Monday, November 30, 2009

Would You?

To be a farmer in India takes so much more effort that I ever thought as someone who simply consumes the food produce. It is amazing how much these farmers have to have faith in so many unknown and unpredictable factors that have proven unreliable. If one factor of the extensive process fails the whole livelihood of a whole family and anyone in the community who depended on them for food and a repayment of lent money is now severely threatened. For example, if there is a drought and then an excess of rain washes away all that was sown in the land, the farmers are completely out of luck. Even provided the farmers do harvest what they’ve sown, they then proceed to try and get a fair price for what they do produce because they have debts to pay on their seed purchases and other supplies to make the crops grow. It seems that farming is pretty risky business, so I am find myself wondering why so many people (about 75% or Indians) do this potentially costly, backbreaking work when any reward at all is not guaranteed.
Much of the land in India is very arable and the warmer climate allows for more than the one growing season and thereby it would seem that farming in this country could be highly successful. India actually has a surplus of food that it is being exported to other countries even though many of its own citizens are starving and there are thousands of farmer suicides each year. Where did things go wrong? It seems that before colonizers came in people were much better able to provide for themselves without the competition of today’s Multinational Corporations. To date back to the research I did on the Green Revolution earlier this semester, because of the role India was pretty much forced to play in World War II this country was left deprived of many resources and that’s why cheap goods from subsidized farming done in the US came in and destroyed their markets. On top of that, the farmers were given seeds for crops ill-suited to their land and huge mega-projects in the form of dams either flooded the good land upstream or dried out the land downstream. Farming in India seems to have a completely different face today than it has ever had. In this country I see so many examples of extreme contrasts as the consequences of globalization and I think farming is just one of these. The farmers are trying to use farming techniques that are wise and have worked for centuries on their lands but outside factors are undercutting their practices in the markets and the whole practice is being negatively manipulated by the technologies of the Green Revolution and former president Nehru’s “modern temples,” the dams.
It’s clear that there are discouraging factors within the faming industry and it looks like these farmers a trapped. Who is doing the trapping? It would be really easy to just blame the large agri-businesses and government schemes for the problems, and granted they seem to be the most prominent instigators of the hardships placed on farmers, but we all need to look at ourselves too. We are the consumers and thereby benefit tremendously from the labour of people who we will never even meet. From my mom’s dad on back in that side of my family they were all farmers and worked hard in the fields and supporting their family and, although I have had only a few opportunities to do field work in my life, I can say that I am not willing to easily give up the lifestyle I have developed as a student to grow all my own food. I enjoy a little hard labour every once in awhile, but farming is more than exercise and, being honest, I am not willing to give up my hopes for a career that has absolutely nothing to do with agriculture and I think there are many other people who share my view. So what do we do? I know that buying locally, organically, and supporting businesses like Fair Trade are viable options, but I am a college student who needs to try and save at every corner. Is the cost of my education worth supporting US agricultural subsidies that aid in the oppression of farmers who already have to take the risk in simply planting their seeds?


“…human rights are not given freely, but come with a price: responsibility…to actively struggle to define, establish and protect them for all people, and not simply to complain or cry for justice when they have been violated.” (Human Rights Information Manual: Tools for Grassroots Action, x-xi)
Even though I personally value being seen as an individual, as an American, I have the responsibility to use this privilege to be the catalyst and factor that enforces justice. The question is if these human rights are actually freely given and who pays the price. It seems that there are so many people in India, and I’m sure in other countries as well, who make all kinds of sacrifices each day in an effort to have their own type of justice even if their rights are being violated. In this way people who are oppressed don’t just “cry for justice when [their human rights] have been violated,” these people also demonstrate the importance of justice for survival. In a world of such unequal distribution of wealth, the responsibility of enforcing justice lies in those who have experienced it in the sense that they have had their basic human rights respected and it is their turn to use their own rights to protect and defend others whose rights are violated. This is what it means to be a globally conscious citizen.
The question is: should human rights be given freely simply because a person is born in an affluent country and/or into a wealthy family by global standards? It seems, in the quotation above, that if rights are given freely people will inevitably “complain or cry” as if they do not have their rights at times. It looks like a symptom of having wealth, that usually equals having human rights and justice, is also having the power to complain and cry. In my experience, people do not simply whine to themselves, but rather they will make a commotion when they know someone will hear them. This is what having the power to complain and cry means. So, if people of affluent backgrounds have this power shouldn’t they use it to benefit others? This is where the responsibility bit comes into play.
Is responsibility a way to pay for justice and what about justice on a small scale? Whenever I buy souvenirs here I bargain for the best price because most vendors I encounter will hike up the prices as soon as they see the color of my skin and hear me speak. I am automatically labeled as someone with an excess of money that will be able to afford the higher prices. One may argue that the people here need to money I will spend more than I need it even if this means swindling me, but is this how I am to pay for the justice I have inherited by being born an American? Am I not in India to try and learn more about how to be a responsible global citizen and gain the tools to own up to the responsibility of my privilege and to defend the human rights of others that I myself enjoy? So who needs the money more, the merchant who has had their human rights limited or the person who would seek to expand that person’s human rights? Where is the justice?

Monday, November 9, 2009

Generally Speaking...

The musical group called the Ting Tings wrote a song called “That’s Not My Name” and this reminds me of the many interactions I have had with people in India. In this song ‘they’ call the singer many names including “her” and “darling” just like I feel that I am given names like “white” and “American” with just a glance or 2-sentence interaction. I feel like people put each other into categories all the time and that isn’t WHO that person is, just words that another person uses to describe them. In our group we’ve gotten in the habit of giving each other spirit objects, or animals and characters from books that describe the person’s role in the group based on the group’s general perception of them. I enjoy playing along within the group but find myself getting rather annoyed when outside people close me into a cultural box such as “white” or “American” because that may not be how I choose to identify myself even if these are true characteristics of me.

I think it is a common thing for people to put each other in boxes because in this way we feel we can understand each other, however, I feel this actually hinders the understanding process. By grouping people into over-arching cultural boxes I think we allow for more cultural bias to creep into our view of a person and if that is the only person of that group we have met that affects our view of others who may fall under the same cultural category. I sometimes resent being called an American, even though I am, because I do not agree or have taken part in all the negative connotations that come with that stereotype. It has been said that there is a grain of truth in each stereotype, but I think that because Americans are more individualistic society it seems there is a greater range of what the name “American” can mean and there are many I would wish to never be associated with. I wonder if this is because of my view of this group name that makes me resent it at times. This is not to say that the people who would generalize me as “American” necessarily associate the same things with that name as I do as many Indians who have asked me where I am from have claimed that they themselves have never been out of the city in which I have met them.

From my understanding, the average “Indian” is Hindu and speaks Hindi right? Every “American” is Christian and speaks English right? I spoke with an Indian woman on the train ride from Visakhapatnam to Hyderabad and she found it very hard to believe that there were people who are not Christians and do not speak English in America. I think it is stereotypes and putting each other in figurative boxes that builds barriers between us and hinders cultural understanding and openness. I think the reason I most resent being called an “American” is because with this initial understanding of me I then feel I need to disprove certain things about myself that come with a simple label that is not based on my personal actions; I am guilty until proven innocent and all this is at the mercy of the person perceiving my actions to mean something according to their own culture. I cannot deny that I too find myself judging actions of others based on standards of normal behavior in my own culture even though it is this judgment that I resent from those who look at me. The question is, can this be helped?

I think with training we can teach ourselves to be culturally sensitive, but how do we then notice the uniqueness of others within their own cultures if we tell ourselves that anything we don’t understand can be dismissed as a cultural difference between the American and Indian, or other, cultures? This, therein, is the difficulty in studying the behavior of people and people within unknown cultures. Cultures, it seems, are not to be generalized even though it is necessary to begin somewhere when it comes trying to gain an understanding of people in a culture. So, how do we find a place to begin our studies other than the generalizations? I feel as if it is important to first identify that which is a generalized assumption and dispel or prove it with direct observations and our best attempts and open-mindedness. However, can we really dispel stereotypes through observation if we begin with our own inherent cultural biases and lenses that have been based in our individual cultures within our cultures? How many levels of interpretation do we need to peel back before we come to a neutral zone then dig into and try to peel back the layers of another culture? How much time does it take until we can truly attain cultural empathy in contrast to the sympathy with which we begin? I feel it may be these unanswered questions that are commonly unrecognized by those who are unsuccessful in cultural interactions and refuse to work at understanding those different from them in a global context. From my experience, this process is not easy and it’s never finished.


I feel it is really important for the world to understand that throwing money and problem only creates more dependence. For example, if an impoverished nation needs money from the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund (IMF) they take out a loan which they must pay back and these organizations also get some say in how this money is spent when the choose if the will grant the request for a loan. So, if the money is lent the nation uses that money for the time being and has to make payments over the next period of time following the implementation of the loan. What happens, as it so often does, if the nation has a natural disaster, crops fail, and they are in need of more money that even the first loan granted them? They end up needing more and more money to pay off debt that they simply cannot pay off even if the money is being used efficiently. The same thing happens when governments and organizations throw money AT people instead of investing IN people through empowering them.

By investing IN people, tools of change and positive forms of development are created and the people do not have a chance to become so dependent upon the money being thrown AT them. It seems to me that by investing in the empowerment of people fully dispels the notion that people need a type of colonial power to guide them toward continuous community improvement. It seems that self-sustained community development is driven on the empowerment of people through providing them with ideas for development, information about how to create positive change, making the community members take charge in the whole process, and when the catalyst steps back to act in the role of advisor instead of simply giving the people money and/or doing the job for them. One of the sayings WIDA bases its efforts on is that this NGO “builds people, not buildings” according to Sassi. To me, this seems like the most effective form of development I have come across because it allows groups of people to develop in the ways they want to develop and gives them the autonomy to do this. If communities are allowed to develop in the ways they deem most fit for them this can also give them the political power they need to fight for their rights with regard to the government taking away their land, water, and forests and allow them to maintain their sense of identity as it has been traditionally and/or as what it is becoming.

Why Women.

I’ve been frustrated and ranted about the oppression of women before in my journals, however, it is possibly more important to focus on the wonderful things that places like RASTA and WIDA are doing to empower women as tools for self-sustaining community development projects. After interviewing Omana, of RASTA, she told me about the importance of women being a part of self help groups (SHGs) because they are more marginalized and thereby possess an empathetic link to the other community members who are oppressed and/or impoverished. Another reason why it is important to target women as tools for social change, according to Sassi of WIDA, is because they are the ones who most often will actually listen to the NGO members who try to help the communities. Sassi said that the men seem to be raised to have a much more close-minded way of thinking that the deference often taught to girls has allowed them to be more open-minded as women who will listen to creative solutions to community problems.

There are many ways to empower women to stand up and be the voice of positive change in their communities. Many people in Orissa are landless and this is not including the women because they have so become the second sex in comparison to men. WIDA has been working with the women to organize them and, through many unification efforts, has been able to ensure that many women are now able to inherit land where they were previously disallowed this familial right. Also, unlike what we saw in the Wayanod region of Kerala, many women have been able to demand the same wages as men for the same jobs done and more women are claiming the 100 days of work the government guarantees its citizens. By gaining the confidence that organizations like WIDA will support women, these people are gaining more equal treatment along with the power to stand up for themselves, speak their minds, have more financial autonomy, and thereby women are gaining more of an equal footing with men with regard to respect and leadership opportunities. By empowering people who can not only sympathize with, but empathize with the oppressed and/or impoverished people of a community NGOs like RASTA and WIDA seem to be empower the people to, as Gandhi Ji once said, “Be the change [they] want to see in this world” and hopefully pass this on to their children as the communities get used to the idea of empowered women as a positive way for their community to develop and be self-sustaining.