Waylaid Dialectic

June 14, 2012

Good intentions? Not so much

Filed under: Development Theory — terence @ 6:37 am
Tags: , ,

In comments below the ‘road to hell’ post Carol quotes some words of wisdom from J. at Tales from the Hood:

“The argument which says “Do something. Just do something. Even if it’s not particularly right, at least you’re doing something, which is more than millions of others can say…” is ultimately a bankrupt argument. Twisted as they may have been, Hitler and Pol Pot both honestly believed they were making the world better. They did something. They took the initiative. And we all know the results. So while I absolutely do not compare Heather or Liz or Cara to Hitler and Pol Pot, I do have to point out the obvious: Being deeply convicted that one “means well” and that “every little bit helps” does not mean that one is actually doing good rather than – you know – harm, and it is in no way a good enough basis for mucking about with the lives and livelihoods of other people…”

J. wins my vote for all time best aid blogger. And I have learnt a lot from Carol’s comments (thank you!) but it is simply wrong,  even in a very loose conceptual sense, to associate the intentions of Kony2012 or the 1000 shoes guy, or your average Johnny or Jenny do-gooder, with those of Pol Pot and Hitler.

While Pol Pot and Hitler may have had their own perverse visions of a better world in mind (one of village purity and the other of Utopia based on the master race) and while this I guess suggests they thought they were doing good, they harboured no good intentions whatsoever for their victims. Pol Pot wanted to brutally subjugate most of his population and Hitler wanted to exterminate Slavs, Jews, and Roma. These. Weren’t. Good. Intentions. And the roads to hell that Hitler and Pol Pot built weren’t paved with good intentions.

I think there are perfectly reasonable debates to be had about the potential unintended consequences of the operations advocated by the producers of Kony 2012 and whether, possibly, the movie propagated a picture of Africa that is ultimately harmful to the continent (in desperate need of a certain kind of help from a certain kind of saviour)*. But, with respect to the question that motivated my original post — do good intentions often lead to significant harm? — I am still convinced that the answer is no. And I certainly don’t the Hitler and Pol Pot argument works at all here.

*FWIW – I think the films critics might be right on the first of these and are probably wrong on the second – although I could be mistaken.


  1. I have to think about this one a bit. While I find it hard to disagree with you, there’s something bugging me that I can’t quite put my finger on yet. (But since I saw this, I thought I should respond.)

    I think part of what’s bothering me is I’m not totally sure of what the intentions of Invisible Children or many other organizations – or John and Jenny do-gooder – are, exactly. So I don’t know if they’re really good or just masquerading as good. Invisible Children apparently has a lot of great projects, where they actually work with people in northern Uganda to get back on their feet, which seems to me the reasonable thing to do if you have good intentions; work with the people you want to help, and ask them what they want and need. I’m a little perplexed by the idea of supporting a repressive military in order to go after a rebel movement which is fighting the government of that military, when both sides have done “bad” stuff.

    As for J’s Hitler/Pol Pot reference, I agree with you but so does J; he says “I absolutely do not compare Heather or Liz or Cara to Hitler and Pol Pot.” (Thanks to @ithorpe I now know we have provided more evidence of Godwin’s law, here!) The thing is, it’s all subjective. These bad guys were “bad,” sure. They had “bad” intentions. But they were linked to things like national security. How many civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere have been knowingly killed in the War on Terror and deemed a necessary sacrifice, or collateral damage? In the case of Uganda, the tactic of civilian internment in IDP camps and abuses by the UPDF have long been derided by many as bordering on ethnic cleansing, if not genocide. So why would one call for support of such a military, even if it’s with the “good” intentions of catching its opposing “bad” guy?

    I’m still not sure, and there may be other things I’m missing. None of these cases are great analogies, and I’m inclined to agree with your general point. Those are a couple of off the top of my head thoughts. (Thanks for the post!)

    Comment by Carol Jean Gallo — June 14, 2012 @ 10:23 am

  2. I agree that Hitler and pol pot are not good examples, but there are heaps of historical examples of people with good intentions doing serious harm. The stolen generation in Australia was the first that came to my mind. In fact, child welfare interventions often come into that category. There are I think three massive research programmes that are being done in Australia at the moment as a result of negotiations between the government and groups of children who were damaged by welfare programmes.

    Comment by Maia — June 14, 2012 @ 11:38 am

  3. Thanks Carol and Maia – those are good comments. I’m caught up in a very busy day today but will reply over the weekend.

    Comment by terence — June 15, 2012 @ 6:58 am

  4. Ok:

    Carol – my reading of J’s post is that he is very wisely saying that he is not suggesting moral equivalence between the do-gooders in question and Hitler and Pol Pot. But he is nevertheless making an association for the purposes of illustration – and then trying to use Hitler and Pol Pot as evidence that good intentions can lead to harm. Which I think doesn’t work. Hitler and Pol Pot really weren’t trying to do any good to those they harmed. J. would have done better to find some real world examples of well meaning development projects that lead to ruin.

    On Iraq – I think the Iraq analogy kind of works but not quite. After all, many of those who supported the Iraq war claimed to foster good intentions towards the Iraqi people. However, in the case of those with real power associated with the war (those in the upper echelons of the Bush administration) there was ample evidence to suggest that they didn’t actually give a damn about Iraqi welfare. And this was one of the reasons I opposed the war. Very rarely to bad intentions lead to good outcomes. And so it was. Saddam Hussein was an awful person and I could definitely see the case for freeing Iraqis from his yoke. But I just did not in the least bit trust the Neo-Cons with the task of doing this.

    However, and to tie this back to Kony 2012, what about if the group intervening had actually had good intentions. Albeit ones involving violent conflict (which is after all usually the only way violent regimes and warlords loose power). I think a good case can be that War always involves such harm, and is so prone to disastrous unintended consequences that it should almost never be advocated as a solution to problems such as those associated with Joseph Kony. This is certainly a rule of thumb I’m inclined to follow. However, I would still be open to being persuaded out of my inclination against armed intervention on a case by case basis.

    And, in the case of Kony 2012? I’ve bounced back and forth reading the various comments. First I thought they were definitely wrong to advocate this but reading the Kony2012 guy commenting under my previous post it seems like maybe the type of intervention they have managed to prompt (some US special forces troops) may indeed have helped. Although, it’s worth noting that they were advocating for the Ugandan army too, which sounds a lot more problematic.

    Comment by terence — June 16, 2012 @ 9:21 am

  5. Maia – that’s a good example. Thanks. And I agree that there was very real harm done.

    However, at the time IIRC indigenous Australians were still denied the vote in Australia and discrimination against them in almost all forms of life was acute. So I don’t know if this counts as good intentions really. Or, at least very least, if they were good intentions they were good intentions growing in the petri-dish of extreme racist ignorance.

    One could argue (perhaps unfairly) that the Kony 2012 people were ignorant in their own way and perhaps taken with their own stereotypes of Africa but I don’t think – even if this is true, which it may not be – that one can plausibly claim that their thinking was anywhere near as contaminated as that of white Australia back in the days of the stolen generation.

    Comment by terence — June 16, 2012 @ 9:27 am

  6. Yup, I think I’m with you on most of that. I think my problem with Kony 2012 was their “good intentions” leading them to support military intervention (never mind asking Ugandans or Congolese what they think) and the Ugandan military. I don’t think you can claim to be a humanitarian organization once you violate the norm of at least *trying* to remain politically neutral and trying to implement the norm “do no harm” borrowed from medicine. I know in practice that’s not as easy as it sounds, but for me (I’ve studied the history of humanitarianism), the idea of a humanitarian organization calling for the support of a government military (two, in fact) is very bizarre indeed. (It was hugely controversial when NGOs hired guns in Somalia in the 1990s just to be safe while getting aid to people who needed it.) Nonetheless, if those with real power proved to not actually give a damn about Iraqi civilians, what makes you think they care about Congolese or Ugandans? This is the same military Kony 2012 calls for to go get Kony. And its very convenient that over the past half a decade or so US interest in central Africa and the Horn has been growing exponentially (oil, AQIM, etc etc.).

    So I’m very suspicious of the military’s taking advantage of having some kind of popular humanitarian support at home to, yes, perhaps get Kony, but who knows what else. I’m also wary of military intervention against an army that is made up of so many child soldiers or adults who started out as child soldiers. What do you do with them? Can you shoot them? Are they collateral damage? How do you get past them? How do you keep the LRA from committing retaliatory attacks or going on recruitment/kidnapping expeditions, which are almost sure to happen if he knows he’s being chased? Do we just have to accept that is going to happen in order to go after him? What does it mean for Uganda? Will UPDF officials be held to account as well (some in UPDF have also kidnapped child soldiers)? Or do we continue supporting them in order to get this bad guy first? (Ugandan military budget lacks oversight, but they get tons of money from international donors by playing the “Kony is a terrorist” card.)

    I know underneath all of this is R2P and the shadows of Rwanda and Darfur (also, how come there’s not a similar sense of outrage over what is going on in Sudan right now? Or am I just not seeing it?) But, in the case of Rwanda, Dallaire wasn’t primarily looking for troops in order to engage in combat operations. He wanted to be able to protect civilians while a political settlement was worked out. That’s very different from choosing a side and becoming a military aggressor on its behalf.

    Anyway, again, I largely agree with you. But here’s another one to think about: Colonialism, and accompanying repressive operations such as apartheid in South Africa, were genuinely thought by some (many or most, even) to be in the “best interests” of Africans. Purely good intentions. Yet they did tremendous harm, and in *hindsight* are obviously “wrong.” Not saying this as a way to counter your argument really, just another thing that popped into my head.

    Comment by Carol Jean Gallo — June 16, 2012 @ 11:32 pm

  7. Hi Carol,

    Thanks for the comment. And, again, sorry – I’m packing today. All going to plan I’ll reply from Canberra later in the week.



    Comment by terence — June 18, 2012 @ 5:59 am

  8. Hi Carol,

    Sorry for the delay — travelling from Honiara to NZ. (And sorry for my spelling – I’m using internet explorer and am deprived of Firefox’s spell check.)

    I think one really succinct way to summarise my thinking on the substantive issue you raise in your comment (should they have called for the military to be involved) is as follows:

    For all the reasons you outline, involving the military in something like the LRA issue is immensely problematic. The only possible reason for advocating this is if the alternative, non-military action, looks like it is going to lead to little change. And if the current situation is even more problematic than intervention.

    I’m no expert on the LRA and Africa but it seems to me that the case for intervention — as profoundly problematic as it is — could be justified, for the simple reason that nothing else seems to be working and because Kony’s ongoing presence is causing significant suffering. Of course, the Devil’s in the details here and it all depends on what military and what their plans are, and whether these might work in the context. And I don’t know enough about the subject to make a call on this one. But conceptually, at least, I can see the case, while – at the same time – I’m also open to the fact that the idea might be a very bad one, on practical grounds.

    Comment by terence — June 25, 2012 @ 7:25 pm

  9. No worries, Terence! Yes, again, I basically agree with you. I think a case can be made for military intervention. But, as you point out, things are rarely that simple. Thought-provoking discussion, thanks!

    Comment by Carol Jean Gallo — June 26, 2012 @ 6:33 am

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