A long hiatus

I’ve been absent from this blog for a few months, mostly because I’ve been very focused on some issues that are only tangentially related to the topic of development, even broadly defined. For instance, much of my energy has been and is currently devoted to an effort to unionize graduate student employees here at the University of Minnesota, something about which I could expound at length, but this isn’t really the right forum to do so. Before that, I had some energy invested in OccupyMN – and while I did talk some about how the Occupy movement is relevant to the topics on which this blog is focused, it didn’t seem appropriate to be posting at length about the ins and outs of my thoughts around that movement.

Now, however, I am beginning to work in earnest on my masters’ thesis, which is very much relevant to this blog. I’ve been struggling to narrow down my paper topic for some time now – I currently have an eight-page bibliography of things I have read or want to read that are relevant to my thesis – but this is my current abstract for my proposed paper:

In this paper, I examine how marginalized peoples harness one globalized paradigm – the international human rights regime – to challenge another – the discourse and practice of neoliberal economic development. Using a case study of Afro-descendant Colombians in northwestern Colombia, I contrast two theoretical traditions of social change: on the one hand, the constructivist and neo-institutional schools that emphasize transnational norms, networks and institutions; and other, the post-development school that foregrounds the role of local social movements. I find that a combination of these theories is necessary to explain the specific phenomena occurring in northwestern Colombia, and I then turn to a brief discussion of the implications for public policies that strike a balance between the economic, social and cultural rights of marginalized Afro-Colombians and the globalized economic development imperatives faced by the Colombian state.

I will likely be posting about my research and writing as I go through the process, over the course of the next four months.


What I’ve been reading

As always, sans commentary. A couple of these are quite old, the rest is pretty recent. I’ll return to real posting soon.

Free trade agreements in Congress

I needed to do a whole lot of work today but I’ve been watching too much C-SPAN. No, seriously.

Today Congress is debating three major NAFTA-style free trade agreements, with South Korea, Panama and Colombia. I didn’t really mean to watch the debates (it should come as no surprise that I think all three FTAs are terrible policy; for some reasons why, here are a few good things to read), but I started and I can’t stop. I’ve been live-blogging of sorts on my Facebook feed – sorry Facebook friends, and I understand if you’ve un-friended me because of this unexpected outburst. Here are some “highlights”:

The C-SPAN ticker summarizes the Korea FTA as follows: “Reduces tariffs on U.S. auto exports,” and something about duty-free access (sorry, I didn’t write it down in time). I found this pretty annoying: the FTAs are about much more than just tariff reductions. They’re also about foreign investor protections, reduction of non-tariff barriers, financial deregulation, intellectual property, etc., etc. Those things are really important and it was disappointing to see the debate over all three FTAs dominated by talk about export numbers and jobs.

Virtually every member of Congress who has spoken in favor of the FTAs has described them as job-creating agreements, which simply isn’t true based on the history of NAFTA-style FTAs. A huge number of members have mentioned the expected increases in exports that will result from passage of the FTAs. This may be true (although it actually may not be). But talking about export changes without talking about import changes is like talking about revenues without talking about expenses. It’s net exports that matter, and the U.S. has a net trade deficit with countries with which we have FTAs. The fact that this kind of basic mistake is being made by members of Congress is not an encouraging sign.

On the other side, the arguments against the Korea FTA in particular, denouncing Korean and Chinese currency manipulation, kind of rub me the wrong way. First, there’s a certain implicit xenophobia in the strident anti-China rhetoric that makes me uncomfortable. Second, I think monetary policy is a legitimate macroeconomic tool, and I’m not really down with even further constraining the policy tools that developing countries have at their disposal. That said, monetary policy is still something about which I’m pretty hazy, so I welcome comments and clarifications.

To close on a broader note, I think a comment by Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) about the Korea FTA was pretty illustrative: “The Bush administration was willing to submit an FTA that heavily favored Korea; the Obama administration has fixed that.” (paraphrased) I think this analysis is fatally flawed. It’s hard to believe that the Bush administration would really have negotiated and signed a trade agreement that “heavily favored Korea” at the expense of the United States. That just isn’t the case; the whole frame is wrong. The question isn’t whether the FTA is good for Korea or the United States as aggregate entities. The question is, who in those countries is the FTA good for? The answer to that question indicates why both Bush and Obama support the agreement – and also supplies an answer to the question, “What are all those people on Wall Street so mad about?” As Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine) put it:

You only have to look at the President’s economic advisors… Since elected, the President has surrounded himself with advisors from Wall Street banks, with CEOs from companies that don’t pay taxes, and with staffers who pushed NAFTA-style trade agreements under Clinton. Those advisors don’t bring fresh perspectives to the White House. They bring more of the same corporate priorities that have caused the current and previous White House administrations to turn a blind eye while the big banks played roulette with our pensions and mortgages – and then asked for a taxpayer bailout.

[…] This FTA won’t do anything to reduce our 9% unemployment. But, the big companies and the big banks want it! So, President Obama is going to give in to the Washington elites once again.

This helps answer the question of how U.S. trade policy relates to development. If the FTAs we negotiate benefit business elites in the U.S. and abroad, the implications for equitable, inclusive development are pretty clear. That’s why a Korean farmer committed suicide in protest of the 2003 WTO ministerial in Cancún; it’s why Colombian human rights activists have spoken out in opposition to the Colombia FTA, despite the dangers inherent in doing so. For marginalized people in certain developing countries, U.S. trade policy is literally a matter of life and death.

It’s with that in mind that I was disappointed that only 12% of development blog readers listed trade as an area of interest in the huge survey conducted by Dave Algoso and others a few weeks ago. I’d like to see that number go up.

Photo above by me, taken in 2007 at a protest against then-Colombian President Álvaro Uribe in Washington, D.C.

Participation as means AND end

In a previous post I made one case for why Occupy Wall Street – and now, the proliferation of solidarity events around the country collectively known as Occupy Together – was relevant to international development. The argument was simple: U.S. policy affects the developing world, and financial policy is no exception. I’d like to present a second argument in this post, an argument that’s more nuanced and less obvious.

Occupy Together: do demands matter?

One of the major questions about the movement so far has been “What are the demands? What do these people want?” To date, my response has been that the movement doesn’t need specific demands yet. In a response to Dave Algoso at Find What Works, I said this:

I don’t think you build social movements around policy. You build them around much more general feelings of injustice, that something is wrong. Policy comes later, after you’ve built up a base of support, and after more institutional actors have joined the movement – actors that do have concrete policy ideas. So while there’s plenty to criticize about Occupy Wall Street, I wouldn’t use this criticism at this point in its history.

On Saturday, the New York Times appeared to concur, as their editorial board published a surprisingly supportive editorial, which concluded:

It is not the job of the protesters to draft legislation. That’s the job of the nation’s leaders, and if they had been doing it all along there might not be a need for these marches and rallies. Because they have not, the public airing of grievances is a legitimate and important end in itself. It is also the first line of defense against a return to the Wall Street ways that plunged the nation into an economic crisis from which it has yet to emerge.

Occupy Together’s General Assemblies: process as demand

But let’s shift the narrative a bit. What if ultimately, the point of the protests isn’t actually about policy at all? What if it’s really about process?

Throughout the last few weeks, a severely under-reported aspect of Occupy Together has been the manner in which decisions are made. News reports describe the movement as leaderless and decentralized and throw around the fact that there are these “General Assemblies” that happen in which people talk about where the movement should be headed. But the implications of a movement being truly leaderless are left unexplored. What actually happens at General Assemblies, and the way they are structured and conducted, goes unexamined.

So what does happen? Basically – and I’m basing this off of only what I’ve read and the first General Assembly meeting of OccupyMN, which I attended – a General Assembly is an open meeting in which anyone is welcome, and which tries to make both micro- and macro-level decisions about the Occupy movement on a consensus basis. With so many people involved (there were literally hundreds at the GA last Friday that I went to), most communication is achieved via hand signals. Anyone can “block” a motion on moral grounds, preventing consensus and forcing further discussion. Participants are highly attuned to any structures that might result in concentration of power in individual people or committees, and proposals that could create such power imbalances are virtually certain to raise heated discussion and possible blocks.

In short, a GA is participatory democracy in a pure form, a horizontal, powerless (in the sense that no one has power over anyone else) forum where everyone who shows up to the meeting has a voice, has the ability to shape the outcome, has the ability to block decisions to which they are strongly opposed. In theory, it’s fantastic. In practice, it’s messy, frustrating, inefficient, and possibly somewhat ineffective. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a lot of appeal. In fact, the team at NPR’s Planet Money took a look at the story last Friday, and concluded that ultimately, Occupy Wall Street isn’t “a movement; it’s a venue… [it] is a model of how the protesters want society to be.” That is, the General Assembly – that messy, endless, relentlessly democratic process – is the kind of democracy that the protesters want, and they are living it out on a small scale. It’s about as radical a reading of the movement as I can imagine.

This isn’t new, and it didn’t come out of nowhere. The anthropologist David Graeber, in his book Direct Action: An Ethnography, makes the case that the fundamental ideology and goal for a certain subset of activists in the 1999-2001 global justice movement was embodied in their decision-making practices. The anarchist circles in which Graeber did his research (and his activism) practiced the same kind of consensus-based direct democracy as what’s now being implemented in the Occupy Together GAs. For them, the process was the means and the end.

To be clear, I don’t believe this conclusion is true of everyone involved in Occupy Together, only a die-hard set of the core activists that have been in the center of the organizing efforts. The institutions that have attached themselves to the movement certainly wouldn’t subscribe to this frame, nor would a lot of activists, probably including myself.

So what does this have to do with development?

Well, “participation” is part of the name of this blog. If we take self-determination and participatory development as ideals to which we strive, what does that look like in practice? For a marginalized community facing the prospect of state-sponsored development projects encroaching on its land, culture, economy or autonomy, does it look like a prior informed consultation process, or a prior, free and informed consent process? If so, who is being consulted with and whose consent is being sought? Who speaks for and represents the community? Is the decision-making process within the community inclusive? Do we care about participation at that level?

In the book I’m currently reading, Countering Development, author David Gow describes decision-making processes in some (but, he makes very clear, not all) Colombian indigenous communities in which something rather similar to that of the Occupy Together GAs is implemented. Committees discuss issues and bring their thoughts to a larger community meeting in which all are invited; the whole community then discusses these ideas and comes to a decision by consensus. The committees themselves definitively do not make decisions themselves, since the broader community meeting is the more inclusive and democratic space. (It’s worth noting that even this democratic decision-making process is not, in reality, devoid of power imbalances. Gow mentions that, for example, gendered power can be perpetuated even in a consent-based process.)

These problems aside, when we talk about development needing to be participatory, is this the ideal to which we’re pointing? My inclination is to answer yes. But I’ve been frustrated in my life as an activist by consensus-based, fully participatory processes, especially when large numbers of people are involved. I still believe in these processes as ideals, but I’m not entirely sure I believe in them in practice. So I have to ask myself: am I wanting for others’ societies what I don’t necessarily even want for my own?

These are important questions, and I think observing and participating in Occupy Together can inform some of our answers. If participatory development is something to which we aspire, the radically democratic nature of the Occupy Together protests offers some insight into the kind of processes for which we may or may not wish to advocate.

Photo above by me, taken at a rally on the first day of OccupyMN, October 7, 2011.

“Get a job”

It seems absurd to have to argue the point that the poor aren’t poor because they’re lazy and stupid, but I’m not convinced we have ever really moved past this point in political discourse, at least in the United States. I have recently become engrossed by the Tumblr blog We Are the 99 Percent, and I think there are some lessons to be learned from it.

The blog, if you’re not already familiar with it, consists entirely of photographs of people holding up handwritten notes describing why they feel let down by the system and denied the “American dream.” In putting compulsively readable human stories at the forefront, the website personalizes the grievances that have been brought against the U.S. economic and social system in a way that I’m not sure has ever been done before. To be sure, the vast majority of the people depicted are white and educated. But in a certain perverse way, that may work to the site’s advantage. These are white, educated, hard-working people – people whose stories are accessible to societal elites – who nevertheless are struggling to make ends meet. Their stories are a living testimony to the fact that people are not poor because they are stupid or lazy – most of these people seem to be quite the opposite, yet they face debt and severe financial uncertainty anyway. They are also a powerful response to the condescension so often thrown at those who protest against the status quo: “Get a job!”

What would be amazing is a kind of “We Are the Global 99 Percent,” in which a larger and more diverse cross-section of economically and socially disadvantaged people around the world shared their individual stories. This would do two things: first, humanize poverty and inequality around the world; and second, offer a living rejoinder to ideologies that ignore or deny the existence of structural poverty, systemic discrimination, or pervasive power imbalances. This sort of project isn’t really feasible, but if We Are the 99 Percent ends up having any kind of impact, perhaps the takeaway is that the systematic sharing of large numbers of concise personal stories might be a powerful tool for structural change.

That’s certainly not a new idea, but the idea of using something like Tumblr as the platform? That’s pretty thought-provoking, and opens the mind to any number of other possibilities.

What I’ve been reading

As always, in no particular order.

IATP director on capacity for structural change

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) is one of very few Minneapolis-based progressive NGOs that focuses on policy at a big-picture, structural level. I’ve been an admirer of IATP from afar, having seen their material in the DC policy world for quite some time, so it was neat to see when I came to the Twin Cities that the organization has its hands in all kinds of stuff going on locally, in addition to its broader national reach, and seems to be very highly regarded around here.

Earlier this week IATP’s executive director, Jim Harkness, gave a talk at the Humphrey School. It was put on by the school’s career services, so he talked mostly about his career trajectory, but he also got a little bit into the substance of IATP’s work. IATP is a bit difficult to explain as they have a number of program areas that don’t appear to be tied together particularly strongly; that said, one might say that they work on justice and sustainability issues, approaching these issues exclusively from a food-and-farm perspective. A chunk of their work deals with international issues – agricultural markets, subsidies, trade agreements, and so on – and they have a reliably progressive internationalist perspective that I’ve come to respect greatly.

This progressivism came out pretty strongly when Harkness responded to a question from a student, which went something like this: “Given that Monsanto and Cargill – for example – aren’t ‘The Enemy’, how do you partner with corporations? What benefits are there to building bridges in that way?”

Harkness’ immediate instinct was to quip, “Well, let’s face it, Monsanto is the enemy.” He was joking, but only sort of, if you ask me. (And also if you ask me, that’s appropriate.) Then, in a much more serious tone, he gave what I thought was an excellent answer, along these lines: “Yes, we sometimes partner with corporations with whom we have common cause. That said, the question isn’t whether a partnership with, say, Wal-Mart would be beneficial for us in a specific, short-term way. The question is whether Wal-Mart’s business model is completely anathema to the goals towards which we are working. In some cases the answer to that question is yes. In those cases, I don’t see any strategic benefit to a partnership.”

I’m paraphrasing liberally here. But I appreciated that Harkness spoke fairly uncompromisingly about the merits, or often the lack thereof, of working with big corporations while striving for social justice. Here at the Humphrey – and, I suspect, at most if not all policy schools – “public-private partnership” is a huge buzzword that people love to throw around. While that’s all well and good to a certain extent, I think this place could use a bit more of an uncompromising outside perspective every now and then. (After all, we have a “Globalization and the World Food Economy” class being taught by a former Cargill exec.)

I therefore made a slightly awkward comment in which I basically praised Harkness’ response, and then posed my own question, in which I asked Harkness a limited version of one of the core questions I’ve been asking on this blog. That is: there are very few organizations out there, it seems, that really approach policy from a big-picture, structural, progressive point of view. What are some of the organizations he’s worked with as IATP’s director? He threw out a few names, none of which were unfamiliar to me – IPS, Demos, Third World Network – and then said, “Yeah, there really aren’t very many.”

Then I asked, “Is there room for more organizations with that kind of perspective, or is there just not enough policy space for it?”

His answer was interesting: he thinks there is definitely policy space for more of that kind of critical progressive policy advocacy organization. He thinks the problem is a capacity problem, specifically a funding problem. It’s hard for an organization with a high-minded structural critique to be a membership organization, and that kind of organization isn’t going to be taking corporate or government money. That leaves private foundations and major individual donors. Cultivating the latter is really hard, time-consuming and resource-intensive. And foundations these days – and here he spoke with the experience of having worked for the Ford Foundation some years back – are more interested in technical solutions or soft “global governance” topics rather than truly confrontational political change.

In the development world, obviously, this is even more the case. Funders are throwing massive amounts of cash at this kind of thing, but if you’re a political advocacy group working towards serious structural change, you’re not likely to get much institutional funding.

I did find it encouraging, however, that Harkness perceives the problem as “merely” one of capacity. I would have found it much more depressing if he’d thought that the fora in which social justice groups can make their voices heard are being foreclosed, and that the policy space for those groups to work simply doesn’t exist.

Politics matters – including at home

At my previous employer, Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, we worked to reform the global trading system, to make trade policies more just and the trade policymaking process more inclusive. To do this, we worked some with international partners at the international level. But for the most part, we focused on U.S. policy. To some progressive internationalists this might seem overly limiting, but we had a fully thought out defense for this strategic choice, given our limited capacity.

The reasoning is simple: if you’re trying to improve the lives of marginalized and disadvantaged people around the world, no matter where in the world you’re talking about, U.S. policy matters. The U.S. is still a global superpower, despite the fact that many believe it’s in a long, slow state of decline. Given that reality, the fact is that U.S. policy has huge, far-reaching consequences for policy and outcomes around the world, perhaps especially in developing countries.

(Disclaimer: I, of course, no longer work at Public Citizen and do not speak for that organization in any way.)

For this reason, it isn’t short-sighted for U.S. activists, development professionals, etc to focus to some extent on U.S. policies. On the contrary: it’s necessary. If we’re fighting for political change in developing countries without also fighting for change in U.S. policies, the fruits of our efforts are likely to be fairly limited – not to mention there’s a basic hypocrisy in working for change in someone else’s society without also trying to change our own.

With that in mind, I submit that for those of us who work in development and are U.S.-based or U.S. citizens abroad, U.S. social movements should be higher on our radar. Right now, the Occupy Wall Street movement is starting to grab more of my attention. The financial crisis has roots in Wall Street and U.S. financial deregulation (as well as financial deregulation through international instruments like the WTO Financial Services Agreement, which were pushed by the U.S. and U.S. corporations). This crisis is obviously global, with far-reaching effects on developed and developing countries alike. Surely a nascent movement that seeks to shine a light on some of the major actors that caused this crisis deserves the attention of the development world, even if it might be easier to pigeonhole is as domestic U.S. politics best left to more partisan types.

Will Occupy Wall Street actually be anything significant? I have no idea. But it’s headed in the right direction. After almost two weeks of street protests in New York City, the movement is gaining momentum, not losing it. A random act of police violence went viral on the Internet and added to the sense of outrage. Last night, the 200,000-strong Transport Workers Union officially endorsed the protest and its members will be joining it on the streets today. For a movement that started out without any resources or institutional support, that’s potentially a very big deal. (As Frances Fox Piven might tell us, truly disruptive social movements don’t generally start from an institutional base, but I’d argue that institutional support is often needed to take them to the next level.)

I found this piece in Dissent to be very helpful in thinking about the Occupy Wall Street movement. Will it amount to anything? Who knows. Is it perfect? Of course not. It is worthy of the support of those of us interested in systemic change and global justice? Absolutely. In the wake of the financial crisis, the lack of any kind of powerful structural critique of the modern global financial system has been pathetic. Occupy Wall Street might not be the place where that critique finally comes into the public consciousness. But, on the other hand, it just might be that place, and therefore it’s worth getting behind.

Image above of the Occupy Wall Street protests by David Shankbone, used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Participation as Formality

I’ve written about power on this blog, but not much about participation. Well, here’s a start, although not a particularly encouraging one.

I’ve been doing some research on the so-called development “megaprojects” that are of primary concern to the Afro-Colombian and indigenous populations in the northwestern Colombian region of Urabá. This is an incredibly interesting region, not least because it is where Central America meets South America, where there is easy access to both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, and where the land is ideally suited to the production of any number of cash crops. All this is rather unfortunate for the Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities that live in the area, as they are frequently under extreme pressure to give up their land to developers, narcotraffickers, or others with economic interests.

Another important piece of background is that legally, Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities must be included in a process of prior consultation before projects can be implemented that will affect their livelihoods. This is mandated by Colombia’s Law 70 of 1993 (PDF, English translation) as well as ILO Convention 169 and other international laws to which Colombia is a signatory.

One of the megaprojects that may have extensive negative effects for the Urabá communities is a proposed electrical transmission infrastructure linking Colombia to Panama. Colombia generates excess electrical capacity and stands to gain economically if it had an efficient way to sell this capacity to Central American countries. The proposed electrical connection project, which would require the creation of almost 400 miles of power lines at an estimated cost of up to $221 million, has already garnered multiple IADB grants, including about $1 million earmarked for an environmental impact assessment. (It’s unclear to me whether this EIA has yet been completed.)

The project is to be implemented by something called Interconexión Eléctrica Colombia-Panama S.A. (ICP), a binational entity composed of Colombia’s largest electrical transmission company, ISA, and Panama’s only transmission company, ETESA. A visit to ICP’s website shows a reasonably complete site that isn’t quite ready for prime time, but is clearly open for public consumption.

Here’s what caught my eye: in the FAQ section, which has yet to be translated into English, is this utter gem.

¿Cuál es la relación de ICP con las Comarcas Indígenas?

Desde el inicio del proyecto, y a través de personal de ICP, de ETESA y de ISA, se ha establecido una relación de información sobre el proyecto con las comunidades del Corredor Energético entre Colombia y Panamá. Entre estas comunidades se encuentras las comarcas Indígenas XXXXXXX, XXXXXXX y XXXXX con quienes se han establecido mecanismos de información bidireccionales sobre el proyecto.

Here’s my rough translation:

What is the relation between ICP and the indigenous comarcas? [“comarca” is a Panamanian term for an indigenous administrative unit]

Since the beginning of the project, ICP, ETESA and ISA staff have established a relationship of information about the project with the communities of the “Energy Corridor” between Colombia and Panama. These communities include the indigenous comarcas XXXXXXX, XXXXXXX and XXXXX, with whom [we] have established mechanisms for bidirectional information sharing about the project.

There are several amazing things here. First is that ICP refers to this region as an “Energy Corridor,” which is a pretty single-minded characterization if there ever was one. Second is the language of “relationship of information,” “bidirectional information” and so on – let’s be clear, providing information does not constitute consultation. But most obvious, and most incredible, is the fact that ICP hasn’t even bothered to figure out, or post, what the names of the relevant communities are!

If there are any lingering doubts about whether this is a real, inclusive consultation process, the Colombian Constitutional Court demolished them in a ruling earlier this year. In Sentencia T-129/2011, the court takes such offense to this sham consultation, and others that have been occurring around Colombia, that it goes a step beyond existing law to demand that the prior consultation process actually be a prior informed consent process. I’ll explore the transition in Colombian jurisprudence from consultation to consent in a future post – the text of T-129 is fascinating in this regard.

For now, though, I’ll leave you to re-read that paragraph above, in which the true extent to which developmentalist entities care about the indigenous communities they displace or otherwise harm is laid bare.

What I’ve been reading

As always, in no particular order.