Posts tagged ‘development’

December 5, International Volunteer Day: Who you been giving it to?* ll By Rev. Mary Coday Edwards, MA.

Dec. 5, International Volunteer Day: Who you been giving it to?*
By Rev. Mary Coday Edwards, MA.‘Tis the season that brings out the good in us through donations of our time and/or money. Who and what are the recipients of your life?

Peshawar, Pakistan, fall of 1992.

We sat on our sunny veranda drinking coffee with a visiting professor from the United States who had his PhD in Hydrology and Water Management.

“I had a contract with the Pakistani government, but I realized that my efforts to improve Pakistan’s irrigation systems were only helping rich landowners. I wanted to help the poor, so I quit,” said Dr. J. Maurice.

Dr. Maurice knew that by increasing the wealth of the elites, not only was he not helping the poor, he was shoring up the institutional systems that kept the poor dis-empowered.

I met Dr. Maurice in Peshawar when I attended a course he taught sponsored by the International Rescue Committee, an organization that aids refugees and people whose lives are crushed by conflict and disaster. His class focused on providing sustainable and low-tech water supply and sanitation options for poor people in developing nations—people whom governments and the wealthy bypassed.

In 1991 my husband and I moved to Peshawar with our two sons. We’d met Afghans back in the States through a USAID-sponsored study abroad program which, over the duration of three years, brought more than 100 Afghans to the University of Nebraska. Because the Soviets were withdrawing from their 10-year occupation of Afghanistan, our friends had persuaded us to come over and help them rebuild their shattered country: Mike would work in health and I in reconstruction projects.

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet


For social change, we followed the example set by an 1800s English politician named William Wilberforce, who spent most of his professional career as a leader in the movement to stop the slave trade.

Wilberforce worked to change the INSTITUTION of slavery and fought powerful politicians and landowners who defended their rights to own people. He spent decades  battling down the structural elements embedded in Britain’s political and economic systems which believed it was okay to own, beat, rape, and starve to death other human beings—all for financial gain.

Alongside Wilberforce’s efforts to demolish the institution of slavery were groups who worked to improve the basic conditions of the enslaved, such as humanizing their living situations and providing free health care and clothing—band aids basically—treating the symptoms vs. the disease.

And in aid work, both structural changes and band aids are needed.

During our 20 years of striving internationally for social justice by changing the institutional systems that kept people poor, something flipped in the United States. Religious establishments and non-profits began to model their organizations after private enterprise. They filled their boards with successful business people. Leaders in groups such as Philanthropy without Borders sought “market-friendly solutions” to extinguish poverty.

It all felt “off” to us. Our goals of changing unjust social institutions seemed at odds with the wealthy who benefited from these institutions. Think U.S. mortgage crisis of 2008.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of private enterprise as an essential tool in fighting poverty. I’ve seen how one cow through the sale of its milk buys education and healthcare for a Tanzanian family; how one electric mixer opens up the door for an enterprising young woman to make and sell desserts for the Muslim’s Eid holiday; how one propane gas grill creates a restaurant—and jobs—in a remote Indonesian village.

And now, Anand Giridharadas, in his 2018 book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, articulates why it felt so off (1).

Giridharadas presents familiar statistics, in that in the past 35 years, the average pretax income of the bottom half of Americans has stayed almost precisely the same—that’s 117 million Americans who’ve been left out of the benefits of progress. But the pretax income of the top tenth has doubled, the top 1 percent has tripled, and the top 0.001 percent has increased by seven times.

Out of this wealthy one percent have emerged philanthropists eager to change the world—but on their terms. Elites have assumed leadership of social change, reshaping what social change is, and in the process, they protect the institutions that created their wealth.  

How corporations make their fortunes and any serious social consequences are conveniently ignored as discussion topics.

In Asia, resource extraction industry CEOs would approach Mike, asking him to head up their health clinics (he always refused) in order to fulfill their corporate social responsibility (CSR) piece. They needed to “give back” to the community—by contributing a negligible percentage of their profits to social issues.

“Make our employees healthy after we’ve poisoned their drinking water through our unregulated gold mining operations—and because the government doesn’t provide any healthcare,” they’d infer, while the wives of CEOs bragged about their new Mercedes’ they’d waggled out of the predatory corporations. CSR sugar-coated the human rights’ abuses and environmental blight they created, aided and abetted by government-sanctioned poverty and environmental destruction.

Government-controlled media extolled the virtues of how these profitable companies had installed clinics in remote jungles, while these same governments refused access to outside journalists for fear of them exposing human rights’ violations.

The only thing better than being a fox is being a fox asked to watch over hens.

Anand Giridharadas


Giridharadas tells of the Even app to download on your phone—for a fee of $260 per year. Even’s mission as laid out on their website is to “end the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle.” It says that, “More than 50 percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. We’re trying to fix that, by building new financial services that make it easier to make ends meet, pay down debt, and save money.” It’s basically a banking app that tells you how much is in your account.

But according to Giridharadas, the unaddressed and sidelined institutional issues of the Even app include the increasing practice of employing people intermittently “and the new on-demand economy that left many eternally chasing work instead of building livelihoods.” This on-demand economy often offers no pension plan and or paid time off—thereby generating more predatory corporate profits. Paychecks fluctuate weekly. Even encourages businesses to offer its services as a benefit to its employees—employees who stagger under the predatory effects of the same corporate employers.

Ergo, the creators of the Even app protect their wealth-producing systems and make money off the disadvantaged, calling it a “win-win” situation.

“The only thing better than controlling money and power is to control the efforts to question the distribution of money and power. The only thing better than being a fox is being a fox asked to watch over hens,” Giridharadas says.

In other words, with a near monopoly on wealth and power, the elites of our country are changing society in ways that do not change the underlying economic system from which their wealth flows—and they end up with a near monopoly on the benefit of change.

Who will decide what the requisite reforms of our common life ought to look like?

Will these reforms be led by governments elected by and accountable to its citizens? Or by patronizing wealthy elites claiming to know our best interests? And what needs changed? For starters, let’s talk about the rising inequalities of income, wealth and opportunities. Or how about political campaign finance reform, and the corruption and capture of politics and institutions through unregulated corporate and individual political influence. And then there’s education reform, ending the voucher practice of siphoning off tax dollars to private education to the death of public education—where most children are still educated.

In 1985 the United Nations mandated December 5 as International Volunteer Day for Economic and Social Development, with particular emphasis on volunteer contributions to the achievement of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals at local, national, and international levels (2).

Unless we have anesthetized ourselves against its commercialism, this month of holidays brings out the giving in us. We give our lives and energy in the form of time and/or financial resources—sometimes to strangers. So please, go ahead and put on those band aids, but at the same time look for ways to change the system!

                                               I sit on a man’s back choking him and making him carry me,                 and yet assure myself and others that I am sorry for him and wish to lighten his load by all means possible …. except by getting off his back.

Leo Tolstoy, What Then Must We Do?

Who you been giving it to?*


*I owe this phrase to Northern Arizona blues singer and song writer Tommy Dukes


Notes & Sources:

1. Giridharadas, Anand. Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. Alfred      A. Knopf publishers. 1998.


About the Author: Rev. Mary Coday Edwards is a Spiritual Growth Facilitator and People House Minister. A life-long student of spirituality, Mary spent almost 20 years living, working and sojourning abroad in Asia, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and Latin America before finding People House and completing its Ministerial Program. Past studies include postgraduate studies from the University of South Africa in Theological Ethics/Ecological Justice, focusing on the spiritual and physical interconnectedness of all things. With her MA in Environmental Studies from Boston University, abroad she worked and wrote on environmental sustainability issues at both global and local levels, in addition to working in refugee repatriation.

People House: a Center for Personal and Spiritual Growth