Caught between Growing Up and Waking Up

As I get older I’m trying to mature. To not harbor the younger rebellious me’s feelings about the injustices of how things are set up. To understand the give and take of the real world. To realize that “that’s how the world works” and “the poor will always be with us”. To remember that it’s bad to take an us vs. them approach. To realize that we need the wealthy and the corporations as partners to change the world. To believe the new head of USAID when he says that Coca Cola and the military are at the core of the new development community (as I heard via Twitter this morning).

And sometimes when I’m out in a community with people who are generally doing OK, it doesn’t hit me so hard. Often people in poor communities have resources that we lack in the “North” or the “West” or whatever you want to call those of us who live in Europe and the US and don’t worry so much about poverty in our own lives.

Sometimes I’ll sit and fantasize about one day having a little house somewhere out in a beautiful place, where my neighbors and I will walk slowly and greet each other and stop to chat in the evenings on our way home from our day’s tasks. I’ll take cold bucket baths as the sun rises, adding a pan-full of hot water to my bucket on especially chilly mornings. I’ll buy out-of-this-world homemade afternoon snacks from a little tienda or kiosk down the hill, or from a crinkly smiley old woman by the side of the road. I’ll cook fresh food (purchased every day or so, not once a week in bulk), over an open fire outside in back of my house under a tin awning. I’ll wake up early most mornings and open my front door and my wooden shutters to the sound of the birds and a view of the mist lifting off the mountains that surround me. I’ll have an un-spayed-or-neutered dog that will sleep outside to guard the homestead, a couple of cats to keep the mice population down, and maybe some chickens in a little coop. I’ll take a voluntary vow of poverty and live a simple life with few material possessions.

Buuuuut then it always seems the fantasy dims…. I’ll talk to someone whose brother accidentally hacked off his finger when working out in the fields and ended up losing his hand because he couldn’t get medical treatment. Or several people will be missing from a workshop because they are at the hospital getting treated for malaria.  Or I’ll meet a girl who’s pregnant and married at 13 or 14, shy and visibly miserable. Or some children whose feet and ankles are swollen and full of sores. Or hear of a terrible road accident where several people died. Or meet people living in makeshift houses in a precarious zone because they were kicked off their land. Or talk with a teen-aged boy whose only dream is to get out of the community to someplace where life is really happening and he can achieve his dreams.

Oooor I’ll spend time in a country being overridden by big companies and corporations. I’ll see the ladies who used to sell their delicious homemade juices being pushed out of business by a soda company. I’ll see their babies drinking powdered milk or bright orange Fanta from a baby bottle instead of nursing at the breast. I’ll see people eating imitation Doritos instead of fresh food. I’ll hear about an oil line passing through a pristine forest or an ecological disaster topping the BP oil spill, yet no one talks about it. Or someone will tell me about logging and mining companies devastating a particular part of the country I’m in. Or I’ll sigh at the plastic bags littering the side of the roads. Or my stomach will feel ill at the conflicts fought because of dictators propped up by Western governments.

I’ll read about events like the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) happening this week in New York City. Where the corporations that we used to protest against en masse are now the owners not only of the global market, but of the world’s aid and development work.  I don’t know. Maybe they have always been the owners and I didn’t know enough to realize it. But when did we all sell out and stop protesting it? When did we accept it as the only way forward? When did we stop asking the hard questions and just let them invite us to be wined and dined in fancy hotels, and actually pay $20,000 (can that be right?) for the privilege to sit in the room with them and tantalize them with a new innovation or a catchy new slogan so that we can access their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) crumbs?

When did we stop demanding some kind of accountability from them for how they do business? When did we buy into this? How did it happen? When did we fall for this? When did Corporate Social Responsibility become charity rather than actually preventing the damage that corporations do or forcing them to be ethical in how they do business? And does demanding accountability even make any difference at all, since things like boycotting sweatshops and campaigning against cell phones often end up actually hurting the very people that we want to help, and they don’t seem to actually make any kind of impact or bring about the change we are seeking?

I can’t help but feel really de-motivated reading about CGI and the MDG Summit and the UN Digital Week events happening this week. I feel like we are all getting hoodwinked. It’s difficult to negotiate when the power balance is so much in favor of one group. When one group holds all the cards and when they also own most of the world’s political leaders and the media. And, as several have already pointed out this week, the people that everyone talks about, the people everyone says we need to listen to, the people we’re all supposedly interested in helping, are not anywhere near the venue.

It’s possible that I’ve misunderstood the situation, that in my immaturity I’ve misunderstood how CGI works and what its purpose is. That I’m acting like a teenager and not willing to listen. But let me tell you, from the outside it looks, as I said yesterday, like a big love fest of the rich and famous and powerful who get to decide the fate of the world.

So today instead of fantasizing about my vow of poverty and living the simple life, I’m fantasizing that I’m in New York. I’m pretending that I’m Zack de la Rocha and I’m walking into the CGI meeting looking like a rock star. They all think I’ve grown up. That I’m the next Bono. But then I get on stage, and I break out into that song Wake Up. I’m rap-screaming (in pure Zack style) “What do I gotta, what do I gotta to do to wake you up? to shake you up? to break the structure up?”

I know, I know, I know. Waste of time. Grow up and simmer down and stop wasting your breath…. Because this is the new world order and no one is waking up any time soon.


Postscript:  This video narrated by Slavoj Zizec and animated by the team at RSA sums up a lot of what’s bugging me… thanks to @michael_keizer for tweeting it.


About Shotgun Shack

INGO worker hailing from the crossroads of America, and so far from home in so many ways. I blog about life and the depths and ironies of INGO work. View all posts by Shotgun Shack

12 responses to “Caught between Growing Up and Waking Up

  • A compilation of articles about the Clinton Global Initiative and UN Week | Good Intentions Are Not Enough A compilation of articles about the Clinton Global Initiative and UN Week | An honest conversation about the impact of aid

    […] Caught between Growing Up and Waking Up – Shotgun Shack – “As I get older I’m trying to mature. To not harbor the younger rebellious me’s feelings about the injustices of how things are set up. To understand the give and take of the real world. To realize that “that’s how the world works” and “the poor will always be with us”. To remember that it’s bad to take an us vs. them approach. To realize that we need the wealthy and the corporations as partners to change the world. To believe the new head of USAID when he says that Coca Cola and the military are at the core of the new development community (as I heard via Twitter this morning).” […]

  • J.

    re: USAID and role of Coca-Cola and the military in “the core” of the development community:

    1) The basic job of Coca-Cola and corporations like Coca-Cola is to extract wealth from the population.
    2) The basic job of the military – any military, really – is using *destructive* force.

    What does THAT tell you about the new USAID director’s perspectives on development?

  • Tom

    Wake Up is an appropriate ending to this post. Nicely done. It also has me thinking of another RATM song: “Freedom! Yea right.”

  • penelopemc

    Great post. I can relate to so many of the thoughts you expressed here. I usually end up disappointed with the efforts of the private sector to be “responsible citizens.” For having spent a bit of time working with corporations on development projects, I think there are major issues with the way in which the private sector engages in social good.

    In terms of economic development, companies – international and local – need to be partners in any quest for growth. And if you look at which countries successfully tackled poverty in the last five or so decades, it’s very obvious that job creation is key (South Korea or Chile, for example.)

    So while private sector participation is key, it’s also at the moment deeply flawed – like you mention, we can’t just have “CSR crumbs” and all feel good about ourselves. That’s not enough. Corporations – and in particular corporate shareholders, who should consider more ethical decision-making frameworks – can’t continue to escape their responsibilities toward society. It doesn’t make sense anymore for profit to matter above all else, at all times. That really needs to change. Concepts like the triple bottom line and corporate sustainability indexes are important, but they are still not broadly accepted as the norm.

    You wrote: “When did Corporate Social Responsibility become charity rather than actually preventing the damage that corporations do or forcing them to be ethical in how they do business?”

    I actually think that we’re making slow progress from traditional charity towards a more meaningful form of social responsibility – even though a lot of this new “engagement” on the part of corporations is more the result of a communications strategy than an inclusive business model…

    But I also believe it’s our collective responsibility to demand more from the private sector. So let’s continue having these conversations and not just accepting all the rhetoric as truth.

    • Shotgun Shack

      @J. Thanks a lot for your comment. Makes me feel less crazy and immature. 🙂

      @Tom There are soooo many appropriate RATM songs. We gotta take the power back would be a good one also…. Maggie’s Farm. Ah, don’t get me started.

      @Penelope – Yes I need to learn more about the triple bottom line concept and such. It just really struck me that someone we’ve all just come to accept that everything is going to be owned by CocaCola and Gates and will just lap it up. I hope someone wakes up at some point. Or that “we” wake up. Something’s gotta give because it’s really not working.

  • jordan

    Wow what an awesome post . Then again I’m young and frequently accused of being idealistic. The only thing I have to add is that as a huge geek I like to hope that technology can help make for a life that isn’t owned by the big corps but that we can make our selves but will have the standards of living all people deserve. Sort of an open source society, but again probably just being optimistic I like to look at the rep rap (open source self replicating 3d printer) when i get disenchanted w how things are relative to what I wish/know they could be if the ‘good’ ppl were in charge

  • Adam

    It all went to hell once we got complacent and arrogant in the belief that re-tweeting, re-blogging, liking a “cause”, or creating an Ushahidi “deployment” was actually doing something when in actually, it has all done nothing but create a digital smokescreen under which the powers that be grabbed all they wanted. I’m not saying that it was planned in any regard, but corporations took tremendous advantage of the slacktivism movement.

    If we want real change then that means getting bruised up a bit (whether by police baton or plowing a field), not clicking a mouse.

  • Rididill

    Wow, jut discovered this blog, very impressed. what a great post, touching on a debate that has been somewhat tearing me apart over the past few years. I’d like to send you a paper about communication strategies in development – part of which highlights that USAID has always had as part of its strategy as promoting the ‘American way’ – privately owned business and capitalism. To me it seems quite obvious that the strong have always made the rules to make sure that they will always win. This is why terrorism is unthinkable, but bombing someone with your fat army is somehow ok and nothing like terrorism.

    This seems just an extension of that. The history and development of global capitalism has always involved freedom and profit for some, built on oppression and colonialism for others, no more evident in the history of US foreign policy in Latin America – i.e. the ways in which pro-poor and pro-people land reform in Guatemala had damaged the interests of the United Fruit company, which was then portrayed as part of the war against communism (followed by CIA coup).

    Sure job creation is essential in development but that doesn’t mean you have to suck up to the global corporations, nor do ‘undeveloped’ countries have to be remade in the image of ‘developed’ ones (whose development depended upon the military repression of others). The damage done by these corporations lies in the separation of the interests of the corporation from both the wellbeing of the workers and the impact/location of waste disposal. Recreating this model, then artifically trying to limit the damage with ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ seems unlikely to result in anything more than spreading the worst aspects of the first world, globally. It hasn’t worked in our societies, so why would it work in theirs? ‘Demanding more’ from the private sector is futile – we have to transform it. It’s structurally unsound, and a few sticking plasters here and there will do nothing except salve a few rich people’s consciences.

    People maintain an interest when the effects are there to see, not hidden away in a place where no one cares.

    We need a different model for economic development than this. You will never be able to trust a global corporation to do the right thing, because to a global corporation, faking it is cheaper than doing it, and that’s all that matters under the profit motive.

    You will never be able to trust governments to enforce ‘business hostile’ measures when we are so dependent upon their power and wealth. We will never have the power to enforce anything upon them, just as the US has never really submitted itself to global agreements simply because it’s so powerful it doesn’t have to. And if there’s no enforcement power, what’s the use. And that’s even assuming that governments care and would like to do more, which is doubtful. We need to build alternatives that decrease our dependencies on these corporations, only then will we have any clout in challenging their power and building something better. And that’s in our own countries as well as abroad.

    Cooperatives, not corporations, are what we need.

  • prashanthns

    Very evocative. I dont know whether it was deja vu or merely mutually shared experiences – but that dream about the house and the tub of water and the neighbour and the drastic reality check in the following paragraph is indeed very familiar.

    I keep fluctuating (some reduce it to a linear scale or spectrum) between not allowing passion to cloud scientific endeavour of improving health and the ridiculousness of indulging in multiple regressions and scientific evaluations when it is sometimes such poverty-science that is used to push “agendas” shrouded in the much-sacrosant and allegedly apolitical “evidence”. As if science was not political…

    I have for various reasons (selfish? was it career? was it arrogance?) chosen a path of science for a few years – perhaps, it was arrogance – arrogance of thinking that there are scientific insights to be uncovered that will help improve health and development. In hindsight, it was just naivite, it was just disillusionment, it was even perhaps a coping and a run-away from the reality of working in an ill-financed health centre or the hallowness of global and national health initiatives – of which I only received a colourful brouchure and a report as I sat in places merely a few hundred kilometres from the IT capital of Bangalore. Hmm…

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