The Value of Their Values

 First published in The New York Times, March 7, 2007.

I began my career as a Foreign Service officer in Indonesia. There, journalists, diplomats and aid workers emphasized that local government was “incompetent, inefficient and corrupt.” I heard the same when working in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq. My colleagues often seemed contemptuous of the nations where they served. They overlooked the cultures’ virtues and strengths, which are the keys to rebuilding nations, particularly after insurgency and civil war.

Foreign policy experts will tell you that poor states lack the rule of law, a vibrant civil society, free media, a transparent civil service, political participation and a great deal more. Employees of major international agencies commonly complain that Afghans or Iraqis or Kenyans “can’t plan” or “can’t implement.”

At its worst, this attitude is racist, bullying and ignorant. But there are less sinister explanations. As a diplomat, I was praised for “realism” if I sent home critical telegrams. Now, working for a nonprofit, I find that donor proposals encourage us to emphasize the negative aspects of local society. Many of our criticisms reflect our deep assumptions about citizenship, management and the state.

Afghans and Iraqis are often genuinely courageous, charming, generous, inventive and honorable. Their social structures have survived centuries of poverty and foreign mischief and decades of war and oppression, and have enabled them to overcome almost unimaginable trauma. But to acknowledge this seems embarrassingly romantic or even patronizing.

Yet the only chance of rebuilding a nation like Iraq or Afghanistan in the face of insurgency or civil war is to identify, develop and use some of these traditional values. Many international reformers overexaggerate the power of technical assistance and formal processes. In fact, in these contexts, charisma can be more potent than bureaucracy. Politicians have to demonstrate an intuitive understanding of local power structures and an empathy for the unexpected things people value about themselves.

This may be uncomfortable for the international community. A leader who can restore security, reconcile warring parties and shape the aspirations of a people may resemble an Ataturk more than a U.S. president. This is not a call for dictatorship. True progress must be sustained by the unconstrained wishes of the people. These should include, in Afghanistan, people with strong liberal values as much as conservative rural communities. These various desires must be protected from both the contorted control of an authoritarian state and the muffling effect of foreign aid.

The international community often attempts to avoid imposing foreign systems. Donors try hard to emphasize grass-roots consultation in designing a political system. But it is much easier for us in theory than in practice to admire and empower an unfamiliar society.

Our approach to nation building in Afghanistan has failed to accommodate the splits between Hazara and Pusthu land arrangements, gender attitudes and codes, or their different approaches to literacy, the dignity of the individual or economic progress. We do not embrace the many unexpected ways in which Afghans might overcome trauma, invest, trade and learn. Such diversity should not be imprisoned by the current centralized government, but empowered by a devolved and flexible federal system.

Western management jargon is of little help to Afghan entrepreneurs, who use tricks, trust, community and crises in a powerful way. The strong Afghan sense of justice, community and religious belief can support a counternarcotics program, the rule of law, democracy or security. But the real drivers of change are opaque.

Ultimately, we must respect countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, and trust in their ability to find their own solutions. This does not mean we need to withdraw entirely. A Harvard M.B.A. will be better at building a hydroelectric plant than a local tribal process. Foreign troops can sometimes, as in Bosnia, end a war. Our rigid values, critiques and methodologies can, even in Iraq, set up a central bank and stabilize a currency.

But the central problems are national and political. Our invective about state failure and our dissatisfaction have become part of the problem. Real solutions will emerge, often improbably, from local individual virtues, and from the cultures we struggle to describe and tend to ignore.

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