Sunday, March 15, 2009

Spurious reflection

A man may do a good deed, even if he does it out of vanity... In other words, the more you truly feel for people in distress, the more selfish you are being in alleviating that distress. Only those who do good out of cold, unmoved ambition are the true altruists.
- Matt Ridley, The Origins of Virtue

I read this book years ago when I was in graduate school. At the time, I was very deep and meaningful, as only a graduate student or a teenage female poet can be, and I thought I understood it.

I obviously didn't then (I'm not sure any 22 year old understands anything), but I understand it even less now. Motivation is a big issue. I've written in this blog before about my motivations for working in aid work. And my very, shall we say, mercenary feelings about those motivations (R&Rs in Zanzibar and tax free income anyone?).

This ICC thing has gotten me rethinking the issue again. Mostly because I, very hypocritically, went all "ohhhhh, without the NGOs they'll all DIE" when, in fact, I've often said that NGOs aren't really as effective as they are... a conscience salve for the rest of the world. I've been reading all the discourse on whether it was a good thing or not, the Bashir indictment, if the concept of justice outweighs the lost NGOs and the lost services. I think there is no answer because we will never know if the indictment of Bashir stopped a future atrocity. How do you measure a dictator averted?

This quote just reminded me that there is a pretty hefty amount of self-aggrandizing in all my opinions, maybe I'm so furious with the whole thing because I AM an NGO'er and hang my identity pretty closely on the distant possibility of good in what we do. Which is a VERY different thing from the reality of the benefits of what we do.

Sorry, its late and I haven't been able to sleep lately, hence the deep thoughts. Tales of Juba debauchery to follow soon, I promise.


neha said...

even though its not terribly cool of me to post a link to something i wrote, i did notice your reaction, like the reactions of so many others... take a look:

Micahel Kleinman said...

Great post - and, I hope it's alright, but quoted one of your lines, with due attribution: