The Unruly blog site has become like a confessional to me. It is a place where I talk about my frustrations and aspirations. The best part of it, unlike a confessional is that I get to read my colleagues’ blogs and get inspired from what I read. I felt solidarity in all sessions we had in this module. It felt good being involved with professionals in critical discussions on development. It has been a privilege to share with people who have such a strong sense of justice and equality.
This time I want to talk about my struggle in keeping in terms my political subjectivity with technocratic solutions provided by development projects I am involved. The frustration has been growing with years and comes from the realization (based on personal experience) that mostly civil society’s NGO sector deals with the symptoms of poverty and not its structural causes. Therefore I have started to articulate more strongly that ‘we’ are complicit in sustaining injustice. I have realized that the word justice for some reasons makes people feel uncomfortable, probably due to its strong connotations with moral and ethics. I am told from some colleagues that I should not moralize but to be simply a good specialist who is objective and rational.
During this year of study, I have been reflecting over my past experiences and I think they have a point. I should be rational indeed! Am I not the professional who chose to earn her living by helping people and ‘alleviate’ the social pains of the capitalist system? Indeed, I remember this was one of the first things I learned in social work undergraduate studies. A social worker is a relatively new professional compared to others and deals with the poverty and social issues created by the system. I remember the professor smiling and saying that as practitioners we have a prime interest on social problems because if such problems will cease, we will end up jobless.
This was the first (very cynical maybe, someone might argue) important lesson learned during that year. But there is a difference when the professor says so and when you actually get to live the dilemma between your professional background and personal ethics. The simple truth is that I qualified to become a professional who facilitates solutions for disadvantaged people/citizens by connecting them with service providers. I am part of the system indeed and I am quite aware of my complicity, positive as well as negative contribution. But I found out how bitter and cynical can be when facilitating the connection of marginalized individuals to services in a highly nonfunctional system and society!
It is not my intention to deny civil society’s role simply because I have not been involved in those types of initiatives aiming to bring about social justice. That is not at all my intention. I think my frustration is related to my involvement with typical initiatives such as providing services to poor people when the state does not provide. Other initiatives were related to training people about their rights based on the assumption that if they know better they will keep the state accountable. These experiences have made me question my role in sustaining unjust systems.
Firstly, because if civil society NGOs are there to fill the gap left by the state, they are justifying the notion and practice that is ok if state reduces its responsibilities as long as the charity and private institutions are ‘responding’. Secondly, the notion of citizenship is used as the golden standard for poor people to find solutions to problems. I agree with Chatterjee when he notes that ’… the spread of neoliberal ideology has authorized the consecration of every non-state organization as the precious flower of the associative endeavors of free members of civil society’ (Chatterjee, 2004:39).
Therefore participation in civil society is prescribed as the best way for marginalized to exercise agency in an institutional way. So, people have to be trained first to become educated citizens, get organized in groups, know their rights and then knock on state’s doors or attend lobbying meetings etc. etc. This has not worked overall during my work experiences and it was particularly frustrating being one of those initiators of the ‘circulation’ of poor people in the famous circle of networking without results. They were ignored and left out at the end.
I think this was mainly because the government in Albania during this long transition phase from communism to ‘democracy’ has provided dramatic evidence that does not care and respond to the issues of its citizens, let alone the marginalized. There is also a fundamental gap between the most marginalized and the ‘enthusiastic’ professionals like me that teach the ‘uneducated’ to become citizens. We do not loose in the process but they do as their living depends on it. Therefore I have seen the hypocrisy of the discourse of ‘social inclusion’ preaching that marginalized have to be ‘integrated’ as equals in a system which in reality is founded in their exclusion.
Maybe this works in other contexts in Western liberal democracies. I don’t know because I never had that experience of citizenship. I relate mostly with Chatterjee perspective on citizenship and governability. He (ibid) argues that in twentieth century the classic political theory of modern state keeps propagating the illusion of citizens with rights while in reality people cease to be citizens and transform into populations. They are objects of governability which operates upon the principle of benefits and costs. Therefore there is a contradiction between the techniques of administering populations which create in practice different categories of population and the imaginary homogenous construct of equal citizen and nation.
I think same that the political project of civil society (in the third world countries particularly) hides the reality that there are different groups of populations and not a ideal citizen. People in the margins are not free citizens but mostly technical liabilities for the administration. I agree with him when he says that in practice these populations in the margins or subalterns, which he names the political society, do have political agency though act it in different ways from the elite groups which organize in political organizations or civil society institutions (Chatterjee, 2004).
That is why I do not accept anymore the discourse that as a representative of civil society I am contributing for better solutions to people in the margins. That is why I think that I am being complicit when I am part of a system that preaches civil society based on citizenship concept as the best way to social justice. Therefore I firmly oppose the discourse which describes the politics of the marginalized, their ways of resisting, protesting or finding solutions as ‘illegitimate ‘ I firmly oppose to the interpretations of these acts as violent and uncivilized just because they are not organized in the ideal shape of the civil society institutions.
I think the marginalized can and have the right to actually find their own ways to practice politics in this context of dualist discourse of citizenship and governability. I think now that the minimum I can do as a development worker is to understand those acts and not condemn them. The minimum is to get aligned with their resistance as one of multiple ways of seeking justice.
Chatterjee, P. (2004). The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World. New York: Columbia University Press.
Image featured in the header: Indian policemen and activists from the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) clash during a demonstration in Guwahati on June 22, 2011, held to protest against the government’s drive to evict settlers on government land, in Guwahati. STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images