We all get caught up in what we do. Whether we market ideas or products, our tendency is to talk up whatever meager bits of evidence jive with our vision of success. Call it passion, inertia or self-justification. It’s even expected of us: in our personal experiences, whenever we express doubts on topics that have been occupying our time, we get surprised, et tu, Brute? sorts of looks.
It seems that if you are an expert, you’ve got to be a champion. Academics like to call out practitioners on such behavior and consciously avoid exuberant language that might suggest they are anything but dispassionate. The main critique one of us once got about one of our papers from a friendly academic was how often we’d used the word very — telling indeed. Academics exaggerate in their own way, though, burying their views in those methodological tugs of war.
From time to time along comes a book like Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers that presents bald facts, forcing us to stare into a new and ugly landscape, one peopled by wretched families scraping by at the edge of urban society. Nothing seems to work for them – not the booming economy beyond the slum gates, not the government and its public mis-services, not the NGOs and their fleeting appearances, not the politicians with their eye on the electoral calendar, not technological modernity in whose name the slum threatens to be wiped out to make room for an airport expansion, not the community around them and the petty jealousies that thrive within it. A wicked brew of dysfunction makes desperate people turn on each other with gathering virulence.
What hit us most about this book is how effective unchecked corruption can be in preventing organized social and political action from aggrieved classes. Corruption sustains the established order because it creates endless opportunities for divide-and-conquer games at all levels. (Memo to selves: check whether revolutions tend to be more successful in less corrupt countries.) Which is why the term corruption is so apt: bribe-taking eats away at the sociopolitical fabric.
If development is freedom, poverty is prison. You’ll find many accounts of the hardship of being poor, but you won’t read a more vivid description of a family’s descent into isolation than in this book. The slum becomes their jail, walling off every option, every dignity.
Boo’s are not the picturesque livelihoods of trader or shopkeeper, farmer or craftsman, as idealized in Portfolios of the Poor and caricatured in countless donor reports. Hers are the picaresque livelihoods of con-artist and thief, Corporator and water-broker. Some make a more honest living but none are better off for it. Take this passage for instance describing Abdul, one of several young protagonists, in the tale. He collects, stocks and sells trash for a living.
“All those swollen rat bites on his cheeks, on the back of his head. What to do? When the storeroom got too crowded, as it did in flush months like this one, garbage piled up in their hut, and rats came, too. But when Abdul left garbage outside, it got stolen by the scavengers, and he hated to buy the same garbage twice.”
The author brings us their world as if through a novel, with beautiful economy of language, and devoid of sentimentality or judgment about the characters. But this is a work of non-fiction, despite all appearances, and thus its drama is all the more jarring. Beyond is a call to attention but hardly a call to action. In fact, for all its beauty this book almost begs us to stay still and gaze a bit longer at what is in front of us. It suggests no course of activity and does not inspire one.
We do find counsel though within the book’s pages, interpreted through our own experience. Avoid drawing bold conclusions from studies claiming scientific rigor, for the problems of Annawadi or any such welter of real human beings might never be disaggregated or suitably experimented upon. Equally, avoid silver bullet solutions. Clearly, Ms. Boo’s slum needs services like water, trash removal, schooling and health, but no one service could possibly be seen as a solution, just part of a solution, at best. Most important, avoid pretending things are working when they are not. It is our moral duty to stop hype. Feigning success is not just pointless, it saps our energy and breeds the next generation of tired cynics. Our evidence can show us whatever we wish to see, but too many examples in the book unmask aid interventions for what they are – failures.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers just made us promise to try to do a better job of seeing what stares us in the face, and to tell it how it is.