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.

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