In his trenchant 2010 piece "Alms Dealers," Philip Gourevitch describes a cruel paradox: how humanitarian aid intended to relieve intense suffering actually prolongs that suffering.
With peacemakers on hand to provide food and medical assistance within the world's boiling hot spots, the bad actors -- whether governmental or "rebels" -- continue sowing their misery. This is partially due to the fact that the peacemakers will offer sustenance to anyone in a conflict, for fear of taking sides and being driven away by the spurned party. This is also because there are excise taxes on the aid deliveries, which are sometimes quite substantial. These taxes are a key source of funds for the warring parties -- presumably, all parties to the same conflict would receive a share of these proceeds if conditions were right.
Most depressing indeed. Rather than offering a resounding moral victory of relieving pain, our efforts to do so often end up prolonging that pain.
Over time humanitarian organizations become just like any other entrenched bureaucracy, looking for reasons to perpetuate their existence -- even if those very reasons are the continuation of the horrors they ostensibly seek to redress. The proof: Those (seemingly rare) cases when an aid organization concludes that its work does more harm than good, and decides to leave a region as a result. Inevitably other aid organizations are waiting in the wings, only too glad to claim the aid money suddenly lying on the table.
Although I had never pondered this phenomenon with respect to international aid, I have wondered about an analogous dynamic for US activist organizations. Do the groups which are fighting poverty really want poverty to disappear? Do groups seeking to extend rights to marginalized people actually want those rights to materialize?
Probably not, because in such a world the raison d'etre for these groups would cease to be.
Gourevitch quotes the Somali poet Ali Dhux, who makes all of these points more elegantly and succinctly:
"A man tries hard to help you find your lost camels.
He works more tirelessly than even you.
But in truth he does not want you to find them, ever."
What, then, should good-hearted people do? Just curl into a ball, because any compassionate impulse will curdle back onto itself?
The best strategy I can devise is to be purposeful in our actions -- taking very good care to ensure that wherever we provide assistance it makes a positive impact, and not deluding yourselves when it does not. Keep doing good work if it's actually good work, cut the cord if otherwise.
This means "thinking globally and acting locally," as the old saying goes. Humility is in order -- there is very little most of us know about the dynamics of life in Darfur or Cambodia or (today) Syria. We do know about the hardship in our cities and states, and can do something to address those if we choose to and are clear-eyed about it.
If such direct action is not your thing, that's ok. But each and everyone one of us should strive to adhere to the Reiki Principles "Just for Today":
1: Just for today, I will not be angry
2: Just for today, I will not worry
3: Just for today, I will be grateful
4: Just for today, I will do my work honestly
5: Just for today, I will be kind to every living thing.
If everyone did this, overt humanitarian aid -- locally or globally -- would no longer be thought necessary.
My most valuable course at Northwestern, in fall quarter junior year, was about the novels of Virginia Woolf. In addition to offering an immersion into the mind of one of the greatest ever writers, this course honed my writing skills. The challenge of drafting brief papers to describe momentous themes sharpened my ability to hone in on the essence of the matter.
To the Lighthouse was a particular challenge to understand. I was too young to understand this modernist work that was (virtually) no plot and all perception. Family ties are frayed, love endures through struggle, eventually there is a successful voyage to the aforementioned lighthouse. C'est la vie, I 'spose, but who cares?
I do now, after re-reading the novel 18 years later. These days a novel that is composed of interior dialogues and shifting perspectives is full of drama. Legitimate drama too -- not the flash of an everyday page turner. Here's an original work, constructing incisive work.
To wit: "Where to begin?--that was the question at what point to make the first mark? One line placed on the canvas committed her [Lily Briscoe] to innumerable risks, to frequent and irrevocable decisions. All that in idea seemed simple became in practice immediately complex." It has ever been so, but usually such insights do not arrive in a blinding flash of brilliance.
For example, one journal's articles could be free to read but require permissions to re-use. Another journal could be open both for reading and re-use. This latter journal is further along the openness spectrum. And most journals could provide greater facility for text and data mining via API, even if they are open in all other respects. Machine readability is the next frontier in open publication.
This entire effort is an attempt to broaden the definition of openness. I am pleased that I played a small part in the cause, by ranking some of the journals within the larger set (which contains 502 journals in all). Please take a look. Onward, upward, and open.