11 December, 2012

Occupy! The Grain Mill?

The night before leaving my village for a week long training, to be followed by four weeks' vacation in the U.S., I could not seem to fall asleep. An all-night prayer event blasting over the solar powered loud speaker at the Mosque or the nagging thought of having to wake up at 4:30 AM for the car out of the bush may have lent to my restlessness, but no, something else was moving rapidly in my mind. I couldn't quiet the pondering inspired by the interesting publication I had just read. A compilation of interviews and talks by the linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky regarding his thoughts, advice, and opinions on the new sociopolitical movement sweeping the cities of the industrialized world; Occupy. Hubs of this very movement are located in my old back yard in Brooklyn, which late at night in my village seemed so far away, but soon to be close.

Much like everything else in the life of a peace Corps Volunteer I was mentally drawing lines between what Chomsky had to say about Occupy to my experiences here. His pervasive suggestion to improve income inequality amongst Americans was not necessarily total revolution, but reforming our system which has proven to yield substantial change before, a la the Civil Rights Movement, Womans' Empowerment, etc. Senegal has also made great strides in the way of social, political, and economic equality, at least comparably to other developing nations. When weaknesses and disorganization of the system are reformed this forward movement is sure to continue at a more rapid pace. Two very different nations, with very different political and economic pasts, both immediately require the action of their people to change the vast gap in income distribution.

Chomsky points out that change will come about if communities increased their level of organization to reach identified goals. For example, the goals and needs of the community of Sunset Park Brooklyn should be chosen by the members of the community. Politicians vying for office there must prove she will fulfill these needs, as opposed to proposing hot-platform needs and convincing people through Public Relations tactics that it's what they want; as politicians local and federal are wont to do. My role in the community here, in the pocket of villages south of Kaffrine, is assuredly not as a politician but I have been instructed by extension manual, professor, and Peace Corps trainer alike to do just what Chomsky encourages leaders of the Occupy movement to do. The methodology is to learn from the people and have them identify their needs before attempting to bring change or inspire action. Otherwise, one's efforts will be in vain, not to mention that believing you know whats someone needs more then they do is quite vain as well (admittedly there are exceptions to this such as mandatory vaccinations).

he Occupy movement also places great emphasis on worker/union owned and managed production. The U.S. has many such operations but in general to create such a business would require a break down from the system of corporate ownership we're accustomed to; a removal of the top most part of a tiered business management structure. Many Peace Corps projects encourage the same type of entrepreneurship suggested by Occupy but it is instead being built from the bottom up. An example would be to support a group of women who sell roasted cashews to transform that same product into cashew butter and distributing it on a wider scale. Such cooperative small ventures can grow with the aid of micro-lending or grant opportunities through which a volunteer is a liaison. A fellow Kaffrine volunteer is currently helping a local womens' group apply for funding through an independent grant foundation in order to purchase a grain processing facility. They have been trained in the usage of such machinery and know the codes and processes to follow in order to sell their product to outlets in the larger cities of Senegal. If such an effort continued to grow to an industrial level, which is has the potential to do, the best way to run the operation would likely be to keep those workers who created the business at the helm. I believe this since it would be wildly beneficial to the community as they would employ local people at fair wages, as they are their kinsmen. I can easily imagine the benefits of such a structure both here and in the U.S. Perhaps a project which took some of our excessive military spending and put it into New Deal style economic stimulation (high speed rail anyone?) worker and/or union operated. I am not blind to the possibility of corruption emerging in such systems, but if members of the business at all levels feel valued and in control such behaviour may be avoided.

Large scale farming operation, or industrial factories in rural areas of Senegal could pull available wages and products out of the capital city (the only place they are currently somewhat readily available) and into the rest of the country. This could reduce the destructive 'brain drain' affect plaguing the country. Educated and/or potential wage earners leave the rural areas in search of cash income or other economic opportunity, leaving the important agricultural work and their families behind. Introduction of factories or other industrial operations could be beneficial to the lower classes of Senegal, but it shouldn't be to the benefit of some outside corporation's bank account. They should be regulated by the workers who determine fair wages, benefits, and culturally appropriate schedules and rules. The level of organization demanded by the goals of the Occupy movement in the U.S. would be necessary in Senegal alike to achieve such economic development I've just described.

Chomsky interestingly discusses why functional community organization may be difficult in the U.S. He told the story of a group of women and men in the mid 19th century who ran their own successful press operation in Boston but as the new industrial system grew it became too difficult to continue their business as they had designed it due to the imposition of rigid hierarchical structures by industrialization One of their main complaints was what they called 'the new spirit of the age: gain wealth forgetting all but self”. Selfishness has been engrained in us from childhood through sneaky PR schemes and the promotion of an isolated mentality. Although Dawkins is right that the gene itself is selfish, our selfish little genes do better if humans act altruistically, so to turn us all against the other my necessarily be against our biology (and may explain so much personal misery and depression among Americans). For the people of rural Senegal, this sentiment has yet to be ingrained and community is still of the most importance. At least, in this sense, Occupy sentiments have a leg-up on purveying into the social and local political structures here. I've heard other PCVs say that the spirit of sharing and community here is what is hindering development, since people are willing to give what little they have instead of saving and building their economic situation. It is my sincerest hope that this is not true and the strong sense of community here will, in fact, promote true democratic exchange instead.  

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