chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
January 01, 2008

Introduction: The Upside-Down W—American Moral Imperatives and their Cost to the Women of the World

by Wilson Adam Schooley

The “sex worker” is a teenage wife and mother selling her body at a makeshift truck stop at midnight to feed her family. Her family’s tiny tin lean-to is empty of food and her husband and children are too weak to work because of diarrheal diseases from the open sewer running alongside it. No funding for safe water projects or basic diarrhea treatment reaches her area. She has unprotected sex with truckers because, although her country does receive money from HIV/AIDS programs, the funding does not support teaching condom usage to “prostitutes.” The HIV virus then joins the stream of poverty-borne diseases in her family, and potentially passes to her unborn children and to her husband, who passes it to other women when she is too sick to share his bed.

The Bush administration’s heralded $50 billion program to fight HIV/AIDS does little to break this cycle, and arguably contributes to it by both diverting funds from other programs combating basic, preventable disease, malnutrition, and water contamination, and imposing Western value–laden restrictions on AIDS funds.

It is a cycle that spans the developing world’s entire social spectrum, connecting everyone and everything in it. But the cycle seems to begin and end with the world’s women—biologically the bearers and traditionally the nurturers of life. When we at Human Rights magazine sought to assess the current state of U.S. foreign aid, we found precisely that: the landscape of aid is a complex, interconnected ecosystem, the bedrock of which is women. The defects of current U.S. foreign aid lie in its failure either to realistically treat the issues facing women or holistically address the interconnectedness of those issues with all others.

There is a larger philosophical debate about the role of human rights in humanitarian aid, and whether there is a fixed morality applicable globally. But, regardless of whether aid is purportedly neutral or not, its impetus should be humanitarian rather than political. Starting with a political imperative—attaching culture-specific “moral” values as conditions on aid to very different cultures without understanding the differences—turns philanthropy upside down.

Women have been the strategic focus of international development programming because, as traditional family caretakers, they are both the most vulnerable and make the difference between preventing many health problems and addressing them too late. But conditioning aid on adherence to Western “values” also puts women’s reproductive and related issues at the forefront of problems with foreign assistance today. This and other politicizations of foreign aid, including the “War on Terror,” have diverted us off the track of holistic assistance and into divisive policies at a cost of resources, lives, and our international reputation.

We should spend $50 billion—much more than $50 billion—on the vast unmet needs of the world’s most impoverished, ill, and needy humans, but not all of it on one disease nor any of it hamstrung by parochial political agendas. Public health and welfare work is about long-term integration, holistic programming, life cycles, and problem prevention. Politics, increasingly in this media age, is about immediacy, spin, and the quick fix. The casualties of this conflict are the very vulnerable humans both agendas purport to help. Political focus on, and fear of, symptoms of international malaise we do not like and do not understand is deeply destructive of our ability to address problems in the holistic way they require. Commercial sex work, for example, is a symptom of many under­lying issues including poverty, disempowerment, gender imbalance, and differing cultural norms. By not only passing, but imposing, moral judgment on the symptom, we doom cures for the malady.

The first step to curing our own failures to cure the world is to recognize, acknowledge, and understand those failures. But for the valiant people in the field who know them best, publicly pointing out our national failures is risky in this political climate. Many with whom we spoke in preparing this issue of Human Rights declined to write for fear of losing the funding on which their humanitarian efforts depend. But some are willing to speak out.

Former USAID insider Gayle Smith sets the stage broadly, describing where we went wrong, and how we might make it right. The Lugar Report is a governmental step in that direction, recommending that the administration develop an overall strategy for aid that reconciles the conflicts between humanitarian and national security objectives, and criticizing the State Department for a “lack of transparency,” differing priorities between post and headquarters, inconsistent demands, and policymakers who “appear demand­ing, deaf, and sometimes schizophrenic” to field employees overseas. Current USAID head Henrietta Fore responds with the administration’s perspective on what it is doing right. Suzanne Petroni, Patty Skuster, William Smith, and Serra Sippel each show us ways that the problems identified in the Lugar Report, and other problems with the administration’s approach to foreign assistance, manifest themselves in the field, and why their burdens are so often laid at the doorstep of the world’s women. Professor Muhammad Yunus opens the door to creative new avenues for supporting our world’s most vulnerable people, independent of government aid—ways that also dramatically and independently confirm the role of women. And Regan Ralph explains how our recent foreign aid record, combined with the ideological rhetoric that drives it, is immolating our moral standing and leadership in the world.

We are grateful they have taken this opportunity to raise their voices amidst the fearful silence, and that you are listening.

Wilson Adam Schooley

Wilson Adam Schooley is on the editorial board of Human Rights and an adjunct law professor, writer, actor, photographer, and attorney practicing with the Schooley Law Firm in La Mesa, California.