Category Archives: Economics

Perspectives of Poverty

I came across the following photography project, that attempts to address the issue of representation and poverty in rural Africa. Duncan McNicoll,the photographer and an Engineers Without Borders employee, uses two different photographs of the same individual to illustrate how the construction of images can so greatly alter the way people and places are represented. Whether two opposing images are able to adequately address the complexities of poverty and representation is debatable. However, it is great to see individuals working in the development field, attempting to draw attention to problems of representation. I especially like how Edward Kabzela’s ‘poor’ photograph, and the way his community members were able to articulate how to look poorer, points to the economy of images that have become so common place between non-profit organizations and the communities they work with.

Perspectives of Poverty We’ve all seen it: the photo of a teary-eyed African child, dressed in rags, smothered in flies, with a look of desperation that the caption all too readily points out.  Some organization has made a poster that tells you about the realities of poverty, what they are doing about it, and how your donation will change things. I reacted very strongly to these kinds of photos when I returned from Africa in 2008.  I compared these photos to m … Read More

via Water Wellness


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Filed under Africa, Development, Economics, International Development, Uncategorized

The Giving Pledge

Recently much media attention has been given to 40 American billionaires, pledging to give away 50% of their fortune to ‘charity’. The program was the brain child of Bill and Melinda Gates. When I initially encountered this story my criticism was directed at the Billionaires I perceived as using empty pledges ( The Giving Pledge does not accept money but asks billionaires to make a moral commitment to give their fortunes to charity) to gain positive publicity. After doing more research, which led me to the Giving Pledge Website (, I realized my criticism should be directed not at these billionaires searching for meaning in their lives through monetary donations, but rather at the news articles lack of specifics.

The Giving Pledge website presents a profile for each individual donating their fortunes. In these profiles you can find letters written by the billionaires outlining which charity their money may be given to and why. While it seems many of the billionaires plan to give half of their future fortune to their own charities, or organizations they have personal interests in, surprise surprise, I applaud the website for offering specific details regarding these pledges. In contrast, the majority of news articles I have read seem to glorify these billionaires for giving away their money to ‘charity’, with no real details regarding where the money will go and how it will ‘help people’. Its seems the idea of providing monetary donations to ‘charity’, has become accepted as a wholly positive act, that journalists believe no explanation is needed. While this blog entry could turn into a tirade about the state of journalism, i’d rather it be a verbalization of the personal offense I take to the news coverage of the Giving Pledge and more generally how charitable donations are written about.

If ever a journalist views this blog post,  here are some specific issues I take with the coverage of the Giving Pledge/charitable donations :

  • Donating money to some charitable cause, in particularly large sums of money is not necessarily an automatically positive act (as case study please see African continent/’development’/AID money or NGOs in Haiti)
  • Details regarding where the money is going and how it will be spent, would be appreciated
  • These details do not include generalizations such as- money given to poverty, aids, the environment etc. as these details do not actually mean anything.
  • Also broad details about which organization the money will be going to, does not suffice as an explanation ie- money is going to red cross, world vision etc.

An example of details that would suffice as an explanation: Name of person, (a little bit of history about them, emphasis on bit as this should not occupy the majority of the content) is giving 15.6 million dollars to War Child. 30% of this money will be designated to administrative costs at the organization’s office in London, 50% will be used for infrastructure costs at the current program in Sierra Leonne (this will include buying raw materials to build four more onsite offices), the remaining 20% will be used to purchase technical equipment. I understand specific details may not be available for all donations, however I cannot accept that ‘some amount of money donated to some cause’ is the only information you can find, so please try harder.

I realize that these articles are merely reflective of the current state of  journalism, our educational systems,  historical understandings about charity/development etc. However, I do not think this should excuse individuals who claim it is their job to present society with information, from writing news stories that do not really mean anything.

My initial encounter with this story was through the Ottawa Citizen and I decided to write them an opinion piece, unfortunately it has not yet been published. Please find it below.

RE: Billionaires pledge fortunes to charity- At least 42 pledge to give at least half of fortune to charity

My name is Lisa and along with 42 of the richest people in the United States, I would also like to morally pledge half of my future fortune to ‘charity’. While I am may not be a billionaire yet per se, similarly to my friends Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, my pledge is being made in the future when my financial situation is bound to change. While some might say that making this pledge to ‘charity’ with no real specifics is a clever method of garnering positive publicity, they are wrong. Symbolically pledging these future funds is a means to show how much I care about the difficult issues we as a people face today. I have witnessed firsthand those less fortunate than myself, and feel a burning sensation in my heart to give these funds to some organization, to go to some cause, during sometime in the future. I do not find it necessary to identify any of these issues, as they are obvious. Being fortunate enough to address these issues with my money, I’m sure my lack of knowledge can be overlooked. Please inform Bill and Melinda that I hope to receive my membership to The Giving Pledge society and look forward to our annual meetings and dinners. Please also print a picture of my face in your newspaper with the title “ Future Billionaire to Give Away Future Fortune to a Good Cause’ (I think Good Cause has a better ring to it than Charity).  You can also quote me beside my picture saying, “ Making money is my passion, but when I am shrivelled up and can no longer enjoy it, I’d like it to go to some unfortunate people, somewhere, suffering from something so that I can make a difference’.

Thank you.


First Canadian to Pledge Future Fortune

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Filed under Charity, Current Events, Development, Economics, International Development, Journalism, Politics, Uncategorized

The Globalization of the English Language

*All images were ‘borrowed’ from google images, from actual agencies advertising ESL products/classes.

I have recently started a new employment position teaching foreign students ESL in Toronto. Previously, I taught overseas in Taiwan in a similar position, although now I am teaching adults and in the past I was teaching children.  The majority of the classes I currently teach emphasize presentation style, accent reduction and conversation skills. For one of my morning classes last week, I prepared a presentation for the students to illustrate the style and tools I wanted them to use in their own subsequent presentations. My presentation topic was the Residential Schools of Canada, not just because my friend had this presentation ready to go from a previous class but because I thought it would be a good introduction for the students to First Nations groups of Canada.

In my ill equipped, overheated classroom, I started up the powerpoint presentation and went through the various slides outlining the tragedy of the residential schools. Butchering the complexities of the residential schools I presented the topic in the necessary basic English, and it sounded something like this:

  • The aboriginal peoples of Canada were taken away from their families
  • They were put into schools run by non-aboriginals
  • They were given English names
  • They were not allowed to speak their own languages
  • Their cultures were presented to them as backwards, while whiteness and ‘European’ culture were presented as the right way

As I went through my presentation, I saw the perplexed looks on my students’ faces. While the end of my presentation was met with silence, I wondered if any of the information made sense. Then a student slowly raised his hand asking, ‘So, do you think the residential schools were a good or bad thing?’. That made very clear my failure at simplifying my presentation topic, sorry aboriginal groups of Canada. I tried to reiterate the above points and while my second attempt may not have provided any clarity to my students it did sharply bring out the parallels between residential and current ESL schools. Before I address these, here is a necessary disclaimer:

**Note to everyone reading this entry, it is not my intention to lessen or in any way diminish the cruelty and devastation cause by the residential schools in Canada. I firmly acknowledge the wide reaching impact of the residential schools on aboriginal communities, which is not comparable to ESL schools around the world. The parallels I observed between residential schools and ESL schools is not to suggest that they come from the same history, unravelled the same way and have had the same impact. This blog entry materialized from the presentation I gave on the residential schools and my consequential questioning of the globalisation of English and the relationship ESL schools have with power**

The loose parallels I observed were these:

  • ESL students, many from ‘Asian’ countries (the majority of my students are from South Korea) often leave their homes and families not by force, by rather out of necessity to learn English in order to succeed in their chosen career path.
  • The teachers in these schools, whether in Asia or in North America are of ‘western’ origin
  • The students are almost always given, or have user friendly English names, Yu Rim Kang= Agnes, Seong Man Ryu= Owen, no need for the English teachers to bother with the pesky pronunciation of their given names
  • Both schools I have taught at are English immersion, students speaking in their mother tongue are punished
  • English and western cultural customs are often presented as more valuable than their own languages and customs (get rid of those chopsticks, time to use a fork)

As the English language has become the basis for international business, it is arguably necessary for those from countries where English is not the first language to learn it. Comparing this global domination of the English language and subsequent explosion of ESL schools, to residential schools of Canada speaks to ideas of power and social control. While many may argue they are completely incomparable, I would suggest if forms of power and control are examined, similarities can be identified.

I have been involved in heated debates regarding the character of power and social control. As is evident through mainstream discourse and images, power and control are still often portrayed as an overt force ie: those ‘third world’ military regimes with their oppressive methods, Muslim countries who force women to wear headscarves etc. In comparison those of us in relatively peaceful, western societies do not encounter these types of social control and are therefore ‘free’ to live how we want etc.

I am not claiming that the above scenarios are not forms of control or oppression, but rather these easy to identify means of power/control are not the only forms. There has been a plethora of work done on covert forms of social control, which is often refered to with the term ideology. Marx, Gramsci, Althusser and Foucault are only a few scholars that theorized about power/control. Althusser’s idea of the RSA (Repressive State Apparatus) and ISA (Ideological State Apparatus) calls into questions forms of control in so called peaceful societies. In very simple terms, the RSA exerts control through violence while the ISA controls through the dissemination of specific ideologies.  Althusser’s concept of ISA is explained as:

Our values, desires and preferences are inculcated in us by ideological practice. Ideological practice consists of an assortment of institutions called Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs), which include the family, the media, religious organisations and, most importantly, the education system.[51] We derive beliefs about ourselves through learning what it is to be a daughter, a schoolchild, black, a steelworker, a councilor, and so forth ( /22247455/Louis-Althusser).

Althusser therefore argues we are not born with an innate ability to know how we should function and be in society but learn it through certain mechanisms. For example images on television, in magazines and from observing parents or other members of society, may be a way individuals ‘learn’ how they must act in society (ie our goals in life should include having a career where you make money, buying a house and a car, having a few children and perhaps some animals). Althusser and many other academics argue that this ISA is a form of social control in many societies. Using ISA as a basis to analyse ESL as a necessary second language in relation to development speaks to a few points. The intertwined nature of development and international business with English, makes it necessary for individuals or nation states that want to ‘succeed’ to adopt the language. This domination of the English language, while not an overt form of control surely allows for specific powers to have advantages over others. Especially in relation to development, the globalisation of the English language often means that development projects implemented overseas are communicated in English. How many NGO websites claiming to help the rural poor of a ‘third world’ village, are only in English? This domination of English is also related to a whole range of issues about respecting individual culture, identity etc.

While I am very interested in Althusser’s theory of ISA and discussions regarding oppression/ control, this blog entry has been sitting on my desktop for far too long and my ability to neatly tie up the end of it has failed. So instead what I want this blog post to do is to question western ideals of social control and to push readers to question the dominance of the English language and its use in development practices.

If I can stop just one Korean student from adopting the name Susie, then I will have succeeded.

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Filed under Althusser, Canadian residential schools, Development, Economics, ESL, International Development, ISA, Politics, Power of Whiteness

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 ( 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” ( 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? (

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.


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