Monday, June 23, 2008

Bugatti, development, and souls

Writing in the New York Times magazine the philosopher Peter Singer once queried, “In the end, what is the ethical distinction between a Brazilian who sells a homeless child to organ peddlers and an American who already has a TV and upgrades to a better one —knowing that the money could be donated to an organization that would use it to save the lives of kids in need?” He based his analysis on the famous example of Peter Unger in Living High and Letting Die. Unger lays out an example where a man’s prized possession, an invaluable Bugatti car, and a child lie on opposite tracks. A runaway train is heading towards the child and about to kill it. The man can easily divert the track by flicking a switch, but by doing so, he would destroy his car. He chooses to let the train continue on its course. The child dies.

Most of us would view this as gravely wrong. It invokes individual horrors like the Kitty Genovese case, where people watched a woman being brutally raped and murdered and did nothing to help; it brings up images of the Clinton administration passively allowing genocide in Rwanda to unfold; and it invokes theological speculation on the divine bystander in the heavens. If we have the power to act, to stop evil, to end or alleviate the suffering around us, we have an obligation to do so. As the Holocaust Museum in DC reminds us, "Thou shalt not be a victim. Thou shalt not be perpetrator. Above all, thou shalt not be a bystander."

Unger and Singer use this example to cast a penetrating light to the indifference of our day-to-day lives: how time and again we stand idly by while children die of preventable diseases, how we linger as woman are gang-raped in Darfur. People starve while we gorge on fancy meals in New York and Paris. We take expensive vacations that could finance the education of hundreds of kids and provide thousands with 6-cent treatments that could save the lives of children from diarrhea.

But as a development worker in Sierra Leone, you also realize how imperfect this analogy is. Aid is often ineffective and even harmful. In south Sudan and Rwanda (especially in the refugee camps in Goma, Zaire), aid was manipulated by rebels and genocidiares to consolidate their position and continue to carry out massacres. Even something as supposedly non-political as food aid is, as Laurie Garrett notes, often harmful since it’s purchased in-kind (in the US or Europe for instance) rather than locally and requires massive transport costs. These in-kind food donations can undermine local markets, drive up prices through higher fuel costs, and create a costly dependency in communities – all in the name of aid. The presence of NGOs and UN agencies also has a distorting effect on local economies: increased demand from Western workers raises the price of certain commodities and basic goods, the middle class is drained because the best and brightest are hired into international development and relief organizations. And in general, as the former World Bank economist William Easterly comments, the West hasn’t been particularly stingy in aid (even with the lamentations of Bono and Jeff Sachs on the West missing the 0.7% of GDP target for foreign aid). The real question is why the $2.3 trillion given to Africa hasn’t shown more results in terms of improving living standards and promoting development. If we’re doing so much good, why aren’t things getting much better?

Merely pumping more money into the system might not be the correct response. For someone sitting in New York, the choice is rarely as clear cut as eating dinner at a fancy restaurant or saving a life. After all, even the calculation of programmatic expenses for NGOs and UN agencies is rarely properly understood. A substantial proportion of programmatic expenses are allocated to over-paid consultants (primarily in the EU and UN), and due to the reporting system, many NGOs and UN agencies “burn money” on large unnecessary (and harmful) construction projects so they can request more money from donors.

While I’m all for aid and I believe Singer and Unger’s analogy holds some important moral lessons, reality is not nearly so clear cut… Or at least not for everyone. Their moral argument does hold for some people though: the development workers such as myself.

For those of us who’ve chosen this life, we aren’t hundreds or thousands of miles away from the people in need; the children dying of hunger or preventable diseases aren't separated by layers of bureaucracy, inefficiency, corruption and outright incompetence. They're right next door; they're in the slums of Kroo Bay and Susan's Bay. They're asking for food and begging for money. They're the amputees you see every day, and the street children covered in dirt and flies. In Sierra Leone, when we purchase fancy meals from the splendid views of Country Lodge or the cool confines of Mamba point, the children needing help are just outside.

People like me find ourselves the ones most open to condemnation by Singer and Unger's analysis. For every night in a place like Sierra Leone, we spend relative fortunes on our housing, on our food, and children nearby go hungry, hidden in darkened hills of a pre-electricity age, sheltered by broken down and rusty metal rooftops, walking in streams of waste cutting and curving around the rolling hills of Freetown. We face the choice most days and make the choice to turn away, telling ourselves we need that comfort. And maybe we do. And maybe as good utilitarians offering ourselves this comfort, this escape will ultimately help more people.

But I also wonder about the choice to be here, the choice to be confronted so starkly with Singer’s pop quiz on a daily basis and knowing that you will fail this test repeatedly… perhaps the real sacrifice is not the material comforts of New York, but a sacrifice of one’s soul. Because we – more than most – are faced most starkly with daily tests of our own humanity, tests our humanity has demanded we expose ourselves to, and tests we fail time and again.

I have wondered about this many times. Maybe I should feel like a better person being here. But I feel dirtier than normal, like being here reminds me how dirty my hands are, or maybe being here makes my hands dirty, because I become the one turning away from the child right before me.

Perhaps the real question then, is whether I love humanity enough to be willing to sacrifice a part of my own.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post, thanks for sharing this. You are right, I agree:

"Perhaps the real question then, is whether I love humanity enough to be willing to sacrifice a part of my own."