Monthly Archives: August 2011

Past, present…

The transatlantic slave trade resulted in an estimated 6.3 million people becoming enslaved and transported from West Africa to the Americas.[1] The slave castle in Ghana’s coastal city of Elmina stands witness to the incalculable suffering inflicted upon the people of the region by the savage enterprise. It also serves as a reminder of the multitudes of human sufferings that exist today, and insists that we work to end them.

You can’t change shit by ridin’ the fence[2]

We must… reject the view that only indifferent men are impartial men. We must repudiate the degenerate conception of individual intelligence, which confuses open minds with empty ones.

–          Bertrand Russell[3]

Whether the issue is slavery or colonialism, voting rights for women or child labour, when it comes to disputes which have been settled we find it very easy to declare where we stand. We aren’t so sure about which side to take, however, when it comes to ongoing disputes. In matters of great importance to the world a large amount of blame for failure or delay in reaching agreeable ends can be placed on the tendency of most people to remain indifferent.

Just as we look back today and wonder how it could be that apartheid officially existed in South Africa not two decades ago, those who come after us will wonder why we stood by and watched as the climate change crisis unfolded, as Israel-Palestine conflict lingered on, and as the issues which concern development in poor countries went unaddressed.

And GE is gonna flex and try to annex the truth[4]

He the Negro is but a grown up child, and must be governed as a child, not as a lunatic or criminal. The master occupies toward him the place of parent or guardian. We shall not dwell on this view, for no one will differ with us who thinks as we do of the negro’s capacity, and we might argue till dooms-day in vain, with those who have a high opinion of the negro’s moral and intellectual capacity.

–          George Fitzhugh[5]

The masses tend to be indifferent not as a result of some sort of natural inclination. Rather they tend to be indifferent because those who benefit from the status quo work very hard to make it so. In the days of slavery the writings of people like Fitzhugh served the same purpose as the more recent propaganda championed by the tobacco industry. The same could be said about the misinformation being spread today about the supposed lack of evidence for climate change. Another example from today is the insistence of Canadian mining companies that regulation is not necessary, and that voluntary agreements will suffice, in discouraging them from doing harm to the communities in which they operate in the South.

Joseph Cullman, CEO of P hillip Morris is a big fan of small babies (1971)

Every slave story, present tense[6]

Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.

–          Mother Jones

The only satisfactory way to honour those who suffered in the past is to learn from their struggles and apply the lessons in the struggles of today. One easily acquired lesson from history is: If we hope to make the world a better place, we have to be willing to take sides. (Needless to say, any decision taken on where one stands on an issue should be an informed one). When we don’t take a stand we end up giving tacit support to the status quo.


[1] Rachel Naylor, Ghana, Oxford: Oxfam, 2000

[2] The Coup, Ride the Fence <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NafraPA7YeU>

[3] Bertrand Russell, Autobiography, “Speech to First Meeting of Member of the War Crimes Tribunal, November 13, 1966”

[4] Rage Against the Machine, Wind Below < http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_o_xi7hJ2MY>

[5] George Fitzhugh, The Universal Law of Slavery

[6] The Coup, Everythang < http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1p9sRPg_Qpw>

Both images are from Wikipedia

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Democracy in activism

Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.

–          Jean-Jacques Rousseau

For any organization struggling for social justice, the aim of promoting democracy should be of prime concern. Not only for society should democracy be promoted, but it should also be promoted within the organization’s ranks.

To begin with, let’s take a look at what we mean by democracy. The use of the word is not meant to refer to its contemporary popular definition: a form of government in which power is held by elected representatives. The use of the word here is meant to denote its traditional and literal meaning: rule of the people. Rule of the people, as in all of the people, as opposed to “majority rule” (which is another popular definition of the word).

To say that a society or organization should strive towards greater democratization likely appears a readily agreeable position. Regardless, let’s go over why we would hold such a position.

Any struggle for social justice has at its core the aim of increasing individual human liberty. This can be measured based on the amount of compulsion experienced by an individual. If a person is completely free she will not be compelled from outside her own self to do anything. She will come to settle on the decisions she takes through her own free will. The ideal state of society would allow all individuals to engage their free will except where doing so would encroach on anyone else’s liberty.

We concern ourselves with development because poverty impinges upon human liberty. It compels people to resign their aspirations, such as the wish to obtain a proper amount of nutrition, follow a particular career path, travel to see the pyramids, etc.

Coming back to the issue of democracy, individual liberty needs to be championed to as great a degree as possible where collective decision-making takes place. If decisions which impact the lives of multiple people are to be made in as fair (i.e. just) as possible a way and with due respect for individual liberty, all relevant information, an equal voice and an equal share of decision-making power should be available to all stakeholders.

It’s for the sake of expediency that we may want to delegate responsibility for making decisions to smaller groups (e.g. elected representatives) within the larger group. Delegating authority to smaller groups, however, is anti-democratic and, as such, an injustice.

Hence, decision-making power should remain decentralized to as large a degree as possible; where a reasonable level of expediency has been achieved power no longer need be centralized. Secondly, where power is centralized, checks should be placed in order to ensure that it is not misused or mishandled.

Again, a balance needs to be found between the effectiveness of the checks and the level of expediency they allow. An example of a check that is generally easy to implement in a way that would serve this balance is the requirement that all proceedings and decision-making conducted by managers or elected representatives be open to review by any and all members of an organization.

Without checks that enforce democracy, a smaller group tasked with managing the affairs on behalf of all the people in a group may fall into managing the people as well. A temperament of hierarchy may develop within the group which encourages the idea that the managers know better. Whether this may or may not be true, it could lead to the managers seeking to shape the perceptions of the people through the control of information.

During my time with Engineers Without Borders as a Junior Fellow (JF) in Ghana I have come under criticism for my supposed “negative influence” on the other JFs. My ideas and the manner in which I relate them are said to result in others becoming demotivated. The JFs themselves have neglected to bring this charge against me. In fact, as far as I have been able to gather their opinions, my contribution to their experience here is anything but negative.

This charge comes from high up, from a class which has become entrenched in its own way of thinking; which thinks that it knows best when it comes to the kinds of ideas (and manners of expressing them) the JFs should be exposed to. This, first and foremost, is an insult to the JFs’ intelligence along with being an exercise in censorship; an attempt to form particular kinds of perceptions through the control of information.

EWB does seek to champion democratic ideals, including promoting transparency, as well as the idea that JFs should “take ownership over their learning”, think critically and ask tough questions. In practice, however, the championing of these ideals can amount to not much more than giving them lip-service.

In the case of taking ownership over one’s learning, for example, I have experienced instances when my way of approaching problems or decision-making was cautiously manipulated and put into a framework which forwarded the agenda of the managers at the expense of my own interests. Another instance saw the managers discreetly discussing on their own a matter which was of great concern to me, and would have been much more fairly discussed with my involvement. I was made aware of the discussion, and the decisions reached through it, only after it had taken place.

Without formal democratic checks, a distinct hierarchy has come into shape which limits the scope that can be achieved even by the organization’s own metrics.

Though, more than formal checks, what’s needed is the growth of a culture which upholds democracy. Without such a culture any existing formal checks could be implemented in a way which results in them being nothing more than slight irritants in the way of the normal arrangement. A commitment to the simple ideas of straightforward truth-telling (as opposed to coy manipulation), transparency (as opposed to discretion), and fraternity (as opposed hierarchy) needs to be adopted. Through this an environment can come into place where individual liberty is prized, allowing for the free exchange of diverse ideas for the benefit of the organization and its work.


Neoliberal pull

The majority of development workers would likely consider themselves to be progressives, i.e. politically left of centre. In the course of being involved with development work, however, we often lose our consistency on this ground. It can happen that over time two distinct sets of political standpoints develop, one for our home country and another for the developing country we temporarily call home.

Whereas in Canada we would undoubtedly support socialized healthcare, free public education, guaranteed access to drinking water, and assurance of food security; for Ghana our positions on such matters vis-à-vis the government’s role can take a contrasting leaning. We come to note that governmental institutions are not developed to an extent that would allow them to deliver services and guarantees in a satisfactory manner. However, instead of working to enhance the ability of governmental institutions so that they eventually achieve a satisfactory level of competence, we put our hopes in the private sector.

This happens, so far as I’ve been able to discern, not as a result of conscious decision-making – i.e. through a review of the factual record from which a judgment is made on the course that should be taken. It happens, rather, because of a trickling down of sentiments from donors. Donors fund efforts which forward their dogma, which tends to be a right-wing creed. Development organizations become involved in such efforts, attach a sense of ownership over them, and adopt a political attitude that matches the stance forwarded in them. I’ve heard a couple members of EWB use the phrase “neoliberal pull” recently. I’m not completely sure for what purpose they used it. But it seems to fit well with the tendency I’ve described.

TV say if you po’ you must slow and shiftless, but you pay ‘em to say that [1]

Over time this sentiment has made its way into the general way of thinking within the development sector. Hence, we find would-be development workers adopting similar outlooks before they themselves have had a chance to be influenced by way of experience. We hear right-wing slogans like, “Handouts don’t work,” repeatedly uttered by people who have received more “handouts” than the vast majority of people on the planet, and for whom “handouts” have worked.

The idea that poor people in Ghana have become lazy as a result of receiving “handouts” from the government and NGOs is extremely pervasive within the development sector. The poor supposedly no longer have the inclination to work hard to better their lives because they are under the impression that someone will come around to make their lives better for them. How such a perspective can continue to exist after one spends a day helping a farmer weed his field by hand, or sees small children spend countless hours in the scorching sun selling petty merchandise to support their families, I don’t completely understand.

I can understand, however, the general trend towards the right induced by the choices of donors, as I’ve laid it out above. I’ll use my own work as an example to illustrate this further. The project I’m attached to often takes my mind into thinking about ways in which cheap credit can be made available to small farmers solely by means of the private sector. I can easily imagine myself becoming comfortable within the bounds I’m constrained by, and not considering that the right approach to take in making cheap credit accessible to small farmers is outside the space allotted by the project.

If I had not taken the time to step back and set my scope beyond the space slotted to me, I can see myself working out a solution that would fit and work well enough within the bounds of the project and from thereon holding it up as the answer to the entire problem of credit in agriculture. Fortunately, I know that such an answer would be no answer at all.

In a paper[2] published in The Journal of Peasant Studies Ha-Joon Chang tells us that

in Ghana, the World Bank’s insistence that sectoral allocation of (subsidized) credit to agriculture be abolished has made all the major banks, except the state-owned Agricultural Development Bank, move away from funding agriculture – Barclays Bank, one of the two largest privately-owned banks, closed down all its rural branches and the Standard Bank, the other largest private bank, closed down its agricultural department at its head office. While the private sector banks in Ghana have more recently moved into microcredit, little of the credit goes into agriculture. Between 1997 and 2006, only 2 percent of commercial bank loans went to agriculture.

He goes on to write that “experiences show that significant involvement of the government in agricultural credit provision is crucial. The simple fact is that, without some subsidy elements and/or mandatory lending to small farmers, private-sector financial institutions are not going to extend enough credits to small farmers.”

It’s just not that profitable to extend credit to small farmers, and regardless, it’s too risky for the private sector on its own to give loans to small farmers because almost everything about what they can achieve depends on rain – sounds easy enough to understand. It’s not so easy to explain to someone who has put a lot of effort into realizing an outcome that defies this fact. I’ve tried: One gets to hear a lot of anecdotes explaining the extent of public sector incompetence in lieu of ideas formed with the support of empirical evidence.

Buying into a reality that originally bought you [3]

By buying into the ideological standpoint of those who buy our services, we risk turning our backs to the people we seek to help. Our approach to development work should not be formed by experience obtained through work conducted within strict bounds, or by internalization of the views of others which have been formed in such a way, but through an independent review of the factual record.


[1] The Coup, Lazymuthafucka

[2] Chang, Ha-Joon(2009) ‘Rethinking public policy in agriculture: lessons from history, distant and recent’, Journal of Peasant Studies, 36: 3, 477 — 515

[3] Saul Williams, Penny For a Thought