"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Happy Indifference–The Irrelevance Of Purpose, Mission, And Meaning

International Development is a serious business for its mission is to reduce poverty, alleviate suffering, improve health, and increase well-being.  This moral imperative adds an additional level of responsibility to work.  Improving the lot of the less fortunate millions is qualitatively different from selling tires, advertising clothes, or trading shares on Wall Street.  While these occupations may have indirect benefits to the public good – safety, comfort and appeal, and financial investment all contribute to the economy and those who prosper from it – none has the direct, person-to-person, affective act of meaningful charity.  Those who choose to work in development must have compassion and empathy as well as management or technical skills.  No moment should be a wasted moment, rest not a pleasure but a recuperative necessity. 

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Development through participatory, community-based, collaborative effort with local beneficiaries has a value-added that no other profession can match – a sense of personal endeavor, an intimate engagement with clients unmatched in any other field, and moral and emotional laurels that contribute to self-esteem and give the development worker an image if not a cachet of making a difference.

Of course not everyone sees it that way.  Critics of foreign assistance cite this very personal attachment and feeling of higher-order service among development workers as part of the problem.  They are so blindered by a sense of mission and goodness that they have lost any objective sense of quality, result, and impact. The improvement of the lot of the poor has nothing whatsoever to do with compassion, community, and service but with trade, market liberalization, and economic opportunity.  Adam Smith, writing in The Invisible Hand of the Market – The Theory of Moral Sentiments, said:

The statesman who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals, would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.

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This notion of individual responsibility and the morally indifferent but successful operation of the marketplace where thousands of individual enterprises compete for personal gain and ultimately general benefit is either unknown or ignored by passionate development workers who have chosen their profession as much for their own personal satisfaction as for the intelligence of their enterprise.  

In other words true belief, passion, and a priori belief get in the way of progress for they stop leagues short of objective analysis and proceed on the basis of faith and principle alone.

A well-known private, voluntary development agency in Washington received a number of years ago a generous grant from a major foundation to reduce neonatal mortality.  No strings attached, no preconditions, and no assumptions.  Only results would tell the tale.  Yet despite the evidence that major investments in malaria and tetanus control would substantially reduce both infant and maternal mortality; and that with the funds made available by the foundation a large swath of East Africa could see drastic reductions in disease, the agency demurred.  Such ‘top-down’, ‘mechanistic’ approaches were counter to its philosophy of community engagement and personal interaction.  The means are as important as the ends, said the agency’s spokespersons, and by working with and and through local communities to strengthen more traditional and culturally appropriate means of child care, one could both achieve numerical targets and assure the longevity of age-old practices.

The project was a failure.  The millions granted by the foundation were dribbled away in community efforts facilitated by international workers committed more to the process of saving and promoting traditional cultural values than they were in saving lives.  Yet the disappointing outcome could have been predicted by even a casual observer.  It is the ends that count, especially when lives and valuable resources are at stake, not questionable means and more questionable commitment to questionable first principles.

Adam Smith knew that commitment simply gets in the way of market mechanisms.  Purpose, mission, and meaning foul the works.  Yet 250 years later, these idealistic notions still persist.

International development is by no means the only discipline where idealism consistently trumps rationalism.  Environmentalism and social justice are but two of the current movements towards a better world.  Compassion and identification with the poor and marginalized;  a spiritual sense of identity with all living things and a responsibility to protect and preserve them; and a passionate sense of justice and civil rights are all given to irrational aspirations.  Appeals to historical determinism – the endless and repetitive cycles of creation and destruction, expansion and contraction – mean nothing; nor does the record of involuntary servitude; nor do the chronicles of empire, caste, social hierarchy, unequal distribution of wealth and influence.  A better world means personal, direct, committed engagement.  The amoral universe of Adam Smith’s market has no place in social evolution.

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Harry Phelps was an International Development Consultant who understood all this – his profession’s idealism, Adam Smith, and history’s concurrence – but who paid all no mind.  Even the most desperate parts of the Third World – despite their unfortunate public image - offered adventure, romance, and pleasure.  After three decades of working in the likes of Haiti, Bangladesh, Chad, Angola, the Congo, Romania, post-Soviet Eastern Europe, and other pitiful socio-political and economic wrecks, he never looked back.  He would do it all over again without a doubt and without question.

How could he ever forget four course civilized lunches on the lawns of a Belgian estate turned restaurant on the shores of Lake Tanganyika? The coquilles St Jacques at the market restaurant in Dakar, the pate de fruits de mer and lobster a la crème poolside in Abidjan?

For Harry development was a delight, an excursion, a guilt- and responsibility-free happenstance of a profession.  He knew that what he did made no difference whatsoever, but he did it well; not to cover his tracks but because he was properly brought up.  One had the duty to carry out the expectations of an employer once employed regardless of personal commitment.  He had an obligation to return success on his company’s investment regardless of how temporary or insignificant its results might be.

Most of the women he met in his travels shared his indifference – otherwise they would not have been looking for romance, pleasure, and avoidance of home-bound responsibility.  The bars of Bujumbura, Kigali, and Bamako were filled with young women just as indifferent to principle as Harry was, although they could never take off their cloaks of belonging.  Sex in the Third World always takes on an additional, especially illicit and attractive character for all comers, the great philosophical equalizer.

Dark-eyed beauty

A colleague of Harry’s, one who believed in progressivism and social change, once asked him how he could be so indifferent and unresponsive to the needs of his Third World clients, so dismissive of the purpose and principles of ‘development’ but still happily and gainfully employed in its service.  Was this not hypocrisy at its worst?

No, replied Harry, for why should motive and principle count more than results?  Between civilized lunches, cinq-a-septs, and rendezvous he executed the terms and conditions of his contract with excellence.  What did it matter whether or not he believed in his work, its importance, or its value?  Why should anyone care that his work was a means to an end – an entrée to romance and ragged adventure – as long as he performed his duties?

Of course his colleague cared and so did the thousands of development workers in the ranks.  Without believing in the cause of their employment – the rightness of good works and personal sacrifice – they would be selling tires or advertising clothes and Bahaman resorts.  Principle, belief, and commitment did make a difference.

Harry retired with nothing but good memories.  Yes, there was the unpleasantness in Luanda and the disappointment in Lahore, but all in all a very good ride indeed.

It all goes to show that purpose, mission, and meaning simply get in the way of the good life; and the true human survivor is the one who can navigate through moral straits and cultural demands skillfully and without incident.

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