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writing for godot


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Sunday, 18 August 2019 23:13


[In this four-part series, I drew from over 90 references. These can be found in under ‘Essays’ and therein in numbers 2 and 5].


What drives development workers in their daily work?


1. Do they consider (and choose apply) human rights (HR) in their work? If yes, presumably it is the appeal of working, either locally or globally, to alleviate the suffering caused by social injustice and inequality. Here I explore the political awareness of development workers, the political implications of their daily activities and suggest an enhanced role for them in the battle against maldevelopment and against widespread HR violations. The starting point for this series is exploring the motivating principles of individual development workers.


2. Development workers and their institutions seem to be compelled by quite different motivations. It will be easier for me to make relevant points here if we take the example of colleagues working in the food and nutrition field. There seem to be three discernible motivational approaches:


2A. The amoral approach: Although it can be assumed that most of these workers are attracted to nutrition because of its relevance to people and societies, some of them stop their concerns just here. Having become involved in nutrition as a career, they often think that is (and will be) their contribution to society as concerned human beings, as if nutrition per se, or doing one's job efficiently in a technical sense, were a magic tool of change in development work. The amoral approach really falls under the scope of an ‘ethics of achievement’. Because of its narrow scope, this approach has little to offer to the long-term resolution of malnutrition in the world. So, I ask, at what point is concern with nutrition per-se socially useful?


2B. The moral imperative: This drive is based on an ethico-religious drive that calls for compassion, charity and righteousness. This imperative is at the forefront of many voluntary agencies working in nutrition. In this category, we can find at least two types of individuals or institutions:


  • Those who object to the capitalist system's injustices and feel that their duty is to do something about malnutrition which they perceive only as one of the injustices, assuming that others will attack the system on other fronts. (We can also call individuals in this group moral objectors).
  • Those who, embracing the capitalist system as desirable, but ‘out of control’, cannot morally tolerate the extreme poverty and malnutrition the system generates and feel compelled to do something about malnutrition to mend this important shortcoming of the system. We can also call these individuals humanitarians since they have made these issues a matter of personal conscience, but lack a visible political rationalization.


2B1. This sense of moral responsibility as a motivation found in many development workers does not seem to be sufficient either to see necessary changes occur: it basically leads to a dead end. It may solve the conscience problems of the person who devotes her/his time and effort to do 'something' to solve malnutrition; however, it seems to have little effect on the real problems of those rendered poor and malnourished.


2B2. This is why groups in this category so often go on repeating classical slogans and pushing traditional nutrition interventions that solve nothing much in the long run. In short, these positions lack political perspective. A genuine concern for those rendered poor, even as part of a holistic approach, does not seem to be enough if it is not channeled in a political way.


2B3. The concept of being ‘socially responsible’ is nothing but a euphemism for what really should be political responsibility, i.e., do we really have a choice not to take political sides? Human rights, after all, are at the intersection of ethics and force (or correlation of forces). A political commitment is important precisely because governments function as political entities! Moral causes have usually made progress only when powerful interests saw their advance as having 'something in it' for them. In such cases, moral imperatives were used politically.


2B4. As said, moralists’ attitudes often come from a religious imperative; if this religious imperative pushes them to act politically, they would tend to be more in the right track (remember ‘liberation theology’?). But, if it pushes them to turn the other cheek, they are most probably doomed to fail in affecting malnutrition in the long run.


2C. The political (ideological) imperative: An emotional commitment is loose and romantic; an ideological commitment is militant. People or institutions that fall under this category strongly feel that the capitalist system is wrong, that it generates and maintains malnutrition --and they set out to fight its injustices, either by reforming it deeply or by trying to replace it with a more human rights-oriented system,  a system more responsive to claim holders needs. ('So foul a sky clears not without a storm' - Shakespeare's King John). People who take this latter position also depart from a moral imperative, but they have gone further. So, at the root of the ideological imperative, there is a moral stand.


2C1. Are individuals who take such a position, on a more realistic track? It is clear that they look more into the ultimate determinants of malnutrition that are to be found in poverty and in the different parameters of social injustice. Therefore, they would seem to be on the right track, or at least asking the right questions. (Of course, one could also conceive a political imperative from the right, ultraconservative, pro-capitalist side, but this tendency is rare in development workers; it can be (or is) found in some people who work for or represent the food and beverages industry).



3. Social values and duties are implanted in and become imprinted in us early in life by our families (especially in the pre-school age) and later (school-age and teens) also by our education and our social environment. All of the above are largely determined by our social class extraction. Some of the moral issues so acquired have universal validity; for most of us in the West they are within the judeo-christian ethics; its general principles are not necessarily class-bound and are mostly expressed in a non-ideological way (although some of them most definitely are both class-bound and ideologically expressed).




4. Ideological values and duties are imprinted by the family, through education and by the social environment one grows up in. Therefore, most of the time, our earliest acquired ideology tends to be pro status-quo (almost by definition, since the survival of that ideology would be otherwise at stake). Moderateness has a clear connection to the prevailing ideology and is the way in which the pursuit of material improvement and the non-material value-system are held together. Ideology is definitely not universally shared and is definitely even more closely bound to our social class extraction.


5. Additionally, development and HR workers are influenced by the experiences they have had in the different political systems in which they have operated. Cultural and ideological bias is, therefore, unavoidable. Many people tend to think of themselves as apolitical: but there simply is no such thing. Despite the fact that the spectrum of choices is a continuum, in the last instance, one either condescends to the system or one objects to it --totally or partially. Any of these are political stances.


6. Objection to the system is always the result of a conscious, voluntary effort to break with all or some aspects of the prevailing ideology. Going along with the prevailing ideology is less frequently a conscious, voluntary attitude; it is more often an unconscious non-interventionist attitude.


7. Ideology has several meanings. Ideology as a 'content of thinking' and as an 'intellectual pattern' reflects the involuntary elements of ideology which we all have and probably keep for life; it is part of our indelible (class) heritage. It is ideology that channels our social behavior in predictable directions. On the other hand, ideology as an 'integrated socio-politico program' is the result of a voluntary internationalization of the values of a given society, be it real or ideal.




8. In the North, objectors to the capitalist system have often been divided into three main groups, pejoratively named conservatives, liberals and radicals. I will not go into characterizing conservatives. Liberals are basically objectors that look publicly neutral, but are morally anti-establishment. Although liberals are considered opposition forces, they often only accommodate capitalist logic: they think that changes within the system are called for. Probably because of this, numerous internal ideological inconsistencies can be found in their reasoning. They believe the world to be profoundly other than it should be, and have faith in the power of human reason to change it. Basically, they are scientific optimists and their 'theory and aims' for a new order are often vague and inconsistent.


9. There are also those liberal development workers who feel impotent to change the system, although they disagree with it. They tend to be rather cautious in the implementation of actions that will amend the prevailing system. They tend to work in the capitalist bureaucracy, in academic or in think-tank institutes and are often skilled at using their organizations to further their interests. They often even sit in many of the establishment's decision-making bodies.


10. Liberals often go along with the 'content of thinking' of their class of origin that is mostly middle-class. They are outspoken in public, although often eminently declarative and formal; they openly denounce the evils of poverty, malnutrition and HR violations and are, nevertheless often involved in token interventions; or, they keep inventing new 'more comprehensive', or 'multi-sectoral' approaches to old problems as if these would change the major contradictions and the distribution of power within the system that is causing the problems to begin with.


11. Liberals, in our example, for sure, coined the concept of 'nutrition planning', so widely abused as the most rational panacea to solve hunger and malnutrition in the world in the 80s and 90s, only to find out that little has changed for those rendered poor majorities in the world; if anything at all, gaps have widened.


12. Liberals are often manipulated and used by ruling elites and their pressure groups and they are perceived as no real threat to the system by conservative politicians; they are, therefore, let alone to protest as much as they want following the logic that dissidents are to be incorporated or tolerated, as long as so doing reduces levels of conflict and increases the system's macro-efficiency and stability.


13. The liberal approach still embraces a bourgeois ideology in terms of a politico-social program. Therefore, the liberal political imperative misses the real political perspective as well. It ultimately also lacks the political clout to change the system and, consequently affect HR in a positive, proactive, sustainable way.



14. Radicals or 'leftists' are probably more affected than liberals by the use of this pejorative labeling. They are thought-of broadly as revolutionaries or temperamental activists ready to destroy the free enterprise system. Most of the time, this simplistic view is not accurate. Radicals are generally characterized by a more idealistic commitment to pursue the solution to the final and most important determinants of poverty, preventable ill-health and malnutrition. It is not infrequent that some have adopted a Marxist ideology, at least as an analytical tool. They definitely question the principles of social justice of the capitalist system and of bourgeois ideology (including the welfare system): they strive for a better, more rational, HR-respecting socio-political future and work towards it. Because they use an ideological approach in these efforts, there tends to be more internal consistency and more comprehensiveness in their approach to the problems of development.


15. Radicals tend to be action-oriented, be outspoken and constantly try to point-out contradictions in the system leading to, in our example, malnutrition. They spend a lot of time denouncing the inequalities and injustices they see and, within their ideological framework, they make an effort to propose possible solutions to solve the major contradictions. They use every opportunity they have to share these concerns with their peers, sometimes with decision makers and, whenever possible, with members of the community (claim holders) that are suffering the problems themselves. They often work for the same bureaucracies than liberals and academe is also one of their preferred refuges. They tend to be skeptical about traditional top-down development intervention programs although, as the liberals, they often participate in some of them, but more often as a vehicle for organizing claim holders at the base to let them start solving their own problems, and to help them gain some additional power to do so. They feel an urge to contribute to the liberation of the masses from social oppression, from HR violations and from exploitation. This is not simply a belief or an attitude of radical development workers, but also an inner compulsion in their battle against maldevelopment.


16. It needs to be added here that the replacement of the capitalist system has not necessarily been the original aim of all radicals in the development professions. They only pursue those changes that they believe have a real potential for, again in our example, solving malnutrition. If the changes called-for could be accepted and implemented by the prevailing system, the system itself would not necessarily become the target of radicals. But since the necessary changes cut deep into the basic structure and power structures of society, they are in conflict with the capitalist system and its basic principle --profit maximization.


17. Radicals prefer to bypass traditional government bureaucracies and work as much as possible at the grassroots, organizing claim holders around their problems, malnutrition being only one of them. They are also active in the net. An important intervention for radicals has to do with the task of helping make the people aware of their problems in the context of those problems’ political economy. It is expected that people will channel their felt needs towards activities of self help --if problems can be solved locally-- and towards an organized fight for outside inputs, be they governmental or not, if such help is necessary; this is where their demanding as claim holders comes in.


18. Often, both liberal and radical nutrition professionals transcend the domains of applied nutrition, digging deeply into the underlying politico-economic issues. Nevertheless, the conclusions drawn, the actions proposed and seen-through, as well as the channels utilized by the two groups, are frequently different in kind. This should come as no surprise, since even 'objective' analysis and diagnosis techniques are ideologically biased! One sees what one wants to see. I am aware that, even thinking about malnutrition in economic terms, does not automatically assure commitment to something significant being done about it…!


19. Of course, some development workers fall in in-between categories, between liberals and radicals. After all, each of us arranges her/his universe and her/his role in it as well as s/he can. People in this limbo are either in a slow transition to either category, or are permanently in-between. The latter, for sure, have a heavier burden to carry, since one can presume they have to confront more everyday contradictions within themselves.


20. In trying to solve the problem of malnutrition, pooling together the genuine and honest predisposition to action of development workers, ethically or politically motivated, is OK if they fulfill a role as right to food change agents. The latter has to begin through a process of critical analysis of their professional affairs and goals with their inherent contradictions. In this case, activities in the field of nutrition can be channeled to achieve a real, final impact in ameliorating malnutrition anywhere, in a reasonable timeframe. Basically, nutritionists should be searching for a new, shared ethos --a professional-political ethos.


21. Of course, there are those who argue: “Why don't you forget about those dilettante, bourgeois nutritionists and focus your efforts more on helping to change the people, the blue collar workers, the peasants, or the unemployed directly, since, as mobilized claim holders, they will ultimately be the ones called upon to bring about lasting social changes anyway?” The answer to this question can be ambivalent too; neither of both activities being probably exclusive: it is mostly a question of what percentage of effort to devote to each of them. Alternative answers to the same question are certainly the basis for a vital set of internal contradictions that a good number of liberal and radical intellectuals carry with them and somehow manage to block.


22. In the long run, there will have to be moral changes on the part of those who enjoy the luxuries of affluence. The question is, will these changes lead to ideological changes in some? We have already passed the era when we asked basic nutritionists to become more applied public health nutritionists; now we are asking all development workers to become more socially conscious and more committed as real change-agents, leaving behind a lot of epidemiological preciosity or snobbery. Depoliticized science is not science in the real service of man. (Franz Fannon).


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City

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*: The following definitions, found in Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary will help clarify the concepts used in the text:

  • Ethos: The distinguishing character or tone of a social of other group.
  • Ethics: Science of moral duty, principles and practice or action.
  • Moral: Establishing principals of right or wrong.
  • Morality: Instills moral lesson; virtue.

Ideology: a) Content of thinking of an individual or class; b) Intellectual pattern of any culture or movement; c) Integrated assertions, theories and aims constituting a politico-social program. your social media marketing partner
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