The metacapacity to aspire

 Published in: The Daily Star on March 3, 2014
The metacapacity to aspire

IN less than two months, I have been in touch with two private episodes of miracle. Both of them stand for the resilience of regular people who dared to dream. Both the cases prove that the poor have the ability to learn to navigate their cultural map and trace their own aspirations, with or without intervention. Both the stories are incredible and worthy of being shared.
“Kichu Proshno Korbo Tomaye” was the ring tone that I heard in many cellphones of the people I work with. It made me wonder about the marketing strategy that had been applied in this case. How, within a day, could 10-15 phones have the same ring tone? And who was singing the song? And why did the voice sound so familiar? It took me less than 5 minutes to piece together my puzzle. The voice belonged to none other than the 22 year old Shumon, who takes care of my 93-year old father in law …day in and day out. Yet, Shumon has beaten all odds, recorded his music in a studio, and finally found a company to launch him. Sure it cost him money, but that was a challenge he addressed with his savings. The CD that he has recorded has his“voice.” Development rarely offers “voice.” It teaches the poor to either stay loyal or fuel protests that stand as exit strategies. It rarely enables a voice. Shumon leads as an exception.
I met 20-year old Srey Mom Ang in London through BBC. BBC had chosen me to mentor this young Cambodian girl as a part of their 100 women project that brought women from all over the globe to network and share their lives with the others. Srey had an incredible story. This little girl was a scavenger and lived her life by digging in the dumpsites. While this young girl found a way to survive, she had not learnt to dream. Scott Neeson, the ex-president of 20th Century Fox found her at the dumpsite and had brought her to his NGO: Cambodia Children’s Fund (CCF). Way back in 2004, Scott had come to Cambodia, given up his Hollywood lifestyle, and settled there to help kids out of their misery. Srey Mom was just a lucky kid. She stayed in CCF, learnt to read and write and attended the garment-training centre of the organisation. She began to sew clothes. She began to dream. She was dreaming of becoming a designer. This was the time when I met her.
While the Cambodian dumpsites and the slums were no surprise to me, her family was. Srey had taken me down to meet her mother 90 kilometers from Phnom Penh. Clad in yellow flannel sleepwear, Srey’s mother said that she wanted Srey to become just a supervisor in the NGO and nothing beyond that. While I watched Srey Mom struggle with her mum’s limits, I decided to offer her a second home in Dhaka and give her the opportunity to design commercially. She started to send me sketches from which I prepared samples. In mid-February, sixteen of our factory workers wore her samples, walked the ramp and danced to music while they paraded her clothes in a “fashion show.” Srey just kept on sitting, crying in happiness. I eventually sold her story to one of the brands that decided to buy one of her styles. Srey Mom’s dream has indeed crossed the border and with the little money that she will earn from her first design that is sold, she will start saving for capital to start her very own boutique.
Both Shumon and Srey represent the struggle to strive beyond the poverty traps, just like the three million women workers who begin their sewing-line lives sharp at 8:00 am. How free are they? While many of us walk through our factory units, how many of us actually know their faces or sense their dreams behind the white masks they wear to protect the product? How many of us have actually talked to them?
As a developing nation, we are definitely riding the dangerous muscular horse of economic progress, but we are mostly feeble riders who have not learnt to steer the animal to the right direction. In our potential $30 billion RMG export bubble, we have mostly practiced the exclusion of the “other” and have engaged in practices which have led to the denial of difference between “us” and the poor “other.” Could the state have helped? Perhaps. Could the state have bridged the inequalities? Perhaps. But then, perhaps globalisation puts state out of the development scene while a strange ‘fetishisation’ of the market marks our reality. This excessive importance attached to the market players ends up doing more harm than good as business interests place the poor, the “other” on an inferior plain and superimpose inferiority on their social, economic and political platforms. Through theory and practice, though globalisation gives birth to high expectations and aspirations in terms of consumption, it does very little to integrate societies. As a result, the accountability of the state often begins to shrink and the task of integration is often left to the market. In the end, private sector interests initiate inequalities, which lead to the concentration of power in limited hands. This is how imbalances happen. This is how injustices brew.
The socio-cultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai felt that the poor always “wait for relief to come, rulers to die, bureaucrats to deliver promises, government servants to be transferred, or drought to pass.” According to him, it is also the same poor people who have given birth to “fecal politics,” which refers to the failure of Pune’s city government to deliver toilets in 1990s as a result of which Pune’s municipal commissioner had then invited NGOs to bid for construction and maintenance contracts. The Alliance between the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC), the National Slum-Dwellers Federation (NSDF), and Mahila Milan won a contract to build 320 toilet blocks with 6,400 seats throughout the city. This gave birth to Toilet festivals in India, which have today become a part of the development discourse and are looked upon as a brilliant effort to turn privatised suffering of the poor into a celebration.
Examples of Shumon, Srey Mom and the Poor of Pune introduce us to the critical features of democracy. These three examples also teach us a grand lesson of never ever considering any space to be too humble or too large to accommodate the imagination and the aspiration of the poor.

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