It is not difficult to see why the MDGs were hailed as a great blueprint for ‘development’; they are concise, measurable and adaptable, and most importantly they were signed by all the member states of the United Nations at the time. Paradoxically, the main reason for the belief in the MDGs is also their major weakness, and arguably of development projects in general. The focus on numbers, and individuals as numbers, tends to overshadow the unique and complex characteristics each person might bring to the table. This aspect is fundamental to development projects. Furthermore, while these projects aim to tackle poverty, which causes suffering – Paul Farmer has asked: how do we measure this suffering? How do we measure the indignity?
Development in its history has shown us that it is lopsided and that there has to be a strong, powerful ‘developer’ and the weak, powerless ‘developee’ for the relationship to continue. Furthermore, this relationship is not always contextualized to show their interconnectedness and heavy reliance on one another. For this piece, I will attempt to show that water, one of the most basic of all human rights, is one of the mirrors to this lopsided relationship and of growing inequalities. While some do not have clean water to drink, some enjoy access to swimming pools using thousands of liters, daily. These two extreme points about water are hardly contextualized as connected and never questioned as inequalities of privilege and how the global structure, violent in its nature, continues to perpetuate a world of winners and losers.
In Open Veins of Latin America, Eduardo Galeano posits that “the international division of labor, as it emerged along with capitalism, among nations is that some specialize in winning and others in losing.” Galeano adds that ” …the winners happen to have won thanks to [Latin America] losing: the history of Latin America’s underdevelopment is, as someone has said, an integral part of the history of world capitalism’s development” . The same applies to African countries. Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, highlights the same arguments, stating that capitalism failed to change the social relations in Africa and the loss of power is a form of underdevelopment as countries lost the ability to defend their own interests. Thus while there are various historical precedents that demonstrate the legacy of underdevelopment, Paul Farmer in Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights and the New War on the Poor, argues that present day “social factors including gender, ethnicity (“race”), and socioeconomic status may each play a role in rendering individuals and groups vulnerable to extreme human suffering” (2003:42).
One of the ongoing stereotypical ‘jokes’ about ‘black’ people is that we do not swim. And in my experience it is true most of the black people I know personally indeed do not swim. Those who tell this joke annoy me a lot, as much as those who act surprised when they learn of an adult who cannot swim. This is because being able to swim can be situated in a much larger context to illustrate structural violence; how privilege, access, opportunity and bias work. Swimming is an instrument of structural violence. The first implicit bias of the joke is the singling out of one race. If you are from Botswana like me, and many other countries in Africa, many of the opportunities ‘available’ to us to learn to swim require a level of economic freedom/standing. The most common avenues are schools and hotels/lodges, and a few learn at home. Now both schools and hotels can only be accessed by families with resources and public schools do not have pools.
In my opinion, the ‘why blacks don’t swim’ debate should be contextualized within history and the realm of socio-economic rights. This is not to say that the act of swimming is itself a right, but rather to highlight that for most, not being able to exercise this ‘privilege’ is not a matter of choice. It is also worth noting that the idea of swimming in itself in this context has been limited to just pools and linked to socio economic status. This false construction does not take into account other places such as rivers and streams that black people also swim in. Furthermore, for those with access to pools, it has become a ‘positioned good’ marking an ‘arrival’ status. Due to limited access to these places to swim, social scarcity is created by not only the absolute physical limitations of pools but also limited access.
In a recent talk I attended by Dr. Wahbie Long he emphasized that social scientists are not used to explain the everyday realities of the working class as there continues to be an unwillingness to name the violence that exists. Though his talk was on African Psychology and South Africa, it remains relevant to all fields and other contexts. One of his main points, taken from Bulhan’s (1985) Frantz Fanon and the Psychology of Oppression, was that there needs to be a shift of focus from violence of intent to violence of consequence. In an email correspondence he gave the example that “when someone is underpaid for their labor, it’s not because the employer has the explicit intention of humiliating the worker – the intention is irrelevant. What matters are the violent consequences the worker experiences because of being underpaid: poverty, shame etc.” This shift will allow for a focus on structural violence and lead to a change in how “the system” works.
As we look toward the post 2015 agenda, and we especially focus on the ‘road to dignity’ it will be imperative to understand exactly how structures work and to place emphasis on how systems, and not people, work. This is because getting a better understanding of the structural dynamics will provide a better grasp on formulating a more holistic agenda. There is a need for a social justice agenda — looking beyond charity and development and focusing more on the injustices and inequalities that happen every day.
“A stand-alone water goal is critical as part of the Post-2015 Development Agenda” stated the World Water Council during an engaging year with UN institutions for the preparation of the Sustainable Development Goals (see this report). I hope this recommendation will be taken seriously, and take into account systemic factors.