Bombing versus bed nets.

In a deliberately provocative piece, Yglesias makes a striking comparison:

What [the Against Malaria Foundation] do is provide long-lasting insecticide treated bed nets in order to protect defenseless civilians from a form of biological warfare known as the Plasmodium parasite which spreads via bites from insects of the Anopheles genus. According to The Life You Can Save, handing out these bed nets saves about one life for every $1,865 spent. That’s to say that if the United States was able to spend the $1.1 billion we spent on the Libya operation on long-lasting insecticide treated bed nets we could have saved almost 590,000 lives from almost certain destruction. America’s other allies in Libya spent about $3 billion in total together. That’s something to think about.

And then this gem of a sentence:

[I]t’s worth interrogating the larger political and ideological construct that says that spending a few billions dollars to help foreigners is a thinkable undertaking if and only if the means of providing assistance is to kill some people and blow some stuff up.

I see why this take on the Syria situation will irk many people. It could indeed lead our logic astray insofar as it puts forward a possible choice which isn’t actually on the table. If we really could pick between buying malaria nets and impeding Assad, the comparison would be appropriate and his implicit conclusion the correct one. But given our socio-political climate, it’s not the case that foreign aid will rise if we don’t bomb Syria. So if we have the chance to do good, it should be embraced even if it’s a sub-optimal use of resources. (I don’t, incidentally, doubt that Yglesias can see and accept this; it’s just not the intention of his piece).

To continue to play sceptic, then, we’d have to invoke extra evidence of the historical inefficacy of liberal intervention that justifies wondering if we could really do any good at all. I’m no longer an international relations student, but I certainly recall enough to know such a case could easily be made. On this question, it seems to me that the Onion nails it.

I mainly like Yglesias’s post, though, because of its exposure of the naivety lying behind popular altruism. Washington is so narrow minded that the only way it knows how to (possibly) do good, and the only way it regularly wants to, is when dropping bombs is involved. That says a lot, and what it says doesn’t reflect well on the human character. Those that suddenly find themselves with a desire to do good when seeing Syrian suffering should wonder why this suffering is so special and whether we should help those that need aid more generally, especially given it is within the power of each of us to do so at the click of a button, with no real cost to ourselves.


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