Gates, Garrett and Giving

•January 27, 2007 • 1 Comment

Of course, the LA Times report on the contradictions of the Gates Foundation is not to be ignored. But the contradictions which come from ignoring a holistic approach to public health in the developing world are exposed much more forcefully by Laurie Garrett’s excellent, thoroughly-researched essay in Foreign Affairs. Garrett’s conclusions reach way beyond Gates’ false steps, in fact, and assess the deeply entangled structural problems at the heart of failure. NGOs frequently overlap, and are also prone to take local populations as objects of salvation rather than agents (a point Paul Farmer has been making for a while, and again recently). Aims are too often driven by novelty and issue-based shock among Western givers, rather than addressing the structures which perpetuate inequality. Perhaps topping all of this, however, is the lethal effect of the “brain drain” of qualified medical practitioners. Garrett has the figures, and they suck.

The point here is not that everything is bad and we’re all doomed — there are some reasons to be cheerful, not least the impressive, multicentric increases in both donation and action — but that a combination of selfish health policy on the part of states, wrongheaded “intervention” on the part of NGOs and narrowmindedness on the part of donors congeal to stunt the very processes which would effect a radical and lasting transformation of health inequalities. And really, anything less than the latter is unacceptable.

In short, it’s all well worth a read.


The Delusions of Penguin Liberation

•January 23, 2007 • 1 Comment

Following my “darker reading” of the early Beatles singles (I think you had to be there…), might I just reject the dominant liberal-broadsheet reading of Happy Feet? If writers insist on this kind of article (and they appear to), I think they should at least do it properly.

Now, viewers of Happy Feet often comment on the absence of the “adult” content which made Toy Story, Shrek et al such broadsheet hits. This is by and large correct, and the absence certainly makes the film slightly disappointing for adult viewers, much as it no doubt adds to its legitimacy and enjoyment among the merchandise-demanding target market. Nevertheless, it struck me that there was one deeply “adult” tendency in the film; namely, cynicism. The point in Happy Feet at which the adult viewership laughs in unison, while the kids smile obliviously, is precisely at the moment at which Mumble’s salvation plan succeeds. The sight of heads of state and UN ambassadors angrily demanding an immediate removal of the threat to the penguins’ existence is, surely, supposed to be comical, because we adults know how unreal is the prospect.

That is Happy Feet‘s equal-best political joke. The second is the fact that the penguins can only survive because they function as a specific example of how non-humans might titillate humans: that, in short, humanity is too stupid to cope with the idea of animal rights, environmentalism, or whatever we wish to call it. Is the sight of the penguin tribe desperately submitting to the necessity of pragmatically tap-dancing not the most upsettingly pathetic spectacle? Mumble’s political genius does not come from overturning the false traditions of Guin-worship, but in recognising that the penguins’ true masters are not gods, but men. Our hero exposes the materialist basis of his people’s subservience, but only so they might submit to its permanence and invincibility. At the very moment the penguins are liberated from superstition, they are enslaved to reality. I ask you: are the penguins really “freed” to dance, when the alternative is death? These “happy feet” are the most dialectical of symbols.

If Happy Feet has to be attributed a “radical” political force, then, said force does not come from advocating a policy of Mumble-mimicry, but from flagging up the two key obstacles to genuine environmental reform: the intransigence of world leaders (alluded to by comic inversion) and the narrowmindedness of popular conceptions (represented by humanity’s pathetic motive: the novelty of the spectacle). The fact that these problems seem to be alluded to intentionally (though probably not so seriously) is a credit to the film-makers. Now if only they had managed to pace the plot arc correctly, omitted the failed reworking of Prince, and indeed chucked the rest of the awful music out with it to make room for something more bearable, they might just have produced a half-decent film.