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Category: Human Rights

What Should I Tell My Students To Do If They Want to Change the World?

The walk between my apartment and campus takes about half an hour to complete, and one of the ways I pass that time every day is by listening to podcasts on foreign affairs issues.  Yesterday morning on my walk in I listened to a moderated discussion with Thomas Pogge given at the Carnegie Council back on January 19, 2012.  Pogge is an ethicist and a scholar of international relations, and a lot of his recent work looks at the ethical issues associated with global poverty.

The whole discussion was interesting, but the part that really stuck out to me occurred about 1/3 of the way through.  Pogge argued that those who are indifferent to the current international economic system are morally analogous to passive Germans during the Nazi era, or those who acquiesced to slavery in the antebellum United States.

The idea is that the international economy is structured in such a way that the vast majority of the global population is trapped in completely unnecessary poverty.  This unremitting poverty stymies the lives of billions of people, and in fact kills many of them.  As Pogge points out, 1/3 of all people die of poverty-related causes.  Every year more than 7 million children under 5 die from easily preventable diseases like diarrhea, malaria and measles essentially because they are poor.  Close to 1 billion people do not have access to clean water, and more than 1/3 of human beings don’t have access to adequate sanitation.  Even many who are not in such desperate straits often live extraordinarily difficult lives, a point illustrated in a much-talked-about recent article in the New York Times about the factories in China that produces Apple’s popular iPads and iPhones.

(I highly recommend the documentary Darwin’s Nightmare (streaming on Netflix) as a demonstration of how the international economic system actually preys on this poverty in many parts of the globe, as the rich countries leverage their privileged position (inherited from a past of colonialism) to provide low-cost goods to their citizens, and meanwhile contribute to a host of other problems in developing states.)

Pogge has a dialogue later in the discussion in which he attributes at least part of the problem to a lack of awareness on the part the Western public.  The world as it is feels normal to us, and we have to see that this normalcy harbors within it great injustice.  Once that realization is made, it is implied, people will do something.

But do what?

There are two problems here, one of diagnosis and one of treatment.  The first is that I think that Pogge and other  development activists are wrong if they believe average people do not care about global poverty.  At the very least, I know that college students are intensely interested in the issue.  Over the last four years I have taught ten courses at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, and almost without fail the issues that get my students most excited are global poverty and human rights.  My students care a great deal about these issues, especially after I present a few of the facts, and they really want to know what they can do to help.

But that part is a problem.  What I usually tell them is to set up a Kiva account, call their congressman to ask for an end to cotton subsidies, and to read End of Poverty, Bottom Billion, and White Man’s Burden.  But the thing is that I am not an expert.  If you look at what the experts are saying, you get almost no guidance as to what the average person can do in the fight against global poverty.  In fact, it sometimes seems that many development experts seem to spend a great deal of time discouraging lay people from doing anything for fear that amateurs might do something counter-productive.

This was epitomized in a much-discussed blog post from the development blog Tales From the Hood that made the rounds last summer.  Tales From the Hood has recently switched to a private blog so unfortunately you cannot see the original text, but the gist was as follows.  There was an American woman who was greatly moved by poverty issues and moved to Thailand and set up her own NGO there doing something, I don’t remember what.  Whatever she was doing, the experts believed that what she was doing was counterproductive and actually perpetuating poverty rather than alleviating it.  I have no reason to doubt the experts’ judgment on this matter, and I am well aware that this probably happens with a lot of aid projects.  Apparently she was confronted with this problem, and her response was that at least she was “doing something.”  The blog post castigated her for doing more harm than good and made a strident argument that amateurs had no place to play in development.

Some version of this seems to come out most of the time that development experts talk about ordinary people trying to contribute to the fight against poverty.  I follow many development experts on Twitter, and a fair amount of the chatter is sniping at projects or drives led by people who are not trained economists.  Let’s leave aside for the moment the distinct possibility that no one knows how to do aid effectively, economics Ph.D. or not.  This failure by experts to describe anything that normal people can do that would be useful is a tremendous lost opportunity.

Take as an example this article about a group of development experts talking to college students about global poverty issues at the University of Washington last year.  This group had a huge turnout of students; you can see in the picture that there were no seats left and students were sitting on the floor, all there to find out how they could help in the struggle against global poverty.  Now read the article and good luck finding any practical thing that a person could do that would be useful.  What the experts did instead was spend the whole time saying development is really complex, we need to avoid assuming we know more than locals, and to avoid imposing Western values.  The only affirmative action that anyone suggested is that students could save up money and go live in a village in a developing country for a year to learn the culture.  (I’m not kidding, check out the article).

The admonitions are obviously very important, but the failure to describe any positive action students can take is not very helpful.  My guess is that most students who attended that lecture probably went away with whatever enthusiasm they might have had diminished.  If any of those students ever take any action to try to help in the effort against global poverty, it probably will be in spite of that presentation, not because of any beneficial effect.  It would have been far better to present a list of things that a normal 20-year-old could do that would be useful to go along with the information about sensitivity to complexity (and perhaps even as a way to illustrate ways to manage that complexity).

I would also point out that unless development experts provide some guidance as to what would be helpful, there is some portion of the population that will go out and “do something” anyway because of an innate desire to help or entrepreneurial spirit, and some of that will be wasteful or harmful.  See the recent flap about Invisible Children’s documentary on the LRA.  Better to give people some idea of good things that can be done rather than leave them to come up with things on their own where they are likely to be influenced by the latent colonial White Man’s Burden view of the developing world still prevalent in our pop culture.

But what do we do?  What should I tell my students that they can do to become involved in the global fight against poverty?  How does the average person avoid complicity in what Pogge equates with grave crimes against humanity?

I don’t really know – you got my version above but this is not my field of expertise.  Ideally, what would happen is that a bunch of experts would write down short descriptions of practical steps that your average college student, or average middle-aged worker, or average pensioner, etc., can do that would genuinely be useful.  The “Annual Questions” series of questionnaires that Edge puts to prominent scientists would be a good model.

Maybe there really is nothing that the average person can do and we shouldn’t worry our pretty little heads about it.  However, I think that is highly unlikely.  And I think it has to be more than just “awareness.”  Telling people they have a moral duty to become aware of a serious issue but then telling them they have no role to play in its outcome is not helpful.  (Haranguing people for not caring but then saying they are not qualified to do anything is a bit perverse and accomplishes nothing more than validating an activist’s sense of moral superiority).

And maybe there genuinely is nothing of any kind that a normal person can do about global poverty or about persistent human rights problems.  But before I accept that, I want to see a very strong argument to that effect.

So what do you think I should tell my students when they ask whether there is anything they can do to help alleviate global poverty?


Is Human Security a thing? Is it a good thing?

Yesterday I attended the Great Plains National Security Education Consortium’s (GNPSEC) 2012 Colloquium, held here at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln.  The topic of this year’s conference was “human security,” and the panelists presented academic papers on a wide range of topics related to that subject.  What prompted this blog post was that, at the end of the conference, the moderator posed the following questions to the audience:

– Does the human security paradigm provide any additional value to the study of international relations?

– Does it do more harm than good?

This was following on comments made by one of the last panelists that one of the chief problems with human security is that the concept is overly broad.  He argued that it does not tell us much because its scope includes all of human welfare.  As he put it, when everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.

I think these criticisms are misplaced because they don’t quite capture what the human security paradigm is: a paradigm.  It’s a prism through which to look at the world, not a tool to provide additional leverage on already existing scholarship. What the human security approach does is provide an alternative way of identifying concepts that are relevant to the human political experience that might be ignored by more traditional approaches.  When we conceive of the purpose of international relations as inter-state order or security, we ask certain kinds of research questions but tend to ignore others.

Right now I’m thinking about this in terms of telos, the old Greek idea of purpose in an enterprise.

Telos is an idea from the ancient Greeks, most famously associated with the work of Aristotle, that everything in existence has a purpose.  The purpose of some domain is what drives all action in that domain and is what provides the criteria by which actions in those domains are judged.  The purpose of sailing is get a boat from one place to another.  Anything done by a sailor that is not helpful to that purpose is bad seamanship.  Moreover, there was a master purpose that Aristotle located in politics.  The purpose of government, according to Aristotle, is to facilitate the perfection of the people living under it.  The city exists “not merely so we can live, but so we can live well.”  (And when Aristotle says “live well,” he does not mean free of discomfort.  He means bringing our lives as close as possible to the most perfect form that is available to us; i.e. achieving our full potential).  Because the well-lived life is the highest purpose of any human being, all our other actions are subordinate to that telos.  And because politics is the way by which we identify and pursue this human flourishing, it was “the master science.”  The substance of that science would then be identifying those things that make that telos more achievable.

What the human security paradigm is offering modern scholars is a new telos for the academic study of world politics.  What I mean by this is that human security offers a different way of identifying what kinds of events are important and therefore worth studying, with subsequent implications for dependent variables of interest and what kinds of measures are necessary to capture them.  It might be easiest to conceive of this in opposition to some alternative purposes.

The realists, Machiavelli to Morgenthau and beyond, identify the purpose of politics as maintaining security, and specifically the security of the foreign affairs policymaker (the sovereign).

Economists, including most IPE scholars, identify the purpose as the maximization of efficiency.

The English School, at least with regard to Hedley Bull, said the purpose is the maintenance of global order.

What these all are lacking is any interest in the lives of the great majority of human beings.  Security, order, efficiency, as those things have been conceived by scholars and scholarly policymakers in the past, do not take account of the quality of human lives.  Knowing whether some policy increases GDP per capita does not tell you whether that policy is improving life in that society.  For one thing there are distributional issues, but also a whole range of “externalities” (so called because they are external to the efficiency paradigm) like environmental degradation and cultural impoverishment.  “National security” maintained by a delicate balance of power that requires occasional wars to correct imbalances and the dedication of large percentages of societal resources into military spending neglects the often acute insecurity felt by people within borders vis-à-vis their governments or violent non-state actors like organized crime.  And “order” is a joke when it provides carte blanche for state leaders to abuse their populations under the protection of the sovereign right to non-interference.

The human security paradigm is an attempt to relocate the political Good away from the level of the state/sovereign and place it at the level of the individual.  Such a shift would be more consequential than yesterday’s critics realize.  It is only by resort to the telos of IR scholarship that we can identify the concepts we should use in our work, not to mention prioritizing what is more important and what is less so.  Contrary to this idea that human security prioritizes everything, what instead happens is that the human security idea puts the priority on the sense of security felt by individual human beings, without prioritizing some persons over others.

This was illuminated in the presentation of Dr. Glenn Phelps of the Gallup polling company.  Since 2005 Gallup has been conducting yearly surveys in nearly every country in the world on a variety of issues.  Yesterday he focused on trends in two questions that are asked on all surveys: 1) on a scale of 1-10, how well is your life going right now?  2) on a scale of 1-10, how likely do you think it is that your life will be better in five years?  Gallup has combined the answers into a single index that they conceive of as ranging from suffering to flourishing.  Here’s where it gets interesting: 1) changes on this index were not strongly correlated with changes in GDP per capita, and 2) they were a better predictor of the outbreak of political unrest than was change in GDP per capita.

In other words, the old paradigm of using GDP per capita as a measure of development is misguided.  And research using GDP per capita, whether as a dependent variable or independent variable, cannot plausibly claim that what that number is tapping is quality of life.  This has big implications for a lot of social scientific research.

It is interesting to note that human security is not the only attempt at this shift in telos.  We also have the human rights literature, and the work on capabilities such as Sen (1999) and Nussbaum (2011).  It seems that all three of these are attempting to shift the telos to the individual level, though with slightly different emphases.  Human security is often framed as “freedom from…” (fear, want, etc.).  The human capabilities approach talks about not only eliminating barriers to individuals but also providing them with the support they need (education, health care, etc.) for them to pursue their individually chosen life plans.  The human rights frame is broader still, probably not least because it is older.

It might be that these 3 views should be seen as competing approaches to placing the telos at the individual level, with potentially important differences in what dependent variables would be most central to international relations scholarship and what measures would be best used to capture their variance.