Comparing Afghan Apples With Vietnamese Oranges, or Why There Is No Solution For Afghanistan

Once upon a time, not too long ago, there would have been a solution for Afghanistan, one that had a realistic chance of success. “Success” would have meant a stabilization of the modest gains made during the first three of the post-war years (2002-2004), and the “solution” would have looked roughly as follows: a highly focused international agenda for development that takes local preferences seriously and prioritizes micro-level economic recovery and public health interventions over laudable but utterly unrealistic “all-in-one” notions of human development, ignorant of inherent tensions between traditional and modern constituencies; basic democratization from below (Roland Paris was right yet even more emphasis needs to be put on the local dimension); and a pragmatic regional strategy of political accommodation of all radical stakeholders, not just those in the Northern Alliance, both within the country and around its borders.

But in a tragic parallel to the botched interventions in Iraq and East Timor, a tiny piece of newly independent soil misunderstood and misgoverned by the United Nations following the aftermath of its secession from Indonesia, it came otherwise. Under pressure to show results of hurried efforts, the development industry kept complicitly silent when Afghanistan, too, was declared a success story early on. “Afghan women shed their burqas” was one among thousands of captions epitomizing the hope of international observers for the country. The acute crisis in Iraq overshadowed a looming crisis in Afghanistan and zapped away critical resources, glossing over “increasing frustration and anger from a population which once saw the international intervention in Afghanistan as a source of hope.” Today, even those few female members of the Afghan Lower House who had been declared role models and examples of a new Afghanistan advocate for a complete and immediate withdrawal of U.S. military forces.

Too late did international strongmen stationed in Kabul realize that the discussion of whether or not the Taliban should be brought into the realm of a political settlement was a smokescreen behind which the sitting Afghan president was crafting his very own patronage politics. Today, “there is no solution for Afghanistan without a solution for Pakistan,” writes Robert Kaplan (hardly the reincarnation of a dove) in The Atlantic. “There is no solution for Afghanistan without Iran,” adds an EU think tank. All the while, Afghans keep dying, and with them an increasing number of foreign soldiers.

In the wake of President Obama’s much-awaited decision to further increase the presence of U.S. troops in the country, we are being assured that Afghanistan is not the new Vietnam [one is tempted to add that in the long run, this would almost amount to a positive scenario]. “Unlike Vietnam, we are joined by a broad coalition of 43 nations that recognizes the legitimacy of our action,” the President points out. “Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency. And most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan, and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border.” Clearly no one envies Obama’s position, inherited from an incompetent and unwilling previous administration. But his audacity of hope for Afghanistan is tragically misguided.

What matters much more than similarities or differences between the old and new Vietnam scenarios is the West’s overconfidence in the power of policies, which in turn is conditioned on the creation and maintenance of a military ‘safe zone’ for development. This approach of militarily enforced human progress already failed once, just that the United States in that case happened to support stasis against change. Indeed, to suggest that Afghanistan has followed a historical path distinct from Vietnam’s ignores that not even thirty years ago, modernism and socialism in Afghan politics were one and the same. City-based leftist progressive parties were pitted against rural conservative interests which received heavy backing by the Reagan administration, carving out faultlines of conflict that underpin today’s radicalized landscape. The failure of the Afghan communist experiment did not mean the triumph of pseudo-democratic capitalism but the victory of revisionism.

The international mission in Afghanistan will not fail because of a lack of a broad coalition. It will fail, and in the course of its failure many more will fall, because external forces and the international development industry’s policy machinery are too far removed from the history and reality of Afghan lives.  To Afghans in Khost, Kunduz and Kandahar, the fact that “the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan” must sound cynical at best. In the short run, it may well serve to justify sending even more troops. But Afghanistan’s domestic problems, created and exacerbated by the international “community” prior, during and after the reign of the Taliban, will outlast any officially declared deadline for peace.


An End to Development? The Appointment of Dirk Niebel as BMZ Liquidator

Scarcity facilitates choice. But finding senior politicians who are qualified for high-ranking federal posts can be a headache nonetheless. Germany’s political establishment, not precisely littered with luminaries in the field of International Development, has yet to rival France’s courage to appoint Medecins Sans Frontieres founder Bernard Kouchner as Foreign Minister. While deserving credit for pushing the gender agenda and raising the profile of health-related constraints, former German Development Secretary Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul was also infamous for her resistance to engage with technical matters and her habit of throwing office supplies at non-compliant staff. So the recent change of government in Germany did not only promise new faces; there was modest hope for a fresh approach infused with real expertise.

This hope, it has now turned out, was naive. The Liberal Party (FDP), emboldened by its historic success at the polls, has managed to snatch not only the Ministry of Health (the new incumbent is a 36-year old medical doctor and former enlisted officer in the Bundeswehr) and the Foreign Office. It also sends the new leader of the Bundesministerium fuer wirtschaftliche Zusammenarbeit und Entwicklung (BMZ) into the coalition government. His name is Dirk Niebel. And that’s about all that development practitioners know about him.

In the past, Niebel distinguished himself mostly as a fervent critic of Germany’s administrative system for managing unemployment benefits. Hitting a central nerve of those advocating for social safety nets and the social embeddedness of capitalist enterprise in the Rheinische tradition, Niebel laments the “unemployment industry” (“Arbeitslosenindustrie”) and propagates a libertarian agenda. His website contains several posts about employment policies (the most prominent being to dissolve the German Employment Agency) but is completely silent on any issues related to human development abroad. During his campaign, Niebel did mention the BMZ occasionally – and advocated its liquidation.

FDP leader Guido Westerwelle’s justification of Niebel’s appointment did little to dispel substantive doubts. Germany’s new Foreign Secretary responded to journalists’ befuddlement by pointing out that he wanted to end the situation in which the BMZ was practicing an “alternative foreign policy.” The BMZ’s previous insistence on human rights as an unalienable item on Germany’s economic cooperation agenda in times of global competition is thus likely a thing of the past. Ministerial solo attempts such as Wieczorek-Zeul’s reception of the Dalai Lama despite protests by trade lobbyists and right-wing politicians will give way to a hierarchical model led by trade, not aid.

With neoliberalism back in the German driver’s seat, its gaze set firmly on the marvels of market-led economic growth, the FDP’s apparent objective of paralyzing and demoting–and eventually dissolving–the BMZ is a logical conclusion. Where bureaucracy is considered the enemy and ‘free’ trade the solution, calling in the liquidator makes sense. The next four years will show whether the process is marked by agony or silent death.

Afghanistan Commentary on Swedish Radio

For the Swedish speakers among you, check out Marcus Hansson’s 20-minute feature on Afghanistan’s botched reconstruction, broadcast on September 2, 2009 on Swedish Radio 1.

It includes interviews with several international observers. For instance, Antonio Donini at the Fletcher School comments on the aid industry and the discrepancy between its global mobility and its lack of effectiveness.

In my contribution (16min 52sec – 18min 08sec), I focus on the local dimension, highlighting how supposedly ‘bottom up’ processes of ‘local empowerment’ were in reality almost entirely driven by donors.

Racial Discrimination at the World Bank: New GAP Report

Last week, the Government Accountability Project (GAP) released a report that investigates and finds evidence of racial discrimination against black professional grade employees at the World Bank. The report, which documents the treatment of these employees in recruitment, retention and internal judicial decisions, finds that a race ceiling exists at the institution, and that the Bank’s legal system fails to address racial discrimination adequately.

Specifically, the report details that of over 3,500 professional grade World Bank staff worldwide (more than 1,000 of whom are US Americans), there are only four black US Americans. In addition, the report details how other black bank staff, such as black Caribbean nationals and black African employees, are also underrepresented.

Download the full report here. With thanks to Barika Williams at MIT for sharing.

The Astronomy of Aid: Stars and Starlets in International Development

All universes have their stars. It is therefore not surprising that International Development, as its own little universe, has produced both stars and starlets.

In the following, I classify and characterize some of the most prominent and luminous celestial bodies. They can be seen almost every day and night in the sky projected onto us by global media, and many of them have become experts in using this space to shower us with their radiation, whether we like it or not.

Old Stars (some burnt out, but many still shining)

We all know their names. This does not mean that we have actually read their books (although we tend to cite them regularly). They have clustered in different spheres of the universe and thus formed its cornerstones. They have been where many of us will never go. We owe them for their discoveries as well as their failures.

Solar Systems (created to produce light, but often only glimmering)

Commonly institutionalized, they are constellations of stars and other matter. They determine the orbits of Starlets. It is common for them to form cosmic alliances with Very Bright Stars for mutual increases in universal legitimacy.

Very Bright Stars (bathing in their own radiance)

They were born as small stars but, through both celestial coincidence and deliberate repositioning in Solar Systems, have ascended into the center of the universe. They are, so they claim, deeply committed to increasing its overall lumen, ideally however as a result of their own light. They do not tolerate any stars that shine in a different spectrum and oscillate frantically if another star dares to throw a partial shade on their shiny surface. They are known for shortening other rising stars’ lifespans, sometimes through Solar-Systemic interventions. They are also the most important creators of supernovas, although Very Bright Stars only claim credit for the light and not for the subsequent explosion.

Transuniversal Stars (born in other universes)

Often born in universes of lighter matter, they already were stars before entering ours. They did not force themselves into it; many of them were pulled in by Very Bright Stars. They usually don’t really understand which spectrum of light is shone upon them, let alone which kind of light they themselves should emit. They are just happy to be part of the whole thing and to increase their overall radiance. Some of them even like it so much that they adopt little bits of Star Dust from the darker parts of the universe.

Battle Stars (solid matter, but often outshone)

They are the true stars, and they know it. The galactic problem is that they are regularly outshone by Very Bright Stars, although the latter are made of much lighter matter. In response, Battle Stars send out occasional rays of brilliant light, powerful enough to damage Brighter Stars’ surface substantially. Everyone in the universe lucky enough to notice this radiation cherishes these truly inspirational moments.  But life is not fair, and neither is the universe; solar systems as inert constructs don’t switch central stars lightly.

Starlets of Emission (always on mission)

They make up a sizable group of celestial bodies in the universe of International Development. They travel great distances but almost always orbit within one of the major Solar Systems. Their allegiance causes habitual alliances with some of the Very Bright Stars, although few Starlets actually understand this spectrum of light. They simply enjoy the resplendence, also because it makes them look brighter as well. On their journeys, Starlets emit a lot of rays onto Star Dust, the vast majority of which deflagrate prior to impact.

Starlets of All Trades (try to shine in no matter what matter)

Somewhat overlapping with Starlets of Emission, Starlets of All Trades are true chameleons. No matter what corner of the universe they are being sent to, they will always try to shower light. Never mind they’ve never been there before and never heard anything about the idiosyncrasies of Star Dust specific to a particular section of the universe – they are relentlessly propagating the vision of a brighter universe, whether they believe in it or not.

Falling Stars (make a wish!)

Some of them used to be Star Dust, others Starlets of Emission. In either case, their visibility is short-lived. More by chance than planning, they stumble upon a trajectory that one other star has traveled on before (or at least no one seems to remember), and then they focus all their energy on shining for a brief moment of fame. Many of them understand that their radiance is enhanced further if they rise and fall in the vicinity of one of the Very Bright Stars, although the latter tend to accelerate their death out of fear that too much attention could be attracted by these momentary phenomena.

Star Dust (mostly invisible)

They are everywhere, but no one sees them. They are the ones who should be shone upon by the light emitted by all stars, large and small. Yet in the orbits and constellations of universal politics, they have little to no influence on trajectories and clusters. A few of them manage to shine for a moment (as Falling Stars), but usually it is their patience and their unwavering will to survive that makes them hang in there. Without them, though, there would be no universe.

… and, of course, Black Holes (where did all the aid go?)

They are immersed in Star Dust, but no one knows where exactly they are located. However, cursory evidence points to a mutual attraction between them and Very Bright Stars and Solar Systems.

Development as Fiction: The Failure of the MDGs

David Lewis, Dennis Rodgers and Michael Woolcock have recently proposed that works of fiction may be just as valid and useful sources of knowledge than official reports and academic papers: “Not only are certain works of fiction ‘better’ than academic or policy research in representing central issues relating to development, but they also frequently reach a wider audience and are therefore more influential.” This proposition is noteworthy, for several reasons.

Michael Woolcock used to hold a senior position in the World Bank’s Research Department. The Bank is probably the last major development agency where one would expect researchers to devote their attention to War and Peace or A Fine Balance rather than presumably ‘objective’ statistical data sets. That a former senior staff member is furthering a much wider epistemological notion of development indicates that the narrow claims of ‘objective truths’ that have dominated policy-making during most of the past decades are being challenged at last. It almost makes one reminisce about the events following Joe Stiglitz’s departure from the Bank…

Reaching out to authors of fictional works also offers an important opportunity to include alternative representations of truth, fabricated in the so-called ‘recipient countries’. Lamentations in the northern hemisphere about the ‘limited capacity’ for serious social science research in developing regions – whether justified or overstated – are thus met with accounts of hardship and progress that are conceived outside of the umbrella of well-meaning northern agencies’ data collection drives.

Most acute however, the notion of development as fiction is an eye-opener for how the development industry itself produces works of fiction. Yet in contrast to the works discussed by Lewis and colleagues, this type of fabled story-telling cannot be expected to do the global development enterprise any good: I am talking about the Millennium Development Goals.

“Let’s face it – it’s over,” baits Bill Easterly amid the launch of the most recent MDG “progress” report. Most targets won’t be met by the Goals’ own deadline of 2015. Indeed, the MDGs were doomed to fail.  Their reliance on smallest common denominators, their eclipse of far more contentious employment and labor issues, the frantic yet ill-conceived ‘localization agenda’ and the almost religious reluctance among its major organizational proponents to engage in realistic political analyses lie at the heart of this failure.

Tragically then, Jeff Barnes gets it right when he comments that rather than embarking on serious rethinking, the UN and the army of smaller organizations that hinge on the MDG bloodline are unlikely to reconsider what they’ve been doing (wrong). Much rather, more millions will be spent to generate renewed momentum to the global workshop trail, multi-stakeholder conferences and glossy handouts perpetuating the derisory depiction of socioeconomic development as a win-win scenario.

The creation of development-related fiction thus enters a new stage as the spaces of production and reception of fictitious accounts have been reversed. As much as we are fortunate to welcome fiction into the realm of valid knowledge, we must remain alert to detect and disclose the kind of fiction that originates in the offices of those too invested in the current aid architecture to admit its failure.

Afghanistan: A Victory for Women – A Defeat of Democracy?

The Afghan Ministry of Justice has presented a revised version of a new law regulating marital affairs for the country’s Shi’ite minority. Many of its previous medieval provisions have been scrapped. No longer does it prescribe the frequency of sexual activity that Shi’ite women in Afghanistan would have had to observe, thus practically legalizing domestic rape; no longer does it allow men to prevent their wives from leaving the compounds where they live.

This is great news for Afghanistan’s Shi’ite women and for women living under repression, religious or otherwise, more generally. But the process also provides reason for concern.

US-installed Afghan President Karzai had in fact quietly signed the earlier version of the law, apparently hoping that it would win him the support of Shi’ite voters in the forthcoming presidential election in September. With women formally allowed to vote, Karzai did not seem overly concerned that while some Shi’ite men might have found their extended rights to subdue their wives appealing, most Shi’ite women might have retaliated by voting for other candidates.

In fact, at least in theory one could have expected a zero effect of this political move: male votes in favor canceled out by female votes against. This, of course, presumes that Afghan women vote in accordance with their preferences. More realistically, the President’s decision points to the continuing precarity of women in Afghanistan. Most of them illiterate, we must assume that a large percentage follows the political choices of their husbands. The photos depicting Afghan women ridding themselves of their burqas following the US-led invasion may not have been staged; yet they clearly do not represent the dire existence of most women who survived almost three decades of large-scale violence.

Of equal concern is the political dimension of this legislative revision. According to the BBC, Afghan “Justice Minister Sarwar Danesh said the changes had been made following complaints by human-rights groups.” The truth is that is was the international ‘community’ that reacted with outrage to the content of the initial version. US President Obama expressed deep concerns; NATO threatened with serious consequences, and numerous European heads of state intervened personally to prevent the law’s ratification and application.

This political pressure was surely justified on human rights-grounds. At the same time, it has added momentum to the widely held perception among Afghans that democracy is a system of government that opens the door for values and rules alien to what local traditions dictate. One might argue that in times of globalization, global norms and values must inform national laws and codes. Yet the Afghan President’s initial support of the repressive law as well as the angry demonstrations of conservative Shi’ites following the international protest seem to indicate that friction is unavoidable. In this case, Afghanistan’s dependence on international aid clearly overpowered local political deliberation. Put simply, the internationally induced revision of the law is a prime example of external social reengineering against the backdrop of a shallow democracy.

A new law governing family affairs for the Afghanistan’s Sunni majority is also in the making. It will be instructive to observe whose political motives and social values will prevail this time: Afghan or foreign.

The Divine End of Demonic Neoliberalism

“Charity in truth is a force that builds community.”

The Pope has spoken. His latest Encyclical Letter ‘Caritas in Veritate‘ (“of the Supreme Pontiff Benedict XVI to the Bishops, Priests and Deacons, Men and Women Religious, the Lay Faithful, and All People of Good Will on Integral Human Development in Charity and Truth”) is a scorching tally of the type of

economic growth [that] has been and continues to be weighed down by malfunctions and dramatic problems, highlighted even further by the current crisis [and embodied in the] technical forces in play, the global interrelations, the damaging effects on the real economy of badly managed and largely speculative financial dealing, large-scale migration of peoples [and] excessive zeal for protecting knowledge through an unduly rigid assertion of the right to intellectual property, especially in the field of health care (paras. 21, 22).

The Letter does not stop there; it also offers far-reaching advice on how global as well as local structures of competition and cooperation need to be adjusted so that “distributive justice and social justice for the market economy” (para. 35) are guaranteed and human development everywhere becomes a real possibility.

It is in the interests of the market to promote emancipation, but in order to do so effectively, it cannot rely only on itself, because it is not able to produce by itself something that lies outside its competence. It must draw its moral energies from other subjects that are capable of generating them (ibid.).

The exclusively binary model of market-plus-state is corrosive of society, while economic forms based on solidarity, which find their natural home in civil society without being restricted to it, build up society. Today’s international economic scene, marked by grave deviations and failures, requires a profoundly new way of understanding business enterprise […] (paras. 39, 40).

Thus acknowledging limitations as well as failures of both markets and state entities amid the dynamics of economic globalization (para. 24), the Letter’s central proposition is a resounding call to strengthen social fabrics and protecting such micro-level initiatives through a fundamental “reform of the United Nations Organization, and likewise of economic institutions and international finance, so that the concept of the family of nations can acquire real teeth.” (para. 67)

Progressive Catholics usually hold their breadth when the Vatican issues a new statement of worldly affairs. Too often since the Second Vatican Council has it defended positions on matters as personal as birth control, marriage or sexual orientation that seem anachronistic at best. Aid workers in the reproductive health field have rightly pointed fingers at the Catholic doctrine, which stands in sharp contradiction with the realities on the ground. Even where some of its demands, such as the rejection of condom use as a means to prevent the spread of HIV, are in fact partially supported by empirical evidence, the crudeness of Papal language and content has often served to alienate rather than unite.

Yet this most recent manifesto is made of different stuff, at least where it sketches its philosophical foundation for human development. It is based on the simple yet powerful argument that social networks are not held together by markets.  Markets can maximize efficiency, but they cannot maximize societal coherence. What is needed for the latter is truthful charity or, put differently, a conception of society that rests on social rather than economic ideals.

This is an important distinction. There can be no doubt that almost all human societies nowadays are constructed around the primacy of economic production. But this orientation must not be confounded with an idealization of capitalism, epitomized in the economic frenzies of the recent past. “The conviction that man is self-sufficient and can successfully eliminate the evil present in history by his own action alone has led him to confuse happiness and salvation with immanent forms of material prosperity and social action.” (para. 34) On the contrary, it is the social sphere that needs to govern the economic: “The dignity of the individual and the demands of justice require, particularly today, that economic choices do not cause disparities in wealth to increase in an excessive and morally unacceptable manner.” (para. 32)

What is missing, in other words, is a network of economic institutions capable of guaranteeing regular access to sufficient food and water for nutritional needs, and also capable of addressing the primary needs and necessities ensuing from genuine food crises, whether due to natural causes or political irresponsibility, nationally and internationally (para. 27).

Development-related ‘charity’ needs to be mindful of the rules and limitations set by the overarching momentum of globalized economic exchanges and work with them rather than against them (cf. paras. 42, 66). At the same time, this explicitly includes a partial redefinition of institutional frameworks: “The current crisis obliges us to re-plan our journey, to set ourselves new rules and to discover new forms of commitment, to build on positive experiences and to reject negative ones.” (para. 21) This is not a task for developing countries alone. “International aid has often been diverted from its proper ends, through irresponsible actions both within the chain of donors and within that of the beneficiaries” (para. 22), and “international organizations might question the actual effectiveness of their bureaucratic and administrative machinery, which is often excessively costly.” (para. 47) Reform is therefore necessary among all actors (cf. para. 27).

Moreover, “[t]he earthly city is promoted not merely by relationships of rights and duties, but to an even greater and more fundamental extent by relationships of gratuitousness, mercy and communion.” (para. 6) A notion of rights-based justice alone is therefore insufficient to create and strengthen social fabrics (cf. para. 43). This renders recent shifts in development policy towards a rights-based agenda which has tended to overemphasize economic rights (and, in the case of UNDP, even added institutionally elusive ‘business rights’) while downplaying the centrality of social rights questionable. In the same vein, charity is not the safety net for economic neoliberalism, and human development is not a coy answer to stagnating economic growth. On the contrary, ‘charity in truth’ is a morally justified paradigm that needs to shape economic transactions rather than being determined by them.

Efforts are needed — and it is essential to say this — not only to create “ethical” sectors or segments of the economy or the world of finance, but to ensure that the whole economy — the whole of finance — is ethical, not merely by virtue of an external label, but by its respect for requirements intrinsic to its very nature (para. 45).

Another important consideration is the common good. […] The more we strive to secure a common good corresponding to the real needs of our neighbors, the more effectively we love them. Every Christian is called to practice this charity, in a manner corresponding to his vocation and according to the degree of influence he wields in the pólis. This is the institutional path — we might also call it the political path — of charity, no less excellent and effective than the kind of charity which encounters the neighbor directly, outside the institutional mediation of the pólis (para. 7).

Based on such moral grounding, the activity of human development is thus inherently political: “As well as cultivating differentiated forms of business activity on the global plane, we must also promote a dispersed political authority, effective on different levels.” (para. 41) The apolitical depiction of ‘charity’ during the past decade, furthered by imperfect organizational mandates, powerful vested interests and toothless public figureheads is futile. Practicing charity means engaging in politics, whether micro- or macro-politics, in order to Pope Paul IV’s postulation to further “the consolidation of democratic regimes capable of ensuring freedom and peace.” (para. 21)

Economic life undoubtedly requires contracts, in order to regulate relations of exchange between goods of equivalent value. But it also needs just laws and forms of redistribution governed by politics, and what is more, it needs works redolent of the spirit of gift. The economy in the global era seems to privilege the former logic, that of contractual exchange, but directly or indirectly it also demonstrates its need for the other two: political logic, and the logic of the unconditional gift (para. 37).

Idealizing technical progress, or contemplating the utopia of a return to humanity’s original natural state, are two contrasting ways of detaching progress from its moral evaluation and hence from our responsibility. […] The Church had good reason to be concerned about the capacity of a purely technological society to set realistic goals and to make good use of the instruments at its disposal. Profit is useful if it serves as a means towards an end that provides a sense both of how to produce it and how to make good use of it. Once profit becomes the exclusive goal, if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty (paras. 14, 21).

This rejection of profit as the ultimate objective of human societies is precisely a reiteration of the conceptualization of human development as a broader agenda. Rather bizarre, the latter has co-evolved with an increasingly boundless type of global capitalism, and its conceptual teeth have proven blunt amid the force of profit. It has been a feel-good doctrine that, much like the anthroposophical approaches that have gained prominence in post-industrial societies, has managed to mobilize a global following which has endorsed its rosy vision in the most uncritical fashion conceivable.

The reality is different. The task of global governance is deeply political, and this begins at the lowest levels of society. “Globalization certainly requires authority, insofar as it poses the problem of a global common good that needs to be pursued. This authority, however, must be organized in a subsidiary and stratified way […].” (para. 57) This, then, is the truly progressive proposition put forward by Caritas in Veritate: even though all politics is local, it is the communal nature of humanity that can enable global change.

Such praise is not intended to absolve the Church as an organization. Spanning from the suppression of Jesuit colonies to the revocation of Liberation Theology across Latin America, its role in human development has been ambivalent, to say the least. This history reminds us that the Church, too, can err – just as any other human-governed institution (I recognize that this is a decidedly agnostic proposition).

Nevertheless, that Benedict XVI is now repositioning the social sphere as the core component of human development, defined in his Letter as “rescuing peoples, first and foremost, from hunger, deprivation, endemic diseases and illiteracy” (para. 21) is an important step amid the global crisis of capitalism (see also Abbott 2008). That he does so by emphasizing the political nature of necessary reforms is an even more welcome message. It is indeed the political nature of human development that links production and consumption at one place, in one country, with economic and social structures elsewhere, in both theory and practice. To deny this means to obfuscate the global mechanism of power. To embrace it means to open the door to a new, more genuinely social conception of human progress.

Becoming a Diplomat: A Choice Unbecoming of a Critical Mind?

I recently gave a keynote speech at a high school in the Bronx, NY for which I had been asked to offer some reflections on the career choice of becoming a diplomat. Note that becoming a diplomat was in fact one of my professional aspirations. Upon joining the UN however, I found the reality of bureaucratic routine rather sobering. I am sketching some of the systemic reasons below. Ultimately [years down the road, that is] these soundbites are supposed to feed into a book-length manuscript on organizational theory in international affairs, using the UN as a rich case study. Therefore, comments are not only welcome (as usual) but strongly encouraged.

One of the most striking inherent contradictions of the profession of diplomacy as I came to see it is that it tends to attract the brightest young people [I exclude myself here] who then volunteer to become muted and streamlined into ideologies and goals they rarely admired in the first place. International diplomacy in general and multilateral diplomacy in colorful conferences in particular tends to attract idealists, even though realists fare much better in the windowless world of meeting rooms, dispatches, and backroom deals.

At the same time, bureaucracies require specialization to manage complexity; this is in fact one of their defining features. Yet most international diplomats are decidedly generalist, and new recruits are screened accordingly. This mismatch lies at the core of what could be called a system of ‘meritocratic mediocrity’.  Diplomats are chosen for breadth, not depth, and therefore rarely understand local contexts well enough to justify their agenda-setting role in international politics.

Moreover, the context in which conventional diplomacy is taking place renders it highly anachronistic. Global diplomacy is firmly dependent on upward accountability (see also the ‘Independent Diplomat‘ by Carne Ross). Reports, memos, case scenarios are sent ‘up’ for decision-making, not down, even though most stakeholders are located ‘down here’. The core problem is thus the definition of stakeholder. When the UN holds its umpteenth global conference, genuinely poor people are flown in to represent ‘the poor’ everywhere. The Voices of the Poor are collected in massive primary research exercises. But decision-making power is rarely shared. Participation is, in reality, consultation at best. So how can diplomacy play a positive role for change if it merely listens on occasion?

In sum, becoming a diplomat today is probably best compared to being ordained as a priest: preaching values that are widely shared but regularly broken; defending positions that are strategically compelling but increasingly seldom in tune with ordinary lives; and bathing in public respect and recognition while coping with personal realities of seduction and sin. The key difference is that one profession serves the divine; the other serves the profane. Surely there are alternative ways, and professions, to do more good in this world.

‘Let me tell you what to think’: Discourse and the Limits of Democracy

The German pollster agency TNS Emnid recently broke the news that the majority (57%) of East German respondents among the total 1,208 Germans in all 16 federal states asked about their views of the bygone German Democratic Republic (GDR) agreed with the statement that the GDR ‘had more positive than negative aspects’ and that although ‘there were some problems, one could live there rather well.’

8% of East Germans even agreed that ‘the GDR had predominantly positive aspects’ and that ‘one lived a happier and better life there than in reunified Germany.’ Thus almost two thirds of East Germans polled for this survey indicated mildly or strongly favorable views of what in official political language is commonly termed the ‘Unrechtsstaat’ (State of Injustice).

The reaction followed promptly. This “misty-eyed view” among East Germans of the GDR had to be countered with more effective public education and awareness campaigns, a member of the German federal cabinet argued, agreeing with a state-level minister who posited that the results demonstrated an “emotional anti-position to the present.”

This outrage at yet another indicator of a strong ‘Ostalgie‘ (nostalgia for the East) may not be surprising to those who have been following the persistent social and economic divisions between the ‘new’ and the ‘old Laender’. Yet to me it came as a strange reminder of a series of assertions that another prominent regime change was, in fact, justified.

Think Iraq. Former Foreign Secretary Rice is notorious for defending the second US-led invasion. Former President Bush never moved an inch from this position either. His deputy even bothered to air his unrelenting view of the matter after the administration that he co-led had already imploded amid the weight of botched political decision-making.

Another telling example of a discourse designed to mute alternative views comes straight from the European Union. Here, a machinery of well-heeled bureaucrats in Brussels promotes a vision of an intertwined and de-facto united Europe – never mind persistent public skepticism against a European Constitution in important EU member states such as France or The Netherlands. Fearing similar public rejection, German politicians cowardly opted for a closed parliamentary process rather than a referendum.

Why is it that in democratic systems, which supposedly encourage public participation and rule of a consensual majority, politicians see a need to claim sovereignty over interpretive airspace? Why do we so easily replace the complexities of individual realities and experiences with a monochromatic message of good or bad?

I have three preliminary thoughts to offer on this observation. While not answers to the questions posed above, they help me recognize the relevance of such discursive discrepancies for international politics more broadly.

First, I believe that they are strongly indicative of a class conflict that many have thought to be a thing of the past. Be it the economically excluded in East Germany, the target(ed) population in Iraq or those with a strong sense of national self-defense amid the recent history of European warfare, they are pitted against the more affluent movers and shakers of the global political economy.

We are also witnessing a case of media schizophrenia which is central to the processes of opinion formation in modern societies. The potential to discover and report complex realities clashes with an increasing demand for–and, as a result, supply of–simple ‘truths’.  And finally, the development of such simple mechanisms as an inherent feature of our so-called ‘modern’ democracies does not bode well for the agenda of democracy promotion in areas of the world where, as we often choose to portray it, the public is excluded from policy-making. Far from it: the challenge posed by discursive hegemonies is as real right here as it may be ‘over there’.