Author Archives: Umair

Developing a principled position on the mining issue

The impacts the mining sector has on developing countries should interest all Canadians. In some Southern communities when residents hear of Canada they think of the mining company operating nearby rather than the country. As a Canadian development organization named Engineers Without Borders, we should especially be concerned with this issue. We should develop a principled position on the mining question, and organize public outreach and political advocacy campaigns around it. EWB, with its large member-base and outreach capacity, has the ability to significantly affect the shape this issue takes.

More than 60 percent of publicly traded mining companies are based in Canada. While most of these companies are small exploration outfits, many of the largest extraction companies in the world also call Canada their home. The conduct of many of these companies routinely comes under scrutiny.

Large-scale mining has the tendency to be tremendously damaging to the environment, and if proper precautions are not taken this damage can translate into health problems for people in nearby communities. Many social problems have also been connected to the sector. While mining companies create jobs, and pay royalties and taxes, the benefits provided by these often bypass poor host communities and are captured by elites who are politically connected. Contamination of drinking water, displacement of communities, heightened risk of conflict, and increased political corruption are some of the various problems that find themselves attached to the mining sector.

Dubbing themselves “socially responsible”, Canadian mining companies tell us that regulation which restricts them from carrying out activities that harm vulnerable communities in developing countries is not required. They say that they can abide by high enough ethical and environmental standards without being regulated. There is plenty of evidence, however, to suggest that this is not the case.

Although there is a considerable amount of interest in this issue within EWB, the organization does not have an officially articulated position on it. There does exist something of a tacit position, however, which is tied to EWB’s advocacy of “global engineering”. We see our role as promoting good behaviour within the mining sector by encouraging people who work within it to be conscious actors.

We seem to have the idea that decisions made by employees of mining companies are a matter of lifestyle choice, rather than being overwhelmingly determined by institutional forces. We presume that if employees of mining companies can be convinced to not make decisions that harm communities in the developing world, then the problems associated with the sector will be a good way along in getting handled.

Unfortunately, people’s “goodness” is not something we can rely on to make sure vulnerable communities are not harmed and/or unfairly taken advantage of. There are institutional forces which allow even “good” people working in the sector to contribute to bad conduct. The first of these forces is competition. It drives companies to cut costs wherever they can to maximize profit margins and stay ahead of other firms. Cutting costs can lead to the thinning of safety and environmental standards, along with providing incentive to engage in corruption.

Secondly, there is regulation. Regulation, primarily when it is enforced, acts as an oppositional force. Currently, however, regulation in this sector tends to be very weak. Hence, it does not stop companies from cutting costs to such a degree that their operations cause harm to poor communities.

Finally, there are the specialization and hierarchy that exist within companies. Employees generally work on component parts of large projects and are often not aware of the full impact their work has. However, even in a case where an employee is aware of impacts which she is not entirely pleased with, it will be easy for her to justify doing her work. In her mind she will shift responsibility of the negative impacts onto those above her who have assigned her the work. She will likely also note the fact that if she was not doing the work someone else would do it. One or both of these two justifications will work through the minds of all the individuals who are not wholly satisfied with foreseeable negative impacts, and the project will go on.

Along with all this, we must remember that proximity breeds loyalty, which can often be blinding. Those who work in the mining sector may become conditioned in such a way that they are not able to see its faults; just as Canadians can come to easily overlook their country’s faults.

Even those who have “global engineering values” instilled within them, hence, will likely not be able to affect the course of actions taken by the companies they work for. A more effective approach is to realign the institutional forces pressing on the actors in the sector. Regulation should be enacted which requires companies to implement certain levels of environmental and safety standards, and prohibits them from taking part in, or allowing their work to facilitate, corrupt and criminal behaviour.

There are some that take the view that although regulation and enforcement will ultimately have to be relied upon to make sure mining activity does not harm poor communities, these may take a long time to implement and in the meantime it may also be worthwhile to promote the adoption of voluntary good conduct among mining companies. Framing the approach that seeks to bring about the enactment of regulation as “working from the outside”, we are told that some should also “work on the inside” to create change. Following this line of argument, we are told that EWB’s “inside” global engineering approach is complementary to the approach taken by organizations “working from the outside”.

While it may be well-meaning, promoting the idea that companies can unilaterally improve their behaviour gets in the way of getting regulation in place. In order to stall the enactment of regulation, mining companies themselves argue that they can voluntarily abide by high ethical standards. Not only are there, as demonstrated earlier, severe limitations in trying to promote behaviour change within the mining sector’s existing institutional structure, trying to do so impedes progress by creating barriers for those “working from the outside”. The “inside” and “outside” approaches, in this case, conflict with each other. It is also worth noting that the “outside” approach seeks to make systemic change, which is, especially recently, EWB’s avowed method of solving problems.

It is surprising that an issue of such importance, and one which would easily align with the values and work of the organization is officially avoided. It is often stated that EWB is a “ground-up” organization; ideas and issues which concern general members make their way up to become official policy, rather than the other way around. Bearing in mind claims of this nature and the fact that so many members are interested in this issue, it becomes even more difficult to understand why it has not become a part of what the organization focuses on.

Perhaps more effort needs to be exerted to move it up from the ground. University chapters across the country should adopt this issue as a focus in their activities; conduct research, and develop content for internal learning and external outreach. Along with this we should lobby for the development of a principled official position on the issue at the national level. Hopefully a sustained effort of this kind can finally make this issue a proper part of EWB’s official agenda.

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Lifestyles and activism

A large amount of modern-day activism is based on the promotion of wiser individual lifestyle choices. By making changes in the way we live and becoming conscious consumers, this kind of activism suggests, individuals can make positive change in the world. We are encouraged to consume organic, fairtrade certified, and locally produced goods, along with lowering our overall levels of consumption. Making wise consumer choices, we are told, will be beneficial for the environment, poor producers in the developing world, as well as our individual health and spiritual wellbeing.

“Be the change you want to see in the world” is a statement often invoked in support of lifestyle-centric activism. Although these words find themselves regularly being attributed to the wise Mahatma, there is no documented evidence that Gandhi ever uttered or wrote them. Even if the statement could be attributed to Gandhi, it can easily be demonstrated that it was not meant to be a prescription for activism.

While it could be said that Gandhi’s lifestyle choices were a big part of who he was, he understood that simply adopting a minimalist lifestyle would not bring about the change he wanted to see in the world. Creating social change, Gandhi recognized, required social organization and political agitation. If Gandhi had limited his actions to living a humble life in an ashram and establishing a small self-reliant economy, it is easy to contend that he would not have contributed to the betterment of the world in a very large way. On the other hand if he had forgone the adoption of a minimalist lifestyle, there is no reason to think that he could not have been a successful social activist. In fact, he began his career as an activist in colonial South Africa, long before returning home to British India and embracing the simplicity for which he is now known.

Becoming an “ethical consumer” does not do very much to challenge the structures which lead people to adopt such a lifestyle in the first place. Purchasing fairtrade certified coffee, for example, may help a small number of farmers in poor countries receive slightly higher incomes, but it does nothing to change the unjust nature of international trade, which forces such farmers to grow cheap cash crops and impoverishes them.  It does nothing to challenge the fact that while rich countries loudly proclaim support for free trade, their protection of agriculture results in an estimated $50 billion in lost annual income for the developing world. $50 billion is about the total amount of development aid given to the developing world annually.

We are told that we need to “vote with our wallets”. The demand we generate will over time supposedly cause producers to offer more and more ethical products. Such implorations, first of all, misleadingly utilize language popularly associated with democracy to talk about an area of life which is fundamentally undemocratic; some people have bigger wallets than others, and hence, have more “votes” in the marketplace. Secondly, consumer sovereignty, the idea that independently derived consumer demand drives production, is inconsistent with reality.

In Looking Backward, an 1887 novel by Edward Bellamy, the main character makes his way to a utopian future where the profit motive no longer exists. He surmises that the new arrangement must save “a prodigious amount of lying”, explaining to an acquaintance from the future that “when one’s livelihood and that of his wife and babies depended on the amount of goods he could dispose of, the temptation to deceive the customer – or let him deceive himself – was wellnigh overwhelming.”[i]

We have a word we use to refer to this kind of “lying” and attempts to “deceive the customer”: advertising. A tremendous amount of effort is expended in order to convince consumers to purchase goods and services. The process of production is strongly tied with the process of marketing of what is produced. Producers bring into existence a large part of the demand which they then fulfill. Global spending on advertising amounted to more than $500 billion in 2010.[ii] Writing on the “myth of consumer sovereignty”, the eminent economist John Kenneth Galbraith asked whether “a new breakfast cereal or detergent [is] so much wanted if so much must be spent to compel in the consumer the sense of want?”[iii]

In the marketplace producers are vastly more powerful in comparison to consumers. Campaigns focused on ethical consumerism have managed to achieve as much success as they can hope to find: niche markets have been created for especially-conscious consumers, and for the rest there is green-washing, fairtrade-washing, etc. Unfortunately, justice is not something that comes in commodity form.

Strategic uses of boycotts and other market-based initiatives as part of wider campaigns may help bring about progress in certain circumstances, but they have to part of a bigger vision of change to matter. And there are many good things to be said about cutting back on what we consume and living in a way that is not grounded in petty materialistic values. As Henry-David Thoreau put it: “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.” Living a clutter-free life is a wonderful thing, but it not the same thing as working to create change.

It should be recognized, rather, that our ability to make token changes in our lives while retaining, or even enhancing, our standard of living is the result of our position as a privileged minority in a system which overtaxes the environment and exploits the poor. It is not enough for us to simply look inward and change our individual actions while continuing to benefit from the overall arrangement of things.

When confronted with the kind of the critique presented here, lifestyle-centric activists often proclaim that they do not mean for people to only change the way they live, but that making lifestyle changes can be a first step in actually becoming engaged with the problems of the world. However, rather than engaging people in a way that encourages them to learn about, and potentially do something to change, the structural causes of injustice, lifestyle-centric activism often takes away such an incentive. People feel that they have “done their part” once they have picked up the habit of buying organic and fairtrade goods, cut back on the amount of meat they consume etc. They can rest easy thinking that the world is a better place because of their actions. Instead of being a first step in engaging with the problems of the world, focusing on lifestyle changes often serves to be a distraction: It ends up being a step in the wrong direction.

On a final note, I would like to point out the troubling extent to which lifestyle-centric thinking has made its way into activism. The idea that decisions made by influential personnel in the employ of mining companies are a matter of lifestyle choices, rather than being overwhelmingly determined by institutional forces, is something I witness being upheld by sincere activists on a regular basis. Times are bad.


[i] Bellamy, Edward. Looking Backward. New York: Dover Publications, 1996.

[iii] Galbraith, John Kenneth. The Essential Galbraith. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. Print.


Climate, poverty, utopia

The inner crisis in environmental politics today is precisely the lack of bold concepts that address the challenges of poverty, energy, biodiversity and climate change within an integrated vision of human progress. At a micro-level, of course, there have been enormous strides in developing alternative technologies and passive-energy housing, but demonstration projects in wealthy communities and rich countries will not save the world. The more affluent, to be sure, can now choose from an abundance of designs for eco-living, but what is the ultimate goal: to allow well-meaning celebrities to brag about their zero-carbon lifestyles or to bring solar energy, toilets, pediatric clinics and mass transit to poor urban communities?

          Mike Davis, “Who Will Build the Ark?”[i]

The advent of the modern city deserves particular attention on the timeline of anthropogenic climate change. The forms which the city has taken during the last two hundred years of human existence have made it an increasingly noteworthy contributor to the building climate crisis. Today up to 45 percent of global carbon emissions can be attributed to heating and cooling the urban environment, and as much as a further 40 percent are the result of urban industries and transportation.[ii]

Along with the novel problem of climate change, the age-old issue of poverty also finds itself attached to the idea of the city. The manifestation of poverty in urban centres is quite unlike rural poverty in that it often appears alongside terrific amounts of wealth. While rural poverty, which is often deeper, can at least in part be attributed to scarcity and isolation, urban poverty is more starkly a product of injustice. Families nest inside hovels built in the shadows of skyscrapers. Children suffer from treatable diseases in close vicinity to hospitals. The homeless stand shivering in the cold while standing next to stores full of countless articles of warm clothing. Currently one billion people live in urban slums that dot the planet. This number is forecasted to triple by 2030.

Finding itself at the confluence of the climate crisis and intense inequality the city may yet realize redemption. Inherent within the idea of the city is a feature which makes it a solution, rather than a contributor, to climate change. The concentrated population density of the city seems essential to a societal low-carbon footprint recipe. As for the issue of inequality, bridging the gap between the rich and poor may not only be complementary to a solution to climate change, but it will likely also be essential to it.

The paradox of the accumulating climate crisis is that it will affect most harshly those who had the least part in creating it. Changing weather patterns will affect the South much more severely than the North. The latter, in fact, may gain in some ways as a result of warming temperatures: for example, while annual agricultural output for a number of Southern countries is expected to fall by 20 percent or more, it is anticipated to increase for the North by an average of 8 percent.[iii]

This incongruity puts an intractable obstacle in the path of the current means to address the problem. Negotiations on climate change hold as their hope for success a triumph of global solidarity in the face of a common challenge. Unfortunately, however, the challenge is not as universal as it is often portrayed. Even if the impact was not going to be as disproportionate as it will be, the North has considerably more resources to protect itself against it. And the history of global relations has shown that it would hardly feel inclined under any circumstance to appropriately compensate the victims of its crimes.

The trends, in fact, have already been set in this direction. Rich countries will continue to derail negotiations to come up with meaningful measures to counteract global warming. Individuals and communities that can afford it and have a “liberal” disposition will set about changing their lifestyles to be more environmentally friendly, patting themselves on the back as they do so. The poor and the marginalized – whether in New Orleans or in the villages of Sindh – will be left to face the brunt of the impact. More self-back-patting opportunities will routinely arise for the rich in the form of extreme weather events, such as the ongoing drought in East Africa, giving them reason to dole out some charity for some of those suffering most acutely.

The international, and the various national, political arrangements under which we live are obviously leading us in the wrong direction. A similar realization needs to be made about the reigning economic system. The reasons were many for believing such a thing before the onset of the climate crisis. Now it should seem all the more obvious. In The Enigma of Capital social theorist David Harvey explains that

The current consensus among economists and within the financial press is that a ‘healthy’ capitalist economy, in which most capitalists make a reasonable profit, expands [in terms of the total output of goods and services] at 3 per cent per annum. Grow less than that and the economy is deemed sluggish. Get below 1 per cent and the language of recession and crisis erupts (many capitalists make no profit).[iv]

Harvey goes on to write that following the recession if “normal” growth were to return to the world economy from 2011 onward “there will be over $100 trillion in the global economy by 2030. Profitable outlets would then have to be found for an extra $3 trillion investment. That is a very tall order.”[v] Indeed, especially when one considers the environmental consequences.

There is no forthcoming technological quick-fix for climate change. The solution will require addressing the causes at the root level. Measures relating to technology will be ultimately unsuccessful unless they are adopted within an arrangement that is itself compliant with the idea of sustainability. A system under which production is controlled privately for the basis of maximizing profit does not have room within it to reform to the degree necessary to offset the climate crisis that it has created.

“The bold thought first,” observed the twentieth century anarchist-philosopher Peter Kropotkin, “and the bold deed will not fail to follow.”[vi] The solution to the climate crisis will, first of all, require a bold reimagining of our current social arrangement. The city can serve as a centrepiece and starting point of such a reimagining. Mike Davis contends that “the egalitarian aspects of city life consistently provide the best sociological and physical supports for resource conservation and carbon mitigation.”[vii] With equitable distribution of wealth and political power, and minimal amounts of coercion, individual liberty can reign. Moreover, with democratic (worker) control of production we can organize society in a way that does not require infinitely-increasing levels of consumption and investment to sustain. Having removed the basis under which human beings seek to exploit and compete against one another, we can reconstitute power relations within, and in between, our societies in a way that allows solidarity to triumph over narrow self-interest.

All this likely sounds impractical, perhaps even utopian. Be that as it may, that which is deemed practical is not getting us anywhere good. It’s high time we stopped sticking to it.


[i] Mike Davis, “Who Will Build the Ark?”, New Left Review, 61:1, p. 44

[ii] Ibid., p. 41

[iii] Ibid., p. 40

[iv] David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital : and the Crises of Capitalism (Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 26

[v] Ibid., p. 27

[vi] Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread

[vii] Ibid. 1, p. 45


Famines and knives

Take up the White Man’s burden–
The savage wars of peace–
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought.

–          Rudyard Kipling, The White Man’s Burden

A July 20 editorial in the Vancouver Sun urged Canadians to give donations in support of victims of the ongoing famine in East Africa. In a concessionary tone, the editorial pointed out that Canadians “are… wary of appeals from a region where aid often appears to be poured into a bottomless pit and people seem no better off for it.”

It immediately went on to offer a response to the concession: “We must not let this weariness blind us to the human crisis that is now unfolding in a region that has known more than its share of misery. We must not let our disgust for leaders who create hardships for their own citizens or our attention to the pressing concerns of our daily lives distract us from the opportunity we now have to help.”

Apparently there’s a “bottomless pit” into which our thankless mercy is being poured “and people seem no better off for it.” We’ve been trying in earnest to help, but it’s all been for nought. The blame for this is handed to disgusting “leaders who create hardships for their own citizens”. I suppose that’s a bit of a step up from Kipling’s “sloth and heathen”. The sentiment, however, is much the same.

There is almost never an attempt by the media to honestly take history into account. Doing so, in this case as well as in many others, would show that the causes of suffering are not all contained within the countries or regions which experience the suffering. Much of the fault should be ascribed to outsiders.

There certainly are internal problems, including the incompetence and corruption of local leaders. However, as important as those problems may be, what we need to be concerned with most of all is our contribution to the creation of suffering. Our contribution is what we can work to amend.

It fact, it is apparent that the contribution of outsiders to the corruption of local leaders is quite significant (we’ll certainly find this to be the case for Somalia, as we review its post-colonial history below). In How Europe Underdeveloped Africa Walter Rodney writes that

The presence of a group of African sell-outs is part of the definition of underdevelopment. Any diagnosis of underdevelopment in Africa will reveal not just low per capita income and protein deficiencies, but also the gentlemen who dance in Abidjan, Accra and Kinshasa when music is played in Paris, London and New York.[1]

Though perhaps Rodney would not have agreed, I would add Moscow to the list of city’s in which music is played, or at least such was the case historically. I would also be remiss, as a Canadian citizen, to not add Ottawa to the list.

Europe ain’t my rope to swing on / Can’t learn a thing from it[2]

Behold how the Infidel lays traps for you [Somalis] as you become less wary. The coins he dispenses so freely now will prove your undoing.

–          Sayiid Mohamed Abdille Hassan (The Mad Mullah), 1920[3]

The state of Somalia came into being on July 1, 1960 when British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland gained independence and combined to become one country. The newly-founded country found itself fettered by the chains of poverty and as the first independent years unfolded it also became increasingly politically unstable. The end of the decade saw a military coup take place in the country, through which Siyaad Barre came to power. This set the stage for Somalia to become part of successive neo-colonial arrangements, first in the service of one coldwar superpower and then the other.

Barre’s Somalia first came under the wing of the Soviet Union, obtaining arms and aid to shore up against neighbouring Ethiopia, a US ally. In 1974 the pro-US government in Ethiopia was overthrown. Following the subsequent conflict, a leftist government came to power in 1977. The US then ended its military and economic aid from Ethiopia.

By 1980, after a war between Somalia and Ethiopia over the disputed Ogaden region, the US and Soviet backing of the two countries had flipped – Somalia was now a US ally and Ethiopia was a Soviet ally. A refugee crisis and multiple rebel groups who stood up to challenge the rule of the Barre regime emerged from the ruins of the Ogaden war.

Give ‘em guns, step back, and watch ‘em kill each other[5]

In order to maintain military bases in Somalia that could monitor affairs in the [Persian] Gulf, the United States government provided $163.5 million in military technology and four times that much in economic aid during 1980-88. By the late 1980s, Somalia was receiving 20 percent of U.S. aid to Africa. . . . The value of arms alone imported by Somalia [from the West] during the two decades of Barre’s rule totaled nearly two billion dollars. . . . By the early 1980s, the Somali state was one of the most militarized in Africa. . . .

–          Catherine Besteman, Unraveling Somalia: Race, Violence, and the Legacy of Slavery[6]

Barre became increasingly tyrannical throughout the ‘80s as opposition against him grew and rebels began to gain ground. The decade was witness to tens of thousands of Somali deaths at the hands of his regime, with hundreds of thousands fleeing across the Ethiopian border.

The ruthless US-backed dictator was finally ousted from power in early 1991. The next two years saw rival factions fight for control of the government. A famine gripped the south of the country in 1992 but began to subside with the help of rain by the end of the year. Around the same time conflict between rival factions had also began to subside.

Looking for an easy public relations boost for his country, US President George Bush decided to conduct a military intervention in Somalia which would assist the UN deliver food to the victims of the famine. Colin Powell, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described it as a “paid political advertisement”.[7] A US-led UN Security Council-sanctioned task force (UNITAF) comprised of several countries, including Canada, was created and arrived in Somalia in December 1992.

The PR stunt didn’t go as planned. The presence of foreign troops exasperated the situation. The population quickly turned openly hostile against the task force as a result of cruel treatment received from the troops:

There were times when [U.S. troops] shot at everything that moved, took hostages, gunned their way through crowds of men and women, finished off any wounded who were showing signs of life. Many people died in their homes, their tin roofs ripped to shreds by high-velocity bullets and rockets. Accounts of the fighting frequently contain such statements as this: “One moment there was a crowd, and the next instant it was just a bleeding heap of dead and injured.” (Alex De Waal, New Left Review, “US War Crimes in Somalia”)[8]

Yves Engler details similarly disturbing conduct carried out by Canadian troops in Somalia:

A sixteen year old, Shidane Abukar Arone, was tortured to death while dozens of other members of the Airborne Regiment knew what was happening. As many as 80 soldiers heard Arone’s screams, which lasted for hours.[9]

Thousands of Somalis lost their lives as a result of the violence created by UNITAF. The operation was called off in March 1993 and a much smaller UN force was left behind in Somalia. Two years later, in March 1995, all UN forces pulled out of Somalia. The Security Council declared that “the people of Somalia bear the ultimate responsibility for achieving national reconciliation and restoring peace to Somalia.”[10]

Since then Somalia has been a country without a central government and remained rife with chaos. It periodically appears in the news. Always something tragic, always without proper context: child soldiers, US-backed Ethiopian intervention, Al Qaeda inspired Al Shabbab militants, pirates, and now famine.

Turn on the radio / Nah, fuck it, turn it off[11]

If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. The progress comes from healing the wound that the blow made. They haven’t even begun to pull the knife out much less try and heal the wound. They won’t even admit the knife is there.

–          Malcolm X[4]

When important pieces of information – namely, information about crimes that we have committed and continue to commit – are absent in the news we consume, it has an effect on the public mind. The belief held by most of the citizens of the North, which underpins our foreign policy towards the South, is the following: We’re trying to help, though sometimes we may falter in carrying out this pursuit and/or they don’t know how to receive our help. That’s the same basis on which the British Empire, and every other tyranny of the kind, was justified. We need to wake up to reality. If we sincerely mean to help ease the suffering of others, we need to first move beyond the idea of charity and work to identify and remove our country’s contribution, and the contribution of our country’s allies, to the suffering. From there we can provide reparations, not aid, to make progress in repairing the damage we caused.


[1] Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, (Dar Es-Salaam: Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications), 1973

[2] Rage Against the Machine, Take The Power Back

[3] Quoted in Michael Maren, The Road to Hell (New York: The Free Press), 1997

[5] Tupac Shakur, Changes

[6] Quoted in Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power (New York, The New Press), 2002, Chapter 5: footnote 82

[7] Ibid, Chapter 5: footnote 83

[8] Ibid, Chapter 5: footnote 85

[9] Yves Engler, The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy (Vancouver: Fernwood Publishing), 2009, p. 198

[10] Michael Maren, The Road to Hell (New York: The Free Press), 1997, p. 287

[11] Rage Against the Machine, Vietnow


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


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