Sunday, August 30, 2015

Angus Deaton’s Cartoonish Moral Calculus

In July of 2015, I posted this article in the Boston Review to address not only the absurd comments from Angus Deaton, but also the shocking, pervasive racism that is so often expressed by intellectual yet arrogant people. 

I spend a lot of time explaining and promoting Rwanda’s record on public health to audiences around the world. Together with our research and funding partners, Rwanda has made unprecedented strides on almost every health measure. We are one of the few developing countries that will meet all MDG targets. All Rwandans have access to health insurance, and maternal mortality has fallen at historically unprecedented rates.

For Angus Deaton, these gains only served to entrench dictatorship and repression in Rwanda. How? By threatening to let our children die unless altruistic and gullible Westerners pay our government to keep them alive.

Deaton believes that we ‘provide health care for Rwandan mothers and children’ in order to ‘insulate ourselves from the needs and wishes of our people’. I can’t tell if he means that Rwandans don’t wish for good health, or that our country would be more democratic if we neglected basic needs.

As a Rwandan, and as a physician, I have heard a lot of outrageous statements in my life. But Professor Deaton has invented an entirely new level of absolutism.

How does one begin to reply? More facts and figures about Rwanda’s progress would only reinforce Deaton’s grotesque logic. Testimonials from the donors and researchers who know Rwanda best would be dismissed as compromised.

Moreover, Rwanda is not the issue here, and I would feel no satisfaction if Deaton apologized to Rwanda and then went to pick on a different country that better exemplifies his stereotypes.

The issue is moral, and it concerns all of us. Deaton’s theory rests on the assumption that Africans don’t feel love for their children. It follows that President Kagame, being an African, sees children as a commodity, like copper or sweet potatoes, to be sold to people in the West who value their lives more highly.

Angus Deaton doesn’t know Paul Kagame from Kunta Kinte. The president is just a cartoon character he uses to argue against foreign aid. Deaton isn’t referring to the real Paul Kagame or the real Rwanda, but to a generic ‘other’ whose moral inferiority is so self-evident that it requires no elaboration.

In other words, Deaton knew his readers would share in the contempt. In point of fact, Paul Singer replied complaining about Deaton’s criticisms of his work; but he made no mention of the scandalous libel of President Kagame.

This is neither ignorance or carelessness. It is an ideology of moral superiority, a form of racism that is all the more pernicious because it has no name and leaves no marks on its victims. Eventually the victims internalize it and come to despise themselves.

By dropping the mask a little, perhaps Angus Deaton has done us all a favor. We need to have more honest conversations about the assumptions implicit in judgments we make about each other.

Rwanda’s story is tragic and hopeful in equal measure. Maybe the first step is for Angus Deaton, Paul Singer, and anyone else who feels concerned by this exchange, to visit Rwanda and see for themselves what kind of people we are, and how we care for our children. They would not be the first visitors to Rwanda who left with a deeper appreciation for our common humanity.