Masturbatory Gesture Watch

by Nathan Hamm on 10/15/2004 · 1 comment

IWPR and the Swiss Embassy have compiled a photo exhibition to highlight the use of children to harvest cotton in Uzbekistan… in Uzbekistan. No, I did not repeat myself, and that’s why this is a masturbatory, hollow, and self-centered form of protest. The last people on earth who need to be made aware that children harvest Uzbekistan’s cotton are the Uzbeks themselves. I think they’re well aware.

I agree with critics of the practice. It’s no good. It drastically impairs the education of the students in the fields (officially 44,000 this year) and is no way for kids to be spending their time. It helps keep the whole cotton stuck in its distorted, backwards economic state. But it’s not Uzbek officials that need to have their awareness raised.

One of the charges that IWPR and the Swiss Embassy make is that the working conditions are atrocious. That is something I don’t doubt for a second. For perspective though, living conditions are atrocious in many of Uzbekistan’s rural areas. Also, it would help elevate the photo exhibition from mere gesture if there were some involvement of the children, whom the story seems to leave out entirely. I remember that some kids love cotton, some hate it, and some were ambivalent. I reserve judgment on what the general feeling about it is (because my kids didn’t go, and they were the ones I talked to most), but it’d be nice to hear whether or not the NGOs even sought to involve them.

The story notes the involvement of local NGOs. That’s great. I worry though about the glee with which Western NGOs try to make their counterparts in the third-world into little copies of themselves. Hollow gestures of “solidarity,” “awareness raising,” and “self-satisfaction” are the top three products of Western NGOs. I’d hate to see that become the case in Central Asia.

[Some background on the above attitude: In working with Philadelphia nonprofits, I always get the sense that constituents are thought of as props or mere pawns. They are too often treated as passive victims of larger forces who need whatever prescriptive course of action Service Provider X has to offer. This is true for much, but not all, of the nonprofit community. These views are not to be taken as reflecting those of my employer, but are shared by others executives in the local nonprofit community.]


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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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{ 1 comment }

Tatyana October 16, 2004 at 10:58 am

Nathan, I thought this attitude is a standard deal in government offices; interesting to know it also applies to non-profits.
My only personal familiarity with non-profit organization was new immigrant agency in New York, whose client I was for first 4 months in US.
In one word – repulsive. (I can elaborate, of course, but that will destruct from your post).

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