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[BigDataSur] “WhatsApper-ing” alone will not save Brazilian political disarray: An investigation of the affordances of WhatsApp under Bolsonarism

October 16, 2020
By 27510

This article reflects on the role of “WhatsAppers”, defined as social activists appropriating WhatsApp as a primary platform to organize and communicate, in relation with the rise of Bolsonarism in Brazil. Affordances of WhatsApp usage by social actors are explored in the light of responses to Bolsonarism, along with their implications in the current time of crisis.

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Photo credits: Lo Cole / The Economist

The research illustrated explores the affordances of WhatsApp and its appropriation by the WhatsAppers in Brazil, here defined as social activists appropriating WhatsApp as a primary platform to organize and communicate. I explore the importance of the Global South context in shaping such affordances, focusing on local epistemologies which bypass the structure of mainstream Brazilian media. As illustrated elsewhere, the empirical analysis combined different qualitative methods, yielding insights into the communication and action repertoire of the group studied, not without considering reflections on research ethics and their implications in the context studied.

WhatsAppers: Towards a new research agenda

This research stems from an analysis of the social interactions of UnidosContraOGolpe (UCG), a leftist group in Brazil, which was a WhatsApp “private group” emerged in 2016 to oppose the controversial impeachment of the then-president Dilma Rousseff. The case study resulted into the first empirical MA dissertation in Latin America to explore digital activism on WhatsApp private chats as an emerging field of political action. To do so, a ‘meso-micro’ analysis was used – on the meso level, to identify the modus operandi of group interactions and, on the micro level, to capture individual motivations, tensions, and expectations. At the core of the investigation, the researcher’s identity was disclosed, following social actors through their chat environment and adopting an ‘engaged’ approach, whereby the research is designed with the goal of empowering social actors. In practical terms, this inspired a triangulation of qualitative methods, including digital ethnography (to identify and analyze the practice of social actors inside the chat domain, through a long “zoom” perspective on social interactions in the private chat group), content analysis of selected posts (to understand how the group emerged organically and self-organized in a contingent manner) and fifteen in-depth semi-structured interviews (to elicit values and motivations from the perspective of individual active participants).

This dissertation argues that WhatsAppers are characterized by their ability to appropriate the chat group as a means to participate in political life. Engagement with political activism becomes an intimate and familiar affair, mediated by a personal and omnipresent device, that enables a unique approach to mobilization. In general lines, everyone could be a WhatsApper, including those not previously politically active. A WhatsApper could be someone who already is entwined in other social media networks of politics and mobilization or not; they can be someone from a poor, middle or rich class background. In other words, WhatsAppers interact digitally with others, combining online and offline political actions. Through the lens of digital sociology, the case studied reveals that WhatsApp stands out as a platform for civic engagement, promoting new spaces of digital activism for three main reasons: the chat app (1) affords structurally new forms of political participation and collective engagement, (2) forges communities of mutual interest, and (3) promotes collective decision-making and individual autonomous actions on a small scale. However, drawbacks are found in howbots can influence conversations on WhatsApp, fake users can hijack chats, and group members may be threatened by surveillance attacks.

Bolsonarism: into the Brazilian political crisis

In 2019, the first year of Jair Bolsonaro’s government, Brazil has seen a record deforestation and a drop to zero applications of environmental fines. Bolsonaro nominated a human rights minister who was well-known for preaching sexual abstinence as a state policy. Sons of the president are under investigation of crime and corruption. Also, Bolsonaro has nominated a secretary of culture extolling Nazi propaganda. Moreover, every week the Brazilian “anti-president” openly attacks the press, and recently was considered the worst leader to struggle against the Coronavirus pandemic.

The political scenario in which Bolsonarism surges is widely recognized as reflecting a crisis of political representation and the widespread disbelief in politics and traditional parties. Bolsonarism can be understood as “a political phenomenon that transcends the figure of Bolsonaro and is characterized by an ultra-conservative worldview, returning to traditional values and nationalist and patriotic rhetoric”. Facing this scenario, an urgent question should be addressed: what is really happening to Brazilian democracy?

Looking back, looking forward

Brazil is an extremely unequal country along multiple dimensions that include internet access. Part of the semi-illiterate population gathers their information almost solely through visual messages, audios and videos from thousands of WhatsApp groups, thanks to the “zero rating” fees provided by telecom companies that replaced more expensive short-text messages. The larger context of Latin America makes an excellent test bed for the study of WhatsApp social interactions because “96 percent of Brazilians with access to a smartphone use WhatsApp as primary method of interpersonal communication”. According to the Reuters Institute, 53 percent of Brazilians use “ZapZap” (as the app is commonly known in the country) to find and consume news. Everyday citizens also use “ZapZap” to order pizza, stay in touch with family, transfer money, make doctor appointments, learn, spread gossip and date.

While the leftist “UCG” WhatsAppers were calling for political action, far right activists were articulating themselves in WhatsApp private groups and beyond, also combining online and offline activities. Progressive sectors were as well unable to build a national digital campaign, with very rare exceptions, such as small local initiatives like UCG. Consequently, the potential of digital activism on chat apps was later weaponized by far-right groups that not only appropriated public and private groups on and with WhatsApp, but also acted as pipeline to other social media. Digital information became a “weapon” that is still used in “out of control” mode nowadays by Bolsonaro’s supporters, taking advantage of the high penetration of WhatsApp in Brazil, and facilitated by the limited digital literacy of the population. In fact, Bolsonaro ran a successful campaign in 2018 based on a combination of bottom-up authoritarianism and digital populism. His supporters were helped by bots to spread misleading content “weaponizing” various WhatsApp groups.

COVID-19: creative WhatsAppers from the margins

This case presents important implications for the ongoing crisis. Brazilian citizens are currently bombarded with COVID-19 related disinformation and facing a chaotic portrait, while far right activists occupied larges spaces on digital networks before and after the 2018 elections. Moreover, there are lessons learned from the inability to stop Bolsonarism’s digital army, namely: send messages which everyday citizens can trust. Today, Brazilians behave more and more like consumers instead of citizens, trusting the market more than science – perhaps this is precisely the gap that paves our country for thousands of deaths during the coronavirus pandemic.

Brazilian mainstream media are currently discussing who might be a potential presidential candidate for the next elections in 2022. However, a deeper question is whether democratic values will still be upheld at that time. The composition of Bolsonaro’s government reminds us that Brazilian’s young democracy is now more capitalist, colonialist, patriarchaland is heading towards a dangerous and irresponsible political adventure, and the outcomes are unpredictable. During the pandemic, social distancing, hand washing, hand sanitizers, masks, respirator machines and lockdowns are privileges of the Global North, while in the South, many will not even have access to minimum services.

As the title suggests, using WhatsApp for chatting and hanging out alone will not solve the political Brazilian disarray, but perhaps creative WhatsAppers could provide a spark to create national-transnational solidarity. Namely: high speed participatory decision-making to deliver groceries, collect money, produce masks, share scientific information, mobilize against COVID-19 related disinformation, reach poor families and fight for emergent democratic imaginaries. The UCG case study still works as a well-informed internal communication strategy for connecting and activating social solidarity networks that grounds for hope, especially because it reveals the battlefield of political struggle that enables scientific shared information, civic engagement, collective mobilization, and solidarity. Lastly, the coordination of online activities combined with actions on the ground by WhatsAppers triggers digital activism in times of pandemic.

About the author

Sérgio Barbosa

Sérgio Barbosa is a PhD candidate in the program “Democracy in the Twenty-First Century” in the Centre for Social Studies (CES), at the University of Coimbra and a Sylff fellow sponsored by Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research. He is a member of the Technopolitics – a “Latin” research network connecting Brazil and Ecuador with Spain, Portugal and Italy. His research explores the emerging forms of political participation vis-à-vis the possibilities afforded by chat apps, with emphasis on WhatsApp for digital activism and social mobilization

Acknowledgments

The author thanks Silvia Masiero for her careful review (and beyond) and wishes to thank Charlotth Back and Jeroen de Vos for their comments and suggestions. He extends his gratitude also to Stefania Milan and Emiliano Treré for launching Big Data from the South initiative. This blogpost has received funding from the Sylff (Ryoichi Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund) Research Abroad – SRA fellowship sponsored by the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research.

 

Reprinted, with a lead by the author, from DATACTIVE Big Data Sur blog, https://data-activism.net/2020/06/bigdatasur-whatsapper-ing-alone-will-not-save-brazilian-political-disarray-an-investigation-of-the-affordances-of-whatsapp-under-bolsonarism/.

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Rescuing Latin American Thought on Contemporary Subjectivity

July 6, 2020
By 26648

Using an SRA award, Flavia Ferretti crossed the Atlantic Ocean obliquely from Latin America to Western Europe to conduct research on an Argentine philosopher, León Rozitchner.

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León Rozitchner

The problem of subjectivity and the study of its processes has been one of the central axes of contemporary thought. The works of important philosophers of the last half century, such as Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Felix Guattari, to mention some of the most distinguished names, have been dedicated to the study of different aspects of this problem, elaborating some of the most extended interpretative frameworks in the field of current thought.

The theoretical importance acquired by the question of subjectivity is related to the emergence of social problems that challenged both philosophical thought and the human sciences in the historical period beginning in the early 1970s. These problems include changes in cultural identities due to the intensification of migratory processes, modifications in workers’ identities as a consequence of the processes of deindustrialization and productive reconversion of vast territories, the impact on subjectivity of the massification of consumption and access to credit, impacts of the growing incorporation of women into the labor market, youth cultures, and the emergence of authoritarian, antidemocratic, and conservative attitudes. The relevance and urgency of understanding these social phenomena in a deeper way was one of the first motivations I had to place my doctoral research in the field of studies on subjectivity.

The entrance of the Ibero-American Institute in Berlin, Germany.

However, the existing international division of intellectual work has meant that the predominant theoretical frameworks for addressing the problem of the production of subjectivity are mainly Euro-American and that even within Latin America the theoretical elaborations developed by local thinkers are unknown or undervalued. Academic interest in Latin America is concentrated on topics linked to its socioeconomic problems, to indigenous populations, or to cultural productions such as literature, music, and cinema. Nevertheless, with rare exceptions, thought and philosophy produced in the continent are ignored beyond small circles of specialists. Even today, Eurocentrism remains a deep-rooted problem in the humanities and social sciences, and this is another one of the reasons that led me to focus my doctoral research on the study and enhancement of Latin American thought on the issue of subjectivity based on the work of León Rozitchner, an Argentine philosopher whose theoretical work on this issue deserves to be better known and disseminated.

The research that I am developing aims to contribute to the knowledge of Latin American reflection on the problem of the production of subjectivity from the second half of the twentieth century onward. Specifically, the object of study of this doctoral thesis is the problem of the production of subjectivity in the work of León Rozitchner, who made substantial theoretical elaborations on this problem despite the scarce references to his work in the field of studies on subjectivity in the continent and in the field of contemporary philosophy.

Reading Room of the Ibero-American Institute.

León Rozitchner was a philosopher and psychoanalyst who lived between 1924 and 2011. He studied in Buenos Aires as well as in Paris, where he made contact with the generation of philosophers who dominated the French cultural field after World War II, such as Jean Paul Sarte, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Simone de Beauvoir. Because of the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina between 1976 and 1983, Rozitchner had to go into exile in Venezuela, where he continued his intellectual work at the Central University. In 1985 he returned to Argentina, and until the end of his life in 2011 he worked as a professor at the University of Buenos Aires. His philosophy focused on the problem of subjectivity and the mechanisms through which it is constructed. His work brings together elements of psychoanalysis, phenomenology, and Marxism, with which the author elaborates an original and solid philosophical proposal. Among his main books are Freud y los límites del individualismo burgués (Freud and the limits of bourgeois individualism, 1972), Perón: Entre la sangre y el tiempo (Between blood and time, 1985), La cosa y la cruz: Cristianismo y capitalismo (en torno a las Confesiones de San Agustín)

(The thing and the cross: Christianity and capitalism [Around the Confessions of St. Augustine], 1997), and Materialismo ensoñado (Dreamlike materialism, 2011).

With this research, I intend to develop a study of the complete work of this thinker that will allow us to determine the treatment he gave to the subject throughout his intellectual journey, as well as to establish the axes that articulated his reflection and the continuities and ruptures in his theoretical production on the problem in question. Also, the research seeks to establish the passages between his thought and the social, political, and cultural processes of Argentina and the continent in the historical period during which he developed his work and to reconstruct the positions he occupied in the intellectual field of which he was a part. Furthermore, this work aims to install this representative of Latin American philosophy in contemporary discussion, by making his work engage in a dialogue with the most renowned intellectuals in the field of thought, specifically with those who have dedicated themselves to reflection on subjectivity.

Meanwhile, beyond these objectives in the academic field, this research has a wider purpose, which consists of contributing to knowledge of relevant aspects of the current human condition and providing elements for public debate on some of the most pressing contemporary social problems. The processes of production of subjectivity are at the base of many of the phenomena that concern thinkers and citizens in general, such as the authoritarian inclinations of certain social groups; the relationship of social subjects with politics; cultural identities; and the individual and collective effects of changes in the sphere of work. The proposed research will make a contribution in that it will generate new knowledge in a study field that helps to understand these complex social phenomena. This research, therefore, will not only strengthen an academic domain of study but will also provide elements for public deliberation by offering modes of intelligibility of social processes of general interest.

In the course of this research, I have been supported by the Sylff Research Abroad program, which allowed me to spend three months at the Ibero-American Institute (IAI) in Berlin and access a huge amount of bibliographic and archival material that is inaccessible in Chile. The IAI, founded in 1930, is an interdisciplinary research and documentation center on Latin America, the Caribbean, Spain, and Portugal. The institute has the largest European archive on the Latin American world and receives tens of researchers from different parts of the world every year.

In addition, this research stay allowed me to meet and interview academics and researchers dedicated to Latin American thought and present the results of my research to teams of specialists. All this enriched my research process and helped me to advance in the elaboration of my thesis. Therefore, I am grateful to the Sylff Association for supporting researchers who have social commitments and whose research seeks to contribute to the strengthening of democracy, social justice, critical thinking, and democratic dialogue.

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Workshops on the Socio-Analysis of Oppression

February 22, 2018
By 19626

Melinda Kovai, a 2009 Sylff fellow at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary, and her team members have recently completed their SLI project, which took them over one and a half years, to address the problem of social disparity strongly linked to negative notions toward the “Gypsy.” The project incorporated the idea of reflection on one’s own social position to encourage understanding of different social groups, which contributed to the uniqueness of the project. The training materials, the final project product, have been already integrated into two courses at universities in Hungary. The project members hope that the materials will be utilized in many educational settings not only in Hungary but also in neighboring countries faced with similar social challenges. They are determined to keep working on resolving the issue and extending the impact to society.

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Background

A mother and son of the Roma people, commonly known as Gypsies.

In Hungary, primarily due to their disadvantaged social position, the Roma people are by far the greatest subjects to racism. In public discourse, the “Gypsy” is inseparably bound up with such negative notions as poverty, permanent unemployment, benefits, informal economy, and crime and, more generally, with fears related to existential insecurities. In most social domains, the “Gypsy” is intertwined with a certain inferior class position and social marginality, such as exclusion from or taking the most inferior realms of the formal labor market, with possibilities severely restricted by manifold exclusive processes. The Gypsy-Hungarian ethnic distinction is in many cases a manifestation of class difference, since class positions are heavily ethnicized in many areas of life, in villages and town districts, and in educational and other institutions. While the lower middle and middle classes are associated with majority Hungarians, marginalization from the labor market is associated with the Roma. Everyday social conflicts are hence often experienced as confrontations between different ethnically interpreted class positions, where the “Gypsy” appears as a menace to the middle-class normativity of the majority.

Our team of trainers comprised social scientists whose academic work focuses on social inequalities, public education, and the Roma communities. The project idea arose from a shared urge to engage in activities that have a more direct and palpable impact on the lives of the communities we work with. Therefore, this project was also a way to experiment and to elaborate methods of intervention and ways of committed political engagement that feel right and adequate to us, to our habitus. We held four one-day and four two-day workshops for six groups of university students training to become public-sector professionals and for two groups of Roma university students. Half of the workshops took place in Budapest and the other half in other big cities. In the workshops, participants were invited to work with and reflect on their own social position, their social roles, and their class position. Our workshops are based on the idea that reflection on one’s own social position can help to better understand the behavior of other social groups and encourage collective action and solidarity across groups. Recognizing the social interests and conflicts involved in encounters with the Roma helps to identify the source of negative emotions and reveals how racism veils the real causes of conflicts.

Potential Target Groups and Specific Objectives

The main target group of our workshops is professionals who regularly encounter Roma clients as part of their professional roles. According to the literature, street-level bureaucrats are public-service professionals who represent the state by their work and, on a daily basis, make numerous small decisions in relation to the lives of their clients.[1] Typical examples of such professions are social workers, health care professionals, and the police. In this project, we offered the trainings to university students preparing to enter these professions; in the future, we plan to approach in-service professionals as well.

The workshops address the complexity and tensions of the professional roles related to social assistance, care, and support. We spend time discussing the typical sociological and recruitment characteristics of the professions. We had to bear in mind that university students do not yet have professional casework experience, so the workshops concentrated on their past “private” minority-majority encounters (which most often happened at school) on the one hand and the motivations, desires, and fears related to the caring relationship on the other.

When working with university students, school was often an important theme: we discussed the role of schooling in social mobility, the class-specific strategies related to schooling, as well as the inequalities of the Hungarian education system, and the school’s role in mitigating or reproducing inequalities.

Our other important target group consisted of young intellectuals of Roma background. In these workshops, we discussed the situation of the Roma people within the Hungarian social structure, the typical Roma roles and social phenomena (e.g., ethnically framed poverty, entrepreneurship, and widening middle class), and the constraints of upward mobility. Subsequently, the workshops addressed the tensions of harmonizing the experience of deprived homes and middle-class intellectual roles. By sharing their stories and experiences, the workshops helped young Roma intellectuals recognize the similarities in their backgrounds and challenges and hence share the “weight” of upward mobility.

The Workshops

Melinda Kovai, team members, and other sociologists discussing the contents of the training.

The first part of the workshops concentrated on the social positions of the participants; they shared their memories and their private and work experiences in relation to conflicts with the Roma people. We then explored these encounters in a dramatic form, wherein participants placed themselves in the shoes of both sides and collectively explored the social constraints from which behaviors (stereotypically) associated with the “Gypsy” derive. Ideally, the recognition of common social constraints develops a sense of solidarity and recognition of the differences of the other.

It was important to constantly respond to the social differences among participants and the corresponding differences in career choices. On the final day of the workshops for university students, we set aside time to explore their career choices in the light of their social positions and experiences. While for first-generation young intellectuals our workshops shed light on the constraints and possibilities coming with their upward mobility, for young people coming from long-standing intellectual families the training provided an opportunity to reflect on their privileges.

The following training methods were employed in the workshops:

  • warm-up and energizing games
  • dramatic exercises, the adaptation of the “wall of success” in particular
  • storytelling: sharing experiences, which then become materials for dramatic exercises
  • sociodramatic exercises and action methods: the enactment of typical situations related to ethnosocial conflicts, exploring the motivations, positions, and interests of the participants through dramatic enactment
  • sharing, reflection, and discussion

The overall aims were that, by the end of the workshops, participants

  • understand that society is hierarchically organized along various dimensions and that the distribution of various forms of capital (economic, cultural, and social), based on which class positions form and encounter other social determinants such as housing, gender, and ethnicity, are decisive;
  • have a comprehensive idea of the structure of Hungarian society and the perspectives of people in various positions;
  • have a reflective understanding of their families’ and their own social positions, their mobility pathways, their career choices, and their interests, needs, demands, beliefs, values, tastes, and so forth;
  • understand how society shapes personal beliefs, interests, demands, and tastes and how habitus works;
  • understand how social conflicts are sparked by the clash of different habitus and how actors in higher social positions generate such conflicts according to their interests with the aim of preventing the formation of antisystemic alliances; and
  • in the light of their own social positions, recognize the opportunities for social action and possible alliances with groups in different but proximate positions to form antisystemic alliances despite the differences in their positions and habitus.

Participants’ Voices

At the end of the workshops, as a closure, we asked all participants to share how they enjoyed the course and which elements they liked and disliked in particular. Two weeks after the workshops, we also invited participants to anonymously fill out a detailed online feedback form. In the questionnaire, they could assess group directing, the structure of the workshop, and the tasks and activities, and they were asked to describe their positive and negative experiences and to give us suggestions for improvement. The majority of the participants gave an overall positive feedback on the training and the trainers. They highlighted that, even though it was an emotionally shocking experience, recognizing their own social position and social differences in general were the most important lesson of the workshop. In the participants’ own words: 

I engaged both intellectually and emotionally—I was deeply touched in both respects. I thought a lot about these themes in the time between the workshops. The workshops were emotionally exhausting, but they were also extremely interesting intellectually.

“I developed a sense of social remorse. . . . I could do so many things to be more responsible socially. . . . I used to see helpers as being in a great distance from me, as being much more clever, experienced, capable people. . . . Yet they just probably took the initiative, started something, and then became good at it. . . . Next year I will volunteer at a shelter for elderly or mentally disabled people.” 

“The topics broke taboos. It is painful to realize how stereotypical our thinking is.”

“I grappled with multiple feelings over a short period of time.”

Based on the feedback and our own experiences, we concluded that it would be more worthwhile to organize two- or even three-day workshops for each group. One-day workshops do not provide sufficient time to process such shattering and difficult experiences. One-day workshops were less successful as participants did not have time to open up or, to the contrary, brought in very moving stories and experiences into the group that could not be processed sufficiently and reassuringly in the given time frame. This difficulty was the most striking in the workshops held for Roma colleges. Furthermore, in the cases of both one- and two-day workshops, participants signaled to us that they would welcome more factual knowledge as well as more emphasis on practical solutions for solving conflict situations.

Citing participants:

“The dramatic enactments were great, but I think it would be good to focus on finding some optimal solutions for these situations. This would have helped us in applying what we learned in “real-life situations.”

“You should give us more factual knowledge on the second day. What is integrated education? How was it implemented and responded to? What is the situation with integrated education now? What are the main political claims about the Roma?”

“I was missing some frontal knowledge, as I was interested in data and practices related to [Roma] educational integration in Hungary.”

Training Material, Dissemination, and Future Plans

Working with Roma schoolboys.

The final output of the project is a detailed set of training materials based on the workshops. The training materials were produced with two objectives in mind. On the one hand, we would like to provide our partners with an introduction to the workshops in advance. On the other, we are planning to disseminate our methodology among university and secondary school teachers who are using action methods or are trained in social sciences. The document explicates why we think that awareness and reflection on one’s own social position can tackle racist attitudes and in what ways our approach is distinctively different from “traditional” anti-discrimination and intercultural awareness raising trainings. We describe the structure and main elements of the workshops in detail.

It perhaps indicates the success of our project that two of our partners, the Faculty of Social Work at Eötvös Loránd University and the Faculty of Psychology at the Károli Gáspár University of the Reformed Church in Hungary, integrated our training in their curriculum from 2017–2018 under the title of “Meeting with the Other” as an optional course for social worker students at the former and “Socio-analysis for Psychologists” as a mandatory course for psychology students in the latter’s Intercultural Psychology program. The trainings are led by two trainers: Melinda Kovai, who is a university lecturer at both universities, and another member of our team.

According to the participants’ feedback and our own evaluation, the workshops had the most tangible impact among Roma and non-Roma students enrolled in universities outside the capital. These students predominantly come from working-class families or from families in extreme deprivation. The workshops have the potential to help them not to experience their background as a source of shame but, instead, to recognize the resources in their difficult experiences and thus become professionals deeply and proudly committed to their work with socially deprived children and adults. We plan to orient our future workshops to this target group by developing a longer training in close cooperation with our partner institutions. Furthermore, we would like to begin working with professional adults and adapt the training to their needs.

The training materials are available from the following. (Please note they are written all in Hungarian.)
Training material_Hungarian

[1] Lipsky, Michael. Street-Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation, 1980.

 

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Own Fate: Self-Managing the Future―How to Link Academic Knowledge and Local Practice

January 5, 2018
By 19685

On September 8 and 9, 2017, five Sylff fellows organized an event aimed at promoting sustainable development in Hungary: Professor Eva Kiss, Dr. Andrea Kunsagi, Dr. Viktoria Ferenc, Dr. Viktor Oliver Lorincz, and Dr. Loretta Huszak. Mari Suzuki, director for leadership development of the Tokyo Foundation, attended the two-day event as a representative of the Sylff Association secretariat to support the fellows’ initiatives. The event was significant in that many participants as well as speakers consisted of past and current Sylff fellows. This opportunity served not only to encourage cooperation between academics and local practitioners in Hungary but also to strengthen the bonds among Sylff fellows in Hungary.

***

The Role of Bottom-Up Local Initiatives in Sustainable Development

A round-table discussion during the event, titled “Sustainability Initiated ‘Bottom-Up’: Is It Possible?” The participants are (from left to right): Zsolt Molnar, Andras Jakab, Balazs Hamori, Eva Deak, and Andras Takacs-Santa.

A round-table discussion during the event, titled “Sustainability Initiated ‘Bottom-Up’: Is It Possible?” The participants are (from left to right): Zsolt Molnar, Andras Jakab, Balazs Hamori, Eva Deak, and Andras Takacs-Santa.

Economically and ecologically sustainable development has become a universal concern. It merits the attention and action of all of us. Hungarian fellows of the Ryoichi Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund (Sylff) have realized that efforts are needed on a variety of fronts to promote sustainable development. Local and bottom-up initiatives have significant impact and are indispensable for sustainable development. Accordingly, more attention should be paid to them.

Post-communist civil societies, like the one in Hungary, are characterized by a lower level of participation in bottom-up initiatives by ordinary citizens.[1] Nonetheless, recent academic literature indicates that an increasing number of municipalities in Hungary possess local strategies for sustainable development or support initiatives related to sustainability.[2] These initiatives are designed to use and develop the municipalities’ own resources and internal potential to change society for the better.

The focus of the two-day Sylff event was on analyzing how imperative local bottom-up initiatives are to the economic, social, cultural, political, and legal development of modern societies and understanding how their sustainable development can be ensured and observed in Hungary. The first day was dedicated to academic analysis of the above themes, and the second day was a field trip to Szigetmonostor—one of the most active municipalities in Hungary, where the local administration is very much engaged in cooperation with grassroots initiatives. The object of the initiative was to facilitate a bottom-up dialogue between academics and local leaders and initiators. The chief patron of the event was Laszlo Lovasz, president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.[3]

Conference Day at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences

 The first day of the initiative was an interdisciplinary forum, which took place at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest. It was dedicated to the academic analysis of sustainability and to the scientific elaboration of the role of bottom-up local initiatives in sustainable development. After the opening addresses, Andras Takacs-Santa, program director at Eötvös Loránd University Budapest, gave an opening lecture on “The need for a protective science in the light of the ecological crisis.”[4] He pointed out that the imperative of sustainable development is forcing us to think in new ways but that the way to an ecologically sustainable future is not at all yet clear. Human ecology and the sustainable way of thinking about the Earth’s resources should “run out in all directions” and find their path to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences too.

Section 1 of the forum focused on “the spatial dimensions of sustainable development” with five presentations. The well-prepared speakers approached sustainability from different aspects - environmental, economic, and social - and on diverse spatial levels. They dealt with different parts of the world, from the regional to micro level: China, the Carpathian Basin, Visegrad countries, the South-Bekes microregion, and underdeveloped regions of Hungary. Taken as a whole, the presentations significantly contributed to the success of the conference and to a better understanding of the processes of sustainability on different spatial levels. After the presentations, there was a lively discussion in which the audience raised several questions.

Section 2 analyzedthe successes and anomalies in communication and their role in community generating, business, and social life.” These aspects were investigated from psychological, marketing, management, and human-ecological collateral perspectives. The impact of people on their environment also prevails by numerous forms of manifestation in communication. Making public property from successes and anomalies in communication may help initiate more constructive societal, business, and grassroots movements and give these movements sustainability.

The human dimension of biodiversity” was studied in section 3. Biodiversity can be found in both nature and culture. Our world is a living network made up of the millions of species of plants and animals and thousands of human cultures and languages that have developed over time. Languages, cultures, and ecosystems are interdependent. For humanity at large, the loss of cultural and linguistic diversity represents a drastic reduction of our collective human heritage. In this section, Sylff fellows discussed human communities that have special attributes in ethnic, linguistic, and cultural respects and whose existence is endangered. The topic is highly relevant in Europe as well as in the Hungarian context. The objective of the panel was to shed light on the importance of maintaining these communities and to link the knowledge represented by Sylff fellows to the practice of local actors and decision makers in Hungary.

Topping the presentation part of the forum was the legal section, which focused onlaw and equity in a sustainable society.” Beyond environmental law, the question of sustainability also emerges in other domains of legal studies and political sciences, such as constitutional law, the institutional background of the protection of future generations, populism versus long-term policymaking, and the economic aspects of environmental damages and its legal consequences.

The conference day closed with a round-table discussion. Invited participants talked about the question of “sustainability initiated ‘bottom-up’: is it possible?” It was a valuable discussion, not only in that it summarized the main findings of the conference day but also because it brought together academia and municipalities with bottom-up local initiatives, as well as nongovernmental organizations, and raised expectations for the field trip that was to follow the next day. 

A key point of the conference day was that the presentations went beyond the speakers’ own research, adding aspects of sustainable economic development. They encouraged the audience to analyze the theme from broad perspectives and led to a successful forum, as audience members were able to understand the contents without specialized knowledge. The perspectives that were offered helped not only to identify research interests shared by the different disciplines but also to link academic knowledge with local practice.

Workshop Day in the Idyllic Village of Szigetmonostor

Discussion during the workshop in Szigetmonostor.

Discussion during the workshop in Szigetmonostor.

The field trip to Szigetmonostor was aimed at disseminating and applying academic knowledge to the field. To achieve these goals, academics—scientists employed by HAS (research institutions) and people employed by institutions of higher education—went to the field and experienced knowledge spillovers to the locals. Another aim was to heighten the awareness of local initiators about how academics can support and help their initiatives, thereby helping theoretical academic projects take on a more applied and realistic role; in other words, to help academic projects realize themselves in a more practical pragmatic environment.

The main reason for choosing Szigetmonostor was its isolation. Although the village is just 25 km from Budapest, it is difficult to access due to poor infrastructure; because there is no direct motorway, the only ways of reaching it are via a 50-km detour or by ferry.[5] This makes the village unique in its inhabitants’ reliance on one another. Given the natural beauty and environment of the place, which has been underdeveloped to date, it is an ideal spot to develop tourism. There is a need to create job opportunities within Szigetmonostor, as its geographic location makes it difficult for the locals to seek job opportunities in central Budapest.

Activities provided by Sylff fellows included raising awareness of the historical background of Szigetmonostor among the academic participants. Mayor Zsolt Molnar of Szigetmonostor elaborated on the current situation that the half-island was facing.[6] He gave his account at the dam, with the Danube and the city of Budapest visible in the background. This setting enhanced and inspired the visitors’ interest.

After this opening, the focus turned to local initiatives. Local initiators presented their activities and highlighted the key social challenges that they wanted to be tackled. A short group session followed, in which participants were divided into groups and had to identify possible solutions to local issues. These discussions were led by professional mediators as well as local experts. The idea was to find a common ground between the academics and locals to help with Szigetmonostor’s advancement in terms of tourism, education, local job creation, and so forth.

The group work was then followed by participants presenting new ideas and possible solutions to existing difficulties. The group activities provided a great platform for initiating future collaboration between the academics and local initiators.

Discussion during the Workshop in Szigetmonostor.

Hungarian Sylff fellows and locals in Szigetmonstor, with the newly planted Sylff tree in the background. Holding the plaque for the tree at center are Mariann Tarnoczy, who has been working with Sylff at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences since the program’s inception, and Mari Suzuki, director of leadership development at the Tokyo Foundation.

Hungarian Sylff fellows and locals in Szigetmonstor, with the newly planted Sylff tree in the background. Holding the plaque for the tree at center are Mariann Tarnoczy, who has been working with Sylff at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences since the program’s inception, and Mari Suzuki, director of leadership development at the Tokyo Foundation.

To mark Sylff’s contribution and its recognition for future collaboration, the group of workshop participants went out to a beautiful park built by the local volunteers, where they planted a South European flowering ash tree as a symbol for future collaboration. With the help of locals, the academics dug the ground and planted and watered the new tree.

Impact of the Initiative

The two-day event was well attended, which is an objective indicator of success. Eighty-one people attended the conference day, almost half of whom were Hungarian Sylff fellows. The workshop day in Szigetmonostor saw the participation of 45 academics and locals; the number of Sylff fellows was 12.

The initiative aspired to link academic knowledge and local practice. Analyzing sustainable local initiatives and their impact on society was a new activity field for most of the participants. The researchers who gave presentations had been invited to combine their actual research with this important topic. It was an experiment that made great demands of the presenters but led to unforeseen ties between researchers from different disciplines—to real-time interdisciplinary interactions. 

The initiative also had the aim of contributing to society. Understanding basic human ecology principles and the operation of local initiatives can help to map out and evaluate alternatives. The participants identified such principles and recognized new opportunities for cooperation between local initiators and academics. We hope that this future cooperation will lead to positive social change in such forms as increased citizens’ participation in local initiatives, better understanding of the significance of such initiatives among scholars, and more academic projects taking on advanced applied and realistic roles.

A well-informed public is crucial for sustainable development. The media can help reach a wider audience, inform local stakeholders, and direct attention to the role of local initiatives in Hungary’s sustainable economic development. The first report of the initiative has already been published; an article appeared in the local online newspaper of Szigetmonostor, informing local stakeholders about the event..[7]

The organizers of the initiative have prepared a special edition for Magyar Tudomany, the periodical of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. All manuscripts are completed and should be published in the coming weeks. In addition, a seven-minute video on the initiative will be published soon on social media and Internet channels (YouTube and Facebook).

The main organizers of the event (from left to right): Viktoria Ferenc, Andrea Kunsagi, Eva Kiss, Loretta Huszak, and Viktor Lorincz.

The main organizers of the event (from left to right): Viktoria Ferenc, Andrea Kunsagi, Eva Kiss, Loretta Huszak, and Viktor Lorincz.

[1] Marc Marje Howard, The Weakness of Civil Society in Post-Communist Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. i.

[2] Henrietta Nagy, Tamas Toth, and Izabella Olah, “The Role of Local Markets in the Sustainable Economic Development of Hungarian Rural Areas,” Visegrad Journal on Bioeconomy and Sustainable Development, vol. 1, no. 1 (2012): pp. 27–31. https://vua.uniag.sk/sites/default/files/27-31.pdf

[3] For a list of elected chief officers of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences see:

 http://mta.hu/english/elected-chief-officers-of-mta-106110

[4] For further information on Andras Takacs-Santa visit: http://tatk.elte.hu/en/staff/TakacsSantaAndras

[5] Official website of the municipality: http://szigetmonostor.hu/ (in Hungarian)

[6] For further information on Zsolt Molnar visit: http://szigetmonostor.hu/index.php/onkormanyzat/polgarmester (in Hungarian)

[7] Loretta Huszak, “Az MTA kutatóinak és ösztöndíjasainak látogatása Szigetmonostoron,” Ujsagolo, vol. 23, no. 10 (October 2017): pp. 1, 10. http://szigetmonostor.hu/images/dokumentumok/ujsagolo/ujsagolo_2017_10.pdf

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Using Traditional Patriarchal Institutions to Address Women’s Problems

December 4, 2015
By 19655

That modernity does not necessarily bring secularisation in most parts of the world is knowledge rarely disputed in our times. People working in the field of development are increasingly acknowledging the continuing influence of patriarchal2 religious norms on individual and collective life and looking for ways to promote female empowerment within the local reality.3 At the same time, there is growing evidence that gender-specific programmes in the past have produced negative side effects, perhaps because they failed to understand the interdependent livelihoods of men and women in traditional societies. This has led to some efforts to make men and boys central actors of female empowerment.4 Ordinary women in more traditional societies still grapple with culture-specific challenges that are rarely addressed in global initiatives. These include fundamentalist wars against their piety, frictions between modernisation and cultural identity, and intergenerational communication problems that interfere with young women’s choices.5

These were some of the challenges local people repeatedly conveyed to me through their accounts during a year of research in sub-Saharan Africa. The project described here was designed in response to these findings, and proposes to address asymmetries in the lifestyles and livelihoods of men and women working through the patriarchal institutions that inevitably make up the building blocks of most traditional societies. Pragmatic development must be relevant to the realities of local people, and must work within those realities to create an environment for change from within that is led by the people themselves out of their free choice.

Background

The idea that development programmes need to be cautious not to promote existing inequalities between men and women is the product of Western feminist movements. Gender sensitivity has been a mainstream part of development since at least the 1995 International Conference on Women held in Beijing.6 In 2013, in an attempt to understand the need to integrate gender-sensitivity in African agricultural development programmes, I embarked on a year-long fieldwork project in Ghana, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Tanzania.7 My methodology was to listen to what men and women had to say about their livelihoods, to observe how men and women lived together, and to become exposed to Western gender and development approaches so as to investigate their impact.

The findings overall revealed a gap between people’s nuanced lifestyles (and the even more nuanced relationships between men and women) and the theoretical assumptions underpinning most gender and development programmes. The mainstream theoretical framework seemed to be premised on a consistent set of assumptions about gender relations in other countries and the implicit idea that most cultural influences are pernicious to women. In addition, the fact that gender analysis was done from the standpoint of leading Western societies meant that the impact of faith on material life was rarely researched or accounted for. In the societies where I lived, however, it was evident that cultural and faith-based ideas and beliefs shaped gender identities and relations, also influencing women’s possibilities as food producers. It was rarely recognised in the programmes I saw that improving women’s livelihoods would require understanding and engaging with these deeply embedded ideas and socialisation norms first. I therefore developed an alternative strategy that would include traditional institutions both in the analysis of gender realities and in sensitisation processes. Getting local religious and patriarchal figures involved in this process was another priority.

My proposal was to achieve this by combining ethnographic methods of research with participatory methodologies for community discussion. The process of group sensitization would be guided by ERDA methodology, a tool developed by research partners at the University of Tennessee to promote collective problem solving in communities.8 Through such a process of collective dialogue participants were expected to become more aware of the positives and negatives in their community. The gender-sensitive aspect of the approach would in turn provide a platform for thinking about asymmetries in the livelihoods and social roles of men and women, and trace their origin possibly in religious and cultural conventions. At the same time, ERDA would guide the process of sensitization and reduce my role to that of interlocutor. I employed this approach for the first time in the community of Guédé Chantier in Senegal, in response to an invitation by the mayor, Dr. Ousmane Aly Pame, to support the community’s development in ways that would be inclusive and culture-sensitive.9

Socio-economic Conditions through the Gender Lens in Guédé Chantier

Guédé Chantier and the central canal that enables farmers to irrigate their rice.

Guédé Chantier and the central canal that enables farmers to irrigate their rice fields.

Guédé Chantier was established in 1933 by the French colonial administration as an irrigated agriculture project, resettling some 50 families to the area to grow rice. The original local inhabitants were Fulani, although today Guédé is ethnically diverse. The population is homogenously Muslim, with the majority belonging to the Sufi branch of Islam, and specifically the Tidjanniya brotherhood.10 Guédé has a population of approximately 7,000, with a large population of young women.

Men are expected to provide for their families. They usually work in pastoralist, agricultural, fishing, artisanal, and entrepreneurial activities in the village and nearby areas. Women are responsible for looking after children and running the house. Many women work small parcels of land to produce vegetables, which they sell to buy cooking materials. Almost all women are involved in the transformation of raw foodstuffs for sale, including preparing salted peanuts and turning rice into flour.

Khadija, a mother of four in a polygynous marriage, preparing salted peanuts.

Khadija, a mother of four in a polygynous marriage, preparing salted peanuts.

Currently the community faces a number of problems, including soil depletion, water pollution due to use of synthetic fertilizers, shortage of pastoral land, drought, unstable income due to seasonal problems, and migration. Women have limited control of land, limited access to agricultural inputs, and find it difficult to secure credit. Livelihoods for both men and women are becoming more difficult as the price of living increases. This is felt particularly by women, who must manage daily household needs on very meagre funds.

Project Activities

A. Context Analysis

The project was planned as three rounds of activities to unfold over the period of one year. In the first round, I completed questionnaires with men and women in their homes that asked them about their livelihoods and gender-specific challenges. I also spoke to key informants, representatives from local youth organisations, and ordinary men and women. Two focus group discussions—one with men and another with women—were held to unpack profounder religious and cultural beliefs and norms underpinning girls’ and boys’ socialisation. This information was used to prepare the participatory workshop.

Participants’ own definitions of “development.”

Participants’ own definitions of “development.”

B. Participatory Workshop

The workshop had a timeline of two days; it attracted 14 participants on the first day, and 21 on the second (38% female). The group was diverse in terms of age, education levels, marital status, and other socio-economic characteristics. 11 The workshop followed the ERDA methodology, starting with an evaluation of current realities, followed by exercises to bring out problems caused by the intersection of traditional values and norms and modern influences, to assess possible needs and opportunities, and ultimately to produce a platform for action toward sustainable community growth.

Participants reflecting on how they understand “development” in the context of their own lives.

Participants reflecting on how they understand “development” in the context of their own lives.

In the second part of the workshop, a conversation about moral values led participants to examine their ideas and perceptions about people from different backgrounds, and the issue of equality and difference. This led gradually to the topic of the relations between men and women in Pulaar society. Young men and women, both married and single, worked together to list differences and similarities between men’s and women’s livelihoods. Participants also discussed the impact of family, schooling, and religious education on their perceptions about women and men and their respective roles in society. A conversation about spousal and inter-generational communication followed. Although disagreement occasionally halted dialogue early on, by the end of the workshop participants were fully engaged and more aware of their shared identities than differences. Participants also expressed excitement at the ERDA methodology, which they felt could be replicated to promote other communal development initiatives.12

C. Meeting with Patriarchal Leaders

Working together to identify differences and shared characteristics between men and women.

Working together to identify differences and shared characteristics between men and women.

In the second round of activities a meeting was held with religious leaders: Muslim clerics and local elders (a total of nine participants). I planned this discussion to summarise the participatory workshop and its findings to the local ‘patriarchs,’ and to discuss issues of equality in Islam as they had been articulated during the workshop, the focus groups and the personal interviews. The aim was to hear how local leaders thought about the intersection of faith-based, culturally embedded norms about men and women and the needs of younger generations in a constantly globalising world. I also wanted to see how they would visualise development in their community, and their role and responsibility in it.

Progress and Future Directions

The ethnographic activities showed that men and women have different roles, responsibilities, and expectations in this society. The asymmetries in livelihoods most likely reflect religious norms compounded by cultural practices. Patriarchal arrangements of social life, such as in the ways land is allocated, did seem to make equality more difficult to sustain. But the real impediment was found in mentalities that viewed women as less capable than men and belonging exclusively in the home. The participatory workshop showed that most people are interested in change and condone equality, but in ways that do not depart from patriarchal structures that they perceive as foundational to either faith or culture. Any intervention that aims to address women's problems would need to take into account this subtle relationship between growing ideas of equality and a strong sense of identity, especially in cases where the latter combines with an androcentric worldview.

It also emerged from the activities that there is much untapped potential for personal and economic growth in women’s agricultural and revenue-generating activities at home. From the conversation with religious leaders it became evident that they would not oppose economic activities led by women, although there was a general preference that women should not work. Because women spend most of their time within the house, growing food in gardens was identified as a possible pathway for providing women with a stable and independent source of income, and also improving their children’s nutritional habits in the long run (which currently lack diversity).

Subsequently, in a third trip to the village, a workshop was held with women on the themes of nutrition and agriculture. The workshop again employed the ERDA methodology of collective dialogue. In the discussions, women recognised linkages between cultural influences and tradition and current nutritional practices and deficiencies, and raised the need for change. Some participants proposed forming an association for women that would pilot a collective project to grow more nutritionally rich foods at the established local genetic centre. In line with this project’s premises that change must be free-willed and start from within, it was left to the local population to decide how they will leverage on the ERDA activities and what changes they will proceed to make.13

Objectives, Aims, and Expectations

This project’s objective has been two-fold: first, to see more community members sensitised about differences and asymmetries in the lifestyles and livelihoods of men and women, and second to create an environment for men and women to come together, discuss their problems and needs, and become aware of new collective and individual pathways for action. The underlying aim was to pilot a new approach to development practice that is based on local gender knowledges, and does not attempt to impose change based on a priori conceptualisations of what ideal gender relations should be. The activities in the village also provided the context for my masters research titled “Gender through the Lens of Religion: An Ethnographic Study from Senegal” (University of Sussex, Institute of Development Studies), which should add to the field’s understanding of the intersection of faith-based worldviews and Western ideas of gender equality, as well as the implications of this intersection for sustainable development in African societies and elsewhere.14

“Power lies with the individual who has the freedom of choice. This choice, however, requires will, maturity and knowledge.” Young woman in Guédé Chantier


1I would like to thank sincerely the Tokyo Foundation in Japan for believing in the proposal I submitted, and for granting me the means to begin to realise it. I also want to thank Dr. Harwood Schaffer at the University of Tennessee for sharing his work with me and introducing me to the community of Guédé Chantier, and its first Mayor Dr. Ousmane Pame, for willingly accepting my proposal and facilitating my fieldwork and activities there. I also wholeheartedly thank the population of Guédé Chantier for accepting me and for showing patience and willingness to engage with this endeavour.

2‘Patriarchy’ etymologically results from the combination of two words, pater>patria and arkhein, which mean respectively ‘father>family/clan’ and ‘to begin/to rule/to command’ (Online Etymology Dictionary). Patriarchy here then is not defined as androcentrism, but as an organisational structure in which the male plays a central role. Whether a male-led institution becomes unequal will depend on how that subject uses the authority given to him.

3See for example E. Tomalin (ed.), 2015, The Routledge Handbook or Religions and Global Development. Routledge.

4See for example E. Esplen and A. Brody, 2007, Putting Gender Back in the Picture: Rethinking Women's Economic Empowerment, http://www.bridge.ids.ac.uk/sites/bridge.ids.ac.uk/files/reports/BB19_Economic_Empowerment.pdf

5It is little surprise that many scholars in developing countries continue to call for alternative epistemological approaches to gender theorisation. See for example O. Oyěwùmí, (ed.), 2011, Gender Epistemologies in Arica: Gendering Traditions, Spaces, Social Institutions, and Identities, Palgrave McMillan. The same position is echoed in anthropological arguments that have long called for practice designed on the basis of local knowledge. See for example L. T. Smith, 1999, Decolonizing Methodologies Research and Indigenous People, London: Zed Books Ltd.

6See for example C. Moser, 1993, Gender Planning and Development: Theory, Practice and Training, Routledge: London and New York.

7I was awarded the Thomas J. Watson fellowship by the eponymous foundation in New York after being nominated by Bates College in 2012. The project was of my own conceptualisation and design, and was implemented during the period of one year.

8This tool was developed by research partners at the University of Tennessee. It is known by the acronym ERDA (Evaluate, Research, Develop and Assess), and according to my partner, Dr. Harwood Schaffer, was adapted from a well-known tool in Business Studies called Cycle of Innovation. It was designed to set in motion an ongoing cycle of community insight-sharing and re-assessment, securing community ownership of decision-making, to encourage cooperative problem-solving. It was developed on the idea that when practitioners depart, the community must be able to continue to resolve its problems independently.

9Dr. Pame as introduced to me through my research partner at the University of Tennessee, who was at the time working closely with Dr. Pame to address agriculture-related issues in the community. Since Guédé Chantier was upgraded to the status of a commune (2008-2009), Dr. Pame has been committed to mobilising its local population toward more sustainable growth pathways. The community was reportedly the first to be registered as an eco-village.

10Sufism is the mystical version of Islam, and is defined by the followers’ search for inner spirituality and approximation of God. The Tidjanis share three foundational principles, which are: 1. Praying to be forgiven for your sins (‘Astafiroullah’), 2. Recognising no one as divine but God (‘La Illa Ha Illalah’), 3. Praying to the Prophet Mohammad (‘Salatou Allale Nabby’). (Principal Imam Abdoulaye Ly, personal interview, 1 April 2015, consent granted).

11Participation at this point was self-selected, however an attempt was made to communicate directly with women and men in the community so as to ensure that everyone was informed before the day of the workshop.

12Participants proposed various suggestions, but due to the fact that we ran out of time, no action plan was created. The different pathways were discussed in follow-up conversations.

13My conviction is that development must respect free choice. This echoes the work of Amartya Sen (Nobel Prize in Economics 1998). My approach takes Sen’s theory seriously and recognises that people value different things and that development must be formulated based on such values. See A. Sen, 1999, Development as Freedom, Oxford University Press.

14This has become my MA dissertation at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), University of Sussex, under the title “Gender through the Lens of Religion: An Ethnographic Study from a Muslim Community in Senegal”.

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How the Leopard Got Its Spots: Gender Dimensions of Land Reform in Cambodia

October 10, 2014
By 19590

Large-scale land acquisitions by agribusinesses have negative social and environmental side effects, and many governments are exploring ways to balance commercial interests with those of individual residents. Alice Beban, a Sylff fellowship recipient at Massey University, conducted research in Cambodia, where the national government is advancing bold land reforms to attract agribusiness investments, using an SRA grant. In this article, she examines the socioeconomic implications of the land reforms for the country’s smallholder farmers.

* * *

Forest Patrol Walking: A group of 16 rural villagers and representatives from the Forestry Administration patrol an area that was designated as a community forest in the land reform to check for illegal land clearing.

Forest Patrol Walking:
A group of 16 rural villagers and representatives from the Forestry Administration patrol an area that was designated as a community forest in the land reform to check for illegal land clearing.

Land and food production has returned to the center of global development concerns in recent years, spurred by a dramatic rise in large-scale farmland investment for agribusiness and speculation (White et al., 2012). The Southeast Asian nation of Cambodia is a key site for farmland investment, with around 50% of the country’s arable land reportedly awarded as “economic land concessions” (ELC) to agribusiness companies in recent years (Bickell & Lohr, 2011; Borras & Franco, 2011).

Now, with mounting concern over food security, public unrest, and the documented negative social and environmental consequences of large-scale land acquisitions (also known as “land grabbing” by some academics and activists), many governments are asking what can be done to balance a desire for agribusiness investment with environmental and social concerns.1

One response is smallholder land reform. This was the approach taken by Cambodia in 2012, when the Cambodian government announced a bold new initiative to expand post-conflict land registration to households living on the ELCs. Thousands of student volunteers from Cambodia’s capital began knocking on doors in remote areas of the country to survey land for redistribution to smallholders. This policy—dubbed the “leopard skin policy” by Prime Minister Hun Sen—envisages large scale agribusinesses and smallholders coexisting like animal spots on the landscape, with the plantations gaining a labor force and smallholders gaining secure title to the land on which they live (Naren & Woods, 2012).

Mountain spirit meeting:  Rural people who had lost land to an agribusiness company meet to ask spirits to help them recover their land.

Mountain spirit meeting:
Rural people who had lost land to an agribusiness company meet to ask spirits to help them recover their land.

I was in Cambodia when this land reform was carried out, and I was fascinated with the scope and speed of the initiative and the potential it holds for shifting the trajectory of “land grabbing” across the country and offering lessons to many other countries struggling to develop a socially just agrarian policy.

It also challenges gender norms by promoting joint husband/wife land titling. My PhD research examines this land reform and the roles it plays in contemporary Cambodian politics, society, and ecology. I had the opportunity to explore this issue with my SRA award, with mentoring and support from my Cambodian SRA host, Professor Pou Sovachana of Pannyasastra University, who is now research director at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP).

I was a senior research fellow at CICP for six months during my SRA award. While at CICP, I was able to attend many conferences and seminars, meet researchers from around Cambodia and the world with similar interests to my own, and also give a lecture to Cambodian students and assist in CICP’s research projects.

Alice interviewing family: I am talking with a family and looking at the land title certificate they just received.

Alice interviewing family:
I am talking with a family and looking at the land title certificate they just received.

Most of my SRA award tenure was spent at a research site within Cambodia’s largest agribusiness concession, one of the first sites where the new land reform was implemented. I interviewed 18 government officials at both the central government and local government levels and conducted over 60 semi-structured interviews to gain a variety of perspectives from people in communities where land titles were given out, as well as the views of the student volunteers and organizations working on land rights. I also attended land title award ceremonies, agricultural training sessions, and forest patrols in communities that had received titles under the land reform.

I investigated the politics of the land titling reform’s implementation and the implications of the reform for people’s perceptions of security, agricultural production, and relationships within the household. My initial findings suggest that the benefits women and men in farming communities received from the land reform policy were highly dependent upon local authorities’ implementation.

Given Cambodia’s “neo-patrimonial” political system, where political power works through networks connecting elite politicians and businesspeople with their supporters at all levels of government (Un & So, 2009), it is perhaps not a surprise that, in some cases, local authorities and powerful players were able to use the land reform to their advantage (for example, by titling common forest areas and selling land to outsiders for personal financial gain). This meant that poorer families, including female-headed households, often benefitted less than wealthier families, as they did not have the political connections necessary to take advantage of the reform.

Receiving land titles: Officials from the Ministry of Land hand out land titles to rural villagers at the local village temple.

Receiving land titles:
Officials from the Ministry of Land hand out land titles to rural villagers at the local village temple.

My SRA grant enabled me to spend time in areas where this kind of elite capture was widespread and also areas where it was far less apparent. I found that even in areas with similar conditions, differences in the land reform process were apparent, in part due to the presence of supportive individuals in positions of authority and to strong community networks that were able to inform community members about correct process in the land reform and hold authorities more accountable.

My research also shows that assumptions of a simple causal relationship between a policy promoting joint title and women’s land rights overlooks deeper, gendered power relations. During the policy implementation process, I found that local officials’ understanding of gender roles had a large part to play in how joint land titles were awarded.

For example, there was confusion among officials and community members as to how people’s land should be titled when one partner was not present. This meant that some women I interviewed who had been abandoned by spouses were awarded joint title to their land with the spouse who had abandoned them. Flexibility in the law for local authorities to resolve specific cases can be a strength, as it recognizes that policies produced in the capital can never account fully for on-the-ground realities. But it can also mean that people with power and resources can use this flexibility for their own gain and that enduring gender constructs that view women as less capable of controlling household assets can guide the decisions of local authorities.

I expected that the award of property rights might reduce insecurity and enable farmers to increase production efficiency, but many people in my study with legal tenure security did not necessarily perceive their land to be secure. While land title recipients were usually happy to receive title and some people certainly felt more secure, a common theme that arose in interviews was people’s ongoing fear that their land would be taken even after receiving land title. The main reasons given for this was that the court system is expensive and incomprehensible to many rural people, and it is difficult for people to accept that the new paper titles will carry much weight in a system that for years has been dominated by money and power.

I am now continuing to investigate this aspect of the land reform in my ongoing PhD research, through examining the cultural bases of men’s and women’s sense of security, including the various type of evidence people use to support their claims to land and the ways people settle disputes locally.

The SRA experience was extremely enriching for me as I continue with my PhD. It not only provided me the resources to undertake an extended period of research but also connected me with a whole new network of wonderful Cambodian and international scholars whom I am continuing to work with on several collaborative research projects.

References

Bickel, M., & D. Lohr. (2011). “Pro-Poor Land Distribution in Cambodia.” Rural 21, 3, 33-35.
Borras, S., & J. Franco. (2011). Political Dynamics of Land Grabbing in Southeast Asia. Amsterdam: Transnational Institute.
Naren, K., & B. Woods. (2012, ). “Hun Sen Says Land Program Proving a Success.” Cambodia Daily, August 9, 2012.
White, B., J. Borras, R. Hall, I. Scoones, & W. Wolford. (2012). “The New Enclosures: Critical Perspectives on Corporate Land Deals.” Journal of Peasant Studies, 39(3-4).
Un, K., & S. So. (2009). “Politics of Natural Resource Use in Cambodia.” Asian Affairs: An American Review, 36(3), 123-138.


1See for example the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure” and the country debate around this (http://www.fao.org/nr/tenure/voluntary-guidelines/en/).