22 Feb “Helping the Poor”: The Idea, the Reality and the Shadow
By Anjum Altaf
Between the idea and the reality, Eliot wrote, falls the shadow. The phrase is so well known as to be almost cliché, but as with many clichés, there is truth to it. There is universality, too – the metaphor could extend to many areas; there are shadows everywhere. Foreign aid, for example: there is the idea and the reality, the theory and the practice, the intent and the execution.
The theory of foreign aid is simple enough: If those lacking capital and technology and ideas were provided with such, they could be launched on the path of progress. In practice it has rarely ever worked like that – there is more to the equation than capital and technology and ideas.
There is the shadow that falls between the theory and the results, a shadow full of objectives stated and unstated, incentives of this party and that (and, of course, their representatives, who develop in the end their own interests, their own goals, their own shadows) – all this, more often than not, causing enough distortions for the reality to mock the idea.
This happens not only in foreign aid, but in any transaction where one party has advice or help or assistance that the other desperately needs, when negotiations are not equal, when representatives of each come with their own axes to grind. Consider the shadow now visible between the idea and the reality of sub-prime mortgage lending: the unstated objectives, the incentive distortions, the regulatory winks and nods, the quick fix to keep the game going for at least one more round. In 1961, Jane Jacobs, who had little to do with foreign aid, was astute enough to realize the pitfalls. Based solely on her observations of how federal assistance was implemented in low-income areas of American cities, she remarked in her seminal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities: “I hope we disburse foreign aid abroad more intelligently than we disburse it at home.”
Much of this has been obvious for years to those in the aid and lending communities who have kept their eyes and ears open; what has eluded us is that blinding insight that lays it all bare, the kind of insight that comes most often from literature. As literature identified the existence of the shadow, it was literature again that unraveled its nature. Theodore Dalrymple has written an account of the writer Rhys Davies (1901-1978) whom he has called the Welsh Chekhov. I can’t vouch for that since I haven’t yet read Davies but I intend to, especially the story that illuminated for me the shadow of foreign aid – “I Will Keep Her Company,” published in The New Yorker in January 1964.
The story, in Dalrymple’s words, concerns a couple in their eighties, living in an isolated farmhouse in the Welsh hills and snowed in. The old woman has died and the husband, refusing to acknowledge her death, is staying by her bedside. There is in the story a district nurse assigned to the care of the couple:
Meanwhile, Nurse Baldock has geared up a rescue operation involving a snowplow, a van, and a helicopter. She is, as her name seems to suggest, conscientious and bossy and, having completed a diploma in social studies in her spare time, believes herself entitled to a promotion. She had visited Evans a few days previously, when his wife had just died, and was prevented from removing the body by the snow. Now she is returning, determined to get his agreement to leave for the old-age home. When she finds him dead, she utters a bitter yet self-satisfied recrimination:
“This needn’t have happened if he had come with me, as I wanted six days ago! Did he sit there all night deliberately? . . . Old people won’t listen. When I said to him, “Come with me, there’s nothing you can do for her now,” he answered, “Not yet. I will keep her company.” I could have taken him at once to Pistyll Manor Home. It was plain he couldn’t look after himself. One of those unwise men who let themselves be spoilt by their wives.”
In a few pages, with a highly sophisticated simplicity, Davies arouses emotions and thoughts as impossible to resolve into full coherence as life itself. John Evans’s death is both tragic and a triumphant final expression of the love that gave his life meaning; we oscillate between sorrow and joy, between discomfiture and reassurance, as we read. As for Nurse Baldock, she encapsulates the mixture of good intentions, condescension, and careerism that is the modern welfare state. Rationally, we cannot refuse to endorse the efforts to rescue Evans; it would be a terrible world in which his predicament evoked no response. At the same time, we know that these efforts are not only beside the point but, at the deepest level, incapable of being other than beside the point.
There it is: The Evanses are the recipients, Nurse Baldock the donor, “encapsulat[ing] the mixture of good intentions, condescension, and careerism” that is the modern aid enterprise. Her judgments of John Evans echo the familiar comments of the aid executive – poor people “won’t listen,” “men [have] let themselves be spoilt” by their unwise ways. If only he had heeded her advice; if only poor countries would follow the instructions given to them by the well-intentioned donors.
The notion of “helping the poor” is a noble one, but it comes with this shadow that falls between people, states and their citizens, donors and recipients, between individuals and representatives, and this shadow grows darker and deeper as we try to pretend that it is not there, that it can be fixed with one quick step (always one quick step, just to keep us going for the next round).
Perhaps the story offers another insight as well. Nurse Baldock, with her plow and her van and her helicopter, her diploma in social studies, the full weight of the state behind her, is immeasurably more powerful than a weak, devastated, poor old man. Of course to her it is simple; she knows what is right, she knows what he needs far better than he himself could. But what if Nurse Baldock could meet John Evans as her equal? What if she could try, instead of helping him by force, to engage with him? In this light, might the shadow finally begin to fade?
Theodore Dalrymple’s article (The Welsh Chekhov) can be accessed here.
Nurse Baldock is reincarnated as Lucymemsahib in our fellow panelist, Samia Altaf’s book (So Much Aid, So Little Development: Stories from Pakistan) forthcoming from the Johns Hopkins University Press in May 2011.
For more on foreign aid on this blog, see:
Should Pakistan Receive More Foreign Aid?
How to Aid the Health Sector in Pakistan
Remaking Public School Education in Pakistan