Tea and the “narrative of Terror”

Even as [Three Cups of Tea] appears to provide a self-critical and humane perspective on terrorism, [this] article argues that it constructs a misleading narrative of terror in which the realities of Northern Pakistan and Muslim lifeworlds are distorted through simplistic tropes of ignorance, backwardness and extremism, while histories of US geopolitics and violence are erased. The text has further facilitated the emergence of a participatory militarism, whereby humanitarian work helps to reinvent the military as a culturally sensitive and caring institution in order to justify and service the project of empire.

From a 2010 article by Nosheen Ali{{1}}{{2}}, cited by Jon Krakauer in “Three Cups of Deceit.”

I have to admit I cringed when I read Mortenson's description of the Waziri men who he claimed kidnapped and held him for 8 days: “Six Waziri men with bandoliers criss-crossed on their chests slumped on packing crates smoking hashish from a multinecked hookah." The gang's leader is a nearly comic parody of the sinister swarthy villain, wearing "rose-colored aviator glasses" and a "thick black mustache that perched, batlike, on his upper lip."

The men come across as barely human savages as they "attack" their meal of roast lamb "with their long daggers, stripping tender meat from the bone and cramming it into their mouths with the blades of their knives."

One of his barbaric abductors was "a wild man with a matted beard and grey turban...shouting in a language [Mortenson] didn't understand."

What fully completes this disturbing picture is evidence that the kidnapping was fabricated out of an uneventful visit, with Mortenson the honored guest of his alleged abductors, one of whom is in fact a researcher at a Pakistani think tank.

The stereotyped, dehumanizing account of these alleged kidnappers is not an isolated occurrence, either. Ali argues that the whole book  recreates the "redemptive narrative of terrorism" advanced by the U.S. Military...while generating a simplistic portrait of Pakistanis that undermines their actual connection with Westerners. (To be fair, the book was mostly written not by Mortenson but rather by the journalist David Relin; "Mortenson" here refers to the dramatized character in Three Cups of Tea.)

Compare this version of the "other" to that present in another aid story, Mountains beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure The World. Both books are, as Ali points out, "stories of American humanitarian heroes engaged in international development" only Mountains beyond Mountains, well, isn't so demeaning:

Mountains beyond Mountains embodies a politicised and historicised humanitarianism. It links Haitian poverty and disease directly with structural processes, and details the various ways in which the US military–corporate complex has led to the repression and impoverishment of Haitians. Focusing on the ‘interconnectedness of the rich and the poor’, and on ‘transformation, not education’, Mountains beyond Mountains emphasises the relationality of the American self and Haitian other.

In Three Cups of Tea the relationality of the American self and Pakistani other disappears in a discourse of poverty and ignorance that is largely closed, self-evident and self- affirming—and thus orientalising.

[[1]] Unfortunately a gated link; NYU has a subscription.[[1]] [[2]] UPDATE: Here's the ungated version.[[2]]

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The African Success Story

If there was a theme to the development stories I read last week it was that the good news about rising standards of living on much of the African continent is not getting the recognition it deserves in the mainstream imagination. In case you don’t agree that people have a negatively skewed image of Africa as a whole, try this experiment: Ask an educated, well-read (but non-Africanist) friend or relative to estimate what percentage of African countries are at war right now. Let me know what you find. I’ve done it many times and have never gotten anything but a huge overestimate.

Or take a look at the op-ed by rock musician (cum Africa expert?) Ted Nugent, actually published in the Washington Times (HT Wronging Rights):

There is no country in Africa that truly respects freedom or the rule of law. The majority of countries in Africa are in economic ruin because of political corruption and a history ugly with cruel despotism. That’s why starvation and disease are rampant. AIDS is projected to kill as much as half the populations of some countries. Genocide is a way of life. There is little light in Africa.

If you’re not inclined to accept Ted Nugent as representative of widely-held views on Africa (and please, don’t!) do note that his comment, in the same article, that “Africa is an international scab,” is only slightly grosser and more insulting than Tony Blair’s infamous sound byte calling Africa “a scar on the conscience of the world” that will only get “deeper and angrier” without our intervention.

Karen Rothmyer, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review (HT to reader Hemal Shah), says this sensationalized picture of an Africa relentlessly trampled by the four horsemen of the apocalypse is the fault of NGOs and aid groups, which

understandably tend to focus not on what has been accomplished but on convincing people how much remains to be done. As a practical matter, they also need to attract funding. Together, these pressures create incentives to present as gloomy a picture of Africa as possible in order to keep attention and money flowing, and to enlist journalists in disseminating that picture.

She also blames credulous, budget-squeezed and time-pressed journalists who are only too eager to accept aid agencies accounts and figures to support the stories of misfortune. And everyone knows that bad news is news, while the story line that things are spinning along just as they should is generally met with a resounding yawn (and don’t we know that here on Aid Watch).

So perhaps Charles Kenny’s new book, “Getting Better,” which I’ve added to my reading list, will provide an attitude adjustment. The book, reviewed last week in the New York Times, argues that life in Africa and in most of the developing world has improved in recent decades at rates unprecedented in mankind’s history. Although economic growth hasn’t always kept pace, people in Africa today can expect to live longer, healthier, happier, better educated lives than their parents or grandparents.

In his introduction, Kenny reminds us that

the proportion of the population of sub-Saharan Africa affected by famine averaged less than three-tenths of a percent. The proportion who were refugees in 2005 was five-tenths of a percent. The number who died in wars between 1965 and 2001 averaged one one-hundredth of a percent.

While the use of statistics like these requires a disclaimer that any number of people dying from famine or war is too many, they are a useful corrective to the sensationalized doom-and-gloom-filled images of Africa, which may be more firmly and widely held than we would like to believe.


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Er, Yes, Madam, Muslims do want liberty

There is a common view that Muslims don't share the values of liberty and democracy, as expounded by, say, to take a random example, Michele Bachmann from a few years ago. Do recent events vindicate those who had already argued there was a universal hunger for liberty? One of them was Michael Novak, who says today in a Wall Street Journal oped  (gated, sorry) today:

{There was} the slumbering yet restless desire for liberty in the Muslim word...one-sixth of the human race would one day be awakened, even with an awful suddenness.

It may be that this is what we are seeing today, if only in a promissory note to be fully cashed in years to come. A rebellion against a cruel dictator is not same long step as a choice for a polity of law and rights; it is only a step.

Yet it took the Jewish and Christian worlds centuries to begin cashing in their own longings for liberty...The universal hunger for liberty is not satisfied in any one generation..

But let us now rejoice that in our time we have lived to see one of liberty's most fertile and widespread explosions. Islam, a religion of rewards and punishments, is -- like Christiantiy and Judaism -- a religion of liberty. History will bear this out.

David Brooks in NYT agrees on the Arab world:

many people in Arab nations do share a universal hunger for liberty. They feel the presence of universal human rights and feel insulted when they are not accorded them.

Culture is important, but underneath cultural differences there are these universal aspirations for dignity, for political systems that listen to, respond to and respect the will of the people.

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The Swimsuit Debate continues (sigh)....

...probably exhausting the patience of this blog's readers. Robin Hanson responds to my updated post on the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue:

Easterly doesn’t explain how exactly watching swimsuit models induces disrespect and harassment, and I find it hard to see the imagined causal path.

As I made clear to Robin in an email exchange, I don't think this debate hinges on an empirical claim. Nobody decides whether to use the N-word or not based on randomized controlled trials of whether its use quantitatively predicts assaults on African Americans. We have a moral sense of what is respectful, how to treat our fellow human beings with dignity, how to treat them as equals, in short, what respects their individual rights. Treating women as sex objects transgresses the moral obligation to respect the rights of women.  I believe the Swimsuit Issue does that; others may disagree.

Now it's really WAY past the time that two middle-aged male economists should get back to their own areas of specialized knowledge...

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So now we have to save ourselves and the world, too? A critique of “the girl effect”

by Anna Carella, PhD student in political science at Vanderbilt University Women have increasingly become the focus of international economic development projects, as exemplified by "the girl effect,” a catchphrase and global phenomenon that suggests that development projects aimed at women will succeed because women are more likely to nurture their families and communities.

The “girl effect” initiative was launched by the Nike Foundation in 2008 and has gained traction in the media (Save a Girl, Save the World,  Saving the World’s Women, and Girl Effect Could Lift the Global Economy) and at the 2009 World Economic Forum, where the girl effect panel ranked as the fourth most popular session. According to President of the Nike Foundation Maria Eitel, the goal is “to eradicate global poverty by investing in girls.”  While this campaign seems like a godsend for those who have been working to improve the lives of women, it may actually be damaging to women. Here’s why:

1) It relies on the essentialist view that women are innately more nurturing than men, and that women’s natural strengths lie in the home as the “chore doer” and “caretaker.” Rather than attempting to increase men’s domestic workload, the girl effect calls on women to carry the dual burden of housework and wealth creation. Why reinforce perceptions about “women’s work” and “men’s work” by claiming that women make better homemakers? Why not instead address the structural factors that underlie men’s apparent disinterest in the health and education of their children?

2) “She will drive 70% of agricultural production. She is an unrealized economic force, accelerating growth and progress in every sector,” claims the campaign. But women in developing countries already make up a larger proportion of the workforce on average than women in industrialized countries, and yet development is stalled. Industrialized countries relied on technological advancements to fuel growth during industrialization, not women. It’s a myth that women will drive growth enough to pull the poorest countries out of poverty: What poor countries need to stimulate sustainable growth are not women taking out loans to buy cows, but better governance and better terms of trade with rich countries.

3) The goal of economic development prioritizes the well-being of the economy over the well-being of women, since gender equality is not pursued for its own good but as a byproduct of development strategies. This may be damaging to women in unanticipated ways—for example, increases in domestic violence have been observed among some female microloan recipients. The campaign assures us that once women start working and contributing to household income, their autonomy will grow. In reality, men may feel threatened by the singular focus on women. The greatest subordination felt by women is within their own home, yet the girl effect has nothing to say about domestic violence, rape, the wage gap, or the many other systemic problems underlying and reinforcing gender discrimination in poor countries (and rich ones too!).

4) The girl effect reinforces the perception of women and more generally people in developing countries as needing “saving.” In the girl effect video above, the viewer is told to “imagine a girl living in poverty.” Then the word “GIRL” is displayed with flies buzzing around the letters, drawing on a stereotypical image often conjured by Westerners to depict sad, impoverished children in developing countries. Such images perpetuate the dichotomy of modern Western world vs. the backwards, charity-dependent rest of the world. In the slideshow, Westerners are invited to “fix this picture,” and told that if they invest in girls they will change the course of history. This message gives more agency to Westerners than to the girls it claims to be empowering.

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Aid Watch Rerun: And Now For Something Completely Different: Davos Features “Refugee Run”

NOTE FROM THE EDITORS: Over the holidays, we'll be publishing reruns of some of our posts from the first 2 years of Aid Watch. This post originally ran on Jan 28, 2008, and attracted a firestorm of comments, passionately for and against the idea. There will be a similar event again this year at Davos.


When somebody sent me this invitation from Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, I thought at first it was a joke from the Onion. What do you think of the Davos rich and powerful going through the “Refugee Run” theme park re-enactment of life in a refugee camp?

Can Davos man empathize with refugees when he or she is not in danger and is going back to a luxury banquet and hotel room afterwards? Isn’t this just a tad different from the life of an actual refugee, at risk of all too real rape, murder, hunger, and disease?

Did the words “insensitive,” “dehumanizing,” or “disrespectful” (not to mention “ludicrous”) ever come up in discussing the plans for “Refugee Run”?

I hope such bad taste does not reflect some inability in UNHCR to see refugees as real people with their own dignity and rights.

Of course, I understand that there were good intentions here, that you really want rich people to have a consciousness of tragedies elsewhere in the world, and mobilize help for the victims. However, I think a Refugee Theme Park crosses a line that should not be crossed. Sensationalizing and dehumanizing and patronizing results in bad aid policy – if you have little respect for the dignity of individuals you are trying to help, you are not going to give THEM much say in what THEY want and need, and how you can help THEM help themselves?

Unfortunately, sensationalizing, patronizing, and dehumanizing attitudes are a real ongoing issue in foreign aid. David Rieff in his great book A Bed For the Night talks about how humanitarian agencies universally picture children in their publicity campaigns, as if the parents of these children are irrelevant. A classic Rieff quote: “There are two groups of people who like to be photographed with children: dictators and aid officials.”


Former World Bank President Wolfowitz with a few children

Alex de Waal in his equally great book Famine Crimes (and continuing writings since) writes about “disaster pornography.” He gives an example of a Western television producer in Somalia in 1992-93 who said to a local Somali doctor: “pick the children who are most severely malnourished” and bring them to be photographed.

Here’s a resolution to be proposed at Davos: we rich people hereby recognize each and every citizen of the globe as an individual with their own human dignity equal to our own, regardless of their poverty or refugee status. And Davos man: please give Refugee Run a pass.

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The Haiti we don't see

Haiti is not always and all the time earthquakes, hurricanes, deforestation, misery, rape, corruption, kidnappings, poverty, garbage, violence, gangs, wasted aid, cholera, election fraud, dirty water, orphans and amputees.

These pictures, the result of an NGO-funded collaboration between a Canadian photojournalist and 22 Haitian teenagers living in Jacmel and Croix des Bouquets, are a beautiful reminder that Haiti is also babies with chickens, landscapes, going to school, solitude, hair-dos and cookouts. Via Linda Raftree, blogging at Wait...What?

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Africa Clichés, Part LXXVIII

The blog Africa is a Country reacts to the NYT Magazine's Coverage of John "Save Darfur" Prendergast. The best summary is from former NYT Reporter Howard French's Twitter feed: "Bwana Saves Africa, Part 3,276." The same blog had a post yesterday on cringe-inducing attempts to have a supermodel portray an "Africa" theme at a certain fashion show. It reminded me of crude Hollywood portrayals of Africa when I was a child.  And no, I'm not showing you the picture.

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Why doesn't the other gender care about Gender?

Thirty years on, it is proving harder than many of us had hoped for gender and development policy and practice to move beyond familiar stereotypes – women as abject victims or splendid heroines, men as all-powerful perpetrators. Axioms abound: ‘women are the poorest of the poor’, ‘women give more priority to others – men invest more resources in themselves’, ‘women live in a more sustainable way than men and cause less climate change’, ‘women are the antidote to the financial crisis’.

Representations of men are limited and limiting. The ready association of the words “men” and “masculinity” with brute force, brash competitiveness and brazen prerogative makes those on the receiving end of the exercise of masculine power decisively female.

These complaints about Gender promoting gender stereotypes come from the journal Contestations, in an article by the always thought-provoking Andrea Cornwall and Emily Esplen.  They call for moving beyond stereotypes and actually involving Men in the cause of better lives for Women. They wonder why they have few male takers for their recommended actions:

Why ... do we see so few men actually taking up these actions – even the men around us who declare themselves sympathetic allies?

Along with lots of bad reasons that don't reflect well on men, it could also reflect a few men put off by a cause that, according to the authors, perpetrates the "all men are evil" stereotype.

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