So the panel in front of me were American NGO workers concerned with Africa and an anthropologist. The NGO workers all stood up and said their piece about how they are trying to help Africa (often acknowledging the difficulty of the task but sticking to the argument that they were trying as best they could). One of the NGO workers said that they felt better prepared to come to the discussion this time because they knew to expect at least some of the huge amount of animosity they were subject to last time from academics. The anthropologist was last to speak and stood up and dished out some of the standard critique of NGOs and then explained that she too was one of the NGO people ridden with a desperate desire to want to help but wasn't exactly sure how to do it.
It came to questions and an academic in the audience from South Africa began by saying that he supported the work of the NGOS; he himself is a pastor whose church is funded by a church in the US, and the NGO workers should remember this when they heard what he was about to say. He then gave an impassioned speech about the mess Africa is in and said that the NGOs were exactly the same as the missionaries that had arrived in Africa 100 years ago. "Nothing had changed in 100 years".
I found myself taking the Human Economy line, at least as I see it. What had changed in 100 years?
What's changed is that we know that framing everything as "benevolence" is as dangerous as framing everything as "exploitation" or "business". As I understand it, the human economy is against setting up these two as the only alternatives because if these were two ends on a scale there would be all sorts of different things going on between them that just aren't talked about. "What people do for one another". As I told the academic after the meeting, people send remittances between London and Ghana and talk on their phones and an academic from South Africa can meet someone from England in a room in Southern California. The question perhaps should be why are a bunch of NGO workers up on a pedestal talking to us anyway. Why privilege their relations with people in Africa over other relations? After listening to me speak whilst trying to make an exit for the coffee, the academic from South Africa repeated "I agree with that", "I agree with that". (I don't think it was just to get me to go away so he could get to the coffee).
Nice piece, Nathan. I should perhaps first comment on the New York event which went very well. It was recorded, so we may be able to see it one day, but the organizers were focused on setting up local networks as their highest priority.
Any two things are the same and different, depending on perspective. In one sense, the NGOs are latterday missionaries since they also assume that Africans need help from outsiders. So do we all need others. No society is self-sufficient, but the "Africa is still a mess" story smacks of desperation. As you point out, cities, transport and telecommunications have changed conditions there a lot. The world as a whole is a lot closer these days and Africans are rapidly becoming a bigger share of it, in demographic and economic terms.
It is true that ethnographic particularism lies at the heart of the idea of a human economy. The basic assumption is that we have to start with what people do, think and want where they live. In my NYC speech I spoke of Lindiwe, a middle-aged Zulu woman who once worked in a factory and is now a domestic, rents accommodation from the municipality, travels to and from work in informal minibuses, looks after her mother who receives a state pension and her brother's young daughters since he has AIDS, her teenage sons are unemployed and drifting into crime, her husband disappeared over ten years ago, she sells cosmetics to neighbours in her spare time, attends a prosperity church, has joined a savings club and owes money to loan sharks, but doesn't have a bank acount, she shops once a week in a supermarket and at local stores the rest of the time. Lindiwe understands her own life better than anyone else. But there are questions she doesn't know the answers to: Why are there no longer mining jobs for the men? Why has a Black government brought so much poverty and inequality? Why are the schools failing?
The human economy approach does not assume that people know best, although they usually know their own interests better than those who presume to speak for them. An economy must be based on principles to be discovered and articulated. In origin the word privileged budgeting for domestic self-sufficency; political economy promoted capitalist markets over military landlordism; national economy sought to equalize the chances of a citizen body. I see human economy as a way of envisaging the next stage linking unique human beings to humanity as a whole, synthesizing the sequence house-market-nation-world in an ongoing process of social extension. Thus Lindiwe could not juggle all the institutional facets of her life without money. Money and markets are intrinsic to our human potential, not anti-human as they are often depicted. Of course they can take forms that are more conducive to economic democracy. Her unaswered questions require a new kind of political education, but one grounded in the circumstances she knows well.
I am struggling with these issues. But I do know that an economy, to be useful, should be based on principles that guide what people do. It is not just an ideology or a call for realism. The social and technical conditions of our era -- urbanization, fast transport and universal media -- should be at the heart of an inquiry into how the principles of human economy might be realised now, if they were not fully before.