Rory Stewart‘s The Places in Between, an account of his walk through Afghanistan in 2002, is every bit as good as critics say it is. (I can’t remember the last time when I read a book that proudly announced that it was a “New York Times Bestseller” on the cover, but publishing is a tough business.) That it is worth reading for anyone who wants to seriously understand the region, what it means to travel, or man-dog friendship is unquestionable. It is also worth reading for the few but trenchant words it offers up to so-called development specialists who seem to populate places like Afghanistan, the Middle East and the Balkans. One wonders if they will be flocking to the Maghreb next.
In light of what’s happening there and watching Western news organizations try to make sense of it, I’ll quote Stewart’s footnote from near the end of his extraordinary travelogue. The parts of the book that barely mention the West at all are the best parts, of course.
Critics have accused this new breed of administrators of neocolonialism. But in fact their approach is not that of a 19th century colonial officer. Colonial administrations may have been racist and exploitative, but they did at least work seriously at the business of understanding the people they were governing. They recruited people prepared to spend their entire careers in dangerous provinces of a single alien nation. They invested in teaching administrators and military officers the local language. They established effective departments of state, trained a local elite, and conducted countless academic studies of their subjects through institutes and museums, royal geographical societies, and royal botanical gardens. They balanced the local budget and generated fiscal revenue because if they didn’t, their home government would rarely bail them out. If they failed to govern fairly the population would mutiny.
Postconflict experts have got the prestige without the effort or stigma of imperialism. Their implicit denial of the difference between cultures is the new mass brand of international intervention. Their policy fails but no one notices. There are no credible monitoring bodies and there is no one to take formal responsibility. Individual officers are never in any one place and rarely in any one organization long enough to be adequately assessed. The colonial enterprise could be judged by the security or revenue it delivered, but neocolonialists have no such performance criteria. In fact their very uselessness benefits them. By avoiding any serious action or judgment they, unlike their colonial predecessors, are able to escape accusations of racism, exploitation and oppression.
Perhaps it is because no one requires more than a charming illusion of action in the developing world. If the policy makers know little about the Afghans, the public knows even less, and few care about policy failure when the effects are felt only in Afghanistan.
This is an excellent summary of everything I have seen and heard of development experts in two years in the Balkans, and two more years of attending school with many who aspired to be development experts. What must one do to understand a people? Walking staying in their houses, speaking their language, and walking with them is a start, Stewart seems to be admitting, although even that barely scratches the surface. I’ve long been impressed at the long view that the British Crown took in sending young men to India in the 19th century. Our 21st-century development agencies and governments typically send people out on two-year rotations.
To be fair to development experts, I should mention that for awhile I made a living teaching the local employees of international businesses how to understand monolingual English-speakers who made zero effort to learn or speak in a local language, and for whose sole benefit department-wide meetings were often translated, despite everyone else having a common tongue. There is no monopoly on loutishness or cultural imperialism, but it can also be said that these monophones demonstrably added value to the company that they put through so much grief. If they didn’t, they lost their jobs.
Can the same be said for the would-be architects of the new quasi-protectorates?
A side recommendation: I had heard for some time that there was a book out by a Scotsman who had walked across Afghanistan, but the New Yorker’s (paywalled) portrait of Stewart cemented my interest in this remarkable and powerful book. Ian Parker’s portrait is recommended as well. Read both with a strong cup of sweet tea on the side, and perhaps listen to PJ Harvey’s veddy English album afterwards.