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.