Sunday, August 27, 2006

Dignified Earning or Paternalistic Manipulation?

Hi Everybody,

So I've been thinking about the ways that a single development aid
program can be interpreted in very different ways among recipients and
donors. This is connected with earlier entries I've made here about
charity and morality, although I'm going off in a different direction

Like I've said before, in the U.S., the recipients of charity are
highly stigmatized. It's pretty common to hear people talking with
the assumption that if you're accepting charity, there must be
something wrong with you—you're lazy, you're disabled, you're mentally
ill, you're otherwise somehow less than a fully functioning adult. It
is assumed that self-respecting people want to get off charity as soon
as possible. You can reference the welfare reform debates in the late
90s if you want more on this.

Because of this, there has been a change in the fashion of how to
design a charity or aid program. This change has occurred probably
over the course of the last 15 to 20 years. So many charity and
development aid programs today are designed with the idea that giving
lots of money with few conditions will do more harm than good in the
long run, fostering dependency and a "culture of poverty". Programs
are set up so that recipients will not sit back and be given things,
but will rather have the opportunity to earn aid. For example, here
in Nicaragua it is common for an NGO to donate building materials, say
for a school, leaving the actual construction work to be done by
members of the recipient community.

This all sounds great, given the assumption that self-respecting
adults do not want to accept charity. However, in Nicaragua, like
I've written before, I've found that there is less stigma attached to
the idea of accepting charity. Need—like hunger, or poverty—is
accepted as a legitimate reason for giving and accepting money, food,
or development aid.

People here recognize that aid programs are changing. People have
been saying things like "Before, the programs came and helped us more
freely. They gave us tools and seed to plant and food so we had the
strength to work. But today, the programs come and have all these
strings attached. When they give us things, we have to pay them back
with interest, even if the crops fail. They make us go to lots of
meetings and talk about things that aren't important. We have work to
do!" (This is not a direct quote, but all these statements have been
made to me, sometimes by different people at different times.)

Further, these programs come with agendas. For example, a single
organization that works in one of the communities where I've been
working has groups (and therefore meetings) about making gender
relations more equitable, about environmental conservation, about
agricultural diversification (growing more types of crops), and about
improving the productivity of small farms. The program about
environmental conservation, for example, provides credit to construct
coffee processing systems in which the waste water will not run into
the rivers. It also occasionally donates tools or provides credit to
buy organic fertilizer. It also holds trainings and meetings on the
importance of environmental conservation, talking about things like
watersheds, species diversity, and long-term health effects of
pesticides. In order to get access to the credit and donated
materials, people must attend the workshops and meetings.

I personally feel that environmental conservation and more equitable
gender relations are very important. But these issues seem very
abstract to many of the small farmers I've been talking to, who are
more concerned with making enough money with their next year's crop to
feed their families throughout the year. Species diversity is a
pretty idea, until it means that the rising populations of large
mammals keep stealing the chickens. Producing organically is great,
until the crop yields go down dramatically and the promised increased
prices don't materialize.

This type of program, therefore, instead of seeming like a dignified
opportunity to earn a living, instead seems like manipulation. It
seems like a quid pro quo, in which farmers are forced to parrot the
party line in order to get access to needed aid programs which used to
be given without these conditions. It seems like paternalism—the very
attitude that the programs were designed to combat.

In this context, things like organic certification and fair trade
certification look pretty similar to other forms of aid. The
certifying agencies seem to be saying, we promise to give you this
seal, which will give you more leverage as you're searching for buyers
who will pay a better price for your coffee, if you in turn agree to
be organized in a cooperative, to avoid using this list of fertilizers
and pesticides, to rigorously document all your farm's activities
(this among farmers who are far too often illiterate or barely
literate) etc.

A colleague has asked me whether I see any resistance to these aid
programs and this type of manipulation. I'm not sure whether low
levels of participation in meetings, frequent defaulting on loans, and
widespread very cynical attitudes count as resistance. But I've been
wondering whether fairly frequent embezzlement from the programs might
count as resistance, even if it's not constructive resistance. I've
also been wondering whether even more frequent accusations of
corruption might count as resistance.

And you know what? Despite all this, I haven't given up on fair
trade. I haven't developed a hostile attitude towards aid programs.
I haven't been able to identify a Bad Guy. I really see a lot of
well-intentioned and even idealistic people involved in these aid
programs. I see many (if not all) of the intermediaries who directly
administer the programs as genuinely concerned with farmer well-being,
angry about the problems with the system, and distressed at not having
a better way of doing things. And I see farmers who are concerned
about how to best make a living under very difficult conditions, who
are conscious of being both intelligent and deficient in formal
education, and who resent being treated like children.

What is the solution? I've got no idea. A friend of mine here
generously thinks that a little bit of pointed anthropological
analysis might help. I'm trying to share his optimism as my work


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