A rather obvious but increasingly necessary Sunday morality lesson for the foreign policy community

“If we do the right thing, it will be good not only for the people whose lives we save but for the U.S. image in Pakistan,” Richard C. Holbrooke, the administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said Thursday on the PBS program “The Charlie Rose Show.”

The NY Times reports on US food aid efforts to Pakistan.

Dear Pentagon and Congresspeople: It’s Sunday morning. Many of you are in church at the moment. Your collection basket could be going around right now. I want you to close your eyes and picture the following: as it nears a man in the front aisle, he stands: “I’d just like everyone to know Ginger and I here are giving a thousand dollars today,” he announces, before dropping a ziploc full of cash in the basket. The next week, there’s a new basket, emblazoned with “brought to you by Phil and Ginger Jackson, your pals in the front row”.

Has he won your heart and mind yet? I’m guessing not.

Poor people and dictators are not stupid. Their moral compass looks a lot like ours. And right now it’s pointing to “asshole”.

When you give humanitarian aid precisely because you want something in return, it’s not really charity, and people will not like you. The great irony: if you want people to think you’re a kind and noble nation, you need to give irrespective of your realist and nationalist aims. (It also helps if you don’t give food with one hand and close down the Ground Zero mosque with the other).

(This generous message was brought to you by your Canadian pal Chris Blattman. Just leave the Green Card by the door on your way out.)

13 thoughts on “A rather obvious but increasingly necessary Sunday morality lesson for the foreign policy community

  1. But charity is an individual act, not an act of statecraft. The purpose of nations is to promote the national interest.

  2. Sorry Chris, but this post is simply wrong. Here is a rewrite of your post:

    “Dear global health community: It’s Monday morning. Many of you are at work at the moment. Your collection basket could be going around right now. I want you to close your eyes and picture the following: as it nears a man in the front aisle, he stands: “I’d just like everyone to know Melinda and I here are giving a ninety billion dollars today,” he announces, before dropping a ziploc full of cash in the basket. The next week, there’s a new basket, emblazoned with “brought to you by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, your pals in Seattle”.”

    Do you think Bill and Melinda Gates are ‘assholes’? I’m guessing not.

    Helping people and self-interest are not mutually exclusive.

  3. Christopher, what you’re missing in your rewrite is the personal benefit to the Gateses.

    To whit, when Goldman Sachs announced their huge program of “charity” for small businesses, everyone did think “assholes”.

    Helping people and self-interest are not exclusive. But when the self-interest is the primary driver of helping people, then no one believes you’re genuinely trying to help people.

  4. To continue, though, Chris’s example would be more accurate if he included this line in Phil’s speech. “By the way, did I happen to mention that Ginger and I are running for President and Vice President of the Deacon board. Hope we can count on your votes.”

  5. Nations helping Pakistan now may or may not help in softpower- terms. But not helping Pakistan now will definitely count against US even in the pro-US folk in that nation. Therein lies the message.

  6. Tim: I should have been more clear, Gates’ is personal benefit is a good reputation… and so is the US.

    Put it this way:

    1) States are self interested
    2) States can further their self interest through only two types of actions: positive (stick) or negative (carrot).
    3) Which type of actions do you prefer the United States use?

    Given that the US (or any other state) is not altruistic, isn’t influencing global politics through helping people exactly how we WANT the US to behave?

  7. States act in the interest of its citizens. If citizens choose to be altruistic, so can the state. Realism is not fate, and may possibly become a historical curiosity. If one is a global citizen and not a national one, acts of charity need not be selfish. Or at least so obviously and blatantly self-serving.

    Thats’s not really the point of my post, though. Even if you’re realist, being obviously and always so undermines the effectiveness of the actions you think are in your self-interest. It’s the naïveté that is my true target of scorn.

  8. Who’s really naive here? Do we really think people in Pakistan won’t think US aid is given with the hope of advancing US interests if we don’t mention that fact? This seems more about your distaste with the unseemliness of talking about self-interest in the face of disaster, rather than any effect that talk is likely to have in Pakistan. I’d say we’re better off convincing Pakistanis that US self-interest is compatible with Pakistani well being than trying to convince them we’re some kind of purely altruistic actor.

  9. Chris,

    “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

    “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” — Matt. 6:1-4

    However, I do not accept the comparision to the Ground Zero mosque. If the Daughters of the Confederation wanted to build a giant Confederate history museum with a giant flag right next to Gettysburg, liberals would be in an uproar about it. Would they respect the right of private property? Sure. Would they freely weigh in on the act being immoral? You better believe it.

  10. To some, USAID itself is an anti-terrorism vehicle (winning “hearts and minds”). A Google search for “USAID terrorism” gets some stuff on this topic, like http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/pnacn919.pdf (full disclosure: I haven’t read the whole thing).

    So USAID tells the DoD it’s about anti-terrorism and tells advocacy groups it’s about feeding starving children. Of course it does that–it wants both parties to like it.

    All that to say: saying you’ll work for your funders’ desired goals doesn’t mean you will. It just means you understand the concept of a sales pitch.

  11. This is the most painful post of yours that I have read.

    As a previous poster mentioned – there is no charity – explicit or otherwise – in which the dictators/poor people will believe it was given purely for altruistic reasons – even if that was the true intent.

    Additionally – let me ask you this question. Countries – unlike academics – are accountable and have limited resources. With an entire world filled with problems they must decide where to spend their “limited charity”. This means altruistic ideals must be balanced with other considerations like national self-interest.

    Also – without “brought to your by your friends Phil and Ginger” who’s to say people will know where said charity came from? Without being explicit and branding others can claim your contributions or never know of them — and I have seen this first hand in several despotic nations where leaders claim external aid is actually their own.

    Lastly, the Ground Zero mosque analogy was poor. On the one hand you talk about respect, but on the other you totally ignore the fact that many people find it insensitive. I wonder if you would be saying the same thing if a Wal-mart was going to be built near of the old world trade center site (or Mecca). As a private company, they probably could, but it would be incredibly insensitive and offensive. It’s just poor judgment. Their aims can be fulfilled without offending anyone unnecessarily.

  12. I agree with Chris, and I would launch a similarly scathing attack on the stupidity of any nation or person who announces with a loud hailer that they are donating money with the secondary aim that it will reflect well on them.

    The Gates example is irrelevant in my view as I have never heard Bill or Melinda hint that they are giving most of their wealth away so that they will look good.

    Whether or not there is a halo effect isn’t the point for me. It’s the stupidity of the loud hailer. Whether or not recipients think you’re trying to buy their affection isn’t the point for me — it’s the stupidity of the loud hailer. Crass.

    And WHO was the trained, experienced, accomplished professional who made this gaff? Oh, the administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan! Bloody amateur.

  13. I think the greater question here is whether the imbedded self-interest of charity hinders development. Ultimately, it is not in any of the developed contries’ interest that developing countries become fully functional and, economically independent. Extreme amounts of revenue for countries in the west is sourced from developing countries cheap labour and inability to transform their raw materials into products. Keeping this in mind, I think we will have to become citizens of the world to be committed to achieve real development.