The Contradictory Worlds of Political Struggle in Morocco

inside the grand mosque in Casablanca

Montreal   The magic of the Organizers’ Forum is that we immerse ourselves in the work of counterparts in diverse areas of change making, along with as much of the local culture as we can absorb. The risk and constant caution is not deceiving ourselves that this deep dive ends on solid ground once on shore. We seize on clear visions, even while recognizing that they may only a mirage. Where we think we see democracy, may only be a face mask for a subtle repression. Where we embrace the energy and passion of individuals, we have to be careful to examine where everything is going and whether it is sustainable, whether it will actually work.

We always want to be positive and supportive, but we recognize that we are visitors. We are not tourists. We want to be seen as comrades in struggle, looking to learn, but we recognize that as North Americans and Europeans, we are seen as privileged and often opportunistically, no matter how humbly we try to represent ourselves. Finally, we are organizers, bred and trained to question, to be skeptical, to analyze and doubt, to test words against action, presentations against reality, all integrated into our every thought. In that spirit, a first-time participant turned to me after a long and exciting presentation from a labor organization, and asked me if I thought it was a “real union” or not. That’s just how we are.

working cart

All of which led me to reflect on some of the contradictions that emerged from all of our meetings that, if accurate, concern me. Among the people we met there seem to be divisions, perhaps irreconcilable, between the forces for change. On our first afternoon I was surprised to hear a journalist and activist from the 20th of February movement express an opinion indicating that most nonprofits and unions were essentially tools of the state. One activist pointing out the problems of minorities laid the blame on the King, but was also clear later that he did not want his photo used, and that he was leaving the country to make money in hopes of making change later. Other activists, including our favorite firebrand, Betty Lachgar with M.A.L.I., the Movement for Alternative Individual Liberties, resisted becoming nonprofits in the same way because of the requirements of the state. The issue was the usual requirement that in registering with the government, the organization was required to express some allegiance to the state, and in Morocco that also means the King and Islam, the state religion. Is that so different from the requirements that many US and Canadian organizations accept in order to get tax exemptions by pledging not to be political? Yes and no, but it’s only a difference in degree.

clock tower in Casablanca near old medina

On the other hand we met with cultural organizers with vibrant programs in art and theater and deep community roots and political programs, who had registered and received most of their support from foreign and EU sources, and were enthusiastically embraced by some of the same activists that scoffed at unions and organizational registration. Women’s organizations were also extremely politically active and essential in changing the family code and winning protections for women, but also registered and supported by the younger activists.

It seems the contradiction was more between activists and organizers. The organizers accepted the compromise of state registration in order to build more stable structures to sustain and fight for change. The activists were more committed to movements, solidarity, direct action, cultural events, education in the public space, mobilizing rather than organizing, social media rather than institution building. For the younger activists, their commitment was deep, but it was not their work in the same way it was the full-time commitment of the unionists or even the cultural and community center nonprofits, who also saw it as their life job. I’m not sure either realized the trade-off or the consequences.

In Morocco, they clearly knew each other and in many cases got along well and with respect, but would they have the ability to come together and find that they had built the capacity to make change when the opportunity presented or not? That question would stay with me a long time and leave me waiting to watch and see.

stop sign

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Popping the Bubble on Tech Utopians and the Law of Amplification

Kentaro Toyama, author of Geek Heresy, with his 10-year-old Nokia phone. (Erynn Rose photo)

Kentaro Toyama, author of Geek Heresy, with his 10-year-old Nokia phone. (Erynn Rose photo)

New Orleans    Every once in a blue moon there is a piercing needle that bursts the bubble of hucksterism, no matter how well-intentioned, and brings its wild claims based on hope and hustle down to the hard ground of reality. In this case, the sound of the pop is louder because the sharp points are delivered from an insider, Kentaro Toyama, a tech company veteran with the years in grade and degrees to prove it, in his book, Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology. Right from the title, I knew this was a book worth reading, and Toyama delivered time and time again. Spoiler’s alert: it’s one thing when working stiff organizers points out that the tech emperors of our times are naked as the day is long, day in, day out, but when it’s the geek speaking the heresy to comrades in wealth and power, its rich with the flavor of truth and justice.

The backstory on Toyama is that he started on the path of Silicon Valley privilege with the degrees from Harvard and Yale and the big job at Microsoft and all was going swell. Then he was recruited to go with a respected and senior colleague to open up the Microsoft research center in Bengaluru. They did this and that, and he was responsible for some bit of gee whiz niftiness, but there was a problem. Rather than being the usual LED screen potted plant, he had tried teaching calculus in Ghana before going total geek, and though he didn’t go native in India, he did actually visit the schools where they were working and take a good look. Worse for many other sacred cows of international development and research from microfinance to high flying randomistas, like the widely touted Poverty Lab, who argue for data and metrics as the benchmarks for all development work, he actually went into the field, met the folks, and dug deeper, and despite preambles full of praise for the big whoops, his bubble bursting is categorical and indisputable.

Not because Toyama and Geek Heresy are on a mission of destruction and global depression, but because he is a realist unable to become a true believer of the utopian claims of the modern day tech babblers. He just can’t help saying what he’s seen on the ground. He argues for what he calls the Law of Amplification as an antidote to the utopian claims. In plain English, his law holds that nothing will change just because of technology if the necessary support system of people, training, resources, and infrastructure are not in place to take advantage of the technology. To organizers on the ground, this is so obvious that it should be gospel, but from the partnership of Silicon Valley and Wall Street is so powerfully steering the hype machine, that it’s hard not to drink their Kool-Aid.

Toyama has spit it out though. His examples are endless, but time and time they are of the kind that gently points out that cars are great inventions, but without roads, gas, or people who are taught how to drive, they really won’t get you too far. Tools are really just tools, no matter how high faluting. We all know this, but still have to sometimes catch ourselves and stop from nodding about the outrageous claims for computers, the internet, Twitter, Facebook, and the like, all of which are wonderful, but none of which can change the world without “amplification,” roads, gas, drivers and the like. Microfinance, as we have pointed out repeatedly is not the silver bullet to end poverty, and Toyama is devastating on this as well. He also takes down the data freaks and randomistas worshipping at the altar of testing and metrics, by reminding that the local partners with years of experience, staffing, resources, and pure and simple competency essentially have their fingers weighing heavily on every measuring scale. He introduces another law, the Iron Law of Evaluation and Other Metallic Rules, which heartbreakingly points out that “The expected value of any net impact assessment of any large scale social program is zero,” which before any of you jump off the cliff is a helpful reminder that because something works well locally or in one context, does not mean that it will automatically work well when scaled up in others. Wisely, Toyama also pops the pretense of philanthropists who claim one-and-done to a grant as if that ensures success rather than failure as it goes to scale.

As an organizer often in the field, whether India, Kenya, Houston, or Little Rock, who sits side-by-side with brilliant, caring, courageous organizers trying to “amplify” their ability to make the computer a tool, rather than a paperweight, access the internet despite the cost, technical, and training barriers, and do simple research, organizing math, and other tasks for our members, it was great to be Toyama’s partner page to page with the truth that you find under your feet, no matter the sugar plums being fed daily to your brain.

There’s no substitute for doing the real work. Praise be to the heretics, like Toyama, who can speak truth to tech power, and who, wonderfully, still believe in and are committed to social change. Don’t let his voice be unheard!

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail