Who pays the price ?
All struggles that seek to fight the immoral plagues of our societies and take humanity to a higher moral ground, are rooted in a ideology, often structured around justice, equity, solidarity, love and other beautiful values. All of us deep down know that these values are central to the existence of humanity. To be together, live along side each other and develop any sense of community, these values have to be present in some form or another, and the more central and prevalent these values are to one’s society, the more peaceful, happy and sustainable such society can become.
Many amazing justice movements are constantly fighting for this, but there is a growing trend of professionalization of movements and non profit organisations, while pushing them towards a more corporate model that better fits the zombie-like belief of free markets. The pressure to show good annual value for donor funds is reshaping how we fight these social issues and forcing the focus on short term gains at the cost of real long-term change. A large part of what is considered to be civil society is fighting these battles primarily in a strategic manner and not centering them around a moral ideology that takes society as a whole to a better place.
This is clear when we look at how we dealing with the climate crisis. The main solutions pushed by our governments are strategically centered around greed for money, in other words through markets. All over the place one hears comments that societies will not do anything unless there is a economic benefit. That you need to be able to sell it to save it, etc, etc, etc… We have seemed to accept this narrative, and by accepting this narrative we are basically saying the present day societies are not driven by moral values, but by economic incentives. That is a scary thought if you just stop and think about it for a moment. And lets no forget that victories then reinforce the values that guided the campaign and shifts society even further in that direction.
But that’s why our victories against slavery, colonialism, racism, gender inequity, and more were really important. They not only showed that these systems were wrong, but they reinforced the values of equality, equity, solidarity, etc that guided these movements and shifted our societies further in that direction. Its not easy and its always a big balancing act between ideology and strategy. Even in the biggest victories of civil society we can see the cost of strategy on ideology, and there are people that end up paying this cost, even in movements with the highest ideological values. A good example of a movement that had strong guiding ideologies and carefully considered strategies was the US civil rights movement that fought for equality and against racial segregation in the US, but even in such an amazing movement, one can find the cost of strategy and its consequences on the ideology. We can learn a lot from them…
Brown vs the Board of Education
A protest in the 1950s in favour of segregation! Photo courtesy: Thurgood Marshall Center Trust
The case of Brown vs the Board of Education in the 1950s is a good example to illustrate the complexity of the issue. Even though equal rights for all races had been recently achieved on paper, most southern states in the 1950s had segregated public schools, with white students going to nearby neighborhood schools, while students of colour went to a different system of schools that were sparsely spread throughout the city. These non-white schools had their own teachers, principals, headmasters and management that were also of colour.
The Brown family, who the case is named for, had a 7 year daughter called Linda who had to walk 7 blocks, often in bad weather, then cross a busy street, to get a bus across the city to be able to go to her non-white school, while a white-only school was just 4 blocks away. In light of this unjust segregation, one of the leading civil rights groups, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), instructed the Brown family and 12 other black families to try to enroll in their local neighborhood white schools. As we can imagine, they were denied admission due to their race, and this served as the start of a case that finally reached the US Supreme Court and become the famous landmark victory “Brown vs the Board of Education (1954)”.
Now, if one looks into the case information, one notices a trend of setting up a notion of the inferiority of colored schools, it is even highlighted within the actually ruling:
“Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children”;
“policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group”;
“Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children”.
These are all excerpts from the ruling and all reinforce the notion that white schools were superior, that the segregation of schools was having severe negative effects, even retardation of colored children. This was not what the civil rights movements were saying, they were saying that segregation and racial discrimination was unjust and unconstitutional. That all should have the right to choose which school is best for them. In summary it was based on fundamental legal and moral principles, even if the quality of both white and black schools were the same.
In case you are wondering, no the colored schools were actually not inferior and were actually often better. One of the reasons for this is that highly educated people of color were forbidden to work in certain sectors and overall were discriminated by all sectors to the point that becoming a teacher in the colored school system was one of the few respectable job options, hence there were a very high number of very highly gifted, intelligent and education teachers of colour. Furthermore, the civil rights movement valued the importance of education and many gifted individuals became teachers to contribute to the education of people of colour and their political enlightenment.
A newspaper announcing the ban on school segregation, May 1954. Photo courtesy: Thurgood Marshall Center Trust
Why is all this important? The fight was to achieve equal rights for all races, and ending segregation of the education system was an important step in this process. The existing racial basis of the system (including the Court) instinctively believed that people of colour and the education systems they were running were inferior to those run by whites. This is clearly reflected in the ruling that centered around this notion and in the process reinforced these racial, immoral and incorrect views. Even after the ruling, the case was seen as a milestone, a great victory for all and is used as a example for other struggles. And it is all that, but we must not forget the cost of this strategy to allow the framing and at times even use the existing basis to increase the likelihood of victory. The notion that the colored school system were deterimental to colored students was a strategically useful notion to get white people to accept that segregation was unjust, as well as unconstitutional.
Naomi Brooks et al., Appellants, v. School District of City of Moberly, Missouri, Etc., et al
The Moberley case book cover. Photo courtesy: snapdeal.com
The feeding, use of or even letting these incorrect and immoral social views prevail has serious long term consequences. In the case of the Brown vs the Board of Education ruling, it set the stage for how the desegregation process was to play out. As white and colored schools started integrating, there were decisions to be made on which schools should be closed, which were the best teachers to work in these new integrated schools and of course the parents could now choose the closest and best neighborhood school for their kids. Logically, choosing the best of both systems would have produced a great new schooling system, but the ruling had already biasly defined which were the best schools, which were the best teachers and that was incorrectly deemed to be the white schools and white teachers. So almost all the black schools were closed and almost all the teachers that were fired in the process were black teachers, often with higher levels of education then their white counterparts, often with clearly better experience, teaching records and results.
Basically, in any logical, fair and measurable manner their were better qualified black teachers that were let go in favor of less qualified white teachers. What is also sad is that the best qualified black teachers were purposely let go because they were seen as a threat and challenged the notion that was the foundation of the integration process. Across the southern states their were over 82,000 teachers at the time of the Brown ruling and during the integration process almost half (40,000 teachers) were fired, and it would have been more if there were enough white teachers to deal with the larger unified schooling system.
As you can imagine, the civil rights movement didn’t let this injustice towards coloured teachers happen without a fight and in 1959 the case Naomi Brooks et al., Appellants, v. School District of City of Moberly, Missouri, Etc., et al. reached the Supreme Court’s docket, but was denied and the reasoning behind this decision is embedded with racism and prejudice. The case had such clear evidence that the judge had to find odd ways to overcome the facts, stating about one teacher that “she gave the impression that she considered herself superior to other teachers”. She was way superior in all measurable terms to the teacher that was selected in her place and no hard evidence was given to back up this statement. Another statement tries to explain the hiring patterns saying that human abilities can’t be “reduced to a mathematical formula” and with that he set the foundation for ignoring all the hard facts, data and evidence proving that the coloured teachers in question were better qualified than the white counterparts that were selected. Not to go too much into the details, but I think we all understand the patterns.
These two cases are strongly linked and highlight the difficult balance between ideology and strategy. Was the Brown case too strategic in letting the racial biases of the time help guide the ruling to victory? The cost of which the coloured teachers paid the consequences. Was the Moberly case naively ideological and not strategic enough, resulting in the loss? In truth I do not know, and I don’t have the right to criticize the amazing work done by the civil rights movement. However, I do believe that we should know and acknowledge who paid the cost of these battles. The people that paid the price of integration, for example. In this case one of the most affected and under-appreciated of them all were the amazing coloured teaches that were so central to the enlightenment of the colored youth. And let us not forget that even the teachers that did manage to keep their jobs still faced the reality of all coloured people of the time, in their case being constantly harrassed, not allowed to use the whites-only teachers room or even toilets, and much more…
To be clear, Brown vs Board of Education was really important and the US would be far more unjust today without it. But it reminds us that we must always consider and know who pays the price of some of our strategies.
I guess some of you are saying “interesting, but whats the link to us in Mozambique?”
Well, Mozambique’s civil social is very “service provider” with a strong trend towards professionalization and donor-orientated agendas. Even the few movements we have are heading in the same direction, with the technical staffs having more and more influence over the political leadership of the movements. Most groups strategies and works shift to match funding trends, with the objectives and activities heavily focused on satisfying donor systems and interests, not the long term well-being of the people they claim to represent.
The few ideology-based organizations in Mozambique are often referred to as ‘radical’, ‘unrealistic’ “extreme’, etc…in some cases even ‘against development’, ‘unpatriotic’, foreign agents etc… The problems is that subconsciously our civil society believes that they have no power and never will, so they focus on trying to get the best out of a bad situation. Basically they are fighting for the crumbs that fall off the masters table. A good example of this has been in the Prosavana campaign. At the beginning there were more than 20 groups involved, and given the facts of the project, it was clear that the project was going to be devastating to the subsistence-based farmers in the area. Given this, the campaign “No to Prosavana” developed, but within a short time groups started stepping out of the campaign. Some because large funds were available to do work within the Prosavana process, which were clear attempts to show investors that social and environmental components were taken into consideration (green washing). Other groups started to feel the political pressure and power of the elites. Finally, some groups realized the magnitude of the project, and powers involved, causing them to believe that the project was a reality and the only aspect left was to make the best of the a bad situation and fight for the crumbs.
Of all the groups that started out in the Campaign, no one believed that the project was going to be of any good to the people. All agreed that in a ideal world the only answer to such project would be “NO!”, instead the message from many groups is ‘we must sit at the table, we must negotiate, we can humanize the Prosavana campaign’. None of those NGOs has anything to lose by this so-called ‘strategic approach’. They get paid by funders to sit at the table and be strategic. Not only are they not defending the interests of affected people who would lose their lands and livelihoods, but they are creating a false notion that Prosavana could be beneficial, with just a few tweaks.
We refused to be strategic in this case because as we know sitting at the table is to be complicit with the loss of livelihoods of thousands of subsistence farmers. One can only be strategic within a ideological framing. Being strategic without a ideological foundation makes one prone to drift and lose the long term vision that is required for any significant change. The focus on small winnable activities allows for discontent in one’s objectives, like independent bubbles that pop and leave no lasting impact. Pretty and fun, but substance none.
Even in its early phase of the “No to Prosavana” campaign one can see the benefits of a ideological approach. Originally Mozambique was seen as a country that was favorable for large scale land investment due to its corporate supportive governments and weak civil society that are very willing to sit down and green wash their investments. The “No to Prosavana” (run by just 8 groups) has managed to change this perception of landgrab investors. Mozambique is now seen as a country with risks for investors, where civil society and affected communities can cause major headaches, delays and problems for investors. Where the landgrab situation is starting to cause broad public concern and even mentioned as a possible future trigger for public uproar if not managed. One academic has even speculated that numerous investors have moved away from investing in large landgrab projects in Mozambique due to the “No to Prosavana” and its ability to expose the impacts, develop public perceptions, etc… So even if the project goes ahead the campaign has contributed to a growing vision on land rights and strengthen civil societies confidence, and its right to say NO!
2014 press conference from the ‘No to Prosavana’ campaign
Climate change campaigning tells a similar story in Mozambique at the moment. Civil society is too happy to jump on the Paris Agreement bandwagon, celebrating it, even though it doesn’t come close to meeting what science says is needed, even though it doesn’t promote the solutions that the people have shown to be the best, even though its not legally binding and there are little to no serious consequences if countries don’t meet the targets that they set themselves with little regard for science and facts. The Paris Agreement will burn the planet and Mozambique will be one of the countries to be affected quite severely early on. Defending the Paris Agreement is a strategic approach at best (and completely delusional at worst). After emissions stabilized for last few years, they are now set to rise again (research from late 2017). The leaders are not keeping their part of the deal. Even the terribly weak deal they set themselves. Nevertheless, Mozambique civil society is happy to feed on the scraps and work in sync with donor priorities because there are significant amounts of funds; because there are winnable goals; and because that is what they believe is possible and realistic….in short, it is the strategic thing to do…
Its simple, our civil society no longer fights its struggles grounded on ideology, but is over-focused on strategy and short term gains that they try to over-inflate into victories. The Brown case shows how even small strategic actions have long term consequences, but at least they won the battle. So imagine the long term impacts of Mozambique’s current approach, and I doubt even that change can be achieved through this approach. We, civil society, have seem to accept defeat and are focusing on the crumbs. Have we even tried to understand who is going to pay the cost of all this? All struggles need to be centered around an ideology, and its on this foundation that we can be strategic. We can’t let strategy over ride the values of our ideology, even if it implies a longer path to our goals, because when we win our struggle we also bring this foundation of values into our society and not just the specific issue that sparked the struggle. Life is a struggle, and true change takes time and courage.
The monsters of today’s injustices are not going away quietly into the night. They have no morals, heart or conscious, so can’t be guided or convinced based on logic, science or basic humanity. They have an endless hunger for capital and will starve if they stop doing what they do best. They will continue to do so till they consume themselves or cause a planetary collapse. Its not the monsters fault, its the nature of the beast. How long can we live off its crumbs before all we know crumbles. Its time to end capitalism…lets kills this monster!