Monthly Archives: July 2011

Embers kindle thoughts

Wednesdays are market days in Diare, the village in which I’m staying. Merchants from around the region come to the community to set up shop on the market field. Clothing, food items, electronics, and various other kinds of wares are available for purchase. Last Wednesday, after browsing around the stalls and mats, not looking to buy anything in particular, I ended up leaving the market with a copy of the Indian film Sholay for 2 Cedi (about CAD$ 1.30).

Sholay, meaning “embers”, was made in 1975 and is one of my dad’s favourite films. It’s a sort-of cowboy western style movie, with a whole bunch of horse chases and shootouts.

When I got to the house I discovered that at least a couple of the young men in the household had already seen the film and were big fans. And lots of the children wanted to watch it. After Isha, the evening prayer, we all gathered in my room, surrounded my laptop and got down to it.

Jab tak hai jaan
Janeja-aan
Mein nachoon gi

(As long as I have life
My lo-ove
I will dance)

Throughout the viewing, but especially around the time of the climax of the film – when Basanti, the heroine, dances while battling sunstroke to save Veeru, the hero, from being killed – some thoughts were kindling in my mind.

On my way back from the market earlier in the day I had encountered a boy, of maybe ten years age, who’s left foot was swollen. He was walking slowly and painfully, almost in tears. I tried to ask him what had happened, but he responded only by continuing to walk along and perhaps also shaking his head. I trotted alongside him for a short minute until we ran into an English-speaking acquaintance of mine. With the English-speaking man’s help I was able to communicate with the boy and his mother, who arrived to join the conversation shortly after the boy, man, and I began our congress.

I learned that the boy had injured his foot while jumping during a soccer game, perhaps more than one month ago. Local medicinal herbs were the only treatment he was getting.

There aren’t any health practitioners in the community who can address bone fractures, which is likely what the boy is suffering from. The closest place where adequate treatment could be obtained is Tamale, the regional capital. Even there, the treatment would be far from optimal, it would likely take an excessively long time to acquire and it would be costly.

At this time in the year farming families are nearing the end of the gains made from the last harvest. An injury or illness that isn’t life threatening has to be soldiered with little or no treatment. Though, perhaps such would be the case no matter the time of year, as gains from the harvest have to be stretched to last through the entire dry season.

… citizens were triumphantly informed that in Karachi, a city with only three bottled-milk outlets, the consumer could choose among Bubble Up, Canada Dry, Citra Cola, Coca-Cola, Double Cola, Kola Kola, Pepsi-Cola, Perri Cola, Fanta, Hoffman’s Mission, and 7UP.

– Tariq Ali, The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power

Proponents of economic liberalization evidence the availability of cheap consumer goods as a sure sign that their doctrine is a worthy one. However, although liberalization may make goods such as carbonated drinks and pirated Indian films* accessible even to the modestly waged, reforms such as reductions in trade tariffs – unless a new, more complicated, taxation system can be effectively implemented as a replacement – result in lower revenues for governments, which makes it harder for them to provide social services such as healthcare. As for the market providing such services, where the low purchasing power of the poor does not create enough “demand” the market fails to deliver – private healthcare providers find it more profitable to service the rich.

Ghana presents us with a case study of exactly these circumstances. Things are not working out so well.

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* Interestingly enough, proponents of economic liberalization tend to become rabid protectionists when it comes to intellectual property rights, often even when people’s lives are directly at stake, as in the case of anti-retroviral medications. Free market doctrine is only trumpeted about when it can be used to help the rich become richer.

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Of lies and us

The solicitude which British industrialists and economists have shown for the Indian peasant has been truly gratifying. In view of this, as well as of the tender care lavished upon him by the British Government in India, one can only conclude that some all-powerful and malign fate, some supernatural agency, has countered their intentions and measures and made that peasant one of the poorest and more miserable beings on earth.

–          Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India

…the psychology of the working man in any of the Western democracies is totally unlike that which is assumed in the Communist Manifesto. He does not by any means feel that he has nothing to lose but his chains, nor indeed is this true. The chains which bind Asia and Africa in subjection to Europe are partly riveted by him. He is himself part of a great system of tyranny and exploitation. Universal freedom would remove not only his own chains, which are comparatively light, but the far heavier chains which he has helped to fasten upon the subject races of the world.”

–          Bertrand Russell, Proposed Roads to Freedom

Unlike God, the earthly powerful don’t work in mysterious ways. There’s a simple formula to how they operate:

  1. Tell the world that they have the interests of the powerless at heart.
  2. Exploit the powerless.

This standard procedure was in place, as Nehru observed, in the days of colonialism, and it continues to be in place today. Western leaders, CEOs, and economists apparently have nothing but love for the poor people of the world, but for some reason the poor continue to be miserable and rich keep getting richer.

The powerful don’t hide their true intentions for the sake of comforting the exploited people of the South, as much as they do for the sake of comforting us. Us, as in citizens of the North, who have a good amount of ability, if we so choose, to shape the decisions of the powerful vis-à-vis the South. The people of the South understand the game quite well. It’s going to take a lot more than comforting words to hide from them the true intentions of their oppressors because they can easily observe and feel the results of their actions. On the other hand, us, we’re a different story.

We have a hand in forwarding and benefiting from the exploitation of the South, although at the end of the day we ourselves are exploited by the powerful. By any objective measure our interests align with those of the common people of the South, but we have been cajoled into believing otherwise; given a nominal level of democracy to flirt with, American Idol to watch, and relatively comfortable livelihoods, we’ve been convinced to throw our weight behind the powerful. To stop us from getting any bright ideas is why they lie.

You see, the slave owners didn’t proclaim love for their slaves because they thought the slaves would be swayed; they did it so the common white people wouldn’t be inclined to join up with John Brown.

Blood red, pale blue, both pretending to be green*

The above formula, though it may lose its straightforwardness, could be added to. Lies often serve as a basis for an accompanying measure meant to further tranquilize popular opposition: official channels of dissent. The environmental movement has a good handle on how this works. Nestle has lots to say about how much they adore the environment, and hey, we can join in on the love-fest by buying their new bottled water which is made with 20% less plastic.

The development sector is in large part another such official channel of dissent. Stephen Harper, right after he’s done declaring his love for clean air and sea turtles, will tell us about how much he cares for poor coloured people and announce that he’s budgeting a whole bunch of money as “development assistance” for them. And us, instead of challenging the basis of the structure which impoverishes the South, we can assist in “development” too.

Structural adjustment

Every man who has really sincere desire for any great amelioration in the conditions of life has first to face ridicule, then persecution, then cajolery and attempts at subtle corruption. We know from painful experience how few pass unscathed through these three ordeals. The last especially, when the reformer is shown all the kingdoms of the earth, is difficult, indeed almost impossible, except for those who have made their ultimate goal vivid to themselves by clear and definite thought.

–          Bertrand Russell, Political Ideals

Official channels of dissent are one form of “cajolery and attempts at subtle corruption.” We need to establish for ourselves an “ultimate goal… by clear and definite thought” in order to resist having our dissent usurped by the powerful.

Building on Russell’s advice, we can organize an approach to activism to help “the reformer” remain upright:

  1. Assess the structural problems that keep the world from becoming the way should be.
  2. Envision an alternative structure that would produce ideal results.
  3. Find avenues through which progress can be made towards the envisioned structure.

The framework shouldn’t be so rigidly presented, of course. Developing an understanding of the current structure, and refining a vision for an ideal future is a forever-ongoing process; plus one of the best ways to work on the first two things is by finding or creating an avenue to work through and seeing what roadblocks come up and why.

A point to stress is the focus on structure. This can be tied in with my previous discussion on institutions. In this case “structure” can serve to be a byword for the “shape of institutions”.

Brief tinkering within the current structure’s confines will not upset the course down which it is forcing the world to drift. A new, better structure needs to be raised under the roof of which “individuals grow freely, and where hate and greed and envy die because there is nothing to nourish them.” (Russell, Autobiography)

All of this doesn’t mean that official channels of dissent should be seen as off-limits to “the reformer”. In fact, a meaningful venture for such persons to embark on could be to work through an official channel of dissent with others, soberly assess the limitations of the undertaking, and offer insight into how the channel itself could be reformed to better challenge the current structural arrangement.

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* Asian Dub Foundation, Burning Fence (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BX49cINdkH4)