Category Archives: The First World

The Danger of A Single Story

I recently finished the novel Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I was introduced to Adichie when I came across one of her lectures titled ‘The Danger of a Single Story”. Purple Hibiscus follows the life of Kambili, a fifteen-year-old living in Nigeria.  The novel describes Kambili’s relationship with her family, friends and how the overall political/social state of Nigeria influences their existence. I found the novel beautifully descriptive, interesting and complex. Adichie was able to describe historically rooted layers of power, while intertwining them in the everyday experience of a fifteen-year-old female.  This novel was Adichie’s first, and received excellent reviews. One of the reasons this novel received such positive attention was because it created a complex narrative of Nigerian people. Rather than focusing solely on the disparity in the country, it illustrated, that similar to families from other regions, Kambilis’ family had a loving, tumultuous, contradictory relationship.

A review from the Boston Globe proclaims: ‘Adichie’s understanding of a young girl’s heart is so acute that her story ultimately rises above its setting and makes her little part of Nigeria seem as close and vivid as Eudora Welty’s Mississippi’

This review helps to outline how welcomed Adichie’s ability to convey such an identifiable narrative is from an audience that so often only receives a single narrative about African nations.

In her lecture ‘The Danger of a Single Story’, Adichie eloquently addresses the single narrative that Africans and North Americans have been receiving of ‘Africa’. Adichie recalls how reading British and American novels in her childhood subsequently shaped her own writing and made her believe people like her (Africans) could not exist in literature. She also discusses the single story of ‘poverty’, which resulted in her American roommates surprise in Adichie’s ability to speak English and the non- tribal music she listened to.

This single story that Adichie discusses is extremely relevant when reviewing North American ideas of ‘development’. As addressed in previous posts, the single form of ‘development’ recognized in North America is often the idea that  ‘the first world helps the third world’.  Adichie’s lecture speaks to this point, as she outlines how power relations and complex narratives are intertwined. While Adichie read complex stories about American and British individuals, western individuals rarely read complex stories about Africans.

She illustrates this point with the story of a student that came to her and said:

‘It was is a shame that Nigerian men are all physical abusers like the father in your novel’.

Adichie responded that she has just read a novel called American Psycho and that:  ‘It was such a shame that young Americans were all serial murderers’.

Adichie goes on to explain that she would never think one character from an American novel would define an entire population, because she had read a variety of American novels, with a variety of complex characters.  The student however had rarely come in contact with complex narratives about Africans. Adichie claims her familiarity with American stories is related to America’s position of power in the world, and ability to spread their stories/cultural products. She outlines in contrast to these complex American stories, narratives about Africans that North Americans receive, only focus on poverty and catastrophe.

This single narrative is difficult to dispute when reviewing Africa in North American news coverage, documentaries, best sellers etc. Adichie contends: ‘show a people as one thing over and over again and they become it’. North Americans understanding of individuals in the ‘third world’ has been shaped by this single story of poverty/chaos and consequently so too have our understandings of methods of development. If all we see are images and stories of poor, helpless and dying people in the ‘third world’ then of course we are going to understand in our position as a monetarily wealthy nation we should help them. Like Adichie, I do not believe denying stories of poverty and death in the ‘third world’ is the answer, but creating a more complex understanding and thus hopefully influencing ideas of development. With more complex narratives about the ‘third world’ hopefully more complex methods of development will follow.

If you have not already watched her lecture ‘The Danger of a Single Story’ I would highly recommend watching the entire video.

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Filed under Africa, Aid, Charity, Current Events, Development, How to write about Africa, International Development, Journalism, The First World, The Third World

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