Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Discourse and Identity in the Community

"The community is, of course, more than a mere collection of individuals, but is characterised by a sense of its own identity and purpose"
- Tones & Green

The purpose of a community

Lev, of Anonymous Cowgirl, provided a thoughtful response to our post on the purpose of the community:
If the generation and application of knowledge for spiritual and material development is placed at the centre of the community, then whole worlds open up. Now our community has a purpose. The endeavours undertaken with this new conception of community would be more than gathering together to watch a favourite television show or a favourite sports team.
This distinction between 'community' as an end in itself, and a 'community' united to work for a greater purpose - its own spiritual and material development - is essential. As more of us are drawn towards the idea of a 'community', partly as an alternative route to the atomistic and isolating nature of an increasingly individualistic society, we will naturally seek to understand how best to channel the powers of unity and cooperation characteristic of community life.

Who belongs to the community?

The community can be conceived of as a 'place'. Our community building efforts occur within our neighbourhood, and it seems that in these small settings, relationships are formed and reinforced organically, in the shared spaces of local markets and playgrounds, where paths cross as naturally in the elevator as they do on the footpath on the way to the local school. Where by living, working and learning together, communities can come to understand the value of cooperation and reciprocity.

However, a collection of atomised individuals whose front doors happen to be facing the same corridor is no match for Lev's description. A community's identity is extrinsically linked to its purpose, towards which its members work collectively.

How does the community perceive itself?

Our community resides primarily in a cité, the name given to French social housing typically made up of a cluster of high rise apartment towers. The image of the cité portrayed in the media,
in political discourse and - by extension - the consciousness of French society, is a stark contrast to its reality. Though life in the cité is hardly rosy, a shared playground and grassed area have encouraged children of diverse backgrounds to grow up together, giving birth to a rare sense of neighbourliness. Its residents, our friends, are warm, giving and hardworking. Despite their various talents and capacities, many of them are disempowered by structural constraints such as limited education and lack of employment.

Overarching these structures is something much more powerful - the stigma attached to living in the cité. Picking up a newspaper, one gets the impression that the cité is the state's problem, filled with violent youth threatening the security of the nation and its citizens. In reality, a couple of isolated incidents of violent outbursts by cité youth, spanning back a couple of decades, sparked a media-led metamorphosis of the social entity the 'cité' (and by default its residents). The 'cité' of the media's imagination is something to be contained and controlled.

These ideas about the cité exist because of the power of discourse, and because of the discourse of those in power. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu describes this as "the discourses and categories developed by professionals in the representation of the social world - politicians, journalists, state managers, experts in public and private sectors, civil and religious leaders, academics, activists, etc. and the reality effects they wield."

Bourdieu's description of the "reality effects" of discourse assumes that discourse does not sit apart from the world. Rather, it shapes norms, structures, practices and even individuals. Discourse in this sense not only describes reality; it creates reality.

In our neighbourhood, some teachers have internalised ideas about these youth, seeing their 'education' as a way to channel them towards easy, vocational exits. Added to this, a lack of trust in cité residents can disadvantage individuals in various social undertakings (e.g. job applications, interactions with police, educational choice).

By seeing the cité as a problem, the government conceives of its own role as being to prescribe the remedy. Political parties gain favour by promising to combat the very problems they helped invent. Larger and more brutal police forces are installed. An endless provision of social services (welfare, social housing) is the bandaid of choice, bringing with it a set of values that promotes dependency on the state over the social ties of the community, where individuals are encouraged to become the consumers of state products.
Of course, in amongst the neighbourliness, real problems exist in the cité. As Bourdieu describes, discourse creates reality and is reinforced by the persistence of this reality, and that includes the shaping of individual identity. Many sociologists, such as Loic Wacquant, will talk of the cycle of identity crisis, where some youth, seeing themselves portrayed as 'problem youth', take ownership of this image, partly in retaliation to a world that's given up on them, and partly because this is the image they've grown up knowing.

I don't have the first hand experience to comment on this theory, though it's certainly worth exploring. What I have noticed is that there are many youth who overtly reject the 'problem youth' identity - and yet, their talents and capacities remain hidden, even from their own eyes, just as they are hidden from the eyes of their educators and local politicians. Though this discourse may not define them, it can deny them an awareness of their own latent potential, without which their faith in the potential of their neighbourhood to be transformed into that community who participates in the generation and application of knowledge for its own spiritual and material development, and in their own ability to become actors in this process, fades away.

Such an environment could be accompanied by a decline in community trust and a breakdown of bonds. Wacquant warns of "territorial stigmatisation", where "communal places bathed in shared emotions and joint meanings, supported by practices and institutions of mutuality" give way to "indifferent 'spaces' of mere survival and contest."

The missing words

During conversations with youth from our neighbourhood, I've noticed that society's discourse can produce contradictions within their minds, between their actual lived experiences and memories in their home, the cité, and the skewed perception of these memories when articulated through the language of the media (and of the myriad friends and families who, having internalised this language, constantly repeat it).

Though these youth regularly describe their neighbourhood as 'pourri' (rotten) and 'beyond fixing', when I question them about the real characteristics of their neighbourhood (or at least those I've witnessed), using the words "friendliness", "sense of community", "service" and "safety", and describing the actions through which these qualities are expressed (people greeting each other politely, children able to wander freely about the neighbourhood without supervision, shopkeepers appreciating their acts of service...), they immediately contradict themselves and even praise the cité. It's as though the manifestation of these words and images elevate their thoughts beyond the 'rotten' tag and free their eyes to re-evaluate the potential of their community against these newly discerned benchmarks.

What is missing are the words.

To take another example - French policy forbids the word 'community', (which it defines as a collection of homogeneous interests that come together as a potential threat to French national identity). One cannot study 'community development' in university, and governments cannot create departments for the 'community.' It's as though the concept has vanished from French consciousness. As noted, 'community' is already happening - on some level. Parents mind each others' children, youth contribute to the running of the household, and look out for the wellbeing of the younger ones. But without the language, these examples of social relationships cannot be brought into conscious existence. So just how are we to build a vision of empowerment without the community? How are we to create adequate descriptions of reality when language itself is impoverished?

New words

It seems that a renewed language and connected set of images is needed, one that expresses more completely the potentialities of the individual, the community, and the structures that give expression to this potential. In acting as the lens through which individuals can more authentically interpret and conceive of their experiences, such language can bring to light those elements of reality hidden by want of the right words.

The acquisition of language is closely linked to the development of spiritual perception. Spiritual perception in an individual is that power that enables him/her to recognise, evaluate and act upon the discursive constructs and the forces in individual and collective life. E.g. What is injustice? What is prejudice? What are my talents and capacities? How can I make greater efforts to apply them? What effects do our acts of service have on ourselves and our community?

In this sense, individuals learn to distinguish between destructive and constructive forces, and to build on the latter. And perhaps conceiving of this new reality gives birth to a desire to create it, finding expression in new social practices - like youth mentoring younger youth, parents supporting their children's development, all serving the needs of the neighbourhood.

Small steps of 'acting' through service to the community are having a minor but noticeable effect on reshaping reality in our neighbourhood. E.g. In accompanying youth on their 'service' projects, I noticed the surprise in some neighbours who were forced to question their assumptions that kids from the cité caused nothing but trouble.

Can a new image of these youth be created if they first believe in it themselves? And if they understand their identities as predominantly spiritual, as the bearers of God-given talents and capacities that reach their fruition when put to service in their efforts to improve themselves and their own community? What effects could that have on the wider community's identity and social practices?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Purpose Maximization?

So... I've been thinking a lot about how to implement economic models that implement ideas associated with spiritual empowerment and spiritual growth. After all, one of the motivations for this blog is a feeling that we need to stray away from models of profit-maximization and towards models that more adequately explain human motivations and behaviors. This video's got me thinking that purpose maximization has got to play a role somewhere in the process. Check it out!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Food for Thought

Today I was reading a journal article by Ingrid Burkett of the International Association for Community Development. The article discusses the idea of re-localisation, and particularly the recent interest in local food:
Yes it could be said that local food systems potentially contribute to ecologically sustainable development because they can reduce the food miles of our diets...it could also be said that local food systems play an important role in building strong and vibrant local economies...however, many of the 'organic' and 'slow food' events that are occurring around the world reach out to the 'gourmet' food market with relatively little attention paid to questions regarding how poverty, access and inequality are addressed by local food production.
I think the last point that Burkett makes i
s an important one, as it tries to get to the heart of the real purpose of local food production.

A very simple example of 'local food' production I read recently can be found here. It tells the story of Alexandra Reau, a fourteen year-old girl from Michigan, who has converted her family's backyard into a small farm. She grows fruit and vegetables and sells them to regular customers in her neighourhood, who claim to value both the quality of her produce, and the fact that this initiative comes from a local youth. The story is testament to how much a fourteen year-old can accomplish when he or she makes efforts towards a noble goal.

Reau's farm contributes to her own development (she tells us that farming requires a lot of patience!) and in some sense to the local economy, both commendable ends in themselves. But what would change if this project were linked to a larger goal of community building? Or, more simply, was conceived of as providing a service to one's community? How would this change the concept of local food?

Burkett believes that "a renewed longing for community" is the real "starting point" and "social push" behind local food movements.
If we are to re-localise our communities, our motivations could be based on building strong relationships with our neighbours, engaging with the local cultures/s, improving our health and the health of those with whom we live, generating friendships across diversity or even just eating healthier, tastier food.
These "strong relationships" could be build
on trust, love and a mutual striving for individual and collective progress, and would naturally lend themselves to an exchange of material goods and services for the wellbeing of all.

I use the term 'naturally' because of a fundamental belief that each one of us has been created to bear fruits (metaphorically, at least), to develop our various talents and capacities for the benefit of others and ourselves. And where else would this service be expressed but in the spiritual and material wellbeing of one's community, the latter implying the need for a vibrant local economy to facilitate this exchange of services.

Understanding the link between communities and service, of which local food is just one example, helps us better conceptualise one purpose of the practice known as 'community development'.

Burkett does warn against romanticising the local food movement as a move back to past 'traditional' ways. The OECD has echoed this warning in its publication Community Capacity Building: Creating a Better Future Together, in the context of community capacity building:
Community capacity building and/or economic development should not be an attempt to recreate the communities or businesses of the 1950s. The world - its people and its economy - has simply changed too much...we should guard against the assumption that the past, or an alternative vision of the future, are the only or the most appropriate visions for the futures of communities today...it is clear that the concept of community is changing. Nevertheless the geographic, indeed local element, cannot be overlooked.
Another trap to avoid falling into is believing that the greatest power an individual possesses is his or her buying power, so that the act of choosing to buy local becomes an end in itself. Human beings are not mere consumers, even though modern urban cities have been designed to promote the values of a consumer society. Brenda and Robert Vale explain this in the book Designing High Density Cities:

Most recent planning theory has ignored the vital relationships between food, energy, water and land because of access to cheap and plentiful fossil fuels. This has meant that food can be grown at a long distance from settlements and transported to them...
A capitalist society would best operate with everyone living at high densities so that the maximum number of people would need to buy everything they required, having little opportunity to provide basic services, such as growing food themselves. A high-density city is necessarily a consumer city.
Burkett describes how the concept of local food does more than change our buying habits but "challenges us to move from being consumers and passive recipients in these systems to being active participants, citizens and co-producers of the systems."

I love this idea of moving from consumers to actors, and would love to hear some more practical examples about community farms and gardens within the framework of community building. In particular, reflections on the role of the community as a "starting point". If anybody is involved in this area, please share - we're keen to learn more about it!

the city's heart

A quote I read from Jane Jacobs' iconic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities got me thinking recently:
When a city heart stagnates or disintegrates, a city as a social neighbourhood of the whole begins to suffer. People who ought to get together, by means of central activities that are failing, fail to get together. Ideas and money that ought to meet, and do so often only by chance in a place of central vitality, fail to meet. The networks of city public life develop gaps they cannot afford. Without a strong and inclusive central heart, a city tends to become a collection of interests isolated from one another. It falters at producing something greater, socially, culturally and economically, than the sum of its separated parts.
The "heart" whose passing Jacobs mourns seems to be no other than that of the community - that arena in which a mélange of minds, ideas, backgrounds and talents unite to build on and reinforce one another. Where human beings shed the burden of individualism in order to contribute to the building of something that transcends merely the sum of their separate parts.

Today's discourse on the value of the 'community' is often housed within a wider discourse on community development and local economy; yet there appears to be a universal struggle to get to the heart of what the term really means. How relevant is community life in today's urban-centred working world, with its constant flux of moving house and migration, its faster trains and all-you-can-eat internet? Are the communities of today online networks, are they those fading memories of 1950's sports clubs and church groups, are they defined by common interests, or along geographical lines like neighbourhoods?

We think the time is ripe to reconsider the purposes of the community, and to trace an outline of the potential destiny of the communities of today and tomorrow. This is not the first time we have posted about the community, but this time around, we'd like to think about the role of the community in individual and social transformation. And so, our main question:
When so many forces are pulling us the other way, why make the effort to learn about the ways and methods of community building?

Some initial thoughts....

What if our true identity, as a community, is spiritual, consisting of members working together to enable each individual to embark upon a process of learning to become protagonists of their own spiritual and material development?

What if we conceive of unity as both the instrument and the goal of creating this kind of community?

What if a commitment to this 'unity' implies a collective process of inquiry, of walking together - consulting, acting and reflecting on the process of community building?

The Baha'i writings state:
Let us take the inhabitants of a city....if they establish the strongest bonds of unity among themselves, how far they will progress, even in a brief period....
Please share your thoughts!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Consumer Society: Who Really Buys It?

Recently I was having a conversation with a group of 13 year old youth from my neighbourhood on the effects that the media and marketing have on us. We wanted to learn how to use the media to share positive messages within our community, so we started by studying some typical examples. I was surprised at how conscious the girls were of the manufactured nature of the "beauty" being sold to them through luxury advertising in order to convince them to buy things. The importance of developing the habit of analysing and reflecting on the media's messages became clear. We concluded that in a world where it's too easy to become a passive recipient to these messages, this habit helps us make decisions about whether those values correspond with our own.

But of course being completely immune to a force that permeates our day to day lives is almost impossible. One of the youth, noticing the prevalence of female models in marketing campaigns, concluded that advertisements are geared towards men. "Women don't need to be convinced as it is natural for them to go shopping."

The comment certainly raises an interesting question in the world of rising consumerism, where both men and women increasingly dispose of their income for the acquisition of more material goods. Is this daily ritual really at the core of human nature? There are, evidently, powerful social forces at play that are shaping both our habits and our behaviour. Just how is the story of who we are being retold through the fictions of the media? And to what extent is our spiritual nature being worn away by a growing, pervasive materialism?

Last week, we posted a link to a document entitled Rethinking Prosperity: Forging Alternatives to a Culture of Consumerism, a statement of the Baha'i International Community (BIC). I really encourage you all to take a look at it if you haven't already. It discusses the challenges facing the realisation of a more sustainable development, citing consumer culture - a distortion of humanity's true nature and purpose - as one of several hindering factors to a lasting, shared prosperity.

Another interesting resource, Prosperity Without Growth, was written by Tim Jackson of the Sustainable Development Commission of the UK. As the title suggests, the document questions the sustainability of an economic model that has 'growth at all costs' at its centre, so that the pursuit of economic growth pushes forward at the expense of sustainability and well-being. Jackson asks us to consider what a new model for prosperity could look like.

Chapter 6 deals specifically with consumer culture. Jackson introduces the idea of a "language of goods." In this "language", material possessions say something important about who we are, turning objects of no value into objects of status and competition. And as the BIC document points out, this in turn "reduces human beings into competitive, insatiable consumers of goods and objects of manipulation by the market." Is marketing using this same language to create the 'shop-a-holic' image of women?

Jackson also explains how not only do we buy these possessions, but we also become attached to them. Citing examples like our CD collections or our favourite pieces of clothing, he describes how we come to think of these objects as part of the "extended self." If he's right, then it shows just how quickly our spiritual nature can become encroached by a material one. If these objects define in part who we are, then what room does that leave for our inner reality?

Both documents urge us to think about new models of prosperity and sustainable development - where the endless production and consumption of goods is no longer the purpose of life nor the cause for further social inequalities and environmental destruction. And where traits like competition, greed and apathy cease to be rewarded over behaviour that promotes unity, justice and sustainability. As it turns out, the link between the consumer urge and our current model of development (powered by a ruthless economic growth) is very strong. The system actually depends on this excessive consumption as both a driver of growth and a marker for progress as it at once reinforces and feeds off a human addiction to spending. In Jackson's words:

On the one hand, the profit motive stimulates newer, better or cheaper products and services through a continual process of innovation...at the same time, the market for these goods relies on an expanding consumer demand, driven by a complex social logic...taken together, these two self-reinforcing processes are exactly what is needed to drive growth forwards.
People of all ages aspire towards bigger, better, newer things, even when their current versions work just fine. Marketing is the science of creating 'needs' that never existed. And of selling dreams. And precisely because this material acquisition will always fail to provide the ideals that the language of marketing promises us, we keep wanting more. "Consumer culture perpetuates itself precisely because it succeeds so well at failure." It's no surprise that these dreams allure us. In a world of increasing injustice, economic crisis and unprecedented environmental distress, having something to hope for is important. In a secular world, consumer culture is nourished by the human need for hope.

Both the BIC document and Jackson make no secret of the scope of change required. Jackson writes:

It is also vital to recognise that this pathology is not simply the result of some terminal quality in the human psyche. We are not by nature helpless dupes, too lazy or weak to resist the power of manipulative advertisers...rather, what emerges from this analysis is that the 'empty self' is a product of powerful social forces and the specific institutions of modern society...we need to identify opportunities for change within society - changes in values, changes in lifestyles, changes in social structure - that will free us from the damaging social logic of consumerism.

And the BIC document:

The transformation required to shift towards sustainable consumption and production will entail no less than an organic change in the structure of society itself so as to reflect fully the interdependence of the entire social body - as well as the interconnectedness with the natural world that sustains it.
So it seems that change necessitates an entire restructuring of the way we conceive of both human nature and modern society, notwithstanding the institutions that join it together, and a reconceptualisation of the 'growth at all costs' paradigm within which we currently live. It also seems that the consumer society promotes a culture of lethargy. Rather than creating protagonists of change, it specialises in manufacturing passive, distracted beings, chasing after glittery ideals that forever elude them.

The BIC document asks us what happens when we think of individuals as having "a contribution to make to the construction of a more just and peaceful social order." What happens when we step out of our role as 'producer' or 'consumer' and rephrase both our reason for being and our reason for exchanging with others? When we see ourselves as being capable of making valuable contributions to our community and society at large? When bonds of love are built and nurtured with those who are working with us? Where has this definition of human relationships, of the human being gone?

Do these values have to be at ends with a stable economic society? I don't think so. I think they can even be a motor towards the type of sustainable prosperity that both the BIC and Jackson - and I daresay most of us - hope for.

* * *
Clearly, the scale of change being called for is much greater than creating the right media campaign. However, those thirteen year old youth feel like it's a good place to start. And why not? The media is their voice to the world, it can be used to provoke thought, to rewrite what being human means and also to remind individuals that they do have a choice in all this. If the media tells us who we are, then we need to create images of the human nature we believe in.

So as part of their desire to learn about changing the neighbourhood, they have created posters that ask their neighbours to think about the characteristics of their ideal community. In a sense, they are reminding those neighbours that they too have a role to play in its realisation. This weekend we're going to stick those posters around the neighbourhood, in local shops and apartment buildings. Perhaps it won't change so much too quickly. But it's their opportunity to act, and to give voice to their approach to transformation.

So now there are some questions we'd like to throw out to you, our readers:

How would this conception of the human being change the language of the media: the messages we share and the people we portray?

Do you have any examples of work being carried out in your community that illustrates the nature to serve humanity, to serve as an actor for change?

Building blocks for the new model of a post-consumer world, we could call it.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

How do we measure gender equality?

"We Measure what we Value."

I really like this creed. It's being thrown around a lot lately, with the wave of soul-searching that has swept over us in the 'aftermath' of the financial crisis. It makes a lot of sense. After all, the indicators that we choose to measure progress ultimately describe how we define that progress. Very often I hear this creed being used to raise questions about the relevance of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) as a tool to measure a nation's progress. The Economist just recently closed a live online debate on this subject, which I think squeezes the nuts and bolts of the wider discourse into one compact, accessible discussion. You can check it out here: http://www.economist.com/debate/days/view/504.

As a part of this same wave, I recently attended a workshop on measuring the progress of societies and gender equality, hosted by UNESCO and the OECD's Development Centre in Paris. The context? Gender equality and development. The aim? To consider the link between what we choose to measure, and how this can help us to create lasting change.

Persistent injustice against women rears its head in a myriad of ways. I'm sure you all have examples. At the workshop, one woman talked about being empowered as an actor working for social change in the public sphere, yet subordinated behind the closed doors of her home, because her husband had been taught that her value as a woman didn't equal his as a man. Others expressed disappointment at an economy that valued their work so long as it generated an income, forgetting the hours they consecrated gratuitously for the benefit of their families and communities.

We've lived through an era where economic solutions have been the social scientist's lab test of choice for solving complex social problems. Maybe the time is ripe to concede that the solution to gender inequality does not lie in simply legislating to give women greater access to land or building more schools to educate more girls. These structural inequalities are but symptoms of a more profound injustice. This is not to imply that material solutions are futile; rather that the prevalence of this injustice, in spite of longstanding attempts to eradicate it, suggests that we cannot remedy these inequalities without understanding the reasons they exist in the first place. The desire to set a process of genuine transformation in motion begs the question: what's going on beneath the surface? What should we be measuring when we talk about gender equality as an aspect of development?

One of the tools presented at the workshop was the Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI). Rather than measure outcomes (e.g. how many girls go to school, how many women have a place in parliament, how many women receive health care...), the index measures the prevalence of social institutions that promote gender inequality. Social institutions are defined as long lasting codes of conduct, norms, traditions and informal and formal laws, and are considered the building blocks of human behaviour and social interaction. The SIGI indicators range from violence against women or inheritance rights to the practice of female genital mutilation or women's lack of access to land, and is being pitched as a new way of thinking about gender equality. And it's an interesting premise. Instead of asking, how many women are going to school, the SIGI asks: why aren't women going to school? Let's measure that, find out more about it. It's an inquiry that aims to drill deeper and this to me seems to be the SIGI's strength: it attempts to embed culture and the economy within society, and recognises the organic link between social conditions and development. No quick bandaid solution here. And it does feel like a genuine attempt to get to the heart of the barriers preventing true social and economic development by pushing us to think more profoundly about the root causes of injustice, and the beliefs, values and cultural norms that vindicate this injustice.

Earlier on we discussed how the eradication of all injustices is an indispensable part of development - an enabling aspect even, for both social and economic progress. Yet perhaps this injustice permeates deeper than these social institutions - as deeply as the eyes and minds of the human beings who created them. For how can both men and women become truly empowered when the sources of disempowerment rest primarily in the relationships and expectations of their own families and communities - and within themselves?

Once we start measuring in this way, it becomes clear that the solution to gender inequality must lie in raising consciousness of the nature and capacities inherent in every human soul and empowering each individual to set off on a path of learning to discover their social implications. Conceiving spiritual education as an integral complement of material education opens up the possibility of unleashing human potential to become active champions of justice. Such education could offer humanity a nobler vision of how the world should be, and thus empower it to take action to implement justice in the institutions and structures of the world.


The I Can Bug can be viewed as a direct reaction to contemporary conceptions of work reduced to "gainful employment aimed at acquiring the means fort he consumption of available goods" (Prosperity of Humankind). This program enables junior youth to learn what it might mean to address work from the perspective of service to humanity. More importantly, it allows them to analyze the needs of their community in a humanitarian manner as opposed to market demands.

Money quote from this article in Newsweek a couple weeks ago: "Much as Washington is still captured by Wall Street, the economics profession remains captured by the false idea of rationality - the "religious belief" (as Stiglitz calls it) that science can fully explain human economic behavior."

A new document from the Baha'i International Community "Rethinking Prosperity: Forging Alternatives to a Culture of Consumerism"

Herman Daly explores steady state alternatives to monetary policy. Good article if you're trying to learn a bit more about how the use of money has evolved... especially if you're interested in alternative methods.

Friday, May 7, 2010

BACK! (Hopefully)

We apologize for our hiatus the last month or so. There have been a few aberrations in our schedules, which have caused us to shift priorities on other projects in our lives, but it seems that we will be able to slowly balance these out and thus apply more effort towards the blog.

We are also hoping to experiment with a couple new features. One basic feature we'll be introducing is a link-sharing post which will introduce other writings/media that are relevant to the type of discourse we hope to engage in as we rethink the policy framework of economics and prosperity.

Second, we hope to introduce a more practical element to our posts. We would obviously not prefer for our musings to be devoid from action in fear of seeming hypocritical, so the collaborators of this blog will start writing "community profiles" of work that we engage in in our communities that might shed light on the more theoretical ideas we've been toying with. Hopefully, this will serve as somewhat of a diary/reflection space for the community building activities we're engaged in. We hope all of our readers will also contribute towards this learning via site comments!

We hope to hear from you soon! Thanks for your support!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Women's Empowerment Pt. II: On Microfinance

In a previous post on women's empowerment, we briefly discussed the role of framing economic development in the context of an ever-advancing civilization in which spiritual and moral empowerment go hand-in-hand. This concept may be difficult to conceptualize, so we think it might be beneficial to analyze a current trend with regards to microfinance institutions that have, in recent years, placed particular emphasis on women's empowerment. Though we do not claim to have experience dealing with this topic, recent reports and analyses of the declining effectiveness of these institutions have inspired this post.

In what is considered the birthplace of microfinance, the story of this institution has taken a turn for the worse in India. This turn has been documented through decreasing repayment rates (the rate of delinquency has almost doubled in recent years) as well as a seemingly rising trend that emphasizes the use of traditional moneylenders to pay back loans acquired through microfinance. The WSJ article quoted a borrower as saying:

"Group pressure makes us go to moneylenders... We get small loans for 15 days to fill the gaps when we can't pay. If you lag behind, the rest of the group members can't get new loans."

There is increasing interest by donors to fund microfinance efforts because of the expectation that providing access to finance will lead to empowerment; however, it is not clear whether these initiatives are  ultimately beneficial. Part of the reason may be a result of the divergent interests of lenders from promoting social goals:

"On the one hand, private capital helps finance the growth of the sector and expand its reach. 'At the same time, if the mission of microfinance institutions is only to maximize profit, then the social goal of helping people out of poverty is not reached,' …'The problem is that a lot of the new private investors in the sector see it mainly as a way of making a lot of money.'"

Our point in sharing these trends is not so much to criticize the efforts of the microfinance programs described in these articles. Indeed, principles such as the equality between women and men that  have been infused into such programs address truly profound social ills and have tremendously boosted the status of women in the regions in which they  have been implemented. After all, in many instances the concept of income generation was foreign to women, and since earning an income, these women have placed more financial emphasis on the education of future generations than was the case before.

Rather, our point is to share that without other moral and spiritual principles that cement processes of development in an ever-evolving framework, noble efforts can be undermined by other, less constructive forces. Having a strong moral and spiritual base can keep such initiatives focused and purposeful. Consider the case of ECTA (which means "unity" in Nepali) in which participants are encouraged to build-capacity to analyze the needs of society and apply spiritual principles towards the advancement of their communities. Certainly, the experience here is also a fledgling effort at its early stages. However, the communities’  objective seems to go beyond income generation and skill-building,  and their approach attempts to address  the  causes of social ills at a much deeper level.

This same process may be taking place among other microfinance programs that seek to elevate the station of women, though are not given much attention. Perhaps the financial component of these activities is magnified in Western media, partly to demonstrate results that are more easily measured and more rapidly achieved. Perhaps the other components of community-building, which are more difficult to measure and tend to bear fruits more gradually, are left hidden to our eyes. If this is the case, then we should perhaps learn how to shift the way we measure and discuss micro-finance programs so that they fit into the context of an ever-advancing civilization. If this is not the case, then perhaps it would be helpful to step back and analyze our experiences in this field in a more holistic manner that would address principles that need to be included in order to truly propel our communities forward.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

At the Heart of Social and Economic Development

Recently I attended the Baha’i Social and Economic Development Conference in Orlando, Florida. The theme was “Baha’i Inspired Development and the Growth Process: Partners in Transforming Society”. A co-worker and I had the honor of presenting the work of the Tahirih Justice Center and share the history and learnings of the organization to two very captive audiences. The conference itself offered an opportunity to learn from many others — young and old — involved with development/service work in their communities.

Among the questions explored in the conference was the meaning and source of “development”. Of course the term “development” is not new to anyone. Nations have been striving towards “development” for centuries. And who can deny that humanity has made astounding advances in scientific and social development in the last two centuries alone? Notwithstanding these benchmarks of progress, another fact rears its unpleasantness: a majority of the people inhabiting the planet have been left far, far behind. Ironically the gap between poor and rich is widening even as “development” has morphed into a global enterprise that seductively (and rather self-righteously) markets itself as targeting “the poorest of the poor”.

“Born in the wake of the chaos of the Second World War, ‘development’ became by far the largest and most ambitious collective undertaking on which the human race has ever embarked. Its humanitarian motivation matched its enormous material and technological investment. Fifty years later, while acknowledging the impressive benefits development has brought, the enterprise must be adjudged, by its own standards, a disheartening failure. Far from narrowing the gap between the well-being of the small segment of the human family who enjoy the benefits of modernity and the condition of the vast populations mired in hopeless want, the collective effort that began with such high hopes has seen the gap widen into an abyss.” (One Common Faith, 2.4)

Why has “development” failed? The question is intimately linked to another — what is the nature of true human/societal development? Is it purely material? The experiment of the last century was an exercise in applying the notion of development defined in purely material terms. Its dogma caused us to believe that human progress rested on material accumulation alone. We therefore pursued development projects that narrowly sought the economic exploitation of the environment, promoted the violent cultural intrusion of societies, and tolerated the kind of painful structural adjustment programs which the IMF and the World Bank implemented in developing countries at the expense of health, education, local infrastructure and the overall welfare of local peoples. Unembarrassed by both the immediate and devastatingly long-term tangible human suffering caused by the injustices of these policies, our world seemingly continues to blindly follow a credo fed by an insatiable, brutish appetite for material wealth.

The problem is not material wealth per se — rather it is the motivating impulse that drives the processes involved in the aim to improve the conditions of life. Consumer culture has operated under the conviction that those with means must become slaves to their senses and continuously satisfy their material wants and desires. With spending perceived as the pulse of healthy social and economic development “[s]elfishness becomes a prized commercial resource…Under appropriate euphemisms, greed, lust, indolence, pride—even violence—acquire not merely broad acceptance but social and economic value.” (One Common Faith, 2.3)

Part of the problem lies in a deep rooted perception of human nature as incorrigibly selfish. People, we are told, are fundamentally self-interested actors. By design the social and economic structures we have built under the various development regimes are meant to harness those impulses to fuel human progress on the path to “modernization”. Or so we’d like to believe — reality tells a different story, one that is hard to ignore: the disintegration of the family, mounting violence and crime, disappearance of community life, the degradation of the environment etc.

What if we painted a different picture of development? What would it look like? What if development was more than just a measure of income and material wealth? What if development also can start with interpersonal relationships, between two neighbors? What if we viewed true development as unlocking the potential of the individual and building their own capacity to identify problems and take social action within their own community? Does development really begin with material resources and capital? Or does it begin with collaboration and commitment to a broader vision born of a community of people who aspire for something better for themselves and future generations?

Slowly, we are learning that at the heart of how we understand development is a fundamentally different way of looking at human nature — each of us are intelligent beings with the capacity to overcome our baser qualities, with the capacity to do good, to serve, to give sacrificially for the benefit of the whole…the choice has always been ours. We have the agency, what has been missing for far too long is the will.

If we viewed human beings as having capacity to improve their own conditions would necessarily change the way the world “does development”. And here’s how: Currently, most development projects and programs are, by design, top-down in approach. It somehow presumes that pouring resources into a country will naturally lead to development—the project has only to be engineered and orchestrated in right way by the learned “experts”. It presumes that any failure to reach the intended results is due to missteps in the process of execution. If we are to throw out the underlying framework of the development model that is currently imposed on the peoples of the world, something else will have to take its place.

In order to move away from a model that too often regards the “poor” as “charity” or as “untapped human resources” that simply need training by the “experts” to be productive members of society, we need to embrace the idea that every individual is the agent or protagonist of their own learning and development, as human beings with capacity and the ability to build upon it. This idea firmly affirms that whole communities of people can develop the capacity to identify their needs and work together to address the challenges of their community, thereby becoming truly empowered, as they have taken ownership of their learning and growth in a manner most suitable to their environment and current development. We would perhaps start to look at “poverty” as not lack of material wealth, but as a life wasted due to lack of opportunities to achieve their highest potential to contribute to the welfare of the wider community.

So that leaves each of us — protagonists of change, agents of social transformation — at the heart of the matter.

Social and Economic Development can begin, and in reality, does begin with each of us. We all have the capacity to contribute to the betterment of our neighborhoods, the quality of our relationships with young people, the ability to serve each other. Through these grassroots initiatives, be they formal or informal, taking part in service or “social action” and working diligently towards these ends will release the potentialities of the human spirit in ways we have yet to fully realize.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Women’s Economic Empowerment : Towards a New Definition

We often hear the term women’s economic empowerment in relation to – and sometimes interchangeably with – gender equality and women’s rights. It seems therefore useful to discuss the goal of women’s economic empowerment and how this links to women’s access to meaningful work. Furthermore, how does this concept fit into a larger scheme of achieving gender equality and advancing the development of all of society?

If we define development in strictly material terms, then progress is the result of income generation and economic growth working as key instruments to lift the less developed world out of poverty and into a state of prosperity. International policy born of such definitions brings women’s rights into the equation in the name of ‘empowerment’. Slogans such as Gender Equality as Smart Economics frames women’s ‘empowerment’ as a tool to advance this economic growth. And such campaigns do enjoy success at the level of rallying Government and private enterprise support for a ‘gender equality’ dimension to their development efforts. But does this definition of ‘empowerment’ have wider implications on women’s sense of identity, on their concept of ‘work’, and on an overarching definition of ‘progress’? Does it neglect and even reinforce the underlying injustice that we seek to eradicate? Our discussion on 'empowerment' and how it links to gender equality, then, must be embedded in an alternative vision of progress, one that values the role of justice and principles in combating oppression.

An example may help us to consider this. Many development strategies promote women’s ‘empowerment’ by gearing women who live in poverty towards entrepreneurship from a young age. Resources are being directed towards a school curriculum that offers financial education on how to invest, how to save and how to access markets, as a means to equip girls with the skills necessary to manage their own businesses. Such skills are valuable in advancing the role that women can play to contribute to the material prosperity of their families and communities. But what about the qualities such as trustworthiness, cooperation and a spirit of service that go along with good financial management? Alone, are these skills enough to empower women to become actors in a process that generates sustainable change that can be integrated into a more holistic conception of prosperity? What kind of models of ‘empowerment’ can reinforce the community and local economy while addressing deeper problems of injustice and social inequality, to avoid having women become merely tools to propel economic growth?

Any efforts for women’s empowerment and gender equality lack purpose if we don’t see them as vital ingredients in a larger, overarching agenda to advance humanity towards an age of maturity where justice reigns and both men and women are united in their efforts towards spiritual and material progress. How to get there? Certainly it implies going beyond a good combination of policies and incentives; beyond giving women the means to earn their own living; beyond the right publicity campaign. Gender equality is so much more than any of these things – it is a fundamental truth about reality. And while we agree that economic empowerment is an essential element in giving women equal access to meaningful work, the change that is first needed must take place within peoples’ minds and hearts. A change that inspires a genuine belief that like the two wings of a bird, men and women must be equal and work side by side to empower humanity to glide perpetually forward, together, as an ever-advancing civilization.

Women's empowerment in the context of an ever-advancing civilization

We would propose that economic empowerment should not be divorced from moral empowerment, in the same way that in the larger development picture, spiritual and material prosperity go hand in hand. In the critical adolescent years of these girls’ lives, as their identities are being formed, can we neglect a need for parallel efforts that seek to provide the strong moral foundations necessary for their progress? Or a need to ‘empower’ them to develop their talents to realize their potential to contribute to the spiritual and the material well-being of their community through meaningful work and service? That means endowing the work we are training them to undertake with a purpose that supersedes its material utility and thus providing a different definition of ‘progress’. It means a more holistic approach to education that frames productive labour as a meaningful contribution to both their own lives and the lives of the people around them.

What happens when we integrate girls into a system built on the principles of self-interest and competition from such a young age without also providing the moral compass to guide them? The response to that question could fill volumes; it is interesting to note however how severely these principles contrast those that characterize the work that women have been historically engaged in. That is, building homes conducive to the material and spiritual welfare of children. This work is traditionally nourished with the qualities of love, service, generosity, cooperation and detachment. Is there no place for these qualities in the current model of the working world? Perhaps our current economic vocabulary does not possess the language to measure their utility.

Recent studies indicate that qualities are not the only thing being lost: as more women move forward with their careers, less are choosing to become mothers. In achieving economic empowerment, the value of family is being compromised. The role of the mother as the first educator of children is being subordinated to economic gain. Men too have an important role to play here. For us to consider building a just and equitable civilization, the role and relationships between both men and women need to be defined not around economic gain but around building just and equitable social structures of which the family unit is at the core.

So we start with a different premise: That ‘empowerment’ means launching women and men into a two-fold process of transformation: transformation of themselves through transformation of the world around them. So that every human being – male or female – should have access to meaningful work through which they can develop individually and contribute to the spiritual and material prosperity of society. And we cannot construct such a framework without first laying the spiritual and moral foundations that provide the conditions necessary for true development progress; for true empowerment. As discussed, this should go beyond banking know-how and involve a deeper exploration into the values and principles upon which an entire community is built. Just what kind of values could lay the foundations for a universally encompassing approach conducive to the expression of the individual soul’s desire for progress, and the advancement of humanity? Where could we turn to define these values?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Value of Trust: Should we be reactive or proactive?

One recurring sentiment among business and government leaders in Davos, Switzerland this past weekend involved the need to build mutual trust among business entities and nations:

“Between Chinese people and American and Western people, we lack mutual understanding,” said Cheng Siwei, a former Chinese politician and a co-chairman of the International Finance Forum, a Beijing-based think tank. The only way to “keep this relationship stable,” he said, is “to build mutual trust.”

Participants proposed that this lack of trust could be addressed via regulations towards the financial sector, which is seen as the main cause of the disintegration of trust. However, this too is not an ideal way to establish trust. Perhaps the billionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros summed up the ambivalence most succinctly:

You want to keep regulation to a minimum, because it is worse than markets. But you can’t do without it.

Our previous blog post mentioned the value of hyper-public goods such as love, trust, etc. and their role in strengthening economic systems. Our inclination to emphasize the importance of trust seems to be confirmed by the concerns expressed by the leaders at Davos. We often hear this same concern voiced at the international level with the term ‘accountability’. For example: how do we make one government accountable to another, or to its citizens? Or in other words, how do we know we can trust them to fulfill their promises? A host of ‘solutions’ are provided, from providing the right incentives, to creating watchdogs, from protests and strikes to tying a future relationship to conditions.

What is lacking in this approach is a distinct difference between reactive suggestions for trust-building ( represented in Davos by regulation-driven suggestions), and proactive ones. Our sense is that everybody wants trust, but there is no agreeable manner in which to build it. What further exacerbates the problem is that most business leaders function within a system of intense competition, and most Governments prioritize the defence of their national interests. By definition, ‘competition’ has forces inherent in its structure that strive to tear at any trust that has been or can potentially be built among collaborators.

Our next challenge: find communities whose guiding principles emphasize the creation of virtue-based hyper-public goods and elaborate on how they change the economic climate.