Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Ethical Dilemmas

My fellowship has not been without challenges – with the most difficult challenge being navigating the fine line between exploitation and assistance that constantly overshadows this – and all other – forms of development work. Though I’ve thought about this issue constantly, I still haven’t been able to figure out exactly where I stand, and I’m expecting my thoughts and perceptions to continue to evolve throughout the last few weeks of my time here.

One of the major ethical dilemmas I’ve had is regarding the process of obtaining testimonials and life-histories of the women artisans, which we’re doing to help connect Western consumers to the indigenous artisans producing their products. Ananya Roy, one of my past professors and Director of the Global Poverty and Practice Minor at Berkeley, called this type of work the “prostitution of poverty” – while the end goal is admirable – and beneficial to the women – this process can also be seen as a form of exploitation, as we’re taking sad stories of the lives and hardships of the women artisans and using them to get funding and support and to help sell their products. The sad truth has been that in each interview, Darcy and I are actively seeking examples of hardships the women have overcome, or of the poverty and challenges that they’re constantly undergoing – because in the business of poverty and development, these are the stories that sell.

Another dichotomy I’ve struggled with since arriving is the goal of alternative trade organizations – like Nest and Oxlajuj B’atz – to preserve indigenous culture and history while at the same time opening up indigenous producers to new and expanded markets for increased profits. Even within the alternative trade sector, organizational models and missions vary greatly. For example, Oxlajuj B’atz’ places a much greater focus on empowerment and capacity-building of the Mayan artisans themselves, and directly providing an expanded market for the artisans’ products –through the Fair Trade store – is only a small part of the overall mission. Organizations such as Maya Hands, Maya Traditions, and Nest, however, are more focused on international exports and thus play a greater role in directing the artisans in their designs and production process. Each model has its own pros and cons. Whereas outside organizations increasing their involvement in the actual production process can help make the products more profitable and sellable to an expanded market – for example, by improving quality, efficiency, or desirability to consumers - doing so can be seen as a form of unnecessary control, exploitation, or suppression of creativity, and can degrade the unique cultural and traditional qualities to the products. The challenge is seeking a balance between all of these factors, in a non-exploitative, sustainable, and efficient manner. This past week, I revisited an article from the literature review I wrote before starting my fellowship that explored these very issues. Now for a crazy coincidence – it turns out that one of the authors of this article, Brenda Rosenbaum, was actually the founder of Oxlajuj B’atz’, which explains why so many of her ideas seemed directly applicable to the work I’ve been doing! Andrea is going to put me in touch with Brenda and I’m looking forward to speaking with her further about her thoughts about fair trade artisan production and her work with OB.

I’ve found myself in a constant state of reflection over the past month as these issues have come up in my work – whether its talking to Darcy about ideas or concerns as they come up, short check-in meetings with Andrea that turn into two hour discussions, or spontaneous conversations with other volunteers, ex-pats, and representatives of all of the different NGOs and non-profits based in Pana and around the lake. I’ve even starting thinking about returning to Guatemala next summer to continue researching and working in these issues, and potentially writing a comparative thesis on the different models of fair trade and their effects on indigenous artisans and culture. It’s a long ways away, but even a semi-concrete plan to return in the future is going to make leaving here so much easier!

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