On human greed

‘Balance’ is an Oscar-awardee short animation film. It’s theme touches on human greed. I’ve had it for several years but it’s only recently that I watched it again.

My thoughts watching it is that greed is part and parcel of being human, it’s in fact a spectrum and the challenge is not to eliminate greed at all, because to an extent greed is necessary for human survival and continuity, but rather, as this brilliant animation shows, it’s striking a balance between “good” and “bad” greed. Extricating greed from the human system is impossible without causing irreversible harm to the human psyche. The less harmful way is to make dormant the “bad”. Or, better yet, to work out for a yin-yang situation.

“Good” greed is what pushes us to want to know about things in our environment, discover treasures, recognize the contribution (well, also the deceit) of others and allow them with us on the playing field, and so forth. 

Greed that veers toward the extreme end is one which sees the world as a place where there is only ‘me’ or ‘I’. In such a scenario, as what the film suggests, who’s going to help ‘me’ haul in the treasure chest? figure out how to open it? sell them if need be? Nobody. ‘Me’ ends up essentially with nothing. Greed of this degree completely contradicts the creation story of ‘us’ and ‘we’ hence is tauted as one of The Seven Deadly Sins.

The success of democracy (and free markets) rests on the framework of balance. Too much (eg. unregulated free market systems in which greed is given absolute rein) or too little (eg. communism wherein greed is altogether repressed in the service of community) causes a situation of imbalance which in turn implies the constant work of re-balancing.


Something beautiful

Displaced persons Marawi City
photo via Philippine Inquirer

We are all trying to change
what we fear into something beautiful

Peace is, ultimately, that ‘something beautiful’. Toward that, interim initiatives like rehabilitation and redevelopment of destroyed homelands need to be done. Another, repatriation of displaced persons and refugees. Yet another, preparing the displaced, psychologically, mentally, and economically, for their eventual return. And, on a continuing timeframe, respect for differences extremely difficult or impossible to change in oneself more so in others (eg. gender, race, religion, history) and not forgetting that at the bottom of it all we all belong to the same specie. The framework for human relationships then is one that should seek to promote collective resilience not to hasten destruction of the specie.

The Places in Between

I first posted the article below in 2011 and am reposting it now in light of fresh attacks in the country and the impending transition of national security back into the hands of Afghans.

The conflict in these places – Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Africa – is similar to what Philippines is experiencing in the sense that the layers to it are familiar: government vs. rebel forces (that are also divided into factions that oppose each other); rebel forces vs. the collective enemy which is supposedly the West led by the US; opportunists; and, borrowing Stewart’s term, in “the places in between” are the people who care nothing for war and just want to live life in peace and eventual prosperity.  It is the masses of people who bear the social, political, and psychological costs of internal strife.

The democratic ideal extols that power resides in the people but as it is the people are crippled with doubt as to the truth in that. Public money is prioritized for counter-insurgency, also necessary, but leaves huge gaps in the development of communities.  A truce must be declared if only for these people.

In this, there emerges the pivotal role of civil society to introduce change as it’s not expected, within the short to midterm at least, that governments and the rebel forces would suddenly lay down their weapons and differences in perspectives and hug each other.  But then even civil society, particularly the international community of aid and development organizations with their vast resources and capacity to move these about around the globe relatively quickly are also conflicted among themselves as to how to facilitate peace and development together (and that despite the enormity of aid poured in, development has been insignificant on the whole).  The military’s expertise is primarily not geared to that kind of service provision.  And to be fair, many in the governments in conflict areas are trying to contain the devil in their midst that seems to be transforming everyday if not by the minute.  Who then?  It is civil society.  But first it also needs to establish harmony of purpose and resources among it’s members.


The book is an autobiography of the author’s, Rory Stewart‘s, four-month journey made on foot through the central mountains of Afghanistan, specifically the route from Herat to Kabul.

The walk through Afghanistan was made at the start of 2002, immediately after the fall of the Taliban.  The new government had been in place only two weeks.  The US and British operations were still widely active.

Sixteen months before, Stewart had made a similar crossing in Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal.  In Afghanistan, he  intended to retrace the footsteps of Babur who after conquering Kabul traversed the same route at the start of 1500 around the same month that he did in order to conquer Delhi where he found the Mughal Dynasty.

I was particularly awed by the author’s account of the wilderness landscape of that route which according to him is rarely traversed.  It was where Genghis Khan and afterward Alexander the Great had entered to make their conquests.  It is where the Silk and Spices Roads meet.

The names of the towns and villages – Ghor, Khandahar, Yakawlang, Sang-i-zard – sounded old and mysterious, like those places in Lord of the Rings. The author’s description conjured up the grandeur of the country’s empires that are now only obscurely remembered by monuments that have withstood nature, such as the Minaret of Jam which directs visitors toward the lost City of Turquoise Mountain underneath it.  To add to the mystery, blood of the citizens of Ghazni, the City’s arch-enemy, were purportedly mixed in with the bricks that made up the Minaret’s column.

But also in this historical and diverse region, the author had observed “differences between groups” that are “deep, elusive, and difficult to overcome” which he doubts policy makers, that is, those in the embassies, think tanks, and international development agencies including the UN, understood.

But what did they understand of the thought processes of Seyyed Kerbalahi’s wife, who had not moved five kilometers from her home in forty years? Or Dr. Habibullah the vet who carried an automatic weapon in the way they (policy makers) carried briefcases? The villagers I had met were mostly illiterate, lived far from electricity or television, and knew very little about the outside world. Versions of Islam; views of ethnicity, government, politics, and the proper methods of dispute resolution (including armed conflict); and the experience of twenty-five years of war differed from region to region… Village democracy, gender issues, and centralization would be hard-to-sell concepts in some areas…

Policy makers did not have the time, structures, or resources for a serious study of an alien culture. They justified their lack of knowledge and experience by focusing on poverty and implying that dramatic cultural differences did not exist. They acted as though villagers were interested in all the priorities of international organizations, even when those priorities were mutually contradictory.

In a seminar in Kabul, I heard Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, say, “Afghans have been fighting for their human rights for twenty-five years. We don’t need to tell them what their rights are.” Then the head of a major food agency added privately, “Villagers are not interested in human rights. They are like poor people all over the world. All they think about is where their next meal is coming from.” To which the head of an Afghan NGO providing counseling responded, “The only thing to know about these people is that they are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The differences between the policy makers and a Hazara such as Ali went much deeper than his lack of food. Ali rarely worried about his next meal. He was a peasant farmer and had a better idea than most about where his next meal was coming from. If he defined himself it was chiefly as a Muslim and a Hazara, not as a hungry Afghan. Without the time, imagination, and persistence needed to understand Afghans’ diverse experiences, policy makers would find it impossible to change Afghan society in the way they wished to change it.

Post-conflict experts’…implicit denial of the difference between cultures is the new mass brand of international intervention. Their policy fails but no one notices. There are no credible monitoring bodies and there is no one to take formal responsibility… neocolonialists have no…performance criteria. In fact their very uselessness benefits them. By avoiding any serious action or judgment, they…are able to escape accusations of racism, exploitation and oppression. Perhaps it is because no one requires more than a charming illusion of action in the developing world. If the policy makers know little about the Afghans, the public knows even less, and few care about policy failure when the effects are felt only in Afghanistan.

I think I understand what the author implies. One summer long ago a friend and I decided to explore what the so-called life of the common tao (the masses) was.  We were two years out of college and such things we didn’t quite have a full picture of yet.  We got on the back door route, beginning in Manila onward to Bicol and from there to the CARAGA Region.  In the areas, I discovered from among my fellow Filipinos what Stewart had observed of Afghans in his route: “differences between groups” that are “deep, elusive, and difficult to overcome.  I understood then the difficulty in the challenge placed on my country’s leaders, which is to unify Filipinos and still leave space for the celebration of diversity.

In the end, for Stewart, the experience is one of personal transformation and was grateful that

never in my twenty-one months of travel did they attempt to kidnap or kill me. I was alone and a stranger, walking in very remote areas; I represented a culture that many of them hated… In more than five hundred village houses, I was indulged, fed, nursed, and protected by people poorer, hungrier, sicker, and more vulnerable than me. Almost every group I met – Sunni Kurds, Shia Hazara, Punjabi Christians, Sikhs, Brahmins of Kedarnath, Garhwal Dalits, and Newari Buddhists – gave me hospitality without any thought of reward.

Challenges in the humanitarian community: cohesive action part 2

But Isn’t Doing Something Better than Doing Nothing? is a question posed to the author of the same title of an article at the Center for Global Development.  I think that aid helps people, communities, and countries in big ways and so of course let’s do something.  The more relevant question and concern though is, how can aid be more relevant and effective vis-a-vis desired impacts?

Cohesive action among humanitarian organizations is a foremost concern, as mentioned in an earlier article here.  During emergencies and disasters, aid agencies meet each other through established sector networks to report on individual agency’s assessment and progress, and again through lessons learned fora and conferences, with individual agency sharing the lessons it has learned to others.  There wasn’t yet a gathering in which the operative word was ‘we’, or ‘our’.

Another concern is targeting.  In a World Bank project in the Philippines, KALAHI-CIDSS, which was the subject of the study, Aid Under Fire:  Development Projects and Civil Conflict, and cited by the author at CGD, the eligibility criteria targeted the 25 poorest municipalities in program-affiliated provinces.  For me, targeting municipalities as the recipient population is problematic, in that, any given municipality isn’t absolutely poor.  Municipalities (or, cities even) are home to various economic classes.  Baguio City, for example, is classified as a Highly Urbanized City but one still finds within the City poor communities (e.g. migrants, single-parent households, and the like).  In targeting the whole municipality, the rich are also the recipients of program funds (and, based on my experience, the ones who take up representative positions in behalf of their village, that, without third-party (e.g. NGO field worker) facilitation, frustrates program objective of giving voice to the poorest of the poor/the most marginalized), the overall effect being that the status quo, that is, inequality between rich and poor, is maintained.  The situation is exacerbated when individual agencies, without consulting one another, craft their own targeting criteria relative to their different programs and projects across the national space — if this is plotted spatially, the image, I believe, is one of chaos.

Just take the programs and projects to support national effort to attain MDGs.  My observation is that the second biggest constrain to attainment of the Goals, next to LGUs’ lack of leadership, is this absence of collective communication and planning within the aid community.  DRR and CCA are going through the same rote.  In a given national agency, let’s say, the Department of Education, there would be various aid agencies engaging the Department in their various programs and projects, separately, or if it’s through a consortium, each does their part of the agreement their own way.  There are no shared systems developed and maintained such as for instance a common M&E system, a critical element for partnerships to succeed.

This is a serious concern and one ultimately affecting the very communities being served.  Aid agencies need to reflect, together, on their current practices — how these practices are in fact consistent with the ideology of the NGO being the alternative institution to existing systems and practices that are not working — and, ultimately, institute some reforms.

Challenges in the humanitarian community: cohesive action

…there are already enormous efforts being put into achieving greater coordination and coherence in responses through new UN structures and NGO consortia.  However, fundamental differences of ideology, outlook, institutional cultures, and working practices make this difficult…

With no single authority governing humanitarian action, it will be impossible to get a critical mass of agencies to cede their independence of action by simply setting aspirational goals not least because of the enormous institutional changes required…

…it is not clear how setting goals can help with collective accountability…in theory this sounds appealing…but in practice who decides what these goals should be and whether a particular aid agency has met them?  How are they to be monitored and measured, and what happens if they are not met?  Where is the threshold between meeting and missing the goal to be set?

– Sara Pantuliano, David Miliband’s aid goals ignore evolution of humanitarian industry, The Guardian

Still, cohesion and coordination between and among humanitarian actors continue to be a burning issue within the community given that “independence of action” has resulted to costly replication of efforts, contradicting the community’s ideal of significant change based on humanitarian actions of scale as opposed to bits of efforts here and there that don’t as a whole leave significant dent on the landscape.

The way I see it, emergencies and disasters provide humanitarian actors the opportunity to suspend their “fundamental differences of ideology, outlook, institutional cultures, and working practices” in the name of effective collective action.  Local governments, particularly politicians, are called upon to suspend their political differences during emergencies in order to address collectively the needs of the affected population.  It’s the same call made to the humanitarian community.  If we say it can’t be done, then that’s when world peace that the same community has been campaigning for ends and chaos begins. Aid agencies are part of the NGO community and the founding ideology of this community is, it is the better alternative to existing systems and practices that are not working.