Thursday, May 29, 2008

Journeys big and small

T.S. Eliot's "Journey of the Magi" has been one of my favorite poems since 12th grade when my Dad read it to me at the dinner table one night, recommending I use it for a project in my literature class. I did, and I have returned to it over and over again...the magi come to me in Advent, during Lent, in dark times and in moments of light when I am converted all over again. Tonight, the lights came on. It was a little conversion, a little reminder of why I have faith in all I do.

I was reading--just 5 minutes ago--for an assignment. My task is to choose a poverty-reduction strategy, come up with an impact evaluation and make a solid case for both. I have chosen land transfers to poor black farmers, and will frame my essay with a discussion of post-apartheid inequality. I've read many articles on the subject, but the one in particular just happened to use a phrase Eliot uses in his poem--the old dispensation--to describe the system of unjust land distribution that continues to plague South Africa. The landed rich minority and the un-landed poor majority are stratified across an uneven landscape.

At the end of their treacherous journey, the magi find the baby Jesus. They witness the miracle of birth, a birth of Eternal Life Proportions. But there is a death, also, their own death, death to former ways of being. The old dispensation has no place in this little baby's kingdom. Justice and peace require us to die to our old ways of being, and it ain't easy. But damn it's good. Even if we just practice a little bit, it's good.

That's all I'm gonna say about that. I hope the little connection speaks to you, too. If not, then connect with me. It's easy, just close your eyes and imagine me sitting in my desk, glasses on, bare feet, broccoli in my teeth, thinking of you. Thanks for reading my blog and praying with me.

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The was deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter."
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires gong out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Immigrant Killings

This is a strange blog, and forgive me Jean for posting an email exchange, but as I sent it to you, it occurred to me that if I have anything to say about the immigrant killings in Johannesburg right now, then this is it. I figure a few people might log on to check in on me, so ....

> Date: Mon, 19 May 2008 09:03:39 -0400
> From:
> To:
> Subject: all ok?
> Hey Anna,
> I owe you a real email, but I just wanted to check that all is alright with you and that you're safe. I know the violence has been in Johannesburg, but GOD is that terrifying. What are people around you saying/thinking/feeling? What about you? What is with the world!??
> I love you,
> Jean

my reply:

...Yes, I am ok. I am fine and safe. The violence is terrifying though. One of the most terrifying things is: I am fine, all is well here in Durban, things keep going just as they usually do, as if nothing had happened. In fact, people are hardly talking about the killings. (I don't watch the local news).

I had this thought during class today..."what the hell, in the past few weeks, a cyclone has killed thousands, an earthquake has killed thousands, hunger has killed thousands, and yet we just keep going." It doesn't make any sense. Shouldnt things just stop? But they dont. I am bewildered by this world, honestly.

But I am happy, cheerful, have been doing just fine. Going to do a Rotary presentation tonight. (see what I mean!?)

I love you,

Friday, May 16, 2008

Good Poem and Can You Please Help Me?

Does anyone know how to post photos on blogger? I can't seem to remember how!

This poem is for all the crazies out there. By crazy I mean HELLO, "alive."


It's like so many other things in life
to which you must say no or yes.
So you take your car to the new mechanic.
Sometimes the best thing to do is trust.

The package left with the disreputable-looking
clerk, the check gulped by the night deposit,
the envelope passed by dozens of strangers—
all show up at their intended destinations.

The theft that could have happened doesn't.
Wind finally gets where it was going
through the snowy trees, and the river, even
when frozen, arrives at the right place.

And sometimes you sense how faithfully your life
is delivered, even though you can't read the address.

-Thomas R. Smith, from Waking before Dawn.

Monday, May 5, 2008

3 blogs in 2 days!!!

I cried in my Poverty and Inequality class again today. Just teared right up. On the one hand, I’m embarrassed by what a reactive and bleeding heart I have.

On the other hand, I’m glad I’m still bowled over by needless suffering in the world, by the ignorance that drives us to hurt each other and ourselves. It’s like clockwork; Julian puts up a powerpoint slide with statistics on the divergence between the rich and poor--tick--and something in my heart just goes tock--no, no nono.

As a little girl, I cried when things didn’t make sense, when my inherent expectation of fairness had been disappointed. I remember when Katie and I fought, I’d lament the unfairness of it all and Dad would say “life’s not fair, Anna. Just ignore your sister.” Life has certainly shown me that Dad was right--it’s not fair.

Now, Katie and I are upset by the same things that upset Dad; war, poverty, inequality, racism, sexism, violence, hatred, etc. And none of us can ignore them. Perhaps we could all use a good talking to, a good “life’s not fair” reminder. But I don’t think it would help. I don’t think it would stop us from being bowled over afresh each time our inherent expectation of rightness is disappointed. There are many possible explanations for this, and I’ll give the two with which I’ve recently battled: 1) We are stupid and have yet to internalize the lesson that shit happens in this godforsaken and/or godless existence or 2) God has created us with some inalienable sense of what's right at our core.

I’ll flesh out these thoughts in reverse order, but before I do, I must qualify them as thoughts, ideas..attempts to make sense of things I know I will never grasp, hence why they keep bowling me over:

2) There is some vision in us that just won’t quit. No matter how many times we encounter the “reality” that there is no sense or method or truth guiding us to the promised land--that all is absurd and meaningless and we should just stop expecting and trying for something different and to hell with it all!--no matter how familiar we should be with the territory, we can’t stop crying. People haven’t stopped being angry. Our hearts go right on bleeding and shouting and saying HEY, WHAT’s GOING ON? Yah know. Do you know what I mean? Prophets and Apostles and our own dreams keep revealing that something different is possible.

1) Yes, children get inexplicably, terminally ill, “good” things happen to “bad” people, cyclones tear through swingsets and dogs get run over. There’s a lot of suffering we can’t do anything about and will NEVER BE ABLE TO DO ANYTHING ABOUT. But--B. U. T.--the “shit happens” explanation doesn’t account for all the terrible, unnecessary suffering in the world which we create. With our blind desire and greediness and fear, we expand that chasm between what should be and what is every single day. We can’t blame suffering on the universe. We are partly to blame. And so of course we want to put right what we’ve made wrong. Of course we keep striving after justice and peace.

I believe the Lord’s prayer: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” There must be something vital inside me which brought on those tears, something which informs my sense of what should be happening here on earth. There’s a balance to find here between 1) being disturbed by the chasm between what is and what should be 2) learning as much as one possibly can about the causes of that chasm and 3) finding some particular way to build some bridges across, or at least to do one’s best at keeping it from expanding.

This is where Jesus steps into the picture for me today (He steps in at different places depending on my mood and the biggest current question in my heart ): God created us in God’s image. And so we hunger after this vision. It’s inalienable. However, God also gave us the freedom to choose the vision that we follow; ours or God’s? Clearly, it’s a lot easier to follow our own vision of the good life (i.e. nice things and comfort and sometimes even blissful wine-induced ignorance) vs God’s vision which--besides holding some immoveable place in the dark reaches of our hearts--is SO DAMN HARD TO DISCERN and to follow...I’ll get to Jesus in a minute...God gave us the capacity to choose our vision over God’s, and in doing so, gave us the capacity to go too far in our pursuit of that vision. Bottom line, God gave us the capacity to create abominable suffering. To sin.

Enter Jesus who gives us a good talking-to, and it’s not that life isn’t fair. Rather, it’s that life is fair, on some level, after all: Humans can kill God and God will still love us cause God knew we were going to do it in the first place. How can God do anything but forgive us for our poor choices if God created us with the capacity to choose so poorly. That might be blasphemous, but a Priest whom I love once reminded me that God loves us even through our blasphemy. I mean, come on, look at how rude and presumptuous the Psalmist is!

This good news of forgiveness would work out nicely and comfortably for us if that other part--that vision of what’s right part--weren’t so woven into our very being. So we keep crying and bleeding and messing up and asking forgiveness and recommitting ourselves to loving each other better.

Definitions Matter

This is the assignment I referred to in my last blog.

Introduction and Conceptualization
Imagine that a student from outer space is “studying abroad” in Durban to learn about humanity and has an assignment to prepare dinner for a group of ten earthlings. Because our visitor has never eaten before, it logs onto Google to conceptualize dinner--but lo and behold! There are millions of stories, images, recipes, nutritional guidelines, religious texts, ethnic menus, anxious “Overeater’s Anonymous” blogs, an online version of “Where the Wild Things Are” (where Max goes without his dinner), and pictures of starving children who go without on a regular basis. The alien is overwhelmed by dinner’s dynamism; is it a late daily meal providing energy and nutrients, a social phenomenon where the host shares culinary skill and generosity with guests whose bodies and souls are nourished, or is it a family outing to McDonalds? Should there be just enough or an abundance? What is enough? Who will be dining, and what do they (need to) eat? Faced with so much complexity, the alien settles on what it considers to be an essential, utilitarian definition of dinner and its corresponding mathematical application: it divides the daily number of recommended calories (according to umpteen websites) by three (representing meals per/day) and multiplies by ten (total guests). Then, it buys a bag of maize meal from Pick’n’pay, solves for x cups, prepares a cauldron-full, and adds a dash of salt for palatability and iodine sufficiency--taste and nutrition are important, the alien has learned, so the extra effort will surely earn a high mark!
But any professor worth her salt, so to speak, will give an average or lower mark; while the alien did base its definition of dinner and therefore its preparation on the solid foundation of energy provisions using a local commodity, it was too easily seduced by a neat1 mathematical equation and short list of add-ons--it too readily overlooked the dynamic messiness of social, geographic, demographic, economic dinner quandaries and their implications--to achieve great success. Turns out that all ten guests were orphaned babies, still too young to eat cereal. Therefore, the alien’s restricted definition of dinner precipitated its limited capacity to feed the babies.

Over-Simplified Concepts, Underutilized Capacity
Convoluted as my example may be, it illustrates a significant impediment to fulfilling human needs, humanity’s most basic yet dynamic assignment. In the context of persistent under-fulfillment, perceptions of poverty too often forsake relevance in the tension of multiple definitions for conceptual ease. Perhaps the best example is the definition of poverty commonly identified with the Millennium Development Goal to halve global poverty by 2015, a sort of international group project. The World Bank’s definition, held to be capable of coordinating international anti-poverty efforts is: living on less than US $1 per/day. Informed by this definition which allegedly accounts for deprivation from the most essential food and non-food needs vis-a-vis the poverty line, the World Bank’s policy approach to poverty consists of economic growth, access to human capital through health and education, and safety nets for those otherwise excluded (Lok-Dessallien 2001: 15). However, as Hulme and Shepherd argue, “the conceptualization of the poor as a single homogenous group whose prime problem is low monetary income [leads] search for ‘the policy’ that increases the income of ‘the poor’” at the cost of other non-income-increasing policies (2003: 403). In other words, a restricted, money-metric, “dollar a day” definition de-emphasizes policies which address human capabilities, safety nets, and other critical aspects of poverty (Lok-Dessallien 2001: 15).
Further problems with the mono-definition arise: Boltvinik argues that where poverty is widely conceived of in money-metric terms, yet social indicators figure into policy, “a sort of social schizophrenia prevails” (2001: 5); Reddy and Pogge contend the concept skews poverty measurement in that it relies on a rigid and “arbitrary international poverty line not adequately anchored in any specification of the real requirements of human beings,” uses a “concept of purchasing power equivalence” which does not translate across time and space, and “extrapolates incorrectly from limited data” (4); and so on.
In his assessment of holes in the current global consensus on poverty reduction, Michael Lipton includes similar money-metric criticisms: the Food Energy and Purchasing Power Parity methods (FEM and PPP) of deriving the poverty line are troublesome in that FEM fails to capture needs which vary according to physical characteristics, lifestyle, heredity etc, and PPP lacks a suitable index (1997: 1004). However, he holds that absolute Private Consumption Per Person (PCP) “is indeed the most useful definition of poverty” because it helps us “understand material deprivation and evaluate progress and policies against it” (ibid).
Arguing for further definitional restriction, Lipton echoes Boltvinik’s “social schizophrenia” diagnosis that muddling money-metric concepts and human capability indicators “obscures their interactions.” Rather, he contends capabilities “deserve a separate measurement and analysis” (ibid). In fact, Lipton gives “Human capital” its own section and heading, distinct from the “Definition” of poverty. Likewise, he suggests that inequality is better left out of poverty definitions, better given its own, separate conceptual space; “‘relative poverty’ remains an uneasy and arbitrary amalgam of absolute poverty and low-end inequality, arbitrarily weighed” (ibid).
Although Lipton’s proposed definition of poverty is by degrees more nuanced and complex than “a dollar a day,” his attempt to fill the holes of the alleged poverty consensus (all within the space of a neat five-page document) falls into the same conceptual hole; if definitions inform the way we perceive and struggle against poverty--if indeed our perceptions become reality--then shouldn’t inequality and low human capabilities figure into the “definition” of poverty? By compartmentalizing, by omitting essential factors from what he deems the meaning of poverty, does Lipton not emphasize a static notion of poverty and de-emphasize reduction strategies which more readily address poverty’s dynamism? 2 Since “higher inequality leads to more political instability, more uncertainty, less investment, and lower growth”--nasty conditions for poverty reduction--it’s crucial to assign inequality conceptual weight. (Stewart 2000: 8)
In his defense, Lipton does what one must to complete any assignment: narrow one’s scope from the infinite number of conceptual possibilities down to a functional framework. Certainly, there is a general and, I believe, correct consensus that an absolute definition of poverty is necessary to identify and redress certain kinds of deprivation. However, is it necessary to limit ourselves to one definition? Can we, mustn't we give ourselves room to account for the more complex nature of deprivation? If ten orphans grow up relatively impoverished--perhaps not starving but hungry for nourishing dinners with functional families--will not their sense of themselves as poor, as incapable of living valuable lives precipitate certain realities? What if they decide they’ve never been given a fair chance, steal the difference, and end up dead not from malnourishment but from gun shot wounds? By no means does Lipton argue that we should ignore such possibilities, but he does undermine the attention we give said possibilities by overly narrowing his conceptual framework to exclude inequality from his “Definition” of poverty.
The debate over inequality’s relevance to poverty is not new. In fact, it is part of a long-standing, deep-rooted, either/or argument about whether poverty is best conceived of as absolute or relative, objective or subjective, uni-dimensional or multidimensional, and universal or particular. The arguments generally look like this: Are human needs absolute and universal or socially and historically constructed? Can any conceptualization of poverty be scientific and objective, or are all definitions influenced by the experiences and beliefs of those who create them? Should poverty indicators be restricted to material satisfiers like calories and clothes, “or include social, cultural and political” satisfiers like access to education and political power? (Laderchi, Saith, and Stewart 2003: 244). Furthermore, who should determine the level of deprivation which constitutes poverty (Boltvinik 2001: 3); an expert from academia or an expert from the urban slum?
Nobel prize winning poverty theorist Amartya Sen gets at the heart of the absolute/relative question: “Should poverty be estimated with a cut-off line that reflects a level below which people are-in some sense-‘absoluetly impoverished’ of a level that reflects (minimum) standards of living ‘common to that country’ in particular?” (1984 in Boltvinik 2001: 9). Peter Townsend thinks not: “any rigorous conceptualization of the social determination of need dissolves the idea of absolute need...the necessities of life are not fixed. They are continuously being adapted and augmented as changes take place in society and in its products” (1979 in ibid).
The debate has created a proliferation of approaches to poverty. Sen’s “Capabilities” approach gives an ends-based definition of well-being as the ability for people “to enjoy long, healthy lives, to be literate and to participate freely in their society” (Lok-Dessallien 2001: 11). Criticism of the “Capabilities” and “Monetary” approaches as paternalistic have engendered a “Participatory” approach which involves the poor themselves in defining poverty (ibid). The Social Exclusion approach--defined by the European Union as “the process through which individuals or groups are wholly or partially excluded form full participation in the society in which they live”--lends to a greater emphasis on inequality in its application (Laderchi, Saith, and Stewart 2003: 257).

Conclusion and Consensus
Imagine that our alien is given a new assignment to write a short essay on the current global approach to poverty. Going back to Google, it decides that hunger is the absolute core of poverty, from whence poverty lines, profiles, and policies should come--after all, those pictures of starving children always mention “poverty” in the captions. Imagine the alien’s consternation when it stumbles across a “Swaminomics” blog that explores an Indian national sample survey which “put 26% of people below the poverty line,” but counted only 3% as having described themselves as “hungry sometime in the year” (2003).
The source of that blog, an article from the Economic Times called “It’s not just calories, stupid,” gives me a mind to say to Lipton and anyone else seeking one consensual definition of poverty, “It’s not either/or, stupid!” Rather, as O. Altimir shows, “the poverty standard (threshold or line) has two components: the absolute core (universal) and the relative one (specific to each society)” (Boltvinik 2001: 10; my italics). There are holes even in this concept, for there is insurmountable, irreconcilable tension between absoluteness and relativity no matter the subject at hand. Indeed, it’s hard to hold multiple, paradoxical realities in tension. In a word, it’s dynamic. But poverty is dynamic, so any attempt to ignore this reality will result in serious consequences. Just as our alien was unable to feed babies pap, neither can we successfully address poverty when our concepts are inflexible. Hulme and Shepherd insist: we must “move beyond the study of poverty trends to the study of poverty dynamics.” (2003: 420). Lest we get too liberal, it’s helpful to remember that relativists get lost in the google clouds just as fast as reductionists get stuck in the barren mud. Thus, Lok-Desallien encourages “a middle path” to identify “different types of poverty and different policy proposals for dealing with it” (2001: 17).
Ultimately, the concept(s) we choose will depend on the assignment we’re given. For instance, I’ve narrowed the scope of this essay to the definition of poverty, leaving out measurement and policy almost altogether. I’ve forsaken breadth for depth in an attempt to make my alloted 2000 words meaningful. The point of this qualification is significant: by stating my limitations, I clarify my participation in an ongoing dialogue in which countless others have countless contributions to make, both where my own contributions are limited, and where they are erroneous. Since halving global poverty by 2015 requires daily contributions from billions of people all over the world, we best stay mindful of the dialogue’s dynamism. Perhaps only one consensus is essential: life is precious and it is our human responsibility and privilege to fulfill human needs.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Monthly bla bla blog.

Yesterday morning, I got up at 4 am to go to my friend Tasmi's dojo where friends and family were invited for an introduction to Katori, an ancient martial art of the sword. It was amazing. I was amazed at my own cheerful capacity to sit cross-legged on the floor with a straight back for two hours. Ei, Yah, Toh! Yoh, my arms hurt today.

Afterward, we had a lovely breakfast of fruit salad, greek yogurt, muesli, and sushi, yes, sushi. We ate outside the dojo, in a garden full of native South African plants, in the company of some mighty fine singing birds. It was chilly outside and we were bright eyed!

I spent the afternoon back at home in sweats, cooking black eyed peas and finishing a paper on the definition of poverty. If you want a copy of the paper, which has the answers to everything you've ever wondered about, just let me know. But if you read it, all you'll do is shake your head and say, yeah, I already knew that.

At 4, I went to a fellow Rotary scholar's digs for a Soul Food Party (hence the peas), ate some fried chicken, baked mac'n'cheese and apple cobbler. It's stuff we hardly eat at home, you know, but here it opened up that whole soul dynamic in revolutionary ways. I talked about the south to anyone who would listen. If I'da had some beer, they'da been in trouble. I might have started talking music. Well anyways, they all said the fried chicken was way better than KFC (there's one on every corner here in South Africa), which fulfilled Valerie's (the hostesses's) ambition.

This morning, after arriving home from passing out energy drinks and water to 2000 cyclists at a Rotary sponsored bike-race (woke up again at 5), I played ultimate frisbee with some folk I met at the dojo. Two more hours in the zone! My legs are already sore. We had such a good time, we went out afterwards to a Middle eastern place for tea, honey and halva smoothies, and a piece of apple-date cake. The conversation was music, development, meaning, God, books, life. People are so amazing. It's such a privilege to see people, to be seen, to listen and be heard. A conversation is enough, just in itself. A Sunday evening conversation. We're playing again next weekend, and might go skiing in Lesotho sometime soon.

Now I am home and I have lots of reading to do for class tomorrow, but all I can do is listen to music on my computer and write this blog. I don't have much to say, just that I am in the thick of life here, experiencing so many new and different things. Internal, external, all at the same time, and I can't make much sense of any of it just yet. Like this evening's conversation over tea and cake: I encountered some hugely new ideas...big new spiritual ones that made me excited and uncomfortable. Almost everything inspires some level of discomfort. It's hard work to stay grounded when it feels like the earth is shifting underfoot. All humans know this. You don't have to go to another continent, but it definitely heightens one's awareness. Yebo.

So this is my monthly blog. Not all that interesting, I'm afraid. I just wanted to check in and say, Hi, Hello, to any of you readers out there. I love you.