economy), instead they are defined precisely by these pathologies. It is these deadlocks that reveal the structure of who we are and how we relate to the world.  This is the Lacanian ‘Real’, that which structures ‘reality’ as we perceive it.   

To ground ourselves again, and begin to show that this is not just bullshit sleight of hand, let us take one simple example, the Democratic Republic of Congo. In this, the poster-child of African conflicts, some 5 million people have died of unnatural causes during and after the long-running civil war. A common narrative is to frame the DRC as a country stained by the particular brutality of its colonial experience, bypassed by modernity and trapped instead in primordial cycles of senseless violence. But as others note its conflict is deeply intertwined with the presence of various resources, not least around 40% of the world’s supply of cobalt and significant amounts of coltan, a mineral essential to the production of most of the world’s electronic devices, with conflict centered over control of production and supply lines and the revenues that derive from them. The DRC may not score highly on traditional indices of how ‘plugged-in’ a country is to the world economy, but it is precisely the way in which the DRC is so brutally and definitively structured by its present encounter with the global economy that reveals its true place within it.  

If we try to understand the world economy on its own terms through its positive features as an engine of great prosperity with an increadible complex yet successful functioning (the odd finanical crisis aside) in which, for example, a change in my behavior is transmitted through a chain of price signals that eventually reaches a factory in China, and refracts back to me in the form of a product on a shelf, then we would have to understand the DRC in terms of obstruction, obstructions to its proper development (lack of infrastructure, low levels of ‘human capital’, ongoing conflicts and so on) and thus to its full integration to the world economy (and hence its low scores on measures of global integration). 

But what we can actually infer from the case of the DRC is not the consequences of marginalisation, since DRC is anything but marginalised, but rather the visible effects of the antagonism at the heart of the world economy, that is Capital. Without any need for direct involvement in the country it exerts a sort of gravitational pull which defines the horizons of possibility for social structures. The central truth of the world economy is therefore in fact most visible at its margins as a fundamentally disruptive force. The invisible hand which creates order simply through the indirect effects of the market is therefore only part of the story. The other part is an invisible fist.  

Now what?

Where then does that leave us if all we can do is work to mitigate the systemic effects, and more than that in so doing disguise the visible traces from which it is possible to infer the true face of this world system “being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it“? Are we part of the ideological edifice of the same this world system whose effects we work to mitigate and overcome? Undoutedly. Do we help use its spoils to address some of its worst effects? For sure. Is this immoral? I really don’t know.

Why not then change jobs? Well honestly I wouldn’t know what else to do. Become a banker? At least this I’m fixing (or trying to) not creating the world’s problems. I guess there is only one thing left to say:


For now I’ll just keep thinking.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. einsteinsdreams permalink*
    December 5, 2009 1:48 am

    Elegant and brilliant.

  2. Claude Van Inkins permalink*
    December 8, 2009 8:53 am

    awesome, articulate and spot on.

    have you read Mark Duffield?

    He sort of points out similar things but his answer is tame and lame and blurry, which is ‘global solidarity’ without relying on states.

    Why can’t we come up with proper alternatives? We fear losing the new DRC supplied laptop/blackburry/etc to write our thoughtful blogs? Or because we love out jobs and fear the horrible truth which is that we are capable of theoretically de-legitimising them, but their moral legitimacy is their fundamental underpinning. Or are we all just too pragmatic, balanced and non-ideological sensible centralists who scoff at anything that smells of raw emotional – rather than considered intellectual – motive.

    No, I don’t know either.

    Lots of Colonial Officers loved their jobs and absolutely thought they were helping bring civilization to needy savages. They believed what they did entirely morally legitimate. But it wasn’t the Colonial Officers who changed colonialism, was it? It was, in many cases, the humiliated savages themselves.

    So maybe it doesn’t matter what we think. Maybe we’re not the ones who are going to change the structure, being such abject agents of it in the first place. Instead we might find ourselves first against the wall, moaning to ourselves in confused, but not ignorant, woe.

  3. snugglebus permalink*
    December 8, 2009 4:12 pm

    haven’t Duffield but he’s on my amazon wish list!

    I really want to buy into the ‘pragmatic centrist’ view. On a practical level ultimately what I do is to shrug and say ‘what can I change?’…I need to act in the here and now and this is the best I’ve got (and the bottom line is its what I’m qualified for)…but yet can’t shake of the doubts. In the long-run (or even much shorter-run) I think they might end up driving me out of development.

    To some extent I take your point about it doesn’t matter what “we” think, but I wonder if the question of agency is not a lot murkier now than it ever has been. Intuitively the structures of domination : subjection seem so much more complex and multi-layered now than they were in the old colonial power vs. colony dynamic.

    How can you escape being an “abject agent” to use your phrase today? I suppose its always easier to simplify history, but I mean it would seem that you could side with the colonised before (like say a Satre or someone of his ilk did) and feel safe in the knowledge that you were on the ‘right’ side of history, and be clear in working to undermine the colonial structures or whatever that this was something worth working for.

    But take for example China’s role in the world…its been a colonised territory, had a sort of egalitarian peasant revolution, became an authoritarian state capitalist country, and now itself exists in a peculiar sort of hazy area between our catagories (they’re are lots of poor people, but can we call China poor per se…? its a developing country and we like to think of our developing countries as oppressed/exploited…but then what is it up to in Africa? etc.)

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