Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Bad Behavior

I've been reading another international development book, by another white man who has worked extensively in Africa and thinks he can solve its problems. It's called Aid And Other Dirty Business, by Giles Bolton, and it's actually quite good. It's much less pompous, more readable, and less reliant on incomplete or anecdotal evidence than The End Of Poverty, and it's more concrete and optimistic than The White Man's Burden.

But I'm not going to bore you with another entry on other peoples' analyses of why Africa is such a clusterfuck. Instead, I'm going to bore you with another entry about ethics. I mention this book only because, nestled among the relatively dry ruminations over why foreign aid is such a mess, Bolton has a page-long side note about a disturbing though interesting topic: the fact that many Westerners take advantage of the thriving prostitution business in Africa.

Bolton doesn't have a great deal to say about this; his point is mainly that many Westerners, despite being perfectly lovely people in their home countries, feel free to engage in morally questionable acts when they are in Africa. He suggests that “it's extraordinary how people and countries will behave when they think no one's looking and they can get away with it”
(the “and countries” is in there because Bolton is using individual expats' bad behavior as an analogy for the way in which wealthy countries often renege on their promises to provide aid to developing countries – at least when voters in the powerful countries fail to demand that their leaders live up to those promises).

It's definitely true that expatriates in Africa can get away with a great deal. In general, expats enjoy more freedom abroad than they do in their home countries. Law enforcement is minimal in many African countries, and the sad reality is that this is especially true where expatriates are concerned (particularly those from powerful Western countries). Beyond that: money equals power, and a little bit of Western money goes a long way here. Many American expats can and do reside in luxurious houses with support staff, a lifestyle they would not be able to afford in the US. In addition, because of the dysfunctional and corrupt nature of many African systems, those with money have the potential to exert much more political control than they would in most Western countries. The result of all this is a place in which expats can and do act according to their whims. And since Westerners who are attracted to the idea of living in Africa are frequently, to put it kindly, adventurous people, and, to put it less kindly, nearly always strange ones, this freedom results in a dishearteningly large number of people engaging in activities that are illegal and/or unethical.

Still, I think that the implication that expats suddenly become willing to do things that they would not dare to do at home, simply because they are not likely to be punished for their actions, is not entirely correct. “Right” and “wrong” are situational, and an action that is unquestionably “right” in the US may be badly advised in a place like Liberia. As an example: although it would be considered amoral to withhold CPR from someone who needs it in the US, it would probably not be a great idea to give somebody CPR here. It would be pointless, since anyone who is at the point of needing CPR is pretty much a goner anyway in the absence of good emergency medical care. And it could actually do the potential do-gooder harm; CPR is a pretty violent act in practice, and could be misconstrued by people who are not familiar with it and do not understand its purpose.

As another example: In the US, we have an idea that, if we witness a wrong act and do nothing to stop it, we are also culpable. But here, where law enforcement is practically non-existent, that doesn't necessarily hold true. One of the reasons that it was so upsetting to hear my drugged-up neighbor abusing his wives when I first arrived was that I kept thinking “I should stop this!” But what could I – a small woman and a recently arrived foreigner – have done, with no police to call to stop the abuse? Doing nothing, while unthinkable in the US, became the only viable option.

Anyway, my point is that living in a foreign country and a different culture inevitably requires a person to think carefully about the morality of his or her actions, and possibly even to act in a way that would be considered amoral in the US. I am not saying that to excuse the actions of Westerners who abuse their artificial power and exploit host country nationals – like the middle-aged European men who are the stereotypical consumers of the African sex trade. Still, I think that it is important to recognize that anybody who lives in a foreign country for an extended period of time is going to end up re-evaluating his or her ethics, consciously or unconsciously. The problem, I think, is when people do the latter – adjust their morals without being aware that they have done so. It is all too easy for well-intentioned people (including not only those sleazy middle-aged white men, but also young, lonely Peace Corps volunteers) to justify behaviors that they would consider unacceptable in other circumstances.

1 comment:

  1. I'd never even thought about how terribly murderous CPR must look if you've never been exposed to it as a live-saving method.

    And yeah...it's really easy to get idealistic and forget that what's right in one place might not be right in another, even if it's only for very pragmatic reasons. And why the fuck is there PORN on adult swim right now?!