Friday, November 1, 2013

Week 7: Considering the Power of Dominant Discourses and Seeking Alternative Narratives

By Sarah Nunes and Melissa Rink

This week, we’ve been thinking a lot about power dynamics in the desire to help the less privileged on individual and international levels. The power dynamics that put the United States (US) in an economic position to give conditional donor aid to “poorer” countries like Namibia stem from hundreds of years of colonial exploitation and profit off of the labor of black and brown people, to create North American and European economic dominance that prevails today. Erasing this narrative through history, and presented in the Eurocentric way history is presented to us in many public high schools in the US today, creates a new power dynamic, a new form of racism that sees the needy recipient as powerless, as deserving of and depending on our pity and charity. As we occupy the positions of privilege in this discourse, if we don’t reconsider the power dynamics of aid on an international and personal level, we run the risk of perpetuating more harm than good.

Andrew Williams, Finance Director and Executive Officer of USAID, 
presented USAID's mission and work in Namibia to our development class
In our development class, we focused on the topic of foreign aid and how, in the case of many African countries, this aid can ultimately have damaging effects. It can foster dependency, perpetuate the cycle of poverty by limiting long-term growth, and encourage government corruption through the consistent supply of free money. Aid given by western countries is also notorious for being imposing and insensitive to tradition and culture. However, foreign aid can be slightly more contextual, such as in the case of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which is a segment of the US government providing aid directly from within the country of Namibia. This type of support has the potential to be much less imposing because of the presence of interaction and the exchange of ideas. When talking to Andrew Williams from USAID, we took note of some very positive strategies of development and some borderline obtrusive plans.1 He spoke to us about the $41 million that the organization spent on the development of conservation practices of water basin management in the rural areas of Namibia. “We have to help educate the farmers and tribes about water management,” Andrew told us. This way of thinking did not settle well with us; wouldn’t the local people of Namibia have a better idea of water conservation than the foreign “teachers?” This rationale can most likely be attributed to the power dynamic between the donor status of USAID and the recipient status of Namibia. When one identifies the power structure of the US as a donor country and its huge influence in many facets of Namibia’s development, while keeping in mind how the poverty-donor relationship is constructed, one can consider other alternatives to the current situation and find a new direction forward.

Namene Tekula Nekwaya, in a still from his video interview
at the Young Achievers Center in Katutura.
One of the alternative perspectives that organizes power a bit differently is something called Gross National Happiness (GNH), as brought to our attention by Namene Tekulav Nekwaya2, a friend from Young Achievers, a youth-led organization that inspires and motivates young people to have a sense of vision. He showed us a video of himself being interviewed about GNH and the Young Achiever’s initiatives to introduce this idea in a Namibian context. Namene and three of the other youth are organizing trips to different parts of Namibia to distribute and collect a revised version of the GNH surveys/program first endorsed by the fourth king of Bhutan. This is the first attempt to adapt it to a Namibian context. We were interested in the work being done to create what Namene called a “paradigm shift” in “trying to divert the government’s, the world’s mindset in terms of looking at how to look at its economical processes or activities to better the country”3. A project like this not only engages the community in rethinking and coming up with their own ideas for a happier, better Namibia, but empowers the youth carrying out such a project to follow their initiatives and gain the leadership qualities needed to become the country’s future leaders and start to create sustainable systems of development that aren’t entirely dependent upon a donor country’s conditional financial support. Learning about Namene’s work with GNH in the context of hearing the USAID talk in the same week really encouraged us to reflect on the mostly one way power relationship between donor aid and the needy recipient, and to consider alternatives in determining the best ways forward for the development of Namibia.

Cover of the September 2013 Sister Namibia Youth Issue
Also this week, Sarah attended a sexual and reproductive rights workshop Saturday4with the Young Achievers facilitated by Sister Namibia5, where she had to consider her own positionality and recognize possible power dynamics with her own privilege. She, being a feminist from a western, wealthy country, wants to be in solidarity with and help women everywhere liberate themselves from gender-based oppression.However, being from a country with a history of exploitation of non-western cultures, it is essential to acknowledge the unfair power dynamic that could arise if she started imposingly defending all of her views and criticizing patriarchy in a Namibian context. While in this workshop, she thought about when and how to speak up and pose her point of view in a sensitive, non-judgmental and non-imposing way and when to take a step back, and listen. She had a conversation with one of the Sister Namibia facilitators during the lunch break, and the lady was airing her thoughts on how frustrated she gets at times, being a supporter of LGBT rights, when the conversation she’s facilitating ends up being about how homosexuality is a sin, and how weird/unacceptable “those people” are, etc. But she said that no matter her feelings on the subject, her job was only to facilitate, not input her opinions, not correct, not judge. Since many of the opinions aired in the controversial statements on sexual/reproductive rights, “Agree,” “Disagree,” “Don’t know” activity were opposed to what Sarah believes in (such as the existence of marital rape, men having sex with men, etc.), she really had to think about where it was appropriate to speak and when she needed to think, step back and not intrude.

The USAID presentation and Namene’s GNH helped us to connect the dots between power relations between countries and power relations on an individual basis, and how it is often better for the privileged person or person with unearned power to step back and learn from people who, (surprise surprise!), may have their own ideas for moving forward in a way that is best adapted to their culture and benefits them the best. In fact, the best solutions can only appear if the realm of possibilities is opened as wide as possible, and “truths” we take for granted, such as the poverty discourse, are reconsidered.

For more information on our semester programs, visit our website.

1  Andrew Williams, USAID Finance Director/Overseer spoke to our development class on 4 October, 2013.

2  Namene Tekula Nekwaya is a Young Achievers youth activist.

3 Video of interview of Namene Tekula Nekwaya from April 2013.

4 Sister Namibia facilitated workshop with Young Achievers at the Katutura Multipurpose Center on 8 October, 2013

5  Sister Namibia is a local feminist organization advocating for women’s rights

No comments: