Thursday, June 4, 2009

Duty of care for Others

One thing struck me about my recent conference in Denver. At one of the panels discussing regulation and New Governance, the magic new buzz word, someone in the audience asked how this new style of regulation, which is supposedly flexible and orchestrates many parties, would affect the global south. The specific topic concerned food safety. The panelist replied that Africa was free to adopt whatever regulations it wanted, but that these regulations are so new their affect on the south was really unknown….and of no concern (not said in so many words). This got me thinking.

The response was immediate, almost without a pause, a rote response and uninformed. It was like much of this conference, not to go on, but also like much of America-even since Obama took office. The attitude is that we are all struggling and that the south has got to take responsibility. Then today I read a blog about how Multinational corporations are the new colonists of Africa. The linkage between these two is accountability, responsibility and culture.

Americans do not blame things on the government or other people-not fundamentally. They believe that individuals make decisions and are responsible for what happens to them. This is cultural. It is demonstrated in the American public’s lack of sympathy for people who borrowed too much to buy their houses. Public opinion holds that those individuals need to pay for that mistake-not the general public in the form of TARP $$. This is the cornerstone of individualism. This thinking is not universal.

Much of sub-Saharan Africa has a Marxist history and their orientation is to look for oppression from outside. There is a good deal of criticism of internal African problems, but that does not stop the blaming of the other. This is legitimate of course, but diverse from how Americans approach problems. And this distinction is not because American is wealthier. It is a cultural difference. The thinking comes from a different starting place. This leads to miscommunication and misunderstanding I think-on both sides.

To be clear, I am not disagreeing that the colonial powers had a long-term detrimental affect and that aid has not managed to help. I will even agree that aid has become an industry within itself and maybe no longer see helping as an objective, only sustaining its own existence. But what I have been thinking about is accountability and responsibility. Most Americans would say that there is a statue of limitations on what happened to you in the past-move on. This is cultural-not hard-hearted. I think I am trying to get my mind around a certain African perspective that blames the past for all ills. I think there is a disconnect here. African writers do not always mean to blame the past on its present day ills. It is a complaint of another nature.

I spent a lot of happy time with Marxists, and I still do stay in touch. They have a distinctly not-American context to all of their thinking. I think African writing is identifying something other than blame and many nations have a Marxist history and retain that thinking. They are not speaking about pinning their problems on someone else. They are identifying a power-imbalance that continues. ‘Don’t agonise-organise’-this is not talking about stopping the identification of past harms, it is talking about creating a balance to an economically superior partner/enemy/co-habitant.

I want to develop this idea a little further. I think within all of the diverse context in which this discussion goes on, there is one other thing that contributes to the conversation and that is a duty of care. Bill Gates recently said that all billionaires should give most of their money away to philanthropic causes because it feels good to do so. I could not agree more. With all of the discussion of Executive pay today, what exactly is Larry Ellison of Oracle doing with $450 billion a year. How much does his family need exactly? There IS a duty of care owed by those who make outrageous amount of money. They owe it to the universe that made them rich to help others. This should be the cost of capitalism. There is a duty for prosperous nations under the same paradigm. But it is not reparations. It is not a price for slavery or colonialism. It is something more fundamental and more enduring. The demand should not be a one time payment for harm but something more than restitution-something more basic. It is payment for good luck. It is socialist as an American would say. Your surplus should help support your neighbour.

There is a duty of care owed by those better off to reach out and help others. This may not be what drives the IMF and the World Bank and that needs to be reformed. This duty however is not limited to former colonial powers. This duty is owed by all countries that have HUMANS and business organisations or governments that are exceedingly profitable. This is what I find unhelpful by some of the focus of African criticism. The profitable countries, hence ones with economic power, may not have been a former colonial power yet there is still a duty. Yes, former colonial powers continue to owe a duty for sure. But the list is expanding

Are corporations representatives of their countries? Yes and no. Yes, corporations rape and pillage. But it is not always a national or race issue. They rape and pillage in the US and the UK just like they do in Africa. Banks and mortgage companies in the US have left people completely destitute and without recourse. This is not just because of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). It happens all the time and we all pass legislation in the hope of stopping it. We all struggle with the nature of globalisation and powerful corporations. Some more than others.

The default position that everyone just wants to exploit Africa has somehow got to give way to a more complex understanding of how all of these entities –corporations, aid agencies, NGOs- function in the global economy. Exploitation happens everywhere all of the time. It is a power struggle between the strong and the weak and that crosses gender and racial boundaries. Pointing it out is essential. Feel the victim-ok. But after that-organise.

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