Conflict, Communication and Collaboration: Is There Really a Middle Ground?


Development as a process to secure positive change in humans’ lives through combating inequality and poverty is deeply indebted to individuals’ democratic participation in decision-making processes (UNDP, 2016). Many community and international development scholars and practitioners have argued that participatory approaches not only promote economic productivity through inclusion (Abdellatif, 2003), but also with their bottom-up, grassroots-based methodology, they empower members of socially excluded and marginalized groups (Mohan and  Stokke, 2000), and therefore, can serve as a tool in supporting democratic processes.

However, while proponents of participatory strategies often emphasize a homogenized conception of community as a bloc of social ‘solidarity,’ all communities harbor divisions and stratifications and are therefore sites of ‘conflict’ (Dorman, 2002, p. 133). As a result, participatory decision-making in development projects is seldom a seamless linear process due to value-based contestation and power relations among diverse actors¾ each of whom perceives the benefits and incentives of collaboration differently (Cornwall, 2008; Cornwall and Brock, 2005). This brief essay unpacks the connections between communication as negotiated meaning and efforts to secure collaboration amidst diverse actors involved in development projects.

Conflict and Collaboration    

According to Kilmann and Thomas (1977), individual and group behavior in conflict situations – in which the concerns of two (or more) parties seem to be incompatible – can be located along an assertive to cooperative spectrum.  They define assertiveness as the extent to which individuals attempt to satisfy their own (or the group’s) concerns, and cooperativeness as the degree to which a person (or collective) seeks to serve another individual’s or group’s interests.  In their “mode instrument,” Kilmann and Thomas populated the space between these dimensions of behavior with five methods of addressing conflict (Figure 1); competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding and accommodating.  More recently, Thomas has analyzed collaboration as potentially the most democratic solution for handling conflicts among the five that he and Kilmann had posited, as it requires that opposing parties communicate and work together to find a middle ground that “fully satisfies the concerns” of all involved (2008, p.3).


                                             Figure 1 – Five Conflict-HandlingModes

Deeper than merely connecting interested and/or affected parties, “communication” is the process of negotiation and construction of meanings (Koschmann, Kuhn, and Pfarrer, 2012). This might take the form of examining a disagreement to learn from each other’s perspectives, resolving situations that would otherwise have groups or individuals compete for resources or juxtaposing differing suppositions and trying to find a creative solution that will meet all participating parties’ interests (Thomas, 2008).

However, in many development projects, achieving consensus among stakeholders, who may, and often do, embrace fundamentally different moral commitments is not an easy task (Fink, 2017). Nonetheless, at least theoretically, negotiating such contrasts via dialogue is possible. Perhaps the easiest (if still challenging in terms of power imbalances, fairness and inclusivity) cases are those development scenarios in which participating stakeholders have varied “interests” in projects. These may include an actor’s material needs or wants, and frequently represent a kind of “bottom-line” in negotiations and collaborations (Page, Stone, Bryson, and Crosby, 2018, p. 3). When there are conflicts among interests, negotiations addressing “facts and evidence” can be useful in convincing opposing groups to consider seriously and potentially adopt another point-of-view. That is, while both interests and beliefs influence collaborators’ decisions in development projects, analysts have argued that interests are amenable to compromise (Fisher, Ury, and Patton, 2011) while participants’ core beliefs tend to be nonnegotiable, at least in the short-term (Haidt, 2012).

When normative conflicts deeply entangled with one’s moral imagination regarding what is good, true and right  are in play, negotiation of interest-related meanings is seldom fruitful in creating a consensus among opposing parties (Hunter, 2018). For example, after decades of social policy research, “replete with data analysis and theory testing, liberals and conservatives are still grappling with the predominantly value-laden aspects of social policy” (Gibson, 1997, p. 196). In such conflicts the challenge for achieving agreement is “how” one can bridge the differences in priority placed on certain values—which often “lead to disagreement regarding the means” through which to achieve effective solutions (Gibson, 1997, p. 189). For instance, both conservative and progressive groups in the United States each claim that they wish to eradicate poverty and to address the social challenges that often accompany unwed motherhood (which include poverty).  Nonetheless, their definitions of these concerns and consequently their desired paths to ameliorating them are totally divergent:

Conservatives hate unwed motherhood more than they hate poverty, so they tell one another that the next generation of children would be better off if we made [Aid to Families with Dependent Children] AFDC [now TANF-Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] even less generous than it now is. Liberals hate poverty more than unwed motherhood, so they insist that the next generation would be better off if we gave single mothers more help (Jencks and Edin, 1995, p. 49).

This scenario arises due to the normative conflicts rooted in the moral commitments of the individuals and groups involved: “In particular, the coexistence of discrete sources of moral authority helps to explain the nature of the present conflict over issues concerning the human body” (Davison Hunter, 2018, p. 7).

Once people join a group or adopt a perspective based on their moral principles, they become enmeshed in its matrix, seeing confirmation of their grand narrative everywhere, and it becomes difficult—perhaps impossible—to convince them to reconsider their view(s) if one tries to do so by offering arguments outside of their preferred imaginary (Haidt, 2012). In this conflict type, negotiations often fail, since what is at stake are people’s most cherished ideals and commitments. In other words, agreeing to a supposed “middle-ground,” solution may be viewed by the stakeholders involved as accepting an immoral or even evil position.

In these situations, the intertwining of moral and epistemic claims makes it difficult to use “facts” to convince those holding such beliefs of the possibility and even potential superiority of alternate perspectives, since those very assertions are at stake in the conflict. For example, many Christian Scientist parents refuse to allow treatment of their children for medical diseases, because doing so would deny the fundamental beliefs of their faith (Bohman, 1995, p. 257). The question this scenario raises is, if facts cannot be helpful in managing and resolving moral conflicts, what can be used?

Relying on Durkheim’s concept of the profane (day-to-day individualistic) and sacred (inter-social/collective) lives of individuals, Haidt has argued that the sentiments that humans embrace as part of a larger society hold the potential to shut down the self and activate a group overlay that allows individuals simply to become a part of a whole; he calls this process “hive switch” (2012, p. 228). Drawing on evolutionary modeling, Haidt (2012) has contended that human beings are conditional hive creatures with the ability (under special conditions) to transcend self-interest and lose themselves (temporarily and even ecstatically) in something larger than themselves, for good or ill.

To create what Durkheim dubbed “collective effervescence,” a term aimed at capturing the passion and fervor that group rituals can generate that can flip the “hive switch,” Haidt (2012) suggests “awe in nature,” which opens people to new possibilities, values and directions in life. Nature’s vastness makes people feel small and its experience is not easily assimilated into their existing belief structures. When confronted with such possibilities, therefore, they must “accommodate” them by becoming conscious of, rethinking and possibly changing their foundational views.

While other scholars and practitioners have suggested other methods of transforming imaginaries in conflict situations, including by experiencing collective love (Sorokin, 2015), community joy/sorrow/memory (Brueggemann, 2001) or shared art-making (Goldbard, 2015) , what is common in all of these approaches and that echoes Haidt’s approach, is their non-rational, interpersonal character and their emphasis on promoting a sense of belonging by reminding those involved of their shared values and/or providing them space to create the same.


Abdellatif, A. M. (2003). Good governance and its relationship to democracy and economic development, in Global Forum III on Fighting Corruption and Safeguarding Integrity, Seoul (Vol. 20, p. 31). Retrieved from

Bohman, J. (1995). Public Reason and Cultural Pluralism: Political Liberalism and the Problem of Moral Conflict. Political Theory, 23(2), 253–279.

Brueggemann, W. (2001). The prophetic imagination (2nd ed). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

Cornwall, A. (2008). Unpacking “Participation”: models, meanings and practices. Community Development Journal, 43(3), 269–283.

Cornwall, A., and Brock, K. (2005). What do buzzwords do for development policy? A critical look at “participation”, “empowerment”and “poverty reduction.” Third World Quarterly, 26(7), 1043–1060.

Dorman, W. J. (2002). Review of Participation: The New Tyranny?, by B. Cooke and U. Kothari. African Affairs, 101(402), 132–134.

Fink, B. (2017, March 10). Building Democracy in “Trump Country.” Retrieved April 10, 2018, from

Fisher, R., Ury, W. L., and Patton, B. (2011). Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (Third). Penguin.

Gibson, C. M. (1997). Facing off on Social Policy: Can the Right and Left Find Middle Ground? Social Service Review, 71(2), 171–199.

Goldbard, A. (2015). Making Beauty,  Making  Meaning, Making Community. In M. Stephenson and  A. S. Tate (Eds.), Arts and community change: exploring cultural development policies, practices and dilemmas (pp. 11–29). New York: Routledge.

Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Pantheon Books.

Hunter, J. D. (2018). The American Culture War. In P. L. Berger (Ed.), The Limits Of Social Cohesion Conflict And Mediation In Pluralist Societies (pp. 1–37). New York: Routledge.

Jencks, C., and Edin, K. (1995). Do Poor Women Have a Right to Bear Children? American Prospect, 43–52.

Kilmann, R. H., and Thomas, K. W. (1977). Developing a Forced-Choice Measure of Conflict-Handling Behavior: The “Mode” Instrument. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 37(2), 309–325.

Koschmann, M. A., Kuhn, T. R., and Pfarrer, M. D. (2012). A Communicative Framework of Value in Cross-Sector Partnerships. Academy of Management Review, 37(3), 332–354.

Mohan, G., and Stokke, K. (2000). Participatory development and empowerment: the dangers of localism. Third World Quarterly, 21(2), 247–268.

Page, S. B., Stone, M. M., Bryson, J. M., and Crosby, B. C. (2018). Coping with Value Conflicts in Interorganizational Collaborations. Perspectives on Public Management and Governance.

Sorokin, P. A. (2015). Ways and Power of Love: Techniques Of Moral Transformation. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Foundation Press.

Thomas, K. W. (2008). Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode. TKI Profile and Interpretive Report, 1–11.

UNDP (Ed.). (2016). Human development for everyone. New York, NY: United Nations Development Programme.

Neda Moayerian is a PhD candidate in the Planning, Governance, and Globalization program in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. Her research interests include human development, specifically through community cultural activities, individual and communal agency, and community-based /sustainable tourism. Neda holds a Bachelor of Science in Urban Planning from the Art University of Tehran and a Master of Science in Urban Management from the University of Tehran

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Reflections on a Greenhouse Project with which I Worked as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Costa Rica


The Peace Corps, an agency of the United States government founded in 1961, has a mission to promote world peace and friendship by addressing three overarching goals:

  • To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
  • To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  • To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans (Peace Corps, n.d.).

While the Peace Corps is funded by the federal government, it is also known for its grassroots development projects. In contrast, Easterly has characterized the international aid system more generally as,

driven by large players [and] tend[ing] to be top-down rather than bottom up. Such top-down and agency-driven approaches translate into projects that are not responsive to the needs of local communities, tend to serve the priorities and perspectives of so-called aid experts rather than the aid recipients and lead to inefficient results (2008, p. 463).

Indeed, and in light of Easterly’s observation, Peace Corps officials stress it is not an aid agency. Rather, it seeks to promote world peace and friendship as well as asset-based community development. Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) have the opportunity to apply for grant funding for small community-based projects as a part of their service. Volunteers are generally not permitted to raise more than $10,000 and all funding they receive from the U.S. government must be matched both monetarily and in-kind (such as through labor, for example). I began my Peace Corps adventure in March 2015 and completed that journey in May 2017. This is a reflection on one of the small grass roots development efforts with which I was involved during my service.

The Project

Early in 2016, I was approached by a woman seeking my assistance with a project that on which she and a group of women were working in a neighboring town, about a 30-minute bike ride away. The group ultimately wished to construct a housing development in their village and to help pay for that effort by selling eggs from their chickens as well as by growing fruits and vegetables. In order to realize their dream, the women sought assistance and funding from the Peace Corps. I suggested as a first step toward realizing their goal that they consider developing a communal garden for which those involved in the initiative could assume responsibility. I did so in part because I had noticed that the small convenience-style stores in town did not routinely stock fresh produce and so it appeared there would indeed be a market for items they were able to grow.

The women who had approached me liked the idea, so we began meeting weekly to draft a proposal to obtain start-up funds for it. They were actively engaged in this process, which I was excited about because other PCVs had indicated that they had found it difficult to attract engaged participants to help develop community project ideas and plans. I came to trust the leaders of this group, because they demonstrated their work ethic through our weekly meetings. Additionally, the president of the entity arranged for those involved to complete classes concerning how to grow vegetables in greenhouses that were offered by a national institute in their town. We secured the grant funding, but unfortunately, before I could participate in the effort’s implementation, I had to leave the country for a medical leave, and I was unsure as I departed whether I would be able to return. Nevertheless, the leader and I maintained communication during my absence, as she and her colleagues moved the garden project forward by attending greenhouse classes. In truth, following through with this grant was a key factor in motivating me to return to Costa Rica following my medical leave.

The Effort Takes an Unexpected Turn

When I returned to Costa Rica and met with the group’s leader, she explained that only four (including herself) of the 12 women previously involved had completed the greenhouse course to date and that she now planned to move away. She felt badly that she was now leaving and introduced me to another woman, Ana, who was interested in the effort. Although, at this point, I was frustrated and was not expecting that we could create a successful project, I learned that Ana had wanted a greenhouse for some time and was willing to work for it. I communicated with the funding group, World Connect, to inquire if Ana could assume leadership of the endeavor and they agreed, as long as the three women who completed the greenhouse classes could also participate. Additionally, Ana included her daughter and a neighbor in the project. So, at the time of transition, the initiative included five women, with Ana serving as their leader. Accordingly, she and I soon met with Costa Rican Ministry of Agriculture officials to discuss the plans for the garden/greenhouse. That staff assisted us in various ways, such as locating needed topsoil and facilitating a meeting with another women’s group that had years of experience with growing vegetables and fruits in a greenhouse. This effort became the most sustainable project I completed during my Peace Corps experience. On reflection, I believe this was so because my role was that of a catalyzer or connector, rather than director or individual in charge. In the end, this initiative appeared to fit the form that Easterly (2008) has suggested is most likely to succeed—it responded to a locally determined need and desired strategy to address it.

Why was this project successful with Ana, when it had stalled without her active involvement? As I have reflected on this scenario, I believe several factors influenced the outcome. First, while the original group appeared to be active, I am not sure they worked cohesively together, since only a few members participated consistently. Second, Ana was willing and ready to lead the project since she had already attended classes about hydroponics and greenhouses, whereas the group’s original members had agreed to complete such a curriculum as a condition of possible project funding. As noted, however, only four actually had done so. This was so despite the fact that the women did not need to pay for the instruction, nor did they need to travel to participate in the classes. I worried whether this had occurred because the first group of women were not truly interested in learning about growing their own produce to contribute to their livelihoods in this way.

The Project’s Outcomes

When I asked Ana what happened, she suggested that when it comes to paying for a project (with time or money), people drop out, but when it comes time for a party, they find the time and funds. While this is a common assumption, this apparently in fact happened with this project. The three women from the original women’s group agreed to move forward with Ana leading the effort; however, they stopped participating once money was due and/or when it was time to start building the greenhouse. Whether this sort of turn is a commonly repeated trope or a stereotypic story is not so important as the question of why this project proved a success under Ana’s leadership. She led the effort to fruition despite the fact that she suffered (and suffers) from multiple medical conditions that otherwise have prevented her from working a steady job. Part of the explanation likely lies, as Easterly (2008) has contended, in understanding that Ana was passionate about plants and was also an avid cook. She quite literally knew first-hand how the garden could serve families, whereas many of the other women who participated were learning about growing vegetables and fruits for the first time.

On reflection, this project also reminds me of the Grameen Bank model, which is predicated on the belief that individuals are natural entrepreneurs and that providing them access to small amounts of capital will yield positive economic outcomes (Yunus and Jolis, 2003). This surely worked for Ana and the few women with whom she worked. But I am not persuaded that everyone can become a successful entrepreneur. Hanlon, Barrientos, and Hulme (2012) have expressed a similar skepticism. Instead, as in my experience, capital must be joined with human drive, interest and determination if it is to bear fruit. Ana supplied that energy and capacity to create a successful garden whose produce could contribute to the health, welfare and livelihood of her own family and her neighbor’s family. The project to date must be considered only a limited success, since only Ana and her neighbor have benefitted from the effort, in light of the original intent to construct a community garden that would benefit a larger group of individuals.

Despite its limited success as a community endeavor, the garden has proven sustainable under Ana’s direction. She has continued the effort and regularly shares photos of the produce the garden is yielding with me. More, on her own initiative, she has also completed a canning class where she learned how to make salsas that she now sells locally. That is, Ana has scaled up production and has begun offering products from the garden for sale, as originally contemplated. She took full advantage of the grant (start-up) funding, whereas about 12 women passed up the opportunity it presented. Agency likely played a role in this¾Ana seized the opportunity offered by the grant. Its economic consequences aside, in the end, this initiative allowed me to come to know Ana well and she is now one of my closest and dearest friends from my Peace Corps experience and that, in and of itself surely constitutes a positive outcome.


Easterly, W. (2008). Reinventing Foreign Aid (Vol. 1). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Hanlon, J., Barrientos, A. and D. Hulme. (2012). Just Give Money to the Poor: The Development Revolution from the Global South. Bloomfield, CT.: Kumarian Press.

Yunus, M., and Jolis, A. (2003). Banker to the Poor: Micro-lending and the Battle Against World Poverty. New York, NY: Public Affairs Press.

Peace Corps. (n.d.). “About the United States Peace Corps.” Retrieved from:


Source:  Author Photos


Beth Olberding is a second year Master’s student in Urban and Regional Planning (MURP) and Natural Resources. She obtained her B.A. in Biology with a minor in Global Sustainability from the University of Virginia. At Virginia Tech, she participated in the Peace Corps Master’s International Program as an integral part of her MURP curriculum. She served in the Peace Corps as a Community Economic Development Facilitator in Costa Rica from 2015-2017. While in Costa Rica, she also conducted research for her thesis for her Urban and Regional Planning degree. More specifically, she explored indigenous peoples’ perspectives on REDD+ (Reducing  [carbon] Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), an international program funded partially by the World Bank. She is currently a graduate research assistant for the Virginia Tech Office of Economic Development and hopes to work at the nexus of environmental and social issues in the future.





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Planning: A Profession with An Identity Crisis in The Absence of a Core Paradigm


When compared to other long-standing disciplines such as history or political science, planning is a relatively new field. This article examines some of the enduring forces that today challenge planning as its professionals struggle to define its guiding paradigm and identity. In the absence of a widely-shared ethos, the planning process is often messy and contentious, even as planners do daily find ways to address issues (Campbell and Fainstein, 2003). This article first provides a description of the planning profession and offers a key rationale for it, which by itself does not necessarily provide a foundational paradigm for planning. It then explores the question of “planning’s identity” in an effort to help explain the profession’s ongoing lack of a unique architype to guide its practitioners. In context, a core planning paradigm would constitute an unambiguous foundational model, principle, view or set of beliefs, construed broadly to include all specialties or sub-specialties of the profession.

The Planning Profession

As a profession, planning is a place-based, context-driven field of practice with strong roots in the enlightenment tradition (Irving 1993; Beauregard 1989). In the United States, as in many parts of the world, planning continues to play a role in shaping the processes of economic, social and land development in communities of all stripes, including urban, suburban and rural ones.[1] Planning draws on many of the social sciences and on architecture, and may be defined as a political and technical process for creating ways and means to address the critical development challenges facing communities. Ideally, the planning process exemplifies and occurs by means of democratic decision processes (Davidoff, 1965).[2] Analysts have long argued that planning should facilitate physical development, capital circulation, commodities and information, among other concerns, in and among communities.[3] Yet, the role of planning is subject to debate.

As has occurred in communities across America in the past, economic, demographic and social changes are shifting the means of production and distribution of growth and creating disparities and imbalances. These complex and varied trends in turn are creating a demand for planners with capacities to address them (Conzen, 1983).[4] But, I have been wondering if planners are sufficiently prepared to recognize and tackle the contemporary challenges and uncertainties facing communities at the local or regional levels. Cognizant of the shifts underway, the conceptualization of planning outcomes must incorporate elements required for planners to thrive and intentionally create ways and means to address them (Reece, 2018).

Scholars continue to debate what principles should guide planning and, indeed, whether the field may be said to be rooted in a guiding set of beliefs or central paradigm at all (Levy, 1992; Campbell, H., and Marshall, R., 1998). In any case, it is undeniable that planning has come to play an important role in shaping community development choices and patterns, influencing a broad spectrum of political processes and decisions. Today’s cities and the character of their political economies are changing. Today, the profession is challenged to create a “cohesive” paradigm that incorporates different approaches. Contemporary planning demands a drastic “rethinking of planning interventions” (Fainstein, 2016, p. 4). A clear set of principles is needed to avoid philosophical conflicts about the core purposes of planning, and to help planners understand, contextualize and address complex problems.

This imperative must be addressed, even as the scale of the planning field has expanded in recent decades as the profession has grown and matured. That process has occurred amidst a backdrop of continuing and unprecedented urbanization.[5] That trend, in turn, has changed the character of the planning challenges faced by cities – ranging from issues with housing shortages, concentrated poverty, gentrification, racial inequality, social and economic segregation, to fragmented neighborhoods.[6] The evolving nature of public problems has led to a host of social conflicts, which have also often revealed a growing gap between planning approaches and the problems they seek to address (Watson, 2009; Davidoff, 1965; Godschalk, 2004). New technological changes and social innovations are creating “spontaneous orders” that are changing traditional planning narratives.[7] The image of the twenty-first century planning practice is one of a thousand faces and voices that reflect the growing specialization and diversification of the field. All of this said, to date, the planning profession has yet to develop a unique core identity.

The Planning Identity

Planners have long been involved in decision-making related to land use and development in American cities. In addition, and as noted, recent decades have witnessed the emergence of numerous specialties and subspecialties in the field (Levy 1992). Still, as the profession evolves, planning practice has continued to center principally on the design and oversight of processes linked to land use and sustainability (Ostrom, 2015). As the field has matured, the dynamics of planning problems and conflicts have shifted, but planning has remained a low salience profession as far as the public is concerned.[8] As Myer and Kitsuse have observed, “The role of planners is not well recognized nor widely validated” and planners do not enjoy “exclusive ownership of planning practice” (2005, p. 122). Several groups have challenged the legitimacy of the planning profession as it has grown, including some architects, engineers, economists and geographers. Tensions have also emerged among planning activists and planners who advocate for social justice and those who argue for professional neutrality (Myers and Kitsuse, 2000). This “identify crisis” in planning stems from the lack of a fundamental paradigm for the field. Planning needs systematic thinking approaches drawing on multiple methodologies to help practitioners address today’s multi-dimensional issues that are often “ambiguous, multifaceted and contentious, with complex outcomes” (Cole 2001, p. 373; Flint, 2015).

  Absence of A Core Paradigm and Guiding Principles

There is a legitimate argument that planning lacks a unique and distinctive professional narrative and, as a result, has become generic, confusing and overcrowded (McClendon et al., 2003). Planning has evolved from its nineteenth-century progressive roots to address the negative impacts (behavior, morals and health) of dysfunctional, overcrowded, free-market-dominated industrial cities (Reece, 2018), to land use zoning and its current preoccupation with economic growth and development. Sawicki (1988), for example, has argued that the lack of focus in the planning profession, both substantively and organizationally, is leading to its demise. In this view, the field needs to be more cogently defined. That is, its professionals must possess a definable set of competencies and expectations that can be readily employed to describe what planners do for others. Planning must “reestablish a mediative role between capital, labor, and the state,” and focus on finding a core mission with a distinctive technical competence to guide and influence professional discourse effectively (Beauregard, 1989, pp. 382; Cole, 2001). A clear set of beliefs or a core paradigm is needed to help planners address contemporary planning conflicts, both substantively and organizationally.

To address the current lack of a core set of principles, Cole (2001) and Myers and Banerjee (2000) have argued for a back-to-the-basics approach to planning, relying on “comprehensive plans.” They have suggested that the main planning professional competence is broad knowledge of land use processes, and “the implementation of comprehensive plans.”[9] Corburn has argued for recoupling the fields of planning and public health to address a social justice agenda (Corburn, 2003). The obvious limitations of this argument are that (1) the comprehensive plan has lost its dominance in planning (Levy, 1992; Hirt, 2005; Cole, 2001) and (2) planning’s problems as a field are not simply the result of a lack of a guiding paradigm (Beauregard 1990; Levy 1992), but also, that “planning practice itself evades a coherent theoretical framework” (Fainstein 2016, p. 2). From the start, planning has occurred within the context of competing visions and values, and the constraints represented by the capitalist market, democratic, bureaucratic and legal processes. Increasingly, competing demands for affordable quality housing, environmental protection, conservation of natural resources, historic preservation, new forms of built environments, transportation and mobility options, economic opportunities, social equity, health and quality of life for communities are generating forms of planning conflicts.

Contemporary Planning Conflicts

Planning conflicts are often resource based, involving interest groups and other stakeholders in contests to influence political officials.[10] Those engaged in such disputes often have incompatible views concerning what constitutes an appropriate distribution of community resources, and evidence contradictory demands and contrasting visions concerning basic infrastructure needs and the character of social, and economic dilemmas now confronting citizens and public officials (Hersperger, Ioja, Steiner, and Tudor 2015).[11]

Consider, for example, planning conflicts implicit in efforts to secure livable communities and sustainable development (Godschalk, 2004). These tensions can easily be magnified when issues of multiculturalism and identity politics are factored into discussions concerning them. This is to say that social conflicts and distrust of governments at all levels pose implicit moral and ethical challenges for planners. In their efforts to identify the public good or common interest, planners must recognize the interests of multiple publics (Davidoff, 1965). What I have observed is that as society has become more fragmented, the domain of authority for collective action,[12] as it relates to the common interest, may possibly be moving outside the formal reach of planners and, indeed, of local governments more generally (Ostrom, 1990, p 270). Nowadays, “planning often occurs without the guidance of professional planners” (Myers and Banerjee 2005, p.121).

Considering this long-term trend, one might contend that the planning profession and government more broadly is losing a long-term battle with market-based actors (land developers, investors, realtors, economists, etc.) concerning who shall shape the evolution of urban spaces most consequentially.[13] In the context of today’s political economy, “capitalism both endangers and constrains state interventions” (Foglesong, 2016, p. 102).[14] It has been observed that planners value equity as a lodestone normative criterion, as opposed to efficiency, which market actors most revere (Thomas, 2008). To become more relevant, planners must redefine their interests and values and work assiduously to balance the social, environmental and economic needs of communities against market demands. Perhaps a clearer paradigm will help planners derive meaningful methods and approaches to incorporate the social needs and cultural values of residents, in balancing the tensions between market forces and their conception of the public good in an otherwise inauspicious political environment.[15]

Similarly, there have been some noticeable shifts in planning beliefs and norms in relation to social reproduction and capitalist production. Smith (2002) has argued that cities have shifted to an increasingly capitalist means of production and cultural circulation. I wish to argue that fragmentation, marginalization and the processes of gentrification to some extent, are the product of that change.[16] Gentrification is a hated symbol of urban renewal, with disproportionate impacts on racial and ethnic minorities and it confronts planners with the challenges of assisting those displaced and of seeking to redress the causes of the inequality that made their situations perilous in the first place (Corburn, 2009; Dai, 2011). Such problems are controversial in politics and planning.[17]

Ultimately, the delivery of quality planning services requires the creation of inclusive and deliberative planning processes that involve multiple parties with competing agendas, values and interests. Planners must consider local politics in relation to land use conflicts, as well as how those tensions may affect their professional norms and ethics (Rabinovitz, 1969; Corburn, 2009). In addition to current strategies aimed at helping to manage planning conflicts, such as communicative (Innes, 1995, 1996) and collaborative (Healey, 2003) approaches, planning today needs a clear policy framework through which to address scenarios involving multiple parties with competing agendas, values and interests.

 Planning for the Future 

As we move into the future, planning is uniquely positioned to help to define and address contemporary urban land use and conflicts linked to it (Beauregard 1989). But, to play this significant societal role, planning practice must reflect the social, political and economic needs of the society. A unique disciplinary paradigm is needed to scale and capture the “essence” of traditional shifts or new and emerging domains. Both academic and planning practitioners must work together to tie planning theories to the core responsibilities and challenges facing planners. Universities must equip the next generation of planners with competencies in substantive areas such as infrastructure planning and finance, technology and analytics that have remained relatively unexplored (Sawicki, 1988). Together, academic planning programs and organizations should define a core paradigm or principles for the field in the context of participatory governance and representational policy-making (Fisher 2016).[18] Planners must routinely be able to employ planning theories and practice methods to address conflicts arising from economic development, the built environment, environmental and social values (Fainstein 2010, 2016).

In sum, good planning requires creating some measure of harmony among economic development, the requirements of the built environment and environmental values. While the planning profession lacks the authority to effect real change and cannot stop injustice by itself (Fainstein 2016), the delivery of planning services must both reflect and guide community values. To achieve more sustainable and relevant outcomes, planners must acknowledge the tension between the need for distributive justice and the willingness of society to ignore that imperative.



[1] Land development refers to how urban land is produced in the form of buildings and sites for various activities (Healey and Barrett, 1990). Similarly, “the form of urban development of a city is greatly influenced by its land development process which in turn is influenced by its socio-economic and political structures” (Yeh, A. G. O., and Wu, F. 1996, p. 330).

[2] Campbell, H., and Marshall, R. (1998) have argued that the history of the field of planning has been characterized by lengthy debates concerning the appropriate sphere of its activities and core principles.

[3] The planning process plays a critical role in community, regional or state visioning efforts. Planning encompasses diverse viewpoints and possible strategies. It requires developing mechanisms to secure open, timely and meaningful public involvement in defining short and long-term goals.

[4] Towns, cities and agencies are mandated by federal and state laws to develop short and long term comprehensive planning goals and objectives at local, regional, and state levels,

[5] Urbanization is the process of urban population growth in cities. Over time, increases in urban population growth in cities and regions may lead to both demographic and geographic shifts, providing opportunities for economic growth and development (Yeh, A. G. O., and Wu, F. (1996) creating planning conflicts. Those tension including issues of resource (re) distribution and social injustice that are the subject of complex political, economic and social struggles in cities (Thomas 2008).

[6] The recent reemergence of civil disorders and social disturbances in American cities are indications of underlying “macroeconomic forces, policies, and [systematic] challenges facing” cities and society with implications for planning (Reece 2018, p.8).

[7] Technology has enabled social entrepreneurs to create, adapt and deploy new intervention strategies and solutions outside the bounds of traditional institutions or the prerogative of any organizational form or legal structure, to address systemic social, economic development and environmental challenges in support of social progress, inclusion and diversity.

[8] That is, most members of the public do not know what planning is, what planners do or what factors or emphases differentiate the various specialties that now characterize the profession (McClendon et al., 2003).

[9] Cole (2001) argues that planning’s unique and distinctive function is to produce and administer comprehensive plans.

[10] Planning conflicts are disagreements involving how best to approach and resolve or address policy, social and economic issues, including various land use options.

[11] According to Conzen (1983), shifts in the structure of urban economies and society alongside the fragmentation of American cities have created a profound and intensifying competition for growth among cities and regional systems for growth and economic benefits.

[12] Collective action – is “an organizing framework for the design of coding forms” (Ostrom, 1986, p.5).

[13] Ann Markusen once suggested that the urban planning profession is losing the battle with economics for the shaping of urban space in part because planners value equity as a normative criterion, whereas market actors value efficiency. Efficiency has won out in whatever war of values might have taken place between these actors (Markusen, 2000). In recent years, planning has itself sought to create institutional frameworks to address economic issues affecting communities, rather than focusing explicitly on equity and social justice.

[14] Foglesong (2016) has suggested that the market system cannot meet the needs of residents in a manner capable of maintaining capitalism and reproducing fixed capital investments.

[15] Defining planning services as a set of outcomes that reflect a clear and compelling view of social justice (Corburn 2004).

[16] Gentrification is the process of redevelopment or renovation of once economically depressed or deteriorated neighborhoods through the influx of new residents. Gentrification often increases the demand for housing and rent levels through significant property appreciation and demand for new capital investment (Smith, 1996, 2002) that disproportionally displace minorities, mostly African-Americans.

[17] As with other planning conflicts, gentrification may be seen as a tool used by the state to create and legitimize spatial control of oppressed racial and ethnic minorities (Bollens, 1999, 2000; Yiftachel, 2000).

[18] Diversify the planning profession to promote deliberative and inclusive planning through participatory planning practices under conditions of trust (Benhabib 1996). Also, Sabatier provides an advocacy coalition framework for planning and policy making by planners, widening the scope of planning and decision-making processes, accounting for factors such as economic development and community participation (Abbott 2013) that other classical models of agenda setting, formulation and implementation had not fully contextualized (Sabatier 2006).


Abbott, J. (2013). Sharing the city: community participation in urban management. London: Routledge.

Batty, M. (2007). Cities and complexity: understanding cities with cellular automata, agent-based models, and fractals. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Beauregard, R. A. (1989). Between modernity and postmodernity: the ambiguous position of US planning. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 7(4), 381-395.

Brooks, M. P. (1988). Four critical junctures in the history of the urban planning profession: An exercise in hindsight. Journal of the American Planning Association, 54(2), 241-248.

Brownill, S. (2017). Neighbourhood planning and the purposes and practices of localism. In S. Brownill and Q. Bradley (eds), Localism and Neighbourhood Planning: Power to the People?, Bristol: Policy Press at the University of Bristol: 19.

Campbell, S., and Fainstein, S. S. (2003). Readings in Planning Theory (Studies in Urban & Social Change), second edition. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.

Campbell, H., and Marshall, R. (1998). Acting on principle: dilemmas in planning practice. Planning Practice and Research, 13(2), 117-128.

Checkland, P. (1999). Systems thinking. In W. Currie and R. Galliers (eds) Rethinking management information systems: An Interdisciplinary Perspective, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 45-56.

Cole, S. (2001). Dare to dream: Bringing futures into planning. Journal of the American Planning Association, 67(4), 372-383.

Conzen, M. P. (1983). American Cities in Profound Transition: The New City Geography of the 1980s. Journal of Geography, 82(3), 94-102.

Corburn, J. (2004). Confronting the challenges in reconnecting urban planning and public health. American journal of public health, 94(4), 541-546.

Corburn, J. (2009). Toward the healthy city: people, places, and the politics of urban planning. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Dai, D. (2011). Racial/ethnic and socioeconomic disparities in urban green space accessibility: Where to intervene? Landscape and Urban Planning, 102(4), 234-244.

Davidoff, P. (1965) Advocacy and Pluralism in Planning, Journal of the American Institute of Planners 31: 331–7.

Dear, M. (Ed.) (2002). From Chicago to LA: Making sense of urban theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Fainstein, S. S., and DeFilippis, J. (Eds.). (2015). Readings in planning theory. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.

Flint, A. (2015, July 17). “Is Urban Planning Having an Identity Crisis?” Atlantic.

Foglesong, R. E. (2016). Planning the capitalist city. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Forster, C. (2006). The challenge of change: Australian cities and urban planning in the new millennium. Geographical research, 44(2), 173-182.

Goodman, R., Freestone, R., & Burton, P. (2017). Planning Practice and Academic Research: Views from the Parallel Worlds. Planning Practice & Research, 1-12.

Godschalk, D. R. (2004). Land use planning challenges: Coping with conflicts in visions of sustainable development and livable communities. Journal of the American Planning Association, 70(1), 5-13.

Hall P. (1996). Cities of Tomorrow. Oxford, England: Blackwell Publishers.

Harvey, D. (2003) ‘The Right to the City’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 27(4): 939–41.

Hersperger, A. M., Ioja, C., Steiner, F., and Tudor, C. A. (2015). Comprehensive consideration of conflicts in the land-use planning process: a conceptual contribution. Carpathian Journal of Earth and Environmental Sciences, 10(4), 5-13.

Hirt, S. A. (2005). Toward postmodern urbanism? Evolution of planning in Cleveland, Ohio. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 25(1), 27-42.

Innes, J. (1995) Planning Theory’s Emerging Paradigm: Communicative Action and Interactive Practice, Journal of Planning Education and Research 14(4): 183–9.

Innes, J. (1996) Planning through Consensus Building: A New View of the Comprehensive Planning Ideal, Journal of the American Planning Association 62(4): 460–72.

Katz, P., Scully, V., and Bressi, T. W. (1994). The new urbanism: Toward an architecture of community(Vol. 10). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Levy, J. M. (1992). What has happened to planning? Journal of the American Planning Association 58(1), 81-84.

Madanipour, A. (1996). Design of urban space: an inquiry into a socio-spatial process. Hoboken NJ: John Wiley & Son Ltd.

McClendon, B. W., Erber, E., McCoy, M., and Stollman, I. (2003). A bold vision and a brand identity for the planning profession. Journal of the American Planning Association, 69(3), 221-232.

Myers, D., and Kitsuse, A. (2000). Constructing the future in planning: A survey of theories and tools. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 19(3), 221-231.

Myers, D., & Banerjee, T. (2005). Toward greater heights for planning: Reconciling the differences between profession, practice, and academic field. Journal of the American Planning Association, 71(2), 121-129.

Ostrom, E. (2015). Governing the Commons. Cambridge MA: Cambridge University Press.

Ostrom, E (1990). Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge MA: Cambridge University Press.

Ostrom, E (1986). An agenda for the study of institutions. Public choice, 48(1), 3-25.

Rabinovitz, F. F. (1969). City Politics and Planning. New Brunswick NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Rasmussen, J. (1985). The role of hierarchical knowledge representation in decision-making and system management. IEEE Transactions on systems, man, and cybernetics, (2), 234-243.

Reece, J. W. (2018). In Pursuit of a Twenty-first Century Just City: The Evolution of Equity Planning Theory and Practice. Journal of Planning Literature, 0885412218754519.

Sabatier, P. A. (2006). Policy Change and Learning: An advocacy Coalition Approach (theoretical lenses on public policy). Boulder CO: Westview Press.

Sawicki, D. S. (1988). Planning education and planning practice: can we plan for the next decade? Journal of Planning Education and Research, 7(2), 115-120.

Smith, N. (2002). New globalism, new urbanism: gentrification as global urban strategy. Antipode, 34(3), 427-450.

Smith, N. (1996). The new urban frontier: Gentrification and the revanchist city. New York: Routledge.

Thomas, J. M. (2008). The minority-race planner in the quest for a just city. Planning Theory, 7(3), 227-247.

Watson, V. (2009). Seeing from the South: Refocusing urban planning on the globe’s central urban issues. Urban Studies, 46(11), 2259-2275.

Yeh, A. G. O., & Wu, F. (1996). The new land development process and urban development in Chinese cities. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 20(2), 330-353.


Efon Epanty is Ph.D. student in Planning, Governance, and Globalization (PGG) in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. His research interests include: Multimodal Transit Planning, Urban Mobility Systems, Transportation Technology and Policy. His current research looks at the application of intelligence transportation technologies to improve bus transit systems. He previously earned a Master’s in Public Administration from Virginia Tech and also holds a Master’s in Urban Planning from the University of Kansas. He received a Bachelor of Sciences with Honors in Geography from the University of Buea in Cameroon.

Efon currently works as a Transportation Planner with the Fairfax County Department of Transportation.

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Prefabricating Poverty: The Political Implications of Prefabrication

Prefabrication’s promises are tempting: “lower and more predictable production costs, better and more standardized product quality, and faster and more punctual construction” (Noguchi, 2012, pp. 555–557) But, the real question is, tempting for whom? Let me pose this question in another way. Does the quote above, from The Encyclopedia of Housing (Carswell, 2012), mean to suggest that prefabricated construction results in greater numbers of affordable homes? Is it accurate to assume concerning prefabrication, as indeed, we have assumed about other “innovative” technologies historically, that it will help to improve living conditions for the general public? Moreover, who should contemplate these questions? Should the architect, as the individual who elects to employ prefabricated materials, be concerned about their material, as well as social and political, implications? And, should this issue and its implications be discussed among faculty and students at architecture schools in their courses of study? This brief article addresses these concerns in turn.

The concept of prefabrication is not new. Industrialized examples of its use are now more than a century old. So, why are the above questions more relevant now than ever? We can begin to address this question by studying the recent role of technological advancement in reintroducing prefabrication. Historically, prefabricated buildings were usually of lower quality compared to their on-site constructed counterparts. The reasons for this situation were rooted largely in manufacturing limitations. Consequently, large-scale prefabrication occurred during periods of workforce shortages. There are many examples of this phenomenon: new settlement houses in the British colonies in North America and Australia, the United Kingdom’s post-Second World War temporary houses (O’Neill and Organ, 2016) and the Soviet Union’s Khrushchyovka single-family public houses, built as alternatives to communal-style apartments from approximately 1960 until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

However, the development of computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) in the past few decades has drastically changed the image and value of prefabrication, for both architects and the general public. For example, the complex façade systems of Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku were almost completely prefabricated, but still praised by many for their design quality and aesthetic appeal. Thus, prefabrication is now being used not to overcome a temporary shortage in the workforce, but as a common strategy for building construction and, to some extent, even design.

David Harvey has argued that technology “has always been our great hope for resolving our difficulties” (2001, p. 62). This is definitely the case for prefabrication. Many architects and building construction professionals hope that lower construction costs resulting from widespread adoption of prefabrication will translate into increased access to affordable housing for individuals who otherwise might not be able to attain such shelter. I want here to ask whether this is a reasonable assumption. The U.S. Census Bureau’s housing affordability report provides at least a partial, and negative, answer to this concern  (Wilson and Callis, 2013). Table 1 below, summarizes the general findings of that report and it vividly illustrates the downward trend in the percentage of American families and individuals that could afford to own a home in the United States between 1984 and 2009. Of course, housing affordability encompasses many more variables than the effects of prefabrication alone. Still, Table 1 suggests that this technology has not been functioning nearly as robustly to assist with affordability as its advocates have long hoped.


Table 1. The status of housing affordability in United States between 1984 and 2009. Source: (Wilson and Callis, 2013)

Year Percentage of families and unrelated individuals who could afford to buy
Total Families Unrelated individuals
Total Owner Renter Total Owner Renter
1984 52.2 60.4 79.6 12.6 33.5 60.2 13.4
1988 51.4 59.7 78.1 14.0 33.9 60.8 12.8
1991 49.4 57.6 75.2 13.1 33.4 59.0 12.2
1993 49.5 57.7 76.5 11.7 33.5 60.8 11.2
1995 48.3 55.6 74.6 9.9 34.3 62.3 10.6
2002 47.9 56.4 73.6 7.8 33.1 57.0 7.3
2004 49.1 58.4 75.7 8.3 34.2 59.8 7.0
2009 42.5 50.3 66.5 7.1 30.5 53.9 6.5


While prefabrication is not making housing more affordable for the general public, it is nevertheless having another large impact. To understand that implication of the technology’s widespread adoption, it is helpful to examine the issue through the lens of Marxist theory. Prefabrication is surely helping to lower the production costs of construction, in part by reducing the need for workers on the construction site. But this cost saving has not been translated into less costly homes, a fact that suggests that prefabrication has led instead to higher profits. Put differently, this shift in building construction technology has so far primarily resulted in increased income for manufacturers and construction companies. Nevertheless, and as an additional implication of this reality, “Capital accumulation has always been about speed-up” (2001, p. 123). By decreasing construction time, prefabrication can potentially accelerate the building process at different scales, which means not only that each building will be completed more quickly, but also that more projects may be undertaken simultaneously.

This reality implies that even as prefabrication has not improved housing affordability, it has diminished employment opportunities in the construction industry, especially for workers with lower levels of training. In this regard, it is important to remember that building construction has traditionally been an important source of jobs for vulnerable members of communities, including immigrants. A study of the impact of implementation of large scale prefabrication methods on the structure of the labor market in Hong Kong, for example, concluded that its widespread introduction could result in a 40% reduction in demand for construction labor (Tam, 2002). Perhaps predictably, the employment prospects of new immigrants from mainland China were the most adversely affected by this shift. This fact implies that, in the long run and intended or not, “The decision to promote prefabrication will become a political rather than a technical or managerial problem” (Tam, 2002, p. 402).

As one who has spent more than 10-years studying at different architecture schools in Iran and the United States, I think my experience of almost never discussing the political purport of my design choices with my instructors is typical.  Moreover, the continued fragmentation of disciplines inside academic institutions limits the possibility of even (un)intentional encounters with this subject. Similar to many “new technologies,” prefabrication has always been treated as a positive characteristic in design schools even though its impacts for the general public are, in fact, uncertain and questionable, and its value to the architecture community may also be doubted except as a device to attract clients desiring to reduce the costs of construction.  I find this scenario ethically problematic.

Finally, as Cross (2006, p. 7) and others have argued, defining and clarifying the problem at hand represents a fundamental part of design as an activity. In this case, that fact raises the question of how architects can realize a responsive design if they are ignoring key implications of aspects of the challenge at hand? Or perhaps put more generally, how can architecture schools prepare designers effectively while failing to address the political connotations of elements of their curricula? I believe that schools of design and construction are ethically obliged to encourage discussion among their faculty and students concerning the broader social and political implications of their professional choices.



Cross, N. (2006). Designerly ways of knowing. London: Springer.

Harvey, D. (2001). Spaces of capital: towards a critical geography. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press.

Noguchi, M. (2012). Prefabrication. In A. T. Carswell (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Housing (2nd ed., Vol. 1, pp. 555–557). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

O’Neill, D., & Organ, S. (2016). A literature review of the evolution of British prefabricated low-rise housing. Structural Survey, 34(2), 191–214.

Tam, C. M. (2002). Impact on structure of labour market resulting from large-scale implementation of prefabrication. In Advances in Building Technology (pp. 399–403). Oxford: Elsevier.

Wilson, E., & Callis, R. R. (2013). Who Could Afford to Buy a Home in 2009? Affordability of Buying a Home in the United States (No. H121/13-02). U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved from


Reza Fateminasab is a PhD student in the Architecture and Design Research program in the School of Architecture + Design at Virginia Tech. He received his Master’s degree from the University of Tehran and his Bachelor’s degree from Tehran University of Art, both in architecture. His current research focuses on the design process and implementation of digital tools within it. He enthusiastically follows the arts and politics.


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Contemplating the Tensions Between Technical and Adaptive Approaches in International Development

I spent a week in the highlands of Guatemala on a mission trip with my church in the summer of 2015. This was my first experience working in the field with a local organization and directly with those it sought to assist. The faith-based organization (FBO) with which our mission team worked assisted residents in several small villages with housing, employment skills, after-school nutrition and tutoring programs. It also provided wellness programs for seniors and support for the denomination’s pastors in the region. My one request before agreeing to participate in the project was that I would do physical work the entire week I would spend there. My goal in doing so was a period during which I would have the satisfaction of experiencing the immediate and tangible results of my efforts. As requested, I spent the majority of my time in the country digging a trench in order to fill it with rocks and concrete as the foundation for a large wall surrounding a school feeding program facility. At the end of each day I could see clearly what I had accomplished, both in terms of the linear feet I had helped dig for the wall, and the blisters on my hands.

The principal FBO with which we worked was also assisting a number of families in the village by constructing homes for them. At a visit to one such building site, I recognized the World Vision logo on a latrine that had recently been installed for the family. I inquired with the organization’s director about his organization’s relationship with World Vision, a large, multi-national FBO, and learned that while they were aware of one another’s efforts, the two institutions did not cooperate formally. It surprised me that two faith-based entities operating in the same small town helping the same family with its housing needs would not have a closer working relationship. More, throughout the week, the head missionary shared examples of the challenges his organization faced in sustaining its work. In addition to the logistical concern of managing multiple projects in the community, finding a steady stream of volunteers and securing funding required significant effort. My experience in Guatemala piqued my interest in understanding better the challenges organizations face while serving their clientele in international development settings. As I contemplated what I observed and experienced, I sensed a tension between the organization’s need to focus on getting things done in the near-term, such as assisting families and securing volunteers, and its companion need to focus on longer-run  change, such as addressing the root causes of the problems it was seeking to ameliorate.

Harvard University professor Ronald Heifetz has written extensively about problem solving. His adaptive leadership framework is anchored in a typology of problems ranging from purely technical concerns for which the challenge and solution are clearly defined, to adaptive scenarios, in which the problem and its resolution are not well defined or known (Heifetz, 1994, p. 75). Adaptive questions require learning, and such work often demands a great deal of time as those undertaking it develop and explore new ways of understanding the challenge(s) at hand, their relationship to it (them) and how its (their) resolution might affect their own epistemic frames. Clearly, addressing such challenges is difficult work.

If we step back to my experience in Guatemala, I requested a technical assignment, and was given one. In order to build a wall, our team needed first to construct a foundation. To do so, we needed to dig to the requisite depth, construct it using appropriate materials and then allow the new structure to cure. The problem and solution were known to at least a share of us charged with fabricating the footing. It is useful to contrast wall-building with addressing the need to secure inter-organizational collaboration within the nongovernmental and international development community. One team of analysts has estimated that more than 10,000 NGOs now provide services in Guatemala-often to clients in the same community- leading to potential stakeholders seeking the same services from multiple providers, duplication of effort and inefficient use of available funding (Green, Green, Scandlyn, & Kestler, 2009). One could argue that education could help beneficiaries understand that seeking the same services multiple times is not effective, that organizations working more closely together could help reach more clients and that resources must be used efficiently and effectively. The issues underpinning this complicated situation could plausibly be defined in a number of different ways, but none of them involve readily known solutions-a classic example of an adaptive problem.

More than 150 years ago, the United States Congress invested boldly in the ability of our states to educate their citizenries, and thereby prepare them more effectively to address challenging issues with passage of the Morrill Act of 1862. That statute established the land-grant university system (Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, 2012) and its creation “reflected a growing demand for agricultural and technical education in the United States” (Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, 2012, p. 1). Recognizing that limiting access to research-created knowledge to the academy reduced the scope of who could benefit from that information, the Morrill Act was followed by the Hatch Act of 1887. That statute supported research activities and the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, which created the Cooperative Extension Service (CES), followed some decades later. The CES was established to “disseminate information gleaned from [the] [agricultural] experiment stations’ research” (Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, 2012, p. 1). The National Research Council has argued that this model of research, education and dissemination has resulted in, “remarkable advances in both farming productivity and agricultural science and technology, which in turn have contributed to the growth of the U.S. economy and the well-being of consumers the world over” (1995, p. v).

The NRC’s observation that land-grant universities have created impacts around the world reflects the global engagement of these institutions. An internet search of the term “global land grant university” returned more than 2.7 million results. Land-grant universities have been engaged internationally for years and this involvement continues today (Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, 2018). Cooperative Extension faculty members have the opportunity to participate globally through study tours and information and knowledge exchanges with Extension systems in other countries or, often, as volunteers sharing their expertise while collaborating with FBOs or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) of other nations. These opportunities may take the guise of short-term technical visits or multi-year projects or, indeed, occur in a variety of other ways.

Cooperative Extension faculty possess valuable technical expertise to contribute to international development efforts, and likewise, often gain knowledge and insights from working with stakeholders in global contexts (Strong & Harder, 2011). However, those individuals often experience challenges or frustrations when considering the impacts of their work and gauging how their efforts change the perceptions and attitudes of those with whom they interact (Strong & Harder, 2011). One additional tension these faculty members often face is pressure to provide immediate solutions. Certainly, there are instances in development work when a technical change or step is all that is needed. If livestock need to be excluded from a communal water source to keep it from being contaminated, for example, fencing may be an effective solution.

But what of situations that require learning and longer-term shifts, as in values, for example? How do CES faculty work with partners to bring about the understanding needed for change that cannot be accomplished by means of a technical intervention in a short-time frame?  One issue to consider as one reflects on such situations are the motivations of the host country partner. If that entity’s funding requires short-term deliverables, it is likely that Extension faculty (or any external collaborator) will be pressed to provide a short-term technical solution to whatever concern is being addressed. Development organizations generally are under no shortage of pressure to achieve results and often face potentially conflicting motivations, such as securing efficiency and meeting spending targets as they go about their work (Vowles, 2016). And funders, such as USAID, often evaluate projects on the basis of near-term measureable results, even for longer-term initiatives, such as human and institutional capacity building (United States Agency for International Development, 2010). This focus on a relatively linear process with its pretense that issues can be addressed in delimited periods may add to the tensions development organizations experience as they must constantly measure their results in terms of short-run milestones and objectives. This orientation incentivizes an emphasis on technical solutions by volunteers as organizations seek to demonstrate expected results to funders within specific time frames.

In a recent meeting between Virginia Tech agricultural faculty interested in international engagement and an NGO partner for the particular country where the opportunities existed, those professors who participated were asked what motivated them to engage in international work. The answers members of the group provided included a sense of accomplishment, professional challenges, making a difference, opportunities for graduate students and available funding. The NGO representatives attending the gathering, on the other hand, were motivated by a sense of urgency to provide actionable technical expertise in their country aligned with the metrics of the funding agency providing their proposed project budget. This is not to say that partners requesting technical assistance are not often aware of the need for longer-term change. Such organizations are often much closer to the work than their U.S. partners and are just as frequently confronted daily with life at the margins, and it may be tough to think about even the short-term future when confronted with resource-deprived, malnourished, abused or otherwise vulnerable clientele.

Taking the long view in international development is by no means a new idea. And, approaches to achieving sustainable change abound. However, such efforts invariably take longer than would short-term technical approaches. For example, Pascale, Sternin, and Sternin (2010) have argued that the most effective way to address challenging problems is to take the time necessary to gain the trust of local populations in order to understand fully the nature of the problem to be addressed and in doing so, seek out the cases of positive deviance where local knowledge and know how allow for thriving. This approach requires a longer view. Additionally, they argue that such solutions as they may obtain, technical or adaptive, already exist in the community.

The intent of this essay was not to offer a prescribed set of answers to the inherent challenges of mediating the pressure, often politically imposed by funders, for immediate technical actions in environments in which adaptive strategies may offer greater benefits in the long run. Rather, it is my hope that by posing some of these questions, practitioners engaged in international development, whether through Extension or other avenues, can begin to be more self-consciously aware of them and how through their actions they might collaborate with others more effectively to serve those with whom they work.



Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. (2012). The Land-Grant tradition. Washington, DC.

Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. (2018). International development. Retrieved from

Green, T., Green, H., Scandlyn, J., & Kestler, A. (2009). Perceptions of short-term medical volunteer work: a qualitative study in Guatemala. Globalization and health, 5(1), 4.

Heifetz, R. A. (1994). Leadership without easy answers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

National Research Council. (1995). Colleges of agriculture at the land grand universities: A profile. Washington, D.C.

Pascale, R. T., Sternin, J., & Sternin, M. (2010). The power of positive deviance: How unlikely innovators solve the world’s toughest problems (Vol. 1). Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.

Strong, R., & Harder, A. (2011). Recommended competencies needed for teaching in international extension settings. Journal of International Agricultural and Extension Education, 18(3), 72-83.

United States Agency for International Development. (2010). Human and institutional capacity development handbook. Washington, D.C. Retrieved from

Vowles, P. (2016). Is international development the most challenging leadership context there is? Medium. Retrieved from Medium website:


Ben Grove is a Ph.D. student in Planning, Governance, and Globalization in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. His primary research interest is understanding leadership capacity building in nongovernmental organizations. He is an alumnus of the VALOR (Virginia Agriculture Leaders Obtaining Results) program, a fellowship focused on the Commonwealth’s agricultural industry. Ben previously earned a B.S. in Animal and Poultry Sciences and an M.B.A. from Virginia Tech. He currently serves as the Assistant Director of Global Programs for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Virginia Cooperative Extension at Virginia Tech. Ben and his wife Lindsay live in Blacksburg and enjoy exploring the New River Valley and surrounding areas with their three sons, Hudson, Finley, and Wells.

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Everything old is new again: The Emergence of the European Coal and Steel Community as an Imperial Project

The recent electoral successes of exclusionary nationalist and xenophobic politicians and parties in the European Union (EU) have been characterized in part by the re-emergence of a discourse in which the “West,” “Europe,” and/or “Christianity” must be protected or defended against immigrants and refugees from the global south. From United States President Donald Trump’s denunciation of immigrants from Mexico and refugees and asylum seekers from the Middle East and North Africa and promotion of an “America first” policy to a plan to save “Western civilization” offered by the nationalist Prime Minister of Hungary, Victor Orban, it seems that Samuel Huntington’s (1991) essentialist narrative of a “clash of civilizations” has once again become popular (Noack 2015; Tharoor 2016a; Tharoor 2016b; Beauchamp 2017). Nor is this a phenomenon restricted to the United States or to the Visegrad group (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia).

Xenophobia, exclusionary nationalism and “populism” have now been embraced by political groups and politicians throughout the EU. Right-wing and nationalist parties such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National (FN) in France, Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AFD), and Italy’s La Lega have garnered significant electoral support in their respective nations in recent elections.[1]

These outcomes have often been construed in both the popular media and by the politicians as de facto referenda on their respective nation-states’ memberships in the European Union (EU) (Marsili 2018; Wildeman 2017; Beauchamp 2017). The party that propelled the United Kingdom (UK) to leave the EU—“Brexit”—the Eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP), led by English nationalist politicians such as Nigel Farage, also utilized toxic xenophobic and racialized rhetoric in their effort. Their claims for Brexit were suffused with a mythological narrative of a United Kingdom standing alone against “waves” of immigrants and refugees who, while once subjugated by western European empires, now threatened to overrun the UK and western Europe. UKIP leaders also contended that a supposed undemocratic technocratic rule by EU bureaucrats in Brussels threatened the UK’s sovereignty (Bhambra 2017; Cf., O’Toole 2016; Bickerton 2016).

In response to the rising popularity of the above exclusionary and racialized narrative, popular media, academics and EU politicians have offered a different narrative that asserts that the EU was founded as a peace project against the extreme nationalism and racism that led to two horrific world wars and the Holocaust (The Economist 2004). In order to ensure this peace, the Schuman Declaration (1950) established the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) as a technocratic and economic political entity that would manage a key cause of historical conflict between Germany and France by regulating their coal and steel production under a supranational authority. Thus, while the ECSC was founded on the basis of an economic rationale, that impulse was accompanied by a clear political telos: the creation of a “European sensibility” through market coordination (Parker 2013: p. 56). The goal of this essay is to complicate this redemptive narrative of peace and reconciliation. Although this essay does not debate the merits and/or weaknesses of the various theories that emphasize either the supranational or the nation-state as engines of European amalgamation, the point is that orthodox theories of such integration continue to repeat a narrative of European redemption. While the persuasive power of this account of the EU has weakened of late due to the Eurozone economic crisis, this “noble narrative of peace and reconciliation” has nonetheless maintained its sway over mainstream histories and analyses of the EU (Manners and Murry 2016, p. 188).[2]

While some scholars have suggested in the aftermath of Brexit that this story amounts to a form of “blackmail”— either support the EU or face renewed nationalism, violence and war—I want to outline a number of instances in which the integration of western Europe was supported by intellectuals and politicians who, faced with the decline of the region’s imperial power, advocated for a union that would nonetheless remain enmeshed in imperial concerns. That is, the intellectual origin of the ECSC and the later European Community (EC) was not simply an abrupt departure from a previous situation of warring imperial nation-states, but also included other imperial notions of European integration. While I do not want to argue that there is a direct casual connection between the current rise in xenophobia and exclusionary nationalism and the intellectual ideas offered by some intellectuals and politicians during the 1950’s, I do argue that greater reflexivity is needed address the issues currently confronting the EU.

The European Coal and Steel Community: Embedded within empire?

            At first glance, the establishment of the ECSC with the Schuman Declaration in 1950 and the signing of the Treaty of Rome in 1975 by representatives of the six original member states—Belgium, the Netherlands, France, the Federal Republic of Germany, Luxembourg and Italy—appears to have little to do with western European empires. The conventional narrative suggests that the 20th century represented a sharp break between the nation-state and empires. In this historical argument, the nation “is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship” (Anderson 2006, p.7) whereas empires were, generally, hierarchical and unequal political entities (Burbank and Cooper 2010: p. 8). Yet, as recent scholarship has pointed out, the strict separation between these two political forms has been overdrawn (Go 2017; Kumar 2017; Branch 2010). As Benedict Anderson has argued in his discussion on the construction of nationalism, “Out of the American welter came these imagined realities: nation-states, republican institutions, common citizenship, popular sovereignty, national flags, anthems, etc.” (2006, p. 81). In other words, the construction of the nation, as well as the nation-state, were entwined with empires. Or, in the words of Stoler and Cooper, “Europe was made by its imperial projects, as much as colonial encounters were shaped by conflicts within Europe itself” (1997, p.2). While recent historical research has successfully demonstrated the imbrication of imperialism and colonialism and the nation-state, there has been less work done on the imperial connections between the EU and its predecessors and the former West European empires.

Recent critical literature has examined the legacy of European imperialism in current EU development and security policies, especially vis-à-vis the developing world (Gegout 2017), as well as the failure of both the Union and its member states to understand its colonial past (Bhambra 2015). Indeed, as Hansen and Jonsson (2015) and Garavini (2012) have argued, the geopolitical concept of “EurAfrica became central to the debates on integration of western Europe between the 1920’s and the 1950’s. The colonial territories of the initial ECSC member states, especially those of France, became a “common European project of colonialism” (Bhambra and Holmwood 2018, p.10). What these authors have demonstrated is how deeply the EU and its predecessors were entangled with its members’ colonies and territories both economically and politically, within and beyond the European continent.

In the Shadow of Empire

While significant progress has occurred in excavating the colonial and imperial connections of the EU and its predecessors, work remains to be done. Critical scholarship has successfully shown that utilizing empire and imperialism to study the EU and its member states raises critical questions about the Union’s interventions in the developing world, the EU secretariat’s and its member states’ reactions to the refugee crisis, and Brexit (Bhambra 2017; Shilliam 2012). In addition to this research, I want to argue that there is a connection between conceptualizations of imperial political forms both within and beyond the European continent and the intellectual formation of the EU.

EU scholarship generally regards the political and economic arrangement as the telos of European integration and thus portrays earlier Europeanists as “founders, “fathers” or “pioneers.” Yet, as Nordblad has observed, this teleological narrative excludes “Europeanists ideas with dubious ideological overtones … on the basis of the values of the current European political project” (2014, p. 712). For instance, as Odijie has contended, the economic and military development of Japan and China led to anxieties in western Europe that were expressed as a racial narrative termed the “yellow peril.” These fears proved to be a significant factor in the emergence of the European federalist movement between the 1900s and the 1930s (2017). Despite the close association between the ECSC/EC and empire constructs, EU scholarship has generally downplayed or ignored it. Concomitantly, current EU politicians and the popular media generally reject the overt xenophobia and nationalism of Hungary’s Orban or Le Pen as “non-European.” Yet, as Bhambra has noted, “Europe’s posited others have always been very much a part of Europe’s broader imperial histories and its neo-imperial present” (2015). The challenge is to connect those ideas that are rejected by mainstream narratives and historiography of the EU and critically analyze them in order to focus more accurately and thoughtfully on the forces underpinning the Union’s present challenges.



[1] It is true that the establishment of the AFD was initially founded on economic concerns. The initial members, primarily made up of economists, argued that the Euro divided the EU instead of uniting it. They also heavily criticized Germany’s role in bailing out Greece. Yet, in the meantime, the AFD has seemingly aligned itself with nativist and xenophobic right-wing political parties France and the United Kingdom following Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policies in 2015. See Mounk 2017 and Wildeman, 2017.

2 For an example of the continuity of this narrative, see Le Gloannec, “Two world wars and a doomed interwar era of weak states and terrifying hubris destroyed the very culture and civilizational values to which the continent aspired…,” (2017, p.2).



Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London and New York: Verso, 2006.

Beauchamp, Zack. “Donald Trump’s victory is part of a global white backlash.” Vox, November 9, 2017. Accessed March 13, 2018. Available at

Bhambra, Gurminder K. “The Refugee Crisis and Our Connected Histories of Colonialism and Empire.” Sicherheitspolitik blog, October 1, 2015. Accessed March 5, 2018. Available at 

Bhambra, Gurminder K. 2017. “The current crisis of Europe: Refugees, colonialism, and the limits of cosmopolitanism.” Eur Law Journal, 23:

Bhambra, Gurminder K & John Holmwood (2018): “Colonialism, Postcolonialism and the Liberal Welfare State,” New Political Economy.

Bickerton, Christopher J. “The EU Referendum: The EU Mirage.” The Disorder of Things, May 23 2016. Accessed March 10 2018. Available at

 Branch, Jordan. “‘Colonial reflection’ and territoriality: The peripheral origins of sovereign statehood.” European Journal of International Relations 18, no. 2 (2010: 277-297.

Burbank, Jane and Frederick Cooper. Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Cooper, Frederick and Ann Laura Stoler. “Between Metropole and Colony: Rethinking a Research Agenda.” In Cooper, Frederick and Ann Laura Stoler. Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bougeosie World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Cunliffe, Phillip. “The EU Referendum: “We will burn it all down” – War, Blackmail and the Case for the European Union” The Disorder of Things, May 27 2016. Accessed March 10 2018. Available at

Garavini, Giuliano. After empires: European integration, decolonization, and the challenge from the global south, 1957-1986. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Gegout, Catherine. Why Europe Intervenes in Africa: Seucirty, Prestige, and the Legacy of Colonialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Go, Julian. 2017. “The American Empire-State: Liberal Exclusions.” Thesis Eleven.

Hansen, Peo and Stefan Jonsson. EurAfrica: The Untold History of European Integration and  Colonialism, London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2015.

Kumar, Krishan. Visions of Empire: How Five Imperial Regimes Shaped the World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017.

Le Gloannec, Anne Marie. Continent by Default: The European Union and the Demise of Regional Order. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2017.

Manners and Murry 2016. “The End of a Noble Narrative? European Integration Narratives after the Nobel Peace Prize.” Journal of Common Market Affairs, Volume 54. Number 1. pp. 185–202.

Marsili, Lorenzo. “Two anti-elite parties have divided Italy between them. What now?” The Guardian, March 5, 2018. Accessed March 6 2018. Available at

Mounk, Yascha. “Echt Deutsch: How the refugee crisis is changing a nation’s identity. Harper’s Magazine, April 14 2018. Accessed March 13, 2018. Available at

Noaack, Rick. “Muslims threaten Europe’s Christian identity, Hungary’s leader says.” The Washington Post, September 3 2015. Accessed March 9 2018. Available at

Nordblad, Julia. “The Un-European Idea: Vichy and Eurafrica in the Historiography of Europeanism.” The European Legacy, 19, no. 6 (2014): 711-729.

Odijie, Michael. 2017. “The Fear of ‘Yellow Peril’ and the Emergence of European Federalist Movement,” The International History Review.

O’Toole, Fintan. “Brexit is being driven by English nationalism. And it will end in self-rule. The Guardian, June 18 2016. Accessed March 10, 2018. Available at

Parker, Own. Cosmopolitan Government in Europe: Citizens and entrepreneurs in postnational politics. London and New York: Routledge, 2013.

Shilliam, Robbie. “The Crisis of Europe and Colonial Amnesia: Freedom Struggles in the Atlantic Biotope.” In J. Go and G. Lawson (eds). Global Historical Sociology 2017. Available at

Tharoor, Ishaan. “Hungary’s right-wing leader hopes Trump will bring him in from the cold.  The Washington Post, November 30, 2016a. Accessed March 9 2018. Available at

Tharoor, Ishaan. “Donald Trump’s real foreign policy: A clash of civilizations. The Washington Post, April 28, 2016b. Accessed March 9 2018. Available at

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Wildeman, Sarah. “Meet the far-right party that’s bringing racism and xenophobia back to Germany.” Vox, September 26, 2017. Accessed March 13, 2018. Available at

Johannes Grow is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought (ASPECT) program. He received his Master’s degree in Public and International Affairs (MPIA) and a B.A in International Studies from Virginia Tech. His research interests include: Contemporary Social and Political Theory, Empire, International Relations, European Studies, Postcolonial Theory and Critical Geopolitics. Johannes currently teaches International Relations in the Department of Political Science at Virginia Tech.





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Education for Human Development

The question of the conditions that ought to characterize social justice has been deeply studied by numerous scholars, including Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum and Nancy Fraser. Although there are differences among their arguments and those offered by other scholars writing on these concerns, they all agree that human development is essential to the attainment of social justice (Alexander, 2008; Fraser, 1990; M. C. Nussbaum, 2001; Robeyns, 2005). Human development relates to the creation and improvement of living conditions, such that individuals can develop their potential to the fullest and enjoy the opportunity to live their lives as they might wish (Keleher, 2007; Sen, 1985).

Sen, Nussbaum and Fraser, among other scholars, have pointed to such empowerment as an important aspect of human development (Alexander, 2008; Fraser and Naples, 2004; Keleher, 2007). This essay (1) describes human development and its defining characteristics (2) surveys existing definitions of empowerment and their dimensions and (3) briefly explores the role that higher education may play in promoting individual empowerment.

Human development and the capabilities approach

Traditionally, development has been measured as increases in income or access to material goods, known as the economic growth approach (Fraser and Naples, 2004; Sen, 1985). Human development, meanwhile, “is a process of expanding the real freedom of persons to lead the kind of lives they value and have reason to value” (Keleher, 2007, p. 26; Sen, 1997). Nussbaum has proposed this construct as an alternative to traditional economic growth-centered development theory (Nussbaum, 2011). The approach seeks to ensure that individuals are free to exercise their individual agency as they choose to achieve certain functionings/capabilities (Keleher, 2007). Sen/Nussbaum describe those functionings and capabilities as education, employment and safety, among others.

In short, in this view, human development is assessed within a capabilities approach in terms of the capacities with which a person is free to engage (Keleher, 2007).  Following Keleher, I operationalize this perspective here as the several alternate capabilities a person may pursue to live a life they value (Keleher, 2014).  Proponents of this view have strongly argued that empowerment  is an essential component of human development (Hill, 2003; Keleher, 2007). The next section offers an overview of various definitions of empowerment and how each relates to human development and the capabilities approach.

Defining Empowerment

Conger and Kanungo have defined empowerment as the authority or power an individual has to control their life and claim their  rights (Conger and Kanungo, 1988, p. 472). However, proponents of both the economic growth and capabilities approaches have embraced the idea of empowerment.        For advocates of the economic growth approach, development results from efficient economic growth and productive forms of market participation (Keleher, 2007). In this view, empowerment is a person’s ability to make market-related decisions and autonomously control his/her economic status (Keleher, 2014). For those embracing this perspective, empowerment is an essential part of development to the extent that it uses economic means to promote economic growth and market proficiency (Keleher, 2007).

Since this approach posits that empowerment in individuals can be achieved through the promotion of strategically planned and executed economic interventions (Keleher, 2007; Patrick, 1996), it positions the poor and oppressed as beneficiaries and recipients of services, resources, development interventions and therefore of agency itself (Keleher, 2007).  In contrast, those advancing the capabilities approach view empowerment as a process of expanding the substantive freedom people enjoy, and it therefore relates to an individual’s ability to make basic choices in their lives absent imposed constraints (Keleher, 2014; Sen, 2011). This approach positions empowered people as owners not only of their economic activities, but also as possessors and managers of all of the dimensions of their life experience (Alexander, 2008; Gandjour, 2008; Keleher, 2007; M. C. Nussbaum, 2001) including family, employment, education, health and education, among others. Empowerment, as understood by proponents of the capabilities approach, is central to human freedom and individuals’ realization of life possibilities (Keleher, 2007).

Additionally, unlike those embracing the economic-growth perspective, those advocating the capabilities approach do not believe empowerment can be provided by anyone, it can only be exercised by individuals themselves (Conger and Kanungo, 1988, p. 472; Hill, 2003). In the same way, within the capabilities approach, all development projects and interventions can be understood as projects that seek to provide space and capacities (Keleher, 2014), so individuals can exercise their agency (demonstrate empowerment) to make the life choices they value. In this way empowerment for these scholars constitutes both a process and a result (Keleher, 2007).

I adopt the human development perspective and capabilities approach, which provides a broader definition of empowerment than the economic growth view (Fraser and Naples, 2004; Keleher, 2007; Nussbaum, 2001; Robeyns, 2003). The following sections assume this perspective.

 Empowerment manifestations: Individual Versus Collective     

Since empowerment is a process of expanding individuals’ capacity to exercise the full range of their human potential (Keleher, 2014; Rowlands, 1995; Sen, 2011), it is concerned with people’s ability to become conscious of their interests and abilities  (Rowlands, 1995). Several scholars have established that the capabilities attributed to specific groups of people are to a large degree socially constructed (Duflo, 2012; Rowlands, 1995). As a result, those constructs can be positive or negative to varying degrees. Empowerment, therefore, involves overcoming, “negative constructions so affected individuals get to see themselves as having the capacity and the right to act and have influence” (Ibrahim and Alkire, 2007; Rowlands, 1995, p. 103). The following section outlines different manifestations of empowerment at the individual and collective scales.

The personal dimension refers to the development of individual capacity to reverse the consequences of internalized oppression (Rowlands, 1995), while the collective dimension refers to peoples’ ability to work together to achieve a broader impact than each could attain alone (Rowlands, 1995). It is important to recall that in order to be able to work together with a group in order to achieve a common goal, each individual must possess some minimal sense of their own abilities and worth (Rowlands, 1995; Townsend, Zapata, Rowlands, Alberti and Mercado, 1999). Additionally, the collective dimension includes engagement with shared or group action, institutions and political structures (Rowlands, 1995).

 Empowerment and Agency

Empowerment can be understood as opening space for the exercise of agency and increasing the capabilities of individuals (Fraser, 1990; Keleher, 2014; Nussbaum, 2011). Agency constitutes the most important factor in individual empowerment (Keleher, 2007). The concept refers to the ability a person has to decide for him or herself and to act autonomously to secure change in order to achieve the life course he/she chooses (Keleher, 2014; Sen, 1985). This freedom to select among opportunities is what distinguishes, for example, between an individual who has no choice but to starve, and a person who voluntarily elects to fast (Keleher, 2007).

Individual agency represents the ownership and management an individual has of his or her own life (Hill, 2003; Keleher, 2007). A person with more agency than another, evidences more felt-capacity to achieve the things he/she values and has reason to value (Keleher, 2014; Nussbaum and Sen, 1993). This distinction suggests that there are two dimensions of individual agency: freedom and achievement (Sen, 1985). The freedom element refers to an person’s ability to decide direction as well as daily choices for herself or himself (Ibrahim and Alkire, 2007; Keleher, 2007). Agency–related achievement, meanwhile, is tied to an individual’s realization of the goals and values they envision (Ibrahim & Alkire, 2007; Keleher, 2007). Devotees of the capabilities approach believe it is what allows individuals also to identify existing un-freedoms and to work alone and with others toward overcoming and/or eliminating them by expanding their capacities and self-understanding and by working to alter socially constructed and institutionalized attitudes and practices constraining them (Keleher, 2007).

Empowerment and Political Agency

Collective agency (Shapiro, 2005) refers to an ability to influence a targeted group  positively through cognitive and valuative change (Cerny, 2000).  Political agency involves questioning and challenging unjust assumptions and practices in order to allow individuals to pursue their goals free of socially imposed structures (Beaumont, 2010). Developing agency requires that individuals understand that their everyday choices contribute to their capacity to pursue their political goals collectively (Beaumont, 2010). That is, the belief that lone actions have the capability to contribute to personal and social change, constitute core components of individual agency and empowerment. They are similarly crucial to the achievement of collective agency (Beaumont, 2010).

Political agency arises from individuals acting on their capacities in individual and/or collective ways to secure positive change, and it can therefore manifest differently in different individuals (Cerny, 2000). Often a person’s consciousness of their political agency arises as a result of challenges to existing beliefs, values and practices that had previously undermined its exercise (Shapiro, 2005). Because of this, although political agency is a potent tool for transformation, it directly depends on individual self-awareness and willingness to act (Cerny, 2000). That is, for action to occur men and women should have the ability to recognize the change they want, the capacity to express it and the understanding that they innately possess the ability to engage in activities to promote it. Change also requires reflection and collaboration with other members of the community (Cerny, 2000; Ibrahim and Alkire, 2007).  Each individual’s involvement and sense of empowerment will vary; a fact that implies that social shifts will likely occur over time, rather than comprehensively and at a single moment. Accordingly, efforts to promote human development and justice via political agency should work to ensure that the poor and the oppressed are given ample opportunity to examine and decide what is what they want for their lives (Beaumont, 2010).

The Role of Higher Education in Human Development

Many scholars have argued an inability to access higher education can promote socio-economic segregation and deny individuals important opportunities to develop their capabilities (Connell, 1994; Neave, 1989; Teichler, 2007). Indeed, one may reasonably ask whether current trends in higher education are emphasizing the elements that contribute to student empowerment and therefore to human and social development.

In principle at least, if not always in current practice, higher education is intended to foster broad-based development of human talent and potentials (Chickering and Reisser, 1993). As argued above, empowerment is an essential part of human development (Alexander, 2008; Fraser and Naples, 2004; Nussbaum and Sen, 1993). Nonetheless, many education leaders, following the example of many political officeholders, have now adopted the view that empowerment is an essential part of development only to the extent that it uses economic means to promote growth and market-oriented proficiency exclusively. In so doing, they are overlooking, if not degrading, the potential of education to expand the substantive freedom people enjoy in all of the spheres of their lives, including employment, family, health and others.

Those higher education leaders who understand empowerment from the economic growth perspective, have led their institutions to prize efforts to prepare students for specific jobs. Meanwhile, college and university leaders who view empowerment through the capabilities approach could lead efforts that envision students not only as agents of economic activity, but also as owners and managers of all the different spheres of their lives. A higher education system organized on the basis of the capabilities approach would incorporate concepts of justice, diversity and inclusiveness as core elements of its curricula (Brennan and Naidoo, 2008; Gurin, Dey, Hurtado, and Gurin, 2002; Nunan, Georg and McCausland, 2000). Including a multidimensional exploration of these concepts within diverse academic programs would promote a broader understanding of the world, a safer but challenging learning environment and ultimately an array of spaces that encouraged student empowerment (Brennan and Naidoo, 2008; Nunan et al., 2000).

In conclusion, the exercise of their own agency wrought by a broader understanding of empowerment allows individuals to identify existing un-freedoms and social negative constructions and to work towards altering institutionalized attitudes and practices that sustain them (Keleher, 2007). Put succinctly, this is why, if we want to change the world through post-secondary education, a holistic understanding and promotion of empowerment is essential when designing academic programs within higher education institutions.


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Beaumont, E. (2010). “Political agency and empowerment: Pathways for developing a sense of political efficacy in young adults,” in Handbook of Research on Civic Engagement in Youth, 525–558.

Brennan, J. and Naidoo, R. (2008). “Higher education and the achievement (and/or prevention) of equity and social justice,” Higher Education, 56(3), 287–302.

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Vanessa Guerra is an architect, urban planner and PhD candidate in Environmental Design and Planning in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Tech. Her research interests include urban interventions as potential contributors to poverty reduction and sustainable development. She has presented her work at several conferences across the United States and South America, and has been a featured speaker at a TEDx event in Quito-Ecuador and at Cityworks (Xpo) in Roanoke, VA. Prior to coming to Virginia Tech, Vanessa worked as a project architect and taught at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Quito-Ecuador, where she also coordinated the seminar “Ecuador towards Habitat III”. She currently participates in the Global Forum for Urban Regional Resilience and is a member of DE Lab Decision Engineering for Sustainable Infrastructure and of the Regional Studies Association). Vanessa co-founded LIGNUM, an architecture and urbanism firm in Ecuador.



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Perspective, Power and Complexity at the Planning Table: Thoughts for NGOs Working in International Development

I served as an intern with a “successful” European Union (EU) funded dairy improvement Extension education project in rural Eastern Turkey, in the Fall of 2006. I have been uncomfortable with the role of development in improving people’s lives since that experience. This program ostensibly met its objectives by convening an appropriate number of meetings across the region and involving a posited number of dairy farmers. The Western-university trained Turkish faculty spent money on battery packs, projectors and screens in imitation of the Agricultural Cooperative Extension meetings with which they had been involved in the United States.

But this orientation did not account for the fact that many of the dairy farmers involved in the project were illiterate, not only in their ability to read and write, but also in their understanding and practice of the scientific method. The Turkish agricultural faculty presented research results using Power Point presentations. The farmers sat attentively, men in one room, woman in another, and offered appropriate niceties to me, the Westerner in the room, to the culturally prestigious faculty and to the village elders. As I sat eating delicious food it occurred to me that everyone at the gathering was simply going through the motions. That is, it seemed to me that deep learning among the farmers was likely not occurring.

However, the reports, the ones I wrote on behalf of the project, were beautiful. I suggested that the team had achieved its targeted results: hundreds of farmers had sat through Power Point presentations on dairy cattle artificial insemination. EU officials were pleased, the Turkish government agency involved was happy and the presenting faculty were content. Yet, in reality, the costs for what I became convinced was an ineffectual program were exorbitant, and that fact led me to reflect that to the extent the effort had involved Turkish government resources, it implied real opportunity costs for the families and fellow villagers of the participating farmers. That fact struck me hard, but I was not yet able fully to articulate my sense of unease. As I grew in my understanding of education and community engagement, however, I realized the fundamental flaws of the project that I had served as an intern. My involvement with this initiative proved transformational for me as it left me deeply uncomfortable with one-size, top-down and expert-driven development. I came to see that, improperly conceived and/or implemented, international development work can cause as much harm, as good.

Nevertheless, I know that I and the overwhelming share of those who choose to do development work are deeply passionate about improving people’s lives and that there is still a need to fight for a more perfect world in order to shift the pendulum towards justice. Development work can and should be conducted more effectively, meaning through more equitable and engaged processes to increase responsiveness to local needs. One step toward securing that goal might be for individuals and the organizations to which they belong, e.g., international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), to start acknowledging the complexity and power at play in their interactions with the people and organizations they aim to assist.

Constructivism is a social science paradigm currently being adopted by many professionals in the development field. It is dynamic and holistic and, as such, it can be useful in capturing the complicated phenomenon of development, “there is no rational choice theory of the pursuit of freedom in the global politics of human rights or beauty in global environmental politics” (Willetts, 2010, p.131). Indeed, human beings evidence intricate patterns of value preferences and typically seek to secure a shifting balance among security, freedom, wealth, justice, equity, equality, beauty, health and other values as conditions and contexts evolve (Willetts, 2010, p.130).

Because of their potentially grass-roots character, nongovernmental organizations possess an ability to recognize and address the complexity of local conditions and populations and thus, when appropriately led, are able to respond effectively to the needs of specific local communities. Nevertheless, Schaaf has rightly declared that, “NGOs should neither be considered a panacea nor the ‘magic bullet’ for solving the problems of development,” nor should any one implementation paradigm be considered so (2013, p. 214). Perhaps what she should have said is that there is no single magic bullet or panacea that can solve the problem of lifting the 3 billion poor individuals in the world out of poverty. This is to argue that there is not a one-size fits all approach to governance, to economics, to education or to any other imperative that must be addressed to secure positive change for half of the globe’s population.

Indeed, the international development community has discovered during the last 70 years that implementing generic fixes without local residents’ input, guidance, engagement and ‘empowerment’ is very rarely successful (Easterly, 2013; Ronalds 2010; Schaaf, 2013; Smillie, 2013; Wallace, Bornstein, and Chapman, 2007). Ronalds, capturing a change in the international development sector, has observed that the prevailing perspective in the field has shifted to, “the more recent and broader understanding of development that emphasizes people’s capabilities and freedoms, not simply their material poverty” (2010, p. 65). In short, development officials are now beginning to acknowledge that the programs they develop are going to have to address the extremely complex and probabilistic and therefore non-linear conditions present, not only at the macro level, but also at the micro and hyper-micro levels, as well. Nevertheless, Wallace et al. (2007) have warned, that while welcome, this shift in orientation now implies a view of development as a slow and often fraught process that is likely to be characterized by many impediments, including the engrained mindsets, and often poorly understood values of those being served, as well as the ignorance of donors, implementers and governments.

It is important to acknowledge that development, like education, is innately political in character. A modification in a person’s social, financial or cultural capital capacity represents a significant political change. Understanding this is to say that even the most well-intentioned and effective NGO will cause both positive and negative social and political ripple effects when it intervenes in a community. This is not to say that those entities should not undertake such efforts, but instead to recognize that, “Constructivism makes the realm of ideas, the way we perceive the nature of the world and the evolution of norms central to politics” (Willetts, 2010, p. 131). If there is going to be a chance to attain positive outcomes from development initiatives, it will occur only when the perspective of every actor is perceived as legitimate and broadly viewed as such.

Power can be defined in a variety of ways, Cervero and Wilson (2009) developed a working theory of the phenomenon, called the planning table. Planning tables are developed for the purpose of implementing programs and are created by the individuals engaged in those processes.  Planning table theory is concerned with the complex interactions that occur among stakeholders involved in program creation. Planning tables do not simply arise out of people’s minds, but rather are the result of sociopolitical relationships among individuals and groups; in which power is both produced and used (Cervero and Wilson, 2001). As Cervero and Wilson have observed:

Power is a social and relational characteristic, not simply something that people ‘possess’ and use on one another. Second, it is necessary to distinguish between power relations as a structural characteristic and people’s exercise of their power, which is an individual activity. Third, although power relations are relatively stable, they are continuously negotiated at the planning table (Cervero and Wilson, 2009, p. 85).

That is, power is the capacity to act (Cervero and Wilson, 2009). This capability is distributed to individuals by virtue of their position and their participation in social and organizational relationships (Apple, 1996; Winter, 1996). Defining power as a result of relationships frames it as involved integrally in all human interactions (Foucalt, 1977). Therefore, power is not specific to a particular form of relationship and it both enables and constrains actions, resulting in a constant negotiation. Power relations matter because they shape who has the capacity to be represented at the planning table, a metaphor for the place at which decisions with significant implications for the general public occur.

As individuals working in development efforts navigate the complex relationships and sociopolitical exchanges in which their efforts are necessarily enmeshed, shifts in power are likely to occur. Democratic ideals of voice, agency and action may not be respected by all actors at the table. For example, there may be too much self-interest among those in power to want to upset the status quo. In many developing nations, those advantaged by existing conditions very well may include international nongovernmental organization leaders and a broad share of global south government elites. This said, it is important to note that INGO leaders are and should be intrinsically motivated to seek their organizations’ continuation and survival (Schaaf, 2013). There is nothing innately wrong with working to ensure the health and legitimacy of an enterprise in which you believe. The same holds true for government leaders.

Nevertheless, some public officials in some developing nations have surely personally benefitted from leading a poor population; by pilfering a portion of the aid money coming to assist their citizens via development efforts. More, as those corrupt leaders have grown richer, their populations have remained poor, ensuring a continued flow of aid from external actors. This situation can occur because very poor individuals, focused on survival, are generally less politically motivated and active than those possessing means and often lack a sense of what might constitute democratic self-governance in any case (Iyengar, 1990). Of course, happily, these conditions do not always obtain in practice. Nonetheless, even assuming the integrity and probity of all involved, a recognition of shared purpose, outcomes and implications is still required for development organizations at all levels, from the largest INGO to the smallest NGO in a rural community to achieve their goals.

Lang has observed that “NGO representatives speak, but, they do not speak for a clientele; instead, they suggest ways to do things that are then pushed back and forth in the discussion [with their stakeholders, including those they seek to serve]” (2013, p.135). NGOs, when undertaking their work with a constructivist lens and a right-sized approach, will be engaged with the populations and individuals they are serving, and with the society more broadly. NGOs possess the potential to alter the power relationships of individuals and society at large. As a consequence, many scholars have observed that NGOs are involved politically at multiple analytic scales: the local, state and international levels (Easterly, 2013; Lang, 2013; Schaaf, 2013; Willetts, 2010). The presence of NGOs at the proverbial development planning table at all of these levels can influence the direction and character of the political discourse that occurs at each. In pointing out this possibility, it is important to note, too, that NGOs act principally on behalf of those stakeholders that created and sustain them. Given that reality, who is to say that their motives are positive or negative? The negotiations that occur between NGO staff, their donors, their clientele and other societal actors, conducted either implicitly or explicitly, have implications for issues of participant power and access for those being served in international development work (Cervero and Wilson, 2006).

Returning to my experience in Eastern Turkey, what made me deeply uncomfortable is that the project’s implementers had not involved local community members in the program planning process. Not inviting the dairy farmers to the planning table did not allow for the integration of their knowledge, needs and perspectives and resulted in an offering that ill fit their requirements. This initiative maintained a hierarchical power dynamic and prevented those it nominally aimed to assist from exercising agency. Perspective, power and contextual complexity are essential considerations at the planning table, whether as an NGO or as an individual who deeply cares about making the world a better place.


Apple, M. W. (1996). “Power, meaning, and identity: Critical sociology of education in the United States,” British Journal of Sociology of Education, 17(2), 125-144.

Cervero, R. M., & Wilson, A. L. (2001). “At the heart of practice: The struggle for knowledge and power,” In R. M. Cervero, A. L. Wilson, and Associates, Power in practice: Adult Education and the Struggle for Knowledge and Power in Society (pp. 1-20). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Cervero, R. M., and Wilson, A. L. (2006). Working the planning table: Negotiating Democratically for Adult, Continuing, and Workplace Education. Indianapolis, IN: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Easterly, W. (2013). The Tyranny of Experts. New York: Basic Books.

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison (A. Sheridan, Trans.). New York: Vintage Books.

Iyengar, S. (1990). “Framing responsibility for political issues: The case of poverty,” Political
, 12(1), 19-40. doi: 10.1007/BF00992330

Lang, S. (2012). NGOs, Civil Society, and the Public Sphere. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Ronalds, P. (2010). The Change Imperative: Creating the Next Generation NGO. West Hartford, CT: Kumarian Press.

Schaaf, R. (2013). Development Organizations. Abingdon, UK: Routledge Publishers.

Smillie, I. (2009). Freedom from Want: The Remarkable Success Story of BRAC, The Global
Grassroots Organization that’s Winning the Fight Against Poverty
. West Hartford, CT: Kumarian Press.

Wallace, T., Bornstein, L., & Chapman, J. (2007). The Aid chain: Coercion and Commitment in
Development NGOs
. Bourton on Dunsmore, UK: Practical Action Publishers.

Willetts, P. (2010). Non-governmental organizations in World Politics: The Construction of Global Governance. Abingdon, UK: Routledge Publishers.


Jeremy Elliott-Engel is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education at Virginia Tech. His research and practice is focused on the organizational and programmatic effectiveness of Cooperative Extension and the 4-H Youth Development Program. Cooperative Extension is the community outreach and education organization of land-grant universities. 4-H is the youth development program of Cooperative Extension. Before returning to graduate school, Elliott-Engel was a Regional 4-H Youth Development Specialist and County Program Director with University of Missouri Extension in rural Southwest Missouri. He holds a Master’s degree in Education from Cornell University and a Bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Business Management from State University of New York at Cobleskill.



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Compensation in Cuba: Employee Engagement and Motivation through a Socialist Lens


Fidel Castro’s rise to power in 1959 changed the course of Cuba’s relatively short-lived independence, moving the nation from the corrupt dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista to a Marxist-  Leninist-inspired regime (Britannica). Although faulted by many Western critics for the brutality of their efforts to realize their ideas concerning economic equality and redistribution of wealth, Fidel Castro and his brother, Raul, helped Cuba achieve an overall steady rate of economic growth in the decades following Fidel Castro’s ascension to power. This occurred despite periods of famine and the loss of a major ally and provider of economic support, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1991. Economic growth once again accelerated when the island nation began to develop its tourism sector in 1994, culminating with former U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to ease restrictions on American travel to Cuba in 2014. Indeed, Cuba enjoyed 4.4% Gross Domestic Product growth in 2015. Nevertheless, the recent political turmoil and travel policy changes in the United States as well as a decline in Venezuela’s commerce with Cuba, one of the island’s primary trading partners, contributed to a decrease in the country’s GDP in 2016 (CIA World Fact Book, 2017).

These economic and political shifts are important to Cuba’s workers who, as members of a socialist economy, earn amounts determined and allotted by the state. Individuals with little education and few skills, and those collecting unemployment earn about $20 per month, whereas more educated workers may earn up to $70 per month. For example, physicians in Cuba now earn an average of $67 per month. Musicians are the highest paid individuals in the nation, as their talent and skills make them valuable abroad and thus more likely to emigrate than members of other occupation groups. Relatively meager salaries, whether for musicians, doctors or others, are supplemented by government-funded education, healthcare, housing and food. In short, the government provides Cubans the necessary basics, so that they may use their earnings to purchase goods and services of their choice.  Approximately 10% of the island’s citizens are employed in the nation’s private sector. A large share of such businesses focus on tourism and pay heavy income taxes and fees to the government (Rizzi, 2017).

This political, social and economic structure has implications for the management of public institutions as it ultimately renders useless performance-based compensation, often regarded as a key managerial tool to engage and motivate employees. Berman et al., for example, have argued that earnings are a concrete measure of employee value, purchasing power, social prestige and perhaps even self-worth (2016, p. 242). These analysts have also contended that employees who believe they are receiving a fair return for their efforts stay in their jobs longer (2016, p. 225). How then do Cuban managers maintain employee engagement and motivation, without being able to quantify the individual-organization relationship by varying salaries for individual performance (Berman et al., 2016, p. 241)?

The Cuban Experience and Employee Motivation/Management Strategies

The “needs perspective” of motivation may provide at least a partial answer to this puzzle. This view asserts that an employee’s innate desire to satisfy his or her hierarchy of needs will provide them with motivation to work. The referenced needs are those that Maslow argued are required for human survival and include safety, belonging, self-esteem and self-actualization (Berman, 2016, p. 218). As noted above, the Cuban government routinely provides the island’s population with its basic shelter, health care and nutrition needs free of charge through publicly funded food, housing and healthcare programs. The government also works assiduously to foster a collective sense of Cuban identity through propaganda and free, state-controlled education. These factors, along with the island’s culture of strong family structures and a “work to live” mindset, suggest that it may not be necessary for public program managers to have recourse to compensation as a central motivation tool for the employees they oversee.

In contrast to the needs perspective, Vroom’s expectancy theory of motivation posits that individuals make conscious choices to take actions that result in the greatest pleasure while incurring the least pain (Seongsin, 2007, p. 789). Proponents of this view contend that this principle produces a self-reinforcing chain of behaviors and choices: the more value a worker puts on an outcome, the harder they will work to achieve it; the more confidence they have in their ability to complete the task well, the more effort they will exert; and the more confidence they have that they will be rewarded for their effort, the more they are likely to employ their energies and capabilities to attain an objective  (Berman et al., 2016, p. 218). At first glance, this perspective on motivation does not appear to accord with Cuban employment practice. Indeed, it appears useless to seek to quantify how motivated Cubans feel to complete a task since there is little possibility that their decision to value work will result in significant raises or bonuses. Put differently, a view of work motivation that seeks to incentivize employee behaviors by promising monetary rewards cannot work in Cuba with its strict government pay banding based on profession.

However, non-monetary rewards and work-related benefits could be used to motivate Cuban employees under a model informed by Vroom’s theory. Cuban culture and interpersonal relationships thrive on open communication and generous friendships (Government of Canada, 2017). These widely accepted values provide a mechanism by which employees could be motivated outside of financial compensation alone. These might include, for example, managerial kudos for working to ensure “friendly and cooperative workplace relations,” “reducing negative supervisory relationships” or “selecting the right people for a job.” In theory, it would be straightforward to create such nonpecuniary “meaningful rewards and recognitions” that are fairly distributed, and that could be accorded by means of  an informal thank you or via more formal types of appreciation. That is, “feedback that provides recognition” could be implemented in a socialist system that does not otherwise provide budgetary or ethical leeway for monetary bonuses (Berman et al., p. 225-7). In any case, it is worth recalling that the rewards for doing a job well do not have to be monetary. Flexible work schedules, increased opportunities for education and training, shortened work weeks or even the prestige of receiving or attaining an honor or a supervisory position, are all rewards that could be employed within a socialist political system. When we adjust the way we measure valence, a system defined by Vroom’s expectancy theory could be designed in a fashion that could be used in Cuba.

The key to implementing a motivation system that relies more heavily or even completely on non-monetary rewards lies in shifting an employee’s motivation from extrinsic to intrinsic.  McGregor developed Theory X and Theory Y to explain what drives people to complete their work (Berman et al., p. 197). Theory X strongly emphasized that managers employ extrinsic motivations, such as money, rewards or even threats, as necessary, to get a job done. McGregor argued, meanwhile, that Theory Y  managers routinely emphasized the intrinsic drivers behind achievement, helping their employees recognize their roles in the work to increase performance and creativity in their organizations (Berman et al., p. 219). In Cuba, where citizens are acculturated from a young age to feel loyalty and devotion to the state, fleshing out such intrinsic values and developing systems of employment related motivation around them could increase managers’ ability to incentivize effectiveness and productivity without additional expenditures.

Exploring Cuban workplace motivation provides a lens into a key argument concerning the often posited superiority of capitalism¾that socialist and communist economies are unable to maintain motivation for growth without adopting a capitalist model of ever-increasing and ultimately unsustainable, wages. Examining Cuba’s socialist employment experience suggests that in the long run, the role of the manager shifts from triggering motivation through external rewards to fleshing out intrinsic engagement with soft skills, such as communication and relationship building. While certainly not perfect, the Cuban economy and employment sector offers a different, but useful, perspective on employee engagement and motivation.



Berman, et al. (2016). Human Resource Management in Public Service. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, Inc.

“Cuba” (2017). CIA World Fact Book. Accessed: 15 October 2017.

“Cuban Revolution” (N.D.). Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed: 15 October 2017.

“Cultural Information– Cuba” (6 June 2017). Government of Canada Centre for Intercultural Learning. Accessed: 15 October 2017.

Rizzi, Mario (24 January 2017). “Poverty in Cuba,” Full Compass Guides. Accessed: 15 October 2017.

Seongsin, Lee (2007) “Vroom’s expectancy theory and the public library customer motivation model,” Library Review, 56(9), pp.788-796,

Morgan Dean is a first year graduate student at Virginia Tech, studying for a Master’s in Public Administration and Policy. She completed her undergraduate degree (BA) in International Studies at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia in 2013. Currently working at Meadowview Community Center in Pulaski, Virginia, Morgan is interested in community and economic re-development in Appalachia, and plans to build a career in this field. Her interest in socio-economics and politics is largely thanks to her undergraduate advisor at Hollins, Dr. Jeanette Barbieri. In her free time, Morgan likes to be outside with her dog, Merle Dean.



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The Spectre Haunting North America? A Democratic Socialist Moment in the Era of Trump


On November 8, 2016, Donald J. Trump won the U.S. Presidency for the Republican Party (GOP) with a minority 45% of the popular vote. One year later, elections were again held in several states and localities. In what many news outlets and  analysts are calling a repudiation of “Trumpism” and the GOP, Democratic Party candidates made significant gains in several states, including Virginia and Washington (Cillizza 2017; Hayden 2017). Amidst this “blue wave” was an interesting, and very different sort, of red undercurrent (Bradner 2017).[1]

This particular trend found candidates affiliated with and endorsed by socialist parties and organizations winning elections throughout the country. While one should not overgeneralize these victories, or suppose they constitute an impending critical mass, it is equally important not to dismiss them. There is nothing inevitable about a movement toward socialism. However, I argue in this essay that the failures of neoliberal capitalism—persistent poverty (Semega, Fontenot, and Kollar 2017, p. 12), widening inequality (Hardoon 2017, p. 2) and catastrophic ecological degradation (Klein 2014)—coupled with the current reactionary turn in American politics necessitate strong counter-organizing. As the November 2017 election suggested, appealing to the socialist tradition can be an effective strategy in today’s electoral politics. It can also offer a normative foundation and inspiration for progressive change.

I first identify three central features of a socialist political economy and how that form of social organization differs from the variant of capitalism now dominant in the United States. Thereafter, I consider in greater detail socialists’ electoral victories on November 7, 2017. In the essay’s final section, I explore the plurality of public support for a socialist alternative. I argue this portion of the citizenry could be mobilized to launch a mass anti-capitalist political party as a counter-balance to the hegemonic neoliberalism of both the Democratic and Republican parties. I close by arguing this political moment could also be pushed to reclaim the history of socialism in America as a resource for resisting right-wing ideologies and officials.

Outlining a 21st Century Democratic Socialism

I begin by sketching what I mean by socialism and contrast that description with capitalism. I describe each approach’s view of political economy as well as its normative and ethical content concerning human social relations. There is no single accepted definition of either concept; a wide variety of historical and contemporary institutions have called themselves socialist or capitalist. Therefore, it is more accurate to speak of multiple socialisms and capitalisms (R. D. Wolff and Resnick 2012, p. 311). For example, the socialism I describe would in no way resemble the political economic arrangements in the now defunct Soviet Union. It is important to stress that the key attributes I identify below constitute a spectrum of ideas and traditions.

First, a central normative principle in a socialist political economy is the organization of human activities on the basis of cooperation rather than competition. Capitalism, particularly its neoliberal variant, assumes that human beings pursuing their self-interests and competing will most efficiently secure a range of benefits for each individual and society at large (W. Brown 2015, p. 36; Harvey 2005, p. 65). In contrast, socialism rejects this “invisible hand” argument, instead contending that people working together for a common goal will produce greater benefits for individuals and society (Jahan and Mahmud 2015; Nichols 2015, p. 136). In this tradition, living in community implies a voluntary and cooperative venture in which individuals share responsibility for each other (King Jr. 1986, p. 122).

This conception of socialism is also predicated on the idea that a healthy and just society insures the material well-being of all of its members (Wilde 1915). In such a society, the production of clothes or food would be organized to provide an equitable distribution of those necessities to all of its members, rather than driven by a private profit motive as in a capitalist political economy (Jahan and Mahmud 2015). In the words of poet and author Oscar Wilde, this sort of socialism would entail “converting private property into public wealth” (1915, p. 6). This distribution would likely occur by means of a mixture of decentralized planning within and among households, firms and localities and by means of at least some market transactions.[2]

Finally, this distribution would be accomplished through collective and democratic ownership of property. This could mean, for example, public ownership and control of energy resources such as mineral deposits, wind turbines or solar farms. It could also result in collective arrangements whereby firms are owned and controlled not by individual capitalists or boards of directors, but by everyone who works there. Such organizations go by different names, including worker-self-directed enterprises and worker-owned cooperatives.[3] Individual cooperatives could then form federations also linked democratically (Hahnel 2009; R. Wolff 2012). Likely, a socialist political economy in the 21st century would contain a mix of these arrangements.[4]

Because socialism as I outline it here is founded upon cooperation, equality and democracy, it stands in stark contrast not only to capitalism, but also to the xenophobic and racist politics embraced and practiced by President Trump and today’s Republican Party (Bobo 2017; J. A. Brown 2016; Edge 2010). A 21st century socialism would be radically egalitarian and therefore rooted in, for example, anti-racist, anti-ableist and feminist politics. This vision of socialism would also necessarily begin to move beyond exclusionary political borders as they are currently imagined and enacted. As a result, it represents a genuine potential alternative to the insular, ethno-nationalist politics that have recently moved from the fringes of U.S. political culture to the mainstream.

No society has ever fully realized either this idealized socialist vision or a similarly idealized view of capitalism. Despite the fact that socialist praxis has a long history in the United States, it is outside the mainstream spectrum of U.S. political beliefs today (Nichols 2015). Indeed, both the Democratic and Republican Parties accept the basic contours of a neoliberal form of capitalism.[5] While individual elected officials may hold alternate views, the parties as a whole have signed on to the neoliberal consensus of deregulation, privatization, competition and profit-maximization as guiding virtues for a majority of societal institutions in recent years (Harvey 2005). However, as I explore in the next section, despite this hegemonic approach to political economy, alternative socialist platforms have proven to be effective electorally.

Socialists Show Up in Meeting Halls and at the Polls

Socialist thought and organizing is deeply engrained in the United States. Well-known figures in the American cultural and political pantheon, including W. E. B. DuBois (Streator 1947), Helen Keller (Cohen 2015), Woodie Guthrie and Martin Luther King Jr., (Sustar 2016; Sturm 1990), advocated for a social and economic system that would eliminate the poverty and inequality endemic to capitalism’s “liberty to work or to starve” (Marcuse 2007, p. 4).[6] However, for most of the 20th century, socialist traditions were forced out of the realm of acceptable political discussion in the United States. The U.S. ideological and proxy military wars against the Soviet Union led to multiple periods of political repression against American socialists and conflation of any form of socialism with Soviet style communist authoritarianism (Zinn 1998, pp. 166–74).

The 2016 U.S. Presidential election brought socialism back into the national public discourse. Bernie Sanders, a long-time independent United States Senator from Vermont, sought the Democratic Party presidential nomination while identifying himself as a democratic socialist. Sanders articulated a vison of socialism as political and economic democracy and justice (Kruse 2015; Sanders 2017). Although he failed to obtain the Party’s nomination, Sanders garnered more than 13 million votes during the primary process (“Presidential Primaries” 2016). After its formal efforts ended, the Sanders campaign reinvented itself as a progressive political action committee called Our Revolution. Moreover, many citizens have continued to call on Sanders to lead a new (third) “People’s Party” as an alternative to the Democratic and Republican parties (Zipp 2017).[7]
Existing organizations, including the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), also saw renewed interest following the 2016 election. DSA membership, for example, rose from around 8,000 in late 2016 to 30,000 by November 2017 (Guan 2017). DSA is not a political party, but instead calls itself the largest socialist organization in the U.S. building a “mass, multi-racial democratic socialist movement” (“What Is DSA?” 2017). The organization and its 120 local chapters endorse and canvas for candidates, organize protests in support of refugees and universal healthcare (Roman 2017; Krieg 2017) and perform community activities, such as holding brake light repair clinics (Deane 2017).[8]

DSA enjoyed significant success on election day 2017 in the United States. The organization has reported that its members competed in 25 elections in 13 different states, many on Democratic Party tickets. According to Jacobin, 56% of DSA members running for office won their elections on November 7, 2017, compared with only 20% in the previous election cycle (Marcetic 2017). Fifteen new DSA members were elected in 2017, bringing the total now holding elected office to 35 individuals nation-wide (“2017 Election” 2017). Put differently, the recent election saw a 75% increase in the number of DSA endorsed or dues paying members occupying elected political offices in the U.S.[9]

Socialist Alternative (SA), an electoral party founded in the 1980s, saw its membership rise 30% in 2017 as well (Strickland 2017). SA had earlier successfully elected Kshama Sawant to the Seattle, Washington City Council in 2013. At the time of Sawant’s inauguration in January 2014, she was the first socialist elected to a city-wide office in 97 years (Ibid.). In the November 2017 Minneapolis, Minnesota city council race, SA candidate Ginger Jentzen received the largest number of donations of any political candidate in that contest and in city history (Mullen 2017). Minneapolis employs a ranked choice voting system, and Jentzen received the highest number of first choice votes, but ultimately lost to the Democratic Farmer Labor (DFL) candidate due to second choice votes (“Results – Minneapolis” 2017).

These victories and close races represent the culmination of hard work and organizing on the part of DSA, SA and other like-minded organizations. While I do not want to claim too much on the basis of these outcomes, it is clearly possible today in the U.S. to identify as a socialist, garner votes and win elections. In the final section I argue that the appeal of such ideas to a sizable segment of the nation’s population provides potential to build an anti-capitalist electoral movement capable of resisting the rightward shift in American politics.

Toward the Future: Mobilizing A Democratic Socialist Moment

The elections on November 7, 2017 indicate that there are cracks, if only small ones, in the wall of a politics of TINA, or “There Is No Alternative,” and the overriding neoliberal public philosophy in the United States. Despite the hegemonic acceptance of that perspective by both dominant U.S. political parties, the socialist alternative has seeped through. There are reasons to be hopeful that it is possible to resist what Freire  called a neoliberal fatalism informed by an ethic that declares it a virtue to generate profits for a minority at the expense of the majority (2005, p. 25).

Many Americans reject a capitalism that valorizes a reality in which “those who cannot compete, die” and are open to socialist alternatives (Ibid.). A 2016 YouGov poll, for example, found that, overall, 29% of respondents had a favorable view of socialism and self-identified Democrats in the poll were equally as favorable to socialism as they were to capitalism (42% for each). Interestingly, those aged 18-29 who responded to the survey rated socialism (43%) more favorably than capitalism (32%) (Rampell 2016). A 2016 Gallup poll found that 35% of respondents indicated a favorable attitude toward socialism (Newport 2016). And in a June 2017 poll of registered Democrats, slightly more respondents (35%) answered that they would hypothetically like to see a socialist as party leader versus a capitalist (31%) (Marcin 2017).

These consistent pluralities represent millions of Americans who could be mobilized to vote for a strong socialist campaign and platform. Such an electoral force could be organized by existing socialist parties or by a new political party. A left-labor party is one potential avenue by which this turn could be accomplished. In October 2017, for example, the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the United States, representing more than 12 million members, resolved at its annual convention to explore the viability of independent third party politics (“Resolution 48” 2017). There are multiple potential avenues by which to press for a robust anti-capitalist alternative and those who advocate for democratic socialism would do well to continue to exploit this moment.[10]

Finally, any intellectual hegemony or imaginary that prevents people from critically reflecting on the institutions that govern their lives is dangerous. This was true of Soviet-style communism and it is true of neoliberal capitalism. This moment might also represent an opportunity to write the history of socialism in America back into discussions and debates about how U.S. society, politics and economy should operate. At a time when white supremacists and xenophobia have emerged from the shadows, it is crucial to mobilize the intellectual resources to push back these reactionary ideologies and to envision a better future for everyone in the United States regardless of race, class or immigration status.

The socialist tradition offers such a possibility. I close with the words of democratic socialism advocate Martin Luther King Jr., who argued in 1966 that in order to build a freer and more just world it was essential to cultivate a “divine discontent” and refuse to accept as normal or necessary racism, religious bigotry, militarism and economic conditions that “take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few” (King Jr. 1966).[11] This call to reject existing capitalist logic and reactionary ideologies is where a socialism for the 21st century should begin.


[1] In recent years, red has been associated with the conservative, capitalist Republican Party in the U.S. It has traditionally represented socialist parties and movements (Bump 2016).

[2] For example, in such a system one might buy a sandwich at a worker-owned and controlled restaurant while on the way to a community meeting in which members decide how much electricity to produce and allocate.

[3] Approximately 256 such organizations currently exist in the U.S. and typically operate on a one-person, one-vote system rather than a per share vote system as in capitalist corporations (“US Worker Cooperatives” 2015).

[4] Moreover, this would not necessarily entail complete abolition of private property. Individuals might continue to own the clothes they wear privately, but the power grid and auto plants would be democratically owned and controlled.

[5] In early 2017, for example, Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was asked a nuanced question about whether the Democratic party should move to the left to appeal to younger voters who are now more favorable to socialism. Her initial response was to laugh and say, “We’re capitalist and that’s just the way it is” (Seipel 2017). More recently, millionaire Democratic donor Stephen Cloobeck told an interviewer on NBC he was so worried Democrats were moving too far to the left that he was considering quitting the party. He went on to say that he personally told party leadership that he would “cut your money off” if they attempted to move left (Lynch 2017).

[6] Guthrie’s popular, and often misunderstood, song “This Land is Your Land” is not an ode to the beauty or greatness of the United States but rather a biting critique of the sentimentality and patriotism of “God Bless America” (Spitzer 2012). Later verses in the song directly criticize private property and the hunger and poverty Guthrie had seen traveling the country (Guthrie 2017).

[7] Other progressive organizations such as the Women’s March on Washington were also catalyzed in the wake of the 2016 election. While the Women’s March is not explicitly a socialist organization, it lists as inspirations many women who were or are including: Ella Baker, Audre Lorde and Angela Davis (“Guiding Vision” 2017). One of its co-chairs, Linda Sarsour, is a DSA member as well (Sarti and Steinkopf-Frank 2017).

[8] The organization considers its brake light repair program a combination of mutual aid and direct action (“Brake Lights & Socialism” 2017). These activities are undertaken to provide a service to community members and to reduce police interactions and prevent the often-heavy fines levied for non-functioning lights.

[9] Several close defeats point in interesting directions as well. DSA-endorsed Jabari Brisport ran on Green and Socialist ballot lines receiving the most votes of any third party candidate (29%) against a Democratic incumbent for the 35th district seat on the New York City Council (Whitford 2017; “General Election” 2017). Several months before the November elections, self-identified socialist and NYC DSA-endorsed Khadeer El-Yateem came in second in a close primary with 31% of the vote against the eventual Democratic victor of NYC district 43’s city council seat (Max 2017; Stahl 2017).

[10] Recent Greek politics offer an interesting example. Greece’s coalition of left parties Syriza went from 4% of the vote in 2004 to controlling the Greek government in 2014 (Nardelli 2015). The Greek electoral system is different than the U.S.; however, the point is that such possibilities are open if they can be exploited.

[11] King’s words echo five-time Socialist Party of America candidate for U.S. President Eugene V. Debs who in 1918 succinctly articulated a socialist critique of capitalism arguing: “I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune… while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence” (Debs 2001).


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Jake Keyel is a Doctoral Candidate in the Planning, Governance, and Globalization program in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. His research interests include critical migration and refugee studies, international ethics and the connections between state violence and displacement, and deepening democratic practices. Prior to enrolling at Virginia Tech, he worked for five years in the non-profit sector focused on integration of new immigrants, particularly from the Middle East and North Africa. He holds a Bachelor’s degree from Nazareth College in Sociology and a Master’s degree in International Relations with a concentration in Middle Eastern Affairs from Syracuse University. Jake is currently a board member and treasurer for the Blacksburg Refugee Partnership.



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