Reconciling “Intrusive Paternalism” and “Soft Power”
Andy Dayton, associate web producer
“This is not a natural disaster story. This is a poverty story.”
Last Friday, Krista sent around David Brooks’ recent editorial on the disaster in Haiti. As the quote above suggests, he discusses the connection between the scale of damage in Haiti and the nation’s “poorly constructed buildings, bad infrastructure and terrible public services.”
One of the many questions the situation in Haiti raises is how those in wealthier nations can help prevent this sort of catastrophe in the future. Brooks provides his own diagnosis on effective foreign aid, based on a few domestic examples:
In [the U.S.], we first tried to tackle poverty by throwing money at it, just as we did abroad. Then we tried microcommunity efforts, just as we did abroad. But the programs that really work involve intrusive paternalism.
These programs, like the Harlem Children’s Zone and the No Excuses schools, are led by people who figure they don’t understand all the factors that have contributed to poverty, but they don’t care. They are going to replace parts of the local culture with a highly demanding, highly intensive culture of achievement — involving everything from new child-rearing practices to stricter schools to better job performance.It’s time to take that approach abroad, too. It’s time to find self-confident local leaders who will create No Excuses countercultures in places like Haiti, surrounding people — maybe just in a neighborhood or a school — with middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos and tough, measurable demands.
As I read this, I couldn’t help but hear Binyavanga Wainaina’s voice in the back of my mind, whom Krista spoke to in our program “The Ethics of Aid: One Kenyan’s Perspective.” Wainaina is a Kenyan writer who has often been a vocal critic of foreign aid:
A lot of people arrive in Africa to assume that it’s a blank empty space and their goodwill and desire and guilt will fix it. And that to me is not any different from the first people who arrived and colonized us. This power, this power to help, is just about as dangerous as hard power, because very often it arrives with a kind of zeal that is assuming ‘I will do it. I will solve it for you. I will fix it for you,’ and it rides roughshod over your own best efforts.
I find Brooks’ call for “intrusive paternalism” hard to reconcile with Wainaina’s warnings about the “soft power” of foreign aid. But, the question still remains — what can we do to help prevent another Haiti?
One possible answer to that question comes from next week’s guest, Jacqueline Novogratz, who speaks of an approach to foreign aid that uses “a hard head and a soft heart.” She’s the CEO and founder of the Acumen Fund, which aims to combine the economic accountability of venture capital with the human-centric concerns of traditional philanthropy — an approach that is innovative, but also comes with its own questions.
…I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
—from Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke (translation by M.D. Herter Norton), which was cited by Jacqueline Novogratz in her interview with Krista for next week’s program, “A Different Kind of Capitalism.”
Trent Gilliss, online editor
Jacqueline Novogratz’s Favorite Teachers
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
In response to Krista’s interview with Mike Rose, many people shared stories of teachers who noticed a talent or interest and encouraged their students to develop it in ways that opened up doors of possibility. Likewise, Jacqueline Novogratz, an upcoming guest on SOF, tells stories about three of her most influential teachers on My Teacher My Hero.
Novogratz runs the Acumen Fund — a philanthropic venture capital fund that invests in scalable entrepreneurial businesses in developing countries. Krista’s interview with Novogratz will serve as the next installment in our evolving “Ethics of Aid” series. We had our pre-edit listen yesterday and are planning to put the show on the air in late January, so stay tuned.
“Something Is Better Than Nothing, Right?”
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
Shortly after auditioning one of our Repossessing Virtue interviews a few days ago, I was catching up on reading my RSS feeds when I happened upon a poignant post from Alanna at the Blood and Milk blog:
Bad development work is based on the idea that poor people have nothing. Something is better than nothing, right? So anything you give these poor people will be better than what they had before. Even if it’s your old clothes, technology they can’t use, or a school building with no teacher.
But poor people don’t have nothing. They have families, friends – social ties. They have responsibilities. They have possessions, however meager. They have lives, no matter what those lives look like to Westerners.
And Glenna at the Scarlett Lion puts a finer point on this as she observes Liberian girls in Monrovia passing over Nancy Drew books donated by Americans. Of course I immediately hear Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina telling Krista that foreigners should just “leave us alone.”
But, perhaps more importantly, I need to remember to apply these lessons closer to home as we encounter more suffering and job losses and homelessness during these tumultuous economic times. When I start to pity the bearded man who sits on a 5-gallon bucket at the off-ramp of Penn Ave and I-394 in sub-zero temperatures, I need to remember he has a life. To pity him is to judge him. That’s not helping him; it’s not helping me; it’s not helping teach my boys in the back seat each day we encounter him.
Response to “The Ethics of Aid”
Krista Tippett, Host
I’ve been fascinated by the responses that have come in to our program with Binyavanga Wainaina. They’ve come in part from other Africans and from current and former NGOs, missionaries, and Peace Corps volunteers. This felt like a huge and daunting, yet pressing, subject to open up. And that’s clearly what we’ve done — not started a conversation but opened it a little wider; the questions and concerns he articulated are present in many closest to this work.
I’m especially intrigued, as well, by one e-mail we received from New Orleans, drawing parallels between aid to post-Katrina New Orleans and aid to Africa. It is a stunning reflection on how, even domestically, the dramatic gesture is deceptively satisfying. Most of all I’m pleased that so many found Binyavanga Wainaina’s insights emboldening, as I did. His hard truth-telling — even his satire — is the opposite of a call to cynicism. It is a call to attentiveness to the deeper truth of ourselves and the other.
The measure of man’s life lies in perfecting the universe.
—Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, as tweeted by Rabbi Aaron Spiegel
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
Today I viewed hundreds of photos looking for an image that might help convey the critical perspective of Binyavanga Wainaina in our upcoming program on the ethics of aid in Africa, and more specifically Kenya. I was left a bit heavy-hearted. And then I saw this inspiring quote from a new friend in Indianapolis. I can’t thank him enough (and, if you’re interested, he’s got a great recommendation for cigars in Indy).