Wednesday, January 11, 2017

"Effective altruism" and oppression in the dark heart of Africa

There is an interesting debate about the effectiveness of aid in a 2015 issue of the Boston Review, called the "Effective Altruism Forum". There are many contributors but here I focus on the debate between Nobel Laureate (economics, 2015) Professor Angus Deaton and his Princeton colleague, Prof Peter Singer, then between former Rwandan minister for health, Dr (now Prof) Agnes Binagwaho's and Prof Deaton. 

Two professors from Princeton: Peter Singer vs Angus Deaton

The founder of so-called effective altruism is the utilitarian philosopher, Professor Peter Singer, who now lives in the academic paradise of Princeton University (which I once had the pleasure of visiting to attend a conference on emergent risk).

To me Singer's principles are absurdly simple, a fairy tale for children. Singer says "a minimally acceptable ethical life involves using a substantial part of one’s spare resources to make the world a better place." With that, I agree - if one has spare resources. But Singer writes that this includes: "choosing a career in which they can earn most, not in order to be able to live affluently but so that they can do more good".

The structural violence of Wall St

What about an ethical career? Singer does say "effective altruism" involves obeying the usual rules of not stealing, cheating, hurting, and killing, but then lauds as a model the practice of a former student of his who "took a job on Wall Street" and who, within a year of graduation was donating "a six-figure sum—roughly half his annual earnings—to highly effective charities." Singer seems blind, or perhaps indifferent as to whether the livelihood of his former student involves immense indirect harm, including to the poor. 

I might return to this debate in a future post, including how the effectiveness of charities can be objectively measured, although in extreme cases ineffectiveness is obvious, such as the foundation recently closed down by the Australian cricketer Shane Warne. One of Australia's highest profile celebrity charities, it has, since 2011, been known to donate between 11-32% of the funds it raises on behalf of sick and underprivileged children. Unlike the charities I co-founded, which consistently have spent less than 15% on running costs (and in 2016 less than 3% which is probably too low).

Right livelihood

Prof Singer seems unaware of, or perhaps dismissive, of the Buddhist concept of "right livelihood". No doubt, from a Hindu or Buddhist perspective the generosity of Singer's student creates good karma, and will help offset his likely involvement in structural violence (Wall St), even if unwitting.

A truly intelligent way to reduce inequality - though also difficult

In response to Singer, Deaton concludes: "I too see students who want to relieve suffering in the world. Should they go to Dhaka or Dakar? Focus on bed nets or worms? I tell them to go to Washington or London and to work to stop the harm that rich countries do; to oppose the arms trade, the trade deals that benefit only the pharmaceutical companies, the protectionist tariffs that undermine the livelihoods of African farmers; and to support more funding to study tropical disease and health care. Or they could go to Africa, become citizens, and cast their lot with those they want to help. That is how they can save the lives of African kids."

That, for me, is a far more ethical, practical and intelligent expression of effective altruism - even though trying to reform the practices of the rich world, operating through the "claste system" is extremely difficult.

Deaton, Paul Kagame, and oppression in Rwanda

In his response to Singer, Deaton criticises Paul Kagame, Rwanda's dictator (I have long been aware of Kagame's authoritarianism and phony elections; see several links, including to Anjan Sundaram's excellent 10 minute talk "Detecting a dictatorship", in which he calls Rwanda a "surveillance state" and talks of how many of his former journalism students have been murdered). See also the rivetting BBC documentary "Rwanda’s Untold Story".

Deaton gives no explanation in his essay for his unhappy assessment of Rwanda, but states bluntly
(I would say, a little too bluntly):

"In today’s Rwanda, President Paul Kagame has discovered how to use Singer’s utilitarian calculus against his own people. By providing health care for Rwandan mothers and children, he has become one of the darlings of the industry and a favorite recipient of aid. Essentially, he is “farming” Rwandan children, allowing more of them to live in exchange for support for his undemocratic and oppressive rule. Large aid flows to Africa sometimes help the intended beneficiaries, but they also help create dictators and provide them with the means to insulate themselves from the needs and wishes of their people."

Presidents Clinton and Kagame: an increasingly uncomfortable embrace?

Kagame is indeed a favourite of the US and UK, with invitations to Harvard University, admired by former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and former US President Bill Clinton, who has met him many times. Writing about the relationship between Clinton and Kagame, Professor Filip Reyntjens, a Belgian scholar who has devoted most of his academic life to the study of the politics of the Great Lakes Region, commented "either he (i.e. Clinton) is completely uninformed about what we know about Kagame or he’s in total denial”. (Reyntjens is prominent and highly articulate in Rwanda’s Untold Story").

However, in an interview with a BBC reporter in 2013, Mr. Clinton admitted “I suppose I do make more allowances for a government that has produced as much progress as that one has,” and “there are very few situations that are perfect.” Clinton, who was U.S. president during the Rwandan genocide, denies any residual sense of guilt, saying: “whatever guilt I had went away when I took responsibility for not helping them. I remember in 2001 when I went back to Rwanda for the second time, a reporter was riding in the streets of Kigali with a taxi driver and he said aren't you mad that Bill Clinton's here working on aid and all this stuff? He said no I'm not. And the reporter said, why? And he said, first he didn't make us kill each other, we were all adults and we did it. And we've got to stop blaming outsiders for what we did to ourselves. That's Kagame's contribution. And then he said, secondly at least he said I'm sorry - nobody else has apologised."

“So no I don't think it is guilt. But I suppose I do make more allowances for a government that has produced as much progress as that one has - and has been well organised and otherwise had the rule of law, and so that's the way it is. There are very few situations that are perfect.”

This points to a problem with Singer's quite superficial analysis. It is indeed good that Rwandans today have improved physical health (I'm not sure about their mental health) - but, as we pointed out in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, well-being needs more than being fed. It also needs security and freedom, and both of these are clearly lacking in Rwanda today.

Clinton also stated: "the economic and social gains in Rwanda have been nothing short of astonishing, under Kagame, and he says he's gonna leave when his time's up." That looks unlikely; the constitution has been changed allowing him to stay in power until 2034, although there is still a chance he will stand down this year (2017).

The former Rwandan health minister (a Tutsi, even though the vast majority of Rwandans are Hutu) is Dr (now Prof) Agnes Binagwaho. She took offense to Deaton's language. I went to a conference on Rwanda in 1996, in Oxford, attended by the then Rwandan ambassador. There was almost a fight. It was very unpleasant, the ambassador was very aggressive. I was reminded of that, when I read Dr Binagwaho's letter;I thought Deaton's response to her was far stronger: you can read it here.

The essence of this debate is that the health improvements in Rwanda, since the genocide (now officially called the "genocide against the Tutsis", even though many Hutus were killed in 1994 and following that in the Congo, even though the violence started when a plane carrying two Hutu presidents was shot down, allegedly by forces then loyal to the current president) matter far more than the lack of freedom of speech and the numerous ongoing human rights abuses, including exile and murder of dissidents. Binagwaho's argument is utilitarian, and it seems plausible over a short period. But over the longer term it's a disaster.

Another genocide in Rwanda appears inevitable, unless the society can become fairer. On the positive side, the birth rate is falling and should fall even more. Paul Kagame should retire, and the leading opposition figure, Victoire Ingabire, now in prison because she called for a memorial for some of the 100,000 (or maybe even 500,00) Hutus killed in Rwanda (and maybe more than a million in the Congo) should be released. If so, another genocide might be avoided.


My main interest is the intersection of ecology, politics and human rights. This piece is rather long, and it's simplistic for genuine Great Lakes scholars; yet complicated for most people. I first wrote about the likelihood of genocide in Africa in 1994, in an article published in the Lancet in April that year, just as the conflict was about to explode. The conflict has ecological as well as political roots; the two are inextricable. 

Rwanda has long illustrated the lack of freedom in a world that is ecologically constrained. It suits the great powers to pretend that resources are endless, when they all know they are not. I think Bill (and Chelsea) Clinton, in their hearts, do not wish to see another genocide. All commentators applaud Bill Clinton's intelligence. He must know of the excesses of Kagame's rule, and I think experiences a sense of helplessness .. having supported him so long, he cannot pull the plug. Yet, I think he should. 

Former Presidents Carter, Eisenhower and Truman all recognised the limits of Pax Americana, Clinton surely must too. One thing Clinton could do, in his remaining time, is steer the aid world a little away from neoliberalism. I know that Clinton and the Clinton Foundation have a myriad of critics, but perhaps Hillary Clinton's humiliating defeat will trigger some reflection, paving the way for Elizabeth Warren's inauguration in 2021. If civilization can last that long!

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