Friday, May 20, 2011

Knowledge Mobilization

It's been quite some time since I've had a chance to update this page. For those of you who might be interested in checking out my book on cotton, the introduction is available here. If you like what you see in the introduction to Governing Cotton: Globalization and Poverty in Africa, the book is available from the publisher and from sellers in the UK, the US, France, Germany and Canada. To disseminate the research and facilitate knowledge to action, I recently gave a talk at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and gave a copy of the book to Wits Department of International Relations. I subsequently moved on to conduct a seminar on my findings at Research on Poverty Alleviation (REPOA), a Dar es Salaam-based think tank. The Business Times published reports on this event in advance of the seminar and after it took place, and a copy of the book was donated to the REPOA library. After Tanzania I moved on to Cameroon to give a talk to over fifty students and faculty at the University of Buea, and donated a copy of the book to their library. I am currently revising an article that compares corporate social responsibility efforts in Africa's cotton and timber sectors, and will post a new update when that is out.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Self-Absorbed in Dundas (aka “Fundas”)

The word vainglorious is appearing evermore frequently in the press these days. Ego-tripping has always been prominent in the rich world but seems to have surpassed the tipping point in 2007. Perhaps this trend is rooted in the kind of self-glorification Facebook propagates. I bit the bullet and joined this evil self-promoting empire the other week. For me, the choice was actually a no-brainer as I have been guilty to the extreme of vainglory these past few years. The market for post-graduate academic and policy research consulting work demands that I project an image of success. As a grad student with contingent, flexible and part-time jobs on the horizon, this drive to brand myself a winner has sometimes been overwhelming. I am quite certain that my occasional obsession with this aspect of the biz pisses my colleagues off to some extent, if not my academic overlords, non-professional acquaintances and even my friends. With Facebook, the latest incarnation of my fixation, I made the choice to dive in not simply for the personal connectivity that it can enable. Making use of the site seemed also to be a good opportunity to create a few “backwards linkages” in my network. My thinking at the time was that some of the people that I had fallen apart from over many years of increasingly instrumental or career-oriented networking might be tempted to check out what I was up to. In hindsight, this rationale reeks of an individualism gone horribly wrong. That being said, I won’t be closing down my account anytime soon. I’ll leave it to others to decide whether this is an instance of cognitive dissonance or of Facebook’s increasingly insurmountable cultural “hegemony.” It’s likely a little bit of both….

The “culture” of self-centricity in this place is at the forefront of my mind these days due to the fact that it was quite absent during my time in Sénégal. Social living with Keba Faty’s wonderful family and his French expat researcher guests enabled me to approach life in an entirely new way. There is no place in his extended household for “gaining wealth and forgetting all but self.” Back when I was a treeplanter in Northern Ontario’s massive clear cuts I had previously lived a communal life. However, the nature of that dirty job – i.e. bending over for 8 cents per tree again and again to get my piece of the limited “pie” before someone else did – reinforced my selfishness. In Dakar I felt connected to those around me at a higher level. Gone were the barriers to community thrown up by suburbia and its fleet of so-called “private” gas guzzling transport containers. In their place was a teeming market where the sights and the scents drew my attention to the fact time and again that we are all in the same boat. French colonial heritage might also have had something to do with my experience. It was my first time living for an extended period with people who have grown together outside of what can be called the “Anglo-American” sphere of influence and individuality.

I worry these days about the extent to which North Americans are individualized and privatized. I am not sure if it is healthy that the solution to nearly every social or ecological ill on offer in the popular press seems to be market-based or rooted in the idea that people have to get busy helping themselves. I am getting fed up with hearing about the micro-level, peripheral successes of self-aggrandizing philanthropic entrepreneurs or “philanthropreneurs”, as The New York Times has dubbed them. The fact that the onus is being put on North American citizens to alter their consumption habits in order to save the planet, rather than on rent-seeking, non-innovative corporations that are supplying the public with outdated technologies such as the internal combustion engine, is also continual source of frustration. The need for substantive global level collective efforts to implement regulatory ideas about the global economy and the biosphere that have been floated for decades and that could very well advance the principles of global equality and intergenerational equity has never been starker. Yet the media continues to foster the notion that the star power of Oprah, Bono and Bill Gates is making more than a marginal difference. They have sung the praises of the latest Nobel Peace Prize winning “solution” for poor people across the South – that they should jump into debt through obtaining micro-finance in order to eventually climb the “ladder” out of poverty – at a time when there appears to be no end in sight to the astronomical levels of personal indebtedness amongst ostensibly “rich” consumers in the United States. The market for information is saturated with stories about the world that have been framed in a similar manner. Maybe someday more people will become aware of the limits of the current orgy of individualism. For example, the absurdity of excess individualism might become apparent when media “consumers” are implored to sponsor individual penguins atop of melting icebergs in order to facilitate their relocation via corporate-sponsored carbon neutral yachts to CFC-free cold storage pens at private “climate refugee” reserves. Or not. Financial types often point out the necessity and desirability of this pervasive force. As an individual, I agree with them. But I also believe that it must be balanced, as Karl Polanyi pointed decades ago in The Great Transformation, with an equally dominant community orientation. So, where’s the balance? I’m still trying to find it….

Monday, July 02, 2007

Hard Landing

Leaving Senegal was much more difficult than I had anticipated. I spent my final evening in Dakar on a great three hour ocean view dinner date with Tina GASSAMA, one of my officemates at ENDA Diapol. While watching the sun set over the Atlantic and conversing in French we walked along the beach until a man seated near a dilapidated gate demanded to know where we were going. He looked me in the eye and explained that we had to turn around, as the rest of the beach was “property of Club Med.” I asked him if he told the hungry local sheep the same thing whenever they mistakenly venture on to the hallowed grounds of the global elite. I got the sense that my sarcastic words were somewhat lost in translation. We beat a hasty retreat to a fantastic restaurant and I proceeded to learn a little bit about what life is like for an Islamic woman holding down a research job while pursuing her Masters degree in development economics and helping to look after the everyday needs of her four brothers.

Back at Keba’s place I collected my baggage and deposited a few more things with his family, including the remains of my medical kit and a cell phone. Several family members had come down with malaria during the previous weeks and I implored Keba to invest in new mosquito nets. Saying my goodbyes I realized how lucky I was to have been immersed in the French language and in Senegalese culture with such happy people. On the street with all of my things they literally had to push me into the waiting taxi.

Having confirmed my flight twelve hours earlier I was worry-free, and as I walked through the typically sketchy scene at the airport on my way to the check in I was counting down the hours to the sushi dinner that awaited me in Toronto. After handing over my travel documents and turning up the volume on the Toure Kunda track I was listening to, the supervisor tapped me on the shoulder and informed me that I did not have the required documentation. Despite the fact that my name and seat number were already in the system and confirmed, he explained that he needed to have my paper-based ticket in his hands before he would let me board the plane. I only had a flight receipt, itinerary and confirmation in the system. After asking him to telephone South African Airways (SAA) Dakar downtown office, and being told that that was my responsibility, my blood pressure went up a notch.

As we walked back through security to the SAA airport office he pointed to a pay phone and told me I had better hurry or risk missing the flight. With no one available at the Dakar office to assist me on the phone – it was 12:30am on Sunday morning – I walked into the airport office and asked if there was anyone that could help me to get on the plane. I was notified that I would have to buy an entirely new ticket to Washington, and then purchase my onward journey from Washington to Toronto after my arrival at Dulles. They refused outright to call anyone at SAA on my behalf. At that point I lost my cool and in return received a lecture regarding customer service and how the concept only applies to those that do not resort to exasperated language. Relenting, I told them that I would purchase the new ticket and for some unknown reason I was advised that I could only obtain it through the Air Senegal International office next door. The people staffing that office subsequently swiped my credit card and issued me what I thought was the ticket.

Returning to the check in I was told that Air Senegal had only printed my boarding pass and that SAA still needed to see that I had in fact made the purchase. Once again I found myself outside of security imploring the Air Senegal staff to hurry while listening to the SAA Supervisor harangue me about my language. Just after they handed me the ‘real’ ticket and I observed that it was strangely dated the 25th of June rather than the correct date of 24 June, the Supervisor picked up his radio and instructed his team to close the flight. I bolted for the check in. Upon arrival I was told by numerous people to “come back again.” And then, having no other option available, I began to grovel in earnest. In French I explained to the Supervisor how he was most certainly right and that I was the dumbest rookie traveler South and West of the Sahara. I think he liked the self-deprecation, as before I knew it, I was on the tarmac watching the stairs being backed up to the plane and its sealed door being reopened a full hour after the flight had been scheduled to depart. Relieved to be in my seat I contemplated the many lessons that I could learn from this experience (such as the lingering importance of paper in an era of digital reservation systems) and wondered if the whole event had simply been an elaborate scam or if there were other reasons beyond my own stupidity it had been so physically difficult to leave Africa this time.

After shelling out at Dulles for the home stretch I arrived in Toronto ready for an amazing Bloor Street sushi experience. During my time in Dar es Salaam I did not make it to Tanzania’s sushi bar and I similarly avoided a Kigali restaurant that offered sushi to patrons that were able to give “twenty-four hours notice” of their intention to consume raw fish. I should have known something was up on Bloor when the white tuna I ordered resembled the colours of the pink and brown tones in my wardrobe. Recovering in Collingwood from the welcome back bad fish the next evening, I found myself amazed yet again at the scale of life here. One of my former students recently referred to this as our “big Canadian lifestyle.” I was slightly overwhelmed by the ordinary.

Things were basically non-stop culture shock this past week as I set up my office at the University and my living space in Dundas. While finishing up the former task I stopped into the Institute office at McMaster to hand in an envelope containing receipts from my research-related expenses that had been sealed and stowed in my luggage since April. Inside that envelope Sara Mayo, the Institute’s Administrative Coordinator, found my glossy and unused paper-based SAA ticket. Someday soon, perhaps I will be able to make use of the absent minded professor excuse….

I pushed on to Ottawa for a few meetings at The North-South Institute and caught up with a few friends. My misadventures with transportation systems continued Thursday as I headed back to Toronto on a 6pm train that made it only as far as Belleville before having to reverse back to Kingston as the tracks were blocked. Twelve hours later the bus I was traveling on came to a stop at Union Station. Most people I conversed with that night told me that the strategy of blocking railways and roads to raise awareness about the plight of Canada’s aboriginal peoples – the reason for our lengthy delay – was misguided. One of my seatmates asserted that Canada’s First Nations people do not experience “real poverty like Africans do.” It was a tough a night. Although it was a long first week back in Canada, I am still smiling.


The North-South Institute has posted a number of these writings on their site:

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Merci, Merci, Merci!

Many, many thanks to the future President of the United Republic of Tanzania, Baraka Shelukindo, and to Reuben Mwaikinda, Namwaka Omari-Mwaikinda, Sakari Saaritsa, Tchaka Ndlovu, Liam Kavanagh, George Kabelwa, Oswald Mashindano, Pendo Kundya, John, Sarah Hunt, Tamara Plush, Brian Cooksey, Robyn Agoston, Mireille Saurette, Andrew Deak, Andre Reinach, Mwatima Juma, Niranjan Pattni, Hugo Gisler, Donald Max, Joe Kabissa, Ann Yoachim, Sam Wangwe, Gerry Helleiner, Roy Culpeper, Bill Morton, Lois Ross, Darlene Sanchez, Ann Weston, Sunday Khan, Hugo Cameron, Marc Froese, William D. Coleman, Daniel Drache, Eric HAZARD, Sally BADEN, Keba FATY, Mouscouta FATY, Florent ARRAGAIN, Sabrina LEVENEZ, Alexis ANOUAN, Barry ALIMOU, Abdoulaye DIA, Moussa SABALY, Amdiatou DIALLO, Boubacar KAMISSOKO, Tina GASSAMA, Jeff Ballinger, Matias Margulis, Jean Michel Montsion, Murray Wilson, Bob Huish, John Howison, James Hetmanek, Kat Peterson, Gordon King, John & Ann Sneyd and all of the other wonderful people that helped me to find my way over the past six months. This blog will live on from Canada....

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Two Solitudes

The guidelines for a Ph.D. in political ‘science’ at McMaster University stipulate that the dissertation should be 60 0000 words in length. With this fact looming ever larger I have had to make the choice to leave what a friend refers to as my “smiley expat universe” for the time being. I am heading back to the Institute on Globalization and the Human Condition to take stock of the information I have collected over the past six months, throw myself into the literature and get down to drafting. With only a few more interviews to complete before hopping on a flight to what could be just a little bit of a culture shock, I have been thinking quite a bit about the costs and benefits of this choice.

Here in Dakar I have been living my life in a new language. In a sense this experiment has been liberating. Though limited by my tiny vocabulary, I have been able to articulate my real feelings about issues and let my true personality shine through without inhibition. The freedom of this new world is slightly addictive. Growing up in officially bilingual Canada I had basically zero interest in learning French. Through immersing myself in Senegal’s people and its baguettes, street art, poetry and sunshine, I have put an end to my insularity. This of course has partly been of necessity: the legacy of France’s colonial era policy of assimilation is overwhelming. For example, I was actually quite perturbed yesterday when I went to buy a bottle of water (itself a political act) and the vendor did not speak French! However, the generosity of my hosts and the insights of my colleagues at ENDA Diapol have been equally powerful motivators as I have attempted to drag myself out of my Anglophone cave. French-language CBC programming, here I come….

In general, the Senegalese are truly beautiful and exude happiness despite the sad reality that they continue to be what some refer to as the country’s “principal export.” Even so, during my runs from Ouakam down to the coast my interactions with them have not always been positive. During my first weeks here I remained preoccupied with work or lost in other thoughts when I hit the road, and as a consequence, dodging sheep dung, horse-drawn carriages and big Mercedes was a serious challenge. Public buses and private vehicles ceaselessly seemed to veer in my direction and I found myself constantly having to move further off to the side of the roads and into the deep sand of the shoulders. Admittedly, this was mostly my fault. Being part of a toubab minority that constitutes less than 1% of the population, my inattentive presence in running gear on the roads was distracting and novel. These days when I run I endeavor to be aware of my surroundings and typically find that I have a big smile plastered on my face. As a result, my experiences en route are increasingly enjoyable. Making eye contact and flashing a genuine smile seems to disarm people that have a lot of hospitality in their hearts.

On the surface then, it appears that my decision to leave this place will cost me a fantastic lifestyle. In one week my daily post-run doses of sunshine while stretching (and dancing) under the neighbourhood baobab tree will come to an end. I will also have to forgo a search for the two ultimate expat comforts: the perfect motorcycle and the ideal open-air rooftop apartment. The opportunity costs of staying to pursue these dreams are too high at this point. This is the case not simply because going home means that I will not wreck any more pairs of underwear through my vain efforts to wash my clothes by hand, or that I will once again have access to organic veggies and a hardcopy my beloved Financial Times. Staying now would necessarily entail falling apart from the very people and the place that gave me the means to pursue this research adventure in the first place. It is absolutely essential that I return to give back to the community that provided me with the keys to pursue work that – as these pages attest – has honestly enabled a voyage of self-discovery. Moreover, being present at McMaster now will not only ensure that I reap gains from being proximate to top minds in the fields of globalization studies and political economy, but also give me an incentive to perform efficiently: the vision of a returning to sub-Saharan Africa and making a difference.

Monday, June 04, 2007

A Little Rostock in Dakar

One of my friends currently in Rostock, Germany to protest the Group of 8 (G8) meeting describes the police presence there as “the biggest he has ever seen.” While he was on the streets pushing for a new type of global governance and facing the water canons on Saturday, I was in a packed seaside bar watching Senegal’s national soccer team take on Tanzania’s ‘Taifa Stars’ live from Mwanza. The final score was a 1-1 draw, a fitting end to a contest between two most hospitable countries. In the immediate aftermath the din resulting from animated debates over the factors that led the speedy Tanzanians to hold the mighty Lions to just one goal more than drowned out a newsflash that twelve people had died in a stampede following another big match in Northern Zambia.

Escaping to the beach I watched some kids bathe a group of sheep and listened to one person after another as they tried to convince me to buy the beads, paintings or cashews they had on offer. I wondered if any of the young people I saw enjoying their Saturday knew that some of their European contemporaries were at that moment putting their bodies on the line in Germany for the future of peoples and the planet. Later that night I attended an open air, all night party where the fantastic DJ skills and alter ego of a renowned West African cotton expert were on display. As I experienced one of my first truly multicultural moments in Sub-Saharan Africa this year the events at Rostock seemed to be more than a world away. So too did the discussions I witnessed at Wilton Park two weeks ago about the ways and means to build a more equitable global order. Even so, as night turned into day my desire to de-stress remained unfulfilled. After a week of running my “paper writing machine” at full tilt in order to produce a record of the Wilton Park discussion it proved difficult to leave the shop behind. The great tunes and the cool ocean breeze had not put a stop to my worries about the lack of resonance global issues seemed to be having locally.

Fishing off Dakar’s rugged coast with two French expat researchers yesterday these doubts faded. Through a combination of clumsiness and inattention, my line consistently entangled my new friends’ lines, making it more difficult for them to land the barracudas and other large fish they were hooking again and again. The negative ‘externality’ the boat experienced as a direct result of my poor fishing skills and daydreams drew my attention to a political parallel. It seemed to me that the articulation of extreme views on the global democracy and justice movement might have a similar effect. For example, the energetic work of thinkers and activists that has helped the movement to regain the momentum it lost after the September 11th terrorist attacks might be tripped up by rants that focus exclusively on the barriers to achieving change. Similarly, voices that encourage a suspension of disbelief in the movement’s beneficence or strength might ensnare it in an excessive utopianism. At the weekend, my thoughts were firmly at the former end of the spectrum. They were imbalanced and lacking what one prominent US-based self-help guru terms the “power of positive thinking.” In the field of International Relations, students are taught to consider ‘Realism’ and ‘Idealism’ as two separate and competing schools of thought. Beyond this limited and somewhat archaic academic debate, it seems to me that the drive for global equality and intergenerational equity can and should embrace both concepts. Far from being a contradiction, equilibrium between the two – a ‘realistic idealism’ – that foregrounds problems, prospects and diverse policy alternatives appears to me to be exceptionally rational.

If it is not already apparent, the need for balance has become the principal theme and preoccupation of my little adventure…and I am really enjoying every minute of it.


Pictured: Andrew Deak, André Reinach and the spirit of Dr. Tadzio Mueller

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

London Calling

What reforms need to be made to the global political and economic order to promote global equality and intergenerational equity? Do intellectuals and policymakers from the ‘South’ or ‘Third World’ advance perspectives on the changes necessary to advance these principles that are fundamentally different or even at odds with the views that empowered development elites from the rich countries articulate? If so, what are the specific points of divergence and the barriers to the advancement of ‘Southern’ perspectives? How can Southerners realize their visions for change?

This weekend, The North-South Institute is holding a conference at Wilton Park, GB that aims to address these questions in great detail. The participation of several dozen high level people in the development business ensures that this will be an intellectually stimulating and enriching event. I am writing a report on the proceedings and look forward to sharing my more informal thoughts here. En route to another wonderful and challenging learning experience....


Pictured (l to r): Wilton Park's Roger Williamson, Professor Samuel Wangwe, Richard Manning, Chair of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD's) Development Assistance Committee, and Dr. Alejandro Bendaña. The Southern Perspectives Wilton Park Conference Report is now available on The North-South Institute website.