Idealize This!: The Ethics of Solidarity

Catherine Traywick

Cross-posted from Hyphen Magazine

One of the first things a (good) transnational activist learns is the practical meaning of solidarity — which, as the latest issue of New York Times Magazine illustrates, is a concept not easily grasped by even the worldliest and most committed of advocates. This week’s installment of the NYT Magazine manages (for the most part) to thoughtfully and contextually explore the plights of Third World women, while examining some of the the hard realities of transnational activism. Nevertheless, the clear subtext of the articles belies the contributors’ apparent commitment to building real and lasting solidarity movements. As journalist Edwin Okong’o points out, the lead feature paints a rather two-dimensional (albeit compassionate) portrait of life in the brutal third world, but shies away from covering the efforts of impactful Third World activists and movements in favor of spotlighting the high-dollar (emphasis on the $) development projects of western nonprofit organizations.

The collective implication of the pieces (particularly as underscored by articles like “The Power of the Purse,” “Do It Yourself Foreign Aid,” and the issue’s own title: “Saving the World’s Women”) outlines a rather paternalistic view of solidarity, in which the savagery of the Third World must be resolved through the philanthropic efforts of the West. Tragically, for the Third World, solidarity is not about westerners recognizing how terrifyingly crappy things are “over there,” and subsequently dedicating a relatively minuscule portion of their grossly exorbitant resources to save the undeveloped from themselves. If only progress and partnership were so simple.

And: if only Asian Americans, by virtue of our heritage(s), were innocent of the above-mentioned paternalism. Unfortunately, you don’t have to be white to bear the White Man’s Burden — Sheryl WuDunn, one of the issue’s key contributors, is herself Chinese American. And, as Americans, egoistic benevolence is part of our national identity. On the bright side, we do have one up on our Western counterparts: while we can certainly appreciate the value of a dollar with regard to international development, some of us may also have distilled from our multicultural rearing a more practical understanding of the profound importance and subtle complexities of this mysterious thing called solidarity.

To put it simply, solidarity is about more than simply joining forces for the common good. Rather, it’s about forging coalitions based on mutual interests, trust, and — most importantly — the equitable distribution of power and resources amongst stakeholders and supporters. (In the jargon of the unenlightened: stakeholders = people who need help, while supporters = people with money to help them.) That last point is where most well-intentioned, would-be do-gooders flub.

After all, it’s pretty easy to build a relationship based on mutual interests and trust when everyone at the table has big hearts and great intentions. It’s quite another thing to build a relationship based on equitably distributed power when half of the table has all the money (and the clout that comes with it) while the other half of the table has none (but desperately needs to get it). That’s precisely where foreign aid by way of western NGOs become a tad iffy, and where Western donors (AsAms included) lose their way (and their cred).

While the issue’s contributors rightly emphasize the profound importance and overwhelming potential of women-based aid and development projects, they might do better also to encourage their readers to consider critically how the power dynamics involved in charitable giving foster or stifle development. If we had been doing this kind of critical thinking ages ago, we wouldn’t have condoned the decades of discriminatory and ineffectual male-centered development projects that have brought this very issue to the front page of NYT Magazine now. Assuming we know what’s best for the Third World, without actively engaging in a dialogue with Third World stakeholders, has never worked in the past — no matter how much money you throw at it.

Moreover, a major failure of the issue is the contributors’ own failure to analyze our place, as Americans, in upholding systems and policies that keep women of the Third World down:

  • Hey, Kristof and WuDunn: What role do IMF and World Bank policies (which we fund) play in restricting public education, limiting women’s healthcare and exacerbating the poverty debilitating the women about whom you write so passionately? Certainly in a globalized world like ours, their problems don’t start and end exclusively within their own borders…
  • And you, Belkin: Though you”re very impressed by the extent of Western women’s charitable giving, touting the “power of the purse,” what about the starvation wages paid to the women who constructed those designer, powerful purses? I want to read a feature about that!
  • And, of course, New York Times Magazine: How about criticizing the structures that caused this kind of inequality in the first place instead of pretending like soft hearts can trump moneyed institutions? Supporting stakeholders to the point that we can honestly acknowledge our own mistakes and remodel ourselves — that would be an act of solidarity!

By all means, read the issue, sincerely thank the New York Times for putting it together, and definitely donate to the wonderful organizations that the contributors recommend — but know that doing so is an act of charity, and not solidarity. Charity does wonderful things for individual people (most of the time), but solidarity addresses the roots of injustice and unites disparate people to make a better world for everyone. Solidarity forces us to critically examine and better ourselves, before presuming that we can do so for others.