Can the North hear?


Tessa Lewin

I spent last week in Durban at the IAMCR (the International Association for Media and Communication Research) Conference, where I was presenting a paper on Pathways of Women’s Empowerment ‘Real World’ documentary film scheme, together with other contributors to the forthcoming IDS Bulletin New Roles for Communication in Development (Bulletin no. 43.5 – September 2012).

Aside from the broad overview of the field offered by the conference programme, the numerous specialist bookstalls, and the people, by far the most interesting and complicating moment for me was the opening plenary. Aside from Mbembe’s talk, which had moments of brilliance, there were two things that defined my experience of this event  – William Makgoba’s address, and Raewynn Connell’s presentation. Makgoba was opening the conference in his role as Vice Chancellor of the University. Connell was speaking about the political economy of global knowledge production, with reference to her book on Southern Theory (the overarching theme for the conference was ‘South-North Conversations’).

Makgoba is a very controversial figure in South Africa. He is widely acknowledged as a brilliant scientist and, more controversially, as a leader. In 1995 he was appointed as the Vice Chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand.  While in this role, a group of fellow academics accused him of administrative incompetence, disloyalty to the university and embellishing his curriculum vitae. Makgoba launched a counterattack, accused the University of institutional racism, and resigned. The ‘Makgoba Affair’ polarized the university along racial lines, and was seen by many as an incident that defined the complexities of post-Apartheid South Africa. More recently, in his role as Vice Chancellor of the University of KwaZulu Natal, he has been accused of undermining academic freedom by autocratically censoring his critics.

After a glowing eulogy from Ruth Teer-Tomaselli (a well-known media academic and the co-chair of the local organising committee) introducing Makgoba, he spoke somewhat curiously, to the room of media practitioners and academics, about the lack of proper regulation of journalists, and suggested that like medical practitioners, journalists should be controlled by a professional regulatory body. He appeared to be echoing recent pronouncements by ANC leaders linked to the much-debated South African Protection of State Information Bill. Teer-Tomaselli later issued what appeared to be a disclaimer for Makgoba’s speech – where she reassured the conference of his intelligence, and his intent to provoke. What made Makgoba’s address particularly surreal was the seeming lack of audience reaction or engagement. It was not clear what silenced the South Africans in the audience, but I am certain that most of the non-South African delegates had no idea of the contextual significance of any of the details of the event. In this sense, it was a perfect illustration of what can be lost in translation in South-North conversations.

Connell talked about her field, sociology, and the extent to which its emergence and growth in the West was very much part of the Imperial project. She outlined how this has shaped the knowledge relationship of ‘academic dependency’ between South and North. She showed a sobering info graphic illustrating the geographical spread of sociology journals – the majority coming from the USA, followed by the UK. She argued that many indigenous knowledges and priorities were being underrepresented in global academia as a result of existing entrenched patterns. Agendas are often set by editorial priorities and experiences of ‘Northern’ academics. She pointed out that the recent growth of neo-liberal management and its insistence on a particular understanding of ‘impact’ and ‘rigour’ within Universities further entrenches these patterns.

Connell went on to argue that Spivak’s question ‘can the South speak?’ should be accompanied by the question ‘Can the North hear?’ She asserted that the driving force for structural change will be intellectual production in the global South, not reform from the North. She also gave an introduction to several ‘Southern’ theorists who have made significant contributions to theory including Bina Agarwal, Sol Plaatje, Paulin J. Hountondji, Ali Shariati. Connell called for both Northern and Southern voices to work together, as allies, to try and better balance the system.

In the context of this plenary the South-North framing of the conference felt less anachronistic than I had initially viewed it, and more a vital call to arms, to awareness, to action. I for one, came away determined to read more and ask more questions, and address the gaps in my knowledge both about the ongoing structural inequities of academia, and numerous Southern theorists.

Tessa Lewin is a researcher in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

Why inflation is so unpopular


Naomi Hossain

Some regular focus group participants discussing the cost of living. Sabiha explained that high food prices affected her child’s health, as she struggled to afford nutritious food like milk or fruit.

Whenever I tell economists about our ‘crisis’ research findings, that people on low incomes hate and fear the current wave of inflation, they look at me blankly. ‘But..’, they explain in terms simple enough for an infant to grasp, ‘wages rise’. Having abandoned economics at undergrad I forget whether this particular tenet is a vital one, but I get that economists don’t get the unpopularity of inflation because of their confidence – as in a fact of nature – that wages rise to compensate. So why should people complain? Let alone riot? Aren’t they just silly? Why has nobody told them about the natural laws of economics?

This last week I came face-to-face with two explanations of the unpopularity of inflation. This was in the Notun Bazaar slum in Dhaka, where colleagues at BRAC Development Institute have been researching how people cope with the ups and downs of global economic volatility since 2009. This is the Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility project, in partnership with Oxfam and partners in Bangladesh, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Indonesia, Kenya, Pakistan, Vietnam, Zambia, funded by DFID, Irish Aid, Oxfam GB and Oxfam America, as part of the Grow campaign on food justice.  Once again, we were told what cost more and what was cheaper than last year. We checked against last years’ data, and recall turns out to be pretty spot-on. The price of rice was slightly down on this time last year (the Food Ministry’s fortnightly foodgrain outlook agrees); but pretty much everything else was more expensive.

The posters show that this focus group was held in a room sponsored by an NGO tackling, among other issues, violence against women. NGOs also provide latrines and a school here. The woman at the centre right of the picture has been working as a childminder for a crèche in the ara, but it is reachig ‘date-fail’ – the project will soon end. Subsidised childminding services are a boon for the area, making it possible for many of Notun Bazaar’s mothers and grandmothers to work in the garments and domestic service industries.

The group of women – occasional garments workers, housemaids, paid and unpaid carers – with whom we meet regularly spoke simultaneously about the cost of living and the challenges of earning enough to live well. They talked about whose wages had risen, and why. The demand for garments workers has, they explained, squeezed the supply of maids. Middle class households have responded by paying higher cash wages but with more fixed terms than before: old mistress-servant relationships are increasingly replaced by those of employer-service provider. But with the old informality has gone a certain amount of paternalistic protection: ‘you get your pay packet, sure,’ one woman explained, ‘but that is it. No extras.’ For families that depend on casual work, higher wages compensate just fine for higher prices – but only when you are assured of those higher wages. And there are no job certainties for the Bangladeshi precariat. The vulnerability of your income matters more when prices are high than when prices (and wages) are low: the drop to nothing is far steeper in inflationary times.

Jamila explaining that last year’s large minimum wage rise in the garments sector wasn’t enough to cope with inflation: ‘things have stayed the same’ because prices rose so fast.

The second reason inflation is so unpopular is that wages don’t rise organically in response to inflation: you have to fight for them. While we were in Notun Bazaar, workers in the garment industry, Bangladesh’s main export and foreign exchange earner, had been protesting so ferociously about wages not keeping pace with inflation that employers shut down factories in Ashulia, a major centre for the industry.  Wages certainly rise when there is inflation, but only because of the dirty violent struggle that follows. Garments workers (and others) are surely right to hate and fear inflation, because there is nothing invisible about the hand that makes their wages rise.

Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

Read other recent blog posts by Naomi Hossain: