From impact to transformation: Do-Gooders, Multicolored Saviors and development as lifestyle

My post is based on a very fruitful discussion on Jennifer ‘How Matters’ Lentfer’s facebook page that was triggered by Leila Janah’s recent contribution to The Development Set. The discussion addressed many issues I have been mulling over recently-particularly how to break the cycle that even good, impactful development initiatives are caught up in, being servants to consumer capitalism and its manifestations in the second decade of the 21st century. I am aware that I am writing my post from a position of privilege as a full-time academic at a Swedish university. And my final caveat is that this is still ‘just’ a blog post, not a fully referenced academic contribution (although it is about 1700 words long and you can download a nice pdf file if you scroll down).

Initially, Stop Labeling Do-Gooders As White Saviors seemed to be just another a post for my weekly link review.
One of the key arguments of Leila Janah’s piece is that rather than focusing critique on companies like TOMS shoes and their development model ‘we’ should be criticizing larger shoe manufacturers, for example-the old ‘doing something is always better than doing nothing’ argument.
Essentially not a new argument and one often used by ‘do-gooders’ of all different forms and shapes.
TMS Ruge’s comment to Leila Janah’s piece sums up key points of the critique of volunteering well:

Your approach and interpretation to development work makes you an outlier in this field. There aren’t many brown do gooders in this field, let alone any that have reached your level of influence. For every one of you, there are thousands and thousands flying out to “Africa” to pad their résumés doing the most egregious, self-serving, agency-ripping, tone deaf projects you’ve ever seen. These are the ones that ruin it for all the Leila outliers out there. I’ve written many articles against TOMS, Kony2012, and every white savior debacle in between. The real crime truly, apart from the damage caused, is that these badly executed projects suck up so much media and mental space that they bury all the Leilas out there.
And yet, as comments to the original post kept coming in on Jennifer Lentfer’s facebook timeline, I started to think about it more-this is not just another case of ‘silly American missionaries dancing in Uganda’.
My first reaction was a comment to the discussion:

From an academic point of view, this is a fascinating case study. I have been following Leila's marketing on facebook and LinkedIn and it's a great case study of self-branding and non-threatening entrepreneurism. From (paid) facebook live sessions to speaking with investors in Geneva about luxury branding and field trips to India, Kenya and Uganda there is a complex story around modern capitalism, part Oprah, part Silicon Valley, part real 'impact'. As a highly educated, skilled, beautiful (by marketing ideals) woman with a minority background her work gets amplified for the right as well as consumerist capitalistic reasons. But at the end of the day for me (as a European academic) it remains firmly embedded in the North American philanthrocapitalism discourse: Not really political, not interested in root-causes or systemic issues, but at the same time achieving something, having some impact and probably improving some people's lives. It's the development story of the 21st century...
I am not entirely happy with my comment now and contemplated not sharing it in this context, but with my blog and in my blogging practice I have the expectation to reflect on the evolution of my academic research, writing and engagement practices and how they evolve over time.

The simultaneity of the non-simultaneous
Just bare with me for a second while I unpack the big German philosophical guns, but there is a purpose for them:

Ernst Bloch’s essay's central idea is that heterogeneous stages of social and economic development coexist simultaneously in 1930s Germany
(students, remember that this is a blog post and not an academic assignment, so I can link to Wikipedia, but you have to reference Bloch’s and/or Marx’ collected works-in the German original, of course!)

This is pretty much development theory in the smallest of nutshells: things happen simultaneously, social and historical developments unfold in parallel and concepts or discourses do not just emerge and then disappear. You can have ‘impact’ without social transformation, you can contribute to positive change while underlying social structures remain intact and you can ‘reduce poverty’ while inequality is rising at the same time.

The blurring boundaries between development, philanthropy and Silicon Valley-style business models
It is worth reading the aforementioned Wikipedia article to the end: 

Postcolonial anthropologist Arjun Appadurai makes a similar point in his book Modernity at Large (1996) via an implicit critique of Wallerstein: "The new global cultural economy has to be seen as a complex, overlapping, disjunctive order that cannot any longer be understood in terms of existing center-periphery models (even those that might account for multiple centers and peripheries)".
Twenty years after Appadurai we are right in the middle of a new iteration of glocality, where global culture(s) meet local markets and new forms of capitalism. It is no longer just a simple ‘development needs more business’ discourse, but there is a complex web of self-marketing, volunteering or new business buzzwords such as ‘impact investment’ within a changing global order that features philanthrocapitalists as well as Chinese investments in Africa, for example. I wrote about The professionalization of development volunteering – towards a new global precariat? on my blog to highlight new forms of doing development without addressing broader societal issues.

I highlighted some of the bigger issues in my review of Erica Kohl-Arena’s brilliant book The self-help myth, an ethnography and historical policy-analysis of the agricultural sector in California:

In an unimaginative environment where everyone is fearful of confronting growers (…) relationships between private foundations, professionalized advocacy organizations, and other regional stakeholders have solidified a limited understanding of what is possible in addressing enduring poverty and inequality. (pp.167 & 170)
In the end, the risk is to have a depolitized community where small individual gains do not lead to ‘win-win’ scenarios, but to fragmentation and a re-stratification of diverse groups and ‘stakeholders’.
But this analysis does not cover all the important aspects of the discussion.

Saving the planet‐one purchase at a time?
In my review of Nicole Aschoff’s The New Prophets of Capital, I highlight the following quote:

Buying better things is not a substitute for the hard political choices that societies need to make about limiting consumption and resource use, and finding a replacement for the psychological crutch of consumerism. (p.75)
For me this sums up a key challenge of contemporary ‘development’: We cannot (TED) talk, volunteer, reflect or invest our way out of the core dilemmas of contemporary capitalism, the fact that Max Roser’s positive numerical Our world in data comes with polluted oceans, deforested jungles, increased obesity levels in developing countries-and Silicon Valley billionaires.
As much as I neither doubt good intentions nor oftentimes good implementation with impact, we need to be critical about the limited transformational potential of many of these initiatives. Views of a Emma Watson’s UN speeches or growth in household income are crude measurements of Sen’s ‘development as freedom’ as they keep ‘us’ and ‘them’ embedded in frameworks that are often driven by new iterations of the old order-male leadership in global governance or new multinational companies banking on platform-capitalism.

Mindful well-being, or: nobody escapes the capillary system of consumer capitalism

The debates in development around (unpaid) internships, volunteering (whether it takes place in the context of ‘service-learning’ or the large-scale schemes the EU is rolling out often center around ‘white saviors’ and sometimes the ‘precariat’. But promises of intersectionality, multi-culturalism or empowerment will largely remain unfulfilled-or at best individualized as the development industry will embrace new subjects and objects.
Will there be a different volunteering culture as middle-class Indians venture into remote villages? Or will Chinese volunteers arrive in Africa in a second wave of cultural expansion of its influence-not dissimilar to traditional Western notions of ‘development’?

In his book The Happiness Industry William Davies critically analyzes well-being discourses and how they evolved throughout history. It is worth thinking for a moment what this may mean for the aid industry:

Traditional paid work has a transparency around it which makes additional psychological and somatic management unnecessary. In contrast, workfare and internship arrangements which are offered as ways of making people feel more optimistic or raising their self-esteem replace exchange with further psychological control, often coupled to barely concealed exploitation. (p.206)
As much as development has become part of (pop-) culture the merger of different forms of market-based approaches have real consequences for policy and practice.

In this context it is also worth introducing Patricia Strach’s book Hiding politics in Plain Sight-Cause Marketing, Corporate Influence, and Breast Cancer Policymaking.
Her findings are very relevant for thinking about contemporary development as well-replace ‘American’ with ‘global’ and ‘breast cancer’ with the latest market-based development trend and I think we might be on to something:

I find that market mechanisms encourage social solutions more than collective ones. Market mechanisms encourage individuals to get together-for walks, runs, tournaments-and offer an important outlet to do something about an issue with others. But social action may differ from collective action in important ways. Social action takes place with others but not to create collective solutions for others. (p.183)
Strach wraps up her conclusion by highlighting that breast cancer has become a ‘consensus social issue’ (p.184) where market forces dominate critical and complex debates.

This post is a bit longer than usual and I cannot offer good ‘solutions’.
The simultaneity of non-simultaneous experiences, discourses and practices is at the core of contemporary development. Our industry means different things to different people, but what should unite us in our efforts is a endeavor to keep each other on their toes, use historical insights and new tools to find or redefine spaces for transformation, resistance and change; and those spaces can hardly be purchased through products, giving up our time and good intentions.

 

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