Revolutionary Compromise: What the Hell do you Want?

Our whole life boils down to one question. It’s the same question that some guy writing a screenplay for a movie somewhere asks about his main character. What does she want? It holds with everything in your life, your work, your love. From what do you want to eat for breakfast to who do you want to be? Who do you want to love? What do you want to do in this world?

It’s the same for an individual, an organization or country. It’s the same fucking question. What do you want? And the more intentional and mindful way you answer that question, the better outcome you’ll have from any action.

But if you don’t know exactly what you want or you want multiple things and you can’t have all of them, well then you have a problem. Because if you don’t know what you want then you have no idea what you will get. And if you want too many things and they conflict with each other, well generally the thing that is most tied to your own self-interest or survival will win out (sometimes good, sometimes not).

In organizations and countries, if we don’t know what we want or it’s not clear or we don’t agree with our political leaders about what we want then we are set down a wrong path, even if it’s a path laced with the best of intentions.

I’m American. I heard something the other day. It was something an Iraqi doctor said. It was something I had heard Chris Rock say once in different words. And it’s something I always say to myself. So to paraphrase between the three of us, it goes something like this:

“America’s schizophrenic. You never know which America is going to show up. Are you going to get the altruistic America that genuinely wants to do the right thing and help the rest of the world? Or are you going to get the self-interested America that cares more about its own market economy and being the “top dog” in the world? That America kinda breaks shit. You just never know.” Why is that?

I think it is tied with our conflicting visions of what we want.

Sometimes in both the aid world and the military, as someone who has been, “on the ground”, I just don’t understand why we do what we do. I don’t get the purpose behind it all the time. Let me give some examples.

I don’t understand why we were trying to build civil society resource centers in the bush (South Sudan). These resource centers were equipped with desktop computers, powered by generators and had satellites for internet. There were problems with logistics, spare parts, technical expertise and usage. Also in my mind, it wasn’t really a priority. In this particular bush clean water was an issue, there was still a lot of sustenance on WFP food rather than agriculture, no electricity, road conditions were pretty damn bad (made Afghanistan look like the interstate highway), education and health were issues and security and political instability were and are very real things.

There were programs that addressed some of those issues in some ways, but it didn’t seem really sufficient and I couldn’t ever necessarily figure out why we were placing the money there rather than something else that seemed more basic and tangible (the resource centers only being one example of this). I couldn’t understand why we were spending so much money on these things (among others).

A second example. You’re in a desert country that has very poor water resources compared to the rest of the world. Its water infrastructure is existing but in poor condition. The water is overseen by the government though they had contracted out technical oversight and management of said infrastructure to a foreign business some time ago. In some villages the existing water system is barely sufficient for existing residents in many towns and cities. Now let’s say you have a city of around sixty thousand people. In the course of a year that population number doubles with an influx of refugees from a neighboring country that is at war. The strain on the system now is almost unbearable. The water company and the foreign contractor cannot keep up. They don’t have enough time, resources or money. In addition there are varying levels of corruption throughout the system.

What do you do? You give money through an independent non-profit who can provide oversight on how that money is spent and ensure that the infrastructure is fixed, thereby increasing water capacity and helping the people. There’s a lot of complications as you go on, but it’s a good thing right? Of course it is (you thought I was going to say something different….for shame). I don’t know how sustainable it is but it seems like a pretty decent idea at the time.

Schizophrenic. I would argue that there were over-arching political goals in the strategy of how we were going to deal with that country from the funding country (the US) which in turn created these programs. In one case the over-arching goal was supporting the South’s separation from the north, the other’s was ensuring that refugees stayed in neighboring countries rather than left too other countries. I don’t think either of those are necessarily bad, but they are political goals and they don’t get to the core of humanitarian work which is really about the betterment of the people those programs are helping (in my humble opinion).

There’s something very fundamental going on here, regarding intention and purpose. Let me take you back to US Army and Afghanistan around 2002-2003. I think this logic holds for a great many things.

I remember days where we would surround a village and we would provide over watch (guard) (as we were Hum-V based with the heavy guns), while the foot soldiers would go kick down doors and confiscate weapons, many of which were AK-47s from the time of the Russians. There was a lot of what I feel anyway, was pointless stuff like this around that time. There’s a lot of guns being pointed in people’s faces. Never the best way to endear yourself to someone I suppose.

Funny thing is, a couple of times, a few days later, you’d find yourself handing out food to the same people whose face you were pointing a gun in the day before. If that’s not schizophrenic I’m not sure what is.

The thing was, purpose and intentions were running up against reality and people couldn’t make coherent strategy. The US Army, particularly at the start of the Afghan and Iraq wars was trained as an Army not as a police force. They are extremely different things with different purposes and different intentions. At the core of an Army’s way of viewing things, since time immemorial is about the defeat, which means the death of the enemy. Or as a Sergeant of mine put it to me once when we were at a range firing off the .50 cal (a big ass machine gun), “You put so much goddamn lead down range that it can’t sustain life.”

That mindset is far different (or at least it should be) then a police officer’s mindset, someone who is trying to maintain law, order and stability in an area. The two don’t really mix, you may need both in a police action (which is why we have SWAT teams) but they are not necessarily interchangeable. The mindsets are different because the intentions and purposes are different. The training is different because they are used (the police and the military respectively) for different things.

When you combine the two it becomes problematic.

Back to the aid world. And I think this holds true for most funding governments not just the USA. We run up into a problem of purpose and intentions. When I use the term “humanitarian” or “aid worker” or “aid, development or humanitarian mission”, hopefully, unless we’re jaded (possible) our first thoughts are altruistic…and I think they should be. But what we have to see is that the altruism of these things runs up against money, politics and power. The funding agencies behind foreign development and aid from any government are very enmeshed in that government’s political and economic structure. As such I think it’s pretty goddamn reasonable to assume the purposes for these agencies are sometimes hijacked by that countries political and economic interests.

But it’s not cut and dry either way. And every case, as the few I very briefly outlined above comes with a whole shit ton of complications, factors and complexities. In the examples I used there’s always questions. South Sudan, were we somewhat committed to stability in South Sudan and their separation from the North out of economic self-interest (which wouldn’t be working since the Chinese beat us to the punch) or out of the genuine need to help? Or is it a combination and which one really rules supreme and governs our priorities?

I would argue that the main problem in any mission whether it is humanitarian or military is about the fundamental driving principle, vision or mission statement (or all three) which starts with the people or government funding the activity and then permeates through every implementing agency and every actor all the way down to the people that it effects on the ground.

If those principles, missions and visions are not clearly reflected from the top-down and then reflected back from the bottom-up in order to reflect the reality on the ground then most times (as priorities should be built from the ground up), particularly in this incredibly political world then you will end up with something that is completely schizophrenic. It could be good, it could be bad. It certainly can’t be the most effective use of resources.

I use the term “Revolutionary Compromise” in the title. That is a bit mis-leading. I think for too long, we, humanity, have made too many compromises with our principles. We have thrown human altruism in with economic self-interest and economic self-interest has always trumped altruism. I think this is wrong. Now I would not argue for a blind, weak, uninformed, wide-eyed view of altruism, no I would argue for one that is strong, clear and understands the world. I would argue for one that places the betterment of all people at the primary forefront of our policy. And I honestly don’t think we do that yet.

An issue I would like to further explore next time.