Monday, June 27, 2011
In 1987, in Rio de Janeiro, I saw a documentary that had just been released by filmmaker Tete Moraes, the friend of several journalists I knew back then. Her film was called “Land for Rose,” in English, and was about the struggles of a fairly new social movement attempting to take land – in this case, a huge, unproductive estate called Fazenda Annoni – so that they could make a living. Over the course of the filming Rose, a poor field worker gave birth to a baby boy. At the end of the documentary, however, we learned that Rose had been struck by a truck that rammed its way through a picket line, killing her and two others. I remember thinking to myself that, like the landless peasants interviewed in the documentary, the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, or MST, didn’t stand much of a chance.
In 2001, I took part in the large protests in Quebec City revolving around that year’s Summit of the Americas, and attended a lecture given by an MST delegate. I remember spending most of it, sitting in the dark, internally rocking in astonishment. Against all odds, the Sem Terra movement had become an enormous success. It had won tens of thousands of hectares of land for more than 250,000 Brazilian families. It had set up schools and cooperatives, sent dozens of peasants’ children to study medicine and agronomy in other countries and carried out training courses for its continually recycled and evolving leadership. Fazenda Annoni itself, by then renamed Sarandi, was producing and selling enormous quantities of milk, grains, meat, vegetables and even herbal tea.
Four years later, I decided that the public needed to know more about the positive outcomes of the many growing social movements of the Global South. In a world where ostensibly sane and clear-thinking people had accepted the travesty of the Iraq invasion, increasing global environmental destruction and a host of other depressing phenomena, I felt we were all in need of some good news for a change.
The result of my research brought me into contact with scores of impoverished people from Brazil to Indonesia and Argentina to India. They and their fellow members had all made similar strides in overcoming poverty on their own, rights-based, terms. Among the participants of these movements, moreover, I found a determination not only to grasp the resources that should have been theirs, but also to foster democratic decision-making in their methods, to preserve and protect natural environments, educate themselves and their children, and share the fruits of their victories among ever-wider communities. I found innovative ideas and strategies, and the desire to turn the top-down anti-poverty mechanisms of giant bi-lateral and multi-lateral aid institutions on their head in favor of managing the struggle against poverty themselves.
What I hope people will pick up from Broke But Unbroken: Grassroots Social Movements and Their Radical Solutions to Poverty is an entirely new way of looking at traditional poverty alleviation – and at the poor themselves. I believe that their stories of organized struggle and achievement paint a collective picture of them not as victims but as protagonists. Most of all, however, I hope that they will be inspired to learn more about and support these movements.
Augusta Dwyer is an award-winning independent journalist living in Canada.
Monday, June 20, 2011
I recently attended the Second World Conference on Humanitarian Studies at Tufts University. The “humanitarian sector” is a growing field with anticipated 6% annual growth in terms of expanding needs for humanitarian assistance and concomitant increases in the numbers of those engaged in humanitarian work.
About 400 scholars, practitioners, educators and the Kumarian Press editor attended the conference. As Peter Walker, Director of the Feinstein International Center at Tufts, explained the conference was to be very much a work in progress where ideas, suggestions and musings could be distributed in an open and receptive environment. I found the meeting fascinating. Clearly, with the growth of the humanitarian industry, something similar to what happened with business schools as explored in a wonderful book by Rakesh Khurana, From Higher Aims to Hired Hands (Princeton University Press, 2010) is a distinct possibility. Khurana notes the emergence of the MBA, designed to inculcate standards and levels of competence for those at managerial levels in the private sector. The professionalization of business required codifying knowledge relevant for practitioners and developing enforceable standards of conduct.
The Tufts conference attendees noted that professionalizing the humanitarian sector would entail devising sets of core competencies, enacting processes of certification and accreditation, inculcating opportunities for apprenticeship and lastly, forming a kind of professional association.
Obviously such professionalization is not without controversy or challenge. For one, the question of voice and who determines standards and core competencies remains unresolved. For another, the possibility of a professionally trained humanitarian elite—comprised of individuals from both the global North and South—runs the danger of devolving into the trajectory Khurana observes for business schools. Initially envisioned as training that would create a professional business class that would serve the needs of both society and business, the moral and ethical framework of professional education and apprenticeships in MBA programs became muted as business schools increasingly adopted the perspective that professional managers are merely agents of shareholders, responsible only for increasing profits.
Given the fact that humanitarian aid is also big business with a wide range of economic interests and competing stakeholders involved (indeed, among the attendees at the conference were some hedge fund managers), my fear is that a cadre of professional humanitarians could lose its way and professional humanitarians could become more the servants of special interests and organizations and less the helpers for those in need.
What do you think? Is there a need for defining and professionalizing the humanitarian sector? What would be some features needed to professionalize the sector?