Canadians of a certain age may be forgiven a smug conceit and a smothering complacency with regard to Canadian foreign affairs. Punching slightly above our weight in World War II and in the United Nations action in Korea, there was no doubt in our minds that our military was manifestly virtuous and stood squarely on the side of liberal democracy in its repeated showdowns with totalitarianism. In addition, Canadian soldiers served admirably in support of peace. In fact, it’s only a modest exaggeration to say that the establishment of a permanent UN peacekeeping force was a Canadian idea and that, in addition to winning a Nobel Peace Prize for seemingly solving the Suez Crisis of 1956, future Canadian prime minister Lester B. Pearson exemplified the best of international diplomacy as he defused conflict and deployed reason in support of human rights and tolerance.
It was even possible to think of Canada as something more than a supine supporter of whatever it was that the United States wanted to do with or to the world. For example, Prime Minister John G. Diefenbaker showed a measured defiance when President John F. Kennedy simply assumed that Canada would support any action he might take during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Later, Lester Pearson’s attempts to persuade President Lyndon B. Johnson to avoid all-out humiliation in Vietnam provided Canadians with the opportunity to think—as long as we didn’t think too long and hard about it—that Canada was an exemplary “middle power.” Canada was aligned with the West and was America’s closest ally, but it was also a country with an independent viewpoint. Combined, Canada’s proximity to the USA and its stubborn streak of apparent autonomy made it both a suitable American proxy (when, for example, patrolling the Demilitarized Zone in Vietnam in the mid-1950s) and also a potentially impartial power broker in some of the smaller disputes during the Cold War.
Not to be forgotten are some relatively high profile exercises in development assistance to what were coming to be known as the countries of the Third World. Canada, for example, was an important participant in the Colombo Plan, a multilateral aid program supplying assistance to countries in South and South-east Asia. And, of course, there was much positive talk about the emerging British Commonwealth, which provided some evidence that the trappings of Empire could be sloughed off like the skin of a snake to reveal a healthy new example of cooperation in the place of a history of exploitation.
Canadians of a similar age were also convinced that problems of poverty, disease, corruption and abuse could be solved in the self-same Third World if only people in poor countries would embrace the principles of liberal democracy and a free market economy. Colonialism, of course, might be properly blamed for some aspects of underdevelopment, but we were mainly taught that the key to a brighter future for the poorer nations was surely to be found in modernization. That, at least, was what the vast majority of books in the fields of political and economic development urged us to believe.
My own perceptions—no doubt founded on the words and images of my long-time subscription to the National Geographic Magazine—began to change in the early 1960s. My growing library of books on the subject of development permitted no credible alternative to the roughly linear path to peace and prosperity that was made available to any Latin American, African and Asian country. All that was needed was for the postcolonial countries to dispense with tribalism, install electricity and properly manage urbanization and mass communication. It would not be easy.
Backward-looking and often corrupt leaders were apt to cater to “tribalism” to preserve their own local power, but it was said to be a tremendous obstacle to prosperity and democracy. Moreover, it was plainly unacceptable to base modernization strategies on excessive nationalism or to indulge in inappropriate experiments in economic planning, land reform and the nationalization of Western corporate assets—especially in rich resource industries. Even democracy, though no doubt a laudable goal, was hazardous; after all, people with no democratic traditions could hardly be expected to vote rationally. Instead, reliance would have to be placed on suitable leaders (vetted by the West) with whom the cooperation, harmony and mutual benefit could be assured.
Throughout, it was made abundantly plain that Cold War enemies in the USSR and “Red” China were eager to subvert well-meaning Western plans and to seduce naïve and/or inappropriately avaricious “tin-pot dictators” into supporting the wrong side. Why anyone would be sceptical of the good intentions of Europeans and North Americans was a mystery and could be explained only by a reliance on the belief in the demonic powers of “communism” and the appalling witlessness and/or calumny of the people who were taking over as Britain, France, Portugal, Belgium and the Netherlands (Spain having abandoned its dominant global position some time before) reluctantly withdrew from the splendor of the colonial past.
The symbolic point at which I began to break from these positions was reached when I picked up three books. One was entitled War on Want (a volume long since lost, but well remembered as the first exposure I’d had to the euphemistic use of the word “war,” now invoked to describe everything from the wars on terror and drugs to the wars on Christmas, drunk driving and obesity). It featured a photo of two dark-skinned, nearly naked and plainly starving children. In those more innocent-cum-ignorant times, it was actually poignant. The second was Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1963), in which Jean-Paul Sartre’s “introduction” explained simply and forcefully that global poverty was the direct consequence of global wealth. The last was Fenner Brockway’s African Socialism (1963), which introduced me for the first time to some of the more eloquent and thoughtful leaders of the emerging nations. In combination, they significantly undermined the cheerful stories of impending escape from poverty promised by the purveyors of Western technology, economic expertise and (perhaps somewhat delayed) democratic values at the time.
In the intervening fifty years, I have been erratic in the attention I’ve paid to the “third world.” Still, as I have become at least a little more aware of the events and movements in Africa, Latin America and, to some extent, Asia, the accumulated evidence and the increasingly powerful theories of neocolonialism, imperialism, neoimperialism, globalization—call it what you will—have become so pervasive and persuasive that it would take a willful blindness to the facts and a perverse distortion of those facts to come to any conclusion other than that the primary (though not the whole) responsibility for the troubles of the underdeveloped countries lies with the advanced (post)industrial societies, mainly of North America and Europe.
The specifics of the matter involve layers upon layers of malfeasance guided by an obtuse ideology and a studied refusal to take into account the ideas of anyone genuinely eager to bring a measure of equity to global economic and political relations. The inventory of misdeeds includes but is not limited to hideous wars, human rights abuses, relentless exploitation of resources, ecological degradation, punishing financial penalties and genocide—both physical and cultural.
Almost no one is exempt from culpability. Imperial nations, international corporations, military and intelligence services, a mass media that simply refuses to deal sensibly with international issues and, of course, an educational system that ignores or treats with banalities and superficialities the plight of nations and peoples which do not figure prominently in our consumer-driven society. In their book, Paved with Good Intentions, Nikolas Barry-Shaw and Dru Oja Jay seek to change this dynamic, at least a little.
Anyone with the wit and the will to learn about the world around them will have no difficulty doing so. Intelligent, penetrating and theoretically compelling books and articles are easily available. Many of them deal with vast topics involving whole continents, complex regions and overarching themes—ecological, cultural and political; however. The consequences for comprehension can be overwhelming and the devilish details can be lost in the broad swaths and strokes of grand narrative. Paved with Good Intentions provides welcome relief. It is about something relatively specific. It is about one place and one time. And it is about one problem.
The problem is not of the sort that frequently comes to mind with thinking about global inequity, imperial iniquity and the possibility of almost apocalyptic crises and collapse. Yet, as the authors explain, some of the putative heroes in the resistance to violence, disease, hunger and ignorance are, themselves, implicated in the problems they have been organized to solve. Hence, the title, which commonly follows the expression, “the road to Hell.”
The place to which the authors direct us is Haiti. Most of us have been made more acutely aware of that benighted country because of two stunning events: the devastating earthquake of January, 2010—the largest in the country’s history; and the subsequent severe hurricane damage in October of that year. We are aware of fund-raising efforts and the frequent (and apparently helpful) visits to the country by Hollywood actor Sean Penn. We are probably also aware that it is a home to the Voodoo religion. Fans of fiction and film may recall Graham Greene’s novel The Comedians or the Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor movie based on it. And that, apart from the peculiar fact that former Canadian Governor-General Michaëlle Jean was born there in 1957 is probably where most of us stall.
We should, however, also be aware of Haiti’s past: its slave rebellion in the 1790s, in which Haitians learned of the French Revolution and falsely thought that the liberté, egalité, fraternité was meant for them too. It wouldn’t hurt to recall that the slave-owning author of the American Declaration of Independence (“we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal,” etc.) assisted Napoleon in his military effort to crush the Haitian rebellion for fear that it might lead to a slave rebellion in America as well. We should know that, in exchange for independence, Haiti was compelled to pay compensation to the slave-owners or, rather, to the European and North American banks that funded the price of freedom in an amount so large that it would not be paid off until 1947.
We should recall that US marines occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934. We should remind ourselves that the democratically elected President of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was removed from office twice. He was elected with 67% of the vote in 1990, and overthrown by the military with likely CIA collusion in 1991. Aristide was elected again in 2001, this time with 92% of the vote and was once again removed. In the coup that followed in 2004, USA, France and Canada clearly implicated as Aristide was forced to resign and forcibly sent into exile (i.e., kidnapped) in the Central African Republic. He returned in 2011, over the strong objections of President Obama, and has so far bent to pressure not to return to political life.
So much for history!
Paved with Good Intentions focuses on Haiti and, to the surprise of many people who thought better of them, on a number of Canadian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) too.
Much like military peacekeepers, NGOs that are engaged in foreign aid and assistance are deeply respected and appreciated. They are exemplars of “feel-good” politics and, in some cases, deservedly so. Staffed largely by volunteers or by paid administrators with skills that would easily fetch far higher salaries in the private sector or even the public service, these mainly dedicated individuals embody “good intentions.”
Unfortunately for Canada’s self-image, the reality of Canadian involvement in Haiti does not live up to expectations. Nikolaus Barry-Shaw is an “independent researcher,” an activist, a member of the Canada-Haiti Action Network and an aspirant amateur basketball player. Dru Oja Jay is a writer, organizer web developer and pastry aficionado. Neither one is apt to win any commendations from the current Government of Canada, nor any other Government of Canada in the near future. Together they have written a compelling account of the role of NGOs, their tangled relationship with the Canadian International Development Agency and the neoliberal political and economic agenda followed by the global enterprises, regulatory agencies and funding organizations. It was not always so.
In the 1950s and 1960s, especially, a radical critique of the major Western powers was articulated by diverse members of the academic community—largely among students who were inspired by the writings of men such as the aforementioned Fanon, various African nationalists, errant Maoists and the non-violent tactics of Mohandes Gandhi. One way or another, organizations such as Canadian University Services Overseas (loosely modeled on the US Peace Corps), Oxfam, some human rights advocacy associations, and a number of faith-based groups began to press for more openly democratic, participatory engagement, often with rather strident criticisms of government policies. Their aim was partly to become involved in direct assistance in Third World countries and partly to hold the authorities to account for their actions in pursuit of neocolonial economics and counterinsurgency where national liberation struggles had failed.
There was no small amount of grist for their mills. Led not merely to witness the plight of the downtrodden as an urgent moral issue, but as a by-product of power relations, many of these groups began to branch out from generous but guileless charity work into more careful analysis and criticism. For a time, even the NGOs who recognized and were concerned about overarching state institutions and international organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were celebrated. They brought the soft power of civil society to bear on conditions that were hideously inadequate from the perspectives of education, health care and simple survival among what came famously to be called the “bottom billion” of humanity.
The instruments of “civil society” were acclaimed for seemingly selfless work on behalf of those who could not help themselves. And this is one place were the story gets complicated. The apparent success of the NGOs was part of the problem. Between 1980 and 2005, the number of NGOs in Canada grew by more than 500%. The necessity of cooperation with state and corporate agencies led to complications in which pressure to follow neoliberal strategies became harder and harder to resist. Part of the predicament arose from the dependency of some organizations on financial and diplomatic facilitation by government; part arose when government exercised its power to obstruct or eliminate dissident voices.
Nikolas Barry-Shaw and Dru Oja Jay raise some issues of corruption within some NGOs (administrators who “live like kings” amidst the poverty and so on), but these are minor matters compared to the seduction and compromise forced upon NGOs which faced a dilemma between being ruthlessly used as “cheerleaders” for government policies or losing the funding to carry on at all.
The book is packed with specific stories running from the engagingly anecdotal to mini-case studies in distortion and dishonesty bordering on (and sometimes exceeding) depravity. It should not, however, be read an exposé, much less as an invitation to a sloppy cynicism that courts the conclusion that no one does good without an ulterior motive or that foreign assistance is nothing but a “con game.” The problem is not the people as such, but the immense power and authority of institutions that limit the best of good intentions and turn them too often to nefarious purposes.
There remain many, many “helping” groups which do actually help. Among them, unless I am horribly mistaken, is Médecins Sans Frontières and other humanitarian groups of which I am tempted to give examples but will refrain lest I leave too many out. They operate, however, within an imperial global structure in which some can be manipulated into doing rather more harm than good by helping to prop up precisely those who are mainly responsible for the poverty and disease in the first place.
Today, of course, the Government of Canada has become much less subtle in its foreign policy agenda, substituting weapons sales for peace-keeping forces supporting exploitative resource-based industries with records of blatant human rights abuses. The de-funding of KAIROS, an NGO which had the audacity to hint, contrary to Prime Minister Harper’s single-minded line on the matter, that Israel might have to share some culpability for the human rights abuses and poverty in the Near East.
Accordingly, it is becoming ever more evident that authentic efforts to assist people world-wide will depend on a broader effort to alter national policies in the West. By taking us through the events in Haiti in a mainly chronological and meticulous account of the transition of “Canada’s development NGOs from idealism to imperialism,” Paved with Good Intentions informs and enlightens us. We should not, however, come away shaking our heads sadly in dismay or smugly with a sense of vindication for preternatural scorn for perennial “do-gooders.” We should not selfishly vow never to be suckered into foreign (or domestic) assistance schemes, even if only to the extent of contributing a few dollars to an attractive charity.
Quite the contrary, the effect of this well-written and convincing book should be to interrogate relentlessly not only the government’s foreign aid establishment, but also its overall foreign political and economic policies that not only contribute to the squalor of the least fortunate abroad, but do no good for the increasing number of poor at home.
Brockway, F. 1963. African Socialism. London: Bodley Head.
Fanon, F. 1963. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press.
Howard A. Doughty teaches political economy at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at email@example.com.