On effective altruism

Peter Singer has an essay on effective altruism in the Boston Review, with responses from several authors and academics. One of the more interesting responses came from Jennifer Rubenstein.

She writes:

A central strength of the effective altruism movement is that it urges donors to make empirically informed decisions that focus on effects rather than good intentions, “warm glow” feelings, or the intrinsic value of actions. In this respect, it is far superior to charity appeals based on identifiable victims, charismatic megafauna (e.g., polar bears), charismatic mega-stars (e.g. Bono), oversimplified villains (e.g., Joseph Kony), and dramatic images of disaster.

….  The effective altruism movement retains members by directing their emotional energies and commitments toward each other, not the people they aim to assist. Singer thus profiles effective altruists for his readers to emulate; he does not depict poor people using assistance to exit poverty. Likewise, organizations such as Giving What We Can encourage their members to make commitments to, and engage in community-building with, each other—not poor people. These strategies rightly avoid using pity as a motivational tool, but they also preclude more promising forms of connection, such as political solidarity.

By excluding poor people and encouraging a savior complex and insularity among its members, the effective altruism movement fails to meet normative criteria of democracy and equality. A supporter of this movement might respond that democracy and equality are less important than improving individual welfare. Yet in the medium-to-long term, the movement will likely fall short in this regard as well. As the low-hanging fruit of basic health programs and cash transfers are exhausted, saving lives and alleviating suffering will require more complicated political action, such as reforming global institutions. Undertaking this action will require outsiders to work with, and follow the lead of, activists in poor countries. Yet the effective altruism movement as Singer describes it does not cultivate the expectations, attitudes, or relationships necessary for this kind of work.

The whole exchange is here.

It’s hard to argue against public health interventions or direct cash transfers that save lives and marginally improve living conditions for the world’s poorest.

But at the same time, you’ve got to wonder why well-to-do people in rich countries would be into uncritically subsidizing the bad habits of their counterparts in poorer countries (through “technical” targeted interventions that sidestep political processes). Why should Obiang’s son have the luxury of buying a private jet rather than building clinics for his country’s poor?

mbeki’s take on the ivorian crisis

Ouattara’s victory over Gbagbo in Cote D’Ivoire is quickly generating winner’s remorse. The coalition of disparate rebel forces that united to oust Gbagbo is already breaking apart. Just this past week Ibrahim Coulibaly, a rebel commander, was killed after he refused to obey Ouattara’s order to disarm his units. Mr. Ouattara himself is facing the sisyphean challenge of cleaning up the mess from the decade long civil war and the recent onslaught on Abidjan amid economic decline and divisions within his own coalition. Supporters of Mr. Gbagbo are also not yet into the idea of having the northerner running the show. Over 40% of Ivorians, most of them southerners, voted for Gbagbo.

In the wider region, many see the heavy French involvement in the whole situation as suspect. Thabo Mbeki, the former president of South Africa, had this to say in a piece posted on the FP website:

France used its privileged place in the Security Council to position itself to play an important role in determining the future of Côte d’Ivoire, its former colony in which, inter alia, it has significant economic interests. It joined the United Nations to ensure that Ouattara emerged as the victor in the Ivorian conflict.

This addressed the national interests of France, consistent with its Françafrique policies, which aim to perpetuate a particular relationship with its former African colonies. This is in keeping with remarks made by former French President François Mitterand when he said, “Without Africa, France will have no history in the 21st century,” which former French foreign minister Jacques Godfrain confirmed when he said: “A little country [France], with a small amount of strength, we can move a planet because [of our]…relations with 15 or 20 African countries…”

Mbeki has a point.

That said, I don’t totally buy into the idea that the West, or any other outsider for that matter, should keep out of Africa’s affairs. Isolationism (caused by the great sand wall that is the Sahara) has not served Africa well in the past. Africa needs more trade and involvement  in international politics. Both acts necessarily require international involvement in Africa.

So to the likes of Mbeki I say, the trick is not to require the West or East or even the Emerging South to benevolently stay out of Africa’s business. Rather, African states should develop their own capacities to deal with the reality of world politics: Strong states will always prey on weak ones. If you do not want to be preyed upon, you have to get your act together. Stephen Waltz in his seminal work titled Theory of International Relations writes:

Weakness invites control; strength tempts one to exercise it, even if only for the “good” of other people.

The problem of exploitative international involvement in Africa is sustained primarily by the persistence of inept kleptocratic leadership in the region.

To go ahead and grant these dictators immunity from international pressure would be a most undesirable outcome. People like Idriss Deby, Paul Biya, Theodore Obiang, among others, should not be given space. Dictators do not have internal affairs.

It is a pipe dream to continue nurturing and protecting mediocre leadership all over Africa while expecting the strong nations of the world to benevolently keep off. It is the mismanagement of Africa by its leaders that creates fertile grounds for self-interested international preying involvement by the likes of France – with disastrous consequences for the local populations.


Obiang is back in the news

The diminutive dictator Brig. Gen. (ret.) Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, president of  Equatorial Guinea since 1979, is back in the news. After the UNESCO fiasco which nearly earned him the title of clown of the month of June Obiang is back again in the news, this time with an American PR agent. The Times reports that Mr. Obiang is attempting to “recast his reputation as a corrupt, repressive leader in a more progressive mold.” His agent, Mr. Davis even told journalists that “If there are political prisoners and no substantive charges against them, they will be freed.”Yeah right.

I suggest that Mr. Davis and his client start by reining in on the playboy son of the president, Little Teodoro. The younger Obiang’s lavish extravagance explains why Equatorial Guinea, a country with a per capita income of US $ 36,600 and a population of just over 0.5 million, has a life expectancy of 43 years, with 77% of its citizens living below the poverty line as of 2006.

The ONE question Obiang should be asked the next time he meets the press is: how hard can it be to run a country of 500,000 people with ALL that money?

reasons for Obiang to be afraid

So the government of Equatorial Guinea is saying that Nigerian rebels were the ones behind the mystery assault weapon attach on the presidential palace yesterday. For now nobody really know who the attackers were. It is not clear what the motive of the Nigerians was in attacking president Obiang’s palace. Whoever they are I think the attack should be a wake up call on Mr. Obiang, the kleptocratic autocrat who has been running the tiny central African state since 1979. His rule has been bad news for most equatorians. The country is Africa’s third biggest producer of oil – after Angola and Nigeria – and should not have the high poverty rates that it has, especially considering that it only has just over 600,000 people.

In other news, it appears that one of the rebel groups in Darfur, the Justice and Equality Movement has finally agreed to a deal with the Sudanese government. This  is welcome news. I hope the news will make the ICC slow down in its efforts to try al-Bashir for war crimes. I am not fan of the genocidal buffoon that is Mohammed al-Bashir but at the same time I think that attempts to arrest him will only make him dig in and reverse the progress that the opposition and civil society groups have made in terms of increased political space. Also, the deal does not necessarily mean an end of hostilities since not all the rebel groups in the western Sudanese province have signed on it. The conflict in Darfur has killed more than 200,000 people and displaced over two million.