“Emergency sex and other desperate measures”

Dear friends,

At this point in the year, I’ve finished my formal lectures and teaching, and am on to the second set of essays due for the completion of this term’s modules. I’ve been working on an essay, trying to answer the question: “Is supporting international development aid a duty of humanity, a duty of justice, or no duty at all?”

As happens with the work that comes with essay writing, I seem to have found my way into a really deep hole of reading. It’s almost as if I, as a hypothetical burrowing animal, have stuck my head into the dirt and dug until I managed to even forget why I was digging in the first place. I’ve looked up, only to see dirt all around me, realising that I’ve lost the light of day (it was also quite rainy/overcast in London today), and staring me in the face is this book titled “Emergency sex and other desperate measures: a true story from Hell on Earth”.

The path my little burrowing self took from the surface of the excavated path up until this book has included these points:

  • Peter Singer concludes that we have a duty to support international aid (I’ll refrain from giving his moral argumentation scheme here).
  • Dambisa Moyo says that aid is hurting Africa for various reasons. We therefore actually have a duty opposite to that which Singer claims: to stop all aid.
  • Others have given reasons for stopping aid, re: the recent news about the Oxfam scandal. Oftentimes in the foreign aid sector, the power relation between the aid giver (usually a privileged Westerner) and the aid receiver (perhaps a victim of a natural disaster or disease) is wrongly utilised. This happened when vulnerable Haitians were paid for sex with Oxfam representatives after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

Okay, so we have these three little ideas that popped into my head – but what do we do with them? One set of writers (Søren Sofus Wichmann & Thomas Søbirk Petersen) make it a point to say that even in light of aid gone wrong, there’s a lot of aid that goes well. Singer makes this similar argument in his book, “The Life You Can Save”. Scandals and mishaps in the aid industry, it seems, are just bad apples in a bunch of good apples.

A lot of this argumentation reminds me of a work by the Kenyan philosopher Henry Odera Oruka, who manages to use quite well the term ‘supererogation’ when describing aid workers and foundations. Basically, if a human or an organisation is going ‘above and beyond’ (as viewed by society, I might add) in their work, then they have less moral imperative to be scrutinised in the work that they’re doing. With this framework, read the paragraph preceding this one again – it seems eerily reminiscent of supererogation. Ought we be questioning the work of charities, aid organisations, and foundations more often than we do?

Even without going so far as to scrutinise the acts of charity organisations themselves, could we even take a broader look at the idea of charity and aid in and of itself? I’ve been thinking, perhaps the mistakes that tend to happen in development aid, and especially in this Oxfam scandal, are happening not due to the bad apples in the bunch, but the fact that humans cannot control certain aspects of their nature. (This is an incredibly cynical way of viewing people, but I’m keeping it for the sake of the thought experiment at the moment.) By allowing a company to work within the framework of development aid, one must then accept the existence of one who has more and one who has less – this gap is where we find the power dynamic that humans cannot, perhaps, refuse to use when they are put in a catastrophic situation such as the disaster relief setting. Paul Farmer once said that he abhors the idea of charity (which I tie closely to the idea of aid), because the existence of charity requires the existence the powerful and the powerless (paraphrased, I think). So with this power relation in mind, I wanted to read this book on ’emergency sex’ to see a personal account into why these sex scandals may have happened. (I’ve only started, so I don’t know if this book will lead me towards any sort of conclusion.)

Let’s be clear: there is not excuse for sexual abuse, harassment, or anything of the like. I’m not trying to release those who contributed to this scandal of any blame, but the truth of the matter is that if the existence of these scandals is reliant not on ‘bad apples’ but on the ‘framework of inequity in power’, they’ll keep happening despite the knowledge that these sorts of acts that the Oxfam workers committed not so long ago are rightfully taboos to be refused. Is it time for a shift in the conception of what ‘aid’ and ‘development’ constitute?

Without entering too far into conversation on the matter, I might only ask, What are we to do with this sheer amount of inequity that exist in the world? If aid is not a part of the answer, then what is? This brings about questions of the global and local infrastructure, about long-term and short-term solutions, and about what current solutions, if any, are truly effective.

While I was reading this book, I came across the story of a Cambodian man and young man, both physicians-to-be in New Zealand. The Cambodian man, Vary, escaped the genocide in his country – he and his wife were luckily in the lucky 1/3, where the other 2/3 were brutally maimed, killed. Andrew, the other young man, ends up befriending Vary, and learns about living amidst a genocide, of having to sew the diamond of an engagement ring into the skin of one’s wife’s arm that would be later used to start a new life in New Zealand…

This just got me to thinking about privilege, growing up in a country like the United States, and what the aims of life are in the U.S., especially when we aren’t quite aware of what’s happening on the global scale. In reading this story, I only began to understand the immense notion of how truly privileged many of us, especially in the university setting, can be. My mind goes back to a conversation I once had with a dear friend: she asked, “Do you think it’s fair that I go to university, someone who comes from a privileged background? That I take away this university spot from someone who didn’t have all the opportunities that I had while growing up?”

This question still has me thinking, and I honestly don’t have a good enough answer at the moment. Perhaps, ‘use your degree for the better,’ but this implies that we use the power that we are unfairly given by society to then try, in some way, to make life more fair. Is there not a solution that doesn’t require we come from a position of power? Also, how many truly moral minds can we rely on to ‘use the degree for the better’? (My apologies for the cynicism again on humans.) I guess this may take us to a new realm of thinking, where we must take a step back, out of the accepted framework of power that we live in at the moment.

For lacking any answers, I do have one solid idea for you. We know, objectively, that we live in a world in inequity. Somehow, someway, this inequity must budge. In reading only a part of the vast literature that there is on foreign aid, it seems as though our old solutions to addressing this inequality are truly only relics of the past, and I may fear that we haven’t heeded the famous words, “Insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting different results.”

The pit in my stomach only tells me that we need to think more on this issue, only that is all I know for now. This is a daunting task of sifting through an incredibly complex situation and problem, but we, if we wish to make any bit of change for the better, are here to tackle tasks such as these, no?



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