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.

June 11, 2012

What the road to hell isn’t paved with…

Filed under: Development Theory — terence @ 7:55 pm

I missed most of Kony 2012. In internetless isolation doing research. But I have a question for everyone in the development blogosphere who became so enraged: how many people have died as a result of Kony 2012? Oh, and another question, how many people are likely to die?

It always struck me that the old saying ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’ is utter nonsense. Paved with good intentions? Not often. Most of the time the road to hell is paved with bad intentions. Diabolic ones. That’s what causes catastrophe – nastiness. And just as the road is paved with bad intentions most of the time it is also lined with doing nothing.

It’s not the trivial bits of global assistance that caused the Rwandan genocide. It was the perpetrators of this crime. And it was made worse not by the presence of the UN but rather by the absence of any real international attempts to stop it. Not good intentions: bad plus a willingness to look the other way.

And so Kony 2012. The guys who produced it might be dopey and motivated by a desire for fame (fortunately this is not something that ever motivates bloggers). But have they really caused any harm?

And if not, were we right to focus so much ire in their direction when at the same time, in all manner of different parts of the planet, bad people were busy doing bad shit?

Sure there’s lots of well intended Western development silliness. But, only very rarely does it do any harm. And probably occasionally it does quite a lot of good.

So Kony 2012 didn’t bother me that much. Human history is basically mostly about us trying to kill the ‘other’ or at least ignoring someone else doing the killing. Set against that backdrop I reckon attempts to do good, even daft ones are a step in the right direction.

[Update: See comments. Carol writes: ‘Kony 2012 called for military intervention and support of the Ugandan military (which is also accused of some pretty serious crimes). This kind of action did not end well in 2008, when it led to the retaliatory Christmas massacres.’ Fair point.]

[Update 2: I typed this blog post in a hurry last night while I was, somewhat anxiously, waiting to meet a taxi driver for an interview. I did not devote a lot of thought to it but, I thought, what the heck. Mine is a very small blog and it is a very big internet out there. If I’m wrong I’ll be ignored or corrected. What I didn’t expect was that this morning I would be learning via comments a lot on something I know to little about. This seems unfair. But thank you everyone.

For what it’s worth the Kony2012 defenders are quite convincing at least as of 9am Solomons time.]

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