Monday, March 24, 2008

Think Piece

I'm posting my favorite "think piece" I've written for Comparitive Development Policies and Problems. I left out the sources for easier reading, but if you want them, comment below and I will post. Also, email me, Katie and Jean, if you don't agree with my family assessment. It's long, but I thought you might like to skim through some of what I'm learning...

My father’s father studied business at Yale, flew a bomber jet over Japan during WWII, and returned home a “hero” to marry my beautiful grandmother, raise four kids, and find great success as a businessman. For my Papa, the Golden Age was just that: golden. Having grown up during the depression, he believed that progress had been made (for good) and that it was replicable the world over. He had seen the shift and was certain that if people worked as hard and subscribed to the same values as he did, then they could achieve the gold/good life.

In his continuing disillusionment--prompted over the years not only by evening news reports of global poverty and strife, but also by my Dad and his siblings who each thought their way, via rebellion or religion, into different ideology--Papa usually decries the immorality of modern people; it’s our fault things haven’t gone well. But some days, when he’s willing to admit his disappointment with his Republican Party’s “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” argument and its contradictory policies that effectively prohibit some people from affording anything but flip-flops, Papa will listen to his family’s sharp and often nihilistic assessment of the world and then he will ask, “I hear what you are against, but what are you FOR?” The rest of us roll our eyes, partly because he hasn’t necessarily conceded the validity of our criticisms, but also because we’re not up for the challenge he has set before us: deconstruct all you want, but sooner or later, you’ve got to get creative.

Many “Development Theorists” today might not like being called as such, precisely because they are against most of what Development (Hart’s big “D”) stands for, past and present. The idea that “things are getting better all the time” has been replaced by post-structuralism’s tenet that “the ability to make things better is the main way of achieving power” by the power hungry. Although critical assessment of development--the “trenchant critique of eurocentrism and power relations implicit in mainstream development discourse” as Aram Aiai puts it--is important, we must guard against what Hart calls the “the nihilism of post-development;” since the world has gone pretty far down the path of eurocentric design, it’s hard to imagine an alternative, easier to throw one’s hands up in exasperation. As we question development in general, we must also renounce “reactionary populism” and any other ideology that ignores the complexity and even the necessity of development--little and big “D”--in the past, present, and future. After all is said and done in the name of critique, you’ve got to get creative.

The authors of this week’s readings rise to the challenge. Rejecting hopelessness and aimlessness in this post-enlightenment, post-structuralist, post-modernist, post-Marxist, post-Washington consensus, post-everything world where “many consider development dead,” they lay bare their criticisms and then ask: well, what now? They use a similar vernacular to describe the direction that takes us from old and destructive to new and potentially constructive ways of life: Liberation! Emancipation! Renewal! (more specifically, emancipation from Development, liberation from the eurocentric model, renewal of pluralistic concepts of development, Liberation Ecology and Freedom-based Development). The terms are almost religious: our Development predecessors and we have done wrong...let us be contrite, let us amend our ways, and let us know liberty! Indeed, freedom from the old ways of living and freedom to live more justly and peacefully require repentance and reform of the old system which has led to more suffering than progress. Christopher Herbert succinctly identifies the grounds for repentance particularly relevant to 1st world developers and their ideologues throughout the world: we must make a better effort at reconciling “the tensions between the desire for unfettered accumulation...and unregulated desire as the origin of misery and vice.” Liberation from the idol of mass consumption is necessary.

There are many things we’ve been liberated from this past century: colonial rule and other forms of political tyranny, economic regulation across interstate and international lines, communication barriers, etc. But as each of these freedoms has proved limited by an all-encompassing subjection to the linear, ethnocentric, modernizing, capitalist definition of development, some wonder if we need liberation from the concept of development itself. While development theorists do pine after a little liberation themselves, the good ones know that repentance is not a rejection of the past, but an application of it. Loathing history demands that we loathe where we are now (and where does that leave us but hell?), so the better option is to study the past, learn from mistakes and successes, accept the present, and move more mindfully forward.

How do our authors suggest that we move forward? Now that we’ve established that from which we need liberation, what are we searching for the freedom to do?

Peet and Watts argue for a Liberation Ecology. Since the global crisis is fundamentally tied to global economic inequality--the same “surplus extraction” machine which has made the rich richer and the poor poorer by wresting capital from cheap labor has also wrung dry ecosystems all over the world--liberation from poverty depends at its roots on liberation from environmental exploitation. Gone are the days that the third world is blamed for desperate, careless use of natural resources, gone is the idea that modernization and development will therefore alleviate poor peoples’ destruction of the land, now is the time to hold the global capitalist system accountable for its’ role, now is the time to reform.

There are many ways to repent and reform: Liberation Ecologists use eco-feminism as a lens to analyze patriarchal power structures (of penetration) and to prescribe more egalitarian, ecologically weighted policy. Environmental historians study indigenous agricultural knowledge--forgotten traditions usually seen as backward--to direct land management and stewardship of resources. Rather than looking for utopian stability in the relationship between supply and demand, theorists cite the “ecology of chaos” apparent in nature’s “disequilibria”-- its fluctuating and unstable seasons, cycles, and flukes--to inform their evaluation of economic conditions. Instead of applying abstract universals to economic and land management policy, ecologists liberate local communities to determine which policies will most benefit their particular eco-system.
What all these strategies have at their core is 1) the proliferation and “liberation of aspirations” from conventional prescriptions for development and 2) a focus on capacity building to increase the number of agents and the power they have to effect change:

"Development can only occur when the people it affects participate in the design of the proposed studies, and the model which is implemented thereby corresponds to the local people’s aspirations...the indigenous people of the amazon have always lived there; the Amazon is our home. We know its secrets, both what it can offer us, and what its limits are"

In his discussion of development as a set of freedoms, Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen echoes the sentiment: the aim is not to speak for “sub-altern” people, but to uncover and disseminate existing “discourses of resistance” and encourage creation of new paradigms. Nor are people to be seen as beneficiaries of development strategies imposed from outside, but as agents who determine their own community’s well-being from within. In more general terms, Sen’s theory is that development is best measured by the degree to which people are free to live to their full potential in community with others. Implicit are a set of freedoms from sources of suffering like hunger, poverty, intolerance, tyranny, as well as a set of freedoms to engage in economic, social, and other activities. An individual’s freedom is kept from encroaching on others’ by communal values which are “in turn influenced by public discussions and social interactions, which are themselves influenced by participatory freedoms.”

Freedom here not only influences freedom there, but increases it: for example, freedom from poverty leads to freedom to learn which in turn leads to freedom to participate in the economy. Sen uses this argument to support his contention that human development is not “a luxury that countries can only aspire to once they’ve achieved other measures of success.” On the contrary, by providing supportive policy for basic freedoms like access to education and healthcare now, citizens acquire agency to cultivate greater capabilities in the future. His call for “constructive impatience” is reminiscent of Dr. Martin Luther Kings Jr’s cry from the Birmingham jail for civil liberties today! Furthermore, liberty now demands that the means to freedom are just as vital as the end.

Freedom to engage in economic activity implies the freedom not to participate, as well (all are shades of grey). If a monastic chooses to pray 10 times a day and to live a life of poverty, she should be free to do so. Likewise, if a single father of four in South Africa wants to send his children to university, he should be free to cultivate his own personal agency through education, employment, investment, etc, to make that happen!

As Arturo Escobar contends, it is time that we liberate our development discourse to allow for more a pluralistic “re-imagining of the ‘third world’ and a post-development era.” I would add the first world needs a lot of imagination, too.

Sunday, March 23, 2008


Thursday, after I did a whole bunch of sweaty-making sun salutations with my roommate, Sarah, and our guest from Grahamstown (originally from Chicago), Alicia, we lay in corpse pose for a good long while. I prayed. School had been overwhelming; I was too much in my head, tense and tired. Too many big questions. Not enough being with the people around me! I couldn't imagine enjoying Easter so far from home. Waaah waah wahh.

After a few minutes of stumbling prayer--God will you do this, God will you do that (ie fix the world), God why is this hard, God, this stinks and I stink (literally and figuratively)--I remembered that Holy Week was hard last year, too. In fact, life was hard last year. Why did I expect it to be any different? And why was I blaming the difficulty on my geographic location? My prayer and mood changed then--when I remembered my faith--and I just said something like, "Hey, I'm trusting you. I don't have to engineer new life. I can't. I'll let you do your thing. Oh and I trust you to show us our part in all of it." I was a bit cheeky, almost testing, but a Priest has told me God can take anything.

Then Sarah and I walked to school for our last Econ class on the ins and outs of pro-poor growth. Is it possible? Does it necessarily require redistributive policy? It's all much more complicated than I used to think, of course. No one has a prescription for engineering equitable growth the world over. That's another cause for prayer. Big time prayer. And then lots of hard hard work.

Friday, Human Rights Day, the three of us got up at 4:30 am and went to an interdenominational Good Friday service at the Durban Convention Center. About 1500 people prayed, sang, listened, and then walked in silence in the cold rain to the Civic Center, where we flowered a cross and rededicated ourselves to loving and serving our neighbor. It was uncomfortable and lovely.

Yesterday was not difficult at all. Easter Sunday was a gift. I'll tell you a little bit, but the pictures say it better. About 15 of my new friends gathered for a "bring and share." The food was amazing, the conversation and love flowed, and I was at home. At one point in the evening, Jean from Serbia said that everywhere he goes, the conversation is about what we struggle with and all that we love--war, the ocean, starvation, anorexia, our pets, global warming, food...and then Nombulelo from South Africa said the Easter message is there in that. We finished all our wine, ate more dessert, and kissed and hugged 5 times over when it was time to go.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Measuring up.

You wake up Saturday morning and listen to the news; it’s going to be sunny, 75 F, with a gentle breeze. You lace up your trainers and go for a run. 5 solid miles and then some stretching before you hop on the scale to see that you have stayed inside your ideal 6 pound range. You shower. You eat your favorite breakfast of yogurt, granola, and fruit, which contains approximately 500 calories, 16 grams of fiber, 14 grams of protein, and a 100% of a bunch of daily vitamins to boot. Later in the afternoon, you go to the movies with a friend and buy a matinee ticket for $7, popcorn and coke for $6 (you usually don’t splurge on the expensive snacks, but you’re treating yourself today cause yesterday, your professor (or boss) gave you a 95% mark on some recent accomplishment), and you watch George Clooney be handsome for a couple hours.

Switch gears. You wake up Saturday in South Africa. It’s going to be a sunny 35 C. You gear up and run 5 hilly kilometers. The bathroom scale reads in kilos. Your favorite breakfast with muesli has 1,060 kJ per 100 grams. The yoghurt has pimarcin in it: you don’t know what that means, and you can’t decipher the daily values. At the movies, you spend R90 and watch George Clooney who is handsome as all get out. The snacks seem a bit overpriced, but you're not sure, and you can’t justify the splurge with the %70 mark you got the day before, cause you are not sure what the grade means.

Which day is better? Can you tell? Is there a measure?

I realized soon after arriving in South Africa that if I was to evaluate life the way I habitually do, then I’d need to learn all the new measures first. It was kind of annoying not to know the nutritional breakdown of every bite of food. Not to know whether the day’s high temperature exceeded the equivalent of my personal death-heat limit, 95 F. Not to know whether my grades in class were poor, average or excellent (refer to last blog). Plus, when you don’t know whether something fits your preconceived notion of good or bad, you can’t very easily categorize it as such. Nice day, awful day? Good Anna, Bad Anna?
After sitting with the irritating discomfort a few times, I felt something else--something a bit edgy, challenging. If you can’t objectively measure things up, you’ve gotta rely on something entirely different to direct your thoughts and actions. Presence, maybe?

If I’m feeling too hot to study, for example, but don’t know whether the actual temperature has surpassed my personal limit (thereby allowing me to take a break), then I’ve gotta pay attention to and trust my sensations, perceptions, and the world around me that informs them. More often than I’m accustomed to, I end up letting myself nap.

I decided about a month ago--in spite of my judgmental, perfectionist tendencies--to intentionally ignore the unessential conversion formulas for as long as possible. This is a good challenge for me, this not being able to measure myself and my surroundings against some standard of merit or demerit. I still don’t know much about my grades, the weather, or the nutritional density of my food. Well, besides that I’m working hard in my classes, I sweat a whole lot and drink gallons (glugs and glugs) of water, and that I’ve been eatin’ good.

I learned a long time ago not to step on a scale. For my own sanity, I look the other way at the Doctor’s office. Instead of relying on a number to tell me how to feel about myself, I’d rather feel how I feel and be with that. What that is teaching me (what all this teaches) is that there’s only one standard which holds up. One thing to which everything else is relative. All the ups, downs, goods, bads, hots, colds, yes’s, no’s, 100%’s .001%’s, etc are held in equanimity by this:

You know what I’m getting at.

You know where I’m headed.


There’s a poem in one of my favorite religious mystic collections that says something like: “Look what happens when love holds the scale. The scale stops working.”

Surely you’ve heard me quote this poem before. I forget and remember it as I forget and relearn--often by way of frustration, sadness, disappointment--to let love hold me and presence guide me.

It’s beautiful here. A verdant veritable tropic haven. The haw-de-daw birds are big and loud. The sun is oppressive. Beach-goers are back inside by 9 am.

I have a test this week, lots of reading, and couple big papers coming up (one on Bolivia, one on basic economics). I’ve spoken with the academic coordinator for Development Studies and he says that since I’m focusing on the 1st world for my thesis, it makes sense that I do the research and writing at home next winter (which means I might be able to complete a masters after all!).

If you want to send me something, send me traditional medicinals teas, letters, and your prayers. I love you.