More on AAA “Do No Harm” Policies, and Human Terrain System

All this writing about the Human Terrain System, AAA, and the various ethical questions involved leads me to reflect on my own impressions of the US government overseas during the ten years I have been an expatriate.

Except for the one year I was a Fulbright Scholar, I have always been impressed at at how embassy people generally avoid other expatriate Americans like me, or anyone with a bent that does not match their world view.  By and large this leaves out people with an culture or anthropology. Instead, the overseas representatives State Department, the military, or even USAID are focused on Washington’s policies, and tend to do their Washington’s bidding, and refight Washington’s battles.  Local conditions or cultural context are secondary. Everything seen up and down the road by “official America” is seen through Washington’s lenses, and for Washington’s convenience.

My experience in Tanzania, where the US embassy was attacked in 1998 by Al Qaeda, and then re-built as a massive fortified structure provides some examples of this mind-set. When a new gas station was built kitty-corner to the new fortified US embassy compound, the gas station was described by the embassy as a terrorist threat. The founding nationalist president of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere was believed by the Ambassador and others at the emgassy to be a Communist even in 2003, because he espoused “African socialism” for a time during his 30+ year long political career.

More expensively, hoe-wielding subsistence peasant farmers in USAID project descriptions became close cousins of tractor-driving Iowa maize farmers in the global economy. In this context, expensive consultants from Iowa (and elsewhere) were sent to offer advice to Tanzanians with hoes. Such projects often did not engage very many new peasant farmers in the world economy. Really destructive of US interests were the US visa policy.  The Washington lens means that all applications for tourist visas they needed to show a substantial bank account (variously rumored to be $10,000 or $20,000), whether you were going to Disneyland, or to visit your American cousin. In other words, all except the richest Tanzanians could forget a trip to the USA.

All such assumptions are convenient from Washington’s perspective, and matched foreign policy goals established in—Washington. But such conveniences are often the opposite of what a cultural ethnographer would recommend if the goals of foreign policy were focused by local understandings about the nature of the relationship betwen Tanzania and the mighty USA.

Like Zenia Helbig who went to Iraq out of grad school recently, I too went to Tanzania right out of grad school in 1994, and was appalled by what by US university standards is explicit racism expressed by employees of the US Embassy, UN employees, as well as the many NGOs working in the Rwandan refugee crisis of 1994-1996. Too often, it was the good “us” (i.e. the expatriates working for the refugees) against the bad “them” that were the refugees and Tanzanian nationals. Stereotypes about incompetence, corruption, and the general view of “what do you expect of a people just out of the Stone Age” abounded. All this is of course from a crowd who had the biggest cars, and best accommodations in a very poor country.

Politics ain’t bean bag, but as it sits now, it is not about anthropology, either.  But I see no reason that foreign aid, foreign relations, and even military operations can’t get just a little anthropology, and especially beyond such stereotypes which inevitably breed resentments on the part of those you try to work with.  None of the people in the American expatriate community had even heard of great theorists of the oppressed like Frantz Fanon, or Walter Rodney. I do not exprct them to agree with Fanon or Rodney, but in a place like Tanzania where the educated do know about such books, I expect foreign aid experts to at least understand their reasoning. This espeically in a country where Rodney himself taught for several years! But what would you expect? Such books are not typically assigned in the university courses like International Relations, Political Science, Business, Economics, Engineering, etc., out of which American foreign aid experts come.

This brings me back to HTS and the AAA. Since the Vietnam War, anthropology has taken a holier than thou attitude toward the activity of the US government overseas. Under a presumed “do no harm” doctrine, they have, as Donna or Cindy once wrote, taken the anthropological toys, and gone home. Or at least back to the university. But unfortunately, “do no harm” policies in such circumstances often result in harm as a result of omission.

The do no harm policy of course prevents mistakes of commission, since anthropologists are rarely in a position to do harm. But, unfortunately, such policies mean that anthropologists will not intervene when they should.  This is what has happened in the conduct of US foreign policy in the Iraq, Tanzania, and elsewhere. As a result of the “do no harm doctrine”, flawed policies developed in the culture of Washington are routinely unchallenged within bureaucracies dominated by people from disciplines that teach that technology, economics, power, and anything besides inequlaity or culture is at the heart of the world’s problems.  It is fine and dandy that anthropology knows that this is not true.  But unless such mistakes are confronted on the ground, and students are encouraged to take anthropological insight into ethically difficult circumstances, mistakes of omission are likely to continue.  The result of course is that massive fortified embassies will continue to be built in some of the world’s poorest countries.

Anthropology could well be one of the key disciplines focusing the conduct of American foreign policy, but it is not. As a result, few American expatriates working overseas have spent much time in a rural village doing ethnography, reading Fanon, Malinowski, Boas, or anything else an anthropologist is more likely to know about. In the planning meetings, there is no one hammering away at the importance of culture, or the general assumption that “they are just like us, and motivated by the same wants we have.”  And when projects inevitably fail, there is no one there to object to complaints that the locals are all corrupt, incompetent, backwards, “one step beyond the Stone Age”, uneducated, naturally cruel, greedy, etc. etc. True, anthropology cannot be blamed for the failure of the problems such attitudes create. But anthropology is not part of the solution, either.

What are the costs of such errors of omission? Sins of omission are difficult to evaluate, because they always involve asking “what would have happened if we had done something else…?” But such questions are now becoming popular when evaluating events like Gettysburg (e.g. what would have happened if Pickett’s charge had succeeded?). Permit me to ask what might have happened if American anthropology had engaged the foreign and military services after Vietnam, rather than taking their toys and going home. How about this:

–Language competence in Russian, Arabic, Swahili, and Turkic languages would be routine at senior levels of the Foreign Service and the military.

–Home stays in remote villages where people haul their own water would be routinely sought by Foreign Service Officers, and encouraged by their bosses.

–Foreign aid programs would be designed by officers working in the countries and villages where the program was implemented, not in the hallways of Congress, the State Department, and the Pentagon

–Work in a number of embassies (including Tanzania) would be considered an honor, rather than a “hardship posting” on the way to western Europe

–Visa regulations would reflect the needs of the United States, and the realities of the relationship with the country, rather than demands for obscure documents created in Washington

But these are just the little things. Imagine some of the big things, like

–The billions of dollars squandered in USAID projects as a result of the cultural naivete of engineers and economists

–And of course the catastrophe of wars undertaken in the name of spreading good American values/culture, but has resulted in so many  errors because of the cultural cluelessness of the Foggy Bottom and Pentagon types who rarely if ever sat through a senior seminar contemplating cultural difference.

Ok, that’s enough for this exercise in contingent history. But, to be honest, it beats that other great ethnographic sport, which is sitting around the campfire, and complaining about the harm caused by the incompetence of the State Department (and military) guys and their errors of commission in Tanzania, Iraq, or whereever.

Abuses have occurred and will occur in the conduct of the War in Iraq, which I know many of the members of AAA lament. Personally, I believe that some of these mistakes rise to the level of war crimes, even though few if any will be formally prosecuted. The good news for anthropology is that none of those war crimes will have been committed by anthropologists because after all, they stayed home so that they would “do no harm.” But what would Iraq be like today if anthropology had been at the table?  Not every problem would have been solved, or gone the anthropologically correct way.  But would Lieutenants simplistically complaining about the “bad guys” be promoted to Captain?  Perhaps not…

HTS anthropologists are not the cause of the Abu Ghraib scandals, massacres by enraged Marines, poorly targeted bombings, Blackwater massacres at traffic circles or any of the other publicized and unpublicized atrocities. The State and Defense Department folks created the conditions for these tragedies to occur all on their own, and without anthropological insight. That’s the good news for anthropology—the crimes and accidents of war occurred without their involvement.

The bad news for the victims of war crimes, is that the crimes themselves might not have occurred in the first place if anthropology had created a sub-culture informed by the ethics and wisdom of an engaged anthropology. Such could have been the case, but has not been the case since anthropology began blaming itself for the excesses of the Vietnam War.


Waters, Tony “American Relations with Tanzania, African Studies Quarterly, 2006.

One thought on “More on AAA “Do No Harm” Policies, and Human Terrain System

Comments are closed.