Poem of the day

whauden2Wystan Hugh Auden died forty years ago, on September 29, 1973, in his sleep after a poetry reading in Vienna, Austria. He was 66. I read his obituary in Time Magazine a few weeks later; I was ten years old. Discovering Auden for me was the discovery of — I meant to write, what you could do with language, but I realize I want to say something else: what language could do with you, an impersonal power coursing through the husks of words that, freed, could shock you to delirium, or wring you and your attempts at meanings like a wet rag. That chasms of mood so jagged, sinister, and deep could open after shuffling a few sounds struck me as an appalling secret underneath the world, as though Hagia Sofia or the Alhambra, which haunted my imagination though I’d never seen them, could be constructed out of matchsticks. All through my teenage years an old paperback of his Collected Poems sat on the floor near my bed. Even today to think of its cover, stark green letters on white like an Icelandic landscape, gives me a sense of companionship coupled with fear and awe. No other writer except Nabokov has ever affected me so much.

Here are three poems from the sonnet cycle In Time of War, written on a visit to China during the Japanese invasion, in 1938. The first alludes to another great poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, who suddenly recovered his powers after long depression during a stay in the Château de Muzot in Switzerland in 1922; in a few weeks, he completed the Duino Elegies. In a letter he wrote that, having finished the work, “I went out and stroked the little Muzot, which had protected it and me and finally granted it, as if it were a large old animal.”

When all the apparatus of report 
Confirms the triumph of our enemies;
Our bastion pierced, our army in retreat, 
Violence successful like a new disease, 

And Wrong a charmer everywhere invited; 
When we regret that we were ever born: 
Let us remember all who seemed deserted.
To-night in China let me think of one

Who through ten years of silence worked and waited,
Until in Muzot all his powers spoke,
And everything was given once for all:

And with the gratitude of the Completed
He went out in the winter night to stroke
That little tower like a great animal.

๛ ๛ 

No, not their names. It was the others who built
Each great coercive avenue and square,
Where men can only recollect and stare,
The really lonely with the sense of guilt

Who wanted to persist like that for ever;
The unloved had to leave material traces:
But these need nothing but our better faces,
And dwell in them, and know that we shall never

Remember who we are nor why we’re needed.
Earth grew them as a bay grows fishermen
Or hills a shepherd; they grew ripe and seeded;

And the seeds clung to us; even our blood
Was able to revive them; and they grew again;
Happy their wish and mild to flower and flood.

๛ ๛ 

Wandering lost upon the mountains of our choice,
Again and again we sigh for an ancient South,
For the warm nude ages of instinctive poise,
For the taste of joy in the innocent mouth.

Asleep in our huts, how we dream of a part
In the glorious balls of the future; each intricate maze
Has a plan, and the disciplined movements of the heart
Can follow for ever and ever its harmless ways.

We envy streams and houses that are sure:
But we are articled to error; we
Were never nude and calm like a great door,

And never will be perfect like the fountains;
We live in freedom by necessity,
A mountain people dwelling among mountains.

Ban homophobia in Africa: Ban Ki-Moon

Shoot for the Ki-Moon

At the opening of an African Union (AU) summit this morning, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon told assembled leaders to respect LGBT people’s human rights. The AFP says:

“One form of discrimination ignored or even sanctioned by many states for too long has been discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity,” Ban said.

“It prompted governments to treat people as second class citizens or even criminals,” he added. …

“Confronting these discriminations is a challenge, but we must not give up on the ideas of the universal declaration” of human rights, Ban told the summit.

Ban has shown more nerve over the years than I’d have thought possible at the beginning. Good for him.

(Un?)freedom tower: The HQ project

All this took place amid the inauguration of the African Union’s posh new headquarters in Addis Ababa — and that blingy building suggests why neither Ban’s admonitions, nor David Cameron’s threats, nor all the pious efforts of those who want to squeeze humanitarian aid in the name of human rights, may in the end amount to much.   The elaborate complex, a glossy imitation of the UN building towering over one of Africa’s poorest cities, cost between $120 million and $200 million (US), and was entirely constructed by China. China Daily quotes  “Zeng Huacheng, a special councilor to the AU headquarters project from China’s Ministry of Commerce”:

“The accessible height of the main office building is 99.9 meters, in reference to the founding date of the AU and the rise of the continent,” Zeng said. “The panoramic view of the conference center is like two hands holding each other, signifying the strengthening friendship between China and Africa.”

Asia Times goes into more detail:

In the thin air of Ethiopia’s low-slung, mostly ramshackle capital, a glittering tower complex is erupting from a warren of corrugated tin roof shacks that many locals call home. …

Though the CSCEC [China State Construction Engineering Corporation] describes its efforts there as “aiding” the African Union, make no mistake, it is building the facility wholesale. Stern-faced Chinese foreman command ever-smiling Ethiopian laborers who are working round the clock to finish the project at breakneck speed for its planned January 2012 inauguration. …

In anticipation of a hoped-for visit to Addis Ababa by President Hu Jintao for the new AU’s debut, [a Gabonese Diplomat]  stated: “We cannot thank China and it’s leaders enough for it …”

As China scours the continent for resources virtually unchallenged, this “gift” to the people of Africa will certainly come with strings attached. In a recent meeting with a high-ranking CSCEC official, Erastus Mwencha, a seasoned Kenyan diplomat who holds the deputy chair of the African Union Commission that oversees the project, hailed it in a recent press statement as a “permanent signature on African soil”.

When Asia Times Online visited the present AU headquarters hugging hilly Roosevelt Street, a representative of its Conflict Management Division lamented the depth of Chinese involvement both in Ethiopia and across the entire region. Africa’s sudden anti-democratic partner is engaged in a slew of road rehabilitation and construction endeavors in many parts of the country.

We are unbuilding socialism: The complex under construction

As I’ve pointed out here, Chinese aid for Africa — of which the new HQ is merely the biggest symbol — comes with few political conditions, certainly not rights-related ones. What accompanies it are economic expectations: that the continent will provide endless, cheap raw materials for China’s boom, as well as new markets for Chinese exports. That’s no good news for ordinary Africans, who’ll find their economies shunted every more firmly into a neocolonial niche of underdevelopment. But the elites who control the African Union’s governments will turn a profit.

As if in an emblem of this relationship, there weren’t even many African raw materials inserted into the building: Save them for export to Beijing!  “Even the furnishings were imported from China and paid for by the Chinese government,” a Ugandan blogger says sourly.   China Daily puts the best face on this:

To ensure construction quality, only the best materials were used and furniture was specifically designed and ordered.

“Details such as the height of a table and the color of a carpet were all discussed with representatives from the AU,” Zeng said.

The lack of political conditions doesn’t mean, though, that Africa’s integration into the Chinese co-unprosperity sphere comes without political consequences. That Ugandan blogger’s comments suggest how neocolonial dependency fosters both patriarchal power structures and cultural protectionism:

Where is the pride in us as Africans having this luxurious new home? Where I come from, and I believe many African men come from similar backgrounds, you are not considered a real man unless you have built your own house which you will call your home. Its only then that you can marry your wife and its only then that you are respected by everyone in the village. …

Yes, indeed, it’s a reflection of a new Africa …  An Africa without a culture, without a moral campus, an Africa without any pride, an Africa that can’t build their own home, an Africa that thrives on begging for food, for money and now for a home. An Africa that is shameful and disgraceful. An Africa that is empty and without a future, an Africa that is everyday selling its soul to powers foreign …

So congratulations to Ban Ki-Moon for speaking out. A glance at the balance sheets, however, shows there’s a long way to go.

Aid and the China connection: Pink dollar, meet red renminbi

Like a rainbow

A reporter once said that the most boring headline he could think of was one beginning “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative.” OK; here’s a Canadian initiative; see if you think it’s worthwhile. As the premier of British Columbia gets ready for a trade mission to China, she’s laid down some rules for business people tagging along:  “Tourism operators marketing trips to the province for Chinese people must agree not to promote casinos, gambling or gay tourism.”

B.C. Tourism Minister Pat Bell …  said the federal government accepted the terms when it negotiated approved-destination status with China last year, and B.C. had no say in the matter.

Approved-destination status allows tourism operators in Canada to market their services in China, and Chinese tour operators to organize and promote travel packages to Canada.

He said B.C. simply wanted to ensure that its tourism operators understood the rules: “We’re not necessarily endorsing the specifics.”

The government soon retracted its requirement. But it was an embarrassing moment, especially with Vancouver trying to hawk itself as a gay tourist destination, like other cities from Cape Town to Tel Aviv. It’s also embarrassing in other venues. Gay conservatives in the US have long contended that the “pink dollar,” the buying power of gay consumers, can eradicate inequality better than the law. As Stephen G. Miller, founder of the right-wing Independent Gay Forum, affirms, “Corporations increasingly are courting the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender markets for their buying power and trendsetting value”:

The gay market is a significant demographic. … Free markets work to sweep away the ineffectual, inefficient and irrational (including unprofitable prejudice) when allowed by the state to do so.

Maybe so — but not if they meet a bigger market with prejudices of its own. China right now is the mother of all buyers and sellers, the 800-pound panda (dragon? duck?) in the room. The puny pink dollar can posture if it likes. The red renminbi — China’s victorious currency — rules.

The same is true of China’s aid policies. That‘s the chord this story struck with me — coming in the midst of the global South debate over the UK’s vague promises to tie LGBT rights to development assistance. Chinese aid, to Africa in particular, has become a slowly growing question-mark, a cloud of discomfort, hanging over geopolitical discussions in the West. A blog I noticed last week carried a British gay man’s “Letter to Tanzania,” in which he intones with gravid sarcasm:

To have to lower yourself to accept money from such selfish nations as the UK must be extremely galling.  I’m sure you have only done so for the last 35 years because you simply had no other choice, but maybe, if you’ll permit me to make a little suggestion, it’s time to consider asking the Chinese for more help, or some of the oil-rich nations of the Middle East?  They don’t let pesky little things like gay rights get in their way so I think you’d get on very well.

Ask the Chinese? Uh, don’t worry. African countries will.

China’s aid role is a crucial point not fully considered in the aid debate. Western countries that once had plenty of of “policy leverage” in attaching conditions to assistance now have less, because another donor has come to town.

The motives and forms of Chinese overseas aid are not well understood elsewhere. All that’s fully known is that there’s a lot of it. In a recent report, researchers from the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa argue China doesn’t strive deliberately to obscure the aid flows; it’s just that the information is scattered in different papers and websites through the Chinese bureaucracy. Still, it’s difficult to extract simple figures — such as how much money goes to Tanzania or Malawi –from the facts at hand.

However, for the first time, China this year published a white paper outlining its policies on overseas development assistance. Vague in many areas, the document is evidently but perhaps not adequately calibrated to assuage uneasy critics in other industrialized countries.  One can take three overall facts from it:

a) China is overwhelmingly interested in Africa. Almost half its aid goes there.

b) Chinese aid goes heavily to economic infrastructure projects. For instance, the government breaks down its low-interest loans to developing countries as follows:

c) China advertises its aid as no-strings-attached, in respect of rights or any other conditions. It still proudly foregrounds the “Eight Principles for Economic Aid” Mao promulgated in 1964, among them:  “In providing aid to other countries, the Chinese government strictly respects the sovereignty of recipient countries, and never attaches any conditions or asks for any privileges.”

Let’s start with the last point first.

Unconditionality is obviously attractive to many aid recipients, often for all the worst reasons. Robert Mugabe knows that Beijing will never care if his handshakes leave bloodstains behind. China is notoriously unwilling to integrate rights discussions into its aid mechanisms — indeed, to talk about rights at all. (The white paper contains no mention of rights, or of gender for that matter.) When I worked at Human Rights Watch, directors had desperate discussions about the impossibility of opening any channels with China’s rulers. At one point we were urged to make any kind of contact we could — if we met a Chinese official anywhere,  even in a public restroom, to strike up a conversation and try to connect. I have no idea whether any HRW staff got arrested for indecent conduct as a result.

Conditionality in Western aid has a long history. As one US official said in the 1990s, “”Aid appears to have established as a priority the importance of influencing domestic policy in the recipient countries.” However, it’s far from true that all or even most conditions  tied to aid were rights-related. Many were raw attempts to gain economic advantage — which makes the whole subject of conditionality rankle in the memory of some nations. One account notes:

[Njoki Njoroge] Njehu [director of the 50 Years is Enough campaign] cited the example of Eritrea, which discovered it would be cheaper to build its network of railways with local expertise and resources rather than be forced to spend aid money on foreign consultants, experts, architects and engineers imposed on the country as a condition of development assistance.

Strings attached to US aid for similar projects, she added, include the obligation to buy products such as Caterpillar and John Deere tractors. “All this adds up to the cost of the project.”

WIll China in fact be better? Many suspect China’s aid programs carry a similar economic agenda: the attempt to build markets for cheap Chinese goods.The Chinese white paper, as one commentator notices, refers to “financial support of a certain scale to developing countries” in the form of “preferential export buyer’s credits.” The pundit adds,

[T]his means more subsidies to help China’s exporters continue making money. It also means preferential financial packages that will continue to make it difficult for large multi-national organisations – including those from developing countries like South Africa and elsewhere in Africa – to compete with China’s for major contracts.

Economic infrastructure aid reveals the other side of Chinese ambitions. Here, Chinese assistance seems focused on a few areas. For instance, the graph shows that transport stands out: the white paper adds that

By the end of 2009, China had helped other developing countries build 442 economic infrastructure projects, such as the Sana’a-Hodeida Highway in Yemen, the Karakoram Highway and Gwadar Port in Pakistan, the Tanzania-Zambia Railway, the Belet Uen-Burao Highway in Somalia, the Dry Dock in Malta, the Lagdo Hydropower Station in Cameroon, Nouakchott’s Friendship Port in Mauritania, railway improvement in Botswana, six bridges in Bangladesh, one section of the Kunming-Bangkok Highway in Laos, the Greater Mekong Sub-region Information Highway in Myanmar, the Shar-Shar Tunnel in Tajikistan, the No.7 Highway in Cambodia, and the Gotera Interchange in Addis Ababa of Ethiopia.

Many of these projects would be quite useful in moving large quantities of heavy things, as well as energy, from place to place.

This tends to support suspicions that a priority of Chinese aid is to facilitate extracting raw materials and other resources from recipient countries. The pattern of Chinese trade with Africa, which is burgeoning, bolsters this.  Crude oil and minerals are the main things China imports from there.  You can see an emerging picture of the Africa Chinese aid may aim to build. Countries send raw materials to China; in return, they become a market for Chinese consumer goods, which presumably help make the populations happy. The prospective flows of capital, and the vision of mobs kept quiescent by cut-rate cellphones and toys, must be pleasing to many an African oligarch’s reveries.

Not everyone would agree with this. (For a nuanced and more optimistic view of China’s role in Africa, see Deborah Brautigam’s blog here.) But if it bears some truth, there are at least two lessons to be drawn. There’s one for Western governments — and activists in their countries — who want to support LGBT movements, and human rights movements, in the South. There’s another for Western states thinking about the geopolitical future.

First, on a purely pragmatic level — and whatever you think of the ethics of aid conditionality – tying bilateral aid to LGBT rights won’t work. It won’t work because increasingly governments know they can get stringless aid from a different source, China. The best way for Western governments to advance LGBT rights is to aid LGBT rights movements themselves directly. As African states move into the orbit of a flush and generous funder uninterested in rights protections, the same will hold true for almost any human rights issue. If you want to promote it, don’t try bullying officials. Your dollars or pounds, pink or green or whatever, carry no clout against the indifferent renminbi. Fund the advocates; fund civil society.

Then there’s the question of Western countries’ own self-interest.  I am obviously unwilling to make an argument that appeals, even implicitly, to the the industrialized countries’ desire for unrestricted access to the fuels and other raw goods lodged in Africa’s soils.

That interest can’t and shouldn’t be met. We want a world in which countries keep autonomous control over their own resources, and  tend and protect the environments in which those resources are embedded. But, again in pragmatic terms, one can at least appeal to Western countries’ desire to keep China from having unrestricted access, either. This is a geopolitical concern that most of the old industrialized countries share.

The best way to do that is for Western governments to support strong democracies; strong civil societies, but also strong states that are simultaneously responsive to the diverse interests in their own populations, and resiliently resistant to external economic and political pressure. Such societies and such states will indeed make the West pay a fair price for any resources they get, on the countries’ own terms; but they’ll make China do the same. Such proximate equality is probably the best bargain the West can hope for.

The other alternative they have is to rely on the outworn oligarchies they’ve supported for decades, perhaps with new faces and new uniforms, but with the same old kleptocratic manners and brutal morals. That seems to be the route Western states are taking now. How much are they really concerned with full democratization, and how much with clinging to “political leverage,” and economic leverage too? The example of diehard US and European support for Yoweri Museveni in Uganda is not promising.

The problem is, oligarchies are notoriously ungrateful. They know a cash cow when they see one — they grew up milking them — and if the Chinese market appears before their kraal, swollen and mooing, the temptations of a dried-up West will seem desiccated and despicable. China has as much money as the West has now, and will soon have more. Oligarchies can be bought. Buying democracies is harder.

In Zambia, long lusted after by the industrial world for its copper reserves, Michael Sata — locally known as “King Cobra” — ran three populist presidential campaigns partly based on condemning Chinese economic intrusions. He called for investigations of working conditions in Chinese enterprises, and demanded economic independence for Zambia. In 2006, China threatened to cut diplomatic ties if he were elected. After two losses, Sata finally won in 2011, toning down his rhetoric somewhat. (He also survived a campaign controversy fed by his Christianist opponent after he appeared tentatively to support LGBT people’s rights. In a presage of current aid controversies, opponents accused him of selling out — for Danish money.)

Is Sata’s imperfect populism, defending African autonomy against all comers, a way forward for the continent?