Tag Archives: poverty

The Human Impact of the Textile Industry: Pesticide Poisoning, Farmer Suicides, and how Organic and Fair Trade Can Help

In my last post, Marci Zaroff shared with us her knowledge about the toxic environmental impact of the textile industry, and today, we turn to the devastating human impact. Up to 77 million cotton workers suffer poisoning from pesticides each year, and in India, 300,000 cotton farmers have committed suicide—almost 26 a day—to escape debt.

Nadia: So, could you expand a bit more on what is being referred to as a ‘pesticide treadmill?’

Marci: So here are the hard facts. Just as germs infest on people who are weaker, when plants are sprayed with chemicals, they also get weaker. And then the soil weakens, and the eco-system isn’t building a healthy plant. So this ultimately results in less yield for the farmer.

And then, these bugs build resistance to these pesticides, and the farmers have to buy stronger and more expensive pesticides, which they can’t afford, so they have to leverage their farms to the banks. Then, as the cycle perpetuates and continues, the soil gets depleted & destroyed, the bugs get out of control, and the farmers can no longer sustain their livelihoods. Stuck in tremendous debt, many farmers are committing suicide with the very pesticides that they used on their plants. Every half an hour in India, a farmer is committing suicide. There’s an upcoming documentary called Dirty White Gold that will reveal what is now being referred to as this ‘pesticide treadmill.’

Nadia: I just read that genetically modified crops are decreasing pesticide use for farmers, is this true?

Photo courtesy of cottondon.org

Photo courtesy of cottondon.org

Marci: While there may be artificial decrease in the pesticides use in the short-term, in the long term we’re already seeing an increase in pesticide use again, because of genetic resistance and falling crop yields. Over 90% of the world’s cotton is now genetically modified (GMO), which has resulted in a monopoly for Monsanto, giving them the power to dramatically raise the prices on GMO cotton seed and the additional inputs and pesticides, which they also provide. At the mercy of these altered and chemical inputs, the GMO paradigm is not sustainable financially for farmers, and further, we are just beginning to learn of the harmful ramifications of GMO seeds in relation to human health. In addition, monocropping with GMO seeds is not only depleting the soil and its ecosystems, but risking the very survival of thousands of natural cotton varieties as well.

Nadia: And I just read that in the last year, the costs of cotton cultivation has jumped due to the rising costs of these pesticides, so it’s not as profitable as it used to be? And supposedly there have been more suicides among the farmers that have used these GM crops …

Marci: YES, these are sad facts, as stated prior.

Nadia: So you told us yesterday how organic cotton helps the earth, how does it help farmers?

Photo courtesy of cottonedon.org

Photo courtesy of cottonedon.org

Marci: Well first of all, there’s a risk with using GMO seeds. We are continuing to learn of the consequences of GMO, across many agricultural crops (food & fiber), which is why there is a huge movement towards GMO labeling in the USA. We are one of the only developed countries in the world that doesn’t require GMO labeling! On the contrary, since organic farming prohibits the use of any GMO seeds, organic farmers are allowed to work with their environment and economic situation in a sustainable way, while building and protecting their soil and farms. They also can diversify their crops, which allows them to diversify their income. If they have more than one crop to rely on, then it helps protect them in case there is a crop failure, market demand, etc. And of course, they don’t have to breathe in toxic pesticides that harm more than 77 million cotton farmers a year. It is devastating to see conventional cotton farmers walking thru their fields with pesticide tanks on their backs, not realizing that they are spraying poisons in their own faces. And even worse, often in the faces of their babies, who they are carrying in slings while walking their farms. They are often lured in by the seed and chemical companies. It is a tragic human situation that we can help to change by supporting the growth and market for organic cotton.

Nadia: I know you were instrumental in helping Fair Trade USA develop the first USA Fair Trade certification of textiles and will be spearheading their national launch in 2013. (Fair Trade farmers receive a minimum price for their product, covering the cost of production, with a Fair Trade premium paid in addition for investments in social, environmental or economic development projects). Could you explain a) what drives your passion for Fair Trade, and b) How it connects with your environmental/organic concerns and advocacy?

Marci: I am passionate about building community and connecting humanity.  I believe it is extremely important to be in touch with the people who grow, sew and receive our products.

Nathuram Pal, a 45-year-old farmer of Nibhghana village in Garautha tehsil of Bundelkhand region, committed suicide by hanging himself with a ‘Babool’ tree on the night of 18th June. He was under pressure to pay back the loan of Rs 12,000 taken from the coopertive bank and another Rs 40,000 taken from the local people.

Nathuram Pal, a 45-year-old farmer of Bundelkhand region, committed suicide when he couldn’t pay the loan of Rs 12,000 taken from the coopertive bank and another Rs 40,000 taken from the local people (Full article here).

When you look at the triple bottom business model, which is ‘people, planet, profit,’ in textiles, much of the attention has been put on planet. But, as the example of the Indian farmers demonstrates, it’s also about people. When you start to work with people, the environmental ramifications are serious because they are being exposed to the toxins, and they can’t sustain their livelihoods. They can’t afford to feed their families. The cycle of fast fashion has driven costs down so low, that consumers only want extremely cheap clothing. So the question is, how do we create a more efficient supply chain where farmers can share grievances and are paid fairly? Where American consumers can understand that their clothing isn’t growing & made in their department store, but instead that people’s lives are being affected by the products and brands they are buying and supporting?

What Fair Trade does is to create an account for these farmers and/or factory workers so that they have a forum to voice their concerns. Marry that with the orders that the USA companies are placing. When you add the Fair Trade premium to the account, the farmers and/or workers can be paid “bonuses” that equate to a living wage, while also using their funds to invest into important and much needed community development initiatives such as education and health care.

And Fair Trade and Organic definitely compliment each other because not only are farmers getting paid more, their health is also being protected from the adverse effects of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and they don’t have to pay the extra money on these pesticides. Nearly half of Fair Trade Certified products that were imported into the USA in the last few years were certified organic.

Organic cotton farmers in India don't have to worry about pesticides damaging their health. India is the largest supplier of organic cotton, accounting for 80% of global production.

Organic cotton farmers in India don’t have to worry about pesticides damaging their health. India is the largest supplier of organic cotton, accounting for 80% of global production.

Nadia: What does the Fair Trade USA Garment and Textile certification ensure?

Marci: It protects both cotton farmers and/or factories from wage exploitation and terrible working conditions. A new model for living wages has been built in on top of the basic social standards (no child labor, fair working conditions, etc.) that have already been implemented by many USA companies. Farms and factories are checked periodically. It gives them premiums (funds) that are for community and social investment. So let’s say a company in the USA, like Under the Canopy, for example, bought Fair Trade Certified items from an Indian factory for $100. We would pay a percentagesomewhere between 5-10%- into a fund that the workers would control. Then, as a collective, the workers would decide where to invest their moneyin health care, the building of a school, child care, etc. We would then, in turn, be able to monitor and measure these specific impacts, to communicate back to our customers and loyal consumers. It is our job to offset some of those premiums in other creative ways, such as enhanced design, product innovation, and by creating efficiencies in our supply chain.

For Fair Trade flower farmers in Ecuador, the Fair Trade premium supports education for their children (photo courtesy of oneworldflowers.org).

For Fair Trade flower farmers in Ecuador, the Fair Trade premium supports education for their children (photo courtesy of oneworldflowers.org).

Nadia: I recently read that Fair Trade cotton is grown by 37 certified cotton farmer groups in 10 countries, and that in Mali, 95 percent of children of Fair Trade farmers go to school, which is more than double the national average for school attendance in a very poor country.

Marci: Yes, buying and supporting Fair Trade Certified products is truly affecting positive change in the lives of others in our global community. When I am in these projects, with the farmers and workers making our products, I am fueled by these efforts towards social justice, knowing that “like water for chocolate”, the happy energy of our growers and/or makers is in the soul, or DNA, of my brands.

 Nadia: One of the really cool things about companies that work with fair trade artisans is that they absorb the costs of any discounts they may be having. Like, I can get a ring 25% off, and the artisan is still paid in full.

Marci:

Farmers and factory workers shouldn’t have to suffer when other people win.

But that’s how the current system works. We have to look at every way we can support farmers and factory workers. The minimum wage isn’t enough to sustain a family of four in most countries, so these efforts will support our partners’ basic needs (which is different for each country.) With the recent fire in the Bangladesh apparel factory where over 112 workers died due to poor working conditions, it is clearly imperative that we protect our fellow humanity.

Also, while I think Fair Trade is essential, if our cultural tendency is for faster, cheaper, “more” consumption, it will remain a challenge to balance market demand with a more sustainable model. Education & awareness are paramount and the time is NOW.

The impact of organic cotton farming and Fair Trade on people’s lives:

Additional Resources:

  • Want to learn more about Fair Trade? Here’s a primer.
  • Want to see how Indian farmers are growing organic cotton on their farms? Click here.
  • Need help finding brands that use organic cotton? Check out this link.
  • Organic cotton grown in the United States? Watch here.

My Related Posts:

Advertisements

12 Comments

Filed under Critical Fashion

Are Our Clothes Toxic? Marci Zaroff, Eco Fashion Trailblazer, Weighs In

Did you know that:

  • A recent study of 20 name brands revealed that clothing companies like Calvin Klein, Levi’s and Zara, contain traces of hazardous, potentially cancer-causing chemicals?
  • More than 8,000 toxic chemicals are used to turn raw materials into textiles, many of which are carcinogenic, corrosive or include biologically-modifying reagents?
  • Producing one pair of jeans requires more than 1,800 gallons of water?
  • Bamboo is actually a synthetic fiber that some companies market to appear more environmentally friendly?
  • The average U.S. citizen throws away 68 pounds of clothing per year, with 2.5 billion pounds of post-consumer textile waste ending up in our landfills annually?
  • 20 percent of the world’s industrial fresh water pollution comes from textile treatment & dyeing?
  • More than one trillion kilowatt hours are used annually in the global textile industry, representing more than 10% of the world’s carbon footprint?
  • Every half hour, a cotton farmer in India is committing suicide by drinking the very pesticides that he uses on his crops?

ZaroffI certainly didn’t until recently, and as I leaned more, I started to feel disillusioned with an industry that I began to realize was not just exploitative in its labor practices, but environmentally toxic. To help me navigate through the overwhelming amount of information out there on the topic, I talked with Marci Zaroff, a true trailblazer in the sustainable fiber and fashion industry. In 1995, Zaroff coined the term ‘Eco Fashion,’ as a way to fuse the glamorous world of fashion with environmental and social responsibility, and that phrase has now turned into a six billion dollar industry. Zaroff has also helped to define and draft the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and the first USA Fair Trade certification for textiles with Fair Trade USA. Currently expanding her pioneering Eco Fashion lifestyle brand “Under the Canopy,” while working on her upcoming sustainable fashion brand FASE, as well as the documentary Thread, which she hopes will educate citizens on the environmental and human impacts of fashion & textile production, she is a true wealth of knowledge on the subject. For this first part of a three-part series, I wanted to focus more on the toxic environmental impact that the textile industry has on the environment and on ourselves before turning to the human costs on Friday. Then we will discuss how to gauge which companies are truly transparent in their sustainable practices and which ones are just greenwashing, and how to best move forward with the movement.

Nadia: So could you tell us a bit more about what motivated your passion to educate others about environmental issues and “Eco-Fashion?”

Marci: I am passionate about education, innovation, building community and connecting humanity. I have always felt a deep sense of global responsibility, and the foundation of many of my efforts over the last two decades is built under the notion that we are all interconnected, that we are all part of the same eco-system. The first eco-fashion brand that I started in 1996 is called “Under the Canopy,” and the premise is that we all live under the canopy of the planet’s eco-system together. The Native American philosophy is to protect our canopy, to protect life, for generations, which can best be expressed through the saying, “We do not inherit the land from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” If you’ve ever been to any of the rainforests in the world, you’d know that the canopy is the top layer of the rainforest. So there is more life under the canopy of the earth’s rainforests than anywhere in the world, and it is that very life, and those eco-systems, that provide the oxygen that we all depend on to exist.

Who knew that something so cute could be so toxic?

Who knew that something so cute could be so toxic?

So going back over the past 20 years, as I worked with the natural food and beauty industries, I gained a deeper understanding of the relationship within agriculture, and that you can’t support one part of the equation without the other. In agriculture, all of the crops that grow, especially if you are growing organically, they’re very much interconnected. One of the main foundations of organic agriculture is crop rotation, and one of the main crops that are rotated is cotton. 60 percent of a cotton plant ends up going into the food chain—for oils, for bread products. If you read the back of many packaged products on the market today, they will have cottonseed oil as an ingredient. As I started to learn about the connection between food and fiber and the harmful chemicals used at all stages of the textile industry, I wanted to pull the curtain back, shift the paradigm, and offer consumers more sustainable choices. I was disillusioned when I discovered that the manufacturing processes of conventional textiles are extraordinarily toxic. When I started to learn the impact that conventional textiles were having, both from the fiber standpoint and the manufacturing standpoint, I coined the term ‘Eco-Fashion’ because I wanted to fuse those two very dichotomous worlds together— one being ecology, eco-systems, and our connection with the environment, the other being fashion. My mission was to revolutionize the fashion industry and demonstrate that those two worlds were not mutually exclusive.

Nadia: It was so surprising to learn how toxic cotton was. I mean, I had always thought of cotton as a ‘natural’ fiber!

A model wearing an oxygen mask, walks along a make-shift catwalk during a fashion show organized by environmental group Greenpeace titled 'Toxic Threads - The Big Fashion Stitch-Up', in Beijing November 20, 2012. (photo courtesy of REUTERS/David Gray)

A model wearing an oxygen mask, walks along a make-shift catwalk during a fashion show organized by environmental group Greenpeace titled ‘Toxic Threads – The Big Fashion Stitch-Up’, in Beijing November 20, 2012. (photo courtesy of REUTERS/David Gray)

Marci: It’s not. In fact, conventional cotton is one of the world’s leading sources of air and water pollution! Even though conventional cotton represents less that 3% of the world’s agriculture, it uses as much as 25% of the most harmful insecticides, and up to 10% of the most toxic pesticides to grow it! It is also incredibly wasteful in the amount of water that it uses—100 gallons to make one pound, and almost 3% of the world’s yearly water usage. In fact, not only does it take 700 gallons of fresh water to make just one cotton T-short, but in 2009, the world used three trillion gallons of fresh water to produce 60 billion kilograms of cotton fabric. Furthermore, other harsh chemicals, such as chlorine bleaches and formaldehyde, are used in conventional cotton production processes.

Victoria's Secret, named in Greenpeace's Study for containing chemical residue in their clothing

Victoria’s Secret, named in Greenpeace’s Study for containing chemical residue in their clothing, is parodied in an ad.

Nadia: Well, and I can’t believe the chemicals that are released to make our clothes! I recently read in Elizabeth Cline’s book Overdressed that making synthetic fibers such as rayon, viscose, acetate, cupro, and even bamboo requires treating substances like wood pulp and scrap cotton with toxic chemicals. And then I learned from this recent study released by Greenpeace, which tested 20 brands such as Calvin Klein, Levi’s Victoria’s Secret and Zara, that several of the hazardous chemicals found in the garments contained toxic phthalates and even cancer-causing amines from the use of certain dyes!

So what is different about organic cotton?

Marci: In order to have organic food crops, you have to nurture and build the soil, versus conventional agriculture where you are depleting and destroying the soil via poisonous sprays and monocropping, which is when you grow a single crop year after year on the same land. These healthier soils make better use of water inputs and are more resilient in drought conditions. Also, when you eliminate synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, the water pollution impact from organic cotton is 98% less than non-organic cotton production, and it produces 94% less greenhouse gas emissions.

Nadia: So can you point us to other sustainable fabrics to look for?

Marci: Tencel from Lenzing, which I am rebranding as ‘ECOlyptus,’ is the cellulose that’s extracted from the eucalyptus plant, grown without water on non-arable land, broken down by a non-toxic, recycled detergent, and manufactured in an efficient closed-loop system that takes minimal energy. It feels like silk and is three times stronger than cotton. Recycled Poly is a great alternative to conventional polyester, which is made with fossil fuels, using an enormous amount of energy.

Nadia: What is recycled poly made with?

Marci: Recycled Poly takes recycled plastic bottles out of landfills and turns them into fiber. There’s a recycled poly yarn fabric called Repreve made by a company in North Carolina called Unifi. In 2012, this company kept 900 million plastic bottles out of landfills in one year! It’s really amazing.

Nadia: Do you have any online suggestions for good eco-fashion information and retailers?

Marci: Compassion Couture, Coco Eco MagazineEco Fashion World, EcouterreECOfabulous, Ethica, Ethical In Style, Fashioning Change, Fashion-Conscience, Honest by, Indigenous, Inhabitat, Magnifeco, Modavanti and People Tree are just a few of the resources out there!

For future updates on Under the Canopy, FASE & Portico, as well as other Eco Fashion ventures, check out Marci’s website at marcizaroff.com.

Stay tuned for the second part of our interview, where Marci will provide more information on the human impact behind the conventional textile manufacturing process!

How cotton production has eradicated the Aral Sea and poisoned its workers:

How Patagonia uses recycled soda bottles and fibers such as hemp to make their clothes:

My Related Posts:

Ethical Fashion: Introduction to an Ongoing Series

The iPhone 5 and the Latest Technology: Why We Consume at the Expense of Others

 

12 Comments

Filed under Critical Fashion

The iPhone 5 and the Latest Technology: Why We Consume at the Expense of Others

Just a few months ago, the new iPhone 5 was officially released. Featuring all of the coolest new gadgets and the ‘thinnest, lightest design,’ it sold out in stores in an impressive three days. The commercial for the new phone is so cool, it practically renders all iPhone 4 users as irrelevant in one 30-second swoop. But as I wrote in a recent post on the textile fire in Pakistan that killed 300 people the same week that models were walking down the runway in beautiful designs for New York Fashion Week, sometimes the most glamorous things are a facade for tragedy.

As this brilliant article revealed, the iPhone 5 has been made in China by exploited workers in FoxConn sweatshops. Many of these “underpaid, underaged, and overworked staff” have gone on strike, only for their complaints to be denied and downplayed by Foxconn. As the author notes, our constant complaints and expectations for more ‘perfect’ technology is what drives this labor machine to move faster, to demand more from their workers than is humanely possible. Saturday Night Live recently aired a clever skit that contrasted the ‘first world’ complaints of American tech experts (the phone is too light, I can barely feel it!) with the retorts of the Chinese sweatshop workers. My favorite line? “Oh, twitter’s too slow, you can’t read about Kardashian’s handbag? My brother has a handbag too. He has hand. Keeps in bag. Until he can afford to re-attach!”

While the article continues to lend fresh insight into the labor advocacy that is surrounding this issue, I want to focus here on a simple question: what drives us to buy, and why we are never satisfied with what we have? Is there a certain satisfaction that people in the West gain by being able to whine about trivial things, knowing that the people who are making these technologies are unable to complain half as much over issues that are far more important?

Left: the first person in line to buy an iPhone 5 in England preens with his loot. Right: the family of a young laborer who killed himself at Foxconn (photo courtesy of “Is it Immoral to Own an iPhone 5?”)

Technology has always connoted progress and development in the West. Because technology isn’t available to everybody, those who do not have access to it are often viewed as ‘backwards,’ as ‘behind,’ as ‘less-developed,’ as ‘Third-World.’ For many, technology is a word that refers to the inaccessible, the things they would like to have but cannot afford. It allows those in the West to establish meanings of progress for the world, and to view poorer countries as less capable.

That is not to say that technology does not have cultural and social benefits. It obviously does. The technologies we use can facilitate social movements, create a greater amount of information, help us realize our goals as a ‘global village,’ and forge a “two-way” connection between disparate groups of people. Who can dismiss the important (though arguably overblown) role of new media networks like Facebook in the Arab revolutions last spring? Or how in Afghanistan, entrepreneurs like Roya Mahboob are using software companies to empower women?

Technology can have real positive social and economic effects, but it seems that in the West, it is more often being reduced to its ‘thing-ness,’ to the idea that this conspicuous consumption of more things that may have no tangible impact on one’s life is a symbol of our wealth and privilege. We spend big money on a cool color, on a slightly lighter phone, on marginally faster internet connection. We are obsessed with this notion of newness, with this idea that buying an iPad Mini will make us seem ahead of the curve in some way, when, let’s face it, it is really a slighter bigger iPhone.

And then of course, there is the technological waste that is left behind by our unconscious consumption. Three million tons a year, to be exact. The technology that is dumped in the backyards of people’s homes in China, India, and Africa, ruining both the environment and their lives. How better to reiterate this notion that those in the ‘Third World’ are behind when for many, their primary means of access to technology is the waste tossed out by those in the West?

Electronic Waste dumped in parts of Africa (photo courtesy of DanWatch and Consumers International)

Is that how we are measuring progress now? Not just by what we have, but by how much we can throw away?

We often think of poorer countries as constantly needing to ‘catch up’ with our modes of consumption for the sake of development. I believe however, that the people in these countries who use technology as a means of transforming communities and even resisting oppressive regimes, are actually more progressive than those in the West who have reduced technological innovations to just ‘stuff.’ Take, as another example, the four African girls who created a urine-powered generator that produces six hours of electricity using a single liter of urine as fuel. Unveiled at the Maker Faire in Nigeria, the girls and their ‘pee-generator’ created buzz at an event that was instituted to highlight innovations that actually solve “immediate challenges and problems in society,” rather than, as Next Web put it, “a bunch of rich people talking about how their apps are going to change the world.”

Three of the four inventors of the urine-powered generator (photo courtesy ofEric Hersman)

This holiday season, perhaps we should look to, and start adopting, the slower and more sustainable modes of consumption of so-called developing countries. Why not give a hand-made gift, or practice more conscious consumption if we do not want to abstain completely from purchasing presents for ourselves and our family. What does it mean to be a conscious consumer? Well, perhaps these two examples of different iPhone buyers will help clarify the difference:

Consumer 1: “So I’m going to buy the iPhone 5 today. It just seemed…cool. I mean there’s nothing wrong with my iPhone 4, but my bromance bro got the new one, and it’s so light I just thought it would be dope to see which one we could toss higher. I’ll just trade it in at Apple for a 10% discount. Whatever. When’s the iPhone 6 coming out?”

Consumer 2: I’ve been holding out buying the iPhone, because I don’t really need it. But then my iPod broke, and my cell phone is several years old, so I wanted to get the new iPhone. I heard about all the strikes in China though, so I didn’t want to get the iPhone 5. I’d feel too guilty. So I traded the iPhone 4 for a ton of my DVDs I don’t watch any more. And then I sold my old iPod and cell phone to a green company called YouRenew, which recycles your old technologies without filling up landfills! I love my new iPhone and I plan on keeping it for a loooong time.

I think we all can guess which one is the conscious consumer, peeps.

I know that being socially responsible about our purchases takes a little more time, a little more thought. But if the holiday season is when we give thanks by spending time with our loved ones and sharing gifts, perhaps we should also take the extra time to consider the people behind these gifts, whether it is the workers who make them, or those in the  ‘Third World’ who have to live with them as unrecognizable litter in their backyards.

Want to learn more about the global trade of electronic waste? Check out this amazing twenty minute documentary that won an Emmy for its investigative reporting:

Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground:

Louis CK on why we’re never satisfied with what we have:

Further Reading:

This is the first article of a series that focuses on issues of sustainability and conscious consumerism – stay tuned for more on the subject, including an upcoming interview with eco-fashion founder Marci Zaroff!

11 Comments

Filed under Media & Culture

Interview: An Inside Look at Development in Afghanistan – from a Woman’s Perspective

Sunday marked the 11th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and as I watched the media coverage on various news stations, I couldn’t help but feel irritated at the fact that for 11 years, I had been fed details of a war through the filter of my television screen. When I mentioned my frustrations to a friend, she referred me to someone who is currently doing international development work in Afghanistan! This woman graciously agreed to be interviewed, but preferred to keep her identity and the identity of the company she works with anonymous. I hope that this can shed some insight on the unique challenges of working in development from someone who is actually working in Afghanistan, and what the possible future holds as the U.S. withdrawal looms closer.

Overlooking Kabul

Overlooking Kabul (photo courtesy of Max Becherer, The New York Times)

Q: So, can you provide some more background about what your role is, and what the goals of your development team are?

A: So basically, the team I’m working with is focusing on the development of the country’s private sector so we can improve the overall economic situation in the country. We’ve been there for over ten years, so we’re trying to stay on track for progress. I would say that the most important goal is to help the country be self-sufficient, in that they can become more self-reliant without international presence.

There are a variety of different players involved, but really the goal is to find local businesses and attractive opportunities, so the money we give can be spent towards promoting productive business growth to stimulate the economy.

Q: OK, so what would you outline as the main obstacles you’ve encountered while working in development in Afghanistan? Maybe we could start with some of the cultural challenges first?

A: Cultural context is crucial. Honestly, it doesn’t matter how much you read about the history and culture of the country you do work in, because in my opinion, you really need to be on the ground to understand the reality of the situation and what the risks are. I’ve spent a lot of time adapting to the environment and I definitely think you do better work here once you have a better understanding of the culture and are able to frame this notion of development within their (the Afghan people) terms.

On a day-to-day basis, there are smaller and larger challenges I’ve been faced with. For example, what I’ve experienced from the Afghanis we have worked with is that you can’t just jump into a meeting and start asking direct questions. That’s basically considered rude here. You have to allow a few minutes of familial conversation before you start business. And of course, even with the best translator, there runs a risk of misinterpretation, just because there are some phrases and words that can’t be perfectly translated, you know?

Q: And you’re a woman working in Afghanistan …

A: Yup, which offers its unique challenges, obviously. One of the first things I noticed is that you rarely see women outside, so there seems to be a confinement of women in the private/domestic sphere, though let me be clear that I am not speaking for the entire country, just where I am personally located. So as a woman, walking outside means getting stared at … a lot. And when I actually meet with men, I have to cover my arms otherwise I am perceived as being ‘too forward.’ It can get annoying to constantly have to monitor yourself, but I have to say, that for the most part, the Afghan people I work with have been really warm and welcoming. Of course, we’re working with the ones who are welcoming this idea of development in the first place, so the men I meet with are probably more open-minded to the idea of women from the West working in the public sphere.

Which brings me to another point. Just because some people are open to this idea of development, doesn’t mean that the relationship is completely harmonious and trusting. After all, this is a country that has experienced war for the last 30 years, and drastic changes in regime shifts. I mean first you had the Soviets in the 1980s, who were toppled by the American-backed mujahedeen that later branched out to the Taliban, and now, the current American invasion.

A market in Kabul. Almost 90% of Afghanistan’s national budget is financed by foreign governments.

And I think a lot of Americans forget that, both here and at home. There’s this attitude coming from our stakeholders sometimes of, ‘Why don’t they want help?’ and you really have to understand the history of international involvement in the country, and how there have been so many broken promises made. Even now, while I get to work with a lot of amazing stakeholders, there are some who are not always genuine, who are just trying to invest to add something to their company’s vita, you know? And so you have to be conscious of how things operate here, of how to best leverage your resources, and to make sure you are hooking up with the right people who are sensitive to the country’s unique cultural history and challenges.

Q: What about security?

A: The security situation is definitely limiting. You have to do a lot of coordination with logistics; you can’t just go out and see places.

Q: Do you feel that affects media coverage as well?

A: What I’ve gathered from the military officials I’ve talked to is that the relationship between the media and the military is um, pretty tense. The military claims they’re misquoted all the time …

Q: Right, but isn’t it difficult for journalists to get access to information? I remember a few years back Laura Logan gave an interview in response to criticisms from the Bush administration aimed at journalists that they weren’t giving the ‘whole story’ on Iraq. And her response was that due to security and logistical issues, it was difficult to move freely within the country. Have you ever seen the film Control Room? I couldn’t believe that the majority of reporting done from the CentCom (U.S. Central Command) base was located hundreds of miles from Baghdad …

A: I haven’t seen the movie, but I definitely wouldn’t be surprised if security issues placed restrictions on journalists as well.

Q: Not to mention that most media outlets are relying on AP reporters for their foreign news coverage, so it’s not like there’s a ton of journalists out there reporting on foreign affairs, even in Afghanistan.

A: Right, and I think that again drives home my main point. If you’re relying on the news for your media on Afghanistan, you’re just not getting the full story. Nothing compares to actually being on the ground and working with people here. And look, I’m not saying that I have full access to the country here, as I mentioned before. But even working here with the American government, I am still exposed in a way I never was before. Meeting with Afghan people and seeing the culture first-hand really changes your perspective.

Safety is still a concern for many women in Afghanistan (photo courtesy of Mauricio Lima)

Q: OK, now I want to ask you about the state of women in Afghanistan and it’s a two-part question. First of all, there seems to be a new focus on women’s education and empowerment in the developing world, because recent research has shown that there is an actual ‘net growth’ in economic development when girls are educated and women are given means of economic empowerment (like through microfinance). There is strong evidence that the education and empowerment of women creates a more educated, powerful community—their children are more educated, infant mortality decreases, and women who have access to the family’s finances are more likely to spend their money on the family’s health and nutrition then their husbands are.

So my first question is, how can development initiatives move forward successfully if Afghanistan is currently considered one of the worst places for women’s rights in the world?

And my second question is, even though there’s been a marked improvement in the education of girls, with over 2.4 million going to school, why do you think progress in other aspects of women’s development has been so slow?

A: Well I can’t speak to that specifically, because I don’t focus on women’s development, but I think there are several contributing factors, based on the conversations I’ve had with other people working here. First of all, just because you give aid to a country, doesn’t mean that it’s going to change cultural attitudes overnight. Even if girls go to school, they are still entrenched in deeply complex, patriarchal familial and societal relations. And of course safety is still an issue, and there are some who believe the military invasion has made the security situation more dangerous because of retaliatory threats by insurgents. But, there are also many who fear that when western forces withdraw, that instability might return and any gains made will be reversed.

One interesting aspect about women’s rights that I didn’t really consider before I came here was the huge gap in skill set. I mean, there were many women who attended university in Kabul in the 1960s and 70s …

Students at Kabul University, 1970s.

Q: I was going to ask you that! I recently screened a documentary film, Afghan Star, to my students for a section on how music can serve as a powerful tool for protest and change. And the movie follows these four contestants who are competing for a grand prize, and fans of each contestant ‘campaign’ for their favorite, in what the film argues is basically a first taste of democracy for many Afghanis. Anyway, they show flashbacks of Kabul in the 1970s, and it seemed to be kind of a hip, cultural mecca!

A: Yeah exactly. So you’ve got these people who are more educated, and then a lot of people who have been growing up during the war who are illiterate, and honestly, I just think it’s going to take time to bridge that gap, and a lot of patience.

A look back on the former ‘Paris of Central Asia’:

Q: So moving forward, what do you see as some of the biggest challenges Afghanistan faces with development?

A: Well first of all, we are currently having huge issues with inflation, because of all the aid that is being pumped into the country. Furthermore, since Afghanistan imports a lot of their products, the charges for customs are really high. They just can’t compete with countries like Iran, whose currency is really cheap, in that respect. And it’s going to take a while before the country has enough local businesses and ventures before they can compete with other industries. The argument is that when we withdraw out of the country and we invest less money, inflation will go down. But then if we don’t continue to support reconstruction aid, what will happen? Can we really accomplish all that needs to be done in the next two years? It’s something that those of us who are working in development, are still grappling with.

Q: OK, so here is my final question. Political pundits are always throwing around this notion that Afghanistan is impossible to keep stable, that it’s too tribal, too conservative a culture, too vast a region. But I recently read an article in the New York Times in which several Afghan scholars cited this viewpoint as condescending, as a reaction used whenever Americans do not want to engage in a conflict.

I mean, do they have a point? Sure the country’s been at war for 30 years, but it was only a few decades ago referred to as the ‘Paris of Central Asia …’

A: OK, let me say this in response to the ‘Afghanistan is tribal’ argument. I have met with different groups of people, from different ethnic tribes, Pashtuns, Hazaras, etc., and while there may be some cultural differences and tensions, most of the people we’ve met with seem to be on the same page of wanting to move forward with their business ventures, with progress in the country.

Can Afghanistan ever be stable? I can’t say for sure, but I will tell you there are concerns that Kabul might collapse as foreign aid and investment are withdrawn before 2014. It might just take a strong leader, and that’s why the next round of elections is so important. If they’re fraudulent, then I doubt the Afghan government will be able to assume responsibility for the security of the country.

But then, maybe change will come from the people themselves. My hope in the development work that I’m doing is that we can help to empower the Afghan citizens, and honestly, I’ve just been amazed at how innovative people are. Even if they don’t have formal schooling, many of them are self-taught artisans, are skilled in construction, agriculture, and different types of services. It’s really inspiring to me to see that despite these change of regimes, despite the oppression, the wars, the people here just do it. And that’s why personally, I have hope, even if I’m unsure as to whether everything can be stabilized in just two more years.

Stealth Festival

An Afghan woman at a one-day “stealth festival” called Sound Central, in Kabul October 1, 2011. The first music festival the country has seen since the Taliban regime. (photo courtesy of REUTERS/Ahmad Masood)

Please stay tuned for an upcoming interview with a Cultural Studies scholar from Kabul who has done extensive research on women in Afghanistan, the intersection of capitalism and development, and yes, even reality television shows like Afghan Star.

Afghan Star trailer … amazing film (and available on instant neflix!)

The documentary film Control Film

1 Comment

Filed under Gender, Media & Culture

A homeless man named Dwayne: Occupy, one year later

Just three hours ago, I had no intention of writing a blog post about the meaning of Occupy one year later. It certainly doesn’t mean that I don’t empathize with the movement; in fact, I was involved with local activities and even took my ‘Critical Media’ students to a sit-in with protesters so that they could gain insight that wasn’t filtered by the corporate media. But, it has been an exhausting week. Driving home after treating myself to a much-needed massage, I was daydreaming of an evening filled with pop culture magazines, chocolate and a relaxing bath.

And then I met a man named Dwayne.

Right at the intersection, before I got whisked off into the highway with other tired, irritated drivers making their way home during the height of rush hour, I was stopped at a red light for about three minutes. When I turned my head, I saw him at the intersection. He was holding a sign, with an orange vest on and I immediately felt a mixture of empathy and guilt. Empathy because of his situation, and guilt because I was in no position to help at the moment, trapped in my car in the middle of a highway, with no money of my own to give.

And then, he smiled at me, and pointed to my long dangling earrings that were made of seeds from Brazil, tinged in a vibrant shade of orange (when I do fall colors, I do fall colors). He gave me a thumbs-up, and I felt a rush of disbelief overcome me. Here was this man, clearly struggling, trying to remain visible to a stream of people in moving vehicles, many of whom were probably pretending that he was not there, noticing something about me and wanting to make a connection. I was immediately grateful.

I rolled down the window, and we talked, for two short minutes. His name was Dwayne, and he had been homeless for the last six months. He was looking for work, he told me, but not having a driver’s license made it difficult to get to job interviews. He then acknowledged that “everyone’s struggling, so no one is really able to give me much money” and that this month in particular had been the hardest for him. He asked me for my name, and I told him, in the midst of honking cars that indicated the light had turned from red to green. When I was forced to drive away, he shouted ‘God Bless’ and blew me a kiss.

I thought of Dwayne the entire drive home, while standing in the checkout line at Food Lion, and as I sat on my futon at home, reflecting on our conversation and his comments about shared struggle. And it was then that I suddenly felt inspired to write about Occupy.

An Occupy Wall Street campaign demonstrator stands in Zuccotti Park, near Wall Street in New York (photo courtesy of Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

When Occupy Wall Street erupted last September, it was one of the most exciting protest movements my generation had witnessed since the WTO protests in 1999. Building momentum from both the Arab Spring and the public frustration over the debt ceiling crisis in the summer of 2011, at the heart of the seemingly disparate movement were two main points of critique: that the distribution of wealth and opportunity in our culture was inequitable, and that the media system, controlled mainly by the ‘big six’ corporations, contributed to that status quo.

And not surprisingly, the media lived up to its reputation as an institution that never disappoints in its marginalization of activist causes. Media watchdog groups like Free Press and Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting published stories on how Occupy was denigrated as a ‘hippie movement’ that didn’t have any idea what they wanted. Instead of interviewing the people who were involved in the movement, the media chose to rely on a stream of ‘experts’ and scholars to speak on behalf of the protesters, who were labeled in different media outlets as ‘crackheads’ (Bill O’Reilly for Fox, 10/14/11), ‘boring’ (Bill Keller, former executive editor for the New York Times, 10/14/11), ‘indignant indolents’ (Charles Krauthammer, The Washington Post, 10/17/11) and ‘Milquetoast Radicals’ (David Brooks, The New York Times, 10/11/11).

And in a way, it makes sense. Mainstream news organizations are often reticent to report favorably on anti-corporate movements because they are themselves, owned by corporations. It creates a conflict of interest. Take Erin Burnett, a CNN reporter who was lambasted for her derogatory remarks towards the protesters. Guess where she worked before her tenure at CNN? Goldman Sachs and Citigroup—the same financial companies that profited from the bailouts the Occupiers were protesting!

To be fair, the media did start to portray the movement more evenly, as public opinion revealed a majority who were sympathetic to the Occupy cause. Even then though, the political media’s attempts to frame politics in a bipartisan manner often resulted in Occupy being labeled as a counterweight to the Tea Party, which conflicted with the anti-establishment message of a movement that freely critiqued Obama as much as it did the banks.

Jonathan Wall releases his statement on how a sports bar in Raleigh kicked him out for no reason.

Now, celebrating its one-year anniversary, Occupy finds itself again denigrated by a media establishment that never really understood it. FAIR published a story on the different news outlets that proclaimed the Occupy Movement to be a failure and a fad. While there is some truth to the claim that Occupy was not able to create legislative and regulative change in the banking system (more likely due to the barriers in our political climate than any real issues within the movement itself), it succeeded in other important ways. Most notably, it helped to change the national conversation on wealth and inequality, creating the Twitter meme of #occupy and spurring occupy movements across the country that responded to local needs and issues. One local example I can personally cite was the ‘Occupy Downtown Sports Bars’ in Raleigh which was organized after a black Harvard graduate student got kicked out of a downtown bar for no apparent reason.

My students attend a local Occupy sit-in.

And since when do protests have to achieve everything they hope to accomplish in a span of one year? If the Occupy movement hoped to deliver a marked critique of inequality, and call for a government that represents the needs of citizens instead of the big banks or corporations, then I would argue that they did a pretty decent job in 12 short months. They centered this question of economic inequality in national discourse for the first time since the 1960s, were involved in movements to protect citizens from evictions and foreclosures, pressured President Obama to ease the loan burden, if marginally, to current recipients and focused the attention on police brutality towards marginalized communities. They bravely critiqued the corporatization of society, including that of the mainstream media, and encouraged people to become active citizens by seeking out alternative sources of information and media. As an instructor of cultural and media criticism always trying to instill the importance of societal and political engagement, I couldn’t have asked for better inspiration for my students.

So yes, one year later, a man named Dwayne is still homeless, and many people, as he himself so compassionately put it, are struggling. But that doesn’t mean that this revolution has failed. It has started a conversation about shifting the national paradigm to one of connection, to an inclusive society, to one that focuses on the needs of the people, to the 99%. It was about creating a world that works for everyone, including the 1%, who are also implicated in our society’s loss of community and intimacy.

Occupy reinforced my belief that the worst crimes committed are the ones that happen when we don’t ask questions. After decades of apathy that helped to create our current economic and cultural crisis, we can no longer stand to look the other way. So here I am writing at 2 a.m., wishing that I could forget about Dwayne and lose myself in the mindless world of celebrity magazines, but knowing that I can’t, because the conversation must go on.

8 Comments

Filed under Media & Culture

Insightful comments on Romney’s 47%: Can we talk about poverty?

So I was reading this breakdown on the 47% that Romney described as ‘paying no income taxes’ and ‘freeloaders’ and I came across two reader comments that I wanted to share with my peeps. I found them to be right on, and truly, inspirational. If mainstream news channels brought in more people like this to share their perspectives, maybe we could have some actual conversations instead of just the usual partisan bickering.

The problem with folks that don’t really do their homework, is they think that folks earning 20K or less do so on purpose. They think folks are lazy and take the easiest, thoughtless jobs so they can spend most of their time doing nothing. If they actually tried living that way they’d see that it isn’t true. There’s also a toxic amount of judgement that happens without a depth of knowledge. I say this as a social worker who works with low income folks. There are many who are tired, stressed out, and cranky … and yes, sometimes it’s hard for them to give up time with their children to flip burgers or wait tables for people that do the same amount of work but make tons more. In America, we say you have to work hard for success but the truth is, we inherit our lifestyles and defend them to the death. In more socialized countries, folks get what they need and you work hard to get that extra. Do you really think Mitt Romney works harder that a miner in Eastern Kentucky? I say this with a healthy acknowledgment that I have been blessed with privilege myself.

And this comment in reply:

I also work with low-income people and have realized that a lot of “poor” people make more money than I do, but face much higher economic barriers because they got a point of destitute poverty.

For example, someone who is homeless and has to rent a hotel room every night for shelter might end up paying $1200/mo. Because it’s owed weekly or daily, there is no point where they actually have that $1200 all at once to use for an apartment rental.

Falling all the way into unassisted poverty incurs great cost to individuals. Going from homeless to housed and employed costs much, much more than being employed and finding new housing.

When was the last time you heard voices this insightful on FOX or MSNBC?

There is, indeed, a crazy amount of judgement towards people who are struggling that come from people who a) have never really struggled and b) have never worked with people who struggled. Furthermore, there is this tendency in our country to make giant, lazy leaps to socialism every time there is a call for greater government involvement. Support labor unions? You’re a socialist. Support a fair minimum wage? You’re a socialist! Support health care? Obvi, you’re a socialist. And of course, any support for these policies means we’re one step away from becoming the old Soviet Union or China … watch out!!!!

OK seriously. Calling someone a socialist for wanting a health care system that protects people from dying is way harsh, Tai. Instead of engaging in one-sided debates that avoid the complexity of the issue, perhaps Americans should  look beyond the confines of their small towns to countries in Western Europe, where people work their asses off despite a more socialized system. Reading this article by an American who lived in the Netherlands for a few years, titled “How I learned to love the Dutch Welfare state,” will prove enlightening. Here are some snippets:

“Over the course of the 20th century, American politics became entrenched in two positions, which remain fixed in many minds: the old left-wing idea of vast and direct government control of social welfare, and the right-wing determination to dismantle any advances toward it, privatize the system and leave people to their own devices. In Europe, meanwhile, the postwar cradle-to-grave idea of a welfare state gave way in the past few decades to some quite sophisticated mixing of public and private. And whether in health care, housing or the pension system (there actually is still a thriving pension system in the Netherlands, which covers about 80 percent of workers), the Dutch have proved to be particularly skilled at finding mixes that work.”

“I think it’s worth pondering how the best bits of the Dutch system might fit. One pretty good reason is this: The Dutch seem to be happier than we are. A 2007 Unicef study of the well-being of children in 21 developed countries ranked Dutch children at the top and American children second from the bottom. And children’s happiness is surely dependent on adult contentment. I used to think the commodious, built-in, paid vacations that Europeans enjoy translated into societies where nobody wants to work and everyone is waiting for the next holiday. That is not the case here. I’ve found that Dutch people take both their work and their time off seriously. Indeed, the two go together.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Inspirations