Some tears were not meant to be repressed.
In describing the email messages she’d been receiving, she may not have wanted her loss of composure to become the video image being broadcast to the small and scattered universe of our local Quaker community, each at their respective homes behind their Zoom monitors, atomized but oddly together in the midst of the pandemic. But it didn’t matter; her tears flowed and with good reason. This woman works in international development. She, I, and others in our shared line of work have long struggled to reconcile our many personal, very human connections with friends and colleagues in the “Global South” (the countries of the developing world) with the impersonal, almost antiseptic development “industry” that has grown up over the past seventy years to provide global relief and development services. It’s a competitive industry driven by measured results and by indicators of efficiency and effectiveness. It’s characterized by its perpetual scarcity of funds in the face of immense challenges in countries least able to cope. Most of us have long since stopped asking why that scarcity exists among nations that are so wealthy; those who advocate here for the plight of the faraway disadvantaged find very little traction among the American public for extending moral boundaries beyond national boundaries. But we persist in our vocation. Why?
Many (perhaps most if you scratch the surface) who work within the relief and development industry of the “Global North” (the more developed, wealthy, and powerful countries) feel a genuine sense of mission and service, even if the industry provides no institutional structure, space, time, or priority in discussing such sensibilities. Instead of musing among ourselves about our values, we’re constantly reminded that we have work to do. Still, we know: no matter how hard we labor or how earnestly we care, it will never be enough to stanch the stream of suffering and need, or to quench the thirst for freedom and opportunity.
There are people on the other side of this equation. Sometimes called “beneficiaries”, or more disturbingly referred to as “target groups” or “key populations”, the people of the Global South are no longer content to be periodically visited by expatriate experts who typically jet in, work intensely in cultural environments they don’t have time to understand, move their collected data and trip reports into the cloud, and then leave before they’ve even adjusted to local time zones. Such beneficiaries are progressively claiming a bigger role in their own development decisions, but then they have their own ways and they don’t always want to be rushed. I am frequently moved to recall the words brightly painted on a local taxi van (matatu) in Nairobi, Kenya: “No hurry in Africa”. I first saw that back in the early 1980s when I lived in that city; then and now it reminds me of how wide the divide is between the core sensibilities of the Global North and the Global South. For those of us who serve as one of those “experts” in the expatriate development industry, time is fleeting, time is precious, and time is money. Measurable results demand focus, and budgets must be adhered to and accounted for in terms of billable hours. Once our “short term technical assistance” travel is completed, we come back to join with the home office staff to review and complete our evaluation of the data we’ve collected, trying in our small incremental ways to improve international relief and development outcomes. Once evaluated, the data we labored to collect and understand is unilaterally abstracted by the relevant institutions of the Global North into dense, fact-filled technical jargon in the form of spreadsheets, reports, PowerPoint slides, regression analyses, and statistical profiles. It’s important work and there’s no time to waste…until a catastrophe upends everything. Then suddenly, there is indeed a strong reason to hurry in Africa. And in Asia, and in the Middle East – indeed throughout the Global South. The Covid-19 pandemic sets its own time, and it is perishingly fast.
What had been an evolving, largely casual, almost tentative growth of direct interpersonal communication between “us” and “them”, a sideshow that made working in the expatriate relief and development industry more personal and interesting, is now something altogether different. The voices reaching out to us from the Global South via the Internet are no longer chatty. They are frightened, on the edge of panic.
They are demanding our attention.
Until just weeks ago, the short email messages that many of us have been receiving from our contacts in the Global South typically were poignant with humanity, friendship, humor – but always tinged with legitimate need. Such individuals – people with names, faces, and stories to share – were making their presence known through the Internet by flagrantly breaking the unwritten rules, and leaping free of the political-economy frameworks that we in the Global North conveniently have contained them in up until now. These “beneficiaries” have been using their voices to exhort us to engage with their stories, their compelling but seldom complaining accounts of what a “day in the life of…” is like. They couldn’t force us to engage – the power of the delete button remains ours to wield – but my tearful Quaker sister reads her incoming email and social media every day. So do I. Each of these messages assert “I matter too” – not just in aggregate, not only in a cost-benefit table – but individually. They constitute assertions that we must respond to authentically; critical international relationships at every level will stand or fall depending on how we answer.
But now their messages have suddenly changed.
The humor is gone and their exhortations to engage are taking on a sense of calling-in an obligation, something that has always just been assumed: that we genuinely care about their wellbeing. We are being directly challenged by the authors of these email and social media messages to make the words on our slick websites and stirring policy statements real; words like “human rights”, and “universal human dignity”. We’re being challenged to stand up and be accountable, and not only in monetary terms, although that too is important. The “beneficiaries” are holding us to moral accountability. Without having to read too much between the lines, the authors of each message are now quite clearly asserting two thoughts: they too are dignified human beings, and the principle of universal human dignity is at risk of being so comprehensively ignored that it will soon fall into permanent irrelevance.
It’s a stretch. Our foreign aid, at best, uses human dignity as a rhetorical device, effectively making any notion of morally defending a universal threshold of human dignity – a threshold or secular “moral minimum” that we must all work with determination to defend so that no one falls below it – into a sham. Most of us don’t know that secular moral vocabulary, and anyway we’re not willing to shoulder our part of such a heavy burden. In the past we could get by this awkward accountability by burying it in the empirical reports and the dense jargon of international relief and development.
Now; not so easy.
They are right there on your monitor, looking you in the eye, and asking in real time some perfectly appropriate moral questions: what did I do to deserve this life of hardship, suffering, and indignity? Why aren’t our public health systems capable to help us survive this pandemic? Why is there no adequate safety net as our economies fall apart? Do notions of fairness, equality, and universal dignity hold any significance at all? As the pandemic explodes around the world, countries in the Global North search and often fail to find such answers for themselves; no one here has much of an answer for the urgent questions of the Global South. Our “beneficiary” friends are not naïve; most have grudgingly come to accept injustice and suffering as their lot, and long ago they have tempered their hope for improvements and parked such aspirations at the margins. But not now.
In just the past ten days, my Quaker sister and I (and no doubt many more people with friends in the Global South) have been receiving truly alarming emails. The messages in those emails are variations on the same theme: the situation for the poor and the marginalized who are now lock-downed due to the burgeoning pandemic – people with no reserves of food or money – is already beyond dire. Their prospects, and the plight of their dependent children, elderly, or disabled folk, is beyond bleak. And that’s before factoring in their vulnerability to infection from the novel coronavirus. Our 0.2 percent (and yes, that is two-tenths of one percent) of GNP funding that the United States allocates to foreign aid each year isn’t going to make a dent in this calamity.
Throughout most of the developing world, this is a perfect storm. Covid-19 has found the soft underbelly of the Global South, and it now is wasting no time in exploiting grossly inadequate public health systems, a lack of competent or caring governance by economically insulated elites, close-packing of ordinary people due to widespread poverty, rapidly increasing vulnerability arising from lock-down induced malnutrition, increasing violence and civic unrest, extremes of sexism and domestic violence, police brutality and lack of training, and no effective strategies to cope with a massive and deadly pandemic. Everyone in the Global South knows that little help from outside can be expected despite stalwart efforts by the WHO and similar under-funded international institutions; the more developed countries of the world are beset by our own deep challenges, chronic (and, in retrospect, inexcusable) lack of preparedness, and the exponential escalation in the spread of the virus right here at home. We have to prioritize our own needs, and…well…we have nothing to say in response to the alarming messages coming in.
Our hearts and prayers won’t cut it.
This will all end, someday. Nothing will be the same; everywhere the death toll and devastation will be beyond reckoning. Whether we will learn anything from this, and begin to reconfigure our sensibilities, values, and plans remains highly questionable. Humanity has been on this journey before; the 1918 influenza pandemic caused by a variant of an H1N1 virus infected nearly one third of the planet’s population. We didn’t seem to change our ways much afterwards; apparently we mostly clamored to return quickly to the way things were before the flu. The consequences of our unwillingness to learn from that experience are all around us right now.
Human suffering at this massive scale strains our capacity to comprehend, much less to cope with it. The reality that it is the poorest, most marginalized, and most vulnerable who will suffer the most speaks volumes about our prevailing world of inequalities, lack of empathy, and highly competitive individualism. This intensity of misery and death condemns us for our short-sightedness, our bottom-line maximization, and the low value that we place on selecting political leaders of integrity and competence. Our democratic systems prioritize short-term gratification, not long-term reconfiguration of a scandalously inequitable world order and economies based on perverse, self-serving, “America First” values.
It shouldn’t take a global catastrophe of this scale to point us to the many flaws in our global patriarchal standards. We live in a world that classifies those values that are more aligned with feminine principles – empathy, altruism, compassion, public service, generosity, solidarity, and collaboration as being of a lower order – although curiously we suddenly stand in awe of the medical professionals who are valiantly and tirelessly living those caregiver, self-sacrificing values right now in our hospitals.
Those messages from the Global South demanding secular moral accountability aren’t going away, nor should they. More and more, they will be laying a very profound moral failure at the feet of those who have benefited most from our current inequitable world order.
Let the tears flow, but let’s start planning something new – and something very much better – for all of us. That’s right, all of us. It’s what universal human dignity – and the messages from the Global South – demand.