The Places in Between

I recently finished reading the fascinating book The Places in Between by Rory Stewart (see also NY Times review). The book describes the authors journey 2002 journal between Herat and Kabul in the middle of winter just after 9-11. Mr. Stewart gives a rarely seen glimpse of life for rural Afghanis and how they view the Taliban, the U.S., and local warlords. One footnote describing contemporary UN and OECD policy makers particularly caught my attention:

“Critics have accused this new breed of administrators of neo-colonialism. But in fact their approach is not that of a nineteenth-century colonial officer. Colonial administrators may have been racist and exploitative but they did at least work seriously at the business of understanding the people they were governing. They recruited people prepared to spend their entire careers in dangerous provinces of a single alien nation. They invested in teaching administrator sand military officers the local language. They established effective departments of state, trained a local elite and continued the countless academic studies of their subjects through institutes and museums, royal geographical societies and royal botanical gardens. They balanced the local budget and generated fiscal revenue because if they didn’t their home government would rarely bail them out. If they failed to govern fairly, the population would mutiny.

Post-conflict experts have got the prestige without the effort or stigma of imperialism. Their implicit denial of the difference between cultures is the new mass brand of international intervention. Their policy fails but no one notices. There are not credible monitoring bodies and there is no one to take formal responsibility. Individual officers are never in any one place and rarely in any one organization long enough to be adequately assessed. The colonial enterprise could be judged by the security or revenue it delivered, but neo-colonialists have no such performance criteria. In fact their very uselessness benefits them. By avoiding any serious action or judgement they, unlike their colonial predecessors, 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 dev4eloping 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.”