Category Archives: Blog Posts

Dear Airport Security Officer

Dear Airport Security Officer,

I noticed your slim shirt, sharp tie, and crisp hair from the passport check queue and found myself wondering if your shoes are as polished as your upper body. I’m not a freak or anything, but I find that distracting myself and letting my imagination run wild (safely wild, I promise) helps minimize the waiting time. At some point, we all walk up to your colleagues at passport check and answer politely when we are asked “How are you today?” Distracting myself can make the 30-minute wait feel more like 30 minutes and less like seven hours, especially after travelling halfway across the globe, with a few layovers for fun, to reach the queue.

That’s why I had a spark in my eye when you smiled at me and pulled me aside.

You noticed me too!

Yes, pull me to one side, let’s talk! I just hope you don’t smell my breath!

It doesn’t seem like you’re interested in mundane everyday things like the smell of my breath, though. You’re deep.

You’ve done this before, haven’t you, you cheeky flirt! You ask me where I’m from, where I’ve been. I like a man who’s interested in my roots, you never really know someone until you know where they’re from.

Why am I here? Well, I’m here to study.

See? I’m deep too! I’m looking to be englightened!

And judging by the questions you’re asking me now I think there must be some real chemistry between us. The way you look at me while I tell you about myself. Every. Detail. Of. My. Face. There is definitely some chemistry here. You definitely like me back.

Twenty minutes in, I don’t care if my friends are waiting to pick me up outside, I don’t care. I feel like we’re connecting here, Airport Security Officer.

I know, it’s such a fucked up situation back in my hometown, isn’t it. We have pubs and everything, and it’s safe, just that maybe sometimes it can be dangerous.

Oh I don’t know why it’s dangerous, A.S.O! I’m just a kid with a few dreams. You think I care about what goes on back home? Let me tell you now I do not. The reason I’m here is to enjoy the life you have made for yourself. You have free healthcare, a multi-cultural society (I saw that on the brochures!), what a life-loving, peace-loving, open-minded, supportive, and dare I say sharp-looking country (although I still haven’t seen your shoes – are they designer?).

I thought I was here to study and learn and make the world a better place. Having met you, I think I just want you to like me and take me in your arms.

Let’s live your dream together, ASO.

You ask me what my dreams are, and I feel like it’s getting a bit hot in here now. Are we going to kiss under the big UKBA sign? How Romantic! Mistletoes are too mainstream.

Well, dear A.S.O., my dream was to be a student again, and to think about the things I want to think about.

But now I met you, and found you’re so interested in me, everything’s changed.

My dream is to come see you every three months in case you ever choose to ask me out for a micro-beer. It’s to let you know where I’m staying as soon as I can, just in case you want to come over one day (I make tasty exotic foods, wink wink). Fuck it, I guess I have to do something else with my time while I’m here, so might as well give this studying business a shot. My dream is to tell you about every single minute that I spend working, because you care about me, because you care for my mental health, you care that I don’t overwork myself. You want me to learn don’t you, ASO, I knew you cared about me as soon as I saw that smile.

Nice teeth, by the way. The more we talk the more I get the impression your shoes are not going to disappoint once I get to see them.

I know, I’m such a good Platonic lover aren’t I. It’s my parents, man, they raised me to be like this. To make sure that the person I’m in love with is happy with our relationship. Who needs privacy when you have love like this?!

Oh wow. This is getting serious now, you’re asking about my parents. They’re great people, I’ll tell you all about them. This is confusing me a little bit, though, shouldn’t you at least like buy me a drink or something before we start bringing the families into this? It’s only been two hours since we met, and I know this is love on a level I have never experienced before, but come on let’s take this slow and steady.

Or you know what, fuck it. I realize now that I’ve never experienced love like this probably because we don’t do love like this back home. But hey, who am I to stand in the way of love and passion in the UK, huh!

You know what, I get the feeling you’re not that much of a player after all. I can see what you’re trying to do here. You’re going to go to my parents and ask for my hand in marriage aren’t you. Do you have gay marriage here? Okay, I’ll pretend to be naïve and I’ll play along. We don’t have postcodes back home, but I’ll tell you how to get to my house.

I have to warn you, they might be a little bit surprised when you first show up, but they’ll love you I’m sure – especially with that smile you have you charmer. What tooth paste do you use?

See where I’m from this kind of thing doesn’t happen every day, but I guess that’s why I’m here aren’t I. To learn to love, to learn to be like you, have a sense of style like you (not too corporate, but still sharp), to speak like you, smile like you, to love like you, to be loved like you.

And then, in a few year’s time, when I have to go back home, I’ll let you know about that too, and maybe you’ll come with me. Our streets are nowhere near as cultured, historic, or clean for that matter, but we make exotic foods – have you heard of zaatar?

But even if you decide not to follow me back to my hometown, dear ASO, I’ll forever cherish you and what you’ve taught me about love and relationships.

 

Yours obediently, gratefully, and sincerely,

Cardamom Brownie

Image Source: CC Licensed image by Ilona Gaynor, on Flickr

Do mention the garment workers, just not only those in Bangladesh

To kick off spring/summer 2015 London Fashion Week, labour rights activists hung a banner off Waterloo Bridge that read:

“Don’t mention the garment workers”

I applaud this sarcasm and would like to add the following:

“…but if you do mention the garment workers, remember to assume they are all from Bangladesh, and that they only work in fast fashion supply chains producing product for Western fashion consumers.”

Post-Rana Plaza, Bangladesh and Bangladeshi garment workers have become the go-to default example for media to cling to whenever anything questionable comes to light regarding fashion and apparel production and consumption. Bangladesh has become THE primary example for sweatshop working conditions, a phenomenon I argue is detrimental to garment workers everywhere.

This was apparent during the 2014 World Cup, when a Western fashion consumer found a tag stitched into her Primark purchase that read “forced to work exhausting hours.” Later, a similar tag would be found by another shopper, this time reading “‘degrading’ sweatshop conditions.” A third shopper then came forward with a note that read S.O.S., this time with a message written in Chinese.

What does this have to do with the World Cup? Let me explain.

Ever heard of shop dropping? It’s a type of in-store consumer activism, where campaign materials with information related to ‘behind-the-scenes’ product details—such as labels describing social or environmental factors associated with production, for example—are strategically left for consumers to discover in-store, or later at home (examples and research related to shop dropping can be found over on the followthethings.com blog).

In fashion, it seems shop dropping is generally used to drive consumers into action by shocking them with information they can’t ignore. A potential trouble with such shock tactics, however, is that they tend not to include crucial nuanced details relating to the social, cultural, environmental and political factors located at the core of the challenges they seek to resolve.

It’s not clear if the above mentioned messages were in fact ‘shop dropped’ as a tactic to raise awareness on the working conditions of millions of garment workers worldwide. Nonetheless, the stories were picked up by international media, with (surprise!) Bangladesh most often cited in reference to poor working conditions (see just three examples here, here, and here). Thankfully, there was at least one mainstream article questioning the consequence these assumptions might have on garment workers in Bangladesh.

So, as the World Cup was in full swing, the internet was abuzz with the story of the found labels and message. Meanwhile, Cambodian garment workers producing sportswear for adidas—a FIFA World Cup sponsor—were campaigning to have their voices heard. Could you hear them over all of that Primark label noise?

The Playfair ‘All in for a Living Wage’ campaign called on adidas to support garment workers in their struggle for a living wage. The campaign featured translated personal accounts from three adidas workers, asking readers to leave questions for the workers in the comments section of the online posts.

Today marks a day of action for garment workers in Cambodia, as they take to the streets in organized protest against their wages.

So the question is, can we support these workers on this issue without compromising our support for workers elsewhere, with other, separate issues?

Of course we can!

But to do so we need to drop our assumptions related to garment work and workers immediately, and then move to understand that the social, political, economic and cultural landscapes impacting all workers everywhere are unique.

This post was written by Mary Hanlon.

Mary is a Canadian PhD student in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh, researching ir/responsible fashion and apparel production and consumption. You can also find her at SocialAlterations.comM.F.Hanlon@sms.ed.ac.uk

Recommended Reading //

Merk, Jeroen. (2009) Stiching a decent wage across borders: the Asia floor wage proposal. India: Asia Floor Wage Alliance International Secretariat c/o Society for Labour and Development.

Available for download here.

Image Source: War on Want 

Beyond Development

To say “I hate politics”, or “please, I am not that much into politics” – and with much conviction – is more often than not a political act. This resonates well with a long-held view that scientific or technical knowledge, construed by liberal consensus to ‘true’ knowledge, is fundamentally non-political and conversely, that overly political knowledge is not scientific and hence cannot be considered as ‘true’ knowledge.

Following in this precedent, many developments ‘experts’ today, including politicians, have claimed that their work is not ‘political’ but ‘developmental’-within an uncompromising zeal to render the concept of development technical. These apparently unchallengeable, self-evident truisms that exist in the world today originate less from fact than from strategy. Essentially, they allocate certain roles and positions to carefully selected actors and processes while excluding others. Ultimately, they constitute a hegemonic enterprise.

Dispatch 1: 13th September, 2010

“In Nairobi- Higher Education Minister William Ruto has given public universities an ultimatum- phase off all courses that will not help Kenya industrialise if they want to continue getting government funding.”

The Star  

Growing up in Kenya in the 1990s-at the height of neoliberal reform in the ‘Global South’ in general and in Africa in particular- I was actively made to think that sciences were much better than humanities and art. In addition, I was told- in school and in church-that I was created by God, saved by Christ, and would be civilised by Western education: education is the key! And not any other kind of education of course, only that which will turn individuals into obedient servants and workers within a capitalist industrial system, which in my country, is synonymous to development.

In this way, my social world had been carefully thought out and created.

Within this dynamic, the human body and mind has no space for emotions and irrationalities, and that space only exists for facts and logic. Subjects such as literature, history, music, culture, and politics, did not fare well in the epistemological ladder to the scientific heaven.

Dispatch 2: 18 August, 2010

“In Luweero, President Museveni has criticised humanity courses at universities as useless, saying graduates from such departments can hardly solve anything to steer national development.”

Daily Monitor  

Of course, everything else, including poverty, rising levels of unemployment, crime, and violence, were either reduced into technical problems, requiring technical solutions, or viewed as curses -abnormalities occurring to those with little faith and those who did not choose the ‘right’ courses or simply did not work hard in school.

And so, when they ‘sent’ me to the university and after having failed to convince me to study medicine or engineering, my family insisted that I shouldn’t bother myself with university politics – even as student welfare conditions deteriorated without fail. That many had gone through the trouble and were now successful – “driving their own cars!”

Through these disciplinary frameworks, a whole generation in my country and beyond have been encouraged to obey but not to question, to master handed-down formulas of “success”, and mathematical equations, but not to rethink and reinvent their meaning. Ultimately, through these means, people have been urged to steer clear of alternative ways of being and thinking.

This has become extremely powerful and unquestionable at a time where life is becoming increasingly precarious especially for the middle-class, and all sovereignty and power to affect Africa’s destiny and progress has been appropriated by others.

The result of this hegemonic enterprise to wipe out the relevance of any social justice thought and work (which would lead us into asking the difficult questions) and the study of humanities and social sciences which would be relevant in this regard is the de-politicization of development itself. Thus, the global approach to development aims to be scientific and technical, refusing to see poverty and inequality as social justice issues while precluding contestation in whatever is described as a development project.

“By uncompromisingly reducing poverty to a technical problem, and by promising technical solutions to the sufferings of powerless and oppressed people, the hegemonic problematic of ‘development’ is the principal means through which the question of poverty is de-politicized in the world today.”

-James Fergusson, The Anti-Politics Machine, 1994

As argued by Edward Said, the author of Orientalism, no one has yet devised a method that detaches the ‘scientist’, or the development ‘expert’ from the circumstances of life, or from his involvement (conscious or unconscious) with a class, a set of beliefs, a social position, or from the mere activity of being a member of a society.

Yet, an unceasing belief in the magical powers of technocracy and of the assumed non-existence of politics in development matters persists. It allocates unchecked power to the technically educated, and none to the uneducated –the supposedly grateful beneficiaries of development intervention.

In this way, development, as an idea and discursive tool, available for use by democrats and autocrats alike, has stood against unlimited democratic potential and wide-spread progress. It has been deployed to delegitimize political opposition and exacerbate the powerlessness of millions by supporting unwavering foreign intervention into their lives and affairs without their voice. We are now faced with policy makers, experts and officials, who, as one observes, cannot think how things might improve except through their own agency.

BUT- “We tell them [rural peasants] what is good for them,” remarks an agricultural expert with an NGO working in Western Kenya. However, this ‘telling’, which can better be described as ‘coercive persuasion’, has involved the uprooting of ‘undesirable crops’ in rural Rwanda by government officials, the distribution of fertilizer (supposedly to improve agricultural production in rural Ethiopia) which destroys soil fertility, and farmers being ‘asked’ off their small-plots of land so as to pave way for massive plantations that are said will help make Africa ‘food secure’.

The basic question coming out of all these examples is: after half a century of its existence, how is the concept of development achieving wide relevance in a world where inequality and injustice have only increased over time? At what point are we going to have a genuine post-development or ‘beyond development’ conversation?

The problem, it seems, is that such a conversation will mean the tacit acceptance by the international development community that development is inherently political: the exact antithesis of current development discourse.

This post was written by Ngala Chome.

Ngala Chome was born in Kenya and is passionate about ideas and work that challenge existing frameworks for understanding social justice issues and development. He is an editor with Routes and was the 2013-2014 Commonwealth Shared Scholar at the University of Edinburgh. His email is kllnngl@yahoo.com

 

Suggested Readings:

Maria Green, Tanzanian Local Politics

Christian Lund, Ghana, Development and Change, Twilight Institutions: Public Authority and Local Politics, 2006.

Claire Mercer, LSE Civil Society and Community development in Tanzania

Henrietta Moore, Cutting Down Trees

Can sport be radical?

In closing let me say that it is our hope in these our games to stiffen the backbone of these our boys by teaching them manliness, good temper, and unselfishness – qualities amongst many others which have done so much to make many a Britisher, and which we hope to instil into our boys in such a way as to make them strong men indeed. Our belief is that our games may be, when properly controlled, a mighty channel through which God can work to the uplifting of this race.

1909 in the East Africa Protectorate (today, Kenya) and Scottish missionary John William Arthur reflects on a ‘great football match’ he had organised for some Kikuyu boys. People in East Africa had long engaged in physical competitions but this contest involved novel things like a measured pitch, a stopwatch, a score-sheets, and a referee. In fact the ‘great football match’ was one of the earliest organised sports competitions in East Africa. And it was  a part of a broader, global, process experienced in many places all over the world as Brits and other Europeans sought to (re)produce the sports culture of the metropole in their new colonial locations.

The Commonwealth Games are a thread in the entangled history of sport and empire. The Games underline the fact that many of the world’s most successful sporting nations were once British colonies. Running in Kenya, sprinting and cricket in the Caribbean, cricket in India, rugby in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands: people in these places have redefined the very activities people like John Arthur (who, incidentally was born in Glasgow) hoped would ‘stiffen backbones’ and ‘make Britishers.’ They are no longer, as Arthur believed, ‘our games.’

As the overbearing, indeed triumphant, presence of the Queen during the opening ceremony of this summer’s Games forcefully reminded us, some things however, have not changed. A more subtle and less contested imperial legacy is the abiding belief in the capacity of seemingly frivolous activities such as kicking balls and running in circles, to make better citizens. This was, after all, the point of Arthur’s football match in 1909: not the production of elite athletes, but rather ‘good-tempered’, ‘unselfish’, ‘manly’ Christians.

Read today, Arthur’s words might raise an eyebrow: the unshakable confidence he had in the civilising capacity of sport seems out-dated and naive. Nevertheless sport continues to be promoted by public figures for many of the same reasons. It is good, we are told, for young people, particularly poor or supposedly dangerous young people, because it teaches ‘correct’ behaviour and is a ‘productive’ use of time. Sport has been promoted too, on the grounds that those who play sport are more likely to vote. In short, it is supposedly its utility as a ‘disciplinary technique’ that makes sport socially desirable: to subdue people, to make them more obedient. A sub-feature to this narrative – evidenced in the refrain of white collar professionals who ‘do exercise’ in order to relieve stress or help concentration – is that sport makes people more productive (and thus ‘better’) workers.

There are hardly any radical narratives surrounding sport in popular culture. The voice of the establishment has claimed sport in a way which is unique among other pastimes and pursuits. Unlike reading, film-making, or learning a language, you never really hear people championing sport because it allows for an alternative lifestyle, or because it promotes critical engagement with society and the environment. Yet this is exactly what sport can offer. Even at a basic level, whether training, competing, or simply playing for fun, doing sport can lead to alternative ways of thinking about oneself, others, and the world. Sport has much more to offer society than solidifying the status quo.

The commercialisation of sport (and sporting competitions) and the exploitation and abuse of construction workers which has underpinned the staging of recent sporting ‘mega events’ must give us reason to ask whether sport can ever be radical. Any movement in this direction must begin with the recognition that sport itself does not have to be, as Arthur presumed in 1909, inherently controlling.

This post was written by Tom Cunningham.

Tom is entering the second year of a PhD in African Studies at the University of Edinburgh. His thesis, provisionally entitled, ‘Muscular Christianity: A History of the Body and the Church of Scotland Mission to Kenya c1906-1938’, is funded by an ESRC 1+3 studentship.

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