Front Blew In: Western Arrogance toward Africa, American Ignorance toward Allergens, and the Peril of Questions Left Unasked

Burundi: Is the west truly helping?

Burundi: What is the West’s true agenda?

Daniel N. White

Front blew in Sunday in Texas, a dry norther, and once again I’m allergy sick.  Physically debilitated and mentally impaired too.  I know better than to operate power equipment on allergy days.  I minimize my driving, and mostly I do things indoors and breathe the HVAC filtered air.  Most of the work I need to do is outdoors and power tools and driving and allergies mean that it all gets postponed, which irritates me greatly on top of the allergy pains and aches.

Story I’ve heard about these winter northers and allergies is that they bring in field dust and agricultural debris from the winter bare cotton fields in the Panhandle, 250 miles away.  All that debris is full of organophosphate pesticides and chemical residues and that is what causes the allergy attacks.  The dust part is obviously true—the horizon turns brown from the dust and so does your car.  Don’t know if the rest is true or not,* but I do know that I don’t lack for company in winter allergy attack days.

But nobody asks about cotton field debris causing allergies, and what it means for all of us and all of our futures that the agriculture behind of one of this country’s biggest crops* is that toxic.  We ought to, but we don’t.  Somehow we, or the powers that be at any rate, know that it is off limits.  Nobody tries to take the present into the future, and see where that goes.  Nope, it is one of those topics not talked about by tacit agreement, one of those questions nobody ever asks.

I witnessed a similar willed blindness last Monday (3-24) at the University of Texas.  Seeing that the day was going to be lost anyway to allergies, I decided to attend an event/lecture put on by the History department.  On my way there, I dropped by the LBJ School and noticed a flyer for another event, this one on the UN post-war peacekeeping projects and their evaluation in Burundi.  This event had a free lunch attached, and the speaker was female and cute and looked Limey and hell might not be wearing a ring so I decided to attend that one instead.  I’ve always been a sucker for a female voice with a British accent.

The necessary backstory about Burundi is that it is a neighboring country in central Africa to Rwanda and like Rwanda has been torn by Hutu-Tutsi conflicts for years.  My reading of the Wikipedia account shows that since 1962 and independence there have been three heads of state assassinated, five military coups, five significant massacres, capped by a civil war.  (The story is chaotic and I won’t swear I got all the numbers right.)  Civil war started in 1994 when the Hutu president, Cyprien Ntaryamira, was assassinated in a plane crash.  The war concluded in 2003 and the UN has been engaged in efforts there since 2006 to prevent it from recurring.  Sadly, recent news from Burundi is not promising, as this article from The Economist makes clear.

There is a track record of wars in Africa.  They flare up and die down then flare again, so current thinking in the west is that post-war peace building efforts are now necessary by agencies such as the UN to end the cycle of violence.  The UN has a division, the United Nations Peacebuilding Fund (UNPBF), which funds these peace-building efforts, and Dr Susanna Campbell of the Geneva Institute for International Studies, the speaker at the event, was in charge of evaluating these efforts in Burundi for the UN.

Ms Campbell in the flesh did not lack for cute, but she turned out to be American and sported a ring.  Dommage.  She did talk with a good deal of refreshing non-bureaucratic, non-trade-argot honesty and verve about how the UN was evaluating the success of its peace-building efforts in Burundi.  Ms Campbell was quite blunt about how in the past there was a serious lack of program evaluations of similar UN aid programs, beyond the basic accounting enumerations of monies spent and goods delivered.  Ms Campbell acknowledged that the underlying assumption had always been that something good had to have come from spending that much money, right?   The focus here this time was in seeing if, by means of polls and statistical analyses of the data gathered by the polls and field researchers, if there were changes in people’s attitudes in areas that received the UNPBF aid and areas that didn’t, and if these changes in people’s attitudes were likely to contribute to peace, to a reduction in another flare-up of war in the country.

What Ms Campbell talked about—data gathering and analysis, program evaluation, policy evaluation—is pretty much the exact skill set the LBJ School teaches, which underlies professional education in all graduate government/political science programs.  Her talk was a rare opportunity to meet with someone who is actually using those skill sets out in the field and affecting policy decisions by doing so.

Q&A came around, and I got picked early for a question, which was:  “Ms Campbell, about every generation there is a new economic development paradigm that comes along that everyone buys into.  If this were the 1950s, why we’d all be talking about the importance of major investments in steel mills and chemical plants to improve external capital flows and so on.  All foreign aid programs have always been based on the development paradigm that was in fashion at the time.  So tell me, what is the peace paradigm that the UN is using for its peacebuilding programs?  What are the objectives and end goals being sought?”

Ms Campbell replied that the objectives of the UNPBF were the establishment of liberal democracies with market economies and with independent court systems with rule of law.  She did acknowledge that there was criticism of the peacebuilding fund and the UN’s underlying assumptions coming from other quarters.  But the UN’s assumptions were that the creation of these institutions was the best guarantee that peace would be established and future wars in that country would be prevented.  Admittedly, the UN itself has the internal problem of its established agencies—FAO, UNDF—looking at UNPBF as a big piñata that they should get in place to get their share of. Usual bureaucratic empire-building imperatives there.  Part of the importance of program evaluation was to minimize this tendency by showing what worked to promote peace-building and what didn’t.

I was, like I said earlier, suffering from allergies, which made me slow on the uptake and maybe less critical than I might have been otherwise.  I did point out that all development models for the undeveloped world that we the developed countries have come up with have failed, that none have worked.  Ms. Campbell acknowledged that, and went off to the next question.

If I’d been more on top of things, and more critical, what I would have asked would have been:

“Ms Campbell, why the hell does anyone at the UN believe something this dumb?  All of the participants in World War I were liberal democracies with market economies and independent court systems.  That didn’t stop that catastrophe from happening.  None of those characteristics stopped World War I’s lead country’s Chief of Staff from starting that war in order that he could become a war hero and divorce his wife and marry his mistress.** Hell, most of the developed countries in the 20th Century, and most in the 19th too, were like this and there was no shortage of wars in either century, and no shortage of wars that had second and third verses too.”

“If you want to call the United States the exemplar of all these characteristics, look at our wars.  How did our having all these keep us from Vietnam or Iraq?   Or Nicaragua or El Salvador or Panama or Afghanistan or Korea?   Why do we think that other countries getting these institutions or characteristics will reduce their likelihood of having more wars when it hasn’t done anything for us and our wars?”

“And then there is the larger question behind this assumption.  Isn’t this all just in the final analysis just another chapter of the industrialized west trying to re-make the rest of the world in its own image?  The west’s doing this by guise of peace-building—isn’t that just another dishonesty, another hypocrisy of the west?  Isn’t there something quite wrong with the west that it wants to do this?”

“And then there’s the deliberate ignoring of political problems.  Mostly people pick up rifles because they think they’ve been mistreated, by others in their country or by others in neighboring countries.  Wars are caused more by political injustice, real or perceived or deliberately manipulated, than anything else.  Why isn’t anything being done about coming up with new or better ways of fixing political problems instead of shoehorning the rest of the world into the west’s institutional model?”

“And isn’t the worst of this all the complete lack of imagination shown by everyone at the UN, and the intellectual world in its tail, path, or orbit, not to come up with any better ideas to promote peace in war-torn parts of the world than this?  Is it that you can’t imagine any better, or that you are so bureaucratically afflicted that nothing new or novel ever gets anywhere in that agency?”

Nope, I didn’t ask any of this and I let it all slide by.

I should have asked all that, but I didn’t.  Somebody should have asked all that a long time ago, but mostly they haven’t.  People ought to be concerned about this and what it shows about us as a people and as individuals and about our institutions but they aren’t.  None of this is getting asked and it should be.  It’s as big and out in the open and ignored and not discussed a problem as the cotton-field dust winter northers and how they make people sick.

Daniel N. White has lived in Austin, Texas, for a lot longer than he originally planned to.  He reads a lot more than we are supposed to, particularly about topics that we really aren’t supposed to worry about.  He works blue-collar for a living–you can be honest doing that–but is somewhat fed up with it right now.  He will gladly respond to all comments that aren’t too insulting or dumb.  He can be reached at

*Cotton is a right interesting crop.  For the US it was the leading dollar value export every year from 1800 until 1937.  It is the most mechanized crop in agriculture.  It uses more pesticides and herbicides than any other crop.  It gets more subsidies from the USDA than any other crop—some years the subsidies exceed the market dollar value of the crop.  There’s a huge scandal in the development economics world about how US market dominance/subsidies destroy third world cotton farmers—but the story isn’t quite what the US critics say it is, not by a long shot.  Anyone who wants to learn more is encouraged to read High Cotton:  Four Seasons in the Mississippi Delta, by Gerard Helferich.  It is an outstanding book that didn’t get the critical kudos it deserved.

**Conrad von Hötzendorf, Chief of Staff of Austria-Hungary’s armed forces.  Perhaps the person most responsible for WW I, and thereby WWII as well.

4 thoughts on “Front Blew In: Western Arrogance toward Africa, American Ignorance toward Allergens, and the Peril of Questions Left Unasked

  1. Well, at least you now have the opportunity to present your excellent contrary opinions in TCP. They are well thought out and well presented and make us think more about how much official BS we have to cut through to stay sane. Why do thoughtless officials keep selling the same policies that have failed in the past and expect a different result? If you would have stated your argument at the meeting you would have had many faces turn towards you in horror that you had the temerity to bring the obvious to this acknowledged ” expert”. Anyway she was already attached.

  2. I wonder why someone didn’t ask: “Since Western colonial powers — especially Britain and France — consciously drew borders in Africa such that countries would include rival tribes who would fight each other and thus make their conquering and plundering easier, what consideration has the UN given to redrawing these borders so as to make countries more tribally homogeneous and thus less susceptible to civil wars, plundering by the West, and military assistance from the United States?”

  3. Another other related, distantly,from the topic.
    We have set up a military Central African Command, ostensibly to “fight terrorism” but in reality to beat China to the punch in controlling Africa’s natural resources. We are deploying troops and special operations units throughout the region for that end.
    My special beef is Russ Feingold, that supposedly most liberal former senator, taking the job of Obama’s front man (ambassador) to that region. This is the guy who could have stopped or seriously held up the appointment of Roberts to the Supreme Court but didn’t and when I called his office to find out why they told me ” he thinks the president should get what he wants”. So now his MO is to oversee our imperial interests in Africa. This is the CV of neo-liberals. Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing.

  4. Good one, Mr. White! But I doubt you would’ve gotten too far into your putative follow-up question before the speaker would have cut you off or Security would’ve hustled you out of the hall! That’s how they operate in a “liberal democracy,” right? Now, the UN, that’s an interesting subject. From Day One of its creation, extreme rightwingers have railed about “One World Government” trying to oppress and smother us all (the “black helicopters” are a more recent invention). Their ideological offspring carry on this war of words to this day. So it makes me slightly uncomfortable to criticize the organization–which does do SOME good in the world–but when it comes to “peacemaking” or “peacekeeping,” this organization has been a dreadful failure. They lent their flag, of course, to the US war against the people of Korea, and thus are partly responsible for US troops still being there 61 years after the ceasefire. Traditionally, the US world view controlled the UN: “We must contain communist aggression and expansionism.” When non-aligned nations started gaining prominence, with former colonies in Africa in particular gaining at least nominal independence starting in the 1950s, the US could still stifle their impact. When the overwhelming majority of member nations in the General Assembly pass a resolution condemning the policies of Israel in Palestine, no relief can be brought to the Palestinians because the US holds veto power in the Security Council. The UN basically sat on its hands during the genocide in Rwanda. And thanks to Russia having one of those permanent vetoes, the UN still sits on its hands while Syria is torn asunder from within. I could go on and on with the UN’s failures to actually thwart aggression, but I will terminate this piece with a suggestion: the UN needs to be reorganized so that the Security Council can be directed to take action by a vote of X% of the member nations in the General Assembly. Do away with the Big Five veto power on the Security Council. But, I suppose any resolution to such effect coming out of General Assembly would be…you guessed it, vetoed on the Security Council.

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