Sustaining the Unsustainable, Part Two

20 July 2010


Kim Jong Il: see you in my dreams.

I really must stop writing so much about North Korea. The night before last I actually dreamed about Kim Jong-Il. It was bizarre, to say the least. But I have not yet said all that needs to be said about this peculiar case of state failure. However, much of what remains to be said is not specific to North Korea but holds good for state failure generally.

Part One of Sustaining the Unsustainable was Geostrategic Enabling, which I subtitled North Korea and Amnesty International: Sustaining the Unsustainable, in which I attempted to apply the psychological concept of enabling to the assistance given to failed and failing nation-states.

Everyone today has heard of the so-called “resource curse,” but what of the “aid curse”? Does the term even exist? Whether or not anyone has employed the particular phrase of “the aid curse” there are several intelligent — indeed, fascinating — discussions of it. I am thinking in particular of Fiona Terry’s book, Condemned to Repeat? The Paradox of Humanitarian Action. Terry is no wild-eyed ideologue out to slander the efforts of charitable organizations. Terry was herself in engaged in precisely the kind of international aid work that her book critiques; she was the head of the French section of Medecins sans frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) in Zaire caring for Rwandan refugees. Medecins sans frontieres pulled out of Zaire when they discovered the extent to which they were being manipulated by parties to the conflicts in the region. The book includes copies of documentary evidence that chronicles this manipulation. The aid curse is real, and the situation has not improved since Terry’s book was published.

It would be easy to cynically dismiss aid organizations as self-perpetuating industries that enrich and aggrandize a few while bilking sincere charitable donors of their money. While this may be true in some cases, it is probably not an accurate picture of the charity industry. There are many people who have both literally and figuratively given their lives to ameliorating the suffering of deprived and oppressed peoples around the world, and this work should not be slighted, nor should the charitable impulse that leads people to give of themselves to the less fortunate. The real question is how charitable giving can be disciplined and effective so that it actually attains its end rather than being manipulated for political purposes.

And, of course, it is not only charitable organizations that prop up failed and failing nation-states. Many articles have appeared in the press of late regarding two of the more oppressive nation-states in the world — North Korea and Burma — to the effect that China continues to engage these regimes out of fear of a refugee crisis on its borders. China has significant borders with both nation-states, and thus has an interest in their stability. This is not unlike the interest that both the US and the Soviet Union had in supporting dictatorships allied with each side during the Cold War. The priority was to have a stable ally, not whether these allies actually put into practice democracy or communism. China is doing the same thing today, in an attempt to shore up its own questionable stability. A refugee crisis on the Chinese border could be a trigger for greater events within China itself. So it is not likely that there is any love lost between China and North Korea today, whatever ideological closeness Mao and Kim Il-Sung may have shared in their day. Today it is merely a pragmatic political calculation on the part of the CPC that dictates the support of neighboring dictators.

The dictators themselves play a significant role as well. In past posts (especially What to do about North Korea) I have observed that the most developed nation-states are cautious in their foreign policies, and tend to take a risk-averse (and therefore predictable) course of action because they have much to lose. Petty dictators, on the other hand, already rule over immiserated populations, and if their schemes go awry they will not be forced to personally experience any deterioration in their way of life, so they often pursue risky foreign policy initiatives that sometimes pay off with surprising results. And if they fail, and even if they fail colossally, there is the international aid industry to come in and pick up the pieces — and again the dictator experiences no compromise to his personal way of life. For the brutal dictator, it is a win-win situation. Unfortunately, for the peoples who live under brutal dictatorships, it is a lose-lose situation.

What happens when the international aid industry comes to the aid of a tyrant? They bring with them both capital and expertise that a dictator would not spend on his own people when he has the option of using his resources to supply his military to oppress his own people and to reward the cronies of his inner circle in order to retain their loyalty. This is no small matter. Why feed your own people when others will feed them, clothe them, and treat them and you can spend your money on an army of a million soldiers, who are well fed, well clothed, and well treated? This is simple economy; a dictator might well convince himself that not immiserating his people and then allowing the outside world to care for them would be irresponsible.

In a couple of posts, The Moral Status of Non-Atrocities and The Threshold of Atrocity, I discussed the emerging trend of dictators and oppressive nation-states maintaining their depredations upon their populations just below the threshold of obvious atrocity in order to avoid the consequences that would follow from unambiguously crossing this threshold. Thus today we do not have the likes of Hitler, but instead we have the likes of Kim Jong-Il and General Than Shwe, who make millions miserable rather than executing people in their millions.

Maintaining one’s depredations upon one’s own people has thus a two-fold value (ambitious dictators take note!):

1) the avoidance of international sanctions, and

2) the free and voluntary delivery of capital and expertise within the borders of one’s nation-state, intended to address and ameliorate that suffering that has been purposefully kept at a level just below obvious atrocity.

Why would an aspiring dictator chose any other course of action? However horrific, it is eminently rational.

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