Monthly Archives: April 2010

‘Authentic African-ness’

Headless manikins in vibrantly colored clothes point guns at each.

They sit at a round table discussing the fate of something unknown.

They decline in the luxurious setting of a wooded paradise.

These are a few of the installations that are part of artist Yinka Shonibare’s work. As my past blog posts have been perhaps a tad cynical, I thought I would focus on some work being done, that I perceive as successfully addressing the complexities of development in Africa and the ‘third world’.

Shonibare is one of my favourite artists, and I feel both his work and life experience speak to issues of identity, race and power relations that need to be addressed within the realm of development. Shonibare, who considers himself ‘bi-racial’, was born to a wealthy Nigerian family in London. He moved to Lagos, Nigeria, as a young child, but returned to London at the age of 16 to attend boarding school. Shonibare’s family owned homes in both London and Lagos allowing Shonibare to spend many summers in the UK. When Shonibare was 19, a viral disease attacked his immune system leaving him partly paralysed. Although Shonibare underwent physical therapy he still walks with a limp, and addresses his disability throughout his art. In his post- secondary education, Shonibare attended Wimbledon College of Art, London’s Byam Shaw School of Art and Goldsmiths College, completing his MA in fine arts.

A pivotal moment in Shonibare’s academic career and what would continue to shape his art to this day was a comment from one of his professors. While Shonibare was working on an art exhibit regarding Perestroika (the economic and political reforms introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987), his professor approached him. In an interview with Shonibare by the Zeleza Post, the reporter describes the encounter:

One day his tutor confronted him,

“Why are you making work about Perestroika?” the tutor, a white Briton, asked.

“You are African, aren’t you? Why don’t you make authentic African art?”

At first, Mr. Shonibare was taken aback.

“I tried to figure out what he meant by authentic African art,” he said.

“I didn’t know how to be authentic. What would I do if I was being authentic?”

“My tutor wanted me to be pure African,” Mr. Shonibare said,

“I wanted to show I live in a world which is vast and take in other influences, in the way that any white artist has been able to do for centuries.

The reporter continues to descibers Shonibare’s search of ‘authentic African-ness’:

[Shonibare]…visited an African fabric shop in the Brixton market in South London, discovering, to his amazement, that the best African fabric was actually manufactured in the Netherlands and exported to Africa. Further, the Dutch wax prints, as they are known, were originally inspired by Javanese batiks. This idea, that a fabric connoting African identity was not really African, delighted the budding conceptual artist.

(http://www.zeleza.com/blogging/popular-culture/decapitating-colonialism-yinka-shonibare-new-york)

The fabrics took on particular meaning for Shonibare and his work, as he explains:

The fabrics are not authentically African – they were produced by the Dutch in the 19th century and then subsequently by the English for sales to the African market. It is important that I don’t go to Africa to buy them, so that all African exotic implications remain fake.

They prove to have a crossbred cultural background quite of their own. And it’s the fallacy of that signification that I like. It’s the way I view culture, it’s an artificial construct.

(http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2005/09/09/AR2005090900485.html)

(http://en.allexperts.com/e/y/yi/yinka_shonibare.html)

It was these patterns that became the basis for Shonibare’s installations. Manikins in Victorian dress are used by Shonibare to engage with issues emerging from African colonialism. Among Shonibare’s installations are titles such as The Scramble for Africa, How to Blow up Two Heads at Once and The Swing. Shonibare tries to address the artificiality of some seemingly homogenous African identity. His work The Scramble for Africa has been recognized for identifying how the Berlin Conference arbitrarily created countries, influenced by various European cultures.

Shonibare’s art is not only restricted to installations, as much of his work includes sculptures, paintings and photography. One of his more famous works is his interpretation of Dorian Grey through photography. Shonibare recreates scenes from the work but inserts himself as an alternative black character. As with all his works, his photography addresses identity and power relations. Producing a scene in which a black male is in an influential position during the Victorian time period, speaks directly to power relations, race and African identity. While I could go on and on about Shonibare’s art, the complexity and relevance of his work may be lost in my writing and instead if you are interested I’d suggest watching these short videos of his interviews.

Shonibare’s art brings out important issues related to development, especially African development. This idea of a homogenous African continent and identity seems to plague development work. As I addressed in earlier posts, building a well, orphanage or school are perceived as one size fits all solutions. Often cultural specificities are ignored, and if not disregarded there are specific understandings of Africa that are addressed though development and also projected through western media sources. Images of rural settings, huts or tin roofed houses, ‘traditional’ African dress, women with babies tied to them, water on their heads and animals, dominate NGO advertisements and documents, focused on ‘improving’ conditions in Africa. While surely these images are related to real happenings in various parts of Africa, where are the complexities, the contradictions, and the diversity that we so often identify in our messy North American society?

-The cities, with their pollution, South African owned burger chains, and suit wearing workforce that easily pass the beggars on the concrete streets.

-The hospitals with their western trained doctors, using Japanese produced medicine, to help ‘African’ patients riddled with HIV.

-The online universities in Africa with their students from the upper echelons of society, who sit in their mansions on their laptops, while they stream lectures from Harvard University

I believe it is exactly this lack of acknowledged complexity, which Shonibare attempts to address through his work that needs to be examined in the study of African development. It is true that art addressing these complex issues can fall into the same trap as the other form of ‘development in North America’ that I have addressed in my blog. Perhaps it is just my personal bias derived from my love for modern art, however I feel that in constantly producing new work, publications and engaging in interviews, work like Shonibare’s, can facilitate a serious discussion. If you disagree, I’d love to hear your thoughts about it. Also if you are interested in Shonibare’s work, a good introduction to his work can be found at: http://www.nmafa.si.edu/exhibits/shonibare/intro.html.

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Filed under Africa, Art, Current Events, International Development, Politics, Post Colonial, Yinka Shonibare

The More Fashionable Berlin Conference

In Africa, we were around thousands of people who have seen a lot of poverty, but they were fun at the end of the day- Angelina Jolie

I used to assume after watching the movie Blood Diamonds [sic] that diamonds were not acceptable to buy from Africa. However, it is the complete opposite! -Kim Karasian after visiting diamond mines in Botswana

I am overwhelmed and inspired by my trip to Malawi and hope that it helps bring attention to how much more the world needs to do to help the children of Africa- Madonna

I represent a lot of people [in Africa] who have no voice at all… They haven`t asked me to represent them. It’s cheeky but I hope they’re glad I do.’- Bono

And one more quote from Bono, just because I care so deeply for him and his sunglasses:

Africa is sexy and people need to know that – Bono, The New York Times

Celebrity involvement in development has appeared to have exponentially grown over the past few years. Each month there is another story of an international celebrity donating, building, adopting etc. in Africa:

‘Angelina Jolie builds orphanage with her very own hands’

‘Madonna adopts entire African village’

‘Bono cures AIDS’

The idea of ‘African development’ has materialized in the shape of celebrity causes. Since I am attempting to explore the ways in which development is substantiated in North America or the ‘developed’ world, the involvement of celebrities in development is an interesting topic. The argument in favor of celebrity involvement in ‘African development’ usually follows the logic of why should they not do something positive with their fame and fortune? In their positions of influence, why not draw attention to the dire situations around the world?

Well I, along with help from some all-knowing academics, will tell you why not. With the greater involvement of celebrities in development, academics have busted out of their ivory towers and joined forces to squash this idea of this positive altruism. In their article ‘The Downside of Celebrity Diplomacy: The Neglected Complexity of Development’ Heribert Dieter and Rajiv Kumar explore the relationship between celebrities and development in three particular areas :

First, [they] chart the rise of prominent celebrity activists in international affairs, in particular their impact on development policies of the member countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Second, [they] examine the competence of celebrities to handle development issues and suggest a more nuanced and less paternalistic approach. Third, [they] consider the legitimacy of celebrity activists and whether these nonelected individuals are well positioned to berate democratically elected governments.

In the first page of their article Dieter and Kumar summarize their argument:

The Irish rock star Paul Hewson, better known as Bono, is not only the front man of the band U2 but has also become the champion of an antipoverty movement with worldwide impact. Bono is supported by US economist Jeffrey Sachs, who has become a global spokesperson for poverty reduction, especially in Africa. Surprisingly, the recipes being suggested by Bono and Sachs are breathtakingly one-dimensional and akin to the sweeping propositions of the 1960s: give aid to Africa, waive debt, and provide education, and the continent will develop. While these remedies may look seductive, unfortunately the reality is far more complex and demands attention to the specific circumstance of each individual country or subregion. Grand ideas for development are a dangerous recipe and may in fact worsen the situation of the poor.

In their argument Dieter and Kumar, raise very important issues regarding celebrity knowledge of development and their portrayal of Africa. I do not doubt that most celebrities involved in ‘development’ are legitimately passionate for the causes they are championing. However, the methods in which they go about addressing the so-called issues are problematic. As argued by Dieter and Kumar, celebrities often offer simplistic solutions:

-Angelina Jolie proposes to build more schools, improve conditions in refugee camps

-Kim Khardasian champions more purchasing of diamonds to fuel African economies

-Madonna raises funds to build more orphanages or improves the lives of African children by bringing them to America

-Bono loudly champions more school, education that is more accessible, more condoms

While there seems to be nothing inherently negative about these suggested methods of ‘developing’ Africa, there ineffectiveness has clearly been illustrated with the reversal of development that has happened over the past century in Africa (In her work Dead Aid, Dambisa Moyo reviews how the trillions of dollars of aid pumped into Africa have not improved conditions). Many scholars and development practitioners have argued against the effectiveness of the sort of development championed by celebrities (see Kapoor, Ilan “Participatory Development, Complicity and Desire 2005, Giles Mohan and Kristian Stokke “Participatory Development and Empowerment: the Dangers of Localism 2000). The theories presented by these scholars criticize common participatory frameworks of development and suggest rethinking the concept of development. These critical development theories would imply that celebrities are unqualified to suggest methods of ‘developing’ Africa. But why would we expect them to? Why would individuals who devoted their entire lives to careers based on themselves, suddenly be qualified to address one of the most complex international situations? Dieter and Kumar’s argument that celebrities’ “grand suggestions for development…may infact worsen the situation” is an idea I have wrestled with extensively in my own work. I have reviewed the various ways in which the ‘third world’ is portrayed in the North American media and how these visuals are tied to notions of ‘development’ that are unsustainable and may worsen the situation.

The ways in which celebrities often frame Africa and development fall into these categories:

-Africa as a whole or country

-Africa as destitute

-Africa as rural

-Africa as ‘black’ ( Paulette Goudge’s work The Whiteness of Power: Racism in Third World Development and Aid greatly addresses this topic)

-African development as reliant on us (us being the western world)

Without getting into it too extensively (as I would like to address it over various blog entries), I argue that these representations result in the employment of development methods that ignore the complex histories, cultures and peoples of Africa.

Does building the same orphanage in Sierra Leone and Botswana and Zimbawe make sense?

Does adopting children address the historical, systemic and economic issues that various African nations face?

Is greater access to orphanages and schools improving the overall situation in African countries, or are we missing the target?

And the questions could go on and on.

I believe that celebrity involvement in development, similarly to consumerism, is not conducive to serious knowledge exchange regarding the complexities of development in Africa. It is this same notion of development that is pushed through fair trade products and travel holidays, in which ‘development’ must take place in the ‘third world’. There is often little conversation regarding international economic policies that are detrimental to African countries, North American interest in various African conflicts, or implications of colonial histories in current ideas of development.  Dieter and Kumar elegantly summarize my sentiments when they suggest that:

Celebrities’ contemporary calls to ‘make poverty history’ in Africa are so widely repeated and commonsensical that questions about the exceptionality of this humanitarian action itself rarely arise.

Celebrities are contributing to this understanding of development that must take place in the ‘third world’. The discourse of ‘they are the problem and we will help them’, is continually being disseminated to a population who worships celebrities. I believe that celebrities interested in aiding Africa, should stick to acting, singing or fashion and be involved in ‘development’ by giving some of the outrageous amount of money they make to development professionals, academics or people like myself…

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Filed under Aid, Bono, Celebrity, Current Events, Development, International Development, Paulette Goudge, Politics, The Ivory Towers

The Enlightened People.

The intellectual spoke the truth to those who had yet to see it, in the name of those who were forbidden to speak the truth: he was conscience, consciousness and eloquence.

-M. Foucault (http://libcom.org/library/intellectuals-power-a-conversation-between-michel-foucault-and-gilles-deleuze)

It would be unfair for me to neglect the field that sparked my interest in international development; Academia- the ivory towers, the enlightened population, the expansion of the mind (for merely thousands of dollars in tuition per year). It is within the context of academia and more specifically ‘international development studies’, that I became familiar with a plethora of ideas that I had not previously encountered:

Neo liberal development?

Dependency theory?

Rostow’s stages of development?

World bank/IMF structural adjustment programs?

Critical development theory?

Orientalism?

Biopower?

Escobar?

Etc.etc.etc.

The beginning of my academic career can be characterized by first intrigue into all of these new theories, second a confirmation that these were the right ways of viewing the world and lastly an anger at the rest of society for being so oblivious to these right ways of thinking. I would like to believe that I have evolved in my relationship with academia and have come a long way from this pretentious thought pattern but who knows. What has certainly happened however is that I have experienced academia within a variety of different settings, both in North America and the UK, through classroom settings, lectures, events, conferences. I have experienced it as both the student and as the ‘expert’. My feelings regarding the institution have shifted at different times and can be summed up as:

‘This is the most inspirational space, allowing for the critical perspective to flourish, there is no other space quite like this and I will stay here forever’

vs.

‘These people are so disconnected from reality, what are we doing sitting in our classrooms discussing people who we do not really know anything about. This is all bullshit and I cannot wait to leave’

While my perspective on the academic institution has clearly not been completely positive, I have continued my involvement within academia. Most recently, I attended a conference focused on new approaches to development and communication. This conference offered a variety of ‘experts’ within the field, speaking about topics of development and communication. In this conference I sat in on presentations regarding radio-based projects in Thailand, technology based teaching in the United States, a critical review of non-profit policies through discursive analysis etc. One of the keynote speakers at the conference was Dr. Sina Odugbemi, the Head of the World Bank Communication for Governance and Accountability Program. While many of the presenters had origins in the ‘developing’ world, there was little question about the institutionalization of a specific understanding of development, through academia. Why did development studies focus almost completely on the ‘third world’? Why did their societies need to be restructured to look more like ours? Was it the structure of the ‘first world’ that needed to be targeted in these development conferences?

Similar to the problems I have with other forms of development in North America, I often perceive a disconnect between academia and the issues/people being examined.  This  ‘we know best’ attitude, illustrated by the quote at the beginning of this blog, often abounds within academia and results in this atmosphere where those who were able to pay thousands of dollars have somehow become enlightened and know better than the rest of society.

A prime example of a theory that facilitates this ‘we know better’ attitude is ‘false consciousness’. False consciousness is a theory derived from Marxist theory on social class, although Marx never used the term. A simplified explanation of this term, is that false consciousness is characteristic of members of the lower classes of society.  Meaning, those from this class, for a variety of reasons are not really aware of why they have come to be in their condition. They are unaware of how the upper classes continue to keep them in their place in society, through exploitation, dominant ideology etc. This type of thinking often pervades development studies. In my experience, academic scholars have moved away from thinking they are best equipped to create development frameworks on their own, and turned to a more grassroots, involve those who are developing approach. There is still however, this academic community where ‘experts’ speak on behalf of the population they have studied, as I experienced in the communication and development conference.

To critique this aspect of academia, I turn to Foucault (yes I am using an academic to critique academia…go figure).

While Foucault has become a celebrated academic, he was greatly critical of the role of the academic. Foucault challenged the idea that it was the academic’s role to spread knowledge to the rest of society on behalf of some disadvantaged population. This critique becomes especially important in international development studies, where we study the conditions of a group of people we define as disadvantaged.  Barry Smart, explains Foucault argument:

Foucault’s [theory] has direct implications for the nature of intellectual work and for the role or function of the intellectual in modern societies . The traditional role ascribed to the intellectual has been to reveal the truth to those unable to see it or speak it. The function of such a “universal” intellectual has been to uphold reason, to be the “master of truth and justice” to represent the universal and to some extent to be the ‘consciousness-conscience of everyone”. Such a neutral and benevolent conception of the intellectual’s role and function has been disputed by Foucault on the grounds that evidence exists (e.g May ’68; prisoners rights and protest movements etc.) which suggests that ‘ordinary’  people have knowledge of their circumstances and are able to express themselves independently of the universal theorizing intellectual- that is the masses no longer need a representing or representative consciousness, they already have a knowledge of their conditions.

While Foucault’s ideas were based on a western context they do act as a serious challenge to academics in the field of international development. What role must us enlightened ones occupy, if those in African, South American, and Asian nations are aware of their own reality?

You mean they understand that they should not have to drink unclean water?

They know their conditions are different than ours?

They are aware of the methods necessary to improve their conditions?

Gasp.

If individuals are aware of their own conditions and know the methods to overcome them, what role then, can the academic play?

Smart summarizes Foucault’s ideas regarding the role of the academic:

Foucault acknowledged that forms of knowledge held and expressed by people have been blocked, prohibited and disqualified by and through a system of power of which intellectuals have been the principal agents. Hence for Foucault the role of the intellectual was to be concerned not with expressing the truth of the collectivity but with combating the forms of power in which intellectual activity was embedded.

It is this idea then, which I have tried to illustrate in my other blog posts, that efforts of ‘development’ need to take place within the space of the ‘developing world’. Rather than spending all of our efforts spreading knowledge about conditions in African villages, perhaps academics in the field of international development, can examine why institutions have been set up to exclude those in the villages from speaking on behalf of themselves. Why must anthropological research be the only means for ‘the locals’ to speak about their conditions? Why must those from African nations come to western institutions to learn about themselves before they are viewed as authoritative figures on the issues? Why does reading academic texts mean that we know what those in the ‘developing’ world are thinking?

I do not claim that academics are unaware of the inherent contradictions of their positions, as I have been involved with many that focus on these issues. There can be a great deal of self-reflection and self critique even within the ivory towers. I just believe that more of this needs to take place, especially within the field of international development. It is a disservice to international development studies programs, to be completely focused on theories pertaining  to ‘helping’ the ‘developing world’. Rather what is necessary is an examination of those changes that need to take place in western contexts, starting with academic institutions.  I hope that programs can integrate this sort of critical analysis rather than continue to speak on behalf of a ‘disadvantaged’ population.

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Filed under Academia, Current Events, Foucault, International Development, International Development Studies, Politics, The First World, The Ivory Towers, The Third World

Giving Without Borders- See the World and Make a Difference at the Same Time

Imagine, for a moment, the situation is the other way around – a recent arrival froma ‘Third World’ country arrives at your workplace…this person turns up out of the blue, having been invited by a fellow expatriate…. the person is not paid, but has sufficient private resources to live in the best part of town and it is clear that he/she will not be expected to conform to the hours of the working day or the days of the working week. This person apparently wants to help in some unspecified way but does not speak the language, knows next to nothing of the history of culture and has no idea of existing professional levels of expertise, nor of expectations. And yet this person expects to be given useful, meaningful work immediately and, what’s more, to be instantly socially accepted (Goudge 2003: 11).

In her work, The Whiteness of Power: Racism in Third World Development and Aid (a highly recommended read), Paulette Goudge incorporates an examination of holidays aimed at helping the ‘needy’, into her overall argument. Goudge analyses the VSO (Volunteer Service Organisation) working holiday advertisements and their representation of the ‘third world’ as an exotic other, where westerners are able to escape their mundane lives and live like the locals for a few months (2003: 35). Without delving too deeply into her work, Goudge raises important issues that are often overlooked, regarding the implications of overseas volunteer programs, which can be related to the featured article.

The above pictures are taken from ‘O’ magazine, Oprah Winfrey’s publication which features articles on the latest diets, trends and ‘inspirational’ topics, all jammed in between a ridiculous amount of advertisements. This article titled ‘A One-Man International Aid Organization’ is about Barton Brooks an ex real estate broker. According to Sara Corbett, the author of the article, Brooks left his meaningless job and took to ‘Traveling the world donating clothing, wheelchairs, books, and chickens (when he [was not] not laying bricks, building wells, and planting trees)” (http://www.oprah.com/world/Barton-Brooks-Global-Colors-Mission-Giving-Back_1/1). In the article, Brooks advocates for individuals to become involved in what he calls Guerrilla Aid. This form of ‘aid’ consists of tourists, leaving their luxury resorts to spend a few days donating their skills to development projects. Brooks advocates, ‘”If you’re on vacation in Cancún [and] there are three orphanages within driving distance, why don’t you make that part of your spring break? Go in, do something, get out ” (Corbett, 3).

While Brooks advocates for people to get involved with this Guerrilla Aid, author Corbett warns it is not without risk. Brooks has ‘been stranded on an empty stretch of the Mekong River after the boat he was traveling on broke down. He’s had dysentery and bug bites. And last March, while riding a motorbike on a rural road in Uganda, Brooks came around a blind corner and was hit head-on by a truck. He broke his right shoulder, lacerated his face, and shattered his left arm and several bones in his left leg’ (Corbett, 3). Do not fear though, illness and injury could not stop Brooks’ heroic character and he continues to bring his ‘Guerrilla Aid’ brand of development to the  ‘third world’.

My first contact with this article initially made me want to:

1)    Go on my own guerilla mission and find our dear Barton Brooks to ‘discuss’ his new meaningful life

2)    Rewire my brain so I could skim through an ‘O’ magazine and enjoy these inspirational stories and beautiful advertisements

3)    Retreat into a hole somewhere far away from humans

Luckily, I have recovered from my initial shock and compiled a few of my thoughts on what I perceive as the issues with this idea of ‘development’. Brooks’ idea of leaving the resort for a few days and becoming involved with the local people, has a multitude of contentious points. I would like to however focus on more of the institutionalization of this idea. It is not just Brooks, but various individuals and organizations that advocate for these brands of volunteer holidays. VSO, as reviewed by Goudge is merely one of thousands of organizations that uses images of lands ripe with giraffes and lions and peoples in straw roofed huts, with colourful rings adorning their long slender necks, to entice North Americans to go overseas.

What these development programs generally involve are:

1)   Paying a rather large fee for flight and accommodation (how do you say business scheme in development talk?)

2)   Some sort of pre trip information course – “ The cultural norms may differ, as these people have different customs. You may have to cover your knees and shoulders when it is very hot outside.

The conditions may be different, we will not always have hot water or cool air, but do not worry our last weekend we will spend in a 5 star resort to recuperate after all our hard work”

3)   The trip- Building something, teaching a health curriculum to the locals ‘this is how you properly wash your hands’ etc.

4)   A post trip presentation in a North American school, community centre etc.- “ The people were so welcoming and grateful. They had so little but were so happy, my life is changed forever…’

I am not condemning North Americans’ ability to travel and be exposed to various cultures (as I have taken advantage of this privilege).  What I am critical of is the portrayal of this travel as ‘development’ or as beneficial to the overseas communities North Americans visit. Aligned with North American discourse on development, these holidays depict ‘development’ as taking place in the ‘third world’ with help from the ‘first world’, rather than ‘development’ meaning the targeting of unfair global economic policies or North American consumption patterns etc.

If you have been involved with one of these overseas ‘development’ initials, like I have, you have witnessed the ways in which this ‘help’ disrupts everyday activities. Having volunteered at a school overseas, I quickly realized my help was not needed, as the local teachers were entirely more qualified than I was. However, I was welcomed, listened to and rarely critiqued, which speaks greatly to the power relations these overseas trips enforce. Goudge examines this solidification of power relations through volunteer holidays, which she locates in racially charged imagery and racial relations. As Goudge recognizes, if we are honest with ourselves, these trips act as more of a resume builder ie- international experience for us North Americans, rather than to create sustainable development in the communities we visit.

What I am trying to outline is that international development has taken the shape of travel holidays in North America. I think it is essential we review the implications of this understanding of development, questioning who these holidays actually aim to help and what ideas of the ‘third world’ this form of ‘development’ disseminates to the North American public.

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Filed under Consumerism, Current Events, Development, Guerilla Aid, International Development, Paulette Goudge, Politics, Power of Whiteness, The First World, The Third World

Purchasing the Eradication of Poverty

In a massive grocery superstore, clinical in character, housing any product your heart desires to purchase, you can find them. They sit on one of the hundreds of shelves, pressed in between a few of the thousand of products. The packaging looks relatively similar to all the other products except in one of the corners a small symbol with the words ‘fairtrade certified’ can be found.

In Canada, fair trade products include Coffee, Tea, Cocoa, Cotton, Flowers, Fruit, Grains, Spices and Herbs, Nuts and Oils, Sports Balls, Sugar and Wine (http://transfair.ca/en/products/products-canada). According to TransFair Canada, fair trade “seeks to change the terms of trade for the products we buy – to ensure the farmers and artisans behind those products get a better deal. Most often this is understood to mean ensuring better prices for producers, but it often also includes longer-term and more meaningful trading relationships” (http://transfair.ca/ en/about-fairtrade/what-fair-trade).

Fair trade products, in particularly coffee and tea have become a popular purchase. Corporate chains such as Starbucks, Tim Hortons and Second Cup often offer a brand of fair trade products, while grocery stores provide consumers with the opportunity to choose from a few brands. Would you like to support Ethiopian, Ecuadorian or Columbian farmers through your purchase? In North American grocery stores, you get to choose. While many consumers may not know the fine details of what fair trade entails, they understand it as a more ethical purchase, with benefits going to the ‘third world’.

An article in The Economist titled ‘ How Fair is It?’ reviews a piece from the New York Times on fair trade. An excerpt from this article illustrates the ambiguity and potential negative consequences of fair trade:

It seems like a lovely idea. Conscientious consumers are willing to pay more for goods produced in what is viewed as a less exploitative manner. But how well does the model hold up in practice? Dani Rodrik notes a few inconsistencies. He points out that fair-trade products often sell at no markup in retail stores, a matter explained away by retailers who claim they’ve achieved efficiency gains with fair-trade producers, allowing them to pay more for the product and still maintain their profit margins. Mr Rodrik continues:

Now, which one of us really know what “fair trade” certification is really getting us when we consume a product with that label? The market-based principle animating the movement is based on the idea that consumers are willing to pay something extra for certain social goals they value. But clearly there is an opaqueness in what the transaction is really about. And who gets to decide what the “long list of rules” should be, if not the consumer herself?

Consider some of the requirements that the fair trade purchaser imposes. The Brazilian coffee farmer mentioned in the NYT story above has to make sure that his children are enrolled in school. Wait a minute, the economist in you should say. Isn’t the farmer himself a better judge of how his extra income should be spent? Should these decisions be made by Starbucks instead? (http://www.economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/2007/10/is_it_fair)

There have been various critiques of fair trade, especially regarding the idea of a wholly positive purchasing option. The examination by Rodrick of fair trade products, questions the public’s awareness of what fair trade actually entails. While the fair trade debate is extensive and only a surface level examination can be offered in this blog post, I’d like to examine a few issues I find pressing.

I have often engaged in debates regarding consumerism as a means to ‘development’. The idea that North Americans can purchase goods to save one African child or to improve the livelihood of farmers overseas is interesting or perhaps a better adjective is irritating.  The problem I have with purchasing as ‘development’ is the disconnect from the issues that are supposedly being addressed. You can purchase a hotly brewed coffee and contribute to a farmer in Bolivia’s community, you can buy a RED t-shirt and help eradicate AIDS in Africa or you can sponsor a child in Bangldesh for one dollar a day and improve her/his life (which you will get updates of through cute letters and pictures of her/his beautiful face).

What is lacking from these various scenarios is any debate regarding this notion of development and the construction of the ‘third world’ it promotes. If your engagement with ‘development’ ends after you have handed over your credit card, what understanding of the so-called issues have you gained? Development as consumerism is not conducive to knowledge transfer, as you are able to ‘help’ without too much thought about who you are helping. I believe the consequences of this may be devastating. If we know nothing about the people, communities or nations we are supposedly helping, and only know that these products cost more than non-fair trade ones to help someone, somewhere, what happens during times of economics crisis? NGOs were some of the organizations most impacted during the recent economic crisis. When finances become tight, why would individuals purchase goods that are more expensive? If individuals merely have an abstract idea that they are helping eradicate poverty, when their bank balances are drying up, this may not be a good enough reason.

An assumption underlying fair trade is that it is within the realm of consumerism that development should be situated. In North American society, all can be purchased. Self-esteem can be purchased through the newest makeup product or plastic surgery procedure, elite status can be purchased through a designer bag clearly marked with two large C’s and now the feeling that you have eradicated poverty can be purchased in your local store. This occupation with the assertion that making purchases is the only means for everyday citizens to be involved with the ‘third world’ has pervaded development thought and thus materialized in our understanding of development as consumerism.

I believe what is needed, rather than a conversation regarding how we can make fair trade more widespread, is an examination of the implications of fair trade. What message does fair trade disseminate regarding the ‘third world’ and understandings of development? What role does consumerism occupy in North Americans’ understanding of poverty eradication?  I think more thought must be given to the forms in which development takes in the ‘first world’ beginning with this idea of development as consumerism. I hope to address this issue more extensively in future blog posts.

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Filed under Consumerism, Current Events, Economics, Fair Trade, International Development, The First World, The Third World

International Development

It is them- with their dirty water, rickety housing, high mortality rates.

Them-with their lack of education, employment, understanding of what is good for them.

Them- with their unconventional cultural rituals, impeding the ability for us to help them.

It is us that will help them.

Help them to develop in our image.

Not by force- not like colonialism, no not like that.

Not by persuasion- no not like those methods forced upon them through World Bank and IMF policies.

But through empowerment.

We will help them, help themselves.

We will provide them with our knowledge, so they will know how to tend to the wells we build for them.

They will be able to teach within the sturdy buildings we enact for them as schools.

And we will help them understand how the economy works, how they must adopt comparative advantage, farm the right product, be successful.

We will travel to their resorts and gawk at their exotic animals, bringing them income and employment.

But do not worry, we will also travel for a day to their villages to experience the real conditions they live in.

We will buy the products, the fair trade products, the products that claim to provide them with fair wages.

We will sponsor them. We will phone in to those programs on television and pay one dollar a day. We will pay so they can have three meals, so they can move out of their mud huts and to ensure they will no longer have to live with flies on their faces.

And we will learn about them.

In our large educational facilities, we will read academic articles about them.

We will write essays regarding methods of changing their conditions- an introduction to become familiar with them, a few body paragraphs comparing the positive and negative development methods currently changing their societies, and then a conclusion to summarize the proper procedure for us to help them.

We will view videos about their conditions. These videos will both shock and inspire us. We will engage in ferocious debate, we will debate about the best means to help them.

Experts will come to our institutions to educate us, they will educate us about them, the experts, they will tell us how to help them.

We will hold events to educate the rest of the student body about these issues, and attempt to get them to understand the problem.

The problem that we will solve.

We will help them.

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Filed under Aid, Consumerism, Development, Fair Trade, International Development, Politics, The First World, The Third World