From “Sam Spade at Starbucks”:
It’s hard not to feel inspired by all these idealists, but their service religion does have some shortcomings. In the first place, many of these social entrepreneurs think they can evade politics. They have little faith in the political process and believe that real change happens on the ground beneath it. That’s a delusion. You can cram all the nongovernmental organizations you want into a country, but if there is no rule of law and if the ruling class is predatory then your achievements won’t add up to much.
Yesterday the NY Times ran a David Brooks op-ed on the limited worldview of “wonderful young” idealists. Brooks praises these optimistic people for the “uplifting” good they do in the world but proceeds to lay out the limitations of their “hip” service religion, namely that NGOs and microfinance can only go so far in helping people. For Brooks, these idealists do not care enough about politics, the process whereby corruption, venality, and disorder in the government and civil society are confronted and solved. He proposes rough and tumble noir hero Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon as a new paradigm for these well-intentioned but misguided philanthropists who are only able to do so much good in the current format of social entrepreneurship and apolitical involvement. Spade is reticent, allergic to self-righteousness and appears unfeeling, but he is motivated by a disillusioned sense of honor. He stands for a basic sense of good order, the idea that crime should be punished, and that bad behavior shouldn’t go uncorrected.
Brooks points out that these traits are not only lacking in idealist culture but sorely needed if the good intentioned young men and women of today are going to solve the world’s problems tomorrow. On behalf of said good intentioned idealists, I feel that Mr. Brooks’s piece deserves a response.
Brooks makes a great point. You cannot avoid politics. Microloans only help so long as a stable economy exists for entrepreneurs to enter into. Predation of aid funds by the government and elite in developing nations sees billions of dollars diverted from needy people to Swiss bank accounts. These are issues that, as Brooks points out, must be dealt with if genuine societal change is going to come to those in need.
Yet, the article’s criticism is in my opinion misplaced. It does not give enough credit to the egalitarianism of the NGO. In a world where increasing expertization demands years of experience and expensive degrees, the nonprofit sector offers millions of people the chance to go out into the world and do something. Qualifications pale in importance next to a commitment to alleviating human suffering.
Herein lies the purpose of this massive coterie of NGOs: the alleviation of human suffering. Brooks is correct to point out that the government is the only way to bring about long term solutions, but misses the fact that many NGOs are not looking at the long term. They see millions of people suffering from disease, poverty, or abuse, and attempt to treat on an individual or local level. Their mission, perhaps best incapsulated by Doctor’s Without Borders, is to help people in need, seeing all people as people rather than just statistics. These idealists read articles about 400,000 children dying of famine in the Horn of Africa, and see them as 400,000 distinct individuals instead of some amorphous mass of suffering. Conversely, within the bureaucratized system of governance, computability often trumps humanity.
Example from Rwanda 1994:
Ahead of their arrival, Dallaire says he got a phone call. A U.S. officer was wondering precisely how many Rwandans had died. Dallier was puzzled and asked why he wanted to know. ‘We are doing our calculations back here,’ the U.S. Officer said, ‘and one American casualty is worth about 85,000 Rwandan dead.” - Samantha Power
Brooks mistakes the apolitical nature of NGOs as apathy without taking into account the importance of neutrality in their mission. Politicized organizations often lose access to the people they are trying to help along ideological grounds, especially in warzones. NGOs are apolitical because it allows them to operate wherever people are suffering. You cannot criticize idealists in these organizations for avoiding politics without acknowledging how essential (and pragmatic0 this is to their line of work.
That said, Brooks is correct in pointing out the limitations of apolitical action. People defer to the international bodies in place too much. The UN, World Bank, and IMF (among others) have been left to deal with the political fallout of struggling nations while the majority of manpower has gone into short term fixes.
Perhaps the solution is for hybrid NGO-lobbyist-consultant organizations to emerge, potentially following the model of Amnesty International, that push international actors to take firmer stances on structural flaws in the world system (i.e. the international arms trade). This is the work I see policy students doing, mainly because they have the educational clout to be taken seriously as “experts.” This work is not something that should be confused with what aid organizations do.
Politics is the ultimate solution to the big problems out there, but operating on a regional or national level cannot solve all of the world’s problems. Laws are only effective if people follow them, and as the continued plight of women in Pakistan has shown, political solutions can only extend as far as local enforcement is willing to take them. Thus NGOs and governments need to work in tandem to tackle major problems. Brooks brings up a great point but misses the existence of this dichotomy in how the world deals with problems. NGOs look to help suffering people on an individual level. Governments look to create the structures whereby these changes become norms.
We should encourage more promising students to take the necessary next steps to make policy changes, perhaps highlighting the steps needed to work as a civil or international servant. We need both young idealists and young realists working together to solve the world’s problems.
Photocredit: Council on Foreign Relations