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
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.


* 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.


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.


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

Heroic individual entrepreneurs

I personally think that society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I’ve earned. If you stick me in the middle of Bangladesh or Peru or someplace, you’ll find out how much this talent is going to produce in the wrong soil. I will be struggling thirty years later. I work in a market system that happens to reward what I do very well – disproportionately well.

–          Warren Buffet

Among development workers there is often an inclination to look for inspiring, entrepreneurial, individuals amongst the citizens of developing world who seem to break the mould and aspire to achieve more than their peers. These individuals are a step ahead; they’re hard-working and innovative, and in being so they set higher standards for their society as a whole, ostensibly changing the culture to make it more conducive to development.

This notion lends itself in support of the idea that the target of development interventions should be individuals, most often based on their role in the market. This is what explains the popularity of microfinance initiatives in the last decade, though the idea finds itself appearing in many other reaches of aid and development work – “investing in people” seems to be the general buzz-phrase for it.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that it’s well-meaning, the way in which “investing in people” is currently done is based on a dramatic misjudgment of how development takes place. The entrepreneurial spirit of individuals does not set trends through which development does or does not occur, but rather, the shape of a society’s institutions determines the trends that will find form in the will and actions of individuals.

Institutions, and especially economic systems, have a profound influence in molding the characters of men and women. They may encourage adventure and hope, or timidity and the pursuit of safety. They may open men’s minds to great possibilities, or close them against everything but the risk of obscure misfortune. (Bertrand Russell, Political Ideals)

In any case, as far as the entrepreneurial spirit of individuals goes, poor countries are leaps and bounds ahead of the developed world. This is simply a result of the fact that people have to work a lot harder, and be more innovative in their work, to make a living. In 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism economist Ha-Joon Chang points out that in Ghana 66.9 percent of the population outside of the agriculture sector is self-employed, whereas the number is only 12.8 percent for the developed world. “What makes the poor countries poor is not the absence of entrepreneurial energy at the personal level, but the absence of productive technologies and developed social organizations, especially modern firms.”

Unlike poor countries, rich countries are able to, as Chang puts it, “channel the individual entrepreneurial energy into collective entrepreneurship.”

[E]xceptional individuals like Edison and Gates have become what they have only because they were supported by a whole host of collective institutions: the whole scientific infrastructure that enabled them to acquire their knowledge and also experiment with it; the company law and other commercial laws that made it possible for them subsequently to build companies with large and complex organizations; the education system that supplied highly trained scientists, engineers, managers and workers that manned those companies; the financial system that enabled them to raise a huge amount of capital when they wanted to expand; the patent and copyright laws that protected their inventions; the easily accessible market for their products; and so on.

Chang insists, as must I, that “we reject the myth of heroic individual entrepreneurs and help… build institutions and organizations of collective entrepreneurship”. Invest in institutions: that’s the right way to go about investing in people. This will involve, to begin with, shedding the unhealthy fetishization of the private sector currently prevalent within the development sector.

The Junior Fellow program and its discontents

My placement with EWB’s Junior Fellow (JF) program has brought me to a community named Diare in northern Ghana. I’m partnering with an NGO named Agribusiness Systems International (ASI) to help farmers in this area establish a new system of storage for their maize. The project hopes to increase the amount and quality of produce that farmers store and sell by improving on current storage infrastructure and post-harvest handling practices.

My role, in short, is to live with the communities where the project will first be implemented in order to gather information that will be used in implementing it.

There are many challenges that confront me in carrying out my work. The biggest is the language barrier because I, of course, don’t know the local language, Dagbani. I have to rely on the few people in the community who speak English well to translate for me if I want to engage in conversation with farmers. I also did not come to the community with a good understanding of the local customs and traditions, and local agricultural practices.

Although there are still two and half months left in my placement, it’s clear to me that the value of the work I do in Ghana will not outweigh the value I gather from the experience. Concern about whether my work could have been more easily done by a Ghanaian (perhaps a graduate from the local University for Development Studies) will no doubt hold considerable weight. Such will be the case for not only me, but likely all the other Junior Fellows as well. For the majority of JFs four months is not enough time to make a worthwhile impact on the ground.

What, then, justifies our coming here? It took a substantial amount of donated money and EWB staff members’ time to bring us to Ghana. Donors, of course, did not want their money to be used in a way that would garner valuable personal experiences for volunteers while, in comparison, providing marginal value to Ghanaians. And the time of EWB staff could have been spent towards initiatives that would create clearer and more abundant benefits for Ghanaians.

The value of the JF program is often questioned in this way within EWB. Responses to such questioning generally lead to justification being given to the program on the basis that it helps Canadians connect with Africa – through JFs relating their experiences to others back home via blogs and other means – and that JFs return from the experience as better “change agents”. These further justifications are not extremely well defined. Though they succeed in giving enough reason for the JF program to continue to exist, they fail to put to rest doubts about its meaningfulness – thus, questions about its value remain ever-present.

I would like to suggest that the current way in which Canadians are connected to Africa and JFs made better “change agents” through the program fails to capitalize on the its full potential. If the terms of these two justifications are more rigidly defined and implemented, they would go much further in settling doubts and, more importantly, make the program more meaningful in forwarding the cause of development.

Connecting Canadians to Africa currently amounts to, in the main, the JFs’ families, friends, and university chapter members learning about their personal physical and emotional experiences, and interpretations of ground realities in Africa with regards to culture, development challenges, economic conditions etc. Out of everything else, primary emphasis is by far given to sharing personal experiences, which also extends itself to relating interpretations of cultural norms. Certainly, spreading awareness about other cultures is a meaningful exercise in itself; to the extent that development should be our main concern, however, there is a certain point after which it becomes rather meaningless to spread awareness about the fact that there are many goats in Ghana, etc.

Furthermore, it must be stressed that any interpretations of cultural norms by outsiders are just that: interpretations. More importantly, in this case they are interpretations made by mostly middle class, white university students who have a dehistoricized and depoliticized interpretive consciousness. Given the power differences in place between them and people in the South, and the dehistoricized and depoliticized framework through which they perceive their surroundings, this class of people is one of the least perceptive when it comes to making interpretations that are close to actual reality. At the same time, as they are part of a class that is one of the most powerful in the world, the interpretations they make serve to be of serious consequence. It’s a dangerous mix.

The class origins of JFs, as well as their level of historical and political consciousness, are also to blame for limiting the extent to which they can become better “change agents”. “Change agent” is EWB terminology for activist – though, characteristically, unlike the word activist, the term “change agent” is not politically charged. Struggling to make an impact through development work as a JF is supposed to provide meaningful lessons for future activism. Unfortunately, distorted interpretations and EWB’s narrow focus on aid and development work, as opposed to a focus on the larger issue of development (see my previous post), make any lessons learned not easily applicable to other fields of activism, or for that matter, within activism around broader issues concerning development.

How, then, should we move forward from here?

The class origins of JFs can’t be changed. Their level of historical and political consciousness, on the other hand, can be lifted; and with it the negative aspects that accompany their class origins can be quelled to a large degree. The privilege afforded to their class can hence be more surely exploited to serve positive ends.

With a broader and deeper understanding of how the world works JFs can use their time in Africa to survey and understand the implications of far-flung policies and practices on the lives of Africans. (How, for example, did the sub-prime mortgage crisis impact rural Ghanaians?). Having returned home they will be able to connect Canadians to Africa in a way that attaches their personal experiences to grander realities. Also, having a clearer idea of what the big picture looks like will allow them to make more accurate interpretations and learn lessons that will be applicable in disparate struggles.

There is no way to lift the consciousness of JFs to the level being proposed during pre-departure and in-country training. It would require a much larger time commitment, and in fact, an effort to lift the consciousness of not only JFs or potential JFs, but the organization’s membership as whole. Undoubtedly, the argument will be made that with a limited amount of resources, EWB can concentrate only on a limited number of pursuits, lest it become overburdened and the productiveness of its activities affected. What I’m suggesting, however, isn’t that we chase more pursuits, but that we develop a background of the big picture which would inform the foreground of our pursuits.

What would, in a sense, amount to changing the culture of the organization would involve lots of hard work and time. I don’t expect such a reason to turn away interest from this venture, though, because everyone in EWB is a workaholic.

Good development work is not enough

In a book titled The Myth of Aid Denis Goulet noted that “primary emphasis in discussions is given to aid, which is but a single facet of a much larger issue, development.” The Myth of Aid was published in 1971. Forty years on, Goulet’s complaint still rings true. NGOs claim to be concerned about development, but in fact, we concern ourselves mainly with the issue of aid. Questions about how to better apportion Western development assistance, and how to improve NGOs’ on-the-ground development work are the basis of both discussions and action. The fact that the last half-century has not seen this approach lead to development in South is not often dwelled upon.

Back in the days of slavery in the southern US the abolitionists would help small groups or individual slaves escape along the Underground Railroad. Though this alleviated the suffering of a small number of slaves, which was a great thing, the abolitionists understood that this is not how the institution of slavery would be brought to an end. They understood that ending slavery would require them to wage a political struggle. Thus, they engaged the public in order to bring popular opinion onto their side and make ending slavery politically viable. They distributed pamphlets, orated, wrote literature to raise the public consciousness and push for reform. Some even went as far as taking up arms and ensured that the issue could not to be ignored in the media and political circles.

Today, the approach taken by development NGOs in waging a political struggle over issues relating to poverty could perhaps be likened to the abolitionists demanding only that slaves be treated better and their living conditions improved, and not that slavery be abolished. A more complete analogue would have the slave owners partly fund the abolitionists’ activities, and have them come to their plantations as contractors to help improve the living conditions of a very small number of slaves.

Development assistance given by rich countries is not meant to alleviate poverty. Its purpose is to win economic advantage by securing influence over poor countries, and gaining diplomatic and military support. It also serves as great PR; it creates a smokescreen that obscures the West’s true intents and seeks to veil past and ongoing crimes committed against the South.

By jumping onboard the aid bandwagon NGOs end up serving the interests of empire. They help whitewash the criminal behavior of the West and ultimately do little to forward development. In fact, by ignoring the structures that keep poverty in place and insisting that more/better aid and development work will lead to the eradication of poverty, NGOs help further entrench the odious structures and harm the cause of development.

“Good intentions are not enough” is a much-repeated line in development circles. I would like to suggest that the following line also become a centerpiece in discussions: “Good development work is not enough.” Good development work is analogous to, at best, helping a small number of slaves run away along the Underground Railroad. Though, it can more closely be compared with helping better the living conditions of some slaves on plantations. Good development work will not, on its own, lead to the eradication of poverty, just as relying on only the Underground Railroad or helping improve their living conditions would not have led to the abolition of slavery in the US. Destroying the structures that allow the South to be economically exploited will lead to development.

This is not to suggest that development work should not be done. Helping to improve the lives of a few people or communities is a wonderful thing. At the very least, however, development work should be done in a way that ensures it does not further the interests of empire. Though, to be earnest in full it should be coupled with an active campaign against the powerful.

History teaches us that working to make the world a better place is not easy. Doing so can help one make lots of enemies. From Spartacus to Gandhi, those who stood up to fight for change were made into villains, had their activities suppressed , and were tossed into prisons. This should provide us with the insight that if the same sort of thing is not happening to us while we’re working for change, then perhaps we’re doing something wrong. If instead the powerful are showering us with laudations, as tends to happen with development NGOs, then we’re doing something very wrong.

It’s a tough thing to actively challenge power. It is, however, as the abolitionist Frederick Douglass observed, the only way towards progress:

Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters… Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.


The concept of dependency in mainstream aid and development discourse has come to refer to the inadvertent reliance on handouts created by wanton aid-giving. It is often argued that such dependency hinders development in the South. Poor countries have to learn to rely on themselves if they ever hope to stand on their own two feet.

I take the position that the above definition of dependency flips the actual existing dependency relationship upside-down. Rich countries depend on the developing world to stay poor and actively work to sustain the current arrangement of things. Low-priced minerals and other primary commodities, cheap labour, and favourable exchange rates for Northerners when they go vacationing (or to do development work) in the South, among other things, are what this dependency is about.

Whereas the conventional definition creates the image of a despondent, pathetic, third world which has become further stultified as a result of the goodwill of the North, a more accurate image would show a ravenous, exploitative, first world which does all it can, feigning goodwill all along, to maintain its superior position.

Poor countries can certainly become reliant on aid from the North, which then hinders their development. This occurs, however, not by accident as it is usually suggested, but by design. Aid given for budget support wins influence for the donor over policy decision-making – “He who feeds you, controls you” (Thomas Sankara); the influence is palpably used to undermine development. As for multilateral aid, the development sector has been forced to become structured in a way that only allows it to take palliative measures in trying to alleviate poverty; and the efforts to help often undermine economic development and democracy in the long-run.

Development organizations routinely claim to be concerned about dependency, though most often they miss altogether the way in which dependency actually exists.

The Gentle Giants Who Really Care

A US diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks details an exchange that took place in October 2009 between Ann Pickard, Royal Dutch Shell’s then-vice president for Sub-Saharan Africa, and US diplomats at the embassy in Abuja, Nigeria. The cable states that, according to Pickard, “Shell had seconded people to all the relevant ministries and that Shell consequently had access to everything that was being done in those ministries.”

And you know, Shell paints itself as a company that takes Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) quite seriously. They all paint themselves that way, don’t they?

Shell gave money to EWB for our conference last year. One of their people went up on stage and gave a nice talk about how much they care. And then there was a session on CSR jointly hosted by someone from Shell and another person from HATCH, a huge company that services the mining sector. They talked a whole about how much their employers care — how they’re working to “set the bar high” or something of that sort. It was really nice.


Nigeria should be a rich country. But it’s not. Instead it has an average life expectancy of less than 50 years.

So anyway.

Arundhati Roy gives us a good account of what the deal is with CSR:

On the outskirts of Raipur, a massive billboard advertises Vedanta Cancer Hospital. In Orissa, where it is mining bauxite, Vedanta is financing a university. In these creeping, innocuous ways, mining corporations enter our imaginations: the Gentle Giants Who Really Care. It’s called CSR, Corporate Social Responsibility… CSR masks the outrageous economics that underpins the mining sector in India. For example, according to the recent Lokayukta report for Karnataka, for every tonne of iron ore mined by a private company, the government gets a royalty of Rs 27 and the mining company makes Rs 5,000. In the bauxite and aluminium sector, the figures are even worse. We’re talking about daylight robbery to the tune of billions of dollars. Enough to buy elections, governments, judges, newspapers, TV channels, NGOs and aid agencies. What’s the occasional cancer hospital here or there?

Here’s a nice video of Peter Munk, chairman of Barrick Gold, talking about how much he cares: