Migrant stories, activist posturing, and NGO economics

I am struck by the observation shared by one of our CARE team members while doing fieldwork. He shares his observation of a popular activist blogger talking to a migrant worker.

The blogger, let's call him Ben, talks condescendingly to the worker, hurriedly collecting his story, recording it, and making notes to put up the story on his blog. The worker story fits nicely into the critique that he wants to offer of the violations of worker rights. He hardly spends ten minutes in jotting down the story before moving on to the next injured worker with the next story.

Ben's attitude toward the migrant worker is a top-down attitude, one that reflects his colonial mentality.

He has already predetermined what he wants to find. He has a conceptual map that he wants to lay on the life of the worker. He therefore picks and choses specific stories that fit within this predetermined framework.

The worker becomes the story.  His body becomes the narrative account that fits into the preconfigured meta-narrative of worker abuse.

The worker becomes an economic rationality in the story of the blogger, a rationality that fits into the number of hits, likes, shares that is generated by the radical posturing on the blog.

The lived experiences of the worker becomes an effect in Ben's critique of government policies. In the economics of social change, where social change too becomes a commodity, the worker emerges as a source of a story. A story that must be counted, codified, and blogged about to sustain the economic rationality of activists and NGOs.

NGOs draw their economic incentives from the stories that they tell. NGO funding most often is dependent upon the power of these stories to market the NGO. This economic rationality therefore often turns NGOs into spaces for commoditising the margins and the lived experiences of the margins.

As we work with the CCA, with voices of social change that emerge from the margins, our narrative sensibilities point toward the necessity for recognising the economic rationality underlying the stories we tell. The humility of story telling when working with the margins can emerge out of the recognition of one's own power and privilege as a teller of stories, and from the recognition of the agency of subaltern communities as tellers of stories, makers of truths, and participants in social change processes.


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