Qaddafi and Me (or Marcos and Me)

The author, the coordinator of Action for Economic Reforms, is grateful to Michael Alba, for it was a lively conversation with him that led to the writing of this piece. This piece was published in the April 18, 2011 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 to S1/5.


Dani Rodrik, my favorite economist, wrote an essay for Project Syndicate titled “Saif Qadaffi and Me” (12 April 2011). Rodrik took off from his inconsequential meeting with the son of the Libyan dictator to address the moral dilemma that academics face when dealing with bad guys.

Saif Qadaffi is one who attracts curiosity. Some thought that he was the enlightened son of a despot.  After all, he learned the workings of liberal democracy. He obtained his doctorate in political science from the London School of Economics. (This was without controversy. It was alleged that Saif committed plagiarism in doing his dissertation.) Through Saif, professors from the world’s topnotch universities gave advice to the Libyan dictatorship in return for monetary rewards. Just the image of professors from Harvard or London being consulted by the Qadaffis, no matter how discreet or informal, helped sanitize the image of the dictator and his family.

Here’s Rodrik’s story about his meeting with Saif:

“The meeting, as it turned out, was a letdown….Saif himself held photocopies of pages from one of my books on which he had scribbled notes. He asked me several questions – about the role of international NGOs, as I recall – that seemed fairly distant from my areas of expertise. I don’t imagine he was much impressed by me; nor was I much taken by him. As the meeting ended, Saif invited me to Libya and I said – more out of politeness than anything else – that I would be happy to come.

“Saif never followed up; nor did I. But if a real invitation had come, would I have traveled to Libya, spent time with him, and possibly met his father and his cronies? Would I have been tempted by arguments such as: ‘We are trying to develop our economy, and you can really help us with your knowledge?’”

Rodrik thus raises a philosophical or ethical question: Should scholars bloody their hands, even if their intentions are well-meaning, like saving lives, giving the poor equal opportunities, and creating jobs?

The public has slammed and shamed the Western academics who served the Qadaffis, resulting, for instance, in the resignation of the Director of the London School of Economics.  The verdict is clear—these academics must be made accountable for their complicity.

This issue should strike a sensitive chord in the Philippines, especially now that we see an attempt to refurbish the image of Ferdinand Marcos. The effort to have the remains of the late dictator interred at the Libingan ng mga Bayani and the spin of Ferdinand, Junior that his father could have transformed the Philippines into Singapore are attempts to rewrite Philippine history and make it understanding of Marcos.

This of course must be resisted.  In doing so, we must not stop narrating to the younger generation ofFilipinos how wicked, how murderous, how corrupt the dictatorship was.  In doing so, we have to be exacting and expose all those who propped up or gave legitimacy to the dictatorship. It is not late to demand accountability even from those well-meaning academics or technocrats who embraced the dictatorship—the Viratas, Layas, and Sicats.

A friend of mine who interviewed members of the Marcos Cabinet in relation to a study on the regime’s technocrats woefully said that most of them were unrepentant of their collaboration with Marcos.

A justification is always available—that they did something for the “greater good” (an abstraction, really) or that they prevented the situation from getting worse (which is like saying, “the economy, which contracted by six percent, could have plunged by 10 percent, if we were not around.”)

To be pragmatic, some condition compels cooperation with the enemy. To quote Rodrik:

“A terrorist is holding several people hostage, and he asks you to deliver water and food to them. You may choose the moral high ground and say, ‘I will never deal with a terrorist.’ But you will have passed up an opportunity to assist the hostages. Most moral philosophers would say that helping the hostages is the right thing to do in this instance, even if doing so also helps the terrorist.”

A distinction though has to be made between an external adviser and someone who is part of the regime’s leadership.  In the former’s case, he could confine his intervention strictly to assisting the hostages. But for someone who is organically part of the leadership, he cannot escape the fact that the net effect of his actions serves the regime, first and foremost.  To borrow Rodrik’s metaphor, the Viratas, Layas, and Sicats were part of the terrorist team, and a task assigned to them was to assist the hostages.

Moreover, one must draw the line. Most of the Marcos technocrats didn’t know where the line was.  Ting Paterno was an exception; he resigned from the Cabinet when he saw that his ethics conflicted with Marcos’s actions. What mattered was no longer a calculation of what the greater good is. It was about resolving a moral dilemma and being true to one’s values and principles.

Rodrik has a penetrating insight into the moral dilemma that academics face in relating with loathsome regimes:

“In the end, an adviser to authoritarian leaders cannot escape the dilemma. Often, leaders seek the engagement only to legitimize their rule, in which case the foreign adviser should simply stay away. But when the adviser believes his work will benefit those whom the leader effectively holds hostage, he has a duty not to withhold advice.

“Even then, he should be aware that there is a degree of moral complicity involved. If the adviser does not come out of the interaction feeling somewhat tainted and a bit guilty, he has probably not reflected enough about the nature of the relationship.”

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