May 15th, 2009 | By | Category: International

It was 1991 and the Coalition forces were sweeping north through Iraq; crushing an ill-equipped Iraqi army.

Alec, my neighbour, a countryman not given to radical opinions, watched the progress on his small television.  “Do you know, Mr Poulton, if Kuwait had fields of cabbages and not oilfields, no-one would have gone to help them”.

I nodded agreement, but felt that I should demonstrate some sort of establishment view, “But Alec, isn’t it right that we should defend a country against aggression?”

“Aye, certainly”, he said, “but it seems odd that we can only do the right thing when there’s something in it for us”.

My mind went back some twelve years from that conversation, back to 1979 and David Owen speaking at a student union meeting.  The government in which he had been Foreign Secretary had lost power the previous May and Owen felt free to express his own views.  “The first duty of the Foreign Secretary”, he asserted, “is to protect the national interest”.  No high principles;, no doing what was right for the sake of it; no asking what is good and what is true; the national interest, plain and simple.

Perhaps it was always thus, perhaps self interest and profit have always been the determinant of policy; even the religious wars of the Middle Ages, fought for supposed reasons of ‘faith’ were deeply motivated by the belief that if one engaged in such conflicts it would bring tangible eternal rewards.

Watching Hotel Rwanda on a grey May evening in preparation for a visit to the country in six weeks’ time, Alec’s words came back.  The British, French and Americans do not intervene because there is nothing in it for them.  Foreign forces come into Kigali to take out the foreign nationals; the Africans are completely incidental.  The United Nations force lacks the strength to save more than a minimal number of lives.

How many genocides pass while the world discusses the merits of intervention and passes resolutions at international conferences?  A blind eye is turned to the atrocities in Darfur because the Chinese are actively involved in the Sudan and none of us can afford to alienate the Chinese; it would not be in the national interest.

Nearly a million people died in Rwanda while the outside world listened to reports on the radio.  There was no profit in intervention.

But if everything comes back to self-interest and profit, doesn’t that apply as much to individuals as to nations?

Why are you going to Rwanda, Ian? To appease some sense of guilt?  To mollify a God who might be angry if you don’t show enthusiasm for doing such things?  To try to re-capture some sense of youth by going somewhere that many people still think as being on the ‘edge’? It’s a valid question.

Perhaps there is self-interest in altruism as well as in personal profit.  Or maybe personal profit is more than just about cash balances.

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  1. Why are you going to Rwanda? Sadly unless there’s any profit in it, no nation will do more than give it lip service in parliament. Look at Darfour, Zimbabwe or even Burma where Aung Sang Su Kyi has been under house arrest for over 20 years thanks to their Junta which tramples over even a duly elected President. And I don’t think there’s any fault in being self-interested or altruistic if you’re actually going over to help people in need. It helps them, and you.

  2. I’m going to Rwanda (paying my own way) because my parish has started to support the development work in a diocese there which has a strong Dublin connection. I’m going down to Burundi to visit a friend and to see a project that was funded by a committee of which I was secretary

  3. There’s an episode of Friends where Phoebe tries to do something good for somebody without getting anything back in return. In the end it’s impossible because at the very least she is left feeling good about herself for the deed she has done. It didn’t stop her trying to do good things though and I think that’s the point.

  4. A quest for purpose? Perhaps, as a witness to how the office and dignity of a clergyman is now seen by the Rwandan population. Courage will not forsake you, no doubt, when you have occasion to bear the consequences of the clergy’s passivity during the genocide.

  5. Members of the church were guilty of worse than passivity – the former bishop of the diocese I will visit was guilty of crimes against humanity, but died in prison before coming to trial.

    But the church carries on; it is the provider of education and health care in many parts of the country and has a growing and vibrant membership.

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