February 15, 2008

Warning: Big Words Ahead

One of the major philosophical divisions in political theory is that of structure and agency. A theorist like Karl Marx, for instance, argued that the (economic) structures of a society are what determine a person’s life chances and opportunities. A classic liberal, like John Locke, argued that the will and agency of an individual is what is important. This debate plays itself out in many areas, such as those who argue in favour of equality of opportunity (agency) and those who support equality of condition (structure). When I was studying political theory in university, I learned some folks like to have it both ways and invented a word, “structuration,” that basically means that both structure and agency are important factors in shaping an individual’s life.

Aristotle’s Golden Mean – “moderation in all things” – should be enough to remind us that there’s always some truth in both extremes of any continuum and that structuration is basically correct. You wouldn’t deny that the structure of Europe after World War I – a punitive peace, economic recession, etc. – helped lay the groundwork for World War II but you also wouldn’t deny that the agency of Hitler helped lead to that war.

Why does all this matter and what does it have to do with Itipini? It goes back to my previous post about the Millennium Development Goals and the idea of development more generally. What I’ve realized in my time here is that the obstacles to improving the conditions of our sisters and brothers in Itipini lie in both structure and agency. What’s more, the agency obstacles might be the more salient and, most distressingly, the more difficult to remove.

While many structural obstacles can be deep-seated (and therefore hard to identify), many are not. There is lots that we in the rich world can do to remove these obstacles – pay school fees for those who can’t afford them (or lobby to remove school fees altogether), put new and up-to-date books on the shelves of libraries in the developing world, help distribute necessary vaccines (or ensure those vaccines are widely available) so preventable diseases don’t kill unnecessarily, and so on and so forth. This sort of aid appeals to the sentiments of donors in the rich world (equality of opportunity is a deep-seated belief held even by those who don’t like to admit it) and is easy to address with a check addressed to one’s favourite charity.

(Here’s perhaps the most obvious structural barrier we should all be working to remove: rich world tariffs and other barriers to trade cost the developing world twice as much as it receives in foreign aid every year. The transfer of wealth is not north-to-south but south-to-north because of fat subsidies that see more spent on a cow in Europe or North America than a child in, say, Itipini. I’ve known some good cows but none approaches the worth of even the most aggravating child here.)

But there’s got to be someone ready to take advantage of the removal of those structural barriers. I was in a long and disappointing conversation with some people involved with Itipini the other day in which we catalogued the people who had had the fees for some vocational or other training course (like hairdressing or security guard training) paid but now were still seen hanging around Itipini either because they didn’t finish the course or they weren’t in town working and putting that training to work. It was a distressingly long list we made.

Sure, there are likely other structural obstacles involved – it doesn’t help to train a single mother to be a hairdresser if she can’t find someone to take care of her child during the day. But it is hard to avoid that word that is far too frequently and unjustifiably applied to the poor and which I hesitate even to write now – lazy. One look at the weight of water women carry on their heads every day is enough to convince me the people here are not lazy. But there’s still a part of me that wants to share a few selected snippets of Max Weber’s “The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” with these people.

At what point does the effort to remove structural barriers and provide assistance become a trap that removes incentives to improve one’s own condition? What structural barriers should people have to overcome themselves and which should we seek to remove? If people don’t work to improve their condition or waste opportunities they’ve been given, how should we respond when they ask us for help with immediate needs, like food because they’re hungry? Do we say, “we tried to teach you to fish and you failed so we’re not going to give you a fish now”? And if a person doesn’t use an opportunity we’ve given them, should we stop trying to help them? Aren’t re-birth, renewal, and redemption central concepts to our faith?

Like I said before, I’ve only got questions… and more where these came from.

(This other post talks about structure and agency issues without even mentioning the words. They’re everywhere!)