Saturday, December 14, 2013

Structure, the institutional turn and randomization: the quest for agency gone awry

A long time ago I started thinking through the prisms of philosophical texts and ideas. I found truth and access in the thinking of economic and social structuralists throughout the ages. Many social problems appeared explicable by studying the underlying causes for the structures inherited and adapted by man. And through one's own will, we could interact with and define these structures.

As I moved into the professional world, I learned from Amartya Sen's understanding of poverty and human development. The focus on human agency as the expansion of the freedom to make choices about whatever one may wish to choose is a striking and obvious truth once stated. I fear this fundamental wisdom gets continuously lost in how we understand the processes of development.

In today's vogue, "structure" could be called "institutions". Focus on institutions and rules of the game has reemerged as if the key to solving development problems. It's unfortunate that the protagonists of the institutional turn would likely scoff at the comparison to structuralist thinking.

And in its own right, the turn to randomized evaluations is important and one in which I place a great deal of faith. Forming counterfactuals to observe our impacts in the world is only logical and intuitive.

The theory of human agency, yet, remains vague, and human will appears lacking in the ultimate attempts to understand structure. Two schools of thought seem important to helping to bridge this divide.

One is the work around lessons learned drawn from reform leaders. Explicitly acknowledging the politics of change and interrogating what actions - made by women and men - lead to social change, we can hold some hope for overcoming human poverty and war. Princeton University's Innovations for Successful Societies has made impressive strides into this effort.

The other school of thought is embodied in Duncan Green's "active citizenship" formulation. To take one of the strongest examples of this, we can identify the positive advances in women's rights wrought by women's civil society movements -- movements led by breathing, bleeding humans and fueled by their desires and choices.

In the vogue of institutions and randomized evaluations uncovering and recovering the underlying structural logic of the world, let's not forget the voices of individuals and the lessons of history. Moreover, these debates are well-worn across the ages, so let's make the connections.

Friday, June 1, 2012

We’re used to a pirate looking like this, right?

They apparently look like this.
Company X’s global losses

'The Law.’ That species beast is a critical thing. It defines the right from the wrong. Demarcates sane from insane. Without it: generalized states of anarchy. Life sans ‘the Law’: Nasty, brutish, short. Right?

The global media frenzy on Somali pirates seems to highlight at least three things, if we were to delve into that dwelling place of media bias.

Firstly: The oil company is victim. The media haven’t pitched things in the light of law and legality, law of the sea, security, territorial sovereignty. No. Media coverage suggest it’s primarily all an issue of Business Interest. Dollar, dollar.

Secondly: Fine, let’s say it’s of Business Interest. Then the begged question is: whose business interest? Clearly, global minorities. I mean the share of people who belong to countries powerful enough to strike favorable oil sharing agreements. I mean: the percentage of global (6.6 billion) population that holds stakes to oil claims. I mean: the people who live unfathomably rich, energy flagrant lifestyles in contrast to the bulk of humanity that does not.

Finally: Let’s call it piracy, but transpose location elsewhere than Horn of Africa. Say: the English Channel. Do you think the issue will remain: global business losses? Would the word ‘pirate’ even emerge? Let’s take, ceteris paribus, the issue properly, say: upset teenage Greeks (apparently there’s a country stocked full of them) took to the seas and decided to rampage about. Given this unlikely scenario (and forget facts that not much oil in that English Channel part of world), just picture it: would the issue be, what tiers of profit losses would be at stake for oil companies and their proxies? Or would it rather be why on planet Earth would Greek teenagers take to looting post-Enlightenment era European boats?

Have you heard anybody mention the economic costs of rioting Greek youth over the last 3-days, destroying streets, stores and beating police, those seeming relics of state order?

The bottom-line usurps the bottom-billion.

Sure. Let’s hear the round of protests from the implicated: media is a profit business, and so they are free to follow the story wherever the cash leads. Okay, go ahead and take that cake. But don’t come then slicing at any notion like, the media is social watchdog; essential for democracy; Fourth Estate. Can’t have it both ways.

In Defense of Piracy

They say the pirates do good for their societies. The social equivalent impacts of remittances have surely been taken note of by media.

So a question pops up: How do we best assess the global good here?

On the one hand: Law. Law of the sea, security laws, national security, laws of the market. Business Interest.

On the other: wealth redistribution and global environmental commons good. Non-Business Interest, not at least in the way media mean it.

Delaying oil consumption by highly developed markets means halting carbon emissions means, gasp, slowing on-set of climate change adaptation. That would mean decreasing global vulnerabilities to a crisis the global vulnerable bear no historical or jurisdictional burden for. Well, aside that they’re screwed first, and hardest.

Some facts. Per capita carbon emissions of Somalia? They likely don’t produce enough global warming-affecting gases, on a whole, so we don’t have any data. Let’s take, for argument’s sake, emissions from a neighbor, Eritrea: 0.1 tonnes of CO2 per capita.

Per capita emissions for countries with high levels of human development? 25.5 tonnes. Average for rest of LDCs – that is, Least Developed Countries – other countries that figure on world list of really poor? 11.8 tonnes per capita.

That is a gap of 255. Meaning, if you’re born in any host of high human development countries, you will likely emit 255 times more carbon from your energy use than if you’re in Eritrea. I’m sure some Eritreans somewhere are thinking about renting a boat.

Scholars have long held that the notion of a pirate is mere chimera. That historical water criminal, performing outside the bounds of legality, thieving, as occupation, from the hard-earned gains of proper industrious folk – that notion of pirate really tends to always serve the interests of somebody else.

Somebody? Global media. Profit margins. Peter Pan.

Oil, Lifestyles and Related Matters

Who is responsible for piracy? Here are some options.

1. Greedy Pirates
2. Backward, Evil Africans
3. Poverty
4. Failed state
5. Colonialism
6. World History
7. Haitian revolution
8. Globalization
9. Capitalism
10. Socialism

And that’s just to end it at curt list of ten.

Moral of the Story?

Do I think sea water-borne theft is to be defended? No. I don’t.

I would make many an argument for ‘the Law’ here being rather necessary and all. But not one media pundit has spared us this thought.

But beyond these encoded notions of Business Interests, legality and other entrenched concepts void of global ethics, I would propose a slightly deeper vision is at stake: global justice. That's: Robbin Hood justice. Malcolm X justice. Chickens coming home to roost justice.

Pirates of the Gulf of Aden. Holds a catchy ring to it, doesn’t it? Coming to a theater near you.

Or at least your home television set.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Labels Matter: State Failure, History, Intervention

We were walking the dust path curling through the Kabul University campus. My colleagues begin to tell me of the latest news that day: dozens of civilian bodies dead in Farah, western Afghanistan. Result of the latest American offensive against the Taliban. I ask how they feel about this, despite the blood seeping from my blanching face, from anger as much as embarrassment. I’m the only non-Afghan among them. But I would have to invent their frustration with America, the West or any other vented targets.

“Only the villagers know who is who,” one of my colleagues says. He points at my lightly bearded face, “They will know you are not Taliban, and that I,” pointing to his clean shaven look, “I might be a Talib.” They are upset more with the Taliban than NATO. How is America to tell the difference, they ask, when the Taliban hides among clusters of everyday Afghans. How are they to know what labels to apply, when and where?

This talk is part and parcel of the main Afghanistan discourses. The debate on the country centers, on the one hand, on the Taliban, military intervention, drones and civilian deaths. On the other, it focuses on nepotism, a flourishing narco-economy, and the first Hamid Karzai administration’s unfulfilled promises. These twin debates look at the global war on terror and the internal politics of a failing, failed or weak state. The label matters.

With the Barack Obama administration offering the emerging Afghanistan-Pakistan (‘Af-Pak’) strategy, a new wave of pundits busies itself repackaging analysis on the war on terror leg of the debate, filtering through the pluses and minuses of the budding two-state approach. Most welcome the sub-regional mindset appreciating the Al-Qaeda chase as involving both countries.

In proffering a double approach of more military action and civilian reconstruction, the strategy develops with renewed rigor external intervention as the solution to what are fundamentally internal political crises in these two countries. As such, the ‘new’ approach mirrors some of the central thrusts of George W. Bush administration war on terror policy.

Little distinction in the Af-Pak strategy is made between Al-Qaeda and Taliban, and the respective differences driving how each operate within and between the two countries. This ignores how the ideologies, aims and methods differ—and how responses may differ accordingly. It also risks lumping peoples and ideas under an umbrella notion of Evil, under which perpetrators must be killed outright, directly reflective of the Bush policy of bringing ‘Evil-doers to justice.’ That the Obama government supports the Pakistan military offensive in Swat Valley in early May 2009 testifies to this risk.

The notion of justice in the expired Bush government and the nascent Obama one seems to so far be made of the same stuff: an irreconcilably thin, Manichean essence. Thinking remains to be done that goes beyond implicit labels of Good and Evil towards grounding policies in history.

Less talk also occurs on what may be the more important second pillar of the Afghanistan debate: the capacity of the Afghan state. That Afghanistan and Pakistan border state failure as much as they border one another is widely recognized, but little is constructed on what to do about it. Ignoring this is to ignore a root cause of 30 years of war.

Reflecting on the history of the Afghan conflict or looking at conflict hot spots globally, a debatable few cases aside, they involve states today labeled as failing, failed or weak. The Afghan state in 1978 was a weak state: but we didn’t have the label then. Placing state failure in historical context is less-oft done than the ahistorical bandying about of the term, but it helps in identifying why conflicts begin. Understanding this in turn helps in knowing how they can end.

The writ of the state in Afghanistan has never been known for being especially strong. Whatever feats managed since the 1748 formation of centralized government in Kandahar (moved 30 years later to Kabul) were nearly all washed away or reversed by the 1978-2001 conflict. Most characterizations of this period see it as shifting, first, from the Saur (April or Communist) Revolution and Afghan revolt, to Soviet invasion and mujahedeen response, then to phases of further intervention and proxy war. After the February 15, 1989 Soviet withdrawal, the conflict moves into a stage of civil struggle for Kabul, with the Taliban wrestling control of the bulk of the country. American-led invasion to topple the Taliban serves as a further marker in 2001.

The conflict is thus flanked, on the one side, by the Communist Party’s failed social reforms sparking revolt and Soviet intervention; and, on the other, by September 11th and American intervention in the name of the global war on terror. We stand still in this latter phase. As the origins of revolt and the rise of radical Islam in the country took shape as a response, it is worth pursuing what it is that went wrong with the Saur Revolution reforms.

The People’s Democratic Party for Afghanistan (PDPA) unfurled eight reform decrees between April 1978 and the December 1979 Soviet invasion. The first three decrees – establishing the PDPA leader as head of state, abolishing the previous constitution and forming new civilian and military court systems – were met with little notice by most Afghans living outside of Kabul. The fourth decree to establish a red Afghan flag, on the other hand, did spark protest, pointing to some rising resistance to Communist rule. Nevertheless, decree five met with little consequence again, mattering mostly for the 23 people it stripped of citizenship, though the larger repression it signaled would touch many more. The first handful of reforms was either innocuous or useful for the PDPA alone. The three further reforms held much broader and deeper influence on Afghans.

Reform decree number six canceled debts and mortgages owed from small-hold farmers and landless peasants to large landowners. This in principle held potentially positive results for the majority of Afghans. Yet what the reform ill considered was that, in return to debt repayment, the wealthy gave the poor seed, fertilizer and equipment as agricultural inputs. Decree seven gave equal rights to women and abolished the bride-groom price. Similarly, on the surface, this was a positive move for society, but the cost of the reform was to rob brides of reserve cash in case of divorce. Decree number eight was on land reform, though it apparently meant more lands for the PDPA, appropriated without compensation.

These three latter reforms failed to be implemented with the intention to further the country’s development. They instead smacked of an elite garnering favors and blindly applying Marxist-Leninist ideologies. The revolt against them took speed when PDPA activists forced reform into the countryside. The imposition of Kabul’s authority onto Afghan values served as the breaking straw, unleashing a decade of warfare, bearing some resemblance to what ignited the 1950s Mau Mau rebellion leading to African independence movements: British intervention into the cultural affairs of Kenya’s Kikuyu to prohibit female genital cutting and promote land reform.

PDPA’s decrees six, seven and eight held the promise of good for Afghans. Applied properly, debt cancellation, women’s rights and land reform stand to benefit the many. They are, in effect, parts of larger political and social reforms shaping modernization and development in other countries—though clearly, anything done by ‘decree’ is rather a red herring. Social transformation in 1970s Afghanistan failed to produce a government in Kabul by democratic processes. If this had taken a different path, the unfolding of history, possibly as far as the fall of the Soviet State in the 1989-1991 episode, may have gone altogether differently. Little value, however, is held in untestable counterfactuals.

That failing, failed or weak states travel one-way paths to multifarious forms of destabilization is, on the other hand, less controversial. But the labels ‘failing states,’ ‘failed states’ and ‘weak states’ weren’t available in 1978, emerging only in the mid-1990s and early 2000s. It wasn’t though new academic understandings of the Afghan conflict that urged the emergence of this labeling trio. It was instead the fall of the Soviet State and entry into the ‘post-Cold War’ era.

The terms failing, failed and weak states were devolved to understand the rise of civil wars after the ‘end’ of the Cold War. This was a time that saw conflict trends between countries reverse, only to see battle fatalities within countries go on the rise. After years of application of realist thought in the study of international affairs, which generates and continues to generate many of the labels we use, we were better positioned in the late 1990s to study the internal workings of Third World states. State and society debates emerged again, with expanded study into the functionality of ‘states’ overlapping with ‘nations,’ and the drawn lines of borders on a map.

On this, two issues remain under-debated. First is how 1990s discourses failed to grasp the ways in which the Cold War shaped states, politics and conflict in the Third World, setting out effects that linger still in the aftermath of the Americo-Soviet entanglement—effects that seem to be still at play in external intervention today. The ‘post-Cold War’ phrase itself purchases little explanatory power in characterizing the 1992-2001 years anywhere, but especially in Afghanistan, not the least because many power relations limp onwards from the Cold War.

It wasn’t until after September 11th and the onset of war on terror debates that work by Mahmood Mamdani, Ahmed Rashid, Steve Coll and others began to lay the foundations for understanding the effects of Cold War intervention in Afghanistan and elsewhere—interventions performed in the sanguine name of roll-back, from each of their perspectives, of American free marketism and Soviet communism. Responding to inadequate theories devolved to trace why the events of that day occurred, the import of these histories for the study of global affairs, and for the running of foreign policies in areas affected by the hot wars of the Cold War, still demand crystallization.

The second issue eluding sufficient debate is the importance of the demise of the Soviet State for understanding South Asian states. The fall of a significant form of governance embodied in the Soviet State was met only with calls for the clash of civilizations or the triumph of democratic capitalism—a look oriented much more inward than towards understanding the dynamics presiding over Soviet state failure. Yet the key characteristics of the Soviet State as it unfolded over seven decades demand debate, for their meaning to the power structures and shapes of governance in Southwest Asia, as much for the frameworks studying state capacity. While we should not ignore the very real atrocities of repressive disappearances, economic strategies devouring entire seas, or the silencing of freedoms, posing the question remains important.

What results from overlooking these debates is the deployment of labels that mischaracterize the ‘ends’ of the Cold War and of the Soviet State, labels that do little justice to understand the period leading up to the war on terror. With that other global discourse of the first half of 2009 – the financial crisis – we may finally be in a position to massage out the mental cramps inhibiting this debate, allowing us to address issues other than globalization’s influence on GDP.

If we apply the thrust of the failing, failed and weak state labels to the history of the long Afghan war, state failure emerges as the inability to further human development, the choices and freedoms of a people. The post-September 11th administrations should be included into this framework as still symptomatic of state weakness, while ‘international community’ donor policies failed to support the advancement of a capable human development state, sharing in the perpetuation of the root causes of conflict in Afghanistan. Failure to establish conditions for social transformation thus pervade all phases of over 30 years of war: from 1978 to 2009.

Grasping state failure as the root of the Afghan conflict puts us in a position to evaluate how the Cold War limps onwards in South Asia today, in perpetuating cycles of external intervention failing to enhance state-building. The Af-Pak strategy, as defined thus far, seems to only fill the most recent looping of these cycles. Supporting military intervention in Afghanistan and now Pakistan does not signal a significant rupture from war on terror policy. One starting point is to move away from the idea that Resident Evil exists in any part of the world, or that any member of it, be it the Taliban or others, is Inherently Evil. These groups hold interests, unwieldy as some of them may be. But just as differing dynamics shape their rise and persistence, so shall they shape their decline.

If we understand the root causes of Talibanization and of September 11th as immediate consequences of state failure in Afghanistan’s history – and this failure as tightly fastened to pervasive Cold War intervention, now operating under the name of the ‘international community’ – the Swat peace talks ring hollow in the face of the Pakistani military unleashing massacre in NWFP with the argument that ‘no other choices’ are available when dealing with Evil. Moving beyond these discourses, we may be better placed to know what labels to apply, when and where, and what to do about them.

(drafted May 2009; published in South Asia magazine)

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Afghanistan’s forgotten water crisis

The Forgotten Front: Water Security and the Crisis in Sanitation, Afghanistan Human Development Report 2011.

In the face of troop withdrawals and peace talks, an invisible crisis lurks in Afghanistan: that of water and sanitation. The numbers prove startling. Six children die every hour for want of a glass of clean water or sanitation; 16.8 million Afghans lack access to basic drinking water; some 95% of all Afghans cannot access a safe toilet. As with the war, at root of these challenges is the problem of governance.

We are largely accustomed to thinking of Afghanistan as the site of terrorist evil, the source of countless NATO soldier deaths, and the graveyard of empires. Our foreign policy discourse pivots on the questions of Taliban peace talks, Al Qaeda’s safe havens and how to reverse opium production. These all amount to a view of Afghanistan as a failed state, with limited rule of law much less basic service provision.

But Afghanistan is also a place of endemic human poverty. The recent multidimensional poverty index shows that 84% of Afghan households are deprived in standards of living, health and education at the same time. Despite ranking among the world’s top 20 countries in the number of women parliamentarians, Afghanistan also features at the bottom of the gender-related development index for 154 countries in 2009. The nomadic kuchis are the most deprived of all Afghans across the board.

These trends often go hand in hand with insecurity and violence: Helmand is seat both of the lowest literacy rates and deadliest fighting. Yet, poverty and violence are not wholly consonant one with the other. Eastern Afghanistan along the Pakistan tribal areas - billed as the most volatile border in the world - also sees some of the better health rates in the country.

These relationships need careful investigation: not only for what lessons they impart for counterinsurgency and global terrorism, but - and perhaps more importantly - for what mean to the lives and livelihoods of Afghans. Redressing their poverty challenges, then, can also prove a major subsequent boost to the war on terror. Confusing the means and ends through continual military doctrines, though, does little to help either situation.

Moreover, Afghanistan’s human development has been on the rise despite violence. Declines in child and maternal mortality rates help elevate health achievements. The country’s human development index has increased over the last 20 years. Primary and secondary school intakes nearly tripled between 2002 and 2008. Inabilities, however, to access clean drinking water, a toilet or irrigation act as brakes to this progress.

Climate change can also slow and reverse advances. Declining water availability, increasing floods and droughts, and a range of economic and health impacts will continue to threaten human development in Afghanistan. Climate shocks leading to heightened water crisis interact with many Afghans’ already high vulnerabilities to leave them at significant risk of a collapse in their choices and opportunities to live full, dignified lives.

Is this because Afghanistan is a water scarce country, with few rivers and parched lands? This is hardly the case. Enough water exists in the country to meet the human right of 20 liters per person per day hundreds of times over. Geography, however, is one part of the challenge: while most Afghans tend to reside near major water sources, the tremendous water availability is not distributed to all regions equally.

Yet the deeper answer lies in governance. Most of Afghanistan's water escapes underutilized over its borders to neighboring countries. A great deal is also wasted, perhaps as much as 40% of water resources simply evaporating into the air as crops, grass and weeds drown in over-watering. Irrigation schemes systemically lack efficiency, with underground canals that transport water onto farms still severely damaged from decades of war and neglect. And branches of government vie for control of the blue gold: a fragmented structure places responsibility for water in the hands of several ministries, from mines to agriculture to water itself, leaving a complex reality for water governance.

The mismanagement crisis is acute. Kabul City, growing at phenomenal urbanization rates, may see a complete drying out of its drinking water in just a few years. Food security across whole pockets of Afghanistan rises and falls based on shifting glacier melt and seasonal water availability. And dialogue towards transboundary water sharing agreements is virtually mute for fear of geopolitical reprisals.

International aid is pivotal for governance as well. Over $24 billion in bilateral and multilateral aid funneled into Afghanistan between 2001 and 2009. Less than 5% went to the water sector, or about $3.31 per Afghan. This represents minor fractions of the $26.50 given to Iraq or $25.00 to Pakistan.

Improving water governance, aid and adapting to climate risks are key ways forward. Expanding on the local National Solidarity Program to rehabilitate and build irrigation canals, village wells and educating children on hygiene can deliver considerable results. Creating ‘water jobs’, moreover, can play the double role of serving Afghan human development and counterinsurgency, keeping the youth at over half the country’s population busy - with some estimates putting agricultural incomes of $4 per day enough to persuade many from joining the insurgency.

A country's human development should not be left to severe mismanagement or weather forecasts. Stepping up the war on terror effort towards a dedicated war on water insecurity and deprivation can help produce a firm exit strategy. It would also help sustain the human development of a people who have experienced decades of war.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Children of the Drug War

Among the most moving issues is that of the unseen impacts on children of: poverty, drought, terrorism and counterterrorism, economic sanctions - and the global war on drugs.

The calculus that keeps much of the 'first world' engaged in 'third world' events tends to ignore the human costs, focusing instead on fiscal budgets. In effort to go beyond the status quo thinking, Joe Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes estimate the true cost of the Iraq war as $3 trillion, including such things as the healthcare bills of injured war veterans. But these studies are few and far between.

This is where Children of the Drug War steps in. The book is now fully published, but we're still waiting for it to go up on websites.

My coauthor and I contributed a look into 'opium brides' in Afghanistan. These are children, largely girls, who get bartered to service farmers' debt to drug lords. Looking at the huge potential income gains from growing poppy over the nearest competitor wheat (more than 6-fold as lucrative), many farmers borrow the finances needed to get started. But as drought or field eradication policies take hold, their poppies are destroyed. This usually leaves poppy farmers in debt still owed to drug lords for the start-up capital. As means to repayment, a practice that occurs is offering the debtor a child-bride.

A popular essay in Newsweek some years back highlighted the issue and developed the term 'opium bride'. The scale and entrenchment of the problem is largely unknown as the war on terror takes place on the same grounds as the war on drugs: Helmand and Kandahar are the dubious sites of the both interventions into Afghanistan. This means that research and reporting from these areas is significantly limited.

What my coauthor Atal discovered in conducting interviews in and around Kandahar is that it's likely more pronounced than we think. Many of the people he was able to meet had specific details to share; all had heard of the practice.

The challenge is a difficult one, rooted in the nature of the economy -- we could call it a 'drug' economy as much of the literature does, but this ignores the fact that is just plain 'economy' to the people engaged in it; the scale of opium income has been as high as 3 times the "legal GDP" in Afghanistan. But it is also rooted in shifts of cultural practices, perceptions and power in Afghanistan in the last generation - and in the last 10 years of the renewed war.

The Afghan-Soviet war displaced traditional elites such as mullahs and tribal heads, leaving the local political space to be filled-in by mujahedeen veterans and those who could wield violence to sort out territory. Alongside the impacts on children and youth, these largely ignored shifts in power need to be further understood in Afghanistan as a result of the foreign interventions. This is one of the insights we try to offer in the book in the latest 10 year war period.

Children of the Drug War takes a broad look at many countries, an innovative book that digs deep under common debates on drugs and wars.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

It's a small plane that takes off for Bhutan.

The travel catalogues forecast a place of endless enchantment and mystery. The home of thunder dragons and national happiness. The privilege of what I do envelopes me absolutely.

I think next of my work, and life - one as if the other, the sequence masking more than it may illuminate. The work: Climate change. I'm to help write among the first assessments of its impacts and the scale of the needed response for the challenge in a small, landlocked country in the Himalayas.

How do you weigh the pebbles of modernity against those of tradition on the balance of human progress? City life versus rural? Better standards of living versus culture and life itself? That seems the riddle to unravel.

It's a place lucky even for the tourist; I arrive as an invited analyst. Traveling mid-2011, I carry Fukuyama's 'The origins of political order.' It makes me wonder: what secrets are to be uncovered from the Bhutanese mind and landscape.

Time, and peace. They seem the only things on offer - the only things that matter. Deep in the heart of the promise is that these are the very stuff of life, humanity missing the message every, elsewhere. Is it only so much spin, though, for excuse and tourism dollar?

The excuse: to keep at bay the wanton tragedies of the new, the future and modern. The dollars, for the complacency and hypocrisy of it all. An economy owing much to its tourist vision of tradition, temples, green forests and such.

Twenty-four days in the sands of gross happiness, forgotten sites of modernity/tradition, and loneliness to look forward to. In context the average tourist visit peters out at day five, rare the marker of day 10. What more, with over $200 a head per night to be here as a site-seer. I've walked before the expanse of the capital in naught more than a quarter hour - as if exhausting the currency of the city in minutes.

Days of jet-lag and not knowing the time overcome me. Should I remain wide awake or succumb to a desired eternity of sleep and dream?

The origins of political order indeed. Aspirations of man and beast alike; the authority of invented rules against the passions of love, prejudice and the realities of the possible. Where else but to play out the infinite surge of life and death, but at the hallmark of a country left at the thresholds of past and present.

Where else to find the wanting answers for the stage of oneself; one's life; to locate the regality of meaning for a future left open to choice. Escape utter nothingness and too much robustness at once.

And then, simply, breakfast arrives - to temper the treasures of the possible with the gifts of always. My loose thoughts reign themselves in with a decent meal.

To be here by the chances of so much fate. Bend my will to the grace of god. I'm not a religious man, but these are the prayer filled tones that color me over.

And, the plane lands.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Politics and human development: what's the link?

James Traub has a good article on some of the 'real' issues in Afghanistan: "The Obama administration needs to make up its mind: Is Ahmed Wali Karzai a menace or an asset?". Via a discussion of the Karzai rule and its familial ties, Traub draws out a crucial distinction:

"The [Obama] administration's Afghanistan strategy eschews George W. Bush's thunderous language of democracy promotion in favor of the more modest vocabulary of 'capacity-building.' But a legitimate government is not simply one that can deliver basic goods (though that matters a lot). Legitimacy means that power is at least minimally accountable, and that people believe they have some kind of voice in their own affairs. Kandaharis complain more bitterly about the rule of powerbrokers than they do about the lack of schools or even security."

Three points, one political, the other developmental - and the final one, about where the twain meet. The political: the nuts and bolts of contemporary warfare are located in the COIN doctrine (counter-insurgency as a whole of society approach). Migrated in bits and pieces from Iraq, in Afghanistan this has meant the full-range of interventions, from military (knocking Taliban out from Marjeh) to constructing roads, wells and mini-dams in an effort to win-over Afghan hearts and minds. As Traub argues, these NATO-led actions are fashioned to bolster the central government -- but if branches of the US administration (aka CIA) support warlords because of intelligence gains, then the politics of such a large-scale military apparatus are inherently self-defeating, like so many heads of a masochistic hydra.

The developmental point is a bit more complex, and has a pair of faces to it. Face one: human security. This conceptual framework was given birth in the 1994 Global Human Development Report, and is inherently tied to its fundamental precept: that 'human dignity' should be at the center -- in human security's case -- of international relations, displacing the bedrock notion itself of the "inter-national."

In terms of the operations of human security as a development discourse, there has been a failure on one striking count: an amnesiac disability to realize that great foe realism, is not a major social science perspective for nothing. That self-interest guides a great deal of behavior, from agents minimizing credit risk in econ 202, to the stalwart actors of the global scene, nation-states -- realism (in economics) can cover a lot of ground in explaining why the poor stay in poverty traps, and in IR theory, why Iran wants nukes - and equally why the US wants to stop them. To be sure, my Sen-ianism compels me to note that self-interest or utilitarian calculus do not cover all reasons for, say, donating parts of one's kidney to a complete stranger; and behavioral experiments prove the point that we're so driven by a sense of justice/equity that we will in fact cut off our noses to spite the face. Human security's main problem has been that it does not explain anything better than does realism.

The second developmental question with reference to Traub's essay is about a compelling refrain in human development-talk: providing basic services is key to reducing poverty and reasons for disaffection, and thus critical for dampening radicalization of disaffected youths. While not a human developmentalista per se, Paul Collier shares enough of the view to be spoken of in the same paragraph as the capabilities perspective. He's recently remarked on how instituting something like an Independent Service Authority -- which, opposed to current uncoordinated approaches, would band together government, civil society, private sector and donors to dish out aid for basic services -- can go a long ways towards giving jobs to young men. And it's this demographic that spins into violent insurgencies, not grandmothers.

The human development lens argues, on one hand, for the delivery of basic services for the intrinsic worth of bringing a human's potential into fruition. Lant Pritchett (via Blattman's blog) reminds us of this Aristotlean point, and one we shouldn't forget for Nussbaum's (a Greek classicist by training) involvement in developing the capability approach. On the other hand, making the other Kantian ethical argument, delivering basic services, per Collier, is also instrumental for taking insurgencies apart.

And this brings me to my third and main point: this Collier perspective is nearly as far as human development goes in getting political, that is, enmeshed in power plays as opposed to idle policy banter. The notions of democracy, human rights and the activation of citizenship are important for human development, but Oxfam has done more recently of really bringing the 'active citizen' dialogue out.

This leaves open an intricate problem: human development follows in much the same vein of conventional development-speak -- it inculcates an anti-political machinery to discuss grand designs like "freedom" a la Bush, capacity building viz. Obama, and much else. Analytical insights via a human security lens differ little from a realist explanation of a political problem. And human development solutions are virtually indistinguishable from your standard menu of economics-informed policy redactions.

Traub's conclusion -- "Afghanistan's problems are, at bottom, political. The solutions must be political. That's what it means to fight a counterinsurgency war" -- are spot on, and something like a human development perspective as currently formulated offers little in grasping or expanding these political processes.

But, just the same, it may be looking for inspiration where the need-not be found. Ultimately, however, this calls into question the significant conjectures that human development represents an entirely new paradigm for development.