The Self-Help Myth (book review)

If there was such a thing as an award for best chapter in a monograph, I would definitely nominate the first chapter of Erica Kohl-Arenas’ book ‘The Self-Help Myth-How Philanthropy fails to alleviate poverty’. The chapter provides an excellent overview over core debates about philanthropy, beneficiary participation in self-help projects and how such approaches have a historical legacy of failing farmworkers in California.

As the narrative of 5+ decades of charitable work in the Californian agricultural industry unfolds, we have the great fortune of exploring one of the best development ethnographies I have come across in the very long time-despite the fact that Kohl-Arenas’ research actually took place in the USA and not in a developing country.

Her detailed, yet carefully selected vignettes from the early days of the self-help movement in the 1960s to the social capital era of the 1990s and today’s ‘win-win’ coalitions including the agricultural industry are framed into three beautifully written chapters that elucidate her key points vividly, yet leave space for complex discussions rather than blaming a ‘neoliberal conspiracy’:

By separating questions of production, labor, institutionalized structural inequality from the moral and behavioral explanations of poverty, the self-help approach has been depoliticized-excluding action that challenges the status quo (pp.16-17).
But the philanthropic self-help industry is not simply a contemporary manifestation of today’s capitalistic dynamcis.

‘We operate in an area of grayness, where few laws apply, and where many of those used against us are of questionable constitutionality’
Letter from Cesar Chavez to a foundation official, January 1967 (cited on p.63)

The second chapter and first case study of her book introduce Cesar Chavez and his struggle in a period of active union engagement and the emergence of charitable foundations from the mid-1960s onward. By following farmworker movement organizer Chavez and his move away from grassroots organizing and union-led strikes the reader gets a first glimpse into a core theme of the book: How the logic of philanthropy almost always leads to less critical, less politicized, less radical and arguable less effective forms of community engagement

not through explicit agendas of control, but through negotiation, compromise, and increased professional administrative demands (p.40).
As Chavez and his group get entangled in the emerging business of charity in the 1970s, including drafting administrative directives for fieldworker representatives to dress as peasants and drive aging cars (p.72) and accusations of mismanagement of funds (p.73) the ‘brilliant approach to taking on a seemingly monolithic industrial system of rule’ (p.73) ultimately fails to change the foundations of power and profit:
The self-help formulation that was acceptable to funders, middle-class consumer boycott supporters, and eventually even a worn-down Chavez consumed with protecting his own power was that of the poor field hand in need of skills, education, and philanthropic charity-but not a movement in struggle for self-determination, community control, and economic power for the workers (p.75).
As we are entering the ‘neoliberal era’ of the 1980s many powerful factors and institutions of a professionalized ‘third sector’ are already in place, making fundamental changes even more difficult.

‘It became all literacy and services and no organizing. Now people are trapped on computers. … We need to be accountable to communities, to people and their schedules and not to our meetings and foundation deadlines’

Long-term farmworker organizer (cited on p.105)

By the middle of the 1990s a professional culture and ‘habitus’ are firmly embedded in farmworkers quests for better working and living conditions. Farmworker and immigrant organizations have started with ‘collaborative initiatives’ that foster three main professional practices: a ‘foundation-promoted “civic participation” theory of change’ with a focus on ‘civic responsibilities of poor immigrants’, collaborative grant contracts that hold ‘advocacy organizations accountable to funders, not communities’ and foundation-driven ‘selection of partners’ without taking shared identities, leadership and membership into consideration (pp.79-81).
As ‘social capital’ research and capacity-building workshops enter the scene, I was reminded of the critical debates in international development that emerged in the early 2000s around ‘NGOization’ and the institutionalization of civil society and social movements.

The case of Central Valley cultural festival is a good example to illustrate the complexities around grant-funded events that still may be meaningful expressions of the ‘soft ties’ that bind together networks and communities. It is one of many good case studies where ethnographic nuances emerge that remind the reader of the diversity beyond ‘poor farmworkers’ or ‘destitute immigrant’ labels. In the end, despite ‘inspirational’ and ‘transformative’ (p.111) experiences for some the cultural performers and community leaders in the three years of the festival the director of the organizing institution

found herself overwhelmed by festival organizing duties, a changed relationship with local groups vying for stipends to participate, and an organizational program increasingly distant from their mission to convene immigrant leaders in popular education and movement building across the region (p.112).
For many high school teachers, college professors or medical practitioners these tendencies of bureaucracy taking over core aspects of a profession or mission will sound all too familiar. One of Kohl-Arena’s many skills is that her narrative does not provide simple answers to the reader, pointing out ‘the industry’, ‘lobbyists’ or an active conspiratorial regime as culprits.
Rather, it left me with an image of a revolving door where professional community leaders, foundation staff, researchers, industry people and many other representatives of groups enter and exit the building of agriculture without ever really being able to catch up with each other…

‘These girls with jewelry and pantyhose who go into poor people’s houses like they don’t want to get dirty…we end up with the same old thing as usual: outside people getting input from immigrants but not doing a damn thing about it’
Interview with Gracie Hermosa, 2007 (cited on p.154)

The third and final case study (chapter 4) introduces the ‘now hegemonic “win-win” or “double-bottom-line development” trend in poverty alleviation, which proposes that what is good for capital is good for the poor’ (p.124).

We have arrived in the ‘now’ of philanthrocapitalists, big business as a partner and a general tendency to apply ‘entrepreneurial’ logic to charitable work:

The “win-win” paradigm brought new ways of speaking about poverty in agricultural communities, simultaneously silencing older notions of “antagonistic” organizing and producing new frameworks that lack radical socola imagination (p.127).
In short, this is the time when young, college-educated women with farmworker parents are invited to lead foundation programs.

Kohl-Arenas explores a theme that has been part of this blog’s broader framing-from the ‘Oprahfication’ of development discourses to focusing on charity ‘heroes’ and ever-expanding philanthrocapitalism.

To keep the growers involved in the project, she describes a program that trains ‘workers in a culture of compromise, focusing on ways they can improve their own skills, productivity, lives and communities through leadership development programs’ (p.141).

With new immigration debates, environmental challenges in California and increased global competition today’s agricultural industry has come a long way since the strikes and boycott’s of the Chavez-era in the late 1960s:

In an unimaginative environment where everyone is fearful of confronting growers (…) relationships between private foundations, professionalized advocacy organizations, and other regional stakeholders have solidified a limited understanding of what is possible in addressing enduring poverty and inequality (pp.167 & 170).
So is there any light at the end of the tunnel?

Moving back to the fields and Laundromats and the promise of a new food movement

My research uncovered how leaders and professional staff seeking private funding during the social movements of the 1960s, the civic-participation initiatives of the 1990s, and the entrepreneurial “double bottom line” development projects of today have had to promote programs that ask the poor to help themselves while evading the root causes of poverty and inequality (p.176).
Even if this may hardly come as a surprise for those who have been engaged in international development and have seen many a discourse rise and turn into a depoliticized manual, such historically disempowering processes still deserve critical self-reflection on our own positionality and professional co-optations.

Kohl-Arenas ends her book on a positive note:

Aligning farmworker rights, health, and safety with the increasingly popular food movements is a particularly hopeful strategy (p.187).
So will hipsters and foodies ‘save’ agricultural production or is the system broken beyond repair?

I would recommend The Self-help Myth
without any hesitation for development studies or development anthropology courses.
Not simply because of the timely content and the historical depth behind it, but because it is such an effective teaching, learning and communication tool. Well-researched, well-written and well-edited, Kohl-Arenas delivers her poignant observations and powerful analysis in an accessible and readable style. She needs less than 200 pages and avoids the pitfalls of many textbooks and academic writing in general. Given her long-term research, community engagement and own positionality her story could have easily ended up as a detail-heavy wordy jungle of words that only insiders would be able to penetrate. But when all is written and done, The Self-Help Myth rises to be a stellar example of modern, critical, ethnographically informed research communication that not only is a joy to read, but equally to discuss with students or recommend to fellow researchers. Add it to your reading list!

Kohl-Arenas, Erica: The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty. ISBN 978-0-520-28344-2, 252 pages, USD 29.99, University of California Press, Oakland, CA, 2015.


  1. Thank you for the generous review! Much appreciated!


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