Tag Archives: globalization

Value differences and international policy analysis

A few years ago, another instructor and I redesigned the Advanced Policies class to include a focus on comparative international social policy. The School ended up deciding that it detracted too much from the emphasis on U.S. social policy that students needed to succeed in policy practice, and I don’t disagree, but there is something that I took from that course and from my subsequent comparative policy analyses that I still find very illuminating.

Often, when I assign my students to read about child welfare policies in Japan or Sweden’s support for new parents or the phenomenon of female poverty around the world, they think that I am expressing a preference for those policy approaches and a desire to see them brought to the U.S. And it’s true that there is a lot to admire in the way that other countries approach some of the same social problems with which we grapple here, and I want to see us learn from others’ efforts, since the search for ‘best practices’ in a lot of policy work is quite elusive. However, we have learned enough about all of the moving parts in policy development–political climate, economic capacity, demographic imperatives, shared history and culture–to know that no social policy can be neatly picked up and plopped down in another nation. So I think that the global search for the next “bright shiny object” is a rather fruitless endeavor.

Instead, what I think is most helpful about comparative social policy analysis is what it can help us to understand about social policy in the United States. Often, because we are embedded in this culture and this context, we have a hard time disentangling the social policy which surrounds us from the values which propel it. We can’t see these values clearly because they are a part of who we are, how we see the world, how we’ve always done things. And this is a trap.

We know that failing to recognize these values and the role that they play in shaping social policy will make social policy change much more difficult, because it is only through appealing to values and value motivations that we maximize our chances of changing the conversation about a given social problem and, thus, the social policy that stems from it.

Because that’s really the job of values in social policy development–constraining the view of a particular social problem so that solving it in a particular way becomes, then, ‘common sense’. If we can win that battle over value alignment, it’s like rolling a snowball downhill to change the policy.

And, so, once we can see the values at work in other nations’ approaches to their social problem challenges, and see how those values compare and contrast with our own, our analytical tools are sharpened to examine the value foundations of our own social policy structures and the ways in which those values do, and do not, align with social work’s values. And then we can really get to work.

As an example, think about how bizarre Temporary Assistance for Needy Families’ low benefit levels and strict work requirements for families with young children would seem to someone not imbued with our values around work and self-sufficiency. Conversely, how could we explain even the existence of TANF without understanding the value we place on family? Our social policy development process is best understood, then, as battlegrounds in which the values of social control and social assistance, charitable obligation and patriarchal oppression, community and autonomy duel for supremacy. And the resulting policies are most fully understood as efforts to reconcile these competing aims in ways that are often contradictory or, at least, confused.

To begin this journey of value exploration, look at social policies in your area of interest within another national context (or several). What values shine through? How do these values shape the definition of the social problem and the decision to intervene in the first place?

Now look at the U.S. approach to this social problem. Applying a kind of “stranger in a strange land” technique, how can you uncover the layers of values at work here? How can you appeal to these values as you frame your desired policy change? Or, if necessary, how can you begin the process of shifting the values held around this particular problem to open up political space for new interventions? We can’t assume that values are immutable–look at the evolution of ideas about women in the labor market, for example.

Perhaps even more difficult, explore your own values in this policy arena. Are your values aligned with those of the social work profession? If not, how are yours different? How do your values align with society’s? What has shaped the development of your value orientation to this problem, and how might you tap into those same dynamics to shift the public consensus around the problem?

We are an undeniably advanced society, with a complex governmental structure, robust private institutions, and unparalleled (even in today’s economic downturn) wealth. We could eradicate poverty, provide access to health care for all, and give every family the tools it needs to keep its children safe. The persistence of our social problems is not a technical dilemma; it is the rather natural consequence of the expression of our value preferences.

We can ‘unlearn’ much of what we now take for granted, and we can envision new ways to approach our world. But we need fresh eyes with which to see. And that’s what international policy analysis can give us.

Now do you understand why we care about the social insurance system in Germany?

Review: The life you can save

So I have two stacks of books sitting on my desk at home: one of books that I still need to read (I get through them rather slowly, as I mostly read during the few stolen moments available to a stay-at-home mom with 3 young children) and one of those that I have managed to read but want to write something about. I’m trying to wade through some of the latter stack, since even my generous faculty book check-out period at the university is coming to an end, and the former might need to get made into two stacks, lest they all come tumbling down.

I read Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save after hearing about it on The World, one of my favorite public radio programs. That’s the way that I hear about a lot of the books (and mostly all of the fiction) I read. I was particularly interested in this one because of the Poverty in the Global Economy course that I taught early this summer, although I didn’t end up using it directly in the course. It’s very quick to read and worthwhile, especially if you have a particular interest either in moral reasoning (he’s a philosopher, and the beginning of the book really lays out his personal philosophy around shared responsibility for survival of the world’s most vulnerable) or in global poverty, although it’s lighter on critique of the global economic structure than I would have liked or expected.

Here are my reflections on the book, with the major caveat that I am no literary reviewer, obviously. I review articles for a couple of journals, but that kind of criticism is much different, and much more regimented, than this, so take it more as though we were having a book club and I’m a member offering my take on it, okay? And then feel free to totally disagree with me and offer your own thoughts in the comments.

As an aside, I’m interested in starting a real book club for radical social workers–I’ll do a whole post on that later–but if you’re at all interested in meeting monthly for drinks/coffee/discussion of the kinds of books that appeal to me, at least, as a radical social worker…please let me know!

The basic premise of the book is that our world is rich enough to end dire poverty, if we just spread our wealth around better and that our failure to do so is an individual moral failing no less egregious than if we saw a child drowning and did not jump in to try to save her. He challenges us to think about every penny that we spend unnecessarily and whether we can legitimately claim that to be ethical behavior. It’s a premise that I personally accept, yet there were many parts of the book that gave me pause. My thoughts, in no particular order:

There’s a section where Singer challenges the validity of the whole concept of self-interest, even enlightened self-interest (see p.77). He gives several examples where compassion is obviously not stemming from self-interest and then asserts that the norm of self-interest compels people to claim it as a motivation for their actions rather than to appeal to our own higher instincts and those of others. This discussion made me question the role that self-interest plays in community organizing, in particular, where it is pretty much universally the motivating factor around which people are brought into relationships. Should it be so? Or should we, in fact, be operating from a perspective of more altruistic motivation, using different language to talk about how to bring people together?

Singer is almost apolitical in his analysis of the global economy, and I take issue with his characterization of advocacy with national governments as being so unlikely so as to be a waste of time. To expand his initial analogy, to me that sounds like saying that, if the waves are really bad and I’m not a good swimmer, so it’s unlikely that I could save the dying child, then I shouldn’t even bother trying? Especially because, in this case, we can certainly be working to exert political, social, and economic pressure on world leaders to take anti-poverty policies at the same time as we are taking personal steps to make a contribution.

There is a chapter in the book that asks, in several different ways, questions about the extent to which we are allowed to have a preference for our own children over the children of others–basically, do we have a right to give to our own children, knowing that what we give to them effectively reduces what we can give to children in poverty around the world, and, if so, what are the limits that must morally be placed on this giving? This discussion was tough but very important for me as a mom. I think quite a bit, actually, about what my kids have compared to others. We really don’t buy toys for the kids much at all, and they rarely have new clothes, but they do have all they want to eat (not what they want to eat, my 3-year-old would point out!), great medical care, clean water, lots of attention from a well-rested and well-treated mom, access to safe and free recreation, books to look at…so very, very much. I do think, consciously, about not over-buying for them, both because we should be directing our resources elsewhere and because I believe that too much stuff is bad for them, but what about taking that further? Should we live in a less expensive neighborhood even if it means poorer-quality schools? Should I be working full-time on social justice causes rather than dedicating my time to them? I’m obviously exerting a preference for my kids’ well-being over the well-being of other kids, and I guess I really didn’t think about the questionable morality of that until I read this book. But now I kind of can’t stop thinking about it.

Overall, I was pretty enthralled by this book until the last two chapters when, much to my shock and somewhat dismay, Singer distills his philosophical arguments to a formula that dictates how much people should ethically be ‘expected’ to give to fight global poverty, and I find that, according to his standard, we’re already giving what we “should”. As in, without giving up my frivolous fountain drink splurges or our (very) occasional dinner out or any of the things we currently buy for our kids. Those last sections left me feeling pretty empty, really, and a little bit betrayed. Here I am wrestling with these moral quandries about my right to love my kids more than an unknown, hungry child somewhere, and the guy who has been causing me to ask myself these hard questions suddenly says that, according to his formula, I’m all good? Even though I know that I could/should be doing more? But because we don’t make more money, we’re somehow off the hook for giving sacrificially to fight global desperation? Talk about a letdown.

I’d love to hear from anyone who has read the book or has thoughts about Singer’s other philosophy or my quandries above. And I’d also take feedback about whether reviews like this are at all helpful to you and/or how to structure them to make them more so. And I’ll keep wading through the rest of that pile!

Rededicated to the impossible

Drawings of slave ships were one the primary tools abolitionists used to tell the story of the atrocities visited upon those enslaved

Drawings of slave ships were one the primary tools abolitionists used to tell the story of the atrocities visited upon those enslaved

So I just finished reading Half the Sky. Meaning that I stayed up until 2AM two nights in a row (which, for a mom with little kids, tells you that I was REALLY serious about reading it), absolutely transfixed by the stories of gender oppression around the world and, even more so, the completely inspiring in a million ways women (and some men) who are working in creative, tireless, and mainly fiercely courageous ways to end it.

I’m not going to write a review; here are links to some sources that have already reviewed it. But I do have several posts stemming from it swirling in my brain, so you’ll see some references to Half the Sky sprinkled throughout my writing over the next few weeks. This is the first.

I like authors that make no secret that their writing is part of a crusade for social justice. When I met David Bacon in September, I had the chance to tell him that in person.

The authors of Half the Sky do the same thing, right from the start. And here’s what I especially appreciated about their introduction:

“Honor killings, sexual slavery, and genital cutting may seem to Western readers to be tragic but inevitable in a world far, far away. In much the same way, slavery was once widely viewed by many decent Europeans and Americans as a regrettable but ineluctable feature of human life…But then in the 1780s a few indignant Britons, led by William Wilberforce, decided that slavery was so offensive that they had to abolish it. And they did.” (p. xxii)

Calls to action don’t get much bolder than that, do they?

Think that you’re busy? That the problems you’re confronting are intractable? That you lack the funds, or the technology, or the public opinion that you need to move the needle on your social injustice of choice? Um, try abolishing slavery, unilaterally, at the height of the global slave trade, at a national cost of almost 2% of GNP per year for SIXTY years (plus one brief war and three war scares).

Half the Sky returns to the abolitionist Brits at the end of the book, in the appropriately-titled “What you can do” chapter. There, they pinpoint as the key factor of success the abolitionist activists’ ability to document and vividly describe the horrific abuses and injustices visited upon slaves–this idea that we advocates seem to instinctively know (although sometimes forget)–that building relationships, however vicariously, and helping people to connect in meaningful ways with suffering that we will otherwise try to ignore is the best (and sometimes only) way to build inexorable momentum for dramatic social change. In fact, they cite some very powerful social research that statistics and generalized cries of alarm tend to repel solidarity and collective action, while personal stories of those impacted draw people in and can, even, compel significant sacrifice in pursuit of justice.

So, besides really trying to influence my son to choose William Wilberforce or Thomas Clarkson as his ‘historical hero’ in the 5th grade, what do I take away from this refresher course in the thrilling history of abolition?

Really, just a reminder of what I already know to be true:

  • There are no excuses. I’m making a renewed commitment to being the kind of person that people shake their heads at, wondering ‘what in the world has gotten into her?’ I will be unreasonably passionate about injustice. I will not pursue pragmatism.
  • We don’t win people over with logic; we win them over by igniting their love for their fellow human being.
  • We can’t wait for the numbers to look good for us. Public opinion alone is seldom sufficient for social change, and so facing significant opposition is no reason to wait.
  • No matter how hard I might think I’m working on a particular cause, or even in general, I’m not even beginning to give what women around the world are giving to their quest for justice. I can and must do more.

    After devouring Half the Sky, I don’t feel guilty. I feel emboldened. Audacious, even. And angry. And part of a much larger whole. And ready, to think really, really, really big, impossibly big.

    So I don’t apologize, if you are one of the dozens of people I’ve grabbed this week and told, “you must read this book!” I won’t apologize for asking you to write letters and give money, for telling you stories that are horrifying and galvanizing at the same time, and for not shutting up about the tragedy that is our treatment of women and girls around the world. We’ve got better tools and more inspiration than those Brits did in the 18th century. We can make this the century in which we eradicate the ills that have thus far plagued us.

    I want it to be written, “and they did.”

  • Taking Action in the Global Economy

    One of my assignments for my Poverty in the Global Economy course was to take some sort of action, at the end of the course, to effect change in the global economy. The goal was to show that local initiative can, indeed, have global impact. I basically made the assignment up, because the master syllabus was all pretty theoretical, and I really felt that students needed to be able to answer, at least in part, the ‘so what now?’ question that, for me, follows any presentation about the often-disastrous consequences of our current economic order. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, though, so I was really excited by what they came up with.

    All of the projects were fairly different, and all reflected pretty well the students’ own interests and aptitudes. Some of the highlights: a bilingual student helped some immigrant acquaintances who had been recently laid off access food and other emergency assistance and talked with them about the origins of the current economic downturn; an economic-minded and fairly conservative student read an article from a prominent conservative-leaning publication and crafted a response based on what he had learned in class, that pointed out some of the fallacies in the author’s arguments; a student who works with young children created a lesson plan about global poverty designed for preschoolers and helped them raise money for a global anti-poverty organization; a student interested in urban poverty screened “Slumdog Millionaire” for a small group and then led a discussion about the realities of urban poverty in the developing world; another student made a loan through Kiva to an aspiring entrepreneur in Bangladesh; one volunteered with a community garden program that serves refugees.

    It was pretty awesome, really, to see how students could scan their own environments and their own resources to find tangible ways to make changes that support the pursuit of global justice. It was inspiring to see that they could look past the apparent intractability of global poverty to find solace and hope in their only authentic sources–work effort and solidarity. And it was exciting to see how academics can be used as a part of a strategy for social change, planting seeds of praxis that will, hopefully, continue to bear fruit.

    Guilt and the Global Economy

    I’m teaching a class this summer, new to me (and fairly new to the
    School) on Poverty in the Global Economy. The title of the class, actually, is the Globalization of Poverty, but that suggests, to me, the global diffusion of poverty, which is quite different than what the master syllabus outlines and what I intend to teach, but that’s a whole different topic…

    I’m excited about this class; even though I dislike the summer format, really, because it is so condensed as to be pretty immediately overwhelming to both student and instructor, I have an outlined planned that I think (fingers crossed) will really work: lots of class activities, debates, discussion, videos, guest speakers. We’re going to cover global health (especially HIV/AIDS), the Millennium Development Goals, the role of international financial institutions (World Trade Organization, World Bank, International Monetary Fund), grassroots anti-poverty action, migration and the global economy, the impact of the current financial crisis, global aid and debt, the role of violence in perpetrating economic disaster…OK, so it may still be pretty immediately overwhelming.

    I’m sure that I’ll have more thoughts on those topics, and how to communicate them effectively to students (or not) throughout the rest of the month. One of my greatest challenges is to convey a sense of relevance and integration, given that these are topics, at least in this global context, that are quite literally foreign to Bachelors social work students, who tend to be somewhat parochially focused. But the challenge that I’m facing this week, as I go through my notes for final course preparations, is how to cultivate a sense of shared destiny, common responsibility, interdependence, without crippling my students with a middle-class guilt that will choke out all meaningful praxis.

    If you’ve ever traveled on a “Reality Tour”, so to speak, you know the paralysis of which I speak. When you first come back to the U.S., you have trouble eating (because you can’t stop thinking about all of the hunger you saw); you obsessively check labels on everything (thinking about the working conditions where it was produced); you interrupt your friends with morose commentary about the number of children who have died in the past hour of diarrheal disease.

    Conscious, yes, which is arguably preferable to the oblivion in which many of us live much of the time, but not too conducive to the kind of real solidarity-building and righteous campaigning for social change that economic, social, and political realities demand. I’ve had many such experiences, and they are very much on my mind as I put together this class.

    How do I make the tragedies real without making victims out of the courageous people who live them? How do I highlight the complicity of the U.S., particularly our trade arrangements, without romanticizing nationalistic economic development? How do I steer students towards promising anti-poverty policy without minimizing the intractability of the desperation? How do I make it connect to their work without oversimplifying?

    I don’t expect anyone to have the magic answers for me; I am hopeful that my students and I will hit upon some of them as we struggle through the material together, but it’s a quandary that I think anyone who endeavors to teach about poverty and need in a way that seeks to aid, not further exploit, those who are subjected to them, must face. And I’d welcome anyone’s thoughts about how to tackle it.