There is a difference between trying to influence another’s behavior by simply persuading him, and forcing him to do your will by threatening to harm his interests if he doesn’t comply. It’s an important difference, but there’s a gray area in between. That in-between zone can get pretty important sometimes, especially when the persuader is richer and the target is poorer. People can honestly disagree about where to draw the line.
Two recent news events illustrate the problem. The Komen philanthropic organization cancelled its funding for Planned Parenthood’s breast cancer research because of disapproval of other PP activities supporting abortion. Public disapproval forced Komen to retract. The underlying question was whether Komen was justified by its ethical aversion to abortion in using the power of its purse indirectly to restrict PP activities in that field. Was this a back-door form of coercion, forcing a certain number of pregnant females to forego the abortion option, or a legitimate expression of Komen’s ethical stance on abortion? Understandably, pro-choice advocates argued one way and pro-lifers the other, and the moral issue of abortion took over and drowned out the more interesting (for me) ethical issue of coercion.
More recently, the new government in Cairo has cracked down on a couple of our more politically oriented aid programs in Egypt, specifically those aimed at helping nascent democracy take roots in that ancient land. Were those programs coercive or not? We saw them as part of a larger effort to help Egypt get through a period of political instability and economic troubles, objectives we thought we shared with the great bulk of the Egyptian people. We saw no coercion here, only persuasion. However, one Egyptian view, the one that prevailed for the moment, was that those particular programs intruded on sensitive aspects of local culture and would have been rejected out of hand if not tied to important economic largesse, something Egypt could ill afford to forego. For them, national pride trumped economic need. How this impasse will be resolved remains undecided.
My own views have evolved out of many experiences, most notably those with American Christian missionary activities in countries where I have served, particularly Syria, Iran, and Nepal. I found that those activities fell into two main groups, the coercive and the persuasive. The coercive ones emphasized proselytising while the good ones emphasised good works. The coercive ones held the Bible high and used high pressure sales tactics to “sell” their particular brand of Christianity. Their aim was conversion, all else was secondary. The others used good works, mainly hospitals and schools, as their preferred approach to gain access. The best of them only proselytised when individuals who had become impressed with their good works came and asked about their faith.
It seems to me that blatant use of the power of the purse, as in the Comen case, to affect behavior on sensitive issues, will inevitably leave the bad aftertaste of coercion in the minds of those whose behavior has of necessity been altered. There ought to be ways, however, to use the power of the purse more delicately and skillfully, in ways that do not leave such an aftertaste. The problem is that all too often, what seems like persuasion to the donor is perceived as coercion by the recipient. That appears to be the case in our current fuss with Egypt.
The problem is particularly acute when two quite different cultures are involved. Our own experience throughout the post-WWII years has been full of misunderstandings of this nature, leading to a plethora of unintended consequences, most of them unfortunate. This is not to say that we should forego bilateral aid entirely. But we certainly should approach the whole issue of doing good abroad with greater humility and circumspection. If we can bring ourselves to see ourselves as others see us, that would help.
That principle applies to all those benevolent individuals and organizations who wish to do good by persuading others to change their behavior. All too often, what looks like persuasion from one angle smacks of coercion when seen from the other side.