Putting the ‘personal’ into development

Two books reveal the way in which the politics of development is no longer about helping the poor but providing a design for life for middle-class Westerners.

Jim Butcher

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Poverty in the developing world demands a response. But what can people do to ‘make a difference’ to their world and help to tackle deprivation? In the past the impulse to act was framed by the politics of left and right, by competing visions for progress, economic and social. Through political parties, campaigns and macro-political theories of the time, individuals’ relationship to global problems was a distinctly political one.

Generation NGO is a clear indication of a very different public discussion of poverty and development. The book is an edited collection of highly personal accounts of young Canadian volunteers working with development NGOs. The heartfelt reflections give clear insights into their motivations, feeling and personal journeys.

Here, development is refracted through the lens of individual morality. The personal, autobiographical character of the essays is striking. The editors (two young volunteers themselves) seek to ‘interrogate their socialisation by examining their position in the world relative to that of others’, and note that this ‘includes reflecting on class, race, gender, language, religion, power, privilege, stereotypes, and many other social factors that determine how people interact’. This linking of a working out of personal identity via development volunteering chimes with contemporary ideas of ‘life politics’ and ‘reflexivity’ in the social sciences. The impulse to make a difference seems to be organised around the old feminist slogan, ‘the personal is political’.

One contributor gives a sense of the personal journey involved: ‘Studying was hard work, but it never revealed much to me about who I was.’ For that, a journey – both geographical and experiential – was necessary. University education did not cultivate the ‘consciousness needed for solidarity’, and also ‘siding with the poor is not as easy when you realise that you directly benefit from theft from the poor’. This contributor sums up: ‘I guess you could say I’m working on my own development.’

There is a strong sense in the essays that Western lifestyles are complicit in the poverty of others, creating a sense of guilt alongside a desire to tackle injustice as the volunteers perceive it. All too aware of their privilege (a point of reference in most of the essays), the contributors seek to ‘deploy their privilege creatively’. There is also a clear sense that ‘being there’ is important, and being ‘book smart’ (all the volunteers are graduates) is limited and limiting with regard to bringing about change. At times, this recurring argument for enlightenment through personal experience borders on an anti-intellectualism.

Another contributor looks at friendship and power – can the personal friendships made when volunteering cut through power relations? There is in this account, and elsewhere, a preoccupation with establishing a personal connection with the people subject to the development projects. Emotions, doubts and personal moral dilemmas loom large in the experiences of the volunteers. However, they all see large-scale economic development as intensely problematic, and the moral high ground is afforded to ‘alternative’ development throughout the book. There is a distinctly populist emphasis to the accounts. While big business, big government and grand development projects are deemed arrogant and damaging, the contributors attempt to challenge this. The projects they engage in include helping to organise sports for children in a refugee camp in Rwanda, promoting a ‘sustainable’ organic-farming project in Barbados and ‘awareness raising’ in Burma.

Far from imposing Western ideas onto the communities in which they work (something mainstream development is held to be culpable for), most contributors want to return home with lessons for their lives and their societies. One contributor, a volunteer in Madagascar, comments on seeing a subsistence community plant, harvest, prepare and eat their own food and comments: ‘A part of me dreads returning to North America where, in comparison, everything seems rushed, wasteful and isolated from its source.’ Another felt like ‘an unwitting missionary of Northern beliefs and values’, but concludes that ‘Africa does not need me there, but perhaps it can use me here (in Canada) to share some of the things it has taught me’.

Echoing this rejection of ‘Western’ development, a volunteer organising sports in a Rwandan refugee-camp comments on being struck by ‘a very vivid sense of my own ugliness [….] I feel like an eyesore, as if you were to happen upon a McDonalds on the middle of the rainforest’. Another contributor’s view on helping beggars back home is transformed by her experience of beggars in Kenya.

This disillusionment with their own ‘Western’ or ‘Northern’ societies is at times linked to a disillusionment with humanity itself. For one contributor: ‘Time moves on, few things really change, and injustice – this interminable characteristic of being human – weaves its way through life, endlessly assaulting its favourite victims’. Injustice, like the poor, is always with us and always will be in this downbeat view.

One contributor articulates the shift to the expression of social aspirations through a personal narrative clearly. Motivated by a desire to expose the ‘hidden costs’ of Western lifestyles, she sets off for Burma. Through her experience, ‘social change’ becomes ‘entrenched […] as a lifestyle’, a ‘deeply personal battle, fought from within and without’. This volunteer does conclude with a downbeat assessment of what her lifestyle politics can achieve, but further concludes that this failure is due to a heartless world, not to the limits of her own narcissistic take on development.

The view of development adopted by the volunteers fails to pay heed to some simple facts – ones that can certainly be gleaned from books in the well-stocked libraries of Canada’s best universities, with no need to visit economically less-developed societies. Parts of the developing world have developed greatly in recent decades. This development has been the result not of the actions of localised NGO initiatives, but of major infrastructural projects and integration into networks of global trade. Such economic development is clearly correlated with better healthcare, longer lives and greater opportunity. Hence, there is a sense in which the geographical advance of these young idealists into the field corresponds to an ideological retreat from the kind of development that has historically been a precondition for real progress.

So where does development fit in? None of the contributors to Generation NGO really believes that they are changing the world very much at all, yet they decry markets and grand projects. There is an impasse here. Development theories – the ‘grand narratives’ – stand discredited. The alternatives offer a personal journey with much introspection, but little prospect of development worthy of the name . This book reflects a personalised and perhaps narcissistic take on development that will prompt debate, but is unlikely to contribute to enlightenment.

Globalising Responsibility: The Political Rationalities of Ethical Consumption is written by four eminent geographers, and is the end result of a five-year Economic and Social Research Council-funded research project into ethical consumption. As with Generation NGO, this book identifies everyday experience – focusing on consumption – as an important prism through which people make sense of, and attempt to act upon, the issue of development. The focus includes fairtrade goods, organic food, voluntary simplicity and localism, all associated with an ‘ethical’ alternative to ‘neoliberalism’.

The authors look at the history of ‘political’ ethical consumption in order to argue that it is not an entirely new phenomenon. The Apartheid example raised in the book is interesting but not convincing as an example of the political potential in consumer politics. Consumer boycotts of South African goods took place at a time when politics was played out in a very different way – the contestation of Apartheid was predominantly via bitter class struggle in South Africa, and even for those showing solidarity, consumer boycotts were a tactic (arguably a rather passive one) in that context. Ethical consumption as a political strategy was not on the agenda of left-leaning geographers or too many campaigners until the 1990s.

Prior to that, left and right predominated, rather than ethical consumption’s emphasis on right and wrong. Since the end of the Cold War, political parameters have tended to become replaced by moral parameters, and these are shaped by a very particular ethical climate. For these authors, ethical development eschews transformative economic growth in the name of ‘small is beautiful’, localism, self-sufficiency and organic agriculture.

The book argues that consumption is more than just consumption. It is presented as a vehicle for the project of what they refer to as ‘ethical selving’ – the development of globally aware people able to act ‘ethically’ in consumption and beyond. Consumption is described as a ‘surface of mobilisation for wider, explicitly political aims and agendas’. They argue that working through ethical dilemmas in consumption (to buy or not to buy, whether to buy fairtrade, whether to pay the extra for organic, etc) can feed into wider political understanding and campaigning – a new progressive politics for our times. The thesis of the book is that many individuals, acting together in the realm of consumption, can constitute a new ‘collective’ ethics of responsibility rooted in the everyday act of shopping.

This is a riposte to those who argue that consumption is a very limited form of politics, or indeed that it represents a retreat from politics. For example, some Marxists have pointed to consumption as an attenuated moral sphere – production is where the power lies and where real change can be made, and ethical consumption simply plays to commodity fetishism. By contrast, the authors of Globalising Responsibility argue that consumers can work out their place in the moral entanglement of global trade and, having done so, can consume and campaign in such a way as to bring about change.

The ‘commodity chain’ is key here. The idea of commodity chains is a distinctly human-geographical one, in that it represents geographical distance and also moral distance between consumer and producer. Awareness of the links in the chain between our consumption and the production of, say, coffee in the developing world can raise consumers’ awareness, and also empower them to be moral agents in the sphere of consumption – we can truly ‘care at a distance’.

Yet there are many issues that are simply not amenable to consumption. Generally, the issues that can be acted upon are where a consumer wants to make a stance by buying less. We can’t advocate the development of an electricity grid for Africa from this position, or the benefits of space travel. We can’t demand economic growth, but we can criticise it. We can’t advocate technology, but we can resist it. Ethical consumption leads us down one path, generally away from development.

This desire to ‘care’ and act ethically is similar to the sentiments of the Generation NGO essayists, the difference being that it led the former to travel to and strike up relationships with the people deemed to be on the receiving end of global capitalism. Yet while care is admirable in individual relationships, it is not a basis for challenging social relationships. Solidarity is presented here as a product of personal traits of responsibility, awareness, empathy and care.

But what of political solidarity? It is hard to envisage political solidarity when politics itself, as in different, competing visions of what development could and should be, is largely written out of the analysis, in favour of a prescribed list of ‘ethical’ products. There is an inverse relationship between ‘ethics’ and politics here. Real choices over what sort of development is worthy of the name has been written out of the discussion. It has already been decided for you by a milieu of ethical consumption champions.

Indeed, perhaps the most notable feature of the book is what it does not address. It is taken as a given that small-scale production, organic agriculture and localism should be the focus of peoples’ ethical decisions – no one is going to be regarded as ‘ethical’ by these writers by deliberately buying genetically modified vegetables that give farmers a sporting chance of their output surviving flooding or infestation. As with the volunteers in Generation NGO, they adopt and simply assert that ’small is beautiful’ and that the project of making a difference in relation to the environment and people is best pursued through ‘alternative economic spaces’ such as fair trade and the encouragement of organic agriculture.

The sense of rightness is unfortunately reflected in the leading questions and patronising attitude towards members of the focus groups featured later in the book. The leading questions in their research are quite surprising: ‘What do people think about paying a little more so that people in poor communities get more?’ Needless to say, this is not balanced out by a counterbalancing question along the lines of: ‘What do people think about the net effect of the organic lobby being negative for agricultural yields and leading to higher food prices’.

And this is perhaps the biggest problem with their thesis, regardless of whether you favour organic food, GM, small-scale change or economic transformation. The talking up of an ‘ethical register’, and a ‘reflexive attitude to consumption’ masks the fact that what is ethical and moral has been decided for you by self-appointed spokespeople for our peers in the developing world. This is not morality, but moralising.

The ethical consumption lobby and the attitudes of the development volunteers in Generation NGO reflect a very limited political culture, one that sees poverty (if it sees it at all) as the sum of each action, each relationship, each purchase. In human geography, terms such as ‘responsibility’ and ‘reflexivity’ are widely invoked to articulate the importance of the individual and their experience in new political identities. Power is constantly invoked – we are all complicit by the consumer choices we make, starting from our early morning cup of coffee (should we choose fairtrade?), through the commute to work (how does it affect our carbon footprint?) and what we order for lunch (should it be organic?). Power appears everywhere, in every relationship, every purchase, in the ether almost. The development volunteers, and the human geographers, have given up on social relations and replaced them with personal relations. Sympathy and, at best, empathy, replace politics and solidarity.

So how do we ‘make a difference’? The impulse is a distinctly human one, and the volunteers’ stories are at times moving and sensitive to their subject. Likewise, the focus-group respondents in Globalising Responsibility in answer to the (leading) questions asked, clearly want to help and assist others worse off than themselves.

A starting point might be to challenge the view that life, and politics, revolves around consumption, awareness and attitudes. Further, specifically in relation to development, there should be a questioning attitude to sustainable development (given the way it is so often casually associated with small-scale, green-development options), as it has become an umbrella under which all manner of low expectations for development can shelter.

Rather than the self-critical stance of the volunteers and green consumers, who view poverty but doubt the benefit of affluence, we should consider how affluence has benefited societies greatly, and how this can be generalised. In doing so we should introduce the possibility of a new modernity, more ambitious and technologically informed than that proposed in these two books.

Jim Butcher lectures at Canterbury Christ Church University, and is the author of Ecotourism, NGOs and Development: a Critical Analysis, published by Routledge (buy this book from Amazon(UK)). His latest co-authored book, on volunteer tourism, is due out at the end of the year.

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