Saturday, 17 March 2012

Social Activism and Transnationalism in African Development

Four women live together in a house in Pretoria along with five young children. Their husbands are nowhere to be seen - one had his shop robbed at gunpoint for the fifth time about three months back, and unable to keep a business to support his wife and two children, he disappeared without a trace. The three other women do know where their husbands are, but fear daily for their lives. The most outspoken of the ladies (probably because she speaks nearly perfect English) pulls a color photo from her folder and hands it to me. It is of a man sprawled on a cement floor, soaked in a six-foot wide pool of blood centered on his head. "It's my brother-in-law," she says. "He was running a shop with my husband. The thieves came in through the window; my husband went under the bed and they didn't see him. They didn't even rob the shop - just shot his brother in the head and left."

Another instance of why some political refugees refer to life in South Africa as "out of the fire, into the frying pan."

Now I do not want to paint a picture of South Africa as a purely xenophobic country, as the American and British media have done in the past (look up the May 2008 xenophobic riots if you're not familiar with the issue); in fact, many refugees do not directly blame South Africans for their violence towards immigrants. For one, it is by no means a majority of South Africans who have acted violently toward foreigners. Those targeted by these kinds of attacks usually point to a lack of education as a large factor behind anti-immigrant violence. Many South Africans don't know why refugees are there - what famines and wars they have fled just to find a place where they can scrape by and send money back to their families.

Questions surrounding immigration are not only pressing in South Africa; it is a massive political issue in the US as well, as anyone who has watched political debates over the last decade has seen (although illegal immigration dropped during the recession in 2008). There are a few questions at stake in both instances: Do immigrants contribute economically or simply take jobs and money from locals? To what extent do integration measures produce the desired results? And overall, what can and should be done about immigration? These questions can (and should) take us back to a discussion of the drivers of immigration - some of the topics we've covered when discussing Kony 2012 issues are certainly factors (economic exploitation, arms proliferation, active rebel movements). But if you're asking what you can do to help with problems in the developing world, don't just join an internet social movement or plaster posters around town at midnight to try to take down a ghost of an African warlord. Make friends with an immigrant and talk to them about what they left behind. These are the people that have much more power than you do to begin shaping policy and promoting economic development in their home countries.

Perceptions in South Africa highlight immigrants draining the economy and stealing local jobs (similar to anti-immigrant rhetoric in the US). The problem is that the more anti-immigrant policy is adopted and the more social exclusion immigrants suffer, the more this has the potential to come true since feelings of exclusion discourage reinvestment and philanthropy in the host country, and exclusive policies can contribute to more permanent immigration (and thus more job competition in the long term). Anti-immigrant policies in the US have led to a dichotomy of immigrant outcomes. Again, I'll use illegal immigration from Mexico as my example: Since it is harder for immigrants to get to the US with increased border protection, either they decline to come at all, or they bring their whole families with them to settle in the US. Before the border was so securitized, it was relatively easy for Mexican labor migrants to travel back and forth in a circular pattern that benefitted American agriculture (and helped you pay less for your food) as well as providing developmental benefits to the home communities in Mexico. So anti-immigration policies actually have the potential to raise the numbers of permanent immigrants that will "compete" with Americans for jobs. Of course, people don't talk much about that aspect of things because border security is creating some American jobs and also is an area of investment for certain technological industries.

I'm not necessarily arguing for completely free migration, but let's at least think about the outcomes of the policies we're promoting in the political arena. So back to the South African case: The questions I asked above are topics I would like to come back to over the next series of posts that I will write, and I will try to examine them in light of social activism and where American college students should direct their impulse to "save Africa" or whatever it is that made everybody post about Kony 2012 on their facebook. As an immigration researcher, my studies so far have pointed to a mixed economic effect of immigrants in South Africa - providing good services and social investments but also taking some money out of the economy - and most of the money they send home does not go to productive investment, but instead to mere survival. Can we develop models that provide mutual benefits and develop businesses both in south Africa and in the country of origin? I would really like your views on this, so if you have some ideas, please speak up. My friends and I are specifically researching investment models and developing business ideas that bring together immigrants and locals in (initially small-scale) entrepreneurship that will generate benefits for the community as well as profits for those involved. Part of this will be through educational programs geared toward computer skills (following the computer literacy classes, Henok will be teaching programming and I will be teaching GIS).

One thing I hate about all this Kony 2012 debate is the stagnancy that seems to grip such politicized issues: Some people are all for it and actively participating; others have berated it to such an extent that many people stuck in the middle simply drop the issue because they don't know which side to believe. For all of those who have pointed out Kony 2012's flaws, thank you for your reality check; now let's talk about what can be done. For all of those who have jumped on the Kony 2012 bandwagon, thank you for your activism; now let's listen to some local voices, do some research on what the real problems are, and get crackin'. Now, you might be thinking to yourself, "man, where is this crazy guy going with all this talk? I'm not following the train of thought." Well, what I would like to highlight is the idea of transnationalism and the role it can play in social activism. Transnationalism consists partly of personal networks between people in developing and those in developed countries. I don't think you should promote US military involvement in Uganda until you talk to some Ugandans and get their perspective on the whole deal (not saying you should just follow them, but they probably have more insight than you). If you want to be a social activist for developing countries, make friends with people from those countries and work together with them. Of course I don't mean you should stop engaging in politics, but let's build a network promoting justice and social responsibility and see where it goes from there. Personally, my perspectives on Somalia, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Uganda, and South Africa have completely changed because of the stories I hear from people. And when you meet someone face to face and give them your phone number after hearing their story, then you're much more likely to begin trying to make a real difference in the lives of individuals than if you just repost a youtube video on facebook.

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