Rethinking International Development: Solidarity Economies

Editor's note: This is the second in a series on rethinking international development, in which Brandon Fischer explores alternatives to Western modes and notions of international development and aid.

One could very easily pass through Mheidthe (Mhaydseh) without thinking twice. As a town of but several thousand residents, the village is one that rests humbly beside the towering sites of Bekaa Valley in the heart of Lebanon, which features some of the best preserved Roman ruins left standing in the world. Mheidthe’s hallmark, however, is quality, fair trade food, which attracts locals and informed tourists alike. On a warm summer day in 2011, I was welcomed into Nejmet el Sobeh, a women's cooperative in the Rashaya district of rural Lebanon and was exposed to the solidarity economy.

The Nejmet el Sobeh women's cooperative (Photo: Brandon Fischer)

Nestled within an intimate living room setting, I sipped from the straw sunk into a maté gourd, surrounded by half a dozen women who recalled stories of how they each were inspired to participate in the women's cooperative. The compound, a concrete, two-story building with exposed windows and an austere edifice, sits atop a hill overlooking the valley. Nejmet el Sobeh is shop to some twenty women of varying  ages to sell their jams, freshly collected pine nuts, and various preserved items, each made from recipes passed down from multiple generations. Their methods of production issue a no-nonsense response to the increasingly commercialized production methods proliferating throughout the Lebanese food market.

My experiences in Mheidthe served as an entry point into the solidarity economy, a model of production and resistance that has galvanized communities throughout what has been termed "Third World." It is but one of the various ways in which citizens have resisted structures that have systematically squelched the productive capacity of their communities. The various shades of such economy can extend further to involve complex forms of exchange, create networks of multiple economies, and may even present unique forms of currency, as has been seen with the Focolare Movement in Italy and the Economy of Communion in Brazil.

Solidarity economies can vary in composition, constituency, and directive. At one end of the spectrum, they can aim toward the abolition of capital influence; on the other, they can seek to humanize the economic process. (Of course, these elements are not mutually exclusive and can, in fact, be complementary.) In some cities, entrepreneurial networks have fostered mutual assistance cultures to boost creative enterprise, as evidenced in Bandung, Indonesia.1 In the case of women's cooperatives, in particular, we might also find added layers of resistance, specifically to patriarchal systems of power. I will leave my comments on gender and development for future posts, as its complexity requires a more thorough study.

In solidarity economies, the relationship among producers is often quite horizontal and the flows of goods and services mediate the relationship between the producer and the consumer. Throughout the life of a product, from its point of production to its point of consumption, the function of economy offers new understandings of what production can do for a community and what that community can do for the terms of its production.

In Mheidthe, the women's cooperative sustained a solidarity economy by generating self-contained flows of goods and services, often from producer to producer, but also stretching across her respective networks of family, friends, and relatives, in what can be described as an extended barter system. These goods, especially preserved fruit and dried food products, were also sold to outside markets, though the level of autonomy present at all stages of production and distribution distinguishes it from traditional production and distribution flows. Their global flows of goods take on a new function as they juxtapose and, at times, disrupt existing models of production and distribution within an increasingly globalized market.

In the final interview we conducted at Nejmet el Sobeh, the presence of autonomy became especially palpable. When speaking with one of the elders in the group, pictured below, she told us of the passing of her husband, the household breadwinner, some years prior. Knowing business culture in the region, she was certain nobody would hire her. Upon being recruited into Nejmet el Sobeh, however, she took on chief roles in production and later distribution, granting her autonomy, new skills, decision-making capacities, and a community in which to find resources. Through this involvement, she felt indelibly changed, not only by having a source of sustenance and sisterhood, but also by being granted a lifestyle of health and well-being.

An elder member Nejmet el Sobeh (BF)

With globalization, we have witnessed plenty of the diffusion of sovereignty, the blurring of borders, the proliferation of networks, the displacement of peoples, and the vast reach of the neoliberal order. This reality has so often been misinterpreted as a flattening of the globe, a relative sameness of class and culture, where there is significant wealth in each country alongside profound poverty. This apparent sameness supposedly obfuscates distinctions, thereby enabling international solidarity and a reciprocity in forms of activism. This way of perceiving the world misses out on critical distinctions in the various forms of struggle present in different localities around the globe.

What was once thought of as globalized solidarity has become increasingly problematic given the vast differences in struggles across the global landscape and their variable embededdness within international systems. Although social media has enabled new forms of networked solidarity and organizing, evident in the disparate examples of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, the articulations of autonomy and democratic self-governance are only fully realizable at the local level. Solidarity economies can participate in this realization, unsettling the bedrock beneath neoliberal visions of progress.

In my last post, I introduced my ideas around different imaginings of modernity and progress as well as their multiple impacts on the framing of development intervention. With solidarity economies, the development of one's own community is at play, forming and articulating unique views on modernity that guide their modus operandi. Their gentle impacts reverberate throughout the economies they penetrate, cultivating a social fabric that repositions where individual profit figures into modernity and progress, beginning in the workplace, and spreading into the streets and households. This has everything to do with what is considered possible. Indeed, the true force of these projects lies in their deliberate refusal to be limited by the construction that is the West and its "world of possibilities."

The politics of the possible as written by the West is what has fueled many of our global concerns. We have witnessed the limitations of free trade agreements and the failures of top-down agricultural policies to sustain a population. We have seen how countries of tremendous agricultural production are suffering from the world's most endemic malnutrition and starvation. The response, therefore, must be polycentric, polyvocal, and imaginative. As we migrate away from a world of possibilities and into a world that urges us to embrace the impossible, regional and local distinctions should figure centrally into our new political imagination.

Members of the Nejmet El Sobeh cooperative prepare foods for sale (BF)

At this point, you may be thinking about the unreasonable prospect of working outside the neoliberal frame. Yet, as these solidarity economies already serve as multiple sites of resistance, geographically and figuratively speaking, their functioning may very well displace profit-seeking production cycles and perhaps eventually generate similar economic cultures. Indeed, many have already received the attention of supranationals, suggesting some threshold has been reached. For these, the challenge will be to preserve the autonomy and radical potential, despite sharp increases in funding and attention. It remains the responsibility of the international community to advocate against standardizing their production methods.

Solidarity economies present radical possibilities for communities worldwide and move us into a rethinking of the impossible. As agents of significant autonomy, producers effectively articulate a new imagination around modernity and redefine the terms by which production and economy function. Responding to their particular context, time, and space, their presence poses some urgent questions: What can Americans or others from the West do to develop their own solidarity economies? What forms can or should this take? What is the role of governments and the private sector? What stances are relevant and important for the West to demand of international legislation to support solidarity economies existing around the world? I look forward to the conversation.

Follow Brandon on Twitter @brandonmfischer

1. Also see “Local Talentin Monocle Magazine (No. 65, 2013).

Brandon Fischer graduated from the Graduate Program in International Affairs at The New School with a concentration in Development. He is currently working toward his Anthropology degree at The New School for Social Research. Brandon's interests include indigenous rights, alternative modernity, radical democratic movements, political geography, and queer activism, focusing primarily on Latin America.