oh, no, no, no
So last week I linked to a Slate series of reflections from an aid worker who formerly worked in Goma. I thought it was a nice way of capturing the tension that many aid workers feel: they help people professionally, but are torn about what to do when the problems they're fighting become personal.
Well. As you may recall, the series finished on Friday, when I was halfway through the Delta Airlines Journey from Hell 2010 (which involved unplanned stopovers at Dulles and Nairobi, as well as 22 hours in Newark, New Jersey). Given that I was enjoying the wonders of Newark, the land of no free wifi, I missed the conclusion of the series on Friday, which a friend in Goma informed me I'd better read tout-de-suite. Because here's how it ended:
I was confused and upset. I realized that I didn't know anything. I didn't know whether Aimé was tricking me. I didn't know why he would trick me. I didn't know if anything I have told you about his life was true, and I didn't know if foreign aid works.Now. While I'm sure these are feelings that, if we're honest, many of us have shared from time to time, I hope everyone who reads this blog knows that I don't endorse the idea that you can't trust the Congolese. To conclude thus ignores the mountain of evidence that many Congolese are quite trustworthy - including the hundreds of trusted drivers, cooks, housekeepers, logisticians, and other support staff who keep the international humanitarian circus running. It ignores the doctors who stay at their posts despite not having been paid government salaries in a decade, the fearless lawyers who pursue justice for the women and girls who've been victimized by armed forces, and the compassion of those who start orphanages not to make a profit, but because they cannot bear to see so many children living alone on the streets.
But I was pretty sure about one thing. Aimé once told me that you can't trust Congolese people. Now, I agreed with him. From the parents who wouldn't let their children go to school, to the soldiers who raped women they were supposed to have been defending from rebels, to the rebels who killed for mining profits, to the witch doctors who sold phony cures, and the deacons who accused children of sorcery, and the government that didn't pay its officials, and the officials who bribed, and the culture that taught corruption as a means of progress, I was sick of this Hobbesian place, and I didn't feel guilty about their suffering anymore.
It also ignores the complexity of what we in the west call "corruption," because while the Congolese grumble as much as the expats at made-up fees and endless bureaucratic wrangling, there's a tacit understanding here that everyone in government work also has to eat. That bureaucrat who makes one pay a bribe at the border doesn't get a salary. What else is he supposed to do? And is that system really that different from taxation at its core?
(An interesting dissertation project for an economist, by the way, would be to figure out what the threshold of collective action is on these issues. The general population is fine with certain fees, but not others. Why? What does that tell us about taxation in weak states?)