Posts by Justin Podur

The invisible assumptions of charity driven development: reading Bill and Melinda Gates’s 2014 letter

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation released their annual letter for 2014 a few months ago. It was devoted to dispelling three common myths, which they argue, block progress for the poor.

1. Poor countries are doomed to stay poor.
2. Foreign aid is a waste.
3. Saving lives leads to overpopulation.

These myths are indeed myths, and the Gateses are right to try to dispel them. It is also nice to see the Gateses sharing to their audience some important facts that they would have otherwise had to turn to some more radical scholars, to find. Myths #1 and #2, for example, was nicely addressed in 2002 by economist Ha-Joon Chang in Kicking Away the Ladder (although reading any number of the Asian, African, and Latin American nationalists from the 1940s to the 1960s or so might also have done the trick). For Myth #3, we could go back to Betsy Hartmann's 1987 book, Reproductive Rights and Wrongs (I picked it up after reading an article by Hartmann in 2000 called Cross-Dressing Malthus).

But the main point I wanted to make in this blog is one I made a few years ago here about philanthrocapitalism. That is, that the solutions for the world's problems aren't going to come from billionaires, and the billionaires know it. Bill and Melinda admit it, in a low-key way, in their letter, with an extended discussion of government aid:

"When pollsters ask Americans what share of the budget goes to aid, the average response is “25 percent.” When asked how much the government should spend, people tend to say “10 percent.” I suspect you would get similar results in the United Kingdom, Germany, and elsewhere...Here are the actual numbers. For Norway, the most generous nation in the world, it’s less than 3 percent. For the United States, it’s less than 1 percent."

What billionaires can do is tiny compared to what governments can do. In their letter, Bill and Melinda are trying to do what anyone can: try to convince others of their arguments in favour of policies they think would help. That is clear from the content of their letter and the nature of their arguments. Why would they do that, if governments didn't matter?

But their organizations follow a different model. Gates made his billions on one side of a debate. What he argued and practiced was that the software programmers created could be cut up and sold for massive profits. On the other side of that debate, about knowledge, information, computers, and society, were those who argued that information should be free, that innovation occurred when people could share, that software should be under the control of its users. Gates, like the other software billionaires, benefited from collaborative innovations - then privatized them to make his billions, and then used the power that came from those billions to try to stop the innovation and freedom that he benefited from (Linda McQuaig and Neil Brooks tell this story in their 2010 book The Trouble With Billionaires).

Like most corporations, Microsoft does its best to reduce its tax burden, to avoid taxes wherever possible, and to be part of a long-term trend of corporations paying less and less in taxes. Some of the billions in taxes Gates didn't pay are now part of his foundation's endowment. But if it's governments that do the real work of development, then starving those governments of revenue can't be good for development. Even as they try to lobby governments about the value of foreign aid, the Gateses practice a model where the wealthy keep money away from governments, and distribute it as they see fit, through charities of their choice, and where foreign NGOs, rather than local, sovereign governments, control the money and the power. Perhaps there are other myths that block progress for the poor, like:

4. Private aid is significant compared to government aid.
5. Rich people can't be expected to pay taxes like everyone else.
6. Priorities decided by individual, wealthy donors, yield better development outcomes than priorities decided by democratic processes.

Maybe we can watch for these in the 2015 letter...


Reading the Manifesto for Social Materialist Psychology

A little while after my Ossington Circle interview with author Paul Moloney, I was sent (by Paul) the Midlands Psychology Group Manifesto for a Social-Materialist Psychology of Distress. It's an unadorned, long, well-written text that is full of important insights. I appreciate it as someone who is trying to understand "the system" and how it impacts people, and how we could help one another first to survive in the unequal and often violent society we live in, and how we could try to make change. I am going to go through the manifesto a bit here.

The manifesto is arguing against "most psychology", which it describes as "individual and idealist". By contrast, the manifesto is "social materialist". To the manifesto, "individuals exist, but their experiences are thoroughly social, at the very same time as they are singular and personal. And cognitions occur, but their relation to the material world is neither determinate nor arbitrary."

An important consequence of the social materialist approach is that it argues "distress arises from the outside inwards", it is "not the consequence of inner flaws or weaknesses". While "all mainstream approaches to ‘therapy’ locate the origin of psychological difficulty within the individual, usually as some kind of idiosyncracy of past experience." The explanation of why some individuals succumb to distress while others can withstand it is, in the social materialist school of thought, quite simple. It is due to the "embodied advantages someone has acquired over time from the social/material environment". Understanding distress, like understanding survival, is done best by looking from the outside in - at what happened to the individual in society. Hence, trauma, inequality, and other social realities are causes of distress.

The manifesto attacks psychiatric diagnosis as a "quaint notion that distress can be neatly partitioned into robust categories", which "reflects the mistaken belief that it is caused by organic diseases or impairments." Understand distress as social and material, and the categories fall apart, as in diagnostic failure:

"This may be why psychiatric diagnosis is notoriously both unreliable and invalid. Evidence of unreliability is provided by the lives of service recipients, who frequently receive different diagnoses during their contact with services. Further evidence comes from studies showing that, even in reliability trials where normal variation is artificially constrained (by video presentations, special training and broad categories) psychiatrists frequently disagree about the ‘correct’ diagnosis (e.g. Bentall, 2003, 2009; Pilgrim & Rogers, 2010; van Os et al., 1999). Evidence that diagnosis is invalid comes from studies of comorbidity which show that patients who meet the criteria for one diagnosis most likely meet the criteria for at least one other (e.g. Boyle, 2002; Brady & Kendall, 1992; Dunner, 1998; Maier & Falkai, 1999; Sartorious, Ustun, Lecrubier, & Wittchen, 1996; Timimi, 2011). Other evidence comes from studies of symptom profiles which show (for example) that the symptoms of people given a diagnosis of bipolar disorder do not cluster separately from those of people given a diagnosis of schizophrenia (Bentall, 2003). Because psychiatric diagnosis is neither reliable nor valid, all of its claimed benefits – in respect of aetiology, treatment, prognosis, service planning, inter-professional communication, reassurance to service users and their families – are compromised."

Individual and idealistic psychology leads not only to diagnostic, but to treatment failures, because by aiming at relief through "insight" it fails to recognize that "much of our experience, including emotional arousal, is not necessarily available to conscious introspection". Social materialist psychology offers a more "multiple, complex, and open-ended" view of the causes and the possible treatments of distress.

The bad news is that social-materialist psychology does not provide any easy cures - neither, though, does mainstream psychology. The manifesto is very direct about this: "Distress cannot be cured by medication or therapy." The notion of a "cure" is harmful - "the majority of psychoactive drugs cause mental and physical harm, especially with long-term use," and "whilst the talking therapies appear more benign, too often they are just a more insidious form of control, fostering the illusion that misery is an internal failure or breakdown, awaiting correction from an expert."

On the other hand, both medication and therapy can help. Medication "can usefully anaesthetize the distressed to their woes, yielding brief bubbles of respite or clarity. During these short, chemically induced holidays from their misery, those with the resources may initiate life changes that alleviate their problems and establish positive future trajectories," while therapy "provides comfort (you are not alone with your woes), clarification (there are sound reasons why you feel the way you do) and support (I will help you deal with your predicament)," which, "in an atomised, fragmented, time-poor society, where solidarity and collectivity are derided, time limited, and relationships consistently infected with a toxic instrumentalism, these are valuable, compassionate functions."

In social-materialist psychology, success in treatment is predicted by compassion, understanding, and resources - not technique. If the therapist is compassionate and understanding, and the patient has resources to act on the new insights, the chances of success are high. Technique, on the other hand, doesn't matter. Discarding the idea that specific techniques matter might be difficult, but it would be helpful:

"In a thoroughly commodified society it is perhaps understandable that some practitioners will want to have branded, marketable products, just as in a professionalised culture some will want to identify themselves as bearers of highly specialised knowledge and skills. Like everyone else, therapists must earn a living, so it is only to be expected that interest should influence how they present themselves and their work. Nevertheless, doing so distracts attention from the actual causes of distress by bolstering the belief that it is a mysterious state amenable only to professional help; it disables friends and family, who may feel that they could not possibly understand; and it negates the contribution of community, solidarity and trust. The presentation of therapy as specialised technique cheapens and oversells psychology itself; leads to resources being wasted comparing the marginal differences between this brand and that; and deflects effort and attention from the very real opportunities for psychological research and insight that are supplied by the highly privileged situation of the therapeutic encounter."

The manifesto, like Paul Moloney's book, provides a compassionate and nuanced take on psychology and therapy. If you want to help others, take a look at it.

Ali Mustafa

I met Ali Mustafa a long time ago, when he was one of the younger activists in Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA). I was not so old as I am now but Ali's energy and anger made me feel my age then.

Ali was no single-issue activist. He spent a summer working (as an intern I think) with the Movimento Sem Terra (MST) in Brazil, a movement of landless peasants. That was how he did things. He wanted to go, be in it.

He was no hotel journalist. When he went to Palestine and Egypt and to Syria, he lived with the people, shared their risks, faced whatever they faced.

I didn't always get to meet him after his tours when he'd come back to Toronto, but I did quite a few times. We would talk and argue over details, facts, doctrine ("Is what's happening in Egypt really a *revolution*?" - Ali thought yes, and so did I, for the record).

He was a journalist in the sense that he went there, wherever there was, and wrote and documented, and photographed. But he was not a journalist in any of the bad ways. There was nothing careerist about him. He never pretended at any false objectivity - he was a people's journalist and he believed in their struggles. Pretty much everything I ever saw him do, he did with this motivation. He never put himself above the people he was writing about. He put himself with them, instead.

When I was Ali's age, I think I had a lot more help and support doing the kinds of things I did than he had doing what he did. I really wish more people could have seen his work, and I wish he could have been around some more decades to do more of it.

Ali Mustafa (twitter handle @_fbtm blog was a Canadian freelance journalist and activist. He died with 7 Syrians in an airstrike by the Assad government in the Hadariya neighbourhood of Aleppo on March 9, 2014.

Ali was pretty prolific. Here's a small sample of Ali's writing from his blog:

Oct 31, 2013: Reporting from the Inside - Ali interviewed by Stefan Christoff, a very nuanced and well-informed example of Ali's type of people's journalism, about Syria.

March 3, 2013: The Ultras and the Eegyptian Revolution - Ali interviewed by Left Hook. Ali's take on the Egyptian Revolution.

January 20, 2013: Kafka in the Courts Ali's reporting on the case of Mohammad Majoub.

March 24, 2011: Where Athenian Democracy Went Wrong - Ali showing off a bit with some deep historical thinking about ancient democracy and what it means for today...

A short course on development in "Post-conflict" Congo. A Radical Teacher article.

Podur, J. (2014). A Short Course on Development in “Post-conflict” Congo. Radical Teacher, 98, 52-57. doi:10.5195/rt.2014.70

This article, published in the journal Radical Teacher, is about higher education in the eastern DR Congo, based on my experience teaching a course at the Universite Evangelique en Afrique (UEA) in Bukavu in 2011.


Haiti: plans for a 2010 coup – CEPR interview with Seitenfus

With an attempted coup underway in Venezuela, those of us who studied the 2004 Haiti coup are looking back at Haiti 10 years ago and being reminded of the parallels. Actually, I wrote about the Venezuela coup of 2002, which followed a similar playbook to the coup attempt currently underway.

I write about a lot of different countries and a lot of different political situations, and people have implied to me that it is impossible for anyone to be knowledgeable about so many different contexts. It seems to me though that in many of these situations, the same external actors are intervening (for example, the US and other Western countries), and they have a limited number of ways of conducting intervention. There's some kind of a playbook out there, and for people who are concerned about development or democracy or freedom in the poor countries, there is no way to avoid trying to understand what is in that playbook of intervention. That's why I wrote Haiti's New Dictatorship, and why I really liked Peter Hallward's Damming the Flood. I think of both books as an attempt to understand the way external power operated to destroy the sovereignty of a country - in this case, Haiti. Peter showed how it was done, and I tried to focus on the post-coup results.

One of the strongest moral voices against coups in Latin America for the past decade and a half has been, and you wouldn't know it from the name, the Centre for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). Their name only covers one aspect of their organization's personality - the fact that they are extraordinary researchers and that they do their homework. Their name doesn't cover the fact that they are a strong voice of principle, when the media are full of murky justifications for coups and violence, and murky accusations of violence against targeted enemies. They have been very strong on Venezuela and on Haiti.

In this interview, published on CEPR, Dan Beeton and Georgeanne Nienaber interview former OAS Special Representative in Haiti, Ricardo Seitenfus. It's a powerful account because it comes from someone who was part of the post-coup attempts to bring Haiti under control. It reveals a lot about how Haiti has been governed, post-coup. Seitenfus was fired for telling the truth about what was going on. If you read Haiti's New Dictatorship, you'll find this interview with Seitenfus verifies a lot of what I argued was going on based on other sources.

The Ossington Circle: Episode 5, Eva Bartlett on Gaza in Crisis

The Ossington Circle is an internet talk show hosted by Justin Podur in Toronto. In this episode, I talk to Eva Bartlett, who has spent a good portion of the past few years in Gaza. She talks about the tunnels, agriculture, fishery, all of the impacts of Israel's comprehensive siege against the Palestinian population of 1.7 million people. See her on speaking tour in February and March of 2014.

Egypt’s dictatorship for the digital age

Egypt was ruled by the Mubarak dictatorship for 30 years before the people managed to overthrow him in 2011.

Mubarak was not overthrown by the internet. Some business and technological literature claimed that, because the internet made it more difficult to keep secrets (a valid claim), the “dictator business” was obsolete. An NBC news story from February 2011, hardly unique, described the Egyptian government’s attempt to shut down the internet to slow the spread of public outrage at government atrocities, but did not really offer an argument to substantiate its title: “How the internet brought down a dictator” (Wilson Rothman, NBC News, Feb 14, 2011.)

The business professor Henry Lucas reasoned as follows: “The governments of two dictators in Tunisia and Egypt did not survive citizen uprisings that were non-ideological in nature. The people were tired of the results of the dictatorships, and they found that technology helped them organize for change.” (Lucas, The Search for Survival, Praeger, 2012, pg. 151). If ideology is a set of beliefs that govern political behaviour, then there are no citizen uprisings that are “non-ideological in nature”, and Egypt’s 2011 was as ideological as any other. Both Lucas and NBC were writing before 2013, when Edward Snowden revealed the universality of internet surveillance by the US National Security Agency, revelations that also put a damper on hopes for emancipation through technology.

But let us allow for a minute the two claims, that 1) those who mobilized to overthrow Mubarak in 2011 used twitter, facebook, and youtube over the course of their mobilization and 2) these technologies made it more difficult for the Egyptian regime to keep their human rights violations secret. Does it follow that dictatorships are doomed?

It does not. The dictatorship of Egypt’s military was restored in a coup in July 2013. So, rather than asking if dictatorships are doomed, since they evidently are not, perhaps a better question might be, how do dictatorships adapt to a situation where their citizens have platforms to communicate more freely than they did before? Mubarak ruled through the standard dictatorial methods: terror, propaganda, and selective support (especially from elites and from foreign powers). Egypt’s post-2013 dictators use the same methods, though they have adapted the balance somewhat, having learned some important lessons in propaganda, and in information-management-through-terror, from 2011.

After the overthrow of Mubarak in 2011, politics in the country split into three tendencies. The army, with business interests, elite and international connections, and tremendous resources, retained much of its power. The Muslim Brotherhood, which had maintained an organization throughout the decades of dictatorship, was a significant force. The newest grouping, and also the least-organized, was inspired by the Arab Spring to oppose the dictatorship and struggle for political freedom and economic reform.

Mubarak was ousted, but the army’s power was preserved. It began taking steps to return to power immediately. The army was able to manipulate the legal process, to rush through a constitutional process, and to rush to an election that denied the ‘civil society’ group the chance to build an organization that could compete electorally with the establishment’s party or the Brotherhood. In the May-June 2012 elections, the relatively unorganized ‘civil society’ split the vote, and the Brotherhood defeated the establishment candidate.

In the months that followed, the army retained not only control of key aspects of the economy, but also many key government portfolios and executive functions. The army was able to manipulate the rationing system to exacerbate economic problems while the Brotherhood government took the blame. The Brotherhood alienated the majority secular vote with its policies of social control and its alliance with the army against secular political protests. The Brotherhood eventually generated massive resistance against it, which the army took advantage of to re-take control in the July 2013 coup.

The internet may not have made dictatorships obsolete, but Egypt’s rulers are working on developing a model of dictatorship for the internet age. In the seven months since the July coup, Egypt's new dictatorship, which is made up of the same establishment as Mubarak's dictatorship, has used extraordinary violence to try to thoroughly crush those forces that overthrew Mubarak in 2011.

The first order of business was to keep people off of the streets. When those who opposed the July coup used some of the same methods that had overthrown Mubarak, namely street demonstrations and sit-ins in public squares, they were surrounded and massacred, with huge massacres taking place in August.

Supplementing the massacres on the streets were mass, as well as targeted, arrests, and the return of long-term administrative detention. Legal processes, always under the oversight of the army, are a very important part of Egypt’s dictatorship. A constitutional referendum was held on January 14-15. Those who campaigned for a "No" vote were arrested. The referendum passed with the kind of massive majority that marked Mubarak’s electoral exercises.

The government is in the middle of a counterinsurgency war in the Sinai, on Egypt’s border with Gaza and Israel. The government's opponents, the Bedouin in the Sinai, are labeled terrorists, and anyone questioning the government’s counterinsurgency policy is similarly labeled.

Information management has been key. Journalists were arrested in advance of the constitutional referendum and are still being held. The dictators treat internationals – journalists or other members of civil society – to the same arbitrary legal processes as locals: long detentions, administrative renewals, frivolous charges. Meanwhile, local media, especially television, under concentrated establishment control, engage in virulent propaganda. The main theme in the media is that everyone who opposes Egypt’s dictators are terrorists, starting with the Brotherhood and going from there to everyone - including secular civil society - who opposed the coup. Or, indeed, who writes or says anything about the coup.

Sharif Abdel Kuddous writes of the Al Jazeera staff currently detained on terrorism charges ( that ‘prosecutors assigned a team of "media experts" from the Egyptian Union for Television and Radio to inspect equipment seized from the hotel where Al Jazeera English was operating. The technical reports show that "the footage was altered and video scenes were modified using software and high-caliber editing equipment.” So they used Final Cut Pro. They edited. They probably even selected the fiercest footage of clashes for their reports.’

Sharif also quotes from the new anti-terrorism bill: ‘Article 21 of the bill is astonishing in its vagueness and scope: "Anyone who directly or indirectly promotes acts of terror, either verbally or in writing, or through any other means of broadcasting or publishing, or through letters or online websites that others can access, shall be punished by imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years."’

So, seven months later, we have the new Egyptian dictatorship’s answer to the internet: monitor its users, jail its journalists in Egypt, and use it to broadcast messages of hate and misinformation about political opponents. So far, it is working, but it won’t work forever. Not because of the internet, but because of the people. Dictatorships are overthrown when people lose their fear, and the Egyptians have lost their fear more than a few times in recent years.


Justin Podur blogs at

Three kinds of science – the Jan/Feb 2014 Briarpatch cover story

My latest article is Jan/Feb 2014 cover story in Briarpatch Magazine. In it I analyze science and politics, talking about three different things that are called science: Science A (authority), Science B (business), and Science C (curiosity). Hope you enjoy.

Link: in 2013

Since it's the last day of 2013, I thought I would look over what I did this year. I spent half the year in India, so I have a fair bit of India content here. I also started the Ossington Circle this year, which has been fun. I am not including short blogs in this list, just longer articles and videos.

You'll see 7 articles, 3 book reviews, 8 interviews (4 of which are video interviews), 2 lecture videos, and 2 mini-documentary videos.

January 17, 2013: A review of Douglas Bland's 2009 book, Uprising, about a fictional indigenous uprising in Canada - I compared it to the real Idle No More.

January 31, 2013: The Delhi Rape and the Struggle for Space I argue that a big part of misogyny is trying to drive women out of public space.

February 21, 2013: Can 1.7 Billion Dollars Imagine Wrong? I review a book about India's politics by Nandan Nilekani, one of India's billionaires.

March 5, 2013: Hugo Chavez, Presente A little lament for Hugo Chavez, who I admired.

March 28, 2013: Why the Taliban is unlikely to win My assessment of Afghanistan's near future based on a trip I took there from Delhi in March.

April 3, 2013: To Break a Siege A review of Nirmalangshu Mukherji's book about the war in Chhattisgarh.

April 20, 2013: The Bastar Land Grab An interview with Sudha Bharadwaj, an activist from Chhattisgarh.

May 3, 2013: Evicting the Gandhians An interview with Gandhian activist Himanshu Kumar, who was evicted from his ashram, which was bulldozed by the state, in Chhattisgarh.

May 27, 2013: Eleven things India must change in Kashmir I examine what a rights-based approach, as opposed to a solutions-based approach, would look like in Kashmir, borrowing from the Palestine BDS movement.

June 11, 2013: India: Struggle for Indigenous Autonomy A short documentary about Chhattisgarh's indigenous struggle

June 24, 2013: Waiting for 2014 in AfghanistanA short documentary about Afghanistan's travails

July 3, 2013: Austerity and Resistance an interview with OCAP's John Clarke for the Ossington Circle talk show

July 6, 2013: Kashmir: the fruits of isolation I argue that India's policy has brought about the opposite of what it says it wants.

July 14, 2013: A generation-long war an interview with Jon Elmer for the Ossington Circle talk show

July 17, 2013: The Zimmerman Verdict and MMA My reaction to the politicized, simplistic, and self-serving martial arts analysis of the so-called ground and pound "technique" used by the defense in the Zimmerman trial.

August 4, 2013: Architecture, Occupation, and Resistance an interview with Suzy Harris-Brandts for the Ossington Circle talk show

October 19, 2013: Free, Tarek and John A summary of the efforts to get Tarek Loubani and John Greyson out of Egyptian jail.

October 28, 2013: The future of India's conflict zones A lecture on India's Kashmir and Chhattisgarh conflict zones, both of which I visited in 2013.

November 11, 2013: Public action and a lifeline for rural workers an interview with Jean Dreze.

November 23, 2013: Afghanistan: Perils and Possibilities A lecture on Afghanistan at the Toronto Public Library.

December 29, 2013: The Therapy Industry An interview with author Paul Moloney for the Ossington Circle talk show.

The Ossington Circle: Episode 4, Paul Moloney on the Therapy Industry

The Ossington Circle is an internet talk show hosted by Justin Podur in Toronto. This episode has Paul Moloney, the author of the book The Therapy Industry: the irresistible rise of the talking cure and why it doesn't work (Pluto Press 2013). In the book, Paul questions the idea that many of our problems can be resolved through talk, and advocates what he calls social-materialist psychology, a psychology that sees social relations and the external world as the most important determinants of mental health. Whether you're helping others as a teacher or in the community, or looking for answers in your own life, you'll find Paul's book, and this interview, solidly argued, surprising, and worthwhile.