I’ve taken to re-reading the Charles Dickens classic tale, Our Mutual Friend. It’s Dickens’ last work, a long piece of literature that captured my imagination as a young man and for some reason (perhaps the recognition that if I ever intended to re-read it, I’d better get going), I decided to tackle it again. It’s full of lessons and observations about Victorian (and modern) life, as well as those long and circuitous sentences with which Dickens was so adept.
Dickens’ focus on the great disparities in Victorian London are well-known, such as in his tale, A Christmas Carol. But I ran across a passage in the current book that I simply couldn’t pass up for sharing. One doesn’t really need to know the context of the story or the characters to understand the clarity of the message. It reads like this:
In the meantime, a stray personage of meek demeanour, who had wandered to the hearthrug and got among the heads of tribes assembled there in conference with Mr. Podsnap, eliminated Mr. Podsnap’s flush and flourish by a highly unpolite remark; no less than a reference to the circumstance that some half-dozen people had lately died in the streets, of starvation. It was clearly ill-timed after dinner.It was not adapted to the cheek of the young person. It was not in good taste.
“I do not believe it,” said Mr. Podsnap, putting it behind him.
The meek man was afraid we must take it as proved, because there were the Inquests and the Registrar’s returns.
“Then it was their own fault,” said Mr. Podsnap.
The man of meek demeanour intimated that truly it would seem from the facts, as if starvation had been forced upon the culprits in question- as if, in their wretched manner, they had made their weak protests against it- as if they would have taken the liberty of staving it off if they could- as if they would rather not have been starved upon the whole, if perfectly agreeable to all parties.
“There is not,” said Mr. Podsnap, flushing angrily, “there is not a country in the world, sir, where so noble a provision is made for the poor as in this country.”
The meek man was quite willing to concede that, but perhaps it rendered the matter even worse, as showing that there must be something appallingly wrong somewhere.
“Where?” said Mr. Podsnap.
The meek man hinted Wouldn’t it be well to try, very seriously, to find out where?
“Ah!” said Mr. Podsnap. “Easy to say somewhere; not so easy to say where. But I see what you are driving at. I knew it from the first. Centralization. No. Never with my consent. Not English.”
An approving murmur arose from the heads of the tribes; as saying, “There you have him! Hold him!”
He was not aware (the meek man submitted of himself) that he was driving at any ization. He had no favorite ization that he knew of. But he certainly was more staggered by these terrible occurrences than he was by names of howsoever so many syllables. Might he ask, was dying of destitution and neglect necessarily English?
“You know what the population of London is, I suppose?” said Mr. Podsnap.
The meek young man supposed he did, but supposed that had absolutely nothing to do with it, if its laws were well-administered.
“And you know, at least I hope you know,” said Mr. Podsnap with severity, “that Providence has declared that you shall have the poor always with you?”
The meek man also hoped he knew that.
“I am glad to hear it,” said Mr. Podsnap with a portentous air. “I am glad to hear it.It will render you cautious how you fly in the face of Providence.”
In reference to that absurd and irreverent conventional phrase, the meek man said, for which Mr. Podsnap was not responsible, he the meek man had no fear of doing anything so impossible; but-
But Mr. Podsnap felt that the time had come for flushing and flourishing this meek man down for good. So he said:
“I must decline to pursue this painful discussion. It is not pleasant to my feelings; it is repugnant to my feelings. I have said that I do not admit these things. I have also said that if they do occur (not that I admit it), the fault lies with the sufferers themselves. It is not for ME- Mr. Podsnap pointed ME forcibly, as adding by implication though it may be all very well for YOU- “it is not for me to impugn the workings of Providence. I know better than that, I trust, and I have mentioned what the intentions of Providence are. Besides,” said Mr. Podsnap, flushing high up among his hair brushes, with a strong consciousness of personal affront, “the subject is a very disagreeable one. I will go so far as to say it is an odious one. It is not one to be introduced among our wives and young persons, and I-“
He finished with that flourish of his arm which added more expressively than any words: ” And I remove it from the face of the earth.”
It is an easy thing to simply banish disagreeable realities with a sweep of the arm. Or to claim that something is true when it is not. But doing so does not change the realities or absolve us from the human stewardship that we owe to one another as fellow-travelers on this earthly journey. Dickens knew it. And as unpleasant, repugnant, disagreeable and odious as it may be, so do we all….
I’ve continued to think about the comments made last week by the President of the U.S. Even though he later denied some of the words attributed to him, and two of his most ardent supporters stated that they did not recall his use of the words, there seems to be little doubt about what was actually said and why. The entire episode was astonishing to those with any sensibilities, regardless of political affiliation.
But my own reflections on the matter shifted to the countries in question, the ones which were denigrated so graphically by the leader of the free world. What’s the possible basis for such demeaning remarks? Are these nations really so awful? And if so, why? I suppose that, by comparison, Nicaragua might be one of those countries which the U.S President had in mind: it’s the second-poorest nation of the Western Hemisphere (next to Haiti), has a history of internal conflicts and dictatorships, contributes to both legal and illegal immigration to the U.S. and has sustained a strained relationship with U.S. administrations for decades. With that in mind, I considered the circumstances that might have led countries like Nicaragua, Haiti and the African nations to be held in such contempt by the wealthiest country in the world.
At least in the case of Nicaragua, the beginning of their modern-day difficulties date back to the 1850’s invasion of that country by invasion from the U.S. Over subsequent decades, the North American neighbor alternately funded insurrection, invaded with U.S. Marines, supported a generations-long dictatorship of oppression, illegally funded a war against a duly-elected Nicaraguan administration, ignored a World Court penalties of $6 Billion for their illegalities, consistently and forcefully interfered in elections and has recently threatened legislation to eliminate U.S. remittances to Nicaragua families. In sum, it has been an excellent recipe for the creation of a troubled existence.
In Haiti, the early troubles inflicted by the U.S. were quite similar to the incursions in Nicaragua. On July 28, 1915, American President Woodrow Wilson ordered U.S. Marines to occupy the capitol. Forces were instructed to “protect American and foreign” interests. The U.S. also wanted to rewrite the Haitian constitution, which banned foreign ownership of land, and replace it with one that guaranteed American financial control. To avoid public criticism, the U.S. claimed the occupation was a mission to “re-establish peace and order… [and] has nothing to do with any diplomatic negotiations of the past or the future.” Within six weeks of the occupation, U.S. government representatives seized control of Haiti’s custom houses and administrative institutions, including the banks and the national treasury. Under U.S. government control, a total of 40% of Haiti’s national income was designated to repay debts to American and French banks. For the next nineteen years, U.S., government advisers ruled the country, their authority provided by the United States Marine Corps. The U.S. retained influence on Haiti’s external finances until 1947. It was a good way to subdue a culture, an independent economy and self-determination and to ensure their third world status.
For the African continent, the litany of U.S. interventions and self-serving intrusions is far too long to even summarize here. Africa is a big place, and nearly every one of its fifty-four countries has experienced U.S. interference at one point in history or another. But the following description of cause-and-effect, excerpted from an article by Mark Levine at aljazeera.com provides some context for current reality:
Traveling across Sub-Saharan Africa it becomes a truism—but nonetheless in good measure true—that the areas where the region’s much-celebrated recent growth is most evident are precisely where people are able to create local markets largely outside the control of corrupt government and private elites. But the large-scale and still expanding militarisation and securitisation of US policy makes the development of such truly free-market mechanisms that much more difficult to realise, precisely because the strengthening of capacities of militaries and security/intelligence sectors invariably strengthens the power of elites and states vis-a-vis ordinary citizens, exacerbates economic conflicts and inequalities, and strengthens the position of those groups that are violently reacting to this process.
The poverty which continues to envelop much of the continent is the result of far more than just the meddling of the United States. But the U.S. footprint is present in both actions taken and assistance NOT rendered; if these constitute s***hole countries, perhaps they are perceived this way because we in the U.S. have chosen to see them and respond to them in that way. After all, no less than the U.S. President has identified them as such. (I think the President is unaware of the fact that earliest humans emerged from Africa. Not Europe. Not North America. Not Norway. But Africa.)
The unfortunate truth for many struggling nations is to be found in the poor-man-crawling story:
A wealthy man was walking on a city street, preoccupied with cell phone and important connections. His preoccupation resulted in a collision with a somewhat disheveled and homeless man walking in the opposite direction. The poor man fell down, momentarily stunned by the contact, but immediately reached out to gather up several of his belongings which had been knocked from his hands. The wealthy man, perturbed at the mishap and the dropping of his own phone, retrieved it brusquely and then observed the poor man on hands and knees, salvaging his few possessions. As he walked away indignantly, the wealthy man observed, “It’s disgusting to see the way these vagrants crawl our sidewalks. The police should do something about them, to make the streets safe for respectable folks.”
Where there is hunger and thirst, need and distress, poverty and injustice, there are reasons for it. And sometimes the reasons lie at the feet of those who are not thus afflicted. S***hole countries, if they actually exist, may well be the result of outsiders who have created them….
Colombians, weapons have given you independence, but only the law will give you freedom.
Francisco de Paula Santander (1792-1840), Colombian leader
The law of the jungle should not be the law that our children follow
Seanna Wolf, ex Irish prisioner.
The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong
Colombia is the country with the highest level of inequality, the oldest democracy and the longest armed conflict in Latin America. It is a country that now has the opportunity for peace, strengthen its democracy and reduce its inequality, particularly the agrarian inequality. Will it be able to take advantage of this opportunity? Far from showing majority support, and improving laws so that they be given freedom, as Santander would suggest, the peace process appears to polarize society even more, making the “law of the jungle” bleed their social leaders, and contrary to the words of Gandhi, making forgiveness a sign of weakness. How can changes be generated that would lead toward peace with justice and shared prosperity? That question concerns us in this article.
The signing of the Peace Accords in November 2016 marked a before and after in Colombia. Society is involved in a broad debate. The most repeated words are: peace accords, reincorporation, reinsertion, demobilization, ex-combatants, reconciliation, normalization, forgiveness, illicit crop, territory, guerrilla, comrade, partner…They are disputed words: “worthy reincorporation into the legal system” versus “reincorporation of the communities against the system of injustice”; “normalization” versus “Who is normal?”; “peace accords of the government and the FARC” versus “rural communities do not know these accords and the governors of the regions are opposed to these accords” and “we already disarmed them, now let´s do what is in our interests, let´s ensure that they do not return to dissidence”; “Colombian democracy is the oldest democracy in Latin America” versus “it is a mafia-like, oligarchial and corrupt democracy”. They explain the meanings: “partner, in the war we would hunt some animal and the family would give us rice, or we protected them and they gave us food, that is why we would call them partner”; “demobilized from weapons, but mobilized by the ideals of justice and democracy”. And solutions for attracting excombatants abound: solidarity economics, inclusive business, cooperativism, corporations, Jesus Christ Savior, production projects…
After 52 years of war between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government, and even in the process of negotiation with the National Liberation Army (ELN), society seems more polarized about the peace process. The October 2016 plebiscite revealed this reality: half of the country said it should be ratified, the other half said no. What explains this polarization that is capable of undermining the peace process? There are at least two attitudes (see Figure 1), one that is cultivated by a society at war, manipulated by elites and resting on a brutal, even though resisted, inequality; and the other that sees the peace process as the opportunity to economically, socially, and politically democratize the country.
Inequality is the key element for explaining the realities of Colombia, be those the armed conflicts or the successes that the peace accords might have. Consequently, following the words of Stiglitz in Bogotá in February 2017, “there can be no sustainable economic prosperity unless that prosperity is shared”. How can changes be generated that in the long term might lead toward a peace with justice and shared prosperity?
In this article we reflect on this question taking inspiration from some experiences in Central America, having shared with different actors in the framework of international events in Bogotá, and listened to friends in Colombian academia who are working so that this peace opportunity might help democratize the country. Our motivation is the conviction that if the most unequal country in Latin America deepens its democracy, all of Latin America will feel those winds of inclusion and democratic aspiration.
2. Perspectives on peace and democracy
Here I identify two models of interpretation of the conflicts and democracy. The first model is “top down”, from war to peace and from authoritarianism to democracy; or polyarchy, a system for containing the pressure of the masses for social change, where decisions and mass participation are reduced to choosing leaders in elections controlled by elites (Robinson, 1996, 2002, 2014). In this perspective the conception is that the armed struggle is an obstacle for democracy, that democracy generates a society without conflicts, that society resolves its contradictions competing for votes, and is modernized based on free trade competing efficiently. Correspondingly, judicial and electoral reforms are done so that laws guide the masses, and the (neoliberal) economic model is fine-tuned, understanding that peace is established on the basis of development; and development means economic growth and the extraction of natural resources to the benefit of an elite (traditional extractivism), or neoextractivism that, as Escobar observed (2012), is also to improve social infrastructure (education and health) and reduce poverty – in other words, the extractivist model is invariable- what varies is whether it is only for an elite or for more, and whether the State plays an active role (iun the neo-extractivism).
The second model is the “bottom up” one, where the idea is that armed conflicts were, and now the social movements are, the basic conditions for resolving historical contradictions and promoting a sustainable democracy (Robinson, 1996, 2002, 2014). Correspondingly, the participation of the population is promoted with their respective life paths, that peace is established with alternatives to development where economic growth and markets, as Gudymas and Acosta argue (2011), are subordinated to the model of wellbeing understood holistically, with social, economic and environmental sustainability. In this framework, peace is achieved to the extent that inequality cedes and the (neoliberal) economic model changes to one of collective well being.
Figure 1 and the words within which the entire country moves can be reread in the light of these two models. From the first model the peace accords express the victory of democracy over the armed struggle, which is why those who are demobilized should submit to the law, ask forgiveness for their fighting and integrate themselves into the neoliberal economy and formal democracy, while the government provides material and legal benefits to the disarmed groups and ensures order. From the second model the idea is that the armed struggle opened an opportunity for democracy to deepen, disrupting State institutions and markets within a perspective not of intensifying development, but of providing space for development alternatives, because it is precisely the reigning development model that produces the inequality and armed conflicts.
Making these perspectives explicit can be reflected in the role of the State, the FARC, social movements, academia, the churches, cooperatives and international aid agencies. Let us give two examples. The first example, academia, following the example of model 1, it is seen armed with categories and methodologies that have sustained the model of development that has generated the inequality and that is opposed to peace; or, following model 2, it can be seen proposing new categories and methodologies coherent with the development alternatives model. The second example, international aid, following model 1, believes it knows the realities of the rural communities and it knows the solutions, which is why it aligned up project writers to hunt for profitable “production projects”, or that at least in the short term would keep ex-combatants from taking up arms again; or, following model 2, democratizes their decisions and opens itself up to understanding the multiple realities of the peasant, indigenous, and afro-descendent communities, and takes the risk of listening to and responding to solutions that maybe do not fit in the neoliberal economic model in which it tended to locate itself. Being part of the solutions and contributing to peace begins disrupting our own attitudes and comforts, that maybe are as authoritarian and centralizing as those of any institution or organization that we are happy to criticize.
3. What is concealed and what is sought to change
Having this broad perspective, we notice that the armed conflict with the FARC began with two key concepts, the agrarian reality and democracy. The Historical Commission on the Conflict and its Victims (2014) published 12 essays of authors who studied the causes and effects of the conflict in Colombia. Even with different perspectives, all of them agree on the fact that the agrarian issue and the fragile liberal democracy were determining causes, which is why in their recommendations they highlight the fact that changes should happen in land use and access, and that work be done on an economic model where equity would prevail. If Colombia is the most unequal country in its income (CEPAL, 2017), the inequality is worse in the agrarian reality: the gini coefficient for income, where 1 is equal to complete inequality and 0 is equal to complete equality, was 0.530 and the gini coefficient in rural property was 0.897 in 2015; while that coefficient for income improved, because it dropped from 0.564 in 2009, the coefficient for property went up from 0.885 in 2009.
The agrarian question refers to landownership, its use, technology and markets. The key in that is access to ownership of the land. The graph and table 1 show that in the same period of the armed conflict inequality for access to property in Colombia has gotten worse: the Gini Coefficient from 1960 to 2014 went from 0.868 to 0.897. In the same period 0.5% of total owners with more than 500 Hectares of land went from having 29.2% of total land to having 68.2%; while around 88% of total owmers with less than 20 hectares went from having 17.3% to only having 8% of total land.
Table 1. Comparison of number of APUs and land used by range of size
5 to 20
20 to 50
50 to 200
200 to 500
Source: IGAC (2012) Atlas of rural property distribution in Colombia; 2014 Agricultural Census
The cause that generated the armed conflict intensified. This is even worse if we take note of the increasing use of mono-cropping and extraction of natural resources, as well as the financial barriers (e.g. credit in accordance with “capacity to pay”) and commercial barriers (free trade treaties) that affected around 80% of the property owners of the country. The impact of that reality on the country is alarming; socially, Colombia is the country with the largest number of internally displaced people in the world, and “violation of human rights has become a habitual practice” (Oxfam Internacional, 2017); politically, it is fragile democracy because of its liberal institutions where the connection between arms and politics prevails (Gutiérrez, 2014). Peasant, indigenous and Afro-descendent communities have suffered the dispossession of their means of life and culture, creating uprootedness and extreme poverty, which has contributed to the armed conflict. Behind that inequality and its impact are hundreds of years of distrust between peasant, indigenous and Afro-descendent families and the families of that group of less than 1% backed by the State and the ideas of “development”; this reminds us of the historian Wolf, who says that the French peasantry at the end of the XVII century had included a phrase at the end of the Our Father that they would pray every night before going to bed: “ and from justice, free us Lord” – that “justice” (State) that dispossessed them from their land and territories, and which the agrarian scholar Machado (2009:54, confirms: “the facts show that State action continues breaking up medium size rural property, while large traditional property is not transformed, and small ownership gets even poorer; in other words, the State and society are supporting a bimodal rural structure in ownership as well as in their forms of controversial and not very efficient exploitation, that does not help promote economic growth; in addition, it is a structure that destroys natural resources, undervalues the rural reality and creates conflict between rural society and national society.”
At the same time, that agrarian reality should be qualified. In 1940 the urban population was 30% and in 2012 it was 74%, which is why obviously the weight of the agrarian reality and the notion of what is rural has changed drastically. We do not know the reliability of the Censuses for making distinctions about those changes; but given the large extensions of land that the war included, and the typical problems of legality and forms of land acquisition that our countries of Latin America have tended to suffer, it could be that the table on land ownership would vary, that that bimodal structure might be less and that therefore that structure might express more potential than it now expresses.
The peace accords happened within that context of the incease in inequality and the awakening in society that another economics subordinated to life and democracy is possible. In spite of the fact that after a year there may have been no land distribution yet, while the political opposition defending that 0.5% of large property owners is growing, the peace accords do provide an opportunity for the country to democratize. The question is: will it? Following the mentality of model 1, the problem and its solutions are understood as something technical-administrative, like a “lack of”, precisely to conceal that inequality produced by the fragile formal democracy and the conventional economic model – and to that we would add a perspective closed to the bimodal structure that only sees land and crops. Following the mentality of model 2, the problem and the solutions are understood within the framework of power relationships, change in the power structure (questioning land ownership) and in the people through a different model of improvement – and with that we would add an agrarian perspective that includes land, crops, crafts and recreation of identity). Consistent with the historical perspective and the data presented, we understand that the inequality is above all a problem of the assymmetry in the power relationships, not a technical or administrative problem.
4. Danger of using peace to heighten the inequality
The bigger risk is that in the name of peace that oligarchic belief is imposed that peace needs more development: economic growth with (neo)extractivism of the natural resources and mono-cropping. It is like saying, the regions of the country are impoverished because of lack of “development”, when it could be the opposite, they are impoverished because of too much “development”.
It is probable that this 0.5% of owners, maybe connected to the finance industry, agroindustry, commerce and the communications media, might see the peace accords as the opportunity to increase their wealth, in addition to legalizing the land that perhaps they obtained through illegal means. That is, far from ceding an inch of land and understanding its importance for peace, they see it as an opportunity for the expansion of the agricultural frontier (in addition to being able to use 70% of the arable land which is unused), new areas free for extraction and mono-cropping, repurchase of land that eventually the State might give out, cheap labor and members of private security bodies among the disarmed, zones free from the FARC in order to control them with armed criminal groups and drug trafficking networks that respond to the demand of the US market, expansion of the financial and agro-chemical industries, “controlable” cooperatives that collect their harvested products and intermediate inputs to them…To take advantage of these opportunities they make use of trade rules, commercial treaties, usury, credit rules and the rules of making policy; and they see the opening of roads, schools and health centers as support.
In a parallel fashion, the avalanche of more-of-the-same solutions makes the disarmed and the rural communities – peasants, indigenous and Afrodescendents –confused. “Inclusive businesses” where the anchor are private enterprises under the principles of “more volume, more profits” and “economies of scale”; cooperatives that discipline their members in mono-cropping, aid organizations responding with projects to “the lack of” technology, knowledge, capital and markets; bilateral aid agencies that with one hand support their own extractive companies and with the other finance actions that would mitigate the effects of climate change; religions (Catholic and Protestant) that win over individuals who would recognize their sins and find forgiveness and glory in the beyond. It is institutionalized technocratic conceit: elites believe they know the realities of the communities, they believe they have the solutions (money, knowledge and decisions) and they believe that change comes from above, while they are moved by a mentality of seeing the agrarian reality as in the past, only land, crops, technology and markets; the worst that can happen is to see the disarmed as agricultural producers and that agriculture is a matter of having land, equipment, inputs and buyers for what is produced.
These solutions also express centenarian and even millennial hierarchical structures. The mono-cropping structure is sustained by a transnational hierarchical structure – be they enterprises, aid industry, Churches, States or academia. The guerrillas also come from a hierarchical Leninist structure of “democratic centralism”. What is common among them is the centralization of decisions in an elite based on informal rules located in the mentality of model 1, not on rules like the Constitution of a country, that statutes of an organization, the agreements of assemblies or the rules of Afro-descendent communities. What is also common in them is the belief that there is nothing good in those “from far below”, and that is why the technician, priest and politician work on persuading. This institutionality, in good measure, tends to be reciprocated by those who are “from far below”, who have internalized that without the boss, commandante or patron, life has no direction; in addition, it becomes a social code: an ex-combatant that shows up to work on a mono-cropping hacienda is familiar with their “order-obey” structure; it seems normal to an activist of a social movement, turned into the director of an aid agency, to have the power to approve projects.
How can this danger be confronted where some good local institutions and communities with strong social and economic networks are being battered? “Everyone for themselves” is a common reaction, ex-combatants and ex chiefs who will seek their own paths in different areas and spaces; others will insist on the promised tangibles goods; many will organize to depend on external resources; in this dynamic, those who persist in their struggle for equality and justice, beyond individual benefits, will be described as terrorists, considered rebels and candidates to be excluded from external benefits and to be part of those leaders physically assassinated and then “assassinated by neoliberalism”. “Everyone help one another” would be more strategic; that is committed to the viability of family agriculture (small scale production or peasant economy) and crafts that would generate autonomy and energize the communal level; a peasant family that diversifies in agricultural and non agricultural activities, uses markets to scale up their income and ensure their food. Within this framework, if that family organizes in a cooperative to resolve collective problems and negotiate resources that inject energy into their production systems and endogenous institutions, they will be contributing to mobilizing their communities and with that, the resurgence of a more just and peaceful society. This does not deny the existence of monocropping and large transnational enterprise, but restrains it, makes visible what is at play in society and shows that it is not a matter of “persuading” and of responding to “the lack of”, but of creating the appropriate conditions in which changes happen in the mentality of society and its institutions
5. Imperative to focus the direction and the prospects for building an arduous peace
This step requires that the different actors (State, academia, aid organizations, Churches, popular organizations, unions, FARC) rethink their actions. Not only should they support mono-cropping and “the lack of”, but above all families in their agricultural and non agricultural activities, forms of organization and logic in territories of indigenous and Afro-descendent communities, and communities that as Arjona (2016) shows have diverse social institutions, which would have to be understood before prescribing “development” for them. Here we deal with the how.
Figure 2 illustrates the form of relationship between the aid organizations and the communities –populations, disarmed groups, small scale producers or family economy (agriculture, home made products, non agricultural activities). There we see that there is a certain amount of dispersion between the organizations and institutions and they have different discourses with the different rural communities – peasant, indigenous and Afro-descendent. But they coincide in relating to the communities through the “intermediate stratum of development”, who are the technicians, promoters, religious and aid workers. This “stratum” connects two worlds, that of the aid agencies and institutions, and that of the communities; even though in practice the “intermediate stratum” might be more a prolongation of world 1, it tends to turn into world 3, interpreting world 1 and 2 from its perspective. For example, the State through the Reincorporation and Normalization Agency (RNA), has hundreds of technicians going to the communities, as do the aid agencies, churches or the FARC through their structures and technicians responsible for writing projects, encouraging and facilitating organizational processes. We predict that the peace process will be consolidated in its version of responding to “the lack of” with goods and services coherent with the perspectives of model 1, or its version of responding to the democratization of the country coherent with the perspective of model 2, or combining both versions, to a large extent depending on the work of this “intermediate stratum.”
What is common in this “intermediate stratum” molded by world 1? It tends to avoid the fact that the root of the problem is the inequality, underlying a mentality of the rural reality as equivalent to agricultural area and families in need of equipment and infrastructure, and assumes as a mandate the clamor of the aid agencies (“we want production projects”) and that of the government (“we are going to finance viable projects in market economies”). They assume that the work is persuading – be that about tangible goods like replacing illicit crops, the gospel, rules of associativity, productivity, commerce, democracy or gender equity. Each one has their reference in something external to the community: the religious, in the Bible; lawyers, in the laws of the country; agronomists, in the manuals for monocrops, the promoters of cooperativism, in the Statutes…All of them march to evangelize the communities in order to hear what they want to hear, and then returning to their offices they can also make the aid organizations hear what they want them to hear: number of technicians trained, people empowered, projects approved, people benefitted, cooperatives…
John P. Lederach, a Peace Accord advisor, said: “peace is achieved when each Colombian has respect for differences and establishes constructive relationships with the other, with that other that it has not wanted to, or not been able to listen to, for more than a half century.” Specifically the challenge is that this group from the “intermediate stratum of development” would overcome their logic of persuading and be capable of listening and observing, processing what is heard and observed, and learning from their conversations under the principle that “light comes from striking stones” – that light can be an idea about a project, awakening to alienating processes and their profound traumas, or paths for collective action. And that then, that “intermediate stratum of alternative development models” can talk with the organizations of world 1 and contribute to their change.
Let´s illustrate this perspective with the formation of a cooperative. According to the logic of persuading, a cooperative is organized with 40 hours of training in cooperativism, they name their manager, and it is provided resources and markets for their products; as a result, the criteria of success is forming hundreds of cooperatives without considering that this type of cooperatives fail quickly or end up being run as private enterprises in “cooperative” clothing. With a logic of learning, the cooperative is organized when its members wake up in the face of an adversity, and because they realize that there are obstacles that they cannot solve on their own, discover the value of their own resources, and that there is another way of organizing outside of the hierarchical structures of mono-cropping and the boss-followers – or as José M. Navarro would say, a member of the La Fábrica cooperative in Barcelona, “a cooperative enterprise opposed to capitalism”. Along this path the member families, studying their realities and experimenting with changes, discover their capacity to innovate, their citizenship (rotating leaders, complying with their rules and agreements, supervising that compliance), administering and investing their collective resources and strengthening their connections with the rest of the community, and recreating new identities within the framework of new realities that look beyond the agrarian reality seen as equivalent to crops. Table 2 shows some elements of this type of cooperative that responds to its members, and that it is possible to produce within a framework of mutual learning and in alliance with the three worlds in accordance with each specific context, and thanks to the creative and catalyzing role of the “intermediate stratum”.
Table 2. Keys for successful cooperatives
· Interaction between the associative side (organs) and the business side (administrative-technical)
· Effective functioning of the holy cooperative trinity: oversight board, administrative council and assembly
· Organization around differentiated products (e.g. specialty coffees, organic products) because it requires coordination among several families, geographic concentration
· Distribution of earnings and definition of goals in the assembly
· Based above all on their own resources and on endogenous institutions (of aid)
· Accounting system that generates updated information to be used by the administration and the cooperative´s organs
· Organizing 1st tier cooperativen on the basis of their members, and organizing 2nd and 3rd tier on the basis of the 1st tier cooperatives, and not the reverse.
This way of working, illustrated with the formation of a cooperative, requires accompaniment with a mentality of going to learn from the communities, from the disarmed groups. Said figuratively, the families in the communities know 50% of their problems, risks and opportunities, and their accompaniers (the restructured “intermediate stratum”) know the other 50%. The innovations emerge from among both sides (“from the striking of the stones”). Correspondingly, this group of accompaniers needs to unlearn in order to learn, increase their capacity to observe and dialogue so that together with the families they detect innovative practices and rules. In this way technicians and promoters will get ideas that they can turn into projects, experiments or initiatives; religious discern that God is in the people who seek justice and organize; administrators learn that the accounting information is not a tool for domination but formation (“informing is forming”)…The best guide that this type of work is on the right path is that both, the families and the accompaniers, awaken to the extent that they are learning.
For this purpose it is fundamental that all the actors from the different worlds rethink their role, in particular academia and international aid agencies. Academia, in order to contribute to the formation of that “intermediate stratum”, should produce appropriate categories coherent with model 1 as well as model 2. For that purpose it should organize basic research (e.g. sector analysis of agro and non agro) along with specific research combined with experimentation in specific territories, whose results would be the basis for organizing training. This, nevertheless, requires that academia understand that the source of knowledge is not just imported theories, but different communities with their multiple realities, all of them in need of being conceptualized within a framework of alliance and not just applying theories; and that requires that they include in their gamut of methodologies the organization of thoughtful immersion processes on the part of professors and students in those very territories. The best critiques and policies of conventional theories, and rereadings of the land ownership table, will come from seeing the realities from the multiple perspectives of the countryside.
This strategic change from the “intermediate stratum” and the work of decolonialized academia, requires an active and renewed role of international aid. For this role, international aid should review their own practices in the last 3 decades, practices questioned in the entire world (see for example, Anderson et al, 2012) because their aid has generally helped the type of “development” that has contributed to the inequality and have “ngo-ized” organizations (unions, cooperative and associative organizations) and social movements, dispossessing the families of their own organizations. This revision implies that the aid organizations in Colombia quit waiting for “production projects” from the “intermediate stratum of development”, and influencing the type of projects and centralizing decisions about those projects. This implies that they contribute to creating institutional environments in the territories where the different actors of each territory and the “restructured intermediate stratum” study those realities and produce ideas that really matter to them, and that the decisions about the projects that emerge be decentralized. It implies that the international aid agencies be conceived as allies of the peasant, indigenous and Afro-descendent communities, in favor of democracy and the reduction of inequality in those very territories – allying is like falling in love, and this requires that the “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” (aid agency) moves to the territories where their partner is.
If the communities feel that they have allies in academia and in aid agencies, who join their voices to those of the communities so that their leaders do not continue to be murdered and that they value the fact that they organize on the basis of their own good – and correcting the bad – institutions, then the peasant, indigenous and Afro-descendent communities with different degrees of connections with the FARC and other actors, will take their steps for improvement, will mobilize, will make their decisions more democratically and will understand that the reduction of inequality from the territory itself – with geographic variations – is possible, necessary and just.
The agrarian and (neo) extractivism realities continue to weigh economically, socially and politically on the country, which is why peace should be built on the basis of reducing inequality. The greatest obstacle to the peace process is the institutionality that sustains that inequality. This institutionality has to do with elite economic groups that want to consolidate the peace process with the same mechanisms that caused the armed conflict, and with an agrarian mentality from when the rural population were the majority in Colombia. These mechanisms are expressed in the extractivist and mono-cropping neoliberal economic model moved by the law of the jungle, even though clothed in democracy, a model that has been called “development” or “motors of the economy”. The paradox is that an attempt is made to consolidate peace with the same measures that led to the armed conflict.
This “development” model is clear, seen as the economic model of the elites; but it is not so clear to us that the actors who declared themselves in favor of peace had a functional modus operandi for this model. Because it would seem that there is not much difference between centralizing the decisions of approving “profitable productive projects” and the decisions of the political and economic elites concentrating land, between academia that believes it has solutions in imported theories and the aid organizations that believe they know the future of the peasantry without studying it, or businesses that think that the market knows more than any human being, between the hierarchically organized FARC and the Church and families also organized hierarchically…This shakes up our minds and wakes us up!
If waking up matters a lot, we identify the most important point of change is the “intermediate stratum of development” (administrators, technicians, aid workers, religious) who have served to convince the world of indigenous, peasant and Afro-descendent communities about the world of “development”. We suggest investing in retraining this “intermediate stratum”: that they move from a logic of “persuading” and writing projects for “the lack of”, toward a logic of “learning” and identifying along with the communities ideas in accordance with the different routes and rural institutions in which they move; from prescribing to knowing how to negotiate in the midst of uncertainty. To do so, we argue, the work of the university research centers and international aid agencies is needed; the former with alternative categories to the “development” model, and the latter constituting itself as serious allies of the different communities, recognizing that they are sources of knowledge and seeds for a more democratic and just society.
The peace process in Colombia is a global challenge that generates optimism. In Japanese culture we find two meanings for the word “optimism”: rakutenteki, the feeling of the future that a young person has about their adult life, and rakkanteki, when people accept their problems as challenges to be faced. This optimism (rakkanteki) encourages us to review our own mentality and to recognize that peasant, indigenous and Afro-descendent resistance is also our resistance to inequality and the mechanisms that sustain it. Peace is possible, in spite of “development”, under the spirit of Santander, and as the “effect of justice” (Isaiah, 32:17).
 I am grateful to the comments of A. Bendaña, E. Baumeister and J. Bastiaensen for their commentaries on a previous version. The text is a draft to be improved and commented on by each person who reads it.
 CEPAL, 2017, Social Panorama of America Latina 2016, Table I.A1.2, shows the gini coeficiente for income for 14 countries in Latin America. In 2008 or 2009 Colombia is the country with the greatest inequality (0.564) and for 2015, even though it improved, continues being the most unequal country in Latin America (0.530). See: http://repositorio.cepal.org/bitstream/handle/11362/41598/4/S1700567_es.pdf
 Robinson, W., 1996, “Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, U.S.,” in: Intervention and Hegemony. Robinson, W., 2002. Remapping development in light of globalization: From a territorial to a social cartography, in: Third World Quaterly, No. 23.6. Robinson, W., 2014, “Democracy or polyarchy?” in: NACLA. https://nacla.org/article/democracy-or-polyarchy
 This duality of “development” / alternatives can also be seen in the duality between contemplation (leisure) and work (business) from the ancient times of Greece up to our times. It has moved from favoring contemplation to giving the highest moral value to work (business), passing though the religious thought of Calvin where leisure (contemplation) became sin and business like the glory of God (see: Rul·lán Buades, G., 1997, Del ocio al neg-ocio… y otra vez al ocio. Papers 53, 171-193. https://ddd.uab.cat/pub/papers/02102862n53/02102862n53p171.pdf). It is a duality that model 2 would seek to connect to one another.
 Using indexes like THEIL, instead of Gini, the inequality is even worse. A more detailed study probably can demonstrate the weight of the medium strata, more than a bimodal structure, which would be important in light of more appropriate rural policies.
 Arjona (2016), contrary to the idea that war zones are chaotic, lawless zone, finds communities with social institutions where the armed structures becomes de facto governments and communities with strong justice institutions capable of negotiating with the armed groups. See: Arjona, A., 2016, Rebelocracy: Social Order in the Colombian Civil War. Cambridge University Press.
 The norms for providing credit include “lending money to people with the capacity to pay.” This supposes that those who are not in monocroipping and do not have large areas, are outside of the credit system. This type of mentality was turned upside down in Bangladesh by Yunus and his team, in the 1970s they proved that everyone is capable of paying and that the bank needs to adapt to their realities. If more than 50% of the food comes from peasant families, why doesn´t the financial system respond to that reality?
 Hale (2002) observed in Guatemala how international organizations make distinctions of the indigenous organizations between the “permitted” ones, those who drop their agendas to take on the agenda and rules of international aidm and the “rebels”, those that resist and respond to the agenda of their members-communities. The former are given financial support and the latter are not. See: Hale, Ch., 2002, “Does Multiculturalism Menace? Governance, Cultural Rights and the Politics of Identity in Guatemala” in: Journal of Latin American Studies 34.3 Cambridge University Press.
 Academia (Universities and research centers) also are part of the block of aid organizations, but their relationship with the communities tends to be sporadic, which is why we have not included them in the figure, while their relationship with the “intermediate stratum” is strong because that “stratum” was trained in the universities and they also organize training courses in solidarity economics and other topics directly for that “stratum”.
 Honesty is not lacking in the organizations of world 1 (figure 2): “it does not matter that these cooperatives or projects are not sustainable years later, the important thing is gaining time so that the ex-combatants do not go back to war”.
 The adversity is the inequality in land access, the commercial mediation that steals from them in the weighing of their produce, quality control and in prices, or in usury. A savings and loan cooperative that organizes in the face of usury, for example, begins on a good step, because having awareness of the adversity means having recognized (studied) and having realized that bringing their own resources together they can avoid the usury.
 For example, for the business actor, the persepective of Kaiser is interesting (2012, La fatal ignorancia La anorexia cultural de la derecha frente al avance ideológico progresista, http://ciudadanoaustral.org/biblioteca/23.-Axel-Kaiser-La-fatal-ignorancia.-La-anorexia-cultural-de-la-derecha-chilena-frente-al-avance-ideolo%23U0301gico-progresista.pdf). He observed that the business class and the right in Chile “do not understand nor believe in the power of ideas and culture as decisive factors of the political, economic and social evolution”, and that they only focus on productivity, technology and financial incentives, forgetting that human beings are moved by beliefs, values and ideas transmitted by the family, schools, books…Kaiser thinks that that bourgeoise and that right fell into a mental anorexia that opened the door to the left. From our perspective, that mental anorexia also is shared by the left and most of the organizations and international aid organizations today.
 Mendoza (2015) describes this methodology, precisely based on an experience of a Research and Development Institute in Nicaragua, that for some years was capable of based a good part of their proactive innovation on that methodology of immersion. See: Mendoza, R., 2015, “Inmersión, inserción, escritura y diálogo: Mecanismos de aprendizaje para el desarrollo territorial”, en: Bastiaensen, J., Merlet, P. y Flores, S. (eds), Rutas de desarrollo en territorios humanos. Las dinámicas de la vía láctea en Nicaragua. Managua: UCA Publicaciones. http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/user_upload/AGRO_Noticias/smart_territories/docs/RUTAS%20DE%20DESARROLLO_VERSION%20FINAL_LIGERA.pdf
 This notion of optimism was expressed by Kishida Junnosuke, chief editor of the Asahi Shinbun newspaper, to the question of Peter Schwartz in 1984. See: Schwartz, P., 1991, The Art of the Long View. New York: Doubleday.
Bias. It’s what we as human being use to see the world around us, whether we like to admit it or not. We see the world through the lens of our own experiences. Sometimes that comes from things that have happened to us. Sometimes it comes from things we’ve been told. Often our vision comes from the way we would like to see reality, for our own benefit. But we are born with the predilection toward bias. Is it also true about the way we view the poor?
I received the following article from the organization, “Progress Through Business,” a non-profit located at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was founded by an acquaintance of mine, John Hoffmire, whom I came to know through his advocacy in the ESOP world. I found the subject and the data of the article provocative, and decided to include it here:
How The Rich View The Poor
The discussion over rising inequality in the U.S. has captured headlines, been featured in the November election campaign, and incited heated debates analyzing and criticizing the relationships between the rich and the poor. “Out-of-touch” and “unsympathetic” have become buzzwords used to describe the attitude of the haves toward the have-nots.
Despite this narrative unfolding in the media, the question remains whether the headlines reflect reality.
The Associated Press recently cited research saying that 1 in 5 Americans reaches affluence at one point in their lives. This 20 percent block is a far cry from the critique offered by many who want change but still provides evidence of a large disparity between the wealthy and the poor.
Some might ask how this division affects the social aspects of our society. What is the best descriptor of the relationship between those on opposite ends of the economic spectrum? The prevailing story conveyed through the media would suggest that “out-of-touch” and “unsympathetic” do accurately portray the well-off portion of the U.S. society.
However, those who question this viewpoint might pose the following queries: What about the billions of dollars donated every year to poverty-focused charities? What about the wealthy investors who have recently turned their focus to social innovation and impact investing in order to address social ills through business? Doesn’t this demonstrate a stronger interest than we might otherwise think? Or does the philanthropist merely seek notoriety through his or her contributions, and is the socially minded investor motivated by the opportunity to gain new market share or attract new customers?
So the question remains, are the wealthy truly invested in the poor and do they care?
A New York Times blog by Daniel Goleman detailed research on social interactions between two groups of people on significantly different rungs of the social ladder. I’ll call this research “study one.”
Members of one group had a much higher income than the members of the other. Subjects of both social classes were instructed to share and communicate, with another individual, about hardships that they had experienced in their personal lives. Researchers then observed the interaction between the two individuals. The findings of the research show that the rich consistently demonstrate disinterest in the personal difficulties of the poor.
The wealthy showed less sympathy and concern as they listened to the poor recall personal trials, such as divorces and deaths in the family. Conversely, the poor tended to be as attentive to the difficulties of the rich as they were to the difficulties of their socio-economic equals.
The researchers concluded that we tend to be interested in those whom we value. Partly due to a void in material wealth, the poor tend to value social relationships. They develop “keenly attuned interpersonal attention, in all directions”. This is a trait that anyone — and everyone — could develop, regardless of financial wealth.
If the researchers are correct in their conclusions, and members of our society are only interested in those whom they value, then inattention would demonstrate that the rich undervalue the poor. Why is this? It may be that the rich judge the poor. The rich may assume the poor live a “substandard” life brought upon themselves through their own ignorant or incompetent decisions.
Wealthier members of society may assume that everyone has the same opportunities and that those whose cognitive abilities are less efficient should not receive certain advantages in society because they have not earned them. This attitude, if it exists, is undermined by research that says that many cognitive difficulties are environmentally induced. In other words, those who live in economic stress may be impaired cognitively as a result of the stress caused by consistently living in situations where their economic lives provide bitter choices.
The research, which I will label “study two,” includes an experiment performed at a New Jersey mall and is detailed in a 2013 article written by Anandi Mani, Sendhil Mullainathan, Eldar Shafir and Jiaying Zhao, all prominent university researchers. The subjects of the study were confronted with a scenario. They were told that they faced a common financial problem, such as paying for a car repair.
This problem was meant to activate real financial concerns that existed in the participants’ own lives. After thinking about how to come up with the money to make the payment, the subjects were asked to answer common IQ test questions. This research included a component that tested the respondents’ ability to answer questions correctly and quickly while under pressure. After providing a solution to paying for the auto repair, the subjects were asked to disclose their income.
The subjects were assigned either “hard” or “easy” financial situations, with an auto repair cost of $1,500 or $150 respectively.
When contemplating “easy” situations of $150 auto repairs, the poor and the rich answered the IQ test questions correctly at a very similar rate. When the auto repair cost was raised to a “hard” situation of $1,500, the rich performed about the same on the IQ test as they had during the “easy” situation. However, when faced with “hard” situations, the poor experienced a significant drop in the number of questions they answered correctly. This was in line with the researchers’ original hypothesis.
The experiment was then adjusted to include a financial reward of 25 cents for every correct response. Although the poor have a presumably greater need for the money, they still performed worse during “hard” situations than the rich, and earned roughly 18 percent less.
This seems relatively reflective of reality. The researchers go on to explain that the poor earn less not out of incompetency, but because they must allocate mental capacity to problems that are more pressing to them than to the rich.
Remember that the poor performed just as well as the rich when the stakes were low. The difficulty for the poor arose when the payment increased to $1,500, even when they had the ability to make money by answering correctly. Many expenses, which the rich consider minor, become major obstacles for the poor, requiring a significant amount of attention to address. This allocation of attention to pressing concerns may in turn prevent the poor from taking advantage of opportunities (such as earning extra cash in the above study).
Additionally, solving these problems comes at the expense of other basic needs. The researchers cite prior studies showing that the poor “use less preventative health care, fail to adhere to drug regimens, are tardier and less likely to keep appointments, are less productive workers, less attentive parents and worse managers of their finances.” According to the study, these troubling behaviors are caused neither by laziness nor incompetence but by decreased capacity brought on by the situations the poor face. This is due to the overwhelming nature of stressful situations, many of which are not nearly as difficult for the rich.
The study’s results provide key insights into the relationship between the rich and the poor. The occurrence of the types of problems discovered in study two should not elicit negative judgments from the rich but rather understanding. The wealthy could be much more interested in the poor, knowing that the personal difficulties in the lives of the poor may have more serious repercussions than situations in their own lives. The resources of the poor, financial and mental, are often already stretched to their limits.
If studies one and two are reflective of the reality of how the rich view poverty-stricken people, and I believe they are, it is a major misperception on the part of the rich to believe that the poor should always be able to recover from setbacks in the same ways as others. And if both of the above studies are true, then less-advantaged individuals’ traits of “keenly attuned interpersonal attention in all directions” are all the more impressive. Low-income individuals are able to allocate their attention to focus on other people, while the rich do not seem to have this same ability, often depriving the poor of sympathy and understanding.
The studies give us observations and a neurobehaviorialistic view of the relationships between rich and poor. But what else might motivate the lack of demonstrated concern of the wealthy for those less fortunate? Perhaps it is that the rich are so focused on gaining more wealth, status, and contact with other wealthy people that there is little incentive for them to get to know and care for the poor.
So the question arises, how can the rich turn their attention outward and toward those on the opposite end of the social ladder? One way would be for everyone to better understand the role of good fortune and the assistance they have received from others. Many have benefited from those who stand a few rungs up and a few rungs down.
We, of all social classes, could consistently be looking out for those who find upward mobility difficult and we could understand that trials and burdens are taxing, painful and often devastating for those at many points along the socio-economic spectrum, but are especially paralyzing for those at the bottom of the wealth pyramid. While those who are well off enjoy the comfort of ample financial resources, they could also strive to develop and use their own sense of a “keenly attuned interpersonal attention, in all directions.”
I say this not only on account of the poor. It seems that many in other social classes are missing out on a special opportunity. I notice at times in our society that many people lack a sense of purpose. Dedication to the poor and a willingness to act on their behalf can bring great value to the life of someone who is willing to serve.
One who certainly showed attention to those less fortunate was the late Nelson Mandela. Leading a nation out of apartheid also meant fighting a war against poverty. Partly due to his work, South Africa began a process leading toward greater development in Africa. Mandela understood that our social interactions are key tools in combating poverty. He described our duty to do our part to help those around us and across the globe when he said:
“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”
We could all benefit from allocating our own financial and mental resources in an outward way, paying special attention to those around us who are less fortunate than ourselves.
It’s an interesting study and a sobering one. I wonder what misconceptions others have about me….?
If they keep quiet, the stones will cry out (Jesús, Lc 29.40)
“I already saw that movie”, said the drunk, on seeing the animation of the lion that roars at the beginning of many movies. In the beginning of the 1990s, dozens of women from Marcala (Honduras) began to be trained to defend their rights and cultivate an awareness of equality, to “marry to live together and not to be the property of anyone”, “leave the house to participate in workshops on learning”, and “overcome conformism”. Over the years they understood that that awareness and that fight against violence would require generating their own resources, “on earning some money you can decide what to buy for the house”, so they envisioned an organization that would help them to have land, produce on it, and sell their products. So in 1988 they founded the Coordinator of Women Peasants of La Paz (COMUCAP), and learned that “organization is for bettering oneself and not for being envious”, and that “it is beautiful that both the man and the woman work, you have what you need to eat and you can rest.”
As COMUCAP grew in number of members and economically they acquired investments for processing coffee, aloe and juices; they exported coffee and sold soap, shampoo and juice; they bought land and planted it;M and many projects came in. Nevertheless in 2012 they learned that their organization of 283 women members was about to fall off a cliff. What had happened? What had pushed them to the edge? How could they move away from that cliff? In this article we try to respond to these questions, precisely to “not trip over the same stone twice.” Behind the animation of the roaring lion there is a movie that has not yet been seen. Let´s look at it.
Crisis Situation in COMUCAP
An independent audit revealed that the debt of COMUCAP was close to one million dollars, that the assets of the organization had a lien on them due to the debt, that a piece of property bought for $150,000 had not been turned over to the organization, and that it was not clear where resources from international aid had gone. This information raised the eyebrows of the members in the 2012 assembly. Other data followed: 100% of the coffee exported was organic and fair trade, in the last 3 cycles prior to 2012 they had exported close to 10,000 qq of export coffee; a good part of that coffee was bought off of individuals who were not members, close to 1,000 qq of coffee was from the coordinator of COMUCAP herself, whose quality surprisingly scored at 85, while the coffee of the members was equal to or less than 81; the yields (from 1 qq of cherry coffee to export coffee) were dropping; the premiums for organic and fair trade were confused with project financed by international aid, making it impossible for the members to see that they had not received neither premiums. The crisis was even more harsh because it coincided with the arrival of the coffee rust on the plants, that not only lowered their production yields, but in many cases anthracnose came behind the rust leaving the coffee fields with dead trees.
What had happened? From the beginning the board of directors had granted the coordinator a General Power of Attorney, with which she was able to take loans out of the bank, buy and sell the assets of the organization and sign international aid projects. They had technical and administrative staff subordinated to the coordinator, whose daughter was the commercialization manager for all the COMUCAP products, her sister was the manager of the aloe plant, and her son in law was the coffee manager. The board of directors was used only to sign checks. The reports to the annual assembly appeared to be “sharp” bathed in a sea of numbers, reports that were legitimated by the representatives of international aid as “transparent”. The audit and fair trade and organic certification inspections would confirm every year that “everything was in order.”
The coffee rust and the “human rust” had bashed the organization of the 256 members. Obviously all those losses and debts had to be assumed by the members. All this is like the animation of the roaring lion, because this type of movie is repeated in many parts of Latin America. Nevertheless, as the philosopher Heraclitus said, though we bathe in the same river, we never do it in the same water; the next section responds to the question about what things pushed COMUCAP to the edge of the precipice. Let´s sit down to watch this film.
Process that pushed COMUCAP to the edge of the cliff
Problem: COMUCAP in 2012 was on the edge of the cliff. What pushed it therer? To help, let´s use the “5 whys” of the methodology of Lean: find the cause of the problem, then the cause of that cause, until we reach the root cause. This methodology was developed in the 1950s by Taiichi Ohno, Toyota pioneer (http://www.toyota-global.com/company/toyota_traditions/quality/mar_apr_2006.html). It is the methodology that is behind Aristotle´s idea in seeking the origin of movement: “everything that moves is moved by something” and there is a “motor” that moves everything. That is why we ask ourselves 5 times “why”. See the Table with the 5 “whys” for identifying the “tripping stone.”
Why was COMUCAP on the “brink of a cliff” –debts, poor administrative management and a hold on their assets? The members and aid organizations listened to information in the annual assemblies, but it was information that was not telling them what was really happening. The staff was subordinated to the family that coordinated COMUCAP and the board of directors relegated to being “only for show”, to sign checks; even a leader turned into an employee for two years signed checks as if she were the president. In other words, they would produce information in a disloyal way for the organization and in a way subordinated to the coordinating family.
Why did they not have access to the real information. A good part of the 256 women had been trained for 10, 15 and 20 years in negotiating their rights, managing funds for groups, political advocacy and values like transparency and equality. Why then did they not demand the real information? “Because we fell asleep”, said one of the historic leaders: they stood by. Ther trust in the coordinator was blind and total, because since 1993 she had trained them in women´s rights, and used to tell them that “she worked for the women”, she was from a family with resources and they nearly worshipped her: “having what she needs to live and she works for us” they would say with gratitude, feeling themselves blessed. One member could not be mistrustful when the reports would be presented before the international aid organizations, who would repeat “everything is in order”. One member could not prove that she did not receive the organic nor fair trade premiums for her coffee when the fair trade and organic certification audits would conclude “that everything was in order.” If everything was in order, it was logical to conclude that the information that they were being presented was correct, and it was obvious that if a member dissented, she was running the risk of not being a beneficiary of the next project. It was like feeling like an ant under a transnational elephant that grew and grew.
Why did they stand by? Because they left the decisions in the hands of the coordinator who had an administrative role, and was part of the staff of the organization, not elected by the assembly, as were the women on the board. The decisions that should have been made in the cooperative bodies (board of directors, committees and assembly) and supervised (oversight board or auditing body), were taken on by the coordinator. For the members the coordinator was “the gate” to the market and to international aid projects, and for the fair trade buyers and the aid agencies, the coordinator was the gate to the women leaders and the members. If a aid representative would visit a member, she would say marvelous things about the coordinator, and if a member visited Germany, the buyers would say wonderful things about the coordinator. So COMUCAP functioned as if it were a private enterprise where the 256 members were the poor beneficiaries, defined as such by the coordinator herself: “the women of the board are not capable of administering even 100 lempiras ($5).” This woman who did training on rights saw them as ignorant and those who financed projects and bought coffee saw her as the “Honduran Che Guevara.”
Why did they leave the decisions in the hands of the administration? Because the millennium institution of “we always need a patron” absorbed them. The women had been trained to defend their rights in their homes and to seek equality with their husbands. And this they were doing, supported by an office of COMUCAP itself. Nevertheless, they did not expect that “the patron” would appear in the “new guise”: who would subordinate the staff with loans and salaries, control the members on the basis of projects, and the leaders through travel allowances, and ran COMUCAP as something independent from the members. Like a large estate owner who believes that the land and everything on it is his, or like the holder of an encomienda in the colonial period that would receive land “including the indians that lived on it”, she would repeat to them: “without me COMUCAP would not exist, everything that is here is because of me” – meaning that everything was hers.
Why did the old “patron-client” institution absorb them? Because even though the women woke up about their rights and the importance of generating their income to sustain that awareness, COMUCAP was an external product with members dispersed in several municipalities, started on the basis of external resources and not on the basis of the contributions of the members; and because they did not learn to lead the organization through its organs (assembly, board, oversight board), and in accordance with its rules (statutes), because “we felt it was far away, someone else´s”. That is why they would hold an assembly once a year, as if an organization would have so few decisions that merited meeting only once a year; the board members were content to sign checks and travel every now and then; the groups never met with their boards; a member who needed something from COMUCAP would not propose it in the group meeting, nor to her group board, she thought it was not her right but a favor, which is why she would go directly to the “big honcho.” This lack of ownership and effectiviness in leading the organization left COMUCAP in conditions where the proverb “in an open treasure even the just sin” became a reality. COMUCAP had become a “factory” where a member would become a beneficiary, a leader subordinated, and a coordinator with a social vocation would become the big honcho (patron). Here is the root of the problem – “the motor” as Aristotle would say.
The energy to get out of the crisis
The member assembly in 2012 heard the results of the audit. There was a mixture of everything: silence, murmurs, rage, impotence, feeling of having been betrayed…Some returned to their homes, and recalling the sacrifices that they had made for so many years, cried wanting to hear an echo in the universe. Others moved to defend the offices and the coffee and aloe business of COMUCAP, because the coordinator, her family and allies did not even want to turn over the assets with liens on them. They spent 3 years in hard legal battles, negotiating with the banks, getting the aid agencies and the buyers to see the obvious facts of what was happening, getting the members to trust again, looking for money to buy coffee, looking for markets for their coffee, their aloe, their shampo and juices.
On this path they continued to wear themselves down and had financial losses. The interest and arrears for the debt grew year by year, even though negotiating they were able to get considerable relief. They lost the best coffee areas to the labor lawsuit from the ex-employees, and had expenses on lost trials. They had international coffee buyers who decided NOT to buy their coffee under the logic that “COMUCAP without the “big honcho” did not exist, and because, as one leader said, “a dozen stars will fall from the sky before they ¡recognize that they were mistaken.” And a star did fall! The representative of an aid agency recognized: “I believed in her (the coordinator); forgive me because I did not believe in what you were telling me.”
What really caused the beginning of the change in COMUCAP? Each year an audit would be done, fair trade and the organic certifiers also did audits. There were more than 17 bank accounts because the aid agencies wanted their money to be administered separately. The results indicated that none of that ensured good administration. It is very possible that without the support of two people who worked in 2 aid agencies, who detected the problem, recommended an independent audit, and accompanied the board for some time, and without the awakening of the new board, COMUCAP would now have fallen off the cliff or been completely privatized by the coordinator and her family.
Crisis happens when what should die, does not, and what should be born, does not. After 5 years COMUCAP has been able to grab ahold of some “rock” and not fall off the cliff, in contrast to the prophesy of those who opposed it. Nor has it moved away from that “cliff”, the risk that it might trip over the same “stone”, described in section 2, and fall even harder off the cliff is real. In other words, that which should die still has not died. How can it move away from the cliff, or build a bridge to cross it? For what needs to be born to happen, we suggest three steps (see attached Figure) under the sequential order that follows: awareness and vision of the members as a reference point, looking inward where their roots are, and looking outward to be accompanied.
First step, start from the awareness and vision of the women members. Awareness: “everything that exist is there because we sweated with our fellow members with the sacks of fertilizer planting coffee, aloe, cooking, leaving the family on their own.”; as Jesus would say, if they keep quiet, the stones from the aloe and coffee business and the orange and coffee farms, WOULD CRY OUT. The original vision of dozens of women: COMUCAP started to sell the products of its members and accordingly built equity in their homes and communities. To sell whose products? The products of ITS members!
Second step, finding a solution to the root of the problem, ownership and operating within the democratic mechanisms of COMUCAP. There is their new “motor”. Their “break even point” is not buying coffee from whoever and however, it is not adding new members as best as possible. It is going back and building trust in each family, each group, the board of each group, the asembly, the board of directors, the oversight board and the staff that they have. COMUCAP now has 505 members. Let us recall popular wisdom, the stronger the daughters and sons are, the stronger their parents will be – in other words, the stronger the families are, the stronger the groups will be, the stronger the groups are, the stronger their board and their staff will be, and COMUCAP will be stronger.
Third step, weave alliances with people (and organizations) like those who helped them to begin the change in 2012 and who left them the secret for getting ahead: study the reality itself, wake up to what the study finds, and be accompanied in the process of change.
For these three steps the notion of stewardship helps us: our lives are a breath in the life of the universe, our participation in an organization like COMUCAP is at the most a tenth of a human life: a leader who lives for 90 years will hold posts for less than 9 years, a salaried worker will not be there for much more than that. In other words, while we hold positions of responsibility we must give the most of ourselves serving the 505 women, many of whom are single mothers taking care of their grandchildren, assuming the roles of mother and father. Stewardship, according to Block (2013, Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest), is “the willingness to be responsible for the wellbeing of the organization, working in service of those who surrond us, instead of controlling them. It is responsibility without control nor compliance”.
Can the 505 women and the organizations that consider themselves to be their allies let die what needs to die, and give birth to what need to be born? The lionesses of Marcala are roaring: this movie has barely begun.
Son to his Father: old man, you are not making money on the blocks of sugar; you are just doing it to work.
Father: Yes, I was raised in this and I miss it.
Mom: And where do you think our clothes come from, this roof … and part of the food? From sweating over these blocks of sugar!
(Conversation with peasant family, Yoro, Honduras, 2017).
Sugar cane was domesticated 10,000 years ago on the island of New Guinea. It came to the New World based on slave labor and environmental degradation between 1425 and 1493. Slavery began to be stopped in 1807 when England prohibited the slave trade which happened through the purchase of slaves in Africa with sugar itself; at that time more than 11 million slaves had been brought in, more than half to sugar plantations (R. Cohen, “Passion for Sugar” in: National Geographic). These plantations were established at the cost of dispossessing the indigenous populations of their land. With sugar cane we see that “a lot of water has passed under the bridge” – more than water, human blood.
In Central America part of the elite continues in the sugar industry with enormous human and environmental costs (see case of Guatemala: Labrador, Villagrán, Sánchez y Alvarado, “El cartel del azúcar de Guatemala” in: El Faro 25-4-2017, https://elfaro.net/es/201704/centroamerica/20091/El-cartel-del-az%C3%BAcar-de-Guatemala.htm). In the face of this reality, peasant and indigenous families have included sugar cane in their family strategy for self sufficiency and income generation. Does sugar cane allow them to resist? Is this sugar cane, that has planted so much death, also an instrument for life? We argue that if families organize to add value to their sugar cane, they can resist dispossession, remain in their communities without being driven to migrate, and at the same time contribute to environmental sustainability. Consequently, in this article we describe the peasant perspective on sugar cane, the dispossession that they have suffered, their viability, and the challenges that accompanying these processes of repossession imply.
When peasant families see themselves forced to migrate, they tend to take with them some sugar cane plants, and other families even take the sugar mill. The families get to the mountains or places where they can buy less expensive land. There they start to produce corn and beans, they establish their banana plants and sugar cane, they preserve patches of forest for wood and firewood, and they raise small livestock (poultry and pigs) and 2 or 3 cows. Their strategy is to diversify and reduce risk: the forest for wood (home construction, fence posts) and firewood for the kitchen and the oven of the sugar mill; they plant corn, beans and bananas to ensure their food; they grow sugar cane that they turn into blocks of sugar for their own use (to sweeten coffee and natural juices, make honey, pastry, coconut squash, mangos with honey, fritters, corn bread, and liquor – and as young D. Mejía tells us “the recipes of my grandmother are the best with brown sugars”- and for selling it. The sale of the blocks of sugar during a good part of the year, and the sale of 2 to 3 cows a year, is cash to cover other needs (salt, soap, matches, etc) and to buy “new clothes.”
Due to their distance from the market, the idea of the peasant families is to depend as least as possible on outside products. That is why it is easier to take blocks of sugar out to sell in the towns to generate income, than bunches of bananas or corn. Taking 100 lbs of brown sugar blocks generates a little more than double the income of 100 lbs of corn. In addition, sugar is one of the crops that are least affected by diseases or insects, and once established, requires little work and can resprout year after year for more than 50 years. So it is that wooden mills and then iron mills emerged, along with the sugar cane, powered by a team of oxen, and in some communities by a motor. In some communities the blocks of sugar are the only way to connect to the market and get some cash.
Table 1. Transformation of brown sugar block (20 tons / mz)*
L / block
$ / block
Sale (load of blocks)
Weeding (1 mz)
Guide for oxen (load)
Team of oxen (load)
Cutting cane (mz)
Transporting cane (ton)
* 20 tons of sugar cane in 1 mz (0.6988 has) = 33.33 loads of blocks, 1 load = 48 blocks, 1 block= 3 lbs. ** L750/load of blocks; price varies between 700 and 1000/load. L = lempiras, currency of Honduras
Source: based on family producers of cane and with/without mill (Yoro, Honduras)
Table 1 shows its profitability. A family with sugar cane, a mill and a team of oxen could generate income of 13,533 lempiras (balance of 9,600 + 2000 transportation + 3,333 team of oxen – 1,400 for weeding). A family with sugar cane, but without a mill and oxen, that turns in their cane so that it gets processed and they get half the value in return, gets L10,500 (half of L25,000, minus 2,000 for the transportation of the cane). If that same family with a mill takes on the cost of the weeding, leading the oxen around the mill and the cooking, their income increases. Both families get more income as they produce more than 20 tons per manzana.
Pressure combined with dispossession
Living in these communities for 25 to 30 years, families now feel pressure on their economic strategy (income diversification and generation), social strategy (sharecropping relations and sharing labor – mutual support) and political strategy (decisions and autonomy). The “domino effect” of the so-called agricultural frontier is being felt (see: Maldidier, Ch., 2004, “agricultural pioneer fronts, the crest of a far-reaching wave”). The land is tired and its productivity is declining, it needs to be fed, which in turn creates pressure for financial resources to buy fertilizers. Because of world sugar demand and how lucrative it is for the oligopolies, large sugar cane, african palm, rice, and extensive ranching plantations require more land and more water, and that pressure is being felt in the communities whose families at times of greater economic fragility (e.g. sickness of a relative, indebtedness, lack of water), or when the pressure suffocates them (e.g. plantations that close off the road to a community), are left with no choice but to get rid of their land. The sons and daughters who form their own homes press for their inheritance, with the consequence being that the areas per family are getting ever smaller. And the milling of the sugar cane begins to suffer from a scarcity of labor: the work of the ox guides and the cook is hard, from midnight to 9am, because the workers, with the passage of time, take advantage of other opportunities like working in sawmills, coffee fields or migrate in search of other opportunities.
Slowly the sharecropping relationships get eroded and the capacity to decide gives way to the force of the market that comes in with different consumer products, with different labor relations, with credit that finances mono-cropping, with the “deadly embrace” of expensive farm inputs and low prices for peasant products; this is when the population murmurs, “our money doesn´t go very far”. Also state law imposes taxes and restricts the use of their forest areas, while the laws do protect the sugar industry. So human groups, like an ear of corn that shells itself when it loses one kernel, cede their places and go off to other land or become workers. That is why we do not find mills close to the cities; they get farther away tas the “domino effect” intensifies. That is when the profitability of Table 1 gets complicated, because it begins to operate less frequently.
In the last 15 years this practice of establishing oneself, and being forced to migrate to the mountains, appears to be facing drastic changes. Practically speaking there are no more mountains to go to, which is why that escape valve is now being shut down. So increasingly the population migrates to the cities and leaves the country. But at the same time countries like the United States are closing their doors to migrants. The paradox is that that “domino effect” that starts from the demand for sugar mediated by oligopolies, on the one hand expels the peasant families from their land, and on the other hand, they are rejected by the metropolis. This is the second “deadly embrace.”
Adding value to the product in an associative way
How can you resist for more than 25-30 years and stop the “deadly embraces?” The COMAL Network is trying one way, where the peasant families organize into associative enterprises to add value to the sugar cane, producing granulated brown sugar (See: “Eco comal, una marca campesina que cobra auge” in: Diario Tiempo, 4-8-2015).
Table 2. Transformation of granulated brown sugar (20 tons / mz)
Granulated brown sugar
Purchase sugar cane (ton)
Labor (hrs work)
* 1 ton sugar cane = 240 lbs (60% granulated brown sugar 40% crumbs). Exchange rate $1 = L23.3
Source: Records of the granulated brown sugar processing plant of APROCATY (Yoro, Honduras)
In the municipalities of Taulabé, Jocón and Yoro in the last 5 years 100 peasant families that have sugar cane on their diversified farms have organized into 3 associative enterprises. With the support of international aid, they have established 3 processing plants on their farms. Even though their yields vary between 60 to 72% of granulated brown sugar, the calculations in Table 2 are encouraging, even based on the lowest yield. Let´s take a look, a member family sells 20 tons of of sugar cane at L8,800; and then, depending on the policies of the organization, that member family has the possibility of accessing part of the remainder of L5,753 that their sugar cane generated in the organization. In only 3 years, on average in these experiences, the difference of the “value added” is noticeable.
The outlook that they offer us is even more interesting. According to the table the costs are 81.8% of total sales, and to the extent that they grow in volume and yield (let´s say from 60% to 70% of granulated brown sugar), those costs drop from 81.8% to 70%, then the remainder will go beyond L10,000 and also $0.10/lb. This is the commitment of the three organizations.
Going back to the communities, specifically Laguna de la Capa (Yoro) which was already on the outer limit of the 25-30 years, the impact of the processing plant made itself felt. When the APROCATY organization began, the prices for the blocks of sugar were falling below L500/load (48 blocks), the cane fields were being lost and all the symptoms described in section 2 began to appear. “The ear of corn was beginning to lose its kernels” . The entry of the production of granulated brown sugar helped raise the price of cane and blocks of sugar to L700, 800 and even L1,000/load of blocks, because a good part of the sugar cane was turned into granulated brown sugar, which put sugar blocks into short supply. This slowly began to re-energize the production of sugar cane as part of the diversification systems of the families, promoting the consumption of an alternative product to refined sugar, and a production alternative to the human and environmentally degrading practices of the sugar industry.
In spite of the short time line of these experiences, they teach us that it is not just a matter of adding value to the sugar cane and generating profits, but learning to cooperate under associative and business rules. For example, knowing the principle of accounting identity, where the expenses of a business are accounted for separately, understanding that the more effective the organs are (board of directors, committees, assembly) the more efficient the business is that transforms and sells the products, and regulating the use of the profits so that they contribute to the sense of ownership of the members of their organization, and that at the same time allows the equity of the organization to increase. They also teach us that there are risks in the future: that the aforementioned initiative might end up promoting monocropping of sugar cane and erode the peasant-indigenous resistance strategy; that a group might take over the business; that the administration might run the organization behind the backs of the members…
The challenge of accompanying these processes
To manage the risks and create conditions to make the expressed goal viable, it is important to start from the experience of the peasant-indigenous families themselves. They have learned that they are going to make the changes IF they have long term allies – in the good times and in the bad times. The COMAL Network is an expression of that commitment. That committed role, nevertheless, faces enormous challenges, three of which we will introduce here.
For centuries peasant families have counted on the organization and self sufficiency of their extended families. Getting this commitment to scale up organizationally for an effective resistance that would take them beyond the threshold of the 25-30 years implies overcoming centuries-old, deeply rooted institutions. “Yes, I was raised in this and I miss it”, the phrase from the Father quoted at the beginning of the article, means that the practices that he learned and the institutions (e.g. extended family, exclusion of women from the inheritance and from organizations) in which he was raised are going to persist, and even “will be missed.” In this dialogue, the son as well as the father ignored the fact that making blocks of sugar is profitable, as part of a diversification strategy, for 25-30 years. How to understand those perspectives in their contexts in order to accompany them is a monumental challenge for any external ally, because you have to study those realities and ask about alternatives, something difficult when we are accustomed to provide standardized solutions for any situation.
Peasant distrust toward outside actors, particularly merchants, is another institution deeply rooted because of centuries of plundering. Now that distrust is expressed as: “we will go to the meetings if they call us.” This assumes that the one calling the meeting is the external actor or a local person with the aura of being the representative of the external actor, and that they are not going to take the initiatives to call their own meeting and meet on their own. Getting the rules (statutes) and democratic mechanisms of an organization to be followed and used, as a way of “calling your own meeting”, is another challenge for any organization accustomed to going out to the communities and being “the big man” with resources in hand.
Member families in organizations with important physical investments tend to hunker down and prevent the entrance of new members. They do not allow even their sons to join the organization, much less their daughters. It will be difficult for organizations to respect their democratic mechanisms in their statutes if there are no changes in the heart of their families, changes in equity in terms of inheritances and in decision making where the mother and the offspring participate like the father. Without members that are experiencing changes in their families, it will be difficult for the organization to make progress. This is the third challenge for any ally organization.
In conclusion, sugar cane came into Latin America spurting human blood and subduing nature, a practice continued today under “modern clothing.” In the face of this, as the Mother at the beginning of this article would say, granulated brown sugar is more than the block of sugar, and the block of sugar is more than sugar cane, it is “sweat”: work and life. Behind it are peasant-indigenous families that are organized around blocks and the granulated brown sugar, while at the same time they are going deeper into their logic of “not putting all their eggs in the same basket.” Will it be possible that they might begin to express a path for transforming peasant-indigenous products as they transform their families and their organizations toward greater equity?
 René has a PhD in development studies, is an associate researcher of IOB-Universiity of Antwerp (Belgium), a collaborator with the Winds of Peace Foundation (http://peacewinds.org/research/) and member of the COSERPROSS cooperative; email@example.com. Hector is an agronomist, coordinator of the Technical Unit for Business Consultancy of the COMAL Network, and technician-expert in the transformation of granulated brown sugar; firstname.lastname@example.org
Eve left the Garden of Eden over chocolate! Anonymous.
Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get. Forrest Gump
The exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land, the Bible says, had a decisive moment when, pursued by Pharaoh and his Army, they arrived desperately to the sea, and then Moises raised his staff and the sea opened up; so they turned a page and wrote their history. The chocolate industry predicted that by 2020 they will need 30% more chocolate; nevertheless, the cacao supply does not seem to be responding to the demand. Said figuratively, the state institutions, the market and society, like Moises, are raising the staff of productivity, quality, inclusive businesses and fair trade so that there might be more cacao and Eve might have a reason to not go back to Eden, but the sea is not opening up! Why? What “staff” is needed for the sea to open? This article deals with that question.
 René (email@example.com) has a PhD in development studies, is a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (http://peacewinds.org/research/), an associate researcher of IOB-Antwerp University (Belgium) and a member of the COSERPROSS Cooperative RL. We note that the name of the municipality “Sasha”, the Dalila cooperative, the ABC and RDA NGO, Flesh company, and the last names Konrad, Peñaranda and Peña, mentioned in this article, are ficticious. We did this to protect those identities from any inconvenience that this article might cause them.
One of my daughters, Molly, has been working with a local university in co-teaching a section on the concept of privilege. She’s very excited about the opportunity and the subject matter; in turn, I’m very excited to hear about the class sessions and how people respond to the comforts or discomforts of privilege. It’s a section of social work students, so my presumption is that they have some awareness of the societal realities regarding privilege. It’s a topic that touches every one of us, whether we acknowledge it or not.
Molly commented on the awkwardness exhibited by most of the class members in discussing the notion of their own privilege; it is a group of predominantly white, middle-class students. Maybe they were feeling a bit of “privilege guilt” or, contrary to my assumptions, perhaps they had never really thought about privilege in their own context. Whatever the cause, the members of the class struggled in that first session, heads down, voices silent, struggling with whatever notions occupied their hearts and minds. (Molly related that subsequent sessions became more open, less constrained.)
But the episode spawned interesting conversation between Molly and me, in part because Molly is an ethnic minority herself, an adoptee from Korea at infancy. She can personally relate to the idea of privilege, both from the standpoint of a minority who has grown up in a white-privilege society, as well as from the point of view of someone who was raised in a family of relative economic and opportunity privilege. The dialogue prompted some musing on my part, as I contemplated the problems inherent in discussing such a charged topic as privilege.
The first of these problems is that privilege is something that everyone inherently wants. We may not refer to it in terms of privilege, but it’s that competitive or better position that all of us seek, and in nearly all avenues of life. We want to be “first in line.” It might be first in line for a new technology. We line up through the night to obtain front row tickets. We follow our sports teams in hopes of being able to claim, “We’re number one!” even though the game is played by others. We push ourselves at work so that we might advance in title and pay. We wonder longingly what it might be like to have great material wealth or not to be required to work. Sometimes we even compete to be among the first to escape the church parking lot on Sundays. It’s in us instinctively. Whether it’s called getting ahead or realizing one’s full potential or seeking favor in the way our communities look at us, privilege is seen as an advantage, or an honor, or a placement somehow better than before, better than where others are. We might equate the term privilege with those who are of the economic upper 1%, but it’s an objective we all strive to achieve.
The second problem is that, whether we believe it or not, nearly every one of us already enjoys some degree of privilege in our lives. Everything is relative in life, and if we could chart the degree of privilege of every human being on a continuum, the only person without privilege would be the individual at the very bottom. For all the rest of us, we occupy some position that is further ahead or better off than those below us. We need to recognize that just as we gaze jealously or longingly at someone who we regard as being “ahead” of us, there is someone doing the same thing from below. All of us are more privileged than some. Some are more privileged than most. Most are more privileged than the least. I even have met some of the least who regard their lot in life as more privileged than the most. So the cycle depends entirely upon one’s point of view and the meaning of “privilege.”
Third of these problems is that, despite our privilege in life, very few of us recognize that we have it. We seem to feel as though everyone else has it. No matter what the blessings or good fortunes of our lives, we are fixated on those who seemingly have so much more, believing that it’s these fortunate few who are the privileged. The recognition of privilege is as difficult as knowing our own incompleteness: we can only see it in others. There are good and valid reasons for us to dream about privilege; such dreams often fan the flames of knowledge and invention. But privilege has visited most of us, even when we never recognized its random faces.
Finally, privilege has never embraced notions of fairness or justice. When disparities exist among people, discussion of them is usually laced with guilt or blame or other tension to drive a wedge between those who have and those who have less. The fact that privilege is so unevenly divided within our society has been cause for debate throughout our history. It continues to be, and the arbiter of privilege falls to whatever political perspective happens to own government. That’s ironically the privileged class, and so the cycle continues its lopsided turn.
If the problems of privilege are understood and acknowledged, then a meaningful dialogue can happen for people wanting to know their own places in the equation. It’s a searing examination of self and other that requires enormous self-honesty and deep compassion. But the undertaking is a sort of privilege unto itself….