Modernization Theory – A Steady Record of Failure

Greece being the latest casualty, as demonstrated by sociologist Costas Panayotakis in the New York Times Examiner:

“Writing this column has heightened my awareness of how often and how quickly the representation of social reality by The New York Times is contradicted by the facts.  In such cases, the journalist whose past reporting has proven to be widely off base continues reporting like nothing had happened.  Now s/he presents a completely different picture of reality, one that completely contradicts the picture s/he had given just a few weeks and months earlier.  The optimistic explanation of such phenomena is that the reporters become chastened by the failings of their previous reporting and change their story to more closely fit the facts.  The less optimistic explanation is that they understand journalism not as an effort to capture reality as accurately as they can but rather as a form of entertainment, where self-contradiction is not a problem as long as one can keep churning out colorful stories that will kill readers some time as they commute to and from work.  Given how frequently I find myself having to debunk articles by The New York Times that cover Greece, I have to admit that it is the latter, less optimistic explanation that seems more plausible to me.

The trigger for these thoughts was a recent article reporting on Greek protesters pelting a German diplomat with coffee. (i)  The article rightly links this incident to a statement by German “Chancellor Angela Merkel’s special envoy to Greece, Hans-Joachim Fuchtel” who said that “1,000 German local government officials could do the work of 3,000 Greek officials.”  The article then points out that, at a time of high unemployment in Greece, “Mr. Fuchtel’s comments were seen as tone deaf.”  It also quotes Nikos Xydakis, a columnist for a conservative Greek newspaper, who suggests that Mr. Fuchtel seems to have no understanding of the suffering Greek people are currently undergoing and to “[lack] ‘the flexibility and the diplomatic skills’ to speak more carefully”.


It should be added here that both articles by The NYT are informed by a ‘modernization’ theory of development.  This theory, developed after World War II by American academics who were often members of the Cold War anti-communist establishment, blamed the great inequalities in the global capitalist economy on the failure of poor countries to follow the good example of those countries that purportedly became rich through the adoption of modern institutions, such as market capitalism and liberal democracy.  In this model, poor countries that emulated the institutions of rich countries would catch up with them, leaving behind problems, such as intense poverty and deprivation.  Needless to say, development strategies based on this model did not lead to a closing of the gap between the global North and the global South, leading to alternative understandings of the origins of global inequalities, which point out the ways in which the technological advances and wealth of the rich countries is to some extent the product of the intense exploitation of people in the less affluent countries.

By focusing on the “[m]entoring and … know-how” that Mr. Fuchtel brings to Greece and by identifying his mission as one of making Greece “a bit more efficient and perhaps a little more German,” Mr. Kulish in effect adopts the modernization narrative.  The problem, however, is that Greece’s present state was the product of a period in which the country had converged more closely to the institutional realities of advanced capitalist countries than it had ever done in its past.  Hence, Greece is only the latest example of the failures of modernization theory and the latest example of the ways in which great global inequalities, with all the human suffering they entail, cannot simply be blamed on domestic institutions and cultural attitudes.  Instead, they have to be seen as a regular and predictable product of global capitalism’s exploitative nature.”

Modernization theory is indeed the basis for the disastrous structural adjustment programs that the IMF pushed on developing countries that led to the lost decade. And that is the underlying narrative when development gets discussed in the media.

And it does not work.

Talk About Being Late To The Party…

Better late than never, I guess:

How long have feminists argued such a thing, which is rather obvious:

“Gender equality is shrewd economics as well as a human right, the World Bank has said in a report that showed countries with better opportunities for women and girls can boost productivity and development.

The most glaring disparity is the rate at which girls and women die relative to men in developing countries, according to The World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development.

“Blocking women and girls from getting the skills and earnings to succeed in a globalised world is not only wrong, but also economically harmful,” said Justin Yifu Lin, World Bank chief economist.

“Sharing the fruits of growth and globalisation equally between men and women is essential to meeting key development goals.”

Monday’s report cited the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation’s estimates that equal access to resources for female farmers could increase agricultural output in poorer countries by up to four per cent.

It also said eliminating barriers preventing women working in certain occupations would cut the productivity gap between male and female workers by a third to a half, and increase output per worker by three to 25 per cent in some countries.

“We need to achieve gender equality,” said World Bank President Robert Zoellick.

Zoellick said that over the past five years, the bank has provided funds to support girls’ education, women’s health, and women’s access to credit, land, agricultural services, jobs and infrastructure.

“This has been important work, but it has not been enough or central enough to what we do,” he said.

“Going forward, the World Bank Group will mainstream our gender work and find other ways to move the agenda forward to capture the full potential of half the world’s population.””

Specifically, the World Bank recommends:

“• addressing human capital issues, like the higher mortality of girls and women, through investment in clean water and maternal care and persistent disadvantages in education through targeted programs;

• closing the earning and productivity gaps between women and men — by improving access to productive resources; water and electricity, and childcare;

• increasing participation by women in decisions made within households and societies; and

• limiting gender inequality across generations, by investing in the health and education of adolescent boys and girls, creating opportunities to improve their lives and offering family planning information.

We have seen that focused policy attention can make a difference. Sustainable solutions are best grounded in partnerships including families, the private sector, governments, development agencies and religious and civil society groups.”

Which is all nice and everything but none of this will happen without full reproductive rights including access to safe abortions and the World Bank just tap dances around that issue without directly addressing it beyond the lame “offering family planning information.”

Why I Keep Harping on Inequalities

Because it is THE issue facing many societies today, with negative effects across the board, and yet, it is largely ignored:

“The incomes of the richest sections of society are soaring in the UK, China and India, and in most other countries as well. The poorest groups are seeing slow improvements at best, and often decline. Recent estimates indicate that at the current rate it will take more than 800 years for the bottom billion of the world population to achieve 10% of global income.

The UN general assembly began its 66th session last week. Many of the heads of state attending will no doubt report on their country’s progress towards the millennium development goals. They’re also likely to discuss the targets that will succeed the MDGs after 2015. However, there will almost certainly be a looming gap in these presentations: the rising inequalities between and within countries.

A year ago, coinciding with the UN MDG summit, the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and the MDG Achievement Fund released a report showing that the MDG targets largely overlooked inequality. Even in countries where there has been progress towards the MDGs, inequalities have grown. A Unicef study shows that only a third of the countries that have reduced national rates of child mortality have succeeded in reducing the gap between mortality rates in the richest and poorest households.

Inequality matters not just for those at the bottom. Highly unequal countries tend to grow more slowly, are more prone to conflict and have weaker civil societies. The much-cited study The Spirit Level found that across developed countries, crime, disease and environmental problems were exacerbated by inequality. Such ill effects in society made everyone worse off, even the middle classes.”

And yet, reducing poverty is essential to development and healthier societies:

“The meeting examined successful inequality reduction policies, sharing the lessons of a handful of countries that have defied the global trend. Thirteen countries in Latin America, including Brazil, Argentina and Chile, have narrowed the gap between the incomes of the poorest and wealthiest groups over the last decade. Similar positive trends have been seen in Malaysia, Thailand and in several African nations.

How was progress possible in these countries? Inequalities fell when governments expanded social protection programmes like Brazil’s Bolsa Familia. Minimum wage legislation and policies allowing more people to access secondary and higher education also contributed to success. Successful countries used progressive taxation or channelled mining and oil revenues to fund inequality-reducing programmes.”

These programs have been discussed at length in Just Give Money to the Poor.

The Visual Du Jour – Food Fights

The idea of riots exploding when food becomes scarce or unaffordable is not new. This is something that has been discussed before in the context of what used to be called the “IMF riots”, that is riots caused by the implementation of structural adjustment programs in developing countries (“structural adjustment” is roughly equivalent to austerity + privatization). Often, it is when these measures impacted food and water that riots would explode.

So, it is not that far-fetched to suggest a correlation between food prices and revolts in the Middle East:

Maybe we are witnessing the internal version of resource wars combined with decades of bad governance where the “panem and circenses” rule of dictators does not work anymore. There is more entertainment to be had via satellite TV and the Internet and if food prices go up, then things explode.

As the article notes:

“Seeking simple explanations for the Arab spring uprisings that have swept through Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya, is clearly foolish amidst entangled issues of social injustice, poverty, unemployment and water stress. But asking “why precisely now?” is less daft, and a provocative new study proposes an answer: soaring food prices.

Furthermore, it suggests there is a specific food price level above which riots and unrest become far more likely. That figure is 210 on the UN FAO’s price index: the index is currently at 234, due to the most recent spike in prices which started in the middle of 2010.

Lastly, the researchers argue that current underlying food price trends – excluding the spikes – mean the index will be permanently over the 210 threshold within a year or two. The paper concludes: “The current [food price] problem transcends the specific national political crises to represent a global concern about vulnerable populations and social order.” Big trouble, in other words.

Now, those are some pretty big statements and I should state right now that this research, by a team at the New England Complex Systems Institute, has not yet been peer reviewed. It has been published because, Yaneer Bar-Yam, NECSI president, told me, the work is relevant now but peer review is slow.

The first part of the research is straightforward enough: plotting riots identified as over food against the food price index. The correlation is striking, but is it evidence of causation?

Bar-Yam says this conundrum can be tackled by asking the question in clear ways. Could the riots be causing high food prices, rather than the reverse? No, the former is local, the latter global. Could the correlation simply be a coincidence? Yes, there’s only a tiny chance of that, Bar-Yam’s team argues in the paper.

Lastly, could other factors be causing both the violence and the high food prices? “No-one has suggested any other factor that can do both,” says Bar-Yam. For example, oil and tin both show similar price patterns to that of food, but seem unlikely to prompt the violence. The similarity, says Bar-Yam, is because all the commodity price peaks are being driven by speculation in global markets.

Book Review – The Last Gunfight

I read Jeff Guinn’s The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral – And How It Changed the American West because of Lance Mannion’s review of it and you should all just and read it now because, truthfully, there is nothing I can add to it. Lance covers all the main points that need covering.

Considering the number of films and TV series made about the gunfight at the OK Corral, there is no doubt that this event has a special place in American mythology, including especially the hero figure of Wyatt Earp. And like any myth, these representations have a tenuous relationship with what actually happened. These events have been told and retold over the decades and the narrative has been reshaped to gain a social meaning and moral narrative of good and evil, heroes and villains in the context of the Western. And FSM knows that “the West” as mythical, imaginary construct holds an important place in American lore and the way Americans see themselves and how they imagine real men should behave. The Western genre has long been an important part of Hollywood production and has contributed to the cultural reconstruction of the West. That is, until the 1970s when a few directors started to question the Western mythology (think Sergio Leone or Samuel Fuller) and the hero types, such as those constructed by John Wayne or Ronald Reagan (who carried it into his presidency).

This is why most classical Westerns have bored me silly and I have stayed away from the genre. Not that they are all bad but because they all mostly still follow “the code” and respect the mythology.

But I picked the book (and by that, I mean, I downloaded the Kindle edition) because, based on Lance’s review, it looked like Guinn had done two things I live for: debunking and embedding. Debunking refers to peeling off the layers of mythology and look for as much historical evidence as possible as to what actually happened. The book is indeed heavily sourced and Guinn is pretty honest about the relative reliability of some of these sources (including, not entirely surprisingly, Wyatt Earp himself). The embedding part, which is what the book is really about, is to re-position the gunfight (which did happen in Tombstone, but not at the OK Corral) in social, economic, political and historical contexts.

But the book does not consist entirely of giving us the macro picture of “what it was like in those days” but there is also a lot micro details, having to do with the way business was done in a frontier mine town (which is what Tombstone was), how different types of social actors interacted with each other, how lawmen did their business and dealt with criminality, such as it was defined then. And what of the things that comes off clearly is that shootout is the product of a series of interactive mistakes and misinterpretations. Over a period of the few hours preceding the gunfight, every interaction that could possibly go wrong or be misunderstood in an escalating way unfolded exactly like that. Erving Goffman would have had a field day analyzing the materials provided by Guinn.

At the same time, there is indeed a larger context and the gunfight was the culmination of several social dynamics. One such dynamic had to do with the fact that several of the main characters involved in the events were political rivals. The Earps (it is interesting that the mythology has positioned Wyatt as the hero as the book shows his brother, Virgil, to be the best man of the bunch of Earp brothers) had hitched their potential social mobility and economic fortunes to being competent lawmen who would gain acceptance into higher social classes and the elites of the different towns in which they worked before coming to Tombstone. The Republicanism was connected to such upward mobility prospects.

On the other side were the Democrats (including more competent social climber Johnny Behan, the county sheriff), mostly ranchers, ranch workers, many of them migrants from the Confederate states (especially Texas) who still had not digested the defeat of the Civil War. These rangers (including the Clantons and McLaurys who died at the gunfight) also were in business with cowboys (“cowboys”, in those days, was an insult… see? Mythological reconstruction), cattle rustlers who made forays into Mexico to steal cattle, bring it to friendly ranchers to be fattened up before sale (with the ranchers getting their cut of the proceeds). Funny how that bit of economic extraction is not often mentioned when discussing relationships between US and Mexico.

In any event, things had been brewing for some time between the complicit ranchers and cowboys, supported by their Democratic allies such as Behan, and the Republican establishment which the Earps were trying to join. The gunfight represents the culmination of this political dynamic. The larger context, of course, is the development of the Southwest, the negotiation of the roles of the different layers of government (federal / state / county / local). Needless to say, the Democratic ranchers were not keen on submitting to state authority and paying taxes (a lucrative position for a county sheriff whose job it was to collect them, keeping 10% for himself) while Republicans in town thought solid law and order would be good for business and development.

One of the constantly fluctuating dynamic shown in the book is the negotiation between the different layers of authority regarding how much law enforcement there should be. Too much and trail hands would not come and spend their money in town at the end of the trail. Not enough and chaos would follow. Either would be bad for business. So, lawmen had to walk that fine political line and make ad hoc determinations as to when to arrest, when to just club a drunkard over the head and put him in jail for the night and send him home in the morning. And Virgil Earp, the town chief of police was pretty good at it, except on one day where he misjudged the situation.

And that is another thing that is largely a myth about the West: the myth of the main street gunfight between two men (like the classical introduction to the long-running Gunsmoke, located in Dodge City where Wyatt Earp officiated for a while). Those hardly ever happened. Gunfights were much more rare than they are represented in movies and TV series. Actually, many cities had gun bans on the books.

What is true though is the West, both as myth and reality, was a patriarchy through and through: the common law wives, the horrific lives of the prostitutes officiating in saloons, bars and hotels and the Earps were no noble gentlemen in that respect. They had common law wives who would never be accepted by the higher society (precisely because they were not officially married, or former prostitutes) therefore, the Earps kept them more or less hidden away so as not to interfere with their (failed) attempts at social climbing.

So,  the book re-embeds these men’s stories in their proper historical, social and political contexts, but it not a dry book. It is actually a pretty entertaining read and a page-turner where any reader will learn a lot about a little part of the way this country was developed. What it also shows is that the history of the frontier is NOT that of courageous pioneers going it alone in the wilderness. By the time settlers showed up, the army had pacified the areas from Native Americans, there were laws on land allocation, with the farmers and miners (which means assayers and other occupations related to extraction), businesses would also show up at the same time to provide supplies or entertainment for trail crews. It was not just men on their own. They had families, which meant schools and women’s clubs. And, of course, governance… and taxes.

The next step is then to question why the myth of the West was reconstructed the way it was and why so many hold onto that myth.

Book Review – Just Give Money to the Poor

If you are a public policy wonk interested in development, Just Give Money to the Poor: The Development Revolution from the Global South by Joseph Hanlon, Armando Barrientos and David Hulme, is for you.

This book argues for the value and effectiveness of cash transfer programs in order to alleviate poverty in the Global South as opposed to programs based on the faulty and yet still used modernization theory and as opposed to the complicated and short-sighted programs offered by the multitude of NGOs based more on donors priorities than actual need.

The book is strongly data-driven and reviews in details the different programs that have been piloted or implemented in various countries of the global South but they all lead to four conclusions:

“These programs are affordable, recipients use the money well and do not waste it, cash grants are an efficient way to directly reduce current poverty, and they have the potential to prevent future poverty by facilitating economic growth and promoting human development.” (2)

That being said, reviews of these programs (especially in Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, Indonesia, India and Zambia, among others) reveal two problematic areas: targeting (who gets the cash payments) and conditions (should there be any? What kind?)

It should be noted that cash transfer payments are not really new. Most high-income countries have such programs in place in a variety of ways: family grants, government-administered pensions, children and elderly benefits are the main ones. But it has always been assumed that only the rich countries could afford such programs and it goes against the conservative belief that the poor are poor because of their own failings and that therefore only the “deserving” poor should receive assistance. In poor countries, these can take the form of family grants, pensions, child benefits, employment guarantee.

Why do these programs work?

“A quiet revolution is taking place based on the realization that you cannot pull yourself by your bootstraps if you have no boots. And giving “boots” to people with little money does not make them lazy or reluctant to work; rather, the opposite happens. A small guaranteed income provides a foundation that enables people to transform their own lives. In development jargon, this is the “poverty trap” model – many people are trapped in poverty because they have so little money that they cannot buy things they know they need, such as medicines or schoolbooks or food or fertilizer. They are in a hole with no way to climb out; cash transfers provide a ladder.” (4)

But there are specific conditions that make these programs work effectively in reducing poverty. They must be:

Fair in that people largely agree as to who should receive the benefits. Universal benefits are usually perceived as fair but do not target the poorest and most vulnerable categories. Targeting may be more difficult to administer and may be divisive.

Assured, that is, people know that there is money coming in every month so they can plan accordingly and start living beyond day to day survival.

Practical in that there should be an civil service capacity to administer the programs and deliver benefits as simply as possible.

Not just pennies in that the benefits should be large enough to really trigger change in behavior such as letting children stay in school longer or using medical services more frequently.

Popular in that programs should be politically acceptable.

These programs are often designed to not just reduce immediate poverty but also to reduce intergenerational poverty by improving nutrition (and therefore health) as well as school attendance and decrease child labor. In addition, studies show that these programs also contribute to development by stimulating demand as the poor will spend the extra money they get locally. Having a little bit of financial security also fosters investment (in seeds and crops) and even some risk-taking (experimenting with high-yielding crops for instance). The money may also be used as start-up capital. In other words, the poor become more able to participate in the economy.

Again, this is not to say that these programs do not have their problems. Corruption is still a major issue in the global South. Developing effective targeting mechanisms can be tricky and conditionality is especially difficult. In addition, if more people are going to make greater use of health and educational services, then, these services have to be there. And, of course, there is no template that can be conveniently replicated from one country to the next. All the programs discussed in the book differ based on social context. For instance, pensions are especially effective in South Africa where there are a lot of multi-generational families and having seniors receive pensions allows adults to go away to find work knowing their children will be taken care of. On the other hand, Mexico and Brazil have programs that focus more on children and mothers.

I won’t go into the details of all the programs depicted in the book because that would be tedious. But that is actually one of the strengths of the book. The authors have done their homework, collected the data to determine the effectiveness of these different programs. So, as much as it is a public policy book, it is also a debunking book in that it destroys the myths that conservative ideology has regarding the poor and their behavior.

Inequality Matters (A LOT!)

So, it’s that time of the year when the new UN Human Development Report (2010) comes out, with its recent measurement and trends. Some of this stuff is never truly surprising, such as the overall rankings:

Since the 1970s, the trends have been dramatic by regions. We can see who “lost” decades and who the big winners of globalization have been (sorry, bad cropping, the vertical lines represent 5-year intervals, starting in 1970, all the way to 2010):


But this year, the HDR contains something new: greater attention to inequality and its consequences for development, or I should say against development. As the report notes:

“The 2010 Report, The Real Wealth of Nations: Pathways to Human Development, introduces the Inequality-adjusted HDI, a measure of human development that accounts for inequality. Under perfect equality, the HDI and Inequality-adjusted HDI are identical. The HDI for an average individual is less than the aggregate HDI when there is inequality in the distribution of health, education and income; the lower the Inequality-adjusted HDI (and the greater the difference between it and the HDI), the greater the inequality.
•    The average loss in the HDI due to inequality is 22 percent—adjusted for inequality, the global HDI of 0.68 in 2010 would fall to 0.52, which would represent a drop from the high to the medium HDI category in the world average. Losses range from 6 percent (Czech Republic) to 45 percent (Mozambique), with 80 percent of countries losing more than 10 percent, and 40 percent of countries losing more than 25 percent.
•    Countries with lower human development tend to have greater inequality—and thus larger losses in human development: Namibia lost 44 percent in the new Inequality- adjusted HDI, the Central African Republic 42 percent and Haiti 41 percent.
“The Inequality-adjusted HDI shows that in many countries, despite rising overall average development achievement, far too many people are being left behind,” Jeni Klugman said.”

So, for instance:

Loss of HDI

This is not entirely surprising either. It has been known for a long time that inequality can be masked by overall growth data and that large inequalities are detrimental to development and overall well-being.

Also not surprising is that gender inequality has the same effects in terms of HDI loss:

Gender HDI Loss

The Report also introduces a third new indicator to fine tune poverty measures:

“This year’s report also introduces the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), which complements income-based poverty measures. The MPI identifies deprivations across the same dimensions as the HDI— health, education and living standards—and shows the number of people who are multidimensionally poor and the deprivations that they face on the household level. The MPI uses 10 indicators; a household is counted as poor if it is deprived in more than three of those areas. The MPI can be deconstructed by region, ethnicity and other groupings as well as by dimension. It can also be adapted further for national use.


Key findings include:
•    About 1.7 billion people in the 104 countries covered by the MPI—a third of their population—suffer from multidimensional poverty. This exceeds the estimated 1.44 billion people in those countries estimated to live on $1.25 a day or less.
•    Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest incidence of multidimensional poverty, averaging 65 percent and ranging from a low of 3 percent in South Africa to a massive 93 percent in Niger. Yet half the world’s poor people, according to the MPI, are in South Asia—844 million—compared to a total of 458 million in sub-Saharan Africa.”

As illustrated below:

MPI2010So, how do these new measures overall affect the ranking?

“In the top 20 countries, movement is limited. Inequality in health, education and income, which are the dimensions of inequality measured in the new Index, is less in countries with “very high human development”. But there are some things worth noting. The USA moves down nine places, while South Korea, the incredible economic and human development success story of the past half century, also moves down 18 places (from 12th to 30th) in recognition of its high levels of inequality.

The other big losers are almost all in Latin America, the most unequal region in the world. Panama falls 20 places, Peru 26, Brazil 15, Colombia 18. Venezuela only falls one place, while Nicaragua bucks the trend, rising six places – read into that what you will.

Which are the countries moving up the scale, to take the places of these falling unequal countries? There is no clear pattern but quite a few of them seem to be from the former soviet block (Armenia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Uzbekistan).

Does any of this matter? I think so. One of the main findings of the first 10 years of the MDGs is that inequality matters. More and more people are realising that rising inequality within and between countries is one of the great challenges facing the modern world. Equality matters as an end in itself, and it matters as one of the quickest means to reduce absolute poverty.

It is very significant that this UN flagship publication is for the first time including inequality in its rankings, tentatively at first, but hopefully it will get bolder in coming years. When the HDI proper fully incorporates an inequality adjustment (ie the IHDI replaces the HDI as the main index), countries will really sit up and listen.

Governments do care about this index and where they are placed on it. Civil society will use these figures in their battles for a more just world. Crucially, when a country manages to reduce inequality, it moves up the rankings.

Emphases mine. This also reveals the failing of the development policies pushed by the IMF and the World Bank, based on the idea of trickle-down economics and “only GDP growth matters” with close to zero consideration for social policy and inequalities caused by their structural adjustment programs. These approaches have failed because they increased inequalities. Reducing inequalities should be an integral part of any poverty-reduction program.

Sociology of The World Cup – Capitalist Pigs and Political Opportunity

So there was this relatively uninteresting tiff between Terry Eagleton (football is the crack cocaine of the masses!) and Dave Zirin (but football is fun… which is, by the way, why it works as presumably crack cocaine of the masses, if it weren’t fun, no one would care).

Anyhoo, I have just finished reading Gabriel Ondetti‘s Land, Protest, and Politics: The Landless Movement and the Struggle for Agrarian Reform in Brazil which is a history of the ups and downs of the MST using the political opportunity theory of social movements. The book is less an entertaining read than Wendy Wolford’s as there are fewer descriptions of actual occupations and no interviews with settlers, sem terra or MST and other leaders.

Basically, Ondetti argues that by and large, the ebbs and flows in movement mobilization, in the case of the landless movement, are well explained by the political opportunity structure: the rise of the movement for agrarian reform when political space opened up at the end of the military dictatorship, why the MST grew during the following conservative administration while other movements declined (answer: because the tactical choices of using occupation and getting land for those who had participated in occupations sidestepped the free rider problem and because land is something you can actually occupy as opposed to gender wage equality or labor rights), the major takeoff period followed by decline as the Cardoso administration engaged in strict crackdown, and the resurgence with the election of Lula.

Now, what does this have to do with the World Cup? Well, the World Cup may very well constitute a structure of political opportunity for demands for agrarian reform in South Africa, as noted by Raj Patel:

“The poor are being used by the World Cup. But the other point I wanted to argue was that World Cup can also, in a clearly asymmetric way, be used by the poor. This isn’t a story that makes it either to the press, or to the analysis about the ills of Fifa. Protests in Durban recently have tried to get the world’s press to shine a light on how apartheid remains, and to provide cover for street marches that would have been illegally shut down in the past.”

He gives this example:

And specifically as well this example of World Cup activism by The food Sovereignty Program in favor of agrarian reform:

“The needs and challenges faced by small scale farmers in South Africa have not been taken seriously by the South African government. In times of huge government spending on the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the Right to Agrarian Reform for Food Sovereignty Campaign (Food Sovereignty Campaign) arranges a march to parliament to remind the politicians of the urgent needs of marginalized farm workers, emerging farmers, farm dwellers and landless people.

Demands are going to be handed over to President Jacob Zuma, the ministers of Agriculture as well as the MEC for Human Settlements. The main demands include land redistribution, an end to the commercialization of water, decent public housing for all, that government supports a move towards more sustainable agro-ecological agriculture and stop the experiments with genetically modified organisms in South Africa.”

One could argue that, in terms of tactical repertoire, marches during the World Cup make sense as no government would want to crack down brutally on protesters while the world media are watching. Usually, crackdowns and clean-ups occur before international events. Once these events are under way, governments try to be on their best behavior.

Global events give an opportunity for groups that are socially excluded or marginalized to make themselves heard on a global scale in a relatively safe fashion. The agrarian reform issue is indeed a global one.

Book Review – To Inherit The Earth

Wendy Wolford and Angus Lindsay Wright’s To Inherit The Earth: The Landless Movement and the Struggle for a New Brazil is the perfect introduction to the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST).

The book is roughly divided into four main sections. The first goes through a general political history of Brazil along with its Portuguese colonization and how it ended up with the large-scale plantation system which is at the source of the demand for agrarian reform. The agricultural situation is tied not only to colonial development but also to the subsequent governments, especially the military dictatorship that lasted until the 1980s, which is when the MST was officially founded (1982), following the first occupations of land.

The other sections of the book cover MST occupations and settlements in different Brazilian states, from the Southern states, where the MST originated, to the Northeastern state where sugar was traditionally grown, at the expenses of the coastal rain forest, to the Amazonian states where deforestation has accompanied mining and ranching.

There is no question that the authors are sympathetic to the MST’s goals and approach (occupation and push for expropriation under a constitutional provision stating that land has to be used productively, and promotion of ecological and environment-friendly agriculture that minimizes deforestation and land degradation). The book provides lengthy descriptions of life in MST settlements along with interviews from various MST local leaders and settlers.

The history of the MST is also the story of a social movement confronting established social structures, power and economic differentials and violence. In its struggle for land reform and redistribution, the MST has confronted local rural elites (large plantation / mine owners) that wield so much power in Brazil so much so that it is difficult even for the now-democratic government to impose reform. But the MST has also had to fight local, state and national governments for  the fulfillment of promised support for the settlers. In some cases, the movement has also been faced with violence, mostly from the rural elites. Local politics, in Brazil, can get nasty.

The MST struggle is also part to the general anti-neoliberal globalization that has promoted chemical- and capital-intensive, export-based, monocultural agriculture so dear to the IMF, the World Bank  and the World Trade Organization (competitive advantage) while the MST promotes small-scale, communal, diversified and sustainable agriculture. So far, the Brazilian administrations have followed the lead from these global institutions. As the authors explain well, this has to do with the fact that the Brazilian government does not see land reform as agricultural policy but as social policy: finding something to do with the rural poor but not as a sustainable form of agriculture. From the government’s perspective, “serious” agriculture is large-scale, chemical-dependent and energy-intensive, and for exports whereas land reform is an anti-poverty program. For the MST, agrarian reform is agricultural policy but also the first step into changing the caste-like Brazilian social structure.

The MST also has had to position itself within Brazilian politics. It is not a political party (nor does it intend to become one), but it has ties to Lula’s Workers Party, and it has found itself sometimes in competition or conflict with traditional rural unions that are often part of the patronage structure that is so hard to eradicate in rural Brazil.

Finally, the MST struggle must also be interpreted as part of the global peasant rebellion movements against neoliberal agriculture that eliminates small-scale farming and subsistence agriculture. The national and local contexts may be different but the MST goals are not all that different from that of ATTAC or La Via Campesina in the pursuit of agricultural policy based on solidarity economics.

In other words, the MST stands at the crossroads of many local, national, regional and global dynamics. One cannot understand it without understanding Brazilian colonization and development, its politics alongside regional issues in South America and the global context of neoliberalism as well as the local dynamics of rural communities in Brazil and the power of large landholders and corporations.

The book is an easy read, clearly not written for an academic audience for more for the general public. AS I mentioned above, it is especially good for people who know nothing of the MST or Brazil in general beyond the Rio carnival and the touristic images.

The Patriarchy Continuum – Variations on a Theme

By now, you probably have read Jessica Valenti’s piece in the Washington Post, along with the myriad of sexist comments that prove her point: that  gender equality is far from established in the United States:

I argued here before that the patriarchy is a cultural and structural continuum: and that what Valenti writes about is, in essence, no different from this:

To pretend that there are essential differences between the physical and structural violence depicted by Valenti and the excerpt above is a neat ideological construct that Western patriarchal systems and proponents use to stifle demands for equality whereas to emphasize the continuum nature of the patriarchy emphasizes the “work-in-progress” nature of the struggle for equality, culturally and structurally. And the angry and sexist reactions to pieces such as Valenti’s speaks volume of the strongly internalized nature of patriarchy as ideology.

Similarly, this familiar story is part of the same continuum:

I should add that I have issues with this instrumental view of girls’ education (“let your girl go to school and the return on investment will be greater!”) or that somehow, once educated, girls have a responsibility for the development of their country. I never see such expectations mentioned when it comes to boys.

In a more humorous fashion, Abstruse Goose captures the same idea:

Tout Augmente, Même La Misère

Title shamelessly borrowed from Gianni Silei.

Click on the image for humongous version.

What is the Basic Capabilities Index?:

In greater details:

The Failures of the Global Financial Architecture with Flash Animation

This is a must-read by Social Watch:

This is one of the smartest explanation of the global governance system and its systemic failures. This slide is unsurprising but still needs to be noted as a systemic feature:

This one is equally well-known and lip service is often paid to “reform”:

Catastrophic Sociology

Over at Sociology and Criminology at Keele, Mark Featherstone applies Virilio’s theory of catastrophe to Haiti’s recent earthquake. First he summarizes Virilio’s theory in a clear fashion:

How does this apply to a natural disaster like the earthquake?

This resonates with Pierre Le Hir’s article in Le Monde:

It all goes back to SHiP (Structure / History / Power). Natural disasters are what they are but they differentially affect societies based on their history (in Haiti, slavery, revolution and then constant neo-colonial interventionism), social structure (corruption and largely non-functioning government, mass poverty) and power (omnipresence of gangs, corrupt police, unfavorable regime of global governance).

And as studies show (based on research on known earthquakes since 1900), the number of victims of earthquakes is not correlated to the severity of of seismic activity nor to the density of the population in the affected area but to the level of poverty or wealth.

This holds true for any natural disaster. In the past twenty years, 98% of the two million victims of such disasters were in poor areas. At the same time, the economic losses to developing countries due to natural disasters were twenty times what they are for developed countries. It is a double penalty. And it shows no signs of going away.

The study of natural disasters is the study of global inequalities.