Missing the point or a key step in the right direction?

By Joern Fischer

Recently, I watched the documentary “Dukale’s Dream”, featuring Hugh Jackman and Tim Costello from World Vision. The movie depicts nicely what life in the coffee growing parts of Ethiopia is like, and many of the little details in it reflected closely what I had seen first hand in the field. But what about the approach to development being advocated in the movie — is it a key step in the right direction, or is it simply missing the point?

On the positive side, we can note that Hugh Jackman has been engaged with the issue of development for several years. His engagement went far beyond what many of us have done: donating substantial amounts of money, visiting development projects, speaking at the UN about climate change, and starting a fair-trade coffee company. And it’s clear that the work by World Vision depicted in this particular movie did positively affect the life of a poor coffee farmer and his family. These are all good things.

On the more critical side, we might feel that this movie leaves many important points unaddressed. Jeffrey Sachs is the only academic being interviewed as part of the movie — and he paints a distinctly pro-economic-growth picture of what development ought to look like. (Perhaps this is fair enough: strong economic growth in poor countries does correlate, after all, with improvements in people’s livelihoods. Or is so much missing from this equation that is is dangerously simplistic?) Similarly, the movie somehow leaves us with the notion that if we all drank only fair-trade coffee, development problems would automatically resolve themselves.

But many key questions remain unanswered: It’s nice that development worked for the particular farmer (Dukale) presented. But what about his neighbours? While Dukale is buying more land, is everyone else really benefiting from it, too, via trickle-down effects? Is it good enough to leave aside population growth from the equation, and wait for prosperity to do its thing to reduce fertility rates? Can we leave Western consumerism (and global capitalism?) untouched and still have “sustainable development” for all?

My own conclusion on this is that this movie does a very nice job of engaging its target audience. And while it leaves many of the more complex questions unanswered, I don’t think we currently have definitive answers or simple recipes. In short: an incomplete story, to me, but one worth listening to nevertheless. If nothing else, I’d highly recommend this movie as valuable food for thought.

6 thoughts on “Missing the point or a key step in the right direction?

  1. For me the advantage of a film like this is not so much in explaining or understanding the problem of sustainable development, but in humanizing such a notion. It is easy to dismiss many sustainability issues as a problem of the ‘system’ and it is useful to be reminded that such systems (especially those far away) consist of human beings no less deserving of our thoughts, concerns that we might give our nearer neighbours.

    Admittedly doing so does not solve any problems, but perhaps it makes people actually care a little more about the problems being solved? The will to act seems like quite an important first step in addressing unsustainability.

    • Hi Dave — this kind of “affective” or emotional aspect is very important indeed. Personally, I have often been very touched by the genuine humility and kindness of Ethiopian farmers. I find that Dukale’s story and way of acting is, in that way, quite typical. Letting him speak in this movie indeed gives him (and others like him) a voice which they otherwise don’t have, and which people in wealthy nations ought to hear.

  2. It is an encouraging and educative film particularly for the developed world to understanding the strong ties between rural people and natural ecosystems in most developing countries like Ethiopia. This relationship has a more positive balance to preserving maximum biodiversity and environmental sustainability, while the local community remains poorer. I have a great doubt this would’t continue due to the ever increasing population pressure and negative impacts of climate change, among others. Hence, it needs urgent collaborative actions at all levels (national & international partners) for designing and implementing effective interventions – incentive mechanisms for high quality forest products. This would help in ensuring the three sustainability components for future benefits to all worldwide.

    • Thank you, Taye, for your perspective — it greatly enriches this blog to have comments directly from people with experience in the “Global South”!

  3. I haven’t watched the clip (cardinal sin of commenting!) but my general feeling about this type of thing is that it would all be perfectly fine and more helpful than not if it included ONE other key element, at least: talking about solidarity through engagement. I typically talk about three levels of this when people ask me “But what should we DO?”

    1) Get involved in your local community in something you care about–Parent-Teacher Organization; urban agriculture; arts education; local radio, news, or music; volunteering at community centers; being a Big Brother/Big Sister. Because the only way we are going to improve the systems we need to improve is through enhancing our connections to each other and growing our capacity to work together–and the only way to learn how to work together is to actually try it.
    2) If that isn’t “enough” for you, or you’re already doing that: then work to connect to issues or groups that you care about. Can your Parent-Teacher Organization and Urban Agriculture project join up and have a yearly joint activity? Can representatives from each one attend each other’s meetings and talk about possible projects to do together, or ways to combine resources for some activities? One can start with “one-offs” but the challenge is to build towards long-lasting cross-conversation and collaboration. It is only through networking through different parts, peoples, and aspects of our communities that we can scale-up to solve larger problems, and make difficult choices about prioritization based on involvement, engagement, and mutual trust.
    3) If THAT isn’t enough for you, connect your connected-groups–say, the “Parent-Teacher/Urban Agriculture Collaborative for Our Children” (to make up a name) with similar groups across your region, country, or continents! There are definitely similar efforts elsewhere. If one wants to help Ethiopian farmers, then find ways to do cultural exchanges so that you can really begin to understand and respect others as individuals, not abstract people far away (or even in a good documentary). And if you want to try to help support change through your purchasing (a very cramped way to do it in my estimation, but not without value), your purchasing will be MUCH more powerful, and much more “communicative” (e.g. provoking interest by media and other groups) if it is a purchasing commitment by, say, the PTUA Collaborative arrranged with a farmers’ co-op as a whole in Ethiopia, or a PTUAC effort to get your college, or local business, etc. to purchase in bulk from such a co-op.

    I guess I don’t usually include step 4, which is to build or join a movement based on these connections, because I think many, many of us (myself included!) are still at “Stage 1.” But to my mind, we *cannot* address the looming challenges without improved collective action. And we cannot improve our collective action without doing a better, more consistent job of connecting to each other within our communities, as communities, and across communities.

    Sort of like the previous blog entry about “working within” existing frameworks vs. trying to change them–I think we absolutely must do both. But considering the potentially huge ‘leverage’ of changing people’s default frameworks–and the fact that it *certainly happens* (cf. slavery, marriage equality, suffrage, women’s equality, climate change, etc.)–we cannot/should not just “hope” that overall frameworks eventually change while we work within the current one, nor should we neglect that while changing overall frameworks is slow, it also requires work *in the present*. We should be doing that work, because the slower, larger changes will never come if we don’t work on them beforehand… We should not let urgency justify short-term thinking. Otherwise, how are we contributing to changing the cramped short-termism that leads to so many problems already?

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