With the fatuousness that has marked his administration from the outset, the U.N. secretary general, Ban Ki Moon, has now issued a document called “Keeping the Promise,” timed to coincide with the 2010 meeting of the U.N. General Assembly and the summit on the organization’s so-called Millennium Development Goals that is taking place simultaneously. Agreed to at the United Nations in 2000 by all member states, these goals—the “MDGs" in international bureaucratese—include eradicating “extreme poverty and hunger,” achieving universal primary education, and assuring environmental sustainability, as well as such difficult but at least not impossible projects as promoting gender equality and reducing child mortality. In reality, of course, these are not millennium goals but millennial ones, their ambition made all the more hubristic since what would amount to, quite literally, the salvation of humanity is to be accomplished by 2015, according to the relevant U.N. documents. I am not making this up.
And yet, in true Alice in Wonderland style, the great and the good of the world (those eminent persons so beloved of U.N. commissions), as well as the major philanthropies, notably the Gates Foundation, which where international development is concerned is increasingly playing a role previously the monopoly of powerful states, and President Bill Clinton’s own very influential philanthropy, which since its founding has largely concerned itself with questions of global health, are acting as if the MDGs are a realistic program. Yes, they concede, progress has been slower than expected and the realization of some of these goals will not have taken place by 2015. But we are well on our way.
It is in this spirit that President Obama has announced what Dr. Rajiv Shah, formerly of the Gates Foundation and now the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (does the old Marxist category, 'interlocking directorate’ ring a bell?), has described as America’s “first ever” systematic development policy—a description many of the best people in the NGO world endorse. And it is true, up to a point, anyway. In fact, Washington did have a development policy during the Cold War, particularly in the realm of food aid and food security. That is what U.S. sponsorship of the Green Revolution in agriculture and the Kennedy administration’s so-called Alliance for Progress for Latin America were mainly about.
Still, if one wants to be charitable about so flawed a historical claim, one can argue that America has not had a systematic, as opposed to an ad hoc development policy, since the mid-1960s. In any case, it is simply a fact that post–Cold War conditions have fundamentally changed the terms of reference for any such policy, and that—and here, supporters of the current initiatives are on firmer ground—what the Obama administration hopes to do is, if done properly, well worth doing. What is more problematic is the administration’s claim that it has finally grasped the nettle on development issues. As President Obama put it at the U.N., millions of people “have relied on food assistance for decades. [But] that’s not development, that’s dependence, and it’s a cycle we need to break. Instead of just managing poverty, we have to offer nations and peoples a path out of poverty.”
The problem is not with the analysis but rather with the president’s implicit claim that we know how to offer peoples and nations such a path. This, too, is an article of faith in the development world, as will be well know to anyone familiar with the ignorant if well-intended antics of a Bono or a Bob Geldof, or, for that matter of academics like Jeffrey Sachs, whose 2005 book, titled with Sach’s typical modesty, The End of Poverty, makes a negligible contribution to development theory but will be of riveting interest to future scholars of early twenty-first-century utopianism. The stark fact is that only if one fetishizes the idea of civil society as a kind of universal ideological solvent, and believes that, in tandem with scientific innovation, the road to our collective salvation is now open to us, can such optimism be justified.
But this was always the line at the Gates Foundation, and it is now clear that this view has won the president’s and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s backing. USAID’s contribution to these Pollyanna-ish fantasies is a document adorned with the title, “Celebrate, Innovate, and Sustain: Toward 2015 and Beyond.” At least one can be grateful for that “beyond”: It marks the intrusion of reality, however modest. The policy initiatives it is committed to are summarized on its website as being “focused on addressing critical development challenges by using science, technology and innovation in creative, yet practical new ways. If we are to secure a prosperous and peaceful future for our children, we must harness innovation to help people around the world unlock their potential to improve their communities and societies.”
Reading this, it is hard not to feel that just as Walter Pater famously said that all art aspires to the condition of music, for the Obama administration all development aspires to replicate the experience of Microsoft. For what is being proposed here are “solutions” in the purely technical sense. But development is not a software problem that can be resolved—as Bill Gates and Paul Allen developed new products for their corporation—by bringing the best minds together to brainstorm innovative [sic] solutions. Development is a matter of culture, of politics, and of justice, far more than it is a matter of technology or, for that matter, the technologized vision of human beings that can, without embarrassment, speak of ‘unlocking’ people’s potential as if they were seams of some precious mineral buried in the dirt.
In this Gates/Obama vision of the world, all the fundamental ideological questions have been solved (this may also help explain why, domestically, the president has seemed so helpless in the face of the anger of the Tea Parties—aren’t we all liberals now?). There are no great ideological contradictions, just issues of “empowerment,” “good governance,” “transparency,” and “accountability.” The world as a global Seattle, a global Cambridge, Massachusetts: What an idea! That this is nonsense should be obvious, at least if one lets go of the idea that because what the administration would like to accomplish, and, more broadly, what the Millennium Development Goals represent, are good and moral, these ambitions as they are currently being articulated have any chance of being realized. Liberals might start by accepting that liberalism is an ideology, and not just the commonsense baseline that any sane and decent person should accept.
If we want to do some good in the world, we must first tell the truth about it, both to others and to ourselves. A bit of humility would help too. But as long as those who claim the mantle of the moral arbiter can say, with a straight face, that we still have a chance of eradicating global poverty by 2015, or, if not then, at least not very long after that, we are living in a world of lies, no matter how well intended.
My suspicion is that advocates and activists, if pressed, might concede that, at the very least, such rhetoric is a vast oversimplification, but that it is a necessary one, because without such claims the public in the rich world will not pay attention or support the commitments needed if there is ever to be less poverty and suffering in the world. A similar imperative is what inspires relief agencies so often to over-state the potential toll of any so-called humanitarian emergency. And perhaps they are right, perhaps liberals need to believe in millennial possibility, or, to put the matter even more starkly, that even decent people cannot handle the truth just as, for Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, most people cannot handle freedom. Before you know it, the only licit tale about our world becomes the fairy tale.
And because of that, let Lewis Carroll have the last word. "If I had a world of my own,” he wrote in Alice, “everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn't. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn't be. And what it wouldn't be, it would. You see?”