Freedom Against Sobriety?

Reflections on Capacity-Building during the Digital Divide

'Fifty per cent of the world's hungry live in five countries: India, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Pakistan and Indonesia. Though we have heard these facts many times over, most of us can neither fathom the sufferings of the underprivileged, nor can we grasp the difficulties faced by millions of such people, barely clinging on to their lives.  One of the most neglected forms of human deprivation is malnutrition, particularly among children. Scientific evidence suggests that the risk of death from common childhood diseases is doubled for a mildly malnourished child, tripled for a moderately malnourished child, and may be even as high as eight times for a severely malnourished child, when compared with the risks faced by a well-nourished child.' 
Ronald Anil Fernandes, Paramount Welfare Educational Trust, Bangalore, Karnataka, India.

"The progress of freedom depends more upon the maintenance of peace and the spread of commerce and the diffusion of education than upon the labor of Cabinets or Foreign Offices."
- Richard Cobden

Introduction: The Problem

The idea of human freedom is essentially rooted in the concept of human development, according to Noble Laureate Professor Amartya Sen's "Development as Freedom" thesis [that outlines an entitlement to capacity-building process]. And the idea of human progress is a construct that is designed around the axis of freedom. What is freedom? Is it only lack of societal constraint, withdrawal of discipline and punish, willing suspension of the panoptic Super Ego that they address as the "mainstream"? Or is freedom a concept much more fundamental, to be read into the texts of Rabindranath Tagore, Roman Rolland or even Walden?


Sociologists claim that civilization is what we are and culture is merely an arrangement of artifacts that we happen to use during the course of our politics everyday life. But then civilization is also a system of values that is handed down generations as a movement of socialization that laymen identify as "progress".


Progress and Development: The Eternal Duo
But how can progress be distinguished from "development", if at all? A most prominent item on today's humanitarian global agenda, apart from mantras like good governance, social capital, neo-liberal communitarianism, grassroots empowerment, civil societal capacity-building and gender sensitization, is certainly the notion of sustainable development.[1] This has become almost a catchword of sorts in the Third World, decolonized state nations that are more or less grappling to muster a political system around pluralistic identities of nationhood enmeshed in ethnicity, language, religion, region and mutual distrust. It is almost as if "softy states" are hanging loose and can only be brought back on to the fast track of development [?] by way of external intervention and advocacy on the past of the Eurocentric West.   


Development, it may be appreciated at this point, is not anything extrinsic like politics imposed from the above without any regard whatsoever to the end-users of limited political resources. Actors who are supposed to interface with their very own institutions are nearly always better comfortable if left alone with the material conditions of daily life that breed organic ethos of community existence. This is where the colonial masters went wrong in Asia, Africa and South America when they bled the colonies and left behind a legacy of comprador bourgeois and crony capitalism that, in turn, fostered a repressive state apparatus and a perverted anti-people bureaucratic managerial state system that was not only anti-people but was also occasionally anti-progress.


What Richard Cobden[2] implies by "Cabinets or Foreign Offices" is actually this mechanistic attitude of the political 'lite [in capitalist systems] and party leadership [in socialist societies] that are smug in the cocoon of their mistaken convictions that people at the top echelons of power, authority and influence have necessarily a working knowledge of "the greatest good of the greatest number". This is not a utilitarian or even a welfarist state approach - it is actually self-defeating as amply evidenced in the erstwhile USSR where an insane arms and space race with the United States [incidentally the only country in the entire world to have actually materially gained from the First and Second World Wars with minimum military casualties] led the once powerful communist country to a more or less incredible situation of mind-boggling bankruptcy.


Military hardware and nukes were being manufactured at the cost of basic consumer requirements like bread, potatoes and vodka, following Stalin's rhetoric of an entire generation making sacrifices  [read being purged if found to be politically incorrect] for the cause of a better Russia of the future. Moscow's huge and sprawling department store GUM was always nearly empty while the party's top brass were running around in their imported limousines, shopping in dollar shops selling Swiss chocolates and watches, Scotch whisky, French champagne and perfumes. Add rampant corruption and repression to accept a second-hand political ideology not originating from the ground realities of people and you have ideal recipes for killing fields like the infamous Prague Spring.


Back to Basics: Public Action Enterprises


We are reminded of Professor Mohammad Yunus of Bangladesh[3] in this respect - the magician of the Grameen Bank ["rural bank"] microcredit revolution who even hugely impressed Hilary Rodham Clinton. What Professor Yunus still does is amazingly simple - he organizes self-help groups in the manner of cooperatives and tries to make them economically self-reliant in areas as humble as poultry, weaving, dairy and even small-scale production. But when such cottage industries are linked ["forward and backward integration"] in the larger context of market forces they become formidable in their control of the overall agrarian and even the urban economy. Peasant women in Bangladesh carry mobile telephones to communicate with distant markets, distributors and dealers! This may sound incredible but it is true nevertheless, proving the validity of Cobden's observation.


Operation Flood in Anand [Gujarat, India] and the Lijjat and Kissan enterprises are other such brilliant instances of people working toward their common good [based on innovative techniques like outsourcing of manpower and material resources, subcontracting or leasing of plant and  machinery, breaking down the production process to delimit financial risk liability ventures somewhat akin to Adam Smith's exposition of the division of labor dynamics] without any outside intervention whatsoever. One must remember that neither India nor Bangladesh tends to practice authoritarian r'gime maintenance. What was possible once in Beijing's Tiananmen Square when the People's Liberation Army crushed pro-reform students under tanks and armored carriers is unimaginable in either India or Bangladesh [that secured its liberation in 1971 by way of Indian military cooperation]. So democracy is an essential requirement if "the progress of freedom" is to continue unabated.


Voice of the People: Evolution of Democratic Policy Prescriptions


By democracy we ordinarily mean popular authority or rule. As made popular by Jean Jacques Rousseau, one of the ideologues of the French Revolution [that effectively altered the course of European history by beginning the disintegration process of the medieval and feudalistic Age of Empires], the voice of God is heard in the voice of the People. This was a far cry from the autocratic self-styled pronouncement of French Emperor Louis XIV - "I am the State". It was no wonder that Louis XVI's wife Marie Antoinette [later sentenced to die to rather unceremoniously at the guillotine had once expressed her wonder in such a naive fashion on hearing about the simmering discontent among the Parisian mob standing in endless queues or bread lines and more often than not starting violent riots among themselves - "If they cannot eat bread why don't they eat cake!"


This vulgar ignorance of the ruled on the part of their rulers is rather inimical to democracy. But we must remember that democracy as dynamic capacity-building agency in the post 9/11 world has all of a sudden underscored its long-ignored extrinsic quality. Democracy is not really insular, stretching from the East Coast to the West Coast of the US. If the notion of external sovereignty has suffered quite extensively since the height of the Cold War when the world was almost vertically divided into the NATO and Warsaw Pact countries [save the NAM states being led by Nehru, Nasser and Tito], the idea of external democracy has gained much popular and diplomatic acceptance.


Simply put, powerful nations can no longer ignore internal human rights or civil rights agenda vis-'-vis world public opinion. But this is what the US is consistently trying to follow as its most shortsighted foreign policy since the Malta Summit Conference when President George Bush Senior and CPSU General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev officially declared the end of the Cold War, a historic event that even prompted Francis Fukuyama to write a banal work on the end of history and the last man. 


Since the days of its Nineteenth Century isolationist Munroe Doctrine the US has put up apparently impregnable walls around itself that couldn't even be dismantled during the Marshall Plan for the Reconstruction of Europe after the Second World War or establishment of first the League of Nations [as an initiative of President Woodrow Wilson's historic Atlantic Charter] and then the UNO, the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and now the omnipotent World Trade Organization that apparently dictates the movements of a new specter of the new millennium, namely Globalization.


The US foreign policy has always been designed on lines of "muddle and meddle" - Vietnam, Korea, Bay of Pigs, Iran Contra scandal, Afghanistan and now Iraq. The country boasts of democracy and swears by it, boiling with righteous motivation to export Yankee democracy around the underdeveloped world, but has, however, classified the JFK assassination archives for no apparent reason whatsoever. Clandestine covert operations, the strategic defense initiative [Star War], research in biological and chemical weapons - you name it and you would find the dirty trick invariably up America's [read the CIA and FBI's] sleeves. In fact, it is the only nation till date that has used atomic weapons in war during war, destroying Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the process just to avenge the Pearl Harbor attack and crippling generations of Japanese children long after the holocaust as a result of toxic radioactive radiation carried forward genetically by succeeding generations.


Since the Gulf War fought by Senior Bush as the much-hyped Operation Desert Storm so graphically shown by CNN across million of idiot boxes around the world, nobody knows exactly how many innocent Iraqi children have died out of malnutrition, disease and hunger due to the US-imposed and UNO-condoned sanctions against Iraq. The US condemns Osama bin Laden but should actively engage in soul-searching regarding its own virulent international terrorist status in our contemporary unipolar world where might is right in a Hobbesian state of affairs where human life, property and security are all indeed "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, short". The US, in brief, should radically reorient its foreign policy to address the dignity of human life and internal sovereignty of nation states around the world.


Clash of Civilizations?


"American political scientist Samuel Huntington had expressed apprehension way back in 1996 that the post-Cold War 21st Century would be marked by conflicts between Islam and the West, a throwback to the Crusades of the Middle Ages. This projection was also described in Western scholarship as the Jihad versus McWorld scenario, an eventuality that would test the resilience of the free world against the forces of fundamentalist insurgency . . . American [foreign] policy-makers should realize that it is high time they begin dismantling the country's strategy of cultural isolation and indifference. It is a disquieting fact that an average urban student of the Third World knows more about the US than an average American undergraduate knows about other peoples and other cultures. Dissemination of multi-cultural knowledge should be facilitated both within and without the American academia, industry and social service sectors. Familiarity can also breed understanding and help expand worldviews of an entire people. The logic of globalization more often than not has worked in an discriminating manner, provoking even Western scholars to come up with insightful expressions like McDonaldization, Coca-Colonization and The US is us!


"Moreover, the US should discontinue backing wrong horses and should realize that Less Developed Countries in the Third World may be impoverished but are not, however, bereft of dignity. Likeminded liberal democratic countries like India should be cultivated as reliable long-term allies on a level playing field by a series of confidence building measures. The US should also discontinue its interventionist policies that have generated such universal animosity and condemnation. Not for nothing has the expression Ugly American become well-known! Nobody has quite forgotten the acts committed by US Marines in Vietnam or the useless display of mind-boggling violence in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Third World has not yet come to terms with the missile attack on a children's hospital in Baghdad during the Gulf War, to cite an example. Have the Americans themselves forgotten the faces of helpless women and children at Kosovo only a couple of years back? Americans should realize that the lives of non-Americans are also valuable in the context of the entire human civilization, and should also engage in soul-searching to understand the roots of this anti-US attitude around the world.


"The clash of civilizations has only just about begun - it is now the obligation of a more conscientious American people to learn from their mistakes of the near and distant past to salvage the future of their free and sanitized and once-impregnable World. They should talk less about Human Rights and should work more to safeguard Human Rights as the self-appointed policeman of the world. Those who do not learn from history, demonstrably and most regrettably, are often condemned to repeat it."[4]


State and Market and Education


Economist John Williamson's prescriptions that had informed the Washington Consensus were fiscal discipline, redirection of public expenditure, tax reforms, financial liberalization, adoption of a single and competitive exchange rate, trade liberalization, elimination of barriers to Foreign Direct Investment, privatization of state-owned enterprises, deregulation of market entry and competition and ensuring secure property rights.


The concept of distant education has taken a while to be accepted in the popular imagination in India and elsewhere where it has been traditionally accepted since Independence that the State will pay for higher education irrespective of the market, merit or even financial status. But the pinch is now being increasingly felt in the job market where virtually "unemployable human resources" equipped with almost useless graduate or postgraduate degrees are being churned out year after year by our colleges and Universities. India is a welfarist country where subsidies [non-merit public expenditures] more or less benefit the privileged middle classes and higher education is considered to be a tool that facilitates proliferation of democracy. But "democratization of education" [read proletarianization of meritocracy] can never be a solution to the problem of unemployment and a stagnant job market. 


Add unemployment and youth discontent to a serious population growth scenario and you get an explosive combination where the entire nation happens to sit on the top of a dormant volcano, apparently idling away time watching the World Cup of Cricket, while permanent employment and social security are fast becoming obsolete in a society where a job is supposed to be like your mother in terms of security and sustenance. 


However, the open school or University system can address this simmering tension and disturbing state of affairs in an effective manner only if more professional courses are designed by professionals to accommodate our educated generalists, that is students with degrees in the humanities, literature and social sciences. One such option can be social work where the catchment area may cater to students from sociology, history, political science, anthropology, public administration and the like. The job market here is specific: the NGOs who sponsor the so-called third actor intervention, public action and civil societal advocacy.


Self-help and Youth Capacity-Building[5]


Science and commerce graduates may even be taught entrepreneurial and microcredit financing skills so that they may also contribute to the nation's self-help movement in the professional services sector. Netaji Subhas Open University, Calcutta is one of the foremost Indian educational institutions in this area, according to Professor Asish Guha, Director of Study Centres, NSOU.


The University Grants Commission's sponsored teachers' training programs in India like refresher and orientation courses for college and University lecturers are more or less like academic picnics where precious public money is wasted in a meaningless manner over a period of three weeks or so. As such our generalist colleges and Universities produce man power that is often not employable without any further skill enhancement in areas like computer literacy, management or any other technical training. But India's tax payers have to still bear the brunt of an expensive higher education system that almost entirely runs on subsidies and without any material returns to produce in exchange. Doctors and engineers and management professionals join the country's bureaucracy after their professional attainments, thus resulting in huge losses in terms of human resource management.


The UGC should seriously rethink its system of awarding scholarships, funding seminars, symposia, workshops, travel grants, book and equipment purchase and so on and so forth. Refresher and orientation courses are almost entirely useless as after completion of these programs the only people who happen to benefit [at the cost of the people] are the teachers themselves so far as their Career Advancement Scheme is concerned and nobody else. High theory is flaunted at these programs with no regard to the UGC's guidelines that undergraduate courses should primarily be brought into focus. Let's face it: the commonplace and average student doesn't really need to read about Plato or Aristotle - he or she is much better off studying how commodities are produced for and exchanged in the market. This may sound unduly harsh but students or trained human resources are, in the very last recourse, commodities in the market to be bought and sold against a value defined and determined by forces of demand and supply.      


State versus Popular Initiatives: A Case Study


West Bengal's venture into microcredit for the rural poor has failed to make any real headway [unlike the case of neighboring Bangladesh] but the state government, notwithstanding empirical and readily available evidence, continues to contest this charge. Amalendu Halder, project coordinator of the Loknath Divine Life Mission, a Calcutta-based NGO, has recently claimed that the failure was evident in 'the many loopholes' in the below-poverty-line and the above-poverty-line official estimates. 'The venture has dismally failed,' he confirmed.


State government mandarins, however, shot this serious allegation down promptly enough [shaking out of their habitual inaction and indifference bred by an impersonal Weberian culture of red tapism] without any supporting data whatsoever. They said that the Loknath Mission and other similar NGOs operating in the emergent area of microcredit and self-help groups have not yet adequately familiarized themselves with the working of the various governmental schemes.


[It is a most regrettable fact that civil servants in the Third World more often than not act as if they are the masters of the people rather than being their servants which, in constitutional terms, they actually are. This perverted phenomenon is a spillover from the colonial days when the questionable legacy of the "steel-frame of the administration" was passed down generations of bureaucrats. They were brainwashed at the administrative training college in Haileybury, England by the East India Company nabobs that they were about to return to India - the Brightest Jewel in the Crown - to assist the British in their self-appointed task euphemistically called the White Man's Burden. This was nothing else but a sustained exercise over a couple of centuries to systematically fleece this once-rich country and its defenseless people like nobody's business. This "drain of wealth" resulted in the man-made Famines of 1770 and 1943 when sheer hunger provoked cannibalism and human tragedies like selling off one's wives and daughters into prostitution.]  


'Loopholes or problems are situation-specific. At times they do vary widely but we try to sort these out as thoroughly as practicable by way of government monitoring and supervision,' said Bhaskar Pal, a senior official in the Bishnupur area.


Broadly speaking, the Swarna Jayanti Gram Swarojgar Yojana [a rural self-employment project jointly launched by the Government of India and the state government] has been in operation for two years. Potential beneficiaries either directly approach the district rural development cells manned by West Bengal Civil Service officers for approval or their individual cases are forwarded by NGOs.

Haldar said the project faces subsidy and incentive-related financial irregularities that also bedevil many other schemes of the panchayats [three-tier institutions of decentralized local governance at the district level]. BPL groups receive subsidies ranging from INR 7500-10,000 per INR 100,000 loan granted by cooperative banks. There have been major complaints that bank loans so extended to self-help groups under this project are not free from irregularities and currying of political favor [West Bengal is being ruled since 1977 by succeeding Left Front Governments, a coalition almost exclusively shepherded by the Big Brother, namely the Communist Party of India (Marxist). This is an unprecedented "record" worldwide.] 


Pal, however, said only nationalized, cooperative and rural banks are authorized to extend loans and so far no reports of irregularities have reached the government. Sources in the State Institute of Panchayats and Rural Development, notwithstanding this self-explanatory and upbeat attitude [albeit unsubstantiated] of the state administration, confirmed there are widespread irregularities so far as implementation of the scheme is concerned. 'It's a fact that there are serious grievances among self-help groups regarding APL and BPL estimates although there exist clear-cut Planning Commission guidelines in this regard. Anomalies have distorted the lists, thanks to vested vote bank interests of rural politicians,' said an SIPRD official on condition of strict anonymity.[6]


Negotiating Globalization


Contemporary state systems guided by the dynamics of globalization are like so many Januses - the phenomenon assumes a most robust character in the developed North but an almost impotent identity in the developing or still underdeveloped South. So globalization necessitates a dialog between the rich and the poor outside its essentialist assumptions of an uneven power discourse as conditions of Good Governance and Structural Adjustment Programs (Gary and Mayo, 1995) benchmark most Third World postcolonial democracies today (Ray, 1989, 1996).


While there are contentions that aggressive market forces make it difficult for welfarist governments to protect their citizens from transnational actors that are as elusive as their hot money, there are also counter-arguments (Keohane, 1998) that institutions like the International Monetary Fund or the World Trade Organization actually safeguard citizens from the administrative limitations of their respective national governments. There appears to be a consensus, however, that powerful markets tend to undermine political 'lites at home (Barber, 1996; Cox, 1993; McGrew, 1992; and Slater, 1996).


Global Village


John Echeverri-Gent (1997) has pointed out that if globalization, on the one hand, facilitates decentralization then, on the other, it also helps develop pockets of dynamic Free Trade Areas in large developing countries like China and India by reorganizing their economic geography, Foreign Direct Investment and global commodity chains. This process, however, creates large hinterlands of economic backwardness and entrenches economic inequality within the developing South. Globalization, therefore, intensifies regional disparities in the Third World. John Rapley (1996) has found that Structural Adjustment Programs have varied widely in the results they have yielded. While Latin America has partially benefited from structural adjustment, Africa has not. Rapley has also argued that Rolling Back the State - that is less government as an imperative of contemporary globalization - does not always lead to enhanced economic growth.


Globalization, therefore, would appear to be an open-ended journey toward a globalized world order whose weightless economy (Huws, 1999) may be described as one that defies both national and international borders so far as economic transactions are concerned. This is a situation where freight charges are nil and trade / tariff barriers would disappear. Such a pilgrim's progress, however, is nothing new. Technological innovations during the past five centuries have steadily helped integrate the global community into an emergent global civil society. Transatlantic communications have developed from sailing boats to steamships, to the telegraph, the telephone, the commercial aircraft and now the Internet where even nationalism as a conventional political ideology has been reduced to "banal nationalism" (Billig, 1995).


State and Civil Society


Liberal democratic r'gimes like India or even the US can only be politically successful, deliver the common good and thereby continue in power in a more stable [read pro-people] manner if they are able to correctly read the obtainable ground realities and problems thereof. These problems are more or less popular in nature, and have a propensity to develop into discontent of the ruled actors against their ruling institutions. So the actors in power have to continuously shuffle and delicately balance priorities of human development, well-being and accessible freedoms like the ever-important agenda of human rights and civil liberties, a responsive and responsible administrative machinery, transparency at all levels of public expenditures and domestic and international peacekeeping projects rather than playing mutually harmful "spy versus spy" games.


Eminent political scientist Subrata K. Mitra (1997: 23) has quite rightly cautioned that "If the wielders of power concede the point to those who challenge established values and norms, they risk losing their legitimacy. On the other hand, the failure to give satisfaction to the discontented might deepen their sense of outrage and alienation which can further reduce their legitimacy."


Powers-that-be ["Cabinets or Foreign Offices"] will do well to continually redress grievances of political actors at the grassroots in a political manner by establishing and ably handling pro-people institutions.  Only then organic identification would bind actors with institutions - only then the incipient involvement noticed at the level of "actors and institutions" would, arguably enough, transcend itself to the level of "actors in institutions", consolidating both the level and the quality of progress of freedom in the process.[7]


Conclusion: Fear of Freedom?


More by :  Dr. Prasenjit Maiti

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