Via the Huffington Post
Thanksgiving is an odd holiday for those of us born outside the U.S. I studied it for the citizenship test, where it’s an answer to the question “Name two national U.S. holidays.” But I never managed to shake the feeling that I was doing it wrong. This year, though, I’ll be getting the hang of it thanks to a lot of people who won’t be at my table.
In the past, I’ve linked to pieces that challenge the ethically untroubled, and systemically timid work of Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, of Poor Economics fame. If you’re unfamiliar with their work, the quick summary is this: they start with the idea that poor people aren’t as dumb as development theories have tended to make them out. This is laudable, though not particularly original. Poor people have, for quite some time, been telling people that they are professors of their own poverty. Banerjee and Duflo suggest that perhaps the ideas that poor people come up with to survive poverty are better than the policies crafted for them in Washington. So far, so good.
The trouble is that when it comes to fixing poverty, the theories of poor people don’t seem to matter much. What is most important is What Works. Banerjee and Duflo’s rigorously clinical approach – they use randomized controlled trials to test What Works – transcends ideology to reveal that bed nets and deworming are good ideas.
Again, nothing terribly objectionable here. Except that this approach limits the extent to which poor people are allowed to be clever. The extent of their intelligence is reduced to rats in a maze, figuring out what works under the benign and compassionate supervision of ‘practical visionaries‘at MIT. If there are ways that poor people want to change their relation to power, we’ll never know. These are not subject to randomized controlled trials.
Let’s call this fixation with What Works “Millennial Economics”. To be obsessed with What Works is always to exclude consideration of how the context of what works might be different. What works when you’re being beaten is to move away from the dude with the baton. It’s a rational solution that many poor people have arrived at using their own faculties of reason.
But surely the police shouldn’t have been beating you in the first place. Protesting against the police, demanding that the police be held accountable, this too can work. But it requires politics, not technocracy. It means ideology, not expertise. For a generation – for a society – that looks to Washington and sees politics hopelessly divided, who wouldn’t want to stick with What Works? Except, of course, that Washington isn’t terribly interested in much beyond a tiny spectrum of difference between plutocrats whose bickering has brought the very idea of politics into disrepute. It’s a context in which Banerjee and Duflo’s reasonableness is refreshing. Even if their own politics crushes those of poor people. And even if what you’re left with is a few splats of policy ideas, because the theory that might have connected and made sense of them has been erased, because methodologically suspect and politically polluted.
If you want to read a general critique, have a look at Sanjay Reddy’s piece, one of the best in the genre. And if you want to see how Banerjee and Duflo get it wrong on food, here’s something hot off the presses. An old friend and teacher – Porus Olpadwala – has just published a fine analysis in Social Scientist. He takes Banerjee and Duflo to task for their 2011 Foreign Policy piece. The PDF’s below the fold. Keep Reading »
Part of the reason I’ve been a bit quiet here is because RajPatel.org is acting up a little, with hackers figuring out increasingly smart ways to inject malicious code into the site. After the most recent blacklisting by Google, I’m determined to get it under control. I’m turning off the comments feature – which has already been hacked a couple of times – to see if that keeps this site malware-free for a couple of months. Apologies if your comments have been, or will, get lost in the hacking battle. If that does the trick, I’ll find an alternative way to make sure that comments can continue to be posted. If not, looks like I’ll be migrating off WordPress.
Three last things on the Mark Lynas story (some of which is reprised by the CBC here). First, thanks to Daniel “Foodieana Jones” Bowman Simon for observing that I have, contrary to a previous statement, heard of Mark Lynas. I’ve even cited him, in an academic piece on food rebellions. Although his original ‘Selling Starvation’ piece in CorporateWatch magazine isn’t on the original site, the good folk at the Internet Archive have it here.
Via Campesina Africa Solidarity Statement on the farmworkers mobilization in South Africa
Stop rural slavery! Respect the farmworkers!
(Maputo 14th January 2013) – During the month of November last year, the world watched farmworkers strikes, particularly those working in vinyards, in the Western Cape Province, in South Africa. They were protesting against exploitation and poor working and living conditions on farms, demanding an increase in minimum wages. In many cases, South African police responded to the demonstrations with violence and intolerance and showed no respect for laws. Many farmworkers and activists were arrested, including peasants of The Agrarian Reform for Food Sovereignty Campaign, a member of La Via Campesina.
It was such a non-issue that I really didn’t want to write about it at all. I didn’t know who Mark Lynas was and didn’t know that he had changed his mind about genetically modified crops from being an opponent to a fan. But, clearly, it was a slow news week. The killing and the rape and the corporate crime and the climate change had been successfully reported. So a range of news outlets decided to give Lynas the air time he wanted, following this speech.