Send my mother to Swat Valley: fixing America’s global gratitude deficit
My mother would not approve. The bane of my childhood…which was essentially the story of Alexander Portnoy playing softball with Beaver Cleaver and Richie Cunningham in the land of “The Ice Storm”…was her insistence on a thank you note for every occasion. Get an embarrassing set of pajamas from Grandma? Immediately drop everything and send ...
My mother would not approve. The bane of my childhood…which was essentially the story of Alexander Portnoy playing softball with Beaver Cleaver and Richie Cunningham in the land of “The Ice Storm”…was her insistence on a thank you note for every occasion. Get an embarrassing set of pajamas from Grandma? Immediately drop everything and send a thank you note. Get $10 from Uncle Max that could have been used to purchase a perfectly wonderful Revell model P-51 Mustang but which your parents hijack and use to buy a new pair of shoes from Tom McCann? Too bad, there will be no staying up late to watch “My Mother the Car” if you don’t write a thank you note. Orthodontist slit your gums while installing a torture contraption in your mouth? Probably ought to send a thank you note, just in case.
There was a valuable lesson in this (for which, ironically, I have yet to send my mother a thank you note.) Gratitude makes a difference. Without it, the beneficence dries up and the giver no longer feels so good about giving and your brother and sister end up getting the better presents. (Or the orthodontist develops a grudge against you which is a very bad thing.)
I think it’s time to send my mother to Pakistan. And then to Afghanistan. And then to Baghdad. And then perhaps on to a few other choice spots from Honduras to North Korea. This hardly seems like a reward for an exemplary life, but she could teach these folks a lesson or two about gratitude. And then, when she is done with the tour … and she develops her own perspectives on just how little our efforts at generating gratitude in these places are actually benefitting the United States … perhaps she ought to come back here and provide a lesson or two for the administration and for some folks on the Hill, perhaps starting with Senator Kerry. Because not only is the United States suffering from something that appears to be much like a global gratitude deficit…it may well be that the problem is with our expectations and our mechanisms for manifesting our (not so selfless) generosity to the less fortunate (or strategically significant) worldwide.
A prime illustration of the problems we face comes in the form of today’s New York Times story “In Refugee Aid, Pakistan’s War Has a New Front” by Jane Perlex and Pir Zubair Shah. The article describes how the United States is losing the bidding war for the hearts and minds of Pakistanis and how Islamists are edging us out. The authors observe:
Although the United States is the largest contributor to a United Nations relief effort, Pakistani authorities have refused to allow American officials or planes to deliver the aid in camps for displaced people. The Pakistanis do not want to be associated with their unpopular ally.
At the same time, the article goes on to describe how hard-line givers from the Muslim world are using their donations to effectively promote anti-U.S. and anti-Western views. Meanwhile it notes, even American NGOs are saying we shouldn’t advertise the U.S. origins of aid shipments because it is likely to inflame hostility. Seems to me like a lose-lose proposition for us there. I mean, I understand the humanitarian rationale behind giving for the sake of giving but really, isn’t the purpose of government aid to advance a government objective? Isn’t it clear that’s precisely what we are not successfully doing in Pakistan?
But the Pakistani government and the Pakistani people are not the only ones who don’t seem to appreciate our aid (or who are happy to take it but would like to continue hating us just the same). In Afghanistan, the Karzai administration would not exist without the United States. Is it showing its gratitude by combating the corruption via which our aid is wasted? Is it showing it by making even the slightest effort to embrace the most fundamental universal values of respect for groups like women or journalists? Read the reports out of Kabul. They just don’t seem to appreciate all we have done for them.
Neither, it seems does the al-Maliki government in Baghdad. Now, I can see plenty of reasons why the Iraqi people would be pissed off at America. The illegal invasion of their country, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of their people and the devastation of their economy come to mind. But I’m not talking about the Iraqi people here. I’m talking about a government that knows full well that even after the pullback of U.S. troops from the cities, it depends on the continuing presence of U.S. forces in the country to ensure national stability and its grip on power. Couldn’t they have toned down the celebrations of “liberation” from the Americans just a trifle to reflect the fact that the United States is continuing to invest so much in their ability to hold on to power?
We spent much training the Honduran military that conducted that country’s coup earlier this week. We have pumped serious aid money into North Korea to combat famine. We give the Egyptians, the Palestinians, and the Israelis plenty of cash and there seems to be a competition among them to see who can stall our objectives in the region most effectively or creatively.
Now, I realize we don’t need to give aid money to people whose situations are stable. Aid tends to go to places where there are myriad challenges. But something is clearly not working here. The reflexive notion that we should write checks because it will generate goodwill seems not to be working. Clearly part of the problem here is with our expectations. And part of the problem here is with our history and perhaps we need to reconcile ourselves to unappreciated generosity for a while as a way of offsetting years of alienating people worldwide. But clearly another part of it is that we are a little ginger in our communications with our allies on these points…at the very least the governments who depend on us for survival ought to be nudged into a more constructive message with all due care to nuance the message to take into account local political realities.
Finally, the U.S. government aid apparatus remains one of its most dysfunctional. Early in the Obama transition there was talk of spinning out U.S. AID and related agencies into a Department of Development and Aid. I am generally anti-adding new departments to the government. But this was a pretty good idea. Economic peace-keeping and nation-building have been among our prime missions internationally over the past several decades whether we like it or not. But because we don’t like it we have resisted building the kind of inter-disciplinary capacity to do it right…to recognize that provision of aid in post-conflict or conflict situations has completely different requirements (mostly political) than it does in development situations and that we need to more effectively blend pacification and economic missions. We need a civilian side Goldwater-Nichols to promote better collaboration and coordination among economic and political agencies in the fulfillment of this mission and better coordination with the military which still reluctantly does much of the heavy lifting in this area.
And beyond what we need, the world needs my mother. This is true on many levels. But in this instance it is because those who depend on our aid need to realize that regardless of who is president in Washington, all politics and history aside, the financial reality is that it is going to become harder and harder for the United States to continue providing aid as we have in the past and that average Americans (and even above-average Americans) are going to be soon looking even more energetically than in the past for excuses to shut the spigots. And that’s saying something because aid has always been really unpopular in the United States, it’s one of the reasons we give less as a percentage of GDP than most developed countries. Absent the thank you notes (which could be a nice card or possibly just making an effort to help the United States achieve our goals) the gratitude deficit could quickly translate into an aid deficit for those who are accustomed to receiving.
FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images
David Rothkopf is a former editor of Foreign Policy and CEO of The FP Group. Twitter: @djrothkopf
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