Tag Archives: grassroots social movements

When Less is More

8 Dec

Photo Courtesy thethreesisters via Creative Commons

It may all be very nice of Facebook’s young Sun King to donate a big swack of cash – some $45 billion at current market value in company shares – to charity. It might encourage others to think about donating something, or to at least think about the very issue of inequality. It might even annoy Bill Gates that his $41-billion philanthropy earmark is no longer the largest such donation ever.

Yet somehow Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s announcement brings out not only the skeptic in me but also the critic. And that’s because previous flashy donations of big money designated to in some way confront poverty often seem to miss the whole point.

I realize that other observers of billionaire philanthropy have come out with criticisms already. One of them, Linsey McGoey was recently interviewed here on CBC Radio. She wrote a book about the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, called No Such Thing as a Free Gift, which exposes the way its vast trove of funding actually ends up enhancing the same systems that made these philanthrocapitalists billionaires in the first place.

In a recent Guardian column, she pointed out how the three items wealthy people like Gates tend to fund – microfinance, impact investing and growing grants to corporations – “there is little direct evidence of positive outcomes for the global poor and considerable evidence that such trends tend to enrich the wealthy at the poor’s expense.”

In fact, the Zuckerberg billions aren’t even going to a charity as such, or even into a foundation, but into a limited liability company. It will, presumably, disburse funding to efforts the young couple deem worthy – not that you and I will ever know necessarily what those efforts are and whether or not they achieve anything. That’s the way such companies are set up.

And for me, this is the point.

When wealthy donors choose to support certain projects and initiatives, those choices are always based on their on their world views. It is, after all, their money.

It may provide medical care or save lives, but it won’t do anything to ensure that the poor will have a more permanent system, a state system, to provide such essential services.

Or it may, like the Gates foundation has, push a lot of investment into charter schools for American children. But it fails to consider the fact that maybe disadvantaged kids would have better educational opportunities if their parents earned a decent wage.

It’s clearly not the priorities of poor people that inform the choices made by these wealthy donors, business tycoons who have little idea of what it’s like to live as a disenfranchised person in a Third World country – or even in a rich country.

In my new book, The Anatomy of Giving, I devote less time that I would have liked to the fact that the Gates Foundation initially supported, then withdrew their support from, a very worthy organization – Slum/Shack Dwellers International, or SDI.

I write about the SDI in my previous book about grassroots social movements. Their affiliates in places of desperate urban poverty like India and South Africa work to empower the urban poor within grassroots social movements to demand tenure rights, land and better services, and also to recognize the capabilities and responsibilities of the poor. In fact, organizations like SDI, or the Indian Alliance, are not charities at all. So I was surprised when I learned that, some eight years ago, they got a big boost from the Gates’.

I felt less surprised and more cynical when I learned that, a few years later, the foundation decided to place their funding elsewhere. No real explanation for that from Melanie Walker, who directed that project: Mr. Gates and his board had simply decided that it “was no longer the best use of foundation resources for the kinds of poverty alleviation we were seeking.”

For people who consider themselves on the cutting edge of technological innovation it is disheartening to see how un-innovative their ideas on poverty, and the causes of poverty, are. They may talk about inequality, as Zuckerberg and Chan do in their announcement. But they don’t seem to understand that poverty has political roots. Change means changing the system. And changing the system means changing the way people think, and the relations between poor people and local elites.

The thing is: there are many movements and approaches that do make a difference in the lives of the poor. But they don’t seem to get much attention, or support, from the world’s billionaires.

Rather, each new super-donor comes to the table with not just a lot of money but with his or her own ideas of what needs to be done with it.

In that sense, would it not be a lot more helpful, a lot more revolutionary and innovative, if philanthrocapitalists actually gave away less money, but did so in ways that recognize the notion that there are already a lot of great solutions out there?

Those solutions don’t usually include the inflation of some important person’s ego, however. Maybe that’s why they don’t get the support they deserve from people like the Zuckerbergs or the Gates.












What’s for Lunch?

1 Oct
CC Photo by B.Adams

CC Photo by B.Adams

Well, if you are poor, these little creepy crawlies apparently.

A group of McGill University MBA students won a prestigious award from Bill Clinton last week, for having the best idea for a new social enterprise. This year’s challenge for the annual Hult Prize, which consists of a million bucks and some mentoring from top international business persons, was to come up with a solution to secure food for undernourished communities, particularly in urban slums. Their idea: insect farming.

That’s right. Along with Golden Rice, the urban poor might now improve their diets with ground up insects, which are nutritious, sustainable, already consumed by lots of people in the Global South and, I assume, cheaper than other protein sources like pulses or meat.

But I have an even better idea for Mr. Clinton and the Hult B-School poobahs. Land Reform!

Here’s my business plan: An astonishing number of Third World countries have both big populations of rural landless or land poor and, at the same time, enormous tracts of empty fertile land belonging either to the state or to very rich, absentee landlords. (So much in fact that they can afford to lease such land for mere pennies to multi-national corporations based in other nations.)

Take this land and divide it up among these rural families so that each one has enough to cultivate and earn a decent living. Those families will then be able to feed themselves, instead of being net buyers of food as most of them are, taking some pressure off of markets.

With the money they earn from actually selling to those markets instead of buying, they will be able to send their children to school, helping to end illiteracy and ignorance.

They will also be able to purchase things they need, helping to boost local economies, instead of abandoning their tiny plots and actually swelling urban slums seeking jobs that don’t exist.

Having enough land will also allow them to plant more trees to protect their water sources and help halt global warming. And lots of rural grassroots social movements are already organized to facilitate such transfers in an equable manner and offer agricultural advice and support.

Oh, and did I forget to mention this? It’s also inherently fair.

Maybe my idea is too logical for global decision-makers, because I don’t think any MBA students have ever thought of this. World Bank economists and big donors have also failed to suggest this as a solution to poverty. (Look at Zimbabwe! They say. Look at South Korea! I say.)

No, it is somehow more logical — and let’s face it, the market is based on rational behaviour, right?  — to spend millions of dollars tinkering around the edges of the real issue, the real cause of Third world poverty, which is the unequal distribution of resources.

Those MBA students may be congratulating themselves for their million-dollar windfall by putting bugs on the menu of the urban poor — while fighting off accusations of plagiarizing the research of a fellow student — but I’m not buying it. Nor should you, and nor should the poor. We can do better than this. And if we don’t, it’s because we don’t really want to.


Paulo, Maria — and the Hulk

19 Jun


About a week ago,  fully expecting to receive a ‘yes,’ I sent an email to find out if legal possession had finally been granted to the families occupying an already expropriated estate in north east Brazil. I had stayed with the families in June 2006, after which the National Institute for Agrarian Reform designated the land as “unproductive,” and visited again in 2010.

But the answer I received instead was ‘no.’ Why? “Because,” in the words of the Landless Peasant Movement coordinator there, “the purchase value is very high because of the many physical structures” on this estate.

What??? Excuse me, Brazilian government, but haven’t you just spent $30 billion on a soccer tournament? Aren’t you pouring more billions into “physical structures” for the upcoming FIFA world cup and the Olympics? You don’t have a few tens of thousands available to pay for the estate owner’s house, office and the simple concrete dam he built in the nearby Meio River?

If an illustration were needed to explain the nation-wide anti-government protests roiling Brazil right now, the predicament of landless peasant farmers like Paulo and Maria da Silva would provide the perfect one. Theirs is just one example of the extraordinary inequality between a huge population of poor and under-served Brazilians and the comparative few who have reaped fortunes from the country’s erstwhile economic boom.

For me, Paulo da Silva is one of this world’s great unsung heroes. He had a job on the 5000-hectare estate, where a Recife-based magnate named Slaibe Hatem raised a few cattle. When the MST targeted the land for occupation and expropriation, he went straight down to join them, frustrated for years by his paltry salary and the unrelenting refusal of the estate manager to let him plant a garden, raise chickens or even collect honey. He has stuck with the occupation through thick and thin, patiently waiting for the day when the INCRA would finally — finally — make good on its decision to hand this enormous piece of land to the hundreds of poverty stricken families who would turn it into a patchwork of productive farm land.

And now it’s saying, sorry, giving you the right to earn your own living is just too expensive. There is money for show-off projects that will bring no economic capacity to Brazil, but none for agrarian reform, education, health care or paying the people, whose houses we have bulldozed in order to build stadiums, a fair and decent indemnification.

The lack of action on the plight of Paulo and Maria da Silva is especially heart-breaking. I have huge respect for this couple and know about their many great ideas to make Hatem’s former fazenda a model of diversified organic farming, including a major honey operation that could potentially boost exports and provide jobs in a region where unemployment is chronic.

No one should be surprised at the level of fury behind the current protests in Brazil. People expected better of a government run by the Workers Party, a party that struggled for years to win acceptance and always vowed to forge a different, more equitable society. Because of their popular political positions, it was difficult to organize any meaningful protests against them when they fouled up on their principles, although in fact, the MST has been demonstrating for years on the lack of importance given to agrarian reform. But now the rhetoric of the WP government has been shown for hollow thing it is, and the tables are being turned. For several days now, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets of Rio, Sao Paulo, Florianopolis, Curitiba, Belo Horizonte and Belem. On Tuesday, members of Toronto’s Brazilian community held a sympathy march in front of City Hall.

Even the Brazil team midfielder Givanildo Vieira de Souza, known as Hulk, has come out in defence of the protesters. “I come from the bottom of the social ladder and now I have a good life,” he said. “I see these demonstrators and I know that they are right.”

So if the news about Paulo has left me depressed and incredibly indignant, the news a few days later about the scope and determination of the protestors has given me back some hope. I hope it gives Paulo some as well. And I hope Brazil’s bureaucracy wakes up, looks out the window and sees the real Hulk, the average person who has turned into an angry, fed-up super-hero. And  realizes that these are the people they should be working for. Not a government that has lot all sense of fairness, honesty and integrity.

(This great little video by Carla Dauden has me feeling pretty good as well.)

Some Thoughts on Chavez

7 Mar

There is a quote I use from Tony Benn in my book, Broke But Unbroken, that goes like this: “All progress comes from underneath. All real achievements are collective.”

It is an idea that is neither novel nor unusual, but with the death yesterday of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, I think it’s one many on the Left would do well to ponder.

Yes, he was an unalloyed champion of the Venezuelan underdog, using public money from the country’s oil industry to greatly reduce poverty and inequality. He took a country where an estimated 21 percent of people suffered from malnutrition and turned resources to education, health, housing, pensions for the elderly and agriculture. He supported grassroots social movements like Brazil’s Landless and Rural Workers Movement through scholarships to medical schools and agronomy courses. And in doing all of that he underlined the comparison we can make with other underdeveloped countries, especially the resource rich ones, that have never even tried to makes these kinds of endeavours and where poverty remains endemic and horrible.

But that is not a revolution. At least not the kind I’d prefer to see. Decision-making power remained in the hands of Chavez and his ministers. The improvements they made may have been significant, but they came from and were controlled up top, not down below.

And while I enjoyed his ‘the-smell-of-sulphur-is-still-here’ speech at the U.N. a few years ago as much as anyone,  I don’t think there is any kind of a positive spin that can be put on his embrace of extraordinarily nasty dictators like Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Likewise, he may have got rid of the hegemony of profit-minded, rich-country petroleum companies in Venezuela’s oil fields, yet only transferred the same powers to China, one of the most undemocratic nations on earth. According to Intercambio Climático, it now owes China more than $35 billion in so-called commodity backed loans.

The disconnect between popularity and popular power can be seen, I think, in the troubling story of a housing project Venezuela built in Zorange, a district near the slum of Cité Soleil, in the Haitian capital of Port au Prince. Built at a cost of $4.9 million, 128 solid new homes sat empty for 15 months before a few chosen families were finally allowed to move in. By then desperate squatters had already gone in and taken over 50 of the houses. Who would get a house and through what mechanism has never been very clear, but one thing is certain: this was not a project designed with or directed by any organization of the urban poor in Haiti. Representatives of government, both Venezuelan and Haitian, were the one making the decisions.

Anyone can make mistakes, but the emotional, even irrational, adulation of Chavez and hatred of anyone who questioned him makes it impossible to want to cut the late leader any slack. Villifying people who have ideas different from his — and I do not include here the kind of people who would like to roll back time and have a small, ridiculously over-privileged elite return to its position of power — is not just short-sighted and unhelpful but unfair.(Ibid for the folks who lean the other way and think Chavez is the worst leader in the world.)

Venezuela still faces major challenges. Its crime rate is out of control — and along with enough to eat and a roof over one’s head, basic security is also a human right. Its economy is highly unbalanced, raising questions regarding whether it will need to exploit dirtier sources of oil and exacerbate global warming, and of course the wide political gulf still divides Venezuelans.

Authentic political and socio-economic progress still eludes Venezuela, but when it does come, it will be collective and it will come from below.

More Idle No More and the Two Row Wampum

1 Feb
The Two Row Wampum

The Two Row Wampum

Earlier this week, I went to an event organized by Idle No More at our city hall as part of an international day of action to press their demands now that parliament is back in session. It seemed like a good opportunity to listen to what some of the movement’s participants had to say.

The first person I spoke with wasn’t even supposed to be there, she told me. A teacher at a Six Nations Reserve school – and officially an employee of the federal government — she had been obliged to sign a new “code of ethics,”  she told me, “or we’d lose our jobs. And it had in there no protesting.” That’s why she couldn’t tell me her name she added.  “We can’t talk about it. We can’t talk to our kids about Idle No More when it has everything to do with their future.”

But she was also the first person who spoke to me about the Two Row Wampum. This is a belt with two rows of purple beads and three rows of white, which codified the relationship, first for Iroquois but later for other native groups as well, set up between them and European colonizers in the 17th century.

The purple rows represent two boats, the native canoe and the European ship, sailing the same waters on their own independent trajectories. “The two lines are never supposed to touch each other or intersect,” she said, meaning neither could pass laws that would interfere in the steering of their craft.

Whether Canadian governments of the past have respected the intent of such an agreement is certainly open to argument but now, with the Conservative government and their omnibus bills, that policy of non-interference or imposition of dependency has certainly gone by the wayside.

Rather, said one speaker, “We are being run off a cliff by people who don’t know what they are doing.”

But what kind of movement is this exactly? This is a question I am still trying to answer. I got much closer after speaking to a young man named Earl Lambert.

INM’s goals is not so much to devise native-led solutions to endemic native poverty in Canada, he said, but “to bring awareness of specific issues that are being ignored by our provincial and federal governments, and poverty is one of them.

So we want to raise awareness around those issues, but we don’t want to stray from the core unifying theme of Idle No More, which is to stand up for our land, our territories, and our right to make decisions about our environment.”

Different communities have different agendas and priorities, especially if one has resources an another does not. “You’re going to have  two different outlooks on how they want to be dealt with on a nation to nation basis by the fed government,” said Mr. Lambert, “ but it’s not something you can put a band aid on and say, ‘okay, everything’s fixed now.’ I think it’s  something that has to be individually addressed, from province to province, region to region or nation to nation.”

So what is next for this movement? “This is just another seed being planted today,” said Mr. Lambert. “This is my 13th rally, so I see the seed being nurtured, and what we want to see is different nationalities come together, so people understand that this is about our children. It’s about our future. It’s about protecting our environment. It’s not just an Indian thing; it’s something that affects all of us.”

“Hopefully, he added, more and more people “will come on board and  say, ‘Right  on. Thanks for taking a stand, for not being afraid to get out there and speak up.”

What’s Next for Idle No More?

14 Jan


I think that, for most people, it is by now a given that we don’t want things to go on as they have been for — if not all  — a sizeable majority of Canada’s First Nations.

I don’t believe anyone — or anyone serious — opposes the idea of native people living in better, more prosperous communities, free of the devastating problems that assail so many of them.

It only makes sense that the people who were already here when Europeans arrived should have rights over the land and resources that might get them there, and at the same time be able to take more responsibility for, and wield more decision-making power over, their lives.

So for many of us, the big question is: will the Idle No More movement that is gathering both steam and media attention across the country will accomplish this?

The other day I spoke to a friend who lives and works in a Dene community in the Northwest Territories, counting on her in-depth knowledge for some guidance. I guess what is puzzling me is the divergence I see between the movement’s grassroots vibrancy, on the one hand, and on the other, the tendency for discussions about the future restricted to the Canadian government and various leaders of existing and official organizations like the Assembly of First Nations. If neither entity has, over the past few years, succeeded in pioneering positive change, I can’t help but wonder what they will come up with now.

What’s more, as my friend D. pointed out, with the critique of the official leadership that is emerging in Idle No More, it has become obvious that for many native Canadians, there is a feeling that a lot of their official leaders are, as she put it, “in the pockets of industry and the federal government.”

Right now, the one unifying factor within the movement is its outright opposition to the Conservative government’s Omnibus Bill that, they say, will remove rather than enhance their few rights. According to D., Bill C-45’s multiple proposed provisions are both thorough and dangerous. “The amount of detail in there is incredible,” she said.

One example: reforms to the Fisheries Act that will redefine fish habitat deserving protection only as areas that are currently fished. That means areas left alone for a few years, whether to allow stocks to rebuild or whatever reason, could be open to exploitation.

It is at the grassroots, however, where Idle No More is most interesting and open-ended and potentially innovative. This is the bigger part of the picture: tens of thousands of native Canadians and Metis all over the country mobilizing and talking about the need for change. They are using social media, the traditional media and a vibrant cultural language to get their message across.

For D., the way Idle No More has got “a lot people who would never even have remotely imagined doing something like that” taking action is an example of its growing resonance.

That the message is still inchoate should come as no surprise. Maybe, like the Occupy Movement, Idle No More has not come up with a clear set of proposals outlining all the changes First Nations want to see. But we are the ones who have tended to lump together vastly different peoples, language groups and cultures into one stereotypical Indian for centuries. Having said that, some organizations, like Defenders of the Land and Taiaiake Alfred’s Wasase, have offered up some specific demands.

One of my biggest unanswered questions has to do with the hunger strike protest strategy of Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence: to be honest, I don’t agree with hunger strikes, considering them an individualist response that bars participation from others. This hunger strike, nonetheless, proved to be the main catalyst for the movement’s starting up. So maybe I am wrong, although I am still unclear about its implications.

Because one implication is that some, possibly many, Canadians will see it as a kind of blackmail. As ‘do what I want or I’ll kill myself.’ So while the prime minister finally agreed to meet with indigenous leaders last Friday, I have little faith that he will do a U-turn on Bill C-45 and his dreams of forcing our environment to meet our fiscal wish list.

And he could very well appeal instead to the side of Canadians that is racist and anti-Indian, that is convinced that the squalid living conditions, social ills and addictions that plague many native communities, are the fault of natives themselves — the Deloitte  & Touche audit of Attawapiskat’s finances being one such example.

So maybe we do need some clarity. Maybe we do need to see more of a dialogue, not between leaders but among ordinary people, both native and non-native.

My research on grassroots social movements in the developing world revealed, I believe, some useful examples of what to look for. And these include the notion that the poor and disenfranchised are better and more capable of proposing and working out solutions to their multitude of problems than the state. They may work with the state but they also topple the top-down paradigm of devising and delivering improvements. The National Slum Dwellers Federation, with its emphasis on community savings, community policing, housing designed according to the needs and specifications of the poor, and value change, is one of the clearest exponents, I’d say, of this way of thinking about and making change.

The combination of short-term struggle and long-term strategies in the Landless Rural Workers Movement in Brazil is another, while in Indonesia, I see another movement that embraces another truly vast area and plethora of different cultures united under a similar quest for rights.

So I will be watching Idle No More for the next few weeks, and hopefully longer, trying to answer the questions: what’s next for Idle No More? What’s next for Canada’s First Nations?




This is a post about Cambodia …

9 Oct

People who keep up on these things — and it’s too bad that there aren’t more who do — are already probably aware of the troublesome spread of corporate agriculture into some of the world’s poorest countries, and how this cruelly deprives some of the most economically distressed people on the planet — small-holding peasant farmers — of their land.

But did you know that the World Bank actually helps them do so? And with your money?

A study by the WB’s own monitoring arm actually admitted that about 30% of its agribusiness-investment projects involved what it euphemistically called “involuntary resettlement” and impacted the lives of more than a million people.

This year the WB earmarked $5 million in soft loans for agribusiness in Cambodia, a nation where more than 2 million hectares of farmland has been cleared over the past several years so that the government can lease it to corporate agriculture.

Interestingly, the WB’s receiver bank in Cambodia didn’t get much interest (no pun intended) from potential borrowers. Other local banks were apparently offering loans at cheaper rates, according to a project report.

The WB also said that a portion its/our money was going to help “SMEs” — small and medium sized growers. While the Bank has no stats on its website to show sizes of acreages of the farmers who did borrow, I am guessing that the guy with a big family and a hectare or two would not be seeking help from the World Bank, then finding somewhere else with lower rates. It just doesn’t make sense.

And who certainly is in no position to borrow are the estimated 400,000 small-holding farmers who have been evicted by the Cambodian government in order to clear it for foreign takeover.

Violence has also been part of this whole enterprise. So far, three people have been killed, including a teenage girl during one of the forced evictions. And thirteen women are in jail for trying to stop the loss of their families’ lands and livelihoods.

According to a study by the Cambodia Development Research Institute, or CDRI, international banks are buying most of the vast leases on offer, and some 85 companies utilizing the areas to grow everything from teak to rubber to biofuels to sugar cane. There is even a Canadian company, based in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, of all places, that is about to expand onto 5000 acres to grow stevia, a plant that offers us first world fatties a zero-calorie sweetener.

According to the Guardian, perhaps the only paper covering these atrocities, “Those evicted to make way for superfarms are entitled to compensation, but rarely get it. Cambodia’s land title system is in shambles, and poor farmers rarely hold deeds for their land – even if they are legally entitled to them, based on possession rights.” (Actually it was Khmer Rouge psychopaths who destroyed all of the country’s landownership data.)

But today’s violence is indicative of something else: a fight back from below by peasant farmers, organized to demand justice. It includes human rights activists, land and environmental activists and even monks.

This follows the strike last May of 5000 garment workers, demanding a $30 pay rise on their incredibly meager monthly salary of $61. They are part of a $3.4 billion industry in Cambodia, making clothing for companies like J.Crew, Old Navy, Levis and The Gap.

We are increasingly dependent, it seems, on the global poor, who make the clothes we wear and give up the land on which the ingredients of our everyday possession are made, from soap to tires to furniture. They get a few dollars a day to make what we buy, all of this mediated by businessmen and banks.

But we should at the very least be aware of what the poor, whether in Cambodia or Haiti, are putting up with to supply us with our ‘things.’ And to recognize the strength and determination of the human spirit when they do their bit, at least, to push back against the machine.