Front blew in Sunday, 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, and I try to minimize my driving, and mostly I try and do things indoors to stay indoors and breathe the HVAC filtered air with no allergens in it. Most of the real 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 garbage is full of organophosphate pesticides and residues and other chemical residues and that is what causes the allergy attacks. That’s the story going around, at any rate. Dust part is obviously true—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 goddamned toxic. We ought to, but we don’t. Somehow we, or the powers that be at any rate, know that it is off limits and nobody asks it. 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 unofficial agreement, one of those questions nobody ever asks.
Similar thing Monday out at the University of Texas. Seeing that the day was going to be lost anyway to allergies, I decided to go attend an event/lecture put on by the History department. On my way there, I dropped through 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. Save me a bunch of walking across campus in the open air, too.
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’s independence there have been three heads of state assassinated, five military coups, five significant massacres, capped by a civil war. Story is most screwed up and I won’t swear I got the numbers right. Civil war started in 1994 when the Hutu president, Cyprian Ntaryamira, was assassinated in a plane crash. The wars concluded in 2003, more or less and the UN is engaged in efforts there since 2006 to prevent the wars from reoccurring.
There is a track record of wars like this in places like this to flare up and die down and current thinking is that some sort of post-war peace building efforts are now necessary by agencies such as the UN to prevent this cycle from occurring. The UN has a division, the United Nations Peacebuilding Fund, which funds these peace-building efforts, and Ms Susanna Campbell, 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 turned out to be American and sported a ring. Dommage. She did talk with a good deal of refreshing non-bureaucratic non-academic 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 upfront 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 towards peace, towards a reduction in another flareup of war in the country. What Ms Campbell talked about—data gathering and analysis, program evaluation, policy evaluation—is pretty much the exact skill sets that the LBJ School teaches, that underlies all professional education in all graduate government/poly sci 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 ‘50’s, why we’d all be talking about the importance of major investments in steel mills and chemical plants to improve external capital flows blah blah blah. 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 in a country were the best guarantees 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 mean 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 meaner, what I would have said would have been: “Ms Campbell, why the hell does anyone at the UN believe something this goddamned dumb? All of the participants in WWI were liberal democracies with market economies and independent court systems. That didn’t stop that catastrophe from happening. None of those characteristics stopped WW 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 all the developed countries in the 20th Century, and most in the 19th too, were all like this and there was no shortage of wars starring them 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 just never 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.
*Cotton is a right interesting crop. It was the US’ 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 the US’ market dominance/subsidies destroys 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 Holtzendorf, Austria-Hungary’s armed forces’ chief of staff. Probably the person most responsible for WW I, and thereby WWII as well.