Another week, another foreign aid donors conference. This one was Haiti. These are moments of myopia and amnesia: feel-good ops.
The donor countries declared big donations - a record, I think. No one has to write a cheque on the spot and, based on the record, lots will never be paid. Canada's minister in charge, Bev Oda, said "Canadians have been overwhelmingly generous." The media ran happy stories on "schools in a box" sent from Windsor; those boxes haven't arrived and, when they do, may not get unloaded since, as The Globe's Jessica Leeder reported, much heavy equipment has already gone elsewhere.
There are also reverse feel-good ops, as in bewailing how corrupt "they" are and how we'd better watch them like a hawk. The CBC's Peter Mansbridge spent a moment pressing Minister Oda on our own beneficence, but she bluffed bravely and he moved on, lest anyone feel a twinge, to the story of "a sport that's taking the world by storm."
Bill Clinton, master of the mea culpa (Rwanda, Monica Lewinsky) is half in charge, along with Haitian President René Préval; he confessed he had erred in 1994, as prez, when he restored Haiti's elected leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, after a coup but only on condition that Haiti's farmers surrender the ability to feed their people. This will be made up for with a big Coca-Cola plant. Riddle me that.
The mother of all feel-good aid ops was the 1985 Band Aid concert for famine in Ethiopia. Hardened leftists from Third World support groups were touched that at least someone was acting. Journalists trampled each other to get into Ethiopia for the money shot - kids' distended bellies.
Last month, the BBC reported that large amounts had been diverted to buy arms for rebel groups back then. Sir (for organizing Band Aid) Bob Geldof was outraged, then toned it down. I don't think the news is surprising, or negative. The whole famine was treated as bad natural luck, with no political context. But the Horn of Africa was convulsed in those years (and still is), with rivalries, rebellions and the use of all sides as Cold War pawns. One Band Aid organizer said, "You couldn't help the hungry in the rebel-held areas without helping the rebels." That's where the myopia comes in.
Or take Mozambique, one of Earth's most shattered nations. CBS's 60 Minutes did a show on U.S. entrepreneur Greg Carr, inventor of voice mail, who "cashed out" for $200-million and is spending some of it to restock a game park called Gorongosa there. What killed off the animals? CBS says: (1) A war of independence against Portugal, followed by (2) a long civil war. Okay, good for Greg, who the locals treat as a "rock star." Except I was there between (1) and (2) and the park was teeming: elephants, crocs, hippos, rhinos, wildebeest and thick clouds of impala leaping across your field of view any way you turned.
Then came civil war, wholly underwritten by apartheid South Africa and backed by the Reaganite U.S. and Thatcherite U.K. as part of their anti-Commie crusade. Then came Greg Carr and his park revival scheme. That's the amnesia part. Those who don't learn from history may not be doomed to repeat it, but they'll likely make a new mess in a familiar way.
Soon, in 2011, in Afghanistan, Canada will shift from a combat role to an aid one. The amnesia seems to have already set in. How so? Well, U.S. troops are loudly planning a June operation in Kandahar that all media and official accounts refer to as Taliban terrain. But wait - what about the thousands of Canadian forces who've been there since 2006, and still are? Was that wrong? Or did they accomplish nothing? Where are Canada's leaders to correct the record on this? How do the families of those killed in action feel about it? Eventually, though, the aid will start, accompanied by feel-good tales, such as schools (or ice rinks) in a box. And with it, the myopia.