Monday, September 29, 2008

Questions of Responsibility: South African and U.S. Politics

I've been thinking about U.S. politics (just listening to NPR on the way to work keeps it in my mind all day!) and, of course, South African politics. I was pondering how politics relates to social responsibility and stewardship (two themes in The Concrete Gardener) and would love to hear your thoughts.

There's the obvious-- the right to vote implies a responsibility.

There's also a lot of ambiguity about what this relationship between social responsibility and politics could, or should be. I know the phrase "social responsibility" means a whole lot of different things, so I guess I should be more specific. I'm thinking about it in the context of consuming carefully, taking care of the environment, and being engaged in issues of injustice. All of which can be pretty time consuming, right? I thought of a few questions around this ambiguity:

1) Is it worth my time?
2) What should I do if my candidate isn't elected?
3) Does it matter? Should I really care about this, if my life has always been the same independent of who is in power?

I think when it comes to people's time, our passions and priorities can be our guide-- but only to an extent. That is, it's silly to get super-engaged in something that doesn't really excite us, just because it seems like it fits with living socially responsible lives. Yet the act of voting should involve some process of truly understanding the candidates. The rest: campaigning, participating in local elections, I think that's what can be based on your passions. So back to the essential: knowing the candidates.

There's a vague idea out there that politics is a dirty business, and therefore engaging at any level is bound to get you dirty. I can relate to this feeling. In particular, if you stand with a particular candidate, you may be standing with him/her despite the fact you disagree strongly on some issues. Putting in my lot with an imperfect leader feels a little dangerous in terms of the person I'm trying to come across as, right? There's often little nuance in politicians messages (because they must deliver sound bytes), yet usually a lot of thought behind our own beliefs.

But it seems like it's better to be engaged, informed and involved than not, even it means voting a more simplistic message than you dreamed of. Even if you turn out to be totally wrong about a candidate, it doesn't mean your politics or your identity need come crashing down. I've often struggled to put my opinions out there for fear that a) I'm wrong and being obnoxious or b) my opinion will be misinterpreted. But I think it's worth putting it out there to be tested.

Related to question 3), I think even if your life personally has not changed significantly under different administrations, don't assume it's all the same. Try to find out why it matters, and to whom. Leadership always changes things. Check out the candidates websites, for a start, and look at fact checking websites to see if they stretch the truth.

I think question 2) is pretty important. My opinion on this is that you should build up the candidate who is elected, by generating conversation about that candidate and in local politics, and by complaining through channels that might just facilitate change. It's just too easy to undermine a candidate in a totally unhelpful way, by attacking him or her in incredibly general terms. This usually just makes me more angry and frustrated. It's a lot more empowering to generate conversation that is specific and complain through channels that may evoke change.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Poverty as the Cause of AIDS?

As Mbeki is forced out of government, I've been thinking about one of the things that made him and his health minister unpopular internationally. He's famous for saying, in 1999, that poverty (and therefore not the HIV virus) was the cause of AIDS. It was deeply unpopular internationally (and at home), because there was a sense that he was undermining the reality that AIDS is caused by the HIV virus, which is transmitted by body fluids, not poverty. It's interesting (I think, in the context of issues of imperialism, colonialism, and racism) that the international community (or at least the media I was exposed to at the time) assumed Mbeki had some sort of weird voodoo/communist belief that they had to counter with a biology lesson, rather than that he was speaking in the political realm, with a political motive that was important to engage and question.

There are three points I would like to propose:

1) Thabo Mbeki knows that HIV is a virus, that HIV is transmitted by body fluids, and that the only way for someone who is HIV + to live well for an extended length of time is through anti-retrovirals.
2) Curb your enthusiasm if you think a new government automatically means better HIV/AIDS policy. Jacob Zuma likely doesn't truly know at least one of the above.
3) Maybe Thabo Mbeki isn't completely wrong.

Going to point (2) first: Jacob Zuma, when on trial for rape a couple of years ago, said that he had consensual sex without a condom with an HIV+ woman, and protecting himself by showering afterwards. This was a major step back for HIV/AIDS education. In resource-limited countries like South Africa, preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS may be even more valuable (because it has potential to become less resource-driven) than finding ways to make ARVs accessible.

1) and 3)
South Africa fought (and won) a battle against big pharmaceuticals to allow South Africans access to cheap drugs. They did this while Mbeki was president.

Nancy Krieger of Harvard school of Public Health has, for decades, posited the ways that poverty is the root cause of many diseases. This is super-intuitive on one hand (look at life expectancies in poor countries, or even amongst certain minorities in the United States), and far less intuitive on the other (wait, what about the bugs/cholesterol/cancer cells?).

Perhaps optimistically, I interpret Mbeki's statements to mean "if it wasn't AIDS, it would be something else. It's poverty and inequality that causes people to die young in our country." I think this is ultimately true.

In public health, there is a powerful move towards understanding the root causes of disease and disability. There’s a tension in this relationship. Pulling hard from one side is the idea that you should tackle what you can handle, as well as the idea of personal agency and responsibility. From the other side, if someone really doesn't have a reasonable choice to live a healthy life, shouldn't we be looking at society? I wonder if we can walk that line where we acknowledge agency while focusing our energy on making good choices real and attractive solutions to age-old problems.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Social Entrepeneurship, Life, and Zuma

Jo Hunter Adams

I recently read a book called "How to Change the World" by David Bernstein. It was a collection of life histories of influential people that the author had interviewed. I wanted to share two things.

Many of the stories were linked to an organization called Ashoka. I was struck by the idea that you can't hire people when it comes to social change. He argued that you can't create a social entrepeneur. This idea really helped me to make sense of my discomfort with many international aid agencies. I'm critical in a limited (and often ignorant) way. On the one hand, "what do I know?!" On the other hand, "something's wrong with this picture!" (particularly, when outside, terribly well-paid professionals are brought in from the outside). There's a positive to be gleaned from this picture. That, in every community there are social entrepeneurs, traders in social change, who international aid agencies can join and share a vision with. I am really excited about that idea, of generating income or support with the understanding that the vision is something bigger that you may not be able to totally get your head around.

The second message I found powerful was that there is no end to what can be achieved by an individual who doesn't care who gets credit. Enough said.

In other news, Zuma.
As many of you know, Mbeki has been given three days to leave government. It's virtually impossible to overestimate the way that this news alters South African politics.

Although I'm not implying that the world will end or that South African life will change day to day, I just think it's a massive turn, because it is a move that is completely based in a vendetta, which is being placed above the good of the nation. My personal opinion is that if an individual (and the ANC as a party) can place personal good this far above collective good, and ignore the political process that has been so essential in holding the country together, there's a lot for us to be worried about. I'm obviously not in South Africa, so if those of you who are would like to speak to this, I invite you to do so.

Thanks everyone.

Giving to Change

Jo Hunter Adams

Giving to Change is now available here!

This is my very first, very short e-book, and is 100% free. I wanted to share some of our experiences this past year, where my spouse and I have been learning how to give financially for personal and social change.

It's a pretty small file, so you shouldn't have a problem downloading it to your computer. I've been trying to work out how to make a pdf freely available and I can't upload it to this site, so I had to use a free hosting site. Once you get to the hosting site, you'll click "download file."

If you don't feel like downloading a file, let me know and I can invite you to view through google docs. I would use google docs exclusively, but unfortunately it requires individual invitations.

Thank you so much for your support!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

It's that time of year again: Basil Pesto and Tomato sauce

Using up the last of the tomatoes and basil before the cold weather comes...

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Fair Trade: Two Dimensions of Meaning

Jo Hunter Adams

I've been reading two books recently, both with the words "Fair Trade" in the title. I've been mulling over these two concepts of Fair Trade. On the one hand, fair trade is a term used to describe the compensation a farmer or group of farmers receive for their products and labour. The implication is that much trade is unfair. On the other hand, fair trade is a term used when economists are looking more broadly at what might be just and profitable at a national and international level. They're deeply interconnected. However, they also bring with them the idea that some trade might not be fair, and that trade at the interpersonal and interstate level is not just about the bottom line, but about what that bottom line might mean for producers and consumers, communities and societies.

Justice and Capitalism
I'm no economist, but something about products-that-don't-make-the-most-profit-they- possibly-can doesn’t ring true. At the micro-level, farmers making relationships and trading directly with buyers (often in other countries) seems to overcome this: they are essentially offering a different product to the consumer. The cost and the profit can be placed on a marginally separate scale.

When it comes to countries trading with countries, however, I get a little fuzzy because intuitively, it seems that countries (and their trade negotiators) need to be negotiating on behalf of their country. I can imagine myself: even if ethically and morally I strongly believed that a trade was not fair, I would work within the legal parameters and standards of the system to ensure the best deal for South Africa. That would be my role, as I would not be acting as an individual, but on behalf of others.

That may be one of the most profound challenges of consensus-building in international trade. In Fair Trade for all, Stiglitz and Charlton argue that trade is extremely complicated, and much of the time those making decisions do not understand the full ramifications of their actions. This may be true, but it makes me uncomfortable. The system should not be so complicated that it's all you can keep in your head at one time. Sure, political leaders should have economic advisors; but leaders should also be able to understand the big picture enough make decisions based on their knowledge of their constituents-- the rich and the poor (economists do not, and should not be expected to, have such a relationship with a community or country). Political decision-makers should bring to the table some knowledge of what works on the ground. Instead, Stiglitz argues that this is not the case.

He defines fair trade both in terms of impact and in terms of the process used to reach a decision:

1. Agreements should be assessed in terms of impact on development.
2. Agreement should be fair
3. Agreement should be arrived at fairly
4. Agenda limited to trade related and development friendly issues.

These tenets were not helpful for me to get around the issue of who traders and decision makers are representing when they come to the table. It seems that whoever is invited to the negotiating table is immediately more powerful than those who they represent: in such a situation, how can the interests of small “informal” traders every truly be represented?

He also argues that unfair trade makes poverty everyone's responsibility. At the time of writing, three times as much was lost in trade source restrictions as all the overseas development poor countries receive from all sources. I find this compelling if only to decrease our smugness over helping those “in need”.

Reading “Fair Trade for all” and “Javatrekker” together helped me to conceptualize how one type of fair trade feeds into the other. While fair trade at a macro-level seems to naturally slip towards very complex abstraction, fair trade between farmers speaks concretely to exactly the challenges of bringing small traders and farmers who have been disenfranchised by unfair trade, to the table.

I’m not sure where my readers are in their understanding of fair trade, so bear with me if I’m going over the basics or assuming too much about your knowledge.

Ideally, fair trade of specific products (coffee, chocolate, sugar) bring together ethical buyers and sellers so that they can negotiate a good profit for both parties. Since there is a direct relationship between buyer and seller, the negotiation seems far less abstract, and far less complicated. Such a relational model seems concrete. The challenge here is that buyers (and most sellers) are up against an entire system.

A one minute summary of Fair Trade is as follows:
- Farmers are given a living wage for their products
- Products are farmed using environmentally sustainable methods
- Farmers have the right to unionize
- Fair trade certification is provided by an independent body, which assesses whether or not these standards are being upheld.

I’m not saying anything new here, so perhaps I should break in with a bit of what Dean Cycon wrote in Javatrekker.

“Providing a fair wage is much better than providing charity.” (xv)

Although the book has strong critiques of the mainstream system, I found it compelling that as a Fair Trade business, the writer's "Dean's Beans" was doing extremely well. This in itself, may speak as much to the skill of the businessman, but it also speaks to the possibility of creating profitable, fair trade businesses.

As for the critiques of the system, one of my favourite stories was of a 28 year old non-Kenyan employee of the World Bank. The system was set up so that this individual was in the position to define what an entire industry (the Kenyan coffee trade) needed to do to be successful. The government was essentially held hostage by these recommendations; if the recommendations were not followed, World Bank loans would not flow into the system. Thus, structural adjustment meant that the government has to listen to a 28 yr old, via the world bank. Cycon acknowledges that the 28 year old was super-intelligent. The critique is of one individual, an outsider, whose opinion was valued more than a collective, or of a farmer, etc.

More on this soon...