emma watson, the “game-changer,” and the pitiful standards of celebrity feminism

Really interesting comment piece from Babywasu on Emma Watson’s speech to the UN on the HeForShe campaign. There are specific mentions of ‘international development’ in the post, but equally, gender equality, women’s rights, patriarchy etc and international development are all inherently linked, so this post is both explicitly and implicitly relevant to my blog and is important for me to highlight.

My comment to the author was this:

“I can imagine that a lot of white middle class feminists will be offended by what you’ve said, but I find little to disagree with here, many of them are thoughts i’ve had myself. It seems to me (and I feel that this is what you’re saying too) that this is a critique of the wider feminist movement and the global, white-centred, patriarchal system as a whole rather than an attack on Emma or any individual white middle class feminist.

Essentially, you make totally valid points (which some people in the comments section seem to be taking personally), but unfortunately, in the current celebrity obsessed system, where gender binary is widely accepted as the norm, money and power is the holy grail, where women still have to apologise for being a feminist and persuade men of the importance of equality, and where she delivering a speech to a global institution still dominated by white, Western ideology, I wasn’t expecting anything different. Unfortunately, if Emma had come out saying what she should have said (in mine and your opinion), the majority people wouldn’t have heard her. Such is the world we live in. I’m glad that you have called this out though and also understand that Emma said what she could in a world where few people are open to hearing the truth.”

Babywasu’s paragraph on ‘women and girls’ rhetoric echoes my thinking particularly and I’m definitely going to do more research into her points about that. I have also heard the argument made before about linking gender liberation to economic means and that the approach for involving men in women’s rights and gender inequality campaigns is paternalistic. I thought that when I heard Emma ask men to consider THEIR mother/sister/daughter etc – we’re still talking about ownership.

Would be interested to know your thoughts and feelings too!

NGOs losing the war against poverty and climate change, says Civicus head

Back in August, Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah wrote an article for the Guardian, entitled: NGOs losing the war agains poverty and climate change, says Civicus head. The piece focussed on answering the question: “Charities are no longer drivers of social change; for many saving the world has become big business. How did we lose our way?”

In my opinion Sriskandarajah is spot on with his evaluation of civil society. The ‘commercialisation’ of charities is something that I have become increasingly aware of and it is a concern of mine.

In the ‘more beautiful world our hearts know is possible’, I hope that charities cease to exist because they are no longer needed. But until that point it worries me that even ‘charity’ has been subjected to our modern culture of immediacy and instant gratification. If charity means ‘big business’ there is less of an incentive for those who become disillusioned and lose their way to put themselves out of a job, which is what the majority (not all) of people working for a charity should be trying to do. As Sriskandarajah notes: “And so we find ourselves reinforcing the social, economic and political systems we once set out to transform. We have become part of the problem, rather than the solution.”

I have reposted the article text here. The original article can be found here.

I’d be really interested to hear what you think about this. I’d like to write about this issue in more depth another time. But I found this piece thought-provoking and wise and thought it was important to share before I forget to.

In the last 40 years, we have witnessed an explosion of growth in civil society. There are now up to 4 million charities in India (pdf), 1.5 million in the US and 81,000 international NGOs and networks, 90% of them launched since 1975.

This should be music to my ears. The organisation I lead exists to strengthen civil society and citizen action around the world. So why am I worried? Because this exponential growth, and the institutionalisation and professionalisation that has accompanied it, has some serious downsides.

Sure, we’re winning battles here and there, but we’re losing the war; the war against poverty, inequality, exclusion and climate change. Too many of us who work in organised bits of civil society – including myself – have become removed from the forces that drive deep social change; from the causes that first inspired us. In devoting our energies to designing log-frames and reporting to donors, we’ve become mired in bureaucracy.

For better or worse, the biggest NGOs today look and act like multinational corporations. The largest of them employ thousands of workers around the world and their annual budgets reach hundreds of millions. They have corporate-style hierarchies and brands worth millions. Saving the world has become big business.

And big isn’t always bad; just as small isn’t necessarily beautiful. But it’s the effect of these trends on global citizen action that should unsettle us. We – civil society – have been co-opted into economic and institutional processes in which we are being outwitted and out-manoeuvred. Our conception of what is possible has narrowed dramatically. Since demonstrating bang for your buck has become all-important, we divide our work into neat projects, taking on only those endeavours that can produce easily quantifiable outcomes. Reliant on funding to service our own sizeable organisations, we avoid approaches or issues that might threaten our brand or upset our donors. We trade in incremental change.

And so we find ourselves reinforcing the social, economic and political systems we once set out to transform. We have become part of the problem, rather than the solution. Our corporatisation has steered us towards activism-lite, a version of our work rendered palatable to big business and capitalist states. Not only does this approach threaten no one in power, but it stifles grassroots activism with its weighty monoculturalism.

To bring about radical political change, we need to build from below. We need to help communities organise and drive change. We need more Arab Springs, but we need them to endure. Organised civil society must prioritise meeting the challenge of how we can build upon these sudden upsurges of social energy without suffocating them. When peaks of protest are connected to long-term action, temporary shifts in power have a far greater chance of becoming permanent gains in democracy, equality and freedom.

How can civil society reform and re-energise itself to meet this critical challenge? On 6 August we published an open letter, endorsed by some leading figures in global civil society, calling on all of those who have the privilege of working in this sphere – getting paid to do the things we believe in – to engage in this debate.

We believe we need to find better ways to put the voices and actions of people back at the heart of our work. Our primary accountability must be not to donors but to all those struggling for social justice. We must fight corporatism in our own ranks, recognise the power of informal networks, tap into the wisdom of the street and re-balance our resources. We must promote and protect civic spaces, and strive to build global people-to-people solidarity from the grassroots up. And this should not be about abandoning the civil society organisations we have created, but rather we must evolve these NGOs to be more open, agile and accountable to those they seek to serve.

All this will be not be easy to do – especially for those of us who have to keep an eye on donor deliverables and balancing the budget. But it will be worth it. Civil society needs to offer a new set of global organising principles, a new paradigm, an alternative model. No-one else is going to do it. And, if we can – if we can turn the tide of corporatisation and technocratic management that threatens to overwhelm us – we will rediscover our understanding of civil society as a deeply human construct, as a facilitator of empowering social relationships. And it is these relationships, history teaches us, that can truly change the world.

Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah is secretary-general of Civicus, a global network of civil society organisations and activists. Follow @civicussg on Twitter


The Rules….

Might just happen to be my new favourite thing!

I am in the process of finding out more about getting involved with some of their amazing campaigns, but check them out!


“Our world has never been more connected or more prosperous than it is today. Yet right now, one in every three of us alive today does not have access to the most basic needs for a decent life – food, education, medical care, a safe environment.

The good news is that for the first time, ordinary citizens like you and I have the power and ability to change the rules that are creating these injustices. Technology and the shift of global power mean that we can now demand our say in decisions that have traditionally been made by elites behind closed doors. But the truth is, these things will only change if we demand it.

That’s why we invite you to join /The Rules. If we work together, the voices of the world’s majority are too loud to be silenced. Change the rules, and we change the world.”

The Hidden Shallows of Global Poverty “Eradication” Efforts – via Common Dreams

“To really tackle poverty, inequality and climate change, we would need to change that logic to one that was built on an acceptance of how much these problems are the result of human actions”

Spotted this interesting article using discourse analysis to take a closer look at how “the UN’s New Sustainable Development Goals are being framed and what we must do to challenge a paradigm that is not working”. Another in a recent spate of posts/articles on the topic of ‘development’ discourse (including mine). The article was originally published on Common Dreams and is written by Martin Kirk and Joe Brewer.

Please do let me know your thoughts!

Right now, a long and complicated process is underway to replace the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which expire in 2015, with new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These will set the parameters for international development for the next fifteen years and every government, UN agency, large corporation and NGO, not to mention billions of citizens on the planet have a stake.

Judging by what’s being produced, though, we have a serious problem. The best way to describe it is with an old joke. There’s a man driving through the countryside, trying to find a nearby town. He’s desperately lost and so when he sees a woman by the side of the road he pulls over and asks for directions. The woman scratches her head and says, “Well, I wouldn’t start from here”.

The best evidence of where the SDG’s are starting from is the so-called “Zero Draft” document, first released on June 3rd and currently undergoing exhaustive consultation.

First things to note are the big differences with the MDGs. Most strikingly, the SDGs suggest an end to poverty is possible in the next 15 years, whereas the MDGs aimed at halving it. The implication is that we’ve made amazing progress and are now in the home stretch. Secondly, the SDGs get serious about climate change. This is a major paradigm shift and, what’s more, they aim squarely at the heart of the problem: patterns of production and consumption. Impressive. Thirdly, reducing inequality “within and between” countries is there, with a goal of its own. Another paradigm shift, and a controversial one because it opens the door, just a crack, to the idea that the extremely rich might be making an undue amount of their money off the backs of the extremely poor.

Of these three goals, two will disappear before the process concludes. There is no way the world’s rich governments and corporations will allow a meaningful challenge to production and consumption patterns, or a focus on reducing inequality. This is a given. More important, though, is the fact that the very problem – the starting point – is profoundly misconceived. How do we know? Because of the language. Language is a code that contains a lot more than its literal meaning. An analysis of semantic frames in the Zero Draft exposes the logic upon which it is built. This isn’t a political analysis; it’s a linguistic one.

Let’s take the opening paragraph:

“Poverty eradication is the greatest global challenge facing the world today and an indispensable requirement for sustainable development. We are therefore committed to freeing humanity from poverty and hunger as a matter of urgency.”

Poverty can be conceptualized in many ways. In this passage it is presented as both a preventable disease (“to be eradicated”) and as a prison (“to free humanity from”). In both, the framing reveals the framers’ view, conscious or otherwise, on causation. Diseases are just part of the natural world, so if poverty is a disease, it is something for which no one is to blame. And the logic of a prison is that people are in it for committing a crime. The former denies the idea that human actions may be a cause of inequality and poverty; the latter invokes the idea that poverty is the fault – the crime – of the poor.

Also note the phrase, “the greatest global challenge”. This asserts a logic in which there is a hierarchy of individual issues based on relative importance, with poverty at the top. The truth is that humanity must now confront a convergence of mega crises, all of which are deeply interconnected: Government corruption; ecological destabilization; structural debt; hyper-consumerism established in the west and rapidly expanding in the east and south, etc. Framing poverty this way conceals the web of interconnected systems and removes them from consideration. The result: No systemic solutions can arise from a logic that denies systemic problems.

There is a good reason for this: it protects the status quo. This logic validates the current system and ordering of power by excusing it of blame and says it can, indeed must continue, business as usual. This is the logic of the corporate capitalist system.

There’s no denying that some excellent progress has been made since 1990 – the year the MDGs measure from – but you don’t need to deny that to know there is something fundamentally wrong with a global economy in which, at a time when wealth grew by 66% the ratio of average incomes of the richest 5% and the poorest 20% rose from 202:1 to 275:1. Or that the reality masked by the ratios is that one third of all deaths since 1990 (432 million) have been poverty related. Using UN figures, that’s more than double the combined deaths from the Two World Wars; Mao’s Great Leap Forward; Stalin’s purges; and all military and civilian deaths from the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. What’s more, even though we are now seeing around 400, 000 deaths every year (pdf) from climate change we are pumping 61% more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere annually than we were in 1990.

The point is that, in light of the logic the language exposes  – and I have mentioned just two of many possible examples telling the same story – any glorification of the SDGs we hear over the next year must be seen as reinforcing the logic their language contains.

To really tackle poverty, inequality and climate change, we would need to change that logic to one that was built on an acceptance of how much these problems are the result of human actions. And that the fact of living in poverty makes no inherent comment whatsoever on the person or people concerned, other than that they live in poverty. This in turn would make a wholly different type and scale of change feel like common sense. For example, it would feel obvious to work towards taxing carbon emissions at source, and putting in place sanctions against those responsible for hoarding at least $26 trillion in tax havens (pdf). We would instinctively reach to introduce laws that give local authorities everywhere the right to revoke corporate charters for serious social or environmental misdeeds anywhere. And the big one: money. Ridiculous though it may sound, right now we allow private banks to control the supply of US dollars, euros and other major currencies that surge through the global economy.  These banks charge everyone, including governments, interest on every note, thereby guaranteeing that a constant river of money flows into their coffers, along with immense power. But none of these things will make it into the SDGs because they contradict the current, dominant logic, and what’s more, they might work, and redistribute power and wealth more equitably.

We compound our problems when we allow ourselves to be drawn into processes like the SDG-design are turning out to be. Every ounce of credence given their frames helps weigh down the center of debate far from where to needs to be. Until the UN can use its powers, resources and privileges to promote policies that grow from the logic of its highest ideals, we may help it, the planet and each other best by divesting our attention from it, and finding avenues for change that can.

“Development” – says who?

I’ve been meaning to write a post about the ‘language’ of development for some time now (you might remember I mentioned it in my last post), but this article on the Guardian Poverty Matters blog this week brought it to the forefront of my mind. 

“Development” is dead. There, I said it. And i’m not the first to either. Tonight will forever stick in my mind as the night that I truly discovered Post-development theory. I might be a bit late coming to the party, but boy am I sure glad that I’ve arrived.

A large part of me feels like squirrelling myself away for the next couple of months to digest and read as much about it as possible, and I will do. But another part of me is interested to see how my opinion evolves and changes as I learn about it, so I’ve decided to get down my own thoughts about the language of development here first so that I can revisit it in a few weeks/months time and see if there are any similarities/differences between the two.

I personally have a problem with the discourse of “development” for two main reasons. Firstly, because, in its current form, its a Western construction; a yardstick definition created for the rest of the world to measure up to, a measure that creates division and wrongly elevates the West as the hegemonic power. Secondly, the discourse that has commonly come to be associated with ‘development’, is, in my opinion, doing more harm than good.

Addressing this is important. Language constructs our reality and the specific way it does do has consequences for all of us.

So, what is ‘development’?

The World Bank states that a developing country:

is one in which the majority lives on far less money—with far fewer basic public services—than the population in highly industrialized countries. Five million of the world’s 6 billion people live in developing countries where incomes are usually under $2 per day and a significant portion of the population lives in extreme poverty (under $1.25 per day).

It’s probably worth noting here, for those who aren’t in the know, that the World Bank president has historically been a US citizen nominated by the United States (the largest shareholders in the bank)… and despite a revision to voting powers in 2010 intended to increase the voice of developing countries (notably China), the countries with the most voting power are now the US (15.85%), Japan (6.84%), China (4.42%), Germany (4.00%), the UK (3.75%), France (3.75%), India (2.91%), Russia (2.77%), Saudi Arabia (2.77%) and Italy (2.64%). Are you starting to see a pattern emerging? I am…

So the rules of “development” are set and refereed by the “developed”, and according to them, an overall progress in “development” can be associated with economic growth, a vibrant private sector, empowerment (people having the ability to invest in their health and education and to shape their own lives by being able to participate in the opportunities provided by economic growth and have their voices heard about decisions that affect their lives), good governance (where contracts are enforced and markets can operate efficiently) and ownership (countries owning their development agenda). I know you might not expect anything less from a bank, but it’s all about money, money, money. To this day, “development” is largely synonymous with economic growth.

First and foremost, how can a collection of countries that are beholden to big banks and business; that suffer from financial collapse and who are beholden to investor-state, be in a position to talk about development? However, my main problem with the economic focus is that IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT MONEY. I’m not going to pretend it’s not important in the current system, and that a lack of it doesn’t cause very real and life-threatening problems for millions of people, but the fact that what this system, imposed by the West, values economics and finance above all else, is a true symptom of what’s wrong with the world.

Valuing economics above everything else ignores the many other essential parts needed for a flourishing country. What happened to everything else that’s important in the world? Like society, and humanity, and caring for the environment? How is it possible that we live in a world where ‘developed’ countries spend more money on arms and war than their people; where consuming ‘stuff’ is more important than protecting and nurturing the environment; where we put up borders and boundaries to protect ourselves from each other; where women are still valued more for what they look like than for who they are; where giant corporations tell us what to do and think and how to live; where the elderly are tolerated and feared rather than respected and cherished? How can a system that values the pursuit of wealth and power be considered developed?

This system ignores the fact that there is so much to value in countries beyond their economic status. Many of the financially poorest countries have the richest societies and communities. The ‘developed’ could certainly learn a thing or two from the ‘developing’ in this respect.

Secondly, why is it apparently assumed that the whole world wants to emulate the West and that it can decide what is universally ‘good’? Rather than exporting our ideas, values and norms with the belief that people living in other countries must be dissatisfied with their country and culture in general, rather than the hugely unfair and Western-dominated system we live in, is misguided. I have no right to tell other countries not to follow the West’s example, but “[t]here are numerous ways of living a ‘good life’, and it is up to each society to invent its own.” (Rist 1997) Who put ‘us’ in charge?

Setting this Western standard elevates us to a position in the world that we do not deserve. It gives us power over the narrative and that we hold the cards and make the rules. It’s a powerful discourse that permeates all levels of politics, society and the development sector.

Harmful development

Moving on now to my second point, that even within the current context of “development”, the discourse used within the field causes more harm than good. A discourse that creates ‘poor’, ‘desperate’, ‘primitive’, ‘uncivilised’ nations has a huge and powerful affect on how the ‘rest of the world’ sees ‘developing’ countries. The language groups, homogenises and dehumanises and creates stereotypes that perpetuate a paradigm of dependency and inequality between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries.

Countries that have been linguistically described as lacking, backward and inferior are seen as ‘unacceptable’, lesser versions of one’s own society in a system where the standards of what makes a good society are assumed to be both universal and in line with Western standards. It is this type of thinking, where poorer societies are deemed as too traditional and require modernisation, that was used to justify colonial expansion.

The idea that non-Western societies are historically backward and can be compared to earlier periods of European history has been described as the “transformation of geo-cultural differences into historical stages” (Nandy 1992: 146), as the “chronification of spatial co-existence” (Melber 1992: 32) or simply as the “colonizer’s model of the world” (Blaut 1993) because it justified the colonial expansion of the most advanced states. (Development in Practice, Volume 23, Number 1, February 2013, Aram Zaia)

Apart from the fact that this is patriarchal and authoritarian, it also ignores the fact that historical processes cannot be reproduced in other countries that have completely different economic, political and social environments and histories. It also makes the normative assumption that these processes have led to better, ‘developed’ societies in the first place (as mentioned earlier in the post).

It’s now widely recognised that the traditional tools of development benchmarking: GDP and per capita income are ineffective measures of poverty reduction. They ignore factors like wealth distribution and provision of public services, and wrongly assume that boosting income is the only way to reduce poverty.

As Ziai notes in his essay, this general assumption that ‘development’ refers to the situation of a group of people living in one country and which improves the life of all members of this group, means that the

“classical paradigm of development constructs social problems (whose existence is not called into question) in peripheral countries as “development problems”, as problems liked to a lack of capital, knowledge, technology, productivity, institutions, etc. which can be solved by projects or programmes of development which deal with these shortcomings.” (Development in Practice, Volume 23, Number 1, February 2013, Aram Zaia)

This again, fails to recognise the difference between supposed beneficiaries and assumes that social problems can be solved with ‘rational’ and ‘unobjectionable’ technocratic solutions. In reality, the problems of social inequality can rarely be dealt with successfully in this manner. Zaia quotes James Ferguson, who writes:

“By uncompromisingly reducing poverty to a technical problem, and by promising technical solutions to the sufferings of powerless and oppressed people, the hegemonic problematic of “development” is the principal means through which the question of poverty is de-politicized in the world today”. (1994)

Ferguson goes on to say that this technocratic bias in development discourse is often reproduced by the institutional interest of development organisations.

It’s clear that the implementation of what is often defined as the ‘common good’, is a structural feature of development, despite attempts to introduce the principles of participation, ownership and empowerment into development policy since the 1980s. Case in point here.

Despite some improvements in the sector, the language and imagery used by charities to fundraise for international development is another primary example of how the language of ‘development’ can often do more harm than good. For me, a lot of the sentiment of Binyavanga Wainaina’s essay: “How to write about Africa” can be applied to the development sector and to society in general – a lot of the language used to describe developing countries and those living in them serves to conjure up images and assumptions of poverty stricken villages, violence, malaria and misery. This reinforces ideas that ‘they’ are inferior, uncivilised, victims to be saved. Aside from being completely unfair and disrespectful, it’s also wrong. I’d like to write (or invite someone else to write) a post about this in particular at some point.

Jina Moore, a journalist previously based in the Democratic Republic of Congo, describes the single-mindedness of these portrayals when applied to Africa (often seen as synonymous with ‘development’). In 2012 in the Boston Review she wrote:

“We [writers] blame our editors, who (we like to say) oversimplify our copy and cut out context. They also introduce clichéd shorthand, such as “Arab north versus Christian and animist south” (Sudan), or boilerplate background, such as “the 1994 genocide, in which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed” (Rwanda). Virtually any story can be sold more easily if set in a “war-torn country.”

For these tendencies, our editors in turn often blame readers, whom they assume can’t or won’t follow us through villages with difficult-to-pronounce names or narratives with nuanced conclusions or moral ambiguities.

Ultimately, the problem with journalism from Africa isn’t about professional conventions. It’s about all of us—writers and readers, producers and viewers. We continue a storytelling tradition that hasn’t fundamentally changed since Joseph Conrad slapped Congo with “the heart of darkness” label.”

Rusty radiator does a great job at calling this out!

What’s the answer?

L. Frank remarks that development:

“…is an empty word which can be filled by any used to conceal any hidden intention, a Trojan horse of a word. It implies that what is done to people by those more powerful than themselves is their fate, their potential, their fault.” (1997)

So what can ‘development’ be replaced with? Academics aware of the criticisms of the term have made numerous attempts to redefine it and there is an increasing awareness of indigenous concepts which might replace the notion. But should it be replaced or simply cease to exist at all? Can and should we arrive at a unequivocal or progressive definition? Wouldn’t any replacement still reinforce the same classical paradigm that ‘we’ are developed and ‘they’ are the developing and there is some universal acceptance of one common good? Even if you disagree with these criticisms, it’s difficult to deny the fact that the term ‘development’ is often used ambiguously without a definitive understanding (i.e some see it as referring to higher income, others refer to better healthcare etc…). It means different things to different people.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I do like the way Zaia concludes his essay:

“In the words of Rahnema (1997: 391): “The end of development should not be seen as an end to the search for new possibilities of change”. It should be seen as the beginning of less Eurocentric and vague notions of change. (Of course, alternative concepts of social change and improvement also need to be questioned concerning their implications or their instrumentalisation)” (Development in Practice, Volume 23, Number 1, February 2013, Aram Zaia)

In my mind, it’s the system that needs to change, not the term. To give ‘development’ another name, without changing the global structure of inequality and interdependence that goes with it, you might just as well call it ‘maintenance’.

What do you think? Is ‘development’ dead? Should and could it be replaced? Is there a better term or should it cease to be used at all? Thoughts as usual gratefully received…

P.S Thanks for bearing with me in this post. I sometimes struggle to get my words in the same place as my brain and heart so I know I can ramble/waffle/make mistakes/miss things out/tie myself in knots. I’m working on it!

P.P.S I’d like to put together a glossary of words that have made it into the “development” discourse that are ridiculous, ambiguous, harmful or wrong, that perpetuate stereotypes or have questionable intentions. Heres a start from me, please send me your own suggestions.

Globalisation – the belief that the state must stay out of development other than to ensure contract law and accounting procedures etc and that the rest will be taken care of by the market on a so-called ‘level playing field’. In reality, this is a ideology forced upon poorer countries by wealthier ones and the taking down of trade barriers and the opening up of economies to foreign direct investment and outside enterprises has largely proven to serve multinationals and their home country governments. Hypocritically, wealthy countries are actually in effect selling our own manufactured goods while closing our markets to many of the products developing countries can sell.

Democracy – Something the West likes to export. However, although the terms democracy and human rights are often claimed to be European inventions, the underlying concepts of political self-determination and moral standards and individual rights are definitely not, as many tribal societies with consensual democratic decision-making procedures have proven (Sigrist, 2005).