Mining for Meaning at USAID
Today we’re going to study Washington language for unpleasant facts of foreign policy. Washington has developed a unique and peculiar expressive style because, while it is owned by banks and insurance companies (also energy corporations, trade associations and merchants of death), it is paid for by citizens who sometimes think fondly of it as the seat of our cherished democratic institutions. This means that more often than it would like, the United States government must dress up its various international capers so that they appear beneficial to people at large, rather than just to Exxon, Citigroup, Lockheed Martin, or Microsoft.
Since this will be an introductory course in Government Euphemese, we’re going to start with simple sentences taken from the collected works of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Before we begin, you should know that USAID frequently does reconnaissance work for the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in Latin America. If the Banks want to take over the public health system of Chile, for example, and start to make money for the major United States corporations, USAID will do the preliminary studies to make sure that the enterprise will be ultimately well worthwhile for whichever insurance companies are paid up over at the Democratic and Republican Parties.
As a matter of fact, the Chilean case is an excellent real life example. After General Pinochet grabbed the reins there, USAID, the World Bank, the IDB, and the corporations could do pretty much as they pleased. Their only long-term problem arose when they had to explain their maneuvers to the people who were paying for them. That’s right. That’s you.
To address the difficulty, USAID hired nothing but the best: Ms. Alejandra Gonzalez-Rosetti and Dr. Thomas Bossert of the Harvard School of Public Health. After all, glossing over the two decades of carnage required to clear the way for savage capitalism in Chile is not a task for novice speakers of Euphemese. Summoning their skills, the Consultants entitled their report about privatizing public health care in Chile, “Enhancing the Political Feasibility of Health Reform.” A rough translation of this title might read, “Just Because Nobody Likes What You’re Doing, Doesn’t Mean You Can’t Do It Anyway.”
For our first assignment, we will translate one of their explanatory paragraphs:
Euphemese “The Chilean health reform implemented in the early eighties has received a great deal of attention from academics and policy makers alike. Although the fact that it took place under a military regime makes it an exception in the Region, the Chilean reform process has been emulated to some degree or another both in process and content. Discussion about the effectiveness and appropriateness of replicating the strategies used by its team of reformers in other countries with more open political systems, has not reached a definitive conclusion.”
English “Most people who found out were horrified by the brutal way the Chilean government cut old people, infants, and the poor out of the public health system in the early eighties. This could only be done under a ferocious dictatorship, but modified versions of the pogrom have been tried under civilian governments too, and worked out pretty well, so long as no one could effectively protest. Although the economists who cut everyone off were accountable to no one and had a lot of money, the whole mess is a great huge flop — but we’re not admitting it or telling you why.”
Euphemese “The main goals the reformers attempted to achieve by implementing a system of private health plans in Chile were to release capacity in public facilities by shifting demand to the private sector; induce an expansion of the private health care infrastructure and medical services; concentrate the State’s efforts on the low-income population; increase the freedom to choose; and to create a demand subsidy in the long run that would allow for greater choice among health services.”
English “The Economists intended to fire unionized public health workers and replace them with even more poorly-paid contract labor; use public funds to create private companies which would then profit from government contracts; leave the ravaged and ruined public health system for the poor; and when everything else was done and they got around to it, provide the working class with vouchers so that they could find the HMO-equivalent that treated them least badly.”
Now, it’s going to get a bit harder.
Euphemese “While the reformers made some progress towards the goal of creating a demand subsidy, this part of the reform was never brought to completion. A demand subsidy was created to complement by 2 percent the mandatory contribution, but the use of this subsidy for its purposes has faced several problems that have been acknowledged by all sectors of the political spectrum and this aspect of the reform does not enjoy legitimacy among social actors.”
English “In the end, people who couldn’t pay for health care didn’t get it.”
Even though they yak on and on in this fluent manner, the Consultants cannot successfully obscure the real score. Later on, when they are sure that they have shaken off their less persistent readers, they describe the subsidized health care program as grinding to a “complete halt.” No kidding.
The Consultants go on to confide that those who could afford it left the public health care system and that the additional funds needed to enable the abandoned doctors, nurses and hospitals to function “were not allocated.” Pro writers of Euphemese often use the passive voice. This technique serves two purposes. First, it makes the whole account so unspeakably boring that even people with the best intentions, a caffeine drip, and a brand new yellow highlighter cannot plow the whole, hopeless way through one of these reports without at least intermittent catatonia. Second, the style makes it appear that policies or crimes systematically injuring the poor and helpless are random events for which no one is responsible. The most famous example of this sleight of mind is the oft-quoted, “Mistakes were made” statement, attributed to an unrepentant Richard Nixon.
Shall we proceed? “Thus the creation of the private system may have aggravated the operational deficit that the public system faced during the economic crisis of the 1980s.” Here the Consultants cleverly insinuate that other unknown factors may have been the cause of the sudden bankruptcy of the public health system in Chile. Who knows? After all, many World Bank Economists and IMF experts attribute the destitution of the world’s poor to mysterious crisis-creating variables — other than their own austerity-conditioned loans, their currency-devaluing policies and their job-eliminating reforms. And don’t forget the complexity of interacting factors, the Economists tell us. For example, does lack of education cause poverty or does poverty cause lack of education? To find the answer to this stupid and pointless question, they are going to need a string of Greek letters and parentheses, an algebraic equation and a series of time-lapsed statistical regressions.
They think it’s a hard question, but it’s not. The answer is that poverty causes lack of education because if the parents of the Economists had not had the dough to pay cash for the Economists’ degrees, they (the Economists) would never have graduated from anywhere. Believe me. I know them.
The Consultants again — who explain for the Economists:
Euphemese “There is widespread agreement that a fundamental factor in successfully bringing about the quite sweeping reforms of the period was the fact that Chile was governed by a military regime that was able to present itself as a coherent actor.”
English “If you disagreed with the way the Army did things in Chile, you stood a good chance of going for a airplane ride naked and taking a long leap into the roiling Strait of Magellan without your parachute.”
I personally was comforting myself about these gross distortions of the truth by imagining that this particular piece must have been written while the Cold War was still thawing and no one could say anything too bad about Pinochet yet. I thought that by now the Consultants would be harmlessly retired at some assisted living community, minding their own business and controlling their dementia with medication. This, unfortunately, is not the case. The Consultants printed the above only four months ago, and more alarmingly, one of them has just been hired by the Inter-American Development Bank to do “political mapping” of civil society organizations in El Salvador, in preparation for privatizing the public health care system there. The IDB wants to know which popular organizations will have to be cut down to size before they (the IDB) can successfully set the stage for the arrival of Kaiser Permanente, Chalatenango Life, or Cruz Azul.
It is not easy to picture the Consultants’ political map, but you can bet that labor unions are sitting in the middle of it like a mountain range. Community organizations requiring rural clinics will be somewhere in the foothills, and women’s groups lobbying for better health care may be represented as a volcanic mass. Without a doubt, all will be colored in shades of pink and red. One good thing, though. At least the Consultants are just going to be drawing maps this time out, and keeping their text to a minimum.
Gabriela Bocagrande is the Observer‘s Washington, D.C. correspondent.