Friday, May 9, 2008

Layers of tragedy in Burma

I jotted down some notes to myself about what I could blog about the aftermath of the cyclone in Burma while I was sitting in NYC's most august jazz club, the Village Vanguard. Charlie Haden, Ethan Iverson, and Paul Motian were playing their rarefied, cerebral brand of jazz. Oh, this is a perfect illustration of Peter Singer's famous ethical argument, I thought. I could have had an enjoyable evening some other way that didn't cost as much, and donated the savings to some charity that would step in to the rescue.

But no, that's not quite how the world works. Peter Singer says that it's immoral to dine at an expensive restaurant since you could instead stay home and give the money you'd save to a charity that would save people's lives. (According to Singer, you could save a life for every month you avoided eating out.) Now, there are a bunch of problems with this argument, and I hope to talk about them in a later post. But for now, the relevant problem is that it's really hard to try to go out in the world and find lives to save on the cheap.

It's tempting to think that we have the resources to end world suffering, if only we had the willpower. But the American public doesn't seem too upset about its tax dollars being used foreign aid even though Americans believe, on average, that we spend more than 100 times as much of our GDP on foreign aid as we actually do. There's some occasional grumbling about foreign aid, of course, but this misperception hasn't sparked an outcry. In fact, most Americans either have no opinion or would prefer that we spend more on foreign aid than we do. So the willingness is there; the bigger stumbling block is how effective our assistance would be.

Even if you can somehow make sure the money gets earmarked for purely beneficent purposes, the aid you send might only strengthen an autocracy. Money is fungible, so a government that receives $X to spend on food for its people suddenly has $X more of its old money that it doesn't need to spend on food but can instead use for _________. And even this is idealistic, since it's hard to make sure that a corrupt government is going to scrupulously honor the earmarks.

Burma seems to be a case in point. The US and the UN are desperately trying to help, but the Burmese government is playing hard to get. In the past, Burma has not been embarrassed to throw out aid workers. Now that the situation is so dire that dead bodies are literally piling up all over the place, however, the government is going a step further. This time, they've barred UN aid workers from even entering their country in the first place. They'll accept only outside resources; they won't accept foreign workers physically in their country to coordinate the aid. Why? Because help from outsiders would be "a potential threat to their two-decade hold on power." (They've started to accept aid from the US, but with the same restriction.)

And to top it all off, the government isn't even putting the cyclone response as its current top priority. They're too busy drafting a road map to a fake democracy.

All of this behavior implies that they specifically want to exploit the inherent shortcomings of foreign aid for their own benefit. Meanwhile, there's no telling how many new deaths are being caused each day as a result of this obstinacy: as many as 100,000 people died as a direct result of the cyclone (even the Burmese government's early estimate of the death toll, excluding "missing" people, was over 20,000). And one-and-a-half million people have been left homeless. (I wouldn't be surprised if these numbers have proven to be significant understatements by the time you read this.) The potential for outbreaks of disease in this unsanitary environment is overwhelming. Assuming that things are going to continue on this path, Burma is committing a passive genocide against its own people.

[UPDATE, May 31: U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has now confirmed this in an "emotional" speech: Burma's obstruction of foreign assistance has cost "tens of thousands of lives." Also, "U.S., British and French Navy ships off the coast of Myanmar are poised to leave because the government has blocked them from delivering assistance."]

If you ever doubt that evil is a real, objective phenomenon in the world, just remember the Burmese government's response to the cyclone in 2008.

Back to Peter Singer's ethical theory. If he's right that your restaurant expenditures should be judged based on the missed opportunity to donate to charity, then foreign aid should be judged all the more harshly if it fails to help people. We need to face the reality that sometimes there might just not be much we can do to alleviate the suffering, and the money would be better spent elsewhere. At this point, it's hard to see how we could possibly rescue the Burmese except through military force, but the failure of the United States and its international coalition in the Iraq war renders another nation-building adventure unlikely in the near future. To the extent that there are longer-term foreign policies or global trends that tend to promote liberal democracy and erode dictatorships, those might be more fruitful than a policy of "Oh, a headline-worthy disaster just happened, so we need to fix it."


Ann Althouse said...

Aren't there plenty of countries that declined to participate in the Iraq war that could go into Burma on a UN mission to overthrow the junta (if that was the sort of thing the UN did)?

This isn't so much about the Iraq war, I think. But even if it is, I wonder if the sort of Americans who hate the Iraq War would sign up for the military if we undertook missions like the one you describe.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Maybe I should have been clearer. I don't think it has to do with the countries that supported the Iraq invasion vs. the ones that opposed it. My point is that all countries, especially the US, are going to see any future military action in light of the failed nation-building of the Iraq war. So I think it's very much about the Iraq war.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

As Shakespeare said to Peter Singer, "Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?" (Twelfth Night, II 3)