Charity, Aid, Development and 'Disaster Capitalism'

As a graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, I frequently get e-mails from the school, and from the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (where I actually earned my master’s degree), advertising job openings hither and yon.

And what jobs they are, too! You’d think those e-mails would be loaded with vacancies from the kinds of government agencies in need of Arabic speakers (and we can all guess which agencies those are). And you’d sort-of be right. The executive branch is constantly trolling for bright, well-educated young people who know something about the Middle East and Islam and are capable of getting a security clearance. To do whatever work is needed — translate documents, “interview” detainees, draw red circles on maps and label them “bomb here,” write reports that no one will ever read. Or take very seriously if they do.

But work for actual government agencies only makes up a small portion of the jobs that pass through my inbox, and those don’t wander along very often. I also don’t recall ever seeing more than one or two jobs with real, live private companies (the big investment banks like Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch or J.P. Morgan Chase don’t really count as “private” in this or any other context). The bulk of the job adverts are with “non-governmental organizations,” usually tied to some kind of government contract, and look something like this (Parents, be warned, these are the kinds of things you send your kids to Georgetown to learn how to do):

The Forum of Federations is seeking a Program Manager (i.e. a consultant) to develop and support a governance program for Iraq. What they are looking for is someone ideally with a Master’s degree in political science, international development, law, or a related discipline, or an equivalent combination of education and experience. Working experience in the Middle East is preferred. The candidate will be fluent in English and Arabic. Knowledge of Kurdish will be considered an asset. The candidate must be willing to travel to Iraq for portions of the program.

Or something like this:

Freedom House seeks a Program Officer for its Middle East programs. The tasks of the Program Officer will include: backstopping overseas projects, promoting and reporting on Freedom House’s Middle East projects, responding to RFAs, interacting with RIGHTS Consortium members, and assisting the Senior Program Manager in research, program design and implementation, financial management, fundraising and public relations.

The appropriate candidate should have experience with international human rights and rule of law issues; USAID funding sources and program management; strong research and writing skills; ability to read, write and speak English. Ability to read, write, and speak Arabic required; ability to speak, read, and write French is also desired. Experience with North Africa and the Middle East is a must. Bachelor’s degree or equivalent experience required; post-graduate degree preferred. Position is based in Washington, DC. Projects are located in new democracies and developing countries.

Or even like this:

The CNA Corporation, a private non-profit research and analysis organization located in Alexandria, VA, is looking to identify potential [sic] a new hire specializing in International Affairs. This position will support the research staff by coordinating, collecting, and managing data in support of ongoing research and analysis on political/military issues. This person will conduct unclassified research in support of research projects, attend interviews and conference presentations, summarize and/or transcribe conference and interview notes, help construct briefings and other written materials and perform other duties as assigned.

The successful candidate must hold a Bachelor’s degree. Prefer current graduate student. Experience: Knowledge of Middle East and general international affairs. Skills: Ability to transcribe notes from tape-recorded material a must. Knowledge of Power Point, Word, Excel. Ability to develop graphs and charts a plus.

Not really government work, and yet, nothing but government work. After all, who else — what else — would pay people money to do these kinds of things? (Aside from a crazy old billionaire with money to spare?)

I’ve always been at a loss as to what to call this kind of work, or even what industry this might be. I sometimes refer to it as "consulting," but that hardly seem to do the whole thing justice. None of it appears really evil at first glance either. Much of this work, in fact, appeals to do-gooders (since “helping others” is peripherally involved in many of these jobs, though hands don’t actually have to get dirty unless the toner cartridge is changed), and since so much of it pays so poorly (you’d be surprised how little a trilingual specialist in Middle East governance and human rights can be had for in the District of Columbia these days, especially if the “non-governmental organization” with the job opening is also a “not-for-profit”), a lot of these jobs go to the young, the idealistic or the spouses of the already very well employed.

In an article published earlier this in The Nation, “The Rise of Disaster Capitalism,” Naomi Klein (author of the insightful critique of state-managed globalization No Logo) shed some light on what I’m fairly certain is the same industry: that nexus of government, planning and contracting/consulting that is the hallmark of the way Western countries and the United Nations do business anymore, regardless of whether they are planning individual projects, aiding in disaster recovery, waging war, or attempting to promote “economic development.”

Regardless of whether they are “serving” their own citizens or “saving” those of other nations.

What Klein describes in her essay is a very ugly industry, a worldwide cadre of well-educated professional planners and managers in and out of government and the military “devoted to perpetual pre-emptive deconstruction” now running a “standing office of perpetual pre-emptive reconstruction”:

Gone are the days of waiting for wars to break out and then drawing up ad hoc plans to pick up the pieces. In close cooperation with the National Intelligence Council, [Former US Ambassador the Ukraine Carlos] Pascual’s [Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization in the US State Department] keeps “high risk” countries on a “watch list” and assembles rapid-response teams ready to engage in prewar planning and to “mobilize and deploy quickly” after a conflict has gone down. The teams are made up of private companies, nongovernmental organizations and members of think tanks — some, Pascual told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in October, will have “pre-completed” contracts to rebuild countries that are not yet broken. Doing this paperwork in advance could “cut off three to six months in your response time.”

How marvelously and brutally efficient! Pre-completed reconstruction contracts to “rebuild” societies that are not yet broken but could be by either natural disaster or the mere whim of the President of the United States!

The stated goal, the one that keeps so many of the young and wide-eyed employed, Klein explains, is to rebuild the world on the basis of ideology, to treat these broken places as blank slates that ideologues can reshape on the basis of their theories of both how the world works and how the world ought to work, to replace “the terrible barrenness” with “the most perfect, beautiful plans.”

"Few ideologues can resist the allure of a blank-slate — that was colonialism’s seductive promise: ‘discovering’ wide-open new lands where utopia seemed possible," Klein wrote.

Utopia — nowhere. A whole world full of nowhere places in desperate need. Think of the UN’s ham-fisted and badly bungled efforts to manage and guide East Timor’s independence, or NATO’s and the Eeeyew’s collective effort (with a lot of help from various American government agencies and — there’s that icky term again — non-governmental organizations) to manage and pacify Bosnia and Kosovo and convert them into permanent wards of the "international community," whatever that is. And where do we even start with the American mismanagement of Iraq by the ill-trained, fresh-faced doubleplus good-thinkers of the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation imposing their wills and their Thatcherite notions on a prostrate, angry and barely cooperative Iraq?

"Right" or "Left," the utopia is question is always a managed one. The ideologue has no idea how human communities really work, and is convinced that order is the product of rightly guided government, never the other way around. The social democrat desires to build the perfect welfare state of cooperative, state-supervised capitalism where everyone is polite, has health care (paid for by somebody else), feel-good multicultural education and eight weeks of annual vacation. The society in question is going to look something like Germany or Sweden (or Norway, if natural resources are involved), regardless of the history or wealth of the place. The conservative believes no less in a state-managed society, but rather than building a welfare state for individuals, the conservative builds an elaborate welfare state for well-connected (and usually Western) corporations, most of whom end up being the beneficiaries of the "privatization" of state-owned companies as well as an endless stream of contracts to "provide services" and the subject of much beneficial legislation. Furthermore, since none of the riff-raff can ever be trusted to want to or know how to work, go into business, or otherwise earn a living on their own (as people by nature are lazy unless the whip is applied), the state must craft all kinds of laws and regulations to make sure people do what they are supposed to, in order to make sure they can "stand on their own two feet."

But money disappears into deep dark holes, projects stagnate and fail, and the locals (the greatest single hallmark of the welfare state is that those being "helped" are never, ever involved in any of this) tend to end up being "dependent" on outside management. Or the managers make sure they are. And this brings up what may be Klein’s most important point: actual rebuilding is not the goal — control is, control over societies, over their resources, over their industries, over their people. While I am still inclined to see Paul Wolfowitz’s appointment as World Bank prexy as a demotion (for idiocy and incompetence) rather than a promotion, Klein says that the architect of the Pentagon’s oh-so-successful invasion and occupation or Iraq is actually very qualified to run the Bank because he was doing in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 what the World Bank (which already regularly makes 20—25% of its loans to disaster-struck and war-plagued countries) "is already doing in virtually every war-torn and disaster-struck country in the world.”

"Privatization," especially as it is practiced by Western aid agencies and governments when they "help" in the Third World, is not the same thing as creating private property. It’s not even close, and we should never, ever be misled by the language. Near as I can tell, it would be fair to call much of it the international equivalent of using eminent domain to condemn property for "highest, best use," and then hand it over to someone who can generate the most "tax revenue." Klein notes that in the wake of the Sumatra tsunami, the Indonesian government passed laws preventing people from rebuilding their oceanfront homes. People are, instead, being forcibly relocated to military cantonment-like villages inland. "The coast is not being rebuilt as it was — dotted with fishing villages and beaches strewn with handmade nets," Klein writes. "Instead, governments, corporations and foreign donors are teaming up to rebuild it as they would like it to be: the beaches as playgrounds for tourists, the oceans as watery mines for corporate fishing fleets, both services by privatized airports and highways built on borrowed money."

So of course these projects and their managers aren’t involving the locals — the people they supposedly are out to help — in this process. Because the locals are simply in the way of the plan. Those small farmers, fisherman, merchants, traders — real capitalists all, as opposed to the phony capitalism of the businessman with the government contract — are the somewhere that needs to be demolished in order to create the perfect nowhere.

While the pointy-headed, position paper-writing nincompoops of the think tanks and the idiots from the State Department and Pentagon may really believe they are actually accomplishing something with this kind of work, it’s clear that what’s really going on is another example of individuals and businesses in the West — particularly the US — using the political means rather than the economic means to extract, as opposed to create, wealth. Providing disaster aid and “reconstruction” assistance is “a tremendously lucrative industry,” Klein says. And, in that other hallmark of the welfare state, most of the money flows in a near-perfect circle, from Western treasury through Western aid agency/corporation to Western consultant, without ever even touching the people it is allegedly being appropriated for. Klein writes:

It certainly seems that ever-larger portions of the globe are under active reconstruction: being rebuilt by a parallel government made up of a familiar cast of for-profit consulting firms, engineering companies, mega-NGOs, government and UN aid agencies and international financial institutions. … Foreign consultants live high on cost-plus expense accounts and thousand-dollar-a-day salaries, while locals are shut out of much-needed jobs, training and decision-making. Expert “democracy builders” lecture governments on the importance of transparency and “good governance,” yet most contractors and NGOs refuse to open their books to those same governments, let alone give them control over how their aid money is spent.

Accountability for thee, but not for me. That describes our rightly guided, globalized, nowhere-dwelling ruling elite.

Klein doesn’t propose a solution or an alternative. It’s enough to wrap oneself around what I believe is her very sharp and cogent insight. She’s probably saving that for the book. Or perhaps she realizes that the evolving system of global governance responsible for all this waste and misery is so corrupt, evil and entrenched that there isn’t much anyone can do about it right now.

What I do know is that this process is bigger than simply what NATO administrators are doing in Kosovo, the US Agency for International Development (which has essentially become a contract-management operation) is doing in Iraq, and the UN is doing in Haiti and East Timor. Too many Americans, decent people most of them, have come to believe that master and supplicant is the proper relationship for a government and its "citizens." So "disaster capitalism" is about what governments do in our own communities in our own country, too, and not just in faraway places “under our care.” It is little different from what happens when neighborhoods are "redeveloped" or when individuals are robbed of their property and their rights in order to serve some ethereal, non-existent "common good." We too live with "disaster capitalism." Not to the extent that, say, Haitians or Iraqis are. At least not yet.

I don’t believe there’s much we can do about any of this right now. The crisis of moral legitimacy that will eventually topple and destroy Liberal Democratic governance is evolving but a resolution is still some decades away (probably). Until then, the elites who rule us now will continue to confiscate our wealth so they can share the spoils with their friends while attempting to impose their idea of order on the world.

But what we can remember is that government aid is a bad thing all of the time and should never be encouraged, supported or endorsed. To put things in religious terms (which some of you may appreciate and others may not), Caesar is not capable, under any circumstances or in any conditions, of performing an act mercy or an act of charity. And we should never ask Caesar, on our behalf, to do anything we consider merciful or charitable. We abdicate our moral responsibility when we do so. We must remember what government is, the power to compel with impunity, and that it is never charity to compel one person to give to another. It does not matter how rich the person who’s getting their pockets picked is, in either absolute or relative terms, where there is theft — and taxation is theft — there can be no charity. And there can be no mercy.

And as Klein noted, much of the government aid for Sumatra, the hundreds of billions or dollars and euros collected following that obscene bidding and shaming process that had Bush Jong Il announcing a new, higher aid figure every day in order to better someone else’s commitment, has not been spent. Or it has disappeared. To where, only God knows. In addition to being unmerciful, government aid is swill for pigs, not real assistance for those in need.

This is not a call for us to avoid charity or mercy, nor am I telling anyone not to give aid in the event of a disaster near or far away. Where there is a genuine need, for food, shelter or medicine in the immediate aftermath of a disaster or in the midst of conflict, I believe our common humanity (and, yes, our obligation to God) requires us to help. In a world beset by so much suffering, the work of charity and mercy will be never-ending this side of judgment day — but I believe that is why we have been called to do it.

We would hope that others would do the same for us should we need, too.

However, we should only work through voluntary organizations, ones we trust, ones with aims limited to the alleviation of immediate suffering, rather than the implementation of “beautiful plans.” We do the works of mercy with our own hands. We do not work through governments. Or their agents. Or as their agents. Ever.

We also need to know when to get out of the way. Human beings are natural builders of things, growers of food, traders of goods. Trade and industry come naturally to us. We work, if for no other reason than to provide food, a house and clothes for those we love. That may not be Max Weber’s higher calling, but it is enough. Civilizations have been built on the satisfaction of this need. People are also resilient, and most will quickly pick up broken lives and rebuild when given the chance. The desire to work, to do, to produce, to create a normal life is too strong; it has to be, because nature and man can be so cruel. Were we not hardy, we would have wilted and evaporated long ago in the face of nearly incessant misfortune, be it natural or crafted by our own hands.

Men and women do not need to be managed in order to survive and prosper. If there is a bad idea that plagues our civilization, it is this one. Men will work without the threat of the lash at their backs and will fashion their livelihoods with their own hands without someone else cruelly dangling the carrot before their eyes. The Timorese knew how to rebuild their country, but the UN wouldn’t let them. Iraqis could teach most of us a thing or two about trade and commerce, yet arrogant and cruel US Army officers demolish "illegal" businesses, close unlicensed shops and insist that somehow commerce can’t take place unless it has a chamber to first organize it. The coast-dwellers of Sumatra and Sri Lanka could quickly and cheaply rebuild their homes and get back to work fishing and farming, to providing for themselves, but their own government — backed by the weight of the entire world — won’t let them, ostensibly for "their own good."

So many of those former coast dwellers will sit in new "homes" and will be hard-pressed to find or make work. They will fester, government-mandated injustice heaped upon a brutal act of nature. There will be trouble in the future from all this, you just watch.

Finally, we need to remember that most human beings want to live somewhere — a town, a village, a great big city of districts and neighborhoods, all bustling with chaotic life. Few people I have ever met, not even paper-writing, computer-tapping, overeducated planners, want to live nowhere. No matter how beautiful.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.