Millennium Challenge grant: Aid shaded by moralism, cynicism and hypocrisy



First word
WHY would the Philippines which seeks investments and assistance from other states and international institutions close out a US aid facility that has generated as much as $400 million in assistance for various national programs? And why take this decision against a state that we regard as a friend and ally, and is today the biggest economy in the world and is moreover the strongest militarily?

I refer here to the recent Philippine government’s decision to forgo its application for a second compact assistance from the US Millennium Challenge Corp. (MCC). The presidential spokesman said in explanation: “We have opted to withdraw from the second Millennium Challenge because of the urgent priority of the administration to rebuild Marawi. Economic managers, along with Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, made the decision to withdraw the application for the US aid grant.”

The MCC, an independent American aid agency created by the US Congress in 2004, annually comes up with a scorecard for each MCC candidate country, rating it in three policy categories: ruling justly, investing in people, and encouraging economic freedom.

I am not privy to the reasoning behind the government’s decision, so I cannot say why this has happened. I can speculate, however, on some of the reasons that probably impelled the Philippines to take this action.

For sure, it had to do with the grating idea of “aid with conditionalities.” In political economy and international relations, conditionality is the use of conditions attached to the provision of benefits such as a loan, debt relief or bilateral aid. The Millennium grant had certain conditions that did not square with government priorities at this time.

Tension between ideals and reality
The change in Philippine policy toward the Millennium Challenge may have more to do with the aid giver than with the aid receiver.

In a famous paper, the American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington observed a tension between American ideals and the institutions that are necessary to practice modern government. (“Patterns of Response” by Samuel P. Huntington, Culture and Politics, St, Martin’s Press, New York, 2000).

Huntington wrote that Americans respond to their cognitive dissonance in either of four ways:

1. Moralism – If Americas intensely believe in their ideas and clearly perceive the gap, they moralistically attempt to eliminate the gap through reforms that will bring practice and institutions into accord with principles and beliefs.

2. Cynicsm – If intensity of belief is low and perception of the gap is clear, Americans will resort to a cynical willingness to tolerate the gap’s existence.

3. Complacency – If intensity of belief is low and their perception of the gap is unclear, Americans can attempt to ignore the existence of the gap by in effect reducing its cognitive importance to themselves through complacent indifference.

4. Hypocrisy – If they are intensely committed to American ideals and yet deny the existence of a gap between ideals and reality, they can alter not reality but their perceptions of reality through an immense effort at ”patriotic” hypocrisy.

At various times, social critics, including foreign observers of the American scene, have seized upon one or another of these four responses as the typical American response

The stuff of humor
There is a gap between ideal and reality in American political culture.

Cynicism (tolerance of the gap) has been a major source of American humor. The incongruity between the ideal and the real was a favorite target of Mark Twain, who in his time inveighed against US annexation of the Philippines.

Louis Rubin writes of the promise of American life as “the great American joke, citing “the incongruity between the mundane circumstance and heroic ideal, between material fact and spiritual hunger…theory of equality and fact of social and economic inequality, the Declaration of Independence and the Prohibition Act, the Gettysburg Address and the Gross National Product, the Battle Hymn of the Republic and Dollar Diplomacy, the Horatio Alger ideal and the New York Social Register – between what men would be and must be, as acted out in American experience.” (“The Great American Joke” by Louis Rubin, South Atlantic Quarterly, winter1973).

Hypocrisy in US political culture
Hypocrisy, says Huntington, is a distinctive characteristic of American culture. It occupies a central place in American politics. Americans want to believe that their liberal-democratic ideals are reflected in their institutions. And this belief is often expressed in moralistic cant.

The writer Irving Kristol (1972) suggested that this public hypocrisy has its roots in the deep emotional commitment of Americans “to the idea that government—all government, everywhere—should be subservient to the citizen’s individual life, his personal liberty, and his pursuit of happiness.”

Americans find it congenial to believe that at least their government and political system meet this standard. In this respect, hypocrisy, defined by the dictionary as the “false pretense of moral excellence,” is a product not just of practice deviating from one’s principles, but also of asserting principles that cannot be practiced.

As a consequence, says Huntington, Americans reduce their cognitive dissonance by clouding their perception of the realities of power, inequality, hierarchy and constraints in American life.

Huntington goes on:
“All ruling classes must in some measure be hypocritical. The most distinguished spokesmen of the American Establishment mouth the clichés of American liberalism as if they were realistic descriptions rather than pious aspirations.

“Although Americans may relish the exposure of hypocrisy, they aren’t comfortable when it is absent in their leaders. In the United States, public figures may be attacked for not being hypocritical enough – a point well illustrated by the reaction of some political figures to the earthy realism, vulgarity and pathos revealed in the Nixon Watergate tapes.”

Nixon was found guilty of not carrying over into his private conversations with his aides the hypocritical clichés demanded of public rhetoric.

Moralism in US foreign policy
As with hypocrisy, so with moralism. Moralism is a peculiarly American trait.

The moralistic response to cognitive dissonance, says Huntington, occurs when people feel intensely committed to American values, clearly perceive the gap between ideals and reality, and attempt to restructure institutions and practices to reflect these ideals. The combination of intensity and perception furnishes the moral motive to reform.

New approach to foreign aid
Moralism, as Huntington has described it, has evidently reshaped the American foreign aid program.

Today, the United States actively impacts the legal and political environments of developing countries through the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA). This new approach to foreign development aid presents both an opportunity to encourage good governance as well as a serious danger of US political agendas manipulating foreign aid to serve partisan interests.

The United States, in organizing US foreign aid around specific indicators of what it considers “good governance,” is necessarily impacting both the political and legal environments of developing countries seeking results-based foreign aid. MCA funding disbursements, or “Compacts,” are directly influencing governance and the rule of law through various programming mandates.

There is one catch. Recipient countries will not always be accepting of US demands. They can also say No.

In December 2016, when the Millennium Challenge Corp. deferred the selection of the Philippines to receive a multi-million dollar development grant, citing concerns about “rule of law and civil liberties,” it also started a thorough review by the Philippines of whether it is necessary or prudent to continue submitting itself to grading by American bureaucrats on the yardstick of governance.

“Tutelage” in self-government was the term used to justify US occupation of the archipelago in 1898.

Today, nearly 120 years later, this nation of 100 million will not go to American school all over again.


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