A Critique of the Neoliberal Model for Humanitarian Engineering Courses

The four-day conference on Humanitarian Engineering, Entrepreneurship, and Design (HEED) was the first of its kind on campus, gathering students, professors, and non-academic professionals from different fields. Professor Khanjan Mehta of Lehigh University shared his experiences working on projects in developing countries with his former students at Penn State. He was the founder of Penn State’s humanitarian engineering program where they developed solutions to many problems in agriculture, energy, water, and health. Organizers are hoping to replicate this model and offer HEED as an elective course in UP Diliman.

Understandably, many of those in the humanitarian engineering sector would see this as a positive development, especially with the increased participation of the youth. But to me, Mr. Mehta’s model is not a solution to poverty. It does not address the root cause of poverty nor does it ensure a strong social safety net. Rather it subjects poor communities to the brutal forces of the free market, putting them at an even greater financial risk. It is a clever rebranding of the failed neoliberal project; a ridiculous attempt by the prophets of globalization to humanize an economic system that has brought generations of suffering for many in the Global South.

Mr. Mehta’s approach sounds reasonable on the surface. People need money and for them to have money, they must have jobs. Jobs–either in the form of owning a small-scale business or working for one. He treats poor communities not as beneficiaries of charity, but as potential market actors–buyers and sellers of products who constantly seek to accumulate more capital. Poverty, to him is not as complex as many academics like to think. It is simply about not having money.

But this concept of poverty is far removed from the realities on the ground, for it confuses the symptoms of poverty with its cause. It is not simply an issue of not having cash. This problem is complex and institutional. It perpetuates itself within a system built on decades of flawed government policy and colonial rule. It thrives in an environment where those who have the most power have far more privileges–social and economic. Until there is an active effort to dismantle this system, no amount of cash infusion can lift people out of poverty.

It is foolish, then, to adopt a model of humanitarian engineering based on the principles of the free market enterprise and expect positive social outcomes, for isn’t this the same system that has allowed the top 1% to own half of the world’s total wealth? Is this not the same system that denies people hospital admissions because they do not have enough money to pay? And isn’t this the same system that has destroyed rivers, oceans, mountains, and forests in the name of “progress?”

Mr. Mehta hopes to adopt a small-scale and more humane version of free market capitalism. The social entrepreneur, in this context, provides solutions to many social problems while simultaneously making profits from her enterprise. Not only does she sell a product, she also designs a business ecosystem where everybody profits. She’s optimistic that with enough profits, there will be more local entrepreneurs coming up with their own businesses. It’s a “win-win” solution–that is if you’re trying to throw more people into the poverty cliff.

It’s basic math, really. Why would a small-scale business thrive in a community where people have no money? And how would the social entrepreneur determine the price of her products? “Do not assume that there is a certain profit margin that you have to follow. Sell your products at the price that customers are willing to pay for,” Mr. Mehta argues. Thus, if the social entrepreneur made a product for Php 50 and she wanted to sell it at Php 70, but the locals could only afford Php 52, she would have no other choice but to yield. In this business model, instead of profits driving innovation, it is the satisfaction brought by the idea that one has solved a community problem.

The converse is much more striking and it exposes the contradictions of the neoliberal model and why it can’t be made humane. If the social entrepreneur made a product for Php 50 and she wanted to sell it at Php 70, but the locals could only afford Php 40, would she sell it at a much lower price? Profit lies at the heart of any business, no matter how hard people try to deodorize it, and one can never run an unprofitable business without running out of money. The social entrepreneur will be faced with two options–to abandon the community and look for communities that can afford her product or innovate and spend more money creating a cheaper product.

Here lies the problem. Why would a social entrepreneur spend more money creating a product that can give her less profits instead of just selling it to another community that can afford it when she could solve the same problem either way?

To solve the problem of limited aggregate capital, the only option would be to open the community to external investments so more money circulates within a community. But why would any investor want to spend her money on a community that cannot guarantee immediate returns to her shareholders? What would she gain from a community that lacks education and natural resources? To keep attracting more capital, communities would have to commodify every single basic necessity–food, water, energy, etc, to attract more social entrepreneurs. This essentially relieves the government of its mandate and privatizes social services in poor communities. In other words, poor people will have to pay for things that are already beyond their reach.

Social entrepreneurs give the government more reason to cut spending on public services. They are agents of neoliberalism masked as stewards of positive change. Why would the government choose to spend, when there’s already a private enterprise operating at a low cost? Poor people are thus faced with more uncertainty, as their future becomes subject to the whims of social entrepreneurs. Whether they can buy food for the next week depends if the social entrepreneur is still making profits.

Students taking HEED are also at risk of becoming manipulated by many unethical corporations. In a course that requires students to think and execute projects, you need seed funding, and that can either come from the government or from private entities. As the College of Engineering is no stranger to schmoozing with the most unethical companies just to get money, I strongly suspect that this will be the direction of HEED. And if you, the student, received large sums of money from company X, wouldn’t you feel beholden to them?

Corporate money doesn’t come without any strings attached. You’d have to advertise for them and pretend that what they’re doing with the environment and with their own labor force doesn’t matter. Take the case of mining engineering students who have no problem taking money from mining companies who are responsible for the murder of environmentalists, tribal leaders, and anti-mining activists. There was so much passion when Gina Lopez threatened the profits of their corporate masters. “Gina Lopez is not qualified to be DENR Secretary because she has no science-related degree.” Strangely there was no such outrage when a graduate of the military replaced her. “We’re also environmentalists,” they said. “We’re not trained to destroy the environment.” Such twisted and corrupt views are expected from trained dogs blinded by money. And this is what I fear will happen to HEED students who rely on corporate funding to complete this course.

Mr. Mehta tries to blur the line between sustainability and profiteering, arguing that there can never be a solution to a social problem unless it is profitable. His model is not based on compassion, but on greed. And greed is what fuels the neoliberal engine. So long as this engine runs, social entrepreneurs cannot pretend that what they are doing is ethical. On the contrary, profiteering is never sustainable. It relies on the expansionary logic of capitalism, the constant search for new markets, and the relentless pursuit of growth.

Humanitarian engineering was made not to profit off the suffering of the impoverished. It is meant to empower them, to make use of the resources around them using the skills we teach. We can never create jobs by using the same system that took away their jobs nor can we solve social problems by relying on the same system that created those same problems. Instead of teaching them greed, we must teach them common ownership and profit-sharing. This model has been successful in many parts of the world.

As neoliberalism becomes more unpopular in the West, it will constantly try to rebrand itself to deceive more countries in the developing world. Sometimes it’s called austerity and many times it’s called structural adjustment programmes. Worse, in the past and even today, it is called “freedom.” Yes, the economic system that favors the wealthy and robs from the poor calls itself freedom. I do not know how it would call itself in the future. Depends on the place, I guess. Who knows, in UP Diliman it may soon be called Humanitarian Engineering, Entrepreneurship, and Design.

Credits to marketoonist.com for the cartoon.



When Militant Labor Strikes Back – Reorganizing the Philippine Left

The problem with unions today is that there aren’t enough of them.-Martin Johns

In the aftermath of the Berlin Wall’s fall and the oil crisis of the 1970’s, right-wing organizations seized control of the world’s political machinery as the Left’s popularity collapsed along with the USSR. The fall of socialism overturned the era of the Keynesian doctrine, which was the standard macroeconomic model in the non-Communist world after the Second World War. There was much distrust against left-wing parties who were often seen as sympathetic to their more radical cousins in the Soviet Union. The words ‘liberal’ and ‘socialist’ became political insults. Thus, the Left found itself at a political crossroads. It either had to give in to the pressure of adopting more moderate positions or risk losing elections for years to follow. In the end, it had to abandon many of its traditional pro-worker ideals to win back the support of a vexed electorate–the same electorate that has benefited from decades of militant labor struggle.

Third Way ideologues vowed to take the Left to a new direction, which meant less government control and more market-oriented reforms. This proved popular to a public which clamored for wide-scale reforms. Labor unions and militant organizations gradually saw a cessation of their political influence as left-wing parties turned to the business sector for support.

Yet what was supposed to be a harmless co-optation of some right-wing policies to win back control turned out to be a massive betrayal of the labor movement. Left-wing parties the world over ignored the pleas of workers and instead listened to their allies in the business sector. It was in the ‘90s where we saw the convergence of both the center-left and the center-right as deregulation, privatization, and trade liberalization became the Holy Grail of economic growth. Both factions became the prophets of the neoliberal consensus.

The political debate was no longer about nationalization vs. privatization. The question this time was: To what degree should we privatize our industries? In other words, to what degree should we cede control of our basic necessities to the wealthy and owners of capital? To what degree should corporations be allowed to make profits off the backs of middle-class and poor families? Thatcherism and Reagonomics became economic orthodoxy worldwide with the almost cult-like support of every moderate political stripe.

Not surprisingly, there have been numerous economic crises since the rise of neoliberalism. The Asian financial crisis, the dot-com bubble, and the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis which threatened the stability of the global economy were all borne out of the lack of financial oversight. The same workers who forced the Left to become more moderate realized that their swift acquiescence of right-wing policies was not in their best interest. As Big Business became more powerful, workers suffered since corporate elites could influence politicians to gut welfare programs and other pro-labor policies.

Today, with the rise of right-wing fascists like Trump and corporate sellouts like Paul Ryan, capitalism is brewing yet another global catastrophe. For what would Trump do when he’s faced with another global recession as a result of his policies if not resort to what America does best, which is to invade another sovereign country in the guise of spreading democracy?In the words of war criminal George W. Bush, “ All the economic growth that the U.S. has had, had been based on the different wars it had waged.”

Clearly, the global labor movement is well-positioned to take back the Left and drive away the neoliberals as it becomes increasingly clear that there’s hardly any difference between the center-left and the center-right in terms of economic policies. With jobs becoming more volatile and demands for higher wages routinely ignored even by so-called leftist parties, workers will become more sympathetic to labor unions in both the developed and the developing worlds.

Most importantly, the Trump Era represents an opportunity for the Philippine Labor Movement to increase its political clout, to unite the entire Filipino working class against the wealthy who have plundered the country’s resources for their benefit. This is the time for more labor strikes and massive protests. This is that point in history where the labor movement is needed the most. The Philippines, as it strives to become a developed country by 2050, must replicate the successes of Western Labor if it wants to reduce income inequality. It should integrate left-wing politics into the national dialogue. Anyone who looks into the history of countries with welfare programs can see that they are products of decades of militant struggle and left-wing leaders like Eugene Debs, Cesar Chavez, Michael Harrington, Franklin Roosevelt, Clement Attlee, and Harold Wilson.

But how do we redeem a country where major political parties are bereft of any ideology? How can we implement welfare programs and labor law reforms when many government appointees have ties to large businesses? Is it possible to elect leftists in a country where leftism is automatically associated with the New People’s Army?

Because of their lack of political representation, labor unions had to make various concessions at the expense of workers’ rights. For most of its history, the Philippine Labor Movement has only acted as a pawn in the political fights between elite-controlled parties. The radical KMU supported Grace Poe and the sexist pig Win Gatchalian. TUCP endorsed the corporate puppet Mar Roxas, SENTRO endorsed the neoliberal Leni Robredo, while the Philippine Trade Group Workers Organization (PTGWO) and the Federation of Free Workers (FFW) endorsed the son of a mass murderer, Bongbong Marcos.

The labor movement, understandably, has succumbed to personality politics. It had no reason to support national political parties because there aren’t really any national political parties. What we have are national fundraising coalitions. This is arguably the root of many of the country’s problems and to correct this, one can’t simply sit down, implement laws, and expect political parties to change their behavior. There has to be an alternate national political party, one that functions as a united political force with a clear and consistent goal. There has to be a political party that can run progressive candidates both at the local and national levels. Thus, the labor movement not only has the responsibility of redeeming the working class from the scourge of corporate plunder through mass movement, it must also reform the government from within.

Of course, any organized political body has to resolve its internal conflicts. The labor movement itself has partly been responsible for stymied labor law reforms. Some militant labor unions have become subservient to Soviet and Maoist demands, causing others to break away and form another labor union. Some have been corrupted by opportunistic leaders who are beholden to corporations. And other labor unions have elected unprincipled leaders who take compromise as a default position. On the surface, it’s hard to imagine how a labor party could ever form with such a divided labor movement.

But I maintain that it is possible. After all, if KMU could afford to compromise some of its principles by endorsing Grace Poe who has ties to Danding Cojuangco, couldn’t it work with other left-wing trade unions to form a national labor party? Essentially, the problem is not of ideology, but the distribution of power. A national labor party led by left-wing leaders, radical, progressive, and anti-neoliberal unionists, can become a major political force if it ensures that all member groups are represented fairly in all elections. For instance, they could agree to an alternating system where radical and moderate groups file candidates for either national or local elections.

However, the Labor Left must rectify many of its past mistakes. While militant groups are important allies in the fight against neoliberalism, the party must not allow them to bring the party too far to the left, alienating many voters in the process. I envision a Labor Party that acknowledges the failure of full state planning and proposes better economic systems that do not allow greed to become the foundation of the economy. The Labor Party must uphold the welfare of workers above all. It must be built from the ground-up because grassroots efforts will ensure success in future elections. Unlike other national political parties, which are only active during elections, membership into the Labor Party must be open to the public.

Eventually, the Left will have to acknowledge that 21st century problems cannot be solved by outdated economic systems. While I share many, if not all, of the criticisms that socialists have against capitalism, I find that many people have fallen victim to the false dichotomy between the two. In other words, critics of capitalism label themselves socialists and communists because they couldn’t find other alternatives.

For too long, Leftist political thought has stagnated and it has become dominated by the ideas of Marx and Engels. If the Labor Party is to assert its relevance in modern politics, it must begin with an intellectual revolution that takes in ideas from scientists, anti-war activists, radical feminists, environmentalists, anti-globalization groups, and yes, even Communists. It must stop deifying Karl Marx and acknowledge that many of his ideas aren’t feasible. This intellectual revival will start in university campuses, especially within the ranks of the powerful student movement that once challenged governments all over the world to end the Vietnam War.

But to call for an intellectual revolution is not the same as treating all ideas as equal. It is not meant to reject sensible ideas from radical and moderates alike. Rather, it is meant to ensure the continuity of the Left. In the end, any idea must be guided by the rejection of massive profits and corporate greed. It must uphold the democratic control of workers over their workplaces and the equality of sexes. These new political and economic philosophies will become the foundations of a stronger labor movement.

On International Workers’ Day, we honor the toiling masses, labor leaders, and allies of the Labor Movement. Manggagawa at anakpawis, tumindig laban sa neoliberalismo at globalisasyon. Isulong ang makabayan at militanteng unyonismo!

What kinds of policies should the Labor Party advance? Here are my thoughts:
  • Support one industry, one union;
  • YES to a Maximum Wealth Policy;
  • Reject overconsumption and the myth of infinite economic growth;
  • Support the transition to a steady-state economy;
  • Withdraw from the WTO and all anti-worker free trade associations;
  • Oppose austerity measures;
  • Reject structural adjustments imposed by the World Bank and IMF ;
  • Fire all government appointees with ties to the right-wing think tank Foundation for Economic Freedom and the Makati Business Club;
  • Defund the neoliberal Philippine Institute of Development Studies (PIDS);
  • Replace Carlos Dominguez and Ernesto Pernia with progressive economists;
  • Break up large banks and build more community banks;
  • Criminalize monopolistic company mergers;
  • Criminalize overtime without pay;
  • Arrest all executives who park money in overseas tax havens.
  • Nationalize the mining industry and arrest the executives of mining companies who fund militias to kill anti-mining tribal leaders;
  • Immediate shutdown of companies that practice child labor;
  • Oppose deregulation, privatization, and trade liberalization;
  • Break up all haciendas and distribute land to all farmers;
  • Protect labor unions from union-busting;
  • Raise the minimum wage;
  • Raise corporate and marginal tax rates;
  • Tax stock earnings and speculative trading;
  • Resist the influence of Monsanto and other monopolistic agri companies on the food supply;
  • Break up all monopolies;
  • End all forms of contractualization;
  • Seize all prostitution dens and deport all foreigners involved;
  • Tax all churches and ‘charitable’ foundations with ties to large companies;
  • Appoint progressive, left-leaning judges to the Supreme Court;
  • Justice for the workers of HTI and Kentex;
  • Call for the amnesty of all migrant workers on death row;
  • Junk the death penalty;
  • Close the gender wage gap;
  • Oppose all proposed free trade agreements;
  • Abolish copyright;
  • Junk the Wage Rationalization Act;
  • Junk the Herrera Law;
  • Junk the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement and withdraw from APEC;
  • Junk the Labor Export Policy;
  • Junk EPIRA;
  • Junk the Mining Act of 1995;
  • Junk CARPER;
  • Junk VFA.
Which labor unions and organizations should coalesce to form the national Labor Party?
  • Kilusang Mayo Uno – KMU
  • BMP – Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino
  • Sanlakas
  • Partido Manggagawa
  • National Federation of Labor Unions

“The essence of trade unionism is social uplift. The labor movement has been the haven for the dispossessed, the despised, the neglected, the downtrodden, and the poor. ” – A. Philip Randolph