Saturday, January 20, 2007

Government, and analysis vs judgment

Dear readers,

In my spare time lately, I have started the book "Roll of Thunder Hear
my Cry," by Mildred Taylor, whose narrator is a black fourth grade
girl living in post-Civil War Mississippi. It talks about the daily
humiliations inflicted on blacks by racial segregation. It talks
about lynchings, and how lynchers were not brought to justice even
though everybody knew who they were. I've taken away two thoughts
from this that I want to talk about today.

The first has to do with governance and government. A theme I keep
returning to in my research, and which will probably be an important
part of my dissertation, is the importance of a functioning
government. Government in Nicaragua is perceived to be fairly weak,
at least by outsiders. From my current perspective as a foreigner
living in Nicaragua, it seems like an extraordinary privilege to be
able to depend on the rule of law like many people do in the U.S.
today—that contracts must be honored if members don't want the courts
involved, that lynch mobs or illegal timber harvesters will be
prosecuted, that the Supreme Court has a chance to put a successful
check on the expansion of the powers of the Executive branch. From
this perspective, the government in Nicaragua is weak, because it does
none of these things. However, although the people I work with
recognize that the government does not do these things and ought to,
government is still perceived as the legitimate governing power, and
the correct place to go to claim rights.

It was interesting to me to see that during the fair trade inspection
last week, the inspector seemed to think of the cooperative as a
governmental structure. She talked about entire communities as under
the responsibility of the cooperative, for example. However, in
reality a cooperative has no real or legal relationship with
territory. A cooperative consists of its members, and there is no
requirement that the members live anyplace in particular. Government,
on the other hand, takes responsibility for a certain territory, and
the people living within it. The current situation in the community
that I work in is that there are members of several different
cooperatives living in the same area, plus plenty of people who are
not members of any cooperative at all. So a single cooperative could
not, in fact, take responsibility for this community.

In a number of ways the fair trade requirements for cooperatives sound
like guidelines for small governments: there must be democratic
institutions and accountability, with regular elections and
transparency; environmental stewardship; doing economic development
projects, etc. They are even phasing in a requirement for members to
make detailed maps of the communities showing water sources and their
relationship to agricultural production, etc.—mapping is a classic and
important governmental function, and the history of map-making is
closely tied to the historical moment when governments started taking
responsibility for territory, not just people. And it is not just
fair trade. I have seen several ways in which NGOs, not just
cooperatives, seem to be trying to take the place of a number of
governmental functions. Just as one example, there is a women's group
which comes from outside and holds meetings once a month and helps
women confront abusive partners and denounce rapists. However, NGOs
and cooperatives do not do a good job substituting for government.
First, many of them, especially NGOs, are transitory—they come, stay
for a few years, and leave again or move on. Second, they are
membership-based, not territory based, so there are always people left
out. Third, they are voluntary, not compulsory. And fourth, they are
neither recognized as legitimate governing bodies nor held responsible
for fulfilling their functions, so when times get tough—if there is
disagreement in the local community, for example—the NGOs tend to just
pull out. (This last may seem a like fairly theoretical point when we
think that the government of Nicaragua IS recognized as legitimate and
held responsible, but its hands are tied by lack of funds and
restrictions on the use of existing funds by international lending
agencies, but nevertheless.)

The second thought I want to talk about, changing topics kind of
abruptly, is that it is confusing to me to think about injustice
within the United States and injustice outside of the United States at
the same time. From the perspective of Nicaragua, the United States
is a land of plenty and wealth. Even poor people in the United States
have flush toilets and running hot water and a gas stove to cook on
(at least in the cities—I don't know much about rural poverty in the
U.S.). And if they don't, they can get the city to crack down on
their deadbeat landlord. But the United States today (still) also
contains great injustice. If there is any question about this, please
just refer to infant mortality statistics broken down by race, even
adjusting for income. If there is still any question about this,
please read Jonathan Kozol's book Savage Inequalities: Children in
America's School about school segregation in the U.S. today. (This
was published in 1991, but there are more recent things he's written
on the same theme, too.)

I think the reason this is confusing to me is that I have a tendency
to mark something in my mind as Bad, and have it be an absolute, black
hole, unquestionable negative. The worst possible thing on a
one-dimensional pollster-type scale: choice 5, very bad. I thought
about poverty this way before coming to Nicaragua. If you were Poor,
I thought, this was absolute. You were in crisis all the time. You
never had enough to eat.

The reality, of course, is not like that. There are degrees of poor.
Some people, at some times of the year, don't have enough to eat.
More people merely have a protein-poor and vitamin-poor diet: lots of
corn, rice and beans, not many vegetables, the occasional egg or bit
of cheese. Meat when a chicken is killed, maybe once a month. Being
poor doesn't mean there isn't happiness, any more than being rich
doesn't mean there isn't sadness. However, it is very important to
avoid the cliché of "poor but happy"—the image of innocence and peace
away from the stress and materialism of Modern Life. First, I do not
know anybody who feels peace and happiness about being poor. Poor,
for the people I work with, is ignorance, not innocence. People have a
sense of limitless possibilities which will never be available to them
because of lack of money. And second, the life of the small farmers
is just as important a part of how Modern Life is put together as the
life of an intellectual in New York City, for who could imagine that
intellectual's life without her constant companion cup of gourmet
coffee? Without small farmers, the world economy would collapse, or
at least be shaped radically differently than it is now.

What I struggle to come to grips with is the realization that although
it is imperative for me to bring a moral evaluation to some things—the
preventable death of a baby is Bad, racial lynchings are Bad—my
analysis and understanding must not stop there. Calling something bad
is not an explanation, and does not help solve the problem. Too
often, understanding or explaining something, or someone, is seen as
the same thing as pardoning it. But shouldn't there be a way of
speaking or writing which analyzes evil while maintaining a sense of
moral condemnation? Shouldn't we be able to understand that the
serial rapist was sexually abused as a child without forgiving him for
the rape, or making the rape somehow okay? And if I talk about
poverty in Nicaragua, and maintain my sense that it is wrong, it
shouldn't prevent me from recognizing that the situation is bad in a
different way in Iraq, or sub-Saharan Africa, for example. Saying that
in Nicaragua at least we're not afraid of being killed on a daily
basis, or that at least the population is not being decimated by AIDS,
doesn't mean that the poverty is less bad.

As always, I'd be interested in any thoughts. And I'm thrilled to see
that this blog is being read by some folks in the fair trade industry!
Everybody please see the comment on my last entry telling us how to
get fair trade sports balls in the U.S., too. We should all be sure
to support small soccer-ball farmers—I believe they grow on a
perennial woody bush, while rugby balls are a root crop. ;-)


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