Interview with Naeem Inayatullah

March 1st, 2008

By Jackie Simone

Naeem Inayatullah is an associate professor of politics at Ithaca College. A native of Pakistan, he holds a doctorate from the Graduate School of International Studies at the University of Denver. After spending much of his academic life studying development economics, Inayatullah became a critic of Western aid and humanitarian intervention in the developing world. His latest book, Interrogating Imperialism: Conversations on Gender, Race and War, which he co-edited with Robin Riley, is a collection of essays that examine the nature of United States imperialism in the context of the war on terror. Inayatullah teaches in the politics department at IC, where he is known for a pedagogical method that provokes questions and, if you will, crises, in his students’ thinking about the world. Buzzsaw writer Jackie Simone recently spoke with him about his critique of international development and humanitarian intervention.

Buzzsaw: How do you feel about humanitarian development?

Naeem Inayatullah: I think it’s an illusion. We’d like to think that getting people to do things by force—by military means, by threats, by aggressiveness—is on the one hand, and helping people and helping them develop, giving them charity and being humanitarian is on the other hand: that those are opposites. But I’ve come to believe that those are two arms of the same body. And that their same purpose and function is to basically to eliminate the problems that arise from other cultures critiquing our culture.

B: So are you as opposed to the Peace Corps intervening in international relations as you are the United States military?

NI: Even more so. This is despite the fact that I spent at least two years of my life hanging out almost exclusively with Peace Corps volunteers in Malaysia; this is despite the fact that I have numerous students whom I have written letters for to get into the Peace Corps; and this is despite the fact that I continue to encourage students to join the Peace Corps, if that’s what they want to do. [Nevertheless,] I still believe that the function of the Peace Corps, and the ultimate function of the Peace Corps in humanitarian development, is a way of eliminating the diversity in the world.

B: And Americanizing the world, would you say?

NI: Yeah, if you want to call it that. Americanizing the world is controversial because when we usually talk about that, it’s about the culture. Maybe it’s more of a political economy. Or maybe it is the culture. I haven’t really made up my mind on that issue. So it could be Westernizing the world, Americanizing the world, modernizing the world, developing the world—all not necessarily synonymous but close enough to each other.

B: So you’re originally from Pakistan.

NI: That’s right.

B: Based on your experience overseas, what are the predominant attitudes of foreigners to United States humanitarian efforts?

NI: Predominant? I don’t know. I think that very few governments would refuse money. However, there’s a huge gap between how the donors and the receivers imagine that giving. The donors almost always feel that the receivers ought to be thankful, grateful, show gratitude, whereas almost always, the receivers feel condescension. Gift giving is a form of hierarchy. If you read any of the anthropologists and sociologists, they’ll tell you that the difference between exchange and gift giving is that exchange is between formal equals while gift giving is between highers and lowers, uppers and lowers. It creates hierarchies. So you get that I think most governments and most people in the rest of the world would receive aid reluctantly. Nevertheless, they receive it and feel bad about having to take it.

B: So are you more so in favor of NGOs than you are of the Peace Corps?

NI: No, no.

B: So you’re against all sort of humanitarian aid?

NI: Pretty much. I think that as a general rule. Of course, there are cases where you would have to say this rule doesn’t apply. Maybe the tsunami was one such event, even though, there again, I would like to have more say in how that aid was brought together and distributed. But, no, on the whole, I think that the purpose of humanitarian aid, NGOs and the Peace Corps, is really to change the world in order to make it in your own image.

B: Are you also referring to disaster relief efforts?

NI: Disaster relief attempts are definitely part of this attempt to remake the world in one’s own image. I think there’s probably no better book on this issue than Naomi Klein’s recent The Shock Doctrine.

B: Have you always been skeptical of humanitarian development?

NI: No, no. It’s a recent development, and I would say that I started becoming skeptical of humanitarian development—explicitly, formally skeptical of it—around 1990 or so. I was a believer; you’re talking to a convert.

B: And what made you convert?

NI: I have a masters in development economics, and the more you study the thing that you give your life to, the more you realize that it comes nowhere near the goals that you’re actually hoping for. So the change in attitude is the result of actually getting to know the thing that one has done.

I totally advocate going to a Third World country, living there for two years, learning a language, getting to know another culture. That’s why whenever a student comes to me and suggests the Peace Corps, they’re surprised that I endorse the project. It is absolutely one of the best ways to get to know the world—as long as you don’t believe you’re going to change anybody except for yourself. You’re not going to teach them anything they don’t already know. If you teach them something they don’t already know, you’re probably going to hurt them. The reason I still advocate for students going to the Peace Corps is that they’re going to learn how big the project is, perhaps in the same way that happened to me. I learned through development economics how difficult it is to create development and change. They’re going to learn through the Peace Corps how really useless the two years they spend abroad are to the project of developing the country. But it’s totally useful to the project of learning something about themselves.

B: You said that the completion of the project is almost impossible. Does that mean that people should surrender their efforts to this project or still work a little bit on it?

NI: All the successful development projects I’ve ever read about can be counted on one finger… well, there are six. Seven maybe. And with all of them, the reason for their success is they have a dialogical relationship. They go in, they ask, they do not take the lead. There is a way these encounters can be done efficiently. But the Peace Corps and NGOs and all these organizations from the get-go are not interested in the dynamics of cultural encounter or listening to the indigenous peoples. They are merely interested in doing good, and they don’t care what the cost is to maintain the perception of doing good. Without changing the institutional structure, there’s no chance that any of these projects can be effective, but it is possible through these failures to figure out a way to go forward.

Let me read you a poem, and then I’m going to add a line to the poem. It’s from an old Somali proverb: “A man tries hard to help you find your camels/ He works more tirelessly than even you/ But in truth, he does not want you to find them. Ever.” But I want to add an opening line to that. And the opening line is: “A man steals your camels.” Then he tries to help you find them.

It’s where you draw the line at where history ends. If you want to draw the line of where history ends in the last 20 years, then you can say we’re helping. But if you want to take a line further back, then how can you say you’re doing humanitarian work when you haven’t stopped capitalism, when you’re still benefiting from the gains of colonialism? There is a whole social structure at work that denies the dignity and the productivity of those people. And now you’re going to go in there and try to help? No. You’re not there to help. You’re there to deny the fact that you stole the camels in the first place. That’s the whole project.

B: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

NI: There’s a certain negativity that students feel as a result of the things that I say and my courses and the readings. But let me give you an analogy. If I want to go on a hike, and I think the hike that I’m going in is in the Appalachians, then I’m going to pack a jacket and take some lunch, because I figure I can get to the top and back down in a day. But if I misunderstand that peak and don’t know that what I’m climbing is K2 or K1, then I’m either going to come back really fast because I realize I can’t make it, or I’m going to die up there. My negativity is not about saying there’s no hope and there’s no possibility of changing, etc. etc., although I believe there’s no hope and there’s no possibility of change. The negativity is about making sure we understand that this problem is not a small problem. I’m not trying to negate the mountain. I’m trying to say, look, this is Mount Everest. You better have a team. You better have some oxygen. You better want to hang out for a month at base camp. You better get some training. You better buy the right kind of shoes. If you’re serious about this mountain then get ready. Prepare five, six years for your trek. Don’t come to me in the middle of your junior year and say I’m thinking about going to do the Peace Corps. You’re thinking it’s a sneaker hike. It’s not a sneaker hike. It’s boots and oxygen. And Sherpas.
Jackie Simone is a freshman journalism major. Email her at jsimone1[at]

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