In the core courses of the GPP minor, when discussing contemporary interventions, a common point of debate is whether the interventions merely address symptoms as opposed to structural causes of poverty. In this reflection assignment I would like you to explore the seemingly disparate goals of addressing structures versus symptoms (band–aids) within your practice experience. In what ways, if any, did your PE address symptoms of poverty and work to provide band–aids? In what ways, if any, did your PE address the structural roots of poverty? Within the framework of your organization and your PE, how might structural problems have been better addressed? Are your motivations related to whether your work addresses structures or symptoms? How?
Paul Kivel asks, “Can we provide social services and work for social change or do our efforts to provide human services maintain or even strengthen social inequality?” (356).
I have thought about this question a lot, and now that I have read Kivel’s piece, I have more insight about it in regards to the problems that I want to address in the future, which is income inequality, a structural force that permeates to all factors of life. But, Kivel points out the difference between “social service work” and “social change work” (356), and argues that even the best of us, the ones with the best intentions to address structural issues, are co-opted to do social service work.
In relation to my practice experience, I do not really think that my organization really deals with symptoms of poverty in a way that would provide social services (ie. providing food to people that are hungry). But, my organization does do what it can to help the Muong community “get ahead” through setting up tourism, educating about safe vegetables, negotiating with vegetable sellers (the middlemen), and attempting to get vegetable certification. CECAD is trying to serve a population that is already behind because of capitalism and the lack of reach of certain social welfare programs.
So, it seems like CECAD has accepted that these are the problems of the society and they are doing what they can to help people live that society. Explaining it in this way, it definitely seems that CECAD is just addressing the symptoms.
But, CECAD does some policy work by encouraging the local people to organize, discuss, and voice their concerns and needs to the local authorities that construct the socioeconomic development plan. There is still the belief that the government must take care of its people, but it must be in the hands of the people on how the government does so.
Kivel says, “Many people in US believe that it is the responsibility of our society not to guarantee material security for all, but merely to ensure that everyone has an ‘equal opportunity’ to get ahead … [therefore, people] will fail because of their own laziness, ignorance, or lack of discipline” (362). I think to a certain extent, this is true in the context of my PE. There is no questioning that the “market socialist society” that was implemented a little over twenty-five years ago made great strides in terms of economic growth and quality of life. This could be because the new paradigm put into the hands of the people, the responsibility to take care of themselves.
However, there is still a belief that there is an inequality in how the laws and decrees that are enacted make it hard for many people, including the Muong ethnic minority, to have a decent standard of living. This means that there is still the belief that the government must take care of the people by passing laws that the people want. There is a very fine line that I’m trying to explain here: the difference between US sentiment that Kivel describe and the Muong community that I worked with.
To overgeneralize, there is a notion that in the US, people are not well off because they do not work hard enough (of course, this is not true) as this is the “mantra of capitalism” (362). Then, there are people in the “buffer zone”, who have good intentions, offer social services to meet the basic needs of people. However, the Muong community, it is still necessary to work hard to provide for oneself (versus have the government secure all necessary material goods), but the government must be able to make it so that everyone can be well off. Actually, now that I think about it, it sounds the same in both communities, but social services do not look the same in both places.
The problem is in distribution of resources, and CECAD does a little bit of both: social service and social change because both needs to be done at the same time, even though social service may make it seem like social change is not needed.
Let’s take tourism, for example. Tourism is a growing source of income for the Muong community, and it was introduced into the community because it is a promising endeavor in many places in Vietnam and the Muong do not make enough by simply selling their produce in the market. Unfortunately, at this time tourism still does not supplement their incomes in order for them to live comfortably, but if did, then there would be no need to address the problems that the prices of vegetables are low, input / transportation costs are high, and demand for their products are low.
Maybe it is a good thing that tourism is not very profitable right now because CECAD also encourages grassroots democracy in the community. Tourism helps. It helps people get by, which is very important, but if it was successful, people would not organize in the way they are now. This is how CECAD tries to do the social change work because the government needs to be accountable for its people too. The way that the government can cater to its people is to listen to their voices and devise development plans that reflect the sentiments.
For CECAD and for the Muong ethnic minority, all this happens very locally. The reach of socioeconomic development plans is not farther than outside the province because of resources and because narrowly drawn plans are probably most effective for a community.
This has definitely taught me much about the work that I would like to do in the future. Right now, I believe that I would like to address structures that perpetuate inequality by engaging policy work. From what I have seen, the social service work has immediate effects: the Muong have a little bit more disposable income. However, the social change work is long and gruesome. To this day, despite working for the Muong for ten years, a development plan has not been constructed that has been able to lift the community out of poverty yet.
Many reasons could be pointed to, most likely because the dynamics of their situation (economy, ecology, environment) changes all the time, but the difference between social change work and social service work is their longevity for results and their depth of problems. Having enough food for is a social service problem. Making sure that farmers can sell their products in the market is a social change problem. I would like to be involved in the latter because I feel like it could have a larger impact.
I question whether either of these problems could really be addressed and solved. One of the critiques that social service work gets is that it is temporary and addressing these problems only perpetuates the problems. However, social service work is very needed. Yet, can social change really happen? Or, is it true that when we introduce a social change to address a problem, it only introduces more problems? Maybe I do not know enough, but I still do not see how structural problems are and have been addressed. We often theorize that collective action (Mandela, X, Kivel) is the best way to tackle these structural problems, but even the Civil Rights Movement was criticized (X).
It is very easy to be critical of our actions, but that does not mean that we should stop being engaged in problems of poverty.
Over and out.
PS. I asked in my reflection, “can social change really happen?” Yes, social change can happen. Without a doubt. But, I think what I was trying to get at was, “Can social change happen without tradeoffs?” I also think I was in a very cynical mood in the time I was writing this reflection. Sorry!
PPS. Yes, of course, social change can happen. We wouldn’t be where we are today without social change, and it is the hope that social change can happen in the future that drives us to do something about it.