Unearned privileges and daily indignities

Published: March 25th 2013
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Gathered around a cornucopia of delectable Vietnamese dishes on what appears to be “the last supper”, a retrospective feeling of satisfaction fills the air. I’m not sure if I’m more cognizant of this collective appreciation or rather of my anticipation for yet another memorable culinary experience… I have a weakness for Vietnamese food… My love for this complex cuisine knows no bounds! Today, however, the meal is even more special. It marks the close of our first field visit – a week long journey in and around Ubon Ratchathani and Sisaket to investigate issues of the Khao Phra Viharn (Phrea Vihear) temple on the Thai/Cambodia border, the Pak Moon Dam, land use, development, urban poor development, and community based initiatives and action...

As I look around the table, I detect a combined sentiment of weariness and reflective gratitude. We’ve covered a lot over the past week: from getting a detailed account from experts on the cross border trade in the region to chatting with community members of the Urban Poor community Network, and a ton in between! We visited temples, schools, villages and organizations, speaking with various stakeholders to get a first-hand exposure at the multi-faceted issues of conflict surrounding the region. We had obtained an exploratory overview of these issues in class the week prior; but nothing compared to the experience of speaking with the community, profoundly affected by these conflicts. I could write a ton about each experience; though I suspect that would look more like a jumbled stream of consciousness rather than anything cogent that could be interpreted as a rational thought! Honestly, I’m still trying to digest everything (along with the copious amounts of sticky rice I’ve just devoured). I thoroughly enjoyed each conversation with the region’s diverse community. Thanks to Jenn, our resident translator, we were able to paint a more accurate picture of the current situation regarding land rights, the construction of the Pak Moon Damn as well as issues surrounding the urban poor communities in and around Ubon. While I highly valued each of these interactions, which provided an unobstructed lens through which to analyze the complex injustices faced by many, one particular meeting left me feeling hopeful, with a forward sense of urgency…

The Civil Society of Ubon Ratchathani is comprised of 7 different networks, all of which are operated by committed volunteers seeking to improve their community. Unrestrained by inept political conventions, these selfless volunteers are devoted to social change from the bottom up. Whether it is in the field of health, road safety, land rights, sustainable agriculture, education, youth empowerment or civic engagement (to list a few), they are providing a voice for the voiceless- a platform for the local community to express their concern. Acting purely as a capacity development group, this organization helps to transform these concerns into policy by liaising directly with political constituents, reflecting the needs of the community. They get it! After hearing first-hand about these needs, it is safe to say that they have their work cut out for them…

I would truly love to work with this group. At the risk of being overly quixotic, I really think we could do something here! I think that a thoughtful radio or tv project focusing on the various issues surrounding the community (i.e. land rights, sustainable fishery, youth empowerment) would be very well-received here and would, I believe, be a successful catalyst for social change in the region. The Ubon Civil Society is the perfect capacity building organization which would, in essence, be a main partner on the ground, seeing as though they are already so well-connected to all the main stakeholders in the area. They know and understand the community’s needs. I’ll spare you the methodological details and logistics; but I really think that an entertainment-education radio and/or tv program (think “soap opera for social change”) with an interactive call in show and a community mobilization campaign leveraging the right service providers in the region, would work really well! So now, I’ve got my own work cut out… Stay tuned!

DISCLAIMER – the following is a personal reflection (some would call it a ‘vigorous rant’) on a slightly consequential discussion. It should be noted that it bears no facts and is not intended to offend anyone… My apologies if these comments are not only inconsistent with yours but more importantly, if they evoke any reactionary ill feelings. It is by no means my intent.
It seems particularly fitting end our field trip with a discussion about unearned privileges vs. daily indignities, as we contemplate this concept with a belly full of food and a head full of thoughts. After a brief roundtable style discussion – a free for all forum to verbalize our reflections from the week – we turned the focus of our meeting to daily experiences, some of which are driven by conditions beyond our control, others fueled by our own choices, all of which help to construct our own identities vis a vis those of others.

Let me say this... The 17 of us represent a small sample size from which it is almost impossible to derive any statistically relevant data; but it serves as a meaningful microcosm nonetheless – one which allows us to put this matter into perspective. To say that I am privileged is a massive understatement. This much, I know. I’m also acutely aware of the fact that most of these privileges are unearned. I did not choose to be born white, in a western democratic country, from parents who were relatively well off and who enjoyed and valued a certain level of comfort as well as a number of liberties which I’ve subsequently inherited and most certainly practiced without any major hindrance. I know this. I’m also increasingly more aware that there’s a larger world out there – one which, for the most part, does not grant its people the same freedom. Now, worry not. I will not use this gratuitous platform for some self-serving rhetoric about our human duty to help each other. I’d like to think that it’s implied (and if it’s not, then you may as well stop reading now. Hell, I should stop writing and thinking for that matter!)

Frankly, I find it irritating that all too often, we choose to accept the notion that as “privileged,” we will never be able to truly know what it’s like to struggle and thus our efforts to narrow the “indignity” gap may as well be futile. Before you start interpreting this comment as a blatant, egotistical neo-colonialist perspective, please allow me to elaborate… It seems, in the field of international development, that many of us have accepted this unwritten maxim that no matter how much we try, we’ll never be able to truly make a difference because we don’t know what it’s like to face daily indignities. We can try by spending days, months, even years working on thoughtful projects to alleviate suffering in our respective fields, but we’ll never actually know nor will we ever ultimately succeed in creating lasting social change, because in the end, change comes has to come from within. I’m not refuting that change comes from the bottom up – in fact, I’m certain of it and my time in Ubon only reinforces that vision. What I am suggesting, though, is that we CAN help (call it facilitation or the hackneyed “capacity building”) if we can finally get off our proverbial self-pitying high horse and accept our unearned privileges… Let’s make the most of it, damn it! I’ve met too many GOOD people, who’ve chosen to give up 6 figure salaries and the daily comforts of their western existence for meager wages, in corrupt, dangerous hardship posts and who will do it all over again after each mission. Why do they do it? Is it some sort of irrational addiction to chaos? Maybe it is… But it’s grounded on good intentions and a genuine desire to turn unearned privileges into sensible action aimed at abating daily indignities.

Where do we draw the line between guilt and action? It’s as if it is some sort of irrefutable fact that separates the ones with unearned privileges from those who face daily indignities. In a world which we’ve chosen to operate, work and live (i.e. the NGO or the humanitarian sector), where is the intrinsic motivation to strive for social change, I ask? Guilt and motivation, as my good friend Amanda would say, “comes across as hollow… It doesn’t really allow you to really emotionally connect with the person, because you’re primarily focused on the situation or the plight or whatever you want to call the indignity.” So, according to Amanda (and I most certainly agree), “quality action requires intentionality.”

Take, for example, traveling. I know very well that as the bearer of two widely accepted passports, I am, for all intents and purposes, privileged. What I choose to do with these passports, however, is motivated by my desire to see the world for what I believe is an ongoing, humbling attempt to discover, learn and connect with people from different cultures. Will I change the world as a result? Discover a cure for AIDS or find some innovative and practical way to eradicate world poverty? I’m afraid not… But, what I do know for a fact, is that by choosing to intentionally transform my “unearned privilege” to travel into a meaningful and hands on quest to learn more about the daily indignities that fester across the world, I’m a step closer to turning this intentionality into quality action.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am well aware (and quite frankly, embarrassed) that traveling, for many, is associated with the perennial all-inclusive resort bracelet, giving way to Coppertone-filled swimming pools and watered-down Pina-Coladas– far, far away from any semblance of culturally-sensitive social change. My point is, unearned privileges, fueled by the right level of motivation, can lead to action. This action, in turn leads to good. I am convinced of it. We all have opportunities to formulate thoughts based on daily observations. What we then choose to do with these thoughts is to be adapted to each situation but can collectively lead to sensible action, wherever the case may be. Whether it is in the comfort of my own home in New York City or in the rural outskirts of Ubon, we all have a philosophical framework that drives the decision process to act!

Having had the opportunity to see and interact with many selfless community members in and around Ubon, I’m inspired and, YES, I do want to act! Will I ever be able to truly make a difference in the lives of those who have suffered and continue to struggle daily as a result of the Pak Moon Dam? Though I’d like to think that perhaps, yes; the truth is, most likely not, in the grand scheme of things. What I do know, however, is that by having had the opportunity to meet and listen to these community members, I’ve sharpened my attitude about the issues. Will I suddenly stop taking advantage of my unearned privileges, as result of this exposure to these daily indignities? NO! C.S. Lewis in Weight of Glory (thanks Amanda!) puts it best: “This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be the kind (and it is, in fact the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be real and costly love – no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. “

I’ve always insisted on the notion that human interactions shape my existence. It’s these very interactions that frame my thinking and drive knowledge, attitudes and yes, my actions. And it’s real! In A Single Man, a screenplay adapted from the book by Christopher Isherwood, George eloquently sums it up by insisting that the “only thing that has made the whole thing worthwhile has been those few times that I was able to truly connect with another person.” Spot on George! Each situation changes and while I’ll continue to embrace (and welcome) that change, I have to strive to be as consistent as I can in developing a framework for action… Action for good. Though I’m constantly gathering new tools in my ever-expanding toolbox of values, I’m learning more, each and every day, that human suffering is not the buffer zone which separates those with unearned privileges and those with daily indignities. As was reminded by my discussions with the wonderful folks that make up the Ubon Civil Society, it’s about treating everyone with dignity. It’s not just about “seeing” others, in this case, the community members of Ubon, who are working tirelessly to address their daily indignities. It’s about going a step further, and recognizing, respecting and appreciating their humanity as the foundation from which to build a more desirable future. Now pass the sticky rice please!


12th August 2013

Many of us who are born in privilege struggle with these issues. Thank you for your thoughts. One thing to consider--or for your friend to consider. Being motivated by guilt, and thus responding to the inequities, and not the person, is often the first point of entry for many people who seek to become involved in the world. While I understand the issue, don't knock it as a starting point! Also, thanks for bringing my attention to Media Impact, an organization I was unfamiliar with. Stories, indeed, are what we are made of.

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