Critique, critique, and more death by critique

I appear to have made an institution of being critical. I helped to make an organization to do this constantly, even in my absence. I am teaching a class about it. And now I have friends asking me what I think about this organization or that organization.What do I know? From the outside, very little. I can step on my soapbox and preach my typical critique – as I do below.

In response to an inquiry from a friend about Cooperative for Education:

My take, from what limited knowledge I can gain from the outside, is that this organization is perhaps a ‘good one’ in comparison to what another similar, well intentioned group Americans might try to do: building and staffing their own schools. So I’m happy to see they have a relatively horizontal structure that works with the government institutions rather than replacing them.

Yet I get more skeptical when I look at the gleaming private sector credentials all over their founders and advisory board. These are people who I might guess to be somewhat conservative, and thus unlikely aware of – or necessarily bothered by – the grave injustices our government and corporations have inflicted upon Guatemala. “Poverty” is represented in their “Why Guatemala?” page as a static, unfortunate reality, not a manufactured result of years of U.S. backed corporate exploitation, massacres, coup d’etats etc. And thus it is the role, they claim over and over in the website, for us to come save these poor people from their misery.

Despite this critique, is the NGO doing “bad” work? I wouldn’t say so from what I can tell. Is it really challenging anything about the power relationships that perpetuate poverty and injustice? Not really. Do many NGOs do that? A few, but not many so I don’t blame them very much for working within a system rigged to be a band-aid rather than a cure for poverty.

The point is that this work is a distraction. Is it helping in the short-term? Ostensibly yes – more kids in school, yay! (Although there is a strong argument that this Westernized curriculum – like the forced “reschooling” of Native Americans – is contributing to a loss of indigenous culture and traditions over time.) But in the long-term, there is the question of job opportunities for the graduates they help produce. Under CAFTA, in Nicaragua at least (I’d imagine Guatemala is similar) most jobs are underpaid manufacturing and agricultural work making or growing the products that we consume. And the professional, highly skilled jobs that exist are – in the greatest of ironies – mostly in NGOs like this one!

So as usual, my soapbox ends with a call for more solidarity here at home, not more humiliating charity.

My girlfriend, Enina, has no involvement in the field, yet she knows I’m a bit of a broken record. One day we started talking about Teach for America. Before I could begin, she took the words out of my mouth: “Yes I know, I know. You think it doesn’t address the root causes of the problem [of underpaid teachers and failing schools].”

Have I become so predictable? Is it time I soften up (or am I doing so already)? I wonder about this a lot with my class. While some of the students are about where I am, or perhaps more extreme, many more are seemingly still bleary-eyed for Paul Farmer (whose wonderful book, Pathologies of Power,  I admit to be reading right now) yet don’t seem to ‘get’ his point about challenging systems of power here at home. And they hunger for a way to make a difference. Just as I thought my class might be disillusioning them a bit – I read responses to NGO websites that leave me reeling. Is it really that PATH addresses the “underlying causes of poverty” with its gizmos and gadgets? Apparently so, says one student.

So how do I start to offer a way forward – both to my students, to my friends, and to myself? How do I make my soapbox a bit more concrete than an abstract call to fight the man in his mansion, rather than in his servant’s quarters?

My community organizing class is offering a bit of a toolkit, and that’s quite exciting. And I’ve tried to compile some of those resources on the CDF website. But when I’m so lost myself, sometimes I feel like the blind leading the blind.

All this existential crisis-ing is making me a bit more excited for my travels…(speaking of which, I really need to get planning)!

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