On Help, Advocacy and Power Imbalances

Mar 30, 2015

‘So did you help the people there?’ It is a question that many people in The Netherlands asked me whenever I told them about my research project in Korail slum. Although this well-intended inquiry about the impact of my fieldwork seemed harmless enough, the question started to get on my nerves after a while. Partly because the honest and unequivocal answer was ‘No’. No, I did not help the people ‘there’. I merely talked to them and listened while they shared their valuable time and invaluable stories. What frustrated me was that this question seemed to assume that any meaningful relationship between me and the people of Korail would inevitably be based on the distinction between helper and beneficiary. It made me wonder: could the relationship between those of relative wealth and those of relative poverty ever transcend the mechanisms of dependency?

Dependency and Power

The condition of dependency between donors and recipients of aid has been extensively covered in the literature on development assistance. Aid dependence can be defined as a situation in which a country cannot perform many of the core functions of government, such as the delivery of basic public services, without foreign aid funding and expertise(1). The problem with aid dependence is that it creates or reinforces a power imbalance that can easily be exploited for political or economic gain. In fact, ‘aid’ is probably one of the most misused words there is, as it has often been employed as a pretext for military intervention, colonial expansion, resource extraction or unbridled business interests. And even when the intentions are genuine, or when aid is purported to actually mend some of the injustices of the past, development assistance is hardly ever apolitical. How can it be when aid usually implies taking over certain functions from the state?

In spite of its political qualities ‘development’ is often framed as a neutral and value free project. This apolitical way of thinking about poverty reduction is compounded by the idea that poverty itself is a purely technical problem; amendable to such technical solutions as fertilizers, antibiotics or nutritional supplements. The economist William Easterly(2) has argued that this instrumentalist approach builds on the technocratic illusion that poverty results from a shortage of expertise rather than a shortage of political and economic rights. This one-sided emphasis on the ostensible lack of expertise fosters a certain blindness to the uneven workings of power both within and between countries, thereby averting attention away from the vacuum of rights that reinforces the link between poverty and dependency.

Rights and Advocacy

If we accept William Easterly’s definition of poverty as a shortage of rights, this inevitably impacts the way in which we frame potential solutions to poverty. If anything, his observation seems to imply that the poor need advocacy as much as they need aid. Our task then becomes to foster greater recognition of the myriad ways in which their rights are being neglected and violated. The theologian Pablo Richard once wrote:"A wall between the rich and poor is being built, so that poverty does not annoy the powerful and the poor are obliged to die in the silence of history"(3). Real advocacy ultimately has to do with tearing down this metaphorical wall. It has to do with showing that the rich and the poor do not inhabit separate and distinct worlds, but are in fact intimately connected by the intricate workings of the global economy.

Much of the work of UPPR has to do with dismantling the symbolic and material divisions between the poor and the rest of the city. UPPR’s unyielding advocacy for more inclusive cities thus speaks to the rights that the urban poor are so often deprived of. The right to public services such as drinking water, infrastructure and sanitation.  The right to access information and education. The right to organization: both economically and politically. And, last but not least, the right to articulate potential solutions to poverty.

Advocacy is not always a creative act, as it involves stating the same truths over and over again. It is also a somewhat problematic act; fraught with its own power dynamics. For who are we, who am I, to speak on behalf of this group that we conveniently lump together as ‘the poor’? Surely this piece of writing would have been more powerful and more truthful if it had been written by someone who knows what it is like to be systematically deprived from their right to the city’s resources. I can therefore only hope that somewhere in the struggle for greater equality our voices will become obsolete and that poor people will eventually hold the exclusive right to shape their own narrative. The right to tell their own story - uninterrupted by the thoughts of others – and told in their own words.

Notes:

1) See ‘Aid and Dependence’ by Deborah Bräutigam (2000): http://www.swisstph.ch/fileadmin/user_upload/Pdfs/swap/swap404.pdf

2) See ‘The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor’ by William Easterly (2013).

3) Cited by Paul Farmer in ‘On Suffering and Structural Violence: A View from Below’ (1996).

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