Encountering Poverty

The 2016 book "Encountering Poverty: Thinking and Acting in an Unequal World" brings together some of the insights draw from teaching in a critical undergraduate program. Roy, Negron-Gonzales, Opoku-Agyemang and Talwalker offer something between an edited volume and an undergraduate textbook, while also offering critical reflexivity of their own roles and positionality. The target audience of the book was broad, potentially too broad. At times it seems best suited for undergraduate students, and at others educators. Nonetheless, for either of those two audiences, it is a book I recommend. What this book does very well, and I believe uniquely so, is offer critical engagement with international and community development studies, that moves beyond criticism. Far too often I've come across recent graduates of development studies programs who feel hopeless about the sector and disinterested in further engagement with it. About the book, Matthew Sparke wrote: "far from leading us to a place of paralysis and moralistic self-flagellation, the authors advance a more reflective and constructive approach, arguing that we can still take modest steps against massive global inequality even as we navigate its contradictions and complexities."

The point of engagement is elaborated by contrasting the position of anthropologist Li (author of The Will to Improve and Land's End) and their own: "we depart from Li on one significant matter of expertise and politics. Li (2007, 2) argues that the "positions of critic and programmer are properly distinct." She notes that programmers, those who are tasked with implementing development, "under pressure to program better… are not in a position to make programming itself an object of analysis" (p. 46)." To this, they state: "… we are reluctant to conclude such a firm separation between the trustees and recipients of development. Instead, we interpret the mediators and functionaries of development – from star economists to young volunteers – to be engaged in the battle of ideas. Instead of positioning critics as those situated outside of development, we seek to explore how those within the system can participate in such struggles. However, we do not want to overlook the fact that, often, the poor themselves are programmers of development, especially at the interface between bureaucracies of poverty and poor people's movements" (p. 46).

As someone who has written about the problematic nature of short-term, small-scale, donor-determined handouts, this book offers useful insight into whose voices drive the direction of community and international development activities. The authors write: "Dominant frames of global poverty and dominant models of global citizenship do not address the poverty of power. However, the long history of poor people's movements must be read as the insistence for dignity, voice, and power. After all, the impoverished of the world are not mobilizing in mass action to demand malarial bed nets or TOMS shoes" (p. 31).

Much of the book seeks to re-position, re-frame and re-orient the study and practice of international development, first by diagnosing its challenges in clear and concise ways, and then offering alternative paths: "The pull to eliminate poverty is not only insufficient but also misguided unless the attempts to do so are rooted in analysis that acknowledges that poverty is an integral part of the growth of capitalism, that it is mapped onto colonial histories, and that it is connected to global social movements" (p. 10). "What if, instead of the ladder of development, we were to recognize that the prosperity of wealthy places often depends on the impoverishment of other places and peoples? And, what if, following Polanyi, we were to realize that this is not the natural order of things but rather a system of extreme artificiality?" (p. 61-62)

"What we are striving to achieve is not just a disruption of the master narrative but a disruption of a kind of poverty action that is about feeling good and keeping everything exactly the same. We must disrupt the politics of benevolence that position the poverty actor as the savior and the impoverished as the lucky recipients of their charitable deeds. We must train young, enthusiastic people to be hopeful but realistic, self-reflective but not self-absorbed, and imbued with a sense of responsibility but no an inflated ego. The challenge for us, then, is to think about how we can prepare a team of poverty actors who will disrupt the old, problematic dynamics of poverty interventions, privilege, and power and who will envision and execute a new kind of poverty politics that focuses on the development of solidarities, not aid, and promotes an honest engagement with the dynamics of power, privilege, and responsibility that come along with this work." (p. 175-176)

Supported by the diversity of disciplines the authors bring to this book, there are discussions that are not common to works of this nature, but add important dimensions to the discourse, such as in philosophy and education:

  • "We could argue that this overwhelming tendency to focus on educating poor people and to ignore poor people's own views of their own problems is a symptom of middle-class paternalism. We could also argue that it is neoliberal, in that it focuses on individuals and personal responsibility and seemingly neglects the larger more long-term causes of inequity and inequality. These are valid and important cautionary points to make. But I want to suggest a related third point (a point bound up in these other two, as they are perhaps all ultimately determined by the current historical moment): that this tendency to focus on educating poor people is (also) a symptom of the widespread utilitarian approach to people and society. For utilitarianism focuses on individuals, and it does so instrumentally." (p. 133)
  • "Praxis posits that learning is not simply about individual fulfillment or deepening knowledge but rather about transformation, not only of the self but also of the world around us. Freire argued that learning without action is empty, and that we learn in order to act in the world around us, and that learning (and therefore also teaching) must be explicitly oriented toward this aim." (p. 163)

MA & PhD Studentships: Critical Urban Food Studies
Post-doc: African city periphery

Related Posts

By accepting you will be accessing a service provided by a third-party external to http://logancochrane.com/

Subscribe to receive new blog posts via email