In a recent column entitled ‘Westerners on white horses’ in the New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof explained why, when writing about humanitarian efforts in impoverished nations, he chooses to focus on westerners working in these countries instead of locals doing similar work.
Referring to the portrayal of local people as perpetual victims and white foreigners as their altruistic saviours, Kristof describes this focus as deliberate, a pointed strategy to garner the attention of cynical western readers sceptical about why catastrophes in Sudan, Pakistan or Somalia should occupy their time or interest.
What Kristof speaks of is a crisis in empathy that marks the attitude of the world’s affluent towards the impoverished. In giving them western public heroes that they can identify with, he attempts to persuade western readers to transcend their indifference and care about the problems of remote countries that seem to have no direct bearing on their personal lives. Kristof makes an important point: westerners, smug about their riches, often do not care; and elevating the white western aid worker to the status of a star appeals to those who wish to define themselves as modern-day saviours.
The discussion is timely in the Pakistani context. Kristof’s article appeared just days before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came to Pakistan bearing $500m in aid, accompanied by Rajiv Shah, the new head of USAID. As the lucky poor whose problems seem to have captured the attention of USAID, Pakistanis are expected to be grateful for the benevolent bounty soon to be directed their way.
Kristof’s discussion and admittedly well-meaning attempts are admirable and also illustrative. In the West’s imagination, the concept of ‘helping’ the needy in other countries is based ultimately on a mythic altruism and envisioned as a voluntary and selfless sharing of resources that is at least theoretically determined only by the passion for wanting the best for other people.
It is this paradigm that governs the depiction of every western aid-bearing hero, whose unquestioning avowal of the sundry hardships of life in Liberia or Haiti or Pakistan is seen as an example worthy of emulation because it is a choice. In presenting these characters as heroes, the project of international assistance is given a ‘human’ face and the strategic interests of various aid-giving nations stamped with the moral imprimatur of selflessness that absolves or camouflages historical transgressions and strategic agendas.
Yet beneath the paradigm of altruistic heroism that defines aid as the kindness of rich foreigners, lie unquestioned notions of entitlement and legal and moral duty that the world seems to take for granted. The most damning of these, and one discussed at length by scholar Ayelet Shachar in her recent book The Birthright Lottery, is the concept of ‘citizenship’ as a form of inherited entitlement that automatically provides a certain number of people in the world, primarily westerners and Arab sheikhs, with a set of choices and opportunities markedly superior to those available to the rest.
In being born to Saudi or American or British parents, a set of life choices emerges that is drastically different from those available to those born in Sierra Leone, Bangladesh or any other of the many poor countries in the world. It defines people as either the heroic altruists choosing to ‘help’ others around the world or as hapless natives reconciled to accepting the dribbles that the rich choose to direct their way. It is this transmission of entitlements by birth, otherwise considered so unfair in western liberal jurisprudence, that remains the central basis of distribution of wealth in the world.
Western nations such as the United States, Canada and a variety of European countries are committed to many legislative efforts to reduce discrimination in their own societies among their own citizens. Examples include anti-racism measures, affirmative action programmes that support minorities, student loan programmes that hope to provide opportunities for higher education to those from poor backgrounds and a host of other efforts designed to eliminate structural inequalities that would emerge from being born in a poor household.
These programmes are not seen as altruistic but rather as aiming at empowerment and a necessary basis for reducing the disparity between the rich and the poor. In funding unemployment assistance, for example, the US Congress is not asking voters to draw on their empathy or selfless desire to help those laid off in the recent economic downturn but as an obligation that is owed to those victimised by the downturn.
While this commitment could be argued away as largely theoretical by showing the persistence of such disparities in western countries, it points to the shaky basis on which some people are considered ‘deserving’ of help and respect while others, outside arbitrary realms of citizenship, become unworthy of consideration.
The western aid worker as hero is an image that is happily consumed by both westerners and Pakistanis with the latter gladly ignoring their own Sattar Edhis in the process of elevating their Greg Mortensons. However, for aid to actually work the paradigm of aid-giver as elevated hero and aid-receiver as perpetual victim must be questioned. Undoubtedly, it would take a near revolution to re-conceptualise these relationships not as products of empathy but as legal duties that are borne out of the fact that citizenship laws of rich nations routinely and deliberately keep resources for their own based on the arbitrary criteria of birth.
Without taking to task the basis of entitlement, aid — while it may be successful in piecemeal efforts to build a school here and there — will be largely unsuccessful in enabling empowerment from a position of mutual respect. In simple terms, foreign aid should be seen not as the product of empathy or opportunistic strategic calculations but rather as a legal obligation owed by the world’s rich to the world’s poor.
In response to Kristof, then, I would suggest that the question is not how to make westerners care but rather to make them aware of the unquestioned basis on which many of their entitlements lie. Without such questioning and re-envisioning of what those blessed by the accident of birth owe to those who have not been so lucky, the paradigm of giving aid to victims will continue to perpetuate itself.
The writer is a US-based attorney who teaches constitutional history and political philosophy.