Old friends, new ones.

I’m going to try and make up for my tardiness with girth. Make jokes as (in)appropriate. I apologize for taking your time.

I think a lot of us are hitting it on the head. Whoever I am, the Illich that was speaking on that day in 1968 hates my actions within La Ceiba. That’s his fault for not wanting to teach us. Below is what I had to say about that point last year. I don’t think I want to take the time to say it differently this year. Unless you’re bored, just read the second and third paragraphs to gain context for the rest of the post. The argument in those two parts articulates a partial response to Illich, and this is still true for me, but I have serious problems with the conclusions of these statements that I don’t really discuss:

While I think both the Illich and the Datar et al articles are of the utmost importance to our venture within LC, there’s an order with which they must be taken into account or else neither article’s ultimate aim will be realized. I see Illich writing from a particular point which includes anger, racism, and shock at the advent of the newfound desire coming from america/former colonial powers to “develop” former  societies which they see as “needing” development. This is crucial to take into account given that a large swath of his argument for staying home could be easily thrown out the window by those who feel his anger and are pushed away by it.
I think though, that feeling this anger is the point. We shouldn’t be pushed away. I’m a strict adherent to the narrative of physics which requires any action to have an equal and opposite reaction occurring simultaneously. For all of the happiness and “progress” we see our selves as a part of  within this LC venture, there are necessarily pieces which we would prefer to remain ignorant to that will lead to suffering. Economics tends to call this opportunity cost, and that notion sums up most actions quite nicely. What economics undergraduates tend to underestimate, in my experience, is that after we determine an action to be net beneficial we then focus on the opportunity and pretend the costs simply disappear after our decision has been made.  The world is confusing and chaotic, and we will always try to bring some order to that chaos — I think this desire is one of the most fundamental traits of humanity — but if we refuse to accept the chaos as an integral part of our experience we will inevitably fall into the trap which Illich is talking about.

The question for me then becomes, how does one accept chaos without resigning oneself to inaction? In our case, I think it means recognizing that we have probably already created suffering in our actions (see last night’s dinner, and/or rachel’s ability to forget the domestic violence she was involved with – no slight to her). Most importantly, it means that we should evaluate whether or not we are doing this to help ourselves or whether we are doing this to help a group of people in Honduras. I, personally, don’t have the knowledge or experience not to screw this up and, as such, don’t expect to help anyone other than myself over the next 5 months. I suppose I consider this work to be a nice karmic tax write off for a later date. And I WILL make this up at a later date. Thanks, god. That’s not to say we shouldn’t evaluate whether or not we ARE actually helping these people, or place ourselves below an ethical standard which requires us to TRY. I just think that if we’ve accepted the fact that none of us have ever run a successful MFI program before should allow us to look at ourselves critically — this is what will help us in the long run.

With that out of the way I think that the kind of analysis done by Datar et. al within their explanation of client focused MFIs is, if taken in the abstract, a great example of how we might evaluate whether we are making the right kind of changes in Siete. The way that they’ve critiqued a lack of stated goals among the majority of MFIs is a much more moderate message of Illich’s point of “knowing ourselves.” Further, they give concrete answers to this problem, something that is very rare (certainly not present in Illich) in many critiques of supposedly altruistic action. As we move forward with this project and class, it is essential that we are constantly striving towards creating not economic opportunities for the individuals we work with but opportunities for them to live their lives the ways that they want. I expect that economics will have to take a back seat before this is all said and done.

To recap, second paragraph: I still think we need to start at a recognition that we aren’t going to achieve what we intend, and in this sense, our actions will fail.

In the third paragraph though, I took inevitable failure to be an absolution of responsibility. But that’s bass ackwards. My question, “how does one accept chaos without resigning oneself to inaction” — assumes that I must act. We don’t have to do anything. We can quit La Ceiba. This is Illich’s greatest value to me: he makes it okay for us to quit.

Last year I breezed over something old Ivan says about himself in my fury to contradict him with my hard work. At the first part of the essay, he writes, “I say it against many resistances within me.” Ivan’s argument is much more powerful because he knows why these kids should be helping, and still he advocates that they shouldn’t. Life isn’t abosulte. Even if only as a thought experiment, try applying Illich not to the entire LC organization, but to your decisions within it. Inaction communicates as well.

More importantly, though, I didn’t realize that before I can ask if I should act or not, I have to recognize what my motives are. What I didn’t know was the way I should act, and still I skipped right ahead to the evaluation of whether or not I should “be in an MFI.” We should ask ourselves, then, “is it okay to ignore all the misunderstood contributing factors to the suckiness of our clients situation to focus on making them some money?”

I think the answer is no. Sure, I say the right thing in the last part , “it’s essential to let people make their own choices etc., etc.”, but I think that my conclusion is a common response to the “relativist recognition” a lot of us come to after Illich (those in the forum that are less relativist to the issue of capital are probably on  another side of the debate, and well, this requires a whole different thought process. i can at least say that we disagree on the equivalence of fish and loans).  It is easy, when in a Microfinance Institution, to act like a Microfinance institution. That’s why I get really nervous when I see some of us saying “it’s easy to hurt people, we’re not really sure what our goals are, but jesus effing christ we’re gonna try hard to do good to others.” Effort’s great. Let’s make sure that we’re not hurting ourselves in the process. I’ll try and clarify my point with some relational pairs:

MEANS: make friends

MEANS: give loans

END: make friends

NOT END: give loans

The ends justify the means in this situation so that even if our friend is in default, we will remain friends because that matters to us. In an alternative structure where we allow loan provision to justify our actions, the friendship deteriorates the less we give loans. Of course notice that making friends can also still help you to give loans even if this friendship is your ultimate goal. This, to me, is the essence of the “client centered approach.” Let’s make friends.

At the baleada session last thursday (cheers, sir, and sorry again about the mess on the floor), I couldn’t articulate where I thought La Ceiba should go following the recognition of screw ups. I had forgotten where I wanted to go with it for myself. Thankfully, I’ve finally been forcing myself to sit and write this god damned two week late URES report, and in doing so, I’ve realized how ridiculous it is that we don’t have a mission statement. It’s the only way we can contextualize our work given all of the other crazy shit out there. There are a couple of people who’ve stuck around and so have an amorphous idea of what “La Ceiba” is right now, but if you ask me, we’re more pie in the sky than big sky. Change END to MISSION above and you’ve got my vote for a sweet statement starter set.

For more on why poverty is second and humans are first, try playing this nifty mad libs game I found from Li, an anthropologist writing about motives of power in 2005. Just replace “World Bank” with “La Ceiba.”

Between 1998 and 2006, the World Bank La Ceiba in Indonesia Honduras will spend $1 billion something like 3000 bucks in loan funds on a scheme to reform Indonesian Progreseño society from the bottom up.1 The scheme focuses on village infrastructure planning decisions, seeking to make them more accountable, transparent, and efficient. It does this by allocating funds through a minutely specified and monitored process in which villages compete for funds, making proposals adjudicated at the subdistrict level. The small projects that are funded are conventional enough (e.g., village roads, bridges, minor irrigation, credit). The novelty of the program lies in the planning process itself, carefully designed to root out corruption, collusion, and waste. Social research experts have mapped every stage in the project-planning and delivery process, detecting the points at which funds leak and fine-tuning the project system to foster compliance and increase the opportunity–cost of rule breaking. Villagers have a choice: If they wish to access the funds, they must conform to the prescribed behaviors. The World Bank La Ceiba scheme does not coerce people; rather, it attempts to act on their actions, guiding them in an improved direction. The scale of the scheme is impressive: It operates in one out of three Indonesian villages, affecting tens of millions of people.

Deliberately reversing the past practice of dictating improvement from a distance, the World Bank scheme has been designed by anthropologists, based on careful ethnographic study of village lives and power relations. The planners use pilot tests and a stepwise approach. They attempt to build on indigenous knowledge and practice and to empower villagers to take control of their own affairs. They embrace the dynamic complexity of social and economic life, and they describe their efforts frankly as experiments that attempt to seed social change without controlling it precisely. They do everything, in short, that Scott recommends in his book as the antidote to the hubris of planning. But there is a fundamental continuity between the World Bank planners and high-modern planners (Ben note – high modern = rigid, top down attempts to get people to act a particular way, think Kenyan re-villagisation). Scott describes: They position themselves as experts who know how others should live, they collect and arrange data according to simplified grids, they diagnose deficiencies, and they devise elaborate interventions to bring about improvement.

However well-meaning—recall that the planners of high-modern schemes were also well-meaning—the World Bank’s La Ceiba’s scheme is still an exercise of power. Not only do experts direct peoples’ conduct without a democratic mandate, they define what counts as development and how it can be achieved. Focused on the improvement ofvillage-level planning loan provision, the scheme sets aside other causes of poverty. Like the development programs in Lesotho analyzed by James Ferguson two decades ago, the World Bank’s scheme reposes “political questions of land, resources, jobs, or wages as technical ‘problems’ responsive to the technical ‘development’ intervention” (1994:270). The World Bank scheme has an impressive record of delivering on its material promises: good quality village infrastructure at low cost. But if, as Ferguson recommends, we step away from the World Bank’s La Ceiba’s way of seeing the problem of poverty (as a matter of deficient planning), and away from the question of the program’s success or failure, different questions come into view. Why, and for whom, is the fostering of competition, the stimulation of entrepreneurship, and the elimination of corruption in village planning a preeminent goal? How does the World Bank La Ceiba reconcile its mandate to relieve poverty with a strategy that withholds funds from villages unable to meet the “performance” standards the program demands? Are the World Bank’s La Ceiba’s neoliberal to be determined criteria for distinguishing the deserving from the undeserving poor to be accepted without debate? Why focus on correcting the deficiencies of villagers while leaving the deficiencies of senior officials, politicians, and army generals unexamined and unimproved?

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