Tag Archives: Third World urban movements

Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

7 Jun


Perhaps the true genius of this book by Katherine Boo becomes most apparent when you realize that the title is not a bit of poetry meant to attract literary kudos, but refers to a row of billboards lining the road advertising a brand of wall tiles.

Behind them lies Annawadi, the slice of undercity referenced in the book’s  subtitle, Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum.

The stories this book tells are real — although as dramatic as any Brazilian soap opera — and are those of the people living in that slum, its garbage pickers and dealers, its children, its ambitious kindergarten teacher yearning for political power – and young Abdul, a 17-year-old Muslim buyer and sorter of trash falsely accused of murder.

Boo’s writing brings us so intimately into his life and the life of this community that one can only wonder at the author’s patience and determination to pierce its wall of language, culture and vast economic disparity in order to do so.

These portraits also reveal the Byzantine complexity of a typical slum’s many power relationships — within families, within the slum itself, with the rest of the city and from there to the world beyond it. For indeed there are, behind the scenes, politicians hoping to win votes and foreigners hoping to do good. There is some cementing of footpaths and piping of water paid for either by government or NGOs.

Yet it becomes obvious, how very ineffectual these poverty alleviation attempts can be: the women’s self-help group that is manipulated by the less poor, the funding of so-called bridge schools for labouring children that ends up in the pockets of its organizers, the dreadful Sister Paulette who searches for orphans who are not orphans in order to draw foreigners’ money.

Designed as they may well be to try to deal with poverty and inequality, almost any scheme, it would seem, is easily gamed, and come to resemble the very recycling industry on which many in Annawadi depend for survival: bits of wire or an odd screw, left-overs picked up after those in power — the police, politicians, money lenders or even the less poor – have taken the lion’s share.

There are pretty clearly no “partnerships” here between aid agencies and the poor. As Boo writes, “(W)hen foreign journalists came to Mumbai to see whether self-help groups were empowering women, government officials sometimes took them to see Asha. Her job was to gather random female neighbours to smile demurely while the officials went on about how their collective had lifted them from poverty.”

This book reminds me of course of my experiences in Dharavi and Byculla  with members of the National Slum Dwellers Federation and its sister organization Mahila Milan. They are missing in this story – and sadly in Annawadi, as well.

For while many in Annawadi share their values and capabilities, the lack of organization means that  although the slum dwellers often got mad at their mistreatment, they “rarely got mad together.” And so, as Boo concludes, “the gates of the rich, occasionally rattled, remained unbreached.”

I feel a bit uncomfortable using this amazing book as a pulpit from which to expound the virtues of the grassroots movement I came to know and respect during my (brief) stay in Mumbai, instead of simply letting myself enjoy Boo’s luminous writing and wonderful true characters. But I can’t help it, really. As I made my way through it, I couldn’t help thinking about Sangira Ansari from Mahila Milan, who told me, “It is such a big thing to obtain a house of our own, that we feel this is our strength, and because of that we want to tell people to join. There are lots of people like us and we should support them.”

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?




India Protests Provoke a Personal Rethink

31 Dec

I have to admit I’m not terribly fond of feminists — the one I know best having thrown her ill husband out of the house at the same time she was legally trying to claim his pension.

Nor do I really pay much attention to feminism as a political pursuit although its dictionary definition (which I just looked up) — a doctrine or movement that advocates equal rights for women — is something I not only agree with but find patently obvious.

I know that statistics from Canada and the United States show that women now make up half the workforce, that more than half of all students of higher learning and that equal pay for work of equal value is increasingly common. And so, I’ve long thought, who needs feminism anymore?

Yet the death two days ago of a young woman in Delhi after a horrific rape on a bus makes me want to devote my final posting of the year to this issue. The ensuing protests after this brutal crime — one that could only have been perpetrated against a woman — give me hope that in those many, many places where lower status rather than equality for women is taken for granted, some major rethinking and soul searching is going on, among both men and women. They make me realize that while the struggle for equal rights has been largely successful here in the so-called first world and may even be thought to have been completed, millions of women in other countries are still treated in ways no human being should be subjected to.

And it also makes me realize that, academic as I often feel the feminist argument is, and unsympathetic as I find so many feminists, the movement itself has been extraordinarily important. It has not only righted a plethora of wrongs but saved lives and made ‘our’ world, let’s say, a better place.

But it needs to continue. It clearly needs our support and attention in all these other contexts.

A few years ago, I spent some time with members of a women’s organization in Mumbai called Mahila Milan, or Women Together. It is affiliated to the National Slum Dwellers Federation and part of the larger grassroots social movement of the urban poor called the Indian Alliance. At the end of that day I returned to their small office in Jhulla Maidan, where a group of little girls were playing, and I later wrote:

‘These little girls are dressed in salwar kameez of dazzling colours, but noticeably second-hand. The heat has pressed strands of hair against their foreheads and pinked their cheeks. They seem bright and happy, but anyone might wonder what kinds of lives they will have, growing up in a society where being female counts for so little, where only rarely will they have a say in important decisions, access to a proper education or any recourse if the male authority figure in their lives mistreats them.  And then the true immensity of what the women of Mahila Milan have attained strikes me. The leap from illiteracy, dependency and super-exploitation to essentially running their own bank, negotiating with authorities and building their own apartment buildings is so vast, the simple listing of all they have achieved can never be sufficiently indicative of what that really means.’

Now I know I might have added that no matter their circumstances, they also might at any moment be physically attacked, raped and beaten, and that no authority would come to their aid or seek justice for them. That being considered second-class citizens means unthinkable humiliation, injury and death.

The appalling event that took place on that bus in Delhi illuminates yet again, for me, the courage of woman like those in Mahila Milan and like those now protesting, alongside their male counterparts, throughout India as they demand change.

So this post is written in solidarity with them, and in recognition of the fact that while equality for women is lacking anywhere it is lacking everywhere.

The Dinosaurs Are Back

3 Jul

It’s not easy to put a brave face on it. The return of the Party of the Institutional Revolution to power in Mexico, the thought of the vapid Enrique Peña Nieto and his wife Angelica Rivera (star of one of the most ridiculous soap operas ever) smugly walking into the presidential home of Los Pinos, the galling prospect of the most corrupt old guard of Mexico’s political class — from Emilio Azcarraga to Elba Esther Gordillo –congratulating themselves for having pulled the wool over the eyes of the voters yet again.

There’s no way to look at it coolly, to not feel emotional about it, or to think of some justification for why so many people in Mexico voted for appearance over substance.

And so I can not only imagine but share the deep and dispiriting frustration that has now taken hold of all those people, especially young people who will see six more years of the status quo, and who tried valiantly in the days prior to Sunday’s election, as they realize that, yet again, liberal democracy has let them down.

As in the past, moreover, Mexico City, home to about one-fifth of the entire population, voted overwhelmingly for Peña Nieto’s main opponent, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the PRD, meaning the aspirations of the more progressive-minded capitalinos, rich and poor, educated or not, are being held back by the rest. The dinosaurs are back and the Jurassic Park they will run in Mexico leaves a lot of people yearning for a different country.

So I am not going to try to search for any silver linings to this particular cloud — except to say that, with the mess Peña Nieto and his administration are bound to make over the next six years, things should be looking great for a Marcelo Ebrard candidacy in 2018!

Viore Cafe’s post election poster

Life … at Ste. Catherine Laboure

8 May

Yesterday I spent the day in Cite Soleil, a populous shanty town on the shores of the Caribbean in Port au Prince. Part of the afternoon took me to the Cite’s only hospital, Ste. Catherine Laboure.  It is a state-run hospital with green and cream painted walls and a big wrought iron green gate, and a friend of mine, Dr. John Carroll from Peoria, Illinois, volunteers his time there periodically throughout the year.

So he showed me around: the Salle d’Urgences with its three gurneys and beat-up grey cabinet of meds, the puddle filled ground floor courts and corridors, then up an outer set of stairs to the wards.(There also a few operating rooms but they are in disuse now.)

Ste. Catherine was run for almost two years after the earthquake by Doctors Without Borders. They managed the place, supplied equipment and medicines and offered their services for free. Last December, the Haitian health ministry took it over again and everyone still working there has noticed the difference. With a combination of user fees and inadequate supplies, the flow of patients as diminished considerably, I was told. The user fees aren’t high – and are now dispensed with for children under 5 — but for people with no money, prohibitive nonetheless.

But the really shocking thing about Ste. Catherine is the fact that for a district of 300,000 people, this is all there is: three gurneys, maybe 30 or 40 hospital beds, no OR, and worse, a small, vastly underpaid staff that leaves at 4 pm.

We walked through the upper wards that, not surprisingly, were filled mostly with babies and children. Dr. Carroll told me the nurses there earned about $70 a month. And as we looked around the walls with their peeling paint and uncapped electric outlets and empty oxygen tanks, it struck me that the one good thing the Haitian government might do would be to turn Ste Catherine into a star hospital. Clean it, re-paint it, fix the wiring and install the best equipment. Double the pay of the staff so that it would be a magnet for good doctors and nurses. Keep it open 24 hours a day and do everything in its power to show people not only that it is there, but can be run better by Haitians than the famous foreign doctors of DWF/MSF.

As we spoke, Dr. Carroll suddenly cut himself off mid-sentence and walked over to a tiny baby lying in a yellow-painted iron crib, inert and no longer breathing. As he applied CPR to the delicate chest, I could see the lack of response, the closed eyes, the miniscule lips slowly turning blue. I went for a nurse and Dr. Jeanty, the pediatrician, searched around to find a hand-held breathing apparatus. After what seemed an interminable amount of time, the baby began to breathe again.

The baby’s name was Robertson, and his 16-year-old mother, Genevieve. Shortly after four, the staff having left for their bus home, she remained there, like all the other patients and their family members, alone with her sister and fragile baby. Whether Robertson would make it through the night, no one could say.

Argentina’s Recuperated Factories: now a feature film

6 May

There have already been some interesting documentaries made about the dramatic process of workers on the edge of poverty taking over the factories, schools and other workplaces that employed them before hitting the financial skids. And then running them just fine.

Now there is a feature film as well – albeit one with a name that could well be a documentary — Industria Argentina: Las Fabricas para Quien Trabajan.

It is the first feature film of a young man named Ricardo Diaz Iacaponi, who worked as sound man on a 2004 doc on the same subject (I’m guessing it was ‘The Take.’) In this case, however, Diaz wrote a script based on numerous conversations with people now successfully running their own workplaces, including the Hospital Israelita, the Viyetes icecream factory and the Navales Unidos ship yard, to name just a few. And he hired well-known actors like Carlos Portaluppi and Soledad Silveyra to play the roles of workers, their family, plant managers and lawyers.

I’m not surprised that a feature film has now come out of the factory recuperation movement. As I myself found when I was interviewing people from the MNFRT for the final chapters of Broke But Unbroken, the personal circumstances and challenges and emotional turmoil they all went through were indeed epic.

Every  single one of them was at some point brought to edge of a Spielberg-like abyss, where it was a question of either be captured by the villains – i.e. accept defeat and  the bleak prospects of permanent unemployment — or leap across, and running the factory.

The real story, moreover, comes with a happy ending worthy of any movie: whatever the ups and downs of the Argentine economy and the particular workplace, the rewards have been huge — and life-changing —  for all those workers whose collective history has now inspired a movie.

Slums and Slumdogs

21 Feb

Just last week I finally got round to seeing Danny Boyle’s film Slumdog Millionaire, a film I liked and that touched a couple of memory nerves. I spent about 3 weeks in Mumbai in April 2007, and got into the habit of watching Who Wants to be a Millionaire (with its actual – and far more handsome – host, Shahrukh Khan) every evening with my landlady. I also went several times to Dharavi, the slum where the popular movie was partially filmed and home to one of the committees inside the social movement I was studying there, the National Slum Dwellers Federation. in fact, one chapter of my book, The Success of Poverty, is devoted to this large (some 2 million members) and vibrant grassroots movement.

Today my local paper carried an article criticizing the movie for the way “it grossly minimizes the capabilities and even the basic humanity of those it claims to speak for.” The article was written by Mitu Sengupta, an assistant professor at Toronto’s Ryerson University, for whom the film “delivers a patronizing and ultimately sham statement on social justice for” the poor who live in Dharavi.

I understand both the necessities of film-making (and its inherent time constraints) as well as the views of the author. Dharavi is indeed a place where people work, live, run businesses of all sizes, organize and struggle collectively for a better life. This was apparent in the various interviews I did with members of NSDF, and in the entire global movement of slum dwellers, grouped into an global organization called Shack/Slum Dwellers International. Readers can check out its website at http://www.sdinet.org.

And they can read an article I wrote about Dharavi and some interesting architectural designs students at the KRVIA have come up with for rehousing slum dwellers.